The hero of my latest release "Captain Corcoran's Hoyden Bride" spent most of his early life in His Majesty's navy. The "crew" who work for him now that he has gone to live ashore permanently, form quite an important thread to this story, because it is through their attitude to him that my heroine comes to understand him. (Which isn't easy for her to do at first, since he virtually press-gangs her into marriage!)
I wanted to find out, in particular, what their uniform would have been like, so that I could give them a similar one as their new livery.
Imagine my surprise when I discovered that at that date (1815), ordinary seamen did not have uniforms. Officers got one, in 1748, but the navy administration at that time thought it would be counter-productive to issue men, particularly pressed men, with a decent set of clothes. "It is not intended to clothe men...to make them handsome to run away..."
Imagine the poor pressed sailor, often coming on board in torn and dirty clothing, after a few weeks at sea. The harsh conditions on board would ruin what they wore so that one comment was that they ended up "...so naked that they are not able to undergo the duty of their watches and labours..."
Navy surgeons advocated such men were issued with clothes as a matter of urgency, "to avoid nasty beastliness, which many men are subjected to by the continual wearing of one suit of clothes."
The "nasty beastliness" to which the surgeons referred wasn't B.O. which I first assumed, but the lice which infested such men, resulting in often devastating outbreaks of typhus.
The sailors, it was true, could purchase clothing, or "slops" provided by the purser. The cost of these clothes was deducted from any pay they would be issued if they ever finished their voyage. By all accounts, not many of the men took advantage of the navy's "generosity". And good grief - they were even expected to buy their own hammocks!
Only a couple of groups of ordinary seamen, so far as I could discover, were provided with some kind of uniform. The first group were the ones who found their way into the navy by way of the Marine Society, which was set up to provide work for destitute men and boys. Not only did the founders believe that doing so would prevent spread of disease, but apparently young landsmen on first going aboard were at risk of bullying. Their clothing marked them out. Professional seamen, who wore short round jackets referred to the newcomers as Long Toggies. So the Marine Society boys got a pea jacket, a waistcoat and breeches in either blue or white kersey, a felt hat, two worsted caps, two pairs of hose, three shirts, one pair of shoes with buckles, a knife, a pillow, a blanket - and a bundle of religious tracts.
The other group of men who sometimes, (and only sometimes) got given a uniform, were the Captain's barge crew - those responsible for rowing him ashore. And their uniform was entirely at the Captain's whim. The captain of the Caledonia, for example, issued his with Scotch bonnets. Another, who had fought in the Greek war of independence and been very impressed by the Greek army's uniform kitted his men out in "petticoat trousers". The captain of the Harlequin gave his barge crew a "theatrical costume" (whatever that means - though I have visions of the diamond logo used by our publisher today!)
And then there was the captain of the Blazer, who issued his barge crew with striped blue and white jackets, ornamented with flashy brass buttons. I could not verify this beyond a shadow of a doubt, but I do believe that this is the origin of the garment still known today as a blazer.
Nor could I verify the other snippet of information which I found the most interesting -which was that when designing uniforms for the officers, somebody in their wisdom decided to place a row of brass buttons on the cuffs of the midshipmen's jackets to prevent them from wiping their noses on their sleeves.
I couldn't tell you how long I spent delving into the fascinating world of naval uniforms. As usual, I did not manage to shoehorn any of it into the book. But at least it helped me to understand why those poor deprived men were so fanatically loyal to their captain, when he gave them work ashore.
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