Sunday, April 01, 2012

Captain Corcoran's Hoyden Bride

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 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 " 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.

(If you'd like to receive a copy of Captain Corcoran's Hoyden Bride, please leave a comment)

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Anonymous said...

Hi Annie speaking about uniform I always think that male in army uniform always looking particularly cool and delicious :), Aretha , arethazhenATrocketmailDOTCOM

Annie Burrows said...

Couldn't agree more, Aretha!!

Anonymous said...

My Grandad was in the navy during World War two. Although he never spoke about it the one thing he did mention was the camaraderie on board was second to none.


Annie Burrows said...

Charlotte - there seems to have been a special spirit during WWII. They all believed they were "in it together", didn't they?

Cheryl St.John said...

And I thought I had a bad day. These poor fellows had a rough lot in life. I'm always thankful for my comfortable home and my job in air conditioning and with no salt spray or lice ewww, but even more thankful when I read things like this.

Barbara Monajem said...

Likewise. It makes me shudder to think of those poor boys/men dragged away to sea by the press gangs.

The research sounds fascinating, as usual. Amazing how much research one can do for a few words here or there in a story! ;)

Annie Burrows said...

thanks Cheryl, and Barbara. If the only thing I get from my research is renewed appreciation for our lot in life in the 21st century, then it's not wasted!
Wish I could manage to get some of it into my stories, though...

kooks said...

My grandfather was in the merchant navy. It sounds like a lovely book and good luck

BW said...

My grandfather was in the merchant navy too. He was in befor, during WWI and after for many years. He went all over the world is seemed.

Best of luck to you Annie with your new book

Taylor Skye said...

I couldn't believe that the had to buy their own uniform and hammock. You would think that if they were risking their life for the country then a few luxuries could have been bought for them.


Annie Burrows said...

BW and kooks- thanks for your good wishes for my book.

Charlotte - never mind luxuries. You'd think the navy would have provided BASICS!! As you say, these poor men were forced on board, and expected to fight and die for their country. Oh can feel me getting all indignant, can't you?

Taylor Skye said...

I can't blame you as it happens even now with soldiers etc not having basic working equipment and it is the 21st century.

Even food I believe was poor so many had rickets and died due to poor diet and sanitation.

Good luck with your book :) x


Annie Burrows said...

We have a winner!
I've picked the person who commented as Taylor Skye, and signed as Charlotte, to receive a free signed copy of Captain Corcoran's Hoyden Bride. If you would kindly contact me via my website,, giving me your snail mail address, I will get it in the post to you.
congratulations, and I hope you enjoy reading it!

Taylor Skye said...

Hi Annie

I have sent you an email with my address. Thank you for the book I am really looking forward to reading it

Charlotte x