Royal Tars of Old England

Eric Grove feels that a wide-ranging history of life in the Royal Navy is unduly negative

Royal Tars of Old England
Author: Brian Lavery
Publisher: Conway
Reviewed by: Eric Grove
Price (RRP): £25

Brian Lavery, formerly of the National Maritime Museum, has become one of the most prolific naval historians of the present generation. All of his books must be taken seriously, which is why I was a little disappointed with his latest book, Royal Tars of Old England, a study of the Lower Deck of the Royal Navy from the ninth century to the mid-19th.

Lavery uses a wide range of contemporary sources to produce quite a comprehensive picture of the seamen, where they came from and what they did. The book reflects much research and it reads well, the original sources being well-integrated into the overall account. It is a very professional product.

Yet there are important problems. The basic thesis just does not add up. This book, like much earlier material that created the dark legend of life in the sailing navy, dwells on the negative: the iniquities of impressment and the aspects of life and work on board ship that seem alien to today’s readers.

The result is a paradox that the author himself admits: “…the British seaman, worse treated and more discontented than ever before, and recruited by methods that had been outdated two centuries earlier, fought better than ever and outclassed his enemies, whose conditions (of recruitment at least) were in theory much better”.

There is a solution to this. British seamen were still generally contented and happy in their lot, even in the time of Nelson.

The famous mutiny of 1797 was about money and not much else. It was not in the interest of officers to have an unhappy ship, especially when the men were the engine that sailed and fought on it. They had to be well-fed and lubricated, and kept clean and well-motivated.

There were bad officers and there were unhappy ships, and these problems inevitably got the publicity, as bad press always does. To dwell on them, however, produces a distorted picture.

Much of the book is about the defects of impressment and it is in fact one of the most comprehensive accounts of this infamous aspect of naval recruitment available. The author describes how the system evolved as the needs of the navy for sudden and massive injections of manpower grew.

It must be remembered, however, that some sort of conscription was a necessity. And alternatives were opposed by a powerful ship-owning interest that did not want their best seamen gobbled up by the navy – as would have been the case if a more efficient recruitment system had been employed.

It is also interesting, as the book shows, that attempts to create something more equitable and efficient foundered in the seas of contemporary British administrative inadequacy.

The account of life at sea lacks perspective. The sailors of the 18th century, with their three square meals a day, lived better than the agricultural labourers or the new working classes. Some of the general histories that Grove cites are rather old – and it shows.

There are some niggling errors. Henry VIII would be surprised to learn that he carried out a “Protestant Reformation”.

Most importantly, the author has not examined his sources sufficiently critically. He clearly knows the weaknesses of some of them, but insufficiently acknowledges the basic point that grumbling and trouble tends to find its way into the record, rather than satisfaction and harmony. This is the book’s fundamental flaw.  

The two most important works that have altered our view of life in the sailing navy are ignored in part or totally. There is one small reference to Nicholas Rodger’s Wooden World and no mention of Janet Macdonald’s Feeding Nelson’s Navy. This is surprising.

Perhaps the author wanted to produce a debate. This is fair enough, but anyone who reads Royal Tars must read these other books as well. They are all well worth it. 

Eric Grove is professor of naval history at the University of Salford 

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