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Able Seamen: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy 1850–1939

GH Bennett follows the stories of lower deck seamen in a time of transformation for the Royal Navy

Published: March 15, 2012 at 8:55 am
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Reviewed by: GH Bennett
Author: Brian Lavery
Publisher: Conway
Price (RRP): £25


Like the best histories, Lavery’s Able Seamen: The Lower Deck of the Royal Navy 1850–1939 combines a strong over-arching narrative with fascinating vignettes illustrating the larger themes.

He takes us from the process of recruiting down to life on board ship. We trace the lives of stokers, boy artificers and the WRENs of the Women’s Royal Naval Service.

Lavery picks through the seaman’s locker of life – from the messdeck, to crime and punishment, naval mutinies and discharge from the service. Everything from pay and uniforms to promotion are detailed and analysed.

With considerable dexterity Lavery manages to couple detailed insights into the lower deck with explanation and exploration of a Royal Navy undergoing 90 years of particularly rapid change. The days of Nelson’s ‘wooden walls’ ships were drawing to an end as the age of sail gave way to the age of steam and iron.

During the First World War the age of oil would begin with the appearance of the Queen Elizabeth class of battleships. In gunnery the age of the gun deck would give way to HMS Dreadnought and the dominance of the rotating turret. Greater complexity of ships required a better educated lower deck, and a changing British society from 1850–1939 formed a key backdrop to the changes taking place in the Royal Navy.

This book is good military history – it is also good social history with the Royal Navy acting as an interesting prism through which to look at British society in a period of profound change.

Lavery’s skill as an author is demonstrated by the fact that, while analysing a large number of themes in the social history of the lower deck across almost a century of rapid technological and economic change, he has no difficulty in also taking in the matter of the First World War and the approach of the Second.

Good, solid, analytical and highly readable history it is, but this book is nevertheless supported by a large number of high quality images. These range from patterns for jumpers and trousers for ratings, plans for ships, through to images of the hulks in the early 20th century. The well-chosen and diverse illustrations add considerably to the written narrative.

For the family historian there is a useful appendix dealing with how to trace a naval rating. The book is a must for anyone seeking to contextualise the life of an ancestor who served in the Royal Navy during this period.

Interesting and enjoyable throughout, this is another excellent book by one of the United Kingdom’s finest maritime historians. 

GH Bennett is associate professor in history at Plymouth University

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