The Admiralty In-letters held by the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich yield few, but exciting, results including three pieces of cloth intended for Royal marine uniforms from 1806.
Last post, I discussed how I use the ADM 12s as historical sources in their own right (click here to read it). The main use of the ADM 12 digests, however, is to find letters in the ADM 1 collection of Admiralty in-letters. So today let’s look at one of those letters.
When discussing the ADM 12s, I highlighted that they are a useful source because letters that have been lost still appear as summaries in the digests, meaning that it is possible to know what letters originally existed even though we can no longer consult the originals. This also means that we can get a sense of what is missing, and there is no more tragic place to face this than with the ADM/BPs stored at the Caird Library collection at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.1
The ADM/BPs are the Admiralty in-letters sent from the Navy Board. Between 1546 and 1832, the Navy Board was responsible for the day-to-day functions at Britain’s many dock yards. During the French Wars (1793-1815) the Navy Board oversaw shipbuilding, victuals, and manpower; significantly for my work, they also managed the supply of slop clothing to sailors and uniforms to Royal Marines. From an extant uniform contract also held at the Caird, it appears that the Navy Board had been responsible for supplying marines with uniforms since at least 1747.2 This means that the uniforms of the Royal Marines are the oldest regulated uniforms in the Royal Navy.
Marines were an important presence on naval vessels and in dock yards; their red uniforms helped define their difference from naval officers and sailors.
Because of the few papers remaining, it was possible for me to go through all the ADM/BP boxes letter by letter from the earliest letters in 1780 to 1825, when I had to stop due to time constraints.3 From the period of the French Wars, only seven letters remain linked to the digest tabs 94 (slops) or 63.12 (marine uniforms); five letters about marine clothing and only two on slops. More broadly, five additional letters on slops exist from between 1815 to 1823, with three more on marine uniforms.
It was a heavy blow; this handful of letters represents less than five per cent of the letters sent from the Navy Board to the Admiralty on the subject of slop clothes and Royal marine uniforms, though the communication process of the navy during this time probably assures that some of these letters exist somewhere.4 One of the most significant remaining letters, however, contains three swatches of cloth for marine coats.
After spending months looking at letters, many with their contents missing, nothing can really prepare you for three pieces of two-hundred-year-old cloth.
The cloth was placed in protective plastic but the archivists kindly removed it so I could take pictures without the reflective glare.
These cloth samples are from a reconsideration of the marine uniforms between the Commandants of the Royal Marines, the Admiralty, and the Navy Board in 1806. Marines wore a scarlet uniform similar (but not identical) to the uniform of regular foot soldiers and while this was mainly due to the institutional history of the corps, it was also by design. Marines were established in 1664 and were controlled by the army until 1755, though the navy had already taken over much of the responsibility of running the corps.5 Afterward, there were discussions about changing the uniform—both yellow and blue were offered as colour choices.6 When the Royal marine artillery was created in 1804 they were given blue uniforms, but Royal Marines themselves continued to wear red.
Red caused marines to stand out on naval vessels and this was important. They were visual symbols of the authority of the officers; through marines, officers surveilled sailors, kept them out of certain spaces like the quarter desk and dispensed punishment.7 Though some naval officers argued marines should become more integrated into the navy, more often they hoped to clearly distinguish marines from the ship’s company. The loyalty of sailors was especially suspect and they were not considered to have proper military discipline. Captains wrote to the Admiralty expressing the belief that uniform clothing would mold marines into soldiers.
Still, sometimes these rhetorical considerations did not trump the administration’s need for a combination of quality clothing and cheap cost. This balance got increasingly tricky as the war progressed due to price increases, often leading to a consolidation of contracts with a handful of contractors who could supply products at bulk rates.8 In 1806, due to complaints about the poor quality of the Royal marine uniforms, the Royal marine commandants considered changing contractors to a Mr. Box who already supplied the uniforms of the Veteran Battalion “of equal quality to a pattern suit of uniform clothing … at an Advance of one shilling and sixpence for each suit.”9
The Navy Board did not agree with this assessment and wrote: “we think the former is not more than four pence per suit superior to the latter and which arises from the quality of the Lining of the Coat.”10 Instead of contracting with Mr. Box, they suggested advertising to receive tenders for marine clothing. They forwarded a sample of the cloth of the Veteran Battalion coats as well as a swatches of red cloth and lining from the store.
Two of the cloth swatches are red dyed cloth, one from Yorkshire and the other from the West Country. The latter was was “dyed through”. As the Navy Board explained to the Admiralty, this meant that it “wears to the last without losing its colour.” Maintaining the colour of the coats was as important as the colour itself. It was expected that uniforms would visually depict the power of the British empire at sea and abroad; therefore the colour had to last. Lt. Col. David Collins reminded the Admiralty that the dress of his marines at Hobart, Van Diemen’s Land, had to keep up appearances “to preserve that military appearance which is so essential to the soldier, particularly in such settlements as these.”11 Begging for supplies, Collins hoped that emphasising the prestige of his troops might encourage administrators in London to send his settlement enough clothing for two years in advance due to their distance from the metropole.
The Committee of Stores, whose letter was forwarded along with the swatches to the Admiralty, emphasised that the marine wool, dyed through, was better than the Yorkshire cloth. “We have no doubt from the superiority of the wool, that it would do the Soldier full as much service as the Veteran Coat.”
As an additional interesting note, they added that “it is the practice, not only in the marines, but with the Army in general (as all the clothing is usually alter’d before it can be worn) to allow 2s.6d. per suit for the re-sewing of every suit issued.”12 It was very common for the marines to look to the army as the standard for marine uniforms and military life more generally. In 1813, the Admiralty invited the Army to inspect Royal Marine barracks in Woolwich and Chatham to determine how the clothing and necessities differed between the two corps, including such considerations as coal and candle consumption, blanket sizes, and furniture allocations.13
Marines have been the subject of surprisingly little research but this is changing. Brit Zerbe’s The Birth of the Royal Marines and Elin Jones’ 2016 dissertation “Masculinity, Materiality and Space” both underscore the importance of a marine presence on naval ships.14 In their red uniforms, they were a conspicuous part of a ship’s company, defining their important role as soldiers in addition to their work as military police.
ADM 1, Admiralty In-Letters, 1660-1976. The National Archives, Kew.
ADM/BP Admiralty In-Letters received from the Navy Board, 1780-1832. Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
Anonymous Officer. A Short Account of the Naval Actions of the Last War; In Order to Prove that the French Nation Never Gave such Slender Proofs of Maritime Greatness as During that Period; with Observations on Discipline, and Hints for the Improvement of the British Navy. 2nd ed. London: J. Murray, 1790. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
Smith, Charles Hamilton. Costumes of the Army of the British Empire, according to the Last Regulations, 1812. Colnaghi & Co, 1812-1815. National Amry Museum, Chelsea.
Jones, Elin Francis. “Masculinity, Materiality and Space onboard the Royal Naval Ship, 1756-1815.” PhD Diss., Queen Mary University of London, 2016.
Zerbe, Brit. The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664-1802. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013.
Websites and Online Resources
“Board of Admiralty, In-Letters,” Royal Museums Greenwich Website: The Collection, https://collections.rmg.co.uk/archive/objects/491960.html
- I want to be very clear that the small number of surviving letters in the collection ADM/BP of Admiralty in-letters from the Navy Board was probably due to the demise of the Navy Board in 1832. According the Caird, the library received the papers from the Admiralty in 1938. “Board of Admiralty, In-Letters,” Royal Museums Greenwich Website: The Collection, https://collections.rmg.co.uk/archive/objects/491960.html
- This would pre-date both the navy taking official control of the marines in 1755 and the creation of uniforms for naval officers in 1748. ADM/BP/30B, May 15, 1747, Caird Library, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich [CL].
- By this I mean that I thumbed through the letters looking for the corresponding digest numbers. Another great use of the ADM 12 filing system is that you can figure out from these numbers what the subject of a letter is at a glance.
- Communication was facilitated by forwarded correspondence, which required multiple copies made of the letters with each successive recipient.
- As evidenced by the navy already contracting for and supplying the marines with their uniforms prior to 1755. See note 2.
- Yellow breeches were suggested for marine sergeants in 1747 because the dye was cheaper than red. Also, naval officers who wanted to more completely integrate the marines into the navy felt that an important step would be to make their uniforms blue. See ADM/BP/30B, May 15, 1747, CL; and Anonymous Officer, A Short Account of the Naval Actions of the Last War; In Order to Prove that the French Nation Never Gave such Slender Proofs of Maritime Greatness as During that Period; with Observations on Discipline, and Hints for the Improvement of the British Navy, 2nd ed. (London: J. Murray, 1790), 137. Eighteenth Century Collections Online.
- This is not to say that marines were fully under the control of naval officers. Tensions between naval and marine officers about who had final authority over the marines were common and the marines themselves were notorious mutineers in their early history. Later, they were important actors in the 1797 mutinies, including one mutiny of their own that year in Plymouth. See Brit Zerbe, 1664-1802 (Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2013), 113-162.
- In the case of shoes, Prater & Son began supplying shoes to all the south England dockyards because a smaller competitor could no longer sustain pre-1802 prices, despite the Peace. ADM 1/3255, November 24, 1802, The National Archives, Kew [TNA].
- ADM/BP/26, October 10, 1806, CL. Veteran Battalions were part of the army but did some service for the navy, sometimes as guards on board prisoner of war hulks.
- ADM/BP/26, October 10, 1806, CL.
- ADM 1/3317/339, December 16, 1805, TNA.
- ADM/BP/26, October 10, 1806, CL.
- ADM 1/4340, June 10, 1813, TNA.
- See Elin Francis Jones, “Masculinity, Materiality and Space onboard the Royal Naval Ship, 1756-1815,” (PhD Diss., Queen Mary University of London, 2016); and Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines.