The history of the Royal Navy, especially during the 25-year period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars is usually taught as a history of conflict between the British and their enemies, and also one between the British and themselves (see the Mutiny of 1797). This history is certainly exciting, interesting, and valid, but a great deal of time at sea was also spent fighting another enemy: mundane tedium.
This is one of the lessons that I have learned researching the slop clothes and necessities of the Royal Navy through two specific collections of letters: the ADM 12 Digests and the ADM 1 Board of Admiralty In-letters.
These two collections are complementary. The ADM 12s are a reference to the ADM 1s; an original hand-written database that sorted letters into different subjects through a number system.1 A navy clerk could return to all the letters in a particular year on a particular subject by finding the correct tab in these books. Very large and very heavy, the ADM 12 digests contain notations of theoretically every letter received by the Board of Admiralty from 1793 to 1913.2
For my research, I was looking for information on clothing in the Royal navy between the years 1793 and 1832. I was able to consult the ADM 12s using Marines, subtab Clothing and Necessities (63.12); Officers, General Information (71:Gen), and Slops (94:1-4). At least half of the letters referred to in these sections of the ADM 12s were still extant in the ADM 1s. More chilling, the ADM 1s received from the Navy Board, which are now held by the Caird Library at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich (ADM/BP), had a survival rate of barely five percent. Summaries for these missing letters, however, still exist in the ADM 12s, an important testament to the importance of databases not just as filing systems but as an important historical source in its own right.
An historical story which would be difficult to tell without the ADM 12 notations is that of the Great British Bed Shortages of 1803-05.
Never heard of it? That’s okay.
Between 1801 and 1804, Admiral John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent, was the First Lord of the Admiralty. As has been well documented, St. Vincent had some strong opinions about contractors in general and the Navy Board in specific.3 His mission on becoming First Lord was to root out supposed corruption in the navy. St. Vincent’s method was basically to disrupt everyday Navy Board processes by canceling contracts and interfering with dock yard management and bureaucracy.
Many historians have pointed out that the kind of wide-scale corruption that St. Vincent believed was undermining the strength of the British navy probably was not as nefarious as he thought.4 Much of what he railed against was the grease of social capital, grease which allowed the system to generally function. Still, the navy was plagued by inefficiency. Some was, as St. Vincent feared, due to the negligence of contractors and the grift of bureaucrats, but fundamentally the problem was the large scale of the wars being fought and the poorly conceived organization of information and hierarchy used to attempt to accommodate it—underscored by the clunky system of forwarded and copied letters used by the Admiralty to facilitate their decision-making, the ADM 1s.5 Unfortunately for St. Vincent (and the navy), his policies made little improvement and more often worked to undermine even the small amount of efficiency which the navy had by further breaking down lines of communication and complicating the dock yard hierarchy.
St. Vincent’s interference with the dock yards, and therefore the authority of the Navy Board, caused a large degree of fallout. Believing contractors to be corrupt and prices too high, St. Vincent cancelled several important contracts involved with ship building, including those for sailcloth, copper, hemp, and timber.6 However, there are citations in the ADM 12 digests which suggest that St. Vincent also cancelled some important bedding and slop clothes contracts around the same time. This would have dire consequences when the navy remobilized in 1803 after the failure of the Peace of Amiens.
In 1802, the Navy Board was commanded to order new bed samples to ascertain the difference in price and quality between mattresses. They wanted beds “procured of British manufacture equally good and cheap”7 and wanted to determine the best stuffing, whether it was animal hair (horse or cow) or flock, which was either used fabric cut into rags or unprocessed poor-quality raw fibers, usually cotton or wool.
At first the main difficulty was the source of the beds. It appears that the first samples sent to Admiralty were from the continent, specifically Lichtenburg.8 Once it was made clear that beds could be supplied from England, however, the problems moved to the mattresses and their stuffing. The Admiralty refused to settle on the contents of the beds and wanted to properly deliberate over the virtues of the various stuffing options, though it can be inferred from later citations that they preferred hair and had cancelled contracts which did not use it.
The combination of the Admiralty’s slow deliberations and the cancelled contracts had a dire effect on the supply of beds very quickly. On the 14th of March, 1803, the Navy Board wrote to the Admiralty that “they do not expect to provide any considerable number of beds made of Hair for some months to come.”9 They reiterated this problem on the 22nd, writing “in consequence of their Lordships’ order … they have declined demanding any more of the old sort [of bed] than were absolutely necessary … the magazines were therefore much reduced”10 but three days later the Navy Board assured the Admiralty that “Hair mattresses will be furnished in about a month.”11
By the 7th of May, 1803, the Navy Board announced instead that the original contractors had stopped delivering beds. The Admiralty responded firmly, stating “Navy Board to contract for none but horse hair.”12
The Peace of Amiens ended when the British pre-empted their declaration of war by capturing French and Dutch merchant ships in British waters on the 17th of May 1803, so it cannot be by coincidence that the Admiralty reconsidered their position on hair beds on the 16th. Suddenly facing remobilization with a bed and slop shortage, the Admiralty wrote to the Navy Board to “suspend making any contract for hair until further directions”13 and then on the 19th they wrote:
To make the contract for beds of horse hair and cows tail hair and adopt the regulation respecting the beds returned into store.14
It was too little too late.
There are more letters notated under the tab 94 (Slops and Bedding) in 1803 than in any other year between 1793 and 1815. As the navy tried to remobilize by recruiting and impressing new raised men, the tenders moving these men between the peripheries of the British Isles to the naval centers in southern England did not have proper bedding or slop clothes. As they moved from one ship to another the problems with their supply and military readiness, but also the communication about these problems, snowballed.
The jumbled nature of the process of rooting out bad beds can be determined through the notations in the ADM 12s. The back-and-forth is truly a thing to behold. A good illustration of this is the string of communications about unfit beds that started when men raised in Greenock joined HM Ship Northumberland. Captain Sir Alexander Cochrane wrote condemning them:
I shall only observe that except the specimen of a bed I forwarded to the Admiralty in the year 1790 [that] a volunteer received in Cork, the stuffing of which was matted cow’s hair and sheep’s horns, I never met with anything so bad in His Majesty’s Service.15
Cochrane recommended that the beds be surveyed, and the Admiralty wrote directing the Commander-in-Chief of Plymouth to look into it. Admiral Sir John Colpoys returned on the 26th that “it appears [the beds] were totally unfit for service”.16 The Admiralty wrote a note17 to inform Colpoys that they were going to charge the amount against Captain Sandford Tatham who received and slopped the new raised men in Greenock.
Tatham wrote naming the merchant who supplied the beds, W. D. Campbell in Greenock, who charged 16s.6d. each. At this rate, Tatham certainly did not buy them through a Navy Board contract; usually beds were supplied at 13s. The Admiralty decided that Tatham should pay the 3s.6d. difference in price.
Tatham was not pleased with this development. On October 5th he asked for a copy of Cochrane’s letter and the Admiralty sent it to him, along with a report from the yard officers at Plymouth.18 On the 12th of December, he wrote again asking for the charges to be placed against the contractor. It was determined, however, that they could not penalize Campbell unless Tatham could produce a contract.19
However, Tatham seems to have charged the debt to the merchant anyway, who took him to court according to a letter of February 25, 1804. “Mr. Campbell has brought an action against [Tatham] for the debt in order that the value may be ascertained by a Jury of Tradesmen and requesting directions may be given for sending some of the beds from Plymouth for that purpose.”20 Unfortunately, I do not know what the result of Campbell’s suit against Tatham was, but Colpoys was unable to send him a bed in March as the stores in Plymouth had none left to send.21
The shortages and issues with beds lasted until 1805. Tatham got into a lot of trouble over bedding disputes between 1803-4 but he was not the only one. New raised men were sent from Belfast, Cork, Limerick, Leith, Liverpool and Bristol, as well as Greenock, and arrived in Plymouth, Portsmouth, and the Nore without proper beds and clothes. From the town where the sailors were raised to their final assigned ships, these shortfalls caused wider problems than just complaints between officers and bureaucrats. Transport tenders who lacked clothing for new raised men had trouble getting underway, which meant that ships waiting for men at southern England rendezvous were also delayed. To avoid this, captains in ports abroad bought expensive or unfit beds and clothes to get their ships away on time. When these men arrived in southern England they were overcharged, improperly kitted, and sometimes even sick.
In January 1804, Admiral George Montagu forwarded a letter from Captain John Wainwright of the receiving ship Royal William, who wrote in exasperation:
Many of the new-raised men … were nearly destitute of bedding and cloathes [sic], yet so heavily charged in other ships, and particularly in tenders for slops &c, as to put it out of my power to issue them any under the restrictions of the 2nd and 3rd articles (pages 72 & 73) of the  General Printed Instructions; I have however in some instance violated this regulation from absolute necessity of supplying men with beds, and a second shirt to prevent disease.22
In terms of crew readiness, the cancellation of the bedding and slops contracts was disastrous and time consuming, though perhaps not in the same way as those for timber and hemp. Even though they might not appear to be as significant on the surface, as Keith ruminated about shoes in 1801, complications with slops and beds further distracted admirals and captains more essential duties. “Their Lordships will not fail to observe how vexatious such remonstrances are,” he wrote, “how much mischief they may produce, and how much they tend to distract my attention from the many important duties on which it is unremittingly employed.”23 Supplying proper necessities was important, however, and never more so in the wake of the Mutinies of 1797. The discomfort, overcharges, and potential illness that new raised men were exposed to during the Great British Bed
Shortages were poor introductions to service in the navy, especially for the men who already did not want to be there. Captains who received these disgruntled (or worse) sailors at rendezvous worked hard to give them some sense of justice and relief, if only to encourage their good behaviour, deference and loyalty. As Nelson remarked in 1804, “the issuing [of] such coarse stuff to the People … will no doubt occasion murmurs and discontent and may [result in] serious consequences.”24
It would not be possible to get the full extent of the bedding issues in 1802-05 without the notations in the ADM 12s. They allow researchers to access, even if only in brief, to letters which no longer exist, especially those sent by the Navy Board. Also, without the collection of letters by their subject matter, as was done in the ADM 12 digests, my research would have required a completely different approach. Using the ADM 12s has of course contributed to other limitations: as an official record, the voices most prominent in these letters are admirals, captains, high level government officials and bureaucrats. Even warrant officers appear infrequently—pursers had their own section under tab 71.21. Still, there are the occasional treasures which show that men and women, both military and civilian, complicated the Admiralty’s plans, at least in respect to what they wore, bought, and sold.
TNA, ADM 12/99, Admiralty In-letter Digest, 72-104, 1802.
TNA, ADM 12/104, Admiralty In-letter Digest, 63-104, 1803.
TNA, ADM 12/111, Admiralty In-letter Digest, 68-104, 1804.
TNA, ADM 1/408 f. 133, August 12, 1804.
TNA. ADM 1/1065 f. 75, January 17, 1804.
TNA, ADM 1/1634 f. 354, September 17, 1803.
Bowen, HV., et al. “The Contractor State, c. 1650-1815.” International Journal of Maritime History 25, no. 1 (2013): 239-274.
Morriss, R. The Foundation of Maritime Ascendancy: Resources, Logistics and the State, 1755-1815. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010.
——. “St. Vincent and Reform, 1801-04.” The Mariner’s Mirror 69, no. 3 (1983): 268-290.
Rodger, NAM. The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1646-1815. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2004.
Walker, M. “‘The Issuing of Such Coarse Stuff to the People’: What the Contents of the British Tender Diligent Reveal about Gendered Relationships and Labour, Clothing Systems, and Imperial Power, 1804.” Paper presented at Maritime Toxic Masculinity Digital Conference, Global Maritime History Website, April 26, 2019. http://globalmaritimehistory.com/gender-sexuality/.
Websites and Online Resources
The National Archives, “Naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests,” The National Archives Website, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/naval-correspondence-adm12-indexes-and-digests/.
Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, 13th ed. (London: 1790), 72-73. Google Books. https://books.google.ca/books/about/Regulations_and_Instructions_Relating_to.html?id=OvJBAAAAYAAJ.
- The ADM 12s contain two databases: the digests and the indexes. The digests, which are grouped by subject, are primarily the subject here.
- For a guide to using the ADM 12s, please see The National Archive’s excellent resource on the subject. As always, a heartfelt thanks to the archivists at TNA and the Caird, and to Monica Ayhens-Madon, who introduced them to me. The National Archives, “Naval correspondence using the ADM 12 indexes and digests,” The National Archives Website, http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/help-with-your-research/research-guides/naval-correspondence-adm12-indexes-and-digests/.
- See Rodger Morriss, “St. Vincent and Reform, 1801-04,” The Mariner’s Mirror 69, no. 3 (1983): 268-290; and also NAM Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1646-1815 (New York: WW Norton & Co., 2004), 473-488.
- As shown by recent studies on the British contractor state, which mostly focused on victualling. H. V. Bowen, et al., “The Contractor State, c. 1650-1815”, International Journal of Maritime History 25, no. 1 (2013): 242. https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/084387141302500112.
- Roger Morriss, The Foundation of Maritime Ascendancy: Resources, Logistics and the State, 1755-1815 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010), 138-141.
- NAM Rodger, The Commander of the Ocean, 478.
- ADM 12/99 tab 94.1, November 15, and December 16, 1802, The National Archives, Kew [TNA]. From the context of the first entry, the order to make a new contract was made earlier than November 15. These Navy Board [NB] letters are lost.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, January 1, 1803, TNA. They do not specify which Lichtenburg. This NB letter is lost.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, March 14, 1803, TNA. This NB letter is lost.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, March 22, 1803, TNA. This NB letter is lost.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, March 25, 1803, TNA. This NB letter is lost.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, May 7, 1803, TNA. This NB letter is lost.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, May 16, 1803, TNA. I was unable to find this letter, marked as filed in “minutes”.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, May 19, 1803, TNA. This NB letter is lost. The regulation this refers to is allowing sailors 1s./lb on any hair returned to store.
- ADM 1/1634 f. 354, September 17, 1803, TNA, Kew.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, September 26, 1803, TNA.
- These notes were called “minutes” and they were usually written during the meetings of the Admiralty on the reverse of the in-letters under discussion. Sometimes, when further information was obtained, the First Lord or the First Secretary returned to the letter and added additions to the minute. These notes are notoriously difficult to read; however, another boon of the ADM 12s is that the minutes are often included in better handwriting.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, October 5, 1803, TNA. Around this time Colpoys wrote to the Admiralty about another complaint against Tatham’s beds, ADM 12/104 tab 94.4, October 6, 1803, TNA.
- ADM 12/104 tab 94.1, December 12, 1803, TNA. The Admiralty was very unsympathetic to captains who bought slops and necessities outside Navy Board contracts, which purposely secured bulk rates for goods. Except in certain cases, most items obtained outside these contracts were more expensive.
- ADM 12/111 tab 94.3, February 25, 1804, TNA.
- ADM 12/111 tab 94.4, March 10, 1804, TNA.
- ADM 1/1065 f. 75, January 17, 1804, TNA. The General Printed Instructions refer to Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, 13th ed. (London: 1790), 72-73. Google Books. https://books.google.ca/books/about/Regulations_and_Instructions_Relating_to.html?id=OvJBAAAAYAAJ. The regulation that Wainwright referred to allotted no more than one month’s wages for sailors to spend on clothing. This was both to prevent overspending by sailors but also to protect them from unscrupulous pursers.
- ADM 1/405 f. 347, November 3, 1801, TNA.
- ADM 1/408 f. 113, August 12, 1804, TNA. For a consideration of this letter and the broader link between clothing and paternalism on board naval vessels, see Meaghan Walker, “‘The Issuing of Such Coarse Stuff to the People’: What the Contents of the British Tender Diligent Reveal about Gendered Relationships and Labour, Clothing Systems, and Imperial Power, 1804,” (Paper presented at Maritime Toxic Masculinity Digital Conference, Global Maritime History Website, April 26, 2019). http://globalmaritimehistory.com/gender-sexuality/.