A messdeck on board a ship is an area where naval personnel eat, live and socialize. Each mess had its own table where meals were eaten from wooden bowls. Men are likely to have been allocated their messes, but some sources suggest that they had some choice in the matter.
Men of higher rank would have had their own small cabins offering a certain level of privacy, but the lower ranking sailors would have slept in hammocks in shared cabins. One contemporary said hammocks were ‘no better than nasty holes, which breed sickness, and in a fight are very dangerous’ (Boteler’s Dialogues in Davies 2008, 154). The Captain would have been lucky enough to enjoy a private ‘quarter gallery’. Men provided their own mattress, pillow and blankets, or else bought them from the purser; these fitted into the hammock at night and could be rolled up in it and stowed away during the day. Space was very limited.
Sanitary Arrangements and Cleaning:
It was very important to keep decks clean due to the large amount of waste that was generated by the crew. Without scrubbing decks, waste would flow into the bilges of the boat causing a dreadful stink and spreading disease. Vinegar was sometimes used to help with cleaning.
Most sailors took very few personal possessions with them to sea. In fact, they had very few belongings at all, and they often built up considerable debts, which were often not covered by their wages. On land, they usually lived in rented accommodation in villages along the Thames. Officers had greater wealth and more possessions both on land and at sea.
Whilst off-duty, sailors would entertain themselves by swapping jokes and stories, gambling, smoking and playing games. Music, singing and dancing were also popular, with some sailors bring musical instruments or musicians aboard to amuse the crew. Seamen also fished for sport but also to supplement and vary their strict diet. Where possible, officers would read and send letters home. It was not uncommon for sailors’ wives and lovers to come aboard the ship for the first leg of a voyage, particularly on the stretch down the Thames to the Downs. Tragically, many women had come aboard the London when it exploded at the Nore.
Although there wasn’t a formal ‘naval uniform’ in the 17th Century, sailors generally wore practical clothing and many wore partial body armour during battle. Commissioned officers were identified from their sword, a baldric (belt worn over one shoulder to carry a weapon).
Food and Drink:
The seamen usually drank beer and were entitled to a gallon per day. They were also given a pound of biscuit a day and also ate cheese, salted-beef, pork, peas and fish. The official provisions could always be supplemented by locally acquired supplies of fruit and vegetables, as well as by fishing, and ships would also carry live fowl and animals that could be eaten when necessary. Captains often brought aboard their own provisions and had their meals cooked separately. They frequently laid on meals for their own or visiting officers.
Naval discipline was considerably less harsh than that used in the army or aboard merchant ships, and captains could not order loss of life or limb on their own authority. Following the Restoration, punishments at sea became progressively more brutal. Common forms of discipline included flogging, lashing, being put in the stocks and caning. Some more bazaar punishments were having a weight hung from your neck until ‘hearts and backs be ready to break’, having a marlin spike fastened into the mouth and having front teeth pulled out.
Medicine and Health:
Conditions on board a naval warship during the 17th Century would have been cramped, low and damp, rife with disease, sickness and lice. In fact, disease was often a greater cause of loss of life than enemy action, with scurvy, typhus and smallpox being particularly common. The nature of work on a ship was such that injury was likely and hard to prevent. Overexertion led to hernias and accidents with heavy equipment led to loss of limbs. Each ship would have a naval surgeon aboard, who, despite the variable nature of their training, would contend with a range of diseases, as well as heal terrible wounds, compound fractures and other serious injuries.