During the seventeenth century, the navy was, by far, the largest industry in the country. The dockyards, particularly Chatham, greatly outdid in scale every other enterprise in Britain. The manpower of the navy was also astonishing by the standards of the age, with warships at sea containing around 3,000 – 4,000 men each year in peacetime. In war time, the navy often employed well over 20,000 men, with men drawn in from all over the British Isles, including inland areas, Ireland and nominally independent Scotland.
As with the ships at sea, the dockyards also attracted workers from all over the country, many of whom were invariably dismissed at the end of a war. Preference was generally given to retaining local men.
The navy also provided work for many shipwrights and tradesmen who lived far from the dockyards and naval warfare. The unprecedentedly rapid expansion of the navy after 1649, along with the scale of the Anglo-Dutch wars, created impossible pressures on the dockyards and the private building yards along the Thames. Consequently, ships were built for the navy in Southampton, Shoreham, Bristol, Lydney, Woodbridge, Walberswick and Maldon.
Food and Drink:
Provision of food and drink during both war and peacetime was achieved by maintenance of victualing stores at Kinsale, Dublin, Milford Haven and Plymouth for ships operating to the westward, and in wartime other victualing stores were maintained at Ipswich, Dover, Hull, Newcastle, Yarmouth and Bristol. When the fleet moved away from the Thames and Medway during the Dutch wars, victuals had to be shipped after it by sea or acquired locally in the hinterlands of its preferred anchorages, usually Southwold Bay or Bridlington Bay.
Naval warfare inevitably generated a legacy of sick and injured men. Many of those who survived were often reliant upon support from the funds provided by charities, the counties or the navy’s own source of relief, the Chatham Chest.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the cost of the navy throughout the century reached unprecedented levels, particularly the costs associated with the great fleets set out in the Anglo-Dutch wars, which made an impact felt throughout Britain. During the period of the Restoration, the navy’s debts soared to over £2 million and continued to experience further crises in later years. This was due partly to successive parliaments voting far too little money to meet the true costs of the navy and partly to the need in the 1650s to first satisfy the demands of the army. Wartime taxation was met with considerable resistance and this, combined with spiraling debts and discontented creditors, demonstrated that the state’s financial systems were inadequate to the demands of seventeenth century warfare. These issues proved it impossible to sustain any of the three Anglo-Dutch wars for more than two consecutive campaigns. It soon became necessary to find new methods of financing the naval wars and there was a marked switch to indirect sources of taxation, particularly customs and excise, which placed an unprecedented tax burden on the lower orders of society.
Despite these problems, the vast majority of the British people fully comprehended the nature and deeds of the navy. Despite the fact that they may not have been able to see the ships that sailed and fought on their behalf, they could sometimes hear them. The naval battles of the age were vast affairs, involving anything up to 200 ships, carrying thousands of large guns, spread out over many miles of sea. Most of the battles were fought in the confined, shallow waters of the southern North Sea, a consequence of which meant that many people in south-east England actually heard the sounds of the wars in which they were engaged with regularity and immediacy.