Wednesday, April 27

To be or not to be a bum boat girl?

By Mecca Caron

Just what options do women have in the world of sailor (British Navy) reenacting?  Believe it or not, there really were women’s roles with the Navy.  Which means there are great opportunities for women interpreters attached to the Acastas.  

The most obvious and common choice is to portray an officer’s wife, waiting about for the occasional shore visit from the husband. This works well for those who like to promenade and tiptoe fancifully, hosting teas and fine dinners and all-the-while being the picture of fashion.  But we must keep in mind that it wasn’t all silk and wine for sailor’s wives!  

It wasn’t easy being married to a sailor.  Well-to-do wives were left behind for months and even years at a time.  They were expected to run the estate or household and raise the children alone.  From a letter (dated June 9, 1755) to her husband, Admiral Boscawen, Fanny Boscawen describes being busy from 6:30 AM until 11:00 PM, dealing with the running of their country estate and the raising of their five children.  The tasks she described included feeding the chickens, consulting with her housekeeper concerning menus and other household affairs, working with the estate manager concerning livestock and farming, walking to the village, eating meals, writing letters, and working in the dressing room with the children while another read aloud until the girls’ bedtime, then consulting with the housekeeper again before going to bed at 11:00 PM.  

But we can’t all be officers wives, can we?  Certainly, we could take on the task of interpreting what it was like to be the wife of an ordinary seamen.    In records of the day, we see glimpses of the hardships they endured as they attempted to survive without their husbands for long periods of time.  Wives of sailors did not receive regular income from their husbands, as sailors were only paid very infrequently, when the ships commission ended.  Is was common for wives to go from between 6 months to three years without receiving any of their husbands’ pay.  For example, in 1821, the local churchwardens of Portsmouth, England appealed to the Admiralty for financial assistance to help support all the Sailors wives and families.  It was also common knowledge of the time that, if a sailor’s wife wanted to be sure to get her share of her husband’s wages; she must be on hand when the ship docked and the dockyard commissioner and his clerks came out to pay the sailors in cash.  There is no doubt that sailor’s wives did what it took to survive, knowing that they might be months or even years without seeing a penny in Navy wages.  In addition to raising their large families, these women took in lodgers and laundry, went into domestic service, and even ran taverns or lodging houses.  Some women, in dire straits, even became thieves. We know from courth records, that Mary Dutton, a widow of a sailor, was hanged at Tyburn on January 13, 1742, for stealing a watch in Piccadilly and Elizabeth Fox, one of London’s notorious pickpockets, was hanged in 1741.  

If you’d prefer not to be left behind, you might transform yourself into a man with yards of tape, glue, and cloth.  Woe betides those of us with ample bosoms and womanly curves!  It's a hard thing to pull off, even for the pencil bodied women. There are, in fact, a few who manage it today, just as a few women did in the 1700’s and 1800’s. A case in point is the tale of Elizabeth Bowden, a fourteen-year old girl who was listed on the books of the HMS Hazard as a boy of the third class.  Elizabeth managed to stay disguised as a boy for nearly six weeks before her shipmates discovered her.  Upon this discovery, the captain of the ship gave her separate living quarters and allowed her to stay onboard ship, serving as an attendant to the officers.  In the 1740’s, Hannah Snell served in the army and navy as a man for four and a half years before she revealed that she was a woman.

For the brazen and bold, one could always portray the seedy side of life aboard ship as a visiting prostitute, or bum boat girl. When ships came to port and sailors had no right to shore leave, it was a common practice for sailors’ wives and prostitutes to be ferried out to the ship.  As a nod to naval regulations, prostitutes selected by the sailors were signed on as their wives and were allowed to live onboard ship while she was in harbor.  They drank, danced and shared the sailor’s hammocks until time for the ship to leave harbor.  Unfortunately, they often left their sailor men a parting gift of venereal disease that the ship’s doctor would have to treat.  

For sailors lucky enough to be granted shore leave, the lower sort of prostitutes were to be found in taverns and alleys.  These women were very often crass, uncouth, and dishonest.  A somewhat better class of strumpet lived in Albert Square and Seven Star Alley and often described themselves as a wife to a visiting sailor.  There is an account of a German women who told an interviewer that she was currently living with an English sailor whose ship was in the docks, saying that she had known him for almost two years and that he always lived with her when he came ashore.  She continued by saying that she took all his money when he landed, spent half of it while they were together, and kept them remainder when it was time for him to go back aboard ship.  It was not uncommon for these prostitutes to have anywhere from four to ten regular sailor husbands who would seek them out when they came ashore.   

For the more discerning sailor and officer, the Harris’ List or the Covent Garden Magazine were the places to find a classier sort of whore.  These lists often described the women of London’s pleasure gardens and their prowess in nautical terms and the officers consulted them as they would a bawdy catalogue.

But if being a man or a bum boat girl isn't quite the right fit, you might choose to portray a standing officer’s wife, living on board the ship with her husband.  It was usually the wives of warrant officers such as the gunner, boatswain, and the carpenter, who were permitted to go to sea.  These standing officers received their warrants from the Navy Board and were attached to the same ship from the time she was built to the day she was broken up.  Quite often, these warrant officers were more reliable, older men and their wives, therefore, viewed as more respectable.  Wives of warrant officers lived in a cabin on board ship with their husbands and often acted as surrogate mothers to the young boys in the crew.  There are also mention of them helping to tend to the wounded and assist with powder during battle.  Women of the lower deck did not officially exist, though we see glimpses of them is records of the ship’s doctor or private journals.  In fact, in 1806, the Navy regulations revised by Lord Barham stressed that captains were not to allow women to sail onboard ship without orders from his superior officer or the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.  Yet John Nicol, a seaman on board HMS Goliath during the Battle of the Nile (1798), mentioned women carrying powder to the guns, providing water and wine to the soldiers during the battle, and tending to the wounded.  He goes on to mention that one woman died during the battle and another gave birth during the chaos.  The presence of women onboard ship is also documented in various court marshals.  The court-martial record (March 15, 1799) of five members of the crew of the HMS Hermione accused of mutiny details the capture, escape, and eventual pension application of Mrs. Martin, widow of William Martin, who acted as Boatswain during the mutiny attempt.

Well, girls, if none of this strikes your fancy . . . just consider, even the 19th century was a material world.  So grab your reticule and your seaman’s pay, and go shopping, you material girl!

References for further reading:
Cordingly, David.  Women Sailors & Sailors’ Women:  an untold maritime story.  Random House, 2001.

Druett, Joan.  Hen Frigates:  Passion and Peril, Nineteenth-Century Women at Sea.  Simon and Schuster, 1998.

Rees, Sian.  The Floating Brothel:  The Extraordinary True Story of an Eighteenth-Century Ship and Its Cargo of Female Convicts.  Hyperion, 2002.

Friday, April 22

To keep all sorts of fire arms and steel from rust:

"Take a quarter of an ounce of camphire and half a pound of hogs lard, dissolve them together over a very slow fire , and take off the scum, then mix as much black-lead as will bring them to an iron color, spread it over your arms, steel grates, or fire irons, and let it lie 24 hours, then clean them as well as possible with a dry linen cloth, and they will keep six months: but when you lay by your irons, the general way is to try mutton suit; rub the irons well with it, roll them in papers, and so lay them by the winter; but goose-grease is far beyond it. and keeps irons much better, and is a very good thing to clean irons at any time, rubbing it off dry with a linen, and after that with scouring paper; they will look well and do without anything else."

I s'posin I shuld be honor'd that th Doctor only lets me cleen his pistol - but any joy I git from it goes away caus'n he stands over me somethin' frightnin to make sure'n I don't ruin his baby.

From the book: "The Servant's Directory, Improved" or "House Keeper's Companion; Wherein the duties of the Chamber-maid, Nursery-maid, House-maid, Laundry-maid, Scullion or Undercook, are fully and distinctly explained. To which is added, Cookery and Pickling sufficient to qualify a person to act as THOROUGH SERVANT in any family."

Tuesday, April 19

Matriarch of Many a Good Fighter

By Jas. Apple

Once when about shore in Bermuda I happened upon a negro who spoke very good English, truly better than most of he Irish on board. He politely inquired which ship we were from and I informed him, he knew of Her.

He said that there was on board our ship a game cock that went seventeen straight in a Welsh main, and that he his'self was the best setter to in the whole of Bermuda, and could heel any bird to its best advantage.

He then told all his fellows in a tongue none if us had ever heard, about our ship's 'Lord Nelson' and his victories and then they asked him to inquire if they were true. 

I told him that most likely were all greatly exaggerated, but 'Lord Nelson' did in fact win every bout when pitted, even his last nine at a Welsh main as a blinker.

They then asked if we intended to fight him while wintering, and upon hearing of his untimely death at the hands of the King's enemies, they all fell solemn upon the news of his passing.

The linkster, a stout man by the name of Jupiter with a great amount of propriety asked my name and upon translation the men laughed and cackled, much to my dismay. Uneasy and wanting to be on the lee shore of this goat, Jupiter then informed me that there was nary a slighting to my good name but simply that the Royal Marines treat them as chattel and asked if we had any skates for sale!

In or around a fortnight or so, give or take, I happened upon Jupiter again, and he told me of one of his birds, that by his pledge was the matriarch of many good fighter and that she always threw roosters. He then begged to know if we had any gamecocks onboard and to this I answered no,  I only have broody hens.

He insisted that I take but one egg, not to eat, but one to fight!

Friday, April 15

To Kill Rats

Pound some stone-lime, and mix it with oatmeal and coarse sugar; lay it about the house, set water by it, for after they eat of it, they will drink till they burst, then the rest will leave the place.

Though this seems but a simple thing, yet it will destroy them faster than any thing else, and do no other damage.

"Th' Doctor always seys iffn' you can find a more kinder way of killin them rats, to use it. I think bein' kill't by a right good blow to me hed is a better way to go than poison to the guts, but he ent ever listenin' to me."
From the book: "The Servant's Directory, Improved" or "House Keeper's Companion; Wherein the duties of the Chamber-maid, Nursery-maid, House-maid, Laundry-maid, Scullion or Undercook, are fully and distinctly explained. To which is added, Cookery and Pickling sufficient to qualify a person to act as THOROUGH SERVANT in any family."

Thursday, April 14

Musket Ball Removal in the 19th Century

A Trocar, Musket Ball Forceps with musket ball, Bullet Probe with ribbon and Catlin.

Tuesday, April 12

A Letter Smuggled Home

This letter has been translated from its original French: 

Messer. Francois Rochambeau 
Hotel Marzon
Market Street
New Orleans

Dear Sir,

   I write to you from the island of Bermuda, which is much more agreeable than Halifax. Had we been forced to spend the winter there I  am sure I would have lost my nose and ears to the cold! It was completely disagreeable before we left and not yet full winter! I find Bermuda to be not very different than Louisiana. 

  There are a number of American prisoners here, some soon to be exchanged. It is through them that I hope to send this letter. I have talked long with them about my misfortune of being pressed, for it would not do for them to know that I had volunteered when I saw that to resist was useless.

 Aside from being in a service not of my choosing, and missing Marie and the boys with all my heart, I find myself satisfied enough in my present circumstance.  The Acasta is what the English term a "happy ship", which is not to say the crew is always merry, but they are content enough most of the time. The Captain, his name is Freymann, is a taut but very fair man, and his officers seem to follow his example. He has spoken to me on several occasions, as he often comes to the sick bay to visit the sailors that are hurt, always with a cheerful word for them and most admire and respect him for doing so. He seems to think me more learned than I am, I am not sure why, perhaps because I have often served the doctor in his natural philosophy pursuits. The Saints know all the science knowledge I have was gained only from you and dear Messr Duval. The last time he spoke to me the Captain asked me of my thoughts on some philosopher's - a fellow Frenchman who's name escapes me- theory of transmutation. On confessing my ignorance of such a theory he explained it to me. A taper was burning, it being dark below decks, and he explained that the theory holds that the candle does not actually burn into nothing, but is transformed into gases and wind. Do you know of this theory? If this were true, might it not be possible to direct the wind from a controlled flame- of burning oil perhaps- and cause a ship to move even in a dead calm? I shall ask him this if he speaks to me of it again. I have learned it is considered improper in an English ship to speak to the Captain without his addressing you first.

The Doctor, his name is Roberts, I have become rather fond of, although he is often a very private fellow. I think the Doctor began to like me better when he found I had no love for Bonaparte. I have heard him tell other officers that I am a "Monarchist". He has often left me in charge of his duties when he dines ashore or aboard another ship.  He recently showed me my name as "Asst Surgeon" for the Acasta in the Navy List. This is good for me as my pay is more. I am sure this is somehow due to his influences, and I am grateful. It could go poorly for me if we are captured, but that is a bridge I shall cross if ever I come to it. Just between us I think he may be more than a surgeon and natural philosopher. He has been kind enough to allow me to read his medical books which are in French. As I was returning one I happened to pick up one in English to look at the pictures it contained. A leaf of paper fell out which had curious rectangles cut out of it- they fit the lines of the book and perhaps would show only certain words on a page? Although no one saw me I felt I had violated the trust of this man who had shown me only kindness. The less I know of such things the better. We have spent some time here trying to find a certain sea bird he wished to collect, but so far he has been disappointed. The bird is called a "cahoe", do you know it? So far we have yet to see, much yet collect, this bird.

The Carpenter, his name is Apple, is my particular friend. As it happens we had known each other long before, although I did not know him for the years which had passed and that he has lost a number of fingers since he was  young. We are tie mates- although he has the best of this partnership- for as you know time has left little for him to deal with on me, whereas he has a beautiful queue reaching to his belt. He tells me he can make mine handsome by interspersing it with oakum. What do I care for my own beauty  - I have already captured the last woman I intend to pursue! He is also fond of cocking and has a good head for it. There is a pit here and we go there whenever we have liberty. We have done well enough with our winnings that the other fellows now ask us to choose their birds.  

My taper burns low and I have a busy day tomorrow, the Doctor being ashore. I have enclosed a letter for Marie. God willing we will be sent from here to a blockade of New Orleans.

I am, as always Sir, forever your servant, 

Monday, April 11

When I was Shipwreck'd

Being a remembrance of HMS Acasta Carpenter Mr. Jas. Apple

"Once when when sailing past a unseen cove of the island of---------- and serving as a carpenter's mate on my first ship the Tsalagi, and doing the chores of the day, found myself aloft helping to repairing a damaged foremast yard and we had just begun bending the sail when a French vessel came upon us blind from her cove and took us completely by surprise, taking out the foremast and the rigging above the foremast was taken by bar and chain and the damage being done made a mess of our repairs.

As we were in a better position for wind, we made for open water and having beaten to quarters we made ready for battle and I was given the duty of staying aloft to help with the setting of the forecourse. At which time the foremast gave way taking five of the seven topmen, leaving us without the captain of the tops and the shrouds taking hold of my right hand making it all but useless with only the use of me little finger and thumb. Being that only two men, myself included remained and those above lost, we watched as we hurried doing very little good and even though having lost or damaged sails we made good wind and soon found a reef that stopped and tore us from our race.

This having been done, the French, having decided that we were not be taken as a prize, set about the work of finishing what damage had been so graciously done by the reef. My sail gave way and set me in the warm waters, but to my luck the mast being of wood acted as good as any boat and although being quite a bit wetter, saved my body although beaten and crushed. As luck would have it I was able to conceal myself from the French guns and marksmen by concealing myself under one of the sails, and as the French wanted nothing to do with the reef and she departed in safe waters.

As the tide raised what was left of our ship it also pushed my raft of sail and oak towards the shore that I could clearly see but dared not try to make. As it would turn out much of the provisions would scatter themselves upon the beach for miles as well as many of my fellow ship mates, the others having been taken by the deep and given to God. Those of us that were spared made quick work of being shipwrecked and buried our dead and made houses from the sails and rigging.

We were not for want of food, and clean water was found not far inland at a nice pooled spring, which by chance was a good place to make meat to add to the diet of fish and crabs. A good supply of dry powder and shot and a number of serviceable muskets allowed us to hunt and defend ourselves if necessary

It would seem that my fingers would benefit from being removed and with my rigging knife having just been sharpened I chose to loose them for fear of loosing more. Having butchered foul and beast I showed them on some sort of lesser of the monkey family that we had gotten with shot while it lay sleeping aloft. I must admit it was a bit odd instructing the fellows on how to pull back the skin and go into the joint and they did the monkey so bad as you could see it that I thought it better for me to cut off my whole hand. But they had better luck with separating the creatures elbow that I had some faith restored that I might save my hand and they made quick work of it and were able take the skin and pull it back over the knuckle, tying them shut with small threads from of one of the wild pigs backstrap that we took to eat, and if you were here sharing a gill with me now might remark how nicely they set, only loosing those three tips.

One of the fellows, an able seaman who always seemed to be sick or hurt when there was work to be done on board had to pull his line well enough when there was work to be done on land.

Being the carpenters mate and no carpenter gave me a sort of promotion to ships carpenter, but without no ship and orders to back me up it was just a honorary rank. And having said this the old tar by the name of Collier set with another hauling spars and any parts of the ship that might perchance be of use for the houses, others set about collecting lines and canvas. He did complain as he had done on sea and now on land about any work. So we set him to the most lesser of all tasks and as a result he was stricken if not by God by fate with the nastiest of saddle boils, which took directly to weeping.

Once he had something real to be sick and miserable about he soon lost all interest in burdening those around him with any of his aches and pains, and morale was greatly improved."

Friday, April 8

To take Ink or Wine out of Woolen or Linen Cloth

Take the juice of lemons and wet the spot with it several times, letting it dry each time, then wash it with soap and vinegar, and the spot will go out.

At least I only have to do the Doctor’s linens, if’n the rest of the crew affer Christmas dinner wanted all thems linens and coats warshed i’d warsh right through my hands. I never met with a messier clan of loud and lively men.

From the book: "The Servant's Directory, Improved" or "House Keeper's Companion; Wherein the duties of the Chamber-maid, Nursery-maid, House-maid, Laundry-maid, Scullion or Undercook, are fully and distinctly explained. To which is added, Cookery and Pickling sufficient to qualify a person to act as THOROUGH SERVANT in any family."