Tuesday, November 29


Heart of Oak: A Sailor’s Life in Nelsons Navy
A brief recommendation by M. Araiza

Have you ever wondered, what does an Eighteenth century candle lantern or a leather fire bucket look like?  Then you need to pick up this book.

Heart of Oak was written in 2002 by James P. McGuane. A well-known photographer and filmmaker, as well as a blacksmith and sculptor.

Heart of Oak is about the tools and items used on a daily basis by the men and women of Nelson’s Navy. It displays extraordinary photographs of tar-ladles and snuff boxes to sailmakers fids and carronades. The items pictured are items that have been recovered from shipwrecks or are on display in some of the greatest naval museums. Photographed inside are also some of the most famous ships, HMS Victory and HMS Invincible. 

There are chapters on navigation, deck rigging, sails, guns, gunpowder, officers, men leisure and recreation to name a few.  

Photos of the ropewalk at the Royal Naval dockyard and a Mast Pond at Chatham Historic Dockyard are pictured to complement these items.

Beside every photo is a description, its current location and the size of the item.  Every description explains the use of the item and it location on a ship. 

Tuesday, November 22

The 4 Biggest Frigates of the North American Station

The subjoined table of the comparative dimensions of British and American ships, will enable the reader to appreciate the heroism with which our officers and seamen have defended themselves in the recent actions with our trans-atlantic descendants.

By this table it will be seen, that these American frigates are longer than an English first-rate; that they are longer than, and of nearly equal tonnage with, our modern large seventy-fours, and of greater tonnage than our old seventy-fours;that they are longer, broader, and of greater tonnage than any of our sixty-fours; and that they exceed in tonnage our fifties, in the proportion of nearly three o two; and our thirty-eights in the proportion of seven to four. Is not the term frigate most violently perverted, when applied to such vessels? As well might we call the Ville de Paris a fifty, or Caledonia a sixty-four; or as well might we call the one a jolly-boat and the other a yawl.

An excerpt from 'The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War" 1813

Friday, November 18

Friday's Toast

A calm, clear day today, clear enough to see the trees changing color ashore through ones glass.

Captain Frymann and the Captains of the other ships on the blockade had the Midshipmen practicing their signal flags for the majority of the afternoon. No sooner would a series of flags be hoisted then the boys would all have out their glasses, eagerly looking for the reply. All manner of mock orders were sent to and fro. 

An uneventful day at sea, followed by an equally uneventful dinner in the Wardroom. After the loyal toast, Lt. Hamilton gave the traditional Friday toast. We all drank with great gusto! We all enjoyed the possibility of prize money, and with several of our officers, the more 'willing foes' the better.

Can you decode the traditional Friday Toast via the signal flags above?

Wednesday, November 16

To Ourselves

Before Copenhagen: The Ward Room of HMS Elephant, 1st April 1801 from Thomas Davidson
Sick call at the mast this morning followed by dosing and treating the various shipboard illness and injury. Nothing of any great import. Scrapes and bruises common among men whose job it is to climb, handle rope and lift heavy objects on a daily basis. 

The traditional Wednesday toast was offered up in the Ward Room this evening from Lt. Hamilton, "To Ourselves". 

It was followed by the amusing reply from our purser, Mr. Armitage, "As no-one else is likely to concern themselves with our welfare!"

Monday, November 14

Nelson's Navy

Nelson’s Navy: The Ships, Men and Organization 1793-1815

A brief recommendation by M. Araiza

If you could only have one book in your collection that could cover the vast majority of the history of Nelson Navy, you might be hard pressed to find just one.  But I think I have found it. 

Nelsons Navy written in 1989 by Brian Lavery, a maritime history consultant.

Nelson’s Navy is 352 pages divided into 61 lovely chapters examining all aspects of the British Royal Navy from its organization, to ship types, to officers training, the crew, marines, ship handling, life on the ocean waves, dockyards, bases, fleets and ship distribution, tactics, signals, blockading, amphibious operations and much more. Each chapter is very descriptive and includes period paintings, drawings and photos of items from various museums.

Also included is a chapter on Foreign Navies of the same time period.

A gorgeous Appendix is included that includes charts that cover prices of slop clothes to monthly pay of every sailor on board.

The sources index at the end include printed primary sources, secondary sources and even manuscript sources so that you can always go back and find the original source item.  

So, if I could only have one book in my collection on the Royal Navy this would be it, I believe it is second to none.  

Tuesday, November 8

Chatham Dockyard, a Virtual Tour

As a long time reader and long distance participant in Acasta projects, I have asked Keri Tolhurst to participate again, this time as a guest writer. She says:

I am honoured to have been invited to write a post for your blog, and as I lived not a stone's throw from Chatham Historic Dockyard until very recently, I thought I would give you a virtual tour through the best preserved Georgian Dockyard in the world. I do not have photos of every building of interest, unfortunately, but I am very happy to share what I do have. 

The first picture is of the Dockyard in the middle of the eighteenth century and was painted by Joseph Farrington, who never visited the area. However, it is perfectly accurate, although the surrounding area has changed almost beyond recognition.

Chatham Dockyard is situated on the River Medway, about ten miles or so from the sea. It is the easternmost of the three main dockyards (Chatham, Portsmouth and Plymouth) and its situation meant that it was of most importance during the wars with the Netherlands in the 17th century. When the wars with France began, the dockyards further west gained in importance, and Chatham became the primary ship-building yard. HMS Victory was launched here in 1765 and HMS Temeraire in 1798, just two of many ships that found fame at Trafalgar and other battles.

A visitor coming from London would first see the magnificent brick-built gate with the Royal coat-of-arms, which would have been guarded by two Royal Marines in their smart red coats and round hats. During the Napoleonic Wars (and the War of 1812), this would have been the main entrance to the dockyard, and so we will begin our tour here.

You will pass the guardhouse on your right, with its white-painted columns, and the Dockyard church (built in 1812) will be in front of you. As you continue down the main road, the crew's quarters building is on your right, and if you turn left to head towards the river, you will pass the end of the Ropery – all the rope is spun by hand and is marked with a coloured thread called the rogue's yarn (Chatham rope has a yellow yarn). This is both to prevent theft from a Royal dockyard and so that substandard rope can be traced to its place of manufacture.

The Ropery is half a mile lone, which allows a standard anchor cable to be spun (as rope is spun, it decreases in length; a half mile building will produce a two-feet thick cable that is 72 fathoms long). Rope is still made here to this day, although the workers now make use of the machinery that was installed during the Victorian era.

On the river side of the Ropery are three massive storehouses, which were used to store all the equipment necessary for fitting out a ship, from hammocks to hogsheads of beer. When a ship was paid off, her movable stores would be likewise brought here. Thee photo is from outside the Dockyard, from the site of the old Royal Marine barracks, but it gives some idea of the scale of these three buildings.

If you continue along the riverside away from the Ropery, you will come to the little white Harbour Master's House, with the imposing edifice of the Commissioner's House behind it. The Commissioner's House is the oldest building in the modern Dockyard and was completed during the reign of Queen Anne, right at the beginning of the 18th century.

Behind the Commissioner's House is the Sail and Colour Loft, which I unfortunately don't yet have a photo of. It is here that all the canvas and flags would have been sewn – again, by hand in this period. The sails would also be marked with a coloured thread although I don't know whether it was the same colour as the rogue's yarn of the rope. (It would make sense that it would be, but that is sheer speculation; I do know that sails made at Portsmouth were marked with a blue thread.)

A little further on from the Commissioner's House is the Admiralty Office building, with the Clock Tower building beside it. These both have a low profile because the Officer's Terrace is behind them and thus has an uninterrupted view of the dry docks and the river.

Continuing on, you will pass the smithy (which again I do not have a photo of) across what is now a large open gravelled area, but that would have been used for seasoning wood in huge stacks. The white-painted building with the asymmetrical roof-line is the mast-house and mould loft, and is where the masts would have been made (on the lower floor) and the templates for the ship's ribs would have been made on the upper floor. To the right of this building as you face it are the capstan makers' and wheelwrights and tucked away are the timber sheds, which again were used to hold timber that was being seasoned for ship-building. As the mast house houses the modern visitor's entrance and gift-shop and there is a tea-room in the Wheelwright's workshop, this seems a good place to end our virtual tour.

If you are ever in the area, Chatham Historical Dockyard is well worth a visit, and their website is at 

Special thanks again to guest writer Keri Tolhurst (aka 'Sharpie')!

Monday, November 7

To Wives and Sweethearts...

I posted this to the Acastas on our private Facebook page a few weeks back and wanted to share it here with you, our readers, as well:

LADIES, I owe you an apology.

You see, I didn't start a Royal Navy reenactment group to create programing for women or to do research on women in the early 19th century. We worked hard to recruit the best guys we could find and to create naval programing for them, but left you gals with nothing to do when you attended an Acasta event with your husbands and sweethearts.

I'm sorry, it was never my intention to exclude you, but to be honest, I was never really sure what to do with you! I always had my hands full with programing for the guys. Going forward, we're going to take some steps to try to fix that.

To that end, we're going to start a "Wives & Sweethearts Auxiliary" for you ladies of the Acasta. This parallel group will run in a very similar fashion to the Acasta herself, it'll have clothing standards (just like the sailors) and offer period appropriate programming (just like the sailors) that will entertain and educate the public while at events, as well as the individual members of the "Wives & Sweethearts Auxiliary itself.

It'll need a knowledgable and energetic leader, therefore I have decided that that leader will be Christina Johnson! Christina is an amazing researcher who is extremely well versed in women's clothing and roles in the era we portray, and she has tons of fun interp ideas in mind.

Christina has over 15 years interpretative experience working with a variety of historic sites, not for profits, and museums. She's a professional educator with a masters certificate in educational research and technology. She's developed and implemented volunteer interp training programs for two museums in and around her hometown and she presents workshops and lectures in the museum field several times a year.

I'm very excited about this new endeavor! I am very pleased to be able to offer programming to a segment of our population that has been unserved until now!

For the past few weeks, Christina has been hard at work on the new Acasta WSA website, and as of today it's open for business. It's still early days, but I have no doubt that with time and the encouragement of you the readers, it will flourish.


In additon, you may find the new link at the top of the site with the buttons that lead to our various pages. ENJOY!

Friday, November 4

Historical Eye-Candy

Today let's just have an eyeful of historical eye-candy… The Acasta has been gifted with some amazing photography over the years from a variety of awesome photographers and sources. From Events, games, battles, press gangs, clothing, weddings, you name it... you'll find it here.

Thursday, November 3


Today's post written and researched by Acasta sailor Charles Winchester:

This is the first in what I hope to be an ongoing series of articles about sailor clothing during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.  In this article I will talk about shirts of the period and some of the finer nuances that can make or break an otherwise fine impression.

The shirts during this period were overwhelmingly made of linen, cut in a series of rectangles and squares. While the use of cotton was rapidly becoming more common and affordable (thanks to the invention of the cotton gin), linen would reign supreme as the preferred shirt fabric well into the nineteenth century. Wool and linsey-woolsey were alsocommonly used as a cold weather substitute for (or in addition to) a linen shirt.

Commonly, dress shirts were made of white linen. More expensive shirts, i.e. those worn by officers, would commonly have a ruffle at the neck slit, wrist or even at the wrist slit. These ruffles were normally made of finer linen such as lawn or cambric and were often quite sheer on the most expensive shirts.  

Most working class men of the period owned several white shirts as well as courser works shirts.  Work shirts were made of unbleached linen in varying degrees of whitenessor checked and striped in various colours, but blue and white (with the white often predominating) were the most popular colours for checked and striped shirts.  There is at least one runaway advertisement of a man wearing an unbleached shirt with white cuffs and collar.  I suspect this was fairly common as the same arrangement is seen frequently in the mid-nineteenth century. The reasoning behind this is apparently the fact that white collar and cuffs would peak out while wearing a jacket or coat and make the wearer look a bit more respectable.  The bleaching process used at the time was somewhat expensive and therefore white linen fabric would drive up the cost of the shirt.

There are several detail elements that I would like to mention that separate a mediocre reproduction shirt from a really fine one. At the outset of the period under discussion, the shirt was undergoing several minor but important changes.  This was a time of rapid social change and this change was reflected in every element of society.  Clothing was noexception. Shirts in the previous era had a very narrow cuff, finished at one inch or less.  As men’s coat sleeves began to creep down the wrist and even partially covering the handduring the 1790’s, men shirts followed suit, as it was fashionable to have the shirt cuff peak out below the coat sleeve.  Where the shirts previously had a one inch wide cuff or less, now cuffs were widened to 2 ¼. 2 ½ or as much as 2 ¾ ‘s in width. One very important feature that is often overlooked in reproduction shirts is the buttonhole and button placement at the cuff.  Modern shirts center these on the cuff, i.e. placed half way between the cuff edge and shirtsleeve edge.  Period shirts had the button and buttonhole as close to the shirtsleeve edge as possible, as close as ¼ inch typically.  On work shirts these long cuffs were typically folded back while doing manual labor to get them out of the way.  It is important to note that while dress shirts and some work shirts had cuffs thatwere much wider than in the previous era, there is pictorial evidence that work shirts continued the earlier fashion of narrow cuffs right up through the end of the period under discussion. . These minute details can go a long way to improving an impression and can even serve as an interpretive tool.

Another small but important feature of the shirt is the button. Buttons were made of various materials, the most common being fabric. Dorset and thread buttons were apparently the two most common button types in this period.  The dorset button is made from thread worked around a ring core.  This core was typically made of brass wire or a stamped ring, though horn, wood and bone were also used.  Thread buttons were made in a similar fashion but worked around a thread ring as the core.  These buttons could be made at home as a cottage industry but were also being mass-produced. The threads used in both dorset and thread buttons could be of varying colours to make them more showy and decorative. Five and four hole bone buttons were coming into use during this period but I have found no definitive information as to the exact date or how rapidly they overtook the earlier styles. Dating these newcomers is complicated by the fact that often old shirts were dredged out of storage and reworked and updated by adding new elements, such as buttons.

Metal sleeve buttons were also common on men’s shirts (as well as lady’s shifts) during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. These were two buttons of brass, pewter, silver or gold plate connected by a loop of wire or stamped metal, much like a modern cuff link. It is important to note here that the proper period term is sleeve button, the term cuff link comes into use post our period. Sleeve buttons could also be made frombone or horn set with a metal shank for the eye attached in the center.  Officers dress shirts could sport sleeve buttons set with paste, rhinestones, or semi-precious jewels.

The period shirt was a slip over affair.  Shirts that buttoned from neck to hem didn’t comeabout in western culture until the last years of the nineteenth century.  Typically our shirt had a front split that could be anywhere from 6 ½ to as much as 14 inches in depth. This split was a simple cut with a folded or rolled hem. The bottom of the slit was often reinforced with a bit of bias cut fabric shaped as a square, rectangle, triangle or heart.  If this piece is omitted there is commonly a reinforcement of one or more bars worked across the bottom in a buttonhole stitch called faggoting. This is sometime elaborated further into a crossbar of netting like embroidery closing the opening. As waistcoats and coats were beginning to be worn open at the neck and upper chest during this transitional period, some shirts were beginning to use buttons at the slit to prevent the naked chest from showing. The earliest evidence I have seen for this is from a painting dated 1801 by Rembrandt Peale, showing a shirt with three buttons at the bosom. I feel that one or no buttons was more common based on existing shirts, though pinning down an exact date for this transition seems all but impossible. It’s better to ere on the side of caution and “better too early than too late”, as they say. Another form of neck slit closure used in the eighteenth century was the shirt pin, a simple brooch of silver, or gold that closed finer shirts part of the way down the slit. I have no evidence that they were still in use as late as our time period but I suspect older men who were accustomed to wearing them would carry on the tradition.

While shirt collars in the earlier period could be cut short or cut taller and folded over the cravat, dress shirts of the period under examination were typically taller to keep up with the taller neck cloths coming into fashion.  Rather than folded over they were starched and left to stand tall up under the chin and nearly touching the ear lobe.  Apparently workshirt collars lagged somewhat behind the fashionable cut but by the early nineteenth century even they grew taller and taller. As labourers (and thus sailors) often wore their shirt open at the neck with the neck cloth or kerchief tied either loose over the shirt but under the collar or loose around the neck, touching the skin, the tall shirt collar was left tosplay out onto the shoulders.  By the late 1820’s the shirt collar grew on sailors shirts to lay out over the shoulders onto the upper arm and down the back as a cape to create the “sailor shirt” or jumper, often embroidered, familiar up through the twentieth century.  This of course has no place during our period but is mentioned here to show how this style evolved as a recognizable sailor fashion.

There is another element that should be noted here that relates directly to shirts.  Soldiers in the British army were required to change their shirts every 2-3 days and I suspect the same was true in the Navy. Cleanliness is directly related to health, particularly in the military and on board ship where men are quartered close together.  This was understood during the period and much is written concerning military cleanliness, hygiene and disease. Shirts were washed (and tortured) frequently with harsh soaps, beating and scrubbing.  An unbleached linen work shirt will quickly fade to an almost, but not quite, white with continued washing in this manner, not to mention bleaching in the sun, as the working man is often without his coat and waistcoat while working. Linen is far superior to just about any other material for shirts as it can stand the demands of hard use and frequent washing in this manner. The shirt is cut loose to allow air to circulate within the many folds and creases. Linen has the added comfort of being cool against the skin in hotweather and warm in cold.  It also does an admirable job of wicking up perspiration and passing it along to the outer garments.  This evaporation process helps to keep the wearer somewhat cooler than other fabrics, acting as a natural air conditioning. Only wool does abetter job but wool can’t match the comfort or durability of linen.

For further reading:

Brown, William L., III, Thoughts on Men’s Shirts in America, 1750-1900. Gettysburg, Pennsylvania: Thomas Publications, 1999.

Gehret, Ellen J., Rural Pennsylvania Clothing. York, Pennsylvania: Geo. Shumway Publications, 1976.  While this book is chock full of wonderful information and photographs of original garments dealing with the period immediately after the American Revolutionary War, it deals with a select group of people (the Pennsylvania Germans) and their culture.  Much of the information, while specific to this region and people is also generic to clothing in America and England at the time.  It would be prudent to use other sources by way of contrast and comparison to understand the cultural differences of the garments presented here.

Baumgarten, Linda, and Watson, John, Costume Close-up, Clothing Construction and Pattern, 1750-1790. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1999. Pp. 105-108 has a pattern, detailed description and pictures of a shirt dated 1810-1820.

Sharon Ann Burnston, Fitting and Proper. Texarkana, Texas: Shurlock Publishing Company. 1998. More patterns and photo’s of an original shirt dated 1790-1810 on pp. 47-49.

Baumgarten, Linda, What Clothes Reveal, The Language of Clothing in Colonial and Federal America. Williamsburg, Virginia: Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 2002. If not the bible for men’s and women’s clothing during this period, then it’s the next best thing.  Examines clothing in the social and cultural context in America at this time. Muchof the material is true to Western culture in general as a truly American culture was still in its infancy. There is a wealth of information on shirts in this book.

Fortunately there are hundreds of satirical cartoons showing sailors at work and play during our time period.  While not all show sailors in their shirt sleeves a few do and many others show the neck and sleeve cuff of the shirt.  They are also invaluable in showing how the shirt and clothing in general was worn in daily practice.