Comments on the Health of the Navy 1825-1840


The general economy of ships of war, in so far as it may be supposed directly to influence health, may be noticed under the following heads, viz. modes of employment, of berthing, and of cleaning and ventilating.

Seamen, and embarked marines, excepting those employed as sentries, are divided into two watches, on which alternately the working of the ship devolves. Such is the practice now, though at one time it was not uncommon to divide the working force of ships of war into three watches. Each method has certain advantages, and drawbacks. Three watches give the men longer intervals of rest, which, during the night at least, is desirable, but necessarily reduce the strength of the party in charge to an extent, which might be, especially with reduced complements, dangerous, and must be fatiguing. When, as is common, if not universal now, the men are divided into two watches, they perform alternately, during four hours each, the sailing operations of the ships. Each party has four hours’ duty, and four hours’ rest, or, as is said, is four hours on deck, and four hours below, excepting the four hours between four and eight o’clock at night, which are divided into two half, or, as they are called by sailors, dog-watches. The effect of this break is to alter constantly the periods of labour and rest to each party ; so that the men who have the first watch one night, have the second watch the next night, and so on till the circuit be completed.

In this way, though there is sufficient time for rest, it is never long continued, and sleep is broken into short periods. Whatever effect such a division of labour and rest may have on constitutional vigour, though it is perhaps the best that can be devised, it probably contributes much to the frequency of some affections, such as catarrh, and rheumatism, to which seamen are so subject. At midnight, or four o’clock in the morning, the men relieving the deck rush from their beds into the open air, often very inadequately covered, perhaps perspiring profusely, and pass in an instant from a highly heated, and debilitating, to, it may be, a really cold, always to a comparatively cold, atmosphere. In such circumstances it is to be expected that catarrhal, rheumatic, and other affections, traced to sudden, reductive changes of temperature, should be numerous. These remarks apply chiefly to ships at sea. In port the number of men kept on deck lessens with the increasing safety of the anchorage, till, in ships moored in secure harbours, all hands, excepting the officer, petty officers, and sentinels in charge, may pass the whole night in bed.

Sleeping Conditions
Seamen and marines are berthed, that is, mess and sleep, on what is called the lower deck of all ships under first rates, in which they occupy the middle, as well as the lower deck. By lower deck, in frigates, and all smaller vessels, is meant the lowest, or that covering the holds, and store-rooms ; but in ships of the line it means the lower gun-deck, and has the orlop deck between it and the holds. There is, therefore, material difference between the parts of the vessel in which the people live in ships of the line, and in frigates, and smaller craft. In the former there are ports which can be kept open in moderate weather ; in the latter there are only small apertures – scuttles – close to the water, which cannot be kept open except in an absolute calm at sea, and very fine weather even in harbour. Hence, as well as from the intervention of a deck between the crew and the holds, ships of the line have more means of ventilation, and are generally better ventilated than frigates, and smaller vessels.

In all ships, from the number embarked, and the apace available for what may be called domestic purposes, viz. for eating and sleeping, the men are, from necessity, much crowded between decks, the least relatively in three deckers, for in them the crews have two decks to live on, and the numbers are not augmented in the ratio of the space. Yet it is not clear that the benefit thus obtained, by the reduction of pressure, is not counter-balanced by the increased volume of heated, and vitiated air in which the men live. So far as it can be accomplished, even at the expense of increased crowding, it appears to be better to berth crews, at night in one tier, than in two tiers ; for at sea, and even in harbour, except in very moderate weather, the ports must then be closed, and fresh air can be conveyed only by the hatches, to the sleeping places; when they are double, adequate ventilation, supply of pure, and evolution of impure air, with resulting reduction of temperature, is much more difficult than when they are single. The difficulty does not depend solely on the increased volume of heated and deteriorated air thus produced, but also and principally on its being intersected by a deck ; for the pure air conducted down the hatches can be directed to one division only, leaving the other in a state of increasing impurity, the means of admitting air to it being extremely imperfect, during four, six, or seven hours at a time.

The usual space between the suspending points (clues) of the hammocks, is from 14 to 18 inches ; SO that when they are extended by the beds, their bodies are in contact. The effect is to bring the bodies into contact, in greater or less number, according to the size of the ships. When at sea, with a watch on deck, the accumulation and pressure are reduced by a half, but when in secure harbours, 500 men, perhaps, sleep on one deck, their bodies touching each other, over the whole space laterally, and with very little spare room lengthways. The direct results of elevated temperature, and deteriorated air, may be conceived ; but it is not easy to conceive the first, nor the depressing and debilitating power of both, as measured by sensation, within the tropics. The tendency of such a state of things must be to subvert health, and lay the subject of it open to attacks of serious disease. It conduces to catarrhal and other simply atmospheric affections, but it does not appear to act so prejudicially to life, other elements of health being abundant, as might be supposed. Such is the conclusion to which the following Tables lead ; alone, it has little, if any, appreciable influence ; but let it co-operate with other agencies injurious to health, such as defective nutriment, depressing passions, or malaria, and its power may become destructively great. The salubrious influence of abundance of fresh air cannot be doubted, nor conversely the direct detriment to be sustained by any considerable, and continued privation of it ; still the health now enjoyed by seamen, considered in connexion with the necessary crowding of their sleeping berths, and the means available for their ventilation, shows that air may be contaminated to a certain extent, for a considerable period, without producing any decidedly deleterious effect, immediate or remote, on the persons breathing it.

Cleanliness of decks, bedding and the men – 1840
The economy of ships of war, in regard to interior cleanness, cannot be surpassed, in so far as the object of absolute cleanness is concerned. The assertion is, of course, general ; but it is believed to be just, with scarcely any exception. Indeed, it is true, however paradoxical it may seem, that cleaning of decks is carried too far in the Royal Navy, not as regards the first effect and only object, but in reference to the means employed, and other effects arising from them. The ordinary methods employed are washing, wet, and dry stoning. In the first, large quantities of sea-water, with friction by brushes, is used ; in the second, a small quantity of water is poured on the decks, which are then diligently rubbed with flat stones, generally of sand-stone, designated holy-stones by the seamen, for the purpose of removing stain-spots, grease, &c. , In the third, the same kind of stones are used for rubbing, but„ instead of water, they are applied directly over a small portion of sand, cold or heated, which has been scattered on the decks. There is a forth method sometimes employed, called sprinkling and scrubbing, in which the decks are slightly wetted and rubbed with brushes, or dried by cloths, so far as they can be dried by such means. The selection from, or alternation, in various proportions of these methods, is left to the determination of officers in command.

In each of them, except that of dry stoning, more or less water is employed, a portion of which, whatever pains be taken to remove it, is absorbed by the planks, or lodges in their crevices, to be dissipated in the course of considerable time by evaporation. In ships where daily washing, or wet cleaning is practised, the decks are never thoroughly dry ; the evaporating process which carries off the retained moisture of one morning, is not completed till the washing operations of another morning are begun. Frequent washing of the upper, and upper gun deck, in ships of the line, is perhaps unobjectionable, but as applied to the lower, and orlop deck, and the decks of other vessels where the people eat and sleep, its use should be restricted to the demands of necessity. Evaporation, especially in low decks, and low degrees of temperature, goes on slowly, and therefore long ; in hot climates it is of course more rapid, and sooner completed ; but ire either case these is strong reason to conclude, as well from observation, as the nature of the things, that the effects on health are injurious, sometimes highly so. Their power to excite catarrhal, and rheumatic affections will not be questioned ; nor ought there to be much question as to their power exciting many of the inflammatory affections of the lower extremities, which in some ships give rise to much inconvenience, and suffering. The tend to reduce physical force, and therefore co-operate in the induction of diseases of debility, or render the body more susceptible of attacks of violent disease ; and there is strong reason to believe, though the evidence will not perhaps every one, that they act energetically in the production of some of the more destructive ship epidemics.

Cleaning decks by dry stoning is free from these objections, and is therefore, in these important respects, preferable. Its power to remove impurities, especially those which discolour the planks, and are so far offensive to the eye, is not so complete. Besides, when very friable (sometimes calcareous) stones are employed, a good deal of dust is disengaged in the process which irritates the eyes, settles on the clothes, and insinuates itself into the chests bags &c. and is therefore to a certain extent annoying. But these are small evils, and ought to be considered slight objections, when compared with the dampness, discomfort, and the serious evils alluded to above, as the results of frequent washing. Every thing unseemly, and readily decomposable, should at once be removed, but extreme cleanness, even to spotless whiteness of the decks, is not necessary to health, and, when obtained at the expense of frequent washing, may be, and no doubt often is, injurious to it. Hence dry stoning, at any rate dry cleaning, though it may not so much beautify the decks, should be preferred to cleaning by any means in which water is employed.

The holds, wells, and spaces under the limber boards, in which accumulations of extraneous decomposable matters are more likely to happen than on the open decks, should be closely looked to ; and it is no more than justice to officers commanding generally – iy would be too much to say there is no exception – that they are kept as dry, and clean as possible.

In connexion with the cleaning, and great cleanness of the interior of ships, it is not out of place here to observe that personal cleanliness is strictly enforced in the Royal Navy.

The shirts, frocks, and duck trousers, are washed, or scrubbed, and changed, at least, twice in the week. Besides frequent bathing, in favourable weather, regular ablution of the body, shaving, combing, &c. are required. The cooking apparatus is kept in the highest order ; and the mess places, and utensils, are clean, and well arranged. The hammocks are scrubbed clean at regular, sufficiently frequent periods ; and in fine weather, though generally stowed in the bulwark nettings during the day, they are opened, and the beds and bedding, exposed to the full influence of the air on deck. In short every thing is done in this, as in other parts of the interior economy of ships, for the health and comfort of the crews, which the means, usages, and information of the service afford, and which are generally abundant and judicious. And it may be alleged, it may be looking at the health enjoyed, that the results, are all that can be desired, that no improvements or correction can be adopted ; and that the remarks on the cleanness, and modes of cleaning decks, as well as others, are therefore unnecessary, and impertinent. But high as is the present standard of health, there is reason to hope, and anticipate, that it may be raised yet higher. Every instrument should, and will be employed for the purpose ; and in a matter of such importance, any observations, which have that purpose only in view, will be not only inoffensive, but acceptable.

Health of the Mind – Education 1840
Nothing is more certain than the great influence of the mind on health, a happy and cheerfully occupied state of the former, conducing to the preservation of the latter ; while gloom and discontent, the offspring often of the want of innocent, and healthy occupation, lead to its subversion. In all its relations and effects, this subject, till a comparatively late period, had been too little considered ; for a great length of time it was almost entirely neglected. In hours of idleness, dancing, leaping, and other athletic exercises were encouraged, to dissipate unoccupied time, and, in the want of more satisfactory, and profitable objects, were desirable ; but the mind, which it was more important to occupy agreeably, and to instruct, was left, as far as the State was concerned, to its own resources. There is no disposition nor desire to convert the man of war’s man into a metaphysician, or pseudo philosopher ; much less to make him the conceited, prating, mischievous being, called a sea-lawyer, but his mind may be agreeably employed, and wholesomely informed – the reverse of being misled or perverted – while he is rendered thereby healthier, and happier, and that, too, without depriving him of his dance, song, or gymnastic sports. It would not be at all becoming in this place to enlarge on the higher, and more enduring objects connected with moral, and intellectual culture ; but in so far as a healthy state of the mind conduces to vigour of the body, it is right to advert to their relation, and mutual operations ; and it cannot be wrong to notice what has been omitted, as well as what has been done, for that purpose.

Little was attempted till within the last 20 years, except the appointment of chaplains, and schoolmasters to certain ships ; and, setting aside the performance of divine service on Sunday by the former, the value of which is not questioned, it is no breach of truth or charity, to say that little was done by either for the working sailor, or marine. Little pains were taken, at least systematically, to train and instruct the mind. Discipline, in the military sense of the word, having in view the encouragement of good, as well as the punishment of bad conduct, was enforced ; but it must be admitted that the latter mode generally predominated much over the former, necessarily, and from no proneness to severity in commanding officers. Had safe, and therefore salutary information been generally communicated in all fitting opportunities, it is not too much to affirm that the order of things would have been reversed – that punishment would have been little, and reward much. The bearing of these observations on the subject in hand, the health of seamen, is evident.

The most simple and comprehensive method for accomplishing that end, would have been the supply of amusing, and instructive books. Sailors can generally read, and many of them are fond of reading, as every one who has been much at sea, and observed the eagerness with which they fasten on any books which fall in their way, and read, either alone, or to a group of attentive listeners, knows. Yet, till a comparatively recent date, no measures were adopted, at least at the public expense, to gratify, and foster a taste, from which many advantages, direct and indirect, might have been derived, and may, and no doubt will, be derived. Less than 20 years ago, Bibles and Prayer-books, and, more lately, religious tracts, were issued gratuitously. The excellence of the measure, and of the motive which led to its introduction, are fully admitted ; but it is no disparagement of either to say, that more was wanted. Knowledge must precede conviction ; and, in the ordinary course of things, the mind must be opened and enlightened by ordinary means, before it can be made capable of understanding the doctrines, and receiving the benefits of religious truth.

Entertaining these opinions, which few, it is believed, will controvert, it is gratifying to know that means have been adopted to supply so great a want, and to obtain ends of such importance – agreeable occupation of the mind, and improvement of its faculties, leading to increase of health, and greater efficiency of national force. By an Admiralty order, dated August 1838, libraries are directed to be established in each of Her Majesty’s ships, for the use of the crew, furnished at the public expense, and placed in charge of the schoolmaster. The books, amounting to 270 volumes for large, and 100 for smaller ships, exclusive of Bibles, are judiciously chosen, with the view of combining amusement, and instruction, and making the first subsidiary to the last. Besides the accomplished men vow appointed to instruct the junior officers, it is further directed, by an order from the Admiralty, May 1837, that a fit person shall be appointed to give elementary education, comprehending reading, writing and arithmetic, to the sailor boys, aid other seamen, and marines, who may require it.

There can be no doubt of the value of these measures, or of the beneficial results to which they will lead, if that on health alone is considered. Many less deserving have attracted much notice, and obtained high praise. Nowhere is there a mental field more capable, or more worthy of cultivation, than that which may be found on board ships ; and it maybe fairly lamented that it has been so long, so much neglected. Leisure, long absence from loved objects, and scarcity of external objects of interest at sea, dispose the mind to contemplation, rendering it highly susceptible of moral, and intellectual impressions, and, where it has the means, of being pleased and benefited by them. The time has passed when utter ignorance of every thing, but his immediate duty, with all the debasing, and destructive effects of savage ignorance, is thought essential to the character of a British seaman – implicit obedience, indomitable courage, and love of country. The time, too, has passed, when such ignorance, even if it were desirable, could be retained. Information of some kind will be communicated ; it is therefore politic, if there were no higher object, that it should be of a sort to improve, not to deteriorate.

And it may be anticipated, when these, and other advantages, which are to be found in the Royal Navy, some of which have been alluded to above, are fully understood, that the service will become more popular than it has heretofore been. It is difficult to get rid of a bad character. Tradition, especially in seaport towns, and in merchant ships, is still rife of the evils, and of the sufferings, formerly endured in ships of war, some of them false, or exaggerated, but too many of them true. When there is neither personal evidence, nor convincing testimony, to the contrary, the easily prejudiced are too apt to believe that such evils, and sufferings are not yet banished from the public service ; and it is therefore important to show, in how many respects, and to what extent, it has been really changed – how great is the preponderance of its benefits over its drawbacks. The best argument will be derived from experience. Good men, capable of thinking, and appreciating its advantages, and the number of such will increase, after knowing, and feeling them for some time, will not readily abandon them. They will speak of them to others, not yet sufficiently informed, or labouring under old prejudices; and thus the service will be sought, not avoided, and a ship of war, happy, healthy, abounding in present comfort, and prospective benefits, will be an object of desire to good seamen.

Artificial ventilation has hitherto been almost exclusively effected by wind-sails on board ships ; for though other methods have been proposed, they have either not answered, or have not yet been sufficiently tested to show their effectiveness. Ventilation by means of wind-sails, is defective in many essential points. With strong breezes, in dry weather, a sufficient volume of pure air can be carried by them to, but cannot be sufficiently diffused along, the decks. They can reach only one point of one deck at a time ; at that point the force of the air, in fresh breezes, is too strong, chilling, and often communicating disease to the persons on whom it directly falls.* Beyond that point it extends various distances, according to the force of the descending current, but does not extend far in most cases, and is often scarcely felt over considerable spaces between decks. Three wind-sails are generally employed, which are suspended from the rigging, pass down the hatchways, and terminate at any point between decks, which may most require ventilation. They vary in size, from eighteen inches to three feet in diameter ; and when properly adjusted, so that their open, upper part is exactly opposed to the breeze, they transmit a sufficient supply of air, if it could be equally diffused over the interior of ships. Distribution is the difficulty. In some places, as has been stated, where the tubes terminate, there is often too much; in others there is, if any, too little. That is the greatest objection to ventilating by wind-sails. In calms it is of course unavailable, and in rainy weather cannot be practised.

(*It sometimes happens that men near the wind-sails, feeling discomfort from the chilling effects of their currents, tie them up during the night, and so, while undetected, which may be during a whole watch, deprive their shipmates of the fresh air which the wind-sails might supply, and which is particularly wanted by those at some distance from the hatches. It also sometimes happens that wind-sails, which are taken up during rain, are forgotten to be let down again when it ceases. These, though not necessary, are objections to this method of ventilating.)

Adequate, and equal ventilation between the decks where the people live, and an exhausting power, by which stagnant air may be removed from the holds, wells and storerooms, where deleterious games are likely to accumulate, are therefore decided desiderata.

The last would appear to be fully accomplished by an apparatus lately invented by Captain Warrington ; it has sufficient power to draw air from any part of a ship, more indeed than is required, but that can easily be reduced. When foul air is taken from below, fresh air will descend from above to supply its place ; and thus, it may be supposed, that both purposes will be answered, and that nothing more can be desired for ventilating ships. But two objections present themselves to the completeness of the process thus conducted. Both the ascending and descending currents are strong, too strong, if the ascending one were not otherwise deleterious, to be safely applied to the body in their direct course ; and beyond the limits of their direct course, through the hatches, as happens with wind sails, their influence will be little felt ; at least it will not be equally and beneficially felt. And thus it will appear that much is yet wanting to complete the great object of ventilation, namely, a sufficient, and not more than sufficient, supply of fresh air between every part of the decks, where the people eat and sleep. Diffusion is still wanting ; and till that be accomplished, the means of ventilation will be imperfect, and the full objects of the process continue unattained.

But there is reason to think that Captain Warrington’s apparatus might be made instrumental in the thorough ventilation of ships between decks. Though exposed to some of the objections which have been stated to wind-sails, it has a great advantage over them ; it will not, like them, be rendered, inoperative, or useless by calms, or rains. It can be worked in almost every kind of weather ; and it might probably be made to accomplish the desired object by some contrivance like the following. Pure air might be drawn by it from an open port, or hatchway, and transmitted through tubes led along the sides of ships, the tubes being so perforated as to allow numerous small streams to pass from them to the centre of the ship. In this, or some such way, it appears likely that all which is wanted and desired from ventilation, might be effected, deficiency, and excess being equally avoided.

In small vessels, where the cooking apparatus is on the same deck as that on which the people are berthed, the heat of the fire, especially in cold weather, contributes to its ventilation.

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