'Vittles' Aboard Ship

"And now me boys we’re off Holyhead   
No more salt beef, no weevily bread...."

The Royal Navy diet consisted primarily of salt beef, salt pork, peas, oatmeal, butter, cheese, ship’s biscuit (also called hardtack or ship’s bread), and a pudding (Spotted Dog) made of flour and suet or currents. The flour and hardtack were usually overrun by  weevils (small beetles) which added flavour and protein.


"God made the vittles, but the devil made the cook,"

grumbled many a sailor in the last century when he sat down to another meal of salted beef. This meal of tough cured meat and the poor teeth of most sailors often necessitated that they chew one chunk for hours... a practice that became known as "chewing the fat.".

"It was a diet high in calories (some 4,450 per day) that filled hungry bellies and provided the energy required for the hard work of handling unruly sails aloft in all weathers, but it was woefully deficient in vitamins...a nutritional disaster."

-Page 41, Jerry Lockett, Captain James Cook in Atlantic Canada - The Adventurer & Map Maker's Formative Year's


"The quality of the food deteriorated because of storage problems, lack of ventilation, and poor drainage. It was also affected by the presence of rats and other vermin on board. Biscuits were often filled with maggots and weevils, a type of beetle. Many ships' suppliers were dishonest and sent stores that were already rotten before they were taken on board."

-Royal Museums Greenwich, Website


The Messdeck and the Galley

"Heave her up, me bully, bully boys..."

Sailors on board sailing ships had a daily ration of bully beef. The name derives from the French boeuf bouilli (boiled beef) and they had bully beef so regularly on the messdeck that the sailors who ate it became known as ‘bully boys’.

To make sure that each sailor got his fair share at mealtime, it was often decided that one man from the mess would be blindfolded. A portion of the salted beef was carved and the blindfolded man called out a name and the portion went to the one named and so on, until all were served. However, despite these efforts, younger or weaker members of the mess were sometimes bullied and strong-armed into giving up the best of their share.

The galley was cleaned by the cook’s mate, under the supervision of the cook, and inspected each morning for cleanliness. As fresh water was precious on board a sailing ship, sand was used to scour the vast kettles used to boil up what was served at each meal.

"What's the scuttlebutt ? Well I heard that...."

The cask of drinking water on board ships was called a scuttlebutt and since sailors often exchanged gossip when they gathered at the scuttlebutt for a drink of water, scuttlebutt became slang for gossip or rumors.
Scuttlebutt derived from 'butt', an old word for cask or barrel, and 'scuttle' which meant to bore a hole in something and so you had a barrel with a hole in it so water could be withdrawn.

Ship’s Biscuit

Hardtack - is a simple type of cracker or biscuit, made from flour, water, and sometimes salt. Inexpensive and long-lasting, it was and is used in the absence of foods that spoil during long sea voyages. The name derives from the British sailor slang for food, "tack". It is known by other names such as pilot bread, ship's biscuit, shipbiscuit, sea biscuit, sea bread (as rations for sailors)


Ship’s Crew Menu ( Royal Navy 1812 )

Monday -  cheese and duff ( flour, raisins/currents boiled in a bag )
Tuesday – two pounds of salt beef
Wednesday – dried peas and duff
Thursday – one pound of salt pork
Friday – dried peas and cheese
Saturday – two pounds of salt beef
Sunday – one pound of salt pork and a treat such as figgy-dowdy ( pudding containing a large portion of salt pork, suet or currents )
Always accompanied by a daily pound of ship’s biscuit and at one bell, dinner should be followed by a pint of grog and after supper by another pint of grog.

- Page 51-52 Patrick O’Brian, Mauritius Command


Each member of the crew was allowed seven pounds of biscuits a week, seven gallons of beer, four pounds of salt beef and two of salt pork, a quart of dried peas, a pint and a half of oatmeal, six ounces of sugar and the same of butter, twelve ounces of cheese and half a pint of vinegar, to say nothing of the lime juice, the necessarily enormous quantity of fresh water for steeping the salt meat and the two pounds of tobacco a lunar month.

- Page 33 Patrick O’Brian, The Far Side of the World


Shipboard Delicacies


Scouse is a type of lamb or beef stew. The word comes from lobscouse, a stew commonly eaten by sailors throughout Northern Europe, which became popular in seaports such as Liverpool. Nineteenth-century sailors made lobscouse by boiling salted meat, onions and pepper.


Soused Hog’s Face - a whole hog's head was covered with water and to that shallots, salt, peppercorns, whole laurel leaves and fresh thyme were added., This was boiled until the meat could easily be picked off the bones. The head was then taken out of the soup, the meat picked off and cooled. Meanwhile, the soup was sifted, returned to the pot, and reduced over high heat. The meat was then cut in small cubes, the onions chopped, and both were mixed with freshly ground pepper. The reduced soup was then poured over the meat and onions and allowed to cool. The gelatine from the head stiffened it into a quivering mass.

Skillygalee - oatmeal gruel made for breakfast, known among sailors by the name of skilligolee (many said that skillygalee was akin to bill-sticker’s paste). Sometimes sugar and butter were added, though rarely for foremast jacks.

Puddings – made from flour (two parts), suet (one part) and sugar mixed in a cloth or basin surrounded by boiling water. In Spotted Dog (or Spotted Dick), for example, the dough was liberally sprinkled with fine bold currants and the cloth tied tight, so that when the pudding was turned out on the dish its exterior was firm and relatively dry; in the version known as Drowned Baby, on the other hand, the cloth was looser, resulting in a glutinous surface. Plum duff was made much the same, but prunes, sultanas or even dates took the place of currants. Then there was Jam roly-poly, in which the dough or paste was rolled out, spread with jam and rolled up again before being put into its cloth and boiled.

Figgy duff is a traditional Newfoundland bag pudding. It typically contains butter, flour, sugar, molasses, and raisins, and is boiled in a bag.

- a sort of sweet pudding, containing a large proportion of suet or pork fat, with raisins, currants and liquor.

When ‘
duff' was being prepared, it is said that the mess cook was often ordered to whistle as he worked, so that he could not pop pilfered raisins into his mouth.


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