HMS Victory - the galley

HMS Victory: Brodie's Patent Galley
Brodie's Patent Galley (1780) provided roasting, boiling and baking

The galley provided the means for cooking hot food for all of the ships crew - at the time of Trafalgar, 821 men. The galley stove burned firewood (kept dry in its own store in the hold). Due to the risk of fire in a wooden ship, the galley fire was put out in rough weather or during action to prevent sparks or burning embers from setting light to the deck around the galley. Crews were often given a hot meal before being called to clear the ship for action - there was little knowing when the next hot meal might be able to be cooked. In rough weather, when the crews were often wet and cold, there was no respite from cold food.

The crew ate in groups of 8 to 12 men known as a 'mess'. These groups remained together throughout a voyage so the men became 'mess-mates'. Each day one man would take his turn as 'duty cook'. It was his responsibility to fetch the day's rations from the hold and to prepare the food for cooking. The prepared food was then taken along to the galley to be cooked (each mess marked its food with a metal tag). The galley cook was often a naval pensioner or wounded sailor - unable to perform the normal heavy shipboard tasks, he cooked the food for all the crew - a cook's pay substantially supplemented the poor pension given to a man wounded in battle. The duty 'mess cook' would then collect the food for his mess and carry it back to his mess-mates.

HMS Victory - Menu
Daily ration Sunday Monday Tuesday & Saturday Wednesday & Friday Thursday
Loaf of bread
or 1 lb biscuit

1 gallon (8 pints) beer
½ pint Rum

Salt pork - 2 lb per man Cheese and oatmeal Salt beef - 2 lb per man Cheese and oatmeal Salt pork - 2 lb per man

HMS Victory: Hold Food and drink was stored in the hold in large barrels or casks. To prevent the casks from rolling around, they were set down into a bed of shingle. Casks were lifted out of the hold to provide the daily ration and then broken down to save storage space.

Storage of food was a major problem - there were no refrigerators and canned meat did not appear until 1816. At the time of St. Vincent, the only means of preserving meat was to store it in salt. This made the meat very hard and dry - and if there had not been enough salt added to the barrel when the meat was packed, it was probable that the meat would have rotted. Bread did not keep so flour was baked into hard biscuit. These became soft in storage and tasted unpleasant by the time they were issued. Weevils and maggots infested the biscuit - men were advised to eat biscuit with their eyes closed so that they did not see the soft bits!

Water rapidly became green, brackish and stagnant. Admiralty orders were given that Captains should replenish their fresh water stocks at every opportunity - and that casks should be used in rotation, oldest first. Because water kept for such short time, beer was provided at a rate of 1 gallon per man per day. If beer was not available, then wine could be substituted. Each man was also entitled to a ration of 2 gills (½ pint) of rum per day. The rum was issued at morning and evening meal times - at a rate of 1 gill (¼ pint) of neat rum mixed with 3 parts of water (the mixture is known as grog. Grog made the water drinkable and the food taste better!

HMS Victory: Messtable A mess table between two guns on the lower gun deck. The table folds down and has wooden bowls and spoons. Food was collected in the wooden pans, together with a barrel of beer for each man per day. A boy (powder monkey) would sit on the biscuit barrel at the end of the table

HMS Victory: Galley Some food was available fresh - from animals kept on board. A small quantity of fresh milk, eggs and meat was available but was usually kept for the Admiral, Captain and other officers. Food could be prepared in the galley where there was a small work space.

Some fresh water was obtained from a condenser on the galley flue - useful for treating the sick and wounded and also as a source of fresh shaving water for the Admiral and Captain!

How to get maggots and weevils out of a barrel of biscuits!

Place a piece of meat or fish on a plate and put the plate across the top of the barrel. Wait until the meat/fish is covered in maggots then throw away the bait and the maggots. Replace and continue until no further maggots are collected

Food facts

  • The poor quality of food supplies and corruption amongst suppliers was one of the major causes of the mutinies of 1797 - at Spithead and the Nore

  • Admiral Sir John Jervis made a point of despatching ships to restock the fleet with fresh meat, vegetables, lemons and water whilst on blockade duty in the Mediterranean

  • Oranges, lemons and limes were issued to prevent the spread of scurvy - British seamen became known as Limeys

  • Despite the poor condition of food, many seamen would still have eaten better and more than they would have at home where agriculture was struggling to feed an increasing population

St Vincent 1797 - HMS Victory, the virtual tour

Page creation: Peter Milford - St Vincent College, February 1997