HMS Victory - Lower Deck

Aft the most honour, forward the better men
Seamen's saying, recorded by young Nelson in 1772

HMS Victory: Lower Gun Deck
HMS Victory - hammock and mess table on the lower gun deck

The vast majority of the crew of Victory lived amongst the guns on the cramped, dark and dank gun decks. Hundreds of men lived side by side in all conditions.

The lower decks are fully enclosed and the only light comes from dim lanterns or from open gun ports. At sea, the gun ports would have been lashed tightly shut to keep the decks watertight and dry so light, and fresh air, would have been extremely limited. At night, each man slung his hammock from cleats on the frames. Each man was allowed 21 inches of space for his hammock - set by the spreader bar at the head and feet. In the morning, the crew would be awakened with the call to 'lash up and stow' their hammocks, clearing space for the day's work. Hammocks were rolled tightly and stowed around the weather deck in the netting above the bulwarks. Canvas covers kept the hammocks dry.

HMS Victory: Hammocks lashed up to the deckhead
Hammocks lashed up to the deckhead

Hammocks provided a crude form of liferaft - if a man went overboard be could be thrown a rolled hammock to keep himself afloat. If a man died, he would be sewn into his hammock and then tipped over the side, weighted down with a shot ball.

For meals, tables were folded down between the guns and food served to a group of men sitting around the table. Afterwards, everything was cleared away and the decks reverted to a working space.

HMS Victory: Deck irons Discipline on the lower decks was strictly enforced. Even small misdemeanours were rewarded with what, today, seem particularly harsh penalties. Discipline was based on the fear of the consequences if an order was not carried out immediately and exactly. For answering back a man might be 'gagged' - an iron bar lashed across his mouth. For more serious offences he could be 'put in irons' - locked into ankle shackles on an exposed deck, open to all weathers. Whilst in irons (which could last several days) he would be expected to make himself useful by 'picking oakum', pulling apart ends of rope to provide the rope fibres used to caulk (make watertight) seams in the deck and hull.
Flogging was commonplace - with offenders being lashed across an upturned grating on the quarter deck and then lashed with the cat o'nine tails. When sentenced to be flogged an offender was given a length of rope and told to unravel it and plait into the nine strands making up the tail. This was then used to inflict the punishment. Even a few lashes were enough to open the skin to the bone below - some men died having been sentenced to hundreds of lashes. The entire ship's company was mustered to witness punishment being carried out - as a lesson to all.

Serious offenders were executed - by being hanged at the yardarm at 8.00am. The offender would be sentenced one day, have a night to prepare himself and then be walked to the cathead in front of the ship's company on the following morning. A noose would be placed around his head and then, at the appointed time, his shipmates would pull sharply on the rope to sway his body up to the foremast yard arm - the yard arm dance. There it would remain for an hour before the body was taken down, wrapped in its hammock and buried at sea.

Admiral Sir John Jervis confirmed the execution of seven men in 1797 - five for mutiny and two for 'abominable unnatural practices'.

St Vincent 1797 - HMS Victory tour index

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