HMS Victory - the sickbay

HMS Victory: Sickbay

Disease on board ship was a serious problem - far more men were lost to disease than died in or as a result of wounds received in action. Scurvy was the most well known disease, resulting from the lack of vitamin C in the diet. This was readily cured by insisting that all men were given oranges, lemons or limes to suck. British sailors became known as limeys due to this requirement - but it saved lives.

Men who became ill, or who were recovering from wounds, were taken to the sickbay for treatment. Here they could be cared for by the ship's surgeon and his mates (or assistants). Although there was little that the surgeon could do, isolating sick men from their messmates was probably as effective a way as any other at reducing the transmission of disease. Medicines were almost non-existent but some herbal remedies could be provided from a simple dispensary. Soup was available from the galley - poured out as a jelly like broth that was easy to carry.

HMS Victory: the dispensary

To reduce the risk of disease on the closely packed gun decks, the decks were regularly scrubbed (using large blocks of stone - these were about the size of family bible and were known as holystones) and sluiced down with vinegar. Vinegar and sulphur were poured over the shingle in the hold so that the poisonous fumes released would kill bacteria and rats etc. in the hold and bilges.

Admiral Sir John Jervis realised the importance of cleanliness in fighting disease and gave orders that hammocks were to be regularly aired and that seamen's clothes should be washed in salt water. Salt was the only form of disinfectant available - and was (painfully!) rubbed into wounds to prevent the onset of gangrene.

The sickbay was not always popular - men sent to the sickbay were stopped from receiving the daily rum ration. This meant that it was sometimes necessary to force men who were sick to go to the sickbay!

The sickbay was not the ship's hospital. That was below decks, on the orlop deck, and was the place where men wounded in battle were taken for treatment, probably meaning amputation of shattered limbs. All surgery was conducted without anaesthetics and without disinfectants etc. The only options were to give a man neat rum so that he rapidly became drunk or, if the rum ran out, giving him a piece of rope to bite on! Once a limb was removed, the stump was dipped in hot pitch to seal and cauterise the wound. Admiral Nelson had his right arm amputated when he was hit in the elbow at Tenerife, later in 1797.


St Vincent 1797 - HMS Victory tour index

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