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Salt Horse and Ship's Biscuit
A Short Essay on the Diet of the Royal Navy Seaman During the American Revolution

by Meryl Rutz



The diet of the Royal Navy actually changed little over a century and a half and can be found in most books on the social history of the Navy. However, there are a number of details that need to be brought together in one place to make sense of some of the conflicting information that is found in primary and secondary sources concerning the topic. A number of authors comment on the ‘lack of variety’ of foodstuffs fed to Jack Tar during this period, yet a closer inspection reveals that the diet could be, and often was, varied greatly. What I will cover here is the diet itself, along with its variations, and its preparation and dispersal among the ship’s crew, items of particular interest to the historical re-enactor. Some mention will also be made of the role played by the purser, as he was the ship’s victualler.


The diet, as detailed in the Purser’s Instructions, is a series of four daily menus, three of which are duplicated throughout the week. Sailors received a pound of biscuit and a gallon of beer daily. In addition, they received

Sunday 1 pound pork, ˝ pint peas
Monday 1 pint oatmeal, 2 ounces butter
Tuesday 2 pounds beef
Wednesday ˝ pint peas, 1 pint oatmeal, 2 ounces butter, 4 ounces cheese
Thursday Same as Sunday
Friday Same as Monday
Saturday Same as Tuesday

Care should be taken in interpreting this table, however, as the measures used by the purser did not have a value equal to the measures stated. The Victualling Board granted the purser one-eighth of all victuals as protection against "Waste, Shrinkage, Loss, &c." in his accounts. Known as the "purser’s eighth," this meant that he used a fourteen-ounce pound and a seven-pint gallon when distributing food to the messes. The purser still had to account for this portion of his provisions, but the Navy considered it his property (the best way to think of the purser was as a private contractor who sailed with the Navy).

Pork and beef came packed in casks of four pound pieces, pickled in brine, and known to the men as ‘salt horse.’ Peas, oatmeal, and flour came dried, of course, in casks to protect them from rats, but sometimes in bags. Butter was found in small tubs called firkins, which also indicated the weight they held.

Substitutions could be made, and apparently were made frequently, which added some confusion to the standard table and the whole process of victualling. The Purser’s Instructions spelled out some of these substitutions, but many were not included. Those that the Instructions include, the most common, were

"a Pint of Wine, or Half a Pint of Brandy, Rum, or Arrack, hold Proportion to a Gallon of Beer; Four Pounds of Flour, or Three Pounds thereof, with a Pound of Raisins, Half a Pound of Currants, or Half a Pound of Beef Suet pickled, are equal to a Four Pound Piece of Beef, or Two Pound Piece of Pork with Pease; Half a Pound of Rice, is equal to a Pint of Oatmeal; a Pint of Olive Oil, is equal to a Pound of Butter, or Two Pounds of Suffolk Cheese, and Two-thirds of a Pound of Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire, or Derbyshire Cheese, is equal to One Pound of Suffolk."


N.A.M. Rodger, in The Wooden World, documented a number of these substitutions in addition to potatoes or yams for bread, stockfish (dried cod) or wheat for oatmeal, and ‘calavances’ (chick peas) for oatmeal or peas. Interestingly, the Instructions omit other standard rations that have been documented through modern research.

The most notable of these was ‘Portable Soup.’ Portable soup was introduced in the 1750s as an attempt to vary the daily salt provisions. It was also thought to be an anti-scorbutic, although it turned out to be no protection against scurvy at all. Apparently, it was invented by a Mrs. Dubois around 1756 and was made of vegetables and the less desirable portions of meat such as liver, kidney, and heart, all boiled together then allowed to cool and harden. The conglomerate was then cut into slabs and boxed. Highly recommended by Captain Cook after his experience with it during his three great voyages in the 1770s, the ration in 1756 or 1757 was fifty pounds for every one hundred men on ships bound for foreign station. Still in use during the Napoleonic Wars, portable soup was obviously an alternative during the Revolutionary Era as well.

A second innovation in victualling made just prior to the Revolutionary period was the use of sauerkraut on board His Majesty’s ships. A Surgeon James wrote to the Board of Admiralty in 1757 that it was "a German dish . . . which is nothing but cabbage cut small, pressed down, and preserved in a manner to keep it a long time. This dish is much esteemed by His Majesty, and it would surely be no handicap upon the sailors to be obliged to eat with their meat whatever their Sovereign esteems a delicacy." In addition to Surgeon James, Captain Cook, Dr. James Lind, and His Majesty, George III, all promoted the distribution of sauerkraut within the Navy but when captains did use it, the sailors disliked it intensely. Cook noted in his journal that "Both portable soup and sauerkraut were at first condemned as stuff unfit for human beings." Many captains refused to even carry it.

Another standard ration, at least in the West Indies Station, was cocoa. In 1780, Captain W. Young, Admiral Sir George Rodney’s flag captain on the Sandwich, wrote to the Controller of the Navy "I cannot conceive why in the West Indies the men cannot be allowed sugar, coffee, and chocolate in lieu of oatmeal; they are a better breakfast for the men and a much greater anti-scorbutic." Christopher Lloyd gave credit for its implementation to Captain James Ferguson in that same year. A surgeon by the name of Trotter suggested that this practice be extended to the Channel Fleet since "In a cold country it could be singularly beneficial. What a comfortable meal would a cup of warm cocoa or chocolate be to a sailor in a winter cruise in the Channel or North Sea on coming from a wet deck in a rainy morning watch." Interestingly, the Navy did not introduce the perennial favorite, tea, to the sailors until 1790.

As can be seen from the last two items of provision, surgeons had a lot to do with getting changes made within the Victualling Office. Lloyd wrote that many of the "more palatable additions" to sailor’s rations began as "Surgeon’s Necessaries," or as special foodstuffs carried for the use of the sick. Included in this list might be, as Lloyd suggested, "sugar, currants, rice, garlic and other spices, including the popular salop made from orchis roots and long thought to be a specific against scurvy." Kemp added barley, tamarinds, sago, almonds, mace, nutmeg, and shallots to the list and there were undoubtedly many more.

Additionally, the cook added fresh fish to the diet whenever it could be caught while at sea. This was an inexpensive way for the Navy to add high-grade protein to the diet of its sailors. It is unclear whether the fish was served in addition to or in place of the standard ration, but it appears that it was used in place of certain items.

Finally, the Victualling Board authorized the purser to provide fresh meat, vegetables, and fruit when convenient. The Instructions orders pursers to supply the crew with fresh beef or mutton twice a week, once in place of salt beef and once in place of salt pork, when the ship is in port. In this case, three pounds of mutton replaced four pounds of beef or two pounds of pork with peas. When fresh meat was issued, the Instructions also directed the purser to issue fresh "Greens and Roots" (unspecified). When this was the case, the purser served peas with Monday’s dinner of beef.

A special mention should be made of one Royal Navy tradition: the issuance of rum. This practice is also widely misunderstood. As noted above, the sailors received a gallon of beer per day as part of the standard ration. On foreign station, the main reason for the table of substitutions, wine, brandy, rum, or arrack could be substituted for beer. Apparently, with West India service, rum became the favored libation.

The Instructions indicated that any "Spirituous Liquor" served to the men had to be mixed with water. How much water used was, apparently, the captain’s discretion. Initially, grog, named in honor of Admiral Vernon’s grogram sea cloak to commemorate his 1740 order concerning the issuance of rum, consisted of a half pint of rum diluted with a quarter pint of water. Served twice daily, at noon and at six o’clock in the evening, Vernon’s order was designed to combat drunkenness in the fleet. By the time of the Revolution, sources indicate that rum was issued only once per day. The strength of grog was also progressively reduced until in Nelson’s time each man received three gills of water to one of rum, sometimes with a little lemon juice and sugar once a day. An interesting social note, again during Nelson’s day, the issuance of grog took place to the tune of Nancy Dawson at the base of the mainmast, where it was mixed under the supervision of three officers of the ship for all to see.

Men could procure some items on their own when in port, even if not allowed shore leave. "Bum-boats," oared vessels carrying small-time vendors and their produce, swarmed ships fresh from sea duty. From the bum-boats, men could purchase a good number of items including "eggs, fresh vegetables, fruit and other delicacies to relieve the monotony of the official victuals," to include bottles of spirits. The bum-boats undoubtedly carried sugar, tea, soft bread, and sausages, as well, as indicated by Thomas Dring and others who were naval prisoners confined on prison ships in New York.

Officers’ messes served a somewhat different diet as meat on the hoof and live fowl and rabbits were often brought on board to provide fresh meat and eggs for their consumption. Goats were kept to provide milk. References to such cases exist in primary accounts of sailors in the service of the Continental forces, but it can be presumed that such was the case in the Royal Navy, as well. This assumption particularly applies to senior officers, especially those of flag rank, who were expected to provide a set table for their juniors, all of which came out of their own pockets. Similarly, cooks sometimes produced fresh bread or pastries for the delight of their officers.

Clearly, then, we can see that while the sea service specified a diet for the men, this diet could be, and was, varied. This included fresh meat, fruits, and vegetables as well as other dried provisions and items that could be used to dress up the monotonous, bland meals. This brings us to the preparation of the seaman’s meals.


Preparation of meals is not as well documented in either primary or secondary literature as what those meals consisted of. From accounts of naval prisoners (see footnote 20) and, of all things, archaeological evidence, however, it is possible to reconstruct how the seaman’s victuals were doled out, prepared, and served. Due to the paucity of information on this topic, I have chosen not to footnote this section but I have included a bibliographical essay at the end.

Men on board ship divided themselves up into messes of six men each. Messes often consisted of less than six men due to disease, injury, death, or other circumstances that would cause a man to absent himself from meals. Although some authors have mentioned messes of seven or eight men, this is hard to substantiate through primary accounts, which specifically mention six man sections.

Each day at the appointed time when the purser would begin to distribute the day’s rations, each mess would send a representative to the designated location – the foredeck in at least one case – to receive the mess’s share of provisions. That is, the mess representative would collect rations for all six men in his section. To do so, he carried with him a small wooden bucket called a kid. The purser called each mess section in turn (they were numbered apparently), then he or his assigned help doled the proper amount of food into the kid. The mess representative would then prepare the food for cooking and take it to the cook.

Some authors have mentioned the sailors having separate breakfasts and dinners. On ships-of-the-line, with over a hundred mess sections, the distribution of food could be a rather lengthy process, taking four or more hours to complete. While I have no contradictory evidence that such took place on Navy ships other than prison ships, it is difficult to imagine that the captain would allow his company to be tied up for such a long period of time twice a day. More likely, men received their food for dinner and the following day’s breakfast at the same time and only cooked that portion they were going to eat for dinner. They would then cook the portion for breakfast the following morning.

Preparing the food for cooking was usually a fairly simple process. The oatmeal or peas of the entire ship’s company, or at least several messes, would be boiled together in one pot, but to make things easier for the cook, the meat portion(s) for the mess sections were kept in as large pieces as possible while boiling. Likewise, ‘pudding,’ one and a half pounds of flour and two ounces of suet per man, sometimes with currants, raisins, or other dried fruits added, would be mixed together in a bag that was then placed in the cauldron to boil. When portable soup was issued, it was prepared as a broth with the addition of vegetables, when available.

To ensure that each mess received back the portion of meat or bag of pudding that they were issued, the mess representative attached a wooden stick, known as a mess tag, to the meat or bag with a length of string. Each mess tag carried an engraved number or other identifying mark so that the mess representative could retrieve the proper portion for his section.

Once cooked, the mess representative would retrieve the bag or piece of meat marked with his mess’s identifier, or the cook would spoon the proper amount of oatmeal or peas into the kid from the cauldron and the man would return to his messmates and portion out the food to their plates from the kid. It would be his responsibility to cut the meat into equal sections for the men. Each man possessed a plate, bowl, or trencher, a mug or tankard, and a spoon, at the very least.

Because all of the sailors’ food was boiled, ship’s cauldrons, or ‘coppers,’ were necessarily very large. Thomas Dring estimated that the cauldron of the Jersey prison ship, formerly a 64 gun ship-of-the-line, held two to three hogsheads (120 to 180 gallons) of water. That of the Defence, an American privateer brig excavated near the Penobscot River in Maine, held 68 gallons of water. To make them useful in a ship, the cauldrons were square and fashioned from copper. It would sit in a frame supported by the firehearth, which was constructed of brick and filled with sand. These cauldrons could be covered with fitted lids that had holes or indentations in which kettles could sit for boiling water for tea or cocoa. Such a kettle, specially designed to sit in the lid of a ship’s copper, was found in the excavation of the Whydah, the only documented pirate ship-wreck ever discovered.

In contrast, H.M.S. Victory carried a galley stove of iron, complete with cauldrons for cooking the ship’s company’s meals. This type of stove, introduced in the 1750s, included a spit for roasting and an oven, as well. Presumably, galley stoves of this sort were only built into the larger ships-of-the-line.

Bibliographical Essay

Primarily, this material came from Thomas Dring’s Recollections, as well as the memoirs of other former prisoners of the Royal Navy, including Charles Herbert, A Relic of the Revolution; The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins; The Journal of Christopher Vail; Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne; and The Revolutionary Adventures of Ebenezer Fox as well as The Narrative of William Spavens: a Chatham Pensioner by Himself, all autobiographical in nature. The Purser’s Instructions, of course, provided insight into the "dark and mysterious nature of pursery," as one English admiral referred to it.

Secondary literature that proved useful includes Peter Kemp’s The British Sailor and Christopher Lloyd’s The British Seaman. Additionally, N.A.M. Rodger’s outstanding The Wooden World explained a number of things about procedure that the other two did not, although they provided more information on the food itself.

As for the physical culture of the seaman’s mess, Barbara Ford and David C. Switzer’s Underwater Dig yielded photographs of contemporary serving pieces and utensils along with kids and mess tags and information on the ship’s copper and hearth. Expedition Whydah, Barry Clifford’s narrative of his search for and discovery of the Whydah pirate ship, sunk by storm in 1717, yielded a photo of the type of kettle described in the text.

Some readers may criticize my use of prisoners’ memoirs in the reconstruction of shipboard life in the Royal Navy but Royal Navy regulations and procedures held full force aboard the prison ships, just as they did on active ships. The prison ships carried at least a part of the crew that would be expected to remain with a ship in ordinary, including the purser and bosun and the captain and lieutenants. Other seamen were also on board. Normally, British regulars took turns with Hessians, Loyalist militia, and Highlanders in guarding the prisoners, rather than leaving it to seamen or Marines.


Purser’s Instructions. n.p., n.d. (1785?)

Ford, Barbara and David C. Switzer. Underwater Dig: The Excavation of a Revolutionary War Privateer. New York: William Morrow and Company, 1982.

Fox, Ebenezer. The Revolutionary Adventures of Ebenezer Fox, of Roxbury, Massachusetts. Boston: Munroe and Francis, 1838.

Greene, Albert. Recollections of the Jersey Prison Ship. Providence: H.H. Brown, 1829. Reprint, Bedford, MA: Applewood Books, 1992.

Hawkins, Christopher. With an introduction and notes by Charles I. Bushnell. The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins. New York: privately printed, 1864. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Herbert, Charles. A Relic of the Revolution. Boston: Charles H. Peirce, 1847. Reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968.

Kemp, Peter. The British Sailor: A Social History of the Lower Deck. London: J.M. Dent & Sons Limited, 1970.

Lloyd, Christopher. The British Seaman, 1200-1860: A Social Survey. London: Collins, 1968.

Mountaine, William. The Seaman’s Vade-Mecum and Defensive War by Sea. London: T. and T. Page, 1756. Reprint, London: Conway Maritime Press Ltd., 1971.

O’Brian, Patrick. Men-of-War: Life in Nelson’s Navy. New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1974.

Rodger, N.A.M. The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy. Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986.

Sherburne, Andrew. Memoirs of Andrew Sherburne: A Pensioner of the Navy of the
, 1828. Reprint, Freeport, NY: Books for Libraries Press,

Spavens, William. With an introduction by N.A.M. Rodger. The Narrative of William
Spavens, a Chatham Pensioner by Himself
. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998.

Vail, Christopher. The Journal of Christopher Vail. ms.

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