21 October: The Battle of Trafalgar 1805

'Old Slush at the door of his galley and Chips with his chest
The barefooted man at the wheel in his trousers and vest
The rings in the flesh of his ears and the sea snake tattoed on his chest'

From 'High Noon' by Cicely Fox Smith (1882-1954)

Two battles in a row! The 21st October is the 205th anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar. My husband’s ancestor William Button fought there as a marine on HMS Conqueror and Penzance is reputedly the place where the news of the victory and the death of Admiral Nelson came ashore. So I’ve been reading about the diet of the seamen in Nelson’s navy.

If you think about it, the task of feeding the Royal Navy wherever it was in the world, must have been an enormous undertaking. At the Naval Dockyards of Deptford and Chatham, the Navy distilled its own rum, salted its own meat and made its own ship’s biscuits and these were loaded onto ships in barrels. Then at various Naval bases across the world there were victualling yards where stores could be replenished.

In early October 1805 Nelson’s ships called into Gibraltar and loaded up sufficient provisions to see them through the next crucial weeks. Gibraltar dockyard had an amazing arrangement of sloping roofs that caught rainwater, but this is what it became like after a few weeks in barrels:

‘the water so putrid, thick and stinking that often I have held my nose with my hand while I drank it strained through my pocket handkerchief’

(W.S. Lovell: ‘A Personal Narrative of Events from 1799-1815 with

The meat was either salt beef or salt pork and this often became so hard that sailors carved it into little trinkets and polished them until they resembled wood! To make the meat edible it had to be soaked for a day or two in water before being boiled to make a stew called lobscouse. I find it amazing that Nelson could boast that he rarely lost a man through sickness, no wonder the men relished their rations of rum and tobacco.

These at least were generous; the rum allowance was a quarter of a pint twice a day (although the pint measures were about 20% smaller than now). Sailors mixed the rum with brown sugar and lemon juice then topped it up with water to make grog. This was named after Admiral Vernon who was nicknamed ‘Old Grogram’ after the coat he wore which was made of grogram - an early waterproof fabric. The tobacco allowance was 2lb per month. This was soaked in rum and rolled in canvas into a tight sausage called a prick. The compressed mix was then chewed or smoked in a clay pipe. As all smokers know, the nicotine suppressed the sailors’ appetite.

Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays were meat free days when the sailors ate 'duff' a suet pudding which might have had fruit in it and which was eaten with boiled dried peas or cheese. Nothing was wasted; wooden splinters made during battle were used as fuel and fat skimmed from boiling meat was used to waterproof the rigging. This fatty scum was called ‘slush’ and half of it was the cook’s perk, he sold it to tallow merchants for candles and so built up a ‘slush fund’.

Officers of course could pay for extra food to supplement their rations, they took live animals on board for meat, had their own cooks and dined in some style. Think of Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin in the Patrick O’Brian books, who got very tetchy when their coffee supply ran out.

(Just popped that in for obvious reasons...)

The Naval diet being low in fresh fruit and vegetables, inevitably lead to a great deal of constipation or ‘costiveness’ which was not helped by the sanitary arrangements on HM’s fleet. These consisted of a number of holes (up to 20 for a 1000 men) near the heads - big beams that held the anchor at the front of the ship. The holes were over a grating above the sea, but urine was caught and saved to be used as bleach in the laundry….

I could go on at much more length but I need to cook! If you are interested to find out more, Roy Adkins’ book ‘Trafalgar: The Biography of a Battle’ (pub Little Brown in 2004) is fascinating, as was this research project at the National Maritime Museum.


So lobscouse it is. The word comes from the Norwegian word for stew - 'lapskaus' and is of course the same word that gave native Liverpudlians their nickname. This is Mark Hix's recipe which I've tinkered with a bit.


50g beef dripping
750g shin of beef, cut into rough 2cm cubes
1 large onion, peeled and chopped
3 carrots, peeled and roughly chopped
500g medium potatoes, peeled and quartered
200g dried peas, soaked overnight
A few sprigs of thyme
2 litres beef stock
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
50g pearl barley

Melt the dripping in a heavy-bottomed frying pan, season the meat with salt and pepper and fry on a high heat until nicely coloured. Remove the meat and fry the onion until golden. Add the rest of the ingredients and the meat, bring to the boil, lightly season with salt and pepper and simmer gently for 2 1/2 hours until the meat is tender.

'Oh cruel was the press gang that took my love from me
Oh cruel was the little ship that bore him out to sea.
Oh cruel was the splinter board that took away his leg
Now he is forced to fiddle scrape and I am forced to beg.'



Gerry Snape said...

Two great words here Liz. Scouce and slush..what history that is .Thankyou!

Dom at Belleau Kitchen said...

keeping it short and sweet...' oh yes!'