Royal Naval Museum



Frequently Asked Questions of the Sailing Navy Gallery

1. What was grog?
2. What were figureheads and what were they made of?
3. When did press gangs stop?
4. Why does the Navy have the nickname "The Andrew"?
5. What did the Sailing Navy sailor eat?
6. How were sailing warships rated?
7. What was a Post Captain?
8. How much was a Sailing Navy seaman paid?
9. What were the Spithead and Nore mutinies?
10. When did the navy start using steam vessels instead of sail?

11. When did the Navy start using the abbreviation HMS?

12. What are the origins of the naval hand salute?


1. Grog was a diluted drink of rum and water issued to sailors. Rum was originally issued in the West Indies, where beer did not keep in the warm climate, and by 1731 it was in general use throughout the Navy. Each man was issued 1/4 pt twice a day and drunk neat. On 21 August 1740, Admiral Edward Vernon ordered that it was to be diluted at 1 gill of rum to 3 gills of water to prevent drunkenness. Vernon was nicknamed "Old Grogram" because of the grogram coat he wore and the men called this diluted rum "Grog" after the Admiral.

2. Figureheads were a form of ship decoration, often illustrative of the name of the ship or an allegorical figure. In ancient times, they were viewed as a religious symbol and a protection for the ship. They were often used as a method of identification when the majority of sailors could not read. In the 17th century, most figureheads were carved from elm. This was changed in the early 18th century to oak. In 1742, the Navy Board ordered that figureheads were carved from soft woods such as pine. Deal and teak were also used as they were resistant to wood boring insects and decay.

More information on this subject can be found in the information sheet on figureheads

Back to top

3. Press gangs were a form of recruitment when ships were short of crew. A small band of sailors led by an officer would seize men for military service. There were a few exemptions but these were sometimes ignored. The press gang was last officially used during the Napoleonic Wars between 1803-1815. However, the right to use impressment was retained. The need for impressment really died out in the 1850s when continuous service was introduced for sailors wanting to make the navy their career. However, in the twentieth century another type of impressment, called national service, was used until the 1960s.

More information on this subject can be found in the information sheet on impressment

4. There is a common theory that the Navy is nicknamed after Lieutenant Andrew Miller, a successful Press Gang Officer in the eighteenth century. However, documentary evidence of his actual existence has not yet been found. Another theory, is that the nickname comes from St Andrew, not only the patron saint of fishermen but of sailors also.

5. The daily food allowance for sailors was decreed in the 1824 Regulations for His Majesty’s Service at Sea as: bread 1lb, Beer 1 gallon, Cocoa 1oz, Sugar 1 1/2oz, Fresh meat 1lb, Fresh vegetables 1/2 lb, Tea 1/4 oz.. Bread in the sailing navy was in the form of a ship's biscuit or hard tack, and needed to be softened with water before eating. Beer did not keep well and once the supply was exhausted, a daily ration of 1pt wine or 1/2 pt of spirits was issued. If there was no beer or wine, the spirit issued was rum.

More information on ship's biscuits can be found in our information sheet.

Back to top

6. In the eighteenth century, sailing warships were grouped or “rated” according to the number of guns they carried. The rates were:
1st rate - 100-110 guns
2nd rate - 84-100 guns
3rd rate - 70-84 guns
4th rate - 50-70 guns
5th rate - 32-50 guns.
6th rate - Up to 32 guns (provided the Commanding Officer was a Post Captain)

Only the first three rates were considered powerful enough to be in the line of battle in fleet actions. Fifth and sixth rates were generally known as frigates (equivalent to a modern day cruiser). They would be generally used for intelligence gathering and dispatch carrying because of their greater speed. Fourth rate ships would occasionally take part in small fleet actions.

7. In the days of the sailing navy, there were two grades of Captain, depending on the rate of the ship. When Lieutenants were promoted to a Captaincy, it was usually in command of a smaller ship, such as a sloop. The equivalent rank today would be that of Commander. When they had gained sufficient experience, they would be “posted” to a rated ship, thus becoming a Post Captain.

Back to top

8. Prior to the naval mutinies in 1797, an Able Seaman was paid 24s per month and Ordinary seamen 19 shillings a month. From this deductions for Greenwich Hospital, the Chatham Chest, the chaplain and surgeon had to be taken. After the mutinies, the wages rose by 5 shillings and 6d per month for Able Seamen and 4 shillings and 6d for the lower rates. Therefore, in 1805, a seaman was paid a shilling a day (equivalent to £1.50 per month in the modern day). They were also fed and watered so this meant that they would be earning slightly more than an agricultural worker or unskilled labourers. This could also be supplemented by prize money, the distribution of a cash bonus for vessels captured. However, their equivalents in the merchant navy could earn anything up to £6 per month and why merchant seaman were keen to avoid impressment.

9. In 1797,seamen had not had a pay rise since 1653, their share of prize money was meagre, they were not allowed shore leave, wages were often long overdue, forcible impressment was a continual threat and some officers were over zealous in their methods of discipline. On 16 April 1797, seamen of 80 ships of the Channel Fleet based at Spithead, by Portsmouth refused to put to sea and organised themselves to negotiate for better pay and conditions. The government sent Lord Howe to negotiate with the mutineers. Eventually, the government agreed to the minimal demand to increase seaman’s pay. This led to the Channel fleet returning to duty. However, delays in passing legislation to accommodate the raise, led to the outbreak of a second mutiny on 12 May, this time at the Nore, led by Richard Parker of HMS Sandwich. The Nore mutineer’s demands were more extensive than those at Spithead, wanting an end to oppression and more frequent payment of overdue wages. There were also other political undertones in this mutiny and the Government were unwilling to negotiate. Military reinforcements were brought to the area and external communications were forbidden. This affected the morale of the mutineers. Eventually, only the most militant mutineers remained, and, in the end, they too surrendered and handed over their delegates to the government. 29 ringleaders, including Parker, were executed.

Back to top

10. The very first expressly designed steam vessel built by the Navy was HMS Comet, a wooden paddle vessel, launched 23 May 1822. However, this ship was not intended to be a battleship. The first steam designed warship of the Navy was HMS Rattler, a sloop launched 12 April 1843. HMS Penelope was the first conversion of sailing warship to steam, started in 1842 and completed conversion in June 1843. HMS Amphion was the first steam frigate, launched 14 January 1846 and HMS Agamemnon was the first full-scale steam designed battleship, launched 22 May 1852.

11. The abbreviation HMS came into common usage around 1790s. Prior to this, ships were referred to as "His Majesty's Ship" in full to indicate it belonging to the Royal Navy. The earliest example of the abbreviation being used is in 1789 when it was used for HMS Phoenix.

12. The origins of the naval hand salute is unclear but it is thought to have originated from the days when an inferior always uncovered their head to a superior. The hand movement of preparing to remove the headdress is similar to that of the naval hand salute. Another school of thought is that it reflects the days of armour when warriors met and raised their visors as a mutual token of trust - by raising their visor they laid themselves open to attack. Another theory reflects that it is linked to the Oriental practice of shading the eyes in the presence of a VIP as humble acknowledgement of the "magnificence of an Exalted One"

If you have any further questions about naval life or any other aspect of naval history, why not see our research collections pages

Back to top