Untold lives blog

Sharing stories from the past, worldwide

25 January 2016

London’s Sailortown (1) - Servicing the Royal Navy

The modern visitor to Trafalgar Square finds a striking reminder of the importance that the British have attached to the exploits and successes of the Royal Navy. But while admiring Nelson's Column the inquisitive visitor might ask three questions: where was London's Sailortown, and how were the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy supplied and serviced in the eighteenth century?

Traditionally, London's Sailortown was clustered in a narrow strip of houses, taverns and slums on the north bank of the Thames, down river from the Tower of London. The standard view is that sailors in such areas were looking for food, drink and women, and would often end an evening in a fight with sailors from all over the world. This view has been shown to be incomplete in the recent publications of the East London History Society and the continuing seminars on the Thames and its Shipping, now organised by the Docklands History Group. These have shown that the parishes of Wapping, Shadwell and Stepney, were also the centre for merchants, whose trading networks extended around the world from the Caribbean, to Hudson Bay, and to China and Australia. In addition, these merchants were important in keeping the navies supplied with everything needed for both long and short voyages.

  Wapping - sailor dancing with a woman
‘Wapping’ by Thomas Rowlandson (1807) © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London.

The tactics used by generations of Admirals have been minutely dissected by maritime historians, but until recently we lacked knowledge about the vast logistical exercise that supported the Royal Navy in their battles in the Mediterranean and Atlantic. To illustrate the size of the problem between 1750 and 1757 the fleet were issued with:

Bread  54,642,437 lbs
Beer  110,049 tuns
Brandy  351,692 gallons  
Beef  4,498,486 lbs
Pork  6,734, 261 lbs  
Pease  203,385 bushels
Flour  6,264,879 lbs

Who supplied all this food and the many other services needed by the navy? This problem has attracted increasing interest in the past decade in the methods and organisations needed to ensure that the Royal Navy was victualled and supplied wherever it was in the world. A major study of victualling of the navy between 1793 and 1815 has shown that this was a huge undertaking, and could only work through the symbiotic relationship established between the state and private contractors. It also had to operate on a global scale as Britain expanded its empire. This was no mean feat when there were food shortages and civil unrest, particularly at times of war.

Many merchants based in London's Sailortown in Shadwell and Wapping on the north bank of the Thames, were deeply involved in these naval contracts. Whether it was for ships, timber, biscuits, meat, beer and spirits, flags, gunpowder, slops or many other necessary supplies these merchants were bidding for and obtaining significant contracts that had an important impact on the area and further out into Essex and Suffolk.

Derek Morris and Ken Cozens
Independent scholars

Further reading:
C. Ellmers, ed. Proceedings of the Fifth Symposium on Shipbuilding on the Thames (2012)
R. Knight and M. Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and
the Contractor State (2010)
R. Knight, Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory, 1793-1815 (2014)
J. Macdonald, Feeding Nelson's Navy; The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (2006)
J. Macdonald, The British Navy's Victualling Board, 1793-1815 (2010)
P. MacDougall, London and the Georgian Navy (2013)
J. Marriott, Beyond the Tower: A History of East London (2011)

Docklands History Group 

East London History

Port Towns and Urban Cultures


London's Sailortown (2) - Servicing the Merchant Navy 


The comments to this entry are closed.

Untold lives blog recent posts



Other British Library blogs