Pleasures of the Naval Life

Naval Poems: Pleasures of the Naval Life and The Battle of Trafalgar

Downey, T. 1813    

Naval Poems: Pleasures of the Naval Life and 
The Battle of Trafalgar 
Downey, T. 1813 
Presented by Thomas Phillips, 1845 (NSC 0057)

This book was published in 1813 and, as the title suggests, is a book of poems that extol the virtues of life in the Royal Navy and tells us of the Battle of Trafalgar. Very little is known of the author, Thomas Downey RN, but we do know that he served as a Boy 2nd Class on board the Leviathan in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805. We can see that he was well educated as the text on this page is likening the Battle of Trafalgar to Ulysses struggles with Charybdis and Scylla of Homeric legend.  

The Royal Navy in the late 18th and early 19thCenturies may well have had much to commend it at the time. The men received regular pay and regular meals. They also received an allowance of one gallon of beer a day and half a pint of rum (although it is thought that this generous allowance of alcohol may well have contributed to many of the individual accidents that occurred at sea). The meals may have been monotonous and poor quality but at least they appeared at regular intervals, something that may not have been said of many of their countrymen on land. In fact, meal times were considered a highlight of the day. Officers were entitled to the same food as the men, but it was normal practice to buy in food and wine and pay for it out of their own pockets.  

Whilst the ship was in port, discipline tended to be quite relaxed and women were allowed on board. In theory, these women were meant to be wives but were more commonly prostitutes.  

The most common cause of death on a naval ship was disease. If you were to compare the casualties of the two most famous battles of the Napoleonic Wars, Waterloo and Trafalgar, you would find that the chance of being killed or wounded in a naval engagement was less than half that of a soldier involved in a set piece battle.  

During this time, it was also possible for naval officers to make their fortune in the form of prize money. In 1708 the British Government enacted the ‘Cruizer and Convoys Act’. One of the effects of this act was clarifying prize taking in as much as practically all of the money gained from the capture of enemy vessels was given to the captors. To be appointed to one of the well-known prize money commands virtually guaranteed your fortune. For second or third sons, who would inherit nothing from their families, this was one way of ensuring themselves a sound financial future.  

Thomas Downey did not achieve rank as an officer and so he was unlikely to have shared in prize taking. However, it is evident that he was educated and enjoyed his life in the Royal Navy despite hardships.  

Kathryn Horton