Diet and Food Quality in Aubrey’s Royal Navy

Including Recipe for Portable Soup! Hell yeah!

Ship's Biscuit or Hardtack
Screencap courtesy of Jas Townshend

“Englishmen, and more especially seamen, love their bellies above anything else, and therefore it must always be remembered in the management of the victualling of the navy that to make any abatement in the quantity or agreeableness of the victuals is to discourage and provoke them in the tenderest point, and will sooner render them disgusted with the King’s service than any other hardship that can be put upon them.” – Samuel Pepys

Contrary to popular opinion, and even some ‘expert’ opinion, the Navy took Pepys’ observations to heart and took great pains to supply its people with, by the standards of the day , copious quantities of the very best quality foodstuffs that the limited preservation technology of the period would allow.

The standard weekly ration per man, officers and men alike is shewn in the table below. In the event that elements of the standard ration were not available then equivalents were issued to make up the amounts.

Some of these were as follows:

1 gallon Beer = 1 pt Wine (Watered 7:1) or ½ pt Arrack, Rum or Brandy (Watered 15:1)

2 lb Beef = 1 lb Suet or 1½ lbs of Flour + 4 ozs of Suet or 1½ lbs of Flour + 4 ozs of Raisins + 2 ozs of Suet

1 lb of Bread = 2 lbs of Potatoes or Yams

1 pt of Oatmeal = ½ Rice or ½ lb of Stockfish or 1 pt of Wheat or 1/3 pt of Calavances†

½ pt of Pease = ½ pt of Calavances

2 ozs of Butter = 2 ozs of Oil

† Chick Peas

In the events that neither the standard ration nor equivalents were available then the ration would be reduced and a sum of money, “Short Ration Allowance” would be paid in addition to the seaman’s wages.

If, when started, victuals proved unfit for human consumption the Purser was under no pressure to issue them. Unfit victuals could be condemned by an independent panel of officers and the Purser who would have bought them in the first place, would be re-imbursed. N.A.M. Rodger in The Wooden World, produces figures which show that with the exception of Stockfish there was no single item with over 1% of it condemned. This was a remarkable achievement given that the only methods of preservation were drying, smoking, pickling or salting. It should also be remembered that supplies, especially on distant stations were several years old. In general, it would seem that the Admiralty did manage to honour its stated policy that seamen “… should be supplied with the best of everything in its kind …”.

It should also be noted that all members of the crew were at liberty to purchase extra provisions, at their own cost, in addition to the standard ration. Many men and in particular the officers, did just that. Lieutenant Dillon of the GLENMORE wrote “the next thing to annoy me was to observe that my messmates lived on the ship’s provisions. Salt pork and beef would not renovate me after all my fatigues”. He therefore laid in a private supply of fresh mutton which he shared with his mess-mates.

Portable soup was issued to a ship by the Sick and Hurt Board and was kept by the Surgeon to give to patients who could not face the normal rigours of seaboard food. This is a scaled down recipe and actually works.


1 beef shin bone (needs a good covering of meat or else you need about half a pound of stewing beef)

1 ham or bacon hock

1 oz anchovies

3 carrots, washed and sliced

1 head of celery, washed and sliced (not the green bits)


cayenne pepper

Ask the butcher to cut the shin bone into two or three large pieces. Put these along with the ham into a large pan. Gently heat them (and the steak if you’ve used it) until they are browned. You won’t need any extra fat if it is heated gently. Add enough water to cover the bones, plus the carrots, celery and anchovies. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum which rises to the surface. Cover and simmer gently for about four hours. Remove the bones and strain through muslin into a clean pan. Leave it overnight and the next day remove any fat from the top of the liquid. Then boil it until it is reduced by about two-thirds. The colour should change to a rich dark brown. Add a small amount of cayenne pepper and pour the mixture into a shallow glass or earthenware bowl ( not metal, I suspect this could eat its way through stainless steel). Leave overnight then cut the soup into ‘coins’ about 5 cm. diameter and leave in a dry place for a few days. Keep them in an airtight container with paper between each ‘coin’. N.B. Don’t add any salt to the process, the anchovies provide that.

To reconstitute – place one ‘coin’ in a bowl and top up with boiling water. Stir well and give to your sick (or hurt) person. On no account should you touch this stuff if you’re healthy!

Courtesy of the Historical Maritime Society.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply