The Crew of the HMS Victory at Trafalgar Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

The Crew of the HMS Victory at Trafalgar

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Sepia drawing of a burning ship.

The manning and operation of a man-of-war in the early 19th Century was a complex and intricate undertaking. This is a brief look at HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, 1805. Most of us have heard a bit about how Lord Horatio Nelson, with the help of Sir Thomas Hardy, defeated the combined French and Spanish fleets off Cape Trafalgar. In truth they were not alone aboard Victory. A list of the 821 men who fought on Victory is available, and forms the basis of this entry.

This will not be a detailed account about life aboard a ship of the line – that would require several hundred pages – it is only a breakdown of those aboard. These are all real people, who each had their own hopes and dreams. From the Lord Admiral to the youngest boy, each had their own story. It is quite impossible to tell them all here. This is a brief look into the management of a large warship.

The Seamen

The majority of the crew were common seamen; they were the main workforce of the ship. Every task of manual labour was performed by them, along with many highly-skilled tasks. Each ship had an ideal complement of men, with various levels of skill and experience. Most ships sailed with less than a full crew. According to a list of the British Navy in 1805, Victory's full complement was 837 men. The many wars that Britain had found herself engaged in during the second half of the 18th Century had doubled the size of her navy. Merchantmen and privateers, both of whom promised better pay, made for stiff competition for the available trained sailors.

Life in the 19th Century was difficult for most people. In the Royal Navy this was exacerbated by lack of food and other supplies, especially at the end of a long voyage. Their meagre pay was often withheld for months or even years in an effort to prevent desertion. Harsh punishment was swiftly applied, to keep the men under the control of the few officers over them.

Only a few years before Trafalgar there had been two 'Great Mutinies'. The first – 16 April to 15 May, 1797 – occurred while the fleet was anchored at Spithead, an anchorage at the eastern end the Solent1, not far from the entrance to Portsmouth harbour, and a bit south-east of the commercial port of Southampton. This was not a bloody uprising with the crews seizing the ships, but a refusal to hoist the anchors and go to sea. After many negotiations the sailors were given a few, limited, privileges and a long overdue increase in pay. A second fleet uprising was at the Nore – 12 May to 13 June, 1797 – a secure anchorage near the mouth of the River Thames. This was not as successful. The crews became violent and tried to blockade London. Several of the leaders were hanged for their participation.

Discontent was still common in the navy and many men waited only for an opportunity to desert from their ship, sometimes abandoning years of back-pay owed to them. Because of this risk of desertion, British warships became virtual prisons, with the men being denied any shore-leave. When in their home port, the wives of the sailors2 were allowed to stay aboard the ship. This was the origin of the order to 'show a leg', a feminine leg was allowed an hour more in the hammock than her male companion. The crew slept in hammocks on the gun decks. Children conceived on the gun deck of a ship, or delivered there, were often given the nickname of 'Son of a Gun'.

One exception to the rule prohibiting shore-leave had been HMS Bounty's stay in Tahiti. The Tahitian people were anxious to entertain their guests, and keeping the men confined to the ship would have been seen as an insult. The men were given a great deal of time ashore. The sharp return to discipline at sea has been cited as one of the motives for the crew's participation in the mutiny.

Enlistment of the Crew

Although the commissioned and warrant officers were usually supplied by the Admiralty, the captain of each ship was responsible for recruiting the rest. There were many who volunteered to join the ship. The reputation of the captain, and often of the ship itself, could greatly affect the number of volunteers, especially among the more experienced men. Another source of men were the courts and prisons. Men convicted of a minor crime could often exchange their prison sentence for service in the Royal Navy.

The third alternative was forced impressment into service. From the time of Queen Elizabeth I3 the Crown had allowed the navy to force men, who were subjects of Great Britain, into service. Although there were certain restrictions, they were often ignored. Groups of men known as Press Gangs were used; these were gangs of sailors, or civilians hired for the purpose. They roamed the countryside, concentrating on areas near the naval ports and the coastal counties, searching for men to compel into the service. If no man-of-war sailor was available, fishermen and merchant sailors were preferred, but any strong healthy-looking person might be taken.

Anyone having prominent associates ashore and the means of contacting them before the ship sailed, would be released. Those who had communicable diseases, and anyone too infirm to serve would also be sent ashore. The others would be given a choice between voluntary or forced servitude. Records indicate that the Royal Navy consisted of 47% volunteers, 24% impressed men and another list of 29% volunteers. The last probably includes those who volunteered for service after being forced on board, although this is not certain.

While at sea, merchant ships of any nation could be stopped and inspected for British deserters among their crew. If the inspecting officer suspected a man might be a deserter, he was taken by force and entered into the ship's books as a crew member. No proof was required. Another interesting fact is that while on foreign service, local citizens were often enlisted into the crew. The crew of Victory included men from many nations.

As might be expected most were from the United Kingdom: 514 English, 89 Irish, 66 Scottish, 30 Welsh, one Manx4 and one merely designated only as 'British'.

Several represented the colonies and possessions of Britain: six Maltese, two Canadian, two Indian and one from Jamaica.

Others are listed only by region, some of which may have been British subjects: four West Indian and one African.

There were 22 men listed as 'American'. As we shall see below at least one of these was from a prominent English family. Most of the others were probably impressed at sea.

Other nationalities were represented: nine Italians, seven Dutch, four Swedish and two each from Germany, Switzerland, Denmark and Norway. There were also one each from Portugal and Brazil.

Four Frenchmen were listed as members of the crew. Whether they had been prisoners-of-war, or men fleeing the rule of Napoleon, is not recorded.

The last 48 are listed as 'nationality unknown'.

Stations of the Crew

Every person in the ship had to be assigned a place to stow his belongings, sleep, eat and work. Each manoeuvre, such as raising the anchor, setting sail and changing course, had its own requirements. Putting the ship into action was the most complex of all.

Many believe that most of the crew were employed on the masts and yards to handle the sails. This is not true, only a small part of the crew, called top-men, worked aloft. Most of the crew worked on deck, divided into sections such as the forecastle and after-guard to handle the several dozen lines that controlled the sails.

When the ship went into battle the sails were reduced to 'fighting sail' to allow most of the crew to serve the guns.

Standing Watches

Most of the crew were divided into two watches, Starboard and Larboard5. The captain, first lieutenant and several specialists did not stand watches, but performed their duties as needed, or served from dawn until dark. Each watch was four hours long and was divided into quarter watches of one hour each. While four men were required to be at each station, only one would be required to be active at a time. When an action was required they would all take their place. The evening watch between 4:00 and 8:00pm was divided into two dog watches to ensure a rotation of the night watches.

Classes of the Crew

The crew were divided into four ranks based on their experience and recommendations. Whenever a ship was paid off and her crew discharged, everyone who had achieved any advancement would ask for letters of recommendation to present to their next ship.

The Boys

The lowest, or at least most poorly paid members of the crew were the boys. There were 42 boys listed in Victory's crew. They ranged in age from 12 to 18 years old. Only one, an Italian, came from outside the United Kingdom. Unlike other members of the crew, most were volunteers, but many were orphans or the children of destitute families who were volunteered by the institutions supporting them. Others were apprentices who grew tired of their servitude and ran away to sea. Undoubtedly some delinquents were allowed to go to sea to avoid other punishments.

Boys served many functions on the ship. One of their main goals was to become acquainted with all the aspects of seamanship, so they were frequently moved from station to station to learn new skills and to find the best place to suit their needs and preferences.

One of the first positions a boy would be assigned to was quarterdeck messenger. Several boys would spend each watch on the quarterdeck waiting to carry messages from the officer of the deck, or captain, to various parts of the ship to co-ordinate manoeuvres. This also gave the junior officers an opportunity to observe and correct their behaviour.

Some boys were used as top-men on the upper spars as their light weight was an advantage on the tiny yards. They were also used in small spaces where a full-grown man could not work comfortably, such as helping to bring up the anchors from the small space in the bow.

In action almost all the boys were employed carrying powder to the guns, although many of the landsmen were also employed in this work. Because of the way they scurried along the deck, dodging the men working the guns and crouching to try to avoid the incoming shot, they were all informally called 'powder monkeys'.


Landsmen had little or no experience at sea, they received less pay and had no say in where they were assigned in the ship. As each new crew member came aboard they were interviewed by the first lieutenant, seldom would he delegate such an important office of his job. Any certificates the sailor presented would be inspected and a brief interview conducted. At the conclusion of this interview the new hand would be entered into the ship's books as one of the ratings. He would also be assigned a place to hang his hammock, a watch, stations for all manoeuvres of the ship and was instructed where to stow his gear. There were 86 landsmen in Victory's crew.

Ordinary Seamen

Anyone who could demonstrate to the lieutenant's satisfaction that they could perform one or more tasks on the ship would be rated as an ordinary seaman. They would be paid a bit more than a landsman and if possible, assigned to a position consistent with their skills. There were 194 ordinary seamen in Victory's crew.

Able Seamen

Able seamen were very experienced sailors who could serve at any of the stations of the crew. They could tie dozens of different knots, and knew when and where to use each. They could find any rope or line in the dark, make emergency repairs and instruct the younger men. When the men worked in isolated parts of the ship such as in the masts and rigging, the senior able seaman took command of the others, supervising their work. Victory's crew included 211 able seamen.

The Royal Marines

Listed here as their position aboard ship is most unusual to modern understanding. Unlike the modern marines, in the age of sail they were also an active part of the crew, hauling on the ropes during sailing manoeuvres and adding their weight to the capstan when raising the anchor or hoisting masts and yards. The marines were stationed as guards in the ship, restricting access to various places such as the captain's and admiral's cabins, the powder magazine and spirit room6.

In action some were employed in the 'tops'7 firing down on the enemy's deck. Others served the guns on the quarterdeck, or tended the sails from that part of the ship. If they were needed to board the enemy's ship, they would be ready and available. Guards were still posted, primarily to keep anyone from fleeing to the safety of the lower decks.

There were 146 marines aboard Victory, including a captain, three lieutenants, four sergeants, three corporals, a trumpeter and two drummers. The remainder were private soldiers. One of the functions of the drummers was to 'beat to quarters' when the ship was cleared for action. There were different beats to indicate if it was to be a drill, or if action might be imminent.

Petty Officers

Petty officers were the non-commissioned officers of the navy. Their name derives from the French word petit, meaning small. They had specialities regarding the operation of the ship. There were 60 petty officers on the muster role.

One of the most infamous members of any crew was the Master-at-Arms, the head of the ship's police force. He was one of the highest-paid men in the enlisted ranks, and he was expected to be despised by the rest of the crew as part of his duties. This was done to help enforce discipline and deflect resentment from the officers. Victory's Master-at-Arms was William Elliot.

Other specialists included a sailmaker and a ropemaker. The coxswain8 had charge of the captain's gig9. Admiral Nelson himself had served as coxswain in his early years at sea.

The quartermasters oversaw the steering of the ship, as well as keeping track of the ship's time. A bell would be struck a certain number of times, marking each half hour of the watch. The time would be adjusted when the ship's position was reported each day at noon. The ship's clocks, or chronometers, always remained set to the time in England to allow for proper navigation.

There were also men assigned to supervise the handling of the sheets10 and a man assigned to serve in the powder magazine when the ship was in action.

The remainder were assigned to aid the warrant officers in their duties. These included master's mates, boatswain's mates, carpenter's crew, gunner's mates and quartergunners, and armourer's mates.

The Specialists

Like the petty officers these men also had special training, however their skills did not involve the actual sailing of the ship. They were commonly referred to as 'private men'. There were 44 specialists aboard Victory. They included:

The two assistant surgeons, who assisted the Surgeon.

The flag secretary and his clerk; they assisted the Admiral and Flag Lieutenant with the correspondence and accounts of the fleet. The captain's clerk would assist the captain with the correspondence and accounts of the ship itself.

The specialists also included a victualler's agent, three men listed as supply (victualling), and another 26 assigned to general supply. These men usually worked far below deck in the hold, bringing up the supplies as they were needed and assuring that all were safe and secure from damage.

Others included a man to aid in the repair of the sails and another for the caulking of the ship's seams to prevent the entry of water from rain or the sea. There were also several men listed as 'Retinue', who were the stewards, including one dedicated to the Admiral.

The Midshipmen

The midshipmen are the other group aboard, consisting mostly of boys and young men. The difference between the midshipmen and the ship's boys is that the midshipmen have an expectation of becoming commissioned officers themselves one day, and are given chances to command as their skills improve. Although they would later become warrant officers, in 1805 they were classed as petty officers, assigned at their captain's whim. They were often appointed to help out family and friends who requested assistance. It was also an opportunity to gain influence with a powerful man who wished to find employment for a younger or troubled son. It was not unusual for a captain to have his own son serving as one of his midshipmen.

There were 21 midshipmen aboard Victory ranging in age from 16 to 29 years old, all but four were 21 or less. Although almost all were from the United Kingdom, one, Richard Bulkeley, an 18-year-old, is listed as an American. A short search finds that he is the son of Sir Richard Bulkeley, so he was probably born overseas while his parents were on holiday.

The midshipmen would be stationed in various parts of the ship to supervise the crew.

Forward or Warrant Officers

The warrant officers are the true professionals aboard ship. They have demonstrated a skill level that has entitled them to head various departments of the ship. Rather than a King's Commission, they were issued a Warrant for service by the Board of Admiralty, or other boards appointed by them, after careful examination. They had been established in earlier times because the commissioned officers were considered above the position of a mere tradesman.

There were a total of 17 warrant officers assigned to Victory.

The Master

The most senior of the warrant officers, the master was charged with the navigation and the daily operation of the ship. Thomas Atkinson was the master, with six mates who also held a warrant.

The Surgeon

William Beatty was the Victory's surgeon. He supervised two assistant surgeons who were rated as specialists.

In later years he would obtain further degrees in medicine from the University of Aberdeen on 28 February, 1806, and another from the University of St Andrews on 14 October, 1817. He was knighted in 1831. He would become the preferred physician of King William IV and is known to history as 'Dr Sir William Beatty MD FRS11'. It appears unlikely he was entitled to any of the fine titles while he was aboard Victory. It was only in the 20th Century that the terms surgeon and doctor became interchangeable.

The Purser

The purser was the chief store-keeper of the ship. Victory's purser was Walter Burke. The purser was required to post a bond before accepting his position and he was personally responsible for the supplies entrusted to him. To allow for the inevitable loss of provisions at sea, he had been allowed to issue stores at 14 instead of 16 ounces to the pound, and seven instead of eight pints to the gallon. This was one of the grievances corrected after the Spithead Mutiny. He was still allowed to sell clothing, tobacco and personal items to the crew at a modest profit.

The Boatswain

The boatswain12 was in charge of the maintenance of the spars and rigging. William Wilmet held this position. The boatswain and his mates were also charged with conveying the orders of the deck officer to the crew using a specialized whistle known as the bosun's call, often misnamed 'pipe'. Although a badge of the boatswain, the call was also carried by the master and his mates as well as the coxswain. The most common boatswain's signal heard today are the four distinct sounds of 'piping the side'. The individual notes correspond to the orders 'hoist', 'veer', 'lower' and 'belay'. These were the orders given in an earlier time when officers were hoisted aboard in chairs, rather than climbing the accommodation ladder themselves. The boatswain was the most qualified seaman aboard, and he would remain with the ship even when she was no longer in commission to continue its maintenance.

The Carpenter

The carpenter was in charge of the maintenance of the vessel itself. William Bunce was assisted by two ship's carpenters, also warrant officers. In battle they would work, with their crew, in the 'wings', small corridors along each side of the ship, just below the lower gun deck. They would plug any shot holes near the waterline.

The Gunner

The gunner was charged with the care of the ship's cannons. William Rivers would see that all were in good repair and fully supplied for battle. He was assisted by the gunner's mates and quartergunners, who were petty officers. He would train the men in serving the guns and supervise them in battle.

The Armourer

The armourer was charged with the repair of all weapons. He was responsible for all of the small arms, except those carried by the marines. In the event of a battle he would issue pistols and cutlasses to the boarding parties.

The Cook

Charles Carroll had charge of the ship's galley (kitchen). He would see that the fires were lit early each morning and supervise the cooking of the meals. He would also see that everything was clean and in its place. When going into battle, the galley fire was thrown overboard to reduce the chance of a fire on the ship.

As part of his daily routine, the cook would soak the salt meat to soften it and then boil it until the crew collected the meat for their meal. A thick layer of melted fat, called slush, remained. The cook was entitled to a large portion of the slush, the remainder was used to lubricate various parts of the ship. The cook often sold his slush to the crew, who used it to make treats such as pudding and duff. The money collected by the cook was kept separate from his established balances and gave rise to the modern term 'slush fund'.

The Standing Officers

Several of the warrant officers were assigned to the ship, rather than the captain. Even if the ship was removed from active duty they would remain aboard and see that everything was kept in good repair while she lay in ordinary at the shipyard.

Ship's Officers

There were eight commissioned lieutenants on board, not counting the executive officer. While the ship was at sea one of them would be supervising her movements as officer of the deck. Unlike the crew they would not stand at every watch, but rotate the duty among themselves. Any serious decision, such as when to add or reduce sail was made by the captain, but the lieutenant would send a message when he thought a change should be made.

The Executive Officer

The most senior lieutenant aboard, John Quilliam, was designated the Executive Officer. He was second-in-command of the ship and usually stood no watches. He was responsible for overseeing every aspect of the ship's condition and reporting any defect to the captain.

The Captain

Captain Thomas M Hardy was appointed captain of Victory when Nelson established her as his flagship, making him Flag Captain. He had full authority over the conduct of his ship. Every detail was, ultimately, his responsibility, from the discipline of the crew to the welfare of the ship in a storm. If the ship were lost for any reason he would face a court-martial.

The Flag Staff

The flag staff13 had no authority over the conduct of the ship, other than to assign goals and generally direct the course to be sailed. They are included here as members of the ship's company in the previous listings.

Captain George Murray, Nelson's Captain of the Fleet, had been detained in England for personal reasons. Nelson had declined to appoint a replacement. His Flag Lieutenant, George Pasco, was wounded in the battle. Chaplain Alex Scott is often referred to as Nelson's chaplain, although he also conducted services for the entire crew. The Admiral's secretary, John Scott, was one of the first men killed as the Victory went into battle. Nelson's steward was Henry Chevallier, who comforted him in his last hours.

The Admiral

Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson was Commander-in-Chief at Trafalgar. Follow the link to read more about the early life of Nelson.


At the end of the battle the Victory's losses were: Admiral Lord Nelson, his secretary, the captain of marines, one lieutenant, two midshipmen, the captain's clerk, 32 seamen and 18 marines – all killed. Another 102 men had been wounded in battle.

HMS Victory is still an officially commissioned ship of the Royal Navy, and is the official flagship of the First Sea Lord. She is preserved in a dry dock and may be visited by anyone interested in seeing the last of Britain's 'great wooden walls'.


Several of the Victory's crew went on to win fame and glory. Most are lost to history and remain only as names on a few dusty pages here and there.

An interesting comparison to the official account is the French viewpoint of the battle as published in the Paris Moniteur.

The Research for this Entry

The research for this Entry has been interesting and it deserves a brief mention. In the quarter century that followed Trafalgar, the organization of ships changed greatly. The close supervision of all the groups of sailors was assigned to several new classes of petty officers, midshipmen became warrant officers and the surgeon and chaplain became commissioned officers. This reorganization was far better recorded than the earlier system that was not as formally regulated.

One good book on the subject is Sealife in Nelson's time. While this book has a great deal to offer, it was written in 1905, a hundred years after the battle, and contains several references to the later organization of the navy.

This link gives a bit more detail about the Officers of the Royal Navy.

An interesting enigma is John Geoghenan, Agent Victualler's Clerk (wounded at Trafalgar), who is listed at Brief HMS Victory crew list, but is not found on the HMS Victory's crew list. However there is quote from a John Geoghegan. '... Then in December 1968 we met again in HMS Victory'. A little digging finds that the barracks at Portsmouth were listed as HMS Victory in modern times, as the navy's organization required all sailors be assigned to a ship.

1The body of water that separates the Isle of Wight from the mainland.2With no actual proof of their status.3The only Queen Elizabeth at the time, daughter of Henry VIII.4From the Isle of Man.5Starboard is the right-hand side of the ship when facing forward. Larboard is the left-hand side and has been replaced by the term 'Port' today.6Containing the rum and beer rations.7Platforms at the upper end of the lower masts.8Usually pronounced 'cock-sun', the name is derived from a medieval term for 'the servant of the boat'.9An oar-powered vessel, used to transport the captain from ship to shore and vice versa, or indeed from ship to ship – it was common for the captains to entertain each other at dinner parties.10Ropes used to control the sails.11Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons.12Pronounced 'bo-sun' – the servant of the boat, or more properly, the ship.13This is not the pole that holds up the flag, rather the men who work for the Admiral.

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