Search This Blog

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Seamen's pay in the eighteenth century

Seamen’s pay and officers’ perks in Captain Cook’s time

An interesting question came up on marhst-l, the maritime history discussion group, which is sponsored by the Marine Museum of the Great Lakes, with the assistance of Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada.

Malcolm Lewis mused:

“Having just re-read accounts of Captain Cook’s voyages which took as many as three years before he returned home, I am interested to know how and when officers and men received their pay during these long absences. Especially how their families survived whilst the breadwinners were away. 

“Officers may have had bank accounts but seamen would not have done so. One reads of the Portsmouth “bum-boat ladies” going aboard on pay days to help “relieve” sailors of their pay. When I lived in Hull, I witnessed trawlermen’s wives waiting on the jetty when the trawlers returned from the Arctic waters to make sure they got a share of their husband’s wages to pay the bills before many of the men disappeared to the bright lights of London.”

That is indeed intriguing.  Whalemen’s wives had the same problem of begging money from the ship’s agent, or the owners of the ship, while their husbands were away on voyages that could last five years or more.  More nervewracking still, their husbands might be on “unlucky” ships, where few whales had been sighted, which meant that the final pay would be very small, or nothing at all, as whalemen were paid according to their “lay” which was a share of the profits of the voyage. 

The real question, however, related to pay in the Royal Navy, back in the eighteenth century, and a brilliant answer was provided by Nicholas Blake, who has kindly given me permission to reprint it.

The Georgians lived in an age of credit. It was normal throughout the century for agricultural workers, domestic staff etc to be paid, and pay their bills, once a quarter. Gentlemen paid their bills even less often: Parson Woodforde, who was a Norfolk rector who led a blameless life and left an illuminating diary, was moved to anger when asked to pay a bill by a merchant because to him that meant the merchant thought he might not be able to pay. Even the Navy Board didn't pay its bills on time: it issued numbered tokens that it redeemed in order when it could afford to, which were tradeable at a discount on a specialist market.

Officers' pay end everyone else's were treated differently.
Officers' pay was very complicated. They had sea pay, plus a huge range of allowances and expenses, and compensation for servants. Commissioned officers' pay was part pay and part emolument. They had to apply for it, and could not be paid very often: for most of the period, personal pay was once a year and emoluments only when their accounts had been passed, which could take years. Sometimes it was very complicated: In December 1805, William Sidney Smith is appointed to fly his flag in the Pompee, and applies for his pay in the Tigre and Antelope; the complications caused by his period commanding the Ottoman fleet mean the matter has been referred to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. ADM 1/411, no.427. Actual payment was usually to an agent, who also handled their prize money if any, or to their banker.

Everyone else.

The 1728 Navy Act allowed seamen to assign wages to their families, every six months while the ship was at sea abroad, or when paid in home waters. The money was collected by the assignee from an attorney, or (from 1751) from a clerk at a dockyard, for a varied or fixed commission (1.25%) respectively. Captains and admirals were allowed to send their crews' pay via their agents, especially that of their followers. This generally worked well, since the navy would never default on pay even though it might be delayed, but there was always the problem of fraud: a Royal Marine entered at Stroud, and allowed his mother, Anne Davis of the parish of Bisley, adjacent to the parish of Stroud, a part of his pay; the papers were sent directed to Anne Davis near Stroud, and were delivered to Anne Davis of the parish of Rodborough, who was living in Stroud at the time, and who has received the pay since 16 May 1809. -- letter from John Williams, curate, of Stroud, Gloucestershire, to the Secretary at War, 22 Sep 1810: the son is Daniel Davis, in the Bellerophon

The false Anne Davis had sworn on oath that she was the woman in question and the real Anne Davis had no money for a prosecution. Horse Guards forwards the letter to the Admiralty on 25 Sep, endorsed on 27 Sep 'Report it to Mr Bicknell for his consideration'. ADM 1/4337. Possibly for this reason, only around 5-10% of seamen remitted wages. For those waiting at home who relied on pay, Georgian society had the equivalent of the payday loan: pay buyers bought the wages in advance, for a discount.
Actual pay, when the ship was paid off, was straightforward: a boat arrived with cash and everyone was paid either what they were due or a proportion thereof, according to the rules in force at the time.

1 comment:

Seth Hunter said...

Priceless stuff this, for any historian/writer of naval history. Many thanks for sharing. Paul Bryers (Seth Hunter)