How much fish did the Royal Navy eat?

I’m reading some Hornblower – on the basis of why the hell not – and there’s a scene in which they blow up an underwater wreck, an effect of which is to bring dead fish to the surface. Which they don’t collect. A slight oddity, as a major subtheme of this part of the story is how they’re negotiating for supplies from the coastal area they’re off- lamb, kids, lettuce etc.

Yes, I know about salt beef, hard tack and so on, the ritual menus of the day for the seamen. And in the Jack Aubrey books there’s some mention of fish being taken (I seem to recall a turbot at some point?) for the officer’s mess. Or even the Captain’s table.

But a thought occurs, of no importance at all but of interest to me at least. How much did the sailing Royal Navy supplement diets with fish? It obviously cannot be counted upon as anything central to the diet as large parts of the oceans are deserts. But how much supplementing went on? Did they routinely carry small nets? Lines and hooks? I cannot believe that anyone sailing the Grand Banks didn’t take a few cod but then that’s my imagination, not reality.

And to extend this out from the RN to merchantmen. Plenty of people must have ploughed though froths of herring or mackerel – did they take them? Routinely that is? Or out in deep, have lines out for tuna?

Armies often enough did try to live off the land – and as often get soundly beaten by those with good logistics trains. The RN did stock and carry its food, supplementing with bullocks and so on and especially anti-scorbutics when making landfall. But how much did the sea traffic of the time also try to pluck fish to add to the diet?

It couldn’t be that no one on board knew how to fish – the press gangs operated in coastal towns and villages. Similarly, it couldn’t be that fish wasn’t part of the land diet of the crew at the time for the same reason.

Any good sources on this? I can imagine it being anything from no, fishing was a most odd thing, through to a hopeful line dropped out of a gunport now and again right up to official but blind eye perhaps escapades with a jolly boat launched with a few good hands and a net to get some herring.

But does anyone know?

19 thoughts on “How much fish did the Royal Navy eat?”

  1. I have come across references in journals and logs of fish being purchased. Often from fishing boats or small ports when the ship was away from a main port for a time.

    Extends cruising range – while enemy ports may be closed to a particular nation’s ships the fishermen and the places too poor to have defences were willing to make some money.

  2. Aren’t there references in Hornblower to buying fish and intelligence from fishermen while on the blockade of the French coast?

  3. Odd that you have read Patrick O’Brian and found it a route to Hornblower. I did exactly the opposite, coming to Jack and Stephen via Bolitho, Fox, C. Northcote Parkinson’s heroes etc etc.

    Rather interesting (to me at least) is that my father had a penchant for the same, and was so convinced by C. Northcote Parkinson’s faux biography of Hornblower that for a while he thought the man was real and not fictional!
    All, of course, follow in the footsteps of Captain Marryat.
    Did you know that Sharpe was inspired by CS Forrester’s ‘Death to the French’?

  4. An excellent book called ‘Feeding Nelson’s Navy’, by Janet McDonald, delves deep into the diet and provisioning of the Royal Navy in the C18 and C19, all based on extensive historical research.

    Regarding salt or preserved fish, while this was a part or alternate of the standard ration in early times, it fell out of favour due in part to the theory that salt fish promoted scurvy. As to fresh fish, while there are plenty of references to fishing and eating fresh fish, this could only be a transitory and opportunistic addition to the ration, as it was an unreliable and inconsistent source of food that could not be easily preserved on board. Preserving fish takes water and salt in large volumes, as well as labour, none of which were freely available.

    The purser and cooks were busy putting 5,000 quality calories into every man-jack aboard, every day, while under way, in all weathers and often in wartime conditions. This could only hope to be achieved consistently with a rigid and planned system of victualling, which could not rely on, or be disrupted, by some transitory availability of other foodstuffs.

    There are references to fishing and the supply of fresh fish to vessels in home waters, eg, the naval blockades of France and Spain, where fish could be easily supplied in reliable quantities from reliable sources and conveyed to the fleet.



  5. Fresh water and crystal salt. Get a grip. Fresh water was the A-number-One most-precious resource on a Navy vessel, to be conserved at all costs. No captain who valued his commission would divert it for the preserving of fresh fish when a) preserved fish was widely held to make the men sick and b) he had no idea if he would need that water later.



  6. Having done a bit of fish preserving, I’m at a bit of a loss where fresh water comes into the process. If you’re using salt, it’s hardly going to make any difference using seawater to wash out the cleaned fish. Certainly never needed any for cleaning fresh caught mackerel for beach barbies.
    I’m thinking of an economic reason. Ship’s pursers used to do very well out the provisioning chain of supply. So they had an interest in what got bought got served & eaten. Catching fish would be that horrible thing – free. Not something they’d want too much of about

  7. Standard slow fuse inside leather sealed with pitch. Light it on the surface. Diving? Sinhalese pearl divers brought to Europe for the purpose. 17 fathoms, about limit of what is possible without gear.

  8. which Hornblower with the deep sea diving? Time I tried him again. For the rest, looks like Llamas has it – you need predictable food supply for hundreds of men – picky men wanting the same stuff and no mucking about – so you’re not going to be creative with the catch of the day. Officers are different – fewer of them, for a start. There’s a lot more than turbot in O’Brian. Or maybe turtles don’t count.

  9. Not an idea.but pleasantly reacalled a scene in an early P.O.B.. when the officers were served Sea Pie. Stephen expressed surprise its taste was not fishy in the least. Only to be told a Sea Pie is any pie ….made at sea. (and usually doesn’t have any fish in it)

  10. @BiS,

    Pursers bought the ship’s supplies for a cruise, (on a set and well-defined scale of issue, plus their own calculations for spoilage and loss), were paid for feeding the men (not by the plate served) and tried to make a profit over the duration, so if they could get a few meals’ worth of “free” stuff – like opportunistic fish – they’d jump at the chance if it could be made to work. The trouble is, it couldn’t…

    The logistics of guaranteeing a big enough catch for hundreds of men, and then going from “a few barrels of fresh whole fish” to “edible meal for the crew” in the space of a few hours with the limited facilities and manpower available, meant you simply wouldn’t try to feed the crew from opportunity catch. Preserved meat was used in part because it could be cooked and served with the means available; there simply wasn’t the means or the manpower to clean and cook a quarter-ton of fresh fish per meal.

    Another issue, highlighted in “The Wooden World” by N A M Rodger, is that crews tended to be very conservative in their tastes: the menu was laid down and adhered to, and the introduction of new foodstuffs often treated with extreme suspicion.

    The wardroom would see the benefit of having traded cash for fresh fish (and information) with a local boat or two, but it wouldn’t change the menu on the lower decks.

  11. What Jason Lynch wrote. Suggest reading both named books for a full understanding of naval victualling and why catching fish wasn’t an important part of that process – because it couldn’t be.

    Pursers operated as-described, but their accounts were rigorously scrutinized by their captains, their admirals and the Victualling Board – who paid in arrears, sometimes years in arrears. A purser’s profit margin on a cruise was carefully calculated based upon feeding tens or hundreds of thousands of rations – something as trivial as fishing could not be part of that plan.To feed the 600-800 men on a first-rate three meals a day demanded a certainty of tons of supplies – relying on fishing would be like a McDonalds delivery truck stopping on the freeway to pick blackberries on the shoulder.

    That’s not to say that fishing was not planned for or carried out. Naval vessels carried fishing gear up to full-size trawls, and contemporary accounts are full of stories of fish being caught and eaten by both officers and men. But a daily catch could never be part of a planning victualling scheme, which is why it never was.

    Regarding preserving fish – leaving aside the vast quantities that would have to be caught to make preserving them worthwhile, you need fresh water while gutting and filleting, and for many varieties of oily fish which cannot be dry-cured with salt alone, you need water for multiple brinings. No purser would even begin to do this, and no captain would permit it on his ship. Pursers and captains had access to endless credit, which was readily accepted everywhere – if fish was the best choice for victualling, they’d just buy it local, paying with a draft on the Victualling Board which was negotiable world-wide.



  12. This is exactly the explanation I was looking for:

    “That’s not to say that fishing was not planned for or carried out. Naval vessels carried fishing gear up to full-size trawls, and contemporary accounts are full of stories of fish being caught and eaten by both officers and men. But a daily catch could never be part of a planning victualling scheme, which is why it never was.”

    I already knew the lack of certainty bit. Over and above that, or taking account of that, they did fish. OK…..

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