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Service Engagements

A Commitment to Serve for Specific Periods

Recruiting Problems in the 19th Century.


(subject to revision as further info comes to light, and to improve the grammar etc. Any volunteers ;-))

During the the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and afterwards men, whether pressed or volunteers, were signed on for the period that a ship was to remain in commission, and were paid off once that period was completed. However, during the wars men were invariably transferred from the ship on which they were serving to a receiving ship, from which they would be sent to their next ship, maybe having taken a bit of leave if they were lucky ? During the war the numbers in the service reached about 120,000, exclusive of marines, which declined to a minimum of about 13,000 following the end of war, and, depending on foreign policy and budgets etc. slowly increased to about 33,000 by the start of the Russian War in 1853.

Impressment ceased in 1815, but remained a Royal Prerogative for many years to come, despite tinkering in 1835, and the general consensus of opinion that it would be inoperable in any future war.

Even at these levels recruitment remained a problem, and in 1830, in order to recruit and retain a better quality of volunteer, H.M.S. EXCELLENT (Gunnery Training School) was directed to offer 5 and 7 year engagements to Seamen Gunners, along with extra pay, with a view to offering extensions of service at the end of engagements, but this was not successful. One of the main recruiting grounds for the RN was the Merchant Service where fear of Impressment, real or imagined, remained upper-most in the minds of men in this service.

Meanwhile, those ratings in the Royal Navy who were not Seamen Gunners could only engage for the period of a commission. It may therefore be assumed that since conditions of service were generally considered to be poor and that one was invariably left high and dry at the end of a commission, few considered making a career out of the Service, and to many it was somewhere to obtain employment when there was nothing else available. The result being that if often meant that it took many months for Commanding Officers to complete their complements, in some cases, say for ships of the line, 6 months or more, and invariably meant that ships took many months to reach a state of efficiency at sea, by which time, especially amongst ships serving in Home waters, they were due to be paid-off.

In 1835, service in any one ship, or if turned over to another during a commission, was limited to 5 years, unless a man had signed on for 7 years. A bounty of £5 appears to have been payable around this period for voluntary service in war, but I don't know how the term was defined - eg in 1840 there was war along the Coast of China and in the Levant, but I doubt it was defined as war at the time.

A letter written at Portsmouth on 21 Sep 1837, which appeared in the United Services magazine, noted that it was amusing to observe the eagerness displayed by the officers of the different ships endeavouring to obtain seamen and that it was estimated that the Wellesley, Melville, President, Edinburgh, Pique, Tyne, Alligator, Hyacinth, Thunder, and Raven, required upwards of a thousand men to complete their respective crews, and until the Caledonia, Andromache, Vestal, and Charybdis arrived, there were not half that number of men-of-war's men in all the seaports. The Lieutenants, Midshipmen, and petty officers are very active ; but nearly all the ships will be delayed for want of hands. Similarly at Plymouth the Donegal, earmarked for flag ship at Lisbon, is said to be 100 short of her complement and with no immediate prospect of obtaining them.

In 1840, for about a year, due to the events in the Levant and on the Coast of China, when many vessels were taken out of Ordinary (reserve), and brought forward for service, to supplement the squadrons on those stations, considerable difficulty was experienced recruiting sufficient personnel to man the ships, especially ships of the line, which, as mentioned above, could take months to bring up to full complement, service in the navy, for those already serving, was extended, so that personnel were required to complete at least four years. This change in the conditions of service allowed the Admiralty to transfer men from ships paying-off to those being commissioned. This condition was relaxed circa 31 May 1841. It may be of interest to note that some 70 men detailed to join the Britannia, from leave, given by ships paying off prior to 31 May were marked Run. Also during this period a number of pensioners appear to have been recruited at the Home Ports, to man the Guard Ships, thus releasing younger men for service in the Fleet : in addition to their regular pay, pensioners were permitted to retain their pensions. It would also appear that some of the larger men-of-war may well have gone to sea with less than complete complements in the hope of recruiting after leaving their home ports.

So, until 1853, with some exceptions, most seamen signed on nominally for a five year period †, but in practice, often only for the duration of a ship's commission, which could last from anything from a few months to 4-5 years depending on where the vessel was serving. In home waters, until the 1850s the Channel Squadron might have only been in commission for only a few months during the summer, but vessels commissioned to serve on a foreign station might spend anything up to 6 years, depending on Admiralty policy at the time, although 3-4 years appears to have been the norm for much of the 19th Century.

Having been paid-off, and having taken leave, men would then attempt to find another RN ship which was being commissioned : if, as was often the case, no ships were being brought into commission, it wasn't unknown for them to volunteer their services to foreign governments † e.g. a large proportion of the US Navy was made up from those who one might describe as being of Northern European origin, which is reputed to include a great many former RN personnel. In the event of there being nothing available here men might well then attempt to find a berth on the Merchant Service.

During the 1840s, little by little, their Lordships attempted to increase the number of sweeteners that might encourage seamen to remain in the service, e.g. when a ship paid off men were offered six weeks paid leave and could join a ship on completion, which was extended to eight weeks leave in 1850....see memos for details, which in 1853 gave way to an engagement structure that in substance, if not in fact, lasted almost 120 years.

† From a Report of the Royal Commissioners appointed to inquire into the best means of Manning the Navy, as presented to the House of Commons circa Feb 1859.

In 1853, , with the disappearance of the point and shoot policy and improved and more complicated gunnery becoming the norm, and the need to retrain seamen gunners when they joined a ship with new weapons, along with the prospect of war with Russia looming, minds appear to have been concentrated, which brought about the introduction of the Continuous Service (CS) Engagement, of 10 years from the age of 21 for seamen, late reduced to the age of 18, with an option to sign on for further service so that they could complete sufficient time to qualify for a pension, along with the introduction of a new advancement structure and the ratings of Leading Seaman and Chief Petty Officer, and other improvements.

The new engagement structure was somewhat haphazard in the early stages, with men able to include previous service retrospectively, thus requiring a transitionary period following which men could receive smaller pensions for serving less than the 20 year agreements that were introduced in 1853, as follows :

 Continuous Service Engagement 1 =  10 years
 Continuous Service Engagement 2 =  10 years 
 Total  20 years pensionable service

Whilst the CS engagement solved one problem within the minds of prospective recruits, this did not solve the problem of the day to day conditions within the service, which remained poor, especially in respect of food, pay and leave, along with the fear of corporal punishment being inflicted, often unjustly by some commanding officers, who, it might be remarked, had a bent for this sort of thing, and thus recruiting remained a problem. Although, in some cases, officers were dealt with when they exceeded their remit with respect to corporal punishment, all too often nothing seems to have been done about it and recruiting probably suffered accordingly.

Their Lordships appear to have tinkered around the edges of the problem by reducing the age for recruiting adults to 18, or novices as they were sometimes described, but since these were often young and streetwise, with no experience of life at sea, lacking on discipline, this resulted in serious problems on board and high rates of desertion. This policy also appears to have caused unrest amongst the Petty Officers who were expected to resolve the situation, even though they were living on the messdecks with the men, and received few benefits and little respect or backing from above.

In an apparent attempt to resolve this problem Their Lordships limited recruitment to former RN personnel and to Boy Seamen, but there was little or no organised recruitment, with the numbers required being assessed on a week by week basis as ships were due to come into commission or were being paid-off. This erratic policy often meant that boys could travel from far and wide to a receiving ship, only to be turned away that week, whereas another week the numbers might be increased and some of boys recruited may have been below the required standard and would have to be discharged at a later date as unsuitable.

The recruiting policy within the Admiralty was often inconsistent and thus where the recruiters had been too successful one can see instances in the newspapers, in this case from September 1855, where it is reported that too many boys had volunteered for continuous service and the Admiralty issued orders that no more boys were to be entered, unless they had bean employed on board a sailing vessel. This would be the period the boys were no longer required for seasonal work at home and when the fleet was being withdrawn from the Baltic, before it froze for the Winter, and thus H.M. ships were starting to return to England and the demand for seamen would presumably have slackened until the following Spring, when, however, the Crimea War had come to an end. But the shortage of manpower was soon to become apparent again when the Second War with China intensified and the Indian Mutiny spread.

During the Crimea War the Admiralty paid an additional 3d. per diem to pensioners who agreed to serve in the home ports, thus allowing younger and more able bodied men to be released to serve at sea.

Until about 1853 it would appear that most boy seamen were recruited and sent out to the fleet for training, but were in some cases used as servants and not given adequate training as seamen "to learn the ropes, etc." From this date onwards it would appear that boy seamen were given a little basic training at the main naval ports, but the lads were still subject to mis-employment when they joined the Fleet and proved unpopular. In 1859 it was recommended that the Admiralty set aside a hulk at each of the main ports, purely for training prospective boy seamen where they would learn a full syllabus of what they would be expected to put into effect on joining the fleet.

An Admiralty Circular dated circa August 1856, which encouraged the recruiting of 1st and 2nd Class Boys on board the flag ship Waterloo, at Sheerness, advised that an earlier circular which stated that parents and guardians would be required to pay £2 towards the lads clothing was withdrawn, resulting in improved numbers joining the service.

However, an article in the United Services Magazine of 1857 (part III}, noted that the Ganges, at Sheerness, was 150 short of her complement of seamen and as a result an Admiralty order had been issued, ordering an increase in the number of seamen for service in all the harbour duty ships in commission and a similar order to all ships in the Coast Guard service, so it is apparent the the changes introduced in 1853 were going to take many years to bear fruit, and the Admiralty were still having problems at times when there was a demand for seamen i.e. at the present time problems were arising in India and China, which were only to get worse and increase the demand for seamen.

The emphasis on recruiting Boy Seamen was starting to pay dividends and eventually had the beneficial effects, in the long-term, of creating a pool of men, trained in the ways of the Royal Navy, who knew nothing else, resulting in the delays brought about by recruiting men for the period a ship was in commission eventually disappearing.

However, other inconsistencies continued :-

  • Hansard states that there was a brief period in 1854 when men were allowed to sign-on for the period of one year, and receive the same pay as men serving for longer terms.
  • Men serving on 10 year engagements who were due to go to shore during the period that a ship was in commission were given the option of signing on to complete the commission or being discharged to shore, and in most instances men were happy to sign on to complete a commission, or were able to return to England on other ships. However, this was not always the case, and in one instance, it is reported in the Army and Navy Gazette that at Malta, in 1864, some 70 men belonging to H.M.S. Marlborough became due to be discharged to shore and were sufficiently disillusioned with the service not to want to sign-on, and were discharged to shore at Malta, and had to find their own way back to England.
  • In June 1859, copying the example set by the Army and the Marines, the Admiralty introduced a Bounty to encourage men to sign on, but this was only a temporary sweetener ; see below for more on this topic.
  • In April, 1859 Monthly Allowance Money had been introduced to be paid to newly entered men to enable them to provide themselves with necessaries, and to contribute to the support of their families without incurring debts, after the expiration of the first month from the date of his entry, instead obliging them wait six months as required by the instructions now in force, and that a similar payment be made to him at the end of every succeeding month, although they could chose to take the advance of pay, usually paid on the day prior to sailing, or even on the day of sailing, and it was frequently the case that wives had to sail out to Spithead to collect this money, and not forgetting that they would have to pay the ferryman and that the waters in the Solent or the Sound at Plymouth could often be quite dangerous for small craft such as those used by watermen !

Non-seamen branches of the Royal Navy, daymen or idlers, which included stewards, cooks and many other trades, could still only sign-on for a commission, or if allowed to remain in the service between commissions, were not entitled to the pay and other benefits of the CS Engagement, but there were few reported difficulties in recruiting men for these posts, so the Admiralty took advantage of the situation and in many cases it wasn't until the 20th Century that conditions of service for nearly all branches were brought into line with the seamen's branch.

But as was illustrated above with the case of H.M.S. Marlborough, retaining adult seamen remained to be a major stumbling block, with conditions of service being highlighted as a problem. Captain C. Napier wrote a letter to the First Lord of the Admiralty in Oct 1859 detailing some of the areas that he felt needed investigation, which I've paraphrased as follows :

  1. Whilst plenty of leave was permitted when ships were in harbour refitting, once the ships were out at Spithead, at Portsmouth, or in the Sound, at Plymouth, ships' companies were employed drilling and practicing evolutions, often morning, noon and night in some ships, with all leave being stopped. So whilst still living close to loved ones they were unable to visit them, but could observe their officers gallivanting off ashore after work, when not required for duty.
  2. When a ship was first commissioned she was invariably not fit to receive the ship's company on board and they were required to live in a hulk i.e. much the same as that provided for convicts. By 1859 this problem, common to both officers and men, was appreciated and the Bellerophon would appear to have been one of a number of vessels fitted out properly as accommodation hulks and receiving ships with improved ventilation, lighting, heating and living arrangements, although it would be another 30-40 years before barrack-like accommodation was introduced ashore in the home ports.
  3. Men were not paid until their ship was due to go to sea. They could, therefore, be knocking around the dockyard for months whilst the captain recruited a ship's company and the men fitted their ship out for sea ; and then spend further weeks out at Spithead drilling etc., and time spent at sea making the ship ready for service, before receiving a so-called "advance of pay," when they might have been on the ship's books for several months, and in the process were running up debts to traders etc., at no little extra cost to themselves, in some cases as much as 50% of what was owed.
  4. The uniform sold to the men was made in job lots, of standard sizes and before it could be worn invariably had to be taken to pieces and resewn in order that it might fit an individual.
  5. Whilst Greenwich Hospital was much loved by the population at large, being a resident had its drawbacks, with all pensions being withdrawn, even those for the loss of limbs, with a pensioner being allowed of a shilling a week for tobacco, whilst officers retained their half-pay and pension for wounds. Similarly, if a pensioner had to seek shelter in the workhouse his pension was also suspended. Men applying for entrance to the hospital had to travel to Somerset House, London, at their own expense, to be examined, where ever they might live.

With the need to recruit personnel for the Second China War and to provide support for the Army during the Indian Mutiny the usual recruiting difficulties soon resurfaced e.g. the Diamdem was commissioned in Aug 1857, manning problems kept her in port until Jan 1858 ; it was nearly 6 months before the Renown, commissioned Nov 1857, was ready for sea ; and over 4 months for the Marlborough, commissioned Feb 1858.

As a result of these difficulties a Royal Commission was appointed and it was agreed in Feb 1859, amongst other things, that 5 large ships should be prepared to train boy seamen and prepare them for the service in the fleet. In addition it was recommended that a reserve should be created using volunteers from the Merchant Service, who would receive better gunnery training. In addition the following items of bedding were to be issued free on joining: a bed [presumably the hammock and all its accessories, a blanket and bed cover, along with a slightly revised scale of victualling :

  • The allowance of biscuit, per man per diem, was increased from l lb. to 1¼ lb., but the savings' price per lb. reduced from 2d. to l½d. Allowance of sugar per man per diem increased from 1¾ ozs. to 2 ozs. Extra allowance in middle or morning watch, at Captain's discretion, of ½ oz. of sugar, and ½ oz. of chocolate to men sick, or specially exposed.
  • Also, men entering the service, and boys on being rated as men, became entitled to the following items of uniform free, or the equivalents in money :

    Blue cloth jacket (No. 2 cloth) 17s. 8d.
    blue cloth trousers (No. 2 cloth) 11s. 7d.
    blue serge frock 8s. 6d.
    duck frock 2s. 9d.
    duck trousers 2s. 7d.
    black silk handkerchief 2s. 10d.
    shoes 6s. 7d.

    Changes were also made to the way men were paid and their allotments, etc., and a gratuitous supply of utensils to messes when a ship commissioned.

    It is evident that recruitment continued to be a problem in May 1859, since when a number of extra seamen were required to man additional ships a bounty system was introduced with much hoopla to attract men between the ages of 19 and 46 to join the service :

    • £10 for each qualified seaman.
    • £5 for Ordinary Seamen.
    • £2 for Able-bodied Landsmen, not above the age of twenty-five, nor under the age of twenty years.

    This was initially introduced for a period 6 weeks, but insufficient volunteers were forthcoming and the scheme had to be extended. These sums were payable on board their various ships after 21 days service.

    In addition, the benefits of joining the service were well advertised around the country at Seamen's Homes and Missions &c., which are detailed below, along with my comments regarding what I would describe as the "real" situation, rather than the PR - a bit like the TV adverts : make sure you also read the small print :

    • Bedding is now supplied free of charge. [Whilst true in part in 1859, in that free hammocks were issued, but whilst bedding was also issued, it was charged against a man's pay account, along with his uniform, and until those debts had cleared he was not permitted to make an allotment to dependents, thus often causing hardship to family and dependents who often had to seek help from the Parish to survive]. In addition they have to provide their own mess utensils.
    • Advance of two months' wages is paid before sailing.
    • A man may allot half his wages to be paid monthly for the support of his family, &c. [And only whilst his account was not in debt. In fact, unlike the Merchant Service, RN personnel could allot money to anyone, and often did, including loan sharks &c., sometimes at the expense of his dependents, but perhaps brought about by not paying personnel until just prior to sailing, maybe some months after joining a ship, and could therefore run-up quite considerable debts, often at usurious interest rates !]
    • Leave of absence is granted whenever the service will permit, see Admiralty Circular of 1860, and a man's pay continues during such absence or during sickness.
    • Tobacco is issued at 1s. per pound, and soap at 4d. per pound.
    • Seamen receive extra pay for good conduct, and their time in the merchant service counts towards good-conduct badges and extra pay. [However, whilst a Petty Officer was paid Badge Money of 1d. per diem per badge, up to a limit of 3, for badges awarded as an Able Seaman, he did not receive any money for badges awarded whilst he was a Petty Officer in 1859].
    • Men are paid a liberal compensation for loss of their clothes by shipwreck, or otherwise. [But only for clothing : no allowance was made for personal effects.]
    • The allowance of provisions has been lately increased - [see below].
    • Promotion to the rank of Warrant-officer, with wages of from £86 to £120 per annum, is open to every intelligent seaman :

      1. [although since 1844 they are reported to have been demoted below cadets, and it was recommended in 1859, that since they often took charge of watches on smaller vessels, and during the Russian war were frequently given command of mortar and gun-boats, they should be restored to their pre-1844 status, and be ranked after Second Masters.
      2. Similarly, widows pensions, which were authorised for Warrant Officers from 1830, appear, by 1859, to have been withdrawn for some classes of Warrant Officers and it was recommended that they should be re-instated retrospectively.
      3. in addition, it was noted that a number of Petty Officers had turned down the offer of a Warrant rank, in view of the cost of providing a suitable outfit, but this had been remedied circa 1859, with the introduction of a gratuity of £15, for this purpose.]

    • After certain service in the RN, with good conduct, seamen are eligible for Admission into the Coastguard service on shore ; pensions are also given for long service, and medals and gratuities for good conduct.
    • Seamen are received into Greenwich Hospital when, from old age, hurts, or wounds, they require such provision, [but see comments regards loss of pensions &c.]. Greenwich School is also open to the sons of seamen of the Royal Navy.
    • Entertaining libraries are provided on board Her Majesty's ships, and seamen schoolmasters are employed for the instruction of the men.

    But inconsistent treatment by some Commanding Officers, including the abuse of corporal punishment, such as flogging, remained a constant source of complaint by those who might otherwise have considered joining the Service as a career, along with abuses of power and corruption by the Ship's Police, which was often recruited from men who were seen as being unable to make the grade elsewhere in the service.

    The payment of bounties, mentioned above, appears to have caused much discontent within the Fleet and by the 8 July 1859, the Admiralty found it necessary to pay bounties to serving personnel : the full rate to those who had five years or more to serve and a half rate to those with less than five years to serve, excluding serving pensioners. ‡

    ‡ Presumably, at this date, made up from a body of men, few in number, who retired from the Service after 10 years, on a pension of 6d. per day.

    The Bounty system of recruiting adult seamen appears to have had many shortcomings, not least problems with discipline and desertion. The recruitment of boy seamen was generally thought to be the best way forward by the several committees that investigated the Manning of the Fleet, and whilst, following the 1852 committee's recommendations, this was an improvement on sending boys direct to the fleet, and "some" training of boys was carried out prior to their joining their first ship, this was generally considered to be inadequate, and the 1859 committee recommended that some 6 Training Ships should be set aside for this purpose, and some heed appears to have been paid to this recommendation with several ships being commissioned for this purpose in subsequent years, mostly at the home ports, although the Ganges, Britannia, after the latter left Portsmouth, and Boscawen would appear to be exceptions.

    The ongoing shortage of manpower was costing the country a considerable sum of money ; money which was effectively being wasted by the Admiralty, in that whilst it was possible to commission a ship, appoint her officers and recruit much of her crew, invariably the most difficult part of the exercise was still to be performed and that was to recruit sufficient seamen to fill the ship's complement, which invariably took many months, (e.g. one 74-gun ship was commissioned in the August, but it was the following February before she was able to sail from Portsmouth, even then short-handed), with ships often leaving port short of men, in the hope that they might be able to recruit at other ports. At the same time, if this ship was being commissioned to replace another ship on a foreign station, as was often the case, the Admiralty was still incurring the cost of keeping that vessel on station until she was relieved.

    Food was also seen as an area of concern, whilst often described as inadequate, many thought it must be adequate in view of the amount of savings accumulated, but it was thought that quality may well have played a part here, and if the salt-beef was of poor quality personnel may have used the money from savings to either buy food ashore or to make up for it by some other means. At any event it was recommended that the quantities of food be increased, and perhaps savings reduced to encourage consumption, and reduce the impact on the increased cost.

    Circa 1870 continuing shortages of men of the right calibre and in the right branches meant that further revues of the policy were necessary and further inducements were needed to encourage the recruitment of a better quality of entrant. This resulted in improvements in service conditions and a more "enlightened" approach to discipline and food etc.

    However, following the introduction of pensionable engagements in 1853, after 20 years, it was felt that 20 years service was uneconomic, and after kicking the ball down the road from some years it was decided that, with effect from 1st January 1885, the 20 years pensionable service agreement should be increased to 22 years for any personnel signing on for pensionable service from that date, as follows :

     Continuous Service Engagement 1 =  12 years
     Continuous Service Engagement 2 =  10 years 
     Total  22 years

    which remained in force until April 1956, excepting the Special Service Engagements introduced in 1903, which are discussed in the following paragraph.

    1903, the Special Service Engagements (SS) was introduced for 5 years service in the RN and 7 in the Royal Fleet Reserve to encourage the recruitment of adults into the Stoker Branch as normal recruitment measures couldn't meet the demand e.g. the Engineering Branch increased in size from 6,000 ratings in 1880 to 26,000 circa 1900. After a short while Seamen were also allowed to sign-on for the SS engagement. Ratings on SS engagements were paid less than men on a Continuous Service.

    Later, possibly following the end of WWII, the Special Service Engagement was replaced by the Short Service Engagement or "7 and 5" as it was often known : 7 years man's time in the RN with a subsequent liability for 5 years in the Reserve : such ratings were also paid less than men on a Continuous Service. This engagement, along with the CS engagement, were phased out from 1956, following the introduction of the LS1 engagement from the same date, see below.

    May 1946, it was found that too many regular personnel, whose engagements had expired during the war, and Hostility Only (H.O.) personnel, were leaving the service, so, as a temporary measure, personnel could sign-on for an additional 3 or 4 years, and would receive a bounty of £33, unless they had already received their civilian clothing benefits, in which case was reduced to £25.

    1950 - Extended Service for Pensioners Continuing shortages of certain experienced personnel brought about the introduction of an option to sign on for two further periods of 5 years to take retirement age up to 50, but this was dependent upon the demand at that time for ratings in the branch in which the rating was serving. This was usually known as a fifth five and sixth five ; it would also appear that additional periods may have been served special cases or men transferred to Non-Continuous Service engagements, each of 3 years.

    1 April 1956 Long Service Engagement introduced: 

    LS1 = 9 years 
    LS2 = 5 years 
    LS3 = 8 years 
    ~~~~~ 
    Total  22 years Pensionable Service
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

    1972? Ratings in most branches allowed to sign on for 3 year engagements with options to extend the engagement by periods of 3  years and more.   Paid less for less commitment.

    Wartime - WWI & WWII : Engagements were invariably extended by the Admiralty, to expire at the end of hostilities.

    Non-Continuous Service (NCS) engagements, was the term often used to describe the period for which personnel would sign on when not on a continuous service engagement, up until the 1920s. It was also used to describe the period, usually of about 3 years, for which personnel could re-engage, up to the 1960s e.g. for senior ratings in selected posts e.g. personnel serving in the reserve fleets who had experience of servicing obsolete equipment.

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