Collingwood Society: Supplying the fleet

This month’s Collingwood Society talk was looking at the logistics of supplying a fleet, particularly Collingwood’s Mediterranean fleet – although it turned out to be more about naval supplies and administration in general, which was still interesting but not quite what I had hoped for.

Two books were mentioned as particularly inspiring on the subject – Britain Against Napoleon: The Organization of Victory by Roger Knight and The Command of the Ocean by N.A.M. Rodger, which is a more general naval history, as well as the logs of Cass Halliday, who was master of the fleet and in charge of its supplies. Rodger had claimed that the main developments of the period were financial and administrative rather than purely military or technical, and this was one of the themes of the talk.

We did start with a brief look at the Mediterranean fleet – the biggest at the time, with 119 ships and around 33000 men, just keeping busy – blockading the main French fleets and disrupting smaller shipping, supporting army movements and local allies, and carrying on diplomatic negotiations with all sorts of people in the area – I’d have liked to hear more about this, because I know that some supplies were bought locally, and that local allies were important in various ways, and I always enjoy details.

Despite the contained area of the Mediterranean there were still some pretty big distances involved – 1300 miles and 6 weeks to Gibraltar from the stores at Plymouth, and another 1100 miles from Gibraltar to Malta, which was the main central base by this stage of the war – and planning was going on 12 months in advance, because the victualling yards in England had to have the supplies in stock to be able to send them out. But despite the difficulties, it seemed to be working well – the fleet surgeon of the time complained that he had nothing to do, whereas there had been an outbreak of scurvy in the Atlantic.

The victualling board, based at Deptford, had responsibility for feeding the army overseas as well as the navy at home and abroad – a total of about 230000 men. Locally the Deptford yard provided fresh food, but mainly it was sending out dried and preserved food to other depots and as ships’ stores – slaughtering huge numbers of animals and salting the meat, and baking on a large scale.

Scotland was the main source of beef at the time – cattle brought down from the Highlands to the tryst at Falkirk, and then walked on south – but pigs can’t be droved in the same way, because they get thin, and so the main area for farming pigs was in South London, where they were fed on brewery waste! There was also a nice detail about the cows – they were generally shod for the long walk south, once they were walking on roads, but a cow can’t lift up one foot at a time, and so has to be shod while lying down.

In the Mediterranean there were agent victuallers at Gibraltar and Malta, where ships would be resupplied, and some food was bought locally by ship’s pursers – an example was given of bullocks being bought at Constantinople for the local fleet and brought onto the flagship, which then sent them out in boats to each ship.

As well as food and other stores, the dockyards were also sending out guns and ammunition, and taking ships back for repairs and refitting – a ship would generally serve for about three years before being sent home for a complete overhaul.

There were six dockyards operating in this period, all along the south coast to be within reach of the Admiralty overseers – mainly working on repairs rather than building, and the ships that were being built were mainly smaller ones – there was much more work for frigates than for ships of the line. (Apparently by this stage a quarter of the navy’s ships of the line had been built by other countries and taken as prizes, which is a useful way of getting new ships, although it would be interesting to know how many British-built ships were in other navies!)

The navy was the biggest user of guns and used the heaviest guns – the army tended to want lighter guns which could be moved from place to place. A new development of the period was carronades, with a shorter barrel and larger mouth – these were named after the Carron works at Falkirk which produced them, and had originally been designed for the merchant navy, as they could be fired by a much smaller crew. A more accurate type of long gun was also introduced by the Blomefield works – these were bored from a single piece of iron rather than by cast in pieces in a mould, which made the bore smoother and the shape more uniform, and the method was a closely guarded secret.

Government spending of the time was almost all either military or on loan repayment – in 1793 loans brought in about 70% of the government’s income, although this had fallen to about 20% by 1811, largely due to the introduction of the income tax and increased tax income.

This led to an interesting cycle – if trade could be increased, there would be more income, which meant more taxes paid on it – and more money could then be spent on the navy, which was needed to protect the trade routes, and promote the increase of trade. The Baltic fleet in particular was created not for any specific military purpose, but to protect the important Baltic trade.

Overall an interesting talk, even if it didn’t tell me nearly as much about Collingwood’s fleet as I would have liked.


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