Life at sea

Gain a fascinating insight into the lives of sailors and seamen throughout history. From the protocols of the Royal Navy to the traditions, customs and working lives of 18th and 19th century crewmen, we explore what life was really like on the high seas.

The East Indiaman 'Princess Royal' (BHC3564)

James Creassy’s journal (Item ID: JOD/304) is over 300 pages long and written in perfectly legible handwriting – a rare find for material from 1777! He does not say why he is travelling to Bengal, but records in detail the entertaining, dramatic and sometimes rather distressing events that take place during the journey.

Cover of the personal journal written by Gilbert James Inglis

October’s item of the month is a personal journal written by Gilbert James Inglis. He served as purser on board the convict ship Duchess of Northumberland and kept a diary on a voyage from London to Hobart, November 1852 to April 1853 (RMG ID: JOD/150)


Life at sea during the age of sail was filled with hardship. Sailors had to accept cramped conditions, disease, poor food, pay and bad weather.

The Sea-mans Dictionary: or, an exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a shippe : together with an explanation of all the termes and phrases used in the practique of navigation by Sir Henry Mainwaring (London, John Bellamy, 1644) – library reference PBD7424 and PBE6223

Watercolour showing Noss Head, by Horatio Nelson Head (tile)

Graham Thompson presents a collection of drawings by a midshipman who showed much promise, but died young before he had established his reputation as a Royal Navy officer. 

H.M.S. Theseus (PAF1833)

From 2014 the archives department has been focusing on cataloguing World War One manuscripts. In October 2017 while cataloguing, I came across the diary of a man who wrote only so his children would have something first hand from their father rather than just what they read in the news.


Our collection of around 5000 coins and medals has a connection to maritime history and Greenwich. 


The ‘standard’ nautical mile is taken as 6080 feet (1.151 statute miles or 1853 metres) and is the unit of length used in sea and air navigation.

This Item of the Month is some photograph albums showing life at sea in the merchant service in the eve of the First World War


Poor records mean the valuable contribution of Asian crew members to Britain's mercantile fleet have often remained hidden. However new crew lists found in our archives promise huge potential for future research.