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.


This month’s item of the month is a recently acquired prize ledger compiled under Sir Coutts Trotter and dating 1786–1792. It illustrates the workings of the administration of the Royal Navy, and how the prize money system was managed during this period. In many ways it is an early example of ‘bonus culture’, a very topical subject!

Henrietta Maria

Drawing in particular on material from our archives, Dr Elaine Murphy explores the diverse connections between women and the navy in the 17th century, researched during her time as a Caird short-term fellow.

'Captain Teach commonly call'd Black Beard'

Edward Thatch had built up a fearsome reputation as the most notorious pirate of the early 18th Century. Never heard of him? If you had lived in His Majesty’s colony of Virginia in 1718 you certainly would have. 


A Matthew Walker Knot keeps the end of a rope from fraying but its origins are a mystery.

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The first naval Victoria Cross was awarded to Charles Lucas while serving as a Mate on HMS Hecla in 1854 during the Crimean War.

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This book survived a mutiny and decades on a remote Pacific island 


A hand-drawn story book from 1879 containing three stories, 'The Adventures of a Castaway', 'The Adventures of Tom and Jerry' and 'Ye Pirate'.

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Library Assistant Jon Earle delves into the tragedy of the sinking of the HMS Eurydice, through Sir Edmund Verney's work. The specific focus is on those 281 men who lost their lives.

The illustrated London news: 21 December 1889 Stirring the Christmas Pudding (RMG ID: ILN)

We all have traditions around Christmas time and for many this will include a flaming Christmas pudding triumphantly brought to the dinner table, presented to both family and friends. Not all of us though, like a slice of Christmas pudding to round off our Christmas meal. I have heard it described as ‘the dessert from the depths of hell itself’ and ‘a flaming delight; a feast for the eyes and mouth.’ Both descriptions reminded me of a quote from Charles Dicken’s A Christmas Carol and made me wonder about the origins of the Christmas pudding.

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The ‘Vikings’ were seafaring raiders and traders from Scandinavia. The period known as the Viking Age lasted from AD 700 until 1100.