Tracing the career of a British seamen, (who was not an officer), before 1853 can be challenging, as until this date, there was no such thing as continuous service. Ratings, (which includes boys, ordinary seamen, able seamen and other non-commissioned ranks), were only engaged by the Royal Navy for the duration of a particular voyage. This means that there are no service records before the mid-nineteenth century. When a voyage had been completed, ratings were “paid off” and discharged. They were free to leave the service or find a new position on another ship. Nevertheless, this does not mean it is impossible to find out about the career of a seamen who served prior to 1853. On the contrary, there are a number of records, several of which have been indexed, that can be used to piece together a seamen’s service. In this article, I will be investigating these, using my own ancestor, John Woodbine to illustrate the information that can be found.
John Woodbine, a cooper by trade, is one of my most intriguing ancestors. Baptised in 1782, in the parish church of St John Horsleydown in Southwark, opposite the Tower of London, he worked for most of his life in the nearby dockside parish of Rotherhithe. As a cooper, he would have made casks and other containers out of thin staves of wood, that were bound together by metal or wooden hoops and then secured with a flat wooden end or head. Work would have been plentiful in Rotherhithe in the early nineteenth century, as it was a hive of maritime activity; casks were essential for storing the wide variety of provisions that were needed for long voyages, such as flour, biscuit, salted pork and water. High value commodities that could be traded, such as wine or sugar, would also be stored in casks and unloaded from the ships to be stored in the massive warehouses that lined the waterfront. However, John Woodbine was not a cooper all his life. He had an interesting past for in his youth, he was a seaman in the Royal Navy.
I found my first clue to his earlier life at sea in an indexed entry to his marriage. Pallot’s Marriage Index, an index to marriages compiled by lawyers for probate purposes, contains this entry:
John Woodbine had married Ann Cornwall in the parish of St Thomas, Portsmouth in 1808. Alongside the name of the groom was the words, “HMS Avenger“. Rather puzzlingly, I found another entry for the marriage of John Woodbine and Ann Cornwall, four years earlier, on Family Search:
John Woodbine and Ann Cornwall had allegedly married on May 13th 1804 in the parish of St Olave, Southwark. What was going on? Had the couple married twice?
As always, it is important to look at the original parish registers, rather than rely on indexes. Fortunately, the original registers of St Thomas, Portsmouth, are now available on FindmyPast:
John Woodbine was described as a bachelor of HMS Avenger whilst his bride, Ann Cornwall, was a spinster “of this parish”. They married by licence on March 27th 1808 at the parish church of St Thomas, Portsmouth (now Portsmouth Cathedral). A lot of naval marriages are recorded in the registers of St Thomas, as sailors from the various ships that were docked in Portsmouth, took the opportunity to get hitched whilst they had shore leave.
So had the couple already married four year previously in Southwark? The following record shows that certainly banns had been called on three consecutive Sundays at the church of Saint Olave, Southwark:
I searched the original registers of St Olave but found no record of the couple’s marriage. It seems that it had never taken place, even though they had obviously intended to get married. Why had they not gone through with it? It seemed improbable that either of them had got cold feet or changed their mind since they did eventually tie the knot, albeit four years later. If there had been any legal objection to the marriage then it was unlikely that the banns would have been read three times. One possibility was that John Woodbine was the victim of the press-gang.
In 1804, Britain was at war with France and specifically Napoleon. To check his advances, they were building up the strength of the Royal Navy and expanding their flotilla of ships. The Royal Navy had 135 ships in 1793 but 584 in 1812. Correspondingly, the numbers employed by the Royal Navy expanded from 36,000 in 1793 to 120,000 in 1805. However, it was difficult to find suitable candidates, particularly those with seafaring experience. The British Navy had to compete with the Merchant Navy for sailors and desertion rates were high. With no fixed term of engagement, many seamen would also leave the service when their ship was paid off. Consequently, the Impress Service, known as the “press-gang” was formed to find men between the ages of 18 and 55 to serve in the Royal Navy. The press gangs would take merchant seamen from inbound ships at sea or hunt for potential recruits in maritime areas and ports. Men with seafaring or river boat experience were preferable but it was possible for those with no experience, landsmen, to be seized during wartime. The victim would be asked to “volunteer” for naval service. If they refused, they would be plied with alcohol or simply seized. Some would simply volunteer at this point, as it meant that they would get a sign-up bonus, two months wages in advance and a higher wage though unlike the pressed man, they would be liable for execution if they deserted. Volunteers would also be protected from creditors. Unsurprisingly, the press-gangs were very unpopular in local seafaring communities. Their success can be judged by the fact that by the time of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, over half of the Royal Navy’s sailors were pressed men.
Since John Woodbine was a cooper, he would have needed to serve an apprenticeship. He was born around 1782 so this would have commenced around 1796 when he was 14 years of age for the duration of seven years. In 1804, after finishing his apprenticeship, and with his career as a cooper ahead of him, he was free to marry his sweetheart, Ann Cornwall and they made preparations to get married at the church of St Olave. If my theory is correct, the pressmen struck just days before the wedding was to take place, forcibly removing John and leaving Ann behind, distraught. Her beloved was away at sea and parted from her for the next four years and they were not able to marry until he sent word that he was in Portsmouth in the spring of 1808. Purchasing a licence, they were married at once before John returned to sea.
It was now time to look at naval records to find out more about the career of John Woodbine during his time at sea. One of the most important records for tracing seamen prior to 1853 are the Navy Allotment Registers. These span the years 1795-1816 and 1830-1852 and are held by the National Archives (U.K.) in ADM 27. This series contains registers of pay allotments or pensions, which were given to the relatives of seamen. They are therefore very useful genealogically. As a result of The Navy and Marines Act of 1795, seamen could send part of their pay to their wives, mothers or children in order to support them. Petty officers and non-commissioned Royal Marine officers could allocate half of their monthly wages whilst initially, lesser ranks allotted specific sums according to their rank. Able seamen could allot five pence daily, ordinary seamen and landsmen, four pence daily and a Royal Marine three pence daily. However, in 1797, all naval ratings could allot one half of their wages to their wives or mothers. If you opted into the allotment scheme, an allotment declaration was signed and the sums were paid to one’s designated next of kin every 28 days from that day henceforth. This helped families when the main breadwinner was away at sea and ensured that loved ones received a regular income. Initially, take up of the scheme was slow but by 1812, one man in every five subscribed. Fortunately, after a huge indexing effort, these allotment registers can now be searched by both a person’s name and by the ship’s name on the National Archives Discovery catalogue and on FindmyPast. FindmyPast has copies of the actual images. I discovered that John Woodbine was one of those who sent part of his wages to his family. The page for Avenger is below, plus my transcription of the entry for John Woodbine:
|Former Payment||No. on Ships Books||No. of Triplicate||Mens Names||Quality||Declaration to whom Allotment shall be paid||per Day||per Month||When allotted|
|Wife or Mother/Children/Residence|
|56||41218||Jn. Woodbine||Pu/ Std||W. Ann||5||11.8||10 May 1808|
|By whom paid||When Allotment ceases||Stop No.||To what Time||Sum||Charged on Pay Books|
|D D D/When/Where|
|Treasurer||24989||10 Jan 09||5.5.0|
John Woodbine, number 56 on the Avenger’s books is shown to have a wife named Ann. He gave 5 pence per day and 11 shillings and 8 pence a month to her support. His declaration was dated 10 May 1808, six weeks after his marriage. The declaration revealed that at this date, John Woodbine was the purser’s steward.
The purser on board ship was a very important person, as he was in charge of supplying the food and drink, clothing and other necessities for the men on board ship. Although the position was unpaid, the purser made a profit from his business dealings. Detailed accounts had to be kept so as the purser’s steward, John Woodbine must have had a head for figures and been a capable administrator. Herman Melville, in his book, White Jacket, (Chapter XLVIII), describes the position of a purser’s steward thus:He is the right-hand man and confidential deputy and clerk of the Purser, who intrusts to him all his accounts with the crew, while, in most cases, he himself, snug and comfortable in his state-room, glances over a file of newspapers instead of overhauling his ledgers.
…the official known as the Purser’s Steward was head clerk of the frigate’s fiscal affairs. Upon the berth-deck he had a regular counting-room, full of ledgers, journals, and day-books. His desk was as much littered with papers as any Pearl Street merchant’s, and much time was devoted to his accounts. For hours together you would see him, through the window of his subterranean office, writing by the light of his perpetual lamp.
Ex-officio, the Purser’s Steward of most ships is a sort of postmaster, and his office the post-office. When the letter-bags for the squadron–almost as large as those of the United States mail–arrived on board the Neversink, it was the Purser’s Steward that sat at his little window on the berth-deck and handed you your letter or paper–if any there were to your address. Some disappointed applicants among the sailors would offer to buy the epistles of their more fortunate shipmates, while yet the seal was unbroken–maintaining that the sole and confidential reading of a fond, long, domestic letter from any man’s home, was far better than no letter at all.
In the vicinity of the office of the Purser’s Steward are the principal store-rooms of the Purser, where large quantities of goods of every description are to be found. On board of those ships where goods are permitted to be served out to the crew for the purpose of selling them ashore, to raise money, more business is transacted at the office of a Purser’s Steward in one Liberty-day morning than all the dry goods shops in a considerable village would transact in a week.
Once a month, with undeviating regularity, this official has his hands more than usually full. For, once a month, certain printed bills, called Mess-bills, are circulated among the crew, and whatever you may want from the Purser–be it tobacco, soap, duck, dungaree, needles, thread, knives, belts, calico, ribbon, pipes, paper, pens, hats, ink, shoes, socks, or whatever it may be–down it goes on the mess-bill, which, being the next day returned to the office of the Steward, the “slops,” as they are called, are served out to the men and charged to their accounts.
Although Herman Melville is describing a purser’s steward on board an American ship, the role must have been similar in the Royal Navy. I wonder if John Woodbine’s training as a cooper came in handy, as he would be able to repair any of the casks on board ship in his charge.
Another valuable record for tracing seamen are the Entry Books of Certificates of Service , 1802-1894, contained in ADM 29 at the National Archives (U.K.). These were compiled to assess qualifications for pensions, gratuities and medals and provide a summary of the seamen’s service. The records have been indexed on the National Archives Discovery catalogue and images are available on both Ancestry and FindmyPast. I was pleased to find an entry for John Woodbine:
The above record was dated 2 December 1848, when John Woodbine would have been around 66 years old. It records that he had joined Avenger at the age of 21 as an Ordinary Seaman on 1 July 1804 and served until 2 May 1806. He then continued on the Avenger for another term of service from 3 May 1806 to 30 April 1809 when he worked as the purser’s steward, a position he held for three years. For his final voyage, from 1 May 1809 until 2 April 1810, John Woodbine had the position of ship’s corporal, a petty officer, who was an assistant to the master-at-arms. The master-at-arms was in charge of discipline and weapons’ training on board ship. He then left the Royal Navy having found substitutes. His total amount of service in years, months, weeks and days is detailed in the right hand columns and it can be seen that John Woodbine served for a total of 5 years, 9 months, 3 weeks and 5 days!
I found further evidence that John Woodbine had indeed been granted a pension in ADM 6/223-320. This contains records of out-pensioners of the Royal Greenwich Hospital. Records of in-pensioners can be found in ADM 73 and other records of the Chatham Chest are in ADM 82. As a result of the War Office taking over the responsibility of paying pensions between 1842-1883, there are also pension records in WO 22 and 23. Luckily, many of the pension records are available on FindmyPast though some have also been indexed on the National Archives Discovery catalogue too:
John Woodbine’s pension began on December 7th 1848. He was 65 years old and he had served in the Royal Navy for 5 years and 9 months prior to being discharged in 1810. He was to live another eight years before dying in January 1857, his wife Ann, dying eighteen months later.
John Woodbine had spent all of his years of service on HMS Avenger but what could I find out about his ship? My research revealed that she was a sloop, originally the collier Thames, but she had been purchased by the Royal Navy in May 1804 and renamed HMS Avenger. Commander Thomas White was put in charge of her in June 1804 and John Woodbine would have joined her first voyage, entering into service officially on July 1st 1804. Avenger was a sixth rate ship, equipped with 9-pounder guns on her upper deck and eighteen 24-pounder carronades on her quarter deck and forecastle. She was a small lightly armed frigate of between 450-550 tonnes with around 150 men on board, similar in appearance to HMS Carysfort below:
Wikipedia provides a helpful, (if incomplete) timeline of Avenger’s adventures, based on sources such as The London Gazette and Lloyd’s List:
- April 14 1806 Sailed for Newfoundland
- December 17 1806 Destroyed the French privateer cutter, Hazard in the Channel.
- 1807 Served on the Halifax, Nova Scotia station
- May 3 1808 Sailed for Newfoundland
- Feb/Apr 1809 Fitted for service in the Baltic at Plymouth
- May 18 1809 Part of a group of ships that captured Anholt.
- May 29 1809 Captured a Danish boat.
- August 9 1809 Captured Driftrigheden, Ebenetzer and Schooner No. 8
- October 17 1809 Captured Three Sisters, Christian and Margarethe, Norsamheid, Carin Catherina and Die Keine Hoggnung
John Woodbine had certainly seen the world during his time in service. He had travelled to Newfoundland, Canada on more than one occasion and taken part in the capture of the Danish island of Anholt, part of the Gunboat War, the naval conflict between Denmark-Norway and the British during the Napoleonic Wars. After capturing a number of Danish ships in 1809, he would have been entitled to some lucrative prize money so it is perhaps not surprising that he chose to hang up his hammock for the final time and leave the Royal Navy on April 30th 1810 to become a cooper. He probably also wanted to spend time with his wife, Ann, and start a family, after being away at sea for so many years. On May 11 1810, Avenger sailed once more for Newfoundland. During 1811 and 1812, Avenger captured and detained several American ships with the outbreak of the War of 1812 between Great Britain and the United States of America. When these were sold, Avenger’s crew received a grant of 29/30 of the proceeds of the sale. This was a princely sum for an ordinary seamen would have received a sixth share of £23 1s 4d, which was more than their wages for a year.
However, Avenger’s days were numbered. On October 6 1812 she sailed from St Johns, Newfoundland but bad weather meant that two days later, she had to return to port. Strong winds drove her aground in the narrows and she was unable to get off, despite attempts to lighten her. With the wind and waves pounding her, the crew used pumps throughout the night as the water rose but without success. Fortunately, the crew were all rescued by boats from St John early the next morning.
If your ancestor had a common name, it is particularly important to discover the name of the ship on which they served, as there may well be several seamen with the same name. I found the name of John Woodbine’s ship on his marriage record but you may find this detail in other sources too. Medal Rolls, 1793-1949, held in WO 100 and indexed on both Ancestry and FindmyPast may reveal the name of your ancestor’s ship and sailor’s wills can contain this detail. The National Archives has a collection of 20,000 sailors’ wills in ADM 48. The name of the ship is also necessary for you to search the Ships’ Musters and Pay Books in ADM 31-39, 41, 115 and 117, held by the National Archives, which remain unindexed except for a small collection on FindmyPast. The musters were listed every two months and give details of where the ship was located at the time. They are arranged by the individual number assigned to a crew member for that voyage. You will find their date of entry, both the official date and when they made their appearance on board and you can discover whether they were pressed or volunteers. These records should therefore tell me whether John Woodbine was indeed pressed in 1804, after his banns of marriage were called. They also provide an age and place of birth, valuable information, particularly for those who died prior to the 1851 census. As well as the seamen’s rank, there is information on the “cause” of their discharge: “D” if discharged at the end of the voyage, “DD” if the individual had died and “R” for run if they had deserted.
In summary, my research into the naval service of my ancestor, John Woodbine, has illustrated how you can piece together details of a seamen’s career prior to 1853. Many of the records, such as Navy Allotment Registers, Entry Certificates and pension documents have been indexed and the images can be found in the collections of both FindmyPast and Ancestry. Ships’ musters and pay books are indexed by ship’s name and can only be consulted at the National Archives (U.K). I hope to look at those pertaining to HMS Avenger to add to John Woodbine’s story. If your ancestor was an officer, there are additional wonderful sources that can be consulted but they are beyond the remit of this article.
It would be easy to assume that John Woodbine had spent his life as a cooper in Rotherhithe but the naval records I have viewed have uncovered a whole different chapter of his life. He must have been educated and good with numbers to be charge of the accounts as the purser’s steward and as the ship’s corporal, he had to manage people and help train them in weaponry. He sailed the high seas and saw battle, no doubt having many adventures on board Avenger. Perhaps he even met Admiral Nelson! There is also a love story to consider with him and Ann waiting four long years to finally be wed. I feel that I now know something of the man.
© Judith Batchelor 2022
N.B. If your ancestor was in service in 1805, he may be listed in The National Archives Trafalgar database, https://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/trafalgarancestors/, which provides information on the 18,000 men of the Royal Navy who fought at the Battle of Trafalgar under Admiral Nelson on October 21 1805 (around a sixth of the Navy at the time).
When searching the National Archives Discovery catalogue, ships are referenced by their name but the pre-fix HMS should not be used. You may also discover other records and correspondence relating to particular ships.
13 thoughts on “Tracing a British Seaman in the Royal Navy before 1853”
What a fascinating piece of history. Looking at a little known aspect of naval life.
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He must have had an exciting time and it’s interesting to see his positions of responsibility in the Navy.
Thoroughly well researched and the whole process clearly explained with working examples. Another wonderfully written blog Jude, a must read for anyone with naval ancestors! Who would have thought the reason he never married first time was so unusual.
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I haven’t yet proved that he was pressed into the Navy but it seems the most likely reason why he never got married in 1804, especially when you look at the date of him joining Avenger. At first I thought he had married twice! It says something of the relationship that Ann was willing to wait for him all those years later.
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The dates are the biggest clue, a coincidence? We know we never believe in them!
How interesting that after likely being pressed that John decided to stay on in the Navy – would he have made more money that way than in his work as a cooper? I hope he and Ann at least saw each other during those years before they married.
Thanks for all that detailed info on the types of records. So far I’ve found few seamen in my lines, but you never know! It’s good to see you illustrating that searching at TNA can reveal important info … so many people stick only to the Big Four sites and miss out on valuable resources.
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I think you could do rather well in the Navy at this time due to prize money. I expect he decided to stay on and save up for when he and Ann had a family. His strategy was not without risk, given that England was at War with France. Being a skilled profession, I imagine he would earn a decent wage as a cooper. I hope I can find something more about him in the records of the Coopers Company.
I think I could be stuck in TNA for days looking at the records for Avenger. A good few have been indexed but I think there is a lot more to discover. I like to prepare a check list of sources to look at for the future.
Poor John, completing an apprenticeship and about to be married when there was a complete ‘sea change.’
Thank you for this excellent case study in researching navy men. I have some specific things to pick your brains on soon!
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You do feel sorry for John but hopefully, he got some good prize money. From the positions he held, it seems he was held in high regard by the Navy. The love between him and Ann must have been strong for them to marry, despite the years of separation. I don’t know that I am a navy expert but feel free to pick my brains. 😄
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Another excellent piece of research, Judith! Well done for pursuing this information and bringing John’s story to life. A fascinating slice of history!
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Thanks Gill! It’s fun to have an ancestor who had an adventurous life. It’s also a good excuse to look at records that you perhaps wouldn’t normally use.