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Napoleonic War shore leave for officers?
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rose_in_shadow wrote in little_details
I've been researching the British Navy for a Napolenonic War-era novel and I've found a lot of resources for the various details I'll need to know, but there's one thing I've had trouble finding. Is there a legitimate reason for the officers of a ship to be ashore for any significant length of time? "Shore leave" apparently wasn't a thing during this era because of the fear of desertion. The only sources I've been able to find about the crew of a ship being ashore during are for very temporary liberty when in a port to resupply or if one of the officers is injured and he has to recuperate. Would a crew be ashore for a time if their ship was damaged enough in a battle to need extensive repairs or would they just be reassigned?

Basically, what I need to know is how likely it is that during wartime an officer aboard a British ship would be at home long enough to fall in love and get married? Or do I need to injure him in some way or maybe even date it later so it's after the war?

EDIt: Thanks for the helpful info everyone!

Basically, what I need to know is how likely it is that during wartime an officer aboard a British ship would be at home long enough to fall in love and get married?
Well, Frederick Wentworth managed the falling in love part. While he was waiting to be posted to new ship, IIRC. (New to him, that is, not entirely new.)

Desertion wouldn't be an issue with officers, as they were career officers, not pressed men.

It was also the case that many ships were stationed in the Channel and the North Sea and their officers could come on shore fairly frequently.


Captain Wentworth is partially what prompted my post because I thought Persuaion takes place in the post-war years. There are several mentions of "the peace" and I needed a time period set during the war. But your point about ships stationed in the Channel is a good one.

I meant when he and Anne first met and became engaged. Anne was nineteen at the time. Since her birthdate is given as 9 August 1787, they must have met in 1806/07. They met again eight years later, which would be 1814/15.

Or you could set the story during the Peace of Amiens, 1802-03.

*checks copy of Persuasion*

You're right! I thought I remembered that Cpt. Wentworth was a curate before making his mark in the navy, but on a closer re-read the curate was his brother. Cpt. Wentworth did meet Anne while "unemployed" the book says... I take that to mean that he didn't immediately have a ship and was rather the poorer as a result.

Excellent then. This gives me all kinds of ideas.

Thank you!

He was poor then because he hadn't had time to accumulate a fortune from shares in prizes - enemy ships and stores captured by the Navy. The rules were complicated, but any officer or man on any ship nearby, not just the ship that actually took the surrender, was entitled to a share of the value, in proportion to his rank and the number of ships involved. The notes to my copy of Persuasion say that Capt. William Parker had made £40,000 in prize money by the time he was thirty, in 1812.

But officers could be on shore for some time, on half-pay, while waiting for a new ship to be commissioned, or simply waiting for a posting.

Fictional, I know, but this seems to have happened to Hornblower. And yes, he did end up getting married as a result.

It may be fictional, but I would imagine most things in all those books were based on stuff that had happened to someone in real life. Hornblower and his like just had rather more things happen to them!

You'd be surprised actually - I was reading a biography of Lord Cochrane a few months ago and basically checking off the events in his life that had been borrowed by Forrester and O'Brian - and kind of marvelling that there were enough for two fictional naval heroes.

Ah, Cochrane - now there was a character! One of the series, I can't remember which, had the fictional hero actually meet Cochrane and be beguiled into one of his schemes.

His Wikipedia entry contains the amusing line "This was the first public manifestation of a pattern of Cochrane being unable to get along with many of his superiors, subordinates, employers and colleagues..."

The Aubrey-Maturin series is a good reference as well for things like this. As mentioned above, leave while waiting for a new commission and peacetime are pretty good reasons for staying on shore. It depends on how long you'd want him to stay. It's also possible he could be on shore, fall in love, go back to the ship and return a few months later and marry. Especially when the ship he is commissioned to stay near England this should be doable. What's also an option (it happened in one of the Aubrey-Maturin books) was that someone was too late when the ship went to sea and he was left behind, he had to wait until the ship returned (or get another captain to bring him to the destination port) to get on again. It's not good for your character's name though, if you do that. :)

I've read a couple of the Aubrey-Maturin books, but it's been a few years back.

Thanks for the info!

The series also has a number of times when the crew is stuck ashore for weeks or months because their ship is badly damaged and has to go to drydock for repairs. It seems there was a lot of runaround from the head of the shipyard based on toadying and influence and graft, and often shortages of supplies, especially with important captains snatching the best timbers, copper sheathing, cordage, etc. There's also times when there's just no ship available for the crew, due to having more officers than working ships.

I should first state that I’m not a historian - most of my knowledge of the Royal Navy of the period has been gleaned from reading Hornblower, Bolitho and Delancey, whose authors have presumably done their homework, but for the period in general this has been augmented by looking at newspapers and parish records of the time.

"Shore leave" apparently wasn't a thing during this era because of the fear of desertion.

This isn’t an issue; an officer wouldn’t desert, even if he didn’t have much choice in entering the Navy in the first place. He was effectively a salaried professional, whose pay, status and family honour would be enhanced by doing his job well, and he could leave at any time he chose, subject to practical considerations, of course.

It was general, for the sake of discipline and what we would nowadays call team-building, for the Captain to be aboard his ship most of the time, even during refitting. If he wanted to sleep out of his ship, he had to get his Admiral’s permission. But that would be no barrier to him going home or up to Town (ie London) for a few days from Portsmouth or Chatham if the Admiral liked him or he had influential relatives that the Admiral wanted to keep happy.

Also, at that time it could take quite a long time to gather all the men required to work the ship, and during this time the Captain might well be ashore, talking to magistrates and landowners and offering to take their troublemakers off their hands. It would be surprising if the landowner’s pretty daughter were not wheeled in with the cakes and sherry to meet the handsome naval gentleman.

However, it’s worth noting that Bolitho - who was landed gentry but not popular with the Admiralty - met his various well-bred amours on voyages. Ramage was aristocracy and he met both the enchanting Marchesa, and his eventual wife Sarah, on voyages. Obviously the better-bred your Captain is, the more likely he is to be sent to rescue the high-class passengers fleeing Napoleon, but even Hornblower met his second wife, Lady Barbara, on a voyage. She and her maid were passengers and he was the Captain. Naturally the lady would dine with the Captain.

Going back to your original question - you need to bear in mind that for all practical purposes, officers and men were effectively two entirely separate species. They didn’t mix much and they didn’t inter-marry, and there definitely were different rules - and even laws - governing the two groups.

For example, this was a period when parish registers would record the christenings of “William, son of John Brown, labourer” and of “Thomas, son of Mr Brown.” Mr Brown probably didn’t have an occupation as such, and it certainly wasn’t necessary to mention it in the register - everyone would know who Mr Brown was.

This was also a period, frustratingly, when newspapers would report, for example, “the marriage of Miss Emily Smith of XYZ House, second daughter of the late Captain James Smith of the 9th Dragoons” in great detail, and the next story would state that “a man named Brown was found drowned in the [river name] on Monday; he leaves a wife and large family.”

Edited at 2012-12-13 07:45 pm (UTC)

The newspapers reported what was interesting to the literate of the time, Alas for our historical record.

I agree, it's a great pity. Probably 75% of my ancestors were the "man named Brown" variety, and it can be impossible to work out who the story is about, even with my relatively uncommon surname.

However, I think it's more a question of what was interesting to the people the newspaper editor considered worth pleasing. Or who could afford to buy his paper, which is probably the same thing. Of course, I realise that being able to produce a signature isn't necessarily the same as being literate, but I have been surprised to find how many of my "men - and even women - named Brown" were able to produce a confident, flowing signature.

I think it's more a question of what was interesting to the people the newspaper editor considered worth pleasing.

I've found that the type of news reported in local papers can change over time, as the character of the town changes. For example less about a particular local industry and the people involved in it, as that industry declines, more about middle class/minor gentry society and interests (e.g reports of weddings) as there are more people of that type in the neighbourhood.

That makes sense; I hadn't thought of it like that because I'm still at the stage of searching on certain names and picking out people's individual stories rather than getting the overall history - that will come later.

Thanks for the info! This is very helpful.

There is tons of material in the three volume version of THE WYNNE DIARIES, which includes letters and battle reports from Captain Fremont (sailed with Nelson) through that period that makes it clear that officers often were entertained on shore. Sometimes, especially after a battle, the men would be permitted liberty as well, but that was at the discretion of the captain.

Ooh, thanks! I'll mark that down.

I think you meant Captain Fremantle, not Fremont?

Sigh, yes. I have bad name dyslexia--and I was just rereading the books a week ago! Thank you.

Something to bear in mind is that the Royal Navy at this time still maintained the 17th century legal fiction that its personnel were only hired temporarily, for a single voyage on a specific ship, and paid off when the ship returned to port. The system of 'half-pay' developed as a retainer fee to allow the Admiralty to keep skilled officers available for work even when it had no ship for them to serve on. By Napoleonic times the Navy had evolved into a fully professional force, but there were still usually more officers available than there were ships. An officer's career was thus likely to consist of periods of service interspersed with periods 'on the beach' on half-pay.

Also, this was a period where people often got married without knowing each other all that well beforehand - introduced by friends or at a ball, then a few chaperoned meetings, then a proposal. Bam.


As a real-life example which might be useful:

Horatio Nelson was appointed captain of the frigate HMS Boreas in 1784, and sent to the West Indies. In May 1785 he met his future wife Fanny Nisbet on Nevis, and visited her at her home several times. He proposed to her in August of that year. However, in 1786 his ship was sent to Barbados, and so they had to keep in touch by letters. Early in 1787 he was able to return to Nevis, and they got married there - several of his officers were present at the service. He returned to England, followed by his wife, in July of 1787.

After his commission in command of the Boreas ended, he was then on half-pay for the next six years, and lived in England with his wife. He was given another command, HMS Agamemnon, in 1793, and spent the next four years in various ships, sailing around the Mediterranean, losing his arm in battle and being promoted to Admiral. However, he also managed to meet Emma Hamilton, wife of the British ambassador in Naples, when his ship called there in 1793.

In 1797-8 Nelson spent six months at home while he recovered from the loss of his arm. He then went back to sea, and in September 1798 was back in Naples for three weeks and enjoying the company of Lady Hamilton before setting sail again. By the following year, the two of them were having a very public affair, which scandalised everybody - not least because Nelson rarely set foot in his ship, but commanded his fleet from Lady Hamilton's house. At this stage, though, Nelson was senior enough - and famous enough - to write his own rules, so he's perhaps not the best example from that point on!




This gives me all kinds of ideas.