1707 – 1815
“Sweet Poll of Plymouth,” Thomas Macklin, George Shepheard, Henry William Bunbury, 1790, National Maritime Museum.
Whenever Royal Navy ships of the period came into port, an armada of ‘bumboats’ immediately besieged them. Bumboats were small vessels that brought fresh vegetables, supplies and, most notoriously, prostitutes and drink to the warships. In port, most ships’ captains allowed prostitutes onboard, and the men were in any case already issued with large quantities of drink – the standard allowance was a gallon of beer a man per day. If beer was not available, then a pint of wine or half a pint of spirits could be substituted.
The warships of the day were very overcrowded, and each man was only allowed 14 inches in which to hang his hammock. Add large numbers of prostitutes to the overcrowding and heavy drinking, and the scenes below decks where the men lived must have been something to behold. A sailor wrote that,
‘with the women came drink and what with the drink and the women the ship’s discipline came to a stop. The men and women drank and quarrelled between the guns. The decks were allowed to become dirty. Drunken women were continually coming up to insult the officers, or to lodge some complaint. Sometimes the women ran aloft to wave their petticoats to the flagship’.