The Crew of HMS Victory

HMS Victory crew

As the Victory was a flagship and the chief officer was the Admiral, Nelson's task was to organise the daily affairs of the fleet and to prepare his subordinates for battle. He therefore played very little part in the actual running of the ship itself. This was the responsibility of the captain, who was assisted by his Lieutenants, each of whom looked after a particular aspect of the ship's routine - such as gunnery or signalling. The junior, or trainee, officers who were the Midshipmen also helped with these duties. Additionally there were a number of specialist officers, such as the Purser, who looked after the supplies, and the Master, who was responsible for navigating the ship.

Over 850 officers and men served in HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Each of these men had a clearly defined set of duties to perform. Over half of the ship's company at Trafalgar were made up of volunteers. All the officers were full-time professionals, Royal Marines and boys had all joined voluntarily. However although over two hundred of the sailors had indeed joined up of their own accord many did not. As in most wars there were never enough volunteers to man all the ships required for a fleet. With the real possibility of being away from home and family for many years and the rumours of squalid conditions and harsh discipline on board warships of the line, along with the popular myths of rats and weevils in the ships food, conscription was often necessary.

Although British warships kept live animals on board as far they could, much depended upon the captain as to how often he re-supplied his provisions. Commanding the Mediterranean Fleet blockading Cadiz, Nelson routinely detached ships from the Fleet to replenish and rearm at Gibraltar to make sure that the crews stayed as fit and healthy as could possibly be achieved.

Captains did often try to make fresh food available for the crew but this was never easy and "dry" rations were often all that was available on a long voyage. Foodstuffs may well have been in the hold for months, even years and would have been unpalatable to say the least. But at least the crew had three meals a day however grim they might be and along with their daily rum ration as well as being pay for their services, things were not all bad.
Through special laws passed by parliament certain clearly defined types of men with maritime experience were required to serve in warships like the Victory. These laws were often rigorously enforced by the infamous 'press-gangs'. Press-gangs were armed gangs of royal marines and sailors who frequently roamed the streets of the sea ports looking for likely new recruits who were then 'pressed' into service.  Perhaps the real problems of recruitment can be well illustrated: when convicted men were given the choice between being locked up in the primitive conditions of an 18th century jail or join the Navy, many chose jail.

The main body of the ship's company was made up of the seamen. They were divided into Able and Ordinary Seamen who were the most experienced and Landsmen who were men who had little or no previous experience at sea. There were also many boys on board, some of them as young as ten years of age; many of these boys being orphans were sent to sea to learn a trade. There was also an elite corps of around 150 Royal Marines which were used to maintain discipline on board as well as in battle providing accurate small arms fire, often from high up in the rigging.