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|Life on board
Written by Rae
(10/14/2008 7:09 a.m.)
in consequence of the missive, Mrs Croft´s life on board, penned by MarianneR
I admire Sophie immensely for her courge and devotion to her husband in accompanying him on board ship. Officers' wives were often on board, being taken from one place to another - as Lady Mary Grierson and her family, and the Harville family are described as doing. What Sophie seems to be describing is more than this. The ships were her actual home alongside her husband; this was unusual though by no means unheard of. So what would it have been like? She comments on the closer quarters of the frigate and I think this would have been quite tough. On a larger ship, once her husband was an Admiral, things might have been a bit easier. All the things I say would still apply, but more space and a larger and more diverse population would mitigate them.
Firstly, even the Admiral/Captain's private cabin would only have had fairly flimsy wooden walls (bulkheads) that would have been removed in the event of a battle, and all his possessions stowed in the hold. The idea of no permanent and fairly private space would put me off. Secondly, the cabin door was permanently guarded by a marine sentry - imagine knowing someone was just outside your door all the time. Even on a fairly large ship, it would be difficult to have a private conversation because of the lack of soundproofing.
Thirdly, you could be fairly lonely. Captains had to keep their social distance, even from their first officers, and, unless there were other women on board there might be very few people other than your husband to talk to. He would be busy a lot of the time, not just with the ship's progress but with large amounts of paperwork and general administration, and liable to be called away in any kind of emergency. The officers would be taking turn and turn about on watches, and so would be either busy or asleep a lot of the time, and not necessarily open to social visits with the Captain's wife at other times. If you were lucky, the people outside the watch system like ship's surgeon, chaplain and schoolmaster might be interesting. An Admiral would not be in day to day charge of sailing and managing the ship - his Flag Captain would do that - so his time would be less routinised but still extremely busy, with frequent trips away from the ship to other ships in the squadron or on shore. In some ways then, life would be like being the wife of an extremely busy country landowner, but with no household to run and fewer possibilities for your own occupation.
I imagine that Sophie Croft might well have taken an interest in the education of the young midshipmen, but, apart from perhaps in the emergency of a battle, she would not have got involved in any kind of nursing or helping the surgeon. Nursing like that would not be considered a proper occupation. She might, depending on her turn of mind, have done something like reading to the sick - that would equate to visiting the sick on land.
Against all of this is, of course, the fact of being with your husband and the excitement of foreign travel, which Sophie clearly relished. There would have been periods of intense social activity when you were in port, and in spite of what I say above, also entertainment and company when at sea.
Whenever I visit a ship from that period, I am struck by how they represent Georgian society in miniature. The ranks are strictly hierarchical and there are all sorts of written and unwritten rules governing conduct, but everyone is squashed up cheek by jowl. The captain and the officers would have had elegant wooden dining tables, fine china, glasses, wine etc and, not more than a few yards away were the men's cramped living quarters. Yet somehow it all worked; through a mixture of personal qualities on the part of officers, acceptance of the system by the men, the lure of prizes for successful crews and, of course, the underlying threat of physical punishment. But, I cannot think that it would have been a very comfortable setting for a woman and Sophie is remarkable in having lived in it for so long. It is perhaps as much a testament to her husband's qualities as a leader as to her own.
I have attached a link to some pictures of mine of a restored 38 gun frigate, the Trincomalee which is kept at Hartlepool in the north of England. They should give you a sense of what life on a frigate might have been like - you can see the captain's cabin, with its glorious (and very Georgian) stern windows. It is shown opened right out, but it would have been possible to put up bulkheads to create smaller rooms within it. The laden table in one picture is that of the officers' 'mess'; the 'gunroom' - you can see what I mean about that and the contrast with the messes of the crew just a few feet away. On a frigate the guns were all on one deck, and there was a seperate messdeck, so the men did not actually mess and sleep between the guns, unlike on a bigger ship. The officers' cabins are behind the row of white dors you can see n another picture.
I am 5' 10", and can walk around upright on the gundeck, but have to watch my head everywhere, and stoop in some places.
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