Jack Tar

Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy Book Cover
The UK hardcover jacket

Publication Details

Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy was originally published in hardcover by Little, Brown. It is now available in paperback (published by Abacus), with a bolder jacket design and a more appropriate subtitle – Jack Tar: The extraordinary lives of ordinary seamen in Nelson’s navy. The book has 49 introductory pages, numbered i–xlix, followed by 413 pages plus an index. There are several plates, maps and a few drawings. It is also available as an e-book.

Jack Tar: A Description

The 250th anniversary of the birth of Lord Admiral Nelson was on 29 September 2008, and while this was a time of commemoration, it is also fitting to remember that the Royal Navy could not function without the hundreds of thousands of seamen and marines. With our previous two books, Trafalgar and The War for All the Oceans, many readers told us that they especially enjoyed the sections about the everyday lives of these ordinary men, as they tend to be overlooked in favour of the officers and in favour of political and tactical issues.

A seaman wearing short jacket, loose trousers, neckerchief and glazed hat
A seaman wearing short jacket, loose trousers, neckerchief and glazed hat

Jack Tar: Life in Nelson's Navy Book Cover
The UK paperback jacket

Royal Marine privates around 1802-10 wearing red coats, white cross-belts, white breeches, gaiters and round hats with a feather plume
Royal Marine privates around 1802–10 wearing red coats, white cross-belts, white breeches, gaiters and round hats with a feather plume

Scurvy was a terrible killer of seamen, and the disease was only eradicated around 1800 by the use of lemons and limes
Scurvy was a terrible killer of seamen, and the disease was only eradicated around 1800 by the use of lemons and limes.

Hard ship's biscuits full of maggots and weevils
Ship’s biscuits were hard and often full of maggots and weevils

A man is tied to a grating and is about to be flogged. Everyone was required to watch.
A man is tied to a grating and is about to be flogged. Everyone was required to watch.

We certainly found Jack Tar a fascinating book to write, and out of all the books we have written, this one has generated by far the most interest and enthusiasm, from a whole range of people. What we have done in Jack Tar is to divide the book into themes, rather than a chronological narrative. The subtitle is ‘Life in Nelson’s Navy’, which basically means that we have restricted ourselves to the period 1771 to 1815. The year 1771 is when Nelson joined the navy as a young boy, and the year 1815 is a decade beyond his death, marking the very end of the Napoleonic Wars and the war with the United States of America. We could have written a massive volume, as there is so much wonderful source material out there, but we agreed with the publisher to stick to the word length that they set.

A warship's small boats often patrolled up and down coasts and engaged with enemy craft. This is an action involving Nelson
A warship’s small boats often patrolled up and down coasts and engaged with enemy craft. This is an action involving Nelson.

In 1811 James Wathen was about to sail to India, and he was given a tour of the warships at Spithead. His guide told him that ‘Each of those tremendous, though beautiful floating castles, each of those first-rates, contain when at sea an active garrison of one thousand men, one hundred pieces of ordnance, with provisions and ammunition for six months.’ The numbers of men on board individual warships, as Wathen discovered, was huge. They were also very cosmopolitan places. In an era when most people travelled very little distance from their homes, the ships were filled with men drawn from all over the British Isles. In addition, foreign seamen were invariably present, either as volunteers in the Royal Navy or forcibly conscripted.

A letter written by James Bodie of HMS Spartan describing how he was captured in a boat action in 1807.
A letter written by James Bodie of HMS Spartan describing how he was captured in a boat action in 1807.

The crew muster list for the frigate HMS Amazon in 1807 is now preserved in The National Archives at Kew, as are many other official naval records. Three hundred men were recorded for this ship, and there was hardly anyone from the same place. They included George King, 23, a sailmaker from Chatham; John Foley, 46, an able seaman from Falmouth; John Malone, 26, an able seaman from Kilkenny in Ireland; William Pearson, 31, a quarter gunner from Hereford; William Johnson, 27, an able seaman from London, who deserted on 24 April 1808 when on leave in Plymouth; and George Berwick, 25, a purser’s steward from the Orkneys. There were over thirty foreign recruits, including George Millar, 22, an able seaman from Hanover in Germany; Samuel McNash, 26, an ordinary seaman from New Jersey in America; Thomas Williams, 41, an ordinary seaman from Bermuda; and Antonia Argotte, 31, an ordinary seaman from Lisbon in Portugal.

Tombstone of William Grave, Master of HMS Caesar, who died at the Battle of Algesiras in 1801 and is buried at Gibraltar.
Tombstone of William Grave, Master of HMS Caesar, who died at the Battle of Algesiras in 1801 and is buried at Gibraltar.

Greenwich Pensioners Joseph Burgin, James Connell and George French in 1844. They were all Trafalgar veterans.
Greenwich Pensioners Joseph Burgin, James Connell and George French in 1844. They were all Trafalgar veterans.

A ship’s crew must therefore have been filled with many dialects and languages, and we know that some seamen did not even understand English. When fourteen-year-old Robert Hay volunteered for the navy in 1803, he was astonished to hear all the different languages and dialects (which today are so weakened by the influence of radio and television): ‘To the ear was addressed a hubbub little short of that which occurred at Babel. Irish, Welsh, Dutch, Portuguese, Spanish, French, Swedish, Italian and all the provincial dialects between Landsend and John O’Groats, joined their discordant notes.’

The seaman John Nicol at the age of 67. He fought at the Battle of the Nile.
The seaman John Nicol at the age of 67. He fought at the Battle of the Nile.

A plaque marking the burial place of about 3,000 Greenwich pensioners in the East Greenwich Pleasaunce.
A plaque marking the burial place of about 3,000 Greenwich pensioners in the East Greenwich Pleasaunce.

Mountbatten Maritime Literary Award

Jack Tar was nominated for the Mountbatten Maritime Literary Award, an annual award that is given by the Maritime Foundation, a registered charity.

Excerpt (from Chapter 4: Facing the Elements)

Much of the time the men were unable to keep dry and warm, and Dr Trotter urged that
‘When their watches expire in rainy weather, they should be obliged to take off their
wet shirts before they get into their hammocks, which, from laziness as well as fatigue,
they will not do but by compulsion. Nothing can be more pernicious than going to sleep
wrapped up in wet linen, and it causes also their bedding to be damp and unwholesome for
some time afterwards.’ Writing in 1801, he observed that ‘The practice which has lately
been adopted of having stoves with fires placed occasionally in those parts of the ship
where the men reside, and in others subject to humidity, is of the utmost importance to
the health of the people and should never be omitted in damp weather.’

Keeping dry was certainly not just a problem of winter weather, as
Major-General Cockburn on board the Lively discovered when they encountered very high
humidity in the Mediterranean off the North African coast:

‘The damp, considering the latitude we are in, and the season of the year [July], is
extraordinary; there is a constant thorough air in the cabin; ports and doors open all
day, and yet, leave a pair of boots three days in a corner, and they will be quite damp
and mouldy. We have also had frequent fogs, and though the weather is so hot, our clothes
and every thing in the ship feels clammy, and our linen is as damp as in Ireland during
winter … many complain of slight rheumatism.’

…. Different weather conditions favoured different groups of vermin on board ship, and
particularly in hot climates vermin were a problem, causing damage to clothing, provisions
and the men themselves. As the fuel for the stove was both coal and wood, the men were
frequently sent on shore to forage for wood, and Jeffrey Raigersfeld described the unwanted
wildlife they encountered when he was a servant to Captain Collingwood on board the Mediator
in 1783: ‘In the West Indies, the fuel made use of on board a ship is wood, among which
varieties of insects are brought, such as scorpions, centipedes, and tarantulas, with now
and then a few snakes; these soon begin to crawl all up and down a ship, even into the
hammocks, and the men frequently got stung and bit by them.’ ….


Introduction: Scum of the Earth
A Few Facts and Figures
Chapter 1 – Learning the Ropes
Chapter 2 – Pressed
Chapter 3 – Salt Junk and Grog
Chapter 4 – Facing the Elements
Chapter 5 – A Wife in Every Port
Chapter 6 – Bells and Whistles
Chapter 7 – Convoy and Capture
Chapter 8 – Into Battle
Chapter 9 – Under the Knife
Chapter 10 – At Leisure
Chapter 11 – Glory and Honours

Available Rights

World English Language rights are no longer available.

Some Reviews

‘The proofreader, who checked the typeset manuscript, gave the following comments to our editor, for which we are very grateful: ‘I found, while working on the book, that it was something of a shock to return to normal life, so vivid and intense was the contrast. One is alternately filled with horror at the working conditions and hardships of seamen, and admiration at their courage and hardiness. Some of the individual stories are intensely moving … When I find myself urging friends and family to read a book, I know it is going to be a winner.
Jack Tar passes that test with flying colours.’

The latest review is on the website of Jonathan North , a historian specialising in this era: ‘I learnt a lot, but I have to thank the authors for opening up a whole new world, rich in potential reading … Jack Tar is a great, and entertaining, service to us all’. It’s well worth looking at the entire review (at www.jpnorth.co.uk/reviews/), as it is so well written

‘This description of life in Nelson’s Navy needs no narrative adornment. Sailors were expected to fight and the carnage is impressively described. But in detailing every aspect of their lives, Roy and Lesley Adkins show that for most sailors the ships on which they served were their homes … and so this emerges as a social history rather than military history. The rigours they were expected to endure are extraordinary, as is, in its own way, this wonderful history’ (Toby Clements,The Telegraph)

‘We know a great deal about Nelson, but what about the ordinary seamen? … Here the Adkinses give them the attention they merit … Having read widely on the subject, the authors have got into the sailors’ lives by way of many of their letters and diaries; an enthralling read’ (5 star review) (Nicholas Bagnall,Sunday Telegraph)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins bring their world alive … the material is so rich that this is a fascinating, even occasionally humbling study’ (David Mills,Sunday Times)

This reviewer did a further review in the Sunday Times for the paperback: ‘In this fascinating study, the authors use unpublished diaries, letters and manuscripts to produce an account of life on the lower decks’

‘a new thunderstorm of a book, penetrating every aspect of the sailor’s existence in ships of war … The Adkinses have unfolded a rich and questing canvas of life in the wooden warships of the day. This is a treasure chest of incident in masterly hands, described in great broadsides of action above and below decks’ (Colin Gardiner,Oxford Times)

‘If you’ve read the Hornblower novels and Master and Commander, you may think you already know about life with Nelson’s Navy. Jack Tar will make you think again. Here, for a change, is a book devoted to the life of ordinary seamen below decks; a self-contained world of comradeship, savage discipline and scurvy, punctuated by grog, song and dance, women and bursts of violent carnage. An extraordinary read’ (Daily Mail, recommended as one of six history books to buy for Christmas)

‘a splendid book’ (Roy Palmer, Folklife Quarterly)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins possess that rare knack among historians: merging the academic with the narrative and providing a riveting read which also casts light where it is dark … This is as comprehensive – and lively – an account of the life of Jack Tar as you could hope to find’ (Navy News)

Jack Tar: Life in Nelson’s Navy is a fine example of bottom-up history … Despite the tale it tells, the Adkins’s book is itself far from depressing … This is a book that charts the extremes of misery and merriment in a life that might well have been the lot of any one of us, had we been born 250 years ago’ (Christopher Catling,Salon)

‘The authors make use of their broad research into the history of the Royal Navy to remind readers that each ship resembled a village or small town in both numbers and variety of trades … The range of topics is considerable … It may be said that all life is here; at least, all aspects of a sailor’s life aboard ship’ (Contemporary Review)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins paint a graphic and enthralling picture of what life was really like for ordinary seamen and marines, as well as some of their officers’ (Colin Bradley,
Western Morning News)

‘Gritty detail springs from Jack Tar … Roy and Lesley Adkins have allowed the salts of Trafalgar to tell their sories in their own words’ (Stephen Taylor,The Times)

‘[A] spirited and unsparing account of life and death at sea’ (Nigel Jones, Literary Review)

‘It is the horror stories that stand out: the terror of combat, the boredom of blockade, the amputations without anaesthetic and the lashings. A sailor’s life, the authors make clear, was often pretty much unendurable by modern standards … as this enjoyable and well-researched book makes clear, the real strength of the Navy lay in its men. Some were shiftless and criminal, but most were able and remarkably highly skilled’ (Mike Dash,Mail on Sunday)

‘Expertly researched and drawing on eyewitness accounts, diaries and letters to loved ones from those overlooked ordinary folk …
Jack Tar gives a clear voice to the naval backbone of Nelson’s era. This fascinating account of the realities of ship life gives their immeasurable contribution to Britain’s seagoing prowess a tangible dimension’ (Ancestors magazine)

‘An expertly researched and fascinating look at the ordinary men who powered the naval ships during Nelson’s era … By drawing on the diaries, letters and accounts of the ordinary men who formed the backbone of the British Navy, Roy and Lesley Adkins give a clear voice to the Jack Tars of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century … This fascinating account of the fralities of naval life not only gives Jack Tar a voice, but illustrates his immeasurable contribution to Britannia’s ruling the waves’ (Jill Morris, Batley News; also the
Dewsbury Reporter)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins have come up with another fascinating age of sail companion … [an] engrossing book’ (Julian Stockwin, www.julianstockwin.com)

‘This is, quite simply, a wonderful book: widely, deeply and meticulously researched, thoughtfully and lucidly written and seamlessly collated … The Adkins’ explorations are wide-ranging, and supported by a wealth of original sources that are as stimulating as they are satisfying … the Adkins cover every aspect of a seaman’s life with an admirable blend of integrity, sympathy and necessary detachment … Roy and Lesley Adkins have done a huge service in writing this book … Thorough, scrupulously researched, and written engagingly and with an admirable clarity, I commend “Jack Tar” unreservedly’ (Anna Knowles, www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk)
Our comment – This is a long and very thoughtful review, which is best read in its entirety in the “Information Forum” of www.nelsonandhisworld.co.uk (under Books)

‘Roy and Lesley Adkins have worked like archaeologists … unearthing hundreds of sources, extracting hundreds of relevant pieces, then carefully glueing them together until the whole image is reconstructed … Jack Tar was no saint but the product of the very harsh 18th-century society. His voice is seldom heard in history books … If you read only one book of history this year that commemorates the 250th anniversary of Nelson, read Jack Tar’ (Patrick Marioné, www.ageofnelson.org)

‘Meticulous research (often coupled with subtle tongue in cheek humour) is the hallmark of an Adkins book and this one is no different … I liked Jack Tar for its honesty. This isn’t a fluffy history book that glosses over the dirt, rats and weevils. This superb book takes you back and rubs your nose in Nelson’s navy. Don’t take my word for it. Get along and order yourself a copy right away’ (Ray Hatley, www.history.uk.com)

‘This has to be a complete labour of love … Roy and Lesley Adkins have assiduously collected material, and then collected this into a most readable and detailed account of all aspects of life in the wooden walls, which I have not previously seen in this form … This is a very comprehensive account, but is also extremely readable from cover to cover … a most splendid book which should be on every enthusiast’s booklist’ (D. B. Clement,SW Soundings)

‘There’s the salty tang of authenticity to this timely history … It gives a vividly detailed impression of life at sea for the fighting men to whom accidents and disease often posed a greater threat than warfare’ (David Ross,Bournemouth Daily Echo)

We later had another review in the same newspaper, for the paperback: ‘Jack Tar is an engaging account of the hardship, danger and occasional compensations that formed the daily round of more than 130,000 men at the height of hostilities – not to mention a surprising number of women’ (Jon Bish,Bournemouth Daily Echo)

‘The Adkins draw on letters, diaries and other sources to paint an unforgettable picture of life in Nelson’s navy, at sea and on land’ (Maggie Hartford,Oxford Times)

‘An eye-popping account of life on board. Hilarious and heart-breaking by turns, it promises to be every bit as popular as their previous bestseller,Trafalgar’ (Lindsey Sill, Mid Devon Advertiser)

‘Their tales are a must for family history enthusiasts’ (Monisha Rajesh, Family History Monthly)

Jack Tar leaves nothing to the imagination, giving us a very readable narrative history of the gruesome, terrible but also fascinating world of Nelson’s navy’ (Samantha Whitaker,Overseas)

‘packed full of stories … dozens of colourful layers’ (Matt Jackson, The News)

‘written with verve and enthusiasm to convey a vivid picture of shipboard life’ (Margarette Lincoln,Times Literary Supplement)

These are some reviews sent to us by readers, to give a flavour of their opinions:

‘I’ve recently read, with a great deal of pleasure and profit, your Jack Tar’ (Roy Palmer – author and editor of numerous books, including The Oxford Book of Sea Shanties)

‘I thoroughly enjoyed reading your book, perhaps the chapter “Under the Knife” was a bit gruesome’ (KD, UK)

‘I have just finished reading your lively, colourful and entertaining work “Jack Tar” which I thoroughly enjoyed. It is a masterful work in its detail and in the way it brings to life the revealing realities of life in Nelson’s navy … I was eager to read all of the book yet was sorry when it came to an end’ (TH, Dublin)

‘I don’t normally write to authors, but had to do so after reading “Jack Tar”. What a brilliant book. Many thanks for all your work’ (JH, London)

‘I write to congratulate you on a wonderful read of your latest book, Jack Tar … I am sure this would be a great seller on audio. Are there any plans?’ (SE, Malta)

‘Congratulations on Jack Tar. Truly a monumental piece of research. It deserves wide circulation’ (TC, Hampshire, UK)

‘Please accept my thanks for a wonderful book, Jack Tar. I am now reading it for the second time’ (GP, UK)

‘I have just finished “Jack Tar”, which I read with huge enjoyment. What I particularly liked was the many extracts which gave the story in contemporary voices’ (RD, Oxford)

‘I enjoyed Jack Tar immensely’ (NH, Crewe)

‘I have read Trafalgar (brilliant) and have got about 5 pages left of Jack Tar (also brilliant) and am now worried that I haven’t got another one of your books to follow on. Having said that I am about to order The War for All the Oceans – I do hope you are working on another one’ (GV, Bournemouth)

‘Just finished reading Jack Tar. Fascinating, amazing detail, and the organization makes it very readable. Thanks for doing this’ (DF, Toronto)

‘I have just finished reading your book Jack Tar. What a read, I really felt that I was on board one of Nelson’s ships and taken part of daily life … I’m just about to start reading The War for All the Oceans, I’m sure this will be just as good’ (GP, Poole, Dorset)

‘I was fascinated by your accounts of Jack Tar … The book is riveting … many thanks for your brilliant contributions to naval history – very much appreciated’ (PH, Suffolk)

‘I read Jack Tar first [out of all your books] and was completely gobsmacked that I didn’t know any of this and was quite ashamed that I didn’t … your books are opening up a whole new part of history. They’re completely fascinating and are written in the most vivid way imaginable’ (NF, Surrey)