Historic Ships of England - The Mary Rose and The Victory


By Glynn Burrows


ON BIG BLEND RADIO: Glynn Burrows discusses historic ships such as the Mary Rose and HMS Victory. Watch here in the YouTube player or download the podcast on Podbean, or SoundCloud.


One of the things which we often overlook, when we think about our ancestors, is how they got from A to B.

We often hear about The Mayflower and The Titanic, but how many of us think about the conditions on board, for those who went across the Atlantic in the past?

I was fortunate enough, last week, to visit the Naval Dockyard in Portsmouth and see for myself, the living conditions aboard two ships from different periods. Although they were both fighting ships, the conditions and space available would have been very similar for normal ships of the period too.

The first one was The Mary Rose and, although that was the most advanced ship in Henry VIII’s Navy at the time, it is still quite a small vessel, being between 110-148 feet long. (Exact measurement is not possible as parts of the ends of the ship did not survive.) It carried 60-80 guns and a crew of 400-500.

The story of The Mary Rose is well documented, so I won’t go into it all here, suffice to say that there was a battle going on in The Solent and the ship sank, together with hundreds of men. There are several ideas about why she sank, but nobody really knows at the moment

The amazing thing about The Mary Rose is that she was discovered in fantastic condition, still full of everyday items and personal belongings. Half of the ship was buried in mud, preserving wood, leather, and bones, enabling us to get a detailed glimpse into the lives of the sailors on board.

The wreck was excavated during the 1970s and the timber structure was raised from the seabed in 1982, on a specially constructed metal frame. For those of us who remember watching the live TV broadcast at the time, the thing we all remember is the moment something gave way and the whole structure dropped and we could do nothing apart from wait and hope that nothing was damaged.

Visiting the museum, it was amazing to see the majority of one side of the ship sitting there in front of me, whilst on the other side of the walkway, there are the objects found in that part of the ship. Such things as wooden bowls, tradesmen’s tools, storage chests, arrows, china, cutlery, canon, shot, cooking pots and pans, etc, etc.

Journeying through the ship and the different decks, it is possible to see where the items in the museum cases were found and how they were used. Seeing some personal things, like dishes with initials carved in them, trunks belonging to known tradesmen, and the backgammon set, gives such an intimate view of everyday life in 1545 and the realisation that these were real people whose lives were sadly cut short on that fateful day.

  • The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll.
    The Mary Rose as depicted in the Anthony Roll.

Sitting beside the Mary Rose exhibition hall is The Victory and that ship has a special place in my heart as it was Nelson’s flagship and it is where he died in 1805. To see where he spent his last few days, to see the bed he slept in and the room where he prepared for his final battle, is a very special experience and to be able to explore all over the ship, makes me very glad that I was born in 1959 and not 1759. (Nelson was born in 1758.)

The ship is quite small, at only 227 feet six inches long, but it was packed full of guns and men, with over 100 cannons and a crew of around 850. There could not have been much room to move around, as the equipment takes up a lot of room and that is when it is not being used. One can only imagine the noise, smell, and heat on those decks while the ship was at the height of battle.

Walking around the ship, the first thing I noticed was the distance between decks. I am under 5’10” and I had to duck to get under the timbers. For anyone over 6’ it would have been a real problem and any tall sailors would have almost certainly had a bad back with the constant stooping.

  • The Victory
    The Victory

The Mayflower was only 80-90 feet long and carried over 100 people. It is thought to have had four decks but, with over one hundred people on board, it must have been terribly cramped. Ships of war would have required lots of provisions but could be restocked regularly, whereas a ship crossing the open seas, everything for the voyage had to be on board when it left shore and that would include water and food, together with animals and luggage.

If your ancestors went over the Atlantic in the C17th, they would have travelled for around two months, in terribly cramped conditions with animals and in very close quarters with all other passengers. Food would have been hard biscuits, dried meat, and beer. There would have been no heat, it would have been extremely unstable and the stench of people, animals, seasickness, and other illnesses would have been overwhelming.

By the C19th, things had improved with the arrival of steam power and better conditions, but there was nothing luxurious for most passengers. Communal living was common and overcrowding was the order of the day, as there was always the bonus of a few extra pounds (dollars) if some extra people could be squeezed in.

Food would have still been basic, because of the lack of refrigeration, so three-course meals with wine would have to wait till the C20th for most people.

If you are lucky enough to find out the name of the ship which your ancestor travelled on, find out as much as you can about that vessel, or ones like it. Learn about ships of that period and what conditions would be like for passengers.

It will perhaps give you some idea about what your ancestors went through just so you can be alive today.

Glynn Burrows is the owner of Norfolk Tours in England where he provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history. If you are thinking about taking a vacation to England, visit www.Norfolk-Tours.co.uk

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About the Author:

Glynn Burrows is the owner of Norfolk Tours in England where he provides customized, private tours and also helps his clients trace their English family history.

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