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A Wooden World

By Ian R. Christie | Published in History Today 1987 
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An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy
  • The Wooden World. An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy
    N.A.M. Rodger. 445 pp. (Collins, 1986)

In this thoroughly scholarly and also extremely readable book Dr Rodger has used the massive collection of Admiralty Papers in the Public Record Office, together with a wide selection of other manuscript sources, to present a description in depth of shipboard society in the Royal Navy as it was in the middle years of the eighteenth century. The nature of the personnel, the conditions under which they lived and worked, questions of manning, victualling and discipline, the pursuit of a naval career, patronage and promotion, are carefully explored with sensitivity and the insight bred of a thorough, wide-ranging grasp of an enormous detailed mass of information. The result is a splendid book, which opens many new vistas on life in the navy in particular and to some extent on eighteenth-century British society in general. A reviewer can only pick out a few of the riches thus disclosed.

A ship's crew, officers and men together, constituted a crowded closed integrated society – one in which to a striking degree youth was predominant – where even survival in face of the elements and the enemy demanded a keen awareness of mutual dependence and obligation and a thorough, instinctive knowledge of one's allotted task. As this study repeatedly makes clear, this had the most profound implications for questions of discipline and advancement. The need, in the interests of efficiency and survival, to establish bonds of mutual trust and confidence from captain to cabin-boy, meant that while, now and then, under provocation from an insensitive officer, a disgruntled crew would mount a 'strike' to ensure that rights were respected and fair treatment given, there was no inherent antagonism between officers and men. Most officers were zealous in their care for the interests of their men, who in turn had no hesitation about carrying out their directions.

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