William Scott (b. 1833): A young sailor on the early steamships

(revised 18 August, 2001)

Note: This is a 'work in progress'. I intend to describe the sailing experiences of William Scott as well as I can, drawing on a number of sources. The end result will be a combination of information that pertains directly to William as extracted from various documents, as well as descriptions and experiences of others on such ships or in the same kind of employment as William at about the same time. (The versions history of this document is given at the end.)

Related Topics:

William Scott's Career as a Prison Warder

William Scott's Family Life and Retirement



William was born on 10 July 1833, in Woolwich, England and christened at St. Mary Magdelene Church in Woolwich on August 2nd, that year. He was the oldest son of William Scott and his wife Mary (nee Hyder). At the time of William's christening his father was a sailor in the Royal Navy.

Between 1833 and 1849 the parents, William and Mary, had a number of other children born/christened either in Chatham or Woolwich, with William Sr. indicating various occupations including painter and mariner. By 1851 the family had moved to Portsmouth where the father was employed as a "Principal Warder - convict Service" (as recorded in the 1851 census).

William's childhood occurred at the time of the expansion of the use of steam powered warships in the Royal Navy and merchant marine. The first RN steamship, Comet,  was commissioned in 1821. By 1837 the Royal Navy steamship fleet had expanded in number to 29 and in addition there were 37 mail packets. This was a time of peace and much of the Navy's sailing fleet was laid up, however all of the steam vessels were in commission. At the end of the 1830's the Navy embarked on a significant expansion of its steamships building a number of paddle sloops of the Gorgon class. The dockyards at Woolwich and Chatham were the building sites of many of these early ships. William, then, likely saw many of these ships on the Thames. Launchings of new vessels were public spectacles and it is likely that would have attended such launchings or have been on one or more of the ships. Like young boys of our day he may well have vied with his friends to know the most about this latest technology. They might well have discussed the displacement and speed of the paddle sloops, the ratings of their steam engines and so on.

As to education, we are as yet able to say little. We know that by the age of 14 William could sign his name and that he was literate in later life. But where did he learn these skills? They may have been taught by his parents. His father, at least, was able to sign his name, and, given the position the father later achieved in the Convict Service, it is likely that he had the ability to read and write to some extent. If young William did not learn to read and write from his parents it may be that he attended some school. Schooling however was not all that common and might have required money that the family did not have. Some education might have been obtained through a church Sunday school program.

The Sailing Career

We cannot be sure of William's first employment. He was by 1845, eleven or twelve  years of age and the oldest of five children. Perhaps, like his son Walter, he was already working at this age. In any case we know (from documents) that by June of 1846, he was a sailor, probably in the Royal Navy as a boy sailor. Family lore has it that he went to sea at the age of 12 which would have been in 1845. As we shall see, his career as a sailor seems to have been solely on steam ships.

At that time one did not enlist in the navy as a sailor. Instead one signed on for a voyage on a ship. Although there were 'boy sailors' in the navy, there does not appear to have been any particular program for them. Thus a young boy starting out  might be on a navy ship or might be on a merchant ship and persons moved back and forth between the two forms of employment. Generally a sailor would prefer to be on a merchant ship as the pay scales were better. Consequently, it is likely that employment on a navy ship was a way of getting into a sailing career. From about 1837 onward it was usual for navy ships to have school teachers on board. With the growing complexity of sailing, with the advent of steam and other technologies, it was clear that seamen needed to be educated. The introduction of school masters was a move in the direction of providing this education. However, prior to this time, certain captains would have provided this for their crew and even after it became the rule, the quality could vary significantly from one ship to the next. It is clear that William had some level of literacy by the age of 1846 as he personally signed his name on his Mariner's Register Ticket, while many others signed only their mark.

William's sailing career, as we presently know it,  is summarized in the following table. It is extracted in part from five documents which have come down through the generations and are currently the property of Iris (Simmons) Groutage, his great granddaughter. These documents are of four types, that link him to five ships. In addition, these documents have allowed a researcher to find other documents in the Public Records Office (P.R.O.) in London. From these assorted documents and the information that they lead us to, we are able to reconstruct a considerable understanding of William's sailing career.


Ship(s) Dates Capacity Voyages Reference(s)/Comments
H.M.S. Vixen and possibly others 1845(?) - 31 Dec 1848 Boy Sailor and possibly Boy Sailor, 1st class appears to have been on a Royal Navy vessel in Shanghai or Hong Kong at time of issuance of Mariner's Register Ticket on 16 June 1846 (Ticket signed by R. Jenners who was commander of H.M.S. Vixen) presumes William started sailing prior to 16 June 1846, the date which appears to be on his Mariner's Register Ticket. The Ticket indicates he was born one year before his actual birth date
H.M.S. Vixen (paddle schooner) 1 Jan 1849 - 22 July 1850 Boy Sailor, 1st Class unknown Prize Money Certificate, Obverse
Prize Money Certificate, Reverse
It may not be a coincidence that 10 July was his birthday and that although only 17, it may have been believed he was 18.
unknown 23 July 1850 - 29 April 1852      
H.M.S. Hecate (paddle schooner) 30 April 1852- 10 May 1852 Ord (Ordinary Seaman) probably a training session Certificate of Service (obverse)
Certificate of Service (reverse)
H.M.S. Geyser (paddle schooner) 11 May 1852 - 11 June 1853 Ord (Ordinary Seaman)   Certificate of Service (obverse)
Certificate of Service (reverse)
unknown 12 June 1853 - 7 Aug 1853      
Thames 8 Aug 1853 - 3 Oct 1853   To St. Thomas and back voyage mentioned on Mariner's ticket registration, also on Orinoco contract, source BT 98/3463
Orinoco 11 Oct 1853 - 5 Dec 1853 AB (Able Bodied Seaman) To St. Thomas, Orinoco contract, source BT 98/3463. Calcutta contract, source BT 98/3851
Calcutta (wooden hulled screw driven vessel) 14 Dec 1853 - 4 July 1854 AB (Able Bodied Seaman) To Calcutta and back E-1 Certificate of Discharge
Calcutta contract, source BT 98/3851. La Plata contract source BT 98/3871
La Plata (paddle Schooner) 31 Aug 1854 - 18 Oct 1854 AB (Able Bodied Seaman) Mail Service. To St. Thomas., Jamaica and back E-1 Certificate of Discharge
La Plata contract source BT 98/3871

Table 1: Sailing Experience of William Scott b. 1833

The Mariner's Register Ticket

The Mariner's Register Ticket that was issued to William describes him as being 5 ft. 2" tall, of fair complexion with grey eyes and dark hair. It indicates that he is serving in the capacity of a 'Boy'.  The document is interesting with respect to dates. It indicates that William was born on 10 July, 1832. The date of issue is not discernable, but from the dates of the tickets with numbers before and after his, it appears to be one of a batch of tickets which were issued in Shanghai and Hong Kong with registration date 16 June 1846. This date is consistent with what we can make out when largely magnifying the document. Also on the document is the name of the person who examined and entered the registration: Robert Jenner; in July 1850 he was Commander of H.M.S. Vixen, and it appears that he has signed this document in the same capacity. (We should eventually be able to find the ships contract for William's assignment at that time and thereby verify this).

It is common in today's world to think of 'programs' and 'regulations' which would govern the career of someone who was a 'boy sailor'. Unfortunately this was not the case in those days. William, like any other sailor would sign onto a ship for a voyage and could move from one ship to another and between naval and commercial employment as opportunities arose and as voyages ended. His employment grade (boy sailor or boy sailor first class) would be negotiated with each assignment and he could progress according to his abilities and the opportunities available.

The information on the ticket is interesting in a couple of ways. Firstly, it incorrectly states the date of birth. Was this a transcription error, or was this the result of William falsely stating that he was a year older than was the case -- not an uncommon act in our family! Since he was in the far east at the time of this issuance he had perhaps started sailing the previous year (if not earlier) and if there was an age requirement at his time of starting, lying about his birth year might have been the only way to get in.

The ticket is also interesting in that it is a mariner's document, rather than a Royal Navy document. The tickets provided a method of registering mariners on commercial ships so that in the event of a war, the Navy could locate them for service on Royal Navy ships. It is not clear that it was common to register Navy sailors, but Commander Jenner appears to have taken this approach, at least with boys. It is possible that William was transferring to a commercial ship at this time and needed to ticket to do it. It is also possible that Jenners just had all sailors on his ship registered; the registration process (which was a method to keep track of sailors in case of war time mobilization) was new and he may have interpreted it as a requirement.

Disappointingly when we went to retrieve the ticket entry from the PRO we found little other information about William. However we did learn one of the ships that he was on at a later time which helped to fill out the details of his later career.

Prize Money Certificate

The second document, chronologically, I call the 'Prize Money Certificate' because of the legend on the reverse side of the document. The obverse side of this document is a discharge document at the end of service on a ship. It is not clear when this document was used as opposed to other documents such as the Certificate of Service which we will examine later.

The certificate indicates that William was on H.M.S. Vixen, from 13(?) January 1849 until 22 July 1850. At the time of discharge he is described as being 5 ft. 3" tall and 17 years of age. We note that the age is not consistent with the 1832 birth year claimed on the register ticket, as by the 22nd he would have been 18. William is discharged from this ship as a "Boy, 1st Class", indicating an advancement from the time at which the register ticket was issued. It is interesting that the earlier service as a 'Boy' is not included on this ticket; it may be that a new certificate was issued with each 'promotion', or it may be that William served on some other ship(s) between the time of the Mariner's Ticket and the start of the period covered by this document.

The document is signed by Robert Jenner, Commander of H.M.S. Vixen -- the same name that we can discern with a little effort from the Mariner's Register Ticket.

H.M.S. Vixen is the first ship to give us some idea of the work that William was doing. While only a small portion of the ships in the Royal Navy were steam ships, at that time,   Vixen was a steam powered paddle sloop. She was laid down at Pembroke Dockyard (Wales) in June 1840 and launched in February 1841. While we do not yet have an image of Vixen, we know that she was one of about 18 ships whose design was derived from that of H.M.S. Gorgon launched in 1837. Vixen was about 1060 tons with a 280 NHP engine. She was 180 feet long with a beam of 36 feet. She had a complement of a commander, three lieutenants and 145 men. We have not yet obtained information on the deployment of this ship during this period. By 1860 these ships were no longer being made and the list shows ships that were extant at the time of William's service, but may exclude some that were lost or broken up prior to 1860.

H.M.S. Virago was built just after the Vixen and was another of those derived from the successful Gorgon design. Virago was built at Woolwich (where William may have seen her during building or at launching) and was launched on 25 July 1842. She was the same dimensions as Vixen, but slightly more powerful with a 300 NHP engine compared to Vixen's 280 NHP. This image likely gives a fairly good idea of what Vixen looked like.

Certificate of Service

We have a gap of about 21 months in William's sailing records -- from 23 July 1850 until 29 April1852. (I believe we can possibly fill in this gap and will outline some approaches below). Our next document is a Certificate of Service which lists William's on two ships, H.M.S. Hecate and H.M.S. Geyser. The Hecate was again a steamship, but of an earlier build than the Vixen, having been launched in July 1838. She was smaller at 817 tons. Interestingly we have a lithograph of Hecate drawn when she went aground in 1861 (the ship was refloated and stayed in service until 1865). William's service on this ship was for only 10 days. Again we do not yet know the deployment of this ship at that time but it has been suggested that he was perhaps on a training course.

The second entry states that from 11 May 1852 until 11 June 1853 William served on H.M.S. Geyser. The Geyser was a sister ship to Vixen, having been built in the same shipyard at the same time. We have no information yet on Geyser's assignment during this year.

In both of these assignments William has the rank of "Ord" (ordinary seaman).

The reverse of the certificate of service again provides a description of William as being at this time 5 ft. 9" and states that he is 20 years and - months old; he would have been one month shy of 20 at the time of leaving the Geyser.

Trips to the West Indies

We have a gap in our records from 12 June 1853 - 7 Aug 1853. It may be that William was ashore at this time. It may also be that he was on a ship that made a trip to the West Indies as the subsequent four months from 8 august to 5 December were consumed by trips on the Orinoco, Captain Wilson,  and on the Thames to the West Indies. The Royal Mail Service ran these voyages and they were advertised in such places as the Illustrated London News. In addition to the mail, they carried passengers and freight. The crew consisted of sailors and stewards.

We do not have as yet have the full routes of these two voyages, only that they were to St. Thomas in the Virgin Islands and back. Mail service to the Caribbean had started in 1838 and indications at that time are that route to the West Indies was initially (1838) Barbados, Grenada, The Danish Virgin Islands, Haiti, Cuba and Mexico with connections to other islands. Both of these ships were paddle sloop steamers -- part of the series of vessels which were named after rivers and used in the mails service.

Interestingly we were able to learn of these ships by viewing the sailing contract for a trip by the Calcutta to India. Such contracts list all the crew members on the ship, their assignments and their previous ship. In this way it is possible to work backwards. Once we examine the contract for the Thames we will be able to determine if he was on a ship during the period mentioned at the beginning of this section.

The Thames and the Orinoco were part of the series of RMS ships named after rivers of the world. Generally, at the time of launching, they were amongst the leading steamships in terms of speed and size. They were constructed to meet commercial and mail steamship requirements but, subsidized by British Government contracts, they were also constructed so as to be used by the British Government in military campaigns as necessary (much as the QE2 was used in the Falklands war of 1982). The Orinoco, as reported in the Illustrated London News of 4 March 1854 (just 4 months after William was on the ship, and still under the command of Wilson) left Southampton for the Crimean war carrying the Coldstream Guards.

Voyage to India, 1854

By this time in his sailing career, William was in a very good position. He had several years sailing experience exclusively (as far as we know) on steam ships. At this time there was a significant growth in steam ship travel, particularly in the merchant marine. The early steam paddle ships had created a demand for luxury travel throughout the Empire and to North America. A large number of steam ship lines were coming into being with ever more steam ships being built. A sailor with experience on these ships undoubtedly was well positioned to get employment on these ships. On his next trip we find that William has secured a position on the new steamship, Calcutta, of the General Screw Steam Shipping Company.

The Calcutta, was built by C.J. Mare and Company at West Ham in 1852. She was an iron, screw driven ship of 1832 gross tons/1272 nautical tons. The ship was 244 ft 5 in long with a beam of 38 ft 1in  and a depth of 25ft 4in. She was powered by a 300nhp/800ihp steam engine built by Maudslay, Sons & Field. The engine was a single condenser engine so that the ship suffered from the limitations on steaming created by the engine inefficiency (she could not carry enough coal to steam long distances). She did however have a screw instead of paddles for propulsion which, by this time in the evolution of screw design, gave her a greater efficiency than she would have had as a paddle steamer. Nevertheless, she had to rely on sail for portions of the journey. This deficiency of steaming range would only disappear from the sixties onward as compound condenser steam engines were developed. The Calcutta was one of several sister ships built for the General Screw Steam Shipping Company at this time, the others being Argo, Queen of the South and Lady Jocelyn.

We know of William's position on this ship from an E-1 Certificate of Character and Discharge. This certificate is from the ship Calcutta,. covering a trip made from Southampton to Calcutta and back, a six month voyage (this was before the Suez canal was completed in 1869). William's capacity was as an 'AB' (able bodied seaman). The certificate lists his date of birth as '32'. It is interesting to note that the date of departure is before the date of return; the actual departure date was 14 December 1853. The Master's (Captain of the ship) signature is that of Wm.(?) Goodall. We have not yet determined the signature of the Commander (executive officer of the ship).

William's engagement on the Calcutta was for the maiden voyage of the vessel. While intended for the Australia trade, an initial 'shake-down' cruise was made to Calcutta, under the command of Capt. John Goodall. On this voyage she had a crew of about 110, including stewards and servants. (The ratio of stewards and servants to passengers was about one in four so she would have had about 80 passengers for the trip).

On this voyage the ship had the itinerary given below[2].

One passenger described the effect of lifting the propeller and proceeding under sail:

'Yesterday the wind freshened so that they took up the screw and the ship went on under canvas. I thought it a much pleasanter motion but we rolled about a good deal more, and there were several alarming smashes of crockery, and some of the passengers having, contrary to orders, opened their portholes, the lower deck was streaming with water, so the First Officer had all the handles taken off the portholes, and now they cannot be opened at all.'[3]

Trip to West Indies (E-1 Certificate of Discharge, 1854)

The last document we have is another E-1 Certificate of Discharge. This one is from the ship La Plata, with the voyage described as in the 'Mail service' for a period of about 6 weeks. Again he is in the capacity of an AB.

The La Plata is again a paddle schooner. The La Plata of 1475 tons was 280 ft long and powered by a 910 NHP engine giving a cruising speed of 12 knots. We are fortunate in having a couple of articles on the La Plata which fill out some of the details of this ship and its use. In addition to carrying mail she had accommodation for 116  first class passengers, 20 second class passengers and a crew of 115. At the time of this voyage she was on the West Indies route and the duration of this employment is consistent with one trip to the West Indies. She was owned by the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company which employed her on this service to the West Indies for the first eight years of her life. At the end of the Crimean war, La Plata was one of two ships representing the Royal Mail Service at the Naval Review held on St. George;'s Day  at Spithead 1856.

A trip by steamer to the West Indies and back was not without peril. While steam power gave some freedom from the vagaries of weather, these early steam ships were hybrid vessels with sail power as an alternative to paddle propulsion,  However, it was not a trivial matter to convert from one form of propulsion to the other. When under sail, the paddles were disassembled so as to reduce drag. Under steam, the ship could only carry enough coal for about 10 days steaming. Current analysis does not give us an accurate idea as to what proportion of the trips would be under steam and which under sail, but some comments lead to the conclusion that it could vary significantly depending on the preference of the captain for one type of propulsion over the other. The limitations on steaming range led to the establishment of coaling stations and the routing of ships between such coaling stations.

La Plata was a replacement ship for the Amazon which, on her maiden voyage to the West Indies in January 1852, caught fire in the Bay of Biscay with the loss of 105 (reported elsewhere as 115) lives. The problem of fire on a wooden ship with steam propulsion was ever present, and subsequent to the Amazon disaster new fire precautions were instituted in the vicinity of the engines. The Admiralty also reversed its preference for wooden hulled steam vessels and specified iron for future ship building.

In addition to the problem of propulsion, the West Indies at this time were a place of disease, particularly mosquito borne diseases such as yellow fever. We are fortunate in having the following contemporary report on La Plata [1]:

"Royal Mail Steam Packet Co. Formerly the ‘Persia’ of Cunard, bought off them for 125,000 to offset the loss of the ‘Amazon’. 2292 tons, length 285’, beam 41 ’, Depth of hold 27’ 8”, engines 940 HP, diameter of cylinder 103”, diameter of paddles 36’ 10”, speed 14 knots.

This noble vessel, the last new ship of the Royal Mail Steam-packet Company arrived in Southampton Water on November 18th, from the West Indies, under melancholy circumstances; seven of her crew having died on the passage from yellow fever, including her Commander, Captain Allan, a gentleman universally esteemed for his high integrity and his talents as a seaman.

'La Plata' was built in the Clyde for the Messrs. Cunard, the contractors of the British American Mail. Finding their last new vessels, the 'Asia' and 'Africa' unable to cope in speed with those of the Collins' Line (although the difference only amounted to a few hours), the Messrs. Cunard ordered two ships to be built of such power as should enable them to out-run their rivals. For this purpose, the 'Arabia' and 'Persia' were planned and built; but, on the loss by fire of the 'Amazon', of the Royal Mail Steam-packet Company, arrangements were entered into by them with the Messrs. Cunard, and the former vessel was sold to the Royal Mail Packet Company and took her place among the fleet, fresh-named 'La Plata', at a cost of 125,000.

The performances of this vessel have exceeded the most sanguine expectations. On her passage from the Clyde to Southampton, she ran from Greenock to the Bell Buoy, at the mouth of the Mersey (a distance of 301 miles), in fourteen hours, at a speed of 14.28 knots; and from Liverpool to Southampton, 461 miles, including stoppages to receive and discharge pilots, in thirty-six hours, at an average speed of fourteen miles an hour. She made her last voyage out to St. Thomas in twelve and a half days and returned from that place, in spite of bad weather the greater part of the passage, in 13 days and has been pronounced, by the most competent authorities, to be the fastest ocean steamship in the world.

The plan of cabin arrangements is totally different from that of the other ships of this company; instead of their spar-decks, she has a deck roundhouse extending the whole length of the ship. Her dimensions and power are as follows: burthen in tons: 2292.42.94. Length between perpendiculars: 285 feet. Breadth of beam: 41 feet 6 inches. Depth of hold: 27 feet 8 inches. Horse power: 940. Diameter of cylinder: 103 inches. Diameter of paddles: 26 feet 10 inches. Stroke: 9 feet. Average speed: 14.5 miles per hour.

At Southampton, 'La Plata' was boarded and inspected by the Health Officer of the port who withheld pratique and refused to allow the landing of the mails. A report was handed to him of the health of the persons onboard from which it appears that, besides the nine who have died, there were twenty-one invalids ill during the voyage, including the Doctor, and that they had no disinfecting fluid but chloride of lime.

The Collector of Customs then determined to permit 'La Plata' to remain at anchor in the river but debarred from any communication whatever with the shore until a report of the circumstances of the case had been forwarded to the Commissioners of Customs. In the meantime, the Collector consented to the mails being placed in a boat, in charge of Lieutenant Gardner, the Admiralty agent of the ship, and towed down to the lazaretto at the Motherbank, there to be fumigated."

The La Plata later sailed for several years on the mail route to South America with a stop in Lisbon, Portugal.


We are fortunate in having a photograph of William as a sailor. The photograph was taken in Knightsbridge, London, but the date is unknown. My best guess at this time is that it was probably taken about 1853. . Some factors which could affect this estimate are:

  1. The invention of the daguerreotype in 1839 started the photography boom. However it was only in the 1850's that photographs became inexpensive enough to be popular.
  2. I am guessing that the photograph shows a man of about 20; but he could easily be 18.
  3. At this time there were no proscribed 'uniforms' for sailors in or out of the Navy. Sailors supplied their own clothing and might move back and forth between navy and merchant assignments. There are various images of sailors in working dress including this from the Illustrated London News of early 1854, perhaps the time at which the photograph of William was taken. The similarity between William's outfit and that of the middle sailor is evident. It is also interesting to note the young boy sailor on the right and the caption "Man o' war's Men -- Drawn from life"; clearly a 'boy' sailor was a 'man' on a ship.

Life on a Paddle Schooner

The physical layout of a paddle schooner was largely dictated by the engines and the paddle wheels. While generating a very small amount of power by current measures, the steam engines of the time (with their ratings of about 300 NHP, together with the supporting internal structure in the ship, physically required significant space. The general configuration of the ships was that the forward third of the ship was accommodation for the ratings, an area of about 1100 sq. ft. This area had little ventilation and, of course, had the impact of the heat of the steam engines. The middle third of the ship housed the engine and the coal bunkers. The last third of the ship was for accommodation of the officers.


A number of perils faced William Scott during his time at sea on the various steamships he served on. We have seen from contemporary newspaper reports that yellow fever was a risk for anyone sailing to the Caribbean at that time -- it had been the greatest scourge for centuries amongst British seamen who were stationed in the West Indies. From the log of the voyage of the Calcutta we find that several of the crew died of cholera. At the same time, because of the steam power, voyages had become much shorter so that long term problems of diet while at sea (e.g. scurvy, lack of fresh meats, vegetables, etc.)   were reduced. Also on that crew at least one sailor died by being lost overboard. The weather was a factor in terms of safety of the ship, but the steamships did have the advantage that they had the power (if they were capable of steaming) of going against the wind which undoubtedly helped in the avoidance of various perils. At the same time navigation suffered from lack of instruments and charts which would allow a captain to avoid underwater obstacles and there are several recorded sinkings or groundings of steamships due to such obstacles.The new technology of the steamships created new hazards which only gradually were dealt with. One of the early wooden hulled steamships caught fire with great loss of life; it was only after this catastrophe that the Admiralty abandoned its requirement for wooden hulls on paddle steamers. The comment from the voyage of the Calcutta indicates the problem of passengers having open portholes when the ship was under sail and the remedial action taken of having the portholes closed and the latches removed so that they could no longer be opened.


The contracts which were signed by all crew members are interesting in the detail that they include regarding the rations that were to be issued to crewmen.

For the voyage on the Calcutta the agreed rations were as follows:

‘For a mess of five men per week  Scale of Provisions to be allowed and served out to the Crew during the voyage’

Bread 1 pound daily
Beef and Pork ‘8 & 7 alternatively’ – in ounces
Flour ‘2 on beef days’ – in pounds
Peas ‘1 on pork days’ – presumably in pints
Tea ‘1 daily’ – in ounces
Coffee Apparently none (which was unusual – coffee consumption of ships’ crews Was actually far higher than of tea)
Sugar ‘12 Daily’ – in ounces
Raisins ‘12 oz. every alternate beef day’
Suets ‘4 every beef day’ – in ounces
????? ‘4 per week’ – in ounces

‘No regular allowance of spirits, But to be served at the discretion of the Command

Vinegar, Sugar and Lime juice as per Act

Water 7 pints per man per day in Hot weather

          6 pints per man per day in Cold weather’


For the voyage on the La Plata the rations agreement was as follows:

‘Scale of Provisions to be allowed and served out to the Crew during the Voyage*

  Bread Beef Pork Flour Peas Tea Sugar Suet Rum
  lb. lb. lb. lb. Pint. oz. oz. oz. Gill.
Sunday 1 1     2 2 1
Monday 1   1   2   1
Tuesday 1 1     2 2 1
Wednesday 1   1   2   1
Thursday 1 1     2 2 1
Friday 1   1   2   1
Saturday 1 1       2 2 1


* While at Sea, Salt Beef, or Salt Pork, being issued on alternate days.

Lime Juice and Vinegar, while on Salt Provisions, pint per man weekly.

In Harbour Fresh Meat 1 lb. per man daily with sufficient Barley and Vegetables to thicken Soup, and 1 lb. of Potatoes or Yams.

When the Ship is in Harbour abroad Fresh and Salt Meat will be served out on alternate days, and where Vegetables are dear the Providore is not required to spend more than four dollars per day on Fresh Meat days, in purchasing Vegetables for the Ship’s Company.

Oatmeal 1 pint per man weekly, and Extra to Engine-men when the Steam is up; at which time the Firemen and Trimmers will be allowed half-a-gill of Rum extra daily.

Comparing these two ration schedules we see that food rations on the La Plata were quite a bit more generous than on the Calcutta

Duties and Regulations

The contract specified the numbers of crew and their various responsibilities. For example on the trip to Calcutta the crew consisted of::


  • Master:     John Goodall
  • Chief Mate: Frederick Alexander L. Blacknow
  • 2nd Mate: John L. Castle
  • 3rd Mate: Robert B. Davie
  • 4th Mate: Stanley J. Hollway
  • 5th Mate: Woodbine Stewart
  • 6th Mate: Ford Ainslie
  • Crewmen:

    3 Midshipmen, 1 Purser, 1 Boatswain, 1 Carpenter, 1 Plumber, 1 Sailmaker, 1 Joiner, 2 Boatswain’s Mates, 4 Quartermasters, 26 ABs, 3 OS, 1st Engr., 2nd Engr., 3rd Engr., 4th Engr., 2 storekeepers, 3 Leading Stokers, 9 Firemen, 1 Engrs’ Servant, 5 Boys, 1 Ship’s Cook, 1 Chief Steward, 1 2nd Steward, 1 Barman, 1 Pantryman, 1 Chief Cook, 1 2nd Cook, 1 Butcher, 1 Butcher’s Mate, 1 Baker, 4 Bedroom Stewards, 4 Saloon Waiters, 1 Boots & ????, 1 Scullion, 2 Bath Boys, 1 Stewardess, 2nd Stewardess, 1 Officers’ Steward and 1 Captain’s Steward, 1 Surgeon, 9 ABs, 3 OS and 3 Boys

    (the names of all of these persons are listed in the contract). It is interesting to note the size of the crew -- around 110 of whom about 23 were assigned to passenger service activities. The actual composition varied a bit around this as members joined and left the ship at various ports or as they died during the voyage. To see the magnitude of these movements we need only examine the log of the Calcutta for the voyage:

  • 4th Mate transferred to the GSSS ‘Mauritius’ 14th April 1854 at Calcutta
  • 1 AB deserted 13th March at Calcutta
  • 1 AB ‘fell overboard’ 9th February at sea
  • 1 AB transferred to the GSSS ‘Indiana’ 14th March at Calcutta
  • 13 ABs discharged 17th March at Calcutta (varying ‘reports of character’ for ability and conduct from ‘Bad’ to ‘V.G.’)
  • 2 OS discharged 17th March at Calcutta
  • 3rd Engr. and 1 Fireman died of cholera 9th March at Calcutta
  • 1 Fireman discharged 29th March at Calcutta
  • 1 AB discharged 22nd January at Cape Town (bad conduct)
  • 1 AB left in Hospital 14th April at Calcutta
  • Ship’s Cook died of cholera 20th March at Calcutta
  • 1 Saloon Waiter discharged 7th March at Calcutta
  • 1 Saloon Waiter discharged 9th March at Calcutta
  • 2nd Stewardess died 29th April at sea
  • The log shows 5 deaths with a sixth person being left in hospital in Calcutta -- about 5% of the crew. In addition 20 crew members were discharged. It appears to have not been a particularly happy and/or competent crew. These numbers appear to be much higher than on the trips to the West Indies and it would be interesting to know what William's reaction to it all was. He was discharged from the crew with all others (as was customary) on the return of the Calcutta to Southampton on 4 July 1854. His reports of character for both ‘Ability in Seamanship’ and ‘Conduct’ were ‘V.G.’

    While the actual duties of a particular crewman are not specified, the large number of different trades listed allows one to conclude by exception what the duties of an AB (able bodied) seaman might be. They were essentially tasked with the handling of the sails and rigging when the ship was under sail. They were involved in lowering or raising the screw as the ship moved to or from steam power propulsion. It is clear that an AB was not involved in serving passengers, nor was he involved in the managing of the steam engine or its fueling except that "seamen to pass as ???? coal from the Holds or Bunkers, to the stoke hold or elsewhere if necessary, stokers to assist in making and trimming Sails getting the Anchor &.c when required.", which indicates some overlapping of the sailors and stokers responsibilities

    With respect to behavior the contract includes the statement: "And the said Crew agree to conduct themselves in an orderly, faithful, honest, and sober manner, and to be at all times diligent in their respective duties, and to be obedient to the lawful commands of the said Master, or of any Person who shall lawfully succeed him, and of their Superior Officers, in everything relating to the said Ship and the Stores and Cargo thereof, whether on board, in boats, or on Shore: in consideration of which Services to be duly performed, the said Master hereby agrees to pay to the said Crew as Wages the sums against their names respectively expressed, and to supply them with provisions according to the annexed Scale: And it is hereby agreed, That any Embezzlement or wilful negligent destruction of any part of the Ship’s Cargo or Stores shall be made good to the Owner out of the Wages of the Person guilty of the same: And if any person enters himself as qualified for a duty which he proves incompetent to perform, his Wages shall be reduced in proportion to his incompetency".

    The contract also included a long list of possible offenses and the punishments or fines that would occur:


    Amount of Fine or Punishment

    Not being on Board at the time fixed by the Agreement  

    Two Days’ Pay

    Not returning on Board at the expiration of Leave  

    One Day’s Pay

    Insolence or contemptuous language or behaviour towards the Master or any Mate  

    One Day’s Pay

    Striking or assaulting any person on Board or belonging to the Ship  

    Two Days’ Pay

    Quarrelling or provoking to quarrel   

    One Day’s Pay

    Swearing or using improper language   

    One Day’s Pay

    Bringing or having on Board spirituous liquors  

    Three Days’ Pay

    Carrying a sheath knife  

    One Day’s Pay

    Drunkeness. First offence  

    Two Days’ half allowance of provisions

    Ditto.   Second offence

    Two Days’ Pay

    Neglect on the part of the Officer in charge of the Watch to place the look out properly  

    Two Days’ Pay

    Sleeping or gross negligence while on look out  

    Two Days’ Pay

    Not extinguishing lights at the times ordered  

    One Day’s Pay

    Smoking below  

    One Day’s Pay

    Neglecting to bring up, open out, and air bedding, when ordered  

    Half a Day’s Pay

    (For the Cook) – Not having any Meal of the Crew ready at the appointed time  

    One Day’s Pay

    Not attending Divine Service on Sunday unless prevented by sickness or duty of the Ship  

    One Day’s Pay

    Interrupting Divine Service by indecorous conduct  

    One Day’s Pay

    Not being cleaned, shaved, and washed, on Sundays  

    One Day’s Pay

    Washing clothes on a Sunday  

    One Day’s Pay

    Secreting contraband goods on Board with intent to smuggle  

    One Month’s Pay

    Destroying or defacing the Copy of the Agreement which is made accessible to the Crew  

    One Day’s Pay

    If any Officer is guilty of any act or default which is made subject to a Fine, he shall be liable to a Fine of twice the number of Day’s Pay which would be exacted for a like Act or Default from a Seaman, and such Fine shall be paid and applied in the same manner as other Fines.’


    William was paid monthly at the rate of 2 - 15/month. The master of the ship was paid 12/month and the lowest wage, for a boy was 5 shillings. From this he had to purchase his clothing which was as detailed in the contract:: "the Crew to appear in Blue and White clothing on all occasions when required by the Officer in Command; with Black or Straw Hats with the ships name thereon to be found by the Crew themselves".

    In addition to the wages allowance was made to pay personnel additional funds if they were involved in coaling the ship, as follows: "That one shilling per ton is to be allowed and divided amongst all persons employed taking in and stowing fuel, each Coloured Seamen or Coloured Stoker to have only half the share of an European"

    End of the Sailing Career

    The trip on the La Plata was likely the end of William's sailing career; within a few weeks he had accepted a position as a prison warder in Portsmouth. However while in that position he on at least two occasions sailed as a guard of prisoners who were being moved from Portsmouth to some other location by ship.



    1. To family members Iris Groutage, Philip Griffiths and Eythel Fry for access to documents and family lore.

    2. To members of the MARHIST mailing list for information on the ships mentioned as well as for insight on the meaning of the various documents. In particular thanks to

  • David Asprey for information on La Plata and the Royal Mail Service, and the itinerary of the voyage of the Calcutta
  • David Asprey, Andreas Von Mach and others for details on the ships
  • David K Brown author of Paddle Warships (Conway's Ship Types, 1993)
  • Len Barnett and Diana Harding for comments on the documents and genealogy of mariners
  • Tony Dalton for the Illustrated London News article on La Plata.
  • Len Barnett for research at the P.R.O.
  • References

    1. Illustrated London News, November 27th, 1852
    2. Extracted by David Asprey from Lloyd's List, with additional comments by the author.
    3. quoted from Travelling by Sea in the Nineteenth Century, Basil Greenhill and Ann Giffard, Hadting House Publishers, New York, 1974, pp. 51-2.


    Information to seek:

    1. any diaries or similar documents covering life on the steam ships of the late 1840's early 1850's

    2. determine the assignments of the Vixen and Geyser at the time William was on them. Examine the crew lists to see if there is any indication of his responsibilities and to see if there are any other 'Scott' crewmen (possibly his father William or his brother John).

    3. continue search of the steamship voyages during the missing periods in William's records -- it appears likely that he would have been on one of them.

    4. obtain the details of the voyages of the naval ships Vixen and Geyser and of the mail ships La Plata, Thames and Orinoco on which William sailed.

    5. obtain images of Vixen, Geyser, Thames, and Calcutta.




    1. 9 April, 2001; first draft
    2. 10 April; revised to include work in progress note, version numbers, and image of Virago. Also added some notes on living arrangements on a paddle schooner and information on La Plata.
    3. 19 April. Corrected number of steamships in 1837 and spell check
    4. 11 May. Details of the trip to Calcutta and information on La Plata maiden voyage to West Indies
    5. revisions to the voyage of the Calcutta and corrections.
    6. 8 Aug, 2001; addition of information concerning the date of issue of his Mariner's Ticket and of his Shanghai/Hong Kong location in 1846
    7. 18 Aug 2001, added images of Orinoco, of sailors and of RMS advertisement for West Indies shipping.

    copyright 2001, Kenneth Scott and others.