Did the dramatic improvement in survival rates of scurvy in the Royal Navy significantly affect British port cities?

Did the dramatic improvement in survival rates of scurvy in the Royal Navy significantly affect British port cities?

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I've been reading about James Lind and scurvy in the Royal Navy, and how, through the efforts of Lind and others, survival rates improved dramatically after the introduction of orange/lemon juice, watercress, etc. into sailors' rations. I realize this is an oversimplification (PDF), of course, but this begs the question in the title:

Were British port cities, e.g. Liverpool, Bristol, Southampton, London, etc. and other cities that provided the bulk of the sailors to the Royal Navy significantly affected by this? I might be overstating the number of sailors in the Royal Navy relative to the population of these cities as a whole, but my naive intuition says that many more sailors actually returning to port must have had some effect.

It would be very difficult to isolate the impact of the additional scurvy "survivors" given that it would be swamped by the overall growth of urban populations in Britain in the same period (thanks to general improvements in public health and wealth). However, it's possible to look at the general points raised in the question.

It's probably a mistake to assume that the large navy ports provided the bulk of the service's seamen. A table[1] of the men 'recruited' by the Impress Service during the American Revolutionary War shows that just over a third of those recruited were from London (at a time when London held almost 10% of the country's population) but the rest were drawn from towns right across the nation. In fact, the second largest number of sailors was provided by Dublin, which provided twice as many men as Liverpool (whose contribution was almost matched by Cork). In addition a significant proportion of the crews were drawn from "foreigners" recruited from the British colonies and overseas territories (and from other European powers).

Of course, not everyone on a navy ship was necessarily a sailor. Most of the warship's crew were there to man the guns (and provide the power for pumps, capstans and pulling on ropes) which didn't require skilled sailors, just able bodies. So these "landsmen" could be drawn from all walks of life.

If we look[2] at the losses of sailors in 1755 (which is about the time that Lind published his treatise) and compare it to the losses in 1812 (by which time scurvy prevention was practised thoughtout the fleet), we see that there is a notable drop in deaths as a percentage of those in service. However, the actual number of deaths is higher due to the much larger number of men in service.

1755 1812 In service 29,268 106,179 Died 2,236 (7.6%) 3,397 (3.2%) Discharged 1,227 (4.2%) 11,848 (10.8%) Combined 3,463 (11.8%) 15,245 (14.3%)

It's also worth noting the far greater number of men that were medically discharged/invalided from the Navy in 1812.

The discharge of a far greater number of seamen as invalids before they died reduced the number of sick men who would die in service. The credit for a reduction of the death rate was claimed by the navy's medical profession. But they can also be credited with the higher proportion of seamen who were discharged as invalids.[3]

So it would appear that while the chances of dying at sea were reduced in the later period, it would seem that's partly accounted for by removing the men from the navy before they could die.

Skilled sailors were in equal demand by the merchant navy too and men frequently swapped between the two (voluntarily or otherwise). The increasing domination of the seas by the Royal Navy, meant that the British merchant navy was also the world's dominant merchant fleet. If we pick the same period as above, it grew from employing 38,710 in 1755 to 165,030 in 1812[4]. So even in the midst of a long war, the merchant fleet employed a considerably larger number of men than the navy.

The merchant fleet also kept increasing in size post-war while the navy shrank considerably (in 1820 the merchant fleet employed 174,514 against the navy's 23,985). In fact, the navy workforce shrank by 75% in just two years. I would imagine that this post-war discharge of seamen had a far greater effect on ports and coastal towns than the few thousand extra men who were saved from scurvy. The merchant fleet absorbed some of this number but the rest would have to compete on the job market with everyone else.

1. The foundations of British Maritime Ascendancy, R. Morriss, p236-238
2. Ibid, pg251
3. Ibid, pg251
4. Ibid, pg227

I fully understand your initial intuitive response. Mine was pretty much the same. However, any impact was probably confined to the towns with larger Royal Navy bases, rather than the commercial ports that you mentioned.

To assess the impact, it is worth trying to estimate the numbers of people we are talking about. In particular, from the report you quoted:

"Of 175,990 sailors raised from 1774 to 1780, 18,545 died of disease (1 in 10), and 1243 were killed. Between 1779 and 1794 the naval sick rate improved from 1 in 2.45 to 1 in 4, and the death rate from 1 in 42 to 1 in 86. Between 1794 and 1813 the naval sick rate fell from 1 in 4 to 1 in 10.75 and the death rate from 1 in 86 to 1 in 143."


"… all reports agree that scurvy was the main cause of naval morbidity and mortality"

The fact that the death rate initially halved between 1779 and 1794, and then almost halved again between 1794 and 1813, must have had an impact on the families of sailors who often lived in, or close to, the Royal Navy ports. In terms of absolute numbers, this means that something like 19,000 men survived their service in the Royal Navy with their health relatively intact, who might not otherwise have done so.

For the most part, the Royal Navy was based in Chatham & Sheerness, Deptford, Portsmouth, Plymouth & Devonport, and Woolwich/Greenwich.

In terms of population, Portsmouth, the "home of the Royal Navy", was one of the larger naval bases in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It had a population of 33,640 in 1801 (the first year for which we have accurate census data). This did not include Royal Navy personnel, who were enumerated separately. The populations of the other towns with large naval bases in 1801 were:

  • Chatham & Sheerness 39,657
  • Deptford 20,883
  • Plymouth & Devonport 23,707
  • Woolwich/Greenwich 11,423

(Population figures taken from An occupational census for England and Wales in 1801)

Relative to those populations, an extra 19,000 men returning from service certainly would have been noticed! However, beyond the direct effect on their families, I am not sure that the wider impact on those towns, and the surrounding areas, would have been that significant.

When sailors in the Royal Navy were discharged at the end of their service, many would re-enlist (in which case they were often soon back out to sea for long voyages). Others would seek employment in the merchant navy where their skills were in demand. As a result many of these moved to the commercial ports like the ones you mentioned, so any actual effect on the Naval ports would have been much less.

The significance on the commercial ports would have been greater from the treatment of scurvy in the growing merchant navy during the expansion of the British Empire.


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