A Third Sea Voyage

In the comments following Additional Examples of Maritime Case Furniture there was some conjecture about the proliferation of cabin furniture on board ship in the eighteenth-century and how it was secured while on the high seas. A fair amount of quality eighteenth-century maritime furniture survives and along with conventional tables and chairs, cabins were ostensibly well furnished… even while at sea.

Figure 1 shows a watercolour by the antiquarian and chronicler, The Reverend Thomas Streatfeild (1777–1848), depicting two army officers sitting on (and amongst) chairs around a baize-covered table. The ship may not be riding a tempest; however, it is clearly underway as evidenced by the helmsman at the wheel.

Rev._Thomas_Streatfeild__A cabin scene with two army officers sitting and reading at a table_c1820_01a

Fig. 1. The Reverend Thomas Streatfeild, A cabin scene with two army officers sitting and reading at a table, circa 1820.

Notwithstanding it is a cartoon (though it does bear the inscription ‘Done from an Original Drawing by a British Officer’), the coloured print shown in figure 2 depicts Sir Roger Curtis (in the guise of a dog) at the feet of First Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Howe. The furniture and accoutrements are accurately rendered and contemporary, so one must assume they were all typical contents of an admiral’s cabin… right down to the pot sitting atop the commode stool.

What a Cur'tis! PAF4151

Fig. 2. H. Humphrey, What a Cur’tis!, circa 1795.

Thomas Rowlandson’s print shown in figure 3 has two Naval officers sitting on contemporary upholstered chairs (despite there being adequate fixed seating around the cabin), while a third figure pours tea at a drop-leaf table. The ship is evidently heaving as the officers are betting on the movement of a plumb-bob and the manservant is restraining the table with his foot as he struggles to keep the tea in a cup.

Sea amusement. PAF3713

Fig. 3. Thomas Rowlandson, Sea Amusement, circa 1785.

Not being a sage tar, I had speculated that loose furniture may have been lashed to hooks or eyes attached to the ship’s bulkheads or decks. A reader opined that the captain of a ship might have taken a dim view of people drilling holes in his vessel. I countered that captains and masters weren’t in the least bit discommoded by the odd spike or other fastening being driven into their timbers. Pictures immediately to hand would tend to support this.

In a second watercolour by The Reverend Thomas Streatfeild (fig. 4) a landlubber is reposing on a contemporary (Regency) chair – in an otherwise sparsely appointed cabin – beside his canvas-covered sea chest which appears to be lashed to either the deck or bulkhead.

Rev._Thomas_Streatfeild__A_Cabin_Scene_with_a_Man_Relaxing_in_a_Chair_c1820_01a

Fig. 4. The Reverend Thomas Streatfeild, A cabin scene with a man relaxing in a chair, circa 1820.

Pocock’s watercolour (fig. 5) portrays four, seemingly largely unfazed, figures in the cabin of a violently rolling ship examining a chart upon a table. The characters at either end of the table appear to gain some support from the table which one would naturally assume would be highly mobile in such circumstances and therefore, insecure… until one observes the rope tethering the table to a ring on the floor between the boy’s feet. Presumably there would have been a second tether at the opposite end of the table.

Nicholas_Pocock__The_Consultation_c1810_01a

Fig. 5. Nicholas Pocock, The Consultation, circa 1810.

Of course, even the best housekeeping on board ship could come undone on occasion (fig. 6).

George_Cruikshank__An Interesting scene on board an East-Indiaman, showing the Effects of a heavy Lurch after dinner_c1818_01a

Fig. 6. George Cruikshank, An Interesting scene on board an East-Indiaman, showing the Effects of a heavy Lurch, after dinner, circa 1818. (ANMM)

Whether on land or at sea, there’s nothing like a fracas, to set a terrier off!

Jack Plane

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About Jack Plane

Formerly from the UK, Jack is a retired antiques dealer and self-taught woodworker, now living in Australia.
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6 Responses to A Third Sea Voyage

  1. homesy135 says:

    Fig 6 – At least the canon are lashed down!

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  2. Sylvain says:

    Dear Jack
    I don’t knwo how historically correct are the 3 series of novels :
    Aubrey/Maturin by Patrick O’Brian (popularised by the film master and commander);
    Bolitho by Alexander Kent;
    Hornblower by C.S. Forester,
    but those authors have made some research to write their novels. So, as far as they are accurate…
    When “clearing a ship for action”, it seems all furniture would be stowed in the hold as well as bulkheads that would otherwise make the cabin of the officers. The purpose of a ship of the line is to be a canon platform and in action nothing should hinder this purpose. The commander’s cabin would also be cleared as it would also contain canon. Any piece of wood hit by a bullet or a cannon ball would send flying splinters in the air. It seems this would be the principal cause of casualties (in action). So any unnecessary piece of wood should be stowed below.
    You will notice two canon in the cabin of the Indiamen. Those merchant ships were well armed to defend themselves.
    As the canon were loaded by the muzzle, enough space is needed to serve them.
    A good lookout would give enough time to clear the ship before action.
    (Please note : English is not my mother language)
    Sylvain

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  3. Brian Smith says:

    Sylvain beat me to it regarding clearing the decks, and cites the same source of information – not perhaps scholarly, but generally very well researched fiction. I was wondering though, have you ever noticed anything to keep the drawers closed in heavy seas – catches, or the like? E.g. did all the drawers in a given maritime chest have locks which would have served the purpose, and which wasn’t common practice on land-bound items?
    Thanks and regards,
    Brian Smith

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    • Jack Plane says:

      Other than conventional till locks (which were the norm on terrestrial/maritime drawers of the period), I have seen (wooden) spring catches used (again, on terrestrial/maritime case furniture) to restrain drawers which become accessible when the subjacent drawer is unlocked and withdrawn.

      JP

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  4. Pingback: A Life on the Ocean Wave | Pegs and 'Tails

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