Royal Navy Victuallers and the Port of London by Sue Littledale

Sue’s presentation to the Group on the 13th March 2017 took us into the world of naval provisioning, called victualling.  Early histories of the Royal Navy tend to focus on the building of battleships and the growth of the naval dockyards in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  What is sometimes overlooked is the huge and complex administrative system required to keep that navy adequately fed and watered.  Henry VIII built more than forty battleships and all the sailors on those battleships had to be fed for protracted periods, particularly at times of war.  In 1546 he set up the Navy Board, which originally had responsibility for victualling the Royal Navy.

Tower Hill Yard site. Source: Ian Grainger and Christopher Philpotts ‘The Royal Navy Victualling Yard, East Smithfield, London‘ (MOLA 2010 – used with kind permission)

It was his daughter Elizabeth I who, on acceding to the throne in 1558, first created the post of Surveyor General of the Victuals ‘to take care always to have in store a stock of victuals to supply a thousand men at sea for one month at a fortnight’s notice’.  In 1560 Elizabeth also established a Victualling Office and Yard at Little Tower Hill after purchasing the manor of East Smithfield and a former monastery for £1200.  The complex included storehouses, ovens, brew houses and bakeries. Milling took place across the river at Rotherhithe. Most of the other supplies came from private agents.  This yard served the navy with varying degrees of success for the next hundred years, although shortages often arose.

The Victualling Office was put under more and more strain as the size of the navy increased, particularly during the Anglo-Dutch wars of the mid seventeenth century.  By the end of the second Anglo-Dutch War in 1667 the number of seamen to be supplied had risen to 35,000 and the Tower Hill Victualling Yard had long been inadequate.  In 1672, therefore, a new victualling yard was established at Deptford, where a slaughterhouse for the navy had already been acquired in 1650.

The Royal Victoria Victualling Yard in 1937. Source: PLA collection/Museum of London

New lodgings for the workforce were also built at Deptford and in 1683 an independent Victualling Board was set up.  During the wars of Spanish succession (1701-1714) it met in the Tower Hill offices on a daily basis, and strict regulations and instructions were introduced.  However, it wasn’t until 1742 that the Board took the first step toward making Deptford the centre of its operations.

The move to Deptford took some time but the Victualling Yard at Little Tower Hill was finally closed in 1785. The buildings became government warehouses before the Royal Mint was transferred to the site from the Tower of London in 1806.

In 1742 the Victualling Board had leased 11 acres of the Red House estate to the north-west of Deptford.  Stretching up river from the northern wall of the dockyard, it was part of the Evelyn family estate.  The site already had an 800 foot timber wharf that could accommodate four vessels as well as a collection of warehouses and storehouses.  Recent fires meant some of these would have to be rebuilt although some could be repaired.  By the outbreak of the Napoleonic Wars in 1793 the yard’s slaughterhouse could accommodate up to 260 oxen; the hog hanging house 650 pigs; the bakehouse had 12 ovens and the spirit vats held 56,000 gallons.

During the Napoleonic wars the navy expanded from 125,000 men in 1800 to over 140,000 in 1810.  The common seaman’s weekly ration in Nelson’s navy was:

  • 7 lbs (3.2 kg) of ship’s biscuit,
  • 4 lbs (1.8 kg) of beef, 2 lbs (907 g) of pork,
  • 2 pints of peas, 3 pints of oatmeal,
  • 6 oz (180 g) of butter,
  • 12 oz (360 g) of cheese
  • a gallon of beer a day

Victualling Yard gates at Deptford, 1841. Source: Old Deptford History website

The relative peace that followed the Napoleonic wars saw a dramatic decline of boat building and maintenance in the Deptford dockyard.  It finally closed in 1869.  However the Victualling Yard just to the north of it continued to thrive and eventually grew to 35 acres as more land was acquired.  The demands of warfare were replaced by the demands of empire and in 1848 it was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard.  According to the National Archives Deptford remained the largest of the home victualling establishments in the 19th century.  Biscuit, chocolate, mustard, pepper and other foodstuffs were manufactured on site and large supplies of clothing, food, tobacco, rum and naval stores were maintained.

It was not until the mid-20th century that the yard eventually outlived its usefulness.  It finally ceased operations in 1961. The Pepys Estate in Deptford, built in the same decade, now occupies the site. The yard’s few surviving 18th century buildings have been incorporated into the estate.

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