It was important that Victory’s provisions remained edible through many months at sea. Therefore the crew’s diet was limited and repetitive, made up of staples which would last well, such as salted beef and pork, biscuit, peas and oatmeal, butter and cheese. These were stored in casks or bread bags in the Hold, but inevitably some went bad as barrels leaked, were infested by maggots or eaten by rats.
In harbour the diet was better and more varied, with soft bread and fresh meat. By the time of Trafalgar the disease of scurvy – which we now know is caused by a lack of vitamin c in the diet – had largely been overcome by efforts to provide regular fresh vegetables and add lemon juice to the rum ration. Overall the diet was generous and provided approximately 5,000 calories per day, vital to sustain the crew in their hard, physical work.
The men’s daily ration included 6 ½ pints of beer, though if they were serving away from home waters this might be replaced by a pint of wine, or a half-pint of rum. This was a practical solution to the problem of thirst since stored water was very bulky and rapidly became unfit for drinking.
Men ate as part of a ‘mess’ which they chose themselves. This usually contained between 4 and 8 men, one of whom was appointed mess cook for a week and took on the work of receiving, preparing and collecting their provisions. There was usually only one hot meal a day so breakfast might be a dish like ‘burgoo’, an oatmeal porridge sweetened with molasses. Any actual cooking was done under the supervision of the ship’s cook on Victory’s single iron stove, which included coppers for boiling, roasting spits and an oven.