Tracing Britain’s early hospital ships

Ships’ muster and pay book records provide valuable information about hospital ships in the Royal Navy starting in the 17th century, say Edward Wawrzynczak and Jane Wickenden.

Hospital ships carrying surgeons and medical supplies became a regular feature of Royal Naval operations in times of conflict during the second half of the 17th century. The vessels initially employed were typically old merchant ships hired for a specified period which underwent minimal alterations for their special role.

The Royal Navy deployed hospital ships for the first time during the Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665-1667) Four Days Battle, Abraham Storck, National Maritime Museum with aid from the Art Fund

Improvements were introduced early in the 18th century: the gun-deck was reserved for the sick and wounded, bulkheads were removed and canvas screens used to separate infectious cases. From this time, naval hospital ships were built in naval dockyards or purchased outright and modified for the purpose when required.

Many of the ship muster and pay book records have survived in remarkably complete form in naval archives. They provide valuable information about these hospital ships, especially where, when and how they were used, who was responsible for the care of seamen and what kind of patients were brought on board.

During the long 18th century, sea-going hospital ships were employed wherever in the world the fleet was engaged: in the English Channel, the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Baltic, North America and the East Indies. Hospital ships were also stationed at major home ports before the construction of naval hospitals and continued as additional accommodation for the sick.

The nominal surgeon’s complement of a hospital ship included mates, assistants, helpers or nurses, and laundresses/washerwomen or washermen. Their actual number depended on the vessel’s size and function and probably reflected changing naval needs, the availability of suitable staff and the surgeons’ preferences.

The use of laundresses was recorded on the sea-going hospital ship Looe in 1718. In the 1740s, women nurses were often found on hospital ships stationed in port, such as the Blenheim at Portsmouth, with six nurses allocated to every 100 men. Five nurses formed part of the surgeon’s company on the Apollo hospital ship which sailed to the East Indies in 1747.

The records of two hospital ships that served in the Caribbean in 1741-44, Princess Royal and Scarborough, reflect the high incidence of sickness which affected some ships of the line and the high mortality associated with tropical diseases, notably yellow fever, which severely reduced manpower.

Such ships took sick or wounded men from ships of the fleet, cared for them until they were fit to return to their own ships, or conveyed them to a naval hospital. They relieved shore hospitals to facilitate the convalescence of patients, and returned invalided seamen home where they could continue their recovery.

The hospital ship to the fleet also housed the squadron’s physician. At the turn of the 19th century, hospital ships such as Thomas Trotter’s Charon and Medusa carried, as well as the usual medical necessities, essential foodstuffs to minimise the risk of scurvy. They kept the surgeons of the fleet regularly supplied and helped to ensure that their charges remained fighting-fit at sea.

Thomas Trotter (1766-1832), Physician to the Fleet, engraving by Daniel Orme, public domain

Edward is currently BSHM Vice-President and President Elect. Jane Wickenden was the Historic Collections Librarian to the Royal Naval Medical Service at the Institute of Naval Medicine from 2001 to 2021.

Wawrzynczak EJ & Wickenden JVS. From ‘Sick Comforts’ to ‘Doctor’s Garden’: British Naval Hospital Ships, 1620 to 1815. British Journal for Military History. 2023; 9(1): 24-48.