Grim realities of Nelson’s Navy

Detailed examination of 340 skeletons from three mid 18th to early 19th Century Royal Navy graveyards are yielding unprecedented insights into the grim realities of naval life before and during the Napoleonic Wars.

Some 120 skeletons from Greenwich, around 50 from Gosport and 170 from Plymouth have been investigated by osteologists trying to reconstruct who the individuals were, where they came from and how they died.

Key aspects of the new research will be presented, for the first time, in a special Channel 4 documentary (Nelson’s Navy: Back From the Dead) being broadcast Sunday, 4 September at 8pm. (in the UK only)

“They are the only major collections of Royal Navy skeletal material from Britain for this period which have ever been excavated. The thousands of pieces of data we’ve been able to extract through our analysis are dramatically enriching our understanding of naval life in the Nelsonian era,” said osteologist Ceri Boston, of Oxford University’s School of Archaeology, who has been examining material from all three sites.

The investigations have allowed Oxford University’s Ceri Boston and her colleague Catherine Sinnott of Cranfield University to study individual sailors and marines who suffered from scurvy, syphilis, ulcers, severe tooth infections and possible malaria as well as from battle wounds, falls – and injuries probably sustained during brawls.

Key new insights gained during the lengthy investigation include the revelation that only a minority of sailors came from the very bottom of society

Key new insights gained during the lengthy investigation include the revelation that only a minority of sailors came from the very bottom of society; the surprisingly high percentage of sailors who suffered from scurvy and infections caused through everyday cuts and injuries; the high incidence (over six percent) of amputations – and the very high percentage of amputation operations which went wrong and ended in death.

Each of the graveyards has yielded a different perspective on the Royal Navy of two centuries ago, say Boston and Sinnott.

One of the burials investigated

At Plymouth, almost a fifth of the 170 skeletons were of teenagers, many of whom are believed to have died from malaria or yellow fever. Their remains testify to the huge numbers of very young people, some as young as eleven or twelve, who formed part of ships’ companies in the Nelsonian era. Many probably served in the Atlantic and the Caribbean.

At Gosport, virtually all the skeletons were of men in their 20s and early 30s who appear to have served in a different theatre of operations to those buried at Plymouth.

At Greenwich (the retirement home for Royal Navy sailors and marines), all the skeletons were, by definition, those of veterans who had generally survived into middle or old age, albeit often scarred by terrible injuries.

Key individuals who have been studied by the scientists, include a ‘top-man’ (a sailor who worked at the tops of the masts) who almost certainly fell from high up in a ship’s rigging, potentially during a battle; an 11-year-old boy who may well have been a ‘powder monkey’ supplying explosive charges to gunners; a former slave who gained his freedom by joining the Royal Navy; a probable marine; an American-originating sailor who suffered from scurvy and a sailor who died of syphilis.

Organisations which have been involved in the excavations and the analysis of the skeletal material, include Oxford University, Oxford Archaeology, Pre-Construct Archaeology, Cranfield University and Exeter Archaeology.

Most of the skeletal remains, excavated at various times over the past decade and analysed in detail over the past four years, were unearthed as a result of redevelopment activity.

Past Horizons


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