The Fashionable Sailor of 1785

7 April, 2011 at 12:51 pm Leave a comment

I never leave the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich without having spent far more time than necessary in front of the uniform displays.  My favourite is the 1748 lieutenant’s dress coat, though this one is a close competitor. Yes, they might have all smelled like rancid sheep underneath all those layers of wool, but at least they looked good doing so.

But what about the ordinary sailors? What did Jack Tar wear while tarring, rigging and splicing? We know from paintings, illustrations and reports that sailors togged up when on shore leave, impressing the ladies in ports all over the world to equal parts with ribbons on their hats,  brightly coloured neckerchiefs and generously embellished tales of adventures at sea.

Yes, we can read about it, we can look at the pictures, but there’s a world of a difference between imagining what they looked like and actually seeing it.

Ordinary sailors didn’t have the money to fill their chests with tons of clothes. Unlike officers, who might have a spare uniform at home with their loved ones and were far more likely to have their portraits painted, they travelled with all their worldly belongings, and once a ship went down, they took clothes, dity box and the stories of their lives with them. What they looked like is mostly left up to our imagination.

That’s one of the reasons why I’m always excited when archaeologists unearth – or would that be unwater? – personal belongings of sailors in wrecks. A sailor’s shoe or stocking is like a personal message from the past, so it’s far more interesting to me than a treasure chest.

In 1785, the General Carleton of Whitby sunk during a storm off the Polish coast, with all 25 men aboard dying  (read more about it here). The General Carleton was a merchant man, transporting iron and tar. In the 1990ies, archaeologist of the Polish Maritime Museum in Gdansk (tip for your next trip to Poland!) found the wreck and started to excavate it. They made a number of exciting finds, among them the ship’s bell, a telescope and hundreds of shoe buckles (part of the cargo).

Most exciting find for me, however, are the items of clothings which survived through the centuries and were brought to the surface by the archaeologists. The colours have faded, but looking at the slopes, it’s really easy to imagine how they must have looked while being worn.  I’m particularly in love with the mittens and the hat!

INDIVIDUAL PIECES OF CLOTHING

THE FASHIONALBE SAILOR OF 1785

A book about the General Carleton is available from the online shop of the Polish Maritime Museum. It’s in Polish-English, and as soon as I’ve figured out how to place an order, I’ll do just that!

WRAK STATKU GENERAL CARLETON, 1785
(THE GENERAL CARLETON SHIPWRECK, 1785)

A monograph in book form presenting research results and a full catalogue of historical objects from a wreck of General Carleton – a Baltic ship from the 18th century.

Please also consider the following book on Amazon:

The Yorkshire “Mary Rose”: The Ship “General Carleton” of Whitby

 

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Entry filed under: 18th century, books, resource, ships. Tags: , , , , , .

Help Molly to help Japan, and get goodies in return Event tip: Record office lecture on Collingwood by Dr. Tony Barrow

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