At the time of Trafalgar, Victory had a crew of 821 men. It would have been possible to sail and manoeuvre the ship with far fewer, but large numbers were needed to man her guns and fight in battle. From the Admiral like Nelson, down to the 31 boys on board, each person had a distinct role to play.
The ship’s Captain and nine commissioned officers were in overall charge of the ship and the crew, whilst warrant officers like the Boatswain, Gunner, Carpenter, Surgeon and Purser were specialists responsible for a single aspect. The Master, for example, looked after navigation and the ship’s log. The Royal Marines provided the ship’s fighting force and numbered 11 officers and 135 privates.
The great majority of the crew – over 500 – were the seamen who sailed or fought on the ship. These men were rated (and paid) according to their skill and experience; from the 70 skilled petty officers, through the 212 experienced able seamen and the 193 useful ordinary seamen right down to the 87 landsmen – who were without previous experience of the sea.
For these men, living and working at sea was dangerous; it is estimated that 90% of the 92,000 British fatalities during the French revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars with France were caused by disease, accident and shipwreck. However, many of the aspects of life at sea which appear to us harsh, such as child labour and corporal punishment, were also a part of life ashore. Navy service was attractive in many ways. Although basic pay was relatively low (23s. 6d. a month for an ordinary seaman in 1805) compared to that of merchant seamen, the crew were guaranteed regular food and drink and a chance of prize money. Experienced sailors would have been aware that, with many more men aboard, their duties were actually lighter than on merchant ships. The old belief that Victory’s sailors were forced to serve by the Press Gang, or were convicted criminals who chose to serve in the Navy rather than sit in gaol, is too simplistic. Among the crew at Trafalgar were 289 volunteers, as against 217 who had been pressed into service and no one at all who had been recruited from prison.
Seamen learned their trade early and Victory’s crew were overwhelmingly young. Approximately 40% were under the age of 24 and the youngest boy on board was 12 (though for good measure the Purser, who was the oldest crew member, was 67). This was also a multi-national crew of seafarers, with one in ten coming from outside the British Isles.