There's a sweet little cherub
Keeps watch for poor Jack!
So went the old song, and certainly the sailor of the early nineteenth-century Royal Navy needed all the help he could get, from cherubs or anybody else. The ordinary British bluejacket served faithfully and cheerfully all over the world, from the snows of the Arctic to the malarial swamps of the tropics. He fought the Queen's enemies, on land and sea. He chased pirates and slavers. He went on long voyages of exploration and surveying. He served in open boats in all weathers and he braved the dangers of disease, storm and shipwreck. Yet his life on board was hard, his punishment brutal, his pay low, his food and living conditions abominable. He had no proper career structure, no official uniform, and very few rights at law.
As the century went on, the Navy was slowly reformed — though most of the reforms were bitterly fought by the Navy itself. Steam came and sails went. The old wooden walls were replaced by ironclads. Flogging was abolished, the rum ration reduced, pay increased. The sailor had libraries and canteens on board, savings banks and sailors' rests ashore.
From sea ballads and music-hall songs, from Victorian melodramas and advertisements, from admirals' dispatches and memoirs, from ships' logs and from sailors' own diaries and reminiscences, John Winton has recaptured the flavour of life on the lower-deck of the Royal Navy in the nineteenth century and the rise in the sailor's status. By 1900 he had become the darling of the Victorian public, who all loved Jack.
So away with melancholy, We'll all be gay and jolly ; Hurrah for the life of a sailor!
John Winton was born in London in 1931 and joined the Royal Navy in 1949. He retired as a lieutenant-commander in 1963. His first novel, We Joined the Navy was published in 1959 and has been followed by several more successes,
including H.M.S. Leviathan and The Fighting Temeraire. He has also published an account of the British Fleet in the Far East during the second world war, The Forgotten Fleet, a biography of Sir Walter Ralegh, and The Little Wonder, the story of the Festiniog Railway.
He now lives in Wales, near Denbigh.