The Board of Commissioners for the Victualling of the Navy, often called the Victualling Commissioners or Victualling Board, was for 150 years the body responsible under the Navy Board for victualling ships of the British Royal Navy. It oversaw the vast operation of providing serving naval personnel (140,000 men in 1810) with enough food, drink and supplies to keep them fighting fit, sometimes for months at a time, in whatever part of the globe they might be stationed.
Under Elizabeth I, a Surveyor General of the Victuals had been appointed to oversee contracts for food and other provisions for the Navy. In 1560 he was listed as one of the seven members of the Board of Principal Officers and Commissioners of the Navy; he was required to 'take care always to have in store a stock of victuals to supply a thousand men at sea for one month at a fortnight's notice'. At first the Victualling Office was accommodated in the Tower of London, but it soon spread outside the precincts to the east (on to land later occupied by the Royal Mint). The complex included storehouses, ovens, brewhouses and bakeries. (Milling took place across the river at Rotherhithe, and in 1650 a slaughterhouse was acquired in Deptford). Officials of the Victualling Board were to remain accommodated here until the nineteenth century; however, the constraints of the site (and difficult riverside access) led to the establishment of a new manufacturing facility at the Deptford site (the future Deptford Victualling Yard) in 1672.
By the mid-seventeenth century the established arrangement was for a single contractor to be engaged to make all necessary victualling provisions, with the Navy Board laying down strict criteria on the quality of the provisions it required. In the 1660s Samuel Pepys (Clerk of the Acts of the Navy) reformed the system of having a Purser assigned to each ship to oversee the distribution of supplies, and obliged each one to lodge a cash surety, and to keep complete accounts of every item issued. By the time of the Anglo-Dutch Wars, however, the system was breaking down (the government complaining that sufficient provisions had not been delivered, and the contractor complaining that payment had not been made). As a result of this, a salaried Board of Commissioners was established in 1683, and this body retained oversight of victualling for the next 150 years. Though nominally under the direction of the Navy Board (which had its headquarters nearby on Tower Hill), the Victualling Board was effectively independent.
On the Board, each Commissioner had responsibility for a key area of victualling activity: the Brewhouse department, the Cutting House department, the Dry Goods department, Cooperage, Hoytaking and Stores. There were seven Commissioners; the aforementioned six, plus the Chairman (who had direct oversight of the Cash department). The Victualling Board proceeded to build breweries, slaughterhouses, mills and bakeries near to the Royal Navy Dockyards to provide beer, salted meat, ship's biscuits, etc under its own quality control. In due course these facilities were consolidated into Victualling Yards (see below) each with several processes and related storehouses accommodated on a single site. The Yards had deep-water wharves and were accessible (wind and weather permitting) from the major anchorages used by the Fleet. Under normal circumstances, ships due to set sail were expected to come to the nearest Yard to be loaded up with provisions; these would include preserved foodstuffs designed to last weeks or even months: ship's biscuit, salted beef, salted pork, pease, oatmeal, butter, cheese and beer. Most of these items were transported and stored in casks, which were themselves manufactured by the Board in large numbers at its on-site cooperages. In addition, the Victualling Yards provided fresh meat, bread and other items to ships stationed in port.
There was ongoing awareness of the need to stamp out corruption and improve quality. (In 1658 the crew of HMS Maidstone had demolished the Victualling Office at Rochester in protest at the foul quality of the food. Their captain Thomas Penrose refused to name any of the culprits.) The reason so much of the manufacturing process took place in-house was to guarantee a level of quality. It was far easier to gauge the quality of raw materials than it would have been to evaluate finished product bought in from other providers (some of whom were not so scrupulous). Therefore the Commissioners oversaw not only supply, but manufacture: of beer from hops, of flour from grain, of meat from livestock.
Though by no means perfect the system generally improved; if the food was of poor quality, at least there was plenty of it. And indeed, modern research has shown that during the period of the Napoleonic Wars only about 1% of supplies were actually condemned as unfit to eat.
In 1832 both the Navy Board and the Victualling Board were abolished, and their functions assumed by the Board of Admiralty. The work of the Victualling Yards continued under this new management, overseen by a Comptroller of Victualling and Transport Services.
The Victualling Yards
By the early eighteenth century, Victualling Yards of various sizes had been established alongside several Royal Naval Dockyards in Britain, including Portsmouth, Plymouth, Deptford and Harwich (though the latter was closed, along with Harwich Dockyard, in 1713). There was also a minor Victualling Yard at Dover (which had no Dockyard, but was used to service ships in the nearby anchorage the Downs).
Deptford was the largest and busiest of the Victualling Yards (being advantageously close to the food wharves and markets of London). The other Naval Dockyards in the Thames area (Chatham, Sheerness and Woolwich) were all dependent on Deptford for victualling (though the Commissioners did maintain a minor Yard at Chatham). Deptford also directly supplied the Victualling Yard at Gibraltar (established in the eighteenth century).
In the first decade of the nineteenth century, the Commissioners established new minor Yards at Sheerness and at Deal (which, like Dover, provided for ships anchored in the Downs). In the following decade, a complex of storehouses was built as part of the Royal Naval Dockyard development on Haulbowline Island in Cork Harbour, Ireland. It was known as the Royal Alexandra Victualling Yard before being handed over to the Irish government in 1923. Overseas, the Victualling Yard on Gibraltar was the most significant and most durable. Eighteenth-century Yards on Jamaica and Antigua did not prove durable. Other Yards and smaller Storehouses were established abroad at different times when or where circumstances required; otherwise, the Board made use of local contractors to replenish their provisions overseas.
The Victualling Yards in Britain had for the most part developed haphazardly over time. In 1822, however, the Victualling Board decided to rationalise its Plymouth operation in a new, centralised site at Stonehouse which was named the Royal William Victualling Yard. It consisted of a central Grand Storehouse, flanked by two sizeable manufactories alongside the waterfront: a mill/bakery on one side, a brewery on the other (providing biscuits and beer respectively). The other buildings on site include cooperages (for manufacturing barrels), officers' residences and an elegant Slaughterhouse (for provision of salted beef), all in matching limestone and arranged on a symmetrical grid layout.
A similar approach was taken with regard to Portsmouth: there, the new Royal Clarence Victualling Yard was begun in 1827 (on a site in Gosport known as the Weevil yard, where the Commissioners already owned a brewery and cooperage established in the early eighteenth century). Here, the layout was less regimented, but it still presented a symmetrical frontage to the dockside (since lost through the demolition of one wing of the Granary). Royal Clarence was given a similar variety of buildings, with the old cooperage being incorporated into the new complex. Here, as at Royal William, most key buildings have survived in situ (though for the most part their function changed over decades of use).
Both these establishments were named after the future King William IV, who had taken an active interest in developments. Each was designed to maximize efficient storage, manufacture and seafront delivery of provisions, whilst also presenting a strikingly monumental symmetrical frontage to the sea. The Royal William Yard, in particular, has been described as "a unique concept in English industrial history: as a planned state manufacturing complex, on such a lavish scale, it is without comparison". In 1845, a Royal Naval Victualling Yard was built along similar lines at Malta Dockyard; the Malta Maritime Museum is housed in one of its former buildings (the mill/bakery) which is of similar monumental character.
Deptford's Yard was not rebuilt in this way, but it did continue to grow, even after the adjacent Dockyard had closed. (At its greatest extent, the site covered 35 acres.) In 1858 it was renamed the Royal Victoria Victualling Yard. It remained operational until 1961, after which a housing estate was built on the site (though some buildings/features were retained and converted for community use). The two South Coast yards - the Royal Clarence and the Royal William - both closed in 1992; since then, both sites have been sold to the private sector and their buildings (most of which are listed) have been converted to residential, office and leisure uses.
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