Victualling Commissioners

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Emblem of the Victualling Commissioners above the river gate at Deptford (Royal Victoria Victualling Yard)

The Commissioners for the victualling of the Navy, often called Victualling Commissioners, were the body responsible under the Navy Board for victualling ships of the British Royal Navy.


Previous to this supplies had been provided by outside contractors, but they were of such poor quality that the government was forced to take control in order to effectively engage in the wars against the Dutch. Though nominally under the direction of the Navy Board, the Victualling Board was effectively independent.


From 1654 it had its headquarters at Tower Hill, and laid down strict criteria on the quality of the provisions it required. In the 1660s Samuel Pepys 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, in an attempt to stamp out the fairly commonplace corruption that had been notorious. (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.) Though by no means perfect the system generally improved, and if the food was of poor quality, at least there was plenty of it. The Victualling Board built breweries, slaughterhouses, and bakeries near to Navy Yards to provide beer, salted meat and ship's biscuit, and 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 1725, the Victualling Commissioners, the Navy Board, the Sick and Hurt Commissioners and the Navy Pay Office all moved into new accommodation in Somerset House.[1]


Eventually in 1832 the Victualling Board as a separate entity was abolished and its functions were assumed by the Board of Admiralty.

The Victualling Yards[edit]

By the end of the eighteenth century, Victualling Yards of various sizes had been established in close proximity to several Royal Naval Dockyards in Britain (including Portsmouth, Plymouth, Deptford and Harwich). Several Dockyards in the Thames area, however (including Chatham, Sheerness and Woolwich), rather than having their own Yards, made use of Deptford. (Deptford was advantageously close to the food wharves and markets of London.)

A street sign in Gibraltar

Between 1806 and 1822, 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 (established in the eighteenth century) 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.[2]

Gateway to the Royal William Victualling Yard

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.

Gatehouse, viewed from inside the former Royal Clarence Yard in Gosport

The Commissioners then took a similar approach with regard to Portsmouth: there, the new Royal Clarence Victualling Yard was begun in 1827 (on a site in Gosport where they already owned a brewery and cooperage, established in the early eighteenth century).[3] 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).

Gateway to the former Victualling Yard in Vittoriosa, Malta

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".[4] 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.

Entrance gate to Deptford's Yard

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.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Somerset House website
  2. ^ Macdonald, Janet (2010). The British Navy's Victualling Board, 1793-1815. Woodbridge: Boydell. 
  3. ^ Gosport Society: history of the Weevil Brewery
  4. ^ Lake & Douet, A Thematic Overview of the Naval Dockyards, English Heritage, 1998.