Curator's Choice: Royal Naval Museum

One of the most revealing items in our exhibition is a reproduction of a ship's biscuit from the 1800s. Admittedly insignificant in itself, it gives a very good insight into what life was like for an ordinary sailor in Nelson's navy. It was baked rock-hard and was probably the only solid food to survive a long journey at sea. Rations for a seaman on board a warship were quite generous on paper but more often than not the quality of the food was very poor indeed. The meat was kept in salt, so it was pretty revolting to start with, and after a couple of weeks at sea it would turn completely rancid. They would eventually end up with fat boiled in water, with a few peas thrown in.

The ship's biscuit was well known for being infested with weevils and while some hardened sailors probably saw the weevils as extra nourishment, for some new chap on board it would be pretty revolting to find these things walking about on his food.

There were also some pretty horrendous punishments of which flogging with the cat- o'-nine-tails (above) was the most common. It had a wooden handle, attached to nine, twisted, rope strops with a knot at each end. This could be inflicted for something quite trivial including bad language, being late onto your watch or not getting up the rigging fast enough.

Today people see the surviving ships scrubbed and clean and they don't always realise the type of life the sailors led, how really terrible it could be.

Lesley Thomas is the Head of Exhibits for the Royal Naval Museum, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth (0705 733060)