Sunday, November 23, 2014

Navy Grey and Red


A little more than a month ago I was in London, shuttling between the National Archives and the British Library, tracking down some of the original documents used by G.E. Manwaring for his article, “The Dress of the British Seaman from the Revolution to the Peace of 1748,” published in 1924.[1]  


I first encountered this article almost 20 years ago in connection with research I was doing then on how English and American pirates of the late-17th and early-18th centuries actually dressed – more about that in a later posting.  Manwaring’s article not only answered most of my questions, but also offered two surprising (to me at least), pieces of information about early British naval dress.


One was that before blue and white became the signature colors of the Royal Navy (and later, the American), for several decades its men generally dressed in red and grey.  Even the officers, who could and did wear whatever they liked (their first uniforms weren’t authorized until 1748), seemed to prefer grey or red coats.


The other thing I learned was that even though the Royal Navy did not adopt an official uniform for its sailors until after the middle of the 19th century, by 1706 and perhaps earlier the “slop clothing” which was sold by the Admiralty to navy seamen was so well regulated and available on such easy credit, that they amounted to a uniform for the men serving below officer rank.


In contrast to later official documents, the list of slop clothing found in the Admiralty’s General Printed Instructions of 1690 is rather simple:[2]

Broadcloth coats £1
Broadcloth breeches 12/-
Kersey gowns £1
Monmouth caps 2/6
Red caps 1/1
Yarn stockings 3/-
Irish stockings 1/2
Blue shirts 3/6
Kersey waistcoats 7/-
Kersey breeches 6/-
Neat’s leather shoes 2/6
Blue neckcloths -/5
Canvas suits 5/-
Blue suits 5/-


But in a relatively few years, the lists of slop clothing became quite detailed and specific, giving not only the color and fabric of each garment but the number and material of the buttons, color of the buttonhole stitching and details such as the number of leather pockets.  In the 1706 slop clothing contract, the red and grey color scheme was laid out for the first time:

His Roy: Highness Prince

Wheras I am informed by the Principall Officers and Commissrs. of her Maj.s Navy that they have made a contract with Mr. _ Richard Harnage of London, bearing date the 3d: of Aprill last for furnishing the Seamen serveing in His Majties. Fleet, for the time to come, with Slop-Cloathes at the Prices hereafter mentioned viz:
     Shrunck Grey Kersey Jackett, Lin’d with Red Cotton, with fifteen Brass Buttons, and two Pockets of Linnen, the Button holes stich’d with Gold Colour Thread, att Tenn Shillings and Sixpence each.
     Waist Coat of Welsh Red plain unlin’d, with Eighteen Brass Buttons, the holes Stich’d with Gold Coloured Thread at Five Shillings and Sixpence each.
     Red Kersey Breeches lin’d with Linnen, with three Leather Pocketts, and thirteen white Tinn Buttons, the Button Holes stitched with white Thread, at the Rate of Five Shillings and Six pence each.
     Strip’d Shagg Breeches lin’d with Linnen, with three Leather Pocketts, and Fourteen white Tinn Buttons, the Button Holes stich’d with white Thread, at the Rate of Tenn Shillings and Sixpence each.
     Shirts of blew and white  Chequer’d Linnen, at the Rate of three Shillings and three pence each.
     Drawers of Ditto, at the Rate of Two Shillings and Three pence each.
     Leather Capps faced with Red Cotten, and lined with Black Linnen, at the Rate of One Shilling and two pence each.
     Small Leather Capps stich’d with white Thread, at the Rate of Eight pence each.
     Grey Woollen Stockings at the Rate of One Shilling and Nine pence @ Pair.
Grey Woollen Gloves or Mittens at the Rate of Sixpence per pair.
Double Sold Shoes, round Toes, at the Rate of Four Shillings per pair  
Brass Buckles with Iron Tongues at the Rate of Three Pence per pair . . .  

And Whereas the said Commissioners of the Navy have likewise on the 16th instant made a Contract with Mr. William Franklin of Wappen Stepeny Salesman, to furnish the Seamen serveing in Her Majties Shipps with other Slop Cloathes at the Prices following viz:
Strip’d Ticken Wast Coats of proper lengthes, to be one Yard in length at least, with Eighteen Black Buttons, the Holes Stitched with Black Thread lined with White linen and two White Linnen Pockets, at the Rate of Seven Shillings each.
Strip’d Ticken Breeches of proper lengthes, lined with white linen, and two linen Pockets, with Sixteen Black Buttons, the Button Holes stich’d with Black Thread, at the rate of five Shillings each . . .[3]


Manwaring points out that, from these lists, “it is clear that this Grey and Red clothing became virtually established as a uniform from the year 1706 until nearly the middle of the eighteenth century,”  and was worn in all of the principal actions of the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean, the West Indies and Gibraltar. 


It’s still not easy for me to think of the Royal Navy dressed in anything but “navy blue and white,” especially when I look at the black and white prints showing officers and seamen from this era.  But having seen most of the original documents that Manwaring cites in his study for myself, I not only assured myself that he had done his research well, but enjoyed actually touching and studying the stuff of history.[4]


*I’d like to thank David Fictum and Ed Fox for their willingness to help me track down these sources while I was in England, away from my files.

A. Page 129 of Admiralty, Out Letters, the manuscript copy of the 1706 slop clothing contract, National Archives, Kew.

B. This Player’s Cigarette card from c. 1930 shows a Royal Navy sailor in the red and grey clothing laid down in the 1706 slop clothing contract.  This is one of a series showing Royal Navy clothing from earliest times to the 20th century, and I believe was based on the research of G.E. Manwaring.  My thanks to Terry Hooker and the Military Historians Archives Unit on Facebook:  

C. Portrait of the English naval officer, Charles Wager by Godfrey Kneller, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.  Painted in 1710, perhaps to commemorate Wager’s command of an expedition to Jamaica where he intercepted the Spanish treasure fleet.  Wager is shown wearing a grey velvet coat. 

D. The two Royal Navy seamen shown in the frontispiece to Captain George St. Lo’s England’s Safety: or, a Bridle to the French King, 1693, may or may not be wearing the broadcloth coats, Irish stockings and neat’s leather shoes specified in the British Admiralty’s General Printed Instructions of 1690.  Their fur caps and checkered petticoat breeches are not mentioned, but can be seen as the kinds of garments that seamen could acquire and wear in addition to whatever slop clothing they purchased. A facsimile copy of this publication is available from Internet Archive:

E. Like the sailors in the frontispiece to England’s Safety (fig. D), "The British Hercules," (1737) shows some clothing mentioned in the slop clothing lists, including “Strip’d Ticken Wast Coats.”  His coat, too, may be imagined to be of “Shrunck Grey Kersey,” but his trousers and tricorn hat (worn backwards and cocked to one side) are not listed in the slop clothing lists of the era.  From Charles Napier Robinson,  The British Tar in Fact and Fiction (London and New York. Harper and Brothers, 1909).

F. "The British Sailors' Loyal Toast," 1738. From Robinson, The British Tar.

G. "The Sailor’s Return," by C. Mosley, c. 1740. From Robinson, The British Tar.

H. “At the Sign of the Jolly Sailor,” the trade card of a London clothier, circa 1740, from, Ambrose Heal, London Tradesmen’s Cards of the XVIIIth Century (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1925).

I. As William Hogarth’s 1745 painting, Captain Lord George Graham in his Cabin shows, grey clothing was used by officers until 1748, when the new blue and white uniform was authorized.  Though not shown here, Captain Graham’s men also owned grey as well as red slop clothing.  National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.


[1] G.E. Manwaring, “The Dress of the British Seaman from the Revolution to the Peace of 1748, "The Mariner’s Mirror, The Journal of the Society for Nautical Research, 10, 1924, 31-48; This article was later republished as part of collection of essays by this same author. See, G. E. Manwaring, The Flower of England's Garland (London: P. Allen and Co, 1936), 156-177.  It’s also currently available online at:
[2] General Printed Instructions, 1690, ratified and confirmed in Feb. 1694. British Library ms. Add. 0319, ff/ 32 sq.
[3]Admiralty, Out Letters – Orders and Instructions 6. July 1706 to 14 March 1707. ADM 2/35, 129 – 131, ms. National Archives, Kew.
[4] Though it was not part of my research, Manwaring also wrote, “The Dress of the British Seaman from the Earliest Times till 1600,” "The Mariner’s Mirror, The Journal of the Society for Nautical Research, 8, no. 7 (November 1922), 324-333;

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