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Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and the Contractor State

Roger Knight
Martin Wilcox
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: NED - New edition
Published by: Boydell and Brewer,
Pages: 262
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  • Book Info
    Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815
    Book Description:

    Provisioning the fleet, and the army overseas, during the French Wars of 1793-1815 was a major undertaking. This book explains how the Victualling Board in London handled this enormous task, focusing in particular on contractors - that is the merchants and brokers, who provided a vast range of commodities including flour and biscuit, salt beef and pork, as well as huge quantities of fresh water and coal, and every other item needed. It shows how these merchants could be large or small concerns, and provides detailed case studies of different kinds of contractors, including examples of contractors based both in Britain and in the navy's overseas bases. The book demonstrates how, overall, the contracting system represented the mobilisation of a substantial part of the British economy for war; how the performance of contracting was effective, with little or no corruption; and how the contractors took considerable financial risks and made only reasonable margins. It assesses the performance of the Victualling Board, arguing that this was good, and that the problem in the major area of weakness - accounting - was quickly addressed following a major crisis in 1808-09. It concludes that this was "an impressive performance" by the state, but that the overwhelming advantage was the resilience of the market, and that it was "upon the success of the contractors that the war at sea was won." For most of his career, ROGER KNIGHT was on the staff of the National Maritime Museum, leaving as Deputy Director in 2000. Since then he has taught at the Greenwich Maritime Institute at the University of Greenwich, where he is currently Visiting Professor of Naval History. MARTIN WILCOX completed a doctorate in maritime history at the University of Hull, and has been employed as postdoctoral research fellow at Greenwich Maritime Institute since 2006.

    eISBN: 978-1-84615-883-4
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Abbreviations
    (pp. vi-vii)
  4. Tables
    (pp. viii-viii)
  5. Acknowledgements
    (pp. ix-x)
    Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox
  6. 1 Introduction: War and the Contractor State
    (pp. 1-18)

    Dr Johnson thus poured withering scorn on war contractors in 1771 at the time of the mobilisation of the fleet against Spain in the dispute over the Falkland Islands. In the same year Tobias Smollett publishedHumphrey Clinkerin which his indignation was similarly directed. Both were incensed by some well-publicised cases of corruption in the Seven Years War, principally in supplying the British army in Germany. Both commissaries and contractors were satirised in plays. Zachary Fungus is the central character ofThe Commissary, Samuel Foote’s drama of 1756, in which Fungus’s humble origins and eventual great wealth were duly...

  7. 2 The Victualling Board and its Contractors
    (pp. 19-45)

    Research over the last few decades has served to blur to some extent the neat dividing line that historians used to draw between the state and the market; between the public and private sectors, to use a modern idiom.¹ This is reflected in some of the ambiguities of individuals’ positions within the naval victualling system, within which a few contractors took on roles normally performed by government employees, and vice versa. Basil Cochrane, the contractor in the East Indies who forms the subject of Chapter 8, acted both as victualling contractor and Agent Victualler, whilst some members of staff in...

  8. 3 The Global Strategic Task
    (pp. 46-66)

    Sailing warships, so it has been said, ‘were powered no less by pounds sterling than by the winds.’¹ The third essential element was surely food and water: no ship could stay at sea without the availability of casked provisions, supplemented by fresh meat and vegetables. The supply of fresh water posed particular difficulties; cooking and ‘steeping’ salt provisions to make them edible required large quantities. In deadweight tons the water casks a ship took on board at the start of a commission weighed far more than the rest of the provisions put together.²

    British ships and troops had to be...

  9. 4 The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad
    (pp. 67-84)

    A trouble-free and timely supply to navy and army was paramount and this inflexible imperative was not an advantage when obtaining provisions at a low price in the various agricultural markets. The Victualling Board and its agents could take few market risks, such as delaying purchase in anticipation of price decreases: and none at all on the core commodities of wheat, beef and pork. It had the advantage of being one of the largest purchasers in the market, with strong credit, and it had some powerful and well-connected agents working for it, which, as we shall see, carried the navy...

  10. 5 Supply Contracts: ‘Men of Confined Property’ and the ‘Flower of the City’
    (pp. 85-114)

    On 8 November 1810, Thomas Hearn wrote to the Victualling Board requesting that he be granted certificates for bisket delivered to the victualling stores at Portsmouth under two contracts he had made with the Agent Victualler in August and September of that year. The Board reviewed his deliveries when the letter was read two days later and instructed the Agent Victualler to make him out the certificates he had granted, but to cut the prices paid on the last 190 bags to the same as they were paying others who had subsequently entered into contracts. They then directed the Agent...

  11. 6 Commission Agents: ‘Persons of Reputation, Integrity and Extensive Commercial Connexions’
    (pp. 115-131)

    The alternative to buying provisions by public tender and contract was to employ an agent to buy on commission. Theoretically this was simple, and because agents were paid on a ‘costs plus commission’ basis it should also have helped to keep prices down. Devolving buying to an agent with detailed knowledge of the markets should also have cut information costs by relieving the Board of the need to acquire such knowledge themselves. The reality was rather more problematic, however. Commission buying was, and is, vulnerable to the principal-agent problem, whereby an agent has opportunity and incentive to defraud his principal,...

  12. 7 Sea Provisions Contracts: Extending the Imperial Reach
    (pp. 132-154)

    By the late eighteenth century the Royal Navy’s reach was global. However, it was impracticable for the navy to maintain a victualling yard in every part of the world where ships operated, and too expensive to justify doing so at ports in the British Isles where ships touched more or less occasionally. The solution was to turn victualling over to a contractor, who undertook to provide the full range of sea provisions at a given place. Such contracts therefore represented a crucial way of augmenting the navy’s own facilities and extending its operational range. As a very rough index of...

  13. 8 Basil Cochrane and the Victualling of the Fleet in the East Indies, 1792–1806
    (pp. 155-176)

    In 1823, a wealthy nabob by the name of the Honourable Basil Cochrane petitioned the House of Commons, complaining of his treatment by the Victualling Board and praying that the House would immediately instigate an enquiry into the Board and ‘the hardships sustained by public accountants’ resulting from its conduct. Cochrane had been a vocal critic of the Board since his return from India in 1807 and had already published a series of lengthy broadsides setting out his case against it.¹ Perhaps he had overplayed his hand, for it was intimated to him by ‘friends’ he chose not to name...

  14. 9 Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor
    (pp. 177-191)

    Zephaniah Job is best remembered today as ‘The Smugglers’ Banker,’ the man who financed and organised illicit trade through the small Cornish port of Polperro around the turn of the nineteenth century. This label, however, serves to obscure the range of activities he engaged in, for Job’s business interests ranged far beyond smuggling. Job was a merchant, estate manager, farmer, provider of legal services, a banker for many legitimate business interests aside from smuggling, and a contractor with the Victualling Board. Although compared to the great London merchants he was in a small way of business, his web of contacts...

  15. 10 Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth, 1796–1802
    (pp. 192-209)

    Although Holland and Britain were at war from January 1795, after which the Dutch lost their possessions in the East Indies, Trincomalee and the Cape of Good Hope, an offensive British force was not established in the southern North Sea until the last weeks of that year, when Admiral Duncan took command. The threat of a combined invasion by the Dutch and French required a constant watch by a strong British fleet on the hostile ships moored in the Texel. Had the winds been fair during the autumn of 1796, Duncan would have carried out his planned attack on the...

  16. Conclusion
    (pp. 210-214)

    No government can do everything. Even in states with a very large public sector, private enterprise retains a significant role, and the state must at some point depend upon private concerns either to provide essential services or to deliver the raw materials that state concerns require. This is as true of the British state in the eighteenth century as any other, perhaps especially so since the boundaries of the state were very tightly drawn and it depended heavily upon private contractors to deliver many services both military and civilian.

    We advance the idea of the ‘Contractor State’ to describe these...

  17. Appendices
    (pp. 215-226)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 227-242)
  19. Index
    (pp. 243-254)
  20. Back Matter
    (pp. 255-255)