Hurrah for the Life of a Sailor.

p. 25-26: In July 1838 the Admiralty sanctioned the supply of libraries to sea-going ships. Large ships were issued with 276 books, small ships with 156. The books were mostly religious or of an ‘improving’ nature. Various societies and private individuals also contributed. As early as 1816 a Lieutenant Baker and a Dr Quarrier supplied the Leander frigate, fitting out from Woolwich, with a library of several hundred books. Mrs Elizabeth Fry later persuaded the Admiralty to issue libraries to naval hospitals and to the coastguard.

As a senior rating, John Bechervaise was in a position to see how these reforms were received on the lower-deck. Of the cut of the rum ration he heartily approved. He himself was a teetotaler and although he did not advocate total abstinence throughout the Navy there was no doubt in his mind that the less spirits issued the better. From his own experience, Bechervaise knew of the punishments inflicted, the accidents caused, the opportunities lost, the careers spoiled, on account of drink.

The libraries, too were welcome. Bechervaise served for many years as a petty officer before the libraries were issued. Then, a book was a great; rarity on the mess-deck. If any mess had one, it was read and re-read and lent from man to man ‘until it because difficult to tell the original colour’. Such books as there were, were ‘of a kind that frequently injured rather than improved the morals of men.’ In one of his ships, the Asia, Bechervaise was allowed to borrow books from the cabin of one of the lieutenants. ‘This indulgence gave me a pleasure I can scarcely describe.’ Sometimes, in the dog-watches, Bechervaise sat at the mess table and read to those around him. ‘How different it is now: every one can get a book, and read for himself. He can go to the library, take out a volume from a well-selected stock of books, and one day with another at sea, can have three hours to read and improve his mind.’ Many of the men took advantage of the chance. ‘We have men now in the service, and I could name more than twenty from one ship, who on entering into her did not know one letter in the book; and now within five years, have learned to read, write and cypher merely at their spare time.’ Speaking with twenty-two years’ experience of the lower-deck, Bechervaise thought he could ‘see at a glance the vast improvement that has taken place, both in morals and character.’

Now and again, Bechervaise encountered the hidebound voice of reaction. He once heard an officer of the Old School observe, that the less of education seamen possessed the better were they fitted for the service; for’ continued he, ‘when they have much learning they are generally great sea-lawyers and on the whole troublesome characters.’ Bechervaise answered this with a moderation that does him and the lower-deck of his time the greatest credit. He agreed that the accusation was true in a few cases. But, he said, because a few men were troublesome that was no reason to keep the rest in ignorance and deny them the blessing of being able to read and write. [From Bechervaise, John. Thirty-Six Years of a Seafaring Life, by ‘An Old Quartermaster. Portsea, UK: Woodward, 1839.]