In the eighteenth century a naval officer was expected to provide his own furniture and ideally it needed to suit the difficult conditions it was used in. That is to say it should be easy to move quickly when the call to clear the decks was given; it should be made to withstand the rigours of life on board ship and it should fit the limited space available whilst still being practical for use. Lieutenant James Trevenen of the 24 gun frigate ‘Crocodile’ wrote a good description of a typical cabin of a junior officer and his furniture, in his letter of the 17th August 1781 to his brother :
My habitation, then is six feet square, which six feet is now completely filled up as an egg. My cot in which I sleep is two feet broad and five and a half long, allowing half a foot on each side for swinging (and this is too little when it blows hard). I wish I had not mentioned the cot, for it blows hard now and brings to memory that I shall have a bad night’s sleep. Allowing half a foot then for swinging, my cot will take up just half my cabin and there will be left six feet by three feet. A very small bureau will take up three feet square, and my chair and myself will pretty well complete the rest of the space. 1.
The two part mahogany secretaire chest illustrated is a little over the size of Trevenen’s bureau and would have been useful to a naval officer in carrying out his administrative duties. With the entering of daily logs, the recording of signals and Admiralty returns this work was substantial and a writing area with drawers and pigeon holes for filing was essential. This chest has a fixed fiddle gallery to the top and handles to the sides. Although you could be forgiven for assuming that these handles were simply for carrying, their greater importance was for tying down in bad weather.
As the chest breaks into two parts it could easily be carried to the hold or put into a boat to be towed behind, when the ship prepared for battle. If it couldn’t be moved quickly or there was no time, it was not uncommon for furniture to be thrown overboard. Indeed at Trafalgar, 10 officers of the Ajax had their cots given to the sea in the haste to be ready for battle. Apart from storage, the furniture was sometimes put to more practical use during battle. It was not unknown for the surgeon to use the midshipman’s chests, lashed together with tarpaulin on which to lay out the wounded sailors, in the absence of a table. 2.
The following illustrations are of a mahogany elbow chair and it can be seen that it is designed to concertina flat quickly. Once the seat is lifted to rest against the back and the two piece arms are released on their brass catches, the hinges on the side rails allow the chair legs to fold so that chair takes up a relatively small amount of space. This chair is typical of a type associated with naval use. Indeed a set of the same design are on board HMS Victory and Treve Rosoman notes that Admiral Edward Boscawen (1711-1761) had a similar set of four plain chairs and one armchair. 3.
Although these two items are good examples of purpose made furniture for use on board ship it is not to say that common domestic furniture was not also used and certainly it would been more affordable to the officer still waiting to make his fortune. The ward-room furniture of the 80 gun Tonnant included a number of Windsor chairs and at Trafalgar they “were suspended by a rope passed from the main to the mizzen mast.” 4. Forbes Chevers, the ship’s surgeon, retrieved his chair after the battle as a memento, even though it “had part of its legs shot away and another bullet had passed completely through its thick oaken seat.” 4.
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1. A Memoir of James Trevenen, ed. by Christopher Lloyd & R.C. Anderson, Navy Records Society, 101 (1959) and quoted by Treve Rosoman in ‘Some Aspects of 18th century naval furniture’- Furniture History Society Journal Vol. XXXIII 1997.
2. Roy Adkin - ‘Trafalgar – The biography of a battle’. Published by Little, Brown
3.‘Some Aspects of 18th century naval furniture’ by Treve Rosoman - Furniture History Society Journal Vol. XXXIII 1997.
4. Quoted in Roy Adkins, ‘Trafalgar - the biography of a battle’. Published by Little, Brown