Crew wages

When seafarers joined a ship they signed the articles, an employment contract that set out how much they would be paid, what food they would be given, and what hours they would be expected to work.

Seafarers’ pay varied from ship to ship in the early nineteenth century. On the Woodford sailing from London to Calcutta in the 1820s seamen were paid two pounds five shillings a month. On the brig Adelaide sailing from Britain to Rio de Janeiro in 1844 seamen were paid one pound fifteen shillings a month. On the brig Swift sailing from London to the West Indies in 1845 they were paid two pounds ten shillings a month. In the case of the John Pirie, the advances to crew members were: (in pounds) mates, 10 and 5; carpenter 10; cook 5; seamen 4-10; ordinary seaman 3. The Duke of York and Lady Mary Pelham were sent out as whalers. Therefore the seamen were on lays, or shares, of the proceedings and not on wages.

Seafarers were often paid less than labourers ashore. Indeed, the South Australian Maritime Museum holds an advertisement seeking wharf labourers in Port Adelaide in 1838. It offers pay of two pounds a week!

A Royal Commission into Britain’s mercantile marine reported in 1836 that crews were poorly paid. Its recommendations to establish a savings bank for seafarers and refuges for them in their old age were rejected by Parliament.

Crew were usually given one month’s pay in advance when they signed the articles. Traditionally, the period for which they were paid in advance was called the ‘dead horse’. There was a custom of celebrating the end of that first month by carrying a straw horse around the ship and singing ‘Old man your horse must die’, hanging the horse from the yardarm and then throwing it into the ocean.

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