Portsmouth Landladies and Care for Naval Casualties in Late Stuart England

Matthew Neufeld

Matthew Neufeld

Portsmouth women played a major role in the care of sick and injured Royal Navy sailors during the seventeenth century. Women’s importance to naval health care became, paradoxically, a reason to justify an important shift: from care in private homes to care in private naval hospitals.

From about 1650, naval health care in England operated as a kind of public-private partnership.[1] The Royal Navy’s Commission for Sick and Hurt seamen located quarters at designated ports for naval casualties.[2] Most servicemen were lodged and treated at taverns, inns, alehouses or individuals’ homes.[3] The people of Portsmouth provided basic care to thousands of sailors, for pay and for the most part willingly.[4]

Most care work was done by women.[5] Care included washing, feeding, shaving, cutting hair, doing laundry, or changing bedclothes.[6]  Surviving registers of sick and injured sailors, including one from 1660s Portsmouth, suggest that landladies and landlords earned a decent amount of money as care providers.[7] For example, Goody Latham was owed £34 for providing care to seamen between October 1664 and February 1666; a contemporary farm labourer working every available day of the year might earn £15 12s 0d annually.[8]

The Commission for Sick and Hurt appointed in 1702 was very critical of the navy’s reliance on landladies for care.  It was the first such Commission to have two physicians.  The Commissioners soon complained to the Admiralty that “multitudes” of sick and injured were lost by “the neglect of Nurses in omitting the Medicines prescribed by the Phistians.”[9]  In the autumn of 1703, the Admiralty agreed that its casualties should henceforth be looked after “in private houses instead of quarters” at four locations, including Portsmouth.[10]

The following summer, forty-seven sailors’ widows and landladies from Portsmouth and Gosport petitioned the Queen to allow them and not the private hospital to care for seamen. The women promised to nurse sailors carefully, adding that “between 300 and 400 families in Portsmouth depend on looking after sick and injured seamen.”[11]

In response, the Commissioners claimed that landladies encouraged their patients into “disorderly ways of living more fatal and chargeable to them than their original distempers.”[12]  The landladies’ petition was denied, but within weeks several naval officers criticised Portsmouth’s new private naval hospital. The officers noted that “the number of women employed as nurses at the hospital is far too small,” and that the level of care available to seamen “must be much inferior to what they have when disposed of into sick quarters.”[13]

Thus, a key factor in the shift from town quarters to private naval hospitals was the Commission for Sick and Hurt’s unwillingness to partner with Portsmouth’s landladies, whom the officials identified with the supposed failings of the town quartering system. Dishonest landladies allegedly promoted disorders among sick and injured seamen.  Naval health care in England was centralised at the beginning of the eighteenth century for both medical-instrumental and moral reasons.


* This post is an abbreviated and modified version of a previously published article, Matthew Neufeld and Blaine Wickham, “The State, the People and the Care of Sick and Injured Sailors in Late Stuart England,” Social History of Medicine, 28 (2015), 45-63.



[1] The National Archives, Kew (TNA), PC 2/57, 23 November 1664, fos. 148-149, “Instructions given to the Commissioners for Sick and Wounded,” Roger Wettenhall, “The Public-Private Interface: Surveying the History,” in G. A. Hodge and C. Greve, eds, The Challenge of Public Private Partnerships (Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 2005), 22-44.

[2] For assessments of the eighteenth-century Commissions, see, Patricia K. Crimmin, “The Sick and Hurt Board: Fit for Purpose?” in David Boyd Haycock and Sally Archer, eds., Health and Medicine At Sea, 1700-1900 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009), 90-107, Erica M. Charters, ‘‘The Intention is Certainly Noble:’ the Western Squadron, Medical Trials, and the Sick and Hurt Board during the Seven Years’ war (1756-63,” in David Boyd Haycock and Sally Archer, eds., Health and Medicine At Sea, 1700-1900 (Woodbridge: Boydell, 2009), 19-37.

[3] Royal Navy Museum, Portsmouth, Corbett Manuscripts, 121/13, p. 9; Magdalene College, Cambridge, Pepys Library (PL), 2867, 628-629, 3 March 1688.

[4] Bodleian Library, Rawlinson Manuscripts A187, fo. 357, Balthasar St Michael at Deal to Samuel Pepys, 11 Sept 1672; British Library (BL), Additional Manuscripts 11684, fos. 75-82, Richard Gibson, “A review of the Sick and Wounded Seamen in the several ports of England,” 19 January 1677.

[5] Wiltshire and Swindon Archives (WSA), 865/422, Bullen Reymes’s letter book (December 1664 – May 1666), pp. 15-16, January 1665; BL, Add. Ms 78320, no. 26, William Doyley to John Evelyn, August 1665.

[6] Margaret Pelling, ‘”Nurses and Nursekeepers”: Problems of Identification in the Early Modern Period’, The Common Lot: Sickness, Medical Occupations and the Urban Poor in Early Modern England (New York: Longman, 1998), 179-202.

[7] Wiltshire and Swindon Archives, 865/423; Portsmouth Register of Sick and Injured Seamen.

[8] J. A. Sharpe, Early Modern England: a Social History 1550-1760 (London: E. Arnold, 1997), 322.

[9] TNA, ADM 1/3595, Navy Board to Admiralty, 3 March 1703.

[10] TNA, ADM 3/19, 16 November, 11 December 1703.

[11] TNA, SP 42/119/247, August 1704.

[12] TNA, SP 42/119/269, Aug. 1704.

[13] NMM, ADM/E/2, fo. 100, 1 October 1704. A similar complaint was presented in the summer of 1705 against the hospital at Plymouth; Brian Tunstall, The Byng Papers (London: Navy Records Society, vols. 67-68, 1930), 81-82.


, , , , , , , , ,

Comments are closed.

Discover more from Port Towns and Urban Cultures

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading