Royal Navy songs & ditties

Food & Recipes
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Canteen Messing v Cafeteria Messing
Today, with the exception of an odd unit or ship, everyone is served food, aboard ship in a dining hall. Where food is eagerly looked forward to as it is cooked by real chef, (who as the banter goes - got his  'City and Guilds' qualifications for boiling water. (Just kidding Chef without you we would not have grown big & strong & attractive to the ladies!).
- This current system is known as 'Cafeteria Messing' Where, your hungry sailor goes along at meal times and chooses what he fancies from the servery.
Although today's navy, is equipped with dining halls, it was not always so:-

- In the days of sail the iron  range in the galley was often, should a drop of roughers be expected, not lit at sea. On those ships a cook was carried as were one or more cooks mates. Whose job was to attend to the range etc. The officers often employed or had there own cook. But the work in preparation of food etc,, was done by a duty mess-man.

 Fresh food seldom lasted more than a few days, out of port and ships were often at sea on patrol for several weeks and what water was available quickly went green with Algae, and was seldom palatable without the edition of a drop of rum or vinegar wine.

Even so the sailors of those days - generally - ate much better than his shore side counterpart. But most of the food was preserved either by drying, smoking or by preserving which generally meant it was salted.  This means that special cooking techniques had to be used. Particularly when heating food for several hundred men ion a single range. With the ships company being fed from a single very large pot, that contained what ever was available

If the sailors were in theory well fed - It was the quality of the food and the variety however was often questioned. Usually the diet was  'bagoo' a staple provision and always the sailors found Vegetables to be popular, with Greens being given the description of lettuce. Meat would be served about three times a week. If a ship had a good Purser, that wasn't creaming off too much of the victualing money by buying in rotten provisions (against a back-hander) in lieu of good stuff. The meat ration, was better than the men could expect ashore and reflected the amount of calories they required to do their work. On most days there would be bread/biscuit and cheese.

The Ships Cook, one of the substantive Warrant Officers aboard, would prepare food in a large iron pot on iron range, The pot was seldom cleaned from day to day, in fact the grease was a wanted item of nutrition. He was given assistants from the duty watch, who would help in peeling vegetables etc. and the meat (usually taken from casks of brine), would be prepared and boiled. The duty mess men would then collect their ration for his mess. Vegetables were often more popular than the rancid and salted meat, whilst water was used from the cask, where the light green algae that floated in it when cooked added to the nutrition.

In theory bread was issued to each mess on a daily basis, and hung in a net over the mess table, which in turn was slung on hooks from the deckhead.

In the days of steam little changed and even as late as the 1960's this system, now known as Canteen messing was well proven.
-  Here each man in the mess was allocated so much food money, per head, per day. Thus in the iron ships at least, the Mess Caterer would work out the menu, and order from the victualing office the daily rations for his messmates. The money being deducted against his messes allowance. If there was any money left at the end of the month, this was shared around, but if the individual Mess Caterer over spent, it was deducted from the wages of the men. Thus the skill of the mess caterer not only put food in the men's bellies but also cash in their pocket. Sometimes the men would save up some of the victualing money if they were to be at sea at Christmas so that they could have extra food etc.

- The food provided during the late nineteenth century and into the Twentieth was wholesome and variable if usually plain. ,But it had to be prepared and cooked, by the duty mess cooks, and their skills were perhaps more important in making sure, just how far the food went. Wastage dumped in the slops pail was not good news. - Burnt clacker and spilt stew was not good, ad the Mess killick would often apportion punishment in terms of extra days cooks duty, though I do not know if this helped the situation.

In the late 1960's, I can testify, that minesweepers had a modified form of the same, and probably still do. The ship here carried a PO chef, who would decide on the menu for the whole ships company, but it was the duty cooks that peeled the spuds and helped prepare the scran, although the chef, was responsible for making the pies and a[portioning the meat etc.

- At meal times, the duty cook, collected his messes ration and carried down to the mess for dividing etc. Woe-be-tide if a bit of roughers, made the duty mess man spill, a fanny full of soup and large pie, could end up spread across the deck.

I am told by one reader that nothing was wasted, the water used to cook potatoes was used to brew the tea, and perhaps unknowingly would be a means of spreading the goodness and vitamins lost from the spuds in the cooking.

key etc.

From the Victorian Navy onwards, the victualing yards were responsible for improving the quality of food, from the original casks of meat etc. now, they pioneered tinned and ready prepared food, that only needed heating up. The favorite of all of these was tins of 'Herrings in' and 'Babies Heads'.

Are there any short dits or stories out there about messing and food, or any songs used in this connection.ny stories out there about messing and food and what about the the short rhymes or songs used in this connection.

 please get in touch. particularly those that are sung.


The Diet
In considering the names sailors gave to  food - You might also like to take note of what was actually fed to him and how this was prepared and cooked  - See  Food & Recipes

In Wooden Ships - N. A. M. Rodger in his book  'The Command of the Ocean' lists as standard supplies:

Bread, beer, brandy, rum, wine, beef, pork, peas, onions, flour, oatmeal, suet, cheese, raisins & other dried fruit, vinegar, oil. Citrus fruit/juice was increasingly carried to prevent scurvy. Dried cod had been phased out as it was unpopular with the men. A goat (for milk) was sometimes carried, as were beasts for slaughter. These together with the ship's poultry were kept forward in an area known as the manger.

One day a week was a 'banyan day' when no meat was served. The salt meat was usually dehydrated and rock-hard; it could, unless fresh in cask, be eaten only after stewing. The powerful onions carried lasted well, and in a stew helped both to tenderise the hard meat and to make the flavour acceptable. Contrary to common modern belief, rum was not always served. Sailors drank beer (the water soon became stale) and there was a daily allowance of stronger drink: white wine, brandy and schnapps are variously mentioned, and which was issued depended on where the ship had been able to victual.

The quantity was plentiful; fully ample for the hard-working life of a sailor of the period. However the menu was monotonous. Oatmeal porridge ('burgoo') was the standard breakfast. Dinner was almost invariably stewed meat with pea soup (mushy peas flavoured with the 'slush' or fat from the boiled meat) and onions. Sometimes there was a pudding ('duff') with dried fruit and sugar. Cheese was served most days, and as a main source of protein on a banyan day. Ships carried a trawl net, and when in shallow water the men would also fish  to supplement the diet with fresh food.

SEE - for another view

During WW2  or when ever  depth charges were exploded - Fish would be stunned or killed and rise to the surface. Ships of course could not stop, for fear of being torpedoed, but on rare occasions it was possible to scoop up some of this for the galley.

 In the Cod Wars the 1970's protected fishing boats would often keep the ships supplied with fresh fish on occasion.


Royal Naval Recipes
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(Pie Topping)
Pie Topping
Put 2 - 2.5 cups of flour in a bowl.
Add a teaspoon of baking powder and half a teaspoon of salt.
Do not bother to measure accurately no body everdid!
Mix lightly. Add 1/2 pound block of butter or lard and rub together until nice and even.
Gradually add milk (water) until it starts to stick together to form dough but is not sticky. If you've done it before, you know the difference. If this is your first time, add more flour.
Gather dough into a ball with fingers and transfer to rolling-out surface. Pat it into a roundish mound.

Wash hands, but before washing hands lick off all the sticky bits of dough and eat.

Begin rolling out dough. and try to get it into a round shape.
Take the flat round disc and lay ontop of your prepared pie dish.
Trim the sides and either eat these or use them to decorate the top.

Steak and Kidney Pie (Snake & Pygmy)
A favorite of all sailors - young or old, active or retired, living or dead in UK or overseas or if you are unlucky bobbing up and down on the pond.

2lb of blade-bone steak
2 kidneys, 1 large onion
1 tablespoon flour (corn flour if you prefer)
Pepper and salt
The Clacker you prepared earlier

Ideally remove all fat from the meat and cut into cubes about 1/2" square, either throw away the fat or shove it in the mix anyway also diced up.
Remove skin from kidney (essential) Remove any white bits etc AND DO throw these away. Cut Kidney into small pieces. Add onion (cut up roughly). put in a fanny and cover with cold water
Mix flour in a cup into a paste with cold water. Add this to the pot, as thickening. Season with pepper and salt.
Bring to boil then allow to simmer gently for 1 1/2 hours, or till meat is tender and the broth reduced to a nice even gravy.

 Place in pie dish. Cover with pastry and bake in oven until pastry is golden brown.
You can a few minutes before serving brush the pastry with egg white. 
Duff (Puddings) Plain Potato Pudding (with some optional not on board items)
8oz of boiled potatoes, two ounces of butter, the yolks and whites of two eggs, a half a can of condensed milk (or a pint of cream), (one spoonful of white wine or rum), a morsel of salt, (the juice and rind of a lemon); beat all to froth; sugar to taste. A crust or not, as you like. Bake it. (If wanted richer, put three ounces more butter,  and another egg)

Potato Pudding with Meat
Boil potato's and mash them with them with other ingredients ; rub through a colander, and make this into a thick batter with milk and two eggs.
Lay the seasoned steaks in a dish, add the batter; and over the last layer pour the remainder of the batter. Bake a fine brown.


Steak or Kidney Pudding

Prepare steak by cutting into 1/2 inch cubes. through away gristle
Skin kidney remove white cores and dice. and mix with meat,

Make a paste of suet, flour, and milk; roll it, and line a basin with some;
put the kidney or steaks in to fill basin near top, cover with paste, and pinch round the edge. Cover with a cloth, and boil a considerable time.

Common Plum Pudding
The same proportions of flour and suet, and half the quantity of fruit, with spice, lemon, a drop of rum or not, and one egg and milk, will make an excellent pudding, if boiled for long time.

Custard Pudding
Mix by degrees a pint of good milk with a large spoonful of flour, the yolks of five eggs, and a little pounded cinnamon if available.
Butter a basin that will exactly hold it, pour the batter in, and tie a floured cloth over.
Put in a pan of boiling-water on the heat, and turn it about a few minutes to prevent the egg going to one side. Half an hour will boil it.
Put currant-jelly on it, and serve with sweet sauce.

Greenwich Hospital
Festive Pudding

The following recipe was given by a former GH Chaplain. Who stated that on four occasions a year, a special pudding was cooked for the boys of Greenwich Hospital School.
  • Foundation Day - November 4th.
  • Christmas Day.
  • Queen's Birthday. (Queen Victoria).
  • Coronation Day.
The recipe for 1000 boys  had the following ingredients.

Flour 370lb, Raisin 120lb, Currants 60lb, Eggs 180, milk 60quarts, Sugar 50lb, suet 120lb, peel 12lb, spice 7lb.

Compare this to the normal diet given to the boys of Bread 4oz, Mutton 8oz or Beef 6oz, potatoes 8oz +pudding or vegetables.

The above recipe provides an interesting comparison to that for Duff. The favored victual  of all old sailors. It can of course be easily amended for less people.

Put the mixture in a pudding basin, (Pyrex bowl) cover with a pudding cloth tieing it tightly under the rim of the bowl, bring the four corners of the cloth to the centre and tie in a knot. Place in pan of boiling water and steam till cooked.

Pot Mess (cordon bleu)

An 18th century recipe in my family. That can be easily adapted
To incorporate any available ingredients
(1) Simmer or stew - peas, lettuce(greens), and onions, in a very little water, with a beef or ham-bone. This can be done the night before, but keep covered
(2) About 1 hour before meal - Take what meat you have and fry as steaks or chunks (i.e mutton or lamb steaks) season and continue cooking untill a nice brown: place the meat into a stew-pan, and lay the vegetables over them; stew them, and serve all together.
(If beef or ham-bones are not to be had for stewing with the vegetables, lamb shank or oxtail or neck bones will suffice.)
The recipe above would have been a frequent visitor to the table

See Below

Pusser's Pot Mess See Above
Pot Mess  - Is easily and traditionally prepared from what might be readily on hand, requires little in the way of seasonings, and is easily done over a campfire in either a cauldron or a pussers fanny.
Everybody would contribute to the pot, but in todays Navy add whatever is available in tins -
Whatever vegetables are left or can be found. add or dice up as apropriate
All too often, the only meat you will have would be the infamous cans of 'corned Beef' or stewed steak from unlabeled tins. (A common ration commodity). Seldom will you have uncooked steaks or meat, but if so fry this eithe as steaks or cubed and serve as the base on which to poor the contents of the pot. The amount of water would vary depending on how much meat and vegetables went into the pot. The less that is available for the people you have the more water you dilute the 'pot mess' with.

Do not be frightened to add a tin of rice or fruit it all goes the same way, but if you have sufficient tins of rice and fruit it can be served separately as a second course
Ships Biscuit (Hard Tack) To produce a plain ships biscuit, use a medium coarse stone-ground wholemeal flour

Add water to 1lb wholemeal flour and 1/4oz salt to make a stiff dough. Leave for 1/2 hour and then roll out very thickly. Separate in to 5 or 7 biscuits. Bake in a hot oven approx. 420 degrees F for 30 minutes. The biscuits should then be left undisturbed in a warm dry atmosphere to harden and dry out.

Shit on a Raft Chopped kidney into cold water, bring slowly to the simmer so all the flavour is in the gravy and simmer quite a while to well cook. (don't brown off first). Then thicken with half and half pussers gravy powder and cornflour mixed in a little cold water. The nearest in civvy-street is probably Bisto powder. Gravy granules would do. Serve on fried bread.
Duty Chef with 10 years with the Grey-funnel line

Pottable (Portable) Soup Portable soup was issued to a ship by the Sick and Hurt Board and was kept by the Surgeon to feed to patients unable to digest the normal seaboard food.

The Following is a scaled down recipe courtest of the Historical Maritime Society and actually works.

1 beef shin bone (needs a good covering of meat or else you need about half a pound of stewing beef); 1 ham or bacon hock; 1 oz anchovies; 3 carrots, washed and sliced
1 head of celery, washed and sliced (not the green bits) - water - cayenne pepper

Have the bone cut into two or three large pieces. Put these along with the ham into a large pan. Gently heat them (and the steak if you’ve used it) until they are browned. You won’t need any extra fat if it is heated gently. Add enough water to cover the bones, plus the carrots, celery and anchovies. Bring to the boil and skim off any scum which rises to the surface. Cover and simmer gently for about four hours. Remove the bones and strain through muslin into a clean pan. Leave it overnight and the next day remove any fat from the top of the liquid. Then boil it until it is reduced by about two-thirds. The colour should change to a rich dark brown.
Add a small amount of cayenne pepper and pour the mixture into a shallow glass or earthenware bowl ( not metal, I suspect this could eat its way through stainless steel). Leave overnight then cut the soup into ‘coins’ about 5 cm. diameter and leave in a dry place for a few days. Keep them in an airtight container with paper between each ‘coin’. N.B. Don’t add any salt to the process, the anchovies provide that.

To reconstitute – place one ‘coin’ in a bowl and top up with boiling water. Stir well and give to your sick (or hurt) person. On no account should you touch this stuff if you’re healthy!