Military Musicians at Sea

British military musicians helped boost morale and stave off boredom both on campaign and in garrison. But music also had an important medical purpose, especially on transoceanic voyages, as soldiers wasted away in cramped, suffocating conditions below decks for months at a time. Open-air dances and promenades were regularly held on the quarterdeck, invariably accompanied by music, to provide soldiers with much-needed fresh air and exercise. The 2/1st Royal Scots band were ‘often requested’ to perform as men danced on deck ‘for the benefit of their health’ en route to India, while soldiers bound for the Caribbean spent their evenings dancing hornpipes and reels accompanied by fifes and bagpipes.[1] During an 1817 voyage from Calcutta to St Helena,  the 1/66th’s band offered a concert ‘every fine evening’ followed by a dance on the quarterdeck – ‘a most salutary amusement on board ship,’ according to Assistant Surgeon Walter Henry, ‘where exercise is so much needed.’[2] In the 1/45th, which spent nearly eighteen months at sea in 1806 and 1807, fifers and drummers on the Hercules transport were ordered to ‘play half an hour to each company’ as the men kept in shape by parading ‘round the decks’ twice daily.[3]

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View from the Deck of the Upton Castle Transport, of the British Army landing on Isle de France (Mauritius), 1810

Officers also relished musical entertainment at sea. Sixteen-year-old Dunbar Moodie, a 2nd Lieutenant in the 2/21st, recalled his voyage to Holland in 1813 aboard the HMS Nightingale: ‘To add to our comforts, we had the regimental band with us, who were generally playing through the day, when the weather or sea-sickness would allow them.’[4]

When transports travelled in convoys, military musicians aboard one vessel could entertain soldiers on neighbouring ships. An officer returning to England in 1812 recalled how the East Indiaman carrying the 33rd Foot’s musicians ‘would occasionally range up alongside [our transport], and give us an air… We also took advantage of the band to knock up a dance now and then.’[5]

Sergeant Stephen Morley of the 5th Foot suggests that instrumental performances were routine aboard the Atlas transport during an 1806-7 voyage to South America via the Cape of Good Hope: ‘It was usual for the band to assemble every morning on the poop.’ But military musicians were no match for fickle weather conditions; multiple accounts describe performances being cut short when storm clouds gathered. According to Morley, the 5th’s band was once forced to disperse due to sudden strong winds, resulting in a humorous episode involving an unfortunate serpent-player –

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Serpent player, 3rd Guards Band, 1811

“Henry Rogers, one of the band, whose instrument was a serpent, sat down, as the gale increased, on the quarter deck, holding on by a cleet to secure himself. The ship now laboured excessively, and on a sudden giving a lurch, brought her gun-wales under water, and caused Henry to drop the serpent and let go his hold: away they went, chasing each other from side to side, at every heave of the vessel, without the possibility of stopping. Such of the officers and men who for security, were holding on by the capstan, laughed heartily at this singular chase; such a one, as the St. Leger annals could never boast of.[6] One of these gentlemen losing his hold followed against his will in this curious gambol, and added to the merriment of his companions.”[7]


[1] R. Butler, Narrative of the Life and Travels of Serjeant Butler (3rd edn, Edinburgh, 1854), 62-3; J. Patterson, Adventures of Captain John Patterson (London, 1837), 388-9.
[2] [W. Henry], Trifles from my Portfolio (2 vols, Quebec, 1839), I, 202.
[3] S. Brown, Wellington’s Redjackets: The 45th (Nottinghamshire) Regiment on Campaign in South America and the Peninsula, 1805-14 (Barnsley, 2016), 15.
[4] A. Bamford (ed), Triumphs and Disasters: Eyewitness Accounts from the Netherlands Campaign, 1813-1814 (Barnsley, 2016), 145.
[5] J. Blakiston, Twelve Years’ Military Adventure in Three Quarters of the Globe… (2 vols, London, 1829), II, 116-7.
[6] The St Leger Stakes is an annual English horse race which began in 1776.
[7] S. Morley, Memoirs of a Sergeant of the 5th Regt. of Foot, Containing an Account of his Service in Hanover, South America, and the Peninsula (Ashford, 1842), 20-2.

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