Hen Ships

July 29, 2016

 

Hen ships;

 

When a square-rigger that was manned for war or trade, carried a female it was known as a “hen ship”. Females were not unwelcome on board but they posed problems for the crew when they could not be shared around. And if they were shared around you could always trust some fool to fall in love and become jealous and want to fight.

 

Sailors love a fight but to avoid serious injury they had the tips of their knives broken off by the cooper or if the ship had one the blacksmith. They certainly could cut each other but not stab three inches of cold Sheffield steel into another mans ribs, which would be a permanent end to a fight. Fighting over the hen was a serious business. Even if it was just the captain’s wife who was “verbotten” or forbidden, men would preen themselves looking for a glance of approval or a word of encouragement. This led to rivalry and trouble.

 

On a long sea voyage sailor’s clothes became salt encrusted and their bodies then became covered in salt sores and it needed fresh water bathing to get rid of it all. Not enough fresh water was carried in the ship so they relied on rain showers. When it rained they would strip off mother naked and wash. They could scrub each other’s backs and often this would lead to horseplay. Imagine up to three or four hundred naked seamen frolicking in the nude on the deck of a ship? With a hen on board it meant that no more total nudity and as a sailor’s life was a tough one this one bit of fun had to be shelved. Similarly it was an end to many of their bawdy shanties which they worked to and the end to swearing and cussing.

 

Women on board had their own problems. Washing their own clothes became a hassle. If the men could not have fresh water why should the women? They did however manage to bribe, with either favours or promise of favours to get enough water for their ablutions and washing out their smalls. In today’s throwaway society pads and tampons are an acceptable and necessary part of female hygiene. Imagine having to wash your sanitary napkins and dry them with a crew of rugged, roughneck sailors about? It was not possible for women to just keep hiding their own hair under a wig for long voyages. They had to wash out the fleas and lice!

 

On a long voyage there was of course a problem with sex. Many men were known to be “fore and afters”, gays I guess you would call them today but sodomy was a hanging offence in the Royal Navy so anything like that was kept in the closet or at least in the chain locker. The presence of a hen meant that somebody was getting sex and everyone else wasn’t. That was room for dissent. In the end it was a matter of you can’t live with them and you are dammed without.

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