A Tour of a Typical English Galleon in 1630

Let us pretend this is the year 1630, and that we have purchased a passage [ticket] on the Talbot, one of the English galleons sailing from Southampton Harbour this spring with John Winthrop’s fleet of eleven ships. We feel confident about this vessel because she transported another group of Puritan planters to New England last year in 1629. The Massachusetts Bay Company rented her for the expedition.

We know from letters received from Reverend Francis Higginson, who sailed on that voyage, that she is of 240 tons burden. [Historians calculate she was about 115 feet in length.] She carries nineteen large guns, some of which are cannon(1). We know she is fast because Reverend Higginson reported that she departed from England on May 1, 1629, and arrived less than two months later on June 24. Soon after she deposited her passengers in Salem, the colonists loaded her with beaver skins and wooden boards to transport back to England to help pay their debt to the Massachusetts Bay Company investors.

The Talbot is tied up with other galleons, barks, shallops, and pinnaces at a quay [pronounced key] in Southampton Harbour while she is being fitted [prepared] for the voyage. She will carry about 120 passengers and from 20 to 30 crew members.

Quays are stone wall-like structures that support the edges of the bank along the shoreline in the harbor. Sometimes quays have berths, or indents, into which ships are pulled so they are reachable from both sides; similar to a slip. Many wealthy merchants own their own private keys. Alderman Robert Aldsworth, president of Bristol’s Merchant Ventures Society, owns Alderskey just south of the main harbor in Bristol.

As we approach the quay from the center of town, we pass storehouses, shops selling boat equipment, warehouses, sail-making factories, and other shipping facilities that border the quay and nearby roads. One very long and narrow building rimming the main road is a rope walk, a factory where ropes and lines are braided, usually from hemp.

J.T. Donnel Ropewalk, photo on display at Maine Maritime Museum, Bath.(2)

Model of a rope walk at the Maine Maritime Museum.

The river has been dredged to allow for large ships like the Talbot, with her twelve-foot draft [the depth of the hull below the water line], to keep her from scraping the river floor. Master Thomas Beecher of the Talbot will not find quays, wharfs, or piers in New England when we get there. He will need to anchor the ship as far as a mile away or more from shore if there is no deep harbor. Nine years ago, when the Mayflower reached America, she dropped anchor a mile offshore to keep from being washed onto the rocks by the tide. The ship’s crew shuttled the passengers to the beach in the Mayflower’s shore boat and the shallop that had been stored in her hull during the voyage.

The Talbot’s wood exterior is painted bright beautiful colors. Ornately carved panels decorate her sides. We feel proud we have the opportunity to sail on her.

Workmen scuttle around the ship like busy ants. Carpenters fix damaged parts and construct cabins for important passengers. Sail makers measure for new sails. Crew members clean and mend old sails. Deckhands crank cranes that lower crates and barrels of food and supplies to the ship’s lower decks. Rope makers repair and replace ropes and lines. Smells of hemp, livestock, damp wood, river sludge, and human sweat fill our nostrils.

The ocean is at high tide, so the water has raised the ship up and her main deck is above us. If it were low tide, the deck might be closer to the level where we stand on the quay. Here in Southampton Harbor, the tidal range [the height of the water at high tide compared to low tide] fluctuates five feet. Bristol Harbour, on the western side of England has the largest tidal range in the world except for the Bay of Fundy in America. The level of the tide there fluctuates 30 feet. That is more than the height of a three-story building! During low tide in Bristol, ships sit in the mud at the bottom of the river.

We climb to the main deck on a gangplank, which is a flat wooden board with small wooden strips nailed and tied across it in intervals to serve as footholds. The gangplank rests with one end on the main deck at the waist of the ship. The waist is the narrow, lowest part of the ship in the middle between the forecastle and the sterncastle, just as the waist of your body is your middle point. The other end of the gangplank rests on the quay. Rope railings give us something to hold on to as we ascend the steep plank and protect us from falling into the water.

Some parts of ships are referred to by different names than we use on land. For example, each level of the ship is referred to as a deck, not a floor. Above us is a deck-head, not a ceiling. Ladders connect the decks, not stairs. The ship’s cook prepares food in a galley, not a kitchen.

The average galleon has four main decks. Let us descend the ladder to the second lowest deck, known as the hold. As we stand in the hold, we can see through a hatch, or opening in the center of the deck, to the space underneath it. We can not stand in the very lowest deck, known as the ballast, because it is the bottom of the ship and not flat. There is no head room down there, only a crawling space.

We smell mildew because the interior of the ballast deck never gets dry. This cavity is filled with heavy crates and barrels that serve as storage as well as ballast [heavy weights] to keep the ship from rolling excessively or capsizing in a strong wind. Ballast can be anything heavy. If we New England planters did not need to pack everything we might require in America for the first year, we might have filled the ballast deck with rocks, or possibly rum to keep the crew happy.

Instead, the Talbot’s hold is stuffed with barrels of chalk; bricks for building furnaces and chimneys; cauldrons of coal to feed the blacksmith’s fire; fagots of steel; barrels of nails; lead and salt; bars of copper; and plenty of kegs of ale, water, and wine.

This model of the galleon Susan Constant at the Jamestowne Museum shows all the people and supplies that were packed into her before she sailed for the Chesapeake in 1607.

As we look around the hold, we see more chests and kegs stacked tightly in rows. Ropes strung through staples [metal rings and nails] in the floor keep the kegs from rolling around. These containers are easier to access than those in the ballast level. They are filled with the supplies the crew will need during the trip such as food, wine, water, extra sails and lines, and plenty of wood. Master Beecher plans to stop at the Azores archipelago to replenish our water and wood in a few weeks.

Standing in the hold of the Talbot, we hear and smell the livestock stirring in their stalls: cows, chickens, horses, goats, pigs, and rabbits. Rabbits are typically called conies after the Spanish word for rabbit, conejo. Since conies love to multiply, they are a great source of fresh meat for voyagers. The crates of food, bales of hay, and kegs of water near the stalls will supply the animals during the voyage. The Talbot and five other ships sailing with us are transporting 115 head of cattle, horses, mares, cows, and oxen as well as 41 goats and probably hundreds of conies. We hope they keep our colony fed for the first year and reproduce for the future.

The Mayflower carried no horses, cows, goats or pigs. We were told that is partly why the colony went hungry during its first year in Plimouth. Four years later, in 1624, they imported their first cattle in a ship called the Jacob. Since then, cattle-raising has become a major business enterprise for the colony.

The brick structure in the center of the hold is the firebox. That is where the cook builds the fire to heat the cauldrons [cook pots] in the galley on the next deck. King Henry VIII’s flagship, the Mary Rose, had two large fireboxes that each weighed several tons. In some of the newer ships, carpenters build the fireboxes in the forecastle. Fire is one of the worst hazards on ships, which is a good argument for not wanting the fire in the middle of the vessel. On the other hand, fireboxes are extremely heavy, which is why it is handy to anchor them to the bottom of the hull to keep the ship balanced.

As we climb the wooden ladder to the third deck, we see the space where the passengers are quartered. Our fellow passengers are already finding their places on the deck and hauling in the few supplies they will need during the voyage. Areas are marked on the floor with chalk designating where each passenger is to tie his sea chest. Heavy items must be tied tightly to the staples. A flying chest in a storm could kill a good friend or more.

The ’tween deck of the Susan Constant replica at the Jamestowne Museum.

It is becoming difficult to breathe. This deck, often referred to as the ’tween deck [because it is between two large decks] or orlop, is below the water line. There are no portholes, and the air is thick and heavy. We will get used to it. As the ship moves, fresh air will occasionally pass through. When it is cold, we will wish the drafty air did not pass through. The tallow [animal fat] candles in small metal lanterns hanging from hooks in the deckhead will help delete some of the not-so-nice body odors. Some of the crew chew garlic to mask the smells, but that makes it worse for the passengers.

If you are over five feet tall, you have probably noticed you can not stand upright in the ’tween deck. The children do not notice the low deckheads and are having a good time running around. Some hammocks hang from the deckhead. Others are attached to the sides of the deck, stacked two, three, and sometimes four levels high. Hammocks were introduced to Christopher Columbus by the Central American Indians. Before that, crews on European ships slept on the hard floorboards.

A few passengers are erecting cabins for privacy, using canvas sheets for walls. Wooden cabins are discouraged in the ’tween deck because they block the flow of air. We hear the pounding of nails above in the sterncastle as carpenters construct new wooden cabins for our captain, his lieutenant, and some of the dignitaries of the Massachusetts Bay Company. We will visit the sterncastle momentarily.

The next deck holds the large guns, securely tied down to wooden stocks. Each gun points toward a gun port that will remain tightly covered by a wooden hatch except when the ship prepares for battle, or when the passengers and crew need fresh air.

Model of gunports on the Mary Rose.

Of the Talbot’s nineteen guns, fourteen line the side of the gun deck where we stand, seven on each side. Can you guess where the other five are?

Passengers are not allowed on the gun deck during the voyage. It is difficult to move around because many of the crew hang their hammocks here, both along the side and from the deckhead. Some crew share a hammock. One of the team sleeps in it while the other is on duty. You can tell which hammocks belong to the petty officers because they have twice the head room.

Each crew member is allowed one small chest for his personal belongings. That chest must be no larger than two hands-width wide, one hand-width high, and three hands-widths in length [approximately eight inches by four inches by sixteen inches]. You might notice that a chest that size does not allow for a change of clothing.

As we walk along the gun deck toward the stern, we come to an area called the steerage deck because this is where the helmsmen [the person in charge of steering the ship] and his crew steer the ship. The long pole protruding horizontally from the stern towards the center of the ship is called the tiller. The other end of the tiller, on the outside of the ship, is hinged to the rudder. The rudder is a tall wooden flipper-shaped paddle that extends from the back edge of the stern, and down into the water.

Examples of rudders, one on a caravel and one on John Cabot’s carrack, the Matthew.

Moving the tiller from side to side moves the rudder back and forth, which changes the direction the ship sails. One of the things English shipbuilders did to improve upon the Spanish galleon was lower the rudder, revealing as little as possible above the water line. That made it more difficult to damage with enemy shot [cannon balls].

In smaller ships, such as shallops, crew members sit on deck and manually push and pull the tiller. But in galleons and other ships with many decks, the helmsman can not see outside the ship if he stands next to the tiller, which is hidden inside the ship. He is not able to see the sails to know if they are filled with air. He is not able to see the ocean to determine which direction the ship is heading.

Ship designers offer two solutions for this problem: the whipstaff and the shouting method. [Steering wheels have not yet been invented.] The Talbot has a whipstaff, which is little more than another pole that attaches at a right angle, perpendicular to the inside-end of the tiller.

If you look at the end of the tiller, you will see the whipstaff pole. Sometimes it attaches loosely, shaped at its end like a two-pronged fork that fits over the end of the tiller. But the Talbot’s whipstaff has a round metal band, or goose-neck hinge, that loops over the end of the tiller, locking the whipstaff and the tiller together.

Whipstaff connecting to the tiller of the Susan Constant replica at the Jamestowne Museum.

The other end of the whipstaff extends skyward through a wide groove in the deckhead above us. Let’s climb the ladder and see where the whipstaff pole leads.

Up here in the sterncastle, we see the whipstaff protruding from below deck like a handle, or lever. The helmsman stands behind it facing toward the bow. From here he looks out through a small hatch to the outside of the ship like a prairie dog peeking out of its burrow. He can see the sails and the horizon, He moves the whipstaff left or right to move the tiller, which in turn moves the rudder.

The only drawback to a whipstaff is that it can only turn the ship a mere five to fifteen percent. If the helmsman wants to turn the ship about [completely in the opposite direction], he must unhook the whipstaff from the tiller so the crew below can manually push or pull it. Remember, the crew below can not see anything – the sea, the wind, or the horizon. So, the only way for them to know which way the tiller should move is by the helmsman telling them. That leads us to the shouting method.

With all the wind and sea thrashing about, and crew members rushing in every direction, a helmsman must shout through the groove in the deck in order for his crew to hear his instructions. If the helmsman wants the crew to turn the ship to the right, he might yell, “Come to starboard.” If he wants the ship to turn sharply right, he will say, “Hard to starboard.” To head the ship to the left, he will say, “Come to port,” or maybe just “to port.” And to turn the ship in the opposite direction, he yells, “Come about!”

Sometimes whipstaffs are aided by a system of ropes and pulleys between blocks on the sides of the ship. Most pinnaces, shallops, and small multi-deck vessels do not have whipstaffs. That leaves the shouting method as the only option.

Now that we are in the sterncastle, let’s take a look around. This is the safest place on the ship and the easiest place to see the sky and ocean. Therefore, it probably will not surprise you to learn that the sterncastle is also the quarters for the master, captain, lieutenant, their servants, and a few select passengers. On the Arabella, John Winthrop will have quarters in the sterncastle with his son and Master Peter Milbourne. On the Talbot, which is Vice Admiral of the fleet, Master Beecher will quarter in the sterncastle with his lieutenant and their servants.

Sterncastle cabins in the galleon replica, Susan Constant.

As you can see, the cabins are very small, just wooden cubicles with room for a small feather or straw mattress and some shelves for supplies. Sometimes the master’s cabin is a bit roomier and has some space to walk around. He might share the area with the chart table, where he spreads out his sea charts. In war ships, the captain might share space with a cannon or two.

Let’s walk through the port [door] of the sterncastle out to the main deck. Now we are at the waist facing the bow [front] of the ship. Notice that the sterncastle has three levels, and the forecastle has two. The forecastle is always lower and smaller than the sterncastle.

The large cylinder in the middle of the main deck that looks like a drum turned on one side is a capstan, or winch. The thick line, or rope, wrapped around it leads to the anchor.

The capstan is for weighing, or raising the anchor. [It acts like a huge fishing reel, but fishing reels have not been invented in 1630, either.] Threaded through the drum, like spokes on a wheel, are long staves [sticks] that the deckhands push to move the capstan around, winding the anchor line until the anchor rises from the sea. This is called weighing the anchor.

If you look to either side of the ship, wheel-like protrusions about the size of a man’s head extend from below the railing. These are called catheads. Anchor lines drape over them to keep the anchors away from the hull as they are weighed [pulled up]. Anchors can weigh up to 2200 pounds, as much as two large horses. That is a lot of cast iron. If an anchor were brought directly up, it would gouge the side out of the wooden hull.

The large open deck above the forecastle is appropriately called the foredeck. Turning around, we see that the sterncastle has three levels of open decks. The lowest of the three is called the upper deck. The next is the quarter deck. And at the very top, aft end of the sterncastle is the poop deck, named with the French word for stern, la poupe. It is from the poop deck that the captain or master oversees his crew. Many English galleons have only two decks over the sterncastle: the upper deck and the poop deck. Only on larger ships is the upper deck divided once more creating the quarter deck.

You can probably smell bread baking by now. That smell comes from inside the forecastle. As we enter the portal, we face a large whitewashed dome that looks like an inverted half of an eggshell. That is the bread-oven. The baker shares the forecastle with the tanner [leather worker], the blacksmith [iron worker] and the sail maker.

The foremast takes its share of space in the deck as well, protruding all the way from the bottom of the ship skyward. New England’s tall trees will provide a new resource for constructing ship masts. Until now, England has had to import spruce logs from Scandinavia and Eastern Europe. [The word spruce comes from the name Prussia, pronounced Proosha.]

Let us return to the main deck and climb the ladder to the foredeck to look around. Standing at the bow and looking down at the water, we see a projection from the bow that looks like a bird’s beak. That is the galleon-beak. It helps identify all galleons. The long, wide, sharp pole extending below the galleon-beak is the bowsprit. We already mentioned that carracks and some caravels have bowsprits as well.

Bowsprit and Galleon Beak on the Susan Constant.

The small, narrow, triangular-shaped deck extending from the foredeck at the bow of the ship is the men’s privy, or private place. That is where men relieve their bladders and their bowels, though often men relieve their bladders by simply standing by the ship railing on an open deck and urinating over the side of the ship. The location of the privy deck at the head of the ship causes it to be referred to as the head. The flat plank extending from one side of the galley to the other, like a bench, has large round holes cut out of it, about a foot wide each. These serve as toilets. A man sits over the hole and relieves himself into the open ocean. The procedure is dangerous during rough waters, so we warn men and boys to hold tightly to the railing. A huge percentage of dead seamen found washed up on shore have their pants pulled down.

You might notice that below each toilet hole is a small hook fastened to the deck with a line attached to it. The line extends below into the water. Attached to the other end of the line is a rag or napkin [piece of cloth]. While the ship moves, the rag drags through the water. This action wets the rag and cleans it if it is soiled. The mariner uses this rag to clean his private parts after he finishes his business. To bring the rag up from the sea, the mariner extends his foot [most sailors are barefoot], grabs the line between his toes, pulls the line up so he can grasp it with his hand, and then reels in the wet rag to wash himself. When he is finished, he throws the rag back in the ocean where it cleans itself before it is needed by the toilet’s next occupant. For obvious reasons, the rags are referred to as toe rags(1).

Where do women go to relieve themselves? Until the 1600s, there were few if any women on board ocean-going vessels. Warships did not allow women at all. But there will be plenty of women traveling on the Talbot. They can not share the head with the half-naked men. Neither can they urinate over the side of the ship. They will need to use the chamber pots located on the ’tween deck, just as they would use chamber pots at home.

A chamber pot is a low, wide bowl made of porcelain, wood, or metal. Its top rim flares wide, allowing for a place to sit relatively comfortably. The passengers have sectioned off a small area of the ’tween deck with canvas curtains to give the women some privacy. The chamber pot is placed on the wooden deck surrounded by small slats of wood nailed to the deck to keep the pot from slipping around while the ship rolls about. When the pot is full, the women will carefully carry it up the ladder to the main deck and empty it over the railing. It is best in rough waters not to let the pot become too full.

Women are concerned with the napkins they use during their monthly menstruation periods and for the diapers for their babies. Sometimes we refer to the diaper napkins as nappies. Napkins used for the women’s monthly cycles are referred to as menses rags. Menses rags are held up between a woman’s legs by a belt she fastens around her waist. [Women do not wear underpants under their skirts for another two hundred years.]

Both types of napkins need washing on a regular basis, then hung up to dry. These and other clothes can be washed with sea water when there is not enough fresh water. However, sea water leaves the cloth stiff and scratchy. After washing, clothes and rags are hung on lines stretched across the ’tween deck or in the women’s privy. If the crew will allow it, laundry can hang for a while on the lines on the open decks. A heavy rain might give them a good rinse if the wind does not blow them overboard.

Now that we have finished worrying about the laundry, let us check out the galley and talk about food. We have already seen where the bread is made. Some foods, like cheese, sausages, nuts, dried fruits, and biscuits, are served cold. Other foods need cooking and are usually boiled in large heavy lead or copper cauldrons [cook pots]. The ship’s cook makes soups and stews from beans, peas, oats, and similar dried foods, as well as the salted(4) and dried meats.

Since men have been taking long voyages for over five thousand years, cooks have learned how much food to bring on board for such journeys. Now in 1630, there are rules for fitting out ships for seamen called the Laws of Oleron, and they have been adapted for passengers like us. These laws require the ship to carry on board for each man for each day at sea: a half pound of sea biscuits, one pound of fish or meat, eight pints of liquid (this can be beer, wine, or water), rice, dried beans, peas, and flour. The cook also needs to order plenty of wood to feed the fire in the firebox under the cauldron.

Passages to America cost between £5 and £20 per person; the equivalent of a carpenter’s salary for one year. The fare includes two basic meals on board: a porridge in the morning and a pottage [stew or soup] in the early evening. The Massachusetts Bay Company encouraged us to supplement the “somewhat grim fare” with food of our own such as cheeses, dried meats, fruits, nuts, and “other delights.”

Our catalog suggested we bring the following for the first year: eight bushels of meal, two bushels each of peas and corn, two gallons of vinegar, one gallon of oil, one firkin of butter, cheese, bacon, and a variety of spices. Another catalog added: “salt beef, pork, saltfish, gruel [oatmeal or other boiled food], six-shilling beer, prunes to be stewed, sheep to be killed aboard ship, fine flour for baking, and lemons to combat scurvy.” The eleven ships in the fleet will carry hundreds of barrels of beer and ale.

For apparel, the planters are to bring: six pairs of shoes, one pair of boots, extra leather for mending their shoes and boots, four pairs of stockings, six shirts, twelve handkerchiefs, and one sea-cape for foul weather.

Let us not forget about the building supplies we will need once we reach New England. To build houses, forts, fences, warehouses, stables, barns, and other structures, we need: shovels, hammers, nails, axes, hatches, hoes, and “a wimble with six piercer bits” for boring holes. Artillery is required for the fort, as well as extra corselets [metal jackets], pikes, and muskets. There is more gunpowder stored in the hold than flour. Needed fishing gear includes hooks, lines, and leads. Bedding is necessary for sleeping. And we must haul all the necessary ware for cooking.

Not an inch of space is wasted on the Talbot. Some ships have been built with secret double hulls to hide contraband [illegal merchandise]. Those are usually pirate ships, which the Talbot is not.

A typical corselet and helmet worn by English explorers during the early 1600s.

Next article: Ammunition on Ships in 1630


  1. As explained in the article about armament, cannon is just one brand of large gun.
  2. http://www.mainemaritimemuseum.org/
  3. If you ever want to insult a seaman, call him a toe rag. It means the same thing as “wipe my ass.”
  4. Passengers consumed what today we would consider an inordinate amount of salt.