More Than 300 Years Using Children in Naval Warfare

Children in Naval Warfare
Children in Naval Warfare


The pages of history are filled with the great achievements and misdeeds of the noblemen and it often overlooks the “working class”. A group most susceptible to exploitation due to their deplorable living conditions and lack of food. Often entire families lived in one room in order to stay alive, with children having to leave school in order to provide for their families.

During the Regency and Victorian eras of the British Empire, a new “underclass” emerged. Entire families lived in extreme poverty, often struggling to keep a roof over their heads and barely eating anything more than bread and potatoes. At this time, children were not sent to school, but they were sent to work as soon as they were able to in order to bring extra income to the household.

An industry that actively recruited young boys was the British Royal Navy. These children were known as “Powder Monkeys” or “powder boy”.

Children in Naval Warfare performed many important duties on a vessel
Children in Naval Warfare performed many important duties on a vessel

Powder monkey

A powder boy or powder monkey was a young boy, often aged 12 or 13, and sometimes as young as 8, who served as a powder carrier on naval ships in the Age of Sail (roughly 1571-1862). The title was derived from the powdered gunpowder which the boys had to carry from the magazine to the gun crews during battle.

“Admiralty regulations for Royal Navy ships stated that they should be at least thirteen years old unless they were sons accompanying their fathers, in which case the limit was eleven. But like many such rules it was frequently flaunted, with children as young as eight going to sea.” – Source: Philip K. Allan

Powder boys were an essential part of any naval crew, as they provided a vital link between the gun crews and gunners. They were often employed because their smaller size allowed them to move more easily between decks. Older men and sometimes women were also employed as powder monkeys.

Their primary tasks were to carry gunpowder and ammunition from the magazine to the gun crews during battle. During times of war, they were also responsible for helping to load the guns and maintain the weapons and supplies. These jobs were extremely perilous and often resulted in death.

Royal Navy Boys Held the Lowest Military Rank
Royal Navy Boys Held the Lowest Military Rank

In addition to their duties during battle, powder boys and powder monkeys were also responsible for a variety of other duties, such as polishing the guns and cleaning the decks. They were also expected to help in the galley, laundry, and hospital.

Due to the dangerous nature of their job, powder boys and powder monkeys were usually the youngest members of the crew and often had to endure harsh conditions and long hours. They were expected to work in all weather conditions and were sometimes even required to work in the dark, often without any protective clothing.

Despite the dangerous and difficult conditions, powder boys and powder monkeys were an essential part of any naval crew. They were often seen as a symbol of courage and honour and were celebrated for their bravery and dedication. Unfortunately, many of these young men perished during the battle, and their deaths were mourned by their fellow crew members.

These boys were not given a salary, merely a bed, some clothes, and a rudimentary education along with some knowledge of basic navigation. They were recruited by the Marine Society, which sent five to six hundred boys each year to the British Naval fleet.

These boys became part of the navy because their parents could not afford to raise them. Many of them were drawn to the navy for its sense of adventure. Out of a typical crew such as the HMS Victory, of over 800 men aboard the HMS Victory, there were 31 such boys.

Powder Monkey HMS Surprise
Powder Monkey HMS Surprise – by Schwalk Photographic

Powder Monkeys in the United States Navy

The United States established their navy in the late 1700s, and just as the British Fleet had previously done, they added powder monkeys to carry the powder and help to load the cannons during battle.

If their calculations were inaccurate, or if the ship was struck by a rogue wave or an opposing cannon shell at the wrong time, and too much powder was added to the cannon, the lives of the cannon operators and powder monkeys were lost. Thus, the job of the powder monkey became known as one of the most terrifying positions on board a ship.

A powder monkey on a Union Navy vessel during the American Civil War, circa. 1864
A powder monkey on a Union Navy vessel during the American Civil War, circa. 1864

 Powder monkeys were also essential to safeguarding naval vessels from accidents caused by the unpredictability of waves, gusts of wind, and other unfavourable conditions.

After the American-British War of 1812, boys under the age of twelve were no longer allowed to serve on U.S. Navy ships. However, boys above that age were still used as powder monkeys until the Spanish–American War at the end of the nineteenth century.

Scetch of a powder boy from the War of 1812
Sketch of a powder boy from the War of 1812

Powder Monkeys and the American Civil War

American naval battles in the 19th century relied on the bravery of Powder Monkeys, or Powder Boys. These boys worked long hours and lived under hard conditions on United States Navy vessels.

The Navy hired boys aged 10-14 because of their size. Smaller boys could move quickly and easily throughout the ship, carrying gunpowder from the Powder Room on the lowest level of the ship (the hold) to the guns and cannons during battle.

Leather bags were used to carry the powder, and the boys would carry two at a time. These boys would even carry the powder barefoot to run faster! Even harder, they had to run through the ship while the enemy fired cannons at them and without running into the other Sailors onboard.

Children in Naval warfare served as the lowest military rank
Children in Naval warfare served at the lowest military rank

Powder Monkeys served at the lowest military rank on the ship and were paid roughly $6/month for their work. When the ship was not at the battle, powder boys helped with laundry, scrubbed decks, cooked in the galley, and helped with the livestock on board.

At night, the boys would not sleep with the rest of the crew. While every member of the crew on board slept in hammocks, the hammocks of the powder monkeys were on a lower level of the vessel. Hammocks were taken down every morning and moved to the edge of the ship to protect it from attacks.

Fresh food was hard to keep on ships for long periods of time. Most of the time, Sailors would have to eat hard biscuits called hardtack. To keep the sailors healthy and eating fresh food, the Navy would provide chickens, kept in coops on the ship’s stern

When the ship was not engaged in combat, powder monkeys frequently had to take care of these hens. Chickens could provide the crew with fresh eggs every day, preventing sailors from being ill or going hungry.

Notable Powder Monkeys in the Civil War

James Machon

16-year-old James Machon worked as a Powder Boy aboard the USS Brooklyn during the American Civil War. Along with 17 other vessels, the USS Brooklyn worked to blockade Fort Mogan, in Alabama.

Confederate ships worked hard to defend control of this very important fort. In fact, the CSS Tennessee rammed into the USS Brooklyn, launching a strong attack on the ship and crew aboard. Cannons and firearms shot at the Brooklyn killed numerous crew members on deck who were working the cannons.

James Machon, continued to restock the firearms with gunpowder, even after cannons from the Tennessee destroyed areas of the gun deck. Because of his bravery, the CSS Tennessee surrendered to the United States.

Anywhere from 250,000 to 450,000 boys could have fought in the Civil War
Anywhere from 250,000 to 450,000 boys could have fought in the Civil War. They went to war as soldiers,
musicians, and powder monkeys.
George Hollat and Oscar Peck

George Hollat and Oscar Peck both worked on the USS Varuna during the Battle of Fort Jackson and St. Philip when the US forces were attempting to take over New Orleans.

The CSS Governor Moore rammed into the USS Varuna twice and, with another blow from CSS Stonewall Jackson, began to sink.

Hollat and Peck, along with several other crew members, continued to fire at Confederate ships, badly damaging them, while the USS Veruna was sinking.

James, George and Oscar all earned the Medal of Honor for their bravery.

Today, the term “powder boy” or “powder monkey” is often used to refer to any young person who is brave and willing to take risks for a greater cause. Although the Age of Sail is long gone, the memory of these brave young boys lives on.

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