In his unpublished memoirs Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry F. Oliver mentioned a yarn from his early days afloat: ‘Achilles [an ironclad] paid off soon after I went to Sea, after years in commission, she had killed a man for every month she had been in commission by accidents aloft.’ This is a pretty wild claim, and fortunately one that does not appear to have been repeated elsewhere. Part of my first book (on the Royal Navy of the late 19th century) will examine how dangerous the twilight of the age of sail was, and Oliver’s statement is a good place to begin.
Possibly the most definitive record of numbers killed from accidents aloft would be the ship’s logs, which will presumably be at The National Archives, Kew. These are voluminous tomes however, and require a lot of effort to both photograph and then peruse. Casualty returns would have once been made, but I do not know whether these still exist. There are also a series of Statistical Reports (also rendered as Returns) on the Health of the Navy, which became an annual publication in 1856, which were conveniently printed by Parliament. They are a very handy tool, but are sometimes vague, depending on the year. Summaries are given for each specific station and two arbitrary statistical ‘stations’ called the ‘Home Station’ (incorporating all the Home Ports and Channel Squadron) and the ‘Irregular Force’, comprising ships on detached service or in transit.
Using the 1878 Statistical Report and an 1881 Navy List we can see Achilles was commissioned on 17 May 1877 at Devonport, and was recommissioned on 1 September 1880. Oliver, according to his service record, had gone to sea in the Agincourt on 23 July that year, so we know that he was telling the truth when he says Achilles was paid off shortly after he left H.M.S. Britannia. Looking at the various Reports we find that in 1877 Achilles suffered four deaths by violence (which incorporated drownings and falls from aloft), and six in 1878. There were nine deaths in total aboard the ship in 1879 but only four deaths in the whole Mediterranean Squadron on account of falls aloft, so the number of deaths in Achilles from aloft must be four or less. In 1880 there were five deaths in the ship, but for some reason these are not divided by old or new commission, which is normally the case. The ship was therefore served a 39 and a half months’ long commission, but at the very most could have only suffered 21 deaths (and likely several fewer, and how many of those were on account of work aloft one can only guess).
One conclusion is clear – Oliver’s claim that that Achilles had killed a man aloft for every month of her commission is clearly untrue. In his defence, however, he was writing over 60 years after the fact (and lived until he was 100).