Fragments of untold lives

Loose sheets in Royal Navy pay books of the 1740s

The 1740s pay books of the Royal Navy, in the UK’s National Archives, are bound in vast leather volumes, each with an anchor stamped on the cover. Some of their spines are broken, the leather flaking and sections of pages falling apart as they are lifted from their box. Ship after ship, man after man, including the phantom “widows’ men” [notional members of the ship’s company whose pay formed a fund for payment to widows of sailors who had died], they record the dates and fates of each member of the ship’s company — whether deserted…