A loblolly man was a surgeon’s mate on navy ships | Loblolly was a thick porridge.

Loblolly man

Reading Philp Larkin’s poem Toads, from 1955, I wondered at the term ‘loblolly men’ in one verse:

Lots of folk live on their wits:
  Lecturers, lispers,
Losels, loblolly-men, louts-
  They don't end as paupers;

Lots of folk live up lanes
  With fires in a bucket,
Eat windfalls and tinned sardines-
  they seem to like it.

In the 18th century, crews of British Royal Navy ships usually included ‘loblolly men’—surgeon’s mates,  young men who helped the surgeons by collecting amputated limbs, hauling the buckets of tar used to cauterise stumps, and spreading sand to soak up blood. They were also responsible for feeding sick and wounded sailors a thick meat and vegetable porridge known as ‘loblolly’— hence their name. All this Rosemary Sutcliff’s beloved father, a Commodore in the Royal Navy, could have told me, as she could have. Today, I just have Google for the picture  and the Oxford English Dictionary (OED).

The  OED defines ‘loblolly’ as

Thick gruel or spoon-meat, freq. referred to as a rustic or nautical dish or simple medicinal remedy … Hence, a ship-doctor’s medicines.

The OED notes a quotation: “It makes an excellent grewell, or lob-lolly which is very soueraigne at Sea” in 1620, in a book by one Gervase Markham, entitled  Markhams farewell to husbandry: or, the enriching of all sorts of barren and steril grounds in our kingdome, to be as fruitfull ion all manner of graine, pulse, and grasse, as the best grounds… · They refer to a version printed for the “fourth time, revised, corrected, and amended, together with many new additions, and cheape experiments, 1638.” It was printed in London by Edvvard Griffin for John Harison, “at the signe of the golden Vnicorne in Pater-noster-row”.

3 thoughts on “A loblolly man was a surgeon’s mate on navy ships | Loblolly was a thick porridge.

  1. This reminds me of a passage in Boswell’s Life of Johnson (or perhaps the Travels in Scotland) which always makes me smile. The pair are onboard a boat with another passenger whose relentless questions are incredibly irritating. A cupboard is referred to as “the loplolly hole”, and he asks what it is for. “The loplolly hole is where the loplolly man keeps his loplolly!” Is Johnson’e enraged reply. I’ve been enjoying this for several decades, but only now know the true meaning. I’ve just returned to Sword at Sunset after 45 years, and am marvelling at Sutcliff’s deep understanding of dialect and forgotten terms. Not many people mention Sutcliff and Joyce in the same breath, but the feeling for the buried history in words reminds me of Finnegans Wake.


  2. I’ve been reading “Under Another Sky:Journeys in Roman Britain” by Charlotte HIggins (Vintage Books, 2014.) Lots of appreciative notes about Rosemary Sutcliff and The Eagle of the Ninth. I’ll bet Mr. Lawton and many readers of the site would enjoy it. .


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