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I'm reading the novel Master and Commander by Patrick O'Brian at the moment. It has the following passage in it:

'… it seemed to me there was an unnatural proportion of Lord Mayor's men among them. No old Charlottes, I suppose?'

'Yes, sir, we have one — the fellow with no hair and a red handkerchief round his neck. He was a foretopman, but he seems quite dazed and stupid still.'

'A sad business,' said Jack shaking his head.

The conversation is between a ship's Captain and his second in command, discussing some new recruits they've just brought onboard. The Captain appears skeptical about the men they've been given. I'm assuming that Lord Mayor's men was slang for a criminal element, or otherwise undesirable sailor, but I can't fathom what old Charlottes might refer to. Possibly a survivor of a tragic event around the book's setting (early 1800s)?

I've obviously Googled around to no avail, and I've checked the OED, but I can't find anything illuminating.

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Lord Mayor's men were debtors and minor criminals who were permitted to enlist in the Navy instead of serving jail terms.

Old Charlottes were former crewmen of HMS Queen Charlotte, an actual naval vessel which exploded shortly before the events of this novel. Dillon's speeches in the following pages describe that disaster. There is a little more about the ship on Wikipedia.

  • Does the phrase have any idiomatic use? – Kris Oct 24 '14 at 7:06
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    @Kris Do you mean 'old Charlottes'? Old is just the ordinary sense 'former' - in the UK what in the US we call alumni are called old boys - and Forester and O'Brian both indicate that it was common to refer to the crew of a vessel by the vessel's name. – StoneyB Oct 24 '14 at 11:34

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