Sherlock Holmes seemed delighted at the idea of sharing his rooms with me. "I have my eye on a suite in Baker Street," he said, "which would suit us down to the ground. You don't mind the smell of strong tobacco, I hope?"

"I always smoke 'ship's' myself," I answered.

-- A Study in Scarlet, 1887

I don't suppose that Doctor Watson, whatever his other talents, was actually smoking pieces of watercrafts. So what does the expression mean?

  • This might provide an answer. – Pam Oct 11 '18 at 15:38
  • The John H Watson society suggests eight possible explanations. – WS2 Oct 11 '18 at 15:38
  • Yep, just found it myself. Thanks anyway. Unless someone comes up with something to add too it, I'd probably have to quote that page and consider it the right answer. – Chiffa Oct 11 '18 at 15:39
  • 1
    Ship's tobacco is also referred to in paragraph 13 of the linked article. – bookmanu Oct 11 '18 at 16:02
  • Ship, is/was also a popular name for matches. Just an aside. – happybuddha Oct 12 '18 at 4:49

Here’s a description of “ship’s tobacco” by a turn-of-the-century chaplain in the Royal Navy:

Most people who take any interest in “ships and the sea” have heard of “ship’s tobacco.” It is indeed difficult to imagine a sailor who doesn’t smoke, though, as a matter of fact, there are a considerable number of non-smokers amongst us, and a still larger number who prefer trifling with a cigarette to an honest pipe of “ship’s”. Some of my readers may have seen our Navy tobacco as prepared by the men themselves, a solid block covered with canvas, round which spun-yarn is wound in such a way as to make it like a miniature torpedo. The process of preparation is something of this kind : The tobacco, being served out in the leaf, is first of all wetted, and wrapped up in a bit of ship’s canvas ; then a line of tarry cord is fastened up at some convenient spot on the deck, and, by a mystic process which I never quite followed, the sailor, astride across this line, works it round the canvas tightly, until the latter is completely covered and the tobacco pressed into the orthodox form. In a short time it is ready for use, and may be sliced off or shredded off with the sailor’s jack-knife as required. The strength or mildness of the tobacco depends a good deal on the amount of saltpeter used to preserve the leaves. Those who like a “full” flavor are careful to retain as much of the saltpeter as possible ; a “medium” flavor is obtained by judicious washing ; while the “mild” form may be reached by a thorough cleansing of the leaves. As smoked by the bluejackets it is decidedly “full.”

— Rev. George Goodenough, RN, The Handy Man Afloat and Ashore, 1901, p. 157.

There’s a deal more about “ship’s” at the link.


It appears to not be a phrase, but a proper noun:

Sherlock asks "You don't mind strong tobacco?"

But Watson's response doesn't explicitly answer Yes or No. Instead, he replies, "[Not only do I not mind the smell, I myself frequently create such an aroma.] I always smoke "ship's" tobacco, myself [a style of preparing tobacco which is described as the opposite of "mild"]"

Just a possible typographical error. No punctuation, but a * or footnote would be helpful.

  • In other words: strong tobacco. – Lambie Oct 11 '18 at 17:02
  • 2
    I expect this is correct ("ship's" means "ship's tobacco"), but I don't see why it would be a typographical error.. – De Novo Oct 11 '18 at 18:07
  • I think you're right about the unspoken implication of Watson's words. But why do you say that "ship's" is a proper noun? – LarsH Oct 11 '18 at 19:56
  • 1
    I don't think it's a typographical error. Doyle wrapped ship's in quotes to indicate it was slang usage, and used single quotes because that is the convention when embedding quotes in other quotes. – Azor Ahai Oct 11 '18 at 20:35

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