Manure Aboard – S.H.I.T

Saling Ship - Atlas
A portrait of the East Indiaman ‘Atlas’, shown off South Foreland, near Dover, in broadside view. By William John Huggins – Royal Museums Greenwich, Public Domain,

During the 16th and 17th centuries, all trading goods  were transported by ship.This was before the invention of commercial fertilizers, so large shipments of manure were quite common.

Manure was shipped in dry form as it weighed a lot less than when wet. Once water (at sea) hit it, not only did it become heavier, but the process of fermentation began. It’s  by-product was methane gas. As it was stored below decks in bundles,  you can imagine what could and did happen.  Methane began to build-up below decks and the first time someone came below at night with a lantern – BOOOOM!

Several ships were destroyed in this manner before it was determined what was happening.   The bundles of manure were then always stamped with the instruction “Stow High In Transit”. This meant for sailors to stow it high enough off the lower decks so that any water that came into the hold would not touch this “volatile” cargo and start the production of methane.

Thus evolved the term ‘ S.H.I.T ‘ , (Stow High In Transit) which has come down through the centuries and remains in use today as a well-recognised slang word. These sailors definitely would have been in “deep shit” (meaning in trouble) if someone had taken a lantern below!

Thanks to Captain Gavin for providing us with this little gem of maritime history.


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