A little while ago, I posted this blog about privateers operating off England’s east coast during the latter part of the eighteenth century. I thought readers might also be interested in some contemporary accounts of privateers’ activities, taken from the Norfolk newspapers. These accounts show the largely commercial side to privateering, not any military benefit. Perhaps the majority of ships captured by privateers were ransomed. Britain had already developed a fairly sophisticated maritime insurance industry, so most of the money would probably have been paid in that way. Nevertheless, it was a considerable irritant and the navy were under constant pressure to provide better protection.
Norfolk Chronicle, May 1780.
A letter from Newcastle, dated May 13, says, “On Thursday last Captain WESTON, master of the HINCHINBROOK, of Lynn, made oath before a magistrate of this town, that he was taken last Wednesday morning off Hartlepool, and ransomed for 500 Pounds by the JOSEPHINE, a French privateer frigate, commanded by JEAN LOUIS FAVRE of Havre-de-Grace, mounting 26 guns, 12 and 9 pounders, besides about six or eight smaller guns in the quarterdeck and forecastle, and about 250 men. That Captain WESTON saw the privateer take three other loaded brigs the same day, which he believed were all ransomed; and the Commander told him he had taken three more loaded vessels the day before.”
Norfolk Chronicle, July 1782
Extract of a letter from Capt. DYSON, Commander of his Majesty’s sloop Helena, dated Lowestoft Road, July 14, 1782. “Yesterday, being in Yarmouth Roads, I received information from the Mayor of Yarmouth, that there had been seen a lugger off Dunwich, at five o’clock the same morning; weighed and stood to the North Westward through the Cockie, wind being Southwardly, thinking she might be gone that way. At daylight, not seeing any thing off Cromer, proceeded [sic] with the tide to the Southward, and found the said lugger chaced [sic] into these Roads; at noon took possession of her; she is called L’Escroe privateer, about 30 tons burthen, from Dunkirk, left that place a week ago, has taken one vessel from London to Gainsborough, which is since said to be retaken. The master and three boys I have put ashore at Yarmouth, with twenty one prisoners, being the equipage of the said privateer.”
Norfolk Chronicle July 1782
On Wednesday were committed to Norwich Castle, by John REYNOLDS, Esq., Mayor of Yarmouth, and Commissioner of Oyer and Terminer for the jurisdiction of the High Court of the Admiralty of England, Thomas ABBOTT, Captain, and Robert FARRELL, Robert FETHERLY, alias THURKEL, Jonathan ROMLEY, and William GROVES, four of the crew of the French privateer L’Escroe, of Dunkirk, taken and brought into Yarmouth on Saturday last, by his Majesty’s sloop Helena, charged with treason and piracy committed by them upon the high seas, by adhering to the King’s enemies (they being natural subjects of his Majesty) and taking and making prize of divers of the ships, vessels, and merchantize [sic] of his Majesty’s subjects, particularly of the sloop, or vessel, called the Generous Friends, of Gainsborough, George HICKSON, Master, on the 13th inst. on the high seas off Aldborough.
Copy of a letter from Sir John Borlace WARREN, Bart., received by Mr WARMINGTON, of Yarmouth, on Saturday last.
Winchelsea, off Scarborough. 22d July, 1782.
Dear Sir, I am sure it will give you pleasure when I inform you, that the Winchelsea has captured two French privateers, one a brig, and the other a lugger, within these three days. The first of them had not taken any thing, but the latter has done much mischief on this coast, having sunk five sail of vessels and sent two into Dunkirk; and I see by his log, that he has had an action with some colliers, in which one of his men was wounded. And he further informs me, that he was at the back of your sands in the same vessel that the Monkey cutter fired at, and about which the Mayor of Yarmouth sent me an express. On being interrogated, he first said he was born in Dunkirk, and afterwards that he was an American, his name in the commission is Frenchified, but seems not unlike FAULL; three parts of his crew are English and Irish, four of them now in irons, great villains. I have sent them on shore at this place, with a proper character, and I trust they will be properly examined. You will much oblige me by presenting my best compliments to Lord ORFORD, and communicating to his Lordship, that the Dutch fleet are gone North about, and left these seas.
I remain, Sir, Your most obedient humble Servant, J. B. WARREN.
P.S. As all the crew of this vessel are English and Irish, if you know any body at Scarborough that is acquainted with BROWN, of Deal, or FAULL, I should think it would be worth your while to write to them on that head.
It’s a common misconception that our ancestors rarely bathed or washed properly. Cleanliness was like everything else desirable; the richer you were, the more you could have of it. The wealthier people of the eighteenth century certainly appreciated being clean, at least as much as we do today—though perhaps without quite the same obsessive attachment to what they would have seen as extreme levels of washing. After all, many of the links between poor hygiene and disease had not yet been discovered. Being clean was a matter of comfort and acceptability more than health.
Labourers and the poor probably did smell a good deal. The better off tried not to smell, unless it was of expensive perfume. They also tried to keep away from those who did — and likely had plenty of fleas, lice and unpleasant things like ringworm.
What did you need to be clean? Money, energy and time.
Being clean was expensive. All water for washing or bathing would have to be fetched in buckets from a well or a stream. Then it had to be heated by burning suitable amounts of wood or coal. To heat enough even for a shallow bath would take a good deal of fuel — fuel which otherwise could have been used for cooking or heating a room.
Many of the wealthy would have used perfumes to keep themselves smelling good — another expense beyond the reach of the poorer classes — and had access to clean underclothes, shirts and bed-linen whenever they wanted. If you couldn’t afford the large quantity of linens needed for this, you might wash, but you wouldn’t stay clean for very long. This was a time when washing clothes was both labour-intensive and expensive, as I shall show in an upcoming post, so even the better off might undertake it once only every few weeks.
Energy (of Servants)
The rich could sit in a warm bath. In the 18th century, of course, there was no piped water in houses, which precluded having showers—even if the shower had been invented. Baths were certainly available to be carried up to bedrooms or dressing rooms — during the French Revolution, Marat was assassinated while in his bath — but the huge labour of heating and carrying enough water made bathing less common than today, even for the ultra-rich.
You could bathe in cold water. Grand houses might include a specially-built bathhouse, sometimes hidden in a garden folly, or a suitable plunge pool. You could use an ornamental lake or a convenient stream. Mr Darcy’s plunge into the lake in the film version of “Pride and Prejudice” with Colin Firth was perfectly authentic to the period, even if Jane Austen didn’t actually include that scene in her novel. Some of the ‘middling sort’ also had outdoor baths constructed. Mary Hardy, the brewer’s wife who lived at Letheringsett in Norfolk in the latter part of the 18th century, had one. However, while this might have been fine in the summer, outdoor winter bathing during the “Little Ice Age” was never going to be possible.
Lady’s Shift for Bathing
What any type of bathing, or even extensive washing, needed was energy to fetch water, heat it and carry the used water away afterwards. That energy was supplied by servants. Imagine how many buckets of warmed water would be needed for a bath. Even to wash standing, or use a bidet for intimate hygiene, needed someone to bring the water and take it away when it had been used — as well as mop up any messy spillages.
As an aside, our common injunction not to throw the baby out with the bathwater originated in this period. The cost in labour to fill a bath or large basin was so great that less wealthy households would share the water, proceeding in strict order of precedence from the master and mistress to the youngest family member. The baby got the coolest and dirtiest water. Maybe there was a danger that it would be missed in the grime and thrown out! Unlikely, but you can see how the notion arose.
I’ve included time and leisure in the list of essentials for two reasons. Although actually bathing or washing might take no longer for the individual than it does today, the entire process was lengthy. Servants engaged in making it possible would need to be taken off other duties. Fine, if you had many of them. Not so easy if you had only one or two.
The second time demand has more to do with the leisure that came to the rich through not needing to work. Working people would be on the go from dawn to dusk, probably six days a week. When could they find the time for more than an essential minimum of washing?
The wealthy could wash or bathe whenever they wanted. The middling sort could make time, but not so often. Taking a bath (outdoors, presumably) was an unusual enough activity for Mary Hardy, the brewer’s wife, to note it each time in her diary. Artisans and the poor — the very classes most likely to become sweaty and grimy in the course of their employment — would have least time to clean themselves. I’m sure the upstairs servants in great houses were expected to make sure they did not become offensive, but even they would not have been allowed much leisure away from their many duties. Perhaps the unwillingness of their masters to come into more than the essential contact with the servants — more marked as you passed into the 19th century, when the facilities for the family to wash were much improved — stemmed originally from trying to avoid unpleasant human smells. Certainly the 19th century records of Felbrigg Hall show quite a few servants being dismissed for being dirty.
A servant brings her mistress chocolate while she is bathing!
Was cleanliness next to godliness? Maybe it was in the evangelical 19th century, when the links between hygiene and freedom from disease were becoming clear. Before that, it was more likely to be next to wealth and social class, as so much else at the time. The rich man in his castle enjoyed a clean body in clean clothes. The poor man at his gate had neither, and never would have. That was the way of the world.
Next week, on October 19th, Dr Adam Bascom’s latest mystery adventure, A SHORTCUT TO MURDER, will be published on Amazon Kindle. If you’d like to take a look, you can use this link.
The Rolfe family home, Heacham Hall, burned down in 1941.
Until recent years, the British upper classes, including the aristocracy, were defined by the ownership of land. Why should land ownership matter so much? After all, from the 17th century onwards, there were many merchant and professional households with incomes well in excess of those enjoyed by most landed gentlemen. What magic lay in owning acres of British countryside?
Like so many British attitudes, the answer comes from the past. For centuries, you either owned the land or you worked it. Even craftsmen might need some land to farm. In a largely subsistence economy, what reaches the market is only the produce surplus to personal and family needs. No one grows crops for sale alone. That means it is only those truly at the top of the heap—the gentry and aristocracy—who could own enough land to ensure they could live from the ‘surplus’ produce demanded in rents and feudal fines.
By the 18th century, this was changing. A subsistence economy was becoming a market economy. An economy in which those who farmed the land sold their produce at the market instead of consuming most of it themselves. This favoured larger farms, payment of rents in cash, not produce, and a view of land as ‘capital’ and the rents as ‘income’. The landed gentleman still didn’t work his land himself; he owned enough acres to draw a substantial income from his rents on their own. The food he needed, he bought like everyone else.
Along with the move from subsistence to market agriculture, the other change was the rise of the professional, the merchant and the manufacturer. Of course there had been lawyers, doctors, master-craftsmen and merchants long before the 17th and 18th centuries. What had changed was the scale of their work. The professional, paid for his time and expertise, now sought an ongoing practice containing many clients. The merchant bought and sold at the scale of the marketplace, not the village or township. Many sent goods to London, which was by then the largest city in the Western hemisphere by some margin. The manufacturer turned raw materials into finished goods on a national or even international scale.
The landed gentry needed to compete to retain their hold on power. Their weapon was British conservatism and the lingering mystique of owning land. Land ownership had, in itself, a status denied to mere ‘trade’. Through it, they preserved both their acres and the respect that flowed from them.
That’s why so many wealthy professionals, merchants and manufacturers, having made their fortunes in trade, wanted to convert their wealth into landed properties. By doing so, they could retire to a life of ease and higher status, living off their past profits. Their descendents would inherit this capital, most of it tied up in land, and count as gentry right away.
To see how this process worked, I’m going to use a family from King’s Lynn which rose from ‘trade’ to gentry status in barely fifty years.
The Rolfes of Heacham
The Rolfe family were for many years attorneys and merchants in King’s Lynn in Norfolk. Prosperous, well-regarded men, often holding office within the corporation of what was a wealthy maritime town. The most famous member of the family was John Rolfe, who went to Virginia and married the native American Princess Pocohontas in 1614. For almost 100 years, members of the family retained their status as urban businessmen. Francis Rolfe was town clerk in 1654 and was followed in that office by two further generations of Rolfes. Edmund Rolfe, also town clerk, was described as an upholsterer when he became a freeman in 1674. It was this Edmund who revived the connection with Heacham, a small village along the north Norfolk coast in the direction of Hunstanton.
John Rolfe was said to have been born in Heacham, but subsequent Rolfes were merchants and attorneys and all lived in King’s Lynn. Now Edmund obtained 230 acres of copyhold land in Heacham. What he had in mind is unclear. He had many properties in and around King’s Lynn, so perhaps it was no more than an opportunistic purchase. There may have been some family attachment to the place. Either way, Edmund continued to live in Lynn and rise amongst the elite of the town, marrying the daughter of a former mayor and serving as mayor himself in 1713.
In common parlance, Edmund Rolfe was undoubtedly a ‘gentleman’, but in no way a member of the landed gentry of the county. His little holding in Heacham would not have been enough to ensure entry to the ranks of the landed gentry. After his only son died before he did, probably through ‘dissipation’, his properties passed to his grandson, another Edmund.
Edmund Rolfe II
Edmund Rolfe II had also been living in King’s Lynn as a freeman and ‘gentleman’, mostly without making much impression. He did obtain the status of freeman in 1720 (when he was listed simply as ‘gentleman’). Like his grandfather and other family members, he too may have been an attorney. He was certainly active in supporting the Walpole family interests locally. He was, therefore, a wealthy professional. Just the kind of person to be produced in a rich sea-port like Lynn, with its important trade in Baltic timber and its position dominating trade along the inland waterways of the fens.
For some reason, went to live at Heacham in 1733, giving up his seat on the town’s corporation as a result. It’s not clear why he did this. His finances were not especially good, so he lived frugally. Perhaps it was simply cheaper to live in the countryside. His first wife also had no links to Lynn, being the daughter of a maltster from Brancaster. After her death in 1739, Edmund married again, this time to the widow of a prominent Lynn brewer. It was a disaster. The two of them quickly fell out and her first husband’s family fought tooth and nail to keep her share of the brewery from falling into her new husband’s hands.
Edmund’s fortunes finally came good when a second cousin, William Rolfe, died in 1754. He had been an attorney in Norwich, where he had amassed a significant level of wealth, amounting to some £30,000. He left it all to Edmund.
At once, Edmund and his wife separated formally and he began to build his country estate, based on his inherited lands at Heacham. It was clear he was now determined to take his family into the ranks of the ‘proper’ landed gentry. He sent his only son to Cambridge to study for a year, followed by a period holding a commission in the militia, again under the Walpoles, then a three-year Grand Tour. Finally, in 1764, despite the son having an affair during his time away and an illegitimate son as a result, Edmund II arranged a fine marriage for him. His new wife was Dorothy Folkes of Hillington Hall, an undoubted member of the county’s gentry and a substantial heiress in her own right.
After brief periods living elsewhere, Edmund II kept returning to Heacham. He undoubtedly saw his holdings there as the family’s ‘ancestral lands’, despite having acquired most of them himself. So when he died in 1774, he was buried with considerable grandeur in the proper place, Heacham. He had set his family on the path to becoming gentry, but not completed the journey himself. That was left to his son, Edmund III.
Edmund Rolfe III
In 1774, Edmund III inherited an estate of around 4,000 acres, but his passage into the ranks of the gentry had begun well before then. For a start, his education was typical of that class and would have fitted him for no other role in life. During his formative years, he had been encouraged to make the ‘right’ friendships and contacts. That is was working was proved in 1769, when he was chosen High Sheriff of Norfolk. He and his father had worked hard to secure this outcome, lavishing money on his education and continually seeking to purchase or lease more land around Heacham.
When Edmund III inherited, he judged the old house to be unsuitable to his new status. At once he began to lay out the grounds and gardens, followed by planning and executing a considerable upgrading of the house itself. There were to be extensive additions and alterations. The old house was retained, mostly as service areas and servants’ quarters, and a new, brick-built block of nine bays and two-and-a-half storeys was added to it at right-angles to the previous building. This new building cost £4,128 to build and £1,025 to decorate and furnish—say somewhere just over a million pounds in today’s terms.
The Rolfes were far from being the only mercantile or professional family to pull themselves into the ranks of the landed gentry in this way. I have summarised their tale because it was typical of what was happening throughout the country in the 18th and 19th centuries. This continual regeneration and re-supply of the ranks of the country’s elite from below helps explain why it lasted so long and clung so tenaciously to power. Nouveau riche families ‘in trade’ worked to acquire the land-holdings and grand houses necessary to let their humble beginnings be forgotten. Once they joined the gentry, they quickly acquired the attitudes, education and outlook typical of the upper classes.
Edmund Rolfe II worked for his living and perhaps served some kind of apprenticeship as an attorney. His son, Edmund III, went to Cambridge, did The Grand Tour and never needed to do a day’s paid work in his life. In Georgian and Regency Britain of such were The Elite. Maybe it isn’t so different today.
Sources: For much material on the Rolfes of Heacham, I am indebted to the chapter “Founding a landed dynasty, building a country house: the Rolfes of Heacham in the eighteenth century” by Richard Wilson and Alan Mackley, in Rawcliffe, Carole, Roger Virgoe, and Richard Wilson, eds. “Counties and Communities: Essays on East Anglian History: Presented to Hassell Smith.” Norwich: Centre of East Anglian Studies, University of East Anglia, 1996.
My apologies for being absent for a few weeks. I needed the time to finish the latest Dr Adam Bascom Norfolk mystery, “A Shortcut to Murder”, which is now available from Amazon to read on Kindle. You can use this link to take a look.
Advertisement from The Norwich Gazette, April 1728
At the start of the 18th century, Norwich was the largest British city after London, and it remained a major civic, cultural and manufacturing centre throughout the 1700s. Perhaps because it had achieved the trappings of a major urban centre so early, it retained many of them at a surprisingly high level throughout this time. It was the first provincial city to have its own newspaper (The Norwich Post of 1701). By the start of the century, it had several thriving coffeehouses, six booksellers and the beginnings of a ‘social scene’.
Norwich’s location may well have helped it develop in this way. It was too far from the capital to be overwhelmed by London’s preeminence (some 100 miles, though the roads to the south were surprisingly good for the time); close enough to attract some of the artists, playwrights and musicians north; wealthy enough to provide a suitable clientele of gentry and landowners, substantial merchants, members of the growing professional classes and even manufacturers and successful tradespeople. Their families too, since wealth brought leisure and the need for suitable social venues and diversions.
I will set aside purely church music in this post. That is not to say it was not important in the musical life of the city—it was—but in writing of a ‘music scene’, I am using the term in the modern way: as a convenient description for public musical performances of all kinds put on for pleasure and profit. Where the churches played a major part in this type of local music was by providing professional and semi-professional singers and instrumentalists, especially at the start of the century. The same is true of the City Corporation, which employed a band of musicians (the City Waits) to enliven official events and processions. These City Waits also staged their own concerts from time to time, at least until they were eclipsed by larger, more skilled ensembles.
What Norwich also had in good numbers was secular venues. I shall be writing later about the early theatres in the city—those that preceded The Theatre Royal and its palatial proportions. Most of these venues were associated with inns and taverns and had developed from the kinds of all-purpose barns once used by travelling players. Several were soon fitted out as proper theatres, with a stage, a pit and one or more galleries of seats. Some even boasted boxes for the better off and the gentry. All were eminently suitable for small-scale musical performances of every kind, even though most were on the small side for larger groups. As a Mrs Bedingfield wrote to a friend after an evening at The White Swans’s theatre:
The house was too small for the actors; but a trap-door opened and four of the company fell in—one a particular man who was high sheriff last year, fell upon a pretty woman, and liked his situation so well, that they could not get him out.
One of the unintended consequences of the government’s attempt to control the theatre through a system of Royal licences was the inclusion of substantial musical elements as part of what we now think of as serious theatre. An advertisement placed in The Norwich
Gazette for December 9 – 16, 1710, reads:
At the Queen’s Arms on Monday next will be acted a Trajedy call’d Mackbeth, with all the Witches, Songs and Dances as they were originally perform’d at the Theatre Royal in London. Beginning at Five a Clock. Vivat Regina.
Although the requirement for a licence for formal theatres performing as such was never strictly enforced, it was common for the many ‘unofficial theatres’ which grew up to claim their patrons were paying for musical performances, and perhaps refreshments, with some ‘free’ theatre thrown in!
Thus we hear of concerts and operatic recitals taking place at The Queen’sArms, The White Swan, The Red Lion, The Angel, and The
Duke of Norfolk’s Palace, near the Chapel Fields. Indeed, theatrical companies like The Norwich Comedians regularly turned their talents to ‘shows’ like The Beggar’s Opera as well as purely spoken entertainments.
The Music Societies
By 1724, Norwich had its first Music Society holding subscription concerts. Such clubs and societies swiftly grew in numbers, adding venues like The Maid’s Head Inn and including “good wine and a hearty welcome” to all music lovers (at least, those wealthy enough to pay the subscription or entrance fee).
Amongst the songs and instrumental pieces (the cathedral organist clearly found many ways to supplement his stipend), you could listen to some of the most famous Italian opera stars from London, especially during the summer months when the London opera houses were shut. Those 100 miles between the two cities were no barrier to their desire to increase their earnings and bolster their ‘super star’ status.
Some of these societies also allowed women to attend their meetings and sit together in a special part of the gallery. One wit of 1739 expressed amazement at the close attention paid by the female component of the audience.
Our Concert real we may justly say,
Has wrought superior Miracles today,
Such fond Attention on the Music hung,
That One and Twenty Ladies—held their Tongue!
Another growing source of musical entertainment in the city were the concerts put on by those who taught singing or gave lessons on various instruments. The Dancing-masters active at that time also promoted evenings of entertainment to show off their talent and the progress of their pupils—both adults and children.
Reconstruction of 18th century dancing at King’s Lynn Assembly Hall
Skills in musical performance or singing were a major part of the ‘accomplishments’ necessary to fit daughters to find a suitable husband at the time. The fashionable dances were complex to perform and hard to learn. Yet to be suitably polished in the art of dancing, whether at balls or assemblies, was vital for young people of both sexes. Some of the Dancing-masters even fitted up their own rooms for teaching and performances.
That first meeting of a Music Society in Norwich in 1724 was held in “Mr Freemoult’s Long Room by Black-Friers-Bridge”. Slightly earlier, a benefit concert for a Mr Dahuron was held in “Mr Boseley’s dancing room”. Such venues were more or less totally eclipsed by the city’s own Assembly Room from 1750.
Larger Scale Performances
There were several possible venues for large-scale works demanding scores or hundreds of performers. These included the great church of St. Peter Mancroft in the Market Place, St. Andrews Hall and the cathedral itself. Many such concerts were organised in support of charitable causes, such as the newly established Norfolk and Norwich Hospital. Attendance could then provide for your social and entertainment needs, while adding a comfortable feeling of philanthropy as well.
Advertisement for Thomas Arne’s “Musical Entertainment” Thomas & Sally
Concerts might also be used to raise money to support promising local musicians. James Hook took lessons from the cathedral organist and was composing songs and playing public concerts on the keyboard by the time he was eight. At age ten, in 1757, a concert was held to give him additional musical training, followed by others for the same purpose in 1759 and 1760. As a result, he was launched on a career as first a music teacher, then organist and resident composer in London’s Vauxhall Gardens.
Once larger-scale music making was seen to be successful, Norwich, like several other provincial cities, organised its own Music Festivals on a grand scale in 1788 and 1790. The performances were held in September in St. Peter Mancroft, St. Andrews Hall and the cathedral. Parson Woodforde noted in his diary for 25th September, 1788:
The Concert was very fine indeed, and Madame Mara, the famous Singer, sung delightfully. I never heard so fine a voice—Her Notes so high. The Kettle Drums from Westminster Abbey sounded charmingly, beat by a Mr. Ashbridge. Near 100 performers in the Orchestra.
As well as Handel’s instrumental works and oratorios like Judas Maccabeus and Messiah, the programmes over those years included operatic pieces, various concerti and songs. Composers mentioned in the programmes ranged from Handel (of course) and Haydn, through Purcell, Cimarosa and Pleyel, to Ditterdorf and J. C. Bach. Enthusiasm seemed to have waned, however, for this particular festival was not repeated after 1790.
This post has merely dipped the smallest of toes into the huge lake of information about music in Norwich during these years. Norwich’s pleasure Gardens (more of them than in any other city outside London) and theatres all had an extensive range of music available, from excerpts from grand opera, through many comic and ballad operas, as well as songs, dances and glees.
Concerts were also held in many other Norfolk towns, often to coincide with local holidays or events like the horse-racing in Holt or the Quarter Sessions. King’s Lynn, Great Yarmouth, Thetford, Holt, Fakenham, Dereham and others can be shown from newspaper advertisements to have offered music-making on a fairly regular basis. To this list must be added the ballad and comic operas, songs, operatic arias, instrumental musical interludes and dancing that formed a significant part of most theatrical performances of the time.
I hope to be able to return to look at some or all of these topics too in future postings.
A Note to Readers
I shall be taking a short break from writing new blog posts while I complete final revisions on the latest book in my series of historical murder mysteries featuring Dr Adam Bascom. “A Shortcut to Murder” picks up from the point where ‘The Code for Killing” ended and sees the good doctor back in his more usual haunts around Aylsham and the coastal villages of north Norfolk. It will, I hope, be available on Kindle well before Christmas.
To learn about all my books currently available, please click here.
Privateers and pirates were a constant scourge to the many hundreds of ships which sailed along the east coast of England, many of them heading to or from the Norfolk ports. If you aren’t quite sure of the difference between a pirate and a privateer it can be summoned up like this.
A privateer was privately-owned ship ‘licensed’ by a government or monarch to attack enemy merchant shipping; and carried a commission or document, known as “Letters of Marque”, to prove it. This commission empowered the holder to undertake all hostile action permissible at sea by the usages of war. That included attacking vessels from the countries specified in the document during wartime. Such ships might be seized and either ransomed or taken back to a friendly port as prizes. They and the goods they carried could then be sold, and the proceeds divided between the privateer’s sponsors, shipowners, captains and crew under the terms of prize law. A percentage share also went to the state which issued the letters of marque.
Privateering was essentially private-enterprise warfare—a way of supplementing a state’s naval resources by utilising civilian ships and crews as well. It also served as an early form of commerce-raiding. By encouraging privateering, a state hoped to disrupt the enemy’s trade through the capture of the ships, captains and crews necessary for it to carry on maritime commerce. If captured, the crew and officers of the privateer were thus treated as prisoners of war. They would be held until ransomed, exchanged or released on the cessation of hostilities.
A pirate was a ‘common criminal’ who preyed on any ship too weak to resist, stealing anything of value. As a result, captured pirates would be subject to the full weight of the criminal law. Some would be executed and others transported. The most experienced and useful sailors amongst them might well be ‘pressed’ into service in the navy.
The East Coast Trade
Throughout the eighteenth century, what we now call the North Sea (then known as the German Ocean) was crowded with shipping of many kinds. Most of these merchantmen were small. In Norfolk, only Great Yarmouth could berth large vessels, with King’s Lynn taking some of middle sizes—at least the ones that could navigate the shoals and sandbanks of The Wash. For the rest, primarily Wells and Blakeney, the silted-up channels through the salt-marshes, ensured only small vessels could make it. Cromer had no port, so any ships calling there (some colliers did) had flat bottoms, so they could rest on the beach when the tide went out, then be lifted off again at the next tide.
The trade along these coasts was mostly domestic: coal from the north-east being taken to many places along the way, but primarily London. Norfolk wheat going south to London and good malting barley going anywhere beer or whiskey was made, including Holland and Germany. Anything heavy could be carried. Sending heavy goods by road was slow, difficult and expensive. Passengers were also taken on many ships, especially the ‘packet boats’ carrying the mail to continental countries.
Disruption of any of this trade would be a nuisance, but the true prize for ships from hostile countries was the timber trade. War, politics and economics were as closely linked at that time as they are today. Much of the timber used by the Royal Navy came from the Baltic and Scandinavia. Virtually all the masts and spars did. An anonymous work called The Memoire of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce (I7I6) claimed that all of the hemp in the world (for ships’ ropes) and the best masts came from a region stretching from the Gulf of Bothnia to the coasts of Prussia. Constant damage by storms as well as enemy action ensured ropes, masts and spars were always in demand. Sweden also exported a good deal of the iron ore required for everything from nails to cannonballs. Stop or hinder that supply and you could cause significant disruption to the means of waging naval warfare. The campaigns by the Royal Navy against Denmark during the Napoleonic wars had as much to do with trade as depriving the French of an allied fleet.
Woollens were Britain’s major export to help pay for what it needed from these countries. Norfolk, especially Norwich, was one of the main producers of the fine worsteds and similar cloths which sold well in countries like Russia and Scandinavia. A great many yards of dyed ‘Norwich Stuffs’ were sent across the North Sea during this time. Once again, disrupting this trade would cause economic problems for the nation as a whole, as well as considerable unrest in the area which produced them. Norfolk merchants were as keenly interested in protecting and expanding their trade as any others. Britain’s almost-continuous warfare with various continental powers during the 18th century was never popular in East Anglia.
Of course, the activities of French and other privateers was not confined to the North Sea. Britain’s merchant shipping and trading links were increasingly biassed towards the Atlantic and eastwards to India. Nearly every French Atlantic port served as a base for privateers at one time or another in the 18th century. Their vessels roamed throughout the western approaches, the English Channel and the North Sea. During the Revolutionary War, the Americans also fitted out privateers to disrupt British trade, not just in the waters off the east coast of America, but in European waters as well.
The British Response
Privateering peaked early in the 18th century, then fell away for a time. However, it revived strongly during the American War of Independence and Britain’s long war against the French between 1793 and 1815. During this time, the Board of Admiralty organised a growing number of naval vessels to escort convoys of merchant ships. This ‘convoy system’ became the principal counter to enemy privateering and commerce raiding.
By the ‘Convoy Acts’ of 1797 and 1803, it was made compulsory for ships engaging in foreign trade to join convoys, with a few exceptions, such as East Indiamen. During the same period, the growth of the marine insurance industry, based first in Lloyds’ coffeehouse in London, helped indemnify shipowners against their losses. Such insurers too brought pressure to bear on merchants and captains to make sure their ships joined protective convoys. In many ways, this combination of convoys and marine insurance was the deciding factor in the increasingly successful defence of British trade during the period leading up to 1815. Naval escort ships were based in Norfolk ports, especially Great Yarmouth, and convoys assembled there to be escorted on their way.
“Memoir of a Person Interested in Baltic Commerce,” in Guillaume de Lamberty, Memoires pour servir a’ l’histoire du XVIII sie’cle, contenant les negociations, traitez, et autres documens authe’nticques concernant les affaires d’e’tat (The Hague and Amsterdam, I700–1718), IX, 663. ↩
For a thorough treatment of the convoy system and other forms of defence of British trade in the period, see The Defence of British Trade, 1689–1818, Patrick Crowhurst, William Dawson, Folkestone, 1977. ↩
Do you enjoy historical fiction?
The Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, might well be for you. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.
Joseph Priestley and Tom Paine caricatured by Cruickshank
One of the greatest differences between political life in Georgian times and today was who was allowed to have a vote, both nationally and locally. In most modern, Western societies the most basic assumption is the primacy of democracy in political matters. It may therefore come as a shock to learn that almost no one in 18th century Britain would have considered such an idea sensible—and that includes just about all the ‘radicals’ of the time.
Why is this? How did it come about that demands for reform of the franchise and representation in parliament automatically excluded large numbers of adults from any direct representation at all? Even the Levellers of the 17th century, often wrongly seen as the equivalent of today’s extreme Left, never went beyond demanding the franchise should include all ratepayers: males who earned or owned enough to be subject to payment of the Poor Rate in their parish. If we want to understand our forebears’ outlook on their society, we need to get a few things straight.
In the 18th century, there was no secret ballot. Votes were cast openly and personally, and duly recorded and published afterwards. How you voted would be public knowledge. If you hadn’t voted as you were expected—or had pledged—to do, you couldn’t hide it. That’s why there was such an emphasis on being a “free agent”—at least in theory. If you depended on someone else for your livelihood, it was believed you could never vote freely, for fear of loss as a result.
What was Your Stake in the Country and Society?
Did you have anything at stake when you voted? By this, people meant property or some other source of wealth or livelihood that might be at risk if things went the wrong way. Not only was it believed that those with nothing to lose would vote heedlessly or frivolously, it was seen as fundamentally unfair for anyone with no stake in society to be able to vote on the same basis as others who had much to lose.
The implication of both these assumptions was clear, as stated by ‘Regulus’, writing in a radical journal, the Political Register, in 1768. He explained that the following should be excluded from “the People” who should determine the country’s rulers.
… The illiterate rabble, who have neither capacity for judging of matters of government, nor property to be concerned for.
Sir William Blackstone, the pre-eminent constitutional authority of the time, wrote thus in his Commentaries, defending the need for a property qualification on the grounds that it would exclude:
… Such persons as are in so mean a situation that they are esteemed to have no will of their own. [Such “indigent people” must be] under the immediate domination of others [and so] suspected to have no will of their own …
That would include nearly all those employed by another. With no security of employment, legal protections or employment rights, employees were treated legally as ‘servants’ to a ‘master’ (their employer). They would have to vote as he told them, since everyone in that situation would fear for their jobs if they did not. You did not work for an impersonal company either. You worked for a specific individual, even if that individual was the king.
Voting was also considered to be a serious matter, to be undertaken thoughtfully, with a proper understanding of the issues at stake. Emotional decisions were seen as unacceptable, since they laid the system open to glib, ambitious demagogues. Ignorance must therefore be a total barrier to inclusion in the political process. The education needed to make sensible political decisions was assumed to be that accorded to the rich and some of the middling sort; not simply literacy, but sufficient education and leisure to be able to grasp the subtleties of political and ethical arguments. Even the 1805 editor of Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, thought literacy unnecessary for the ‘lower orders’.
To follow industry and learn to live on their income and be attentive to their duty, constitute the principal part of education in all the inferior ranks.
Implicit (or Virtual) Representation
The Georgians actually took this matter seriously, at least in theory. They believed it was implicit in every election that elected members should represent the whole, the national interest, not just the interests of the small group who had elected them. To do this they must be free to vote independently, unconfined by party or other interests. The radicals were especially insistent on this point. There should, they proclaimed, be no “placemen” (MPs holding government or royal appointments) or “pensioners” (MPs receiving government salaries) in parliament. The very idea of “three-line whips” or enforceable party discipline would have appalled them. As it was, 18th century parties were more like shifting groups of like-minded friends than political machines.
In Georgian times therefore, British MPs were free to vote any way they wanted and to change party allegiance at any time without implications. The US system retains this idea, since it follows a written constitution produced by 18th-century gentlemen of English extraction. Even today, political parties in the USA cannot enforce party discipline in voting as they can in Britain. Each elected member of both houses of Congress has to be persuaded to support the party line.
William Windham, MP for Norwich, for much of the latter part of the 18th century, started out as an opponent of the government, especially over their response to problems in the American colonies. He was known to be a supported of Charles James Fox, which would make him, in modern terms, a left-winger in the generally more left-wing Whig Party. But when the French Revolution came long, he was convinced by the apocalyptic arguments of Edmund Burke and swapped sides, even going so far as to serve in the cabinet under the arch-Tory, William Pitt the Younger. Yet he still stood in elections as a Whig, albeit a pro-government one, and was re-elected several times on that basis.
Even if you disagree with everything the Georgians believed on the matter of restricting the franchise, you have to accept it was logically derived from the general assumptions of the day. If kings and nobles were to be replaced as sole rulers by a group more representative of the country as it stood at the time, it was unthinkable that this should include people who had never been thought of as capable of anything save manual labour and following orders.
Parliament may have won its supremacy by civil war and a “glorious revolution”, but it ought still to be made up only of those judged fittest to rule by the accepted standards of the time. To that was added the logical conclusion that those who elected the parliament’s members, or took part in local government, ought to be the worthiest to undertake such tasks. That’s why even the radicals shared much the same viewpoint as the conservatives on the franchise, though on precious little else. So long as the fight was to stop monarch and aristocrats from taking back all the power they had lost, there could be no place in politics for the poor, the weak or the politically uninformed.
Do you enjoy historical fiction?
A new Ashmole Foxe mystery, “DARK THREADS OF VENGEANCE”, is now available. Set in Norwich in the 1760s, it begins with a mysterious murder, before plunging, through clashes within a dysfunctional family which threaten business collapse and a banking crisis, to an unexpected denouement by the edge of the River Wensum in the shadow of Norwich’s massive cathedral.
In most of the 18th century, before the introduction of the mechanical seed-drill, there were only two ways of sowing crops. Wheat and barley, turnips and beans were either broadcast (scattered on the land) or ‘dibbled’ into separate holes. Broadcasting was always the more common and the only one possible on heavier, clay lands in a large parts of England, it was simple and well understood, and people had sowed seeds this way for thousands of years.
It did have drawbacks. It was wasteful of seed, unless it was done skilfully. It created haphazard patterns. Too many seeds might fall in one area and none in another. Since the seed lay on the surface, much of it could be eaten by birds before there was time to provide a covering of earth. Even what did grow might well be choked by weeds and the only way to remove weeds was by hand—a daunting prospect with many acres to cover.
How Dibbling Worked
In the simplest form of dibbling, a man took a pointed metal stake in each hand and walked backwards in a straight line, pushing the sticks into the soil on both sides of him to make long rows of holes. As he did so, others, following behind, dropped seeds into each hole. It was usual for this second group to be made up of women and children, thus providing much-needed employment and extra income to local labourers’ families. Finally, a rake or even bundles of brushwood would be run over the surface of the soil to fill the holes in.
Dibbling only worked on light soils. On heavy soils, the hole was likely to fill with water and cause the seed to rot. The soils of East Anglia were predominantly light and sandy, so dibbling quickly became the preferred way of sowing. It made weeding easier too, since a hoe could be used between the straight rows of growing plants. It also used less seed, although, , as the old rhyme tells us, it was still wasteful by modern standards. Four seeds had to be sowed for every one that survived.
“One to rot and one to grow,
One for the Devil and one for the crow.”
It wasn’t only the birds and the weeds which caused problems. The labourers, and their wives and children, were often suspected of holding seed back for themselves. One writer of the time wrote that “… innovation was required to circumvent labourers’ incompetence and dishonesty.” Even the adoption of the threshing machine was said to be aided because it avoided pilfering of corn by “labourers and other vermin”!
Jethro Tull in 1733 was still more vitriolic.
… the Thing that is most detrimental to perpetual Crops of Wheat, is the Deceit and Idleness of the Weeders … their Tongues are much nimbler than their Hands; and unless the Owner, or some Person who faithfully represents him, (and is hard to be found) works constantly amongst them, they’ll get their Heads together half a Dozen in a Cluster, regarding their Prattle more than the Weeds; a great part of their Time they spend in Play, except a few of them who bring their own Work with them, some their Sewing, some their Knitting, and these must be paid for doing their own Work upon my Land: This Wrong I have seen done both to myself and my Neighbours; and it has put me upon endeavouring to find a Way of disappointing the Weeders… 
Arthur Young, writing in 1804, made a similar observation.
Mr Burton, of Langley, remarked, that good as this practice was in some respects for the poor, there are inconveniences flowing from it. Girls, old enough for [domestic] service are kept at home by it. Gleaning is their employment in harvest, which gives them idle habits in the fields, then dibbling follows; and the girls lying about under the hedges with men, produces the natural consequences on their manners; bastardy flourishes, and maidservants are uncommonly scarce.
Mr Johnson, of Thurning, makes the same observation on the ill effects of dibbling as Mr Burton. The great [i.e. older] girls do not drop [the seeds into the holes] so well as children, nor is the work so well done as formerly: they now drop between the forefinger and the thumb, which is much inferior to doing it between the fore and the middle finger.
Innovation, might well improve agricultural efficiency, but nothing , it seemed, would prevent human nature from interfering to counteract many of the benefits!
Jethro Tull, Horse-Hoeing Husbandry, 1733, Notes. p 226. ↩