There will be fewer posts over the next few months. I am immersed in completing the sixth Adam Bascom mystery and that must have priority.
It picks up Adam’s life after he has married Lady Alice and been made a baronet by the king as a reward for his many services to the country. By an entirely unexpected coincidence, the story itself deals with a young man from an important family, who rejects the position to which he was born and is desperate to enter on a new way of life. However, the “rules” of society at the time, plus the complications of future inheritance, make that a far from easy matter.
Being emotional, impetuous and somewhat thoughtless, his attempts to gain what he wants prove to be disastrously inept. The consequences which flow from these form the basis for the mystery. I assure you that the basic draft was completed well before Christmas and those current events hitting the headlines in Britain. I never imagined such a thing might ever come about.
The provisional title is “The Reluctant Heir” and I hope to see it available in Early April. Meanwhile, details of the previous five books in this series can be found here: “The Dr Adam Bascom Mysteries” http://bit.ly/2k43dSQ.
What would it have been like for my character Ashmole Foxe to have walked through the streets of 18th-century Norwich? Probably more akin to today than you would imagine, minus the motor vehicles, the asphalt and most of the pavements. The sounds would be quite different of course. No stench of diesel either, though plenty of other smells to take its place. Apart from that, most cities were busy centres for commerce, shopping and recreation, just like today.
Leaving the Land
There had been towns and cities in England since at least Anglo-Saxon times, though most were small, and the vast bulk of the population still lived as part of an agricultural economy throughout the Middle Ages. Some urban development began in the seventeenth century, especially in London, but most of what we would recognise today as an urban existence has its origins in the eighteenth, the Georgian and Regency eras. Changes in agricultural practices, the move from a subsistence to a market economy and the first stirrings of the industrial revolution started a move away from the countryside and into the towns; a process which accelerated steadily into the nineteenth century and beyond. At the same time, population growth created a rising demand for work, while the enclosure of the common lands destroyed the old peasantry and substituted uncertain, poorly paid employment for those who chose to remain in the countryside doing farm work.
It had long been a tenet of English common law that public highways were open to all and that included the streets of the towns. People of all classes mingled together, distinguished only by their clothes. Even foreigners and immigrants were generally accepted, though they might be the target of a certain amount of ridicule for their outlandish garb. Where, in the countryside, the gentry would pass on horseback or in their carriages and expected ordinary folk to step aside and acknowledge their presence, the hurly-burly of the towns swiftly reduced such deference to little more than a token touch on the hat or small inclination of the head. Even wellborn ladies might join the throng, accompanied only by a maid servant or a chaperone. Working women walked alone or in mixed company as a matter of course, even after dark. A landmark ruling in 1709 by the Lord Chief Justice held that, “a light Woman [i.e. prostitute] has a right of Liberty as well as another to walk about the streets.” Although beggars and vagabonds might be arrested for loitering, and prostitutes for “disorderly conduct”, they faced no automatic restrictions.
Eighteenth-century streets were not, of course, free from their dangers, especially at night, in dark alleyways and in certain known haunts of criminals. Pickpockets and cut-purses mingled amongst the crowds and smiling locals offered directions to confuse visitors which took them down narrow alleyways and past confederates waiting to rob them. Even so, assaults and violent crimes were relatively rare, so that even gentlemen gradually gave up wearing swords, though many carried walking sticks as fashion items. The carrying of firearms was greatly frowned upon and might attract prosecution. Such brawls and mêlées as arose mostly involved fists and occasional cudgels.
Begging was also greatly disliked and discouraged, though beggars who occupied a fixed position and refrained from directly bothering passers by might be tolerated. Prostitutes and streetwalkers could be found nearly everywhere, although towards the latter part of the century most began to congregate in specific locations and around brothels, forming the earliest “red-light districts”. Other places which attracted prostitutes were those where large numbers of people tended to congregate anyway, such as outside theatres and in the pleasure gardens and promenades which had sprung up as places of recreation. Walking was seen as a healthy occupation in times of leisure and local corporations began to provide parks where urban dwellers could “take the air” in fine weather. Norwich was noted for its large number of pleasure gardens, complete with statues, flower beds, pavilions, places of entertainment and booths where you might eat and drink. In King’s Lynn, tree-lined walks were provided where you could perambulate to see and be seen and experienced a little of the countryside. They are still there to this day.
The Sounds — and Smells — of Urban Life
In contrast to the country, eighteenth-century towns were crowded and noisy places. City dwellers tended to view life in the countryside as a kind of sleep or hibernation, devoid of intellectual or cultural stimulus. In sharp contrast, towns were centres for news and information of all kinds. People met on street corners, in marketplaces and around the public pumps and exchanged gossip of all kinds. Pamphleteers, newsvenders, and balladeers shouted or sang the news, both real and false. Street traders called out their wares and many of the poor eked out a meagre living by hawking political and satirical pamphlets of all kinds. The better off gathered in coffeehouses to read the newspapers and discuss the topics of the day. The poor gathered in taverns, gin shops and grog houses for more or less the same purpose, the few who could read passing on the news to the many who could not. Booksellers pasted up satirical prints and caricatures in their windows, attracting the better off to buy them and the poor to stand in the street laughing at what they depicted.
Behind the sound of voices would be heard the constant clicking of the wooden and iron pattens worn by ladies to keep their shoes out of the mud and muck that lay everywhere. Add to that the constant rumble of wheeled traffic, the sound of horses’ hooves, the call of animals being driven to the market or to the butchers, the ringing of chimes from church clocks, the barking of dogs, yowling of cats and even the sound of ducks and hens. Eighteenth-century towns were rarely quiet, save in the dead of night.
Towns were also smelly places. People sometimes emptied their chamber pots into the street and passing animals left their dung behind. Refuse of all kinds found its way onto the streets and into the gutters. While official scavengers and collectors of “night soil” did their best to clear up the worst of the mess, heavy rain was prone to wash some of the contents of back-street dung hills and privies back into the streets. Markets could be particularly smelly places, especially the areas known as “shambles”, where butchers slaughtered animals and sold their meat, along with the fish markets. It was no wonder that those who are better off sought to escape to the countryside or the coast during the hottest days of summer. To all of this must be added the smells associated with brewing, tanning and other kinds of industry which might still be located near to the centre of towns. The new industrial processes of metalworking and refining, producing pottery added smoky smells to the towns where they took place, as did the woollen and cotton mills as steam power replaced water wheels as the most characteristic way of driving the machinery. In cold weather, the only form of heating in towns and cities came from coal fires, so that smoke and soot added their own odours to the general mix.
By the middle of the eighteenth century therefore, city life had assumed most of the characteristics that we would associate with towns today, save only for the motor vehicle. Better sewage systems and sanitation have taken away most of the smells and the stink of diesel has replaced the smell of horse dung in the streets, but England has never returned to being a predominantly rural society, nor is ever likely to. Like it or not, the majority of us are still city dwellers, something for which we can thank our Georgian ancestors, along with the burgeoning trade, commerce and manufacturing which supports us to this day.
How the collapse of a Norwich cloth merchant through rash over-expansion and foreign adventures helped trigger the decline of the trade in Norwich “Stuffs” (fine worsted fabrics), which was further accelerated by changing technology and new materials.
Philip Stannard was born in Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, on 6th December, 1703. His father was a member of the prosperous merchant community of Bury and must have expected his eldest son to follow in his footsteps when he apprenticed him to an experienced master weaver in Norwich in 1719. The Norwich textile industry already had an excellent reputation and the man to whom young Philip was apprenticed was a trader in cloth, as well as a manufacturer. The training lasted for seven years and in 1726 Philip Stannard was able to establish himself as a Freeman of the city of Norwich and begin trading on his own account.
Like most Norwich cloth merchants, his cloth was produced by individual journeyman weavers, working at looms in their own homes. Stannard bought the thread for them to use, sent it to a dyer to be dyed in the correct colours, and paid them for producing cloth to his order. Payment was on a strictly piece-work basis. After that, much of the cloth would have been hot-pressed: a process which gave the surface a fine, glossy sheen. Norwich was famous for producing cloth with the most intricate weaves, often mixing fine wool with silk or linen to give greater strength or greater softness. Much of it was highly coloured and highly patterned and in the early to middle part of the eighteenth century it was both highly fashionable and much sought-after.
Stannard obviously prospered. In 1732 he was able to buy his own house in Norwich, which he insured for the considerable sum of £500 (around £200,000 in today’s money). By 1748, he had moved to a much larger house which he insured for four times as much. He also seems to have bought a number of small houses in the neighbouring parish, probably to house his weavers, eventually adding to these until he owned a whole series of tenements along Fisher Lane to Pottergate. He also inherited his father’s house in Bury St Edmunds when his father died in 1747 and seems to have kept that as an investment property.
Like many a successful merchant before and after him, he now decided he was wealthy enough to become a country gentleman and purchased a mansion some five miles outside the city. This was close enough to allow him to maintain supervision of his business on a daily basis at the same time as enjoying his new property, with its eight acres of grounds and pleasure gardens. He also took on a partner, Philip Taylor, to run things on a daily basis and the business became Stannard & Taylor. There was soon a third, junior partner, John Taxtor, whose name was never added to the business, but who played a significant part in its progress towards collapse. In 1762, Stannard’s young second wife presented him with a son and, in 1765, a daughter. All seemed set fair.
Decline and Fall
Within four years, the firm of Stannard & Taylor had collapsed into bankruptcy owing the amazing sum of £47,000 (around £10-12 million in today’s money). What went wrong?
Cloth manufacturing and selling is a business that depends heavily on fashion. All the Norwich cloth merchant experienced considerable ups and downs in business. However, since the Norwich firms supplied cloth to order, they were usually able to respond quickly to varying tastes, as well as moving to exploit the growing overseas markets. In nearly all cases, their sales were handled through middlemen in London and it was these middlemen who bore most of the risk, especially in the case of overseas sales. Once completed, the orders of cloth would be loaded onto trains of pack horses and sent to London, where local agents would handle the business of delivery and collection of payment.
Stannard’s business was no different, save in being rather more extensive than many. In 1755, he was able to boast that he was keeping three hundred weavers in constant work. For a business of the time, this was an astonishing claim. A few dozen workers would have represented a substantial operation at a time when all supervision was personal and communications either face-to-face or by letter, which would take days to arrive at its destination (weeks if sent overseas). Besides, producing the heavily patterned, lustrous weaves typical of Norwich cloth was a complex and difficult process and might be spoiled at any point. Perhaps because of this, in 1762 Stannard set up his own fully-equipped hot pressing shop and was able to boast to his customers that he had all aspects of the manufacture under his own control. In modern jargon, he was making his business ‘vertically-integrated’.
It was also at around this time that the firm seems to have begun doing business directly with foreign buyers. Many Norwich cloth merchants were tempted along these lines, hoping to be able to obtain greater profits by removing the amounts which had to be paid to the London middlemen. In doing so, of course, they had to assume all the risks that they had avoided before that time. Not only might shipments be lost at sea, which could be covered by insurance, foreign purchasers were often slow-payers. In 1759, Stannard himself had told a correspondent that he refused to consider dealing in any other way than via London middlemen. What changed his mind is not clear, but the better question might be “who?”
We don’t know whether it was a desire for greater profit or the influence of one of his younger partners or employees which caused him to agree to send his business in a new direction. He might have been influenced by the ending of war with Spain and the consequent opening up of European and South American markets. He might have been influenced by the actions of many of his competitors in also seeking to increase direct overseas trade. He might have realised his home market was under threat from cheap imports of printed cottons and calicoes from the far east. Whatever it was, he was clearly unprepared for the amount of risk that he was now taking on. Like many a business before and since, Stannard & Taylor was about to expand overseas without the strong capital basis required to do so. Stannard might have been a fine weaver and an honest trader, but he was much less capable as a businessman venturing into difficult waters.
John Taxtor seems to have been particularly active in the early 1760s in pursuing overseas markets. He may well have been behind Stannrd & Taylor’s sudden appetite for entrepreneurial ventures. From what is known of him, he was a born salesman with all the strengths and weaknesses that that implies. Even when he first joined the firm, he brought Stannard & Taylor a number of direct contacts amongst overseas buyers, as well as a taste for fresh ventures and new ideas. He visited Germany several times, where he claimed to have received considerable orders, and certainly picked up a number of fresh designs which were quickly put into manufacture and claimed as Stannard & Taylor inventions. However, his greatest enthusiasm was for exports to Spain. Indeed, in the middle of the century the firm had to increase the size of its warehouses and other buildings in Norwich to allow for the extra production demanded by the Spanish orders he was obtaining.
Since Philip Stannard had now reached his early sixties, it looks as if he was leaving most of the running of his business to his younger partners. It must therefore have been a terrible tragedy for the firm when John Taxtor suddenly died, aged 39, in 1766. The business struggled on, but it became increasingly difficult to obtain funds from those merchants in Spain who had bought their cloth. The business had also started sending cloth to South America on a purely speculative basis, rather than supplying it to order. When the firm crashed, nearly all the payments for this cloth were still owing.
Stannard & Taylor were declared bankrupt in 1769. All the property of the remaining partners, including Stannard’s fine country mansion, had to be sold. Even then, the creditors received only a very small proportion of the debts owed to them. The city of Norwich was hit hard, with many weavers put out of work and many investors and suppliers badly out of pocket. As modern times have shown many times, the failure of a large business always causes a large number of associated failures, sometimes affecting more people than the original bankruptcy itself.
Unfortunately, this crash coincided with other problems for the cities once-prosperous cloth merchants. The use of home-based weavers was rapidly being overtaken by factories using the latest machinery, much of it water powered. Since Norfolk lacks the fast flowing streams necessary to drive the new machinery, the trade moved away, principally to Yorkshire. When steam replaced water as the source of power, the Yorkshire mills could easily be supplied with coal from local mines, where all coal had to be brought in from outside to factories based in Norfolk. To this was added a change of fashion, away from wool towards printed cottons, first imported from India and then produced on a massive scale in the Lancashire cotton mills. The day of the Norfolk cloth manufacturers was over. Some weaving and dyeing remained into the nineteenth century, but on a much smaller scale and devoted mostly to specialist markets, such as black bombazine for mourning clothes and the production of highly patterned shawls.
Doesn’t all this sound depressingly familiar?
The first book in my series of Ashmole Foxe Georgian Mysteries, “The Fabric of Murder” is based very loosely on the same idea of the bankruptcy and collapse of a major cloth manufacturer in Norwich and the damage to the city it was feared that would cause. Click here to find out more.
Fears of a French invasion were not new to late-eighteenth century Englishmen. There had been at least three credible invasion threats between 1744 and 1783, and various steps to counter invasion had been taken. How likely Norfolk was as a main target for invasion is debatable. However, the sea crossing from northern France Belgium the French-dominated Netherlands was certainly short enough for a serious French raid (barely 100 nautical miles).
Britain’s own army was unlikely to be any match for the French on land, either in numbers, training or experience. A visceral dislike of the whole notion of a substantial standing army had long prevented parliament from either authorising or paying for such a force. It smacked too much of dictatorship and the hated major-generals of Cromwell’s days. Any defence must therefore call upon a citizen militia—untrained amateurs neither willing to serve and led by equally amateur officers from amongst the local gentry.
Norfolk’s largest port, Yarmouth, had shore batteries–serious ones using 24- and 36-pounder guns–but it was a naval base and the navy were expected to look after their own. Elsewhere, apathy towards defence was widespread at the start, even amongst some of the landed gentry1 who might be expected to lead the way. Had the French actually made it past the Royal Navy before 1801, they would probably have met little effective resistance.
Britain is Let Oﬀ the Hook
Fortunately for Britain, the French gave the overall command to a troublesome young general, Napoleon. He saw little opportunity for glory or gain in the projected invasion and too many chances for a failure that would ruin him. He quickly lost such interest as he had, preferring to sail off to Egypt and attempt to carve out a personal empire in the east. Norfolk’s own hero, Nelson, quickly put a stop to that, leaving Napoleon to hurry back to France to protect himself from all the plotting going on in his absence.
After seizing absolute power, dealing with England by invasion was nowhere on Napoleon’s list of priorities. Rather, he wanted peace to consolidate his position and for France to absorb its conquests in Europe. The British government also wanted to escape from an expensive and unpopular war. The Treaty of Amiens in 1801 was the result. It appeared to put a stop to invasion fears altogether.
A New Invasion Panic
The Treaty proved short-lived and by 1803 invasion was back on the agenda. This time, the British government took more serious notice, perhaps because the population at large caught invasion fever; perhaps because Napoleon was now known to be a general of genius. For Britain to rely almost totally on the Royal Navy for defence didn’t look such a good option. It was stretched very thinly, defending the Empire and the global trade routes on which Britain and its ruling elite depended.
In Norwich, a meeting of magistrates and deputy-lieutenants of the county, held on July 9, 1803, took action. They approved and adopted the plan recommended by the Government for establishing a system of communication throughout the county and for rendering the body of the people instrumental in the general defence and preservation of property in case of invasion.2 You can see the minds of the local magnates working here!
Militia units were brought up to strength and drilled and, in the general enthusiasm for volunteering, we learn that “… The male part of the Norwich Company (theatrical) have agreed to enrol themselves to learn the use of arms.” How far a bunch of provincial actors might have furthered the defence of the realm was, fortunately, never put to the test.
More substantially, a certain Messers Marsh and Sons, Norwich and Cambridge carriers, agreed to put at the service of the government in case of invasion no less than 100 horses, 24 boats, and 12 wagons, together with the people needed to use them: 24 drivers, six watermen and nine boys, plus an unspeciﬁed number of blacksmiths (with equipment), two wheel wrights and two harness-makers. Plenty of local people must have come forward too, because a note for December 1803 records the forming of 22 troops of Yeoman Cavalry, grouped into three regiments.
Various militia regiments now took turns at guarding major shore installations, like those at Yarmouth, generally serving for 14 days before being relieved by another unit. Nor were all the units local. The Shropshire militia were present at Yarmouth and elsewhere for long periods. As an inland county, Shropshire presumably had few local areas that needed to be secured against invasion threats.
In Holt, some three miles from the coast, local records show that His Majesty’s Regiment of Pembroke Militia was stationed there in 1796. The soldiers did what soldiers everywhere have done, before and since, and two young Welshmen, both from Haverfordwest, were married to local girls in Holt parish church in the same week. Both at once applied to establish settlement in Holt, presumably so they, their wives and children would be entitled to parish relief, if the need arose.
Wherever they came from, the Eastern Military District, covering East Anglia and coastal counties northwards, had no less than 32,000 men under arms by June 1804, all, according to its new commander Major-General Money, “fully equipped and efﬁcient.”
Invasion fears peaked again in August 1805, when Major-General Money put his forces on full alert, following “… ofﬁcial intelligence of preparations along the enemy’s coast.” Nothing happened, which may indicate ofﬁcial intelligence reports were no more reliable then than in recent years. The tension slackened and, on November 7, 1805, news of the Battle of Trafalgar and Nelson’s death reached Norwich, ending invasion fears for a while, but causing deep sadness too.
I have already noted that gun batteries were located at Yarmouth. Where else guns were located is less clear. Small gun emplacements all along the coast of East Anglia were projected in 1794, but it is not clear how many, if any, were established. In 1803, the commander of the Eastern Military
District, Sir James Craig, commissioned a Major Bryce to report on the defences needed at possible invasion sites. Bryce clearly didn’t believe in ﬁxed batteries, especially in areas as unlikely as the site of an invasion as the North Norfolk Coast. His main recommendation was for a troop of mobile artillery to be stationed at Holt. If this did not ﬁnd favour, small batteries could be placed at Cromer, mainly to train local volunteers, as well as at Holkham Bay, Blakeney, Wells and Burnham.
Holt never received its artillery troop, but it seems some guns were provided at the coastal sites. The volunteers at Cromer had access to canon as The Times of October 31, 1803, records:
… on Tuesday, the town of Cromer was up in arms on the circumstance off two strange sail appearing off the battery [probably located at the end of Jetty Street]. The guns were immediatelyarmed by Volunteers … before the ship sent a boat on shore. They proved to be an English privateer and a Russian galliot …
If you visit Burnham Overy Staithe you can still see a granary of this period overlooking the simple quay that apparently has two small gun embrasures built into it. It is now holiday accommodation.
Canon and Local Volunteers Don’t Mix!
Given the following report, any guns there were could not have been in very good condition. In August 1803:
The brass ordnance belonging to the city [Norwich] were tested by some of the regular artillery … Four of the guns burst.
A similar occurrence may be indicated by a canon of about this date, now set on end in the green outside the church at Wiveton, which shows the ball wedged in the end of the muzzle and a large piece of the metal
missing where the charge must have caused the barrel to explode. Putting canon into the hands of local volunteers was clearly a hazardous business.
On February 4, 1804, local volunteers were practising when disaster struck:
The Cromer Sea Fencibles were practicing with canister and grape shot upon the beach, when a ball struck Capt. Tremlett, R. N., on the foot, and shattered the leg of Mr. John Smith, so as to render immediate amputation necessary. A public subscription, amounting to £500, was made for Mr. Smith.
This was a substantial amount of money, so it is to be hoped it helped him cope with the loss of his leg.
Raising the Alarm
Communications were not forgotten. Flagstaffs were set up, for example at Holkham Hall and Houghton Hall, where a red ﬂag would be ﬂown on the appearance of enemy vessels along the coast. On August 24, 1803, Charles Mackie reports:
Telegraphs, signal ﬂags or tar barrels are being stationed on all the churches and lofty ediﬁces on the coast, in order to give, in a chain of communication, the earliest intelligence, either by night or day, of the event of the enemy’s landing.
Near Felbrigg Hall, on the summit of Beacon Hill, the highest point in North Norfolk, is an area known as the Roman Camp. It isn’t Roman, and never was; that name was, it seems, added in the nineteenth century to attract more tourists. It was, however, a site for a beacon in mediaeval times
and again at the time of the Spanish Armada in 1588. In Faden’s map of Norfolk in 1797 it was described as “Old Beacon or Watch Tower,” which implies it was no longer used. In the invasion scare of 1803–5, it seems to have been returned to use as a signal station and the banks seen there today probably date from this time.
We shall never know how effective these preparations to resist Napoleon’s invasion would have been. From the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, or even a little before, ofﬁcial interest in anti- invasion efforts was already in decline. Payments for clothing for the Norwich Volunteer Infantry volunteers was stopped in July 1805. Some attempt was made to interest the volunteers to enlist in the regular militia, but it is not clear how effective they were. The reply of their colonel was distinctly lukewarm.
Then, on May 1, 1813, an order was given that their equipment was to be taken away for use elsewhere by regular army units:
The commanding ofﬁcers of the Norfolk Regiments of Local Militia and the Norfolk and Norwich Volunteers have received orders to send the accoutrements of their respective regiments to the nearest ports for the use of the German levies against the common enemy.
The arms were duly sent to Yarmouth and it was all over. The news of the Battle of Waterloo was received in Norwich on June 23, 1815, being greeted with the ﬁring of canons (seemingly without mishap this time), the ringing of the church bells, a bonﬁre and the singing of “God Save the King” and “Rule Britannia.” Napoleon was beaten and, even if it hadn’t directly beaten him, Norfolk was at least on the winning side.
NOTE: All the action in my Dr Adam Bascom mystery books http://bit.ly/2k43dSQ takes place in this period.
Norfolk was a stronghold of the Whigs. At the start of the period, many were well-disposed towards revolution in France, though actual events caused some to support Pitt’s government as time went on.
All quotes are from The Annals of Norfolk by Charles Mackie, 1901, unless otherwise noted.
The purpose of the Impress Service, as the Press Gang was called officially, was to secure the men needed to keep the Royal Navy’s ships at proper fighting strength. Given the conditions on board, and the chances of dying from disease or being killed or maimed in battle, not enough men were ever willing to volunteer for naval service. The Press Gangs were thus a kind of enforced conscription to meet the demand for men to make up for the constant losses.
Not just any men though. The navy wanted experienced seamen, able from the beginning to tell one part of the complicated rigging of a man-of-war from another; even better if they could climb aloft and be trusted to fasten or unfasten the right ropes in the teeth of an Atlantic gale. There wasn’t either the time or the inclination to train the numbers needed from scratch. Mere ‘landsmen’ were only useful for hauling on ropes and carrying heavy burdens. Most of these could be supplied anyway from the prisons and conscripted prisoners of war. The ferocious discipline to be found on naval ships was required in large part by the fact that a significant number of any crew would probably be convicted felons, reluctant prisoners of war or Irish rebels.
How the Press Gangs Worked
A group of seamen, usually led by a lieutenant, would arrive at a coastal town or fishing village and demand a certain number of skilled men for the navy’s needs. Not surprisingly, the local magistrates were reluctant to assist by supplying men voluntarily. The loss of skilled seamen could badly affect local trade, while the removal of a family’s breadwinner threw people into poverty and thus dependence on the Poor Law assistance paid for by local ratepayers.
In these cases, the Gangs took what they wanted by force or trickery. Even then it wasn’t easy. Men seized would stoutly deny any knowledge of the sea or seafaring and their families and neighbours would back them up. It was also possible for certain men to obtain certificates of exemption from being pressed, but it was far from unknown for Press Gangs to ignore them.
Signs of a Sailor
The Press Gangs therefore tended to make their choice based on supposed signs that would give a sailor away, no matter how much he argued otherwise.
For example, when the Press Gang seized one John Teede, he protested vigorously that he had never been to sea in his life, had no knowledge of sailing or anything else nautical, and would brand any who claimed otherwise as bare-faced liars. The officer in charge, convinced “he had the look of a sailor”, at once ordered his men to strip Teede. Sadly for poor Teede, he had succumbed, like many before and since, to the temptation to get tattooed. Symbols and messages of love and the sea covered both his arms from shoulder
to wrist. Needless to say, it sealed his fate.
An allegedly excellent indication of a sailor was to be bow-legged. Climbing masts and being confined to the limited space on board a sailing ship — to say nothing of the terrible diet — meant that many sailors’ legs became deformed in this way. Unfortunately, the same could be said of men who sat for hours, cross-legged, while pursuing the trade of being a tailor. More than one tailor protested in vain as the Press Gang dragged him off in the belief that they had found a reluctant seaman.
Another way to thwart the Press Gang was to offer up a suitable victim in place of a local man. This was most likely to be some innocent stranger, who had somehow caused suspicion amongst the locals; not too difficult in tightly-knit villages unused to outsiders.
At Cromer in Norfolk in 1780, a tall, heavily-bearded man was seen to walk along the beach and over the fields, “writing in a book he carried.” This naturally alarmed the townspeople, who accosted him, with the parson at their head, and demanded —none too politely I expect —that he explain himself and his conduct. The man took offence at this treatment and flatly refused to do so. At this point, all agreed he was an extremely dubious character, most likely a spy making plans of the coast. An ideal candidate therefore to be disposed of through being pressed.
The man was held while a message was sent to the lieutenant in charge of a Press Gang at Great Yarmouth, informing him that they had taken a spy, who must therefore possess significant knowledge of seamanship. The lieutenant quickly arrived and had the suspect dragged back with him to Yarmouth. Fortunately for the stranger, the mention of spying ensured he was taken before the mayor of Great Yarmouth before being pressed into the navy — just in case he actually was a spy. In the ensuing questioning, the poor fellow managed to convince the mayor he was actually an agriculturist sent over from Russia to study the English method of growing turnips.
Official Abuses of the System
The temptation to use the Press Gang as a way of paying off old scores even affected some of the highest in the land. After all, what could be easier for the Lords of the Admiralty than to use their control of the Impress Service to punish any group or place which incurred their displeasure?
When the towns of Dover and Brighton upset the Admiralty by responding to the navy’s need for recruits in ways which were deemed lacking in proper respect, the Admiralty’s animus against the towns saw a concerted series of visits by the Impress Service to seize as many local sailors as possible; until the subsequent outcry caused the Admiralty to stop the process. In the early part of the 19th century, the Admiralty also ordered a Capt. Culverhouse, in charge of the Liverpool section of the service, “to take all opportunities of impressing seafaring men belonging to the Isle of Man,” as a punishment for the “extreme ill-conduct of the people of that Island to His Majesty’s Officers of the Impress Service.”
It wasn’t only the Admiralty which could use the Press Gangs to settle scores either. When a riot occurred at King’s Lynn in 1755, mud and stones were thrown at the magistrates who arrived to do what they could to put an end to it. Naturally angered by being subjected to such indignity, they swiftly contacted the Press Gang and supplied them with the names of the 60 people most involved in the rioting. All were seized and taken to Spithead to be forcibly added to naval ships’ crews.
Far from incurring any resentment from the townspeople, the magistrates’ action caused general rejoicing, since it was said that those now pressed into the navy consisted mostly of “’vagrants, gipsies, those living at the charge of the parish [recipients of Poor Law relief], the maimed, the halt and sundry idiots.” In short, “the sweepings of the borough.”
I can’t help feeling it’s a good job no similar way of dealing with demonstrators and local welfare claimants exists today!
With Halloween approaching, I thought it might be interesting to look at the rise of the ghost story in Georgian England. The nineteenth century marked the summit of popular interest in ghosts and spirits, thanks to the advent of photography. The prevalence of double exposures as a means of faking ghostly images fuelled the craze. However, the interest in reports of ghosts began earlier, as better printing methods helped produce pictures with more detail and the ability to show ghosts as transparent.
The intelligentsia of the time, affected by Enlightenment thought, naturally ridiculed the whole idea of visitors from beyond the grave. Their scepticism was vindicated by several notorious cases of deception, perhaps the most famous being the Cock Lane Ghost in 1762. In 1759, a widower called William Kent, along with his sister-in-law Fanny Lynes, now his mistress, rented a room in Cock Lane. They moved out when their landlord borrowed money from Kent, then failed to repay it. Not very long afterwards, Fanny Lynes seemingly fell victim to smallpox and died.
Three years later, in 1762, the landlord, Richard Parsons, claimed he and his 12-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, said the ghost of Lynes was haunting the house in Cock Lane. The ghost both scratched at the furniture, earning it the nickname of “Scratching Fanny”, and proclaimed that William Kent had caused her death by poisoning her with arsenic.
The case caused a public sensation. Seances were held to communicate with the ghost and even Dr Johnson got involved in efforts to find out what was going on. It was soon established that the events were part of a hoax, in which Elizabeth Parsons played the part of the wandering spirit. Her father was pilloried and gaoled as a result. As Dr Johnson himself said later:
“It is wonderful that 5,000 years have now elapsed since the creation of the world, and still it is undecided whether or not there has ever been an instance of the spirit of any person appearing after death. All argument is against it; but all belief is for it.”
Despite all the scorn from educated persons, some of the most famous of them were not averse to using ghosts for their own purposes. Horace Walpole’s “blockbuster” book, “The Castle of Otranto”, makes heavy use of haunted corridors and characters who step out of portraits on the wall — just as Gilbert and Sullivan’s comic opera “Ruddigore” did in the nineteenth century.
Criminals soon latched onto the possibilities made available to them by belief in ghosts. Highway robbers covered themselves with white sheets to frighten their victims into handing over their valuables. Thieves pretended to be ghostly apparitions to make people run from their houses, leaving them free to take whatever they wanted.
You might have imagined that religious people and the clergy would vigorously deny the existence of ghosts and spirits. After all, belief in spirits was only a short step away from paganism. Many protestant clergy did, either dismissing ghosts altogether as imaginary or branding them “Catholic superstitions”. However, others amongst the nonconformists and evangelicals were more equivocal in their statements, perhaps wanting to bolster belief in the supernatural as a way of discrediting the atheism stemming from the French Revolution.
Belief in ghosts and their kin was also fanned by the printers of pamphlets. Sensations sold more copies; a fact not lost on today’s tabloids. Even the National Trust has a website which uses ghost stories to encourage visitors to its properties. In Norfolk, the ghost of Anne Boleyn, second wife of King Henry VIII, is said to reappear at Blickling Hall on the anniversary of her execution. The 18th-century squire of Felbrigg Hall , William Windham III, who died after being injured in a fire in 1809, is said to visit his magnificent library to keep an eye on his beloved books. Several staff members and volunteers claim to have seen him seated at the library table, or relaxing in one of the chairs, while reading a book.
A story from Potter Heigham in the Norfolk Broads relates how a love potion was used by an 18th-century noblewoman to snare a wealthy husband. Lady Carew obtained a potion from a local witch to persuade a wealthy bachelor, Sir Godfrey Haslitt of Bastwick, to marry her daughter Evelyn. Messing with witchcraft soon brought its inevitable reward, when, at midnight on the day of her wedding, a ghostly skeleton seized the new bride and dragged her into a coach drawn by four black horses. The coach then sped off, pursued by some of the wedding guests. Sadly, when the coach reached the bridge at Potter Heigham, it burst into flames and plunged into the water, carrying the bride with it. Repetitions of this event were supposedly seen by many over the years, and some claim the sound of ghostly horses’ hooves and the screech of wheels can still be heard at the bridge at midnight every May 31st.
Norfolk is, of course, also the home of Black Shuck, a huge, black demonic spectral hound, which is said to wander along paths close to the coast to carry unwary travellers off to hell. It was that tale which is known to have inspired Conan Doyle to write the tale of “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. In reality, it seems most likely that stories of Black Shuck were spread about by smugglers to dissuade people from intruding on their nocturnal activities.
Turning once again to the pages of the Ipswich Journal for April 15th, 1721, we find this fascinating report of a criminal trial held in Edinburgh, at which one James Campbell of Burbank, “late of the Stores in Edinburgh Castle”, was indicted:
… for Rape, administering Poison, and being privy to, and aiding in the Barbarous Murder committed on the Body of Margaret Hall, by Nichol Musket of Boghal, her Husband, who was executed for it some time since.
Evidence was brought forward against Campbell, backed up by Musket’s confession, that he had been paid fifty pounds [around £100,000 in today’s purchasing power] by Musket to help him get a divorce from his wife.
The hapless Campbell began by hatching a plot to give Musket the incontrovertible evidence of adultery he thought would get him the divorce he wanted. He got Margaret Hall drunk to the stage where she passed out, then put her into bed (and presumably raped her), calling in her husband and other witnesses to witness this act of “adultery” on his wife’s part.
When this supposed instance of finding the poor woman in flagrant delicate failed to achieve the required divorce, he tried to kill Margaret by giving her poison. Quite why she would accept anything at his hand, and why she didn’t bring a charge of rape against him, isn’t made clear. However, this too failed and the woman survived.
At that point, Nichol Musket had clearly had enough of Campbell’s incompetence and killed his wife himself.
According to the article, Campbell made “a very good Defence”. Quite how he did so is not explained. What “good defence” could you make against overwhelming evidence of rape and attempted murder? Nevertheless, the court found that, since Campbell had not actually murdered the woman successfully, he should only be sentenced to transportation, with the threat of “perpetual imprisonment” should he ever return to Scotland.
As already noted, the murderous husband had already been executed, so poor Margaret’s death was at least partially atoned for. Such was eighteenth-century justice.
This is a story set in the England of the 1760s, a time of rigid class distinctions, where the rich idle their days away in magnificent mansions, while hungry children beg, steal and prostitute themselves on the streets. An era on the cusp of revolution in America and France; a land where outward wealth and display hide simmering political and social tensions; a country which had faced intermittent war for the past fifty years and would need to survive a series of world-wide conflicts in the fifty years ahead.
Faced with no less than three murders, occurring from the aristocracy to the seeming senseless professional assassination of a homeless vagrant, Ashmole Foxe must call on all his skill and intelligence to uncover the sickness which appears to be infecting his city’s very soul.