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Monday, 13 June 2016


Seamen complain about their rations.

First of all, apologies for the radio silence! My poor blogs have been much neglected over the last few weeks, as I've been very busy writing a new book, but hopefully I should have more time to spend on them now.
On 16 April 1797 the crews of the Royal Navy’s ships at Spithead, including the Queen Charlotte and Royal George, went on strike. They refused to put to sea as ordered until their pay was raised, and red flags of mutiny were run up the flagpoles.
The mutiny could not have come at a worse time, as a French invasion was expected at any time (there was a landing at Fishguard earlier that year). But the men had had enough. Living conditions in the fleet were dreadful; crews were poorly paid, and their food and drink scarcely fit for human consumption. Many sailors were ‘pressed’ men, and a brutal system of floggings was used to enforce discipline.
The mutineers were primarily concerned with improving their pay and conditions, rather than disloyalty to Britain. Great care was taken to maintain discipline. Each ship had its own central committee; another committee comprised two delegates from each disaffected ship. The men took an oath of allegiance to one another.
Apology from the crew of the Mars.
The strength of feeling amongst the men was so solid that parliament agreed to several of the men’s demands. They were given a substantial pay rise and offered a free pardon. By 23 April the mutiny appeared over, but trouble began agains when doubts surfaced over whether the promised pay rise would materialize. On 7 May the men of the London at Spithead mutinied and three officers were imprisoned; soon more ships mutinied at St Helens (a harbour on the Isle of Wight). The men were reassured by the Admiralty, and returned to their duties.
Richard Parker, mutineer.
Meanwhile on 12 May another mutiny broke out at the Nore (Sheerness), led by Richard Parker, a well-educated seaman from Exeter, who served on the Sandwich. The Nore mutineers wanted better wages, like the Spithead men, and additional demands such as a fairer distribution of prize-money (given when an enemy ship was taken). When news reached the Nore of the terms agreed at Spithead, the Admiralty believed that the men would back down.
But the Admiralty refused to give the extra concessions which the Nore mutineers wanted, so the seamen seized some gunboats in Sheerness harbour and fired at the fort there. Effigies of William Pitt and Lord Dundas were hanged at the yard-arm. The language used by many ships’ delegates was clearly modelled on Thomas Paine's works. The men talked of their rights and liberties, and the mutinous ships were dubbed the ‘Floating Republic’.
In late May, some ships from Admiral Duncan’s fleet joined the mutiny at the Nore instead of going to the Texel to blockade the French as ordered. This action in wartime greatly shocked public opinion, and lost the men much support.
During the first and second weeks of June, more and more ships slipped away from the rebel fleet and surrendered. By 14 June the mutiny was a spent force. Retribution was swift: Richard Parker and over twenty ringleaders were hanged at the yard-arm. You can watch a YouTube video about the mutinies here.
Seamen complain about their rations prior to the mutiny at the Nore. Cassell’s Illustrated History of England Vol. VI, (Cassell, Petter and Galpin, c.1864). Author’s collection.
Letter dated 25 June 1797 from the sailors on board the Mars, a 74-gunner, apologizing for the mutiny. On display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (MKH/15.4).
A 1797 etching of Richard Parker, leader of the mutineers on the Nore. On display at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich (PAH5441).

Sunday, 15 May 2016

Stonemason Ancestors

Bath Abbey

From majestic cathedrals to humble gravestones, our stonemason ancestors helped create Britain’s historic fabric. My latest feature for Who Do You Think You Are? magazine (June issue) discusses how to trace your stonemason ancestors.

The Book of English Trades (London, 1824), defined ‘the business of a stonemason’ as ‘the art of hewing or squaring stone and marble; in cutting them for the purposes of building, and in being able to fix them in the walls of buildings with mortar’, and although modern stonemasons have access to modern cutting equipment, in many respects this is still the essence of their work.

Stonemasons’ expertise is still in demand, not only to create new buildings, but also to restore much-loved historic buildings like Salisbury Cathedral. Many ancient monuments still bear the marksof the men who lovingly crafted them centuries ago, like these ones in Herefordshire
This was an interesting article for me to write as my 4x great-grandfather John Lomas was a stonemason. In the 1851 census, he was listed as a stonemason at Reaps Moor, Fawfieldhead and ten years later, he was listed as a builder employing 31 men at the same place. His 18 year old son John Henry was listed as a stone mason's apprentice in the same census, although puzzlingly ten years later John Henry's occupation is given as a joiner, not a stone mason like his father.  

N.B. Sorry my blogs have been much neglected lately - I am busy writing Tracing Your Manchester and Salford Ancestors for Pen & Sword books, and I hope to resume regular updates after the book deadline. 

Wednesday, 13 April 2016

Sidmouth's New Spy

On 28 March 1817, William Oliver, using the name Mr Richards, delivered a letter in person at the Home Office. He requested a ‘private interview’ with Lord Sidmouth to offer his services to the government, as he had ‘material information for the welfare and justice of this country’.

Oliver knew Charles Pendrill, one of Col. Despard’s fellow conspirators. But Pendrill was now one of Arthur Thistlewood’s friends, and Oliver realized he too must be on the Home Office’s list of suspects. Oliver acted fast to save his own skin.

Sidmouth saw him the same day and accepted Oliver’s offer. The home secretary told him that Pendrill was a wanted man - there was a warrant out for his arrest. So Oliver must have felt that he’d done the right thing. Sidmouth gave Oliver a new mission: to infiltrate the reformers’ meetings in central and northern England. Did they want parliamentary reform by peaceful means – or were they planning to take up arms?
But Oliver could not just stroll into the reformers’ meetings and start asking questions. Pendrill told Oliver that Joseph Mitchell, a firebrand reformer from Liverpool, had come to London to get the ‘London Patriots’ to act in concert with the ‘Country People, who were all ready to strike a blow as the only Effort...left to obtain a Reform in Parliament’.
Fortuitously, Pendrill said, Mitchell wanted some ‘intelligent active Person from London’ to come to the manufacturing districts with him. With Pendrill’s help, Oliver met Mitchell on 17 April in London. Within a week, Oliver was on his way north with Mitchell – little dreaming that just a few months later, he would be ‘outed’ by the press as an infamous spy...
‘Conspirators, or Delegates in Council’. On the far left, Lord Sidmouth (with a cane) is given a paper by former spy Thomas Reynolds (who was given a consulship). A huge ‘green bag’ full of Radical papers sits on the table. Seated on the right, from left to right are spies John Castle (with his back to the reader), William Oliver, then Canning and Castlereagh.  On the far right, honest John Bull looks through the window, horrified by the proceedings. George Cruikshank, 1817. Courtesy Library of Congress, LC-USZC4-6856.
The start of Oliver’s ‘Narrative’ of his dealings in the Thistlewood papers, HO40/9.