Lax Administration

It may be that from the bird’s-eye view given in the previous chapter, the reader has gathered some impression of the magnitude of the Post-Office establishment at Falmouth, and of the strength and number of the ties which united it with the prosperity of that town.

To describe in similar detail the life of other Packet Stations would be tedious and useless ; for no one of them could vie with the great Cornish seaport in any circumstance of interest. The Dover Station, whence the Calais Packets sailed, was closed during every French war. The Harwich, or Yarmouth boats, for they sailed during several years from the latter port, stood next to Falmouth in importance. They maintained the Postal Service for Holland and Northern Europe generally, sailing chiefly to the Brill and to Hamburg. Their voyages on the stormy North Sea were often dangerous ; and were performed with great skill and hardihood, but with little variety of incident. It was not until the Continental System established by Napoleon began to force the exclusion of English vessels from every seaport which his hand could reach, and like a creeping paralysis, the hostile influence mounted steadily up the shores of the North Sea and the Baltic, it was only then that the Harwich Packets began to serve as counters in a game of exceptional difficulty. The Holyhead Station confronted no dangers worth speaking of. The Milford Packets ran to Waterford, often making rough and trouble-some passages, but offering very little detail worth recording.The boats between Portpatrick and Donaghadee were still less interesting.

In every sense Falmouth was the chief station. Nearly every vestige of interest connected with the ancient Mail Service centres there, and the Falmouth may be regarded as the most perfect type of the Post-Office Establishment.

No account appears to be extant of the circumstances attending the institution in the year 1688 of a Service of Packets from Falmouth Harbour, but they may be easily surmised. For fourteen years the communications were with Corunna alone. It could scarcely have been for the convenience of passengers that in those days of difficult roads, the most westerly port in England was chosen as the place of embarkation. The selection suggests that the Government were guided in their choice by the paramount necessity of quick passages, and the swift transmission of news ; and this anxiety for haste is amply accounted for by the growing importance of Spanish politics at the time. Questions were indeed arising in that quarter of the world which were of vital consequence to England ; and the Ministry in providing a means of forwarding and receiving despatches with regularity, were impelled by something like necessity.

The idea of a Regular Service of Packet boats, supported by the Government, was not a novel one. Such a Service had existed on the eastern coast of England from very early times ; and in the Packets of Harwich or Dover a model for the new establishment was ready to hand. A somewhat different type of vessel was required for the Corunna voyage. The new Packets were considerably larger, nearly two hundred tons, while those serving in the North Sea did not usually exceed sixty tons. They were also more heavily armed, as became vessels which ventured further from the protection of English cruisers in the home waters, and carried a larger complement of men. They were hired under contract, and were not the property of the Post-Office, which, indeed, at no period of its administration, became the owner of the Packets, though the officers and men serving on them were from very early days the servants of the Postmaster General, not of the contractors.

It might have seemed more natural that the new Packets should sail from the same ports as the old ones, and be located on the east coast, where all the machinery needed for their administration was at work already. But it seems to have been recognized from the outset that for the Spanish Service that port was the most suitable which lay furthest to the west. Falmouth was chosen from the first, and though in the early years of the last century the contractors were occasionally allowed to despatch their boats from Plymouth, and even once or twice (under a strong representation of the danger of Privateers watching a known point of departure) from Bideford, the Postmaster General, as time went on, became less ready to fall in with the whims of these gentlemen, and the Service settled down regularly at Falmouth.

That the right port was chosen there cannot be a doubt. The extreme westerly position of Falmouth Harbour gives it an advantage which is rendered evident by a single glance at the map. From no other harbour in this country can an outward bound vessel clear the land so soon. No other is so quickly reached by one homeward bound running for shelter. On the darkest nights and in dense fog, ships unacquainted with the harbour enter it in safety, so easy is it of access ; and sailing vessels can leave it in any wind, save one blowing strongly from the east or south-east. The prevalent gales in the English Channel are from the west.

These are head winds for a ship leaving Plymouth, the port with which Falmouth is most naturally compared ; but they are favourable for Falmouth. In fact, it happened only on very rare occasions that the despatch of the mails was delayed by stress of weather ; and the Post Office agent, when giving evidence on the subject in 1840, could not remember one instance of such delay throughout his whole service, extending over forty-five years.

If, however, Falmouth excelled in ease of access, the natural advantages of the harbour were still more evident when the ships had reached it. It is, in fact, the safest anchorage in the country, protected from the full strength of the Atlantic rollers by the great promontory of Meneage, and abounding in sheltered creeks where vessels might lie in practical immunity from the worst of storms.

On one of these creeks the town of Falmouth stands ; and this inlet, the King’s or Inner Harbour, was assigned to the Packets as their special anchorage. It lies in such a situation that the swell entering the harbour is diverted from it by the high land of Pendennis, at the entrance of the port ; and the advantage of this aspect is so great, that vessels may be seen lying in the Inner Harbour without perceptible motion, while just outside others are rolling gunwale under.

There is seldom any difficulty in leaving this sheltered anchorage. With a fair wind a vessel may be in the open sea in a quarter of an hour after slipping her moorings off Green Bank, opposite the town of Falmouth ; and here the Packets used to lie until the day before sailing, when they warped out into Carrach Roads, and lay there to receive the mails, in order that not the slightest loss of time might occur in proceeding to sea when the bags were once on board.

At Falmouth then the Post-Office located itself in the year 1688, with two Packet boats hired from a contractor, one Daniel Gwin, who appears to have received a salary of £70 per annum, in addition, doubtless, to whatever he could make indirectly out of his contract. Probably his gains were considerable. At any rate the Government made none, for the accounts show from year to year a loss of several thousand pounds upon the maintenance of these two boats, from which, indeed, the revenue seems seldom to have received more than £450. Expensive as the Corunna Packets proved to be, it may be presumed that the promoters of the Service were not dissatisfied with it ; for early in the new century they proceeded to develop it. The West Indian trade was becoming important enough to make its wishes felt. The merchants engaged in it may probably have represented that the regular communication now established with Corunna gave their colleagues in the Spanish trade more facilities than they enjoyed. All Governments have found it difficult to resist such an argument ; and accordingly, in 1702, Packets were established at Falmouth to ply to Barbados, Jamaica, and certain places in the Southern States of North America. Two years later a Service with Lisbon was set up and the Post-Office Service at Falmouth began to assume the form which it preserved until within the memory of men now living.

It is no part of the present writer’s purpose to trace in detail all the events which went to make up the history of the Packet Station at Falmouth during the last century. Such a task would doubtless throw much light on naval history, and some, perhaps, on other subjects not without their share of interest. The materials are scanty, however, and the record might be dreary reading. The personal recollections which would have lit the story up and made it real are lost beyond recall. What has come down to us is hardly more than the bald record of administrative changes – at such a time there were two West India Packets, at another four ; under one regime they touched at Charlestown and Pensacola, while under its successor their voyages were restricted. There were such changes of rule in regard to victualling the sailors, such and such difficulties in controlling them ; and so on. It is nothing but an arid waste of technicalities, almost devoid of interest save for the professed student of naval or commercial history.

One or two facts stand out from this mass of detail, and arrest attention as we pass it by. There is the occasional mention of a sea-fight, in which so many men (in proportion to the number of the crew) were killed and wounded, as to create a strong desire to know the details.

Thus, an order of the Postmaster General, dated May 16th, 1744, recounts that a petition has been received from one Hannah Christophers, widow of Joseph Christophers, who lost his life on June 24th, 1740, on board the “Townshend” Packet, Captain John Cooper, in an engagement against the Spaniards, wherein five men (whose names are given) received “several grievous wounds in defence of the Packet, and afterwards suffered a long and cruel imprisonment of sixteen months”. By the rules and customs of His Majesty’s service, the order goes on to observe, these poor men are entitled to “some bounty or allowance for their comfort and support” ; and the Postmaster General, having in mind this laudable usage, and moreover, “having in part experienced it will be impossible to carry on the sea service of this office without great difficulty, danger, and interruption, unless some such encouragement be constantly given in the like cases” proceed to award bounties ranging from £4 to £10, and in one case even a pension of no less amount than £4 per annum.

We shall hear further of the “Townshend” Packet, for the mantle of Captain John Cooper descended on the commander of another “Townshend” by whom some seventy years later a great action was fought against hopeless odds with such determined bravery as must be admitted to surpass any other recorded achievement of the Post-Office fleet.

Again, on July 25th, 1759, it is ordered that Captain John Jones be allowed £100 for his gallant defence of the “Fawkener” Packet, when attacked by a large French sloop of twelve carriage guns and upwards of one hundred men between Barbados and Antigua ; and three years later the same sum was awarded to Captain Bonell, for bravery and good conduct in action with a French Privateer.

Many more such quickly jotted entries of the perils of brave men can be traced in the ancient records. The details of their conduct were allowed to perish. The question of account alone survives. Enough has been said however to show that from the outset the Falmouth Packets formed a fighting service, that is to say, a service which was frequently called upon to fight, and understood how to acquit itself when occasion arose.

It is true that the Packet officers were not allowed to seek engagements ; and this rule, though obviously necessary, seeing that the safety of the mails was the sole object of the Service, proved most difficult to enforce. The difficulty was not caused by any especial unruliness on the part of the Falmouth officers. It grew from a much deeper root, and flourished in the natural tendency of all mankind to pick up any articles of value which can, even by a stretch of conscience, be regarded as fair prize.

A long succession of years of peace has so confirmed the sacredness of the principles of meum and tuum in the minds of most of us, that it is not easy to realize how far they were undermined in days of war, especially upon the high seas. The world has grown very punctilious, and looks askance on even honest privateering, while piracy is universally held to deserve no better fate than a post and chains in Execution Dock. In the last century these excellent sentiments were by no means generally entertained, at any rate in quarters where they were likely to be acted on. Among men of the sea, the ocean was regarded in the light of a great lucky bag, into which you thrust your hand and pulled out the best thing you could find. If the thing belonged to your neighbour, so much the worse for him. He should have kept his guns in better practice, and trained his men more carefully to the use of small arms.

Now there were sailing on the seas in those days a considerable number of ill-defended ships which were so very valuable as to make a poor sailor’s mouth water and his fingers tingle. Of the wealth of the Spanish treasure ships every one has heard. The sums they are reported to have carried in their clumsy holds sound fabulous even to us as we read of them in the sober light of history; and exaggerated as they doubtless were in the heated atmosphere of a Falmouth tavern, where every sailor strove to surpass his neighbour in marvellous tales of the sea, these reports must have seemed to many a poor Packet captain to open a road to untold wealth. Such galleons were captured very easily sometimes. A little disguise to make the Packet look like a sloop of war, a bold onset, a desperate boarding assault, and the prize would be won. Many a well armed vessel had been taken by a handful of men. England was at war with Spain during a great part of the last century; and did not that fact make the Spanish argosies the fair prize of any Englishman who could seize them ?

Whether, under the influence of such considerations, a treasure ship was ever taken by a Packet, is not mentioned in the scanty records. But it is certain that a good deal of piracy in a quiet way was done by the Falmouth commanders, especially early in the century, when the control from headquarters was lax, and the necessity of watching the use made of the armaments supplied by the Government was not clearly seen. The officers showed a disposition to call the irregularity “privateering”; but a vessel which takes prizes without a license from the Crown is a Pirate, not a Privateer, and the Packets never held such licenses.

Of course without a license there was a difficulty in disposing of a captured vessel. The intervention of the Admiralty Court could not be sought, unless indeed it was possible to represent the Packet as having been attacked, and as having captured her prize in self-defence. The Admiralty Courts were not models of incorruptibility, as all who recollect

Lord Cochrane’s descriptions of them will allow, and doubtless did not inquire too closely into any plausible story. But if the matter would not bear even their examination, there were a dozen ports known to all sailors where a vessel and her cargo could be sold without any questions asked.

Of course these practices, however full of charm for the officers who profited by them, were very strongly condemned by the Postmaster General, who had to consider only the safety of the mails, and to guard against the chance of heavy claims being made upon the Government for the value of captured Packets. As far as was possible, therefore, they forbade piracy and punished the offenders ; and yet the frequency of the offence is pretty clearly shown by the fact that it was constantly being adduced as the best of all reasons for not arming the Packets heavily. About the year 1780, as was detailed before a committee of the House of Commons, a sailor called at the General Post-Office, to announce the capture of the Packet in which he sailed. He described the gallant stand which his officers and his fellow seamen had made against hopeless odds, spoke feelingly of the cruel captivity they had undergone, in which some of them were still languishing, exhibited the scar of the wound he had received, and confidently claimed the “smart money” which he had earned so well.

The story was imposing, but it did not survive cross-examination. Something suggested suspicion and by degrees the true facts were wormed out of the brave fellow. It was quite true that his Packet had been captured. In the early dawn of a certain summer morning, as the Packet was running towards New Orleans, she descried two innocent-looking vessels lying-to off the shore. They were remarkably like sugar ships, such as would fetch a substantial sum, if sold judiciously; and being traders, were doubtless well within the power of the Falmouth vessel, which accordingly ran down, and sent a shot across their bows, only to find the strangers were a French frigate and her consort, which quickly turned the tables on their presumptuous adversary.

Of course in such a case as this the Government would admit no claim for the value of the Packet lost by gross misconduct, and it may probably be assumed that the money loss thus thrown upon the owners was not the only punishment imposed. There were cases, however, in which conduct equally irregular, but which happened to succeed, was entirely condoned ; and a striking instance of this leniency shown towards success occurred in the year 1808, at a time when several years of strong administration had purified the Packet Service of many of its blemishes. It may be safely concluded that for every such case occurring in the present century, there were half a dozen in the last.

It was a Harwich Packet which was concerned in this curious case ; and it may be that the Postmaster General thought it unnecessary to apply a strict rule to a station on which the Packets came but rarely into conflict with the enemy. The circumstances were as follows :

On June 16th, 1808, the “Earl of Leicester” Captain Anthony Hammond, homeward bound from Gothenburg with mails and passengers, was met about ten leagues to the westward of the Scaw by a gale of wind which obliged her to bear away for Marstrand. On the way thither she encountered two Danish vessels laden with corn from Jutland for their army in Norway. Now, under his instructions Captain Hammond had nothing to do with these vessels, but to leave them alone. It is true this country was at war with Denmark at the time but the “Earl of Leicester” was neither one of H.M. cruisers, nor a letter of marque, and had no business to involve herself in the matter. Captain Hammond never asserted that the Danish vessels attacked him. Indeed both he and they had quite enough to do at the moment with their own affairs, for a full gale of wind was blowing, and all the ships were labouring heavily. Nevertheless Captain Hammond, it being as he said “too rough to board them” ordered them to regard themselves as prizes, and to follow him.

The two Danish ships being unarmed had no choice but to obey these orders, and Captain Hammond made joyfully for Marstrand with his prizes. He had not proceeded very far when one of them flew signals of distress, and made known that she was in danger of sinking. Captain Hammond lowered a boat and at great risk took the crew out of the foundering vessel, which went down as soon as the boat had got clear of her. The remaining prize duly reached Marstrand, and was handed over to the British Consul at that port, to await the decision of the Admiralty Court. The crews of both vessels were liberated, on giving a promise to do their utmost to secure the release of the crew of the “Unity” Packet, captured in the previous November.

On board the “Earl of Leicester” were three Swedish passengers, who were so far from feeling satisfied with Captain Hammond’s conduct on this occasion that they addressed a special letter of complaint to the Postmaster General. In this letter they by no means admit that the prizes were picked up by Captain Hammond as he went along, in the casual way detailed by him, without delay or interruption to his voyage. On the contrary, they assert roundly, that he chased the two little vessels during a whole night, keeping up a continual fire both of cannon and musketry ; that the “Earl of Leicester” was far past Schagen when the prizes were first seen, which of itself proved that Captain Hammond put in to Marstrand with no other motive than that of realizing them secure ; and they add : “On account of this chase and capture, in which, in our opinion, Packets have no right to engage, our voyage to England was entirely broken off, because, during the above hostile operations, we were in continual anxiety and fear, loaded guns being carried about in the cabin where we lay, and several shots fired from them ; and we had reason to fear that the war-like scene might soon be acted again, wherefore wedid not venture to pursue our voyage on board thesaid Packet, but returned to Gothenburg”.

Captain Hammond, in reply to these charges, maintained that three gentlemen who, by their own admission, were extremely frightened, and to his knowledge were also lamentably sea sick, were not the most trustworthy witnesses of what occurred, and with this argument, together with some evidence that the return to Marstrand was really made necessary by the weather, the Postmaster General remained content. The matter was dropped ; and Captain Hammond, after waiting some five years, during which time the Admiralty Courts considered his case in their pleasant, leisurely way, received the value of the prize.

Smuggling was a practice very frequently charged against the Packet Service by its critics who, towards the end of the last century, raised an outcry loud enough to become heard in Parliament. It may be feared that the charge was by no means groundless. Indeed it would be strange if it were, seeing that throughout the west of England, if not elswhere, the game of eluding the revenue laws was played with infinite zest and enjoyment by all classes of society. Falmouth itself was a nest of smugglers. The old town was full of hiding places. The women entered into the sport with audacious ingenuity; and probably there was neither man, woman, nor child in the town, with the possible exception of the revenue officers, who did not regard the success of a smuggler as a triumph for his kind against men who were scarcely to be distinguished from foreign enemies.

It is true there was a high officer of the Post-Office at Falmouth, whose duty it was to discover malpractices of every kind, and report them to the Postmaster General. The contractor, from whom the Packets were hired at their first institution, had long since disappeared. 

The Packets were hired from the commanders and over these officers was set an agent, to whom each one of them was responsible for his actions. His duties did not extend beyond the foreign mails and the conduct of the Packet officers and seamen. He was the link which united the sea service with the internal system of the Post-Office. His duties were multifarious and of the greatest consequence to the welfare of the service.

It is perfectly clear that the duties of a controlling officer cannot be properly performed unless he keeps his affairs and interests totally distinct from those of his subordinates. The misfortune was that the agents at Falmouth in the last century could not grasp this principle, but departed from it so far as to have trading relations with the commanders. The agent dealt in naval stores : the commanders supplied their Packets with spars and cordage from his stock.

This was not the only way in which the agent’s affairs became entangled with those of the men he was placed at Falmouth to control. The Packets, though nominally owned by the commanders, with whom the Government contracted for their hire, were in most cases really the property of a syndicate, or of private individuals, who put forward the commander to represent them, on condition of receiving the larger part of the emoluments. This capitalist in the background was frequently no other than the agent himself.

Relations such as these of course rendered it very difficult for the agent to perform the duties of his position at all effectually, and, as a matter of fact, he did not so perform them. Abuses of every kind crept into the Falmouth service. The captains were subjected to gross extortions by the agent, who in turn relaxed discipline in any way they might desire. If, for instance, it occurred to any commander, that by sailing with a few men short of his complement, he could save their victualling allowances and so increase his own profits ; the agent, whose duty it was to muster the men immediately before sailing, would either neglect the muster altogether, or else make it, and be careful not to see the shore-boat which, immediately afterwards, took off three or four of the men who had answered to their names. If the captain wished to stay ashore, whilst his Packet went to sea, the agent would accept and forward to London a certificate that he was ill, without asking any questions either as to the nature of the illness or the qualifications of the person appointed to command the ship, who was not infrequently a common seaman. If the captain had received from some Bristol merchant a larger consignment of goods to be sold on commission at Lisbon or Barbados than his vessel ought to carry, the agent would still certify that she was in trim when she left Falmouth harbour, and had nothing on board which could impede her sailing. In fact, there were a hundred ways in which the agent could oblige those captains who dealt largely with him ; and without attempting to go more deeply into the events of the last century, it may fairly be doubted, in the light of the scandals discovered in its closing years, whether misconduct far grosser than any here indicated was not practised by the commanders and tolerated by the agent.

This is a matter which will be dealt with more fully in succeeding chapters. Enough has been said to show that the state of affairs at Falmouth was unsatisfactory to the last degree ; and while it may very probably be that a considerable number of individuals acted with scrupulous fidelity to their trust, there is no doubt whatever that very many betrayed it systematically.

Of course, a strong administration from headquarters would have changed all this. But the General Post-Office itself was by no means exempt from the taint which had fastened on Falmouth. There was scarcely a single official, from the secretary down to the door-keepers, who did not own shares in the Packets, and each one of them was for ever trying to secure advantages for the particular vessel in which he was interested. The ancient system of paying the clerks merely nominal salaries, and leaving in their hands privileges and perquisites out of which they were expected to make their chief, if not their sole, remuneration, produced its natural effect in causing every officer to judge upon departmental matters in the light of his own pecuniary advantage ; and, in short, it can only be said that when the outcry in Parliament, which has been mentioned already, made itself heard, it was high time for some change to occur.

In truth, the end of an age of corruption was approaching. In all departments of Government a purer atmosphere was spreading. The Post-Office was no worse than other public offices. It was what the spirit of the times had made it, and it did but partake of the vices which were characteristic of the age. The old, bad system was everywhere breaking down, crushing individuals beneath it, as such rotten growths will when they fall at length. At Falmouth, a certain agent went too far. The unsavoury story need not be probed. Even at the time, as would appear, the facts were not fully disclosed for it no sooner became plain that a searching inquiry into the agent’s conduct would be made, than the miserable man shut himself up in his office and blew his brains out.

That tragic occurrence marked, or coincided with, a turning point in the history of the Packet Service. On one side lies corrupt and slovenly administration, with its natural sequel of scandals and disorder. On the other can be traced the commencement of earnest endeavours for reform, the springing up of patient and honest striving after an ideal; and as the course of events in the Packet Service is followed from this moment through the forty years or so which intervened before the control passed from the hands of the Post-Office, the effect of these endeavours becomes continually more manifest, till they culminate at last in something resembling absolute success.

This is the story told in the ensuing pages. It is taken up from the year 1793, because that year, the first of the great struggle for mastery on which no Englishman can look back without pride, serves well to mark the commencement of the new order of things. Moreover, much more is to be known about the Packet Service from 1793 onwards than can be gleaned concerning the earlier period. The departmental records are fairly complete thenceforward some account, at least, of every sea fight is preserved; and among piles of brown and dusty papers, from some of which the ink is fading fast, there has lain untouched for ninety years, not only the story of apiece of administrative work, as difficult and as useful to this country as any that has ever been carried through by patient effort, but also a whole series of naval actions, of which the Post-Office was once proud, and of which Cornishmen are proud still, though they have forgotten the details of most.

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