It is now necessary to revert briefly to the state of the postal communications with northern Europe, which, when the subject was last mentioned in the ninth chapter of this work, were stated to depend on the chances of a system of smuggling organized from the newly acquired island of Heligoland. Within two years from that time (1807) the contraband trade had increased along the whole coast of the North Sea and the Baltic in an astonishing degree. Bourrienne, who was still at Hamburg, and who did not love the continental system, on which his master relied for striking his ee mortal blow at England, remarks with a half-sympathetic amusement how very little difference that system made in postal and commercial arrangements when once the smugglers had become expert.
“The continental system” he observes, “had made the smuggler’s trade a necessity, so that a great part of the population depended on it for subsistence”.
Moreover, not goods alone, but news also circulated pretty freely from England in 1809, and correspondence addressed to merchants in the German towns was posted by agents despatched from Heligoland to Embden, Knipphausen, Varel, and other towns. In truth, the great barricade proved little better than a trellis, penetrable anywhere by those who possessed the necessary courage and audacity. A good supply of those qualities was of course needed, for the trade was risky ; and yet the disposition of the country people, which was strongly hostile to the French Customs officers, did much to rob it of its dangers. So determined were the people to obtain the English goods that they did not hesitate to take arms against the over-zealous Customs agents ; and at Brinksham, in July, 1809, when the officers had seized no less than eighteen wagons loaded with English goods, the peasantry rose in force, recaptured the wagons, and escorted the goods to their destination.
To keep apart, on the one hand, a people so resolute to trade, and, on the other, a nation whose prosperity, if not its existence, depended on maintaining its commercial supremacy, something more was needed than a paper decree and a staff of Customs officers.
“The trade with Oldenburg,” writes Bourrienne, “was carried on as uninterruptedly as in time of peace. English letters and newspapers arrived on the continent, and those of the continent found their way into Great Britain, as if France and England had been united by ties of the firmest friendship”.
Such was the testimony of the man who of all others was best qualified to appreciate the enterprise and skill with which the operations of the Post-Office were conducted in these troublous days. It may, no doubt, be true that the credit of this success is to be divided between the Post-Office and private persons ; for the merchants, in their constant communications with the smugglers, doubtless entrusted to them a considerable number of letters which had not passed through the British Post-Office. When all deductions are made, however, one cannot fairly refuse to Mr. Freeling and his colleagues the praise due to success in a perilous and difficult undertaking.
Circumstances which had already turned the peaceful officials of the Post-Office into arbiters of battles, had now made them smugglers, controllers of a series of operations as wild, as dangerous, and as picturesque as any which have been conducted within the limits of history. They took up their new parts with a happy adaptability, and played them with a degree of skill and resource which must always be remembered as constituting one of the greatest achievements in the past history of the Post-Office.
When to this success is added the credit of having evolved out of the chaos of disorder and misrule which existed at Falmouth when he entered on office, a Service which could boast of such triumphs as those which have been described in this book, one is inclined to credit Mr. Freeling with capacities for administration which have not often been surpassed.
Only once after 1803 did any Packet surrender to the enemy without a resistance which was obviously the utmost that she could offer. In that single instance a captain of old service and of honourable record, both won by himself and inherited from his father, was cashiered for cowardice in the face of the enemy. Such incidents will happen occasionally in every body of men trained to war; and, even if it could be proved that the officer was rightly punished, there would be no occasion to make much of a solitary exception. The justice of his treatment was, however, very strongly questioned ; and as all, or nearly all, the official papers which contain the evidence have been lost, the facts can never now be fully stated.
There was no other commander whose conduct was even doubtful, and as report followed report, each bringing the news of some fresh feat of gallantry against great odds, the satisfaction and pride of My Lords and Mr. Freeling mounted very high.
Early in November, 1813, the “Lapwing” sailed from Falmouth for Barbados, under command of Captain Furze. The “Lapwing” had been captured earlier in the year, and stripped of her guns. When she came to be refitted at Falmouth, it happened, unfortunately, that the store-keeper could not supply the long brass 9-pounders, “Post-Office guns” which the Atlantic Packets used as chasers, and which had done them yeomen’s service in many a hard fight. Captain Furze would have willingly given any other three guns in exchange for the “Post-Office guns ” which he lacked. However, he could obtain only one long 6-pounder to serve as a chaser, and six 6-pounder carronades – a scanty weight of metal with which to run the gauntlet of the most heavily armed Privateers yet seen on the seas.
All went well until the voyage was nearly over; but on November 22nd, when the coast of Barbados was in sight, the “Lapwing” was chased by an American Privateer, the “Fox” which brought her to action towards evening about three miles from shore. It was now that Captain Furze had reason to lament the want of his two brass guns, by the aid of which he felt confident that he could have crippled his enemy. At any rate, the lack of all effective means of attacking her rigging before she closed took away his only chance of success ; for the result of an action alongside could not have been doubtful to the least experienced sailor. The “Fox” it is true, mounted only five guns, but three of these were long 12-pounders, and two were heavy carronades, while all five were mounted on circular platforms amidships, so that they could be directed with ease on any point, thus giving them a united power much greater than their weight.
The “Lapwing’s” guns, on the other hand, could be fired only through her ports, which meant that in a close fight, only three could be in action at one time. Moreover, the “Fox” carried a hundred and seven men, of whom no less than seventy were in her tops armed with muskets, and these marksmen kept up a constant fire throughout the action, doing great execution. The “Lapwing” out of a crew of thirty-two men and boys, could spare but few from the handling of the ship and the service of the guns.
However, in a fight so close to port, there was always the chance that the sound of cannon might attract some friendly cruiser ; and Captain Furze answered the summoning gun with a broadside. The American immediately ran down and closed. A desperate fight followed. After the cannonade had lasted some considerable time, the American captain seized a favourable opportunity, and hurled his boarders into the Packet. They were bravely met with pike and musket, and in the end repulsed with loss.
A second time the stormers came swarming up the “Lapwing’s” nettings, and again they were driven back. But by this second success the small numbers of the Post-Office men were sensibly diminished, while the musketry fire from the enemy’s tops made itself severely felt. Four of Captain Furze’s men lay dead, eight more were in the hands of the surgeon, and others were falling fast. Mr. Henry Senior, an ensign in the 60th Regiment, who was on board as a passenger, was shot through the thigh. A musket ball broke Captain Furze’s arm, and he had barely gone below to have his hurt tended, when Mr. Hodge, the master, who had been left in command on deck, was brought down, shot through both thighs. The resistance had lasted three hours. Half the crew of the Packet were disabled, and, near as the coast of Barbados was, there appeared no sign of succour.
Captain Furze reluctantly concluded that it was hopeless to prolong the struggle, and he ordered the mails to be sunk, and the colours to be struck. Unfortunate as the result of this action was, Captain Furze received considerable credit for the gallant resistance he had made, and there can be no doubt that this credit was fully earned.
Very early in the new year the Falmouth Service sustained a heavy loss by the capture of the “Townshend” which had been so nobly defended by Captain Cock hardly more than a year before.
She was on her way to Lisbon, when she fell in with the French frigate “La Clorinde” an ancient enemy of the Packets, which had certainly captured one at least before, and had not improbably been detached to cruise in their track, in the hope of intercepting despatches. That this was her object on the present occasion admitted of little doubt, for when “La Clorinde” overhauled the “Townshend” she concealed her nationality, though no resistance was offered, ran up Portuguese colours, and sent off a boat. Some officers might have been deceived, but Captain Cock was too experienced to be entrapped by so artless a device. He had caused the mails to be brought on deck as soon as the chase began. The bags, heavily shotted, lay beside an open port- hole, and a sailor was told off to throw them overboard the moment the captain gave the signal. The boat drew nearer, and Captain Cock, while it was yet at a safe distance, hailed in Portuguese, which he spoke fluently. The halting accent of the answer told him he had no Portuguese to deal with. He raised his hand. The mails slid into the water; and before the angry Frenchman came on board, despatches and commercial letters were safely delivered at the bottom of the sea.
The disappointed tricksters revenged themselves by scuttling the “Townshend” and Captain Cock had the grief of seeing the ship, which he had fought so bravely, sunk ingloriously in mid-ocean. He and his crew were taken on board “La Clorinde” where for ten days they were allowed a good deal of freedom, and enjoyed an excellent opportunity of studying the internal discipline of a French ship of war. They were not favourably impressed with what they saw; and the near prospect of a French prison made them gloomy enough.
It is easy, therefore, to imagine their feelings when on the tenth day, an English 38-gun frigate, the “Eurotas” commanded by Captain Phillimore, hove in sight. Captain Cock was convinced from what he had observed on the French ship that however suitable she might be for capturing Packets, she was by no means a match for any English frigate of her own size and class, and he begged to be allowed to remain on deck to witness the action. This was not permitted. He and his brave crew were conducted down into the hold, where they remained listening with exultation to the roar of cannon and the din of musketry. For a long time they had no means of discovering which way fortune was inclining, until Captain Cock, wearied of pacing up and down, threw himself back against the mizzen mast, and felt it tremble. He listened attentively, and a moment later he heard the crash of its fall. He sprang up and placed his ear to the mainmast. In a very short time that also began “to beat, tremble, and shake” and ere long a second crash announced its fall. With what impatient eagerness the prisoners heard these evidences of their countrymen’s success may be imagined.
They could scarcely believe that La Clorinde” was not captured, and every moment they hoped to be released. But to their intense disappointment the noise of battle died away, and no tidings reached them.
At last Captain Cock was summoned on deck. He found the ship had suffered terribly in the action, though her English antagonist could claim little advantage over her in this respect, being likewise dismasted, and lying a mile or two away. Night had fallen. The “Eurotas” appeared in a blazę of light. Lanterns were hung all over her ; blue lights were being burnt, and from time to time a rocket shot up into the sky. The French captain consulted Captain Cock as to the meaning of this illumination. Were the lanterns signals of distress? Did Captain Cock think the “Eurotas ” was sinking, and, if so, could they offer any assistance?
Captain Cock had formed a shrewd guess as to why Captain Phillimore wanted all this light, but he was discreet enough to hold his tongue, and professed an entire inability to divine what was going on. In the morning the mystery was cleared up; for the dawn revealed to the astonished Frenchmen their crippled foe of the previous evening coming up in the handsomest style at the rate of seven knots under jury masts, which her crew had worked throughout the night in rigging up, while another English cruiser, the “Dryad” attracted by the rockets, was standing down, and would evidently come into action before the “Eurotas” which during the night had drifted to a considerable distance.
“La Clorinde” in her shattered state could make only two knots, and was incapable of defending herself adequately against a perfectly fresh antagonist. Captain Phillimore had thus the mortification of seeing the work which he had begun taken out of his hands, and all the great exertions of the night rendered fruitless.
Captain Cock, who by this fortunate turn of affairs regained his liberty, did not live to fight more battles for the Post-Office. Worn out by hardships,he died a few months later. Shortly before his death he received from the Prince Regent of Portugal, who understood better than his own government how to acknowledge faithful and devoted public service, a gold medal of honour and the military Order of the Sword; but Whitehall had no distinctions for officers of the Packet Service.
The circumstances of the action next to be narrated are very singular.
On the 12th March the “Duke of Marlborough” under the command of Captain John Bull in person, was off Cape Finisterre on her passage to Lisbon. At one o’clock in the afternoon a strange brig was seen from the masthead, laying to with her head to the eastward. At three o’clock this vessel hoisted her mainsail and bore down on the “Marlborough”, which accordingly altered her course and made all sail to avoid an encounter. At the same time Captain, Bull made the private signal, and kept it flying. The signal was not answered ; and without further delay the crew of the “Marlborough” were called to quarters, the boarding nettings were got up, and stuffed with spare sails, hammocks, and mattresses ; the topsail-sheets were stoppered ; and a spare topsail-yard was slung across the stern for a boarding boom. At four o’clock the brig hoisted a blue ensign, yawed, and fired two guns to leeward, and shortly afterwards hauled down the blue ensign, and hoisted another which Captain Bull and his officers believed to be American, but which they could not distinguish clearly. These details have an important bearing on the event.
Thereupon, since an action appeared to be inevitable, the “Marlborough’s” private signal was hauled down, and her colours hoisted. It was then growing dark, and Captain Bull made the private night signal, consisting of two blue lights, one on each quarter. This signal also remained unanswered ; and as he was in the act of making it, Captain Bull plainly saw in the gathering darkness a match put to a gun on the forecastle of the approaching vessel, which was then full in view right astern of the Packet.
By this time the round shot from the brig were going over the “Marlborough”. Captain Bull cut away his boat so as to free the stern guns, and fired each of them twice. He then hoisted a lantern at the mizzenpeak, and waited for the enemy to came up. The strange vessel soon come up. abreast of the Packet and poured in her starboard broadside with round and grape shot at half pistol-shot distance. The “Duke of Marlborough” was not slow in replying ; and the action was continued hotly for an hour and a quarter, when the enemy bore down and attempted to board the “Duke of Marlborough” on the starboard quarter. On coming up, however, his. bow struck the boarding boom, which Captain Bull’s forethought had provided, and compelled him to sheer off. The Falmouth men improved this advantage by firing their two brass guns and several muskets right into their enemy; and, as the two vessels were almost grazing each other at the time, they doubtless did, as they supposed, great execution.
The enemy thereupon hauled off to repair damages ; and Captain Bull, examining the injury which his own ship had received, found that a 32-pound shot had passed between wind and water, that there were already three feet and a half of water in the hold, and that the leak was increasing fast. The carpenter was sent below to endeavour to stop it, and the pumps were being actively worked, when, at nine o’clock, the enemy ran down and renewed the action at close quarters. The fire of her heavy guns had by this time reduced the “Duke of Marlborough” to a mere wreck.The running and standing rigging was cut and torn in every direction ; the Packet was almost unmanageable, and in a half-sinking state. Her lantern was twice shot away ; but a fresh one was prepared, and for greater security lashed fast to the main-boom. No less than eleven of Captain Bull’s men had been wounded ; one of them had lost both arms, and several others were seriously hurt. Lieutenant Andrews, of the 60th Regiment, a passenger on his way to Lisbon, was killed after showing great bravery throughout the action.
Notwithstanding these losses, however, and the manifest superiority of the enemy, the Cornishmen were quite prepared to fight it out; and when, after another close contest of fifty minutes, resulting in no obvious advantage to either side, the enemy hailed them, asking, “What ship is that?” ‘ Captain Bull, not choosing to own his inferiority of force, replied, “His Majesty’s brig Vixen” demanded the name of the other, and must have doubted his ears when he received the answer, “His Majesty’s brig Primrose”. There was a pause ; then another hail was heard from the “Primrose” asking again with what ship she had been contending. To this question, there being now no object in evasion, Captain Bull replied by stating the name and service of his vessel ; and was desired to make the private signal, which he did. It was at once answered ; and the captain of the “Primrose” thereupon requested Captain Bull to come on board.
Being informed that the “Duke of Marlborough’s” boat had been cut away, he sent his own ; but Captain Bull allowed no one except the lieutenant in command to come on deck until he had satisfied himself that the vessel he had to do with was really an English cruiser. When he was convinced of this he went on board the “Primrose”; and on returning to his own vessel found that five 32-pound shot had gone through her side close to the water’s edge so that he was obliged to get immediate assistance from the carpenters of his late antagonist.
That the “Duke of Marlborough” was much shattered in this action is not surprising. What is really extraordinary is that she was not blown out of the water at an early stage of the affair. The “Primrose” carried sixteen 32-pound carronades, one 12-pound carronade on the forecastle, and two long 6-pounders. Her crew consisted of one hundred and twenty-five men. The “Marlboroug ” carried twelve guns, mostly 6-pounders, and none heavier than nine, with thirty-two men and boys. She had also on board seven male passengers ; but it is not stated that any of these took part in the action, except Lieutenant Andrews, who was unfortunately killed.
On the arrival of the “Duke of Marlborough” at Lisbon, the passengers, feeling grateful to Captain Bull not only for his gallantry, but also for his kind treatment of the ladies who were on board, presented him with a sword, and distributed four hundred dollars among the crew.
The account of this action given by James (Naval History, Vol. VI., page 278, ed. 1837) is not written with the evident desire to be fair which that historian usually evinced. The story as told by him suggests that Captain Bull was solely, or at least chiefly to blame ; and as the Post-Office came to a totally different conclusion, while the Admiralty itself censured Captain Phillott, and made no complaint concerning Captain Bull, it cannot be presumptuous to question the accuracy of Mr. James’ conclusion.
In an earlier edition of his history it appears that an account more favourable to Captain Bull appeared but in the edition of 1837 this account was revised and the author states that when the former one was written, he had not seen the minutes of the court-martial on Captain Phillott. As reference is thus pointedly made to the court-martial, it would have been more candid to notice the fact that the finding of that court imputed negligence to Captain Phillott. The sentence of the court, held at Plymouth on April 16th, 1814, was in the following words :
“The Court is of opinion that the circumstance of the “Duke of Marlborough” being in moderate weather without any lower studding sails, and with her royal masts down, appears to have left the Prisoner, Captain Phillott, and the officers of the Primrose,’ under an impression that she was a merchant vessel ; and the very small size of the flag and pendant used by the Packet in making the private signal, and the top-gallant sail being close up to the mast-head, may reasonably account for not seeing the signal; and the night private signal made by the Packet, viz., two false fires, appears not to have been seen on board the “Primrose”. But the Court is of opinion that when the Packet was found to be an armed vessel, by firing a stern chase gun, it was the duty of the Prisoner to have made the private signal. And the Court laments that the then near approach of the vessel induced Captain Phillott to prefer hailing the Packet ; and this Court doth therefore judge the said Captain Phillott to be admonished to be more circumspect in future”.
This is the whole sentence, the preamble only being omitted. It will be observed that while the circumstances favourable to Captain Phillott are duly brought forward, no word is said in condemnation of Captain Bull. If anything had been elicited at the court-martial which cast blame on the Packet, the Admiralty, which was never very favourably disposed towards the Post-Office Service, would at once have forwarded a copy of the pleadings to the Postmaster General, with a request that Captain Bull might be punished. Nothing, however, was heard at the Post-Office of the result of the court-martial until ten days had passed, It when Mr. Freeling wrote and asked for it. was then sent to him, with a short covering letter, which contained absolutely no comment whatever.
Probably it is not necessary to go beyond these indisputable facts in defence of Captain Bull; but a few comments upon the account given by James may not be misplaced. His unfavourable verdict on the “Duke of Marlborough” appears to be based on four circumstances : (1) that she had no lower studding sails or royals set when the “Primrose” first sighted her ; (2) that no one on board the Packet, except the gunner, knew the difference between a blue light and a false fire ; (3) that whereas Captain Phillott hailed once, and his second lieutenant (who had a loud voice) twice, the hail was answered only by a broadside ; (4) that the flags used by the Packet were only half the established size. The first of these points was carefully investigated by the Court of Inquiry at Falmouth, which obtained from Captain Bull a written statement of his reasons for having his royal masts on deck. The explanation was perfectly natural and clear ; and whereas it was admitted that Captain Phillott, not knowing the circumstances, might have been misled, Captain Bull pointed out that the square rig of the “Duke of Marlborough” ought to have shown that she was no merchantman. The second point is of no value. It is not probable that so experienced an officer as Captain Bull was ignorant of any detail connected with the private signals which were so important to the safety of his ship. Even Mr. James admits that the gunner had proper knowledge on the subject. If the night signal had been made in an improper manner, the court-martial would have adduced that fact in support of Captain Phillott.
A signal was certainly made on the Packet, whether with blue lights or false fires. The officers of the “Primrose”, alleged that they did not see it. That could scarcely be the case since the vessels were so near at the time that Captain Bull, who assisted in making the signal, distinctly saw the match put to a gun on board the sloop of war. No hail was heard on board the Packet, until the action had lasted more than two hours, as already described. It is difficult to believe that the “Primrose” really hailed three times before opening fire. There were upon the Packet many persons who had an interest in avoiding an engagement; there was not one who had the slightest motive for forcing one. Several passengers were on board ; two of them were accompanied by their wives. If these gentlemen had heard English voices hailing them, can it be supposed that they would not have interfered, and done all in their power to stop the fight? So far, however, from showing the least dissatisfaction with Captain Bull’s conduct, even when they learned with what vessel he had been contending, they united in an address of gratitude to him, in which they used the following terms : “No words which we can make use of can sufficiently convey to you an idea of our admiration of your conduct and that of your gallant crew……”
They marked this admiration by presenting the captain with a sword of honour. These were the persons chiefly injured by negligence on the part of Captain Bull, if any such charge could be sustained ; and this is how they estimated his conduct, being in the best possible position for judging of it. As for the fourth point, the ensign and pendant were produced at the Court of Inquiry at Falmouth. The pendant was thirty feet long ; the ensign was nine feet four inches by four feet six inches, and was larger than was usual in the Packet Service.
James remarks with some complacency that “the damages received by the “Marlborough” as admitted by Captain Bull and his officers, were of a very serious nature.” No admission from anybody is needed to show that when a vessel carrying sixteen 32-pounders and three other guns (James does not count the 12-pounder at the forecastle) engages one armed with twelve 6 and 9-pounders, the latter must suffer very heavily. It is astonishing, and by no means creditable to the “Primrose” that her heavier metal did not end the action at a very early stage. James admits that “owing to the manoeuvres of the Duke of Marlborough,’ the Primrose found a difficulty in firing with any effect”. Very probably she did : Captain Bull was an excellent seaman, and could not be expected to heave to in order to present an easier mark to the gunners of the “Primrose”. The fair judgement upon his proceedings on this occasion is that he acted like a good sailor and a brave commander. This was certainly the opinion of Mr. Freeling, and few people were more competent to judge.
On May 1st, 1814, the “Hinchinbrooke” to which Packet Captain James, so often distinguished as master of the “Duke of Marlborough” had been promoted, was on her homeward passage from St. Thomas, and had reached the neighbourhood of the Azores – a favourite cruising ground of the American Privateers, and one on which their ravages were long unchecked by the presence of any British man-of-war – when the look-out at the masthead reported a suspicious-looking vessel to the eastward. The strange sail drew rapidly nearer. At half-past four she hoisted American colours, and was drawing on fast. She fired no gun, nor was any hail heard and as Captain James bade his men reserve their fire for closer quarters, the two ships neared each other in grim silence for the best part of an hour. At twenty minutes past five they lay within pistol shot distance, and, as if at a preconcerted signal, the two broadsides roared out in the same moment.
On this followed a tremendous cannonade. The American carried sixteen heavy guns, the calibre of which could not be ascertained. They were,however, certainly of greater weight than the “Hinchinbrooke’s” , 9-pounder carronades, and at the short range at which they were discharged, did great execution on the Packet’s hull and rigging. This lasted for an hour; at the end of which time the Packet had suffered so much that Captain James was scarcely able, if he had wished it, to avoid the boarding attack which he saw the Americans were preparing. Indeed, confident in the strength of his nettings, and in the quality of his small handful of men, he may possibly have even welcomed the prospect of a hand-to-hand fight, wherein his men, who were doubtless growing restive under the long pounding of guns heavier than their own, might work off their suppressed fury, and perhaps gain an encouraging success. The assault was quickly upon them, delivered in great numbers, and with all the impetuosity which the Americans evinced in these attacks. Had the nettings been one whit less lofty, or less firmly secured, the Privateersmen must have gained a footing on the Packet’s deck. As it was, impassable though the nettings were, the small band of picked men led by Captain James to repulse them suffered heavily, one being slain outright, while three others, who could very ill be spared, received disabling wounds.
Relieved for the moment from the apprehension of boarders, Captain James could turn his attention to the state of his ship, which by this time had received serious injury. The Privateer had drawn off again to a little distance, and her heavy shot were crashing into the “Hinchinbrooke’s ” sides in a manner which justified anxiety. Already several shot had passed between wind and water. The carpenter was one of the men badly wounded in repelling the boarders ; and as the ship was reported to be making water fast, Captain James sent the master below, ill as he could spare him from the deck, with instructions to search for the leaks and endeavour to stop them.
The master found that the ship was in danger of sinking and, what was almost worse, that the water had already entered the magazine and was spoiling the powder. There was no time to be lost. He returned on deck and asked for a party of men to help him in removing it to the after cabin. It was a difficult matter for Captain James to find these men. In the interval of the master’s absence from deck five more men had been hit, and the number available for fighting the ship was now lamentably small. Two or three sailors were, however, told off for the purpose, while the Americans, observing that several men had left the deck, seized the moment, and cast their boarders a second time upon the sides of the “Hinchinbrooke” with more fury than before, covered by a tremendous fire of great guns and of small arms from her tops. Reduced in numbers as they were, the Falmouth men succeeded in beating back this second assault as they did the first, and then, quite suddenly, came Captain James’ chance.
Throughout the action up to this point the Privateer had chosen her position as she pleased, But being a much faster vessel than the Packet. this very quality of speed now served her ill, for, when the ships separated, on the failure of the boarders, the American shot ahead. Instantly Captain James saw his opportunity, and, without a moment’s loss of time he luffed under his opponent’s stern, and raked her in succession with each of his three larboard guns, loaded with a treble charge. What execution he did by this manoeuvre he could not judge, but it was probably deadly, for it shook off his enemy’s hold. Very shortly after it occurred the Cornishmen had the satisfaction of seeing her haul her wind to the northward, and she gave them no more trouble.
Thus ended this brave and well-fought action, conducted against heavy odds with a courage beyond all praise. The exact force of the Privateer was not ascertained. She carried sixteen guns, which may probably have been 12-pounders, and was “full of men”. It is scarcely likely that her crew numbered less than a hundred and twenty men and, accepting that not excessive estimate, it must be allowed that for Captain James, with his eight 9-pounders and thirty-two men, to fight so strong a vessel for three hours, and to beat her in the end, was creditable to the last degree.
Captain Furze, who defended the “Lapwing” so gallantly at the end of 1813, was incapacitated by his severe wound from serving during the early part of the following year. On his recovery he was appointed to the “Chesterfield” and towards Christmas sailed once more out of Falmouth with mails for Surinam.
The voyage passed without incident until January 4th, when the “Chesterfield” had entered the cruising ground of the American Privateers. Early in the morning when Madeira was well in sight, a strange schooner was spied from the masthead, and ere long it was manifest that she was chasing the Packet, and gaining on her fast.
The morning wore away before Captain Furze had convinced himself that escape was impossible, but being at last fully satisfied of the necessity of fighting, he took in his studding-sails and awaited the attack. The schooner, as she came nearer, was seen to be a formidable antagonist, mounting sixteen guns, and having her decks literally crowded with men. She was flying American colours, which fact of itself was enough to show the Packetsmen that if they were to save their vessel and their liberty, it would be no child’s play that they had to face.
The unfortunate result of Captain Furze’s former action in the “Lapwing” was attributed, as will be remembered, to the fact that he had been obliged to sail from Falmouth without the two long brass 9-pounders which the Atlantic Packets used as chasers, and with which he believed he could have kept the enemy at a respectful distance. On the present occasion he had his guns; but, as if some destiny were resolved to equalize the conditions of the two fights, the slide of one of the 9-pounders broke at the second discharge, and the gun was thenceforth useless. The remaining one was served with redoubled vigour, but it was not enough to keep off a determined enemy, and about one o’clock the action was in full progress.
At half-past one the enemy came close up under the larboard quarter of the “Chesterfield” with the evident intention of boarding ; whereupon Captain Furze put the helm hard a-starboard, and gave him the larboard broadside. The guns were skilfully pointed, and must have done great damage, for the American sheered off in some confusion, and resumed her cannonade at pistol-shot distance, pouring in also a fire of musketry, which, from whatever reason, did less execution on the Packet than was usual on such occasions. One man was killed about two o’clock, and shortly afterwards two others were severely wounded. But these casualties, which were the only ones throughout the action, were not in proportion to the number of the enemy’s sharpshooters, and were insufficient to discourage the Packetsmen.
A more serious misfortune was that a round shot dismounted one of the “Chesterfield’s” guns, thus reducing her broadside to two guns. By dint of great exertions, however, two guns were brought over from the starboard side (the Packets were always pierced for more guns than they carried), and the lost ground was quickly recovered. Indeed, the fire of the Cornish gunners was so steady and continuous that the Americans seem to have had no further opportunity of attempting to board, and confined themselves to endeavouring to cripple their plucky little opponent. At this game the Cornishmen were as good as their enemies ; and after the action had lasted for three hours, Captain Furze had the gratification of seeing that the fire of the Privateer was gradually lessening. About four o’clock she hoisted her squaresail, and made off, apparently much damaged though had she persisted a little longer, she might possibly have been rewarded by success, for the “Chesterfield” was left in a sorry plight. Her mainmast was very badly wounded, not a single brace or bowline left intact Her sails were hanging torn in every direction, and the number of shot lodged in her hull testified plainly enough to the severity of the struggle. However, the ship was still quite seaworthy, and after such repairs as the stores on board enabled Captain Furze to make, she resumed her voyage, and reached Surinam without further mishap.
In the course of this year, 1814, some fresh disturbances among the seamen at Falmouth revealed the fact that the lesson taught by the removal of the Packets to Plymouth in 1810 had already been in part forgotten.
On the 12th July, when the “Speedy” Packet had completed her complement of men, had taken her mails on board, and was about to slip her moorings, a number of her crew refused to join the vessel, and, headed by the gunner, went to the agent’s office and demanded their discharge. Being asked for their reasons, they had nothing better to say than that they did not like the voyage, and that if they were to go upon it they must have more pay. The agent, willing to concede whatever was possible, paid them a month’s wages in advance, whereupon they became more riotous and intractable than before. Seeing that they were quickly passing out of his control, being in fact in a state of excitement which made them for the time quite inaccessible to reason, the agent sent a message to the captain of the Guardship ; and in an hour two strong parties were scouring every alley and public- house in the town in search of the malingering seamen of the “Speedy” but could find no trace of them. Nor was this surprising, for the deserters were all Falmouth men, and the old town contained hiding-places which more careful searchers than the press-gangs might have failed to discover.
Meanwhile, Captain Sutherland, who commanded the “Speedy” had engaged other men at unusually high rates of pay, to take the place of the missing ones. But these new men were resolved not to fall short of the high example set before their eyes, and they too decamped as soon as they had secured a payment in advance.
It was impossible to allow the mails to suffer delay from conduct such as this, and in order to demonstrate that the Service could go on very well without the Falmouth sailors, the “Speedy” was sent round to Plymouth, where she completed her crew without difficulty. This reminder of the ease with which the prosperity of Falmouth, dependent as it was chiefly on the Packets, could be destroyed by their removal, had a very sobering effect. The sense of insecurity which outbreaks of this kind created in the minds of the authorities was, however, a grave misfortune for Falmouth, contributing, as it doubtless did, to the formation of the scheme which a few years later placed the Service under Admiralty control, and ultimately removed it from Falmouth altogether.
It is scarcely possible within the limits of a work such as this to describe all the gallant fights of the Falmouth vessels in the period under consideration. The conditions of naval warfare in those days were simple, the incidents of one sea-fight resembled another, and the recital of them is apt to become wearisome, unless kept within narrow limits. There is one fortunate little action which may, however, be described before the subject is closed , a fight which is less remarkable for the desperate or bloody character of the fighting than for the breezy confidence with which the Falmouth commander took his ship into action, and the skill or good luck which brought him through it with absolute success.
The “Walsingham” under the temporary command of Mr. William Nicholls, was on her way to Barbados, and about a hundred miles distant from that island, when a sail was seen from the masthead standing towards the Packet. It was not long before the strange vessel was made out to be a schooner under easy sail, having her fore-topsail close reefed. In those seas any vessel of such a class was far more likely to be a privateer than a peaceful trader ; and Mr. Nicholls, who was well aware of this, turned the hands to quarters and cleared the ship for action while the Stranger was still hull down on the horizon.
A short time made it plain that the “Walsingham” was the inferior sailer, and that the other vessel was overhauling her fast, keeping her wind until she got upon the Packet’s quarter, about two miles away, when she fired a gun, and hoisted a blue English ensign. This was a favourite trick with Privateers, the only object being to gain time and the choice of positions ; but Mr. Nicholls had not sailed those waters from his boyhood without having learnt to distinguish the lines and rig of an American ship from an English one, and he calmly proceeded with his preparations, paying not the smallest attention to the blue ensign.
Seeing this, the enemy set her main-topsail and squaresail, let three reefs out of her fore-topsail, and bore up in chase. When she had gained a little more ground, Mr. Nicholls, who was busily engaged in getting the 9-pounder guns aft, suspended his labours for a few minutes in order to see the private signal properly made. It was kept up ten minutes, but no reply appeared. By that time the enemy was coming up very fast. Mr. Nicholls took in his studding-sails and awaited the approach of the Privateer.
He had not long to wait. The enemy was scarcely more than a mile away. The Cornishmen could see her decks completely covered with men ; while from her sides projected twelve guns of unusual length, which Mr. Nicholls subsequently concluded to have been long 9-pounders.
The Privateersmen gave three cheers as they came into action, but reserved their fire ; and from the circumstance that a large party of men was collected on the forecastle, Mr. Nicholls judged that the Americans intended to board at the very outset, and so, by their superior numbers, finish the action at one blow. He therefore began to play upon the advancing vessel with his stern chasers, in the hope of checking her onset ; but though the range was already so short that the fire of the Cornish gunners must have done some execution among the dense masses of men on their adversary’s decks, yet the Privateer did not alter her course, but kept on with a deadly persistency until considerably within musket shot, when, yawing suddenly, she poured in a raking broadside of round and. grape from her starboard guns, accompanied by a rattling musketry fire.
By this impetuous assault the Americans had doubtless hoped to disable the “Walsingham” or, at least, in the confusion, to gain an opportunity of boarding. But the event was otherwise. There was no confusion, and very little damage ; whilst on the other hand, the onrush of the Privateer brought her within pistol shot of the Packet’s larboard guns.
This was an effective distance. The guns were crammed to the muzzles with double-headed shot, grape, and canister ; and a well-directed fire swept over the enemy’s decks, doing mischief enough to discourage his inclination to close with the “Walsingham” and to cause him to sheer off to a safer distance.
The Cornishmen, inspirited by their advantage, served their guns eagerly ; and for about half-an-hour the action went on very warmly, both vessels receiving much damage, while five men on board the Packet were wounded by musket balls. Mr. Nicholls, however, had the satisfaction of seeing that the fire from the Privateer was gradually lessening; and he thereupon called on his men to redouble their efforts. All the guns in action were double-shotted by his orders, most carefully levelled at the rigging of the enemy, and discharged simultaneously. As soon as the smoke cleared away it was seen that their broadside had been splendidly successful, for it had brought down the enemy’s maingaff, cut his foresail through in the after leach, shot away his squaresail, and rendered his foretopsail nearly useless.
The Falmouth men, seeing prize-money before their eyes, attempted to close. But every brace on board had been shot away, and before the “Walsingham” could be got under management, the Americans had succeeded in reeving main halliards, got their mainsail up, and were sailing away from the Packet at such a speed that pursuit was useless. Mr. Nicholls and his crew were disappointed at the loss of a vessel which they believed they could have captured with ease.
In the early summer of 1814 the hired Packet, “Little Catherine”, Captain Vivian, was captured by a French frigate, “Le Sultan”. The Packet was scuttled, her officers and crew were taken on board the frigate. There they remained, as Captain Vivian himself used to tell the story, amused spectators of the unsailorly conduct of the French crew, who were, in fact, not seamen at all, but landsmen swept together, in the course of Napoleon’s desperate efforts to create a powerful feet, from every fortress in the country. The captain was a brave old officer, recalled from a long and honourable retirement by the necessities of the moment, and age had largely unfitted him for command. Upon the vessel thus manned a furious storm broke. The landsmen could do nothing with the ship. Half of them lay about in the scuppers, sea-sick and helpless; the rest were as incompetent as untrained men must be at sea.
In this emergency the French commander appealed to Captain Vivian, asking him to undertake with his own men the navigation of the ship, on the pledge of handing her back when the weather moderated. This offer Captain Vivian accepted, and kept most honourably; restraining his men when they pressed him almost to mutiny for permission to overpower their sea-sick enemies ; and in the end handing back the vessel as he had received her. It had been part of the understanding that in exchange for his services he was to have the first prize captured by the French frigate. This happened to be the Packet “Duke of Montrose” which was accordingly handed over to Captain Vivian, who embarked in her with all his crew, and returned safely to Falmouth. It is pleasant to dwell on the honourable temper in which this understanding was kept on both sides.
The American War, which had called forth so much gallantry among the Falmouth Packets, was now nearly over. The date was fixed for the cessation of hostilities, but before it arrived one more glorious memory was added to the records of the Packet Service. Nearly eight years had passed since Mr. (at this time Captain) Rogers, in the “Windsor Castle”, repulsed and captured the French Privateer, “Jeune Richard.” It was this Packet, now commanded by Captain R. V. Sutton, which, four days before the close of the war, encountered the American Privateer “Roger”. The weather was very hazy ; and neither ship saw the other until they were scarcely more than a mile apart. The enemy hoisted English colours ; but Captain Sutton, on making the private signal, found that it remained unanswered, and accordingly prepared for action.
At 7.15 P.M. the American was coming up fast, and the Falmouth men opened fire with their stern guns. The enemy replied with such guns as could be brought to bear, and very shortly ranged up alongside the “Windsor Castle” lying now on one now on the other quarter, and maintaining steadily a very galling and destructive fire. This lasted for more than two hours ; but shortly after 9.30 P.M. the fire from the “Roger” slackened, and she dropped astern. Captain Sutton availed himself of the opportunity to repair the rigging, which was much cut, so far as possible. Only one man was hit in this first action, namely the master, Mr. Foster, whose knee was smashed by a musket ball.
The attack was not renewed for some hours, but throughout the night the “Roger” ranged up frequently within musket shot, keeping the crew constantly at their quarters, and permitting no interval for rest. At daylight she hoisted American colours, on seeing which the Packetsmen opened fire, and a warm contest ensued for about half-an- hour, at the end of which time the “Roger” hauled off to repair damages. The damages of the “Windsor Castle”, were by this time such as it was not possible to repair in the intervals of an action.
Her eight 9-pounders were ill pitted against the metal carried by the enemy, which consisted of ten 12-pounder carronades, two long sixes, one long 18-pounder on a traverse, and one five and a half inch brass howitzer.
At half-past eight the “Roger” made sail again, and laid herself once more alongside the “Windsor Castle”. It was obviously a final effort. The little crew of Packetsmen, who had been at their quarters for fourteen hours continuously, were greatly fatigued, but responded with the utmost spirit, and Mr. Foster, though suffering great pain from his wounded knee, returned on deck and did his duty with the rest. Three men were wounded about this time, and as the surgeon, Mr. Krabbé, was below attending to their wounds an 18-pound shot entered the cabin where they lay, and caused a splinter which wounded him dangerously, breaking several of his ribs.
On deck Captain Sutton continued to defend his ship with a courage deserving of high praise. The two vessels lay within pistol shot of each other ; and so long as it was possible to manoeuvre Captain Sutton defeated all efforts on the part of his opponent to take up a raking position, or to board. At 9.45 A.M., however, the “Roger” bore down with the evident intention of boarding ; and, on endeavouring to handle his ship, Captain Sutton found her quite unmanageable, and lying like a log upon the water. Not one brace or bow-line was left to the yards or sails ; almost the whole of the running and standing rigging was shot away; while the after-yards swinging round brought the ship by the lee. This gave the Americans the opportunity to board on the larboard quarter ; and as the boarding netting in that part of the ship was cut to pieces, there was no obstacle to their attack. At this moment Mr. Foster was again severely wounded, and obliged to quit the deck. The fire of musketry from the “Roger” redoubled, and Captain Sutton felt that he had no alternative but to sink the mails, and to surrender. The last of the heavy portmanteaux was sunk before the colours were struck ; and when Captain Sutton laid down his sword it could not be said that he had not done his duty to the last.
Captain Sutton, with his master, mate, carpenter, and a boy, were sent back to England on a merchant vessel. The remainder of the crew were sent in their own vessel to Norfolk, where ”Roger” was owned. The following extract from The Norfolk Herald of the 28th April, 1815, throws some light on their subsequent treatment.
“The following statement of an affair which took place in this harbour on Wednesday evening last, we have prepared from the evidence given before the inquest which was held on the bodies of the two unfortunate men who were killed. We have been more minute in stating the facts than the importance of the case should seem to demand but we deem the detail necessary to prevent misrepresentations which might obtain credence, to the prejudice of that magnanimity and justice which the United States, in all their intercourse with England, have ever strictly adhered to. The crew of the Windsor Castle brought in by the Privateer Roger, were on Wednesday last put on board a small schooner, and sent down to Craney Island in charge of Mr. Westbrook, an officer of the Roger with a guard of eight United States soldiers. Owing to a low tide the schooner anchored some distance from the island, and the prisoners had to be debarked in a row-boat. Mr. Westbrook took thirteen of the Englishmen, with four of the guard to row the boat, leaving eleven others in charge of four soldiers on board the schooner. Before his return to the schooner, the prisoners on board rose upon the guard, and endeavoured to disarm and throw them overboard, in which, owing to the suddenness of the assault, they had nearly succeeded. Mr. Westbrook got alongside the schooner while the soldiers were yet struggling with the superior numbers of their assailants, but they still held their arms. Desirous to quell the mutinous proceedings of the Englishmen he expostulated, entreated, and threatened, but to no purpose ; and it was evident from their expressions that they were determined on taking possession of the schooner and making their escape. He then leaped on board and attempted to rescue one of the soldiers, when the fellow who held him,. quitting his hold, seized the tiller and aimed a blow at Mr. Westbrook, who warded it off and ordered the released soldier to fire at him, which he did, and killed him. At the same time another soldier, having disengaged himself, shot his opponent dead. The mutineers, having the other two soldiers confined, exclaimed, Now is the time, boys! don’t give them time to load again, and were rushing forward to seize Mr. Westbrook, when he drew a pair of pistols and commanded the mutineers in a firm and determined tone to go below, declaring that he would shoot the first man who refused. This decisive conduct had the desired effect ; they all immediately descended into the hold, where they were put in close confinement. The conduct of Mr. Westbrook was truly praiseworthy. His intrepidity certainly saved the lives of the soldiers, and prevented the conspirators from carrying off the schooner, an act which, it is said, they premeditated. The two unhappy wretches who threw away their lives in this affair are represented by the mate of the Windsor Castle to have been habitually turbulent and mutinous. The verdict of the jury of inquest entirely acquitted the two soldiers of any blame in taking their lives”.
It may be added that Captain Sutton gave a very different character to the two sailors who perished in this bold attempt to escape, and that the Postmaster General, regarding their conduct as natural and praiseworthy, pensioned their relatives as if the men had been killed in action.
With this fight the battle-roll of the Post-Office Service ends. A few weeks later the guns were laid away in store, the pikes and cutlasses were sold. The crews were reduced to the numbers of a peace establishment, and the gunners were idle. The Packets came and went unnoticed by the Privateers. The fighting days were over, and from then until now Falmouth has never looked upon the once familiar sight of a vessel creeping in beneath Pendennis Castle with her sides shattered by round shot.
It was a momentous change ; the opening of a long peace after more than a century of almost ceaseless warfare. The first result at Falmouth was curious enough. A civil department had controlled the Packets as long as there was fighting to be done ; when there was no longer any, a fighting department took them over.
The war had not been at an end more than three years when the Admiralty claimed the Packet Service as a training ground for seamen, and a means of providing for half-pay officers, whose applications for employment were in the highest degree embarrassing. The Post-Office protested, and fought to retain the service which had become distinguished under its control, but all in vain. By degrees the Admiralty expelled the ancient governors of the Packets, changed the regulations, altered the type of ship, and in the end Falmouth knew the Postal officers no more.
The details of these changes, if of any public interest, lie outside the scope of this work, which has aimed only at describing the Packet Service in its prime.
Three full generations have passed away since the last fight mentioned in these pages was fought, and in that long period nearly every detail, even of the bravest among them all, has been forgotten. At Falmouth, where there is still a considerable interest in the ancient service of the Post-Office, no one has collected the facts or given any labour to preserve them from perishing. One by one, as the survivors of the Service died, their memories died with them. Captain Cock has passed out of recollection in the town of his adoption as completely as if he had never lived. Nobody remembers Captain James. The “Morgiana” and the “Montague” are forgotten as absolutely as if no remarkable events had been connected with their names. A few stories are known, half-a-dozen officers are named, but of precise information there is little indeed to be found where it might have been sought most confidently. The present writer, after wandering about the neighbourhood all day in search of recollections, found himself at last towards evening in the pleasant churchyard of Mylor. The ground slopes rapidly down to the beautiful harbour, the blue water and the white sails of a passing boat were clearly visible through the openings of the trees. Sitting on a low wall in the sunshine was the sexton of the church, an old man blind and bowed with age, who had crept out, supported on two sticks, to taste the evening freshness in a spot where every detail of the scene was clear before his mental sight, and whence he could hear the water lapping on the shore below.
Sitting here the old man pointed out that many of the graves lying round were those of Packet officers ; and turning his memory back towards those days of which few people, he complained, cared to talk, he brought forth many an anecdote of the Packets, told with an old man’s relish in the times which are gone by. At last, warming to his subject, he plunged into the story of the “Antelope” telling with spirit and enthusiasm how Pasco, the boatswain, had lashed the Packet to the Privateer, and boarding bravely, had won a noble victory. Not far away, across the harbour, was the little hamlet where Pasco lived. The sexton had known his children ; and, when a child himself, had even seen the golden call which, as told in the third chapter of this work, was presented by the Postmaster General to the hero of the fight. It was a pity, the old man thought, that Pasco was forgotten.
But all the others were forgotten too; many a statue had been put up in honour of people not so brave. In this way the old man rambled on till the weariness of age overtook him, and he could draw forth no more recollections. He stayed there sitting in the sun until the child who led him returned to guide him home – a not unfitting symbol of the decay which has fallen on the Service for which his enthusiasm was reserved, and on the reputations of the officers who made it great.