Barbary Pirates near King’s Lynn!

The King’s Lynn Borough Archive has a wonderful series of large, leather bound books, called the Hall Books, recording the proceedings of the Town Council. This record, for 10th January, 1625, reports the “granting of twelve great pieces of ordinance for the defence of the town” following attacks by “pirates of Tangiers and Algiers” in 1612, 1619 and 1633 (KL/C 7/9, folio 249). Who were the Barbary Pirates and why did Lynn need protection from them?

1 Twelve pieces of great ordinance

Norfolk Record Office, King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/9

In the 17th Century, as Dr Sam Willis said in a recent TV series, the Barbary pirates based themselves on Lundy Island in the Bristol Channel.

For several centuries, from the 14th to the 19th, privateers from the Barbary Coast of North Africa were active, sailing to the British Isles and beyond. Privateers were authorised by their countries to attack the shipping of enemy countries- in other words, they were pirates with a licence. Their ships were lighter and faster than those of the North Sea nations, their purpose capturing crew and cargo.

At one stage, Dutch pirates were working in co-operation with the Barbaries, introducing them to North Sea rigging for their ships to give them greater capabilities in northern waters; several of these Dutch pirates converted to Islam and settled on what was known as the Barbary Coast. Some examples are Süleyman Reis, born Ivan Dirkie De Veenboer, who became admiral of the Algerian corsair fleet in 1617, and his quartermaster Murat Reis, born Jan Janszoon. It was Janszoon who captured Lundy in 1627; he held the island for 5 years and used it as a base for his raids. Both worked for the notorious Dutch corsair Zymen Danseker. Janszoon was known as Murat Reis the Younger, and lived from about 1570 to 1641. He was a Dutch pirate who, as the saying went, “turned Turk” when taken captive in 1618.

By the mid-1600’s the situation was so serious that it threatened England’s fishing industry- fishermen were unwilling to put to sea, leaving their unprotected families at home.

With the rigging introduced to them by their Dutch allies, they were able to raid villages around coasts of England and Ireland as well as other European countries, even as far as Iceland, taking their captives back to Africa as slaves. Men would be put to manual work on the land or at the oars of their galleys; women would be sent to the harems.

Estimates of the numbers taken into slavery amount to 850,000 between 1580 and 1680, and 1,250,000 between 1530 and 1780, though these figures are disputed in some quarters.

Devon and Cornwall were raided in 1625. Perhaps it was this expedition which gave rise to the requests for ordinance at St Anne’s Fort? Ireland was attacked in 1631 and King’s Lynn in 1633.

An early record of 1578, complied retrospectively in the early 18th century in a Mayoral Chronicle (BL/AQ 2/13), reports an Admiralty Court held at St George’s Hall in King’s Lynn, where 16 pirates were condemned to execution. Four were executed at the Guanock, just outside the South Gate, the rest being taken to Norwich.

In King’s Lynn, St Anne’s fort was built in 1570 where the Fisher Fleet meets the Ouse. It was a major part of King’s Lynn’s fortifications until it was replaced in 1839. A section of the original wall can still be seen opposite True’s Yard Fisherfolk Museum. The fort was originally an earth work gun platform with some buildings and a gate access to Fisher Fleet. A plea led to the installation of a 12 gun battery in 1625 to defend King’s Lynn against pirate raids.

The above extract is from the volume which covers 1611 to 1637. Browsing reveals a number of references which give the impression that the town was very much on a military footing. In chronological order, we can read, with folio references in brackets:

  • 1612, barrels of gunpowder bought (18), with a reference to “pirates of Tangier” off the coast;
  • 1619, reference to “pirates of Algiers and Tunis”, along with costs and charges;(151)
2 barrel of powder for the Tiger

Norfolk Record Office, King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/9

3 Pirate of Algiers

Norfolk Record Office, King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/9

  • 1623, 12 muskets to be bought (206);
  • 1624, payment for 20 soldiers (230);
  • 1624 (224) and 1625 (240) saw the appearance of the Marshal of the Admiralty, presumably to preside over a Marine Court;
4 Marshal of the Admiralty

Norfolk Record Office, King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/9

  • 1625, the “setting forth” of the 12 soldiers (235), and the extract shown above, also by proclamation of the king, the town to buy a barrel of gunpowder (234);
  • 1626, 3 barrels of gunpowder to be bought (261), the provision of 2 “shippes of warr” (255) and a 3rd one (263); a grant of 40 marks per annum was provided for arming and training soldiers (260); also mentioned this year was the purchase of 4 barrels of gunpowder and 48 muskets for the town’s defence (253) and the provision of muskets (254);
5 shipps fo warr

Norfolk Record Office, King’s Lynn Borough Archives, KL/C 7/9

  • 1627, reference to Captains of the Foot Companies of the Town, and costs of a ship of war (266); 1627 also saw money provided for 10 soldiers, their “improvement and apparel” and the purchase of pikes (271);
  • 1630, purchase of 2 barrels of gunpowder (327);
  • 1633, fitting out a ship of war (402), and again in 1635 (418); there was also this year the reimbursement of expenses for “conducting pirates to Marshalsea” (384);

Marshalsea prison, near London Bridge, dated from medieval times and was closed in 1842, being demolished soon afterwards.

6 Marshalsea wall

7 Marshalsea plaque

Going back to the Hall Book, we can read of the purchase in 1635 of barrels of gunpowder, and shot (412) and a warrant for 36 barrels of gunpowder (413); in 1636 reference was made to the provision for 3 officers at arms. As far as I can find out, at least by reference to the legal system in Scotland, officers at arms were legal enforcers with royal powers, and were not restricted to one area as were locally appointed sheriffs. I suppose a reasonable analogy might be in comparing the FBI with the local police department.

It is easy to see why the town, variously known as Lin, Lenne, Bishop’s Lynn and King’s Lynn through its history, would have been a tempting target. It was a member of the Hanseatic League- the Hanseatic Warehouse still stands- and trade brought wealth and status. It ranked as the 11th richest town in the country in 1334, and as a port of importance during the 14th century, was only surpassed by Southampton and London. It was a major staging post for pilgrims from Europe and the North of England who wished to avoid the uncertain routes across the Fens or the Wash on the way to Walsingham. Lynn Museum holds a collection of pilgrims’ badges second only in importance to that held in London. Wealth built fine churches and merchants’ houses- after visiting Stories of  Lynn in the Town Hall, an interesting walk takes in St Margaret’s, the Custom House, Queen Street and King Street, for the merchants’ houses, Tuesday Market, with the Witch’s Heart, and St Nicholas’.


Compiled by Pete Widdows, Research Blogger

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Railways, Changing Landscapes and Refugees – workshops for school children

We’ve had a busy start to the year with delivering lots of our school workshops to children all over the county.

In January, we hosted a group of students from Norwich School lower 6th history group, for some Archive Research training, during which they looked at documents relating to the First World War, and learnt how to use the record office. Some of these students have been back to the record office to carry out research of their own.


Norwich School pupil looking at original documents

We also visited Diss Junior School to deliver a local history workshop to two classes of year 3s, and St William’s Primary School in Thorpe St Andrew, Norwich, to deliver a workshop on Railways to two classes of year 4s. The children learnt when the railways arrived in Cromer and Sheringham, and using census returns, saw how occupations of the towns folk changed as a result.


Pupils at St William’s Primary School, working on an exercise for the Railways workshop

March saw us visiting Preston Primary School in Tasburgh for our Refugee workshop. We delivered two workshops to classes of years 3-5, which involved the children looking at a timeline of refugees from 1500-present, hearing the real-life story of Lewis Ecker, a Jewish immigrant to Norwich in the late 19th century, and deciding what items they would choose to pack in a suitcase if they had to flee their home.

We’ll be repeating the refugee workshop at a number of schools for Refugee Week which runs from 18-24 June.


Pupils at Preston Primary School, Tasburgh, deciding what to pack in their suitcase

We also visited Toftwood Junior School and Little Plumstead Primary school for workshops on Changing Landscapes, using local maps to see how land use has changed over time. A trip to Redcastle Family School in Thetford was made, to deliver another Railway workshop to year 6 class.

Little Plum

Little Pumstead tithe map. Norfolk Record Office, DN/TA 314

In April, we went just up the road from our base at The Archive Centre, next to County Hall, to Lakenham Primary School, and then along the A47 to Necton, on both occasions for more Refugee workshops. One of the comments made by a child from Necton about the workshop was:

I have found out how hard it is because I have never had to leave my home and I’m not a refugee so I didn’t realise what people have to go through.

If you are interested in booking one of our school workshops, please get in touch!

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King’s Lynn Tank

Using documents held at the King’s Lynn Borough Archives.

When I was very young- and we’re talking now of the early 1950s- my grandad, who’d served in WW1 with the Bradford Pals in the West Yorkshire Light Infantry, gave me a German Iron Cross which he’d brought home from a battlefield- the Somme, if my memory serves me rightly. Later on, I realised from the Emperor’s name inscribed on it, that it was in fact Austrian. I still have it among the “heirlooms” in my “treasure box”.

I never really gave much thought as to how prevalent such souvenir collecting might have been until I was working on the History of King’s Lynn Museum, and saw from records just how much was offered to museums after the two World Wars.

Still less did I realise that similar activity happened on an official basis- I learned of the existence of the War Office Trophies Committee (WOTC), whose remit was the distribution of captured enemy booty. I was intrigued by the story of Lynn’s tank, and working in the Archive gave me the opportunity to find out more.

In 1919 the Town Clerk reported the distribution of captured enemy stores, and the receipt of a German machine gun as part of the allocation to King’s Lynn. In March 1919, the Mayor offered the gun, presented to the Town by the Lord Lieutenant of the county, to Lynn Museum Committee, and it was accepted. One assumes that the purpose of the offer was for it to be put on display, much, one could think, as the Ancient Romans did in their conquering generals’ Triumphs.


1 kl-tc_1-17 machine gun 1

2 kl-tc_1-17 machine gun 2

Norfolk Record Office, KL/TC 1/17

In May the same year, the WOTC offered another machine gun, claimed by the 9th Norfolk Regiment, “for safe custody and care of the corporation.” This was presumably for the corporation to take into custody, as with the previous one, rather than to ensure the “safe custody” of the corporation! Whatever, this gun was also accepted. It went to the Museum on 19/05/1919.

At the end of May 1919, the WOTC offered a captured German field gun and carriage to the town. It was recommended that the gun should be accepted, and housed in the same enclosure, next to the Public Library on Greyfriars’ Road, as the “Presentation Tank”, which had previously been offered. I initially misread the Museum Committee notes, and mistakenly assumed that the tank also was German.

In June, the Council had second thoughts, and decided not to accept either the tank or the gun, and in July, they decided to accept the tank, but not the gun. The tank was sited in a railed enclosure opposite the Library, next to the fountain in St James’ Park.

3 kl-tc_1-17 artillery and tank offer

Norfolk Record Office, KL/TC 1/17

Interestingly, there were various proposals to use part of St James’ Park for an aliens’ internment camp. There was much debate for and against, but eventually it was approved. It seems, to say the least, a little lacking in tact by today’s standards to place a tank in full view of captured enemy soldiers, smacking a little of triumphalism and jingoism, but then, the country had just gone through what was in effect the world’s first total war, with civilians being targeted, and Lynn itself being on the receiving end of air raids that caused civilian deaths and damage to property. One can only hope the tank was fully deactivated!

Further research, and my thanks here to Kevin Hitchcock of King’s Lynn Library Service, reveals that the tank was, in fact, a British Mark 1. The Town Council minutes of 9th July, 1919 simply refer to “The Presentation Tank”.

4 kl-tc_1-17 artillery no tank yes

Norfolk Record Office, KL/TC 1/17

In his book, A Portrait in Old Picture Postcards, Simon Massen describes the position of the tank as being near the fountain in St James Park. In this picture, a postcard from 1920, the tank can be seen in the distance, to the left of the fountain.

5 Massen full page cropped

11 Tank close up

It was placed there “as an attraction”, but rumour has it that it was, over the years, shall we say, “treated with disrespect” by men on their way home from the pub, and it began to rust away.

The tank was still there in 1928, when it was decided that the town should dispose of it. There had been considerable debate about its fate, as these letters from the Lynn News in 1927 show.


7 Lynn news 1

Lynn News, 1927

8 Lynn news 2

Lynn News, 1927

It was initially recommended that an offer of £2 from Messrs Savages Ltd should be accepted, provided that they should pay the cost of removal and be responsible for all damage, and that the corporation should remove the railings round the tank. In a way, it was like turning swords into ploughshares, I suppose- nice to think of a tank being transformed into part of Savages’ famous fairground rides, but it was not to be.

9 kl-tc_1-26 Savages offer combined


10 kl-tc_1-26 Palmer offer accepted

Norfolk Record Office, KL/TC 1/26

After further debate, Savage’s off was rejected in favour of that of £15 from Mr. R. E. Palmer, and there the story, for the time being, must rest.


Compiled by Pete Widdows, Research blogger


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A Tale of Two Spectres: Will the Real Syderstone Ghost Please Stand Up

Search online for the Syderstone Ghost (Syderstone is a village near Fakenham in Norfolk) and you will find one strong connection. Look a little closer and you will come across a less well-known contender. Fortunately, Norfolk Record Office has you covered for both. Continue reading

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From Gunpowder to Fire Engines: The Role of the Cannonier in looking after Norwich’s seventeenth-century fire Fighting Equipment

Today, the Norfolk Fire and Rescue Service protects Norwich, along with the rest of the county, using dozens of emergency vehicles and a range of advanced equipment. In the seventeenth century (when most buildings were made of wood) the technology involved was rather less advanced – but that did not mean there was no organised defence against fire. On the contrary: a court petition in the newly-catalogued Norwich City Records collection reveals that by 21 September 1691, the city of Norwich was protected by no less than six fire engines, all under the command of one man – Jonathan Barton, the city’s cannonier, or gunner.

NCR 12d-25-131

Petition of Jonathan Barton, Cannonier of Norwich, 1689. NRO, NCR 12d/25/131

The cannonier’s traditional responsibility was for matters concerning the city’s guns and gunpowder, chiefly fired during the celebrations of certain anniversaries, such as Guy Fawkes’ Night, and at other times as occasion required. One example of the duties a cannonier might be called upon to perform is an order from July 1685

‘to draw out the 5 brasse guns and cause them to be fyred upon the 26th daie instant beinge a daie of publique Thanks-giveinge… for the defeate of the Rebells in the West of Englande’ – that is, the Duke of Monmouth’s famous rebellion (NCR 16a/25, f. 187r).

Barton was not the one responsible for firing the guns to celebrate the defeat of Monmouth’s rebellion: he was appointed cannonier in February 1690 (1689 in Old Style dating). The record of this in the Mayor’s Court book says that it was ‘in the place of Burges, late deceased’, and that Barton was to have ‘such salary profits and advantages as his predecessors have had’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 262r ). But it seems this was insufficient, for a petition

hath ever since loked after the Engines to Quench fire belonging to this City being now six Engines. And hath been at great charge in playeing the said Engines att Heigham fire & for takeinge the same in peeces severall times & in giving his attendance & direction for the amending of such of them as have been out of Repaire & for oile & severall other thinges used about them to the great charge of your peticoner of which your peticoner hath not rec[eive]d any thinge.

This was not Barton’s first stint as cannonier, nor was he unpractised in maintaining and deploying fire engines. Records of the Mayor’s Court show that as early as 1668, the Norwich Corporation had at its disposal an ‘engine’ which was kept at New Hall along with brooms and ladders for firefighting (NCR 16a/24, f. 73r). This machine was ordered to be repaired in October 1675 (NCR 16a/24, f. 330r). A record of 23 October 1675 finds Jonathan Barton being elected to the post of cannonier for the city. His salary, fixed on 30 October 1675, was ‘10s per annum for ye keepeine ye fyre engine fit to use, and when it is drawn out upon ocasion of Fyre he is to have for the same what ye Court shall iudge mete and 10s for each of 3 anniv[er]sarys of ye 5th of November, ye Coronation & ye restauration of his Maiesty & 40s of St Georges Companie as hath beene accustomed’ (NCR 16a/24, f. 332v).

A second engine was purchased in 1679. In July of that year, the Mayor’s Court resolved that Robert Bendish, esq, an alderman of the corporation, would ‘contract with Mr Fromantel of London for an Engine to Quench Fyre at the cheapest rate he can… which Engine is to be sent downe by Mr Fromantel at his charge to this City by sea or otherwise as he thinks fitt’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 51v). Fromantel was to be paid the agreed rate if the engine succeeded in a trial; if not, it would be returned at the city’s charge. The machine duly passed its trial in September, and on the 27th of the month, Bendish was ordered to pay out £9 for it. Fromantel, a clockmaker, was also contracted with for a steel pendulum for the New Hall clock. His son, Daniel Fromantel Jnr, who appears in the records of the Mayor’s Court in connection with the Dutch Congregation prior to taking this new employment, was hired to ‘take care of the two water engines to keepe them in good order & ready to worke’, as well as ‘from tyme to time to take care that the clocke at the New Hall be kept in good order and repaired by him when ocasion requires’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 54v). For these duties he was paid 40s per annum, quadruple Barton’s starting salary, but there is no mention of reimbursement for firefighting duties. The engines were ordered to be stationed at New Hall. It is not clear when the younger Fromantel ceased to look after the fire engines (and the clock). Perhaps it was once the corporation were satisfied that they could be operated and maintained by local officials.

As we have seen, in the twelve years between that second purchase and Jonathan Barton’s petition for remuneration, at least another four engines were bought. But, as Barton’s petition indicated, the machinery was by then in a bad state after years of service. That the corporation also considered their condition unsatisfactory at around this time appears from an order made in June 1691 to withhold the £9 remaining in hand for payment until ‘satisfaction be made… for defects found in and reparacions done to the said Engine and til security be given for keeping the same in Repair for 2 years according to the Agreement upon sale’ (NCR 16a/25, f. 277v). The £9 value of the engine that had not yet been paid for suggests a continuing business relationship with the Fromantels, who had charged that amount for the 1679 engine. The state of disrepair they had fallen into does not necessarily mean that Fromantel’s work was shoddy; perhaps Burgess, the cannonier who preceded Barton in the role, was negligent in looking after them. Besides, these early fire engines would undoubtedly have been complex and sensitive pieces of equipment.

The upshot of all this was as Barton’s petition describes: he footed the bill for repairs himself, and was forced to petition the city to reclaim his expenses. Not unreasonably, he also asked for an annual salary as a firefighter, as well as a cannonier. Sadly, it does not appear in the Mayor’s Court records that his petition was successful!

Compiled by Robert Smith, NRO Research Blogger.

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‘It was a dreadful sight to see!’ Descriptions of the Crimean War

‘It was a dreadful sight to see! Both to my left and right men were cut away from me. I thought it would be my turn every minute but, thank God I have escaped as yet.’

These words were written by Private Thomas Towner (NRO, BOL 4/28-31) to describe the culmination of the Battle of Alma on 20th September 1854 only six days after the French and English forces had landed in the Crimea. The words appear in a copy of the first letter to his parents dated, 22nd December 1854. He describes how they came under Russian fire within three miles of Alma on 19th September, and having rested for the night, began their march one hour after daybreak the following day until they came in sight of the Russian forces. The letter eloquently conveys the esprit de corps of the British forces as they faced what appeared to be impossible odds. Thomas Towner says:

‘We got orders to load our muskets: we all seemed in good spirits and all gave three cheers as we rushed towards the Russians.’

Continue reading

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‘I suppose you think that I am shot’: Problems writing home from the Crimean War.

‘I suppose that you think that I am shot since you have not heard from me for so long but thank God I am not yet but I have had some near escapes.’

These are the words of Private Thomas Towner of the 95th Light Infantry taken from the first of two letters sent from the battlefront to his mother and father (NRO, BOL 4/28-31, 741X6). This letter is dated 21st or 22nd December 1854, after Thomas had already been in the Crimea for over three months. It hints at the difficulty ordinary soldiers had in getting letters to their loved ones from the arena of the Crimean war. He explains that he has not had ten minutes to himself since landing in Russia. This is not surprising since the allies had already been through the battles of Alma, Balaclava and Inkerman and were now investing Sebastopol.  At the end of his letter Thomas says that he hopes that his mother will keep writing to him because, although he has been a good while trying, he has not had the time to write to her.

image for post 1 (2)

Letter from Thomas Towner, 21st or 22nd December 1854. NRO, BOL 4/28-31, 741×6


In his second letter, dated 25th March 1855, he apologises to his mother again:

‘I dare say you think it very hard that I do not write oftener to you but really our time is so greatly taken up with Hard Duty that it is very seldom you get time to write.’

Bearing in mind the sporadic intensity of the fighting between the allies and the Russians at this stage of the siege, Private Towner will not have had much opportunity, let alone any leisure time, to write to his parents. The Times correspondent, William Howard Russell, produced eye-witness accounts of the conflict which kept the British public informed of the real conditions of the troops. He stated that towards the end of March 1855, because of the risk of Russian attack, the British were obliged to keep men in the trenches before Sebastopol for twenty-four hours at a time. This meant that the men had no more three nights out of seven in bed.[i]

In the letters of Daniel Anguish of the 1st Battalion Coldstream Guards (NRO, MC 20/40, 445X4) the problems of ordinary soldiers in communicating with their loved ones from the Crimea are eloquently represented. The first letter, dated 8th January 1855, is not from Private Anguish himself, but from an official of the Horse Guards (signature illegible). It reads:

‘Mr Anguish,

In answer to your letter of the 2nd instant, I have to inform you that the name of Daniel Anguish, not having appeared in any of the lists of men killed or wounded or of men having died for any other cause, it is presumed that he is alive at the present time.’

image for post 1

Letter from a representative of the Horse Guards, 8th January 1855. NRO, MC 20/40, 445×4


The letter indicates that Daniel Anguish’s parents have not heard from him for some considerable time, if at all, since his arrival in the Crimea on the 14th September 1854. Some light is thrown on this in Daniel’s first letter dated 11th January 1855. He says that he has at last taken up his pen to write a few lines, and he explains that he is very unwell, but hopes to recover soon.  He goes on to describe the difficulty he has had in writing to them, saying:

‘I have only been ill two or three days with Bad legs But I hope they will soon get better no dought But you will think it unkind of me not wrighting to you before now But it is such a burdon to get papper to wright with or I would of rote to you before this’ (sic).

This extract shows that over and above the conditions he has to endure, the practical difficulties of finding the materials to write with had prevented him from communicating with his family. He elaborates further on such difficulties, writing:

‘This Bit of Papper cost me a Shilling and a verrey ard job to get it atorl it would give me much pledger to wright to you as awfen as I could. I will wright to you as soon as you write to me if you will please to send me some papper and stamps so I can wright to you again’ (sic).

Two months later, in a letter to his brother, dated 10th March 1855 and sent from the ‘Camp before Sebastopol’, Daniel further emphasises the practical difficulties he faces in sending letters home from the Crimea. He writes:

‘I must now conclude with my love to father and mother Brothers and sisters you must wright and let me know how you all get on and send out some Stamps as I cannot get them out here for love or money.’ (sic)

In their letters home, both Thomas Towner and Daniel Anguish take the trouble to tell their parents if they have seen any fellow soldiers who are the sons of their and their parents’ acquaintances. Thomas Towner says to his mother at the end of his first letter (22nd December 1854) to be sure to tell ‘Mrs Boyce’ that he has seen her son recently and that he is alive and well. In the same way, Daniel Anguish, scribbles the following message in the top corner of one of his letters, presumably to be passed on to the soldier’s parents and family:

‘I have seen Steven Riches and he is quite well… was at our camp the other day.’

It may have been that one or both of these young men mentioned by Towner and Anguish in their letters were illiterate and not able to write home to their parents. In which case those messages will have been gladly received by their loved ones back in England.

However, one of the remarkable aspects of these letters is the fact that both Thomas Towner and Daniel Anguish are literate, despite being working-class and bottom of the pecking order in the ranks of the British army. This reflects the findings of surveys in the early part of Queen Victoria’s reign, which suggested a major growth in the literacy levels of the working classes.[ii] This contrasts starkly with the situation in the centuries preceding the nineteenth when illiteracy amongst common soldiers was more likely to have been the norm. [iii]

Compiled by NRO Researcher Bob Hanna

[i] Russell W.H., Battles of the Crimean War, Amberley Publishing, 2004, p. 141

[ii] Wilson A. N., The Victorians, Arrow Books, 2003, p. 363

[iii] Keegan J., The Face of Battle, Pimlico, 2004,p. 32


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A military wedding at Great Yarmouth and a mutiny

011 Prospect of Yarmouth YD-50-378

Section from Nathaniel and Samuel Buck’s South West prospect of Great Yarmouth, showing St Nicholas’ Church and ships, 1741. NRO, Y/D 50/378

For couples where the groom was serving in the military, time could be of the essence to marry before his regiment moved on, or ship sailed again and many military occupations are represented in marriage licence bonds.  This is particularly true for the Archdeaconry of Norwich bonds which cover the port areas of Great Yarmouth and King’s Lynn.

One bond, dated 17 March 1798, relates to the marriage of John Smallcom, widower and Mary Ward, widow, in Great Yarmouth.  The bond does not say which church they married in but, at this time, only St Nicholas’ Church was licensed for marriages and the parish register confirms that John and Mary’s wedding took place there the next day.

012 Crop of Smallcom mlb ANW 24-72-23

Marriage licence bond of John Smallcom and Mary Ward, 1798. NRO, ANW 24/72/23

The marriage licence bond leads us on to discover the history of John Smallcom’s ship, HMS Director. It appears that the ship and her crew had a short but colourful period of active service before she was broken up at Chatham in 1801 and we can only speculate whether John Smallcom was on board at the time.  In 1797, HMS Director was involved in both the Nore mutiny and the battle of Camperdown.  We know that the will of John Smallcom, of HMS Director, dated 1796, is held at The National Archives and John still lists the Director as his ship in this marriage licence bond of 1798, so he would have been aware of these events at the very least.

HMS Director was originally a 64 gun ship, designed by Sir Thomas Slade (the same man who designed HMS Victory) and built at William Cleverley’s shipyard in Gravesend. Ordered at the height of the American War of Independence in the early 1780s, by the time HMS Director was built the war was over.

In January 1796, HMS Director sailed under Captain William Bligh (of mutiny on the Bounty fame) and by 1797, she was part of the North Sea Fleet.  Her crew took part in the mutiny on the Nore when, encouraged by an earlier mutiny in the Channel Fleet at Spithead near Portsmouth, sailors at the Nore took control of their ships in May 1797.  The mutineers made many demands including payment of wage arrears, better working conditions and the removal of some of their least popular officers.

Other documents, held at the Norfolk Record Office, give eyewitness accounts of the mutiny.  Several letters sent from J.J. Gurdon, an officer of the militia at Sheerness, describe the day to day events of the mutiny as it unfolded.  In one letter, dated 29 May 1797, it is clear that he did not sympathise with the mutineers. Gurdon writes:

‘My dearest Anne, I am sorry to tell you notwithstanding the arrival of the Lords of the Admiralty & the pardon sent them yesterday, nothing whatever is done, they only made new propositions of a totally inadmissible nature.  The Lords still are here, & what is meant to be done…it is a most melancholy business & shows the total want of principle in these rascals…’

013 Crop of Gurdon letter v2 KIM 14-5-4

Letter of J.J. Gurdon, 29 May 1797. NRO, KIM 14/5/4

When some demands took a political tone, including requests for Parliament to be dissolved, this frightened the British authorities who were already fighting a war with revolutionary France.  It also spooked some of the sailors and several ships pulled up their anchors and escaped the mutiny.  HMS Director was one of the last ships to surrender when the mutiny collapsed and the ringleaders were hanged.

In early October 1797, the North Sea Fleet was ordered to Great Yarmouth to resupply but news soon reached them that Dutch ships had broken out of harbour and the British were ordered to intercept them.  On 11 October 1797, HMS Director, along with other ships in the Fleet, took part in the battle of Camperdown.  It was one of the most significant encounters between British and Dutch ships during the French Revolutionary Wars.  This time, the British were victorious and captured eleven Dutch vessels.

You can look back through our previous blogs for more tales from marriage licence bonds.


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