At first glance, a calendar regarding the petitions and decisions by the King’s Lynn port Trustees under the ‘Act for the relief of maimed and disabled seamen and widows and children of those killed in the merchant service’ may not seem like the most riveting document. The Act’s name alone proves quite the mouthful. Yet, once you start reading, there are countless glimpses into human journeys, feats, and tragedies. From cutlass wounds and battles with French privateers, to gruesome injuries and boats sunk by whale; to be a seaman in the late-18th to early 19th century required nerve and determination.
The documents record the minutes from meetings of the port Board of Trustees. It spans from 1756 to 1809 and has over 150 petitions and cases. Often, and sadly, the petitions are made by widows whose husbands have been lost at sea – in so many cases the entire income and means for living lost along with their partner. Esther Booth is one such widow. In 1766 her husband, Thomas Booth, drowns while in the service of the Dixon leaving Esther with three children. Five years later she takes her family to Great Yarmouth and just a year later, in 1772, The Board stops her allowance. Two years pass and we learn that Esther is in very bad health – another petition is sent on her behalf by the minister and churchwardens of her parish in Great Yarmouth. Esther’s main worry throughout is her inability to support her children after the death of her husband and it is sad to know of her illness and struggle. The Act was clearly a lifeline for families who often had nothing to fall back on.
Some people have more easily resolved requests, such as sailors who’d lost weeks of work from illness or non-life-threatening injury. However, due to the nature of the Board and the terms of the Act they were working under, the minutes can be a harrowing read. On one occasion, a petition names Robert Wiggin as requiring assistance due to his foot having rotted from the rest of his leg. There are cases of small pox, falls causing broken limbs, ropes cutting fingers off, freezing alive on rigging, accidents resulting in blindness, various scrapes with the main sheet and main beam, two fractured skulls. Not for the faint hearted, on board the Partridge, James Harrison suffered a collapse and “voided a great deal of blood both before and after he died”. Perhaps more mysterious still, there are two cases of sailors dropping “dead by the visitation of God” – a phrase I now know to mean natural causes, but initially caused some surprise especially as one incident took place aboard the Enterprise.
A handful have exciting, and sometimes tragic, stories of battles lost and men dispersed. The Charming Sally, a ship of King’s Lynn, has quite the adventure and there are 3 separate petitions to fill in the story. The first is from William Ayre on behalf of Thomas Trummel, who had tragically died from a cutlass wound. Their ship had been sailing under government orders to the coast of Africa, but from there they had headed to the West Indies on the merchant service. On the 30th November 1759, off the coast of Antigua, three French Privateers attacked the Charming Sally and captured her and presumably her crew too.
Thomas dies in this attack and another sailor, James Shelly, is also wounded by a cutlass. James’ petition is made by Richard Jenson, a mariner on board who survived the battle. He states that, during April 1760, James makes the journey from Guadeloupe in the Caribbean to Norfolk safely but due to his injury he is sent to St Thomas’ hospital in London. Unfortunately, James dies there. Both Thomas’ and James’ cases are endorsed by the Board.
However, in October 1760 Richard Jenson petitions his case to the Board. Being involved in the attack on the Charming Sally, he was imprisoned by the French in Martinique for five months causing him to catch a fever. Richard made it home to England but was still very sick and his request was for financial support due to the work he had missed while imprisoned and suffering from illness. The Board rejected his petition and that is the last time his name appears on the document.
When reading through the documents, it is occasionally frustrating to see just a glimpse of what must have been an epic tale. There are mentions of voyages across the Atlantic; to Halifax in 1759 (on the Richard & Mary) and another to New York in 1760 (on Fortune’s Industry) – both ships were lost but what a voyage it must have been for those King’s Lynn men. Later, in 1779, the Archangel was in Greenland (more likely off Svalbard, which was considered Greenland at the time) when it was overturned by the stroke of a whale tail. One would hope the whale survived to fight another day, but all we know is that two mariners drowned in the incident.
Though there are countless tales of many injuries and fatalities, there is a petition that shows one man to be incredibly lucky. In mid-December 1755 Charles Broome boards the Norfolk for a journey from King’s Lynn to London and then onto Sunderland. His petition to the Board is put forward by Thomas Fayers, who states that on 20th January 1756 Charles is taken ill from kidney stones and is left in London at St Thomas’ hospital.
Five days later, the Norfolk and all her crew sail from London but before reaching Sunderland the ship is lost. Three years later, in February 1759, Jane Adamson petitions the Board believing her husband, King Adamson, to be drowned along with the rest of the Norfolk crew. She has been left with two small children and has had no support for a very long while. Unfortunately the Trustees do not endorse her petition with a note at the bottom of the page stating “rejected not being within the Act”.
In the summer of 1759, two more widows come forward – Mary and Fayers and Francis Marshall. Mary is the wife of Thomas. The petition writes that “there was no word from them or the vessel for such a long time […] Whatever befell the vessel has deprived the two petitioners of their husbands and their means of supporting themselves”. There is no note to say whether their similar petition was endorsed or rejected.
So many families – women and children – must have been affected by the loss of so many men. Lucky Charles Broome, and his kidney stones.
Compiled by Ellie Smith, Research Blogger