The boatswain's call

The Boatswain's Call

In 1793 one of my direct ancestors William Drake (b. 17 March 1771) was earning his crust in Plymouth and most probably working out at sea. Plymouth was a fair-sized place at that time and its reputation as a Royal Navy port was already long established, with ships built, upgraded and serviced in the nearby dockyards. The city found itself in the frontline of Britain’s war with Revolutionary France that year, with the Royal Navy seeking to bolster its fleets and expand the number of available naval personnel. That would be accomplished through fair means or foul.

Press gangs were part of the British government’s effort to speedily resolve manpower shortages in the Royal Navy. The gangs had the right to forcibly take men considered idle for service in the navy, and they were famous for employing violent means to achieve this. However, it is a misconception that a press gang’s efforts always involved brawls in dockside taverns; many of the new ‘recruits’ volunteered when they arrived, while others offered little resistance and met their fate with stoic resignation. While tough, the Royal Navy at least offered three square meals a day and a competitive wage in times of war. In addition, the thought of seizing an enemy ship and gaining a share of the prize money was always a tantalising prospect.


William Drake was pressed in May 1794 and taken to the guard ship Cambridge. However, he was soon transferred to the Perseus and rated ‘able-bodied’ (i.e. a first-rate sailor) within a month, which suggests he had accepted his situation with some degree of willingness. Able-bodied status also required at least two years’ experience of being at sea, which means William must have worked on the open waves before starting his naval career. He was transferred to Anson a razéed 44-gun frigate* under the command of Captain Durham on 26 November. He appears to have fallen into a free-wheeling sailor’s life when off duty, being listed as under treatment for a venereal disease in 1796 and paying the hefty sum of 15 shillings for a cure. However, it was not all bad news that year as William was also promoted to quartermaster’s mate, a job that required him to assist the quartermaster whose main duties at sea involved steering the ship and keeping time.

*Anson was launched in September 1781 and had recently been razéed when William came aboard. A razéed ship has had a deck removed to increase manoeuvrability and performance, and it often occurred with older two-deck ships of the line that were no longer considered powerful enough for main fleet action.


In the meantime, the war on land for France’s enemies had not gone to plan as French forces repeatedly frustrated or defeated their opponents, securing the revolutionary regime's position and helping extend its influence far and wide. But France struggled at sea, with her Atlantic Fleet soundly defeated in 1794 by the British Channel Fleet under the command of Lord Howe in an action known as the Glorious First of June. A French fleet carrying soldiers and equipment in a bid to reach Ireland was decimated across late 1796 and early 1797. This was primarily due to fierce gales and storms that lashed the ships and left many of them badly damaged.


Ireland was viewed by France as Britain’s soft underbelly. In simple terms, it was thought that a French army, even a smallish one, on Irish soil would be supported and supplied by a sympathetic local population. Whether the French were wholly confident of success is still a matter of debate among historians, although there was hope war in Ireland would at least draw Britain’s attentions away from mainland Europe and act as a drain on her treasury. To this end, a second effort to land troops was made in mid-September 1798, hoping to assist the United Irishmen in their bitter fight against British and protestant forces in a rebellion that had erupted in May. British ships, including Anson, aggressively chased the French fleet, hoping to destroy or disperse it before reaching Irish shores. The enemy numbered eight frigates and one ship of the line, Hoche, and carried roughly 3,000 troops.

Playing his part in thwarting the attempt was William, who was now a boatswain’s mate. His primary duty was to ensure commands of the boatswain and ship’s officers were followed swiftly and without fuss. Any sailor deemed slacking faced being struck by a rattan cane or length of rope at the hands of the boatswain’s mate. ‘Starting’, as this punishment was known, was deeply resented and many captains issued strict orders to limit its use. It was eventually banned in 1809. The boatswain’s mate was also responsible for administering the cat, a whip with several tails, when a sailor was to be flogged. There is speculation that the phrase ‘letting the cat out of the bag’ stems from this.


Approaching the Irish coast, the French were desperately trying to shake off their pursuers in atrocious weather. The two enemies finally came to blows just off Ireland’s northwest coast on 12 October in an engagement known as the Battle of Tory Island. The French suffered the capture of Hoche and three other frigates, while the surviving ships took flight. Anson was some way to the south, trying to catch up as her crew strove to get their storm-battered ship in working order after it had lost her mizenmast and topmasts to the fury of the weather. No doubt Captain Durham and his crew were surprised to find themselves in the direct path of the French frigates, which hove into view flying false British ensigns. Anson attempted to engage and fired on the Loire, but the effort was somewhat desultory because the storm damage slowed her ability to manoeuvre. The French sped past, with Anson lumbering after its erstwhile quarry.

The Loire fell into trouble several days later on 16 October when she was spotted and pursued by HMS Mermaid and HM brig Kangaroo, the latter being fast enough to sail into range of its larger opponent and able start an artillery duel. It was an uneven match and Kangaroo suffered a fair degree of damage, although her efforts enabled Mermaid to catch up and tackle Loire, a fight that ended when a French shot took away her mizenmast. But British efforts had not been in vain: the Loire had also received damage and, despite keeping ahead of her immediate pursuers, was vulnerably slowed. She was still being tracked by Mermaid and Kangaroo when Anson caught up two days later.

Supported by Kangaroo, Anson closed in for battle at 10.30 am. It was a slow and sluggish affair, made all the worse for the French by Kangaroo raking their stern. With the Loire badly leaking, French captain Segond struck his colours at midday as a sign of surrender. The Anson’s crew must have rejoiced at the sight; they had defeated the enemy and captured a good ship, which meant each man could expect a sizable slice of prize money that was divided in proportion to rank. A medal would eventually be struck to commemorate victory over the 1798 French invasion attempt and William appears on the naval medal roll as a recipient. Captain Durham had the honour of entertaining George III on board Anson almost a year later on 9 September 1799. The King was noted missing during the evening and his staff, presumably quite panicked by this, eventually found him below deck. He was surrounded by the ship’s company talking to an old sailor and William could very well have been present.


Step up the ladder

With a major action under his belt, and having climbed the ranks ever so slightly, William probably felt confident enough to start something of a settled life – settled compared with the average sailor’s. He married a girl called Mary in the late 1790s and they set up a home in ‘Dock’, the dockyard zone located two miles outside of Plymouth. His first child, William, was born and baptised in 1799. More children followed, including John in 1802, to whom I am descended. Britain and France had also negotiated a peace settlement, the Treaty of Amiens, in the same year.

Like thousands of others, William discovered peace meant swift demobilisation and he was promptly dropped from Anson’s crew. He found a position as a rigger at ‘Yard’, the area for outfitting and ship maintenance. The work would have been tough and the role not one to be particularly proud of, especially when compared with being a boatswain’s mate on a ship like the Anson. However, the peace between Britain and France was never likely to last and hostilities had resumed by May 1803. Britain and her allies now had to fight the masterful Napoleon Bonaparte who had cemented his powerbase in 1804 by crowning himself Emperor. Napoleon scored success after success on the battlefield, dumbfounding his opponents and making his new Empire seem like an invincible powerhouse.


William returned to war in 1804, having applied for and obtained the post of boatswain on board HM sloop Dispatch under the captaincy of Edward Hawkins. The boatswain was required to have a basic level of literacy and maths, and he was tasked with securing supplies relevant to the rigging and sails. The stores were kept in a room under William’s direct control and he kept a stock book that was regularly inspected by the captain. On deck, the boatswain was responsible for the rigging’s condition and inspecting it every day, while he also ensured that the ship’s boats, anchors and other on-deck fixtures and fittings were in good order. The boatswain’s mates came under his command and a great deal of the on-deck activity would be controlled by the high-pitched calls of the boatswain’s and his mates’ whistles. As a petty officer, William had the luxury of a cabin, which was normally located next to his storeroom. He would mess in the gunroom with the other petty officers and stationed himself on deck at the forecastle during combat.


Dispatch was a lot smaller than Anson, carrying just 18 guns and mustering around 120 men. However, she was fast and well-suited to the vital role of patrolling enemy waters and intercepting ships to see whether they were French or belonged to any other belligerent nation. Her hunting grounds were the English Channel, the Breton coast and the Bay of Biscay, although she was never out of port for extended periods and would return to Plymouth irregularly to restock supplies. This probably gave William an opportunity to stay at home for a while before Dispatch returned to sea. Perhaps we should spare a thought here for Mary as she had to manage without her husband, while having the added worry for his safety and what might happen financially if he was killed or maimed.


Dispatch’s logbook and the independent logbook of Lieutenant Alexander Ingram have survived, with both covering the years 1804-1807. Each meticulously notes the longitudes and latitudes, weather conditions, daily routine and any actions or unusual events. The more unedifying details of life at sea were conspicuously left out, including Captain Hawkins being court marshalled on a murder charge from which he was acquitted.* The first notable action came on 25 October 1804, when Dispatch sighted vessels not far from Pointe du Raz, just off the Breton peninsula. Catching up, she discovered they were French gun boats No.345 and 353 that had been blown off course. Another vessel, No. 371, was captured not long afterwards and Hawkins had them all sunk once their guns had been removed and the prisoners secured. The Dispatch was ordered to take some other gunboat prizes and prisoners to Plymouth in late November, which would have represented an unexpected and welcome break for the crew.

*See appendix for a short account of Captain Hawkins’ trial.

Dispatch was back in enemy waters early in the New Year and approached Brest on 13 January 1805 on a reconnaissance mission conducted in miserable weather. ‘Counted 27 sails, 20 of which I suppose to be of the line and of frigates,’ the log noted. Nearing such an important enemy base would have involved a fair degree of danger and certainly required the skill and determination of all on board. There was a welcome prize in late April when Dispatch captured a Spanish vessel, the Nostra Senora del Amparo, alias Espadarte (Swordfish). Spain was at war with Britain during this stage of the Napoleonic wars, albeit as an unhappy ally of France. The Spanish navy would be mauled along with the French at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805.

Dispatch had an extremely fruitful four weeks from late September into October, starting with the capture of the merchantmen Desir de la Paix on 30 September. The Genevieve was seized on 7 October, the Louise on 15 October, and Spadron on 31 October. A haul of this size would have no doubt warmed the hearts of all on board, although it was not all plain sailing and direct action, when it came, could be swift and brutal. For example, Dispatch chased and fired on a small French convoy comprising a gun brig, a lugger and a schooner on 5 October. The enemy, protected by a nearby shore battery, was confident enough to return fire. The light winds that day then fell, which slowed the Dispatch and allowed the enemy to sail out of range. The log noted one death: ‘During the firing John Collins, seaman, lost his arms, his gun going off while he was loading it.’

Richer pickings

Although it had scored magnificent successes in 1805, particularly with the victory of Trafalgar, the Royal Navy was not about to rest on its laurels. The French navy might have been battered and bruised, but it was still active and capable of causing serious headaches. For example, at the end of 1805 the 74-gun Regulus, two 44-gun frigates, Cybele and Presidente, and a brig-corvette, Surveillant, slipped past British patrols and made their way to West African waters. They then caused havoc by attacking several British merchant and slave ships, before sailing across the Atlantic to Brazil for a refit in early 1806. This done, they headed into Caribbean waters where they started preying on British shipping again.


The French squadron attempted to head for home in late 1806 but were dispersed by a hurricane during the crossing. It was Presidente’s bad luck to be spotted and pursued by a British squadron, including Dispatch, during the early hours of 27 September. Faster than the other British ships, Dispatch closed in and engaged Presidente at 6.30 pm by firing her bow gun, which ‘commenced/continued a heavy cannonading on both sides until 7.40 am when the frigate struck his colours’, according to the log. Captain Hawkins ordered a boat of men to row over and secure possession of the Presidente, but the French had a sudden surge of courage and re-hoisted their colours. Dispatch quickly prepared to fire a starboard broadside and ‘the enemy perceiving our manoeuvre, hauled his colours down the second time’.

Hawkins secured his prize and took 337 prisoners in what was an amazing coup because, on paper at least, Presidente should have been able to blow her opponent of the water. Instead, the damage done to the Dispatch was minimal, with one man recorded wounded, while the topsail and topmast were noted as shot through.* The rigging was reported as ‘much shattered’, which no doubt caused some consternation for William. Adding to his misery, Ingram notes that there was ‘water in the boatswain’s storeroom’. The lieutenant also records that “several men [are] much burnt with powder”.’ Dispatch captured two French traders a few weeks after this dramatic action, with one found to be carrying sardines. The cargo and value as a ship must have been limited because Hawkins’ crew promptly scuttled her. The larger ship was more useful, carrying brandy, coffee and some guns, and she was promptly taken back to England by a prize party. 

*Suggesting poor gunnery skills by the French, with their shots striking too high.

Dispatch was still patrolling the waters close to France in spring 1807, although she was now under the control of a new commander, Captain Lillicrap. She chased a ‘strange sail’ on 20 March. Catching up and boarding her, Lillicrap discovered it was American vessel sailing from New York and bound for Bordeaux. ‘Found seven French and Spanish gentlemen in the character of passengers,’ the log notes. With them were over ‘five hundred letters directed to different parts of the continent’. Lillicrap had every right to be wary as the USA was neutral but supportive of Napoleon’s regime. The log notes: ‘Being a suspicious vessel sent on lieutenant and men to assist in navigating her into Plymouth.’ Lieutenant Ingram adds the boat was also carrying ‘sugar, coffee, cotton, and indigo’.  Dispatch was helping enforce a British embargo of France, which involved halting and impounding neutral ships that were clearly trading with the enemy, including American vessels.*

*See endnote 1.

Dispatch’s next job was to assist in the landing of 8,000 men from the King’s German Legion onto the Island of Rugen, which lies just off Germany’s northern coast. It was part of the Swedish province of Pomerania that had been under French occupation since 1807, when Napoleon was nearing the zenith of his power and dominance of continental Europe. Dispatch helped cover the withdrawal of the Swedish king, Gustavus, who was travelling in a Swedish frigate, and she was also involved in a bombardment of French positions near Griefswald. Dispatch then escorted the last troops off Rugen on 21 August and followed the transport to Kioge Bay, Zealand, where the soldiers joined a larger force assembled for a campaign against Denmark.


Britain was fearful Napoleon would seize Denmark’s navy, which comprised a number of modern ships that would help France create a cadre of new vessels around which she could replace her naval losses over the past decade. Britain decided to launch a pre-emptive strike with a simple plan: an overwhelming force would be sent to Copenhagen and the neutral Danes threatened to hand over their fleet or face battle. Understandably, the Danes were outraged and refused to acquiesce. British ground forces were commanded by Sir Arthur Wellesley – later the Duke of Wellington – who ordered his men to surround the city as the Royal Navy blocked the sea lanes and positioned their ships to aid any bombardment. The British demanded the fleet be handed over on 1 September and on 2 September, with the Danes refusing on each occasion.

A British bombardment started soon afterwards, sparking a large fire on 4 September that destroyed the city’s main cathedral and caused widespread destruction. The Danes agreed to all terms on 6 September and the British busied themselves getting the Danish fleet into a seaworthy condition. They finally left Copenhagen on 21 October, taking the captured ships them. Dispatch’s role in the fighting had been as part of the inshore squadron commanded by Captain Puget, firing on Danish gunboats almost every day until the British victory. The crew also witnessed the destruction of the armed troopship Charles, which was blown up by Danish battery fire on 31 August, for the loss of ten men. However, British casualties overall were light and nothing compared with the Danish death toll, with an estimated 2,000 civilians perishing. It was an unedifying episode and one that badly damaged Britain’s reputation among the continent’s remaining neutral nations.*

*See endnote 2.


Further afield

Dispatch departed for a Caribbean posting in 1808, a region where one was lucky to survive their first encounter with a tropical disease. There were only two notable engagements during this deployment: the capture of the French privateer Dorade, which had just one gun and a crew of 20, and the recapture of a British merchantman. The pirate was small fry but the merchantman was useful and the crew would have received some form of reward for their endeavours. Dispatch also sailed to Haiti, formerly a French possession that had witnessed a slave revolt that lasted from the 1790s into the early 1800s. Unspeakable horrors had been perpetrated by both the French and the former slaves led by Jean-Jacques Dessalines, the successor of revolutionary leader Toussaint Louverture. Dessalines was assassinated by his countrymen in October 1806 and was followed by Henri Christophe who ruled the north (the State of Haiti) and Alexandre Pétion who ran the south (the Republic of Haiti). Lillicrap met both leaders, although further research is needed to discover whether there was a specific objective in mind or whether it was just a fact-finding mission.

*He probably met Christophe at his mountain eyrie, the imposing Citadelle Laferrière that still stands.

Back in Europe, an Anglo-Portuguese army under Wellington’s command had started its arduous campaign to push the French out of the Iberian Peninsula with the help of Spanish armies and guerillas. The French could almost afford to treat this as an unwelcome nuisance until 1812, the year Napoleon wrecked his military machine after invading Russia. He led an army of almost 500,000 and secured several notable victories until the bitter Eurasian winter arrived and forced a hellish retreat, with only one tenth of his men surviving. The Emperor faced a manpower crisis as a result, while the allied coalition led by Britain, Prussia and Russia kept growing in strength and competency, eventually closing for the kill in 1814. Napoleon was forced to admit defeat and was exiled to the island of Elba, just off the west Italian coast. He famously escaped in 1815, returning to France and taking control again. However, his success was short-lived; he was defeated at the Battle of Waterloo on 18 June and fled to Paris, surrendering to the British soon afterwards. Taking no chances, they exiled him to the mid-Atlantic island of St Helena, where he died in 1821.


Dispatch’s role in the final years of the war were relatively non-descript as the French fleet was bottled up and starved of manpower as Napoleon fed almost all available recruits into his armies. William had served almost the entire breadth of the war, first against Revolutionary France and then Napoleon’s regime – years of service that must have defined and shaped his attitude to life. He was lucky to retain a place in the peacetime navy and served on various ships stationed in Plymouth and staffed by skeleton crews. It meant a permanent home life of sorts. He was made boatswain of  Implacable in 1817, a third-rate ship of the line and originally the French vessel Duguay Trouin that had been captured at Trafalgar. It was a good posting as the ship was large and well known, and William would have taken great pride in coming aboard. Implacable was permanently moored in Plymouth and eventually became a training vessel as newer, more powerful ships came into service.*

*She survived until 1949, when a cash-strapped nation hauled the ship out to sea and blew it up the Channel. There were protests at this act of historical vandalism but to no avail. The stern and figure head were at least saved and are now on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.


William’s last year of service was on board the San Josef, a smaller vessel that was probably more manageable for him given his age. He was awarded an annual pension of £65 per annum effective March 1837, with ‘age and infirmity’ marked as the cause of retirement. He had served 32 years, a long naval career even by our standards. William was listed in the 1841 census as living with Mary and three of his children in St. John Street, in Dock. Mary died in 1845 and was followed by William in 1850. He had managed to live to 77, which was rather amazing considering the era's life-expectancy and the toil his working life must have taken. As a flight of fancy, I sometimes like to imagine him as an old boatswain in a Dock tavern, damning the new-fangled steam ships and regaling young whipper-snappers with wild nautical tales and salty yarns.


Endnote 1: Royal Navy interdiction of American vessels galled the USA, particularly the Jefferson/Madison bloc who would use this as part of their casus belli for declaring war against Britain in 1812. Much of their anger stemmed from the Royal Navy pressing British citizens caught on the American vessels, including sailors who claimed American citizenship despite being British-born. However, halting an enemy's commercial rights was considered legally justified at the time; neutral vessels could expect interdiction and possible impoundment if  they were deemed to be trading with or assisting an opposing belligerent. The USA would impose a similar blockade with regards to the Confederacy during the American Civil War more than 50 years later.

Endnote 2: The possibility of France seizing the Danish fleet was a very real threat and one Britain could not leave unresolved as her naval dominance had to be maintained at all costs – even if it meant trampling on neutrality laws. A similar dilemma occurred at Mers-el-Kébir on 3 July 1940, when the Royal Navy turned their guns on French ships shortly after France’s armistice with Germany in late June. Britain feared Germany would seize control of these vessels or push the Vichy regime into using them against the British, tipping the balance of naval power in the Mediterranean and exposing Britain to possible collapse in North Africa and the Middle East.

Appendix: Death on the Dispatch

At the National Maritime Museum there is a slim volume containing the minutes of the extraordinary court-marshal of Captain Hawkins in mid-February 1807 for the alleged murder of a sailor during the final months of 1805. An anonymous letter to the Admiralty accused Hawkins of having the sailor William Davie worked and punished until he became emaciated and sick, dying in the early hours of 26 December 1805. It was eventually revealed the letter was written by the ship’s master, Thomas Thompson, who held a known grudge against Hawkins. However, his accusations were detailed enough to make this a grave matter and Dispatch’s captain was ordered to stand court-marshal, with evidence taken from a wide variety of witnesses.


The defence presented evidence that Davie was a poor sailor who had taken a sizable bounty to replace an able-bodied man. That fact alone made him unpopular with the rest of the crew who had to work like a well-oiled machine when at sea. Any slovenly or below-par performance could incur the wrath of the boatswain or the officers and not just for the man responsible but also his immediate crewmates. Worse still, Davie’s illness was due to a venereal disease that had entered advanced stages and against which he was taking quack medicines. Finding it impossible to control his bodily functions, he regularly soiled himself in his hammock. Because of this, the Sergeant of the Marines, Seymour, struck the man on a number of occasions with his rattan cane. With the crew shunning him altogether, Davie eventually received a thorough examination by the surgeon who found gangrene had set in on his genitals. 


The dying man was found by Seymour and his assistants on Christmas morning, having fallen out of his hammock into a barrel underneath. According to Thompson’s accusation, the sergeant had laughed at Davie and then thrown a coat over the barrel. Called to the court-marshal, Seymour responded that he had done no such thing. However, he did admit to striking Davie with his rattan, which he claimed was no wider than one of the judges’ quills and so not really painful to be hit with. Davie was found hours later in the evening by Michael Brian, the boatswain’s mate, who managed to get him back into the hammock. Davie was found dead at 4 am on Boxing Day, his body slumped on the deck,  head lying on his medicine chest.


While we might find the actions of many on board deeply unsettling, it is important to view these events within the context of the time; many men received far harsher beatings from their superiors than Davie experienced, while Hawkins was also on record for ordering strict instructions that no man should be struck unless he was filthy below deck, which Davie was. In an age without an understanding of pathogens, it was at least known that good sanitary conditions had to be maintained or else risk the entire crew  succumbing to disease. In addition, Davie’s failure to inform the surgeon of his venereal disease until too late was his own fault and his taking quack medicines probably compounded the problem, possibly hastening his inevitable demise. This was also the conclusion of the surgeon and many other witnesses, with Hawkins cleared of all charges as a result.

Researching your relatives in Nelson’s navy

1) Read around the subject. When researching your ancestor’s career in the Royal Navy it is important to have a greater understanding of the era and what life on board was like. There are plenty of good books and websites out there.


2) The National Archives; Kew is where the bread and butter of your research will be done, although it will take time and there will be occasions when the frustration seems unbearable. The trick is to keep ploughing on, reading through the files and hoping a reference to your ancestor might crop up. William is fortunate in that he became a boatswain and so left a greater-than-normal paper trail. However, the average sailor is frequently listed in log books, muster rolls and pay books in particular. The series ADM 35 and 36 are vital in this regard.

William’s time as a rigger in Plymouth docks were uncovered in ADM42/919, while ADM6 contains warrant and fee books, and comprises vital evidence of service and payments received. ADM 1 contains letters by captains and proved vital in finding additional evidence to confirm the data in the muster and pay books. But perhaps the most vital series for my research was ADM4, the boatswain’s service book that listed William’s length of service with the various ships to which he was posted. The secret is not to be over-awed and to think laterally. It is also worthwhile asking some of the archivists for any tips they might have.


3) The National Maritime Museum was where I researched the ships on which William served in order to fill out the picture of William’s career. This section of research was the most exciting and it was here that the background knowledge and spadework at the National Archives really came together. Details on almost any ship that sailed under British colours can be found at NMM, particularly through its wonderful Caird Library. This was where I found the log books and the amazing account of the Captain Hawkins trial. However, I should stress that this last find was a real rarity, but who knows what amazing gems you will uncover. Good luck in your research!