The Ferment Works

Between the decks of the ships, in air thick with the eternal stench of bilge-water and rotting boards, the men came together in discreet twos and threes, or, crouched in the gun-berths, evaded the eyes of the “narks,” or informers. They were sore, they felt themselves despised, their moderate complaints had been met with the contempt of silence. Fur cap nodded with shiny tarpaulin hat or gaudy turban-kerchief over the mess-table, the gleam of a gold earring might be caught bobbing by a chequered shirt in the gloomy recesses of the orlop-deck when the smoky candle flickered. Old salts, tough as whipcord, at last expressed in rum-husky whispers their suspicion that though they were serving their country well, the country in return was treating them as though they had less than the sentiments of beasts: they had been patient and dumb as oxen, but now they were beginning to feel a sense of intolerable wrong.

There was no escape; they were prisoners. Many of them had been kidnapped, torn forcibly, sometimes with knocking on the head, not only from seamen’s taverns or wharf-side brothels, but from their wives and families amid riots and tumults ofimpotent would-be rescuers. Worse still, perhaps, they had been seized as they entered home waters after a voyage abroad of two or three years (an instance of nine is quoted), pounced on when in sight of their homes—often without the pay due to them—and shipped on to warships for an indefinite period, without prospect of release until the end of the war, whenever that might be, and without hope of a holiday—since men allowed on shore seldom came back. Any who had joined from a love of romance repented it bitterly after a week. Cooped up in a foetid atmosphere, often for days together when the weather was foul, and drenched with salt water as well; huddled with the dregs of the gaols, or men who had been shipped as boys, probably for some trivial offence, and had never known a different life; pestered with thieves from whom their small belongings were not safe; never free from the fiendish bullying of officers high or petty, they lived a life without hope. There was no leisure, no leave, no books, to qualify their miserable existence:* there was nothing to make a man feel himself a human being. The life was “brutalising, cruel, and horrible”; and with it all, apart from the dangers of the sea, the men who lived in these disgusting conditions, and fed on the most outrageous food, were expected to show spirit in a fight, in which ghastly wounds were hastily botched up in dim light by inexperienced surgeons (who sometimes borrowed the carpenter’s tools), and during which badly maimed men were simply thrown overboard.

There must have been many mutterings among the heads that lay so close in the hammocks, jammed together, “fourteen inches to a man”; but men will stand an amazing amount of degradation so long as they see nothing better, while their conditions appear to be a part of things as they are, unalterable, fixed for ever. But once they catch a glimpse of something different, and believe it attainable, a spark is lighted which is extremely dangerous to try to put out. The match was ready, for within the last two years the ranks of the Navy had been invaded by a new element —by men who would not live in this state of brutish acquiescence, who knew there really was something better. They had flocked in on account of the need of an enormously increased personnel caused by the war, and by the frequent desertions, especially to the American merchant service—a need so huge that, even leaving out of account losses in battle, all the efforts of the press-gangs, even when they unlawfully captured landsmen, were not enough to man the Fleets. In March 1795 an Act was passed for raising a number of men in each county roughly proportional to the population; and in April another Act was passed requiring each port to supply a “quota” of men.

These recruits were, mostly, better educated than the normal run of seamen. They were not the sweepings of the dock-sides or prisons, or ignorant men who had known nothing but the sea; they were sometimes even men who had failed in some profession—schoolmastering, the law, or business—and had probably run into debt; they were tempted by the bounties offered by the mayors and sheriffs —which might be as much as £70—and it was these men who, when the authorities had emptied the prisons, got rid of seditious elements, and all undesirables generally, came to swell the ranks of the service. Realising the beastliness of the conditions of life at sea, they kicked, and began to light a gleam of hope in those who had never thought of kicking. Busily, circumspectly, on upper deck and lower, from the forecastle hands to the cockpit servants, at greasing the guns or manning the fore-tops, they blew gently but steadily on the tiny, timid flames, urging the men to ask for at least the common decencies of treatment, without which a man is more wretched than a brute.

Whoever it was that organised the seamen must have been a man of ability amounting to genius. But no ringleader ever appeared; it was as though the Fleet spoke with one voice, spontaneously. Yet means of constant communication were entirely lacking. Letters could occasionally be sent from one ship to another, but the only time the men on different ships could talk to each other was when Sunday visiting was allowed. On fine afternoons in port boat-loads of “liberty men” would row busily from ship to ship, to be regaled by their hosts with the rum saved from the dinner ration; and it is probable that on these visiting days, under cover of noisy greetings and sailors’ yarns, of showing the ship, and perhaps of privy gambling, the whispering went on, the organisation was woven. Without authority to give orders, with uncertain and intermittent communication, whoever the guiding spirit was, he managed to weld into a solid mass as motley and tough a lot of people as a leader ever had to handle. There were old tars, young sailors, sturdy loyalists, seditious malcontents from Ireland or elsewhere, pressed men, volunteers, gaol-birds, men of no education, and quota-men of more than a little; there were escaping debtors and honest men; there were men you could trust mingled with thieves and card-sharpers whom to trust with a chew of tobacco would be folly; and to increase the difficulty there were 10 per cent, of foreigners.

Not only did the leader get this strange medley to act in concert, but he managed them so as to allow him to frame their demands with consummate skill. In the early petitions one point was put forward, and one point only, a perfectly reasonable one, which everybody would be able to appreciate, one which involved no idea of personal wrongs or of other people’s shortcomings, but was on the face of it perfectly fair. It was the point of pay, and this was all that the Admiralty was asked to consider in the humble petitions sent separately from every ship. They were put in the most respectful, loyal language, and both common humanity and common-sense policy would suggest that at least some sort of acknowledgement should be made.

But from first to last the Admiralty, with the exception of Spencer himself, behaved with an astounding lack of wisdom, sometimes approaching idiocy; the petitions therefore were met with complete silence, as though the men who sent them were beneath notice.

Apart from the way the men lived, a consideration of how much they got, and what they were expected to do with their money, makes the ignoring of the petitions seem outrageous. The Able Seaman was rewarded with 24*$’. a lunar month, the Ordinary Seaman with 195. From these sums so much was subtracted for one thing and another that either was lucky if he touched lQy. 10 A universal deduction was for the Chatham Chest, a kind of pension fund; but the pension, if he was lucky enough to get one when disabled, only amounted to a niggardly £7 a year, in contrast with the £13 received by the seaman’s Chelsea brother. If at any time he was in the sick bay, even for wounds or on account of disabilities incurred in the service, he was allowed no pay at all. Out of what was left he had to buy his slops (seamen’s clothing and bedding), often at extortionate prices owing to the rapacity of the pursers, who would absorb quite two months’ pay for an outfit; to get extra food to supplement the sometimes inedible ration; and, if married, to support wife and family. He was better off in the merchant service. And when it is realised that the pay was often anything up to two years in arrear, sometimes considerably more,* that it was issued in full only when a ship was paid off, and always in tickets convertible into cash at the port of commission alone, it is not surprising that the sailor, tempted by the wares of Jews and bum-boat women who flocked hungrily round the ships in port, was ready to dispose of what tickets he had at a fantastic discount. If he was transferred or “lent” to another ship, the purser would often neglect to hand him his ticket, and pocket the thing himself. If a seaman posted his ticket home, his wife had to traipse to the port of commission, sometimes to be sent empty away because of a Q (query) written on the ticket, “At the time of the Nore mutiny it was authoritatively stated that there were ships then in the Fleet which had not been paid off for eight, ten, twelve, and, in one instance, even fifteen years,” so that she also often disposed of it to agents at a discount of half a crown in the pound. It is therefore readily understandable that most of the seamen’s families starved, or were supported by a grudging parish. No wonder the first petitions were for more pay.

For a month or two the expectant sailors waited in vain for some sort of sign. When none came they began to grow restive; the more indignant spirits clamoured for action, and there was talk of refusing to sail when next ordered to do so. 11 But either the organisation was not ready, or more probably the cautious leaders, in full control, decided that they would put themselves still more in the right by leaving no legal stone unturned. They skilfully organised a fresh set of petitions, to be addressed this time to Lord Howe.

They had faith in Richard, Earl Howe, or “Black Dick,” as he was affectionately called. They had the admiration for him men always have for a successful leader, and those who had been with him in the Battle of the First of June plumed themselves on having been his comrades in arms.

They loved him, for his harsh, dark features would sometimes soften into the most charming smile; he was notoriously “the sailor’s friend,” and after an action would always go down to the cockpit to sit and chat with the wounded; he had even been known to give men leave, and had hinted, if rather vaguely, after the Glorious First, that he would try to get their pay increased. If he could not do something, who could? He was the nation’s sea hero; he had been First Lord, he was still nominally in command of the Channel Fleet, for though too old to go to sea, especially in winter, he was too inspiring a figure to be allowed to retire. He, surely, would take up the tale of the sailors’ wrongs, and after he had spoken they would be redressed.

Drafts of the petition to be presented were sent, by what means can only be guessed, from the Queen Charlotte, Howe’s old flagship, which appears to have been the headquarters of the movement. They went under cover of private letters, the one to the Minotaur, for instance, being addressed to an A.B. of twenty-two, who had joined from Sunderland about six months before, and was of the type, evidently, on which the organisation was built up. He received definite instructions:


If your ship’s company approve of the enclosed petition, you are requested to get a fair copy, and let us know on what day it will be convenient for you to send it, that they may go by the one post, as it will be the means of insuring success by showing it to [be] the general wish of the Fleet. Let it be directed to Lord Howe, without any signature at bottom, only the ship’s name and day of the month. Therefore wishing it success,

We are yours, etc., etc..

The Charlottes.

Send the copy to your acquaintance, and every other ship with these directions Direct for any man on board of us with whom you are acquainted. We think Tuesday 7th [March] will be a proper day, as there will be sufficient time to collect the sense of the Fleet.

The petition was carefully scrutinised in secret conclaves by each ship, at least one of which felt it knew better than the Charlottes, who soon received the following shrewd criticism from the London:

26 February 1797.

Messmates, I duly received your letter yesterday, and have shewn it to several and all agree in returning you their hearty thanks for your kind intentions. The resolutions is generous, the intention noble. In short it is worthy of the conquerors of the Glorious First of June. I beg leave, however, to mention one thing which you have forgot. You intreat his Lordship to intercede [with] the Board of Admiralty for augmentation of pay. But that is not under their jurisdiction to do; it is a national affair, and must be addressed to the hon. House of Commons. It is from them alone that we can expect redress. They are the purse bearers of the nation. Let them be petitioned, and I make no doubt but their generosity. One thing more you might have added, there has been no alteration in the pay of the Navy since the reign of King Charles the Second when at that time everything was so reasonable that even double the money now is hardly equivalent to purchase any of the necessaries of life. You will, if you please, reflect on these reasons, and if you approve, not otherwise, please to adopt them. I have no more to add but to assure you of our hearty concurrence to your petition as you may depend. Shall be forwarded to you in due time according to your request with every other assistance m our power to grant consistent with reason, peace, and ‘good fellowship. Proceed m your endeavours. Proceed in caution, peace and good behaviour. Let no disorder or tumult influence your proceedings, and I have not the least doubt but your late glorious commander will step forth in behalf of his fellow-conquerors.

Please to send word what ship you would wish us to acquaint with it and it shall be done. I shall now conclude with wishing you all all manner happiness, and believe me to remain

Yours most affectionately,


That letter is not quite so scholarly as the one from the flagship, but the pen which wrote it was directed by an able mind, quick to take up points, and a calm head which saw that disorder or tumult either in discussion or action would be fatal, a head which realised the importance of legitimate action up to the last possible moment. The Charlottes, though they had thought more clearly in one respect, were impressed, and answered:

Yours we duly received and acknowledge the justness of your remarks, and are thankful for the hints they contain, but our reason for addressing the Lords of the Admiralty in preference to the House of Commons was this, the Board of Admiralty are all professional men and might take umbrage at not having the compliment paid them first. If they adopt the prayers of our petition they will soon pass motion m consequence, and bring it before the House with all the ministerial party to back it, and thereby take the merit to themselves. If through their means it should miscarry we still have the House of Commons open to us with all force of opportunities on our sides, whichever way it is we have not the least doubt, but by unity amongst ourselves and a steady peaceable perseverance to carry our point.

With regard to your second point we think it noble and extremely applicable to our purpose, we have therefore adopted it in the best manner we are able. Therefore wishing unity with perseverance with success to our endeavours

Remaining yours,

The Charlottes.

The leaders were determined to have right on their side all through; they would take no step which might be misinterpreted; they would take care not to huff the Admiralty, and would allow no mutinous act to spoil their chances.

Their grammar might be questionable, their pompous dignity in writing to each other may seem comic, but they had clear, responsible minds and determined hearts. In the event, their plan for sending all the letters in one batch was foiled by the Fleet putting to sea earlier than they expected; but some of the missives went off together in February, and some by the Fleet packet after the ships were away, on 3rd March. The petitions went to London.

Lord Howe was at Bath, recuperating from a bad attack of gout. When these letters were forwarded to him he probably looked at them in irritation: he was in no mood to be bothered with letters, obviously not personal ones, which came from the Fleet. His job was done; he had handed over to that fellow Bridport, who was always being tiresome, and whom he disliked. He had practically retired, as a man of seventy-one might well do. It was only because Spencer, and Pitt, and finally the King, had told him that his retiring just then would make a bad impression, that he had stayed on at all. Heroes, they had implied, were needed in times of despondency. He was old, he felt old: even on the Glorious First of June he had had to be supported in his chair on deck to direct the action. He tore open one of these preposterous-looking letters and read:

To the Right Honourable Richard, Earl Howe. Admiral of the Fleet and General of Marines.

The humble petitioners on board His Majesty’s Ship Queen Charlotte [monstrous, his own ship!] on behalf of themselves and then Brethren on Board of the Fleet at Spithead. [On behalf of the Fleet! This looked like some illegal combination.] Most humbly sheweth that your petitioners most humbly intreat [the rogues had learnt the jargon somehow!] that your Lordship would be pleased to take the hardships of which they complain into consideration and lay them before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, not doubting in the least from your Lordship’s interference in their behalf they will obtain a speedy redress.

It is now upwards of two years since your petitioners observed with pleasure the augmentation which had been made to pay of the Army and Militia, and the provision that took place with respect to their wives and families, of such soldiers as were serving on board, naturally expecting that they should in their turn experience the same munificence, but alas no notice has been taken of them, nor the smallest provision made for their wives and families except what they themselves sent out of their pay to prevent them being burdensome to the parish.

That your petitioners humbly presume that their loyalty to their Sovereign is as conspicuous and their courage as unquestionable as any other description of men in His Majesty’s service as their enemies can testify, and as your Lordship can witness who so often led them to victory and glory and by whose manly exertions the British Flag rides triumphant in every quarter of the Globe.

And your petitioners humbly conceive that at the lime when their wages were settled in the reign of Charles the Second it was intended as a comfortable support both for themselves and families, but at present by the considerable rise m the necessaries of life, which is now almost double , and an advance of 30 per cent, on slops, your Lordship will plainly see that the intentions of the legislature is counteracted by the before mentioned causes and therefore most humbly pray for relief.

Your petitioners relying on your goodness and benevolence humbly implores that my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty will comply with the prayers of this petition, and grant such addition will be made m their pay as m their Lordships’ wisdom they shall think meet.

And your petitioners will in duty bound ever pray.

28th Feb. 1797.

One letter of the sort was annoying enough—at his age a man should be allowed a little respite to take the waters in peace— -but they kept on coming in. There were eleven of them altogether. As he read them, it occurred to him that they were all curiously alike in phrasing. He looked at them more carefully. Ah! that was it. Although at first sight they seemed to be written by different people, they were all really written by the same man disguising his handwriting (he was wrong there). The petitions were therefore a single petition, from a single discontented wretch of a fellow, probably one of your “state-the-case” men who thought he had been wrongfully pressed, and not from the whole Fleet. He was sure his brave fellows were both happy and sound. However, to make sure, he wrote and suggested to Lord Hugh Seymour, a Lord of the Admiralty, that he might ask a few questions when he was down at Portsmouth as to whether anyone had noticed any discontent in the Fleet. Seymour—who made cursory enquiries when the Fleet was at sea! -answered that no one had heard of anything being wrong. “So I was right,” Howe thought, sighed with relief as he hobbled across the pumproom on his crutches, and put the affair out of his mind.

One thing only was left to do: to get rid of the petitions. He was still, perhaps, a trifle uneasy about them. So when he went up to London, on 22nd March, he handed them over to Seymour, who showed them to Spencer. The First Lord was shocked, horrified. Here was this deplorable question of increased pay, which meant, naturally, swollen estimates, cropping up again! At the next Board meeting he dealt with the matter: everybody thought it was clearly “impossible to do anything officially on the subject without running the risk of unpleasant consequences by a public agitation of so delicate a topic,” and so “it was judged advisable by the Board to take no notice of the circumstance.” Again the note of irony sounds in our ears in the politicians’ phrases, “Unpleasant consequences” seem trifling compared with a mutiny of the whole Fleet; and as for “public agitation,” the whole country was to discuss the question. Spencer’s awareness was asleep; that the sailors had a legitimate grievance and were feeling bitterly about it does not seem to have penetrated his consciousness even yet, although this was his second warning. It is a stain on the memory of a truly good-hearted man, that the First Lord had nothing better to say than that money would be needed to satisfy the men; that an application to Parliament for more money in those times of heavy taxation and financial stringency would be troublesome; that to ventilate the causes of discontent in the Fleet might start bad mischief; and that in short the best course was to say nothing, do nothing, and hope that nothing would happen.” To reassure him in this last blessed hope, Seymour had reported that all things at Portsmouth suggested the profoundest calm.

How should they not have? The organisers of the petitions had been far too wary to let any whispers get abroad, and the men before sailing had taken care to behave with the most disarming docility. Yet Spencer was more to blame than Howe; he was young, he was imaginative; and Howe, after all, though he has been upbraided for not insisting on a searching investigation, had done ail that could be expected of a war-worn veteran. He had cogitated (a little), he had made enquiries, and had handed the documents over to the proper authority. If he had acted with more vigour … but then history is made up of ifs, and in a few days the game passed to other hands.