"[Parkinson's] knowledge of the naval world of the Napoleonic era was encyclopaedic; his understanding of ships and seamen, of politics, strategy and trade almost unrivalled." —David Powell, Twentieth-Century Romance and Historical Writers
The Guernseymanby C. Northcote Parkinson
Richard Delancey, inadvertently embroiled in Liverpool labor riots, sidesteps punishment by "volunteering" for the Navy. Ranked as a midshipman, he is no sooner aboard than his ship sails for the port of New York. But when the events of the American Revolution and the ongoing hostilities between England and France send him back across the sea, Delancey finds… See more details below
Richard Delancey, inadvertently embroiled in Liverpool labor riots, sidesteps punishment by "volunteering" for the Navy. Ranked as a midshipman, he is no sooner aboard than his ship sails for the port of New York. But when the events of the American Revolution and the ongoing hostilities between England and France send him back across the sea, Delancey finds himself instrumental in defending the Isle of Jersey and, later, the Rock of Gibraltar.
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By C. Northcote Parkinson
McBooks Press, Inc.Copyright © 1982 C. Northcote Parkinson
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THE SQUALL came out of the darkness without warning, the brig being laid on her beam-ends. Seamen clung frantically to anything secure and there came from below, just audible over the other noise, the crash of gear displaced and hurled to leeward. A long minute passed during which it seemed that the vessel was lost, and then, slowly, slowly she began to right herself, her masts rising jerkily skywards. Now began the thunder of the tattered sails, whether taken aback or torn to ribbons, with the wind's shriek over all. In the darkness it was hard to tell what canvas, if any, remained and what other damage had been done, but the master, John Beecher, was on deck in a matter of seconds and bellowing his orders at men who might or might not have remained on board. Beecher tried to put the brig before the wind, chancing what dangerous flats might lie to leeward. Working fast, the mate and boatswain, with the four deck-hands, had more than enough to do, even when joined reluctantly by the cook, the steward and a couple of boys. Both topsails had been blown out of the bolt-ropes but finally it was found possible to steer the ship under a close-reefed mainsail. There were hours of work to do and it would be daybreak before all had been even temporarily set to rights. The initial squall had become a westerly half-gale, gusting to gale force occasionally, and the wind still roared overhead, making a noise through which could just be heard the ominous creaking of the pumps. It had been a bad moment and danger was still far from remote.
John Beecher was a Liverpool man, reared in the coastal trade, and had known these waters since boyhood. A voyage like this, from St Peter Port to Plymouth, from there to Cardiff, and now back to the Mersey, was ordinarily child's play, the more so in that the Charlotte (120 tons) was a newish brig and recently re-rigged. He felt confident of making the Mersey but could have wished for a stronger crew. He had sailed originally with one man short and had then left one of his men sick at Plymouth. There was one steerage passenger on board, a youth from Guernsey, one too frightened and ill, he assumed, to be of any use. However, he now had a craft which answered to the helm and he might presently edge round towards his proper course. He would not try to bend another sail until daybreak which was due in another hour or so. With two men at the pump, freeing the vessel of the water that had gone down the hatchway — she was not leaking, he felt sure — and with the old cook nearly useless, he could spare only two men to clear up the remaining tangle aloft. The brig was proving difficult to handle, however, and he took the weather wheel himself, leaving Otteridge to assist on the lee side. As the other worries lessened he now became aware, for the first time, of the sound forward of a sail flogging itself to tatters. It could only be the jib, a sail he would need if he was to bring the wind abeam, and he knew all too well that the storm jib had already been split. Should he quit the helm and go forward himself? No, he dared not leave Otteridge alone and the mate, Mr Crosbie, was busy in the main-top. With some part of his mind he planned how to make a makeshift jib, using what remained of the fore-topsail or falling back, even, on a hatch cover. He had no sailmaker, however, and doubted whether it could be done in time. But how was he to hold his course without a headsail of some sort?
The noise of snapping canvas died away abruptly and Beecher concluded, with annoyance, that what remained of the sail had gone overboard. Presently, however, an indistinct figure came out of the darkness and a voice at his elbow could be heard, shouting:
"I've secured the jib, sir."
The voice was not one he recognised so the words must have been spoken by his passenger, the young Guernseyman.
"What did you do?" he bawled.
"Knotted the sheet, sir, and made it fast."
"Well done, lad. Are you a seaman?"
"Will you join the crew?"
"If you'll repay me the passage money."
"Give me my money back — MONEY BACK!"
"Oh — very well."
"What shall I do now, sir?"
"Relieve one of the men on the pump and send him to me." The wind abated next morning and Beecher could see that his former passenger was pulling his weight. He was not a man but merely a well-grown boy. He was no seaman, whatever he might say. As against that, he was not quite a landlubber, either. Later that day, with the Charlotte on course for the Mersey in fairer weather, Beecher sent for the youngster and thanked him.
"What is your name, son?"
"Richard Delancey, sir."
"Is that a Guernsey name?"
"Not really, sir. It is Huguenot, Protestant French."
"What is your real trade?"
"I am to be clerk in a shipowner's counting-house."
"But you have been at sea?"
"In fishing boats, sir."
"Aye, lad, I thought as much. You're used to boats but not to ships."
"Is your father a seaman?"
"No, sir. He is a corn chandler. My great-uncle in Liverpool is a shipowner, though, and I am to work for him."
"Did you never wish to go to sea?"
"I did, sir, but my two elder brothers were lost at sea and my parents did not want to lose me as well."
"Can't say I blame them."
Beecher had nearly offered to take Richard as an apprentice but he lost interest in him after this, repaying his passage money but seeing to it that he earned his keep. He had, of course, much else to think about, and much to do before he sighted Bidston Hill. He was concerned, less immediately, about the news from the American colonies, where there had been fighting at Lexington in April, news of which had reached Liverpool in June. War seemed inevitable with all the inconveniences and dangers that must result, with the press-gangs active and with privateers at sea. One way and another, the outlook seemed bleak.
More interest was shown in Richard by Mr Crosbie, the mate, who taught him some rudiment of seamanship. Some old seaman's clothes, the gear of a man who had deserted, were found for the boy, and he was eventually complimented by the boatswain on his effort at a long splice. It had to be done again, to be sure, but it could have been worse, considered as a first attempt. Convinced for a moment that he had a natural gift for such things, Richard asked Mr Crosbie whether he would be allowed to stay in the ship. He was soon made to realise that there was no chance of this.
"No, son. Not a hope in hell! Liverpool docks will be crowded with men out of work — real seamen at that, men who have rounded the Cape — and who would have a berth for a lands-man or little better? We are undermanned because two of our men went down with the flux but at Liverpool we can take our pick. No, my lad — your place is ashore."
"But why are all those seamen out of work, Mr Crosbie? Are things any better at Bristol or London?"
"It's the American trade — all brought to a standstill. There are hundreds of ships lying idle, rotting at their moorings. Seamen can be had for two a penny."
"But what of the other trades, Mr Crosbie? The slave trade? The West Indies?"
"Look, son, the Atlantic is all one. A Liverpool ship carries trade goods to Africa, slaves from Africa to Virginia, tobacco from Virginia back to Liverpool. Take away the American part and the whole voyage comes to nothing."
"But won't that ruin the Americans, too?"
"To be sure it will. So they put to sea as privateers and make the picture worse!"
Thinking this over, Richard came to the conclusion that his prospects in Liverpool as a clerk were no better than his prospects as a seaman. He doubted whether his great-uncle was the sort of man who would pay a boy to do nothing, not even his godson. But what hope had he of returning to Guernsey? As things were, he could not even work his passage. He was still pondering this prospect when the Charlotte came into Plymouth. Going ashore there he saw that reception centres had been formed where men were being urged to join the navy. He asked a bystander whether the press-gangs were out but was told that these were not yet needed. Sailors without work were joining as volunteers. The brig sailed again for Cardiff, where the same recruiting efforts were being made. There was only one business prospering and that was the preparation for war. Was that, he wondered, the business he should enter? Ancestors of his had been soldiers. Should he follow the same trade? But what knowledge he had was of the sea. Perhaps he should serve the king that way and end as a captain, perhaps as an admiral! He knew all too little about the service but he guessed that a man who entered on the lower deck would most likely stay there. He sought the advice of the second mate who expressed his horror. "The navy, my lad? That's a service to keep out of! That's the way to find yourself back on the beach without a leg or short of an arm. It may be all right for officers but it's hell on the lower deck."
"But there are midshipmen, surely, no older than I am and in line for promotion. How do they come to be chosen?"
"Midshipmen! A useless and insolent lot of young lubbers, fit for the nursery but strutting on the quarterdeck! They are chosen by the captain, who takes money for it or chooses to oblige a friend. They come aboard as volunteers, first class, sometimes rated as captain's servant, but all classed as "Young Gentlemen." Their fathers make them an allowance through the captain — their pay being next to nothing. They are rated midshipmen when there is a vacancy. If I joined the navy — never fear, I won't — they'd make me master's mate. If you joined, you'd be volunteer second class."
"And how do they enter — the volunteers second class?"
"They are shipped from the workhouse, the orphanage or charity school, never having volunteered or been told even what lies ahead of them. They have the worst life of any, the last to be fed and the first to be beaten."
After this conversation Richard felt more resigned to life in a counting-house. He felt still happier about it when the Charlotte came into the Mersey on Monday 28 August. On that sunny morning the port looked most impressive, the docks filled with shipping, the town extensive and the country pleasant on the Cheshire side. The pilot had been picked up off Point Lynas, however, and he brought news which was quickly repeated from man to man. There was trouble in the town because the crew of a ship called the Derby had been told that their wages would be reduced from thirty to twenty shillings a month. The seamen countered this by unrigging the ship. When some of them were arrested a large crowd of sailors — some thousands, the pilot said — had attacked the gaol and obtained their release. All business was now at a standstill and the more nervous merchants had fled into the country. As the Charlotte came into the Salt-house Dock it became obvious that the local atmosphere was tense. No work was being done, no ship was preparing for sea, no goods were being shipped or landed. There were groups of sailors on the quayside and a crowd of them collected in the Goree Piazzas, listening no doubt to one of their leaders. There was no actual riot in progress but it looked as if there might be trouble by nightfall. Nor was it clear that the Charlotte's men would keep out of it. Once the brig was alongside the quay with sails stowed and topmasts sent down, the men went ashore in a group as soon as they had been paid. "They'll end up in prison as like as not," said the boatswain, shaking his head. "Some men can be taught only with a capstan bar."
Feeling very much alone in the world, Richard left his bundle in the brig, with the second mate's permission, and went ashore that afternoon in the clothes he had worn during the voyage. With the seamen in so ugly a mood he felt safer in that rig, one in which he would escape notice. He passed the Old Dock, turned left into Paradise Street, came into Whitechapel and turned left again into Dale Street. There he began to ask questions of passers-by, his inquiries finally leading him to a house on the left which was clearly marked "Preston, Steere & Andros" and then, in smaller letters "Agents." It was the right place but the building seemed deserted, with boards nailed over the ground-floor windows. Richard went on down towards Castle Street and presently found a respectable looking citizen to whom he could turn for information. "Preston, Steere & Andros?" he repeated.
"There is only the one partner now, old Mr Andros, but he was one of those who proposed to lower the seamen's rate of pay. I believe he has fled, boarding his windows up before they could be broken. A timorous man, old Mr Andros — he must be over eighty now — I heard tell that he was gone — he and his son, both — but whether to Warrington or Chester I couldn't say. A tight-fisted man, by repute, but I never did business with him myself."
Richard thanked this informant and walked on towards the Exchange, feeling now thoroughly downcast. He was alone and friendless in a strange town, a boy who had seldom been out of Guernsey, without employment or lodging and with only a few shillings in his purse. He asked several other strangers if they knew where old Mr Andros had gone but he soon came to suspect that his great-uncle was in a relatively small way of business, not very generally known or liked. It was also obvious that the Liverpool merchants had other things to think about. Near the Exchange they were standing about in groups, talking quietly and exchanging anxious looks. If there were no immediate signs of disorder it was clear that further trouble was expected. From talk he overheard he concluded that all other ships in the port had been unrigged by the seamen and prevented from sailing. There was also some mention of enlisting and arming special constables, any reference to this plan being cut short when he was seen to be listening. He ran off in some confusion and made his way back to the Charlotte — all the home he had, his last tenuous link with Guernsey.
That evening he had a further talk with Mr Crosbie, who gave him leave to sleep on board the brig for another two nights, after which she was going into dry dock.
"I don't like the look of things, son," said Mr Crosbie. "I think the merchants will have to give in over the seamen's pay. After all a bargain is a bargain. But they'll try to get their own back by putting the ringleaders in prison. Then there'll be real trouble and you had best keep out of it."
"I heard something ashore about the arming of special constables."
"I heard that story too and it sounds all too likely. Once the firing starts we don't know how it will end. The one thing certain is that Liverpool is full of firearms, powder and shot. They export arms from here, brought by canal from Birmingham, much of the poorer stuff being for the slave trade. If firing begins this town is going to suffer."
All was quiet next day and it was said that the dispute was over. That evening, however, a crowd of sailors gathered outside the Exchange. Told to disperse, they refused and were fired on by the special constables. Richard heard the firing from a distance but kept clear of the town centre. He made further inquiries that day and eventually managed to track down Mr Gosfield, the clerk who had retired at the beginning of the month after working with Mr Andros for a quarter of a century. He lived in Bath Street, not far from the fort, a widower with a taste for gardening. He doubted very much whether Mr Andros would appoint another clerk, even supposing that he could be found and even assuming that commerce in Liverpool were to revive.
"What about young Mr Andros?"
"He'll sell that business as soon as his father retires. He married a wife with money — one of the Blundell family. Now you must look at my hollyhocks ... Did you ever see the likes? I don't even water them ..."
Round Water Street and St Nicholas Church there were signs of anxious activity among the merchants and shopkeepers, with windows being boarded up and doors barricaded. Richard came back to the brig that evening, his last, and wondered where he was to sleep the following night. He had little money left and nowhere to go, his only consolation being that the weather was warm. He took note of the stables near the Salthouse Dock and went out of his way to make friends with a stable boy called Pete. After helping Pete feed the horses, he promised to help again next day. By then, he hoped, there might be a chance to sleep in the hay-loft and find an odd corner for his bundle of clothes. Pete was not a very responsive character but he yielded in the end to a bribe of twopence. By the following day, 30 August, Richard had his corner of the hay-loft but realised that his tenancy was insecure. There were stable men to whom Pete was ancillary and a foreman above them again. With the port closed down these were not much in evidence but a resumption of work on the quayside would bring them back in force.
Excerpted from The Guernseyman by C. Northcote Parkinson. Copyright © 1982 C. Northcote Parkinson. Excerpted by permission of McBooks Press, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author
Cyril Northcote Parkinson pursued a distinguished academic career on both sides of the Atlantic and first became famous for "Parkinson's Law"work expands to fill the time allotted to it. Parkinson wrote many books on British politics and economics. His first fictional effort, a "biography" of Horatio Hornblower, met with considerable acclaim and led to the Delancey series. C. Northcote Parkinson died in 1993.
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