Able seamen wanted!

When Halley’s first voyage ended prematurely with his return to England to court martial his lieutenant, he had to use all his diplomatic skills to persuade the Lords of the Admiralty to allow him a second attempt. That second voyage, however, was deemed so successful that their lordships lost no time in approving his next proposal for an expedition to survey the tides of the Channel.

This proposal was dated 23 April 1701 and it was evidently approved almost immediately, as on the 26th Halley wrote again to “humbly entreat my Commission to be dispatcht, in order to gett the Paramore Pink mann’d with such Compliment [sic] as their Lopps shall think fitting”, and his commission as master and commander of the Paramore was issued that day.[1] At the same time, the Admiralty sent an order to the Navy Board to clean and fit out the Paramore for “Channell Service”, and they agreed to all the requests for “Extraordinarys” that Halley had made in his letter, including his suggestion that the crew “cannot be well less than it was last time viz: 25 Men.”[2]

Halley wanted his commission quickly so he could begin recruiting his crew, as he was concerned that seamen were scarce as “no men [were] now offering themselves as usuall at other times.” Halley’s problem was that Royal Navy wages were then lower than those offered by merchant ships: Peter Earle tells us that wages in both the royal and merchant navies were broadly similar during peacetime (about 25 shillings a month for an able seaman), but that merchant wages rose dramatically during war when the competition for men became intense.[3]

In 1701, Europe was gearing up for what we know as the War of the Spanish Succession, and so merchant wages were presumably rising in anticipation of its outbreak. In a letter dated 4 June 1701, Halley complained that “I find my self disappointed in my Mate, who for great wages has been tempted to break his promise to me”, and expressed his concern that “for 40 sh[illings] p[er] month I fear I cannot have a man capable to take charge of my shipp, Marchants [sic] giving now so much to any able Seaman” – so merchant ships were already paying able seamen at a 15 shilling premium.

Halley had great difficulty obtaining his crew, and from the date his project was approved until he set sail nearly two months later, he wrote a series of increasingly desperate letters on the subject to Josiah Burchett, Secretary to the Admiralty.

On 31 May, he asked if “their Lopps shall thinking fitting to spare me but two able Seamen out of four or five of the Ships of Warr”, promising “I will take care to return them where I had them in case the breaking out of a war oblige me to desist from my undertaking.” And in an undated letter (endorsed June), Halley wrote that the Paramore was ready to sail if only he had his complement of men, and so “I beseech you to lay before their Lopps the great difficulty I find to gett them”. On 4 June he requested “leave to have out of the Shipps of Warr, under such restriction as their Lopps please, such men as shall be willing to serve on board me”, and this prompted their lordships to order that “3 Prest Men” on ships in the Downs should be discharged into the Paramore on her arrival, which they amended a few days later to “so many Men as he Shall have occasion of”. Halley sailed from Deptford on June 14 and received four men from ships in the Downs, when he anchored there a few days later.

It’s interesting that Halley writes of men “as shall be willing to serve on board me”, as I’m not sure whether this is simply a piece of naval phraseology or a precaution against the trouble he had on his first voyage with recalcitrant officers – although I am sure that if I were a “prest” seaman, I’d rather be on a scientific cruise in the English Channel with Halley, than part of a crew in the war fleet!

The Liberty of the Subject (1779), a satirical depiction of a press-gang (Source: National Maritime Museum, ID PAG8527)

The Liberty of the Subject (1779), a satirical depiction of a press-gang. (Source: National Maritime Museum, ID PAG8527)

Finally, just to let you know that I’m not intending to tweet the log of his third voyage, as even I can see that a report of his continual anchoring around the Channel doesn’t provide a compelling read (to anyone but myself), although I will tweet the occasional entry.

I’m also in the latter stages of my MA and, alas, have little free time for this blog, but I will not neglect Captain Halley entirely and expect to publish a few short posts during his four month voyage (as well as writing my dissertation about him!).


[1] All quotes from Halley’s letters (written to Josiah Burchett) are from TNA, ADM 1/1872, and his commission is in TNA, ADM 6/6, f91v.

[2] Admiralty order to clean and fit out the Paramore is in TNA, ADM 2/181, p117.

[3] Peter Earle, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650-1775 (London: Methuen, 2007), pp186-8.


One thought on “Able seamen wanted!

  1. Pingback: Whewell’s Gazette: Vol. #51 | Whewell's Ghost

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