I’ve noted at several places on this blog that a great many of the adventures of our favorite fictional naval officers are actually real incidents with some characters, sometimes not that many characters changed. Such is the case with Dudley Pope’s Lord Ramage novel, Ramage’s Prize.
Sit back and relax, this is a longish story but an interesting one.
When Britain entered the War of the First Coalition, which seamlessly mutated into the Napoleonic Wars in due course, she found herself engaged in a global war and timely communications with her colonies and military units was critical to survival. This placed an enormous responsibility upon the Post Office Packet Service. The hub of the Packet Service was Cornish town of Falmouth. In fact, the leading industry in Falmouth was the Packet Service. The service employed 30 plus packets and about 1200 men. The ships were build locally and the men were recruited there. The men and the masters of these packets were friends, neighbors, and relatives.
As an aside we should note that Britain had a desperate tendency to try to fight its wars on the cheap. Both the army and navy were dreadfully underpaid and carried on vestiges of various medieval proprietorship arrangements. Ten men, for instance, in each infantry company were officially condoned ghost soldiers whose wages belonged to the captain who was essentially the owner of the company. Navy pursers were subjected to very sharp practices by the Navy Board and likewise resorted to sharp practice in dealing the sailors. Dockyard workers, until St. Vincent’s brief reign of terror as First Lord, were allowed to claim sections of wood shorter than three feet as scrap resulting in lots of perfectly good planks being sawn into 29″ sections and lots of homes being built with sections of lumber less than three feet in length. Likewise the Packet Service was poorly paid. In fact, they drew lower rates of pay than sailors in either the navy or customs service. The masters had to provide their own ships, which the Packet Service subsequently leased from them, and which the Packet Service would replace or repair if the ship was lost or damaged in line of duty. The only advantage the Packet Service had, on paper, was that the men were exempt from impressment. So what was the attraction of the Packet Service? The illegal but officially condoned (and after 1798 the legal and officially sanctioned) practice of allowing the packet crew to carry, duty free, goods to and from Britain, the West Indies, Portugal, etc., and sell those goods on their own account. Packets were allowed to carry any volume of goods the master allowed so long as they didn’t put the vessel “out of trim.”
The access to rather large sums of tax free money always leads someone to push the envelope and this was no exception. Sixteen packets covered the Falmouth-Kingston route with one ship leaving every two weeks. A voyage took, under the best of conditions, some fifteen weeks to complete, so you could count on making two trips per year. When you consider that a common seaman could make the equivalent of a decade or more’s wages on a single voyage, the limitation on earnings became a function of how many trips a packet could make in a year.
In 1797 and the first half of 1798, the Packet Service suffered a series of losses to French privateers. Indeed, by December 1798 the number of packets available for the West Indies route had been reduced to seven. The Packet Service hired three additional vessels but they were inferior to the purpose-built packets in speed. The nine packet commanders stayed ashore to supervise the construction of their new ship. Construction proceeded at a very leisurely pace, one man took 29 months to complete his.
One must suspect that the fact that the ships were being built with government funds in Falmouth shipyards and fitted out with sails and rope made in Packet Service facilities in Falmouth coupled with the commanders lack of interest in returning to sea indicates that construction money was find its way into their pockets in the meantime.
Mail service to Britain’s empire was at a crisis.
But all good things must come to an end. In 1798, William Eden, 1st Baron Auckland and George Granville Leveson-Gower, 1st Duke of Sutherland. succeded to the position of Joint Postmaster. Their arrival may not have been as significant, both being political appointees, had Francis Freeling not simultaneous ascended to the role of Secretary to the Post Office. Freeling was a career postal employee and his cooperation with the postmasters gave them access to an expert who shared their agenda of making the Packet Service reliable.
The crisis seemed to abate in 1799, one packet Chesterfield was taken in April and another, Carteret lost to privateers in July. West Indies merchants, colonial governors, and military commanders stopped complaining.
Then in November Lady Harriet on the Lisbon route was taken, followed shortly by the loss of Halifax inbound from the West Indies. In December Westmoreland, also inbound from the West Indies and Adelphi, you guessed, inbound from the West Indies were lost.
Auckland and Freeling faced a fresh resurgence of the crisis they had thought past. Instead of panicking, Auckland undertook a systematic review of all the Packet Service losses.
When Auckland first took the Postmaster position he had noticed that most packet losses occurred on the inbound leg of the voyage. He had written this off as an anomaly that would be corrected as more numbers became available. The latest series of losses called that premise into question.
As 1800 dawned, the losses were even more heavily weighted in the direction of inbound packets. The Princess Royal on February 27, Carteret (I was warned by Pope of the deadly lack of imagination in the naming of packets) on March 9, the Jane on March 12, Princess Charlotte on May 4, Marquis of Kildare on May 6, Princess Amelia on May 8th were all lost with only Jane being outbound. The Duke of Clarence, also inbound, was lost later that summer.
The rapidity of losses was staggering and the pattern of inbound packets being lost to privateers was now unmistakable. Another fact coming to light was that none of the captured packets had attempted to resist capture.
Auckland was under pressure to fix the situation. Henry Dundas, later 1st Viscount Melville, who was Secretary of State for War directed army commanders in the West Indies to send duplicate and triplicate dispatches home by armed merchantmen.
Auckland’s inquiry discovered another anomaly in the Packet Service. If an navy officer lost his ship he was subjected to a court martial and had to explain his conduct and actions under oath. The master of a packet was only require to attest to a statement of how the ship was lost in front of a Falmouth notary. This statement was sent to the Postmaster as justification for reimbursing the master for the loss of his ship.
Auckland also began evaluating the impact of the trade goods carried as private ventures by the packet crews. He found that the value of goods ran to £4000 per voyage and the local economy of Falmouth was somewhat dependent upon the trade. No duties were paid on inbound ventures and a corps of female peddlers, known as “troachers,” were employed to sell the goods door to door.
Ominously, for some years there had been intimations that the losses were not accidental.
All members of the packet crew were insuring their personal ventures both out and back. When the goods were sold in Lisbon or the West Indies they would purchase letters of credit which they would send home via secure, i.e. not a mail packet, means. When they encountered a privateer inbound they would meekly surrender. While in theory they faced the possibiity of waiting in a French prison for exchange, in practice, French privateers often put the crews ashore in Britain. They would then use the master’s notarized statement to make a claim against the insurance for loss of goods which, in reality, never existed.
Incredibly, Auckland refused to believe the packet crews could concoct such a fraud and the Post Office Inspector of Packets produced a report declaring such a fraud to be impossible. The issue seemed to vanish.
Then two events took place which demonstrated the level of corruption in the Packet Service.
In June 1801 the Earl Gower commanded by a Captain Deak was inbound from Lisbon and encountered a French privateer. Half the crews went below leaving the packet unable to either run or fight. If they had been merely afraid, logic dictates they would have tried to run. Their actions could only be interpreted at to mean they intended for the packet to be taken.
On September 18, 1803, Duke of York was inbound from Lisbon. She was under the command of her master, the commander not having been aboard for the voyage. She encountered a French privateer barely half her size. She was chased for the entire day and as dusk fell the master asked the surgeon what he should do as even though the privateer was over a mile away she was gaining on them. The surgeon advised surrender. Instead of attempting to escape under cover of the rapidly falling night, the master struck his colors and sent a boat to the privateer to announce their surrender.
Auckland was dumbfounded by the latter story and over the objections of the Inspector of Packets ordered a court of inquiry empanelled to investigate the loss. The court, structured like a naval court martial, was composed of packet captains who were resentful of Auckland’s inserting himself into what they viewed as their business. The acquitted the master.
Their attitude towards the court of inquiry, however, raised suspicions on the part of the same Inspector of Packets who had opposed Auckland over the court of inquiry. He began his own investigation.
One man, he found, admitted that he had gained £300 by his misfortune. The surgeon, who advised the surrender, had certainly made .£250 out of it; but, by a remarkable lapse of memory, he was quite unable to recollect what sum he had received in Lisbon for goods sold there; so that it was impossible to arrive at the full amount of his profit. The steward’s mate was richer by £250; one of the seamen by £200; and most of the crew had pocketed substantial sums, made in the identical way indicated by the rumours spoken of above.
The next step was to ascertain whether any of these men, and especially those who had made large profits on this occasion, had been captured before.
The surgeon, who had been foremost in counselling surrender, and who was also (probably) the largest gainer among this pack of scoundrels, had also been captured more frequently than any of the crew, except three men, having been taken prisoner no less than three times before. How much money he had made on those three occasions is not stated. Three of the crew had been equally lucky. Four other men had been captured twice before, most of the rest once, and eight of them had been on board the Earl Gower at the time of the disgraceful circumstances related above.
The inference from these facts was so plain that not even the Inspector of Packets could fail to draw it. His report was hesitating, but on the whole conclusive: and it contained this striking passage, ” I cannot help being of opinion that if during the war officers and seamen are permitted to carry out merchandise on commission or otherwise, there is reason to fear that the loss of Packets may be very considerable, unless indeed under disinterested or high-spirited commanders.”
The master and surgeon were dismissed and forbidden ever to be employed again by the Packet Service.
This was the beginning of the end of the golden days of being a packet crewman. Private ventures were abolished. There was a mutiny among the packet crews which the government weathered and eventually the Packet Service was returned to a state of professionalism.
If you want more information on the trials and tribulations of the Packet Service, read History of the Post Office Packet Service on Google Books.