27 January 1760 — A round robin at sea

On the morning of Sunday 27 January 1760 Captain Edward Wheeler of his majesty’s (King George II) ship Isis, a 50 gun fourth rate ship of war, then in the Downs, the sea anchorage in the English Channel between Deal on the Kent coast and the Goodwin Sands, addressed his ship’s company. They gathered to listen to him in the cold January air as he “endeavoured to argue them out of their Bad opinions of the Ship, and to Animate and Encourage them, if possible, to go Contentedly to Sea in her.”

The previous evening Captain Wheeler had received a round robin and petition from “the Ship’s Company in General” claiming that the ship was “so Much Decay’d” that it would be dangerous to go to sea in her, and asking him to do whatever lay in his power to persuade the Admiralty to give them another ship.

“your petitioners being truely Sensible of the Danger We are in by going to Sea in the above Ship, her Works being so Much Decay’d that Scarcely one man amongst us can have a Dry Hammock to turn into when we come off the Deck wet and cold, which has been the cause of many people’s falling Sick and thereby Rendered incapable of their Duty”

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The round robin signed by the crew of HMS Isis 26 January 1760— UK National Archives ADM 1/2665

The round robin was so called because its circular form made it impossible to tell who the first signatory or ring-leader was, and from the mid-18C onwards was favoured by sailors with a grievance to air, as mutiny was a hanging offence. Captain Wheeler thought that this round robin was just the expression of “a few Grumbling and Dissatisfied Fellows”

Ye have Call’d yourselves the Ship’s Company in General, But I am much Mistaken if that Ship’s Company in general is not Compos’d of a few Grumbling and Dissatisfied Fellows whose Nature it is to be uneasy with themselves, and therefore desirous to make all about them so, Who have set up their Petition, from a Spirit of Mutiny, and a Desire of Complaining, and have by different Methods prevail’d on other People to Sign it, for I have a much better opinion of the greater part of the Signers, than to suppose they really meant what they have Set their Names to, Several of them are quite new Men, and know nothing of the quality of this Ship, but what they must have heard from others, some are gentlemen below, where no level could ever come, and who I know Lye dry in their Hamocks, & those who I believe began it were neither Wet in their Hamocks, nor upon Deck, People who have the most of them for their former Good Deeds been living these two Month in a Guard Ship Stoking by the Galley There and are now afraid of a Wet Jacket two or three days bad weather, has made these Pretty Gentlemen Sick of the Seas

He scolded them for complaining of being cold and wet, saying:

I shall very freely confess to you that my own Cabbin in Rainy Weather & Gales of Wind, is very Leaky, and Disagreeable, and I am often Oblig’d to move my Hamock from one part to another to lye Dry, but this is not the Case always, besides, ye all very well know the Ship is tight under water and a much better Ship now than she was two years ago, when we were not afraid of going to Sea in her, and I am very Confident she makes no Water now only from her Ports, which were not well Barr’d in and Straining in the late Gale of Wind which the Strongest Ship in the World must have done under the same Circumstances.

Two years previously, in February 1758, the ship had been repaired at Portsmouth after a leak in the bread room had spoiled both bread and gunpowder in the adjacent magazine. As Wheeler said in a letter to the Navy Board setting out the officers’ view of the unseaworthiness of the ship, “want of those two Essential Requisites for Cruising, Bread and Powder” together with the season of the year, and the fact that he had more than 40 men sick had led him to decide to return to port. He went on to say that:

I’m persuaded she might again be made the best Cruiser in the Service by the Work of 3 or 4 Weeks done to her, and I hope she will be found worth it, as nothing I have ever yet seen Sails like Her, or behaves better at Sea in all sorts of Weather

In 1760, he tried to shame the petitioners out of their complaint by comparing the hardships undergone by soldiers during a severe winter of war against France. The “Prince Ferdinand” he refers to was Ferdinand, Prince of Brunswick, who led an Anglo-German army in Germany, fighting against French attempts to occupy the city of Hanover.

For God’s Sake, what are ye? Are ye Men or have ye only the appearance of such, English Seamen as cannot be, for their Distinguishing Characteristick has ever been and I hope ever will be to Brave all Danger, to Undergo hardships and to Endure Fatigue. Have ye ever Consider’d that the Ship is just fitted by the King’s Builder, and Reported fit for the Sea, have ye Consider’d that there is neither Officer, nor even Petty Officer (but one) amongst this mighty number, that Call themselves, the Ship’s Company in General, and that Consequently I can draw out another List of a much greater Number, whose Opinions are, that she is fit for the Sea and who upon an Examination will be found to be the Real Ship’s Company in General. Or have ye delicate Gentlemen, who seem to want Whole Fine Chambers and Chimney Corners to Carry to Sea with ye, Have ye, I say, ever Consider’d your Gallant Countrymen, now under the Comand of Prince Ferdinand, who are Beating the French ev’ry day during this Severe Winter, and are lying every Night in the open Field, with only a handful of straw betwixt them and that Earth that is now cover’d Five Foot deep with Snow, and with nothing more to keep them from the Inclemency of the Weather but a very thin Canvas Tent, frequently watching all Night under Arms, and Cold Water, with Bread and Cheese their only Provision. They have no Hot meals provided daily for them, nor do they Pipe to Dinner at at 12 O’clock but each man Catches his Morsels and his Moment to Eat, when, and how, he best can do it. Yet these Men, Sensible that they are doing their Dutys to their King and Country, Bear all this with Chearfulness and Pleasure, & their Grateful Country, knowing what is most Proper for them, have by a Voluntary Subscription sent them over a Present of Warm Clothing in addition to his Majesty’s Regimentals. These Men are your Countrymen, and Relations, But how different from them do ye appear. Oh, shamefull to Think, ye are so Degenerated as to Cry but, for 2 or 3 Accidental days of Bad Weather, even on Board a Ship furnish’d with all sorts of the very best Provisions, and Necessaries for Life and Health.

He claimed that no sickness aboard the ship was attributable to the cold and wet, but to causes for which the crew were themselves responsible, scolding the seamen for their feckless spending on “Dirty Whores” and “Stinking Gin”:

The reason why ye have done so, appears very plain to me, ye cannot now Bear a little pinching Cold or undergo Fatigue because you are become Enervated, by your own Debauchery; There has not a single man been taken in ill in Consequence of the Bad Weather Ye complain of, as appears by the Sick List, but a very great Number came ill to Sea, full of Vile Diseases, of their own acquiring, by their Debauch’d manner of Living, and I am Sorry to say it, tho’ I have very often given Cloaths to Ev’ry man in the Ship, have even Robb’d myself and the Officers of their proper Proportions of Prize Liquors, to give to the People as I have seen it Necessary, tho’ I have lent many my money which no other Captain ever does Yet with all these Advantages and Encouragements, I could never yet Prevail on them, to keep themselves Tight Cloath’d and Clean, which alone would Enable ye to Bear the Inclemency of Weather, and undergo Fatigue much better than ye now do; I have observ’d that whenever ye get any money paid, Ye do not Act with it like Rational Creatures, and lay it out on Cloaths and Necessarys, But ye throw it immediately away in Dirty Whores and in Stinking Gin, much better indeed it would be to throw it overboard, for then you would have your health and Constitutions, which ye now daily Impair, and thereby Render yourselves Incapable of bearing only a Natural Fatigue. However I will Examine more Immediately into this Present Complaint, and if my Conjectures are right about the Beginners of it, They may be assured I’ll get them another ship, nor will I ever keep knowingly a Dissatisfied Man, in any Ship with me, if he were the best Seaman in the World, I would rather have a Willing and Contented Landman, who with a little time, and his own Endeavours, I could make a Seaman of. From what I have said ye will be Satisfy’d I shall not Send your Petition to the Admiralty, had I been in the Same Opinion I would have done it, but if ye still think yourselves right, ye may send it without my Assistance, I shall only add that I am promis’d another Ship, and that this Cruize was given me to Pass the time, ‘till She can be ready, but ye may Depend upon it, I shall not Desire any Man with her who does not Chuse to go as far with me here, as I would Chuse to Lead him.

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The first page of Captain Wheeler’s speech in manuscript — UK National Archives ADM 1/2665

The petition and Captain Wheeler’s response to it bring the world of a Georgian ship of war vividly to life in its discomforts and in its rewards, with the voices of both ordinary sea men and their captain distinct on the page. Captain Wheeler had a striking turn of phrase, apparent in his image of men wet and cold at sea dreaming of sitting in the chimney corner of a fine room on land, and his suggestion that throwing their wages overboard would be more sensible than spending them on whores and gin. His speech skilfully treads the line between displaying his commanding authority as captain and invoking the hierarchy of officers, who had (save for one) not signed the petition, in his support, and an appeal to the cohesion of the ship’s company. He emphasises that even in the relative privilege of the captain’s cabin, he shares the men’s discomforts, and suggests that the instigators of the petition are new recruits and ex-offenders released from the guard ship, as distinct from a more loyal and long-standing body of men who are the “real” ship’s company in general. His correspondence with Sir Piercy Brett and with John Clevland, secretary to the Admiralty, also reveals a mid-18C sea captain as in some ways a modern figure: stripped of its spelling anachronisms and quill pen, his writing is closer to that of a contemporary email from a chief executive. A chief executive on the quarterdeck of a warship under sail, capable of communicating with the Lords of the Admiralty or with an aristocratic passenger on his ship, as much as with “the people” of the ship’s company, and a technocrat with detailed knowledge of the ship’s construction and capability.

As for Edward Wheeler himself, he was a career naval officer in his mid-30s, an only son of a long-dead father, who had inherited a fortune in land and property from his father’s and uncle’s family of ironmasters in Worcestershire and Staffordshire, but had been sent to sea before he was 20. He was unmarried and childless, but, to the anger and consternation of her family, appears to have declared his love, without any intention to marry, for Fanny Stephenson, daughter of a wealthy merchant and alderman of Newcastle. Edward had met the Stephensons when he was sent to Newcastle by the Navy in 1755 in charge of recruitment of volunteers and pressed men for the forthcoming war. The Mayor and Aldermen of the City had strongly supported him, and it is not difficult to imagine Alderman Stephenson and his wife’s initial eagerness to introduce a promising and wealthy young naval captain to those of their eight daughters who were still unmarried. Before that, Edward was the only ship’s officer to have survived a three year voyage to the coast of West Africa and Jamaica in his previous ship. He had been captain of HMS Isis since 1755, the year before the commencement of what was to become the Seven Years’ War. Since then, he and the ship’s company had been engaged in protecting trade and troop convoys, and had on several occasions earned prize money for capturing French ships in the English Channel and elsewhere. They had taken part in the bombardment of the French port of Le Havre the previous year.

In response to this Sunday speech, the crew immediately showed Captain Wheeler a list of 174 names, and in the evening of Sunday 27 January, sent him another petition signed by 235 men — about two thirds of the ship’s company of 350. On Monday 28 January, he talked to them again, suspecting still that the petition was the work of a few men, even though many had signed it, and he and some of the ship’s officers examined 60 of the men singly and at random, but “found them fix’d in their Opinion of the Ship, as unfit for the Sea, and that she would Drown them.”

At that point, even though he told the men he still thought they should drop their petition and lay aside their apprehensions about the ship, Edward felt he had no choice but to dutifully send it to Sir Piercy Brett, Commodore of his squadron, aboard his ship Deptford which was also then anchored in the Downs, and ask for his directions. Edward added his own, characteristically outspoken, views of the ship:

“the Ship is worse since her being on Shore, than ever she was, and the Damage She then got is as far from being Repair’d, that the Builder at Chatham, did not even think it worth his while to Inspect her but Turn’d her out of the Dock again, in so Scandalous a Manner, that I really think he deserves to be turn’d out of his Employ for it.”

He went on to explain in more detail how he thought the ship had been damaged whilst ashore (that the false keel had come away and never been replaced or repaired) and why it was at greater danger when at anchor (through rubbing the cables to pieces) than when in the open sea. He also said of the ship’s crew that, despite what he had said to them in his speech, a copy of which he sent to Sir Piercy Brett:

“I must do justice to tell you, they are very Sober, very Quiet, and I believe very Desirous of doing what is Right.”

Sir Piercy Brett sent Edward’s letter and its enclosures on to the Admiralty, and on 3 February visited the ship himself, and reported on his visit to the Admiralty.

“They told me she was so weak in her upper Works, that their Beds were never dry in bad weather, that the Seams in her Sides have opened so much, as to see the Light through them between Decks, and that the upper part of the Ship near the Fore Castle, is so loose, and fetches so much way that they apprehend it is rotten.”

He ordered the ship to be sailed into Portsmouth, and himself went to Chatham to make inquiries about the work that was done in refitting Isis there. The ship had been captured from the French in 1748 and built to a different specification from that of an English shipyard. Brett reported to the Navy Board that

“from all the accounts I can collect, I do not find the Ship had any material apparent Defects, but such as are common to Ships of her Age and Build”

although he passed on the Master Shipwright’s implicit criticism of the French design

“the Master Shipwright informs me the false keel was not of the thickness he would have chosen to have had it, owing to the Shape of the Ships Body”

On 6 February 1760 the Admiralty ordered that there be a naval officers’ examination of “the bad manner in which Isis was fitted at Chatham and the Company’s apprehension of her present condition for further service” and Isis was taken into the double dock at Portsmouth for inspection. On 21 February, the Portsmouth officers responded to the Navy Board, sending with their report an account of a detailed inspection of the ship carried out by the carpenters of three other ships. They had also ordered the Master Shipwright’s assistant and the Foreman of the Shipwrights who were in charge of the works done to Isis on her refitting at Chatham in 1750 to attend so that they might be on the spot to answer any questions. They found that, as Captain Wheeler had said, part of the false keel fitted at Chatham in 1750 was entirely gone, but as for the leakiness complained of by the ship’s company, the carpenters took off planks in various parts of the ship to inspect the frame but:

“We found the Timbers entirely sound and the bottom firm and well Caulk’d”, or, as this was glossed in the Officers’ report

“the frame appeared remarkable sound and good, there being not one decayd Timber that we cou’d perceive”

The carpenters concluded that:

“On the whole from the preparing Orders the Ship was under at Chatham, we humbly think, the Builder and Officers did everything that lay in their power in fitting the Ship agreeable to the directions they had received.”

The sound of skilled tradesmen firmly defending their work against what they perceive as unfair criticism resonates from over 250 years ago.

Although the inspection did not bear out Edward’s trenchant views of the quality of the work done in refitting the ship, the officers concluded by recommending that some works be done:

“the Officers approved to inspect into her condition on this occasion as the only way to remedy the Inconvenience to the Seamen of being wet and prevent further Complaints, have proposed to strip the upper works in the Midships, and add Toptimbers to her by which she will be in good Condition for Service for some Years”

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HMS Isis — © Royal Museums Greenwich

Edward remained in Portsmouth whilst these repairs were undertaken, but fell ill there, so ill that he had to write to the Admiralty in April asking for permission to remain ashore, as “my health and strength return very slow since my late Fever, that I am still so weak as to be incapable of going to Sea in the Isis”

A few days later Isis set sail without him. Edward went to Chalgrove, the home of his cousins in Oxfordshire, and, it seems, of his “most beloved” Fanny Stephenson, and spent the remainder of the spring of 1760 there recuperating. There, on 31 May 1760, he signed the remarkable will which, as well as dealing with his worldly estate, is an intimate portrait of a man of strong will and unconventional opinions, and which he knew would be made public after his death. In it, above all, he set out his desire for a son by Fanny who would inherit both his fortune and his name, and his belief that illegitimate children were more greatly loved and to be valued than those born of “Dull Conjugal Duty”.

Just under a month later, on 25 June, Edward wrote to the Admiralty that he felt his health so much re-established as to be ready to return to duty, whenever Isis should come into port. On 26 September Isis received sailing orders and a month later he and the ship were at Lisbon. The outward passage to Lisbon took a fortnight, and in the course of it the ship’s company retook two British brigantines, one carrying wheat for Lisbon and the other provisions for Gibraltar, which had been captured by a French privateer. Two days after their arrival at Lisbon, the old king, King George II, died at Kensington Palace, and with the accession of George III, the cause of Jacobitism, which Edward appears to have supported despite his loyal service to successive Hanoverian kings, expired as well. On the return voyage, Isis carried the Earl of Monmouth and his baggage, unspecified, but possibly some art treasures procured on a Grand Tour. During the journey, they pursued an unidentified foreign ship, with Isis hoisting a Swedish flag for part of this chase and preparing to fire on the foreigners until they called out “Damn ye, we are no Frenchman” and sent a lieutenant on board to prove they were Portuguese. A diplomatic incident was narrowly averted, for, as Edward Wheeler reported:

“My Lord Monmouth having been all the time upon Deck, and Seen and heard every thing that had Passed was extremely angry at the Conduct of the Portuguese and told the Officer so, and assured him he should represent the affair to the King of Great Britain, the Officer said nothing in Excuse of the Insult, only that They took us for a Merchant Ship, and that their Colours were not up as the Captain did not Care to give the Lieutenant, who he had sent on Board, any Account of the Ship’s name or his own Name and it was not till the Lieutenant got a Pen, Ink and Paper and told him that he would write down the name of his Ship and her Captain’s Name, that he did obtain it”

Edward Wheeler never received the promotion to another ship that he had hinted at in his speech to the crew of Isis in January 1760. In January 1761 he and Isis set sail again from Portsmouth, to take the trade bound to Gibraltar and several ships bound to the West Indies and North America that missed the West India convoy, arriving at Gibraltar Bay on 10 February 1761. On 1 April 1761, in the opening shots of a skirmish with the French ship l’Oriflamme off the coast of Morocco, a cannon fired across the quarterdeck of Isis fatally wounded him and instantly killed two other officers. He e died in his cabin some hours later, leaving his ship’s company and his “most beloved” Fanny to mourn him — at what was to be the beginning and not the end of a much longer story, of her marriage and family life and of what became of Edward Wheeler’s inheritance.

I have written more fully about Captain Edward Wheeler’s life, and his will and the inheritance from him in Cold Clay, part of the longer history of Victorian litigant in person and alleged lunatic, Mary Cathcart.

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English barrister & mediator — specialising in disputed succession & decision-making for people who lack mental capacity

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