Fragments of untold lives

Barbara Rich
10 min readApr 28, 2019

Loose sheets in Royal Navy pay books of the 1740s

The 1740s pay books of the Royal Navy, in the UK’s National Archives, are bound in vast leather volumes, each with an anchor stamped on the cover. Some of their spines are broken, the leather flaking and sections of pages falling apart as they are lifted from their box. Ship after ship, man after man, including the phantom “widows’ men” [notional members of the ship’s company whose pay formed a fund for payment to widows of sailors who had died], they record the dates and fates of each member of the ship’s company — whether deserted, dead or discharged; the wages paid, the deductions for “dead mens cloaths”, tobacco and venereal cures, all set out in lengthy red-lined ledgers.

A bound volume of mid-eighteenth century Royal Navy records in the UK National Archives

I search through them in pursuit of Captain Edward Wheeler 1722–1761, whose life I am researching, and his whereabouts in between joining the Navy as a boy of fourteen in September 1736, and his first commission as an officer in January 1741/2, at Port Royal in Jamaica. The age of pirates and alcoholic parrots was by then over, and Port Royal a lesser city than it had been before a series of natural disasters, but still the pre-eminent British naval base in the Caribbean, from where ships set sail to seize advantage over Spanish trading interests. Edward Wheeler is an intriguing figure, strongly opinionated and unconventional, for all that he lived and died on His Majesties (King George II’s) Service, a man who loved his mistress “beyond expression”, and declared his belief that illegitimate children were more deserving of love and inheritance than those born of “Dull Conjugal Duty”. I have more or less reconstructed the years between his first officer commission and his death, but his earlier life at sea remains elusive.

Records from the pay books of HMS Isis in the last full year of Captain Edward Wheeler’s life — UK National Archives ADM 33/567

The pay book of HMS Lightning, the ship of his first commission, for January 1741/2 reveals nothing other than the date of September 1736 under the column headed “Whence and whether Preft [i.e. compelled to join the Navy by a press gang] or not”. As the son of a land-owning gentleman’s family, Edward must have entered the Navy as a captain’s servant or midshipman and then passed a lieutenant’s examination after six years’…

Barbara Rich

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