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’ service, but the records kept when commissions were conferred in the Caribbean are less detailed than those in England. Was he in one of the ships that fought the battle of Portobello under Vice-Admiral Vernon, in November 1739? Or with the ships of reinforcement that arrived in Jamaica under Sir Chaloner Ogle in January 1740/1? After the excitements of battle, naval life in Port Royal had both its dangers — the terrible attrition of numbers by tropical disease — and its longueurs, as the ships’ log books reveal — day after day of nothing happening beyond provisioning and repairing ships, and saluting the Admiral’s ship as it left and entered harbour. No wonder that there were problems of discipline aboard, with the evidence in depositions from courts martial bringing incidents of fighting, sailors pushing each other into pudding cauldrons, a boatswain telling a lieutenant to “kiss my arse”, even of junior officers overheard as they sat companionably at the “seat of easement” in the light of a lantern in the warm Caribbean night, describing their captain as a “crazy old rascall” and a “drunk fool”, all bringing a lost world to vivid life almost as if the reader was present and eavesdropping like the witnesses themselves.

Whilst searching fruitlessly through the names in the pay records of some of the larger ships which were in Port Royal at the date Edward joined HMS Lightning, I found three loose sheets of paper inserted in the various pay records, each one a fragment carrying a glimpse of hidden lives and untold stories.

Citation to Phillip Brown to propound the alleged last will and probate of Richard Harrison 11 June 1752 — loose sheet found in UK National Archives ADM 33/387

A fraudulent will torn up

First, in the pay records of HMS Medway, a legal document — a citation dated 11 June 1752, to Philip Brown, “pretended” executor of the will of Richard Harrison, a sailor who had served on that ship, to produce in court the probate that Philip Brown had obtained of Richard Harrison’s alleged will dated 8 April 1744. The citation had been produced at the instigation of James Harrison, who claimed to be the “natural and lawful brother” of Richard Harrison and the surviving executor of Richard’s true last will dated 15 July 1749. This legal process, the form of which still survives today, required Philip Brown to give evidence, with witnesses, if he could, of the validity of the 1744 will. James Harrison asserted that the grant of probate should be revoked and declared null and void “as being surreptitiously fraudulently or under false suggestions obtained”.

Many ordinary sailors made wills in the mid-18th century, for even if they had no property to dispose of, and no wife and children to maintain, they knew the hazards of their occupation, and that wages were paid in arrears, and that they might also have an expectation of a share of prize money following the capture of an enemy ship. Richard Harrison was illiterate, and both wills were signed with “his mark”, and then by witnesses. The later will opened with words which were conventional in mid-18th century mariners’ wills

… considering the perils and dangers of the Seas and other uncertainties of this Transitory Life

In the earlier 1744 will (UK National Archives PROB 11/778/376) under which Philip Brown was appointed executor, and of which he had obtained probate on 26 April 1750, Richard Harrison described himself as

Mariner late belonging to his Majestys Ship Hampshire but now to his Majestys Ship Medway

and left such Worldly Estate and Effects which I shall be possessed of or intitled unto at the Time of my decease ….. unto my good ffriend Philip Brown of Portsmouth in the County of Southampton Cordwainer [shoemaker]

The later will, made on 17 July 1749 (UK National Archives PROB 11/804/55), seems to have been a deathbed will. Richard Harrison described himself as belonging to his Majesty’s Ship the Chester and as sick and weak in Body but of sound and disposing mind and memory. He stated that the will was made in the hospitall of Cudalore in the East Indies. HMS Chester was a fourth rate ship of the line, in the East Indies between 1747 and 1750. Cuddalore was a port city in the south of India and a place of siege and battle between the British and French in 1747. In this will, Richard divided his estate between my beloved brother James Harrison of the City of Saulsbury in the County of Wiltsheer ffeltmonger and my beloved Sister Mary Ward.

Although I haven’t found any other record of the litigation about the validity of the 1744 will, the probate of the 1749 will, dated 4 September 1753, clearly states that the probate of the “pretended will” of 1744 was revoked and both will and probate declared null and void. This is reflected in the pay books of HMS Medway which record payments made on 12 October 1753 for Richard’s service, to Oliver Toulmin, attorney for Richard’s brother James, and for his sister Mary Last, “a pretended Will to Phillip Brown Declar’d Null and Void”.

Pay records of HMS Medway showing the reference to the probate obtained by Phillip Brown being declared null and void — UK National Archives ADM 33/387

A murderer’s widow’s petition

Next comes a loose sheet, inserted in the pay records of the Katherine, a yacht, which is a letter of 25 September 1749 addressed to the honourable Edward Falkingham Esquire, from Mary Hullock, a widow, who claimed to be entitled to the wages of Thomas Davis, her apprentice.

Mary Hullock’s petition said

Honourable Sir,

I beg leave to acquaint you that my Apprentice, Thom Davis Sold his Ticket to the Carpenter of the Catherine Yacht, for the time he Entered on board the said Yacht to the 14 of November following, was my Apprentice who I supplied in ready money, to the Value of 15 and Considerably more as will appear by a Bond I have of him for £40

Mary Hullock Widow of Samuel Hullock having a Family in low Circumstances of life, mistress [i.e his employer as her apprentice, not mistress in the sexual sense] of the said Thomas Davis most humbly begs your Honour to Stop and pay the money due on that Account to the said unfortunate Widow as he was her Apprentice and your Honour Widow as in Duty bound Shall Ever pray

PS After he had Sold his Ticket he went to Portsmouth received 16 pounds months pay properly my Due, for the Duke, Man of Warr

Although ships in general were always referred to as “she” at that date, there appeared to be no inconsistency in also describing a ship of the line as a “man of war”.

Petition of Mary Hullock 25 September 1749 — inserted loose in the pay records of HMS Katherine Yacht UK National Archives ADM 33/387

Was this Mary Hullock the widow of the same Samuel Hullock, a London gunsmith, who was hung for a “barbarous, horrid and shocking murder” in 1747? There is no other genealogical record of a Samuel and Mary Hullock of that date. If so, their life together was an unhappy one, as the Newgate Ordinary’s account records, him describing her as “a very fractious and turbulent Woman” with whom he lived “like cat and dog”. Hullock admitted he was a womaniser, saying that even as an apprentice “I was used to take delight in the Female Sex, in going abroad with them” and living with and fathering two children with a woman who was not his wife. Again, there is clearly a longer and more involved story to return to behind this letter. Hullock murdered a friend with whom he was staying, and could not explain what he had done other than by saying “The Devil was in me”.

Finally, a love letter

Finally, there is a loose sheet of paper folded into the pages of the pay book for the Swift sloop.

First page of loose sheet folded into pay records of HMS Swift sloop — UK National Archives ADM 33/387
Second page of loose sheet folded into pay records of HMS Swift sloop — UK National Archives ADM 33/387

The sheet has writing on both sides, and the signature of Robert Taylor. The only date on it is July 1739, next to the name of the ship Chichester. But not all the writing appears to be in the same hand, and the contents of the two sheets are quite unconnected — some are partial drafts of letters, others notes, calculations, both of money and of navigational points, and drawings. There are two drafts of a letter to a man, the longer of which reads:


I am Greatly oblidg’d to you for the Rum and your kind admonition your Letter which I take particular care to keep up to your Dictate of it for I am of an Opinion that a person must be very Circumspect In relation to his morals with Captain Willet (not so I have any reason to Complain) but from what I see and hear of Him

On the other side of the page is a draft of a letter to a Mr Baker, asking him to forward the enclosed letter to England as you have often more opportunities to do it than Private ships and some calculations and notes of longitude and high water at Ushant and the words Chichester July 1739.

Do these fragments add up to a coherent whole, or provide the thread of a longer narrative? Sadly, not really. Robert Taylor was a naval officer, thought to have been born around 1714 and commissioned as a lieutenant on the third rate ship of the line HMS Orford in 1739/40, rising to be commanding officer of HMS Arthur in 1759. William Willett was a younger man than Robert Taylor, but whose career had advanced more rapidly, and who was appointed a captain in October 1747. There is no evidence of a Robert Taylor ever serving on one of Willett’s ships. Nor does he appear, from his handwriting, to be the author of the most interesting and intimate of the draft letters on the sheet. This is that written to a Miss Butterly, seemingly at a time when the writer’s ship was moored in Gosport. He writes:

I have not had an opportunity afore now of Expressing the Great Concern I am under for being absent so long from the Object of my Happiness, it is Impossible to Conceive what Pain I am under when I consider of you that so much Meritt Good nature and beauty is subject to such a way of Life for maintenance. Be assured from the Sincerity of a man that what I proposd to you is our Little ? & I do still

What is the word after “Little”? It looks as if it could be “Son”, but the capital “S” of “Sincerity” is formed quite differently. And the draft simply breaks off after the word “still”. I have been unable to find any record of a Miss Butterly living in the mid-18th century who later married a man identifiable as a sailor. Nevertheless, this fragment speaks eloquently of the pain of separation between men at sea in the Georgian navy, who were away from home for months and sometimes years at a time, and the women they loved, left at home on land. Indeed, Edward Wheeler must have written in much the same words to his mistress, Frances Stephenson, in the years when he was captain of HMS Isis, protecting trade convoys in the English channel and the Mediterranean and laying siege to Le Havre in 1759. What hope of finding such a letter in his distinctive hand and turn of phrase, folded into the volumes of Admiralty business? Almost none, but this anonymous fragment still adds a brushstroke to his portrait.

© Barbara Rich 2019 All rights reserved



Barbara Rich

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