Guest post from member Sue Catterall.
My GGG Grandfather William Robinson wrote the book Jack Nastyface: Memoirs of an English Seaman and it became a famous classical novel. You can find an article on him on a web page called Jack Nastyface – Memoirs of an English seaman.
In London, recruiting posters began appearing appealing to the patriotic to take up arms, and it seems certain that William would have paused before one of these.
With feelings of patriotism running through his veins and keen to escape the tedious work of shoe-making, William left his father’s workshop and walked to the recruiting centre on Tower Hill to offer his services to His Majesty as a landman (volunteer). The recruiting officer, on seeing his leather apron, immediately thought he was a runaway apprentice, but William quickly assured him that that was not so. He was sent to the receiving ship lying in the Thames and ordered into the hold with other volunteers and impressed men. The gratings were battened down and a guard of marines, with fully loaded muskets and fixed bayonets, was placed round the hatchways as though the wretched occupants were capital convicts. Completely ramped and unable to sit or stand separately, the ship sailed down the Thames and arrived at the Nore. With lack of ventilation and the air turning foul from seasick men, they were a pitiable sight indeed and William began to regret the rash step he had taken.
William Robinson was at the Battle of Trafalgar against Nelson on the ship HMS Revenge. Many of those serving on the various ships were thrown on there by Press Gangs that use to roam the area of London plucking anyone up they came across. They had no experience in what they were about to do.
William wrote this book to encourage reforms for sailors, briefly, in 1805 conditions for Englishmen serving in their navy were worse than slavery. As he wisely learned on entering the Navy, a sailor “must confine his thoughts to the hold of his mind and never suffer them to escape the hatchway of utterance.”
When spoken to by an officer, even if it was a bullying 12 year old midshipman, the ordinary seaman was only allowed to say, “Aye, aye, sir” while touching the rim of is cap. Were he to say more, he could be flogged for insolence. In one instance, after two marines threw an officer overboard, they were seized and hanged for the yardarm.
Conditions were appalling, discipline was by sheer terror, not by reason or persuasion. Yet, when pennants were hoisted stating, “England expects each man will do his duty” these sailors responded with pride and courage that made England master of the seas for centuries.
Its marvelous glimpse at the brutality that was all too common and the pride and the class distinctions of England, and why the Industrial Revolution spawned the appalling conditions that made Karl Marx inevitable.
Reading this book and understanding the everyday conditions of those times, explains why so many Englishmen and Europeans were willing to risk so much to get to America – truly a paradise.
The navy in the USA use William Robinson’s book as a guide in training their naval cadets. William hated the way the common sailor was treated by the hierarchy of the navy.
Thanks Sue for sharing this story – we now have a new title for our reading lists.