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Table of contents :
1 Introduction: War and the Contractor State
2 The Victualling Board and its Contractors
3 The Global Strategic Task
4 The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad
5 Supply Contracts: ‘Men of Confined Property’ and the ‘Flower of the City’
6 Commission Agents: ‘Persons of Reputation, Integrity and Extensive Commercial Connexions’
7 Sea Provisions Contracts: Extending the Imperial Reach
8 Basil Cochrane and the Victualling of the Fleet in the East Indies, 1792–1806
9 Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor
10 Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth, 1796–1802
1a Structure of naval administration, 1793–1815
1b Simplified diagram of the victualling organisation and movements of provisions
2 Annual naval spending, 1793–1816
3a Map of Great Britain, showing victualling yards and ports victualled by contract
3b Chart of Great Yarmouth, 1798
4a Deployment of ships and men, 1792–1802
4b Deployments of ships and men, 1803–1813
5 Army numbers abroad, 1793–1814
6 Wheat prices in four counties
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Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 War, the British Navy and the Contractor State

To Sarah Palmer, Suzanne Bowles and the staff and students of the Greenwich Maritime Institute

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 War, the British Navy and the Contractor State

Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox


© Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox 2010 All Rights Reserved. Except as permitted under current legislation no part of this work may be photocopied, stored in a retrieval system, published, performed in public, adapted, broadcast, transmitted, recorded or reproduced in any form or by any means, without the prior permission of the copyright owner The right of Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox to be identified as the authors of this work has been asserted in accordance with sections 77 and 78 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1998 First published 2010 The Boydell Press, Woodbridge ISBN 978 1 84383 564 6 The Boydell Press is an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF, UK and of Boydell & Brewer Inc. 668 Mount Hope Ave, Rochester, NY 14604, USA website: A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library The publisher has no responsibility for the continued existence or accuracy of URLs for external or third-party internet websites referred to in this book, and does not guarantee that any content on such websites is, or will remain, accurate or appropriate. This publication is printed on acid-free paper

Edited and typeset by Frances Hackeson Freelance Publishing Services, Brinscall, Lancs Printed in Great Britain by CPI Antony Rowe, Chippenham and Eastbourne


Contents   page vi viii ix

Abbreviations Tables Acknowledgements   1    2    3    4    5         6         7    8         9  10       11 

Introduction: War and the Contractor State The Victualling Board and its Contractors The Global Strategic Task The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad Supply Contracts: ‘Men of Confined Property’ and ‘The Flower of the City’ Commission Agents: ‘Persons of Reputation, Integrity and Extensive Commercial Connexions’ Sea Provisions Contracts: Extending the Imperial Reach Basil Cochrane and the Victualling of the Fleet in the East Indies, 1792–1806 Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth, 1796–1802 Conclusion

1 19 46 67 85 115 132 155 177 192 210

219 220 222 223 224 225

Bibliography Index

227 243

Appendices 1a  Structure of naval administration 1793–1815 1b  Simplified diagram of the victualling organisation and movements      of provisions 2    Annual naval spending 1793–1816 3a  Map of Britain showing victualling yards and ports victualled      by contract 3b  Chart of Great Yarmouth, 1798. 4a   Deployments of ships and men, 1792–1802 4b  Deployments of ships and men, 1803–1813 5    Army numbers abroad, 1793–1814 6a  Wheat prices in four counties, monthly, 1791–1801 6b  Wheat prices in four counties, weekly, 1799–1801

215 216 217 218

Abbreviations BL BPP Commission on Fees Commission of Military Enquiry Commission of Naval Enquiry Commission of Naval Revision DRO HL IJMH LMA MA MM NAS NLS NMM

British Library British Parliamentary Papers Reports of the Commissioners appointed by an Act of 25 Geo. III cap. 19 to enquire into the Fees, Gratuities, Perquisites, and Emoluments which are or have been lately received into the several Public Offices … 1786–8 Reports of the Commissioners appointed by an Act of 45 Geo. III cap.47 to enquire and examine into Public Expenditure, and the Conduct of Public Business, in the Military Departments … 19 reports, 1806 to 1812 Reports of the Commissioners appointed by an Act of 43 Geo. III to enquire and ­ examine into any Irregularities, Frauds or Abuses, which are or have been ­ practised by Persons employed in the several Naval Departments, 14 reports, 1802–6 Reports of the Commissioners appointed in January 1805 for Revising and Digesting the Civil Affairs of the Navy, 13 reports, 1806 to 1809 Devon Record Office Huntington Library, San Marino, California International Journal of Maritime History London Metropolitan Archives Mulgrave Archive, Mulgrave Castle, nr. Whitby, Yorkshire Mariner’s Mirror National Archives of Scotland National Library of Scotland National Maritime Museum vi



Norfolk Record Office Navy Records Society New York Public Library Thomas Pitt and Samuel Lewes Letter Book Post Office Archives Courtney Library, Royal Institution of Cornwall Sustaining the Fleet: Victualling Contracts and Contractors 1793–1815. ‘Sustaining the Empire’ project data base, available online at National Archives, Kew, London Transactions of the Naval Dockyards Society Victualling Board Wellcome Library


Tables 5.1   Rejections of bisket delivered by contractors to Deptford,      Portsmouth and Plymouth, 1811–13 5.2   Victualling Board and national average wheat prices per      quarter, 1793–1813 5.3   Price paid by the Victualling Board for wheat in London      compared with the Gazette price, September–October 1801 5.4   Prices of wheat per quarter in Hampshire and Devon and at      Portsmouth and Plymouth, 1792–97 5.5   Prices of Irish beef and butter paid by the Victualling Board      compared with London market prices, 1793–1815 6.1   Wheat and malt delivered to British victualling establishments      by Edward Knight, September–October 1801 6.2   Victualling Board purchases of oxen and supplies to Deptford,      with weight of beef produced, 1793–1807 6.3   Unpassed accounts of Jordaine and Shaw whilst acting as      commission agents for the purchase of Irish provisions,      1799–1801 7.1   Tenders for victualling at Cork, received on 24 April 1793 7.2   Prices and revisions of the sea provisions contract at Leith,      1794–1800 7.3   Total of bills on the Victualling Board drawn in selected ports,      1795–1810 8.1   Bills drawn for victualling the navy on selected overseas      stations, 1809 8.2   Prices of provisions at Bombay, Madras and Prince of Wales      Island under the contracts of 1790 and 1804 10.1   Tenders for the Great Yarmouth contract by Samuel Paget and      John Grant, 1803


page 102 110 111 111 112 117 117 127 137 143 144 158 166 207

Acknowledgements As this book is the central result of a three-year project funded by the Leverhulme Trust, our first thanks must go to the Trust for the generosity of its grant, awarded in 2006 to the Greenwich Maritime Institute (GMI), University of Greenwich, in conjunction with the National Maritime Museum (NMM). The project started with the appointment of Dr Martin Wilcox and James Davey to form a project team with Professor Roger Knight. In addition to this book, a substantial database on victualling contracts and the worldwide distribution of provisions has been compiled by Martin Wilcox, with technical help from Jeffrey Sutton. This database is now available on the NMM website ( The third element of the project has been a Ph.D. entitled ‘War, Naval Logistics and the British State: Supplying the Baltic Fleet, 1808–1812,’ written by James Davey. In addition, he took a full part in the continuous three-year discussion on naval victualling, undertook archival research for the common good and supported the authors in writing the present work. From the start the members of the project team had a formidable amount of expertise immediately available to them. Professor Sarah Palmer, Director of the GMI, not only imparted much practical and organisational wisdom but has made available at all times her unrivalled knowledge of maritime scholars and scholarship. Dr Douglas Hamilton, in the early part of the project at the NMM, and now of the University of Hull, has been a constant help and shrewd critic, but especially so when the proposal was being written. Dr John McAleer succeeded him in the Museum liaison role with effectiveness and good humour, while Dr Margarette Lincoln and Dr Nigel Rigby kept a benevolent eye on proceedings for which we are grateful. Anyone working from the GMI has always much reason to be grateful to Suzanne Bowles for her administrative support and consistent efficiency, and to Chris Ware for his knowledge and his judgement. We must also thank Professor Tom Barnes, now Deputy-Vice Chancellor (Research and Enterprise) at Greenwich University for his interest and support. Others working in other areas of eighteenth-century and early nineteenth­century administration have been most helpful, including Dr Gordon Bannerman, Dr Gareth Cole, Bob Sutcliffe and Peter Ward. Emma Laird was the first to write on victualling from the GMI, completing her M.A. thesis in 2001. We should also single out Dr Janet Macdonald, who started her Napoleonic victualling studies in an M.A. course at Greenwich before going on to complete a Ph.D. at King’s College London, concurrently with this project. She kindly made a copy of her thesis, on the management of the Victualling Board and Office in this period, available to us at the earliest opportunity. We have also benefited from participation in sessions at economic history conferences at Helsinki, Utrecht and Greenwich in the European-wide project, ix


‘Mobilising Money and Resources for War: European States at Work, 1689–1815,’ and encouragement from this quarter has been gratefully received from Professor Huw Bowen, Professor Stephen Conway, Augustin Gonzalez Enciso and Rafael Torres Sanchez. We are grateful for advice on a variety of subjects from Dr John Armstrong, Professor Dan Baugh, Peter Blake, Professor Linda Colley, Dr Andrew Cook, Ken Cozens, Patricia Crimmin, Dr Michael Duffy, Dr John Dunne, Dr Alan Guy, Professor Richard Harding, Dr John Houlding, Pete Hughes, Jane Knight, Dr Roger Morriss, Professor Patrick K. O’Brien, Colin Roberts, Dr Nicholas Rodger, Sir John Sainty, Dr Margrit Schulte Beerbeuhl, Matthew Sheldon, Dr David Starkey, Gary Sturgess, Professor Michael Turner, Brian Vale and Jenny Wraight. For assistance with the history of Great Yarmouth we would also like to thank Brian Callan and Michael Stammers. We also acknowledge the help of the staff of the British Library, Royal Institution of Cornwall, the National Archives of Scotland, the National Library of Scotland, the New York Public Library, the Norfolk Record Office, the Wellcome Library and the Caird Library in the NMM, and particularly Liza Verity and Gillian Hutchinson, and John Draisey of the Devon Record Office. Philip Winterbottom at Drummonds Bank was particularly helpful, though unfortunately the search for relevant banking material was fruitless. At the beginning of the project, Roger Knight’s fellowship at the Huntington Library, San Marino, provided a good start, facilitated by Roy Ritchie and Mary Robertson, and we thank the Library for permission to use material from the Stowe-Grenville collection. Thanks should likewise go to the Marquis of Normanby for permission to quote from the Mulgrave papers, and to the Director and Trustees of the National Maritime Museum for permission to reproduce the chart of Great Yarmouth and the portrait of George Phillips Towry. We would also like to thank the Guildhall Library for permission to reproduce the caricature of Charles Flower. Since so much of the documentary evidence has come from the National Archives, we must thank the staff there for its efficiency and the good working conditions, so evident to the senior of the two authors. He last undertook sustained research on the history of British naval administration from public records when they were housed in the grime and discomfort of Chancery Lane. Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox

1 Introduction: War and the Contractor State

The wars of civilised nations make very slow changes in the system of empire … If he that shared the danger shared the profit; if he that bled in battle grew rich by the victory, he might show his gains without envy. But at the conclusion of a ten years war how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes, and the expence of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors and whose palaces rise like exhalations. These are the men, who, without virtue, labour, or hazard, are growing rich as their country is impoverished; they rejoice when obstinacy or ambition adds another year to slaughter and devastation; and laugh from their desks at bravery and science, while they are adding figure to figure, and cipher to cipher, hoping for a new contract from a new armament and computing the profits of a siege or tempest.

Dr Johnson thus poured withering scorn on war contractors in 1771 at the time of the mobilisation of the fleet against Spain in the dispute over the Falkland Islands. In the same year Tobias Smollett published Humphrey Clinker in which his indignation was similarly directed. Both were incensed by some well-publicised cases of corruption in the Seven Years War, principally in supplying the British army in Germany. Both commissaries and contractors were satirised in plays. Zachary Fungus is the central character of The Commissary, Samuel Foote’s drama of 1756, in which Fungus’s humble origins and eventual great wealth were duly mocked. The post-war frustration with the great increase in the National Debt led to popular resentment, ‘an inevitable consequence,’ comments Gordon Bannerman, the most recent historian of army contracting in the Seven Years War, ‘of the obvious tension existing between performing contracts in the “national” interest whilst making private profit, a tension most acute in wartime … Military success did not bring grat-


[Anon] Political tract attributed to Samuel Johnson, Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Island (1771), pp. 43–44. Stephen Conway, War, State, and Society in Mid-Eighteenth-Century Britain and Ireland (Oxford, 2006), p. 123.

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

itude and goodwill towards those supplying the troops, quite the reverse’. Suspicion of contractors continued through the American war, particularly of their potential to win contracts through bribes and political influence, resulting in Clerke’s Act of 1782 which excluded those with influence from the letting of contracts, and prevented those holding government contracts from sitting in Parliament. Reform of the machinery of government, however, did not go far enough: whatever William Pitt’s financial and fiscal successes in the 1780s, he failed, as Philip Harling comments, ‘to raise the central bureaucracy as a whole to the same high standard of probity that he had reached himself ’. Once the French Revolutionary War had started, in Harling’s words, ‘the scope of the war effort boggled the minds of contemporaries’. Unprecedented public expenditure over twenty years attracted continual popular and newspaper criticism of what was seen as wartime waste, woven into attacks against sinecures, political jobbery and an unreformed Parliament. Radicals associated the awarding of government contracts with the pernicious influence of the Bank of England, sinecures and placemen, election fraud and government offices without duties. For instance, William Cobbett in 1804 in the Political Register attacked ‘loan-jobbers, contractors and nabobs’ who were threatening the social fabric of the country. Traditionally, contractors are pictured as rich merchants who made unjustified profits. Yet of the many hundreds of merchants, agents, brokers and farmers who signed contracts with the Victualling Board in these years, the vast majority were not men of great wealth. A very small number of well-capitalised London city merchants dealt in wheat, cattle and provisions through international networks, and agents abroad, but most contractors were not based in London. Those in Britain were widespread, from Appledore to Yarmouth, from Leith to Galway; in Europe from Cuxhaven to Leghorn; or in more distant parts, Barbados, Madeira or Madras. Between 1793 and 1815, sampling selected foodstuffs and provisions in every other year, the Victualling Board made 4,200 contracts with 676 contractors or partnerships. The overall number of contracts signed by the Board between 1793 and 1815 is likely to have exceeded ten thousand. G.E. Bannerman, Merchants and the Military in Eighteenth-Century Britain: British Army Contracts and Domestic Supply, 1739–1763 (London, 2008), pp. 139–140.   John Norris, Shelburne and Reform (London, 1963), pp. 226–227; W.D. Rubinstein, ‘The End of “Old Corruption” in Britain, 1780–1860,’ Past and Present, 101 (1983), p. 60.   Philip Harling, The Waning of Old Corruption: the Politics of Economical Reform in Britain 1779–1846 (Oxford, 1996), pp. 58, 56.   Rubinstein, ‘The End of “Old Corruption” in Britain, 1780–1860,’ pp. 62–63.   Quoted in Harling, Waning of Old Corruption, p. 93.   Rubinstein, ‘The End of “Old Corruption” in Britain, 1780–1860,’ p. 65.   The Leverhulme project database, hereafter SFDB, compiled by Martin Wilcox and to be found at The sample of contracts include wheat and wheat products, bisket, beef, pease, butter and cheese. The database also contains the number of warships and seamen on each station between 1793 and 1813, as well as maps illustrating the distribution of provisions. 



This book sets out to examine the victualling contractors between 1793 and 1815, to understand their value to the government naval and military machine, and to explain, analyse and judge the mechanism by which contracts were made and administered, and the performance of the Victualling Board in undertaking this crucial business.10 The Board had to meet increased naval demand, for naval and military warfare was now undertaken for most of the year, in contrast to earlier wars. After 1793 warships on blockade or escorting convoys no longer stayed in port during the stormy winter months. Yet some provisions, such as beef and beer, could only be manufactured at favourable times of the year, and certainly not in the summer months. Gordon Bannerman’s study of mid-eighteenth-century army contractors sought to find corruption and inefficiency. There were some examples of corruption, but his conclusion was that the remarkable feature of contracting in eighteenth-century Britain was its efficiency … One can see a glaring double-standard in historical studies relating to contractors … If one assesses contractors on the basis of their performance of contracts, it seems clear they deserve to be viewed in more generous and accurate terms than as rapacious beneficiaries of a corrupt supply system.11

This book takes the same approach: to assess how skilfully the Victualling Board used the market and benefited from the complexities of merchant networks and agents, and whether their performance matched the unprecedented demands of twenty-two years of war. It looks at how the Board treated those contractors who had agreed a price when the markets reacted to shortages causing market fluctuations. As with any relationship of mutual dependence, subject to the fortunes of politics and war, changes were continual and subtle. Victualling and the fiscal-military state Recent decades have seen a steady growth in studies of the formation of states across Europe in the early modern period, which examine the need to raise taxes for military purposes. At the centre of this debate have been the reasons for the fiscal and financial strength of eighteenth-century Britain, the central role of public credit, and the country’s consequent naval and military success by 1815.12 John Brewer’s

11 12

The word ‘Victualler’ can have four meanings. It can mean licensed victualler, or innkeeper; or food retailer; or a merchant ship used for transporting victuals; or ‘Agent Victualler,’ an agent of the Victualling Board. Bannerman, Merchants and the Military, p. 150. P.G.M. Dickson, The Financial Revolution in England: A Study of the Development of Public Credit, 1688–1756 (London, 1967). The latest of a dozen articles on aspects of this theme by Patrick K. O’Brien is ‘The Triumph and Denouement of the British Fiscal State: Taxation for the Wars against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, 1793–1815,’ in The Fiscal-Military 


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

contribution in 1989 gave the term ‘fiscal-military state’ wide currency.13 Over twenty years later the concept is still much used, in spite of the wishes of critics who are searching for a new concept. Sometimes the cornerstones of Brewer’s thesis are attacked, sometimes the usefulness of the whole idea.14 It has been watered down, qualified and undergone tentative name changes, such as the ‘fiscal’ state, the ‘military-fiscal’ or ‘fiscal-naval’ state. Comparisons have been made across Europe of different tax collection methods.15 However, less attention has been given to how efficiently states expended their tax revenues, almost all of which went to naval and military expenditure.16 By the second half of the century most of Britain’s war supplies and manufacturing were undertaken by contractors rather than by government establishments. By 1793 Britain had accumulated and developed very large state military industrial sites in the south of England, which through the wars did valuable work both in administering, inspecting and assembling war goods provided by contractors, and in maintenance, as in the case of the royal dockyards. The largest establishments were the six royal yards at Deptford and Woolwich on the Thames, Chatham and Sheerness on the Medway and the ‘western yards’ at Portsmouth and Plymouth. The five main victualling yards, of which Deptford was the largest, were at Chatham, Dover, Portsmouth and Plymouth. Ordnance yards, or depots, were also clustered around the naval bases, though the headquarters was at Woolwich, or ‘the Arsenal,’ as it came to be called in 1803. These home establishments were matched by smaller ones overseas at Gibraltar, Jamaica, Antigua, Halifax, and others, some temporary and some to be permanent, were to be added through conquest during the French and Napoleonic wars. Yet in terms of sheer production and manufacturing capacity, it was private industry which was indispensable in providing the British government with the necessary means of waging war. The Victualling Board purchased from a sophisticated agricultural sector, supported by an efficient bulk goods transport system, much of it by


15 16


State in Eighteenth-Century Europe: Essays in Honour of P.G.M. Dickson, ed. Christopher Storrs (Farnham, Surrey, 2009), pp. 167–200. John Brewer, The Sinews of Power: War, Money and the English State, 1688–1783 (London, 1989). See Lawrence Stone’s exposure of the inefficiencies of the Customs and Excise, contradicting a key argument in Brewer’s book: ‘Introduction,’ Lawrence Stone, ed., An Imperial State at War: Britain from 1689–1815 (London and New York, 1994), pp. 12–17; Michael J. Braddick, State Formation in Early Modern England, ca. 1550–1700 (Cambridge, 2000). For recent surveys of this long debate see Rafael Torres Sanchez, ‘The Triumph of the Fiscal-Military State in the Eighteenth Century: War and Mercantilism,’ in War, State and Development: FiscalStates in the Eighteenth Century, ed. R. Torres Sanchez (Baranain, Navarra, Spain, 2007), pp. 13–44; Christopher Storrs, ‘The Fiscal-Military State in the “Long” Eighteenth Century,’ The Fiscal-Military State in Eighteenth-Century Europe, ed. Storrs, pp. 1–22 Richard Bonney, The Rise of the Fiscal State in Europe ca 1200–1815 (Oxford, 1999). H.V. Bowen and A.Gonzalez Enciso, Mobilising Resources for War: Britain and Spain at Work during the Early Modern Period (Baranain, Navarra, Spain, 2006).


coastal trade, facilitating increasingly integrated markets. The biggest merchant fleet in Europe brought iron, hemp, pine and fir, hard woods and tar from the Baltic to British ports. Shipbuilding, gun and cannon ball founding, copper and lead mining and manufacturing, gun-smithing, rope-making and the manufacturing of soldier’s equipment and uniforms came from the private sector in greater profusion, by far, than the products of the state establishments. More than anything, it was the strong industrial base outside the state establishments which gave the British government the means to overcome its enemies. By contrast, by the end of the century France and Spain moved away from contractors in the open market and increasingly opted for state control and purchase. In France, after a century of Ancien R����� é���� gime contractors providing army supplies, the state cancelled all contracts for army transport on 1 August 1793, and two of the contractors went to the guillotine, suspected of counter-revolutionary plotting. The different branches of war transport were administered by a quasi-public board administered by seven controllers.17 The French army tried to do without contractors, building up an elaborate structure for supply responsible to the Intendant-General, but as a distinguished historian of Napoleon’s army commented: ‘Napoleon was never able to break away from partial dependence on [contractors], simply for the reason that the services they rendered were essential.’18 Similarly Spain, lacking a strong market, increasingly turned towards a system of private monopoly, or agents given monopolistic powers, and away from the use of the open market. 19 One Spanish historian of this period admits that ‘monopoly always turns out to be less effective than the free play of market forces but in the particular historical circumstances … exclusion, privilege and monopoly, properly handled by a ­mercantilism-driven fiscal military state, could still be an efficient way of increasing the mobilisation of economic and military resources.’20 This optimism is difficult to judge in view of Spain’s economic weakness in this period. As we have already noted, contemporaries and historians have looked upon the relationship between the state and private individuals in the manufacturing of war

18 19


A. Goodwin, ‘War Transport and “Counter Revolution” in France in 1793: The Case of the Winter Company and the Financier Jean-Jacques de Beane,’ War and Society: Historical Essays in Honour and Memory of J.R. Western 1928–1971, ed. M.R.D. Foot (London, 1973), pp. 217–221. John Elting, Swords Around a Throne: Napoleon’s Grande Armee (London and New York, 1988), p. 557. Colonel Elting’s disdain for contractors reflects traditional twentieth-century military values: ‘Contractors were men of all nations and few loyalties’ (p. 558). Torres Sanchez, ‘Triumph of the Fiscal-Military State,’ pp. 20–34; Miriam Nonez, ‘Organisational Change Accounting: The Gunpowder Monopoly in New Spain, 1757–87,’ Accounting, Business and Financial History, 12 (2002), pp. 275–315; Rafael Torres Sanchez, ‘Monopoly or the Free Market: Two ways of Tackling the Expenditure: The Expedition to Minorca (1781–1782)’; Agustin Gonzalez Enciso, ‘Military Expenditure and Entrepreneurial Promotion in Modern Spain: An Unsuccessful Expedient,’ papers presented at the ‘Spending of States’ session at the World Economic History Conference in Utrecht, August 2009. Torres Sanchez, ‘Triumph of the Fiscal-Military State,’ p. 31. 


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

goods with scepticism. Only slowly has a re-assessment been made of the way in which government departments dealt with manufacturers, merchants, agents and farmers in the provision of the means of waging war. In the 1970s Norman Baker examined the administration of army contracts by the Treasury in the American war and found the system even-handed, even though competitive tendering was not employed.21 By contrast, Arthur Bowler found a good deal wrong with the management of army contracts out in America.22 As we have seen, Bannerman’s study of army contracts in the Seven Years War judged the system as generally efficient.23 Similar conclusions were reached by David Syrett for both these wars when he found the administration of contracts by the Navy Board for merchant ships hired as ordnance, troop and victualling transports to have been effective.24 Naval scholars have drawn attention to the importance of victualling to success at sea and the attainment of military objectives, despite the lack of detailed studies.25 However, few operational histories have taken the problems of victualling into account.26 Michael Duffy’s exemplary study of the amphibious expeditions to the West Indies in the 1790s is an exception, as are Christopher Hall’s two valuable contributions to the Napoleonic War, in particular the role of the navy in supplying Wellington in Spain.27 By contrast, the dependence of the British navy on the supply of provisions to maintain its blockade of the French, Spanish and Dutch naval bases

22 23 24 25

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Norman Baker, Government and Contractors: the British Treasury and War Supplies, 1775– 1783 (London, 1971); ‘The Treasury and Open Contracting, 1778–1782,’ Historical Journal, 15 (1972), pp. 433–454. R. Arthur Bowler, Logistics and the failure of the British Army in America, 1775–1783 (Princeton, NJ, 1975). Bannerman, Merchants and the Military, pp. 8, 139. David Syrett, Shipping and the American War 1775–1782 (London, 1970); Shipping and Military Power in the Seven Years War: The Sails of Victory (Exeter, 2008). N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain 1649–1815 (London, 2004), p. 583; D. Baugh, ‘Naval Power: What Gave the British Navy Superiority?,’ Exceptionalism and Industrialisation: Britain and its European Rivals, 1688–1815, ed. Leandro Prados de la Escosura (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 247–248; Michael Steer, ‘The Blockade of Brest and the Victualling of the Western Squadron, 1793–1805,’ MM 76 (1990), pp. 307–316; Michael Duffy, ‘The Establishment of the Western Squadron as the Linchpin of British Naval Strategy,’ The Parameters of British Naval Power, 1650–1850, ed. M. Duffy (Exeter, 1992), pp. 60–81. Duffy also examined the land infrastructure that was needed in ‘Devon and the Naval Strategy of the French Wars 1689–1815,’ The New Maritime History of Devon, ed. M. Duffy et al (London, 1992), pp. 182–191. Hitherto the only administrative study of victualling is Christian Buchet, Marine, économie et société: Un exemple d’interaction: L’avitaillement de la Royal Navy durant la Guerre de Sept Ans (Paris, 1999). An exception is David Aldridge, ‘The Victualling of the British Naval Expedition to the Baltic Sea between 1715 and 1727,’ Scandinavian History Review, 12 (1964), pp. 1–25. Michael Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower: The British Expeditions to the West Indies and the War against Revolutionary France (Oxford, 1987); Christopher D. Hall, Naval Strategy in the Napoleonic War, 1803–15 (Manchester, 1992); Wellington’s Navy: Sea Power and the Peninsular War, 1807–1814 (London, 2004). 



and their trade has long been recognised.28 Although little attention is paid to the impact of victualling upon operations in this book, a detailed assessment of the provisioning of the Baltic Fleet between 1808 and 1812 has been part of the Leverhulme project at Greenwich.29 After some initial difficulties, by the end of Admiral Saumarez’s command of the Baltic Fleet in 1812, victualling supplies from Britain, upon which up to sixteen thousand men were dependent, ran smoothly. The average speeds at which supplies reached the Baltic from Britain were remarkably rapid. Judgements in this book on how efficiently the Board and its contractors tackled these difficulties are designed to be a contribution to the state expenditure debate. There is an enormous mass of evidence on contractors in the Admiralty Records in the National Archives, though very few private business papers or accounts have ­survived. Other recent work has centred on the workings of the Victualling Office.30 The Admiralty List books recorded, monthly, the distribution of warships and their crews throughout the world. They demonstrate that the large majority of British ships and seamen served in home waters, and that the numbers serving on overseas stations were comparatively low.31 This data also establishes the extent to which, in the latter part of the Napoleonic War, the defence effort switched from the south coast and the Western Approaches to the east coast and the North Sea and Baltic, which caused the Victualling Board many problems. In spite of concentrating upon the British victualling effort, this book includes a case study of the most remarkable and untypical contractor from the East Indies station, Basil Cochrane.32 Some important parts of the victualling system are not included in this study. It does not look in detail at the distribution of provisions across the world by the

29 30



Roger Morriss (with Richard C. Saxby) The Channel Fleet and the Blockade of Brest 1793–1801 (NRS, 141, 2001); John Leyland, Dispatches and Letters relating to the Blockade of Brest 1803– 1805, 2 vols (NRS, 14, 1899), pp. 315, 338–339. This is the subject of James Davey’s Ph.D. thesis ‘War, Naval Logistics and the British State: Supplying the Baltic Fleet, 1808–1812’ (Greenwich, 2009). Janet Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, 1793–1815: Management Competence and Incompetence (Woodbridge, 2010). See also Roger Knight, ‘Politics and Trust in Victualling the Navy, 1793–1815,’ MM 94 (2008), pp. 133–149; see also ‘The Spending and Accounting Performance of the British Victualling Board, 1793–1815,’ read at the WEHC Congress in Utrecht in August 2009, to be published in the proceedings of the session ‘The Spending of States’. For the strategic reasons for the concentration of naval forces in home waters see Daniel A. Baugh, ‘Withdrawing from Europe: Anglo-French Maritime Geopolitics, 1750–1800,’ The International History Review, 20 (1998), pp. 22–26; Baugh, ‘Naval Power,’ pp. 249–252; N.A.M. Rodger, ‘Sea-Power and Empire, 1688–1793,’ The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century, ed. P.J. Marshall (Oxford, 1998), pp. 169–172; see also in the same volume Michael Duffy, ‘World-Wide War and British Expansion, 1793–1815,’ pp. 184–207; Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, pp. 259–260; Stephen Conway, ‘Empire, Europe and British Naval Power,’ Empire, the Sea and Global History c.1760–c. 1800, ed. David Cannadine (Basingstoke, 2007), p. 31. See also SFDB. See also James Davey, ‘Within Hostile Shores: Victualling the Royal Navy in European Waters during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars,’ IJMH 2 (2009), pp. 241–260. 


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

transports chartered by the Transport Board, which has been the subject of some research, though more remains to be done.33 Nor is it about victualling at sea, the administration and cooking of provisions aboard ship, or how well or badly pursers carried out their duties, which others have examined.34 Nor is it about sickness and health, particularly scurvy, on which there is a wealth of scholarship.35 However, the primary focus of this book is the efficiency of the state in managing private sector involvement, and how it increased markedly during the French and Napoleonic wars. Indeed, given the length and intensity of twenty years of what some have called a ‘total’ war, politicians and state servants were forced to make such improvements in order to survive, even though, in comparison with other government departments, the Victualling Board was slow to reform itself.36 The contractor war economy Contractors predominated across the entire British war machine. They were responsible for all areas, with only one or two exceptions. The Ordnance Board, for instance, had all its cannon cast by contractors, and for muskets was dependent upon the East India Company for supply for much of the earlier part of the wars: later the intricate pieces of muskets were made by gunsmith contractors, many of them in Birmingham, where they were inspected for quality, then passed for assembly at the newly-established state plants at Enfield and Lewisham, which were founded only in the later stages of the Napoleonic War.37 Large fortifications in England



36 37

Mary Ellen Condon, ‘The Administration of the Transport Service during the war against Revolutionary France 1793–1802’ (Ph.D. thesis, London, 1968); Roger Morriss, ‘Colonisation, Conquest and the Supply of Food and Transport: The Reorganisation of Logistics Management, 1780–1795,’ War in History, 13 (2007), pp. 310–324. See also James Davey, ‘The Repatriation of Spanish Soldiers from Denmark, 1808: The British Government, Logistics and Maritime Supremacy,’ Journal of Military History 74:3 (2010). See N.A.M. Rodger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (London, 1986); pp. 82–98; Michael Lewis, A Social History of the Navy 1793–1815 (London, 1960), pp. 246– 250, 402–405; Janet Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy: The True Story of Food at Sea in the Georgian Era (London, 2004), passim. e.g., J.J. Keevil, C.Lloyd and J.L.S. Coulter, eds., Medicine and the Navy 1200–1900 4 vols (Edinburgh and London, 1957–63; C. Lloyd, ed., The Health of Seamen: Selections from the Works of Dr James Lind, Sir Gilbert Blane and Dr Thomas Trotter (NRS, 107, 1965); Roger Morriss, ‘Practicality and Prejudice: The Blockade Strategy and Naval Medicine during the French Revolutionary War, 1793–1801,’ Science and the French and British Navies, 1700–1850, ed. Peter van der Merwe (London, 2003), pp. 77–87. A corrective to an overly medical interpretation to the scurvy issue is provided by Brian Vale, ‘The Conquest of Scurvy in the Royal Navy, 1793–1800: A Challenge to Current Orthodoxy,’ MM 94 (2008), pp. 160–175 . See David A. Bell, The First Total War: Napoleon’s Europe and the Birth of Modern Warfare (London, 2007). Richard Glover, Peninsular Preparation: The Reform of the British Army 1795–1809 (Cambridge, 1963; repr. 2008), pp. 60–67; De Witt Bailey and David Harding, ‘From India 



were built by contractors.38 Army uniform, equipment, provisions and horse fodder were purchased on contract by army commissaries.39 State involvement with gunpowder manufacture increased with the purchase by the Ordnance Department of the mill at Waltham Abbey in 1789 to add to those at Faversham which had been purchased in 1759: unsatisfactory supply in the Seven Years War had resulted in government intervention.40 The complications and danger of manufacture, as well as the drying and re-supplying of old powder, combined with the need for continuous research to improve the efficiency of the powder, were the business of Colonel William Congreve, Controller of the Royal Laboratory at Woolwich. According to a pamphlet written by Congreve in 1811, William Pitt had tried to sell the Faversham Mills when he came into office in 1783. This was resisted by the Duke of Richmond, Master-General of the Ordnance, a stubborn politician and a difficult man, advised by Congreve.41 Nevertheless, merchant powder-makers contributed substantially to the needs of the army and navy, artillery and militia in these years. British warships were also provided by the private sector. Once war had started, merchant shipyards built the vast majority of warships; 71 per cent of the tonnage of new warships between 1793 and 1815 came from this source, enabling the royal dockyards to concentrate on much-needed repairs and refits of the British fleet.42 Contractors had been building 74-gun ships of the line since the Seven Years War, although only the royal yards possessed large enough docks to build 100-gun and 90-gun ships.43 The Transport Board, re-established by Pitt’s government in 1794, chartered merchant ships from the ship owners and agents of London for use as transports by the navy, Army and Ordnance.44 The Packet service, vital for the successful prosecution of the war, was manned by ships and men contracted to the

to Waterloo: The “India Pattern” Musket,’ The Road to Waterloo: The British Army and the Struggle against Revolutionary and Napoleonic France, 1793–1815, ed. Alan Guy (London, 1990), pp. 54–57. 38 S.G.P. Ward, ‘Defence Works in Britain, 1803–5,’ Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research , 27 (1949), pp. 23–24. 39 Keith Bartlett, ‘The Development of the British Army during the Wars with France, 1793– 1815’ (Ph.D. thesis, Durham, 1997), pp. 198–252. 40 Jenny West, Gunpowder, Government and War in the Mid-eighteenth century (London, 1991), pp. 149–162, 197–224, 210. 41 William Congreve, A Statement of Facts relative to the savings which have arisen from Manufacturing Gunpowder at the Royal Powder Mills and of improvements made in its strength and durability since 1783 (London, 1811). 42 Roger Morriss, The Royal Dockyards during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars (Leicester, 1983), p. 28. 43 Roger Knight, ‘The Building and Maintenance of the British Fleet during the Anglo-French Wars, 1688–1815,’ Les Marines de Guerre Europeennes, XVII-XVIII, ed. Martine Acerra, Jose Merino and Jean Meyer (Paris, 1985), pp. 35–50. 44 Condon, ‘The Administration of the Transport Service’, see Chapter 8.

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Post Office.45 Nor should one forget what Nathan Meyer Rothschild achieved as a contractor for specie, when in 1813 he was commissioned by the government to pay Wellington’s troops with gold, some of which he acquired though his European-wide family network in France.46 Contracts and contractors became more numerous, especially towards the last five years of the Napoleonic War, when both the army and navy swelled to an enormous size. This was the reality of the ‘Contractor State,’ a description which encompasses the way in which Britain expended the taxes and loans which the government collected. This term is not designed to compete with the ‘Fiscal-Military State,’ but is complementary. Perhaps the concept of the ‘Fiscal-Military State’ has caused so much debate because it is easier for historians to measure the income rather than the expenditure of eighteenth-century states. Merchant contractors were vital to the government for several reasons. Firstly, they could purchase in markets in which it was politically and practically impossible for the government to participate. For instance, during the food scarcities of 1795–96 the London corn factor Claude Scott purchased fifty thousand quarters of Prussian wheat for the large expeditions which were sent to capture the French West Indies. Had grain been directly purchased by the government, cargoes would have been confiscated by the French, or those under French influence, even if the cargoes were transported in neutral ships.47 Merchants and their agents exploited every loophole, employing neutral ships and false papers to penetrate Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, especially in the Baltic and the Mediterranean.48 Perhaps the most remarkable example was the purchase of American wheat and other cereal products for Wellington’s army in Spain by the Lisbon merchant house of Sampaio in 1811 and 1812. For much of this period Britain and the United States were at war. For this brief period the transatlantic imports into Spain accounted for nearly half of all the issues of bread by British army commissaries in the Iberian Peninsula.49 A second reason was that merchant contractors understood complex and sophisticated markets, which the government could not do. The rapidly-moving international wheat market, for instance, in which British imports were a major element, required real expertise and speedy information networks.50 Contractors with 45 46 47 48 49 50

Herbert Joyce, The History of the Post Office from its establishment down to 1836 (London, 1893), p. 246; Kenneth Ellis, The Post Office in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Administrative History (Oxford, 1958), p. 35. Niall Ferguson, The House of Rothschild vol. 1: Money’s Prophets 1798–1848 (London, 1998), pp. 85–104; John M. Sherwig, Guineas & Gunpowder: British Foreign Aid in the Wars with France, 1793–1815 (Cambridge, MA, 1969), pp. 263–264. TNA, PRO/30/8/176, fo. 69. Silvia Marzigelli, ‘Napoleon’s Continental Blockade: An Effective Substitute to Naval Weakness?,’ Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-strategies, 1805–2005, eds. Bruce E. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (London, 2006), pp. 25–34. T.M.O. Redgrave, ‘Wellington’s Logistical Arrangements in the Peninsular War, 1809–1814’ (Ph.D. thesis, London, 1979), pp. 60–61. W. Freeman Galpin, The Grain Supply of England during the Napoleonic Period (1925, repr. New York, 1977), passim.



special knowledge could operate subtly without pushing up prices drastically. This can be illustrated by the sudden government requirement in 1804 for ten million bricks to build the first tranche of Martello Towers. An order was placed by a large contractor, but purchasing this quantity needed careful handling: by splitting up the order the suspicions of suppliers were not aroused, and prices did not rise.51 A third advantage to government in dealing with private contractors was that the state did not have to put capital into a project and hence avoided placing further burdens on taxation. When hostilities ceased the machinery of war was easier to dismantle. Further, the government transferred the risk to the contractor at times of marked price fluctuations, particularly towards the end of hostilities; there were very difficult times for some contractors at the time of the Peace of Amiens in 1802. That so much was in the hands of private contractors contributes to the centre of Harling and Mandler’s argument that the ‘Fiscal-Military’ state was dismantled comparatively easily after 1815, facilitating the move towards a ‘Laissez-Faire’ state.52 Finally, an established system of contractors, representing a well-developed industry, can expand when the state demands it with flexibility and with greater speed than can a state machine.53 This can best be illustrated by the warship building requirement in Britain between the battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and 1815. The strategic situation changed: Britain needed a large navy of small ships for the shallow waters of the North Sea and the Baltic, for convoying duties, inshore operations and defence against invasion. The Navy Board was forced to go beyond its established contractors and entered into contracts with shipbuilders, large and small, from all over the country, but vitally it expanded the navy by over five hundred new warships, totalling over 300,000 tons, doubling the tonnage built in the American war and trebling the total built in the French Revolutionary War.54 The Navy Board hated losing the quality control which it had been able to maintain for over a century by employing nearby Thames and south-east shipbuilders, with private individuals where trust had been built up over many years. At the same time, the cultural differences and rivalry between the state organisations and the private sector when both undertook similar work should not be underestimated. Officials of the Navy Board and dockyards and of the Ordnance, in particular, resisted attempts to lower quality standards in, respectively, small warships and muskets, when those standards were unnecessarily high and expensive, hindering the production of high volumes of ships and equipment. Published criticism of dockyard building

53 54

Ward, ‘Defence Works,’ p. 32. Philip Harling and Peter Mandler, ‘From “Fiscal-Military” State to Laissez-Faire State, 1760– 1850,’ Journal of British Studies, 32 (1993), pp. 44–70. See the French experience, without a strong private sector, after the Seven Years War in James Pritchard, Louis XV’s Navy: A Study of Organization and Administration (Montreal, 1987), p. 212. Roger Knight, ‘Deception and Devil Bolts: Wartime Naval Shipbuilding in Private Shipyards 1739–1815,’ Journal of Maritime Research (April 2003). Only fifty of five hundred ships were built in the royal dockyards. 11

51 52

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

and repairing standards by officials of the East India Company were virulent and continuous. In 1804 Lord Melville, the new First Lord of the Admiralty, forced the Navy Board and dockyards to accept the help of quick repairs from merchant yards by the controversial East India Company methods of doubling and cross-bracing. Without this measure, Nelson would not have had enough ships to fight the battle of Trafalgar.55 Whatever difficulties arose, the government had to find every means to increase production, for the war increased in scale and extent to an unprecedented level on land and at sea. Cultural differences between the public and private sector did not shift. The dockyards despised private shipbuilders for shoddy workmanship: they in turn saw the royal yards as lazy and inefficient organisations. Debates between proponents of public services and the private sector have been constant for the last two hundred years and these attitudes are part of the political framework in early twenty-first century Britain. There can be no doubt of the precariousness of the British war situation between 1807 and 1812, the years of Napoleon’s greatest power, after he had defeated and emasculated Austria and Prussia at Austerlitz, neutralised Russia at the treaty of Tilsit and imposed the Continental Blockade. The situation was made worse by a difficult political situation, with politicians bitterly divided, providing little leadership.56 In these years the financial strain on the country was almost intolerable. In January 1806, for instance, the total government income was £70 million, of which £27 million went towards servicing the National Debt.57 By 1809 a growing shortage of specie and dependence on paper money and credit created unease. There was a dangerous degree of speculation in the South American market, for Napoleon’s blockade had caused merchants to switch from European markets, and many had been ruined by British political and military reverses in Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro in 1807. By 1810 a very unfavourable balance of payments existed between Britain and the rest of the world, a situation exacerbated by the poor grain harvest of 1809 which necessitated the import of over half a million tons of wheat. In the same year subsidies to continental allies totalled over £3 million and in 1810 just under that figure: they were to increase substantially in the last five years of the war.58 At the same time the scale of the war increased. The number of seamen to be fed reached its highest point in 1812–13, when the war was further extended by hostilities against the United States. In the same year Wellington’s army in the Peninsula numbered 100,000, if the Portuguese and Spanish troops are counted, which can be justified since they were equipped, fed and paid by Britain. In November 1813 Castlereagh informed the House of Commons that the Ordnance had exported one

56 57 58

Roger Knight, ‘The Fleets at Trafalgar: The Margin of Superiority,’ Trafalgar in History: A Battle and its Afterlife, ed. David Cannadine (Basingstoke, 2006), pp. 69–72. Boyd Hilton, A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People? England 1783–1846 (Oxford, 2006), pp. 210–222. Hansard, 1806, xvii, ‘Account of the Public Expenditure of Great Britain, for the year ended 5 January 1806.’ Sherwig, Guineas and Gunpowder, pp. 366–367. 12



million muskets to continental allies in that year alone.59 The country needed every resource from state and private enterprise to survive the threat posed by Napoleon and the nations which he had conquered. Only when Napoleon had broken his army in Russia did the fortunes of war swing towards Britain and her allies. Contractor relations with government Whatever suspicions there might have been of the government relationship with contractors, the Victualling Office could not be accused of negotiating with them in lavish surroundings in the offices in Somerset House. The Board complained to the Admiralty in 1805 that: The lobby for the Messengers which is but fifteen feet long by thirteen foot wide is also the only place that can be used as a Public Waiting room for Merchants, Contractors and other persons attending at this Office, and it is besides unavoidably made use of as a Repository for the Secretary’s Department.60

Standards of contracting started from a low level, which can best be illustrated by an army contract in 1793 involving a remarkable conflict of interest when Mr Merry, the Chief Examiner of Army Accounts, was awarded the contract to supply coal to the Gibraltar garrison, with the approbation of the King.61 However, contractual relations between government and contractors improved in fits and starts. At first they proceeded on the old system with a high degree of trust between the two sides and some of the individual contractors appeared to hold some advantage. This was also true of the Navy Board, where the Comptroller, Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, was not strong; in the opinion of one authority, ‘contractors really were taking advantage of him’.62 This early period is perhaps best illustrated by the relationship of the corn factor Claude Scott with William Pitt and Henry Dundas in the large grain purchases of 1795–96. Scott was summoned to explain progress to the Prime Minister and the Secretary for War. He sent a remarkable briefing letter ahead of his interview, in which he demonstrated his grasp of the international grain markets, but also cautioned the Prime Minister not to expect accuracy in his accounts: I am sorry it is not in my power to give an exact state of the present general Result, which would be almost as impossible as for the Commander of an Army to make a Return of his Troops during a Battle; for such has been and still is the great

59 Sherwig, Guineas and Gunpowder, p. 288. 60 HL. STG 148 (21), VB to William Marsden, 3 Dec. 1805. 61 Bartlett, ‘Development of the British Army,’ p. 32, quoting the Commission of Military Enquiry, Sixth Report, 1808, p. 303. 62 Soft contracting terms in the 1790s were the basis of the prolonged ill-feeling between Hamond and Lord St Vincent. See Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 479: Roger Morriss, Naval Power and British Culture 1760–1850: Public Trust and Government Ideology (Aldershot, 2004), pp. 142, 147.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 pressure of these Concerns, that the time and attention of myself and my Clerks, continue fully occupied by Current Transactions, and these Assistants are alone qualify’d, thro’ experience, to make out in detail the necessary Accounts, Sale etc to form the succinct Statement you have required me to furnish. I must therefore depend upon the Candour of their Lordships till a cessation of the Current Transactions of my Concerns with Government, which I trust is near at hand, will afford us sufficient leisure to complete the Accounts in detail, from which alone a Statement of the general Result can be formed.63

Time to balance accounts, to which Scott alluded, was a problem from which the Victualling Board was already suffering, and which would damage its reputation in years to come. Some of these cosy relationships were to change forever in February 1801 when Lord St Vincent was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in Addington’s government, a year which was to be a turning point for most of the naval administration departments. The quarterdeck, hectoring style of the new First Lord, driven by Whiggish principles, ensured that life would never again be easy or quiet for the members of any subordinate naval board. In the words of Nicholas Rodger, St Vincent ‘brought to the Admiralty a museum of attitudes many of which belonged in the seventeenth rather than the nineteenth century’. The First Lord thought that contractors were by definition dishonest.64 Many political arguments were fought out in Parliament, although they involved the Navy Board rather than Victualling Board. However, the latter went through a prolonged period of weakness, with the accounting problem deteriorating. This was a problem, however, across government and the political arguments resulted in the appointment of a number of Parliamentary commissions. The two most important were the Commission of Military Enquiry and the Commission of Naval Revision, whose reports appeared between 1807 and 1812, which comprehensively reorganised both army and navy. From these commissions came further change in relations with contractors across government. In the case of victualling, a scandal enabled the Admiralty to replace over half the Victualling Commissioners.65 From 1808, under a new and vigorous chairman, John Clarke Searle, with a younger and more effective board, the backlog of accounts was slowly whittled down, and contractors were faced with tougher negotiations. The difficult trading conditions of 1809 to 1812 caused the bankruptcy of several large victualling contractors, which also happened with merchant shipbuilders constructing warships for government.

63 64


TNA, PRO 30/8/176, fo.65, Claude Scott to Charles Long, Secretary to the Treasury, 6 Dec. 1796. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 476; for a more sympathetic view of St Vincent see Patricia K. Crimmin, ‘John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent 1735–1823,’ Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding (London, 2000), pp. 344–347; also Morriss, Naval Power and British Culture, pp. 160–167. Knight, ‘Politics and Trust,’ pp. 143–145; Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, see Chapter 6.



However, it was the control of quality which was the critical issue. All spending departments of state had to exact the specified quality from contractors. The expertise to do this came from the government yards. In modern government parlance, this was to create the expertise to maintain the idea of ‘the intelligent customer’. The state victualling organisation had established their yards by the end of the Seven Years War, when Buchet notes their role in quality control.66 Every government spending department developed this expertise, although the munitions assembly plants controlled by the Ordnance Board at Lewisham and Enfield were operational only for the last few years of the Napoleonic War. The other organisations were well established; these included Woolwich Arsenal, the system of army commissaries, the six home dockyards, the four home victualling yards and Transport Board inspection officials. It was from this model that technological innovation grew, demanded by state officials and provided by contractors, although there was little innovation in victualling beyond the application of steam to flour milling, and the very late adoption of cast iron water tanks aboard ship.67 In other departments there were considerable developments, generated under the conditions of long years of war, driven by politically well-connected and powerful personalities working for the state, such as Thomas Blomefield, Inspector-General of Ordnance, or Colonel William Congreve, who produced his rockets, or Samuel Bentham, Inspector-General of Naval Works. These men, searching for cost savings or for greater quality, drove through technological innovation. One can point, among several important examples, to the development of the copper alloy bolt, which replaced those made of iron, which were wasting away from the electrolytic action of the newly introduced copper sheathing, invented by the technicians at Thomas Williams’s factory in Birmingham in the 1780s; the Blomefield pattern gun in the 1790s, which brought real reliability to heavy naval ordnance, cast by north of England and Scottish gunfounders; or the steam-driven Portsmouth Block mills, which produced 100,000 pulley blocks a year, one year’s consumption for the Royal Navy, driven through by Bentham but designed and built by Marc Isambard Brunel.68 Brunel’s reputation is not that of a government contractor, but that is exactly what he was, and, it was to prove, not successful financially. In 1810 he invented a successful continuous production method for army boots, which generated four hundred pairs a day. But the end of the war caught him with thirty thousand pairs unsold to the army, which pushed him to the verge of bankruptcy and a spell in a

66 Buchet, Marine, économie et société, p. 338; ‘The Development of Victualling Board Bases in London, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Dover (1701–1763),’ TNDS 4 (2008), p. 67. 67 See Chapter 3. 68 J.R. Harris, The Copper King: A Biography of Thomas Williams of Llanidan (Liverpool, 1964), pp. 47–50; Roger Knight, ‘The Introduction of Copper Sheathing into the Royal Navy, 1779–1786,’ MM 59 (1973), pp. 304–308; Brian Lavery, ‘Carronades and Blomefield Guns,’ British Naval Armaments, ed. R.D. Smith (London, 1989), pp. 15–27; Jonathan Coad, The Portsmouth Block Mills: Bentham, Brunel and the Start of the Royal Navy’s Industrial Revolution (Swindon, 2005), pp. 66–70.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

­ ebtor’s prison in 1821: the government only relieved him from his difficulties when d it became known that he was negotiating with the Russian government to enter into its service.69 It was another example of the way in which government transferred financial risk to contractors. 1801: A year of crisis For most of 1801 Britain was making tentative peace overtures towards France, but this did not mean that the war was winding down. Napoleon had concentrated his army at Boulogne, threatening invasion. Pitt resigned at the beginning of the year after seventeen years in office and the apparently weak administration of Henry Addington took power. Political uncertainty was accompanied by economic woes in the shape of unprecedented price rises in foodstuffs, which led in turn to domestic disorder and riots. St Vincent’s ruthless treatment of the naval administrative departments had begun and morale was plummeting. Government dockyards were in ferment: as a result of confrontations and disorder, 340 employees from all six of the home yards were discharged in the summer of that year.70 The year 1801 marked a low point, too, in the fortunes of the Victualling Board during these wars, for in such dramatic times it was clear that it had to run hard to stay in the same place in its complex job of contract negotiation and delivery. In addition to the Board’s usual considerable responsibilities, two major amphibious expeditions, to Copenhagen and to Egypt, had left British shores, and several thousand tons of provisions needed to be sent to re-supply soldiers and seamen. Crisis was not too strong a word to describe the situation. More particularly, it was an active year for the Victualling Commissioner who, by personality and experience, came to dominate the Board, although he never became Chairman. When there were problems away from London, it was George Phillips Towry who went to solve them. He had a remarkable career, although the first part of his life is obscure. Related to Lord Grey, long in the Whig opposition but briefly First Lord of the Admiralty in 1806, Towry was made a naval lieutenant at the start of the Seven Years War, but inherited a fortune when his older naval brother was killed in 1762.71 What Towry did for the next twenty years is not known, but he

69 70 71

Richard Beamish, Memoir of the Life of Sir Marc Isambard Brunel (London, 1862), pp. 131–138, 168–175. R.A. Morriss, ‘Labour Relations in the Royal Dockyards, 1801–1805,’ MM 52 (1976), pp. 337–346. TNA, PRO 30/42, Correspondence of Lady Law, pedigree of the Grey and Towry families (We are grateful to Janet Macdonald for this reference). A mystery is provided by a letter of 1815 from Towry, written when he was over eighty, to Dr John Harness (Bodleian MSS. Eng.c. 7330, d.3725, fols. 16–17) when Towry claimed that he was ‘Master of the Fougueux … under the command of Boscawen,’ but a search of the muster and log books could find no trace of Towry’s name.



had useful connections with powerful people on the naval side of government. His uncle, John Towry, had been Resident Commissioner at Port Mahon at the time of the Seven Years War. He was related to John Clevland, a previous Secretary to the Admiralty Board, and had links to George Marsh of the Navy Board. It is not surprising that Towry found himself a place at the Victualling Board in 1783.72 He survived all the upheavals and died still a Victualling Commissioner at the age of eighty-four in 1817.73 In his first weeks in office, St Vincent, also a friend of the Grey family, demanded action to clear up a threatening scandal. The Victualling Board’s official in Lisbon, known as the Agent Victualler, the man who dealt with contractors in this important port, David Heatley, had become hopelessly behind with his accounts. Not only were his transactions at Lisbon unaccounted for, but he had not submitted reports back to the Victualling Office in London from as far back as 1793 when he arranged the victualling for the Mediterranean Fleet.74 As with much of the rest of the accounting problem, no action had been taken by the Board. With St Vincent as First Lord, these accounting problems could no longer be ignored. Thus it was that on 25 May 1801 the 68-year-old Towry was on board the Post Office packet boat Earl Gower, on its regular run to Lisbon, which was nearing its destination. He was firing a musket at a French privateer, the Telegraph of Dunkirk, which was rapidly overhauling the packet. As Towry had served in the navy, conflict at sea was nothing new to him, but the same could not be said for his fellow passengers, three clerks from the Victualling Office: a senior clerk, Richard Ford, who was to take over Heatley’s position in Lisbon, and two juniors, James Reid and Alfred Johnston, who were to help sort out the accounting mess. They were also wielding muskets. The combined military skills of the group were less than effective, even farcical. The packet crew later described their action as, ‘attempting to make themselves useful by firing Muskets which they would load below and come part of the way on Deck and fire by which means they shot away some of the Earl Gower’s rigging’.75 After a two-hour chase, only three miles from Lisbon, the mails were thrown 72

73 74 75

See Linda Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: A Woman in World History (London, 2007), pp. 88–89. Towry is listed in Sir John Sainty’s list on the Institute of Historical Research’s website as joining the Board on 2 Oct 1784, but, as observed to us by Janet Macdonald, appears in the minutes before the end of 1783. Gentleman’s Magazine, 1817, pt.1, p. 286. Towry’s daughter Ann, a great beauty, married Lord Ellenborough, Lord Chief Justice in the Ministry of All the Talents, and had thirteen children. A grandson was to become Governor-General of India. NMM, ADM DP/21, VB to the Board of Admiralty, 7 May 1801; Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, pp. 65–66. PO 43/134, 14 Dec 1802, Memorial under oath from the Earl Gower’s crew. The letter from the captain of the packet, William Deake, also mentioned that amongst the group was J.H. Hunt Esq, likely to have been the Hunt who was a former Victualling Commisioner, by now a member of the Transport Board, dealing with prisoners-of-war (Deake to Francis Freeling, Secretary of the Post Office, 11 Jul. 1801).


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

overboard, the packet hauled down her colours and the crew and passengers were captured by the privateer. The four prisoners had to wait for seven days’ quarantine, then were taken by land under escort to Gibraltar, arriving on 13 June where they were freed.76 For a Commissioner of Victualling to have been taken prisoner was, to say the least, unusual. The incident eventually led to recrimination as a result of a lofty letter written from Gibraltar by Towry to the Postmaster-General, Lord Auckland, in which he criticised the packet crew’s lack of determination in the defence of their ship: ‘the very system of discretion necessarily adopted by their Commanders, of constantly avoiding every Ship that gives chace to them, tends at the same time to dispirit their people’. As a result of this letter the crew was discharged from the packet service. It was, as Towry observed to Auckland, an ‘unfortunate occasion’.77 Four days later Towry and his clerks took passage on the San Fiorenzo frigate to Lisbon. After a five-day passage, they disembarked into a Portuguese fishing boat, in light airs and hazy weather, arriving in Lisbon on 23 June. Towry was not back at his place on the Victualling Board in Somerset House until 27 July.78 Again the sense of crisis took hold. On 1 August all the bakers manning the government bisket ovens at Deptford and Rotherhithe had been discharged for combining and striking for more pay. After only four days back at the Board, Towry was again travelling, this time to the north of England and Scotland. He found nearly one hundred replacement bakers in Newcastle and Edinburgh, with the help of the naval officers permanently stationed there to regulate the impressment service. The vacancies were filled and the ovens were again operating by early September.79 Towry was to travel again in future years, but never so much and never so far. 1801 marked the beginning of a period of change, although it was to take some years before the Victualling Office got on top of its problems, and radical reform was needed before it did so. Financial and accounting shortcomings were endemic throughout government spending departments. Had not solutions been found, it is doubtful whether the Britain and its allies could have withstood Napoleon.

76 77 78 79

PO 43/134, 11 Jul 1801, Deake to Freeling; NA, 51/1396. PO 43/135, 17 Jun 1801, Towry to Auckland, written from Gibraltar. TNA, ADM 36/14074, muster book of the San Fiorenzo 1801; ADM 51/1396, Log 1801. TNA, ADM 111/160, VB Minutes, 7 Sep. 1801.


2 The Victualling Board and its Contractors

Research over the last few decades has served to blur to some extent the neat dividing line that historians used to draw between the state and the market; between the public and private sectors, to use a modern idiom. This is reflected in some of the ambiguities of individuals’ positions within the naval victualling system, within which a few contractors took on roles normally performed by government employees, and vice versa. Basil Cochrane, the contractor in the East Indies who forms the subject of Chapter 8, acted both as victualling contractor and Agent Victualler, whilst some members of staff in Deptford victualling yard held contracts to provide the yard with horses. Nevertheless, although the neat separation between public and private interests is a somewhat artificial one, it is possible and useful to look at the two in isolation, which is the purpose of this chapter. It looks first at the place of the Victualling Board within the naval administration, at how, along with much of the rest of the governmental machine, it evolved and became increasingly effective from the 1780s to 1815. It also explains the mechanisms by which it was granted money and the mechanism that allowed it, like the other civil departments of the navy, to spend beyond this grant by using the bill system to pay its contractors. Secondly, it looks in outline at the eighteenth-century mercantile community and its activities, before concluding with an explanation of the principal mechanism by which the Victualling Board reconciled its own interests with those of its suppliers: competitive tendering. The state and the navy The Royal Navy was consistently the most expensive and in peacetime the largest department of the British state in the eighteenth century. As such, inevitably its    R. Harris, ‘Government and the Economy, 1688–1850,’ The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain, vol. 1: Industrialisation, 1700–1860, ed. R. Floud and P. Johnson (Cambridge, 2004), p. 235.     Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, p. 282.     C. Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State in the Eighteenth Century (Woodbridge, 2004), p. 35.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

development was shaped and conditioned by developments in the machinery of government as a whole. Naval power depended upon the ability of the state to raise sufficient money to support the navy, and to deploy that money effectively. During the eighteenth century the British state became increasingly effective in both of these respects, and especially the latter, improvement in part being driven by the pressure of war and the need to maintain naval strength. The foundations of the British fiscal-military state took shape between the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and the end of the War of the Spanish Succession. The cornerstone was an effective apparatus for raising taxes, in which regard the British state was considerably more successful, and able to raise greater sums of money, than its rivals. Coupled with this was the development of effective mechanisms for servicing the growing national debt, which gave the Hanoverian state a creditworthiness and ability to finance wars by borrowing that its predecessors had lacked, and which many other European states, most importantly France and Spain, still did lack. This proved a decisive advantage throughout the century, culminating in the wars of 1793–1815. The state’s capacity to raise money, however, was not matched early in the century by the ability to translate it into armies on the march and fleets at sea. Inadequate and inefficient administration, reliance on contractors whose activities were insufficiently controlled and on occasion outright corruption blunted the effectiveness of both army and navy. Nevertheless, during successive wars in mid-century matters slowly improved. The army ‘grew in size … professionalism, effectiveness and cohesion,’ naval facilities were improved and extended and administration was tightened up. Attitudes towards government began to shift again during the 1780s. During the War of American Independence, Commissioners for Examining the Public Accounts were appointed, who laid down the principle that private incomes and public revenues should be separated, that fees and gratuities in public offices should cease and that there should be an end to sinecures. This amounted to a ‘frontal assault on the traditional notion of property in office.’ After the war had come to its unsuccessful conclusion Pitt acted on few of these recommendations despite the goading of the burgeoning Economical Reform movement, but in 1784 he did appoint the Commissioners ‘to Enquire into the Fees, Gratuities, Perquisites and Emoluments’ in public offices, which recommended the reorganisation of various departments of state, including the civil departments of the navy. British naval administration in the eighteenth century was characterised by evolutionary change and improvement, and a ‘growing and at times quite dynamic    Harling and Mandler, ‘From “Fiscal-Military” State to Laissez-Faire State,’ pp. 52–56.    Brewer, Sinews of Power, p. 137.    Harris, ‘Government and the Economy,’ pp. 216–217; P.K. O’Brien, ‘Fiscal and Financial Preconditions for British Naval Hegemony 1415–1815,’ LSE Working Paper 91/05 (2005).    Bannerman, Merchants and the Military, p. 8.    Conway, War, State and Society, pp. 50–54.    Harling, The Waning of Old Corruption, p. 59.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

George Phillips Towry (1729–1817), Victualling Board Commissioner, 1784–1817, and Deputy Chairman from 1803. Oil painting by Philip Jean (1755–1802). National Maritime Museum, BHC 3058

management mentality.’10 There were four boards subordinate to the Admiralty, as shown in the diagram in Appendix 1a. Oldest and most senior was the Navy Board, which could trace its origins to the sixteenth century. The Victualling Board and the Sick and Hurt Board had been established in 1683 and 1689 respectively, whilst the Transport Board, established first in 1689, had been disbanded in 1724 but was revived in 1794 to manage transport for all of the other boards and avoid ‘ruinous’ competition between them for shipping. With the exception of the Transport Board, the relationships between these boards changed little during the eighteenth century.11 The Victualling Board Prior to the establishment of the Victualling Board, victuals had been provided by contractors, with the exception of a few years during the Interregnum. Throughout

  10 Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State, p. 20.   11 Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, pp. 109, 194; R. Harding, The Evolution of the Sailing Navy, 1509–1815 (Basingstoke, 1995), p. 115; D. Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole (Princeton, NJ, 1965), pp. 53–54; Syrett, Shipping and Military Power, p. 124.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

the seventeenth century, however, shortages of money to pay contractors and insufficient checks on their activities meant that provisions were often insufficient and of poor quality, to the point where on occasion captains were obliged to buy provisions from their own pockets to keep their ships operational and stave off the threat of mutiny.12 The establishment of a salaried Victualling Board did little to improve the situation initially, since it was still plagued by shortages of money, inadequate accounting and payment mechanisms and its own inexperience, as well as the general lack of creditworthiness that afflicted much of government at the time. However, over the subsequent two decades matters did improve, partly because the Board was reorganised but also because of the adoption of public tendering for contracts and the introduction of a course for paying bills. Both of these innovations had previously been adopted by the Navy Board, and they helped to bring down contract prices by introducing competition between prospective suppliers, stabilise the Board’s credit and systematise the previously chaotic system of paying contractors.13 The method of paying bills in course lasted until the 1790s: its demise is discussed below. After another reorganisation and the issuing of a new set of instructions for Victualling Commissioners in 1716, which became ‘the constitution of the ­victualling service’ for nearly a century, the Board evolved steadily for half a century.14 Incremental improvements were made to its facilities and administrative mechanisms, and its performance during the wars of 1739–48 and the Seven Years War was good.15 Upheaval came during the War of American Independence, however. Chapter 6 relates how one of the Board’s major suppliers was prosecuted and jailed for overcharging on his supplies, which led to a House of Commons inquiry into the Board’s conduct. Another major contractor, Portsmouth bisket baker Christopher Potter,16 was accused of using bad wheat and poor quality flour which ‘occasioned the steam from the ovens to stink so much, that the men have been obliged to leave off work. That the bread was constantly made with a mixture of seconds, thirds, coarser middlings, soft-ground double stuff … it was slack baked, which occasioned it being weevilly, and in other ways defective.’17 There was also public controversy


  12 N.A.M. Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea: A Naval History of Britain, 660–1649 (London, 1997), pp. 136–137, 234, 372–375; Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, pp. 43, 105–106; Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole, pp. 53–54.   13 D. Baugh, Naval Administration 1715–1750 (NRS, 120, 1977), pp. 455–456; B. Pool, Navy Board Contracts 1660–1832: Contract Administration under the Navy Board (London, 1966), pp. 32–33. For an explanation of ‘course’ see p. 30.   14 Baugh, Naval Administration 1715–1750, p. 401.   15 N.A.M. Rodger, ‘The Victualling of the British Navy in the Seven Years War,’ Bulletin du Centre d’Histoire des Éspace Atlantiques No. 2 (Bordeaux, 1985); Buchet, Marine, économie et société, passim.   16 The contemporary spelling of ‘bisket’ rather than the modern ‘biscuit’ has been used throughout this book.   17 Matthew Sheldon, ‘Commissioners, Contractors and Control; the strange case of the Victualling Board in the American War’ (unpublished), quoting the ‘Report from the

The Victualling Board and its Contractors

over the chief clerk to George Philips Towry, who was found to have been passing confidential information to a navy agent.18 All of these brought upon the Board ‘unflattering publicity and the taint of corruption.’19 Change was on the way, however, through the medium of new and younger Commissioners who pushed through reforms, in the face of opposition from older and more conservative members. George Philips Towry used the Commission on Fees’ investigation of the Board to end the practice of clerks giving premiums to Commissioners as a condition of employment.20 Another new Commissioner was John Marsh, a former army commissary at Cork who had made his reputation standing up to contractors who delivered substandard provisions.21 Under the influence of these new Commissioners the Board was more proactive in tackling corruption. For instance, action was taken against fraud on the part of the Agent Victualler and storekeeper on the Leeward Islands station, although legal proceedings were eventually abandoned because of the unavailability of witnesses.22 This went some way towards restoring the Board’s reputation, and in 1788, the Commission on Fees, Perquisites and Emoluments remarked favourably upon the probity of the Commissioners, a remark repeated by the Commission of Naval Revision in 1807.23 The Victualling Board was based at Somerset House in London. It consisted of seven Commissioners, each of whom was responsible for a department until the reorganisation of 1809. The Chairman of the Board was responsible for cash and other Commissioners for stores, the brewhouse, cutting house, bakehouse, cooperage and the department of the hoytaker, which organised transport.24 This supervision was more nominal than real, however, and the day to day management of each department was overseen by full-time managers; the Master Brewer, Clerk of the Cutting House, Master Cooper and so on. In 1809 the Board was reorganised and Commissioners were formally relieved of their departmental responsibilities. In terms of administrative staff, the clerks at Somerset House were promoted on the basis of seniority. Between 1791 and 1805 the number of officers and clerks rose from 65 to 105.25 In wartime, ‘extra’ clerks were taken on to cope with the pressure of business, and some were promoted to the permanent staff as vacancies arose. By the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War, the Board was sufficiently well regarded for the Lords of the Treasury to turn over to it the victualling of the army

 23  24  25


  18   19  20  21  22

Committee to whom the Petition of … the Inhabitants of the Borough of Portsmouth was Referred,’ 1783. We are grateful to the author for use of this paper. Knight, ‘Politics and Trust,’ p. 134. Knight, ‘The Spending and Accounting Performance.’ Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, p. 575. Baker, Government and Contractors, p. 97. Morriss, Naval Power and British Culture, pp. 115–118; R. Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (London, 2005), pp. 123–124. Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, p. 567; Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 16. Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 4. HL, STG 148 (21), VB to William Marsden, 3 Dec. 1805.

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

overseas, in 1794. This was not wholly new, the Board having victualled certain overseas military expeditions in previous wars. However, most army contracting had previously been in the hands of the Treasury, which had no great expertise at making contracts and had often turned to the Victualling Board for advice.26 Aside from the Board’s greater expertise, putting procurement for both services into the same hands avoided ‘mischievous competition’ between departments in the provisions markets.27 The Board largely justified the faith shown in it during the early years of the war, administering contracts effectively and marshalling supplies where they were needed. Even the great amphibious expeditions to the West Indies in 1795–96 were not significantly hampered by provisioning failures despite the vast scale of the task, and ordinary naval operations were rarely interrupted by shortages of food and drink. However, although the day to day business of the Board ran relatively smoothly all was not well. The strain of a long war requiring unprecedented commitments of men and resources was telling, and not only on the Victualling Board. Shortly after Charles Middleton, newly ennobled as Lord Barham, took office as First Lord of the Admiralty in May 1805, he wrote to Pitt, stating that: Our naval boards are in such a weak state, that they cannot be relied upon for either advice or execution, but I trust they may be amended. There is no lack of willingness, but we are all worn out, and more active officers must be found as opportunity offers to succeed them.28

The Commissioners were ageing. Towry was well over seventy, and Marsh and the Chairman, George Cherry, little younger. Moreover, despite having remarked favourably on their honesty, neither the Commission on Fees nor the Commission of Naval Revision entertained a high opinion of the Commissioners’ professional competence, remarking that they lacked ‘practical skill and knowledge … which few, if any gentlemen in their habits of life can be expected to possess.’29 The previous year John Clarke Searle, newly appointed to the Board, had remarked of his colleagues that: The business which the Victg [sic] Board has to decide upon requires no great depth of understanding, no particular acuteness of penetration; the exercise of a little common Sense wou’d be fully adequate to the management of its concerns, and yet such is the present want of management, and decisions, as totally to ­preclude the possibility of a due performance of its Duties.30

 26 Bannerman, Merchants and the Military, p. 47; see also Baker, Government and Contractors, pp. 149–150.  27 G. Rose, Observations Respecting the Public Expenditure and the Influence of the Crown (London, 1810), pp. 29–30.  28 J.K. Laughton ed., Letters and Papers of Charles, Lord Barham, vol. III (NRS, 39, 1911), Barham to Pitt, 22 May 1805.  29 Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, p. 567; Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 16.  30 HL, STG 148 (26), unsigned and undated memorandum in the handwriting of J.C. Searle.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

Although the Board kept up well with the contracting side of its business, its accounts slipped further and further into arrears. This was not a problem unique to the Victualling Board: it was evident across government, especially in the army. However, it became increasingly serious. By 1807, when the Commission of Naval Revision turned its attention to the Board, accounts totalling £9,486,825 remained unexamined, some of them dating back thirty years. The Board pleaded pressure of current business and lack of working space for clerks, which the Commission partially accepted, although it pointed out that under recent pressure the Board had managed to speed up the accounting. It concluded, however, that ‘nothing less than an entire new system would be likely to produce any effectual and permanent good.’31 A decade previously the Navy Board had been split into two committees, for accounting and general business, along the lines recommended by the Commission on Fees. The Victualling Board had resisted reform until December 1806, at which point it agreed to split into committees, pre-empting the recommendations of the Commission of Revision.32 This was put into effect in 1809, and around the same time many of the old Commissioners were superannuated. John Marsh and William Budge went, replaced by younger and more energetic men. One such was Nicholas Brown, who had previously been secretary and Agent Victualler to Lord Keith during his command of the Mediterranean fleet between 1799 and 1802, and had arranged supplies for the fleet and the fifteen thousand troops under General Sir Ralph Abercromby who were landed in Egypt in March 1801. Brown was appointed to the Board on 3 December 1808, and on the same day the tough, businesslike Searle became Chairman. Towry, probably by dint of experience and political connections, survived the purge and served on the Board until his death in 1817, at the age of 84. 33 This reconstruction of the Victualling Board set the seal on a slow but steady cultural shift, reflecting change in the naval administration and the wider machinery of government, which had been under way for two decades. As we have seen, Towry had been at the head of attempts to curb certain perquisites in the mid1780s. The arrival of St Vincent as First Lord of the Admiralty in February 1801 gave further impetus to the drive against corruption. On just one day in March 1801 a clerk was dismissed for stealing cheese, two lieutenants commanding gunboats were pursued on suspicion of having falsified their accounts of provisions received, the Agent Victualler at Great Yarmouth was warned to take more care after it was found he had accepted underweight bags of bisket, and the Agent at Portsmouth sought reassurance that no blame attached to him for fraud committed by a man who represented himself as a lieutenant.34 By 1806 clerks across the naval administration were complaining of shrinking incomes, since their wages had

 31  32  33  34

Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, pp. 4, 10–13. TNA, ADM 111/181, VB Minutes, 13 Dec. 1806. Knight, ‘Politics and Trust,’ pp. 143–145. TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 11 Mar. 1801.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

not been increased to cover gratuities now denied them.35 Something of how far attitudes towards perquisites had shifted can be seen in the threat to dismiss four Victualling Office messengers, for accepting a Christmas gift box containing five pounds from a contractor in December 1812. The Board described this as a ‘gross impropriety of conduct,’ but stopped short of dismissing them entirely since it was apparent that they had not realised that Christmas boxes fell within the scope of the restrictions on gratuities.36 Twenty years before, small gifts such as this would have passed without comment. Even then, however, the Board’s reputation for probity had been considerably greater than that of other arms of government: no one could ever accuse the Board of ‘a mass of public corruption, fraud and abuse … never … equalled in the history of this country,’ a charge laid at the door of the Army Commissariat.37 Slackly administered the Victualling Board may have been at times, but rabidly corrupt it was not. The culture within the naval administration was changing in other ways as well. Longstanding entitlements and unofficial earnings were being whittled away, and employment of clerks and dockyard and victualling yard artisans and labourers was conditional increasingly upon competence rather than entitlement. As manning levels were reduced during the Peace of Amiens, the Admiralty wrote to the Victualling Board in October 1802: It has been customary upon reductions taking place to discharge those Men last entered, as having the least claim upon the Public, and to retain those who have been longest in the service; and directing this Board, in the reductions which may in future take place in any of the Victualling Departments, to retain the most able men, and to discharge those least fit for the service, on whatever part of the List they may stand.38

Over the next few weeks, many of the oldest and least competent men were discharged, with pensions for those of long service. A decade earlier, they could reasonably have expected continuing employment in some capacity, but in the increasingly efficient naval administration of the early nineteenth century there was no place for them. Increased professionalism and a younger, more energetic Victualling Board had ramifications in many directions, not least in dealings with contractors. The Board had long had the capacity to negotiate toughly with its suppliers, but toughness was tempered by a caution which can be seen in a ponderous statement from Towry to the Commission of Naval Revision: I may also individually state, that, being deeply impressed with the dangers of falling into error by precipitation, I would rather be open to animadversion for

 35  36  37  38

Morriss, Royal Dockyards, p. 128. TNA, ADM 111/246, VB Minutes, Dec. 1812. Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, p. 273. TNA, ADM 111/164, VB Minutes, 15 Oct. 1802.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors delay, than venture to conclude, without very serious thoughts, upon disputable vouchers, where the character, as well as the pecuniary interest of the parties are concerned, and the Public may on the one hand be liable to suffer, through the delinquency or criminal negligence of its servants, were not every degree of cautious investigation exerted in the cases to which I allude and indeed, after every degree of attention to Foreign Agents and Pursers’ Accounts, we are not seldom at a loss to recover what may appear to us to be due to the Crown, from the difficulties that lay in our way by a legal process.39

Such caution may have been justified in peacetime, but even then it led to long delays in checking and passing accounts. Accounts from the Agents Victualler in the East Indies and North America had been submitted in 1787–88, but neither had been attended to by the time war broke out in 1793, after which they understandably ranked lower in priority than current business.40 These and other, more recent, accounts constituted the bulk of the £9.5 million outstanding by the time the Commission of Naval Revision turned its attention to the Board. The Board had already begun to address the situation, in response to a note from the Admiralty in February 1805, but the process speeded up after the Board’s reconstitution. Old accounts whose generators were long dead and which could never be verified were written off, and extra clerks taken on to clear the remainder of the backlog. The Board reported its progress to the Admiralty every three months, noting with some satisfaction in December 1810 that the progress made in passing them [the accounts], compared with former operations in a similar period, has been in the increased proportion of more than one half beyond what we were formerly able to accomplish.41

Writing to the First Lord in 1814, Nicholas Brown stated that ‘Many Thousand Pounds have been recovered from the Agents, on the investigation of [the accounts].’42 New accounts were dealt with much more quickly. On the operational side of the business, the Board’s greater assertiveness manifested itself in more rigorous dealings with contractors, with the practical results that quality control was more stringent, penalties for failing to fulfil contracts or delivering poor-quality goods more frequently applied, and negotiations with large contractors were pursued with greater vigour and more effectiveness. Naval estimates The start of the process of naval mobilisation began in the Cabinet when decisions were taken upon the number of seamen it felt diplomatically expedient to raise,  39   40   41   42

Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 13. Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 11. TNA, ADM 110/63, VB to Admiralty, 4 Dec. 1810. NAS, GD51/2/514, Melville Papers, Brown to Melville, 30 Apr. 1814.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

taking account of what would be acceptable to Parliament. Generally, there was not a great deal of Parliamentary debate about the number of seamen, though when the Naval Estimates were presented other naval issues would be raised. Budgets had ‘a relatively easy passage’ through the eighteenth century, and Parliamentary approval was part of the mechanism by which public and City confidence was maintained, for Navy and Victualling Bills had to be redeemed.43 Political interference with the administrative process was minimal, although Pitt, as he was apt to do with other departments, would seek information directly. He did so, for instance, on 11 August 1796, asking Towry for ‘an account of average prices and quantities of provisions purchased for the service of this department … together with a comparative view of the prices etc at the same places in the former war … ’44 Thomas Grenville, when First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote to the Chairman of the Victualling Board at the end of 1806 to urge haste in the production of next year’s estimate, ‘as speedily as possible, the time pressing much.’45 Through the first dozen years of the nineteenth century, however, and during and after the Commissions into the navy and army between 1803 and 1812, scrutiny, accurate reporting to Parliament and focused debate were much more the order of the day. The number of seamen was calculated by the Admiralty with reference to the number and type of warships to be commissioned. Planning a mobilisation, or augmenting the size of the navy, was a well-worn exercise in mental arithmetic. Although it had its complexities, it was at heart a simple system. The Ordinary estimate, for naval establishments ashore, was finely calculated, with justifications for additional expense justified item by item; but the Extra and Wear and Tear estimates were crude calculations: there was no attempt to anticipate any exceptional expense.46 Every warship had an agreed complement of seamen and marines, settled by the Navy Board at the design stage or, in the case of enemy prizes, when the ship was captured, and the complement could be altered only with the approval of the Board. The Victory’s established complement, for instance, was 837, though she often carried as many as one hundred extra people, known as ‘supernumeraries,’ such as passengers or the admiral’s clerical staff. They would be mustered under that heading, but would not count for victualling planning purposes. A 74-gun ship would have a crew of between 550 and 590, depending on its size, a 32-gun ship about 250, a cutter about forty men and gunboats around thirty.47

  43 J.E.D. Binney, British Public Finance and Administration 1774–92 (Oxford, 1958), pp. 250, 139–143, 249–251.   44 TNA, ADM 111/140, VB minutes, 11 Aug. 1796   45 HL STG 19, vol. 2, Stowe Grenville Collection, Thomas Grenville to John Marsh, 6 Dec. 1806.   46 See Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State, Chapter 3.   47 See David Lyon, The Sailing Navy List: All the Ships of the Royal Navy, Built, Purchased or Captured, 1688–1860 (London, 1993); Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 617.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

At the beginning of the war 19s per man per month was provided for his victualling, but this was increased after the mutinies of 1797.48 An estimate for 1798, for instance, for ten thousand seamen for the traditional thirteen lunar months, allowed 37s per man per month for wages and 38s for victuals, 5s for the ordnance, and Wear and Tear at £3 per man per month. Totalled, these separate figures came to £6 per man per month. The total came to £910,000.49 It is difficult to trace actual expenditure through these years but when Lord St Vincent became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1801 he ordered a detailed breakdown of expenditure in the previous year. In 1800 the total naval expenditure was £14,809,444, of which the victualling component came to £5,209,248 (35 per cent) and the Transports £1,499,007 (10 per cent).This was a year of high food prices, and victualling expenditure was high, and wages to officers and workmen in the state victualling yards totalled only £151,000, only 2.8 per cent of the victualling budget.50 After the reforms brought about by the Commission of Naval Revision, the estimate was presented in more detail and with much more care and accuracy, as in 1810: Expense of Victualling 130,000 Men for 13 Lunar Months at 47/2¾ p[er] man a month calculated as the probably amount of the costs of Provisions and Victualling Stores of all descriptions, and incidental Charges thereon, labor, Necessary Money and Credits on Pursers accounts: £3,990,864 11s 8d   Ordinary Establishment: £131,395 19s 11d   Total Navy £4,122,260 11s 7d For the purchase of Provisions for Troops and Garrisons on Foreign Stations, and the value of Rations embarked on board transports £854,314/12/6d   Total: £4,976,575 4s 1d51

At this point in the process the Victualling Board was asked by the Navy Board to which port these numbers should notionally be assigned. For instance, of 120,000 men estimated for 1801, some 60,000 would be in London, ‘from where the ships at Deptford, Woolwich, Chatham and on Foreign Stations are provided,’ while 25,000 would be victualled from Portsmouth, 32,000 at Plymouth and at Dover 3,000.52 In any case, Deptford both manufactured the major share of processed provisions, or assembled those supplied by contractors. Throughout the wars regular, very large coastal shipments from Deptford were sent to Portsmouth and Plymouth, due to the incapacity of these two ports to produce enough casked provisions for supplying the Channel Fleet, where the majority of the seamen served. Indeed, during 1800

  48 NMM, ADM BP/15a, Navy Board to Admiralty, 12 Feb. 1795.   49 NMM, BP/18a, Navy Board to Admiralty, 24 Apr. 1798.   50 NMM, ADM BP/21a, Navy Board to Admiralty 18 Feb. 1801. This figure was only 17.6 per cent of dockyard wages, demonstrating how much smaller the victualling yards were than the dockyards.   51 TNA, ADM 110/61, VB to Navy Board, 30 Jan. 1810.   52 NMM, ADM BP/20b, Navy Board to Admiralty, 14 Nov. 1800, 24 Nov. 1800.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

there was a scarcity of wheat and flour at Portsmouth and Plymouth.53 As an example, a Board minute of 4 March 1794 ordered that 50,000 double pieces of salt beef, 100,000 of salt pork and 100,000 lbs of flour (44 tons) be sent to both Portsmouth (180 sea miles distant) and Plymouth (320 miles), with proportionate amounts of raisins, pease, oatmeal, butter and cheese, and similar orders to send provisions to bases elsewhere by coastal convoy were regularly made by the Board.54 The payment mechanism The Board introduced a course for paying its bills in about 1690.55 This simply meant that Victualling Bills were paid in order of issue, being added to a queue when they were made out.56 Like Navy Bills, Victualling Bills were transferable instruments, and a regular market soon emerged whereby those who received bills and did not wish to wait for payment could simply sell them on at a discount to a speculator, who held them until they fell due for payment. As long as the course remained a reasonable length the system worked to good effect. It allowed the Victualling Board, like the Navy Board, to operate its own system of deficit-based finance independently of Treasury control, spending consistently beyond the sums allowed by the Naval Estimates and paying the accumulated debt off as money became available to do so.57 The system of paying Victualling Bills in course endured until the 1790s. From 1758, the discount rate on Navy and Victualling Bills was quoted in contemporary newspapers, allowing prospective contractors to see exactly how much they would forfeit if they sold their Bills on, and allowing them to adjust their prices upwards accordingly. This was fine whilst the course remained short and discount rates accordingly low, but when payments were well in arrears, or were expected to become so, it became problematic. Discount rates rose rapidly after the outbreak of war in 1793, from 5¼ per cent in January 1793 to a peak of over 11 per cent a year later. This was stabilised by an Act of Parliament of April 1794, limiting the course to fifteen months and making interest on bills payable from the date of issue, after which the discount rate fell back below 4 per cent. However, the Board still found it necessary to pay on ‘ready money terms,’ which meant that the face value of the bill was increased by the rate of discount, so that the contractor did not lose out by selling the bill on. An addition was also made to cover the cost of selling the bill on via a broker, judging from many entries in contract records noting ‘discount and brokerage added.’ This system was unsatisfactory and rising discount rates in 1796   53 TNA, ADM 109/104, Treasury to VB, 11 Jun. 1800. See Chapter 4.   54 TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 4 Mar. 1794.   55 Lord Beveridge, Prices and Wages in England from the Twelfth to the Nineteenth Century (London, 1965 edn), p. 519.   56 Baugh, Naval Administration 1715–1750, pp. 455–456.   57 Wilkinson, The British Navy and the State, pp. 39–40.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

put it under increasing strain, but it sufficed until January 1797 when a further statute mandated that contractors should be paid in bills payable ninety days after issue, bearing interest at 3½d per £100 per diem, equivalent to £5 6s 5½d per annum, or in other words at a rate of interest of just over 5 per cent. The rate of interest was cut to 3d per £100 per diem in January 1803, and remained at this level until 1819.58 In effect this amounted to the abolition of the course, and it served to stabilise the financial position of the Victualling Board, as well as the other civil departments of the navy, through the financial crisis of 1797 and for the remainder of the war. Victualling yards and bases This Victualling Board required a considerable amount of infrastructure to discharge its functions effectively. Very large quantities of provisions had to be stored, sorted and distributed to ships as required, which required extensive warehouse space. It did, however, mean that provisions were no longer delivered directly to ships by contractors, which in previous wars had led to suspicions of collusion between contractors and ships’ officers in supplying underweight and substandard provisions.59 Moreover, much of what was supplied by contractors was raw material, which was then processed in the Board’s own manufacturing facilities. In 1793, the principal British victualling bases were Deptford, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Dover, in approximately that order of size and number of ships supplied. Overseas there was only Gibraltar, although further bases were established during the course of the war. With the partial exception of Deptford, the victualling yards were not nearly as extensive or impressive as those of the Royal Dockyards, which tended to reinforce perceptions of the Victualling Board as the poor relation of the Navy Board.60 They had been developed and expanded but slowly early in the eighteenth century and their capacity had fallen badly behind the navy’s needs, leading to severe difficulties with supply early in the wars of 1739–48. After this, substantial investment was made to improve and expand them, bakehouses being established at Portsmouth and Plymouth during the 1740s and land leased at Deptford to allow construction of more warehouses and a flour mill, for which there was no space at the existing facility at Tower Hill. During the Seven Years War these facilities were expanded further, particularly through the addition of brewhouses at Portsmouth and Plymouth.61

  58 Beveridge, Prices and Wages, pp. 519–527; Binney, British Public Finance and Administration, p. 141; London Gazette, 14 May, 5 & 8 Nov 1796.   59 Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 193.   60 Baugh, Naval Administration 1715–1750, p. 404.   61 Buchet, ‘The Development of the Victualling Board Bases in London, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Dover),’ pp. 56–57; Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 306.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The most significant development after the Seven Years War was the closure of the Victualling Board’s base at Tower Hill and the construction of an extensive new one at Deptford during the 1780s, upon which it was remarked: Unlike our dockyards it is not made up of a succession of makeshifts, but has been laid out with a view to the expectation of what was to be expected from it.62

This was just as well, since in addition to supplying ships directly and supplying Portsmouth and Plymouth by coastal convoy, provisions from Deptford were also shipped overseas. Salt meat could not be procured in sufficient quantities in India, so supplies were sent out in the annual East India convoy. In November 1805, the Board ordered that 160,000 pieces of beef, 200,000 of pork and 80,000lb of suet should be sent out.63 After the American war the pace of development slackened again, illustrating a general tendency for facilities to be neglected until they were urgently needed, at which point money was spent to improve them. This extended not only to the extent of the bases but sometimes also to their condition. In 1801 the Agent Victualler at Gibraltar wrote to the Board to the effect that: A part of the Premises having actually fallen down, and other parts in a tottering condition, he had under the apprehension of being accused of great neglect in the event of his not securing the remainder of the Premises, caused the same to be patched and propped where absolutely requisite.

The Board approved the expenses he incurred in patching the buildings up and in constructing a new privy, ‘in consequence of the old one having fallen to the ground.’64 Deptford yard employed 256 men by the day and a further 1,251 on piece rates by 1813. Its slaughterhouse could accommodate 260 oxen at a time, and its hanging house 650 hogs.65 It had extensive brewing facilities which by 1813 were powered by a steam engine, twelve ovens for baking bisket and an extensive cooperage to manufacture and maintain the thousands of casks in which provisions were kept. Originally it had a flour mill but this was dismantled in 1797 and another mill at Rotherhithe was sold in 1802, the Board having by then concluded that it was cheaper to have flour ground by contractors.66 Other bases offered far less extensive facilities and their buildings were generally leased rather than owned outright, meaning that they were usually not purpose-built and often situated at some distance apart from each other and away from the wharves, leading to difficulties of co-ordination and delays in getting provisions out. Portsmouth victualling base employed 570 men by 1800, distributed between two sites. In Portsmouth itself were the bakery, slaughterhouse and mill, whilst the stores, cooperage and brewery were on the other side of the

TNA, ADM 7/593. Minutes of the Visitation of the Dockyards, 1813–14. TNA, ADM 111/177, VB Minutes, 1 Nov. 1805. TNA, ADM 111/161, VB Minutes, 11 Nov. 1801. TNA, ADM 7/593, Minutes of the Visitation of the Dockyards, 1813–14. Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, p. 61. 32

  62   63   64   65   66

The Victualling Board and its Contractors

­ arbour, at Weevil.67 The facilities at Plymouth were still more dispersed, with the h mill and brewery a few miles from the dockyard in Plymouth old town and the brewery at Southdown.68 In neither place were the wharves large enough, leading to delays in embarking provisions. Other bases were smaller. There was a mill and brewery at Dover, used for supplying ships in the Downs. Chatham was mainly victualled from Deptford, but did have a small slaughterhouse for supplying fresh beef to ships at The Nore. Later in the wars, small bases with storehouses only were established at Sheerness, Deal and Cork.69 These facilities in Britain were supplemented by a few strategic bases overseas, of which Gibraltar was the most important. Gibraltar was first captured from Spain in 1704 and formally ceded to Britain in 1713. A naval yard and facilities for victualling ships had been established there by 1739 but these were limited in scale and there was no manufacturing, with processed provisions being supplied from Deptford. Gibraltar acted as an entrepôt for victualling the Mediterranean fleet, sending provisions periodically to its outstations at Malta and Port Mahon, which were more convenient for ships operating to the east.70 There was also an Agent Victualler at Lisbon, although the Mediterranean fleet under Lord Keith was instructed to use Gibraltar instead, except for supplies of wine.71 Outside Europe, the only victualling base established at the outbreak of war was in the Leeward Islands.72 Later, bases were added at the Cape of Good Hope, Rio de Janeiro and Mauritius. The Commission of Naval Revision remarked on the ‘useless labour, confusion, perplexity, and want of systematic order’ in the outports, remarking that this was not the fault of any individual, but that defects had multiplied as the yards and the mechanisms for running them had grown piecemeal over the previous century.73 With the exception of Deptford, which was run by a Superintendent and whose departments were until 1809 under the nominal supervision of their respective Commissioners, the Board’s chief employee at its bases both in Britain and abroad was known as an Agent Victualler. The Agent Victualler’s position was a complex and highly responsible one which involved managing the base under his charge, liaising with the Board over supplies of provisions sent from England and making contracts for fresh produce. At bases overseas, the Agent Victualler was still employed by the Board, but he was under the day-to-day command of the Commander-in-Chief on the station, who checked his accounts and ensured he was performing his role


  67 M. Sheldon, ‘A Tale of Two Cities: The Facilities, Work and impact of the Victualling Office in Portsmouth, 1793–1815,’ TNDS 1 (2006), pp. 35–40.   68 J.G. Coad, The Royal Dockyards 1690–1850 (Aldershot, 1989), p. 284.   69 Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, p. 136.   70 Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 61.   71 NMM, KEI/L/23, Keith Papers, Keith to Rear-Admiral Duckworth, 9 Dec. 1799.   72 TNA, ADM111/158, VB Minutes, 6 Mar. 1801.   73 Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, pp. 4–11; for a detailed critique of the management of the victualling yards see Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, especially Chapters 2 & 7.

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

satisfactorily. Later, Commissioners of the Navy took on this function, although the Commander continued to exercise it if a Commissioner was not present. The Agent’s job overseas was in some ways simpler, because no manufacturing facilities had to be supervised, but he was under less oversight from the Board, had a smaller staff to assist him and had greater autonomy in making contracts and arranging supplies. Moreover, since sea provisions for most bases outside Europe were provided by contractors, the contracts to be made and administered were very large. Instructions for Agents were issued in 1716 and were not revised for nearly a century, by which time they were hopelessly out of date and ‘very ill-suited to conduct the business at the present time.’74 The Commission of Revision, in its eleventh and twelfth reports, produced new, updated and highly detailed Instructions specifying how the business should be conducted. Many Agents Victualler had previously been employed within the yards before being promoted to Agent. William Crees, for example, entered the victualling service at Plymouth in 1755, and held several clerks’ posts before being made Clerk of the Cheque in 1782.75 By 1793 he was Agent Victualler, a post he held until his resignation in 1799. A William Crees, perhaps his son, subsequently appears as a contractor for wheat and bisket at the port after 1807.76 The term Agent Victualler was also applied to a separate, though linked, function; that of the ‘Agent Victualler Afloat.’ This was a peripatetic agent attached to a particular squadron, under the direct command of the Commander-in-Chief, who usually appointed him to act as agent. Indeed, many agents afloat were in fact admirals’ secretaries and received no salary from the Board. Aside from liaising with Agents Victualler at bases when they were within reach, they also corresponded with merchants and officials near to where their squadron was operating for the purpose of buying in fresh provisions.77 Where a contractor was engaged to victual the station, the Agent Victualler took a more supervisory role, overseeing the contractor’s accounts as well as arranging supplies of non-contract items. In the East Indies distance made negotiations between Board and prospective contractors unfeasible and the Agent Victualler there made contracts for provisioning the station in 1789 and 1790. Agents Victualler Afloat were present on many stations, but they were not universal. Commodore Peter Rainier suppressed the appointment of Agent Victualler in the East Indies in 1795 on the grounds that it was unnecessary, and turned that branch of the business over to the contractor.78 Fifteen years later, Admiral Sir James Saumarez did not have one attached to his squadron during his command in the Baltic, despite the importance of local supplies to that squadron’s provisioning.79   74   75   76   77   78   79

Commission of Naval Revision, Twelfth Report, p. 1. Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, p. 663. TNA, ADM 112/193–9, VB Contract Ledgers, 1807–13. MacDonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 65. NMM, RAI/4, Rainier Papers, Rainier to VB, 19 Apr. 1795. Davey, ‘Within Hostile Shores,’ p. 250.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

Resident Commissioners of the Navy played an increasingly significant role in the victualling organisation. They were employees of the Navy Board, originally appointed to superintend the work of dockyards at home and overseas, and also to supervise naval business on overseas stations, receive and distribute naval stores and oversee institutions such as naval hospitals.80 The Commission of Revision also empowered them to oversee Agents Victualler overseas, on the grounds that: When it is considered that, Abroad, there are no Officers joined with the Agent Victualler, in conducting this very extensive branch of the Naval Service, and that, at home, the receipts and issues of Provisions and Stores are taken account of, not only by the Storekeeper … but also by the Clerk of the Cheque, both of whom are under the superintendence of an Agent or superior Officer on the Spot; whereas, Abroad, the Agent Victualler combines in his own person the duties of Storekeeper, Clerk of the Cheque and Agent, we think it will appear evident that the superintendence and control of the Commissioners of the Navy are obviously necessary, and cannot be dispensed with, without endangering the Public Interest.81

This was almost certainly an improvement. However, it did not eradicate all of the difficulties, and it also introduced or heightened rivalries between Agents Victualler, sea officers and Commissioners, some of whom had long been irked by their lack of authority and perhaps as a result sought to exert what influence they did possess as much as they could.82 There was a furious exchange of letters in 1810 between Admiral William Drury and George Dundas, the new Commissioner of the Navy at Bombay, regarding the East Indies victualling contract, which Drury was in the process of renegotiating when Dundas announced that he had received proposals for a new contract to supply part of the squadron’s requirements. Drury argued strongly against breaking up the contract, which he felt was satisfactory. He also resented Dundas’s interference, and wrote to the Admiralty lambasting his ‘clandestine conduct’ in withholding from him the names of the proposers.83 The Admiralty concurred with Drury and wrote to Dundas to that effect. All of this served only to slow down Drury’s own negotiations with the contractors to cut their prices, and thereby waste public money. A similar quarrel blew up in Malta in 1810 when the commanding officer on the station ordered the Agent Victualler to purchase some bisket: Commissioner Percy Fraser objected on the grounds that it was up to him to give such orders, leading to an argument that lasted several months before finally being settled in Wilkie’s favour, since according to the instructions to agents commanding officers took precedence over Commissioners.84 Much as the enhancement of the role of Commissioners to cover victualling might have reduced fraud and

  80   81   82   83   84

C. Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas 1793–1815 (London, 1954), p. 338. Commission of Naval Revision, Twelfth Report, p. 1. Morriss, Royal Dockyards, pp. 173–175. TNA, ADM1/183, Drury to Admiralty, 1 Aug 1810. TNA, ADM110/62, VB In-letters, 9 Aug. 1810.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

mismanagement, it increased the scope for bureaucratic squabbling and administrative confusion. A less controversial role was played by British consuls at various ports. Their involvement went little further than taking charge of stores and fresh provisions that might be kept there, but this could be significant. During Lord Keith’s command in the Mediterranean, cattle and fresh vegetables were supplied via Leghorn and placed under the charge of the British Vice-Consul there, John Udney, who paid for them in bills drawn on the Victualling Board.85 Meanwhile, the Agent Victualler at Gibraltar, James Cutforth, had a sometimes problematic arrangement with the consul at Tangiers for supplying British ships with bullocks, fruit and vegetables.86 Consuls’ local knowledge and contacts enabled them to keep an eye on the provisions markets and thereby to negotiate with local merchants from a stronger position than could a visiting sea officer. Drury’s negotiations with the East Indies contractors serve as a reminder that sea officers, especially admirals, played an active role in the victualling system, and it worked best when they did.87 Admirals kept in close contact with Agents Victualler and contractors, giving orders for provisioning particular ships and directing the activities of transports. This last role could be complex, and it led Lord Keith, responsible for moving provisions for his men and Abercromby’s troops around the Mediterranean, to exclaim that he felt more like an agent for transports than a sea officer.88 Admirals could also make contracts for provisions when it became necessary: it was under the orders of Lord Keith, for example, that cattle were bought and shipped from Leghorn.89 Further down the scale, all ships were issued by the Agent Victualler with ‘necessary money,’ kept by the purser, for the purpose of buying in provisions if no other way to procure them could be found. Sometimes, a senior purser was appointed to perform this task for a squadron, but it was also done by the pursers of ships on detached service. In theory, purchases were to be overseen either by the local governor, two reputable merchants or, in the last resort, two of the ship’s officers.90 However, it was obviously vulnerable to fraud and was used only as a last resort. The state’s victualling system was a complex organisation and can appear somewhat haphazard, with its various types of agent and multiplicity of ways for provisions to be procured. However, it had two key strengths. In the first place, it was flexible. The navy operated all around the globe in a wide variety of climatic, economic and strategic contexts, and the victualling system was adaptable enough

  85 NMM, KEI/L/2, Keith Papers, James Yeo to Keith, 10 May 1800.   86 NMM, CRK/9/15, Phillipps-Croker Papers, Matra to Nelson, 17 Jul. 1805.   87 E. Laird, ‘The Victualling of the Channel Fleet in 1800’ (M.A. thesis, Greenwich, 2001), p. 52.   88 K.D. MacCranie, Admiral Lord Keith and the Naval War Against Napoleon (Florida, 2006), p. 109.   89 NMM, KEI/L/1, Keith Papers, VB to Keith, 15 Jan. 1800.   90 Knight, Pursuit of Victory, pp. 395–396; Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 63.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

to work in most of them. Secondly, it was decentralised. In an age of slow communications which were easily disrupted by weather and enemy action there had to be means of procuring provisions locally, and the victualling system provided several ways to do so. The eighteenth-century contractor Effective though the state’s victualling organisation generally was, it was dependent at all levels upon the contractors who provided raw materials to the victualling yards, took away their offal and waste products, bought on commission for the Board, and provided all of the provisions required at several ports and some entire stations. Many of these contractors were merchants. From their point of view, contracting was perhaps not the most profitable means of putting their capital to work, but it was a reasonably secure one. Fundamentally the government was just another client, albeit one that could be trusted to pay its bills, if sometimes slowly.91 Thus was contracting an attractive opportunity for many of that class who made their living from trade, especially during the disruption and losses of war. Any economy operating above a subsistence level depends upon trade, which if it is to take place over any distance depends upon the existence of a body of people, middlemen, whose purpose is to link up producers and consumers, sometimes in markets at a great distance from one another. To some extent this simple truth was obscured by the industrial revolution, which tended to direct attention away from the ‘colourful novelties’ of the fair and the travelling merchant and towards the ‘blast furnaces that lit up the night sky,’ which ‘encouraged the belief that the accumulation of fixed capital now held the key to economic success.’92 More recent research has helped to highlight the crucial role played by merchants in the development of the modern British economy. Their activities facilitated the overseas trade that was vital to British economic development and industrialisation.93 Perhaps less well appreciated is the role of merchants in internal trade. Samuel Johnson defined a merchant as ‘one who trafficks to distant countries.’94 However, merchants did not necessarily trade overseas and performed a vital function in linking up Britain’s patchwork of regional economies, a process that speeded up as turnpikes and canals

  91 This was a similar situation to that which faced shipowners contemplating hiring their vessels as transports. See Syrett, Shipping and Military Power, p. 24.   92 M. Casson, ‘Institutional Economics and Business History: A Way Forward?’ Business History, 39 (1997), pp. 155–156.   93 R. Davis, The Industrial Revolution and British Overseas Trade (Leicester, 1979), Chapter 5; M. Daunton, Progress and Poverty: An Economic and Social History of Britain 1700–1850 (Oxford, 1995), pp. 318–319, 334–337.   94 S. Johnson, A Dictionary of the English Language (London, 1755).


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

increased the speed and cut the cost of internal transportation during the eighteenth century.95 Merchants could be found all over the country, in all ports and towns. Some dealt on a relatively small scale in only one or two commodities, often the produce of the area they inhabited; others dealt in a very wide variety of goods and operated in several markets in Britain and overseas. There were, in fact, four key elements of the merchant’s business. The first of these was buying and selling of goods, either on their own account or on commission for others. The second was speculating in time and place on commodities. The third was dealing in money or credit, and the fourth was insuring goods and ships in transit. By 1760, many larger and some smaller merchants undertook all of these, and some also developed sidelines by investing in land and manufacturing and setting up banks.96 The group of merchants studied by David Hancock, for example, were primarily interested in the West Indian trades. In addition to shipping goods such as sugar, ivory, slaves, tobacco and spirits both on their own account and on commission for others, they owned ships and plantations in the West Indies and purchased a ‘trade castle,’ or slaving depot, in Sierra Leone.97 Estimates of the numbers of merchants active at a given time are few, and inherently very speculative. However, some attempts were made at estimating their numbers, which indicate that those making their living from trade grew faster than the population as a whole. For the purposes of his population estimate of 1759, Joseph Massie divided merchants into three classes based on their income, estimating that there were one thousand families of the first class, two thousand of the second and ten thousand of the third.98 Half a century later, Patrick Colquhoun’s estimates suggested that ‘eminent merchants’ with an income of around £2,600 per annum numbered about two thousand, followed by another thirteen thousand ‘lesser merchants.’99 The largest, wealthiest and most visible concentration was in London, the ‘life-pumping heart’ of the Atlantic economy and the largest entrepôt port in Europe. Here and in the ports of the west coast the skills required to engage in international trade had been steadily accumulating since such trade began, and by 1688 ‘London’s merchants, shippers, warehousemen, and financiers more or less ran Britain’s transcontinental trade.’100 It was from this mercantile elite that many of

  95 H.J. Dyos and D.H. Aldcroft, British Transport: An Economic Survey from the Seventeenth Century to the Twentieth (London, 1974 edn.), pp. 79, 110–116.   96 R.B. Westerfield, Middlemen in English Business, Particularly Between 1660–1760 (Yale, 1915), p. 332.   97 D. Hancock, Citizens of the World: London Merchants and the Integration of the British Atlantic Community, 1735–1785 (Cambridge, 1995), Chapters 3–8.   98 P. Mathias, ‘The Social Structure in the Eighteenth Century: A Calculation by Joseph Massie,’ Economic History Review X (1957).   99 D. Hay and N. Rogers, Eighteenth-Century English Society (Oxford, 1997), pp. 20–21. 100 P.K. O’Brien, ‘Inseparable Connections: Trade, Economy, Fiscal State, and the Expansion of Empire, 1688–1815,’ Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century, ed.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

the most prominent contractors were drawn. Elsewhere, mercantile concentrations were smaller, although frequently powerful. Merchant oligarchies dominated many of the major manufacturing towns as well, although their dominance was being slowly eroded in the late eighteenth century by the ascendancy of industrialists and the rise of other professional groups.101 Even so, merchant groups like those of Leeds remained very powerful, through the vital role they played in marketing the city’s manufactures.102 In the outports, the activities of mercantile families drove rapid growth throughout the eighteenth century. Liverpool and Bristol boomed on the basis of the slave trade, Glasgow on tobacco, and on the east coast the rapid expansion of trade with northern Europe propelled Hull to the status of fourth largest port in England by the 1780s. Like other ports of a similar size, its trade and shipping were dominated by two or three dozen prominent and well-established merchant groups, with a larger number of small players ‘envying, fighting and trying to join them.’103 Further down the scale, in the small ports, a handful of merchants handled the bulk of trade. Chapter 9 documents the career of one such man, and how government contracting was integrated into his general trading activities. Many merchants were also shipowners, for it was only late in the eighteenth century that shipowning emerged as a specialist occupation in its own right, and well into the nineteenth century many merchants owned ships both to transport their own cargoes and to provide shipping for others.104 Effective trade between merchants depended upon contact and the existence of more or less informal business networks. These were ‘an integral part of economic activity … moulded by social, cultural and political influences as well as market mechanisms.’105 They were used to achieve three key ends. The first of these was access to market information, which in an era of slow and expensive communications was otherwise difficult and costly to collect, but vital for effective market access and enforcement of agreements. Secondly, they encouraged trust: Few economic actors rely solely on either institutional arrangements or a generalized morality to guard against the risk of opportunism, free riding, or cheating. Instead, they prefer to deal with individuals of known repute, and to base their

101 102 103 104 105

Marshall; M. Rediker, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea: Merchant Seamen, Pirates and the Anglo-American Atlantic World, 1700–1750 (Cambridge, 1987), p. 21; R. Davis, The Rise of the English Shipping Industry in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries (Newton Abbot, 1962), p. 390. Daunton, Progress and Poverty, p. 334. R.G. Wilson, Gentleman Merchants: The Merchant Community in Leeds 1700–1830 (Manchester, 1971). G. Jackson, Hull in the Eighteenth Century: A Study in Economic and Social History (Oxford, 1972), p. 96. S. Ville, English Shipowning during the Industrial Revolution (Manchester, 1987), p. 3. R. Pearson and D. Richardson, ‘Business Networking in the Industrial Revolution,’ Economic History Review LIV (2001), p. 657; see also N. Glaisyer, ‘Networking: Trade and Exchange in the Eighteenth-Century British Empire,’ The Historical Journal 47 (2004), pp. 451–476.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 decisions to trade on information about reputation from reliable sources, and on their own past dealings with the same individuals.106

Networks provided a forum in which individuals demonstrated their probity, commercial acumen and creditworthiness. Networks can be difficult to pin down, since many were informal and therefore generated few records, although some were and are formalised in institutions such as chambers of trade. Many, also, were based upon family connections, with family members acting as agents for the main firm or establishing branches overseas. The activities of the Rothschild family are a classic example.107 It was also common for successful firms to establish branch houses overseas, run by men with whom they had dealt successfully in the past. The firm of Phyn, Ellice & Co, for example, was established in the early 1760s by British merchants in Canada. In 1774, James Phyn moved with his family to London to establish a branch there.108 Phyn, Ellice and Inglis, as the firm later became, contracted extensively with the Victualling Board for wine and barrel staves made from Canadian wood.109 This would have been impossible without a London branch, since notice of the Board’s advertisement for tenders could not reach Canada and a tender be made up and returned to London within a reasonable time frame. The third key end achieved by networking was access to credit, for the simple reason that few would lend money or provide goods on credit to those whose ability and willingness to repay were unknown. Systems of credit had become increasingly sophisticated in the late seventeenth century and throughout the eighteenth, although banks in their modern form were only starting to develop.110 Book credit had long existed but was expanded and refined at this time, since it was far less complex, more reliable and safer than relying on transfers of specie for every transaction. Payments were increasingly made by bills of exchange, which could be debited against the drawer’s account or sold for cash. The liquidity generated by the bill system … provided merchants with the confidence to assemble cargoes of merchandise and to organise transatlantic shipments of slaves and servants. To gain access to the network of credit, it was necessary first to have collateral and secondly to be in possession of a good reputation.111

106 Pearson and Richardson, ‘Business Networking,’ p. 657. 107 M. Schulte Beerbeuhl, ‘Crossing the Channel: Nathan Mayer Rothschild and his Trade with the Continent during the Early Years of the Blockades (1803–8),’ The Rothschild Archive: Review of the Year 2007–8 (2008), pp. 41–48. 108 R.H. Fleming, ‘Phyn, Ellice and Company of Schenectady,’ Contributions to Canadian Economics 4 (1932), pp. 8, 23–24. 109 TNA, ADM 110/42, VB to George Rose, Treasury, 22 Dec. 1796. 110 S. Quinn, ‘Money, Finance and Capital Markets,’ The Cambridge Economic History of Modern Britain vol. I: Industrialisation, 1700–1860, ed. R. Floud and P. Johnson (Cambridge, 2004), pp. 147–174. 111 S.D. Smith, ‘Reckoning with the Atlantic Economy,’ The Historical Journal 46 (2003), p. 50.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

All merchants operated within complex webs of credit, owing money on account to some with whom they dealt, and being owed money by others. The account books of Alexander Ellice, a member of Phyn, Ellice & Co, show that he was in account current with traders not only in London, Albany, New York and Schenectady, where the firm had originated, but also in the West Indies, in India and across Europe.112 The ability to trade on credit was central to the expansion of trade throughout the eighteenth century.113 Developing out of the credit system, a more sophisticated and frequently very lucrative aspect of many merchants’ businesses was banking and what would now be termed ‘financial services.’ Merchants founded many of the ‘country banks’ in Britain, the number of which grew rapidly from around a handful at the beginning of the eighteenth century to one hundred in 1780 and three hundred by 1800.114 As well as enriching their founders, these performed a vital economic function by directing capital that would otherwise have lain idle to areas where it was required, by giving the credit which facilitated trade, by linking regional credit networks to the London banking houses and by dealing in bills of exchange, thereby allowing markets in them to develop.115 This included Navy and Victualling Bills, the emergence of a market in which was, as we have seen, crucial to the development of an effective system of financing the navy. ‘Mercantile life required broad learning, acute judgement and reflective mind.’116 Merchants had to be familiar with, among many other things, the commodities they traded in; the markets in those commodities; the law affecting shipping and trade; the workings of factorage and brokerage; accountancy and book-keeping. In addition to this range of skills they needed sound commercial judgement, the ability to judge character, an instinct for opportunities and a willingness to take risks. David Hancock portrayed the group of London merchants he studied as outward-­looking, forward-thinking ‘citizens of the world,’ always looking out for new trades to invest in and new opportunities to make a profit.117 This, and the desire to maintain a wide range of investments so as to maximise opportunities and spread risks was what led them to undertake their diverse range of commercial activities and also, during the Seven Years War, government contracting. Their interests were primarily military, encompassing contracts for provisioning encampments in England and Germany, for supply of wagons and horses to Prussia, and artillery to the Board of Ordnance. Nevertheless, two of the ‘associates’ group supplied beef and sea provisions to the naval bases at Kingston, Jamaica, and at Waterford, as well as beef and butter to Plymouth. Another, Sir Alexander Grant, supplied sea provisions to Nova Scotia,

112 NLS, MS15139, Ellice Papers, West Indies Account Book. 113 J.M. Price, ‘What Did Merchants Do? Reflections on British Overseas Trade, 1660–1790,’ Journal of Economic History 49 (1989), p. 278. 114 Daunton, Progress and Poverty, p. 347. 115 Westerfield, Middlemen in English Business, pp. 377–385. 116 Westerfield, Middlemen in English Business, p. 395. 117 Hancock, Citizens of the World, p. 25.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

and Richard Oswald contracted with the Navy Board to supply naval stores and tar.118 From the merchant’s point of view, government contracting was a good business to engage in. The government by the second half of the eighteenth century was creditworthy and always paid its bills, if often slowly. In addition, although many of the comments by contemporaries on the enormous profits made by contractors seem to have been overstated and based on the ostentatious wealth of a small number of high-profile individuals, it does seem likely that government had a reputation for paying good prices and there was certainly no shortage of men willing to tender for contracts.119 Those who did could often fit contracting into their existing business portfolio, as ‘an extension to their shipping and trading business.’120 Many naval bases, after all, were sited near major trade entrepôts or on trade routes, and the same ships that carried their clients’ goods could just as easily carry provisions. Some, too, would have had agents and contacts in the trade they could employ. Many merchants were already involved in the provisioning trades to a greater or lesser extent, and were therefore familiar with the commodities the army and navy required, the markets in them and the ways in which they needed to be stored and shipped. On occasion, government contracts even represented an attractive way of disposing of stock on hand. Alexander Ellice’s agent and plantation manager at Demerara, Thomas Cumming, wrote to him in October 1803, when hostilities resumed after the Peace of Amiens, stating: We have about 20,000 Gallons of Rum on Hand. I flatter myself I shall be able to dispose of a great part of it to the English Commissary, who will give Bills.121

The Victualling Offices at all of the main bases in Britain received frequent letters offering supplies of various types of provisions, some of which certainly represented surplus stock. To give one example, John and William Collier, who held numerous contracts for wheat and related products, wrote to the Board in March 1801 offering four hundred sacks of bisket meal at Plymouth, which the Board rejected since their supplies were already sufficient.122 In addition, the Board frequently purchased amounts of most provisions over and above those specified in contracts, if the contractor found himself with a surplus to dispose of. Although it is unlikely that many merchants purchased goods speculatively in the hope of selling them to the Victualling Board, many with excess stock on hand offered it to the Board, and provided the price was reasonable and the Board did not already have a large quantity on hand, such offers were frequently accepted. The Victualling Board did not, however, only deal with middlemen and merchants. It also had to deal with a large number of processers and manufacturers, 118 119 120 121 122

Hancock, Citizens of the World, pp. 222–227. Bannerman, Merchants and the Military, pp. 121–128. Hancock, Citizens of the World, p. 222. NLS, MS15137, Ellice Papers, Thomas Cumming to Ellice, 1 Oct. 1803. TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 31 Mar. 1801.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors

some of whom combined production with trade to a greater or lesser extent. The Board dealt little with farmers and other primary producers, with the partial exception of some market gardeners who supplied fresh vegetables to ships in port.123 However, the Board did deal with producers and manufacturers. Bisket was frequently supplied directly from bakers and vinegar from distillers, to give two key examples. Dealing directly with manufacturers was slightly different to dealing with merchants, principally because most were comparatively small firms and had neither the buying power nor the influence that major merchants did. In the seventeenth century, this had been used as an excuse for not adopting a course for victualling bills on the grounds that small men could not afford to wait for their money, but with the emergence of a market in victualling bills this no longer mattered much.124 Manufacturers could simply sell on their bills and realise their cash at once, with no loss on discount once bills were made out with discount and brokerage added after 1794. The small scale of most manufacturers therefore ceased to matter much, although it did mean that there were often a larger number of bidders for any one contract. Competitive tendering There were, then, two sides of the equation: the state-run Victualling Board and a large number of private interests both great and small. To some extent their relationship was one of mutual dependence, but most contractors had other outlets for their wares, whereas the Victualling Board had no alternative but to depend upon the contractors. Two sets of priorities had thus to be reconciled. The Victualling Board required supplies of a range of commodities as and when needed. It needed a reasonably reliable and predictable supply to allow it to plan ahead. Crucially, it also required the highest possible quality at the lowest possible price. On the other hand, contractors naturally wanted the highest price they could get for commodities that had cost them as little as possible to purchase or produce, and did not wish to be tied in to inconvenient or unrealistic delivery schedules. The process adopted for matching up these priorities, which up to a point are inherently conflicting, was competitive tendering. This system was used by all of the civil departments of the navy, which had adopted it well before some other departments of state. Navy contracts were put out to tender long before contracts for victualling the army were, for instance. The procedure for competitive tendering used by the Victualling Board was well established by 1793, and it was rarely deviated from except when unsolicited tenders were received and accepted. It was used for both short-term and standing contracts, in the outports and on stations overseas as well as by the Board itself. The ­operation

123 For example, John Boon of Plymouth was described as a Gardener in a contract for delivering fresh vegetables to Plymouth in October 1812; TNA, ADM 112/92, Contract Book, 1812–15. 124 Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 193.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

of the system was simple. The Board, or at the outports and overseas the Agent Victualler, decided when a contract was required, usually because the stores were short of a particular item or because an existing contract had expired. Tenders were solicited by advertisement, usually in mainstream newspapers. In India, tenders for a new contract in 1803 were inserted in the Madras Gazette, whilst in March 1794 the Board directed that advertisements for a contract for wheat and malt should be placed in the Daily Advertiser.125 A date and time were included in the advertisement, by which time tenders had to be received in sealed envelopes. Tenders received were placed in a locked box. When the deadline for submissions had passed, the box was opened and the tenders read. Although this was a simple procedure, it was complicated by two things. On the Victualling Board’s side, although its overriding concern was to obtain supplies as cheaply as possible, it could not neglect their quality or reliability. Therefore, it sometimes rejected tenders from those with a record of failing to fulfil their contracts or whose credit was weak. This happened, for instance, at Portsmouth in 1794, when the Agent Victualler tendered for supplies of fresh beef. The lowest tender was that of one Richard Orrill. However: Mr Richard Orrill having failed to execute a contract he entered into on the 10th of September last, for furnishing 3,000 oxen for Sea Stores as particularly stated in the Minutes of the 25th of that month; and there being, on consequence, strong grounds to apprehend that the same failure might happen in the event of his offer for supplying Fresh Meat at Portsmouth being accepted, considering the extent of the supplies that may probably be required by which His Majesty’s service would be subject to serious inconvenience: the Board came to the resolution to reject his offer, of which, upon being called in, he was informed.126

The contract was awarded to the next lowest bidder, Peter and William Mellish, whose price was 6d per hundredweight higher. The Board was also quite capable of deciding against accepting any of the tenders given, if it deemed them all too expensive and had sufficient supplies on hand. On the other side of the equation, there were ways in which contractors attempted to get around the system. If all tenders received were high, and particularly if they were all at the same price, it could be a sign that producers were attempting to combine and keep prices high. One such instance arose in March 1810, this time at Plymouth: Approve of his [the Agent Victualler] having agreed with Mr Peter Blatchford, for One Thousand Bags of Bisket to be delivered in one Month at the rate of thirty four shillings and nine pence per hundred weight, as he represents he could not procure more advantageous terms for the Crown.

125 TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 5 Mar. 1794; TNA, ADM112/119, East Indies Contract Books. 126 TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 18 Mar. 1794.


The Victualling Board and its Contractors   Under the circumstances represented by him of his having had reason to conclude that the other Persons who made offers to him of Bisket, had entered into a combination together to obtain 35s per hundred weight for that Article, further approve of his having determined not to accept any Bisket from either of them even at the rate of the lowest Tender, and also of his intention to advertise for a further supply of Bisket.127

As this suggests, the Board’s determination not to be taken advantage of by combinations of contractors extended to blacklisting those it suspected of trying to circumvent the competitive tendering process. Inevitably some combinations must have gone unnoticed, but probably fewer by 1810 than in earlier years since, as subsequent chapters demonstrate, contract administration was steadily tightened up as the wars progressed. Even so, this does go to show the extent to which the Board was determined to control, rather than be controlled by, its contractors. Another subterfuge that was occasionally attempted was to wait until after the deadline for submissions had passed, presumably in the hope that either no tenders had been received or that the Board or Agent would reject those that had. This was probably a stratagem deployed by well-established contractors, who could exploit their reputation to give them an edge over any other tenders that might have been received. This was almost certainly the case when Nicholas Cummins wrote to the Board from Cork, complaining that his tender to supply fresh beef had not been received despite being delivered into the office in time. Along with Cummins’s letter came a report from John Dunsterville, the Agent Victualler, reporting that the tender, and that of another established contractor, Gerald Callaghan, had been received after the one o’clock deadline had passed and the box been opened, despite the fact that he had seen both of them waiting in the yard for some time before the deadline, and well before they came into the office.128 These were exceptions, however, and in most cases the box was opened and the lowest tender accepted. Where the contractor was present he was called in and informed, and where not a letter was written to him. Invariably, this was followed by the standard note in the Minutes: ‘let a contract be drawn up accordingly.’

127 TNA, ADM 111/194, VB Minutes, 12 Mar. 1810. 128 TNA, ADM 111/197, VB Minutes, 5 Nov. 1810.


3 The Global Strategic Task

Sailing warships, so it has been said, ‘were powered no less by pounds sterling than by the winds.’ The third essential element was surely food and water: no ship could stay at sea without the availability of casked provisions, supplemented by fresh meat and vegetables. The supply of fresh water posed particular difficulties; cooking and ‘steeping’ salt provisions to make them edible required large quantities. In deadweight tons the water casks a ship took on board at the start of a commission weighed far more than the rest of the provisions put together. British ships and troops had to be supplied with these provisions at ports and rendezvous from the Caribbean to the eastern Indian Ocean. The distribution of ships and men in the various stations across the world varied enormously over twenty years of war, which required considerable anticipation by the Victualling Board in awarding its contracts. The pattern of the two wars changed radically over time, but there were strategic features which were common to both Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. In both, the majority of the ships were grouped in fleets in ‘Home Waters,’ in the Channel, Irish Sea and the North Sea, engaged in defence against invasion, convoying trade or blockading French ports, or those under French control. At intervals the south and north ‘flanks’ of Europe, the Mediterranean and the Baltic, became strategically important and the Admiralty Board made its fleet dispositions accordingly. In both wars fighting for overseas possessions took place in the West and East Indies, although eventually British control of the Western Approaches, combined with successful amphibious operations, ensured that by 1811 the French had no overseas empire.

    Paul Webb, ‘Construction, Repair and Maintenance in the Battle Fleet of the Royal Navy, 1793–1815,’ The British Navy and the Use of Naval Power in the Eighteenth Century, ed. Jeremy Black and Philip Woodfine (Leicester, 1988), p. 207.     Roger Knight, Portsmouth Dockyard Papers, 1774–1783: The American War (Portsmouth, 1987), p. 116, quoting NMM, POR/D/22, Yard Officers to the Navy Board, 31 Aug. 1779.


The Global Strategic Task

The Board’s task was to feed these men scattered throughout the world, as well as providing for garrisons and units of the army overseas. At the end of 1792, just before the declaration of war by France, only 17,000 men were in sea pay and problems with manning resulted in a slow increase through the 1790s. However, by 1801, just before the Peace of Amiens, the number voted by Parliament reached 140,000, eight times the number at the start of the war. However, the scale and consistency of warfare of the Napoleonic War, particularly after 1808, was much greater, when the figure of 140,000 seamen was exceeded for six years running. Taken overall, the highest total of all stations occurred in late 1809, when 732 warships were manned by a total of 146,132 seamen and marines. The French Revolutionary War Far more ships were deployed in home waters than on distant stations, as can be seen from the graph and tables in Appendix 4: but within both the categories of home and abroad there were considerable variations. In the Revolutionary war, the Channel Fleet, blockading Brest, L’Orient and Rochefort, was kept at considerable strength. However, at the start of this war the Channel Fleet was commanded by old and cautious admirals, such as Howe and Bridport, and they spent a good deal of the year anchored at Spithead and in Torbay, sheltering from gales, reasoning that the French fleet could not get out of the west-facing Brest harbour in westerly winds. It was only from 1797 that the close blockade was instituted and controlled by the Board of Admiralty under Lord Spencer; even then it only became really effective through the determination of Lord St Vincent who commanded the Channel Fleet in 1800, bullying his captains into high standards. This blockade could not have been achieved without efficient dockyard refitting and repairs and the skilled and resilient crews of hired merchantmen who delivered provisions to the blockade rendezvous. Some years later an officer observed: ‘there was an instance in the early part of the late war of a great portion of the Channel Fleet remaining at Spithead five months at one time and now it is to be understood that ships are to return into a King’s port but twice a year except when driven in by stress of weather’. The Channel Fleet reached its peak in the middle of 1800 when Lord St Vincent commanded seventy-six ships with complements totalling 39,537 seamen and marines.    See Appendix 5.    In 1801 those actually ‘borne’ at sea numbered 132,000. For these figures see Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 639; Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, p. 19.    Ship statistics come from William James, The Naval History of Great Britain from the Declaration of War by France in 1793 to the Accession of George IV (London, 1878 edition) vol. I, appendix. 1; vol. V, appendix 18; Jan Glete, Navies and Nations; Warships, Navies and State Building in Europe and America, 1500–1860 (Stockholm, 1993), vol. II, p. 376.    Quoted in Roger Morriss and Richard Saxby ed. The Channel Fleet and the Blockade of Brest, 1793–1801 (NRS, 141, 2001), p. 20, from BL Add. Mss. 37890, anonymous to William Windham, Secretary for War and the Colonies c. 1806; see also pp. 12–21.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

In the early years of the war the Mediterranean saw most action. For a brief period in 1793 a ‘second front’ was opened by the capture of Toulon and then of Corsica. However, French military successes in France, Italy and Austria persuaded the British government in the middle of 1795 to withdraw the Mediterranean Fleet to Gibraltar and Lisbon, and no British ship was to return for eighteen months. In early 1797 the Spanish fleet was badly mauled off Cadiz at the battle of Cape St Vincent and the British returned in strength to the Mediterranean, defeating the French fleet at Aboukir Bay in August 1798. British battle fleet superiority in European waters was completed with the defeat of the Dutch in the southern North Sea off Camperdown in October 1797, while the Danes were forced to open the Sound to merchant ships by the bombardment of Copenhagen in 1801. There was no less variation in foreign waters when the British navy was deployed to meet specific threats. The main action was in the West Indies, where Pitt’s government tried to destroy French economic trade by capturing their West Indian sugar islands. The British amphibious expeditions were eventually successful, and the French islands were captured, but at a great cost in soldiers and seamen through death by disease. In the most distant of stations, the East Indies, only one frigate was on the station until mid-1794, and for a year no warships were there at all. In mid-1795 seventeen ships and six thousand men went out to India, and for the next three years between four and six thousand were stationed there. During this time the British were consistently successful, and Dutch possessions fell to British expeditions, notably the Cape of Good Hope and Trincomalee in 1795. The Napoleonic War During the Peace of Amiens between 1802 and 1803 the numbers of seamen and soldiers to be fed never fell below seventy thousand, for army units were left in the West Indies to cover the French who used the peace to send out a large expedition to attempt to retrieve St Domingue from the rebels. Such was the level of diplomatic distrust in the Mediterranean, particularly over the sovereignty of Malta, that eleven 74-gun, three 64-gun and forty-five smaller ships in the Mediterranean fleet were kept on station during the peace, and the number of seamen on the station never fell below fifteen thousand. At the renewal of war in May 1803 ships were hurried out to reinforce this fleet to blockade Toulon. The rapid mobilisation for all stations was very different from the slow pace of 1793, and the Victualling Board had to respond with urgency. The Channel Fleet’s main task was to blockade the French naval bases as before and for a time a high concentration of ships of the line remained off the French

   Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower, Chapters 13–15; Rodger, ‘Sea-power and Empire,’ pp. 175–180; Duffy, ‘World-wide War,’ pp. 194–198.    Knight, Pursuit of Victory, pp. 442–443.


The Global Strategic Task

coast. In late 1805 there were thirty thousand men off Brest, as a result of the reinforcements brought back by Nelson when he returned with his squadron back to Europe after the chase across the Atlantic after the French admiral Villeneuve. The Commander-in-Chief, Admiral William Cornwallis, had thirty-six ships of the line under him. Some of these transferred to Nelson’s fleet at Trafalgar, which eventually consisted of twenty-seven manned by over twenty thousand men. In the same year, Lord Keith, commander of the North Sea fleet, whose main task was to maintain a naval defence against invasion and protect the considerable amount of British trade in home waters, had 218 ships under his command, though they were mostly small vessels. Throughout the wars many smaller warships worked around British coasts, convoying coastal trade and cruising. The Victualling Board supported these vessels by contracts with merchants at many different ports.10 Victualling all ships became more difficult in the Napoleonic War because of the British fleet’s increasingly aggressive and widespread close blockade of enemy naval bases. For instance, after Spain had declared war in 1804, Ferrol at the north-west tip of Spain had to be watched. Here the blockading squadron was anchored between January and December 1804 in Betanzos Bay, six miles from the entrance to Ferrol harbour, nearly six hundred miles from Plymouth across the Bay of Biscay. This blockade stretched the supply line nearly to breaking point.11 In the years after the decisive victory at Trafalgar, the emphasis of sea warfare moved away from the Western Approaches and the Channel Fleet began to lose its central importance. After the danger of invasion on the south coast of England disappeared in 1809, the Channel Fleet was run down from twenty thousand men to as little as seven thousand. The centre of gravity moved to the North Sea fleet where a compensatory increase to over eleven thousand men took place. Hostilities on land were increasing in northern and central Europe. A swift and considerable amphibious operation against the Danes in 1807 was successful where a huge operation in 1809 to invade Holland, faltering in disease-ridden Walcheren, was a failure. Again the ‘flanks’ of Europe became important. Admiral Sir James Saumarez commanded a fleet in the Baltic between 1808 and 1812, defying Napoleon’s Continental Blockade and surrounded by hostile powers. The sea control which he exercised enabled merchant ships to reach England with vital supplies of wheat and naval stores. The Mediterranean Fleet, commanded by Admiral Collingwood until his death in 1810, supported allied armies fighting a complicated land war in southern Europe. Ships and seamen were steadily increased, and that fleet finally surpassed the Channel Fleet in 1810, reaching a peak of 34,600 in 1812. In distant waters British squadrons waxed and waned according to the current strategic need. Hostilities in the East Indies flared up after 1806 when the French

   Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, pp. 530, 536.  10 See Appendix 3a.  11 John Leyland ed., Dispatches and Letters Relating to the Blockade of Brest 1803–1805 (NRS vol. 21, II, 1901), p. 195.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

built up their frigate strength in Mauritius, a danger faced in the next few years by thirty British ships manned by between eight and ten thousand men. The danger passed when Mauritius was captured in December 1810. There was more consistency in seamen numbers in the West Indies, as the army and navy combined to retake the French islands which had been restored to Napoleon by the Treaty of Amiens, with an average of about fifteen thousand seamen serving there. The North American station had almost no ships until tensions between Britain and the United States began in about 1808, but here the numbers never reached much more than four thousand men. After the outbreak of war in 1812, the build up of the North American squadron was slow, but eventually it reached a figure of sixty ships with 14,300 men in late 1813. It was fortunate for Britain that hostilities with the United States did not break out until 1812. The defeat of Napoleon’s army in Russia, and his consequent loss of power and influence, had very wide geopolitical effects. The Baltic no longer had to be contested so that Britain could divert its ships to North America.12 If the American war had come earlier, lack of ships would have prevented the navy from blockading the American coast, without which there would have been a very different result to this conflict.13 The army abroad Six months after war was declared, the Victualling Board extended its provisioning remit by taking on the responsibility for provisioning the army abroad. In August 1793 the Board met with William Pitt and the Lords of the Treasury. The Commissioners of Victuallers declared that they can discharge that Duty without interference in any Degree with the Execution of that with which they are at present entrusted for the Naval Service in a manner which they conceive will perfect Satisfaction to their Lordships’ … My Lords are therefore pleased to determine that in future all Purchases of provisions in His Majesty’s Forces and Settlements abroad shall be made by the Commissioners of Victualling’.

For this the members of the Board received increased salaries and allowances, and they thus acquired, in addition to the Admiralty, another senior board to which to

 12 Beef and provision prices in the Caribbean rose sharply as a result of Jefferson’s Trade Embargo of 1808, resulting in large losses for the main contractor there, Thomas Pinkerton.  13 There are opposing interpretations on the effectiveness of this blockade. See Wade G. Dudley, ‘The Flawed British Blockade, 1812–15,’ Naval Blockades and Seapower: Strategies and Counter-Strategies, 1805–2005, ed. Bruce A. Elleman and S.C.M. Paine (London, 2006), pp. 35–45; though see the more persuasive Brian Arthur, ‘The Royal Navy and Economic Warfare in North America, 1812–1815’ (Ph.D. thesis, Greenwich, 2009).


The Global Strategic Task

report.14 Like the administrative change which reconstituted the Transport Board in 1794, this was a sensible reform by William Pitt, for much of the time during the many overseas amphibious (or ‘conjunct’) expeditions sailors and soldiers needed to be fed at the same time and in the same place. The Victualling Board soon discovered how much it had to provide. By December 1793 it had orders from the Treasury to provide provisions for ten thousand troops in the West Indies, for twenty thousand on the continent and six months’ provisions for the colony in New South Wales.15 The amphibious expeditions created exceptionally concentrated points of demand, both in time and at the place of embarkation, as warships and transports, seamen and soldiers converged on fleet anchorages at Spithead, Plymouth Sound, Cawsand Bay and Torbay, the Downs, the Nore or Great Yarmouth.16 Pitt’s government, and in particular Henry Dundas, the Secretary for War, took risky decisions in the first six years of the war by sending three major expeditions to the West Indies: Sir Charles Grey and Admiral Sir John Jervis in 1793–94, General Sir Ralph Abercromby and Admiral Hugh Christian in 1795–96, and Abercromby again with Admiral Henry Harvey in 1796–97. The second of these expeditions was huge and the strain of transporting an army of thirty thousand to the West Indies ‘brought the British war machinery almost to breaking point’.17 The horrific army casualties sustained in the West Indies in these years kept the mounting of amphibious operations beyond the capacity of the state after 1797. Deaths of private soldiers and NCOs in the West Indies between 1793 and 1801 were estimated at 43,747, and if discharges and desertions were included, 62,250. This figure represented an extraordinary 70 per cent of the total of 89,000 troops.18 Though government ministers abandoned a planned descent on Brest in 1799, there were unsuccessful expeditions to Ferrol in 1799 and Cadiz in 1800. In 1800 and 1801, however, there was a flurry of activity. Malta was captured in September 1800. In the first months of 1801 two highly successful large expeditions were launched. The first was an amphibious landing in Egypt on 8 March, led by Admiral Lord Keith and General Abercromby. To maintain supplies a victualling convoy carrying 3,200 tons of every sort of provisions was ordered to the Mediterranean in February 1801, followed by another in June of 3,600 tons.19 Keith’s arrangements for feeding the army,

 14 TNA, PRO 30/8/246, Chatham Papers, draft Treasury Minute, 16 Aug 1793. During the American War the Victualling Board had advised the Treasury continuously on provisioning matters (Baker, Government and Contractors, pp. 43, 102–103, 252).  15 TNA, PRO 30/8/426, fo. 129, list of letters to the Commissioners of Victualling, 27 Nov., 3 & 20 Dec. 1793.  16 How this distorted prices will be examined in Chapter 4.  17 Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Sea Power, p. 195.  18 Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Sea Power, pp. 332–333.  19 TNA: ADM 111/159, VB minutes, 10 Feb., 9 Jun. 1801. A sense of the scale of the task is provided by a marginal note on a letter from Commissary-General Motz via the Treasury to the Victualling Board: one transport carried eleven days’ full provisions of twenty thousand rations (TNA, ADM 109/104, 15 Mar. 1801).


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

navy and the near-starving population on the newly-conquered Malta were impressive, though they received detail criticism and accusations of peculation in letters which reached the Prime Minister.20 The second expedition was the naval attack upon Copenhagen in April 1801, led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker with Vice-Admiral Sir Horatio Nelson as second-in-command. Parker’s fleet of seventeen ships of the line, four frigates and twenty-five smaller ships were crewed by 18,000 seamen; three months’ provisions included 731 tons of bisket alone.21 In addition to 140,000 British seamen, ten allied Russian ships of the line and six frigates were assisting in the Channel and North Sea and their crews also had to be fed. By 1801 the system of victualling was working under full pressure. In that year, conservatively estimated, Britain was feeding 400,000 men under arms with expensive processed provisions, in concentrations distributed around the world. Cost, reliability of supply and availability factors ensured that the majority of provisions came out from Britain, with relatively small amounts contracted for locally. At that time there were 90,000 soldiers serving abroad, from the West to East Indies, the Cape of Good Hope, Canada and a small unit in New South Wales. In Britain and Ireland there were 159,179, and the grand total, including the militia, was 248,000.22 The amount of provisions required was prodigious. At a pound of bread or bisket per seaman per day, or a pound and a half for soldiers, 400,000 rations for a year amounts to 83,428 tons. Feeding troops within Britain itself was a more decentralised business, with the army dispersed into forty-three districts, and able to depend more upon local supply. There was a centralised depot at St Catherine’s by Tower Hill in London, and all supplies to troops at home were the responsibility of the Barrack-Master General, In 1793 a Commissary-General was appointed, although he has been described as having ‘little authority and few duties’.23 Before 1809 all commissaries on foreign service reported individually to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, but in that year the appointment of the first Commissary-in-Chief was established with widened powers, with responsibility for all overseas stations except Ireland and the East Indies. His department made all contracts for bread, oats and forage. Thus for the first time a single Commissariat system was put in place, even though, as one authority has pointed out, the ‘Commissary-in-Chief was more an executive agent

 20 See DRO, 152M/c1802/OC3/2, Haviland LeMesurier to Henry Addington, 2 Feb. 1802; these criticisms seem to be unfounded. See also Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 333.  21 Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 365. Our thanks to Janet Macdonald for assistance in calculating tonnage.  22 TNA: WO/30/65, ‘State and Situation of the Forces serving under the British Empire, March 1801’.  23 T.M.O. Redgrave, ‘Wellington’s Logistical Arrangements in the Peninsular War, 1809–1814’ (Ph.D. thesis, London, 1979), pp. 13–14. For the duties of the commissariat see Glover, Peninsular Preparation, Appendices A and B.


The Global Strategic Task

of the Treasury than an official who took major decisions on his own authority’.24 The first Commissary-in-Chief was Lieutenant-Colonel Gordon, but on 1 October 1811, J.C. Herries, a young Treasury official, took over. It was through his leadership, combined with the skills of the Commissary-General in Spain, General Sir John Kennedy, who had the close support of Wellington, that the daunting task of provisioning the British Army in the Peninsular War was accomplished.25 The Victualling Board was gradually reduced to a supporting role, shipping out provisions from Britain for periods of time. By this stage of the war the number of soldiers to be fed abroad soared. In 1809 the British government had 23,000 men in Spain, but simultaneously sent an army of 42,712 men to invade Holland.26 While the Walcheren Expedition returned within the year after a disastrous defeat, the numbers in the Peninsular army tripled between 1809 and 1814, augmented by Portuguese and Spanish troops. By September 1810 at the battle of Bussaco, the army numbered 40,000 soldiers and 6,000 horses, and behind the Torres Vedras lines consisted of 60,000; in late 1812 it reached 70,000, with 12,000 forage rations, and by the time that Wellington crossed the Pyrenees his combined army numbered 100,000, with 20,000 horses.27 In Spain and Portugal wheat, flour, bisket and bread were the most problematic provisions. From early 1809 until the end of 1810 the army was supplied efficiently with provisions from Britain through the Victualling Board, transported in the first of 404 convoys which sailed from Britain to Iberian ports between mid-1808 and early 1814.28 Even so, this comprised only some 20 per cent to 30 per cent of the army’s total requirement in 1809 and 1810 of 20 million rations.29 Some wheat was also procured from the Barbary coast at this time, but as the army advanced inland local supplies had to be purchased, becoming the source of most of its supplies.30 The next phase of the war, starting in 1811, was dominated by bad harvests in England, when the British government prohibited exports of grain to forestall domestic hardship and protest. Army victualling transport voyages carrying flour and bisket from England to the Peninsula and Gibraltar had peaked at fifty-three in 1810 and fortyfour in 1813, whereas in 1812 only fifteen sailed for the Peninsula.31  24 Keith Bartlett, ‘The Development of the British Army during the Wars with France, 1793– 1815’ (Ph.D. thesis, Durham, 1997), p. 191; Redgrave, ‘Peninsular War,’ p. 15.  25 Even more remarkably, Herries and Kennedy did not get on.  26 Gordon C. Bond, The Grand Expedition: the British Invasion of Holland in 1809 (Athens, GA, 1979), p. 171; Robert Burnham, ‘Filling the Ranks: How Wellington Kept his Units up to Strength,’ Inside Wellington’s Peninsular Army, 1808–1814, ed. Rory Muir et al (Barnsley, 2006), p. 201.  27 Redgrave, ‘Peninsular War,’ pp. 51–53.  28 Hall, Wellington’s Navy, p. 112. All told 13,427 ship voyages were recorded between Britain and Spain and Portugal during these years.  29 Redgrave, ‘Peninsular War,’ p. 53.   30 Hall, British Strategy in the Napoleonic War, pp. 32–33; Redgrave, ‘Peninsular War,’ p. 57.   31 A total of 212 voyages carrying wheat and flour were made between 1808 and 1815, averaging 26.5 a year. These figures were provided by Janet Macdonald.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The shortfall had to be obtained for the army from the Mediterranean and the United States. These supplies were purchased through the Portuguese merchant house of Henrique Teixeira de Sampaio, a powerful agency already well established in the American export trade to Iberian ports. The British Commissariat in Lisbon purchased flour through Sampaio to the value of more than £100,000 from merchants in the middle colonies, centred on Philadelphia and Baltimore, despite the outbreak of war between Britain and the United States in June 1812. The corn and flour was brought to Lisbon in American and neutral ships, armed with British licences to penetrate the British blockade of the American coast. This fortunate circumstance was due to the ‘determined effort of the agriculturalists in America to sell their produce to the English – war or no war.’32 Before the end of 1810 forty-six cargoes came from the middle colonies of the United States, not only of flour, but rice, bisket and Indian corn (maize) for the horses. This was followed in 1811 by seventy-one similar cargoes from across the Atlantic, accounting in 1811 and 1812 for nearly half of all issues from the British Commissariat.33 In 1812 the British government lifted its ban on grain exports because of the sudden opening of the Baltic ports after Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. This released for British consumption vast stores of grain and flour from Northern Europe. This was particularly fortunate because the American government finally passed an act on 29 July 1813 prohibiting the trade, by which time a huge amount of flour had been amassed in Spain.34 By the end of the Peninsular War, Wellington’s army was consuming approximately forty tons of bisket a day.35 Throughout these campaigns local supplies of all commodities were obtained, even though the credit of the army’s commissariat was dangerously stretched at times.36 Meat was mostly obtained locally, although early on the Victualling Board did supply some from Daniel Callaghan, a large contractor in Cork. More came from the Barbary coast, as contraband via Gibraltar. Much difficulty was experienced in transporting provisions from the coast, even though the British used the rivers inland as much as possible. Army cartage arrangements were not good   32 Bartlett, ‘British Army, 1793–1815,’ pp. 194–195; W. Freeman Galpin, ‘The American Grain Trade to the Spanish Peninsula, 1810–1814,’ American Historical Review, XXVIII (1922–23), p. 42.   33 This compares with 97 army victualling ships loaded in 1810 from St. Catherine’s yard by the Tower, 72 in 1811 and 77 in 1812 (Janet Macdonald,‘The Victualling Board, 1793–1815: A Study of Management Competence’ (Ph.D. thesis, London, 2009), Appendix L, p. 418, quoted from TNA, ADM 110/57–70, Jan. 1808–Sep. 1815).   34 Redgrave, ‘Peninsular War, pp. 60–61; see also Brooke Hunter, ‘Wheat, War and the American Economy during the Age of Revolution,’ William and Mary Quarterly LXII (2005), pp. 519, 523–524.   35 100,000 lbs or 44 tons: Hall, British Strategy in the Napoleonic Wars, pp. 34–35. The number of victualling transport voyages to the Iberian Peninsula from the Thames increased markedly to 153 ships in 1813 and 154 in 1814 (Macdonald, ‘Victualling Board,’ Appendix L, p. 418).   36 Hall, British Strategy in the Napoleonic Wars, pp. 32–43.


The Global Strategic Task

enough to transport salt provisions far, and they were mainly issued to garrison troops, those marching in the rear and muleteers. In spite of prodigious efforts, shortcomings persisted, and for particular periods forward units lived off the land. The most detailed study of this question concludes that ‘the campaign of 1812 could barely be supported and the campaigns of 1813 and 1814 had to be conducted with an eye towards economy and under severe logistical restrictions’.37 Nevertheless, the French armies in the Iberian peninsula themselves were at a considerable disadvantage, fighting in enemy territory, often fending for themselves and suffering a severe wastage of men. Combined with the logistical support of the navy, the British Commissariat gave the British army the edge over the French in the Peninsula.38 Even Wellington, notoriously vocal with complaint and sparse with praise, unusually acknowledged in his despatch after the battle of Salamanca, the importance of supply: Notwithstanding the increased distance of our operations from our magazines, and that the country is completely exhausted, we have hitherto wanted nothing, owing to the diligence and attention of the Commissary-General, Mr. Blissett, and the officers of the department under his direction.39

Processed provisions When war was resumed after the Peace of Amiens, the Victualling Board produced a comprehensive list for the Admiralty of ‘each Article of Provisions supplied to the Red House Deptford between 1792 and 1803,’ demonstrating the variety of foodstuffs that it had to procure.40 Twenty-eight items were on the list. It included cereals and their products, wheat, flour, bisket, bisket meal, oatmeal, pease and ‘grotts’.41 The victualling yard processed fresh beef, pork and suet, although large quantities at various times were supplied from contractors already salted in casks. Cheese, oil and butter, much of it from Ireland where it was cheaper, were also packed into casks. Southern Europe provided wine, brandy and raisins and olive oil. Beer and its ingredients, malt, as well as essence of malt and vinegar came from southern

  37 Redgrave, ‘Peninsular War,’ p. 71.   38 Hall, Wellington’s Navy,’ pp. 6–7, 233–234; Elting, Swords around a Throne, pp. 553–573. Apart from Redgrave’s thesis, there is no specialised study of the supply of the British army in the Peninsula. For instance, the word ‘commissariat’ does not appear in the index of Rory Muir et al, Inside Wellington’s Peninsular Army, 1808–1814 (London, 2006).   39 J. W. Fortescue, A History of the British Army vol. VIII (London, 1917), pp. 512–513.   40 NMM, ADM DP/23, 28 Dec. 1803.   41 Grotts, or groats, were small cakes, or nibs, of oatmeal, maize or buckwheat (low grade wheat). They were favoured by Russians, who in 1813 asked the Victualling Board for buckwheat rather than flour (NMM, ADM/C/737, 1 Jan. 1813), for which reference we are grateful to Janet Macdonald. See also p. 193.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

England. Beer was brewed in the victualling yard itself. Produce from the West Indies included rum, molasses and sugar, with rice from the East Indies. Of all food supplied by the Victualling Office to the navy and army during these wars, wheat for flour needed for making bread and bisket was the most important of all commodities supplied, because of the very large quantity consumed. Flour made hard, unleavened ‘bisket’, which kept better than soft ‘loaf ’ bread and provided more concentrated food. ‘A sack of flour … will make one hundredweight more of bread than bisket,’ a committee of bakers pronounced in 1800.42 Huge quantities of bisket were baked. At the allowance of a pound of bisket or bread a man per day, a first-rate ship manned by 850 men needed well over forty tons of bisket for a four-month commission.43 Together with wheat, salt beef and pork were the seaman’s staple diet, much of it produced in London to take advantage of the enormous number of cattle and pigs brought there to feed the growing city population. There is a close correlation between increased naval and military demand and the extra number of cattle which passed through Smithfield market. Between 1789 and 1790 eleven thousand more cattle were sold than in the previous year, at the time when two fleets were mobilised simultaneously for the Nootka Sound crisis and the Ochakov confrontation with Russia. In 1793 the total figure was 177,000 beasts, ten thousand more than in 1792. Thus the number jumped between 1794 and 1795 by 21,000 to 131,000 at the time of the West Indies expeditions, and the percentage of total sales purchased by the Board in these years was 8.2 per cent and 8.5 per cent, and doubled to 16 per cent in 1796 after which the total decreased.44 At the Peace of Amiens total Smithfield sales decreased by eighteen thousand beasts and the Board’s percentage to 3.9 per cent. Between 1806 and 1808 they jumped another twenty-four thousand at the same time as the Whig government’s overseas strategy was implemented. The figure peaked in 1808 at 144,000 and there were commensurate decreases at the end of the war as seamen and troop numbers ran down.45 Cattle and pigs carried themselves to London, ‘droving’ being the cheapest way to get them to market. As pigs could not make long journeys since they rapidly lost weight, they were reared near London. Through the eighteenth century, continuously rising demand had led to a concentration of pig-farming around the capital with the animals reared on the waste barley and malt from breweries and distilleries.46 Breweries had in any case been growing in size, not least because of the pattern of excise duties, which favoured well-capitalised businesses, and the London ones were located to the south of the city at Battersea and Vauxhall. Pig-fattening around

  42 TNA, ADM 109/104, Treasury correspondence with the Victualling Board, ‘a committee of bakers’ to the Mayor of Portsmouth, copy enclosure to the Duke of Portland, 7 Jun. 1800.   43 Admiralty Regulations and Instructions, 1808, p. 287.   44 For the percentages see the calculations in Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, Appendix G, from LMA, CLA/016/AD/01/003.   45 B.R. Mitchell and Phyllis Deane, Abstract of British Historical Statistics (Cambridge, 1962), p. 354.   46 Peter Mathias, ‘Agriculture, and the Brewing and Distilling Industries in the Eighteenth Centuries, Economic History Review, Series 2, 5, 1953, pp. 249–257.


The Global Strategic Task

London, often taken on by the breweries themselves, likewise grew into a large-scale and profitable business. Modern estimates put the figure at between forty and fifty thousand pigs reared annually.47 Cattle, by contrast, were driven from all parts of the British Isles, even in some cases having their hooves shod to do so. A remarkable pattern of long and wellestablished journeys were organised with an informal credit system based upon local trust between drovers, graziers and farmers.48 Cattle came to London under the charge of drovers from as far away as Scotland and West Wales, usually keeping away from expensive toll roads. Droves of one hundred to three hundred beasts, covering ten or twelve miles a day in uplands, fifteen miles or more in flat country, were usually to be seen in the autumn. Very often they were grazed near London to make up the weight they had lost on their journey; again, the cattle were fattened by local farmers who were able to handle as many as five thousand cattle per year.49 Another route in 1801, for instance, was from Galloway to the fairs in Norfolk and Suffolk, held just before the turnip-feeding season, and cattle were driven on to London the following spring, once they had regained their weight.50 Variable numbers were transported from Ireland. In 1811, for instance, 44,553 beasts were shipped to the north-west of England.51 Once the beasts were slaughtered, they were packed into casks and salted in the victualling yard at Deptford, or by contractors. England possessed abundant supplies of salt, for rock salt had been discovered in Cheshire in 1670, and Droitwich in North Worcestershire also produced brine from which salt was manufactured. While salt water contains only 3 per cent pure salt, rock salt from the Northwich mine in Cheshire is composed of over 25 per cent. Production had increased from fifteen thousand tons in 1732 by ten times to one hundred and fifty thousand tons in 1800, helped by steam power to pump the mines and by improvements to the River Weaver which brought the rock salt to Liverpool, for shipping to other parts of the country. Salt refineries flourished in Liverpool, Essex, Suffolk, Devon, Somerset and Cornwall.52 Another casked commodity much consumed was beer, where the basic seaman’s ration was a gallon a day, and it was one commodity which the victualling yards

  47 Mathias, ‘Agriculture and Brewing,’ pp. 251, 254; John V.C. Nye, War, Wine and Taxes: The Political Economy of Anglo-French Trade, 1689–1900 (Princeton, NJ, 2007).   48 Pamela Horn, The Rural World 1780–1850: Social Change in the English Countryside (London, 1980), p. 19.   49 Mathias, ‘Agriculture and Brewing,’ p. 255.   50 Theo Barker and Dorian Gerhold, The Rise and Rise of Road Transport, 1700–1900 (Cambridge, 1993), p. 31.   51 G.E. Fussel and Constance Goodman, ‘Eighteenth-century traffic in Live-stock,’ Economic History, III (1937), p. 225.   52 W.H. Chaloner, ‘Salt in Cheshire, 1600–1870,’ Palatinate Studies: Chapters in the Social and Industrial History of Lancashire (Chetham Society, 1992), pp. 103–104, 112, 117.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

brewed themselves, particularly at Portsmouth, rather than using contractors.53 Beer was tricky to handle, and had the distinct disadvantage of not being suitable for brewing in the summer months as it would go sour. When the weather became hot, the order would go out that the operations of the breweries ‘be forthwith suspended, and that as soon as the Beer remaining in our stores shall be expended, wine shall be issued in lieu thereof ’.54 It was awkward and heavy to load, and when urgency was required spirits were issued instead.55 Coal, staves and water Finally, three other commodities were needed in great quantities. Water in casks and coal enabled the crews on board ship to cook and consume provisions and fresh foodstuffs. Coal was, of course, available from a very large and established trade, with tens of thousands of tons coming up the River Thames each year. Coal was distributed by contract with the Board to Portsmouth, Plymouth, naval bases abroad, and to ships on blockade duty. Crews on distant stations would collect firewood to supplement coal supplies. The voyage in 1796 of the Concord, owned by Michael Henley of Wapping, while perhaps exceptional, shows how coal was distributed by contract. The ship went out with a convoy via Lisbon to Gibraltar to find Admiral Sir John Jervis and his fleet anchored in Gibraltar Bay, where the Master was ordered to discharge coal ‘this day alongside His Majesty’s Ship Barfleur and on your disobeying this Order you will be protested against without delay’. The Concord offloaded 82 tons into the Barfleur, prevented by strong winds from getting to the Goliath, 78 tons were hoisted into the Egmont, 46 into the Culloden, before the warship was blown out of Gibraltar Bay, when the Concord was ordered to cast off. She struck the rocks under a Spanish fort, the crew were captured, and returned to Gibraltar where they were immediately seized by the press gang. The master attributed his misfortune by being ordered to cast off from the Culloden, ‘the violence of the winds, and seas, rain and extreme darkness.’56 The consumption of water by hundreds of seamen in each ship was prodigious. Casks were generally filled and handled by seamen, but when delivered to a warship by a contractor, transport costs were expensive. Water cost less when loaded at deepwater West Country ports than when it came from shallower, less accessible ports on

  53 For a review of this question earlier in the eighteenth century see P. Mathias, The Brewing Industry in England, 1700–1830 (Cambridge, 1959), pp. 195–204. The capacity of London breweries was impressive: in 1787 1.2 million barrels of strong beer were brewed; by 1815, 1.7 million (Nye, War, Wine and Taxes, p. 82).   54 Wellcome 6816, VB to Samuel Lewes, 30 May 1807.   55 See pp. 201–204.   56 NMM, HNL/13/4:17, James Grant’s protest document to the Vice-Admiralty Court at Gibraltar, 7 Jan. 1797, recounts the story. The measurement is in chaldrons, about 1 ton 6 cwt (see HNL/13/17: 21, 30 April 1810, Account of coals delivered from on board the Ann).


The Global Strategic Task

the East Coast. Delivered in casks aboard a warship, it cost 3s 10d a ton at Falmouth, 6s at Grimsby and 7s 3d at Yarmouth.57 The crew of a 74-gun ship required two tons a day, a first-rate needed as much as four tons. The Victory, of 100 guns, could stow 380 tons of water, though during 1803 and 1804 in the Mediterranean it was usually about 310 tons.58 Most of it was needed to ‘steep’ salt provisions before they could be cooked, and for cooking itself; very little, if any, could be spared for personal hygiene.59 Careful captains and masters would note in their log daily consumption and how many tons remained.60 Few took risks with water. Nelson was an exception, not stopping to water his fleet during the long chase across the Atlantic after Villeneuve to the West Indies and back in 1805. On the return crossing it was discovered that some of the casks in the lower tier of the Victory’s forehold had leaked, and only seventy-nine tons were left. Luckily twenty tons were transferred from another ship in mid-Atlantic on a calm day. When the flagship reached Gibraltar she had only sixteen tons of fresh water aboard.61 All Nelson’s ships had to water at Tetuan in Morocco before sailing north. No single commodity gave naval officers and seamen so much trouble as hoisting in hundreds of tons of water into the hold, then stowing it securely, at the start of a commission. If there were delays in the sailing of a fleet, it was more than likely that watering was the cause. None of the major bases were provided with clean water in large enough quantities for the demands of this war. Before 1797 Portsmouth, Plymouth and Sheerness had water shipped from a distance.62 Samuel Bentham, the newly-appointed Inspector General of Naval Works, threw himself at these difficulties with his customary energy, and usual lack of tact, ordering and supervising the digging of new wells and a reservoir.63 At Plymouth problems were solved by the Plymouth Dock Water Company which piped water from Dartmoor, although in 1798 there were delays in deciding where the reservoirs should be sited, owing to pressure of business, ‘and also to General Bentham and your officers not being able to coincide in opinion as to the most eligible spots for the same’.64 A reservoir had

  57 SFDB; see also Chapter 10 for watering difficulties at Great Yarmouth.   58 TNA, ADM 52/3711, Master’s log of the Victory, 21 May 1803; Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 617; Peter Goodwin, Nelson’s Ships: A History of the Vessels in which he Served (London, 2002), p. 303.   59 e.g. Thomas Masterman Hardy, captain of the Amphion (32), when only five days’ sailing from his destination, Malta, noted in his log: ‘Gave the people water to wash’ (TNA, ADM 51/1446, 10 Jun. 1803).   60 e.g. Ralph Willett Miller in the Captain (74), 14 Dec. 1796: ‘Water expended 1½ tons. Remains 121¼ tons. Rainwater 5 tons’ (TNA, ADM 51/1194).   61 TNA, ADM 52/3711, 16–17 Jun., 20 Jul. 1805.   62 Roger Morriss, ‘The Office of the Inspector General of Naval Works and Technological Innovation in the Royal Dockyards,’ TNDS 1 (2006), p. 27.   63 Coad, The Portsmouth Block Mills, pp. 34–40.   64 NMM, ADM BP/18a, Navy Board to Admiralty, 13 Mar. 1798, enclosing a letter of 25 March from W. Fauntleroy, secretary of the Committee appointed by the Corporation of Plymouth to manage the pipe laying.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

been built at Brixham in the previous war for the fleet in Torbay, but new and bigger iron pipes were laid in 1801, overseen by Bentham.65 Delays in watering came not only from the facilities, but from the officers and seamen of the fleet, exposed by Lord St Vincent when he took over the command of the Channel Fleet on 2 May 1800 from Lord Bridport. Before the end of the month Commissioner John Rodney of the Victualling Board had to travel urgently from London to enquire into delays and short measure in the water that ships took on at Plymouth. He found that ships’ officers were deliberately loading less water than the capacity of their ship to lessen the time that they were at sea on blockade, although Rodney stopped short of accusing them directly of this motive. He also recommended improvements in pier facilities in the South Pool at Plymouth used in taking on water, and a depot of provisions on vessels lying alongside Brixham Pier. By the end of the summer St Vincent was satisfied. At the end of September he wrote to the Admiralty praising ‘the worthy agent at Plymouth Victualling Office,’ an unusual instance of that admiral praising anyone in the civil administration of the navy.66 From that summer St Vincent instituted a strict regime which shortened ships’ port time to the minimum, allowed no officer more than three miles from shore, and no officer ashore at night. In 1800 Brest came under close and virtually continuous blockade.67 Even so, very early in St Vincent’s tenure as First Lord in 1801, he ordered the Victualling Board to send three thousand tons of water out to Cornwallis’s fleet off Brest, for which the Board had to request the Transport Board to hire extra vessels.68 Watering proceeded more smoothly at Portsmouth, although some complaints of slow victualling reached the Admiralty in 1805 and 1808.69 The eastern end of the Isle of Wight was also a source of water for those ships ready to depart, anchored at St. Helens. The major problems occurred at the Nore and in the Downs which became more apparent as the focus of the war in home waters shifted from the western Channel to the North Sea and the Baltic. The situation was worst in the Downs, where local water supplies were completely inadequate. Water had to be brought over a hundred miles from the Thames, the far side of London, where fresh water could be found in large quantities above the level of the tide. Most water on the East Coast was taken from rivers and unsurprisingly, there were protests from captains at its quality. When Admiral Duncan complained in 1796 that the water delivered from Deptford was brackish, the Victualling Board minuted that this could be attributed

  65 TNA, ADM 111/157, 11 Nov 1800; 111/158, 2, 10 Jan., 3 Feb. 1801.   66 Laird, ‘The Victualling of the Channel Fleet in 1800’, pp. 44–45; P.K. Crimmin, ‘John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent, 1735–1823,’ Precursors of Nelson: British Admirals of the Eighteenth Century, ed. Peter Le Fevre and Richard Harding (London, 2000), p. 341.   67 Morriss and Saxby, eds, The Channel Fleet and the Blockade of Brest, pp. 479–483, 494–499; Steer, ‘The Blockade of Brest,’ MM 76 (1990), p. 309; Duffy, ‘Devon and the Naval Strategy of the French Wars, 1680–1815,’ pp. 188–189.   68 TNA, ADM 111/159, VB minutes, 6 May 1801.   69 Sheldon, ‘A Tale of Two Cities,’ p. 42.


The Global Strategic Task

to the very dry summer, ‘whereby Fresh Water has been prevented from coming down the River in the usual quantity and the Salt Water has in consequence flowed up much higher than customary, as the greatest attention is paid by our Officers in having the casks filled at the proper times of the Tide’.70 In November 1800, for instance, Edward Riou of the Amazon, according to the Victualling Board minutes, ‘complains of extremely muddy and thick state of the Water’; a month later William Bedford of the Leyden complained that it was unfit to drink and his surgeon had reported that it was ‘much impregnated with salt’.71 This inefficient system caused delays, most notably to the sailing of the most disastrous of all military expeditions against Napoleon, the Walcheren expedition of 1809. In March of that year orders for water at the Downs started to reach Samuel Lewes, an Agent Victualler on board the Lancaster depot ship moored at the Nore: by mid-July six vessels capable of transporting three hundred tons each were taking water from Sheerness to the Downs. In a letter of 25 July Lewes was being urged to send ‘every vessel in your power’ to the Downs.72 The expedition was acknowledged by the Board of Enquiry to have been fatally delayed by the late availability of transports, but it was also kept waiting by the slow delivery of water, caused by easterly winds which prevented the watering ships from entering and leaving Dover Harbour. As a result the expedition’s objectives were not achieved before winter and the army in Holland was decimated by both cold and marsh fever.73 By November that year the veteran ex-East Indiaman Glatton of 1256 tons was moored at Sheerness as a ‘water ship,’ with two transports to supply her constantly.74 Bentham also sank a well at Sheerness, but it was not until 1809 that anything was done to bring water into the cistern; two years later Bentham was pressing the Navy Board to install a steam engine which would pump seventy to eighty tons a day to a reservoir, ‘so that it might be in readiness to supply the casual demands of His Majesty’s Ships & Vessels at this Port’.75 A year later the wells at Sheerness and at neighbouring Queenborough were still under repair, an operation which lasted until 1814.76 In July 1810 the Board of Admiralty sent John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Board, down to Ramsgate to see if water could be   70 TNA, ADM 111/140, VB minutes, 20 Sep. 1796. See Chapter 10.   71 TNA, ADM 111/157, VB minutes, 1 Nov., 2 Dec. 1800.   72 Wellcome 6816/278, 306, 310, VB to Lewes 28 Mar., 12 Jul., 22, 25 Jul. 1809. It is interesting to note that the only two handwritten, personal letters from the Chairmen of the Victualling Board in Lewes’s papers concern water (Wellcome 6816/236, from John Marsh, 19 Jul. 1808 and 6816/370, from J.C. Searle, 28 Dec. [1809].   73 Gordon C. Bond, The Grand Expedition: the British Invasion of Holland in 1809 (Athens, GA, 1979), pp. 145–146. Only the lack of transport tonnage appears to have been cited in subsequent enquiry, but there can be no doubt of the delays due to the insufficiency of the water supply (Wellcome 8816/306, 6816/310, 6816/314, 12, 22, 25 Jul. 1809).   74 Wellcome 6816/370, VB to Samuel Lewes, 28 Dec. [1809]; TNA, ADM 106/2302, Navy Board to VB, 13 Jan. 1800.   75 Morriss, ‘Inspector General of Naval Works,’ 27; NMM, ADM BP/29a, Navy Board to Admiralty, 10 Jun 1809; BP/31a, Bentham to Navy Board, 29 Mar. 1811, including plans.   76 Wellcome 6816/657, 716, 727, VB to Lewes, 24 Jul. 1812, 3 Jan., 7 Mar. 1814.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

piped several miles from the River Stour. The ensuing discussion included the Prime Minister, Spencer Perceval, who wanted the pipe line built by ‘private subscription’ rather than with funding from the state, but the need for an Act of Parliament before such a measure could be put in hand prevented any action.77 For those ships on blockade at a distance for months on end, every effort was made to obtain water from local sources. Towards the end of his watch on Toulon from 1803 to early 1805, Nelson took his ships to Pula at the southern tip of Sardinia, where there was a river which did not dry up in the summer. He noted in December 1804 with relief in his private diary: ‘The whole fleet compleat with water having got off 1300 tons of very fine water’.78 In 1807 Captain Hotham of the Defiance had wells dug on Penfret Island off L’Orient, while Anholt Island at the entrance to the Baltic provided essential supplies to Saumarez during his long stay in the Baltic. In 1812 Edward Pellew while watching Toulon, anchored off the mouth of the Rhone, had the wit to lower a cask into the water and found it fresh enough to haul up over the side.79 For the long blockade off the Scheldt, however, there were no easy local solutions, though the Victualling Board hired a Dutch ‘schuyt’ to bring water ‘from the different islands in the Scheldt’ to supplement the supply transported from Great Yarmouth: the costs totalled £1,787.80 During these years hundreds of thousands of oak casks kept the navy at sea. The more accurately made and therefore expensive ‘wet casks’ took liquids such as water, beer, wine, brandy and rum, but also salt meat and butter. ‘Dry casks’ contained flour, pease and oatmeal. Bread and bisket were transported in canvas bags which held a hundredweight of each, although they were susceptible to damage.81 Casks came in several sizes, from butts, pipes, puncheons, hogsheads to barrels and tierces.82 War increased demand and one of the first things the Victualling Board did was to ensure distant stations had enough casks, which were sent out in ‘packs’ of

  77 NMM, YOR/2, John Barrow to C.P. Yorke, 2 Jul. 1810; enclosure of letter from Spencer Perceval to Yorke, n.d.   78 Quoted in Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 463, from BL, Add. Mss. 34967, 7, 10 Aug., 13 Dec. 1804. See Janet MacDonald, ‘Two Years off Provence: The Victualling and Health of Nelson’s Fleet in the Mediterranean, 1803–5,’ MM 92 (2006), p. 445. The same author gives an account of the building of the water reservoirs at Gibraltar in, ‘The Victualling Yard at Gibraltar and its Role in Feeding the Royal Navy in the Mediterranean during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars,’ TNDS 2 (2006), pp. 57–58.   79 Quoted in Richard Glover, Britain at Bay: Defence Against Napoleon, 1803–14 (London, 1973), pp. 74–75, quoting TNA, ADM 1/134, Hotham to the Admiralty, 6 Sep. 1807; ADM 1/424, Pellew to Admiralty, 15 Sep. 1812; Tim Voelker, Admiral Saumarez versus Napoleon: The Baltic, 1807–12 (Woodbridge, 2008), p. 102. See the case made for water from the island of Samsoe by G. Harward to C.P.Yorke, NMM, YOR/7/34, 14 Mar. 1811.   80 TNA, ADM 110/61, VB to Navy Board, 14 Feb. 1810.   81 E.g. Captain Sir Home Popham’s complaint on this score was immediately attended to by a VB order to pack bread in tight butts (TNA, ADM 111/157, VB minutes, 12, 14 Nov. 1800).   82 P.K. Watson, ‘The Commission for Victualling the Navy, the Commission for Sick and Wounded Seamen and Prisoners of War and the Commission for Transport, 1702–1714’ (Ph.


The Global Strategic Task

staves, to be made up at the point of arrival. One merchant seaman’s journal records a full cargo of ‘Government staves for Gibraltar’ in early 1793.83 When there was pressure in the Mediterranean in 1801, the Victualling Board, at Lord Keith’s request, sent three thousand water casks of various sizes each to Minorca and Malta, ‘competely made up, and packed in nests within each other … together with a suitable supply of Rivets and Flags for each place’.84 As the price for oak staves from Danzig, Memel and Stettin climbed steadily through the 1790s from £105 in 1793 to £120 per mille (a thousand staves) in 1794, beech was increasingly used for dry casks, a reform led by Joseph Hunt, one of the Victualling Commissioners.85 By 1805 the price had reached £156 a mille, and the Cooperage Office recommended the use of Quebec white oak staves for dry casks, suggesting that someone should be sent out to supervise felling so that this could be used for wet casks. If this was not done, the letter concluded, ‘it may be fairly inferred that the Merchants of Poland and Germany have it in their Power by lessening the importation to raise the Price of Staves to any amount’.86 The Committee for Trade and Plantations became involved the next year, after a consignment of Quebec staves had been found ‘uneven by being thicker at one end than at the other, but in every way crocked and irregularly cut, so that considerable waste has arisen in manufacturing them into casks’. The Board insisted that Quebec staves, at £95 per thousand, could only be used for dry casks, and that they were not good enough for long periods and for ships on distant stations.87 It may well be that the Board paid too much for staves; a detailed accusation of overcharging for Quebec staves by Flower and Co. looks too exact to doubt.88 But they provided a plentiful supply, so much so that in June 1808 the Cooperage Office at Deptford recommended laying off eighty coopers and twenty apprentices, ‘The Casks in store at this time amounting to 35,000 New and Old, tight and dry casks and packs, which will progressively encrease to about 45,000 in the space of a fortnight … ’89 The price of staves was pushed even higher from 1808 by the heavy duties imposed on goods from the Baltic in response to Napoleon’s Continental Blockade,

  83   84   85   86   87   88   89

D. thesis, London, 1965) p. 84; Roger Morriss, ‘The Supply of Casks and Staves to the Royal Navy 1770–1815,’ MM 93 (2007), p. 43. Huntington Library, HM 57345, The Journal of Joseph Banfield, 23 Mar.–12 Jun. 1793. TNA, ADM 111/161, VB Minutes, 11 Nov. 1801. R.G. Thorne, The House of Commons, 1790–1820 (London, 1986), vol. IV, p. 266; Morriss, ‘Casks and Staves,’ pp. 45–46 for the use of beech in the 1780s by a James Hunt. NMM, ADM BP/26, Navy Board to Admiralty, enclosing a letter of 20 May 1805 from the Cooperage Office. HL, STG 148 (22), VB to William Fawkener, Secretary of the Committee, 17 Oct. 1806, in the papers of Thomas Grenville when First Lord of the Admiralty. Mulgrave Castle, MA/VII/22/9 and 22/11, 13 & 17 Jan. 1810, William Budge, former Victualling Commissioner to Lord Mulgrave, First Lord of the Admiralty. Mulgrave Castle, MA/VII/2/735, A. Bell, Cooperage Office, to the VB, 2 Jun. 1808, minuted by Mulgrave, ‘I can have no objection to a reduction of the numbers not necessary for the public service’.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

which also made their delivery in neutral ships, or those with false papers, susceptible to delay.90 As with naval shipbuilding in general, the rising costs of timber led to experiments with other materials.91 First experiments were made with canning meat. The surgeon of the Ville de Paris reported to Lord Keith in 1814 on cases of meat and soup in tin cases: ‘they were all perfectly fresh and good excepting one case of boiled veal which was very putrid’.92 Improved iron technology provided the answer for storing water. It became clear that lead tanks were not the answer when, on one long voyage, much of the crew became ill with ‘the colic’ from lead poisoning. The principles of seawater distillation were known, but it was not possible to make it in large enough quantities to be useful.93 However, riveted cast-iron tanks were adopted, developed first by Richard Trevithick, then produced by Henry Maudesley when he purchased Trevithick’s patent. By the end of 1814, forty-two frigates had been fitted with iron tanks; the success of this measure relied upon an improvement in pump technology. On the last day of December 1814 the Victualling Board proposed replacing casks with tanks on the ground tier of all warships.94 The new system also did away with the shingle ballast, used to bed down the large casks, and a source of stench and disease, while the close-fitting tanks enabled ships to carry far more water. The improvements were just too late to have relieved the backbreaking work of tens of thousands of seamen manhandling very heavy water casks throughout twenty-two years of war. Fresh provisions To supplement salted provisions it was essential to give seamen fresh produce, and it was success in supplying ships on blockade that was at the root of British sea control in these wars. In the last five years of the eighteenth century scurvy began to be systematically eradicated. St Vincent, when in command of the Mediterranean Fleet, became convinced of the effectiveness of citrus fruit in combating the disease and he ordered the surgeons of the fleet to issue one lemon and one orange to each member of the ship’s company in health, with twice this ration to anyone with

  90 The price nearly doubled from £150 per mille to £286 (Parliamentary Papers, Naval and Victualling Contracts, ordered to be printed 2 Jun. 1823).   91 Morriss, ‘Casks and Staves,’ pp. 48–49.   92 Christopher Lloyd, ed. The Keith Papers, III, p. 325, H. Neale to Keith, 19 May 1814 (enclosure). The offending can was marked ‘September 11 1813’. The adoption of canning did not become general until the 1830s and 1840s.   93 E.M. Diamond and K.T.H. Farrer, ‘Watering the Fleet and the Introduction of Distillation,’ MM 91 (2005), pp. 548–549; for further technical details see Janet Macdonald, ‘The Introduction of Iron Water Tanks in the Royal Navy,’ MM 95 (2009), pp. 215–218.   94 Robert Gardiner, Frigates of the Napoleonic Wars (Londno, 2000), pp. 105–107, quoting NMM, ADM BP/35a, 17 Feb. 1815.


The Global Strategic Task

scurvy, ‘whenever the Fruit can be procured.’95 From this point, slowly but steadily lemon juice was introduced into the seaman’s regular diet, as the Sick and Hurt Board accumulated enough bottled citrus juice in large quantities, and as a result of pressure from senior naval officers. The control of this disease can thus be dated from the time that St Vincent became commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet in 1800.96 Other fresh food was required for seamen at sea for long periods. The Victualling Board ordered in 1797 that ‘each line of Battleships can carry twenty Oxen between the guns on the main Deck’ and hay for their subsistence.97 Each blockading ship which came back to a home port for watering and provisioning would carry out cattle for the rest of the fleet, and also cabbages, onions, leeks and potatoes.98 On foreign stations, however, it was up to the admiral to ensure that his agent victualler and his pursers purchased fresh meat and vegetables. Given friendly powers, efficient and supportive British consuls in foreign ports and a plentiful supply of specie, for live cattle were expensive, it was one of the first duties of a commanding officer to secure supplies. In 1796 the Mediterranean Fleet under St Vincent was supplied with cattle and lemons by an English woman, Frances Caffarena, married to an Italian and living in Genoa. Recruited by the fleet’s agent victualler, David Heatley, she supplied not only cattle, but valuable intelligence; she suffered serious financial losses when the French overcame the north of Italy.99 Lord Keith demonstrated real shrewdness while Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean in 1801 in driving down the costs of cattle by receiving tenders at Leghorn, rather than accepting cattle from the British consul. A great many cattle were purchased there, some of them transported regularly to Minorca.100 Nelson tried to emulate Keith’s business shrewdness when Commander-in-Chief in the Baltic in 1801, rejecting the local English consul’s offer, and he put ashore Richard Booth, purser of the London, to purchase fresh beef at the best price; but at the same time Nelson ordered, somewhat unrealistically, that no more than 4¾d per pound was to be paid. Booth commissioned two timber merchants, Isaac Solly and his partner Gibson, to buy, feed and transport cattle to the fleet, but everything went wrong. No admiral, not even Nelson, could fix the price and Solly and Gibson lost

  95 BL, Add. Mss. 40741, St Vincent Papers, Ville de Paris, 24 Apr. 1797.   96 Morris and Saxby, Channel Fleet, pp. 28–29 et passim; Brian Vale, ‘The Conquest of Scurvy, 1793–1800,’ MM 94 (2008), pp. 160–175.   97 Wellcome 6815/6, VB to Samuel Lewes, Yarmouth, 8 Sep. 1797. Before battle, those unfortunate beasts still alive were thrown overboard as the ship prepared for action. In 1798 Nelson’s squadron had provisioned at Syracuse less than a week before he finally caught the French fleet at Aboukir Bay, and the logs of his ships record: ‘Hove bullocks overboard’ in order to indemnify the purser and captain from their loss (Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 290).   98 PLLB, Lewes to VB, 20 Jul. 1798. This was at the request of Admiral Duncan.   99 Jane Knight, ‘Nelson’s “Old Lady”: Merchant News as a Source of Intelligence (June to October 1796),’ Journal of Maritime Research (June 2005); Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 200. 100 Davey, ‘Within Hostile Shores.’


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

heavily on the transaction: the total cost of 734 cattle came to £8,851, aside from the contractor’s commission of 2½ per cent. Eventually the Victualling Board requested the Admiralty’s permission to pay the two merchants, while admitting that it was above the agreed price.101 For the Mediterranean station, much was purchased from Sardinia, Sicily and Cyprus.102 Gibraltar, with Minorca and Malta after their respective captures in 1798 and 1800 were the main victualling bases. North Africa was a useful source for the purchase of live cattle. One naval captain recalled bargaining in 1797 in Oran with the Bey for one thousand bullocks at £2 16s 0d each and two thousand sheep at 8s each for Gibraltar.103 Writing home to Evan Nepean from the Spanish Mediterranean coast in the same year, St.Vincent reported that ‘[We] get plenty of fish from Spanish fishing boats & Vaughan supplies us with cattle, better tasted Beef than we get from Tuscany and though not so large, fat enough … we deliver the vessel so quick and treat the Moors so humbly they prefer coming hither, to carrying the cattle to the Rock’.104 In 1807 Admiral John Child Purvis, serving under Collingwood, commanded the blockade of Cadiz, and obtained bullocks by subterfuge from Lisbon, ensuring the masters of transports ‘disguised the main purpose of their visit.’ He used similar secrecy and considerable diplomacy in obtaining cattle from Tangiers in armed transports; sometimes a frigate would bring three dozen to be distributed amongst the blockading squadron.105 Admiral and captains on foreign stations regularly had to combine political and business sense as well as subterfuge to feed their crews. In addition to the wits of senior naval officers, and the considerable commercial power and ready money at their disposal, a timely and reliable provisioning service from England was required. The Board and its contractors had to take account of constantly changing naval and military demand, which made the distribution of provisions a formidable task. A sailing warship had many mouths to feed and admirals and captains could never relax, and had to keep their operational reach within the capacity of the Victualling Board and contractors to feed them. It was a demanding effort for all concerned: nevertheless, merchants, agents and factors saw the government as a good customer in the difficult trading conditions of war. To meet the provisioning demands of this worldwide war the Victualling Board had the advantage of the strength of the different British markets. How the Board dealt with those markets is the subject of the next chapter.

101 NMM, ADM DP/21, VB to Admiralty, 20 Oct. 1801; Knight, Pursuit of Victory, pp. 395–396. Hides were to be returned to reduce further the price. 102 Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 63. 103 J.K. Laughton, ed., The Journal of Rear-Admiral Bartholomew James 1752–1828 (NRS, 6, 1896) pp. 363–364. 104 NMM, NEP/4, 11 Jun. 1797, off Rosa. 105 Iain Gordon, Admiral of the Blue: The Life and Times of Admiral John Child Purvis 1747– 1825 (Barnsley, 2005), pp. 132–134; for a similarly difficult situation see NMM, YOR/2, Rear Admiral Charles Boyles to the VB, 18 Feb. 1811.


4 The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

A trouble-free and timely supply to navy and army was paramount and this inflexible imperative was not an advantage when obtaining provisions at a low price in the various agricultural markets. The Victualling Board and its agents could take few market risks, such as delaying purchase in anticipation of price decreases: and none at all on the core commodities of wheat, beef and pork. It had the advantage of being one of the largest purchasers in the market, with strong credit, and it had some powerful and well-connected agents working for it, which, as we shall see, carried the navy through some critical periods. The Victualling Board had the most politically sensitive task of all government offices, for it had to intervene in the markets to procure very large amounts of food. Domestically the government had to ensure that there was enough for a population which, including Ireland, grew from 14.5 million in 1791, to 15.9 million in 1801 and 18.1 million in 1811, a 20 per cent increase over the war years. At the same time the Board had to keep the government of the day free of political embarrassment and it was required to operate within considerable political limitations and demanding deadlines. It purchased, packed and preserved meat and foodstuffs, then distributed them against a background of other state demands on processed food resources, including the army at home, the concentrations of volunteers and militia formed to resist invasion in southern England, particularly in 1803 and 1804, and the Transport Board’s task of feeding prisoners of war ‘in health’. Most prisoners were exchanged with the French and Spanish in the 1790s, but after the resumption of hostilities in 1803 almost no exchanges took place. Between 1803 and 1815, a total of 122,440 French, Danish and American prisoners arrived in the British Isles, of whom it is


Phyllis Deane and W.A. Cole, British Economic Growth, 1688–1959 (Cambridge, 1964), p. 8. For England, Scotland and Wales the figures were 9.7, 10.7 and 12.1 millions respectively.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

estimated that ten thousand died in hulks, depots and prisons. The highest prisoner population in any one year was 72,000. The pattern for the purchase of produce had been established at least a century before, but there had been developments. During the eighteenth century common land had been enclosed in a great swathe from Northumberland to Dorset, and an estimated two million acres had come under cultivation. Even so, according to the 1795 Report of the Committee of the Board of Agriculture, one-fifth of all the land in England and Wales, or 7,888,777 acres, was uncultivated, even though this figure included upland grazing in Wales. Some parts of the country remained undeveloped. Devon and Cornwall, in particular, an area of particular importance to naval victualling, had developed little. The Victualling Commissioners in the ­seventeenth century found that dealing with substantial London merchants ensured more reliable naval supplies. With primary produce scattered through the country and coming to market at different times of the year, the centralised purchase of provisions in London was developed by the Board, on the back of the capital’s considerable demand for foodstuffs. Cattle and pigs were driven to the market in the autumn for winter slaughter. Most butter and cheese production took place in the summer when milk was more abundant after the spring growth in the pastures. Beef came from the north-west and west of England, pigs from counties nearer London. Wheat was purchased from the south of the country, especially Norfolk and Suffolk. Butter and cheese came from Suffolk, and cheese from Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Wiltshire and Warwickshire. Movement of bulk products was largely dependent upon the coastal trade, which though subject to uncertainty, delay and accident, was a far cheaper and more efficient transportation system than the less navigable and the less well-situated rivers of France. In addition, in central England, the canal network was increasingly responsible for the movement of bulk products. It improved throughout the wars. ‘With enclosures, better turnpikes, and the new canals, grains and other foods were now regularly moving around the country on a far greater scale than ever before.’ The Grand Junction Canal, connecting the Midlands to London, was started in 1793 and was operational by 1805, and the Grand Union Canal by 1806. The relative

Clive L. Lloyd, A History of Napoleonic and American Prisoners of War, 1756–1816 (Woodbridge, Suffolk, 2007), pp. 97, 201; Paul Chamberlain, Hell upon Water: Prisoners of War in Britain, 1703–1815 (Stroud, Gloucestershire, 2008), p. 10, quoting Francis Abell, Prisoners of War in Britain, 1756–1815 (London, 1914), p. 10.   W.G. East, ‘England in the Eighteenth Century,’ in An Historical Geography of England Before 1800, ed. H.C. Darby(Cambridge, 1961), pp. 471–473.   John Ehrman, The Navy in the War of William III, 1689–1697 (Cambridge, 1953), pp. 145–147, Chapter 5.   Steven Laurence Kaplan, Provisioning Paris: Merchants and Millers in the Grain and Flour Trade during the Eighteenth century (Ithaca, NY and London, 1984), p. 84.   Adrian Randall, Riotous Assemblies: Popular Protest in Hanoverian England (Oxford, 2006), p. 234   Horn, Rural World, pp. 19, 37.  


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

cost of transporting a 280lb sack of flour from Reading to London by barge in 1796 was 6d compared to 4s 6d by road. Although the roads transported goods of small volume and high value, the fact that they had improved had some impact. ‘The mere possibility of conveying goods quickly in an emergency enabled tradesmen to keep smaller stocks and manufacturers to retain regular customers in distant places.’ Coastal trade was still the main means by which bulk goods and foodstuffs were transported. The bulk cargo coastal trade into London was long established, but both river and sea were used. King’s Lynn, for instance, was served by more inland navigation than any port, bar London, and grain brought there from inland would continue its journey by sea.10 Ireland supplied most of the butter used by the navy and livestock, as we have seen, was transported from there to the north of England in very considerable quantities. Throughout these wars there was a vital need for frigates, sloops and gunboats to convoy coasting vessels along the coast, to protect them against enemy privateers, more or less a constant threat in spite of British predominance at sea. Convoys were needed, too, for merchant ships bringing produce for the Board from overseas. Most at risk from privateers were those bringing tropical products from the West Indies. Rum, sugar and molasses shipped to London were the basis of the re-export trade so valuable to Britain, and which the Board put to naval use. Rice from the East Indies also came to be issued to warships. However, the greatest volume of imports needed by the Board was wheat from northern Europe, the supply of which gave the Board and merchants much anxiety in the war years. Market forces and price fluctuations Prices of produce were dictated by many factors, including the levels of supply affected by differing yields and quality of harvests and, on the other hand, by demand from a growing population. In the case of the foodstuffs required by the Victualling Board, price also depended upon the effectiveness of preservation (or ‘shelf-life’) of each of the commodities. Thus salt beef and pork, rum, salt, wine, cheese, even butter could keep reasonably. Wheat, however, was very price-sensitive, even though it could be stored for three years or so, as it would gradually lose its quality and therefore its value. When a downturn in natural fluctuations of supply coincided with war, prices could rise steeply, as they had done earlier in the century. One merchant importing Irish bacon from Ireland remembered in 1780 that


Randall, Riotous Assemblies, p.80, quoting C. Petersen, Bread and the British Economy, c1700–1870 (London, 1995), p. 150. Barker and Gerhold, Road Transport, p. 33. Horn, Rural World, p. 19; see also T.S. Willan, The English Coasting Trade, 1600–1700 (Manchester, 1938) p. 206 for the 4,131 cargoes for London in 1683, of which a substantial proportion were of wheat and other crops from ports in south-east England.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 Our bacon-trade suddenly vanished as the morning dew – in consequence of war being declared against Spain, by our government, it made some Very large provision-contracts in Ireland … this caused such a great advance in price, that we could not obtain a single flitch at a price sufficiently low, to enable us to obtain any profit.11

A list of victualling prices paid at Deptford exists in Lord Spencer’s papers, comparing prices during 1781 and 1782, at the end of the American war, with 1793 and 1796 the early years of the French Revolutionary War. There was a decline in prices between the last two years of the American war, but an increased price in 1793 over both those years, except for West Indian products.12 By 1796, a year of peak prices, there are increases of between 20 per cent and 50 per cent over 1781. However, in spite of price volatility, the wars were a prosperous time for agriculture. Agricultural incomes have been estimated to have increased between 1 per cent and 2 per cent a year between 1790 and 1815.13 Farmers reacted to increased grain and meat prices by increasing yields of both, using turnip or ‘convertible’ husbandry.14 In the opinion of one agricultural historian, ‘Such price levels tempted farmers to play the wheat market as they had never done before.’15 Prosperity, however, was not the case at the wholesale or retail stage in the provisions trade. The 1790s were exceptionally insecure for business in this sector, measured by the very high number of 280 bankruptcies suffered by private victuallers, who provided for the crews of merchant ships. For businesses closely allied to overseas trade there was a ‘natural insecurity,’ but the number of bankruptcies were of quite a different order than in the wars earlier in the century. Julian Hoppit’s judgement is tentative: ‘It is possible that war and very expensive provisions once again created a speculative movement that was, in the end, only partly warranted.’16 Between 1793 and 1815 there were short periods of high inflation, with sharper rises than any wartime year in the previous fifty years. Rises of 11.6 per cent in 1795 and 6.4 per cent in 1796 were followed by a fall of 10 per cent in 1797. This was nothing compared to 1800, when inflation was at 36 per cent, mirrored by price deflation


12 13 14 15 16

Julian Hoppit, Risk and Failure in English Business, 1700–1800 (Cambridge, 1987), p. 95, quoting London Friends Meeting House Library, James Jenkins Recollections, 1761–1821, MS. fo. 185. Hoppit also notes the coincidence of bad harvests and the mobilisation of 1726–27 against Spain as another peak in victualler bankruptcies. BL, Add. Mss. 75813, ‘An Account shewing the medium prices paid for Provisions and Victualling Stores in the following years … 1781, 1782, 1793 and 1796.’ O’Brien, ‘Triumph and Denouement,’ p. 197, although O’Brien estimates a proportionally greater tax burden on agriculture rather than on commerce and industry. Glenn Hueckel, ‘Relative Prices and Supply Response in English Agriculture during the Napoleonic Wars,’ Economic History Review, series 2, 29 (1976), pp. 413–414. Stuart Macdonald, ‘Agricultural Response to a Changing Market during the Napoleonic Wars,’ Economic History Review, series 2, 33 (1980), p. 64. Hoppit, Risk and Failure, pp. 94–95.


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

of 23 per cent at the time of the Peace of Amiens in 1802 and 5.9 per cent the following year. The next year of double-figure inflation was 1805 (16.2 per cent), after which there was comparative stability until the three years between 1812 and 1814. The first of these years saw a rise of 13.2 per cent, followed in the next year by deflation of 12.7 per cent, and in 1815 by further deflation of 10.7 per cent.17 Markets, too, were changing. The old systems where prices were regulated by local officials were breaking down and market forces increasingly took hold. In 1772 the acts against forestalling and regrating were repealed, leading to popular distrust of those at every stage of the food trade – landlord, farmer, merchant, importer, drover, butcher or brewer.18 Parliament had the power to reduce import duties on wheat, a fine political judgement which affected the price of the wheat grown by the landed interest, which made up the bulk of the independent MPs in Parliament, and government interference in a free market was much debated there.19 Few in Parliament wanted interference in the market, and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations had become a central text for politicians in general and Whigs in particular. The Duke of Portland, Home Secretary from 1794, was a strict adherent to the idea of unregulated trade, while Pitt himself declared in Parliament that ‘trade, industry and barter would … be impeded by regulations which violated their natural operation, and deranged their proper effect.’20 In the summer of 1797 Henry Dundas, Secretary of State for War, speaking against what he called ‘injudicious, though well-meant regulations’ put forward in Parliament by George Tierney ‘to prevent the forestalling and regrating of cattle,’ stated the free market ideology succinctly: A free trade would find its own level, and always ensure a proper supply. A foreigner had expressed surprise how without any regulations the market of London could be supplied with provisions, and he was answered by an intelligent person, that it was because there was no regulation that the supply was so good.21

This ideology was far from being popular. One pamphleteer of 1795 noted of the forestalling and regrating repeal: ‘the charming consequence of that repeal has been, a progressive advance in the price of butter ever since.’22 This view was supported by many and there was a long battle between parts of the judiciary and the government in the courts, coming to a climax in 1800 with two cases concerning 17 18 19 20 21 22

Graeme Allen, Inflation: The Value of the Pound 1750–2002, House of Commons Library Research Paper 03/82 (2003). Only a single year, 1757, with 21.8 per cent inflation, was in any way comparable. ‘Forestalling’ was the practice of buying grain before it reached the market. ‘Regrating’ was buying up commodities to sell them for a profit at the same or a neighbouring market. For the French system of market regulation see Kaplan, Provisioning Paris, pp. 25–40. John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt: the Reluctant Transition (London, 1983), II, pp. 445–447. Ehrman, Pitt, II, 446–7, quoting from a speech of February 1796. Parliamentary Register, Commons, 1797, 3rd Series, vol. 2, Thursday 29 Jun. 1797. Anon, The Crying Frauds of the London Markets proving their deadly influence upon the two Great Pillars of Life Bread & Porter (London, 1795). See Randall, Riotous Assemblies, pp. 232–238.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

forestalling and regrating of hops and grain, one from a merchant in the London corn market in Mark Lane. Lord Chief Justice Kenyon presided, and was a firm believer in traditional ‘moral economy,’ not in market forces. As one commentator has put it, ‘technical law did not figure greatly in these trials … It was really Adam Smith who was on trial.’23 The two judgements against the merchants were widely welcomed, and popular disturbances followed. In September 1800, unrest increased and frightened the propertied classes, especially in London, and support for Kenyon’s stand diminished. Kenyon died in 1801 and was succeeded by Lord Ellenborough, a great supporter of the modern political economy, and incidentally, George Phillips Towry’s son-in-law. Market forces were to become dominant over the old ‘moral economy’.24 Though markets were also becoming more integrated, English agriculture had strong regional differences, and supply and prices showed consistent differences, with London predominating over the regions. Under normal conditions, supplies peaked in the autumn, when farmers emptied their barns for the new harvest, but wealthy farmers and the merchants stored considerable stocks for selling in the spring and summer. Regular and frequent publication of prices in the London Gazette or The Course of the Exchange demonstrate the variety. Wheat prices, for instance, were always higher in Devon and Cornwall than the average national price because less was grown there, and mostly it had to be brought by ship from counties further east.25 Cornwall, however, exported oats back to Hampshire and beyond. Military and naval demand could also distort prices. One instance of military activity affecting the price of cereals is demonstrated by the price of oats at Canterbury market, which was consistently above the national average throughout the wars, and the frequency of military movement in that part of the country contributed to it. That at least was the opinion of the Post Office Surveyor for the region, another government service whose contractors were heavily dependent upon a plentiful supply of oats. In September 1804 he endorsed claims for increased allowances for his contractors by declaring that ‘the Price of Horse Provender in Kent and Sussex are very greatly advanced by the consumption of the great number of cavalry there’.26 The Victualling Board kept a very close eye on the activities of the corn market at Mark Lane and the meat market at Smithfield. When the prices of some commodities rose too high, the Board would either substitute other foodstuffs, or order their agents to issue smaller amounts. At the resumption of war after the Peace of Amiens, the Victualling Board was convinced that Irish butter merchants were combining to keep prices high. It did not buy, instead ordering 23 24 25 26

Randall, Riotous Assemblies, p. 236, quoting Douglas Hay, ‘Moral Economy, Political Economy and Law,’ Moral Economy and Popular Protest: Conflict, Crowds and Authority, ed. A.J. Randall and A. Charlesworth (London, 2000), pp. 107, 108. Randall, Riotous Assemblies, Chapter 9, ‘The Repudiation of the Moral Economy.’ See Appendices 6a and 6b. Brian Austen, English Provincial Posts 1633–1840: A Study Based on Kent Examples (London and Chichester, 1978).


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

the substitution of rice, cocoa and sugar for the butter ration, and the price of butter paid by the Board fell from 85s per hundredweight in 1802 to 77s 6d in 1803, just at the time when prices might be expected to rise at a mobilisation. The Board turned away from purchasing butter when there was a scarcity in 1807, 1811 and 1812, issuing other provisions instead.27 The wheat shortages of 1795–96 The supply and price of wheat was of central importance to government, quite apart from the need to ensure sufficiency for the prosecution of the war. Wheat yields, of course, were particularly affected by adverse weather. A further complication arose from 1792 when the country became dependent upon wheat imports, and such an all-embracing war, with the weapon of blockade eventually pursued by both sides, had an impact on supply and prices.28 Price distortions of wheat created by considerable fluctuations of variable harvests were overlaid by naval and military demand. Several governments suffered much anxiety over shortages of wheat. Harvest and war conditions in 1795–96, 1800–01 and 1810 led to sharp price rises in all foodstuffs, in spite of very large imports, and thence to domestic riot and unrest. Roger Wells notes that the capital was supplied from the whole of the southern and eastern milling trade. ‘London’s demand for best English wheat dominated the trade, and pervaded most markets.’29 A very powerful influence on the wholesale corn trade was the market in Mark Lane in the City, founded in 1760 by fifty of the most powerful cereal merchants of the time. By 1800 the shares in this market were held by only fourteen men, and the seventy-two trading stalls were owned by only fifty-eight individuals or partnerships. A handful of these merchants who imported wheat were men with very large capital resources. The market rules allowed those who owned stalls to deal before the start of trading for the day, a practice which encouraged speculation and allowed this monopolistic organisation an over-­powerful role in setting the price of wheat. Moreover, imported wheat was considered inferior, and was always sold at a lower price, though at a consistent percentage of the English wheat price, which, according to Wells, was not set by the total volume available, but by prices obtaining for best English wheat.30

27 28

29 30

Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 53, Appendix 2, p.176; Parliamentary Reports, Naval and Victualling Contracts, p. 9; Wellcome 6816/436, VB to Samuel Lewes, 9 May 1807; 6816, 500, 35 Nov. 1811; 6816/525, 3 Jun. 1812. 1791 was the last year in which Britain could feed itself without imports. See John Ehrman, The Younger Pitt: The Consuming Struggle, vol. III, p. 280. See also Freeman Galpin, The Grain Supply of England during the Napoleonic Period, pp. 13–14; Roger Wells, Wretched Faces: Famine in Wartime England 1793–1801 (Gloucester, 1988), p. 35. Wells, Wretched Faces, pp. 24–25. Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 26.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Poor harvests in 1792 and 1794 were followed by one of the coldest winters recorded. The highest price paid by the Victualling Board for a quarter of wheat in 1794 was £2 19s 8d: the following year the highest price was £5 6s 1d. A sack of flour which cost 44s in 1794 cost 83s in 1795, nearly double, and shortages were ­widespread.31 Broadsides were published attacking the baleful influence of the markets.32 At Bath a poster announced, ‘Peace and Large Bread or a King without a Head.’33 Rioting was general and widespread, from Lancashire to the Forest of Dean, from Cornwall to East Anglia. In Birmingham a new steam flour mill was invaded by rioters, two of whom were shot dead by the militia. Disturbances continued through the summer and into the autumn. Civil disorder in 1795 and 1796 was far more serious than that of 1801, even though the price rises were far less marked. Nevertheless, the 1800 riots occurred in London, centred on Mark Lane, which frightened those in power who remembered the violence and devastation of the Gordon Riots of 1780.34 The connection between dearth and military efficiency was emphasised in 1795 when militia men participated in sixteen food riots. The Oxford Militia, stationed in Seaford on the Sussex coast because of the invasion scare, and responsible for order in the country, themselves plundered meat from the populace: the authorities moved quickly and five militia men were hanged.35 The government was shaken. It ordered Claude Scott to sell five thousand quarters of the barley and rye which he had purchased in Quebec on its behalf each week in October to attempt to bring down the price of British wheat.36 Anxious letters passed between Portland and Pitt in late 1795, the former even suggesting that the only way to cut consumption of bread was to get ‘the solemn engagement’ of a hundred thousand families ‘to reduce their consumption to the proportion of one quarter loaf per Head per week.’ The next week he wrote more cheerfully, though he noted that the government ought to stop distilling, and he placed a good deal of reliance on the cheapness of potatoes.37 Distillation of spirits was regularly prohibited by Parliament, and to cut consumption schemes were initiated to find a substitute for wheat to make an acceptable loaf, such as mixing wheat with potato flour.

31 32 33 34 35 36 37

Ehrman, Pitt, vol. II, p. 443; BPP 1823 XII, Naval and Victualling Contracts. Anon, The Crying Frauds of the London Markets. Quoted in Galpin, Grain Supply, p. 19, from TNA, HO/42 correspondence to Portland, 16 Mar. 1800. Randall, Riotous Assemblies, pp. 210–220; John Bohstedt, Riots and Community Politics in England and Wales, 1790–1810 (Cambridge, MA, 1983), pp. 15–17. I.F.W. Beckett, The Amateur Military Tradition (Manchester, 1991), p. 72. Annual Register, 1795. TNA, PRO 30/8/110, fos. 283–4, 18 Nov.; 22 Nov. 1795. Though these measures were ineffectual, some took them up. In Great Yarmouth a vestry meeting ‘unanimously resolved and agreed … a reduction in the consumption of flour in our respective families … until the average price of wheat be reduced to under eight shillings per Winchester Bushel’ (C.J. Palmer, The History of Great Yarmouth … (Great Yarmouth and London, 1856), p. 276 fn.


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

The semi-official Board of Agriculture undertook systematic experiments, mixing wheat with beans, barley, rice, potatoes and buckwheat, and published an account of them with recipes.38 Newspapers printed recipes and helpful tips, and it seems likely that potato consumption increased in the south of England.39 Even George Phillips Towry proposed privately to Lord Spencer to issue half a pound of potatoes a day instead of bisket at each of the victualling ports for two months, though he did so not on account of shortage but because of price. He wanted the First Lord to gather favourable military opinion for the idea, and ‘then referred to the several boards . Only let my Name be kept a Secret, as having been the original mover’.40 None of these measures had any discernible effect on prices. On top of this difficult situation, the government, with Henry Dundas leading the charge, determined to send out very large amphibious expeditions to the West Indies in three successive years 1794 to 1796. At this time the entire Caribbean force was estimated at forty thousand troops. Bringing this force together created a sustained and concentrated demand for provisions, particularly in the areas around the embarkation ports. The Treasury’s requirement in August 1795 was two hundred tons of salted beef, 878 tons of pork, 1450 tons of flour, 652 tons of pease and sixtyfive tons of butter.41 The Victualling Board then attempted to purchase provisions from neutral ships from the cargoes condemned by the prize courts, but the inadequate quality of the beef and wheat prevented their use aboard naval ships and the cargoes were resold.42 More was needed. Pitt as First Lord of the Treasury commissioned Claude Scott in 1795 to buy wheat abroad on behalf of the government, some from America and Canada for the population, but in addition fifty thousand quarters from Poland for the Victualling Board, contracted for in January 1796, to be delivered to London, Portsmouth and Plymouth.43 Although Scott’s purchase from northern Europe achieved its purpose, and the expeditions got away to the West Indies, large-scale government purchase at the markets ended in recrimination between government and the merchant community.44 Historians in the tradition of E.P. Thompson are instinctively hostile to the

38 Account of the Experiments tried by the Board of Agriculture … (London, 1795), pp. 1–28. 39 Horn, Rural World, p. 40. 40 BL, Add. Mss. 75785, Althorp Collection, Towry to Spencer, 4 Nov. 1795; also Add. Mss. 75851, n.d. 41 TNA, ADM 109/102, 22 Aug. 1795. This total has been calculated from several lists of figures in these records, with advice from Janet Macdonald. 42 TNA, PRO 30/8/247, Chatham Papers, ‘Accounts of bills paid for cargoes of neutral ships.’ 43 See Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, p. 26. Eventually Claude Scott was appointed sole agent for selling neutral cargoes of foodstuffs. See BPP, 1805 (134), Orders of the Treasury to Scott for sale of Corn and Flour for neutral vessels, p. 2. 44 BL, Add. Mss. 75789, Althorp papers, George Cherry, Chairman of the Victualling Board, to Lord Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1 Jan. 1796, who reported his conversations with Scott; also Wells, Wretched Faces, pp. 37, 184–195. For the delay of the Abercromby and Grey expedition see Duffy, Soldiers, Sugar and Seapower, pp. 169–194.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

end of the old notions of fairness and the ‘moral economy’.45 Adrian Randall sees Scott’s government purchase as an immediate indication of the weakness of the market economy: ‘Faced with the realities of near-famine, Pitt and his government were forced to recognize that free market solutions were no solutions at all … the political reality of the consequences of a starving and militant populace impelled government action.’46 Direct government intervention in the market was necessary in the 1790s, yet greater efficiencies and reduced costs which were generated from more integrated agricultural markets served Britain well in their naval and military effort. At the same time, the government was lucky. Popular opinion generally felt that speculators were responsible for high prices, and did not blame the demands of war. In his journal the young George Canning noted a report of one of the great meetings in St George’s Fields in June 1795 ‘upon the subject of a petition for Parliamentary Reform, change of ministry etc. Very little mention among them of the scarcity, which after all is the most dangerous and most deplorable evil under which we labour at present, and may, if not timely provided against, produce very calamitous consequences.’47 While the political and social dangers of the food shortages loomed large in the minds of politicians, they were lucky that the crowd concentrated on other issues, and blamed decisions of government and the avarice of speculators rather than the war for the ills of their time. The price rises of 1800–01 The year 1797 saw a dramatic reversal of fortunes for the wheat market. Aided by farmers planting many more acres of wheat to take advantage of high prices, the harvests of 1796–98 were the only ones in the decade which were in any way reasonable.48 With the end of the West Indies expeditions and none further planned, the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore and the Bank of England’s financial straits, the price of wheat almost halved from the previous year. A sack of flour which in 1796 fetched 82s could only raise 46s 6d the following year, falling back to the level of 1794.49 The next wheat crisis was in 1800 and 1801, following bad harvests. It occured again at a time when two large amphibious expeditions were mobilised in the first part of 1801: Admiral Lord Keith and General Sir Ralph Abercromby’s expedition to Egypt, and Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s to Copenhagen, the latter to open up the Baltic closed by hostile Danish action, thus interrupting regular supplies of north-

45 46 47 48 49

E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (London, 1991), pp. 68–73. Randall, Riotous Assembles, p. 238. Peter Jupp, ed., The Letter-Journal of George Canning, 1793–1795 (Royal Historical Society, Camden Fourth Series, vol. 41, London, 1991), entry for 29 June 1795, p. 283. Ehrman, Pitt, vol. II, p. 443. BPP 1823 XII, Naval and Victualling Contracts.


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

ern European wheat. Claude Scott imported an immense amount independently.50 Merchants imported well over 300,000 tons of wheat, and the total, with all other grains, including peas, was double that quantity. It was said that in May 1800 there were three hundred corn ships in the Thames, and some seven hundred in January 1801. During 1801 even more was imported, including 93,000 tons from the United States.51 The total imported into London, Bristol, Liverpool and Hull came in 2,724 ships, transporting cargoes totalling 308,453 tons. The Victualling Board alone imported 12,820 tons of wheat in 1800–01.52 Pitt’s government instituted a system of bounties to indemnify merchants who imported wheat, though they were not very effective.53 A Mark Lane merchant wrote to Pitt three years later claiming that the bounties were abused and that grain was hoarded. ‘As I know many large quantities of wheat were in Granary for years afterwards,’ thus negating the good intentions of government.54 The government was still rattled. In October 1800 Lord Liverpool painted a nightmare scenario in a letter to Henry Dundas: There will be insurrections of a very serious nature, and that different Bodies of Yeomanry may possibly fight each other … those of the cities and great manufacturing Towns, who are averse to the Farmers will fight those of the Country, who will be disposed to defend them.55

In early 1801 Parliament prohibited the making of bread from fine wheat for six weeks. Some followed the measures. Elizabeth, Lady Holland noted in her journal: ‘Bread is 17 pence the quartern loaf … meat dearer than usual. During this scarcity, be it natural or artificial, we adopt the regulations of the H. of Lords; each person in the family is limited to a quartern loaf per week, no pastry, no fine bread for breakfast.’56 There was still no discernible effect on prices.57 Disturbances reached the naval ports. In Portsmouth in the summer of 1800 flour was not to be had by the populace. On 7 June the Mayor wrote to the Home Secretary, the Duke of Portland, ‘Hitherto I have been able to prevent any disturbance. But I cannot answer for the Peace of the Town in such an event.’58 The Mayor enclosed a letter from a committee of Portsmouth bakers, who also happened to be 50 51 52 53 54 55 56 57 58

Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 26. W. Freeman Galpin, ‘American Grain Trade to the Spanish Peninsula 1810–1814,’ American Historical Review XXVIII (1922–23), p. 24 Huntington STG 148 (24), John Marsh to Thomas Grenville, 9 Dec. 1806; note not in Marsh’s hand. The amount stated as 51,425 quarters. Galpin, Grain Supply of England p. 14; Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 196. TNA, PRO 30/8/131 fos. 88–89, Christopher Dunkin to Pitt, 3 Nov. 1804. Quoted in Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 1, from BL, Add. Mss. 38311, 166–169, Liverpool to Dundas, 11 Oct. 1800. Earl of Ilchester, The Journal of Elizabeth Lady Holland (1791–1811) (London, 1908) II, p. 59. Ehrman, Pitt, III, pp. 280–286; TNA, ADM 111/158, VB minutes, 7 Jan. 1801. TNA, ADM 109/104, VB correspondence with Treasury, William Goldson to Portland, 7 Jun. 1800, copy.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

naval contractors, which reported that there was no flour for more than a few days; but the bakers reported that the Victualling Office in Portsmouth had some eight thousand sacks in stock: ‘at this Depot near one thousand bags of Flour are now consumed every week by them in Biscuit baking alone.’ They pointed out that their contracts obliged them to use British wheats only, which were therefore not available to the public: Government has here immediate supplies of wheat flour and Bisket in hand. Their storehouses are all full: and we are assured overflowing with a stock more than sufficient for six months to come at least, to answer ordinary supplies of our Navy and Army … At this time of year … Government have in general stopped their bisket baking for three or four months, but no such orders notwithstanding our alarming scarcity have yet been issued.

The bakers demanded the ‘immediate cessation of Bisket baking at this port’ and no further government purchasing of wheat. A Justice of the Peace in Gosport pleaded with the Home Secretary to make ‘the King’s wheat’ available to the populace, and reported the beginnings of unrest: ‘The moment Bread was out of the Oven the Bakers were compelled to let the Inhabitants have it, or recourse would have been had to have forced it from them.’59 The Treasury brought pressure to bear on the Victualling Board to stop the manufacture of bisket in Portsmouth, but while baking continued at government bakeries, it agreed not to take any more bisket from the local contractors for two or three months to free up supplies for the local populace. This was not an inconsiderable amount, for in 1799, the previous year, 113 contracts delivered over three thousand tons of bisket to the Victualling Office at Portsmouth.60 Now the Board rescinded the local contracts and issued flour from the stores to the bakers instead to produce bread for the inhabitants of the town; the Agent Victualler was ordered to furnish meal from stocks ‘in his care, and as may be spared; and as may be required for immediate relief.’61 A similar but less urgent request came from Plymouth three weeks later, when Portland’s correspondent reported: ‘That in the vicinity of Plymouth in times of the greatest plenty, not one half of the quantity necessary for its consumption is grown, and that the deficiency usually supplied from Sussex and Hants has, from the state of those Counties, being long cut off.’62 Plymouth victualling yard also allowed government wheat to be issued for the distribution of bread to the populace, but this did not prevent concentrated rioting in the town of Plymouth Dock nine months later. On 30 and 31 March 1801 the crowd began to seize bread and meat, and went for the bakers’ shops, where they ‘obtained their bread at half price, broke their windows 59

TNA, ADM 109/104, ‘Committee of Bakers’ to the Mayor, 7 Jun. 1800; John Carter to Portland, 10 Jun. 1800, copy. 60 Knight, ‘Politics and Trust’, p. 137 61 TNA, ADM 111/155, VB minutes, 12 Jun. 1800. 62 TNA, ADM 109/104, Lieut-Colonel Elford to Portland, 25 Jun. 1800.


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

and became extremely riotous.’ The streets were only cleared by the dragoons, and not without rumours, which proved false, that one of the rioters had been killed.63 The price of wheat in Devon fell sharply after the riots. The Victualling Board got through this crisis successfully. On 26 November 1800 it attempted to bring down the price by importing flour from Cork, where it was considerably cheaper, and the Agent Victualler, John Dunsterville was ordered to find out prices and amounts that could be supplied. Eight thousand tierces of flour were ordered from him but this was countermanded six weeks later by the Treasury, possibly because of current political sensitivities: the Act of Union came into effect on 1 January 1801.64 The Board could redistribute its wheat and bisket reserves to the other yards from Deptford: on 20 December 1800, for instance, as was usual, it ordered the Deptford victualling yard to send 20,000 lbs of flour to Chatham and 10,000 to Dover. These movements were not speedy enough to affect fast-moving prices, though they could use the threat to warn local contractors not to overprice wheat or flour. On 26 January 1801, as wheat and bisket prices climbed higher, the Board told the Agent Victualler at Portsmouth that the price of bisket there was at ‘so exorbitant a price,’ it gave him a warning for the Portsmouth contractors: ‘we shall take measures for sending supplies from other Ports where we are amply provided.’65 The Board’s credit and purchasing power, together with the contacts and knowledge of its leading buyer of grain, Edward Knight, ensured that the there was plenty of wheat in reserve, even though ‘from the great difficulty of procuring supplies of wheat’ in England, Knight asked the Board’s permission to go beyond his contract to purchase wheat abroad.66 At the end of December 1800, the Board threw its usual caution to the winds when it decided to get as much wheat into its warehouses as possible since it could afford to take no risks. The minutes record: Write to the Agents at Portsmouth, Plymouth and Dover, and direct them to receive such further quantities of wheat from Mr. Knight, in addition to what they have on hand, or been directed to receive from him, as their several stores may be capable of containing.67

On 13 January 1801, 10,000 hundredweight bags (or five hundred tons) were ordered to be transported to Plymouth. By the end of March the Board felt that it was in a strong enough position to turn down the current Portsmouth price, informing the Agent Victualler that they could buy bisket ‘to the westward and Northward on terms considerably cheaper than the price he has lately paid, and is now asked, we do not think it is proper to enter into further contracts at present for that arti-

63 64 65 66 67

Bohstedt, Riots and Community, pp. 56–58. TNA, ADM 111/157, VB minutes, 26 Nov., 16 De.c 1800; 111/158, 5 Jan. 1801. TNA, ADM 111/157, VB minutes, 20 Dec. 1800; 111/158, 13, 26 Jan. 1801. TNA, ADM 111/157, VB minutes, 6 Oct. 1800. TNA, ADM 111/157, VB minutes, 30 Dec. 1800.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

cle at Portsmouth.’68 With peace and better harvests in 1802 prices fell sharply, and imported grain fell to 122,242 tons transported in only 1,122 ships, and the amount halved again in 1803.69 In spite of such a heavy level of imports, the price rises of all agricultural products in 1800 and 1801 were extraordinary.70 Economic historians are still puzzled as to the reasons for the exceptionally high price of wheat in these two years. The French harvest was sufficient, so it appears there was no competition in international markets to drive prices upwards.71 It is clear that there was plenty of grain in the London granaries, though there was the usual ‘absolute shortages’ in the south-west of England.72 While the underlying cause was poor British harvests, an important driver of speculative fears was the diplomatic and naval hostility of the Baltic powers which threatened the closure of the Baltic in the spring of 1801, when the ice cleared. In the autumn of 1800 Russia militarised the League of Armed Neutrality, and seized merchant ships in St Petersburg. Only the assassination of the anti-British Tsar and the successful forcing of the Baltic by Sir Hyde Parker’s fleet on 2 April 1801 relieved the pressure and wheat prices started to fall.73 Lord Liverpool, President of the Board of Trade in Addington’s government, who had much to do with corn factors in 1801, reckoned that a handful of powerful merchants in the Corn Exchange in Mark Lane had maintained the price.74 The close correlation of price to wartime political and military developments is a powerful indication of the war’s influence on wheat prices, especially from localised and concentrated demand by the navy and the army. The demands of war caused both geographical and a time distortion, particularly when large fleets were gathering. Their requirement for three, four or five months’ consumption was compressed into the hectic weeks when ships and armies had to get away.75 When they had left, local prices, at least, drifted down. No problem seemed more intractable to Pitt than the food crisis of 1801. In October he wrote to Addington that the ‘growing dangers of the scarcity’ were ‘more formidable’ even than ‘the question of peace or war’. In the same month Thomas Grenville wrote to his brother, Lord Grenville, the Foreign Secretary, that ‘the scarcity of bread and the consequent distress of the poor, if it continues, will I believe, force you whether you will or no make your peace with France.’76

68 69 70 71 72 73 74 75 76

TNA, ADM 111/158, VB minutes, 26 Mar. 1801. DRO, 152M/c1802/ON13, William Irving, Inspector General of Customs, to Addington, 17 Dec. 1802; Galpin, Grain Supply, p. 256; Ehrman, Pitt, II, 464–7; III, p. 281. See Appendix 6b. Wells, Wretched Faces, pp. 196–197. Wells, Wretched Faces, pp. 52, 196. Ole Feldbaeck, The Battle of Copenhagen 1801 (Copenhagen, 1985, translation Barnsley, 2002), pp. 32–50. Wells, Wretched Faces, pp. 196–197. See Appendix 6b. Galpin, Grain Supply, pp. 13–14; Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 35.


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

Ireland As in England, the war years signalled prosperous times for Irish agriculture. Over the twenty years Irish prices nearly doubled, reaching a peak in 1811 to 1812, and the pattern of dearth and higher prices reflected those of England. Irish provision prices, though, were keen compared to those in London and the Victualling Board used the Irish market as much as it could. However, the steep price increases of 1801 were particularly high. Kennedy and Solar put them in stark perspective: ‘The price peak in 1800–1 is greater, both in absolute terms and with respect to surrounding years, than the Famine peak in 1846–7’.77 Dublin’s urban poor were hit hard. One civil servant reported to Castlereagh in March 1801: ‘There is real distress here; more, I believe, from price than actual scarcity. The soup shops and the House of Industry do much in Dublin, but the streets are crowded with beggars, and there is infinite distress in the parishes.’78 It was not, however, Dublin which was the focus of Victualling Board attention, but rather the south of the country. The advantages of Cork harbour as a safe anchorage to gather convoys, especially to the West Indies, gave that port a pre-eminence from the mid-eighteenth century based upon the Atlantic provisions trade in war and peace, as well as trade to England. Ireland’s greatest period of expansion of this trade was between 1750 and 1775 when total exports of salted beef, pork and butter approximately doubled.79 During the American war the Cork provision merchants had been very powerful, driving a profitable market which led to speculation: at the end of the war in 1783 the cessation of government demand had led to the collapse of a bank in Cork.80 Its share of government business was perhaps slipping a little by the end of the century, and the provisions trade was no longer as expansive as it had been at the time of the Seven Years War. Pig-meat exports were increasing while salt beef was decreasing, and a long-term shift from Caribbean and European markets towards England and Scotland was to continue through the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.81 According to David Dickson, naval and military ­ contracting Liam Kennedy and Peter M. Solar, Irish Agriculture: A Price History from the Mid-eighteenth Century to the Eve of the First World War (Royal Irish Academy, Dublin, 2007), p. 95. 78 Charles Vane, Memoirs and Correspondence of Viscount Castlereagh (London, 1850) IV, pp. 78–79, Edward Cooke to Castlereagh, 7 Mar. 1801. 79 Thomas M. Truxes, ‘London’s Irish Merchant Community and North Atlantic Commerce in the Mid-Eighteenth Century,’ in Irish and Scottish Mercantile Networks in Europe and Overseas in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries, eds. David Dickson, Jan Parmentier and Jane Ohlmeyer (Ghent, 2007), p. 272. 80 During the American War, John Marsh was the Inspector of Provisions for the Army in Cork, before joining the Victualling Board in October 1798, and being made Chairman in November 1803, retiring in December 1808 (Baker, Government and Contractors, pp. 96– 100, 105; Knight, ‘Politics and Trust, pp. 143–145). 81 David Dickson, Old World Colony: Cork and South Munster, 1630–1830 (Cork, 2005), pp. 368–373. Dickson notes that unrecorded naval and military exports of provisions sold to the government may have distorted the figures.



Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

came to dominate the market by the end of the French wars, ‘until it briefly eclipsed all other export sectors.’82 No government victualling establishment existed in Cork, in spite of the purchase of a very large volume of naval and army victualling. Provisions contracts were made by the Board in London, but flour and bisket was still contracted for by the Victualling Board’s Agent Victualler there, John Dunsterville.83 Processed wheat provisions for military consumption became concentrated at Cork, to the point that in David Dickson’s judgement: ‘Official military demand for bread, biscuit and flour became the single most important determinant of the market.’84 This trade in turn became dominated by one contractor, Daniel Callaghan, who bought up all the flour mills and other stores, as well as building others until he had as many as ‘35 to 40’ ovens in and around Cork. He also went further afield to find journeymen bakers. Towards the end of the wars he had cornered the supply of bisket at Cork to both army and navy.85 Not surprisingly, this monopoly attracted critics, one of whom was Thomas Hudson Codd of Midleton, Co. Cork, who wrote a series of letters in 1805 and 1807 to two First Lords of the Admiralty, Lord Howick and Thomas Grenville. Codd’s motive in writing the letters was palpably self-serving, and he may well have been a former contractor upon whom the Board no longer looked with favour. He canvassed the First Lords for a government victualling establishment in Cork which he claimed would contract for supplies at a lower price and ensure tighter quality control, citing plenty of examples of contractors getting the better of government. Codd claimed that he ‘shou’d establish an ample Victualling Dept, for half what you overpay every year for the provisions.’86A new state establishment, as he proposed, would, of course, employ Codd himself. Yet in spite of this partiality, his letters are too detailed and knowledgeable on prices, short measure and second-quality meat to be ignored.87 He accused the Agent Victualler of unfair tendering in bisket baking. Thus when Dunsterville advertised for tenders in the Cork Examiner on 15 January 1807 for the immediate delivery of one hundred tons of bisket, Codd argued with justification that it was: ‘to shut out Proposals, that his friend Mr. Calla[g]han may have his contract; for he knows that no Miller or Baker in this District has ten tuns much less a hundred of such bisket’.88 Codd was particularly critical of Dunsterville (‘the most destructive as well as stupid agent could not have been pitched upon’) and the powerlessness of the Victualling Board which ‘displayed their Ignorance to

82 83 84 85 86 87 88

Dickson, Old World Colony, p. 366. Dickson, Old World Colony, p. 369. Dickson, Old World Colony, p. 383. Dickson, Old World Colony, pp. 383–384. HL, STG 138 (62) Thomas Hudson Codd to Thomas Grenville, 20 Dec. 1806. HL, STG 138 (60) (61) (65) Codd to Grenville, 19 Nov., 1 Dec. 1806, 10 Jan. 1807. HL, STG 138 (68), Codd to Grenville 20 Jan. 1807.


The Market for Provisions at Home and Abroad

this country in sending a low, ignorant Clerk here several years ago to the great loss and Injury of the Service.’89 Codd claimed that he had already given information to government which had ‘laid open a Wicked and Injurious practice of fraud on the whole British Navy, by those men, or those Mercantile Houses, whom the Navy Victualling Board had very unwisely resorted to, to procure them Irish Salt Provisions, when they should carefully and diligently procur’d it by the means of Government Establishments for that purpose in this Country.’90 The Irish salt beef trade had a well-established scale of grading and price, with ‘planter’s beef ’ selling at a premium, followed by ‘India beef,’ and some way below that was ‘Navy beef ’.91 Codd claimed that his information had already prevented wholesale substitution of inferior cow beef for high quality ox beef: he also asserted that the specified naval 4lb size of pieces of pork encouraged fraud, that false scales were used and that second-quality flour was used in government contracts. Codd’s remedy for these abuses was for the Agent Victualler to be replaced by an official government victualling establishment at Cork, a theme which he returns to again and again in his letters. ‘Why shou’d Dunsterville or any Man in office make it subservient to his own private purposes and aggrandisement?’ and ‘I thought it very extraordinary of Mr. Marsh to dread the Expense of a Necessary Establishment which could be formed for half what his Board throws away annually for Bad Provisions.’ Ireland, however, never got its permanent victualling establishment and as a natural consequence of an apparently weak Agent Victualler, Daniel Callaghan became very powerful. Further, because of the long duration of these wars, and the increased scale of warfare after 1809, the market became more specialised, making Callaghan’s accumulation of plant and his powerful position perhaps inevitable. Yet Dunsterville retained the confidence of the Victualling Board, even that of the tougher Commissioners under John Clarke Searle. In 1811 they wrote to the Admiralty on his behalf, in which they referred ‘to the magnitude and responsibility of Mr. Dunsterville’s duties, the very able and satisfactory manner in which he executes them.’ In 1811 they asked for his salary to be raised from £442 per annum to £500 and £150 a year in expenses.92 Dunsterville’s role as Agent Victualler saved the British government the expense of an official establishment, but it is doubtful that one man was sufficient to maintain quality control, and Codd’s general argument seems persuasive, with due allowance made for an exaggerated writing style and lapses into hyperbole.

89 HL, STG 138 (61), Codd to Grenville, 1 Dec. 1806. 90 HL, STG 138 (60), Codd to Grenville, 19 Nov. 1806. 91 HL, STG 138 (62), Codd to Grenville, 20 Dec. 1806, newspaper printed enclosure: the respective current prices were ‘Planters’ 42s per cwt, ‘India’ 36s and ‘Navy’ 31s. At the beginning of December 1806 the respective prices had been 42s, 37s and 33s (HL, STG 138 (61)). 92 TNA, ADM 110/64, VB to J.W. Croker, 21 Jun. 1811.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The Napoleonic War For the Napoleonic War, prices fluctuated but never reached such peaks as in the French Revolutionary War. Domestic unrest was less than in 1795–96 and 1801, and perceived as less dangerous. American imports of grain in 1807, the year of Napoleon’s Continental Blockade, reached 627,000 tons, two-thirds of the amount imported in 1801, then slumped as a result of Jefferson’s Embargo, before rising again.93 The grain trade functioned without much government interference.94 Following the Enclosure Act of 1801, domestic production of wheat increased as a result of a further three quarters of a million acres coming under cultivation by 1810.95 There were nevertheless, periods of anxiety. Thomas Grenville, First Lord of the Admiralty, worried about relations with Denmark and therefore, the closing of the Sound to merchant ships bringing grain to Britain. In December 1806 he asked John Marsh, chairman of the Board, how much Baltic wheat was in London. Marsh provided an analysis: there were forty thousand tons, some of which had been ‘in Granary 2 or 3 years: of course very bad.’ Some more was on its way, but ‘the quantity of foreign wheat in England is the smallest known for many years,’ for the usual amount to be held in London was 150,000 to 250,000 quarters. What is more, Marsh added, the domestic crop was ‘not deemed a large one and extremely deficient in weight and quality.’96 The national average price of a quarter of wheat rose over 100s (£5) in September 1809, peaked at 117s in August 1810, and did not dip below £5 until October of that year. Exactly a year later it rose again over £5 and remained there for two years. Mindful of domestic unrest, the government banned the export of grain, which affected the army in the Peninsula, until it again fell in September 1813.97 In this second period of high prices, it peaked in September 1812 at 132s a quarter, though it was still below the level of May 1801.98 The major difficulties with grain supply were therefore in the French Revolutionary War. The markets became more efficient as the old regulatory market customs faded away. The partnerships between the Victualling Board and many contractors held their course through military, financial and political crises. How contractors were held to the bargain that they made through different types of contract will be told in the next three chapters.

93 94 95 96 97 98

Galpin, ‘American Grain Trade to the Peninsula,’ p. 24. Galpin, Grain Supply, p. 8. Galpin, Grain Supply, p. 196. HL STG 148 (24) John Marsh to Thomas Grenville, 9 Dec. 1806. See pp. 53–54. Galpin, Grain Supply, Appendix 5, quoting from the London Gazette.


5 Supply Contracts: ‘Men of Confined Property’ and the ‘Flower of the City’

On 8 November 1810, Thomas Hearn wrote to the Victualling Board requesting that he be granted certificates for bisket delivered to the victualling stores at Portsmouth under two contracts he had made with the Agent Victualler in August and September of that year. The Board reviewed his deliveries when the letter was read two days later and instructed the Agent Victualler to make him out the certificates he had granted, but to cut the prices paid on the last 190 bags to the same as they were paying others who had subsequently entered into contracts. They then directed the Agent to demand of Mr Hearn an explanation of why one hundred bags of bread delivered in September had been found on inspection to be ‘old, smelly and maggoty,’ and to inform him that unless he gave a satisfactory explanation he would be regarded in future as ‘a person wholly unfit to hold any further Contract with this department.’ Hearn, a baker by trade, based in Newport, on the Isle of Wight, was a well-established contractor. He was one of the most prominent of twenty or so local bakers who had regularly supplied to Portsmouth victualling yard on a succession of contracts, up to five per year, since the outbreak of war in 1793. He had been penalised once before, in 1809, when £14 was abated from his payments for 140 hundredweight rejected, out of 300 he had contracted to supply. Presumably he could give no satisfactory excuse for supplying poor-quality goods, for he held no further contracts and disappears from the record. The blacklisting of Thomas Hearn is significant, because it illustrates several key aspects of how the Victualling    TNA, ADM 110/42, VB to George Rose, HM Treasury, 20 Dec. 1796 describes many contractors as ‘men of confined property:’ the ‘Flower of the City’ was Charles Flower, a major contractor and Lord Mayor of London,1808–9.     TNA, ADM 111/197, VB Minutes, 10 Nov. 1810.     TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 7 Mar. 1794.    TNA, ADM 112/195, VB Contract Ledger, 1809. The contract, made on 22 Jun. 1809, was for 300cwt of bisket at 26s 9d per cwt, suggesting that his total bill should have been £401 5s 0d. Abatements were made at two shillings per hundredweight rejected, so presumably 140cwt was deemed unsatisfactory.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Board purchased its supplies, and also the changing way in which it dealt with its ­suppliers. A succession of contracts for deliveries of set quantities of goods was the most common means of buying in provisions, although as this chapter explores, there were many variations in such contracts. As we have already seen, later in the war, after its reorganisation in 1809, the Victualling Board became increasingly assertive with its contractors, less willing to allow poor-quality supplies to pass and increasingly willing to threaten, penalise and blacklist contractors who did not meet the required standards. Definition Contracting was a complex business, and the form and the methods of making and administering contracts evolved over time. As the Commission on Fees put it in 1788: In the forming of contracts, two different modes are pursued. For the stores and manufactories at home, it is usually the custom to contract for each article separately; but for the several foreign stations, it seems unavoidable that one Contractor should engage to supply the whole.

In fact, engagements with contractors to supply all provisions were made for British ports as well as overseas stations. Contracts for supplies on commission to British bases were also largely distinct from the main run of contracts. This chapter deals with contracts to supply goods at an agreed price. Contemporaries distinguished these from commission agencies and sea provisions contracts but had no single name for them: we have termed them ‘supply’ contracts. The supply contract was the simplest and most common form of contract. Of a sample of 4,372 contracts, 4,089 were supply contracts. However, supply contracts were also the most diverse type, and varied in several key ways. The most important variation was between those that were for a fixed quantity of goods, and those that were for supplies as required, either for a set period of time or until further notice. To give a typical example of the first, selected at random from a bound volume of contracts for Plymouth, Jonathan Binns, of Looe in Cornwall, a regular contractor whom we shall encounter again, contracted on 22 April 1814 for eight hundred quarters of malt, to be delivered to the brewhouse at Plymouth within six weeks. Also from original contracts comes an example of the second: Messrs Tollervey and Hyde, bakers based in Portsmouth and also frequent contractors with the Agent Victualler


Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, p. 567. See Chapter 7. See Chapter 6. SFDB. TNA, ADM 112/93, Contract Book, Plymouth, 1812–15.


Supply Contracts

there, contracted on 7 June 1805 to deliver loaf bread to ships in port as demanded for a period of three months.10 Supply contracts were diverse in other ways too. The quantities of goods involved varied enormously, and with them the scale of the task. Contracts involving one or two deliveries of relatively small quantities of produce were easily integrated into the everyday business of a small dealer or grower; others were very large undertakings, involving deliveries of several tons of produce over long periods of time. The pattern of contracts for different goods varied as well. Some were made steadily throughout the year, as the navy’s needs dictated and with no set pattern, whereas others, mainly those for goods available only in certain seasons, were made once a year at fairly regular times. Finally, the means of calculating prices varied. Most contracts were for supplies at a price arrived at by competitive tender, which in the case of time-limited and standing contracts could be adjusted if market conditions made it necessary. However, experiments were made on some standing contracts for the contractor’s price to vary with market prices. In such cases the contractor was usually paid a fixed, nominal price until the correct price for particular deliveries was calculated retrospectively, at which point the balance owing was paid. This type of arrangement rather blurred the boundary between orthodox contracting and supply on commission. It was also complex, and rarely used. Uses All species of provisions required by the Victualling Board during the wars of 1793–1815 were purchased on supply contracts, although some were also bought on commission at certain times. Of the core provisions, contracting was the sole means of procuring bisket and the meal and flour required to bake it; live pigs for slaughter, oatmeal, rice, sugar, spirits, wine, fresh vegetables and the various parts of casks for the British victualling yards. Cheese and butter were provided on contract for all but a few years, when the Board bought them on commission, which they also did for seven years with Irish salted beef and pork. Live oxen were bought on commission for everywhere except Plymouth, where contractors were engaged after 1797. Wheat, pease, hops and malt were all provided on shifting combinations of commission buying and contracts, with a bias toward the former. Contracting also embraced a large number of related goods and services, ranging from the ­provision of coal and cleaning materials for the Victualling Office at Somerset House,11 to taking away waste materials from the victualling yards.12

  10 TNA, ADM 112/95, Contract Book, Portsmouth, 1805–07.   11 TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 7 Mar. 1794; Shipowners Henley & Sons of Wapping supplied coal to the office at 42s per chaldron from 1794, in addition to various contracts with the Navy Board. See Simon Ville, English Shipowning During the Industrial Revolution (Manchester, 1987), pp. 129–130.   12 For example, Richard Canniford signed a contract on 14 July 1815 to take away sawdust


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The number and pattern of contracts for each species of provisions varied, however, for several reasons. The quantities required were obviously influential: goods used only in small quantities usually generated few contracts, whereas the core provisions were required in great quantities. These generated the bulk of the contracts, although some core provisions were bought on a few very large contracts. One significant factor influencing this was the organisation of the supply chain. Where goods were supplied through concentrated markets one major contractor or commission agent could be employed to provide them, as discussed in more detail in Chapter 6. Conversely, where distribution of goods was in the hands of many small dealers this was not possible. This is why the provision of, for example, wheat for Deptford was carried out by a few large dealers, whereas at Plymouth the Agent Victualler contracted with large numbers of smaller local merchants.13 This also applied to processed goods: in London, with large numbers of bakers available, the Board could make one large contract for the supply of bisket and leave the contractor to apportion production between several subcontractors, as happened in 1797.14 This was not possible elsewhere, hence the use of twenty or so regular contractors at Portsmouth. The situation was further complicated by the properties of different provisions. Seasonality largely dictated the pattern of contracting in the case of salt beef and pork, since meat killed and packed in the winter kept far better than that packed in warmer temperatures.15 Butter and cheese contracts were also made seasonally. In these cases the packing season was the spring and summer, but the contracts were made annually in the autumn, at around the same time as the meat contracts, and were usually for supplies as required for the ensuing year.16 ‘Shelf-life’ was also a factor: fresh beef, soft bread and vegetables were perishable and could not be bought far ahead, so making contracts for supplies as demanded was the most logical way of procuring these items. Usually they were on a time-limited basis. At both Portsmouth and Plymouth, contracts for fresh bread were made for three months at a time, although it was not uncommon for the same contractor to hold several in succession. Edward Tollervey, one of a family who held many contracts for bisket, mainly at Portsmouth, won the fresh bread contract there three times in one year, holding it between January and June 1799, and then again from September until the end of the year.17 Contracts for vegetables were more often annual, although some were standing. Timelimited contracts could be extended too: the Tallack family signed a contract

  13   14   15   16   17

from the yard at Plymouth for one year certain and then until further notice. TNA, ADM 112/93, Contract Book, Plymouth, 1812–15. See Chapter 9. Dover, Chatham, Plymouth and Portsmouth also received deliveries from London-based commission agent Edward Knight. TNA, ADM 112/183, VB Contract Ledger, 1797. Macdonald, Feeding Nelson’s Navy, p. 20. TNA, ADM 112/179–199, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–1813. TNA, ADM 112/185, VB Contract Ledger, 1799.


Supply Contracts

in December 1806 to supply vegetables to Falmouth for the year 1807, which was extended and remained in force until a new contract came into effect at the beginning of July 1810.18 Finally, although the requirements for provisions, the properties of each and the organisation of the various supply chains all helped to shape the patterns of contracting for different species, decisions were taken at different times by various Commissioners, Agents Victualler and sometimes sea officers. Inevitably, these individuals had differing priorities and attitudes towards contracting and contractors, and different levels of knowledge and experience of dealing with them. As a result, individual decisions were important in shaping contracting in different places and at different times. Little was written down, and the precise influence of individuals’ attitudes is hard to detect, but it was significant. Something of its influence is evident in the different patterns of contracting for staple provisions, such as bisket, at the two main outports of Portsmouth and Plymouth. On 3 February 1797, the Agent Victualler at Portsmouth made fifteen separate contracts with local bakers for monthly deliveries of bisket in quantities between 80 and 750 hundredweight, all to continue until a fortnight’s notice was given. At Plymouth fewer contracts were made at a time and a great many were one-offs, which suggests that contracts were made on a rather more ad hoc basis.19 Market conditions may in part have dictated this, and certainly there were fewer contracts at Plymouth, which was more dependent on deliveries from Deptford to supplement local capacity than was Portsmouth. Even so, the difference in the way contracts were handled must in part have been a function of the individual Agent Victualler’s approach. Making and terms of contracts One of the most critical tasks of the Victualling Board and its Agents Victualler was to make contracts as and when necessary to ensure a steady flow of supplies. Obviously the warehouses could not be allowed to run out of stores, but warehouse space and the limited shelf-lives of various species of provisions placed an upper limit on how much could be bought and when. Moreover, the Board had to watch the markets and avoid as far as possible buying when prices were very high. All of this influenced decisions on the timing of contracts, and how much should be bought at a time. The Board made decisions on when to advertise for tenders for supplies to Deptford, based upon reports from the storekeepers and departmental heads there. For the outports the Board made some of the decisions, acting on advice from the Agents Victualler. For instance, the Board minuted on 3 March 1794 that it had received and read a letter from the Agent at Portsmouth ‘stating that it will soon be necessary to provide a further supply of wheat and malt, for the service

  18 TNA, ADM 112/156, VB Contract Abstract.   19 TNA, ADM 112/183, VB Contract Ledger, 1797; SFDB.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

of the Victualling at that Port.’ In response the Board ordered him to ‘publish and contract for what quantity of each article he may judge necessary, on the best and cheapest terms.’20 For much of the time, however, the Agent made the contracts and sought approval retrospectively. At other times, seasonality or the expiry of an existing contract dictated when a new one was to be advertised. The Board and Agents seem to have kept up to date efficiently with the status of standing and time-limited contracts, and the Board minutes are replete with notes such as this: The Contracts for supplying Fresh Beef to His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the River Thames, at Chatham, the Nore, Sheerness, and Blackstakes; in the Downs; and at Portsmouth, expiring on the 31st instant: Let Tuesday the 18th instant be appointed to receive Tenders and treat for new contracts for six months from the 1st next month. Advertise the same, and write to the Agents accordingly.21

Duly on 18 March tenders arrived and, after the lowest offer for Portsmouth, from Richard Orrill, had been discussed and deemed to carry too great a risk of failure, contracts were made to start on 1 April.22 The most common means of advertising for contracts was via advertisements for tenders in the press, giving a few weeks’ notice. However, this was not universal and could be abandoned when market conditions dictated, or the Board felt it needed to act quickly. As war loomed in 1793 the Board realised it would need large quantities of meat in the near future. Rather than advertising for tenders, it wrote to several leading suppliers inviting them to submit tenders by the following day.23 In the case of goods where there was a limited number of potential suppliers the Board sometimes contacted them directly even when there was no particular urgency. In September 1797, when the time came to make contracts for cheese and butter for the ensuing year, the Board noted that Thomas Bell had been their only contractor for cheese for ‘several years past.’ He had held the contract every year since 1792, and when the Board had advertised for tenders in subsequent years his had been the only response. Accordingly, it decided to bypass the tendering process and instead wrote to him and requested he attend the Board the following week and ‘state the lowest terms upon which he would continue to supply what may be required.’ At the same time, the Board wrote to ‘the principal merchants and dealers’ in butter and asked them to advance tenders with their lowest terms on the same day.24 In the latter case the Board was preserving the competition inherent in the tendering process whilst eschewing public advertisement: in the former, competition had been abandoned altogether in favour of an agreement with a trusted supplier. This was only a temporary expedient, however, perhaps a response to circumstances in  20  21  22  23  24

TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 3 Mar. 1794. TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 4 Mar. 1794. TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 18 Mar. 1794. See also Chapter 2. TNA, ADM 111/126, VB Minutes, 13 Jan. 1793. TNA, ADM 111/144, VB Minutes, 4 Sep. 1797.


Supply Contracts

the turbulent summer of 1797. The following year, competition was restored and a new contractor for cheese took over. Low stocks and expiring contracts were the two main reasons that prompted the Board to make new contracts. Another was unsolicited offers from prospective suppliers, of which the Board received a great many. Many, perhaps most, were rejected because the price being asked was too high or the service was ‘not in want’ of the goods being offered. However, when the price was right such offers were frequently accepted. Richard Henry Clarke made the Board just such an offer only days before war was declared in 1793: Offering to deliver immediately into the Stores at Deptford 2,500 bags of common brown Bisket at the rate of seventeen shillings per hundred weight; and, in the space of one month, by weekly proportions, 12,000 bags of Meal Bisket at the rate of eighteen Shillings & sixpence per hundred weight, ready money, and to perform the Lighterage thereof to Deptford for three halfpence each bag. Read: Ordered that the said offer be accepted, to be paid for by Bills in course with the discount added, and a contract drawn accordingly.25

With war imminent, it is easy to see why the Board found this offer attractive. Clarke was to become one of the principal suppliers of bisket, the sole contractor for Deptford until 1801 and a frequent contractor thereafter, although one amongst many.26 The terms of contracts varied according to the goods being supplied and the type of contract; whether for a fixed quantity, for a set period of time or open-ended. However, all included many of the same stipulations. The price was set out clearly, usually at a fixed rate but sometimes so as to track the market price. This practice was almost entirely confined to contracts for Deptford, and for major articles such as bisket, for which Clarke’s terms, under a standing contract of 6 December 1799, were: to deliver from 12 to 14,000 bags monthly until 14 days notice, the price to be regulated by the Average Price of raw Household Flour for the last Week in the preceding and 3 first [weeks] of the month in which the Deliveries are made, deducting 2s per sack and dividing by 2 will give the price per cwt, and to be paid 35s per cwt for what he may deliver before the real Price can be ascertained.27

Similar agreements were concluded with contractors in Portsmouth around the same time.28 They were abandoned in 1800, however, probably because the fastrising price of wheat rendered them excessively expensive. This sort of arrangement offered some of the advantages of buying on commission, since it gave the contractor no incentive to pad his tenders to accommodate possible future price rises. The

 25  26  27  28

TNA, ADM 111/126, VB Minutes, 29 Jan. 1793. SFDB. TNA, ADM 112/186, VB Contract Ledger, 1800. TNA, ADM 112/185, VB Contract Ledger, 1799; SFDB.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

places at which deliveries were to be made were specified, and stipulations on delivery times were always included. Many contracts for a fixed quantity of goods had a time limit placed on them, such as those which mandated delivery ‘in the course of a fortnight’ or within one month. It seems to have been more common, however, to specify approximate delivery dates: ‘half in a fortnight, half in another fortnight’ and ‘half in a month, half in another month’ were common. Most contracts for Irish beef specified part-delivery immediately and the remainder within six weeks. Alternatively, many contracts simply said ‘in weekly proportions.’29 Detailed though these stipulations were, in many instances they were rather notional and deliveries under many contracts took much longer than the period specified. Standing contracts included clauses by which either side could give notice or ‘warning’ of termination. The warning period varied between one and six months, roughly according to the time it would take to find another contractor. Distance from Britain played some part as well, simply because of the slowness of communications. All contracts included stipulations on quality, obviously varying according to the goods in question. That victuals had to be ‘good and fit for His Majesty’s Service’ was a common condition,30 and in the case of processed foodstuffs the produce of the Board’s own facilities was used as a yardstick of quality. Bisket, for example, was supposed to be ‘equal in goodness’ to that baked in the ovens at Deptford.31 For other items, the Board used similar measures of quality to those current in general trade. Bisket, for example, was to be ‘manufactured from good, sound, sweet and dry English wheat thoroughly kiln-dried and dressed through a patent cloth no.18.’32 Butter, meanwhile, was subject to numerous pieces of legislation on its preparation, particularly that seeking to prevent the adulteration of good butter with bad.33 Accordingly, William Clancy’s contract of March 1815 contained the following provisions: And the said Wm Clancy doth likewise oblige himself that no Butter made from Whey, or old or corrupt Butter, shall be furnished on this Contract, but that all the Butter that shall be delivered shall be good, sound and merchantable, and not inferior to good, second Rose Cork Butter made from Cream, and conformable in the packing, salting &c to an Act of Parliament of the thirty-sixth of George III

 29 Numerous examples of all of these can be found in TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815. See also SFDB.  30 See for example TNA, ADM 111/148, VB Minutes, 10 Sep. 1798, minute relating to Irish beef and pork.  31 See for example the contract of James Surry to supply bisket, 3 Apr. 1815 (TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815).  32 TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contract of Thomas Hankin, 6 Feb. 1815. In this instance the stipulation of English wheat was crossed through.  33 Westerfield, Middlemen, p. 207.


Supply Contracts Cap. 86 entitled An Act to Prevent abuses and Frauds in the Packing, Weight and Sale of Butter, to which the said Wm Clancy doth agree to make oath.34

To reinforce this, the butter was warranted to keep good for six months after delivery, Clancy being liable to abatements from his bills for any that was condemned within that time. Other provisions were also warranted. For example, a contract for forty tons of oatmeal in 1801 specified ‘the usual warranty of twelve months,’ which was still in force in 1815.35 Deliveries from contractors were supposed to be inspected by the relevant yard officers, and abatements were made for supplies that were found to be deficient in weight or of poor quality. It is, however, difficult to ascertain how such abatements were worked out. In 1815 the rule with bisket contracts was that two shillings were to be abated for each hundredweight bag not up to standard, and various abatements marked against deliveries in the contract ledgers, such as the £30 abated from John Killick for three hundred rejected bags in 1809, suggest that it was common practice well before this.36 Abatements could also be made for inappropriate or substandard packaging, such as the 1s 6d per sack abated from John Milward, for supplying flour to St Catherine’s in sacks rather than barrels.37 Contractors also entered into penal bonds for non-performance of their contracts. The tenth report of the Commission of Naval Revision remarked that ‘not having been hitherto fixed in all cases on a general provision,’ these had frequently been far too small, and that this had encouraged some contractors to break their agreements too readily when ‘the terms of them became less beneficial.’38 It went on to suggest that ‘non-performance of a contract to supply or deliver a specific quantity’ of goods should incur a penalty of 15 per cent of their value. Whether or not a percentage like this was common before the report is hard to ascertain, since few original contracts made before about 1813 survive. Those that do, however, suggest that penal bonds could be anything but trivial. Edward Powell contracted to supply two hundred quarters of wheat at £3 14s 6d to Dover in the autumn of 1805. Theoretically this should have made him £745, and yet the penalty was £500, no less than 67 per cent of the contract’s value.39 By 1815, many contracts for Deptford show penalties of around 15 per cent, such as that of William Clancy mentioned above,

 34 TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contract of William Clancy, 31 Mar. 1815.  35 TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 24 Mar. 1801; ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contract of Daniel Callaghan jnr., 31 Mar. 1815.  36 TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contract of James Surry, 3 Apr. 1815; ADM 112/195, VB Contract Ledger, 1809. See contract of John Killick, 23 Jun. 1809, for 8,000cwt bisket for Deptford.  37 TNA, ADM 112/197, VB Contract Ledger, 1811, contract of John Milward, 3 Jul. 1809.  38 Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 34.  39 TNA, ADM 112/111, Contract Book, Dover, 1804–07, contract of Edward Powell, 24 Aug. 1805.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

whose contract was for thirty tons of butter at £6 3s 3d per hundredweight, giving a total value of just under £3,700, with a penalty of £560.40 However, in the same year, penalties on several contracts for Plymouth work out at 25 per cent of their value.41 There is no explanation for the difference. For standing contracts, it was obviously impossible to assess their total value in advance, and the Commission of Naval Revision recommended rather vaguely that penalties should be ‘proportionate to [their] magnitude and nature.’42 This usually entailed sums of several hundred pounds: the £200 penalty for John Boon and then Jonathan Curno in contracts to supply vegetables to Falmouth were at the lower end of the scale; £500 on the fresh beef contract at Bristol or the rum contract for troops at Antigua perhaps rather more typical.43 Large contractors gave sureties for the payment of these sums. The Commission of Naval Revision recommended that each contractor should give two sureties, and by 1815 this was the case on major contracts.44 It was not, however, enforced for smaller standing and time-limited contracts: Jonathan Curno’s contract did not oblige him to give sureties, whereas that of John Lewis Tripp, who held the Bristol beef contract, did. In general, contracts became increasingly standard and formalised as time went on. Printed pro-forma contracts were in use in the 1790s, but became increasingly common, and by 1815 they were almost universal. However, some contracts made abroad and non-standard agreements for performing services such as removal of waste products from the victualling yards were still handwritten.45 Again, this reflected an increasing regularisation of the business of contracting, which was also reflected in its administration. Contracts in operation The majority of contracts were for a fixed quantity of supplies. In our sample of contracts, prior to 1807 when a change in the Board’s methods of recording contracts in its ledgers makes it difficult to distinguish types of contract, such contracts totalled 896, against 242 time-limited contracts and 262 standing.46 The operation of one-off   40 TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contract of William Clancy, 31 Mar. 1815.   41 TNA, ADM 112/92, Contract Book, Plymouth, 1812–15.   42 Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 34.   43 TNA, ADM 112/92, Contract Book, Plymouth, 1812–15, contract of John Boon, 18 Oct. 1812; TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contracts of Jonathan Curno, 14 Jul. 1815; John Lewis Tripp, 7 Jun. 1815; Andrew Belcher, 7 Apr. 1816.   44 Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 34.   45 TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 26 Mar. 1794; TNA, ADM 112/93, Contract Book, Plymouth, 1815–17: see contracts of Richard Canniford for removal of sawdust, Richard Lethridge for taking away bran, and Nicholas Colston jnr for taking away tongues.   46 TNA, ADM 112/179–191, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–1805. Every contract for selected commodities was recorded in alternative years between 1793 and 1813. For full information see SFDB.


Supply Contracts

contracts was simple, and since they were generally completed within weeks there was little need to modify them once they were in force. However, such contracts were frequently extended. Contractors often stated around the time of their final deliveries that more of whatever item they had supplied was available, and offered it to the Board. Such offers were usually accepted, provided the price and quality were the same as the goods supplied under the actual contract, and a great many contracts in the ledgers are marked with the note ‘minute for surplus’ and a date, indicating that extra supplies had been offered and accepted. However, time-limited and standing contracts were more problematic. Most lasted several months, even years in some cases, during which time commodity prices could fluctuate considerably, sometimes to the point where the contractor was exposed to a loss on his supplies. Where such variations were predictable, contracts were framed to allow for them. The fresh beef contract made in 1795 for St Johns, Newfoundland, for instance, was for fresh beef at seven pence per pound, but between 1 January and 25 June an extra penny was added to cover the additional cost of procurement and transportation.47 This was quite rare, however, and unexpected price fluctuations were a much more common reason for adjustments to be made to contracts. Usually these were upwards. They happened frequently throughout the war, but clusters of adjustments to contracts relating to the British Isles are discernable around the times of the crises of 1795–96, 1800–01 and 1811–12. To continue with the example of fresh beef, Thomas Pinkerton held the contract for supplying Leith from March 1789. The sea provisions contractor there ran into difficulties with price rises in 1795–96, and Pinkerton evidently found beef increasing in price at the same time, because from April 1796 his price was raised from 30s 9d per hundredweight to 35s.48 Adjustments could also work the other way, of course. For contracts made when the Board or Agent Victualler knew the market was likely to drop, provision was sometimes made for cutting prices. Indeed, some contracts included provision for prices to move either way. In November 1794 Edward Knight signed a contract for wheat at 57s 6d per quarter which contained a clause reducing the price if the market were to drop.49 An account of contracts for Jamaica, prepared when the sea provisions contractor there was running into financial difficulties, contains these stipulations in the fresh beef contract: Price and conditions of the contract dated 10th November 1795 by Rear Admiral W[illia]m Parker, to commence that day and to continue for six months certain and six months warning. In the event, however, of the market price falling to ten pence Currency per pound, it was stipulated that the Contract prices should be reduced to 65s 4d per hundredweight, and on the other hand if the market price

  47 TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract, contract of John Williams, 14 Mar. 1795.   48 TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract, contract of Thomas Pinkerton, 24 Mar. 1789. See also Chapter 7.   49 TNA, ADM 111/133, VB Minutes, 3 Nov. 1794.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 should increase to fifteen pence Currency per pound or to any given price beyond thirteen pence per pound the contract price was to be increased in proportion to the reduction beforementioned, but it was settled afterwards by the Board with the Contractor that 7s sterling per hundredweight or three farthings per pound should be deducted from the market price at the time of the supply.50

This was a rather cumbersome arrangement and not common, but it does indicate how the Board made provision for adjusting contract prices to market prices. It was in their interest to do so, since had contracts been unalterable prospective contractors would inevitably have padded their tenders to accommodate all eventualities, which would certainly have pushed up the cost of provisions, perhaps to an unsupportable level in times of crisis. Writing provision for price movements into contracts was unusual, however, and on most occasions changes were made at the Board’s discretion, after application by the contractor. The case of the Jamaica contract also illustrates how the Board dealt with contracts abroad. The mention of ‘Currency’ serves as a reminder that supplies overseas often had to be bought in local currencies. Disputes over exchange rates had caused difficulties for the Board at various times, and by 1793 all contracts were made and contractors paid in Sterling. Therefore, in the case of Jamaica, shifts in the local market price were used to trigger changes in the contractor’s Sterling rate. However, in the case of small contracts for bases overseas, contractors were sometimes paid in the local currencies. In 1800, the Victualling Board approved a contract made by Thomas Bolton, acting Agent Victualler at Gibraltar, with Harat Amejan to supply ships with fresh beef at twenty-four Quartos per pound.51 In India, the Commissioner at Bombay contracted in December 1812 with local dealer Hormasjee Sharporjee for fresh vegetables, all to be paid in the currency of that Presidency – plantains ‘of the first sort’ at one rupee per hundred, potatoes, yams and pumpkins at twenty-four reas per hundred.52 Much as it might have been worthwhile to negotiate a Sterling price with a London-based contractor for a major station such as Jamaica, it was not worth doing for smaller contracts, especially ones as remote from the Board as India. In such cases, payment in local currency was a much simpler option. Hormasjee Sharporjee’s contract was one of several similar ones made in India after 1811 for supplies of tobacco and fresh vegetables. These were invariably timelimited contracts, made for one year at a time. They were part of a general trend towards one-year contracts for supplies of spirits, fresh beef and vegetables to overseas stations and ports in the British Isles victualled on contract, replacing the standing contracts that had previously been employed. This was not wholly new. Such contracts had been made for some ports in the British Isles before, the con-

  50 NMM, ADM DP/23, A Statement of Contracts for supplying His Majesty’s Ships at Jamaica … prepared in pursuance of directions from the Right Hon the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 26 Nov. 1803.   51 TNA, ADM 111/154, VB Minutes, 14 Mar. 1800. Bolton was Nelson’s brother-in-law.   52 TNA, ADM 112/120, East Indies Contract Books.


Supply Contracts

tracts for fresh beef at Margate being an example. From around 1810, however, they came into more general use, and became increasingly common as the war drew to a close. New Romney employed annual beef contracts from 1812; Hull, Torbay and Greenock from 1815.53 Contracts for fresh vegetables also became more common in the final years of the war, and were usually annual.54 The Board’s reasons for shifting towards annual contracts probably related to controlling costs: such contracts gave the opportunity for the Board to review its prices once a year, and to consider whether the contract was needed at all. Contract enforcement Most contracts required little or no enforcement. They were one-off contracts for supplies of goods that the contractor either had on hand or could easily acquire, and assembling and delivering them to the Board posed few difficulties, although it frequently took longer than agreed. However, inevitably some contractors failed to fulfil their obligations, for various reasons. The Board’s means of enforcing contracts remained the same throughout the 1793–1815 period, but it is evident from the Board’s records that the increased assertiveness of the reconstituted Victualling Board fed into more robust dealings with contractors and a greater willingness to penalise those who failed to deliver. Most one-off contracts specified a time for delivery, and frequently a date by which the contract should be completed. Owing to a change in the format of the Board’s ledgers this cannot be discerned after 1801. However, the ledgers for 1793–99 indicate how rigorously these dates were adhered to. At Portsmouth, of ninety-one contracts for bisket for which a deadline and date of final delivery can be identified, seventy-seven were completed within the specified period, with a further fourteen completed late. Few of those who overran their deadline did so by more than a couple of weeks. The longest overrun was thirty days, on a contract for 200 hundredweight supposed to have been completed by the end of November, but whose final delivery was actually on 30 December.55 At Plymouth, contracts appear to have been less tightly administered. Twenty-six contracts with deadlines and dates can be identified, of which fourteen were completed late. William Yeoland, a Plymouthbased baker, was engaged in February 1795 to deliver five hundred bags within three months: deliveries eventually extended over twenty-four weeks.56 This was exceptional, but delays of one or two weeks seem to have been regarded as normal. This

  53 TNA, ADM 112/156, VB Contract Abstract, contracts for Fresh Beef at Margate, 1803–20.   54 TNA, ADM 112/145 and 156, VB Contract Abstracts.   55 TNA, ADM 112/179–185, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–99; SFDB. The contract which ran thirty days over deadline was that of Joshua Child, signed 16 Nov. 1796.   56 TNA, ADM 112/179–185, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–99; SFDB. See in particular the contract of William Yeoland, 24 Feb. 1795.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

may reflect supply problems, but it may also reflect upon the attitude of William Crees, the Agent Victualler. There are no records of penalties being imposed on any of the contractors mentioned above. Nevertheless, contracts did specify penalties for late delivery, which were sometimes enforced. Mr Cooper, the Agent at Portsmouth, advised the Board in March 1794 that a Mr Jukes had paid the stipulated penalty for not delivering wheat as per his contract, although he had also informed him that he would accept what was outstanding, provided it was delivered within a week.57 Unfortunately, it is not possible to say whether contractors’ deliveries became timelier as the war went on, or whether penalties for late deliveries became more common. They certainly were inflicted, however, albeit usually after granting the contractor some leeway. Thomas Lynch wrote to the Board in March 1810 requesting that he be granted bills for supplies of oatmeal made by him as subcontractor to a Mr Thornton. The Board noted: Write Mr Lynch, in reply, that we cannot acknowledge any Person in the execution of Mr Thornton’s Contract than Mr Thornton himself; and that if he does not fulfil the conditions of his Contract which ought long since to have been completed, we shall be under the necessity of inflicting its full penalty upon him.58

Two days later John Jacob wrote and requested to be released from his contract for flour altogether, as he was unable to discharge it. Again, the Board felt they had already granted sufficient leeway: Write him, in reply, that having already granted him every reasonable indulgence, we do not think proper to withdraw the directions which we have given to our Solicitor as stated in our letter of the 1st instant, and that therefore the Law must take its full course against him.59

Legal action against contractors was something of a last resort and fairly rare, but it did happen. The frequency with which notes indicating that legal action was being taken appear in the later Board minutes certainly imply that the Board was by 1810 a tougher negotiator with contractors than it had been in previous years. Nevertheless, there was still room for compromise, as James Salter, contractor for vegetables at Plymouth, found in March 1810 when he asked to be released from his contract a fortnight later: As the infliction of the full Penalty, under the circumstances which have rendered the Contractor unable to fulfil his Contract, would, in the opinion of the Board, be extremely rigorous, write the Agent to remit one half of such Penalty, thereby reducing it to Fifty Pounds; and upon his giving satisfactory security to pay that

  57 TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 10 Mar. 1794.   58 TNA, ADM 111/194, VB Minutes, 8 Mar. 1810.   59 TNA, ADM 111/194, VB Minutes, 10 Mar. 1810.


Supply Contracts Sum to the Agent on or before the 30th June next, to exonerate him from all further obligation in respect of his said Contract.60

The circumstances that obliged Salter to beg the Board’s indulgence are unknown, but the example goes to show that when it was evident that a contractor had good reason for failing to deliver, the Board exercised some discretion in penalising him. Aside from late delivery and non-performance, the other principal area in which the Board needed to enforce contracts was quality control. Throughout the wars the Board’s records note investigations by agents and commissioners into substandard supplies from contractors, and there were many such condemnations that were dealt with locally and never came to the attention of the Board itself. The accounts of Cornish merchant and sometime wheat contractor Zephaniah Job note that his first delivery of wheat to Plymouth in 1793 was rejected on account of its being kilndried, and yet no note of this exists in the Board’s minutes or ledgers.61 This was a minor incident on a small contract at an outport and was dealt with on the spot by the Agent Victualler. The Board did occasionally become involved in such incidents, though, when it had made the contracts, which was usually the case with those for fresh beef. A complaint was received in October 1801 from Captain Sir Edward Berry, via the Admiralty, about John Grant, the contractor for fresh beef, beer and water at Harwich. The beef supplied to HMS Glatton was, Berry alleged, so poor that Captain Devonshire had returned it. Similar complaints had been received from other ships. Grant was out of town when the Board wrote and demanded an explanation, but nine days later he wrote back, blaming bad weather, which made it impossible for the hoys to take water and beer out to the ships. Grant also forwarded a letter from his agent at Harwich, George Lawe, who stated that ‘no exertions of mine were wanting,’ blamed the distance over which the beef had to be transported, and remarked: I am most humbly of opinion, as well as others who saw the beef returned from the Glatton, that it should not so have been, as it was of a fair quality and by no means unfit for men to eat; but by the time it came back to the Butchers it was quite spoiled. I would not suffer Cow or Bull beef to be sent on board one of His Majesty’s Ships, and if I once found a Butcher attempting such an imposition I would never employ him again.62

Contracts for fresh produce were always vulnerable to minor disputes such as this and there was little hope of remedy, since by the time an investigation could be launched the beef would have long since rotted and the ships would in all likelihood have sailed. All the Board could do was warn the contractor to take greater

  60 TNA, ADM 111/194, VB Minutes, 24 Mar. 1810.   61 RIC, ZJ/21, Job papers, day book 1790–98, see entry for 26 Jan. 1793.   62 TNA, ADM 110/47, Sir Edward Berry to Admiralty, 6 Oct. 1801; John Grant to VB, 15 Oct. 1801.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

care, threaten to cancel contracts if complaints became too frequent and blacklist those who continually failed to deliver, all of which at various times it did. But there were no such repercussions on this occasion. Grant held onto the contract until it was cancelled, along with several others, as part of a general clear-out of redundant contracts in September 1802, consequent upon the Peace of Amiens.63 Considerably more serious than a dispute over a relatively small contract for fresh provisions was a letter the Board received in March 1794 from William Thompson and William Atkinson, the latter one of the most important contractors for salt meat, alleging that another contractor, Charles Flower, had been delivering casks of beef containing marrow bones. He had, as was usual, sent the Board a sample of what he intended to deliver under his contract of 2 January 1794, which had been acceptable, but the letter alleged other deliveries were not. It is an indication of how seriously this allegation was treated that three commissioners went to Deptford with Flower the day after this letter had been read. Contractors were obliged to mark the casks they delivered so identifying Flower’s was not difficult. Several were opened, and the commissioners found that, ‘in direct contradiction to the positive assurances he made the Board that the Beef … was in all aspects equal to India cut,’ several contained marrow bones and neck pieces, and many contained very little salt. The whole consignment of 1,268 tierces was returned to Flower, who was instructed to replace them immediately with the same quantity of beef, this time of the quality his contract mandated.64 This debacle did not, however, prevent Flower being awarded another contract for salt beef the following September.65 The Board evidently took a rather harder line twelve years later when dealing with another major supplier caught passing substandard beef. The Board received an anonymous letter in May 1806 suggesting that Bogle French & Co were packing cow beef with ox beef. Again an investigation ensued, and it was found that about one-third of the consignment contained a mixture of ox and cow beef. The Board again rejected the whole, prompting Bogle French to assert that this would bankrupt both them and the various merchants to whom they had given Bills.66 The final outcome is not known, but Bogle French disappear from the records until 1811, when they were re-engaged as contractors for beef, albeit for relatively small quantities.67 Evidently, as was the case elsewhere, the Board had stopped short of driving its contractors to bankruptcy; but equally, it was not prepared to tolerate supplies that were not up to the contract standard. Bogle French were also involved in an attempt by a politician to interfere with the contracting process, when they were to be penalised for failing to fulfil a contract, perhaps the same one. A junior partner in   63   64   65   66   67

TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract. TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 13 Mar. 1794. TNA, ADM 112/181. VB Contract Ledger, 1795. Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, pp. 32–33. NMM, ADM C/710, 3 & 14 May 1806; TNA, ADM 110/53, 7 & 19 May 1806; TNA, ADM 112/197, VB Contract Ledger, 1811. We are grateful to Janet Macdonald for drawing this incident to our attention.


Supply Contracts

the firm was a cousin of George Canning, who in December 1806 wrote to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Thomas Grenville, arguing that the complete performance of this contract has been rendered impossible by a series of unlucky Events [which included] the sudden and dangerous illness of the senior partner upon whom this particular Branch of business most depended just when it needed the most active and personal superintendence.

Canning argued that the bond was there as a safeguard against criminal negligence and ‘a suitable punishment for wilful Deceit,’ and that it was unfair to impose it upon a contractor who had failed to fulfil his agreement through ‘unavoidable misfortune.’ Grenville firmly refused to get involved, observing that ‘we are in general very jealous of meddling at all with the contracts of any of the Boards, it being quite a principle with us to keep as clear as possible of all interference in these details.’68 Not only was the Board prepared to take a tough line with contractors who failed to deliver, but, along with the rest of the naval administration, it was becoming increasingly intolerant of attempts at political interference in its business. There is little information in the Board’s ledgers that allows us to assess the frequency with which penalty charges for poor-quality supplies were imposed. However, one partial exception is abatements from bisket contractors on account of rejected supplies.69 From about 1809, notes in red ink alongside deliveries noting a sum abated appear frequently in the tables of bisket supplies. Table 5.1 shows the total quantities of bisket delivered by contractors to Deptford, Portsmouth and Plymouth in 1809, 1811 and 1813, along with the amount rejected. There is no noticeable trend to the figures presented in Table 5.1, although it may be significant that rejections decreased markedly at both Deptford and Plymouth between 1809 and 1811. The fact that such figures begin to appear in the ledgers from 1809 suggests a change in office practice, probably consequent upon the Board’s reorganisation. That in turn suggests that greater attention was paid to quality control, and although penalties had long been charged for deliveries that were not up to the required standard, the frequency with which these were imposed apparently increased. It is difficult to imagine the Victualling Board before its reorganisation turning on a major contractor such as Thomas Hearn and threatening to blacklist him altogether after only two such incidents, but by 1810 it was willing and able to do so.

  68 TNA, ADM 111/181, VB Minutes, 5 Dec. 1806; HL, STG 137 (57) Canning to Thomas Grenville, 5 Dec. 1806; ST 19, vol. 2, Grenville to Canning, 6 Dec. 1806; see also Knight, ‘Politics and Trust,’ pp. 137–138.   69 As noted above, these were charged at two shillings per bag rejected.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 Table 5.1:  Rejections of bisket delivered by contractors to Deptford, Portsmouth

and Plymouth, 1811–13 a) Deptford Year 1809 1811 1813

b) Portsmouth Year 1809 1811 1813

Total ­delivered (cwt)

Quantity rejected (cwt)


Percentage rejected

70,783 65,102 73,011

2,144  346 none marked

£212 4s 0d £34 12s 0d nil

3.02 0.53   0

Total ­delivered (cwt)

Quantity rejected (cwt)


Percentage rejected

71,652 89,131 87,311

  400 1,021 2,394

£41 0s 0d £102 2s 0d £237 16s 0d

0.56 1.15 2.74

Note: one entry in 1809 marked ‘£6 abated for 50 bags rejected.’ c) Plymouth Year 1809 1811 1813

Total ­delivered (cwt)

Quantity rejected (cwt)


Percentage rejected

39,015 21,758 25,957

2,395   280 1,100

£239 10s 0d £28 0s 0d £110 0s 0d

6.14 1.28 4.24

Source: TNA, ADM 112/195–9, Victualling Board Contract Ledgers, 1809–13. Note: 1813 total deliveries are approximate. London deliveries are for Deptford only and do not include the army stores at St Catherine’s.

The contractors It is easy to assume that the navy’s contractors fitted Cobbett’s contemptuous description of ‘loan-jobbers, contractors and the rest of the swindling fraternity.’70 However, graft and favouritism played little part in the awarding of contracts, and once awarded they were certainly not a licence to print money at public expense. Nor were most of the navy’s contractors particularly wealthy. Some were, especially the commission agents and sea provisions contractors who form the subject of ­subsequent chapters, but the majority of supply contractors were merchants, artisans and tradesmen who, although they were not to be counted amongst the poor, were not especially rich men – or in a few cases women – and were hardly among the commercial or political elites either.71   70 W. Cobbett, The Parliamentary History of England from the Earliest Period to the Year 1803, vol. XXXIII (London, 1818), p. 1373.   71 SFDB. One female contractor is positively identified in the Sustaining the Fleet database, Elizabeth Buck & Son, who supplied bisket to Deptford in 1803. She is listed as a ‘biscuit


Supply Contracts

Tracing the business interests of contractors is not always easy. Their occupations are rarely stated in the Board’s records, except in original contracts, which are scarce until the final years of the war. Many of the occupations given are quite vague. ‘Merchant,’ for instance, can refer to men trading on a large scale in a variety of goods, but many merchants were comparatively small tradesmen dealing in a limited range of goods. Tracing contractors through directories is possible, but trade directories of this period are not comprehensive, and where known contractors do appear they are frequently shown with occupations that bear no obvious relationship to their contracting interests. Edward Jukes is listed in a Portsmouth directory for 1793 as a ‘coal and wood merchant,’ but his supplies to the navy there between 1792 and 1795 were all of wheat.72 Perhaps this is simply an illustration of how merchants turned their hand to trading in whatever was likely to turn them a profit, which certainly included supplying wheat to the expanding navy at the start of a war, but it does illustrate some of the pitfalls inherent in trying to pin down contractors’ business interests. Nevertheless, many contractors do appear in directories and other records with occupations related to their dealings with the navy, and from these sources and original contracts it is possible to offer some observations on contractors and their occupations. The majority of contractors undertook navy contracting as part of, or as a sideline to, their normal activities as traders or producers. Although some of the major sea provisions contractors gave up their other engagements to concentrate entirely upon navy contracts, this was probably uncommon amongst other suppliers. That said, some occupations as given in trade directories do hint that contracting may have been a major part of the business of some. Joshua Gilbert, a fresh beef contractor for Plymouth, is described in an 1812 directory as a ‘butcher and contractor,’ whilst several bisket suppliers can be found in directories listed as ‘biscuit bakers.’73 The latter is not conclusive evidence of specialisation in contracting since some may have been producing sweet biscuits, although contemporary directories and nineteenth-century census categorisations tended to treat bakers and confectioners separately.74 In any case, hard bisket, ‘ship’s biscuit,’ was required for merchant shipping as well as the navy.75 Even so, war and the expansion of the navy did increase demand for hard bisket and it may well be that some came to specialise in its production, if only for the duration of the war, especially in towns such as Portsmouth, Plymouth and Chatham, which in large measure owed their eighteenth-century growth to the navy.76 Most bisket suppliers, however, combined bisket production with that of loaf bread. Some of the latter, of course, was contracted for by the navy for petty warrant supplies, but most was for general sale. baker,’ based in Southwark, in Kent’s Directory of London, 1794.   72 SFDB.   73 A Picture of Plymouth (1812); SFDB.   74 R. Scola, Feeding the Victorian City: The Food Supply of Manchester 1770–1870 (Manchester, 1992), pp. 224–225.   75 P. Earle, Sailors: English Merchant Seamen 1650–1775 (London, 1998), p. 87.   76 P. Corfield, The Impact of English Towns, 1700–1800 (Oxford, 1982), p. 41.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Bakeries were generally small concerns employing only a few men until well into the nineteenth century.77 This is certainly why the navy’s demand for bisket was usually divided amongst several small suppliers. Mills, too, were generally small undertakings, and millers frequently combined milling with trade, performing the closely-related occupations of mealman, flour factor and corn merchant.78 A great many of these occupations appear among contractors for wheat, flour and bisket, and it may well be that some of them combined milling with trade. Certainly, many millers held victualling contracts, among them Joseph Flight, who held ten contracts for flour in 1809 and 1811, most of them for only one or two hundred sacks at a time, to be delivered to Deptford and the army’s stores at St Catherine’s.79 Flight, of Westham in Essex, had leased a watermill at Stratford in 1806 for £300 per quarter, and it is reasonable to suppose that it was here that he produced flour to fulfil these contracts.80 Flight may well also have supplied flour to other producers for partial fulfilment of their contracts. Several contractors are described in directories as vendors of particular goods, cheesemongers and butchers being two examples. Unsurprisingly, the butchers were invariably contractors for fresh beef and cheesemongers principally supplied cheese, although John Budd of Portsea, despite being listed as a cheesemonger in a local directory, appeared as a supplier of bisket.81 Many of these are likely to have been relatively small tradesmen, although wine and spirit merchants such as Scott, Idle and Co and Timson, Suffren and Co, whose business was importing large quantities of spirits from the Caribbean, and who had frequent correspondence with the Victualling Board over the duties payable, were in far more substantial ways of business. There were also those whose occupations seem to imply more general involvement in trades in foodstuffs, in particular innkeepers and victuallers such as James Bull of the Blue Anchor in Portsmouth, and grocers such as Thomas Chaff of Plymouth. Some innkeepers dealt in grain or hosted grain markets in smaller towns lacking a specialist exchange.82 It is not hard to envisage how men engaged in general trade in foodstuffs, even in a relatively small way, could procure goods which could then be sold on contract to the local victualling yard, such as the 194 sacks of flour supplied to Portsmouth by Bull in 1801, or the three consignments of butter and cheese that Chaff sent to Plymouth yard in the summer of 1799.83 Examples such as these testify to how the navy’s requirements impacted upon the local economies in which its main outports operated. Few manufacturers or tradesmen concentrated solely upon naval or military supply, but many were naturally happy to sell goods to a creditworthy and reliable customer, and some diversified or redirected their   77   78   79   80   81   82   83

Scola, Feeding the Victorian City, pp. 221–222. Westerfield, Middlemen in English Business, p.168; Wells, Wretched Faces, pp. 26–268. TNA, ADM 112/195 & 197, VB Contract Ledgers. LMA, ACC/1037/100, Joseph Flight papers. SFDB. Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 27. SFDB.


Supply Contracts

activities on a more or less temporary basis to take best advantage of the opportunity to do so. Larger contractors were usually middlemen, merchants of one sort or another, rather than producers or small dealers. This applied especially to those who bought goods that had to be imported, such as Irish beef and pork, which were purchased in very large quantities and for which the contractors, who were largely London-based, had to maintain agents or correspondents in Ireland. Among the most prominent of these was Charles Flower, for whom eighty-one contracts appear in the Sustaining the Fleet database, almost all for cheese, butter and Irish beef, although on occasion he contracted for other items as well. In 1809 alone he delivered 772 tons of cheese and 380 of butter to British victualling bases.84 A cartoon by Rowlandson from 1809 depicts Flower as a sunflower growing in a barrel of rancid butter atop two rotten cheeses, suggesting that his reputation as a trader was not above reproach, or at least that he was not universally popular.85 Certainly, his conduct towards the Victualling Board was not faultless, given his attempt to pass substandard beef in 1794. Moreover, in 1807 he claimed to be unable to fulfil a contract for butter and cheese, which had become scarcer and costlier in the wake of the Continental Blockade and a dry summer, and offered to pay the penalty. The contracts were cancelled and new ones made at a higher price, Flower being one of the new contractors. Some years later, former Commissioner William Budge wrote to Lord Mulgrave, by then first Lord of the Admiralty alleging that Flower had been in possession of more than enough butter and cheese to fulfil the original contract and that even after paying the penalty he had made a handsome profit.86 Budge was in poor health by then and his recollections rather confused – he appeared to conflate Charles Flower with Matthew Flower & Co, contractors for staves – which is perhaps why the Board, and subsequently the Admiralty, did not take his allegations seriously. Budge tried again, writing to Mulgrave in 1810 saying that the staves contractors were ‘not in any respect adverted to,’ and begging to be permitted to put ‘this important subject’ before Mulgrave again87 Again, no action was taken. Flower was an Alderman of the City of London, became Lord Mayor in 1808 and was knighted in 1809.88 He died in 1834 at the age of seventy-one, leaving a fortune of half a million pounds.89 As such he was a high-profile target for allegations, although some were not without foundation.

  84 SFDB.   85 Guildhall City Library Print Room, 20155. Janet Macdonald kindly drew this cartoon to our attention, which is illustrated on the cover of this book. Flower’s support for the Duke of York during the scandal of 1809 may have contributed to his unpopularity.   86 J. Macdonald, ‘Purging the Victualling Board,’ unpublished: copy provided by author; NMM, ADM C/723, 25 Jul. 1809; 9 Aug. 1809.   87 Mulgrave Archive, Budge to Mulgrave, 13 Jan. 1810.   88 London Gazette, 4 Nov. 1809.   89 W.D. Rubinstein, ‘The Victorian Middle Classes: Wealth, Occupation and Geography,’ Economic History Review, 30 (1977), p. 608.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Some large contractors were manufacturers in their own right. Thomas Hankin is noted in 1815 contracts as a miller, resident in Ware, Hertfordshire.90 He was a prolific supplier of wheat products, especially flour and bisket meal, to Deptford or, less frequently, to the army stores at St Catherine’s. Hankin may well have produced some of this himself, as may other large contractors in the same line of business such as John and James Surry and John Milward.91 However, the size and number of contracts held by an individual or firm is not a reliable guide to the size of their business, because many subcontracted for all or part of what they had engaged to deliver. This was common with contracts for provisions of all types, but one well-documented example concerns vinegar. In October 1803, the Admiralty, evidently having received a complaint, wrote to the Victualling Board with instructions to enquire into the quality of vinegar provided by the London distilling house of Robert and Arthur Potts. In response, the Board investigated the contract and found that the Potts brothers had produced only part of the vinegar themselves, and subcontracted the rest out to five other houses.92 The vinegar provided by each was tested and found to be adequate. One of the other houses was Beaufoy and Co, also of London, who themselves held navy contracts and subcontracted part of them to others. Their correspondence with the Victualling Board does not survive, but at the close of their contract with the Navy Board (which bought vinegar for use as a detergent) in 1816, a certificate was given to them showing that they had supplied 597½ ‘tons’ of vinegar on their contract, four other houses had supplied around 600 tons each, and one 330.93 Vinegar producers were not amongst the Board’s more prominent suppliers, but some bisket suppliers were. Richard Clarke was by far the largest contractor for bisket to Deptford between 1793 and 1800.94 Obviously, this involved very large consignments; 140,502 bags in 1799 alone, which were far beyond the capacity of any one baker to produce.95 Clarke had contracted with the navy for bisket during the American war, but was probably not a baker himself.96 The only Richard Clarke in Kent’s Directory of London for 1794 which could plausibly be him is listed as a merchant. Even if he was a baker himself, however, he would have needed to subcontract, which he duly did, not always with great success since he was abated

  90 TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract Book, Deptford, 1815, contract of 6 Feb. 1815 for 1,500 sacks of flour for St Catherine’s army stores.   91 The sample taken for SFDB includes seventy-five contracts held by Hankin between 1807 and 1813.   92 NMM, ADM/DP/23, VB Out-letters, VB to Admiralty, 27 Oct. 1803.   93 LMA, B/BFY/048, Beaufoy & Co Papers, Proportions of Navy Board Contract, 1816.   94 The database, which is based on a sample of alternate years, shows him as the sole contractor, but in the intervening years references to other, far less significant, contractors are contained in the Board minutes.   95 TNA, ADM 112/185, VB Contract Ledger, 1799.   96 D. Morris and K. Cozens, Wapping 1600–1800: A Social History of an Early Modern London Maritime Suburb (Brentwood, 2009), p. 80.


Supply Contracts

­penalties of ten pounds twice in the first week of 1801 alone, for bisket ‘of so inferior quality and so badly manufactured.’ This had been delivered by two separate subcontractors, Wapping-based bakers George Fairbridge and William Christie; the latter subsequently held a few bisket contracts for Deptford and St Catherine’s in his own right.97 This was not uncommon. Most producers would have been just as happy to deliver to the Victualling Board as subcontractors for a major merchant as in their own right; perhaps more so, since it spared them the trouble of tendering. Penalties for late or inferior supplies were also inflicted on the primary contractor, although it is very likely that Clarke and others in the same position would have at least attempted to recover the money from their errant subcontractors. It has been suggested that the Victualling Board pursued a policy of buying produce from large firms, in a deliberate attempt to manage the markets in such a way as to encourage concentration.98 In fact, although the Victualling Board was the largest single purchaser of cattle, and probably of grain and related products, there is little evidence to suggest that it pursued a strategy of managing the markets or promoting concentration and centralisation, at least in the 1793–1815 period. The Board’s use of large firms to supply its yards waxed and waned, and it did not always favour the largest players when making contracts to supply sea provisions either.99 The Mellish brothers were, as the next chapter relates, monopoly suppliers of live cattle, which they supplied on commission, and Edward Cotterill provided live hogs on contract. With other commodities, however, the Board’s buying fluctuated between several small contractors and one or more large ones, and in some cases one or two suppliers buying on commission.100 Richard Clarke was principal bisket supplier for Deptford until 1801, but after that he was one among several contractors; nineteen in 1803, eighteen in 1807 and twenty-four in 1809.101 For a few years the Board used two trusted suppliers to buy salt provisions on commission in Ireland, but this too only lasted a few years before competitive tendering was reintroduced. None of this suggests that there was any coherent policy of encouraging concentration. Indeed, some comments from Commissioners suggest that in fact the Board preferred dealing with smaller suppliers. A letter to the Treasury from December 1796, when a new system of paying contractors was under discussion, seems to suggest as much: Possibly some persons of extensive capital might be found who would be willing, under the condition of such mode of payment, to become the Contractors for some of the articles required for the service of the victualling, but we are persuaded the measure would also be attended with the most disadvantageous consequences; for the persons usually dealing in the articles we provide, being

  97 SFDB; TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 2 & 7 Jan. 1801; Kent’s Directory of London, 1794.   98 Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 307, following an argument put forward in Buchet, Marine, Economie et Société, pp. 337–338.   99 See Chapter 7. 100 TNA, ADM 112/179–199, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–1813; SFDB. 101 SFDB; TNA, ADM 112/189–95, VB Contract Ledgers, 1803–09.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 in general men of confined property, and having occasion also in their ordinary mercantile transactions for the employ of the capitals they respectively possess, would unavoidably be excluded from the opportunity of supplying government but through the medium of persons of large Fortune, whereby that fair competition which we conceive ought to be preserved in making bargains for the service of this department would be greatly impeded, if not totally destroyed; and the Crown would be inevitably exposed to the payment of such prices as the inclination of the Parties might lead them to demand.102

Such observations, coupled with the Board’s uncompromising attitude towards combinations of producers and the manner in which both it and its Agents at the outports frequently contracted with several suppliers at once, bakers especially, each providing a proportion of the total requirement, suggest that the Board had little interest in promoting the growth of large firms. By and large, it worked within the markets as it found them, rather than seeking to shape them. It did, however, discourage combinations among producers and was generally keen to promote ‘fair competition’ between its contractors to keep prices as low as possible, as the letter quoted above indicates. Did the Board’s buying encourage concentration inadvertently? Again, there is little evidence to suggest so. What did happen was that larger merchant contractors worked together. The contract ledgers show Charles Flower in partnership at different times with several other well-established mercantile houses such as Jordaine and Shaw and Reeve and Green, and individuals such as Thomas Rowcroft and Stephen O’Meara, almost always for supply of Irish provisions. These alliances were temporary, formed to execute particular contracts. Flower was in partnership with Thomas Rowcroft to supply Irish beef in 1806–07 and 1808–09, and at the same time executing contracts for butter and cheese on his own.103 Doubtless these prominent London merchants were well acquainted with one another professionally and, probably, socially, and it was logical for them to pool resources and share risks on particular contracts. Such temporary, variable combinations of merchants were common in many areas of mercantile activity,104 and there was no reason why naval victualling should have been any different. Nor is there any evidence that the Board tried to make it so. It was inevitable, however, that the Board would maintain closer links with its larger and more regular contractors than with others. Whether or not this extended to social contact is hard to say, although some of the Commissioners and many merchants were freemasons, which may have led to some interaction outside business. Certainly, the Board had considerable professional contact with many of the larger contractors over and above the usual correspondence to do with tendering, executing and paying for contracts. Perhaps the most significant instance was in 1796, as

102 TNA, ADM 110/42, VB to George Rose, Treasury, 20 Dec. 1796. 103 SFDB. 104 Hancock, Citizens of the World, p. 11.


Supply Contracts

the financial situation of the country worsened. Victualling Bills were selling at a 10 to 15 per cent discount by October, making supplies increasingly expensive, and the Treasury requested the Board to consider how payments should best be made in future.105 A Bill was by then pending in Parliament to limit the time of payment on Bills to three months and allow interest at threepence halfpenny per centum per day, and the Board convened a meeting of its major contractors to discuss it. It is worth reproducing the list of who attended the meeting, since it is a useful summary of who the Board’s largest suppliers were at the time. Persons Name R.H. Clarke [William] Christie T Walters J Thackrah J Bolland Timothy Brown Edward Knight Christopher Dunkin Wilde, Walls & Boddy Scott Idle & Co Thos Mills & Co Jordaine & Shaw Wm Atkinson & Co Dunkin & Brown Wilkes Coulson & Co Isaac Solly & Sons G Dyer & Co Phyn Ellis[sic] & Inglis

Articles they deal in Bisket Bisket Bisket Hops Hops Hops Wheat and malt Pease Sugar, raisins, molasses etc Wine and spirits Wine and spirits Irish beef and pork Irish beef and pork Flour & oatmeal Iron hoops Staves Bisket bags Wine and Quebec staves

The proposed ‘mode of payment’ was explained to the attendees who then withdrew for discussion. Their spokesman, James Inglis, returned some time later and stated that the contractors were unanimously of opinion that, although the proposed method ‘will not under the present circumstances be equivalent to cash,’ they were ‘advantageous to the public and in future not disadvantageous to the Contractors.’106 This serves to illustrate the need for the Board to work with, rather than against, its key contractors. There was no coherent policy of encouraging concentration and the Board was happy to work with numerous small contractors, but the largest players made a crucial contribution, and it was important for the Board to maintain constructive relations with them. In general, it did so with not inconsiderable success.

105 Beveridge, Prices and Wages, pp. 525–527. 106 TNA, ADM 110/42, VB to George Rose, 20 Dec. and 22 Dec. 1796.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Prices It remains to consider whether the Board paid a fair price for its supplies. This is not an easy question to answer, since it bought a variety of goods in a shifting number of sometimes volatile markets, and over a considerable period of time. To examine the prices it paid in all cases would require far more space than can be devoted to it here. However, with a look at certain commodities it is possible to reach some conclusions. Table 5.2:  Victualling Board and national average wheat prices per quarter, 1793–1813 Year

Victualling Board price

Mitchell and Deane


50s 4½s

49s 3d

47s 9d


73s 5½d

75s 2d

72s 11½d


55s 1½d

53s 9d

52s 1d

69s 0d

66s 11½d


Galpin price series

Clark price series


119s 6d

118s 3d

115s 7d


58s 10d

56s 5d

57s 0½d


91s 6d

89s 9d

87s 9d

87s 0½d


73s 9½d

75s 4d

73s 3d

73s 0½d


94s 11d

97s 4d

95s 6d

94s 5d


94s 3½d

95s 3d

94s 6d

92s 5d

  109s 9d

108s 9½d

106s 5½d


  103s 4d

Sources: SFDB; Mitchell and Deane, Abstract of British Historical Statistics, p. 756; Galpin, Grain Supply of England, Appendix 5; price series compiled by Gregory Clark, http://www.econ.ucdavis. edu/faculty/gclark/data.html, accessed 17 Aug. 2009.

Table 5.2 presents that average price paid by the Board for deliveries of wheat on contract to Deptford, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Chatham and Dover, compared with three series of the national average wheat price in every second year between 1793 and 1813. As the table illustrates, research into agricultural prices over the last three decades has served generally to revise downwards slightly the national average prices given by Mitchell and Deane. Nevertheless, it is noticeable that in no year did the Victualling Board pay more than four shillings above the national average price, and in general its prices were only one or two shillings over. Given that the prices charged the Board included the cost of delivery and the contractor’s profit, this strongly suggests that the Board was a shrewd enough buyer to avoid paying well over the going rate. The major gap in Table 5.2, however, is the lack of data for 1799 to 1803.107 In these years the Board bought wheat on commission, and since commission agents were granted 107 Data from Beveridge, Price and Wages in England cannot be used to fill in the gaps, as he provides no prices for wheat at Plymouth in those years.


Supply Contracts

imprests which were periodically paid off in large lump sums it is not possible to relate the monies paid to them to the actual price of the wheat they provided. However, an attempt has been made to work out the price paid by the Board to commission agent Edward Knight for deliveries to Deptford in the month of October 1801, which is presented in Table 5.3, compared with the London price given in the London Gazette. Table 5.3:  Price paid by the Victualling Board for wheat in London compared with the Gazette price, September–October 1801 Date of first delivery

Date of last delivery

Victualling Board Price (per quarter)

Gazette price (per quarter)

Week ending

10 Sept. 1801

25 Sept. 1801

90s 7d

88s 3d

26 Sept.

3 Oct. 1801

17 Oct. 1801

79s 9d

77s 2d

17 Oct.

28 Oct. 1801

27 Oct. 1801

  72s 10d

69s 6d

31 Oct.

Sources: SFDB; London Gazette.

Table 5.3, then, generally follows the national trend evident from Table 5.2. Further evidence is provided by an examination of the prices paid at Portsmouth and Plymouth between December 1792 and June 1797, compared to the county averages for Hampshire and Devon respectively. Table 5.4:  Prices of wheat per quarter in Hampshire and Devon and at Portsmouth and Plymouth, 1792–97 Date

Portsmouth price

Hampshire price

Plymouth price

Devon price

18 Dec. 1792

49s 5d

30 Mar. 1793

51s 5d

47s 4d

54s 5d

48s 8d

48s 8d

56s 0d

50s 8d

27 Jul. 1793

51s 4d

46s 8d

29 Oct. 1793

44s 6d

41s 0d

46s 0d

49s 5d

16 Dec. 1794

58s 8d

56s 7d

57s 0d

53s 6d

58s 10d

62s 0d

28 Mar. 1795 2 May 1795

69s 10d

61s 4d

70s 10d

66s 7d

68s 4d

63s 10d 80s 0d

93s 9d

12 Dec. 1795

96s 11d

96s 8d

3 Jun. 1797

55s 2d

51s 2d

54s 0d

58s 6d

28 Oct. 1794

31 Oct. 1795

Sources: SFDB, London Gazette. Note: Portsmouth and Plymouth price data taken from contracts made ten days either side of the Gazette date.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Again, Table 5.4 shows the Victualling Board paying only a few shillings over the ruling market price in most instances, and on occasion below it. This reflects the fact that the victualling yards drew in supplies from outside the counties in which they were situated. Plymouth, in particular, drew a considerable amount from Cornwall, where wheat prices were generally lower than Devon.10808 Both bases also imported a great deal of wheat from East Anglia, where wheat was in good supply and therefore comparatively cheap. However, it also provides further evidence that, in the case of wheat at least, the Board was not at the mercy of its contractors and that a combination of competitive tendering for contracts and commission buying via trusted agents enabled it to pay only slightly over the average for wheat even when delivery charges and contractors’ profits were included. A similar impression is gained when we examine other commodities, although the data is more fragmentary. Table 5.4 examines the prices the Board paid for Irish salt beef and butter, which are derived from two different sources and compared with figures given by Tooke in his Thoughts and Details on the High and Low Prices of the last Thirty Years, published in 1822. Table 5.5: Prices of Irish Beef and Butter paid by the Victualling Board compared with London market prices, 1793–1815 a) Irish beef, per tierce Year

Price derived from Victualling Board contract ledgers


92s 0d

Price given in accounts relating to Navy and Victualling contracts (1823)

1794 1795

110s 0d

95s 0d

92s 5d

113s 0d

103s 0d

107s 0d

1796 1797

Mean price given by Tooke

99s 6d 110s 0d

120s 0d

126s 3d


132s 10d


117s 6d 122s 6d

1800 1801

149s 0d

117s 6d


123s 9d

1803 1804 1805

178s 0d


174s 6d

150s 6d

170s 0d

128s 9d

168s 0d

133s 0d

168s 0d

129s 2d

108 London Gazette, 1793–1815. Most editions give prices for Cornwall that are slightly lower than Devon.


Supply Contracts Year

Price derived from Victualling Board contract ledgers

Price given in accounts relating to Navy and Victualling contracts (1823)

Mean price given by Tooke


167s 0d

144s 0d

129s 0d

187s 0d

138s 9d

1808 1809

187s 0d

1810 1811

185s 0d

1812 1813

189s 0d

160s 0d

146s 5d

178s 6d

146s 2d

195s 6d

170s 10d

190s 0d

159s 4d

226s 0d

173s 4d


170s 3d


     149s 2d

b) Butter, per hundredweight Year

Price derived from Victualling Board contract ledgers

Price given in accounts relating to Navy and Victualling contracts (1823)

Mean price given by Tooke

58s 10d

60s 0d

59s 11d

56s 8d

1792 1793

58s 10d


58s 10d

65s 9d

71s 6d


67s 7d

70s 6d

76s 6d


71s 11

71s 1d

77s 0d


68s 5

68s 7d

78s 2d


68s 7d

68s 10d

71s 4d


70s 0d


84s 0d

94s 3d

1802 1803

87s 0d 104s 2d


77s 6d


81s 3d

79s 0d

77s 6d

102s 0d

82s 3d

94s 6d


82s 9d

80s 11d

88s 6d


80s 11d

83s 8d

89s 4d


83s 8d

89s 8d

107s 6d


89s 8d

105s 5d

112s 2d


100s 0d

92s 11d

105s 3d

1810 1811

115s 10d

93s 4d

114s 7d

120s 2d

123s 6d

111s 1d

120s 4d

102s 6d

98s 10d

112s 4d

1812 1813


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 (cont.) Year

Price derived from Victualling Board contract ledgers

Price given in accounts relating to Navy and Victualling contracts (1823)

Mean price given by Tooke


114s 8d

130s 9d


     114s 11d

     121s 11d

Sources: T. Tooke, Thoughts and Details on the High and Low Prices of the last Thirty Years (London, 1823); BPP 1823 XII, Accounts Relating to Navy and Victualling Contracts and Pay of Shipwrights; SFDB.

Table 5.5 presents a rather more mixed picture than the tables dealing with wheat, showing that the Victualling Board paid significantly over the market averages for beef, but generally less for butter. It is difficult to account for this, except to ­suggest that it was easier for the Board to decline to buy butter, which it was perfectly capable of doing when the price was high, than beef, for which there was no official substitute.109 Overall, the picture is of an organisation whose priority was not to attempt to shape the market, but which was concerned principally with buying supplies as cheaply as was consistent with acceptable quality and a dependable supply. Contracts were complex and managing them effectively required the Commissioners to keep abreast of developments in several separate but linked commodity markets, to make contracts of the most appropriate type at a given time, to judge effectively contractors’ ability to adhere to their engagements and penalise them if they did not, and to oversee contracts made by their Agents Victualler at the outports. In all of these respects, the Victualling Board appears to have managed perhaps surprisingly well.

109  The Board did exactly this in 1803, when it found a cartel of suppliers attempting to monopolise supplies of butter and cheese and charge a high price for them. NMM, ADM D/45, 13 Oct. 1803; ADM C/700, 25 Nov. 1803; ADM D/46, 2 Aug. 1804.


6 Commission Agents: ‘Persons of Reputation, Integrity and Extensive Commercial Connexions’

The alternative to buying provisions by public tender and contract was to employ an agent to buy on commission. Theoretically this was simple, and because agents were paid on a ‘costs plus commission’ basis it should also have helped to keep prices down. Devolving buying to an agent with detailed knowledge of the markets should also have cut information costs by relieving the Board of the need to acquire such knowledge themselves. The reality was rather more problematic, however. Commission buying was, and is, vulnerable to the principal-agent problem, whereby an agent has opportunity and incentive to defraud his principal, who has limited means of checking up on his activities. The Board’s first experiment with commission buying during the War of American Independence foundered on that particular rock. Nevertheless, the Board did learn from the debacle and employed commission agents throughout the wars of 1793 to 1815, without a repeat of the scandal in the early 1780s that had called the reputation of the entire Board into question. The uses of commission agents Commission Agents were used to buy goods that were required in very large quantities, and distributed through concentrated markets in which large-scale buying offered the potential for economies of scale. This limited them largely to the London markets and the commodities that passed through them. Commission agencies also, however, formed a part of the Victualling Board’s response to difficulties in finding suitable contractors, especially in times when food prices were very high. This was the case in the late 1790s, and for a while the activities of commission agents were expanded into Ireland. The London corn market was by far the largest in the country, and its major players were wealthy and influential men. Among this group were the Dunkin family,


TNA, ADM 111/148, VB Minutes, 9 Aug., 10 Sep. 1798.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

various members of which supplied pease and grain to the navy, both on commission and by contract, between 1793 and 1815. Like many major grain merchants, they were based south of the Thames in Borough, near Shad Thames. Christopher Dunkin, a major supplier of grain and pease on supply contracts and at times on a commission basis, was sufficiently well connected to write to the Prime Minister in November 1804, stating that ‘having spent the whole of my life on the Corn Exchange,’ he felt qualified to offer the government advice on how to handle harvest failures and grain shortages. His suggestion of importing American flour directly was not taken up, but it does shed some light on the influence and ready access to power enjoyed by some among the higher echelons of the London mercantile community. It was to one of these characters, Christopher Atkinson, that the Board turned when it first experimented with buying on commission in 1776. Over the next couple of years Atkinson’s remit was extended to include wheat, malt, flour, pease, oatmeal and grotts. The appointment of Atkinson eventually proved disastrous and called into question the nascent system of commission purchases. However, with the outbreak of war in 1793, the Board again turned to employing City corn merchants to buy for them on commission. Of these the most significant was Edward Knight. He was described as a ‘lighterman,’ but this term was used to encompass even quite major corn merchants, and it is probable that Edward Knight and his brother and partner Joshua were in a substantial way of business by the early 1780s. Fifteen years later, Edward Knight was in a position to buy and supply very large quantities indeed, as Table 6.1, showing his deliveries over a two-month period in 1801, indicates. As Table 6.1 shows, Knight supplied only wheat and malt. Oatmeal was purchased on contracts, and pease were supplied on a mixture of contracts and commission buying, principally by members of the Dunkin family. No single contractor was engaged to supply as many goods as Atkinson had been two decades previously. The other staple commodity supplied on commission was meat on the hoof. Very large numbers of live cattle and pigs were driven to the victualling yard at Deptford each autumn and winter for slaughter and processing. Whereas grain was supplied by shifting combinations of commission agents and contractors, and pigs were supplied on contract, all cattle for Deptford were supplied by Peter and William Mellish, of Shadwell. Unlike the suppliers of any other commodity, they were given a monopoly. Table 6.2 gives an impression of the scale of the operation.


Kent’s Directory of London, 1794. TNA, PRO 30/8/131, f. 88–89, Christopher Dunkin to Pitt. D. Syrett, ‘Christopher Atkinson and the Victualling Board, 1775–82,’ Historical Research, LXIX (1996), p. 131. London Gazette, 24 Jun. 1809; Report from the Committee Appointed to Examine into the Conduct of the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy so far as relates to supplying the Navy with Corn, Biscuit, Malt, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Beer and other Liquors, and with Casks (1782), p. 41.


Commission Agents Table 6.1:  Wheat and malt delivered to British Victualling establishments by Edward Knight, September–October 1801 Article


When delivered

Where delivered

Amount £6,108 3s 11d

Qrs bushels Wheat

814 6

8–17 Oct.



782 4

3–10 Oct.



283 7

26–7 Oct.


£1,030 9s 1d


1232 1

11 Sep.–16 Oct.


£4,505 7s 11d


547 3

18–21 Oct.


£2,537 8s 6d


501 5

21–28 Sep.


£1,901 7s 2d


240 1

14 Sep.


£1,093 11s 1d


490 4

7–11 Oct.


£2,163 5s 7d


270 0

Lost at sea

£805 10s 8d

Source: TNA, ADM 111/161, VB Minutes, 17 Nov. 1801.

Table 6.2:  Victualling Board purchases of oxen and supplies to Deptford, with weight of beef produced, 1793–1807 Year

Total oxen sold at Smithfield

Total purchases by Victualling Board



























Number of oxen supplied to Deptford

Weight of beef produced at Deptford (cwt)











Source: TNA, ADM 112/179–193, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–1807; Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, Appendix G.

As well as the beef, the oxen also yielded suet in large quantities, 2,570 hundredweight thereof in 1803, for example, which was either paid for at the same rate as the beef or at a flat rate of between 7d and 8½d per pound. In 1798, too, the Board

  TNA, ADM 112/189, VB Contract Ledger, 1803.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

decided that purchasing live beasts for the slaughterhouse at Deptford would cause ‘alarm and consequent enhancement of price of Cattle,’ and directed instead that such part of the Beef and Pork as it might be judged expedient to cure in England, during the ensuing season, for the supply of His Majesty’s Ships in the East Indies, or on other remote stations, shall be provided by Messrs Peter and William Mellish, and be cured in their premises at Shadwell Dock.

Salt and casks to pack the beef were provided by the Board. In addition to supplying live beasts and at times cured meat to Deptford, the Mellish brothers also provided fresh beef for ships in the Thames, at the Nore, Sheerness, Chatham, Blackstakes, the Downs and Portsmouth. After the death of Peter, his brother continued these engagements. Plymouth and Torbay were also included in the early years of the war, but from 1797 they were handled by a separate contractor. For most of the period between 1793 and 1815, commission agents supplied raw materials for processing in the Victualling Board’s own facilities, whereas finished goods were supplied on contract. The reasons for this were never clearly stated, but probably lie simply in the fact that wheat and beasts passed through the London market in vast quantities, and were therefore very amenable to purchase by an agent, whereas finished goods did not pass through the market in anything like the same quantities. Salt beef and pork, however, was sold in very large quantities in Ireland. Exports totalled 110,141 barrels of beef and 142,294 of pork between March 1796 and March 1797, of which 84,199 and 126,245 respectively came to England. Much of this passed through the main distribution centres of Limerick and, especially, Cork.10 This created an opportunity for the Victualling Board to buy directly in Ireland, and between 1796 and the Peace of Amiens it did so, employing the London firms of Messrs Jordaine and Shaw and William Atkinson and Co.11 For one year, they also purchased butter on the same basis. Advantages and disadvantages There were good reasons for the Victualling Board to make use of commission agents. One of the Board’s problems was the lack of ‘practical skill and knowledge … which few, if any gentlemen in their habits of life can be expected to possess.’12 This included detailed working knowledge of the main provisions markets, ­ especially

      10 11 12

TNA, ADM 111/148, VB Minutes, 9 Aug. & 24 Sep. 1798; see also Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, pp. 57, 64. TNA, ADM 111/140, VB Minutes, 26 Aug. 1796; ADM 111/169, VB Minutes, 28 Dec. 1803. TNA, CUST 15/100, Ledger of Imports and Exports: Ireland, Mar. 1796–Mar. 1797. L.M. Cullen, An Economic History of Ireland Since 1660 (London, 1972), p. 87. TNA, ADM 111/140, VB Minutes, 9 Sep. 1796; BPP 1823 XII, Accounts Relating to Navy and Victualling Contracts, 1790–1823. Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, p. 567; Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 16.


Commission Agents

outside London. Regular traders, however, would know the likely course of price movements day by day, would be aware of factors likely to affect the supply, and therefore the price, of goods coming from different parts of the country and possessed the skills and contacts required to get the best prices. No Commissioner could reasonably be expected to know these things and finding them out would cost time and therefore money. The use of commission agents therefore represented a means of cutting information costs, although not one that did not entail its own disadvantages and risks. There had long been times when the Board was obliged to buy directly in the City. This had happened early in the War of American Independence. At that time, grain was being purchased on orthodox supply contracts. However, on several occasions none of the tenders received were suitably priced, and the Board instead dispatched the Clerk of the Cheque and Master Brewer from Deptford to buy corn from factors in the City. Indeed, it was partly because contractors were sometimes not forthcoming that the Board turned in 1776 to purchasing on commission.13 After 1793 it remained necessary to send employees of the Board to buy directly on occasion. Judging from the number of entries in the Board minutes, this appears to have been the case particularly with hops. For example, in January 1801 the Master Brewer at Deptford reported to the Board that he had purchased fifty-three bags and thirty pockets of hops from Borough-based dealer Prince, Son and Johnson.14 Buying on commission, however, saved on the time of senior Board employees who, in wartime, faced numerous other demands. Moreover, the problem of expertise remained. Neither the Clerk of the Cheque nor the Master Brewer could reasonably be expected to maintain a detailed knowledge of the markets, so if goods did have to be purchased directly, there were advantages in employing a specialist to do so. Commission agencies were also a means of keeping prices down, at least in theory. The Board was well aware that wartime prices were volatile, and that tenders for standing contracts were sometimes inflated to accommodate possible price rises in future.15 Commission agents, however, were paid at the market price plus a fixed commission, so there was far less scope for padding tenders in this way. The only alternative was to make large numbers of short-term contracts which, for staple commodities like beef and wheat, which were required in very large quantities, would have been complex and expensive in administrative terms. The Board and its agents at the outports certainly did procure staple provisions, especially bisket, on one-off contracts, but these were processed goods that no single contractor had the capacity to manufacture in sufficient quantities. For raw materials, paying an agent to buy in bulk in the agricultural markets was a cheaper and more reliable option.

13 14 15

Syrett, ‘Christopher Atkinson and the Victualling Board,’ pp. 130–131. TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 2 Jan. 1801. B. Pool, ‘Navy Contracts in the Last Years of the Navy Board (1780–1832),’ MM 50 (1964), p. 165.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Cost and competence were the two constant advantages which ensured that commission agents were employed to buy grain and cattle throughout the wars of 1793–1815. Salt beef and pork were added to the list of items bought on commission in 1796 when, after the harvest failure of 1794 and subsequent crisis, prices of provisions rocketed. In September 1798 the Board noted: It is unanimously and firmly Resolved, as well from the experience of the present as the former years, that the best and indeed the only secure method of procuring the large quantities which the services of the Navy and Army may probably require, will be that of continuing the practice of having recourse to Ireland, and of employing persons of reputation, integrity and extensive commercial connexions to provide … whatever quantities may be wanted as aforesaid.16

The Board’s reasons for coming to this conclusion are not recorded, but probably centred on the problems of engaging contractors to supply at a fixed price in volatile markets, where a good price for the contractor could easily turn into a loss-making one in the months between the contract being made in the autumn and the final deliveries in the spring. Naturally enough, when faced with this situation potential contractors would either decline to tender or pitch tenders priced to ensure them a profit even if the market rose. In these circumstances, it is not hard to see how the Board might judge it ‘highly inexpedient to have recourse to the mode of procuring wheat [and other items] for the service of this Department by public contract,’ and see a commission agent as a safer and probably cheaper option.17 However, despite these advantages, commission agencies were used sparingly. The 1788 report of the Commission on Fees summed up why: Purchase upon commission [is] a mode of proceeding undoubtedly beneficial to the Public, if attended with skill and fidelity in the persons to whom the execution of the service is intrusted; but it holds out so many temptations to men of a fraudulent disposition, that we fear the instances of abuse have been many.18

The report went on to say that commission purchase had been ‘very wisely’ abandoned. It was revived after 1793, but used to a lesser extent than in previous wars, with considerable caution, and under closer control, and its use declined during the Napoleonic War. Commission agents’ activities were tightly circumscribed, largely limited to the London markets, and their accounts were closely scrutinised. Fundamentally, the problem was one of trust. By the end of the eighteenth century government was creditworthy and merchants could trust it to pay its bills, but whether government departments could trust contractors to deal honestly with them was a more vexed question. The Commission of Military Enquiry highlighted the extent of corruption in army contracting, including one group of suppliers who had managed to pull the wool over the eyes of the Victualling Board and secure 16 17 18

TNA, ADM 111/148, VB Minutes, 9 Aug. 1798. TNA, ADM 111/138, VB Minutes, 13 Jan. 1796. Commission on Fees, Eighth Report, pp. 568–569.


Commission Agents

themselves unduly advantageous prices for supplies on very easy terms.19 These were supply contractors: checking up on commission agents was more difficult still, since the prices they paid and their expenses varied markedly, creating opportunities for inflating expenses and falsifying prices. This had been amply demonstrated in the closing years of the War of American Independence, as the Board’s first experiment with purchasing on commission unravelled publicly and acrimoniously, and in circumstances which called into question the competence of the Victualling Board as a whole. Christopher Atkinson was a corn factor based at Mark Lane, Member of Parliament for the ancient former port of Hedon, in East Yorkshire, and a political supporter of Lord Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1775–76 he had provided malt to the Board on several supply contracts. However, owing to shortages of suitable contractors the Board decided to employ him, at first temporarily, to purchase malt on commission. Probably thanks to the influence of Sandwich, he was given a monopoly, which he fulfilled satisfactorily enough for the Board to abandon competitive tendering for several items in July 1778 and employ him as agent for purchasing wheat, pease, flour, oats, oatmeal, grotts and barley for Deptford. Seven months later, in February 1779, he was made sole agent for purchasing all of these goods, at a commission of sixpence per quarter. Although this was not a large commission, the sheer volume of goods Atkinson supplied meant that it was highly lucrative. In total, Atkinson supplied the Board with grain and flour worth £425,401 15s 1½d, including 115,495 quarters of wheat, 66,250 of malt and 31,684 of pease. His commission payments totalled £6,980 1s 1d.20 Atkinson’s career as agent began to unravel in late 1780, however, as stories began circulating in the London press that he was defrauding the Board. Initially these were ignored, and Atkinson attributed them to the jealousy of other merchants who were shut out from supplying the navy by his monopoly. In January 1781, however, the Board was obliged to take action, and a lengthy entry in the Board minutes details a series of regulations it intended to enforce, specifying much more precisely than before the bills Atkinson was obliged to produce in support of his claims for payment.21 But by then it was too late. The allegations against Atkinson were too public to be allayed by a change in accounting procedures, especially after another contractor, Christopher Potter, came forward with information against Atkinson. Subsequently, allegations were made by others that Atkinson had been inflating the prices he paid and padding his expenses for lighterage, transport and manufacturing groats. On 9 February the Board noted:

19 20


Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, Appendices 17–18. This narrative is drawn largely from Syrett, ‘Christopher Atkinson and the Victualling Board,’ pp. 129–142, and from the Report from the Committee Appointed to Examine into the Conduct of the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy so far as relates to supplying the Navy with Corn, Biscuit, Malt, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Beer and other Liquors, and with Casks (1782). TNA, ADM 111/85, VB Minutes, 1 Jan. 1781.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 Many reports having prevailed reflecting on this Board for reposing too great a Confidence in Christopher Atkinson Esq. as Agent to the Board, in the purchase of Grain; and the Board having reason to think they coud [sic] make Improvements in their future purchases, resolved: that Mr Atkinson be informed that this Board will change their mode of employing an Agent for Grain; that he is not to buy anything more on Account of this Office, and that he be desired immediately to give in an Account of all the purchases made on Account of this Office up to this day.22

Atkinson repeatedly failed to comply with this demand and spent the following months trying to rescue his reputation by blaming mistakes on the part of his clerks for the overcharging. However, it was too late for this to save him. A Commission of the House of Commons heard testimony against him from Commissioners, other merchants and his own clerks, and when he attempted to use the courts to prosecute one of his main accusers, William Bennett, for defamation, he was himself prosecuted and convicted of perjury. He was sentenced to a year in prison, a £2,000 fine and a spell in the pillory, although he was later pardoned and in 1796 even returned to Parliament, again as MP for Hedon.23 In the wake of this affair, which cost the public purse a large, if incalculable, sum of money, it is not surprising that commission agents were looked upon with some suspicion. Moreover, misgivings were not limited to the naval administration: they were shared by sea officers. Lord Keith, then Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, wrote to the Agent Victualler at Port Mahon, James Yeo, in April 1800 stating that he wanted fresh beef and cattle for his squadron to be procured by ‘a fair and open competition,’ because ‘any one individual, intrusted exclusively with the supply, may impose upon the Government.’24 It was because of this general distrust of commission agents, and the lessons of the Atkinson affair, that the role of commission buying in the wars of 1793–1815 was so tightly circumscribed and closely controlled. Terms Fundamentally, commission agents’ activities were very simple. They bought at the direction of the Victualling Board. By way of a typical example, on one day in November 1801 the Agent Victualler at Dover reported to the Board that he was in need of two hundred quarters of malt and the Agent at Plymouth requested two thousand quarters, in response to which the Board instructed Edward Knight ‘to provide and forward the same accordingly.’25 The agent then purchased the goods

22 23 24 25

TNA, ADM 111/85, VB Minutes, 9 Feb. 1781. Syrett, ‘Christopher Atkinson and the Victualling Board,’ pp. 129–142. NMM, KEI/L/24, Lord Keith to James Yeo, 27 Apr. 1800. TNA, ADM 111/161, VB Minutes, 21 Nov 1801.


Commission Agents

and paid all of the costs of transporting them. Once they had been received, checked for quality and quantity, and all of the requisite documentation had been examined, the agent was reimbursed for his costs and paid his commission. Commission was paid at an agreed rate on deliveries, rather than as a percentage of disbursements. As a result it varied over time and by commodity, usually according to the going rate for commission buying in the relevant markets, but also the size of the undertaking and the economic circumstances of the time. Christopher Atkinson’s commission of sixpence on every quarter of grain he delivered was, he claimed, ‘the common commission of a corn factor’ around 1780.26 In 1796, however, when the Board decided again to employ an agent to buy corn, it noted: [T]he extraordinary advance of money to which he will be subjected by the present very high price of Wheat &c, and the attention and trouble which the faithful execution of this service demands.27

Accordingly, Knight was allowed a commission of nine pence per quarter, which given the scale of his purchases for the Board, must have been lucrative. In the case of live cattle and fresh beef, the 1790s witnessed the first attempt at putting the supply into the hands of a commission agent. The Mellish brothers were initially allowed a commission of sixpence per hundredweight of beef.28 However, in June 1797 they wrote to the Board, arguing that this was ‘not proportionate to the trouble and difficulty attendant on the execution of the concern, and requesting such an augmentation as may be made thereto as the Board shall judge proper.’ After some discussion, the Board raised their commission to 7��������������������� ½d������������������� per hundredweight.29 This was cut to seven pence at the Peace of Amiens, a rate which continued to be paid to William Mellish when he continued the business alone after 1803.30 For salt beef and pork, the commission on both was three shillings per tierce or half-puncheon, and two shillings per barrel. This was potentially highly lucrative. Jordaine and Shaw were instructed in September 1798 to buy ten thousand tierces, a quantity augmented by various orders in the spring of 1799. Between January and December of that year, they purchased a total of 5,763 half-puncheons, 12,929 tierces and 2,124 barrels, which assuming that none was rejected (and there is no record of this happening) should have netted them a clear commission of £3,016 4s 0d.31 In addition to the purchase price of their goods, agents incurred various expenses, all of which had to be verified with the appropriate certificates before they were

26 27 28 29 30 31

Report from the Committee Appointed to Examine into the Conduct of the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy so far as relates to supplying the Navy with Corn, Biscuit, Malt, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Beer and other Liquors, and with Casks (1782), p. 4. TNA, ADM 111/138, VB Minutes, 13 Jan. 1796. TNA, ADM 111/140, VB Minutes, 2 Sep. 1796. TNA, ADM 111/143, VB Minutes, 5 Jun. 1797. TNA, ADM 111/169, VB Minutes, 28 Dec. 1803. TNA, ADM 111/148, VB Minutes, 10 Sep. 1798; TNA, ADM 112/183–7, VB Contract Ledgers, 1797–1801.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

reimbursed. At an enquiry in 1782 into the conduct of the Victualling Board triggered by the affair with Christopher Atkinson, Alexander Chorley, who remained a Commissioner until 1794, pointed up the Board’s inexperience at ­ dealing with commission agents, remarking that ‘the Board have never any idea of a Factor in the Navy; it was a Term they did not know.’ This was principally why the agreement with Atkinson, as his colleague John Slade put it, ‘stood too loose.’32 This was reflected in inadequate means of checking up on agents’ disbursements, something the Board had already attempted to rectify in January 1781, with their long and detailed minute setting out the documentation that Atkinson had to produce in support of his claims. Wheat, malt and pease deliveries were verified by sworn meters’ bills, countersigned by the principal officer of the mill or store into which they were delivered; lightermen’s certificates and receipts from ship masters had to be produced in support of claims for freight, and Atkinson was required to send in to the Board accounts of all purchases and disbursements, together with an affidavit affirming their truthfulness.33 Similar regulations were applied again when Edward Knight was engaged as an agent in 1796.34 Similarly detailed regulations were framed when the Mellish brothers took on the agency for live oxen. They were required to ‘make their purchases [for the Board] as distinct as possible’ in their accounts from purchases for other purposes, and to insert ‘regularly and clearly’ the names of the sellers. Each month they were to render to the Board: A full and particular account of purchases and supplies they may have made, including the cost of the Oxen and the charges thereon, the produce of the offal, and in short every expense and receipt attending the transaction, accompanied by their affidavit, that they actually and bona fide paid the sums therein charged, and for the sole purpose therein expressed; that the whole amount for which they disposed of the offal is therein justly and fairly accounted for, and was the most they could possibly obtain; that they have not derived, nor will derive, directly or indirectly, any profit, emolument or advantage whatever thereupon, excepting the Commission hereafter specified; and that in the whole transaction they have exerted themselves to the utmost of their ability for the benefit of Government.35

Similar regulations applied to Jordaine and Shaw, and William Atkinson & Co’s agreements to purchase salt beef and pork in Ireland. Many of the stipulations on accounting were reproduced almost verbatim in the recommendations of the Tenth Report of the Commission of Naval Revision, illustrating the extent to which that

32 33 34 35

Report from the Committee Appointed to Examine into the Conduct of the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy so far as relates to supplying the Navy with Corn, Biscuit, Malt, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Beer and other Liquors, and with Casks (1782), p. 14. TNA, ADM 111/85, VB Minutes, 1 Jan. 1781. TNA, ADM 111/138, VB Minutes, 13 Jan. 1796. TNA, ADM 111/140, VB Minutes, 2 Sep. 1796.


Commission Agents

report codified and regularised what had already become general practice in the Victualling Office.36 The other major issue, with commission agencies as with contracts, was quality control. However, checking the quality of goods provided by commission agents was no more difficult than checking those provided on contract, and the usual rules for each commodity applied. With salt beef and pork the agreement specified that the beef and pork had to be ‘answerable to the usual conditions of contract’ in respect of quantity and quality, and since yard officers were well accustomed to checking salt provisions quality control posed few problems.37 Cattle were to be ‘fat and well fed, in all respects good and fit for His Majesty’s service … and shall be answerable in point of weight, quality and ever other particular to the usual conditions stipulated in the respective contracts.’38 Grain was slightly more problematic, since purchases were very frequent, varied in origin, and had often been stored for some time. Atkinson had been obliged to send samples of each consignment to the Board for inspection, and Knight continued to do so. Moreover, the certificates from the yard officers that Knight had to produce in support of his claims for costs were only countersigned by them after the goods had been inspected and accepted.39 All of these supplies had, of course, to be paid for. This was a complex process which created a considerable amount of documentation to be checked and accounts to be audited. Usually, commission agents were paid in Victualling Bills, in course before 1797, and thereafter the usual ninety-day bills. Such were the arrangements with Christopher Atkinson and Edward Knight.40 However, the arrangements with the Mellish brothers were more complicated. They were paid in part by Victualling Bills at a fixed, notional price for the beef. According to the minute setting out the terms of their engagement in September 1796 these prices were to be: For Sea Store: At Portsmouth: At the Downs: At Chatham, the Nore, Sheerness and Blackstakes: In the Thames:

42s per cwt 42s per cwt 42s per cwt 40s per cwt 40s per cwt

However, these prices were revised on a regular basis, according to the prevailing market price. The London price, for example, was cut to thirty-eight shillings in January 1799, then raised to forty shillings two months later, forty-eight in June, fifty in December, and then in 1800 fifty-four shillings for the following six months. The remainder of the monies due to them were to be paid in imprest bills at the

Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 35. TNA, ADM 111/148, VB Minutes, 10 Sep. 1798. TNA, ADM 111/140, VB Minutes, 2 Sep. 1796. TNA, ADM 111/85, VB Minutes, 1 Jan. 1781; Commission of Naval Revision, Eleventh Report, pp. 66–68. 40 TNA, ADM 111/138, VB Minutes, 13 Jan. 1796; ADM 111/85, VB Minutes, 1 Jan. 1781.

36 37 38 39


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Board’s direction.41 This remained the case until the end of the wars. Obviously, with the quantities passing through the Mellish brothers’ hands (and later those of William alone), the sums involved were very large indeed. For instance, at the end of December 1813 William Mellish, for his supplies of oxen and fresh beef to various places, was paid a total of £412,120 4s 9¼d, which discharged the Board’s debts to him and cleared his imprest.42 Imprests were granted to commission agents for much the same reason as other contractors: as a deterrent against fraud, as a means of spreading the cost of paying them and, more positively, to extend their credit. This became particularly urgent between 1797 and 1800, whilst Jordaine and Shaw were buying salt provisions for the Board in Ireland. General Hoche’s abortive attempt at an invasion from Bantry Bay in December 1796, coupled with rising sectarian tensions, led to a financial panic. The Bank of Ireland, like the Bank of England, suspended payments in specie.43 Furthermore, ‘the confidence and commercial credit which necessarily must subscribe between Merchants’ was ‘most seriously affected.’ The scale of the obligation that Jordaine and Shaw had taken on had forced them to increase their activities throughout Ireland ‘infinitely beyond those we should be warranted to make in a regular way of Trade,’ and buy vast quantities of provisions on credit. As credit dried up and their bills became due they found themselves facing ‘a dismal catastrophe,’ and potentially complete ruin. They claimed in March 1797 that they had spent approximately £650,000 buying in provisions, had payments pending imminently of £135,000 and had been unable to dispose of Victualling Bills, ‘and the bankers are not in a condition to offer even a temporary accommodation.’ They requested the Board provide them urgently with money to meet their obligations.44 This request was granted, and the cost charged as imprest against them. Assuming Jordaine and Shaw were not exaggerating their situation, this may well have saved them from bankruptcy, and they continued to be regular contractors and agents for the Board thereafter. The legacy left by the Board’s magnanimity towards Jordaine and Shaw was a vast account outstanding, which had to be passed before their imprest could be cleared. Here they ran up against the same obstacle as many other contractors and agents victualler: the Board’s inability to keep up with its accounts. The Tenth Report of the Commission of Naval Revision revealed that unpassed commission agents’ accounts totalled £2,740,883.45 The bulk of this ‘immense sum’ related to Jordaine and Shaw, whose outstanding accounts are shown in Table 6.3.

41 42 43 44 45

TNA, ADM 111/140, VB Minutes, 2 Sep. 1796; TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract. TNA, ADM 112/199, VB Contract Ledger, 1813. Cullen, Economic History of Ireland, p. 101; T. Bartlett, ‘This Famous Island Set in a Virginian Sea’: Ireland in the British Empire, 1690–1801,’ Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century, ed. Marshall, pp. 270–271. TNA, ADM 110/42, VB to George Rose, 4 Mar. 1797, enclosing copy of Jordaine and Shaw to VB, 3 Mar. 1797. Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 8.


Commission Agents

In fact, all but one of these accounts were ‘ready for the Board’s determination,’ and in one case had been for five years, but the Commissioners had not examined any of them, which, the report implied, exemplified the poor management in the Board at the time. The remainder of the outstanding commission agents’ accounts totalled roughly £736,000. Most of this was probably accounted for by the ongoing agencies of Edward Knight and William Mellish. Inevitably, given the quantities of goods these agents were supplying, the frequency of deliveries and the various demands on the time of the Board and its clerks, there would always have been some accounts awaiting examination. The fact that the report did not discuss these suggests that in the view of the Commission of Revision this was not a serious problem. Table 6.3: Unpassed accounts of Jordaine and Shaw whilst acting as commission agents for the purchase of Irish provisions, 1799–1801 Commodity

Opening date

Closing date

Account total (£)

Irish beef and pork

25 January 1799

11 January 1800


Irish beef and pork

1 February 1800

9 August 1800


Irish beef and pork

24 November 1800

25 July 1801



31 January 1799

17 October 1799

   10,131    2,003,673

Source: Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report (1807), p. 8.

Two major agents Commission agents were merchants, like most other large-scale contractors, although they were more often specialists in particular branches of trade. As with most other merchants of the time, unfortunately, very little documentation relating to their business dealings survives. There is enough, however, to reconstruct in outline the divergent careers of two of the Board’s most significant commission agents, Edward Knight and the Mellish brothers. Edward Knight was a ‘lighterman, granary keeper, dealer and chapman,’ based at Horslydown Lane, in the same area of Borough as the Dunkin family and many other corn merchants.46 Nothing is known of his early career, but by the late 1770s he was in partnership in the grain trade with his brother Joshua. Together they were employed as lightermen by Christopher Atkinson. Joshua Knight spoke at the Commission set up in 1782 to enquire into Atkinson’s affairs and the Victualling Board’s handling thereof. Knight stated that he had received twopence per ­quarter


London Gazette, 20 Jun. 1809.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

for delivering oats, whereas John Dunkin, also employed as a lighterman, had received threepence, and this was the rate that Atkinson had charged the Board for lighterage. However, he had evidently told the Board previously that he was allowed threepence, and when pressed as to why he replied that he had come unprepared to answer such questions because his reason for coming was ‘to solicit the custom of the Board.’47 Furthermore, when later he was asked to produce his lightering books he produced only a small volume of transcriptions from his original books, which he had destroyed. He claimed that burning his rough records after he had transcribed any parts he might need to refer back to was his usual practice. The Committee were suspicious and asked several other lightermen if they did the same. All replied that they did not, that it was ‘contrary to the usual practice,’ and that it was necessary to preserve records in case a dispute arose in future.48 Knight was clearly an unreliable witness. However, if the Board had cause to be suspicious of him, they were not sufficiently so to avoid doing business with him and his partner in future. As war loomed in 1792 the Board began advertising for tenders for wheat, to be supplied on contract. Joshua Knight had by then died, leaving Edward to continue the business alone, and he doubtless saw in the Victualling Board a good and reliable customer. In December 1792 he signed a contract to supply a thousand quarters of wheat, and the contract was extended to a further two hundred when he offered them to the Board at a lower rate. In 1793 he was by far the largest contractor for wheat, supplying 28,719 quarters to Deptford and Rotherhithe mills alone.49 His resources, buying power and commercial acumen helped through the crisis of 1795, and as a result the Commissioners decided to change their buying policy and employ him as an agent. Their minute noting the decision remarked upon their experience of his ‘ability and integrity,’ and stated: They have ground to believe full confidence may be placed [in him], to procure Wheat and other Grain for His Majesty’s Victualling Stores, on the best and most advantageous terms for the Crown.50

Knight justified this confidence, supplying 32,867 quarters to Deptford and Rotherhithe and 7,889 to Portsmouth in 1797.51 By 1801 he was also making deliveries to the mills at Dover.52

47 48 49 50 51 52

Report from the Committee Appointed to Examine into the Conduct of the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy so far as relates to supplying the Navy with Corn, Biscuit, Malt, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Beer and other Liquors, and with Casks (1782), p. 32. Report from the Committee Appointed to Examine into the Conduct of the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy so far as relates to supplying the Navy with Corn, Biscuit, Malt, Butter, Cheese, Wine, Beer and other Liquors, and with Casks (1782), p. 42. TNA, ADM 112/179, VB Contract Ledger, 1793. TNA, ADM 111/138, VB Minutes, 13 Jan. 1796. TNA, ADM 112/183, VB Contract Ledger, 1797. TNA, ADM 112/187, VB Contract Ledger, 1801.


Commission Agents

Knight’s supplies to the Board, along with those of other contractors, fell away during the Peace of Amiens, but as war was renewed they increased again, and he began also supplying wheat to Plymouth, which had previously been supplied by local contractors. However, his commitments were very large indeed by this time, and at some point around 1805–06 he began to run into financial difficulties. It has not been possible to trace the reasons for this, and it may have been unconnected with his dealings with the navy. As we saw above, the Board were prepared to support commission agents by granting them imprests, and they did this in Knight’s case, judging from several notes in the contract ledger for 1801 indicating that bills paid to him also discharged his imprest.53 Whatever the cause of his difficulties, they very probably played a part in the cessation of his agency in 1806, although he continued to supply grain on contract for a further year or so. Then in June 1809, a notice in the London Gazette announced that a commission of bankruptcy had been appointed against him.54 The Commission dragged on for three years before a case went to the High Court of Chancery. No records of this seem to survive and its resolution is unknown. Whatever happened, however, the career of Edward Knight, who had played such an important role in keeping the navy supplied with grain through two serious crises, was over. The last mention of him in the Gazette dates from August 1817: it is a note summoning his creditors to a hearing at the Quarter Sessions at Horsham, where ‘he is ready and willing to submit to be fully examined touching the justice of his conduct towards his creditors.’ Knight himself was incarcerated for debt in Horsham gaol.55 The Mellish brothers were in a very different line of business.56 Their dealings with the Board, however, followed a roughly similar trajectory, at least until the Peace of Amiens, after which their fortunes diverged sharply. Peter Mellish senior was a wholesale butcher at Smithfield market. Like several men in that line of trade, he had access to land on the Isle of Dogs, on which to fatten cattle for market after they had been driven from the areas where they had been reared. Many rented their land, but Mellish had resources enough to purchase thirty acres on the east side of Marsh Lane in 1772. He died in 1777, and his business was taken over by his sons, Peter and William, who extended the butchery business and their father’s estates, and acquired interests in various other activities. Both purchased livery in the Butchers Company in 1786–87: Peter became its master in 1800, and his brother two years later.57 They had a substantial shipping business based at Shadwell Dock, and

53 54 55 56 57

See for example the £1,030 paid to him in October 1801, TNA, ADM 111/187, VB Contract Ledger, 1801. London Gazette, 20 Jun. 1809. London Gazette, 2 Aug. 1817. They should not be confused with William Mellish, the MP for Grimsby and Director, later Governor, of the Bank of England. ‘Northern Millwall: The Byng and Mellish estates,’ Survey of London: volumes 43 and 44: Poplar, Blackwall and Isle of Dogs, ed. H. Hobhouse (London, 1994), pp. 418–423. URL: Accessed 24 July 2009.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

were partners, along with Robert Mellish, probably another brother, in the shipbuilding firm of Hill and Mellish, also of Shadwell. This partnership was dissolved in 1797.58 William also held shares in the Isle of Dogs Canal.59 Part of the Mellish brothers’ money had been made via contracting with the Victualling Board during the War of American Independence. At this time, live animals were supplied on large contracts, of which they held several. A typical note from August 1780 reads: Mr Mellish agreed with for seven thousand five hundred Oxen to be killed between the 1st October and 10th April next, the first killing to be drove in on Friday the 19th September next at twenty-seven shillings and four pence per Hundred weight.60

The Mellish brothers were among the largest contractors for oxen during that war, and the Board entertained a high opinion of their competence and probity. When war broke out again and the navy stood in need of large numbers of beasts, they were the obvious choice as commission agents to provide it. They also dealt with the fresh beef contracts for other ports, subcontracting with local butchers to provide fresh beef at ports in the south-east of England. For example, they wrote to the Board on 27 December 1803 stating that Messrs Lowden and Sons had offered to supply fresh beef at Yarmouth. The Board wrote back and directed them to agree with Lowden and Sons for three months’ supply, for which they would be paid in victualling bills, along with their usual commission.61 They would then pay Lowden and Sons. A similar arrangement seems to have existed for fresh beef at the Isle of Wight, judging from a minute in 1810 noting that complaints had been received against Robert Burge, the contractor there, for supplying shortweight beef. The Board directed Mellish to write to Burge and warn him that the Board would inflict the contract penalty on him if he continued supplying at short weight.62 The fact that the Board devolved much of the responsibility for making and administering fresh beef contracts onto Mellish reflects the high degree of confidence that the Commissioners placed in him, a confidence he certainly justified. By this time William Mellish was acting alone for, the day after the letter respecting Lowden and Sons had been written, Peter had died. This seems to have affected William little in the long term, for he continued the business as before. He died in 1833, leaving to his widow the estate on the Isle of Dogs, by then the largest private estate in the area, and a fortune reputed to amount to three million pounds.63 Commission agencies are among the most problematic aspects of naval victualling at the turn of the nineteenth century. For the historian they are difficult because,

London Gazette, 15 Aug. 1797. W.M. Stern, ‘The Isle of Dogs Canal: A Study in Early Public Investment,’ Economic History Review IV (1952), pp. 359–371 60 TNA, ADM 111/84, VB Minutes, 23 Aug. 1780. 61 TNA, ADM 111/169, VB Minutes, 27 Dec. 1803. 62 TNA, ADM 111/194, VB Minutes, 23 Mar. 1810. 63 ‘Northern Millwall: The Byng and Mellish estates.’ Accessed 24 July 2009. 58 59


Commission Agents

almost by definition, commission agents were men well known to and trusted by the Victualling Board. A lot of business with them was done verbally so the written record is patchy. For contemporaries, too, they were a complicated issue. In the first place, the question of trust never went away, for commission agents were always in a position that enabled them potentially to defraud the Board more easily than other contractors. Tighter control of agents after the Atkinson affair mitigated this to some extent, but not entirely. Secondly, although lessons were learned from the agreement with Atkinson, the Board was still relatively inexperienced at dealing with commission agents in 1793. Thirdly, the Atkinson affair highlighted a basic ambiguity in their position: were they acting as private merchants or were they in a sense employees? This was not just a question of form: it impacted upon the nature of the relationship between Crown and contractor, and the rights and obligations of each in respect of one another. As a result of all of this, the role of commission buying was never really settled, except in the case of live oxen, which the Mellish brothers, and later William alone, made a very satisfactory job of supplying. With other commodities, the Board oscillated between contracting and commission buying as circumstances appeared to them to dictate. The experiment with buying meat on commission in Ireland is a good example: it was a decision taken in the light of difficult circumstances, it endured for a few years with some success, but was then abandoned when those circumstances changed. Commission agents, then, played a vital role within the Victualling Board’s buying, but a role that remained somewhat ill-defined and to which attitudes were often ambivalent. Even so, if only because of the record of the Mellish brothers and Knight’s role in providing a significant proportion of the navy’s grain, the Board’s use of commission agents in the wars of 1793–1815 can be deemed a success.


7 Sea Provisions Contracts: Extending the Imperial Reach

By the late eighteenth century the Royal Navy’s reach was global. However, it was impracticable for the navy to maintain a victualling yard in every part of the world where ships operated, and too expensive to justify doing so at ports in the British Isles where ships touched more or less occasionally. The solution was to turn victualling over to a contractor, who undertook to provide the full range of sea provisions at a given place. Such contracts therefore represented a crucial way of augmenting the navy’s own facilities and extending its operational range. As a very rough index of their importance in victualling the fleets, the value of provisions supplied directly to ships by contractors in 1804 totalled £548,071, around 18 per cent of the total spent on provisions in that year. The uses of sea provisions contracts Engaging a contractor to provide all provisions was a longstanding means of supplying the navy. The first contractor for victualling the fleet was appointed in 1565, and until victualling was brought under the control of the Navy Commission in 1649 it was all done on contract. This resumed after the Restoration and continued until the establishment of the Victualling Board in 1683. During the late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, however, contracting had been in part supplanted by direct supply from the Victualling Board’s own expanding facilities. However, the Board’s own capacity to assemble, process and deliver provisions always lagged behind operational requirements, and in any case there were many places that were out of feasible reach of the victualling bases, especially as the geographical scope of sustained naval operations widened.


NMM, ADM BP/25b, Account of Naval Expenditure, 1804. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, pp. 43, 105–109.


Sea Provisions Contracts

In effect there were four ways of procuring provisions away from the main victualling yards. First, the Victualling Board could simply establish another base, sending out an Agent Victualler and shipping provisions to him as it judged necessary. This was done for the Leeward Islands in 1794, George Desborough being appointed Agent Victualler and ordered to take passage out to Antigua in a victualler about to leave for the island. Second, a peripatetic Agent Victualler could be attached to a particular squadron, either buying in provisions or liaising with yards to provide them or, in some instances, both. Nicholas Brown, for example, when agent to Lord Keith in the Mediterranean, arranged shipments of provisions with agents victualler at Gibraltar, Malta and Minorca, as well as buying them from north Africa. Thirdly, sea officers could buy provisions directly. Finally, a sea provisions contractor could be engaged. Which system was adopted depended on a variety of factors, such as the size of the fleet and hence its demand for provisions, the ability of the local market to supply them, the proximity of a base from which provisions could be sent and the reliability of supplies from different sources. Moreover, the different systems could be combined to varying extents. This flexibility and ability to adapt to suit particular circumstances was one of the strengths of the victualling system: not every means of supply could work in every area, but if one was not viable or failed there was invariably an alternative to fall back on. Establishing depots was expensive, and in any case it was unfeasible in remote locations where communication between the Board and agent could take many months, making timely assessment of requirements and sending of supplies from London impossible. Meanwhile, direct buying by sea officers or by designated merchants, ‘correspondents,’ acting on their directions, was inherently vulnerable to fraud and was phased out from the 1740s. By 1793, ships were still issued with ‘necessary money,’ but it was treated as very much a last resort, for use where other means of supply had failed or were non-existent. Buying by agents victualler was circumscribed for much the same reason. No major fleet in the wars of 1793–1815 depended wholly on buying by an Agent Victualler afloat. The last that had done so was the East Indies fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Hughes during the War of American Independence, the victualling of which was a debacle that demonstrates clearly everything that could and did go wrong with direct buying. The Agent Victualler attached to Hughes’s squadron was his secretary, Arthur Cuthbert, who served as such from 1780 until he returned home in 1784, after which Walter Urquhart acted as agent for a further year before he returned to England with Hughes and the rest of the squadron. Cuthbert and Urquhart bought supplies    

TNA, ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 1 Mar. 1794. See for example, TNA, ADM 111/152, VB Minutes, 22 Jul. 1799; ADM 111/157, VB Minutes, 8 Dec. 1800; ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 16 Mar. 1801; ADM 111/161, VB Minutes, 14 Nov. 1801; NMM, KEI/L/23, Keith papers, Keith to David Heatley, 31 Jul. 1799; KEI/15/1, Translation of Gezar Pasha to Keith, 15 Jun. 1801.   Baugh, British Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole, pp. 391–392.   Commission on Fees, Ninth Report, p. 732.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

on the open market and were also supposed to receive them from the East India Company, which under an Act of Parliament of 1781 was responsible for victualling Crown forces in its territories. Neither arrangement worked well. Hughes did not enjoy a good relationship with the Company, from whose servants he complained of ‘insults’ and a general lack of co-operation. Nor did they prove themselves able to provide for his squadron’s needs. Over the winter of 1782 the authorities at Bombay informed him that it was ‘totally out of our power’ to provide him with the stores and provisions he needed or the cash to buy them on the open market. Further disputes followed in the spring, when he refused supplies from the Company, arguing that its servants would not be able to assemble the required quantities or deliver them to Madras, and that in any case what he had so far been provided with was of poor quality.10 After another exchange of letters with Calcutta, Hughes lost his temper and accused the Bengal Presidency of, ‘an attempt to ruin the Companies of the several Ships by holding up to him … partial supplies of Bread and other Articles.’11 There were further disagreements over a supply of six months’ provisions to be provided in September, Hughes arguing that it would have been ‘highly imprudent’ for him to depend on the Company since supplies would not arrive at Madras before the north-east monsoon forced him to quit the Coromandel Coast. Instead, he instructed Cuthbert to buy provisions from Bengal.12 Hughes was not entirely unjustified in refusing to trust the Company’s servants, but his motives for putting supplies in the hands of his secretary were not altogether public spirited. John Cochrane, later victualling contractor, stated in 1793 that: The Plunder of Government in the supplying of his Majesty’s Ships with Stores and Provisions previous to the Honourable Admiral Cornwallis’s Command in India [before 1788] was a matter of such public notoriety that even the shares and proportions in which this Plunder was divided was known to every body.

Cochrane was hardly a neutral observer but the allegations he went on to make were detailed, specific and plausible. They involved purchases of provisions at grossly inflated prices with profits split between seller, agent and Admiral, deliberate destruction of stores to create opportunities for further purchases, and the use of a ship intended for transporting provisions in lucrative private trade.13 Having examined the victualling of the East Indies squadron the Commission on Fees remarked that:

      10 11 12 13

BL, IOR/A/2/9, Charters and Treaties, vol. 9. TNA, ADM 1/164, Hughes to Admiralty, 12 Aug. & 15 Oct. 1782; TNA, ADM 1/166, Hughes to Admiralty, 20 Mar. 1784. TNA, ADM 1/166, Bombay Presidency to Hughes, 31 Dec. 1782. TNA, ADM 1/166, undated observations by Sir Edward Hughes on the victualling of the fleet. BL, IOR/H/358, Extract of the Letter General from Bengal, 28 Oct. 1783. TNA, ADM1/166, undated observations by Sir Edward Hughes relating to the victualling of the fleet. NLS, MS 3846, Memorandum on the Supplying of His Majesty’s Ships with Stores and


Sea Provisions Contracts Experience hath fully proved that there are no cases in which greater frauds are committed, both in the Navy and victualling services, than in purchases made by pursers, or occasional Agents, appointed to supply large fleets in places where there are not regular establishments.14

Among their reasons for forming this judgement was the fact that Cuthbert and Urquhart had purchased nearly 66,000 gallons of vinegar, when the squadron in India had used only 714 throughout the whole of the Seven Years War. Unsurprisingly, the report strongly criticised the excessive cost of victualling in India and the lack of checks on Agents Victualler.15 Some years later the Victualling Board, examining the accounts, remarked upon the ‘in several instances fallacious’ documents Cuthbert had submitted, and noted that on occasion he had purchased more casks than the ships could have stowed.16 As a result, the decision was made by the Admiralty to turn victualling in the East Indies over to contract, which was put into effect by Hughes’s successor on the station, Commodore William Cornwallis. The first contract was won by a Calcutta merchant who for unstated reasons gave it up after only five months. A second contract was advertised for and won by John Cochrane. Cornwallis’s letter to the Admiralty informing them of these developments makes clear that he saw the early contracts as rather experimental and that ‘a little perseverance’ would be needed before an ideal arrangement could be devised. Even so, he stated that at the present prices the contract represented ‘a considerable saving to the public,’ and that there was no ‘opening to abuses of any kind by which Government can in any manner suffer, and I believe the Men to be infinitely better off.’17 Goods provided at a fixed price were not vulnerable to the sort of wholesale peculation that Cuthbert and Urquhart had practised.18 By 1793, then, sea provisions contracts had become the usual means of provisioning ships operating out of easy reach of the Victualling Board’s own facilities, and also at British ports where it was not viable to maintain a permanent base. Such contracts were made for many places throughout the British Isles. Some of these were individual ports, such as Liverpool and Leith; others covered areas containing several smaller ports, such as the Channel Islands.19 Some were modest undertakings, such as those for ports such as Appledore or Whitehaven, where ships called only infrequently; others were much bigger, such as those for Leith and Yarmouth, which for a while was the largest and most important of all the ports in the British

14 15 16 17 18 19

Provisions by the Hon John Cochrane. Commission on Fees, Ninth Report, p. 731. Commission on Fees, Ninth Report, pp. 731–734. TNA, ADM 110/39, VB to Charles Long Esq., 5 Jun. 1793. TNA, ADM 1/167, Cornwallis to Admiralty, 4 Oct. 1790. For a fuller discussion of the victualling of the East Indies fleet, see M.H. Wilcox, ‘This Great Complex Concern: Victualling the Royal Navy on the East Indies Station, 1780–1815,’ forthcoming. The Channel Islands were provisioned on one contract from 1803: before this there were separate contracts for Guernsey and Jersey: see SFDB.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Isles victualled on contract. In general, contracts for ports on the North Sea and Channel coasts were larger than those for ports on the west coast, reflecting higher levels of naval activity in these waters. Sea provisions contracts in Britain could be significant undertakings, but many of those for provisioning warships overseas were far larger. During the wars of 1793–1815, contracts existed to provision ships in various places all around the globe. Among the largest and most important were various contracts for victualling in the Caribbean. This was divided between the Jamaica and Leeward Islands stations, and the contracts for victualling them were always separate, but within each the area covered by contracts varied. At times the Jamaica contract included New Providence; at other times there was a separate contract. Similarly, successions of Leeward Islands contracts encompassed shifting combinations of Antigua – the contractors based at English Harbour – Barbados, Martinique, Trinidad and Surinam. Further north, contracts existed for Bermuda and Norfolk, Virginia, which were sometimes combined into one contract. In Canada, Halifax, in Nova Scotia, was victualled on contracts that from 1803 also included Quebec. Both were subsumed, along with Bermuda and Norfolk, into one contract held by Andrew Belcher from 1812.20 Whether sea provisions contracts were for stations in the British Isles or overseas, they offered much the same advantages to the navy. The contracts allowed victualling to be provided at a place without the trouble and expense of setting up a state-run establishment, and at the end of hostilities the operation could be dismantled quickly by simply giving the contractor notice of the termination of the contract, which would then expire at the end of a set period. Contracting also gave rise to none of the fixed costs associated with victualling bases. There were no government employees to be paid and no stores and facilities to maintain. These costs were passed on to the contractor and, since he was paid only for what he delivered, when demand for provisions was low the cost to the public purse was minimal. Contracting also entailed simpler administration than other means of providing for overseas stations. Although auditing contractors’ accounts and checking their receipts for supplies against those of the pursers whose ships they had supplied was a laborious job, it needed to be done for bases operated by the Board as well, with the added complication of the Agent Victualler’s cash and store accounts. Eliminating these made fraud harder to conceal and easier to detect. Meanwhile, there was no need to assess and reassess the need for provisions on a station victualled on contract, nor to produce, assemble and transport them over potentially very long distances. These tasks were passed to the contractor, who was liable for the cost of any provisions that failed to reach their destination, were damaged in transit or decayed in store, and who was locked into his contract via a bond of several thousand pounds. A large contract might yield a correspondingly large profit, but it was not an obligation to be taken on lightly.




Sea Provisions Contracts

Making and administering contracts As late as the 1780s, contracts for provisioning the army were made by the Treasury, which solicited proposals from known merchants, negotiated terms with them as a group and renegotiated quantities, prices and delivery arrangements annually.21 The Victualling Board did things very differently, reflecting the fact that throughout the eighteenth century the navy was ahead of the army in developing the use of practices such as competitive tendering. By the 1740s, all sea provisions contracts were made by competitive tender, and this remained the case into the early nineteenth century.22 Navy contractors sometimes formed partnerships to execute individual contracts, but each contract was handled separately and there were no group negotiations with the contractors, although particular contracts could be and were amended to accommodate changing circumstances. The form of tenders and contracts did evolve, however. Contracts for victualling were made at a fixed rate per man per day until the mid-eighteenth century.23 However, by the 1780s tenders were more detailed and specified the prices of each species of provisions to be supplied, as Table 7.1 shows. Table 7.1: Tenders for victualling at Cork, received on 24 April 1793

Bread (per cwt)

Messrs Reeve and Green

Messrs Brown and McCarthy

John Grant

17s 5½d

18s 0d

21s 0d

Beer (per tun)

69s 11d

60s 0d

75s 0d

Beef (per 8lb piece)

1s 11½d

2s 2d

1s 8d

Pork (per 4lb piece)

1s 2½d

1s 2d

1s 3d

Pease (per bushel)

4s 0d

6s 0d

6s 6d

Oatmeal (per bushel)

3s 0d

5s 0d

4s 0d

Butter (per lb)

0s 8d

0s 6d

0s 9d

Cheese (per lb)

0s 5d

0s 5d

0s 6d

Vinegar (per gall) Bisket bags (each)

1s 0d

1s 0d


      1s 3d

0s 6d       n/a

Source: TNA, ADM 112/160, Tender Book 1784–1807

21 22 23

Baker, Government and Contractors, see Chapter II. Baugh, Naval Administration in the Age of Walpole, p. 399. A detailed discussion of the process of making contracts in the 1730s is given in D. Crewe, Yellow Jack and the Worm: British Naval Administration in the West Indies, 1739–1748 (Liverpool, 1993), Chapter 4.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

As Table 7.1 shows, prospective contractors often returned tenders that were lower on some items but higher on others than their rivals. Moreover, the prices alone were not enough to judge the overall cost since some items were needed in far greater quantities than others. The one pence difference between the tenders on the price of pork, for instance, was far more significant than the sixpence difference in the price of vinegar. Therefore, the cost of victualling one hundred men for one week was worked out for each tender, with a nominal sum for necessary money included (in this case £1 11s 5½d). These were then reduced to a figure per man per day, expressed in pence. In this case the man/day figures worked out to:

Messrs Reeve and Green Messrs Brown and McCarthy John Grant

9.96d 9.83d 10.67d24

William Brown and Charles McCarthy’s tender worked out cheapest, albeit by a fraction, and they were duly awarded the contract, which came into force just three days later. This short lead-in time between the contract being signed and coming into force was not uncommon for contracts within the British Isles: contracts for overseas stations were usually tendered for and signed weeks or months beforehand, allowing time for word to be got to the contractor’s agent, or to the contractor himself if he was resident on the station. The tender for Alexander Donaldson’s first contract for the Jamaica station, for instance, was handled by his London-based partner, George Glenny. The contract was signed on 1 November 1791, and came into force just over five months later, on 18 April 1792.25 The terms of sea provisions contracts were standardised, although there were some variations, mainly dependent on locality. The vast majority were standing contracts, although late in the war a few were made for set periods of time, usually one year.26 The prices of each item to be supplied were specified on the first page of the contract. Normally these were much the same as the prices advanced in the successful tender, but there was some room for negotiation between tender and agreement. The successful bidder for the Nova Scotia and Quebec contract in September 1793 was London merchant James Brymer. His tender included beef at 2s 6d per piece and pork at 1s 8d, but these prices were raised by Board order to 2s 9d and 2s respectively. Brymer probably solicited this, since it is unlikely the Board would have granted price rises without being asked. Even taking account of the raised price, however, Brymer’s tender was still 0.63d per man/day below the next cheapest. The contract was signed a week later and came into force the following April.27 The contract prices included:

24 25 26 27

This is an exact transcription: tenders were worked out to two decimal places. TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract. See for example the contract of A.C. Windeyer to supply Sea Provisions at Dublin, dated 1 Dec. 1814. TNA, ADM 112/145, VB Contract Abstract. TNA, ADM 112/160, Tender Book 1784–1807, see Nova Scotia and Quebec, 4 Sep. 1793.


Sea Provisions Contracts New Casks of all kinds that may be wanted for the package of the said Provisions, setting up and trimming of Casks, Cartage, Labour, Freight Boathire, and all other charges whatsoever, relating to the supplies required to be made under this Contract.28

Canvas bisket bags were included as contract items, but they were to be supplied only ‘upon the most urgent occasions’ and most of the time existing bags were to be reused. The species of provisions to be supplied were printed on the front page of the contract. By the last years of the war there were slightly different forms for home and overseas contracts, reflecting the fact that not all of the official rations could be easily or cheaply obtained in some places. A contract of 1815 for Milford Haven, held by a local merchant, lists all of the items in Table 7.1, with the addition of flour, suet, raisins and sugar: a contemporaneous contract for Halifax, Quebec and Bermuda omits the beer, cheese and butter but adds rum, wine, flour, suet, raisins, sugar and cocoa, with spruce beer as a handwritten addition.29 Contracts in the East Indies were different again, including fresh beef, rice, wheat, ‘dhol’ (dhal) and black tea, and with provision for arrack to be supplied in place of rum, which it frequently was.30 There was also provision in all contracts for other necessary substitutes to be made for the official diet if absolutely necessary, in which case the contractor had to submit accounts of what he had provided, along with an affidavit, after which he would be paid ‘as the Commissioners … for the time being shall please, and see fit to order.’ Although the East Indies contract included fresh beef, this was unusual, and on most stations fresh beef was supplied on a separate contract, as were certain other items. In home waters beer was a contract item and wine and spirits were supplied on separate contracts, whereas on most overseas stations beer was unobtainable or the climate made it difficult to store, so most overseas contracts included either wine or spirits. Water and, where obtainable, fresh vegetables were also frequently supplied on separate contracts, as was tobacco after the Victualling Board took on the responsibility for supplying it in 1799. Although these were technically supply contracts, they were a significant supplement to the main sea provisions contracts. One such contract on which we have significant information was for supplying fresh beef in the West Indies between 1795 and 1801. It was in fact a contract to supply British troops there but it functioned in very much the same way as similar naval contracts, and gives an insight into the complexities of the commercial relationships involved in executing large contracts.

28 29 30

See for example TNA, ADM 112/84, Contract of Alexander Thomson and Alexander Grant for Jamaica and New Providence, 9 Jun 1815. TNA, ADM 112/84, VB Contract Book, contract of David Lewis for Milford Haven, 22 Dec. 1815; Contract of Andrew Belcher for Halifax, Quebec and Bermuda, 6 Jun. 1815. TNA, ADM 112/120, Indenture amending the contract of Messrs Balfour and Baker, 1 Aug. 1810.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The contract was actually held by Martinique-based George Cruden, a member of a large and highly reputable mercantile house based in London, and executed in partnership with Francis Pollard and a Mr Stuart. The house of Phyn, Ellice and Inglis stood surety for them and acted as their London agents. Meanwhile, Cruden, Pollard and Stuart maintained an account with William and James Constable, who arranged the shipping of live oxen from New England to Martinique and Barbados. Illustrating the significance of familial links in such mercantile networks, William Constable was brother-in-law of James Phyn and had previously been involved in Phyn’s firm prior to Phyn’s move to England in 1774. After the American Revolution, Constable established himself in New York. He already had experience of trade between New England, the east coast of Canada, Europe and the West Indies.31 The wealth and shipping contacts that he and James Constable developed made them ideal for involvement in the contract, and they engaged Jeremiah Wadsworth of Hartford, Connecticut, and a Joseph Howland to despatch the oxen, which were mainly shipped from New Haven, Connecticut, and Philadelphia, usually in five or six shipments at monthly intervals, whose value between May and October 1796 averaged about £650.32 A secondary source was Santo Domingo, which provided cheaper but poorer-quality beasts, leading Constable to remark that we are aware that the cattle procured in the [Spanish] Islands are infinitely cheaper than those sent from hence & there is no Difficulty in Getting any quantity of the former; but the quality is so much Inferior that they cannot do without a certain proportion of American Beef, other wise the contract would be highly lucrative.33

This source dried up when war broke out between Britain and Spain, leading to increased dependence upon New England. There were few stipulations on the origins and sources of foodstuffs. As a report on military contracting put it: Whether the articles contracted for are the produce of England or of Ireland, of the Colonies, or of America, is altogether [a] matter of indifference to Government; the Contractor takes these circumstances into his calculation of price; but the Sterling price contracted for, is the only one with which Government has any concern.34

This gave the contractor freedom to buy where supplies were cheapest and most reliable. The only exceptions were in the case of cheese on home contracts, which had to be Cheshire, Gloucestershire, Warwickshire or another cheese ‘of equal goodness.’

31 32 33 34

Fleming, Phyn, Ellice and Company, p. 26. NYPL, Constable-Pierrepoint Papers, Box 7, Jeremiah Wadsworth in Account Current with Elias Shipman. List of ships sailing between 16 May and 5 Oct. 1796. Shipman was evidently Wadsworth’s agent, and was based at New Haven, Connecticut. NYPL, Constable-Pierrepoint Papers, Letter books, vol. 32, Constable to Phyn, Ellice and Inglis, 25 Aug. 1796. Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, p. 301.


Sea Provisions Contracts

The origins of salted meat were not specified, although most contractors seem to have bought from Ireland, but the size of the pieces (eight-pound pieces of beef and four-pound of pork) was, and casks were to be marked with the curer’s name and the date and place of packing. There were more prescriptions for liquid provisions: rum had to be from the West Indies, and wine to be white, Fayal, Tenerife or Lisbon. These conditions were imposed in the interests of quality control, and the contract specified that all provisions had to be ‘good, sound, sweet and in all respects fit for His Majesty’s Service.’ A warranty period was also specified which varied, mainly according to climate. In humid, hot climates such as the West Indies or India it was usually four months, whereas six was usual in more temperate regions. The contractor was liable for the cost of anything that decayed within that time, and for the cost of any replacements that had to be bought. He was also responsible for defraying the cost of anything that had to be purchased in lieu of supplies he had failed to make. The mechanisms for provisioning ships and paying the contractors were simple. Ships’ pursers, or commanding officers in the case of vessels too small to carry a purser, indented to the contractor for what they required. Later contracts stipulate that, ‘winds and weather permitting,’ indents had to be complied with within forty-eight hours of receipt by the contractor or his agent. The contracts include a form detailing what the ship had in store and what was required, and forms for pursers’ receipts for what had been received. The contractor then drew Bills on the Victualling Board, in course before 1797 and ninety-day bills thereafter, to reimburse him for what had been provided. The contractor was obliged to remit accounts of what he had in store monthly to the Board, and every six months his accounts of deliveries, together with all pursers’ receipts, were to be delivered to the Board, along with an affidavit affirming that everything itemised had actually been provided. These were checked by the Board, and any balance due to the contractor or Crown settled.35 Meanwhile, at the end of a commission, pursers’ accounts of provisions were also sent to the Board and checked against the contractor’s accounts. All goods were paid for in Sterling, removing opportunities for fraud and disputes over the exchange rate. Contractors had to give sureties for the due performance of their contracts, and they were liable to penalties for non-performance. It was impractical to set fixed penalties for standing contracts, but the Commission of Naval Revision stated that these should be ‘proportionate to the magnitude and nature’ of the contract, formalising an arrangement that had long existed.36 By 1815 these varied, from £500 for a twelve-month contract for Milford Haven to £15,000 for major overseas standing contracts.37

35 36 37

The foregoing discussion draws on various original contracts in TNA, ADM 112/84, ADM 112/118–21 and contract abstracts ADM 112/140, 145 and 156. Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 34. TNA, ADM 112/84, VB Contract Books, contract of Alexander Thomson and Alexander Grant for Jamaica and New Providence, 9 Jun. 1815; contract of David Lewis for Milford Haven, 22 Dec. 1815; Contract of Andrew Belcher for Halifax, Quebec and Bermuda, 6 Jun. 1815.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The terms of contracts by the first decade of the nineteenth century represented the fruits of more than a century’s accumulated experience. This allowed the Victualling Board to draw up contracts in which the obligations of each party were more tightly defined than before, certain loopholes had been plugged, and points at which confusion or disputes could arise had been clarified. For example, the stipulations on contractors’ responsibility for the cost of provisions condemned within warranty had not existed in the 1740s and disputes had arisen as a result, whereas by the 1790s the contractor was unequivocally liable and there was no scope for confusion.38 In the administration of contracts, too, the Board’s experience told. In previous decades it had been vulnerable to manipulation by its contractors, and in some respects it still was, but it became an increasingly robust negotiator, especially after reforms in 1809. There was no regular process for renegotiating existing standing contracts, principally because there was no need for one, but the Board could and did negotiate with individual contractors when necessary. The most common reason for contractors to request revisions to their contract terms was that commodity prices had risen, eating into their profit margins and in some instances exposing them to a loss. Disputes with contractors supplying other items also arose periodically. John Thomson jnr’s contract to supply sea provisions to ships at his home port of Leith came into force in August 1794.39 It was his second such undertaking, he having provisioned ships at Leith in the American war. Three months later he petitioned the Board to complain that the ships were not taking his beer, and instead procuring rum from Dennis Lyons, the contractor for water, rum and fresh beef.40 He also complained that Lyons was using his beer casks for water and suggested that having two contractors created difficulties. Doubtless he had seen an opportunity to profit from the water contract as well. He sent a copy of the petition to Henry Dundas (later Viscount Melville), the Secretary for War, soliciting him to write to the Board in support and pointing out that he had supported Dundas’s interest in two general elections in Fife, and that he had ‘had the thanks’ of Dundas for his ‘extraordinary exertions’ in successfully victualling a large fleet bound for the Baltic in 1781, despite the Commander-in-Chief ’s certainty that it could not be done. He also stated that, ‘I employ no agent but superintend and direct everything myself.’41 This was all to no avail, for Thomson wrote to the Board again the following July, as the food crisis deepened and provisions prices rose sharply, complaining that his previous letter had gone unanswered and stating that:

38 Crewe, Yellow Jack and the Worm, pp. 157–158. 39 TNA, ADM 112/140, Contract Abstract. 40 Dennis Lyons was based in Limerick, and presumably employed an agent to conduct the Leith contracts. TNA, ADM 110/39, VB to Admiralty, 27 Apr. 1793. 41 NAS, GD51/2/27/2, Melville Papers, Petition of John Thomson jnr to VB, 5 Nov 1794; GD51/2/27/1, Melville Papers, Thomson to Melville, 5 Nov 1794. See also TNA, ADM 112/140, Contract Abstract.


Sea Provisions Contracts Since the 1st January last the progressive rise on every Species of Provisions has been such as never known in this Place before viz.: On Bread, Beef, Pork, Butter & Cheese, now about 25 per Cent and Oatmeall [sic] 50 per Cent and Pease 100 per Cent from which unexpected Event, I must lose a large sum of money, and more so should a large Fleet touch here and be supplied.42

The lack of an answer to Thomson’s initial letter may be an indication of the pressure the Board was under at the time, or it may reflect the inefficiency bewailed by the Commission on Fees and later the Commission of Naval Revision. His second letter evidently had the desired effect, however, for shortly afterwards revisions were made to the contract prices, and then again in October of that year and subsequently, as Table 7.2 details. Table 7.2: Prices and revisions of the sea provisions contract at Leith, 1794–1800 Item

Contract price

Prior to Oct. 1795

Oct. to Dec. 1795

Bisket (cwt)




Beer (tun)




Beef (piece)

1s 4d

2s 6d

2s 6d

Feb .1796

Sep. to Dec. 1799

Feb. 1800

30s 72s 2s 8d

Pork (piece)

1s 0d

1s 6d

1s 6d

1s 9d

Pease (bushel)

3s 0d

7s 0d

7s 0d

8s 0d

5s 6d

6s 0d

Oatmeal (bushel)

3s 0d

4s 8d

5s 2d

5s 6d

7s 6d

10s 0d

Butter (lb)

0s 8d

0s 9d

0s 9d

Cheese (lb)

0s 5d

0s 7d

0s 7d

Vinegar (gallon)

0s 6d

Bisket bags (each)

1s 3d

Source: TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract Notes: the first round of price revisions are undated, but must have been prior to October 1795; those between September and December 1799 were as follows: oatmeal and pease September, bisket November, beer December.

These price revisions had the desired effect, and Thomson held the Leith contract until September 1802. At this stage, there was no automatic mechanism for cutting contract prices once the commodity price rises that had precipitated their increase had passed. Instead, price rises were sometimes granted for specified periods, such as Thomson’s for October to December 1795, or the advance granted to Alexander Donaldson on the Jamaica contract in March 1793, which was to last 42

NAS, GD51/2/49/2, Melville Papers, John Thomson jnr to VB, 2 Jul. 1795.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

until six months after the war ended.43 Occasionally a note in the contract abstracts records that prices for one or more items were cut back, either to a lower rate or to the original price.44 Prices on several contracts were cut back to their original rates in September 1802.45 However, the records are sometimes unclear and it does seem that many, if not most, price adjustments were open-ended, which did represent an opportunity for a contractor to make a large profit once commodity prices had fallen. This was recognised by the Commission of Revision, one of whose recommendations was that price adjustments should be granted only for a maximum of six months, after which time prices should revert to contract rate unless the Board directed otherwise, which in practice would only have been done at the contractor’s request.46 In this respect, as in others connected with contract administration, the recommendations of the Commission of Revision did not sweep away a system that had developed over decades, but rather regularised and formalised it. Contracts and contractors Sea provisions contractors defy easy generalisation. In part this reflects a lack of biographical information for many, but it also reflects the diversity of their backgrounds and business interests, and the fact that, although sea provisions contracts were standardised and similar the world over, a contract for a small British port was a very different undertaking from provisioning the Jamaica station. A good index of the size of the provisioning operation at different ports is the amount of money drawn in bills on the Victualling Board. Table 7.3 shows these figures for selected ports for every fifth year from 1795 to 1810. Table 7.3: Total of bills on the Victualling Board drawn in selected ports, 1795–1810 Port






£1,760 0s 8½d


£24,124 2s 9¼d

£2,692 6s 7d

£1,504 4s 2d

£2,518 13s 3d

£9,184 4s 3d

£10,622 10s 5d

£2,415 2s 2d


£9,419 14s 11¾d

£5,037 1s 6d

£8,052 2s 1d


£6,516 5s 7¾d

£14,117 17s 0d

£6,342 14a 1d

£1,137 13s 5d


£52,948 2s 9d

£187,957 5s 2d


£103,804 16s 4d


£37,298 11s 8½d

£53,518 15s 10d

£20,934 13s 4d


Nova Scotia

£29,634 9s 7¼d

£75,614 18s 11d

£24,643 1s 9d


Source: TNA, ADM 112/181, 186, 191 and 196, VB Contract Ledgers. Notes: These figures include fresh beef and rum, usually supplied on separate contracts.

43 44 45 46

NMM, ADM DP/23, Statement of Contracts for Supplying His Majesty’s Ships at Jamaica, 26 Nov. 1803. See TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstract. TNA, ADM 111/165, VB Minutes, 28 Sep. 1802. Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 34.


Sea Provisions Contracts

Clearly, there was a very great difference in scale between the contracts at, for instance, Jamaica and Bristol. Moreover, there were a few contracts for places where ships rarely visited and provisions were supplied infrequently, if at all. In September 1802 the Board reviewed its standing contracts, cancelled several it deemed unnecessary in peacetime, reduced prices of others back to their original levels, and observed that ‘there not having been any supplies made for a considerable time past’ under contracts for provisioning Appledore and Poole, Dartmouth, Exeter and Whitehaven, they should be terminated.47 Contracts such as these were not major undertakings, and could easily have been handled as a sideline to a local merchant’s business, but large contracts were a different matter and their holders sometimes relinquished their other commitments to concentrate on them entirely. This was especially so for those who held several contracts at a time, many of whom also held contracts for supplies to the army overseas. A merchant contemplating taking on a large sea provisions contract needed four things. Firstly, he needed a substantial amount of start-up capital. Contractors’ records are thin on the ground and the precise sums cannot be discovered in most cases, but when Andrew Todd Patterson took over the contract for the Leeward Islands in September 1815, after the war had ended, he spent £8,956 buying Scott Burn & Co, the previous contractors, out of their stocks of provisions, and a further £539 on ‘utensils, vats &c necessary for carrying on the business of the Contract.’48 This was a considerable sum of money but probably far lower than average, since the provisions he purchased from Scott Burn & Co included only 72 barrels of pork, 255 tierces of beef and 33 barrels of flour. In wartime, demands on the contractor were much heavier and stocks on hand correspondingly larger. A prospective contractor also required ready access to credit, but for a major merchant this would not have posed too great a difficulty. Any successful merchant therefore had to be creditworthy and known to be so, and the Board naturally avoided contracting with men who were not. This represented an informal safeguard against men without sufficient resources gaining contracts: the penal bond and sureties represented a more formal one. Access to money and credit were essential for any major contractor, but no less essential were expertise and contacts. No one could hope to fulfil a contract without knowing where the various foodstuffs required could be sourced from and how much they were likely to cost at different times of the year, and having trustworthy contacts in those places to buy and ship the requisite quantities. Many of the major contractors, too, were based in London, so they needed partners or agents to undertake the day-to-day operation of their contracts. There is little trace of these agents, and even names can be hard to discover, but such evidence as can be found suggests that local tradesmen and merchants performed these functions. Quintin Blackburn

47 48

TNA, ADM 111/164, VB Minutes, 28 Sep. 1802. TNA, ADM 109/5, A.T. Patterson to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, 17 Dec. 1816.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

was a merchant based at North Shields. In 1794 he gained the contract for supplying sea provisions to ships at Newcastle and Tynemouth, which he held until, like many others, it was discontinued in September 1802.49 Being a local man he was well acquainted with the provisions markets in the north-east, and as a contractor he understood the needs and methods of the navy. This made him an ideal man to act as local agent for subsequent holders of the contract. When John Grant, who gained it in 1810, went bankrupt two years later, Blackburn made affidavit that Grant was indebted to him by £142 11s 0d, ‘upon balance of accounts for Provisions purchased by him … and furnished to His Majesty’s Ships in the Port of Newcastle upon Tyne by the order and on account of the said Bankrupt.’50 Some other sea provisions contractors had previously been agents to others, such as Andrew Belcher, who was noted in 1795 as the agent in Halifax for James Brymer.51 Entry requirements for large contracts were therefore high, and the number of men qualified to hold them was accordingly limited. A majority were London merchants, and most held contracts for areas with which they were familiar through their regular trades. Thomas Pinkerton was described in 1794 as a merchant, dealer and chapman, resident in Lower East Smithfield.52 By 1812, he had moved to New Broad Street. He traded with the West Indies and was clearly a man of substantial means, for he owned the Windsor Forest Estate, a plantation in the colony of Demerara worth an estimated £30,000, in addition to property in east London and rights to use the Kingston Wharf in Wapping.53 His familiarity with the West Indies trades made him ideally suited to supply ships in the Caribbean, and at various times between 1793 and 1812 he held contracts for Barbados, Trinidad, Surinam and the Leeward Islands. In addition he also held several contracts in the British Isles, for Falmouth, Harwich, Hull, Leith, Dublin, Whitehaven, Newcastle and the Channel Islands, as well as a large number of supply contracts, principally of grains and related products, for the British victualling bases.54 He also held contracts for supplies to the army in the West Indies.55 Unfortunately, no business papers relating to him survive and his other trading activities can only be guessed at, but it is not improbable that with the outbreak of war and the opportunity to take on several lucrative provisioning contracts he gave up his other engagements to concentrate upon them. Another significant contracting partnership was that of London merchants Andrew Jordaine and Richard Shaw. Their partnership had been formed as far back

49 50 51 52 53 54 55

TNA, ADM 112/140, VB Contract Abstracts; ADM 111/164, VB Minutes, 28 Sep. 1802. TNA, B 3/1904, Bankruptcy Commission papers, Declaration of Quintin Blackburn, 18 Dec. 1812. TNA, ADM 112/181, VB Contract Ledger, 1795. Belcher’s involvement is noted in the table of imprest accounts. Kent’s Directory of London, 1794. TNA, B 3/1907, Bankruptcy Commission papers, Memorandum of the creditors of Thomas Pinkerton, 27 Sep. 1814. TNA, ADM 112/140, 145 & 156, VB Contract Abstracts. Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, Appendix 17.


Sea Provisions Contracts

as 1768, on the death of Jordaine’s father, a city Alderman and merchant of Huguenot descent whose bequest to his son provided part of the start-up capital for Messrs Jordaine and Shaw. During the War of American Independence they held contracts with the Victualling Board for Irish meat and butter, provisioning contracts for the army in America, and they hired out their vessels to the Navy Board. At that time they represented a new generation of contractors, without the family and political connections and parliamentary seats of better-established men, but with considerable expertise in the provisioning trades.56 After 1793 they resumed contracting along much the same lines as a decade before, with contracts for the army in the West Indies and supplying Irish provisions to the Victualling Board on contract and on commission, as discussed in Chapter 6.57 On their own account they held few sea provisions contracts. However, they were evidently viewed as a safe pair of hands. It was they to whom the Board turned when it decided to appoint a buyer of Irish provisions, and it turned to them again in 1802 when Jamaica contractor Alexander Donaldson ran into financial difficulties. In July 1803 Jordaine and Shaw agreed to take over the contract on the same terms as Donaldson. This arrangement only lasted three months, however, since Donaldson recovered from his ‘temporary embarrassment,’ and the contract was signed back to him without Jordaine and Shaw having made any supplies.58 It was always possible to transfer contracts with the Board’s agreement, and after the competence and creditworthiness of the new contractor had been verified, but the rules on doing so were tightened up after 1809: contractors had to make affidavit that they did not profit by the transaction, and they remained partly liable for non-performance.59 Although the majority of sea provisions contractors were merchants, there were exceptions. Archibald Charles Windeyer of Chatham is described in original contracts as a bisket baker and miller.60 He was very probably the same individual as C. Windeyer, who appears in the records at much the same time, holding similar contracts. Windeyer supplied flour and bisket to Chatham, and occasionally Dover and Portsmouth, from 1807 onwards. In December 1814, he took on the sea provisions contracts for Milford Haven, Waterford, Liverpool and Dublin. All of these were time-limited contracts, made for one year at a time, which probably reflects the Board’s awareness that many contracts would not be required after the war’s end, which by then was imminent. It may be, too, that men new to sea provisions contracting were happier to take on annual contracts, since these did not entail the open-ended commitments of standing contracts.

See Baker, Government and Contractors, pp. 218n19, 232–239. Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, Appendix 17; TNA, ADM 112/179–199, VB Contract Ledgers. 58 TNA, ADM DP/23, Statement of Contracts for Supplying His Majesty’s Ships at Jamaica, 26 Nov. 1803. 59 Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 34. 60 TNA, ADM 112/110, VB Contract Book, 1803–10.

56 57


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Rewards and risks Much as contractors might have spoken of their ‘zeal for the Public Service’61 and patriotic desire to provide for the armed forces, the underlying motive for taking on contracts was profit. Few contractors’ patriotism overrode their desire to make money, as contemporary commentators such as Cobbett were well aware, and this, coupled with the vast profits made by a few high-profile military contractors, gave contractors in general their bad reputation for making vast profits at the expense of an overburdened public and an ill-fed military. In fact, contractors’ profits are extremely hard to estimate, owing to factors such as: The proportion of profits absorbed by agents … the saving to be achieved through large-scale purchases and the ability to make cash payments, the cost of coastal transportation, the saving that might be made in this respect by ship-owning contractors and the fluctuating insurance rates for coastal shipping.62

To this might be added fluctuating commodity prices, costs of long-distance shipping, fluctuating levels of demand for provisions and expenses incurred in making contracts. Baker guesstimated that military contractors’ profits during the War of American Independence were between 15 and 20 per cent early in the war, shrinking later as economy became a higher priority and contract administration was tightened up.63 Profits made by navy contractors are harder still to estimate, because of the large number of differing contracts for widely dispersed locations, because few contractors’ papers survive and because the cost of the goods they bought is hard to assess. Wholesale prices can be found, but this is not a fruitful exercise since contractors’ prices included transport and storage costs. Also, as Bannerman points out, although some former contractors may have died rich, many of them had other sources of income and it cannot be assumed that their wealth came about solely or even principally through contracting.64 Clearly, some contractors did make very large amounts of money. The East Indies contract, for instance, made its holder a rich man. It is hard to believe, too, that the large numbers of contracts held by men such as John Grant and Thomas Pinkerton did not yield significant profits, but they were profitable only for a few years. Sea provisions contracts may at times have been lucrative, but they carried very definite risks. For the state, of course, part of the point of contracting was that it passed many risks onto the contractor. Nevertheless, some risk remained. Corruption was an ever-present threat, mitigated principally by strict accounting practices. Although contractors were paid in bills for their supplies, their accounts were checked against

61 62 63 64

See for example B. Cochrane, A Narrative of the Transactions of the Honourable Basil Cochrane, late Contractor and Agent for Victualling His Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in the East Indies, with the Honourable Victualling Board (London, 1818). Baker, Government and Contractors, p. 243. Baker, Government and Contractors, p. 247. Bannerman, Merchants and the Military, p. 122.


Sea Provisions Contracts

those of pursers who had obtained supplies from them, and at this point fraud could be detected. There are, however, few cases where fraud on the part of a contractor came to light, suggesting that the risk was managed effectively. Far more serious, especially at an operational level, was the risk of a contractor failing to fulfil his contract or running into serious financial difficulties. The former was uncommon, and no sea provisions contracts were cancelled because of persistent supply failures, but the latter could and did happen. However, contractors’ financial difficulties tended to build up over a period of time and the final storm did not break without warning, which gave the Board time enough to find replacements. When Alexander Donaldson ran into difficulties in 1803, probably in part because of reductions to his contract rates consequent upon the Peace of Amiens, the Board became aware of the situation in time to assign it to Jordaine and Shaw with Donaldson’s agreement, and without any impact on operations. In the end, though, the Board’s priority had to be keeping the navy supplied, and in the event of a contractor failing with no substitute available it would have to provision stations itself. This was also the case where no contractor could be found, which was the case in the Leeward Island at the beginning of the war.65 For the contractors, meanwhile, the risks were very real, and bankruptcies could and did happen. Sea provisions contracts were certainly not a risk-free licence to make money at public expense. They entailed many of the risks of general trade in wartime, offset only marginally by the fact that the government was a reliable client which did pay its bills, if sometimes slowly. Enemy action could damage facilities and disrupt supplies, and weather could wreak similar havoc. A month after Andrew Todd Patterson took on the Leeward Islands contract, in October 1815, his warehouses at English Harbour were struck by lightning, caught fire and burned to the ground. Patterson was in the process of arranging £12,000 insurance for his stocks and buildings at English Harbour and £9,000 for those at Barbados with the Phoenix Fire Office when the fire happened. He estimated that he stood to lose £4,748 from this disaster alone.66 Meanwhile, wartime political and economic upheavals, losses of ships to enemy privateers and warships and consequent high insurance rates, all led to wildly fluctuating commodity prices and uncertain profit margins for provisions that might not even be required if deployments of ships were suddenly changed. Any of these eventualities could lose contractors a very great deal of money, and several of them in quick succession could prove disastrous. The fate of Thomas Pinkerton, who was engulfed by what might be called a ‘perfect storm’ in 1810–12, serves as a good example. Thomas Pinkerton was probably the single most important victualling contractor of the 1793–1815 period, holding many sea provisions contracts in addition to supplying goods to British victualling yards. His largest contract was that for

65 TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 6 Mar. 1801. 66 TNA, ADM 109/5, A.T. Patterson to the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury, 17 Dec. 1816.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

the Leeward Islands, which he had gained in 1804, having narrowly undercut the only other tender, that of Anglo-Canadian mercantile house Phyn, Inglis & Co.67 Pinkerton drew nearly £61,000 in bills at Barbados alone in 1805, and comparable amounts elsewhere.68 For the first few years the contract appears to have been profitable to him, but then in the autumn of 1807 he suffered the first of a series of blows when Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane sent two ships of the line, three frigates and two sloops to Halifax, without having had time to warn the contractor. Further sudden reductions followed two years later, and provisions worth £11,000 that Pinkerton had acquired for them were either sold at a heavy loss or decayed in store. The capture of three ships bound for Antigua and Barbados with 1,700 bags of bread for Pinkerton’s agents there can only have worsened the situation, especially since the consequent shortage of bread obliged Admiral Cochrane to buy in substitutes, for which Pinkerton was charged. Moreover, he had been obliged by his contract to maintain a depot at Martinique, at which ships called far less often than was anticipated, and which therefore represented a constant drain on his finances.69 All of this took place against the backdrop of the American embargo on trade with Great Britain and her colonies imposed by President Thomas Jefferson in December 1807. It lasted only until March 1809 and its success is a matter of some debate, but throughout 1808 and early 1809 its effects were noticeable. Prices of cotton and foodstuffs, such as corn, that were in part imported from the United States rose markedly in Britain.70 In the Caribbean, naval and military contractors who were in the habit of obtaining flour, rice, fresh beef and other provisions from the United States found prices rising rapidly, and where supplies dried up altogether they were obliged to resort to shipping them from Canada. Those advancing tenders during the embargo naturally padded their prices to accommodate the costs, but those locked into pre-existing contracts often found themselves in difficulties, unless they could renegotiate their terms.71 This, of course, included Pinkerton, who held not only the Leeward Islands victualling contract, but also contracts for supplying the army.72 There is no record of amendments being made to his navy contract at this time, so presumably either he judged that he could manage without price advances from the Board, or he requested them and was turned down. Inevitably, however, he had to pay higher prices for his supplies. Moreover, the embargo had just been lifted, re-opening the American market and causing provisions prices in

67 68 69 70 71 72

TNA, ADM 112/84, Tender Book, see Tender for Antigua, Trinidad and Barbados, 13 Apr. 1804. Phyn, Inglis & Co’s tender worked out at 15.36d per man/day, Pinkerton’s at 15.31d. TNA, ADM 112/191, VB Contract Ledger, 1805. TNA, ADM 110/64, VB to Admiralty, 5 Aug. 1811. L.M. Sears, ‘British Industry and the American Embargo,’ Quarterly Journal of Economics 34 (1919); J.A. Frankel, ‘The 1807–1809 Embargo Against Great Britain,’ Journal of Economic History 42 (1982). Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, pp. 305, 342 & 347. SFDB.


Sea Provisions Contracts

the Caribbean to drop sharply, when the second reduction in the squadron’s strength happened. Pinkerton therefore found himself severely overstocked with provisions for which he had paid a very high price, which the navy did not need and which he could only sell for a heavy loss. Pinkerton petitioned the Board for compensation in the summer of 1811, stating his losses as follows: 1st Loss sustained by a part of the Squadron leaving the station for Halifax in 1807, without any previous notice from the Admiral £2,166 4s 0d 2nd Loss sustained by the American Embargo (including an abatement of £2,477..16..0 made by us from the Contractor’s Bills in consequence of a purchase of Bread and Flour by Admiral Cochrane there being none in the Contractor’s Stores) and non-intercourse Bill £8,037 4s 5d 3rd Loss sustained by the sudden and unexpected reduction of the Squadron in 1809, and in baking Bread for the Troops &c embarked for the capture of Guadeloupe £22,538 14s 3d 4th Loss sustained by his having been obliged to keep an additional Depot and a larger stock of Provisions by order of the Admiral at Martinique, and the Squadron not having victualled there as much as expected £3,906 7s 5d forming in the aggregate the sum of £36,648 10s 1d73

By then Pinkerton was already divesting himself of his sea provisions contracts for British ports, suggesting that they had either become unprofitable to him or he was overstretched. The contracts for Hull, Falmouth and Leith all passed into the hands of other contractors during 1810. The end came in December 1812, when a Commission of Bankruptcy was appointed. Six years later, his creditors reluctantly accepted an offer of £4,180 13s 7d from the Victualling Board ‘for losses sustained on his Contracts with that Board,’ although they only did so after requesting more and being told firmly that ‘no further relief would on any account be granted.’74 By then Pinkerton’s assets had been sold, realising a total of £8,706 14s 9¾d. Debts proved against him totalled no less than £171,049 3s 4d.75 The bankruptcy of Thomas Pinkerton was symptomatic of a more general upheaval in patterns of contracting around this time. Since the renewal of war in 1803, sea provisions contracting, especially within the British Isles had become concentrated in the hands of fewer, larger contractors, of whom Pinkerton was the most prominent. He had taken over the Leith contract from John Thomson jnr. in

73 74 75

TNA, ADM 110/64, VB to Admiralty, 5 Aug. 1811. TNA, B 3/3908, Bankruptcy Commission papers, Memorandum of the creditors of Thomas Pinkerton, 3 Jun. 1818. TNA, B 3/3908, Bankruptcy Commission papers, Abstract of the estate and debts of Thomas Pinkerton, 11 Jul. 1818.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

1803 and Falmouth from Richard Turner in 1805.76 John Grant, another of the most prominent contractors, took over the Great Yarmouth contract from local merchant Samuel Paget in 1803.77 He also acquired the contracts for Bristol (1803), Dublin (1803), Greenock (1809) and Milford Haven (1811), all from far smaller contractors.78 The reasons for this were simple. Men who had access to resources on the scale that Pinkerton and Grant commanded could undercut the smaller, more local merchants, and they were better able to stand the risks. Paget lost his contract because the Board refused to grant him an indemnity against losses, whereas Grant did not ask for one. As with supply contracts, there is no evidence that the shift towards larger contractors was the result of a deliberate Board policy. With sea provisions contracts, as with others, the Board contracted with those offering the best terms regardless of the size of their businesses. In the years following the Peace of Amiens, this frequently meant dealing with the largest contractors. However, this was not to remain the case for long. The process of concentration went into reverse from about 1810, as several of the major contractors went bankrupt. James Brymer, who had held the contracts for Norfolk (Virginia), Nova Scotia and Quebec since 1794, failed in 1810, and there was a spate of major bankruptcies two years later.79 Thomas Pinkerton’s fall was the most spectacular in financial terms, but just as significant for the navy was the contemporaneous loss of John Grant. Signs that he was running into difficulties began to emerge early in 1810, when he wrote to the Board regarding losses sustained in the execution of his contracts. The letter does not survive and the minute noting its receipt gives no indication of which contracts had proved unprofitable, or how large his losses were. The Board noted a reply to the effect that: We are concerned for any loss he may have sustained in the execution of his Contracts with this Board; but that it is not in our power to afford him any relief, particularly as he could at any time have vacated the said Contracts, upon giving the stipulated notice for their termination.80

If the Board might in previous years have agreed to bail Grant out, it was not prepared to do so by 1810. Grant began divesting himself of contracts. His sea provisions contract for Great Yarmouth ended in March, and those for Belfast, Waterford, Londonderry, Dublin and Bristol all followed between September and November, in addition to several standing contracts for rum, fresh beef and tobacco.81 This was not sufficient to salvage the situation, however, and a Commission of Bankruptcy

76 77 78 79 80 81

TNA, ADM 112/156, VB Contract Abstract; SFDB. See Chapter 10. TNA, ADM 112/145 & 156, VB Contract Abstracts; SFDB. London Gazette, 24 Apr. 1810. TNA, ADM 111/194, VB Minutes, 1 Mar. 1810. SFDB.


Sea Provisions Contracts

was appointed against Grant in December 1812. His debts totalled £16,931.82 Finally, Belcher Byles, another London merchant based at Austin Friars who took over the contracts for Bristol and Great Yarmouth from Grant and was also heavily involved in army contracting, went bankrupt in 1813.83 Losses to weather and enemy action no doubt played some part, and contractors all over the world were justifiably concerned about the potential impact of sudden contractions in demand for their provisions.84 The Board’s increased stringency over contract renegotiations and unwillingness to pay compensation may well also have proved the final straw for some struggling contractors. However, economic factors were also at work. We have seen how the American Embargo forced up prices and ate into the profits of contractors in affected areas, and to an extent the Continental System had a similar effect, but the tipping point was in all likelihood the harvest failure of 1811. For those involved in contracting for British ports, the consequent spike in the price of grain and other provisions was serious. Many with other mercantile interests, too, were doubtless affected by the commercial crisis of 1812, although precisely how and how seriously is unknowable. Moreover, the interlocking business interests of the major contractors meant that the failure of one represented a loss to many. The bankruptcy records reveal that most of the main sea provisions contractors and several others were buying supplies on account from one another. When John Grant failed, among his biggest debts were £1,061 owed to James Brymer, and £789 to Alexander Thomson.85 These comprised about 10 per cent of debts proved against him. Such sums are small, however, when compared to the sums Thomas Pinkerton owed to other contractors. Among the largest were £550 owed to Sir Charles Flower; £1,300 to Thomas Rowcroft; £2,498 to Jordaine and Shaw; £6,425 to Alexander Thomson; £7,172 to Daniel, Edward and the younger Daniel Callaghan and two separate debts of £4,570 and £70,738 to Messrs Ellice and Inglis.86 Both Grant and Pinkerton owed smaller sums of money to various flour factors, stave merchants and others recognisably connected with the provisions trades, some of them presumably the suppliers from whom they purchased provisions. Interestingly, none of Pinkerton’s large debts seem to have been fatal to the firms he owed money to, but it seems very likely that the interlocking of contractors’ business interests made all of them vulnerable in the event of one going bankrupt.

82 83 84 85 86

TNA, B 3/3903, Bankruptcy Commission papers, List of debts proved against John Grant, undated but probably dating from ca. 1831: the same sum is enumerated in a declaration from the Court of Bankruptcy, dated 7 Jun. 1831. Commission of Military Enquiry, Ninth Report, p.302; London Gazette, 22 May 1813. Joseph Balfour and James Baker, East Indies contractors, expressed this concern repeatedly. See for example TNA, ADM 1/184, Commodore Broughton to Balfour and Baker, 26 Feb. 1812. TNA, B 3/3903, Bankruptcy Commission papers, List of debts proved against John Grant, undated. TNA, B 3/3908, Bankruptcy Commission papers, List of debts proved against Thomas Pinkerton, 11 Jul. 1818.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

After the spate of bankruptcies between 1810 and 1813, contracting settled into a new pattern. Large contractors continued to function, among them Andrew Todd Patterson and the partnership of Alexander Thomson and Alexander Grant, whose interests lay mainly in the Americas; James Inglis, who took over contracts for Hull and Leith, and Archibald Windeyer. However, none of these took on obligations as large and varied as those contractors who had just failed, and some contracts passed back into the hands of smaller merchants, some of them resident in their contract ports. Lazarus Kingston, who had previously purchased goods from Zephaniah Job and was resident in Falmouth, took on the contract for that port in 1810.87 John Craig, with no previous record as a contractor, took on Newcastle and Tynemouth.88 What is remarkable is that, despite the fact that many major contractors had failed in the recent past, there was no difficulty in finding others to replace them. These new men must have been aware of the risks and the fact that several of the largest contractors had recently gone bankrupt. It may be that they ascribed these failures to poor judgement or to particular events and circumstances that were unlikely to affect them. What is evident is that, until the end of the war, sea provisions contracts provided a sufficiently lucrative opportunity to continue attracting investors, despite the very considerable risks. Sea provisions contracts, then, posed rather different problems from orthodox supply contracts. They were often larger and more complex, and since they involved direct deliveries to ships rather than to the Board’s bases there was less in the way of oversight and quality control. In addition, those for significant ports, and more so those for entire stations, entailed contracting with figures of far greater means and influence than most other contractors. However, they represented a more economical and probably more reliable way of provisioning fleets operating away from the main victualling yards than the alternatives, with the added benefit of being less vulnerable to fraud. With their large size went substantial risks both to government and contractor. Failure on the part of a contractor could potentially place the victualling of an entire station and several thousand men in jeopardy. Meanwhile, contractors invested large sums of money to fulfil their engagements and, as we have seen, they were not always rewarded with large profits. Sea provisions contracts, like other victualling contracts, were certainly not a licence to print money. Although the Victualling Board had to be mindful of the risks to the service of a contractor’s bankruptcy or withdrawal from his contract, and was therefore usually willing to negotiate terms with contractors, it was also a tough negotiator and between 1810 and 1812 it stood by as some of its most important suppliers fell by the wayside, confident that replacements could be found and bound into the same tightly-worded agreements as their predecessors. A century and more of experience in dealing with major contractors bore fruit during the wars of 1793–1815.

87 88

TNA, ADM 112/145, VB Contract Abstract; RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Perchard, Brock and Lemesurier, 4 Feb. 1797. TNA, ADM 112/145, VB Contract Abstract.


8 Basil Cochrane and the Victualling of the Fleet in the East Indies, 1792–1806

In 1823, a wealthy nabob by the name of the Honourable Basil Cochrane petitioned the House of Commons, complaining of his treatment by the Victualling Board and praying that the House would immediately instigate an enquiry into the Board and ‘the hardships sustained by public accountants’ resulting from its conduct. Cochrane had been a vocal critic of the Board since his return from India in 1807 and had already published a series of lengthy broadsides setting out his case against it. Perhaps he had overplayed his hand, for it was intimated to him by ‘friends’ he chose not to name that he should not petition the House again on the subject, and instead he published a further ‘exposé’ in an attempt to create support for an enquiry. This was not to happen, and he died two years later at his grand house in the fashionable district of Portman Square, at the age of seventy-three. Cochrane’s complaint against the Victualling Board related to his service as Contractor and Agent Victualler in the East Indies between 1792 and 1806. He was the third contractor there, and he, along with his brother and Commodore, later Vice-Admiral, Peter Rainier, Commander-in-Chief in the East Indies between 1794 and 1806, had largely established the system of victualling which prevailed until the end of the wars. The case of the East Indies is an interesting one, and it illustrates two key themes of this book. Firstly, an unusually large amount of surviving documentation, much of it generated by the contractor himself, allows us to examine the career of a major overseas contractor in detail. Secondly, it allows us to look in depth at the interaction of public service and private interests, albeit in the unique and difficult circumstances of the East Indies station.


Cochrane, Narrative. B. Cochrane, An Exposé of the Conduct of the Victualling Board to the Honourable Basil Cochrane as Contractor and Agent Victualler to His Majesty’s Ships on the East India Station (London, 1824). D. Cordingly, Cochrane the Dauntless: The Life and Adventures of Thomas Cochrane (London, 2007), p. 231, Accessed 9 April 2009.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The East Indies station The East Indies was the most remote station on which the Royal Navy maintained a permanent presence throughout the wars of 1793–1815. Its main summer base, at Madras, was a minimum of four months’ sailing from England and usually nearer to six, and even messages sent overland via Constantinople and through Asia Minor took three months when the route was open which, thanks to piracy and political instability, was not always. The sheer distance from home made co-ordination from England impossible and gave the Commander-in-Chief on the station considerably greater independence than admirals on stations nearer to home. It also created difficulties of organisation and co-ordination which were exacerbated by the vast extent of the station. It encompassed all seas east of the Cape of Good Hope, from Madagascar in the south-west to Manila and Canton in the east, including all of the Indian Ocean, the South China Sea and the seas around the sprawling archipelago of modern Indonesia. The only easing of the burden came during the periods between 1795 and the Peace of Amiens, and again after 1806, when the Cape of Good Hope was in British hands, at which times ships from the Cape took care of duties in the western part of the station. These included watching the principal French base at Mauritius, then known as the Isle de France, until its capture in December 1810. Even then, however, British deployments were thinly spread over an area of more than thirty million square miles. Regular changes in the prevailing winds imposed a seasonal pattern upon operations. Between October and March the monsoon blew from the north-east, making this the usual sailing time for ships returning to Europe since it gave them a fair wind as far as the Cape of Good Hope and placed Mauritius to leeward, which lessened the threat from enemy cruisers and privateers. However, it also turned the Coromandel Coast into a dangerous lee shore and made Madras, which lacked a sheltered harbour, untenable. Much of the British fleet therefore wintered at Bombay, where it made use of the East India Company dockyard, which included the only dry dock outside Europe that was capable of taking a ship of the line, and was an important support to British operations in the eastern seas. From April to September, the south-west monsoon brought out the East India Company fleets from England.

C. Wilkinson, ‘Peter Rainier,’ British Admirals of the Napoleonic Wars: Contemporaries of Nelson, ed. P. Le Fevre and R. Harding (London, 2005), p. 95; Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, p. 12.   Wilkinson, ‘Peter Rainier,’ pp. 96–97.   The most detailed discussion of the station can be found in P. Ward, ‘The East Indies Station of the Royal Navy under the Command of Admiral Peter Rainier 1794–1805’ (Ph.D. thesis, Exeter, forthcoming).   See A. Lambert, ‘Strategy, Policy and Shipbuilding: The Bombay Dockyard, the Indian Navy and Imperial Security in the Eastern Seas, 1784–1869,’ The Worlds of the East India Company, ed. H.V. Bowen, M. Lincoln and N. Rigby (Woodbridge, 2002), pp. 137–152.  


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

However, it also placed Mauritius to windward and thereby increased the threat of enemy action. The climate also influenced operations in other ways. The heat and humidity caused rapid decay of provisions, stores and ships, and mortality among seamen on the station was high. Admiral Sir Edward Pellew’s General Orders to ships in Bombay in 1805 forbade men working in the midday heat unless ‘compelled by urgent circumstances,’ but not all officers were so conscious of the effects of working in such heat and men suffered as a result. Disease posed worse difficulties still. Northcote Parkinson suggests that perhaps a thousand men died from fevers and fluxes in 1806–10.10 Mortality of two hundred a year on a station manned by between six and nine thousand men, as India was at the time, does not sound excessive by contemporary standards, but it may well be an underestimate. In any case, it does not include men who became too ill to serve and were invalided back to Britain. At Madras, in September 1806 alone, a hundred men were thus sent home.11 Certainly, shortages of manpower due to infirmity and mortality were a major concern for commanders on the station. Vice-Admiral Drury reported to the Admiralty in September 1809 that men were dying more quickly than they could be replaced, appending a lengthy list of men invalided home, many of them because of liver complaints, dysentery and other endemic diseases.12 The high rate of attrition strained the manning system to its limits and caused friction with the East India Company. A system was in place whereby East Indiamen carried supernumeraries who were pressed into the navy on arrival, but this was insufficient to meet the navy’s needs and sometimes additional prime seamen were pressed, often in acrimonious circumstances and to an extent that could impair the ships’ ability to navigate safely.13 Added to the complexities of the weather was the fact that much of the station was not well charted, and several ships were lost or damaged through grounding and other navigational accidents.14 The East Indies were also distinctive in political and organisational terms. With the exception of Ceylon, which became a Crown Colony in 1802, British territories in India were under the control of the East India Company. Over the previous half-century it had gained control over large swathes of territory in northern and eastern India. Under Richard Wellesley, Governor General between 1798 and 1805, the Company, supported by the Royal Navy, fought a series of wars with local rulers

    10 11 12 13 14

See P. Crowhurst, The Defence of British Trade, 1689–1815 (Folkestone, 1977), pp. 219–220; Wilkinson, ‘Peter Rainier,’ pp. 97–98. TNA, ADM 1/179, General Orders to Ships in Bombay Harbour, 19 Mar. 1805; Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, pp. 358–359. Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, p. 354. Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, p. 353. TNA, ADM 1/182, Vice-Admiral Drury to Admiralty, 30 Sep. 1809. Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, pp. 341–2; Wilkinson, ‘Peter Rainier,’ pp. 100–102; S. Taylor, Storm and Conquest: The Battle for the Indian Ocean, 1809 (London, 2007), pp. 8–9, 101–102. R. Harding, Seapower and Naval Warfare, 1650–1830 (London, 1999), p. 47.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

that led to its acquiring still more lands in southern India. Company rule was based on the three Presidencies of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta, whose Governor after 1773 assumed the role of Governor General of India.15 The Company therefore functioned as the local authority with which the navy had to co-operate and whose authority needed to be upheld, in addition to the usual duties of trade protection. The complexities of the East Indies station were not well understood by naval administrators in London, into whose established systems it fitted uneasily. As ViceAdmiral Rainier put it in a letter to the Navy Board in 1804: Your Board can but have noticed how widely the Service in this Country differs from that in almost every other Quarter of the Globe, and therefore several of your regulations in the hands of the Naval Officers at Madras and Bombay, must at times be inapplicable.16

Provisions that were easily acquired in Europe or the Americas were unavailable in India, shortages of naval stores were endemic and raising money to buy more was problematic because, although the Presidencies were supposed to provide stores or the money to buy them, this was not always possible.17 Nor were the Navy and Victualling Bills that elsewhere could be used to pay for stores and provisions always welcome, and at times the Commander-in-Chief had to request that specie be sent out to cover the navy’s costs.18 These costs were considerable. Table 8.1 shows the cost of victualling in India compared to other stations in 1809, along with the number of men on each station in July of that year. Table 8.1: Bills drawn for victualling the navy on selected overseas stations, 1809 Station

Total bills drawn for victualling, 1809 (£)

Personnel on station, July 1809

Cost per man (£)

East Indies




Cape of Good Hope




West Indies












North America




Source: TNA, ADM 110/61, ‘An Account of the amount of all Bills drawn upon this Board from the undermentioned Places and Countries, and Registered between the 1st January and 31st December 1809;’ TNA, ADM 8/98, Admiralty List Book, July–December 1809. Note: The personnel figure for the ‘West Indies’ includes the Leeward Islands and Jamaica stations.

15 16 17 18

P. Robb, A History of India (Basingstoke, 2002), pp. 123–125. TNA, ADM 106/1412, Navy Board In-Letters, Rainier to Navy Board, 20 Oct. 1804. TNA, ADM 1/166, Bombay Presidency to Sir Edward Hughes, 31 Dec. 1782. Wilkinson, ‘Peter Rainier,’ p. 100.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

These figures should be treated as approximations only, since the List Books show only the theoretical complements of, rather than the actual numbers mustered aboard, the ships assigned to various stations. In the case of India, especially, they were also based on information that was several months old by the time it reached London. Moreover, bills drawn for victualling did not include the cost of provisions shipped out from England by the Victualling Board, which in the case of India included most of the salt beef and pork and suet. Therefore, Table 8.1 underestimates the cost, underlining the fact that the East Indies was an expensive station to run. Despite the cost and difficulties of operating in India, however, protecting British interests there was essential. Politically, the East Indies had assumed a greater significance as ‘the balance of Britain’s imperial interests began to shift from the western hemisphere to the East’ after the loss of the American colonies. This in turn led to greater awareness of how affairs in India affected Britain’s economic and military fortunes and ‘served to Embed the Indian Empire into the nation’s political consciousness.’19 Imperial rivalry with France was sharp, and several of the wars fought inland by the Company’s forces were against potentates who were, or were potentially, French allies. During the later stages of the American war the station witnessed repeated fighting between a British squadron under Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, who fought a dogged defensive campaign to contain the activities of a French squadron under the brilliant Rear-Admiral Pierre de Suffren.20 Although France had only a foothold on the Indian mainland by 1793, the base at Mauritius was difficult to blockade and still more difficult to capture, and privateers and ships of the French navy based there were a serious, if intermittent, menace to British trade. This trade was of considerable significance to Britain. The tea trade grew rapidly after the Commutation Act of 1784, Bengal was an important source of saltpetre (a key component of gunpowder), and overall trade from the east contributed between 7 and 10 per cent of customs and excise revenues.21 Transfers of funds from India provided much needed injections of capital into Britain, to the extent that they were an essential part of Britain’s capacity to fund the wars of 1776–83 and 1793–1815.22 During the eighteenth century, sustaining naval deployments in distant waters had become increasingly feasible. As Admiral Boscawen remarked in 1756, ‘At the beginning of the Spanish War [in 1739] our cruisers would not keep the sea above a fortnight, till one or two of them were broken for it, [but] now three months is a common cruise.’23 This became increasingly true in the second half of the century. Coppering of ships enabled them to stay at sea longer; expanded dockyards 19 20 21 22 23

H.V. Bowen, ‘British India, 1765–1813: The Metropolitan Context,’ The Oxford History of the British Empire: The Eighteenth Century, ed. Marshall, p. 530. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, pp. 356–357. H.V. Bowen, The Business of Empire (Cambridge, 2006), p. 40. J.C. Esteban, ‘The British Balance of Payments, 1772–1820: India Transfers and War Finance,’ Economic History Review, 54 (2001), pp. 58–86. Quoted in Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 306.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

­ verseas enabled ships to be repaired and overhauled without going home, and o systems for procuring stores and provisions had been regularised and improved. This was a process that was still ongoing at the end of the century. As the previous chapter explored, the victualling of the East Indies fleet by an Agent Victualler in the 1780s had been marred by corruption and supply problems. By the outbreak of war in 1793, however, victualling was conducted by a contractor, and it was hoped that this would lessen the scope for corruption, reduce the navy’s dependence on the Presidencies’ finances and make supplies more reliable and cheaper. The power to make this happen lay primarily in the hands of two men, Commodore Rainier and Basil Cochrane. Basil Cochrane The Honourable Basil Cochrane was a member of an illustrious but impecunious Scottish family with long connections with the navy and army. He was a son of Thomas Cochrane, Eighth Earl of Dundonald, brother of Archibald Cochrane, Ninth Earl, Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane and Colonel Andrew CochraneJohnstone and uncle of the famous frigate captain Thomas Cochrane, later Tenth Earl of Dundonald. He was intelligent, conscientious and a highly effective man of business, and by 1792 he was well qualified to take on such a major undertaking as the victualling contract. Like his nephew, however, he was also combative, irascible and ruthless, and he had a talent for making enemies. Cochrane went to India as a Writer with the East India Company at Madras in 1768, at the age of fifteen. This was the most junior position within the administration, but it was the usual place for a young man of good birth to start in the Company’s service and for talented and hardworking individuals it offered an opportunity to rise through the ranks. Cochrane remained in the civil service at Madras until 1776, when he was appointed Muster Master to troops south of the Coleroon, in the south of the Carnatic. Two years later he became Collector of Grain in Tanjore County, and after the capture of Negapatam by Hughes’s squadron in July 1782 he was appointed to the management of the counties of Nagore and Carical, just to the north of the town. By then he ranked as a Senior Merchant.24 At that point, his career with the Company came to an abrupt halt. In the summer of 1783 Cochrane who, if his brother Archibald’s protestations on his behalf are to be believed, was well regarded and had proved very effective at managing the territories under his charge, received urgent orders to forward grain to the army near Cuddalore. Whilst the grain was being collected, one of his Indian clerks was detected selling some of it and passing it off in his accounts as wastage. Cochrane had the clerk, named Vydenadah, imprisoned for a fortnight until he agreed to give up his accounts for inspection. Looking at the accounts, Cochrane calculated that


NLS, MS 8457, Cochrane to Sir Archibald Campbell, 20 Jan. 1789.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

Vydenadah had made around 700 Pagodas by such means, but he still denied any wrongdoing, and at this point Cochrane’s patience gave out and he set out to obtain a confession by force. A petition against Cochrane some time later alleged that he had Vydenadah beaten constantly with a cane for four hours. Under examination, the man who had inflicted the flogging stated that it went on from six o’clock until ten, but with breaks of up to half an hour whilst Cochrane interrogated Vydenadah, who eventually admitted the theft. He was left ‘in great pain,’ but a man who saw him afterwards stated that he was not severely hurt and a doctor who visited him a few days later also expressed no concerns about him. A week after the flogging, however, he died. Cochrane arranged and paid for his burial, and then evidently thought little more of the matter. In December 1783 Cochrane was summoned to Madras. He did not arrive there until the following April, claiming that he had been unwell, had pressing business to attend to and needed time to prepare his accounts for inspection. According to Archibald he had no idea that complaints had been made against him and a petition sent to the Presidency, he thought the visit was a matter of routine, and when he arrived he was astonished to find himself accused of murder. He was not tried until January 1787, by which time it had come to light that Vydenadah had been suffering from liver disease and flux well before Cochrane had had him imprisoned, and Cochrane’s family and associates had made vigorous representations on his behalf. After a fourteen-hour trial, Cochrane was acquitted. Any relief he felt was comparatively short-lived, however, because four months later a letter arrived from the Court of Directors in London to inform him that he was dismissed from the Company’s service.25 During the interval between his being summoned to Madras and his trial Cochrane had been without a post until Sir Archibald Campbell appointed him to the management of territory near Masulipatnam.26 It was at this time that he began contracting on his own account, and the money he thus made probably saw him through the period between his dismissal and his reinstatement with the Company. The date of this has not come to light, but Cochrane was certainly a Company servant again by 1790, for in June of that year he was placed in charge of an investigation into corruption in the Northern Circars. The revenues from these lands had been decreasing since they were ceded to the Company, ‘notwithstanding an Improvement of Cultivation,’ and Cochrane was charged with finding out why and



BL, IOR/H/80, Memorial and Petition of Archibald, Earl of Dundonald, on behalf of his Brother Basil Cochrane, Senior Merchant in the Service of the East India Company; NLS, MS 8457, Petition from Cochrane to Sir Archibald Campbell, Nov. 1786, Extract of General Letter to Court of Directors from Fort St George, 24 Feb. 1787, Extract from the Proceedings of the Revenue and Publick Department, Fort St George 22 May 1787; NLS, MS 8459, testimonies of Gopal Naig, Soobramanny Pillah and Surgeon Crawford, memorial to the Court of Directors by John Cochrane. NLS, MS 8457, Cochrane to Sir Archibald Campbell, 20 Jan. 1789.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

with placing their management on a stable footing.27 Over the next two years he set about the investigation with his usual energy, and was praised for his ‘zeal and assiduity’ and for arriving at an acceptable settlement. However, his ruthless streak evidently came to the fore again, because a report of September 1792 criticised his ‘intemperate behaviour’ and remarked that he had allowed his servants to treat the inhabitants with ‘unusual severity,’ although he denied he had authorised any such thing. Some of them were directed to be publicly flogged and dismissed from the Company for their actions.28 By this time, Cochrane was also Military Paymaster at Madras, and expanding his activities as a contractor.29 During the late 1780s, he held two principal sets of contracts. One was the contract for supplying the Company with cloth from the looms at Ingeram, which he probably gained in 1786. Cochrane had to pay the weavers a high price for the cloth at the outset, which is perhaps why he reorganised the business, making advances directly to the weavers, collecting the cloth directly from them and sorting it in their presence, thus cutting out the middlemen.30 His efforts at improving the quality of the finished cloth were noted with approval in Madras.31 However, he failed to deliver the quantity he had contracted for, and in any case, he had again exceeded his authority. He had, as the Commercial Department at Madras reminded him, no mandate to ‘improve the Company’s investment,’ and was solely there to fulfil a contract, which he had failed to do.32 Moreover, complaints had been received about his methods of extracting work from the weavers, which included enlisting the assistance of his ally Walter Balfour, the Superintendent of Looms, to use Company troops to coerce them.33 Some of these complaints reached Madras via Matthew Yeates, the Resident Factor. Yeates took exception to Cochrane and Balfour’s methods and wrote to Balfour to this effect, who responded with heavy sarcasm, saying that he had done nothing wrong and that in future, as before: I shall invariably and uniformly act according to my instructions from the Hon the Board of Trade, which if my memory serves me right were written by them, not by you.34

This was the starting point for an acrimonious dispute between Cochrane and Yeates that dragged on until the following autumn. Cochrane complained volubly about Yeates’s interference in his business, whilst Yeates described him in scathing terms to the Board of Trade at Madras as ‘a man who has so often pledged himself

27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34

BL, IOR/H/365, Proceedings of the Board of Revenue, Madras, 30 Jun. 1790. NLS, MS 5375, Letter from Madras Presidency, 24 Nov. 1792; memorandum 21 Apr. 1794. Cochrane, Narrative, p. 8. NLS, MS 8457, Walter Balfour to Board of Trade at Madras, 16 Jan. 1788. NLS, MS 8457, Extract from Minutes of Consultation, Madras, 24 Jun. 1788. NLS, MS 8457, Commercial Department, Madras, to Cochrane, 25 Jan. 1788. S. Arasaratnam, Maritime Commerce and English Power: Southeast India 1750–1800 (New Delhi, 1996), p. 71. NLS, MS 8457, Walter Balfour to Matthew Yeates, 22 Dec. 1787.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

without performance.’35 This was not entirely fair, and it seems that the Board tended to take Cochrane’s side. He was excused the penalty for failing to fulfil his contract, with an acknowledgement that ‘impediments’ had been thrown in his way, that he had made a genuine effort to improve the manufacturing and, in any case, he had not made a profit.36 Cochrane was more successful with his other set of contracts, for supplying arrack to Company troops at Fort St George and on the Coromandel Coast. This was put out to tender after a dispute had erupted over purchases by army officers in 1784. Contracting for supplies held out the same advantages to the Company as it was later to do for the Royal Navy in the region. The Company was keen to encourage consumption of arrack produced in British territories, as opposed to importing it from Batavia. Cochrane had already started shipping arrack from Bengal on a contract which was to end on 11 February 1786 and his proposal for the second contract stressed that he would continue to do so. It was also the cheapest, and he was duly awarded the contract on 12 February 1786.37 Ten days later he wrote to Messrs Ferguson and Fairlie, merchants at Calcutta, informing them that he had the contract and requesting 600 leaguers of arrack be freighted to him within the next two months. Not untypically, he also included a veiled threat: I have had a great deal of trouble and been put to much expence in introducing the Consumption of Bengal Rum and Arrack, and now that I have procured the exclusive Contract for supplying the Troops on this Coast with Bengal and Bencoolen Arrack, I trust the Gentlemen Manufacturers at Calcutta will take every precaution necessary to supply me with the best of Liquor and at a reasonable rate, for you may assure them that there are any complaints of the quality of their Liquor the Council here will order me to supply the troops with Batavia Arrack as usual.38

In the event, difficulties came not from Cochrane’s suppliers but from officers of two regiments of Crown troops, who thought that Cochrane’s prices were too high, that the contract was not binding upon them and that they could buy their own supplies more cheaply. Cochrane was having none of it and pointed out to them in no uncertain terms that his contract gave him a monopoly, and that the Articles of War stated that it was unlawful for soldiers to bring provisions into a camp when contracts existed to supply them.39 His view prevailed, the protests died away and Cochrane continued to supply arrack at a profit.

35 36 37 38 39

NLS, MS 8457, Cochrane to Sir Archibald Campbell, 9 Jun. 1788; Matthew Yeates to Board of Trade, Madras, 15 Aug. 1788. NLS, MS 8457, Extract from Minutes of Consultation, Madras, 8 Aug. 1788. NLS, MS 8457, Minutes of Consultation at Fort St George, 17 Jan. 1786, Cochrane to Sir Archibald Campbell, 20 Apr. 1786. NLS, MS 8459, Cochrane to Messrs Ferguson and Fairlie, 22 Feb. 1786. NLS, MS 8457, Cochrane to Sir Archibald Campbell, 20 Apr. 1786, Cochrane to James Stuart, 16 May 1786.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

It was at this time, then, that Cochrane was developing his activities as a contractor, acquiring familiarity with how contracts were made and administered, and developing contacts with suppliers in Bengal and elsewhere. Indeed, his thoughts were evidently turning to further provisions contracts by 1786, since he wrote in May that year that: I have a plan in view for Supplying the Army with Certain Staple Articles at a fixed rate which will be at least 25 per Cent cheaper than what they now pay.40

Whilst he was in the Northern Circars five years later he was evidently involved in supplying bullocks on some form of contract, for his letters mention dispatches of several hundred at a time, ‘until the number ordered is completed.’41 All of this can only have provided him with a useful fund of experience, contacts and knowledge of the provisions trades within India which he was to need when, in the year he finished in the Northern Circars, he took on the victualling contract. Victualling the fleet, 1792–1806 As we saw in the previous chapter, the first victualling contract had been concluded in 1789 and then given up by its holder, after which John Cochrane had tendered for and won the second contract. He held it for two years, provisioning the squadron under Sir William Cornwallis as it supported the Company’s forces in the Third Mysore War. However, in 1792 he decided to return to England, and he signed the contract over to his brother Basil, for whom he agreed to act as agent in London. The contract was a very large and demanding undertaking. From the contractor it required, a compleat and thorough knowledge of the Navigation and Trade of India, and established Credit and Agents at all the different Ports, with Warehouses Bakeries and all other conveniences.42

The substance of it, however, was the same as that of contracts for victualling other overseas stations. Cochrane provided provisions at a fixed price, with deliveries certified by pursers’ receipts which could later be checked against his accounts. He was responsible for delivering provisions to where they were needed, stood the cost of any that were condemned within their warranty period, and he was paid in bills drawn upon the Victualling Board. As elsewhere, the places at which supplies were to be made were specified. These were Madras, Bombay and the Hooghly River and

40 NLS, MS 8457, Cochrane to James Stuart, 16 May 1786. 41 BL, IOR/H/386, Cochrane to Sir John Kennaway, 4 Jul. 1791. 42 NLS, MS 3846, Memorandum on the Supplying of His Majesty’s Ships with Stores and Provisions.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

elsewhere in the Bay of Bengal where required, and also Prince of Wales Island. Subsequent contracts added the Malabar Coast and Trincomalee.43 There were, however, variations to suit local conditions. The contract included supplies of fresh beef, whereas elsewhere this was usually supplied on a separate contract. It also included rice which, given its low cost, easy availability and prevalence in the diet of crews stationed in the Eastern seas, was a sensible inclusion.44 What was not included was salt meat, which was shipped out from England. Cochrane was paid for storing it, and transporting it around the station when necessary. He took over the role previously performed by the Agent Victualler of supplying it both to the navy and to the Commissaries responsible for assembling provisions for the army. The terms under which he did so look rather generous, certainly under the contract of 1804. Conveying provisions into store was paid at 10s 6d per ton, if stores had to be rented 5s per ton was paid in compensation, and Cochrane’s commission ‘for his trouble’ was 3s 6d per ton. This was even before moving it, the prices for which varied from £2 14s 0d per ton for the short passage from Madras to Trincomalee to £6 10s 0d for freights from Madras to Bombay and vice versa, and from Bombay to Prince of Wales Island. Since experienced coopers were in short supply at sea, Cochrane also received commission for any casks he moved ashore for repair. On top of all of this, in wartime he received an extra 35 per cent on his prices to cover for war risk, rising commodity prices and high insurance costs for cargoes.45 In June 1803, Cochrane received a letter from Vice-Admiral Rainier, containing a copy of a letter from the Admiralty which informed Cochrane that in January their Lordships had instructed the Victualling Board to examine the East Indies contract and attempt to reduce its cost. The Board decided that, even in peacetime and therefore without the 35 per cent commission, Cochrane’s prices were high. Rainier therefore informed Cochrane that the contract would end at the expiry of the twelve-month notice period.46 Two months later an advertisement for a new contract was placed in the Madras Gazette, and two tenders duly arrived at the office of Thomas Hoseason, the Naval Agent at Madras, on 26 October. Cochrane’s was the cheaper and was accepted. The second contract, which came into force on 8 June 1804, was much the same as the previous one, which expired on the same day. The major differences, aside from the addition of Trincomalee (which had been taken in 1795) and the Malabar Coast, was that prices were to be the same at all ports, which was in all probability done simply to simplify the accounting process. Table 8.2 shows the contract prices under the first and second contracts. Cochrane’s wartime advance was also cut from 35 to 16 per cent.47 43 44 45 46 47

TNA, ADM 112/118, Contract of John Cochrane, 27 Sep. 1790, and indenture transferring it to Basil; ADM 112/119, Contract of Basil Cochrane, 8 Jun. 1804. Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, pp. 349–351. TNA, ADM 112/119, Contract of Basil Cochrane, 8 Jun. 1804. TNA, ADM 112/119, Admiralty to VB, 3 Jan 1803, Rainier to Cochrane, 4 Jun. 1803. TNA, ADM 112/119, Contract of Basil Cochrane, 8 Jun. 1804.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 Table 8.2:  Prices of provisions at Bombay, Madras and Prince of Wales Island under the contracts of 1790 and 1804 1790




Madras Roads

Prince of Wales Island

All ports

Bisket in casks (per cwt)

£1 18s 0d

£1 0s 6d

£2 5s 6d

£2 14s 6d

£1 16s 0d

Bisket in bags (per cwt)

14s 0d

16s 6d

£2 1s 6d

£2 10s 6d

£1 19s 6d

Flour in casks (per cwt)

18s 0d

19s 6d

£2 14s 6d

£3 14s 6d

£2 10s 0d

Pease in casks (per cwt)

13s 6d

9s 0d

13s 6d

13s 6d

£1 10s 0d

Rice in casks (per cwt)

14s 3d

9s 6d

14s 3d

14s 3d

£1 10s 0d

Sugar in casks (per cwt)

£2 5s 0d

£1 9s 6d

£2 5s 0d

£2 0s 6d

£3 0s 0d

Raisins in casks (per cwt)

£2 9s 6d

£2 7s 0d

£3 0s 0d

£2 9s 6d

£3 0s 0d

Wheat in casks (per cwt)

14s 3d

9s 0d

14s 3d

14s 3d

£1 10s 0d

Rum or arrack (per gallon)

3s 9d

2s 6d

3s 9d

3s 9d

3s 6d

Vinegar (per gallon)

2s 0d

2s 3d

3s 0d

3s 0d

£2 6 0d

Black tea (per lb)

3s 8d

Wine (per gall)

£8 10 0d

Sources: TNA, ADM 112/118–9, East Indies contract and accounts.

Unusually, the negotiations for this second contract were conducted not by an Agent Victualler but by Rainier. Peter Rainier had been in command of the East Indies squadron since he took over from Cornwallis in 1794. He was temporarily subordinate to Lord Keith during his voyage into Indian waters in 1795–96, after capturing the Cape of Good Hope, but Keith’s return to England left him again in sole charge of the station. Rainier had long experience and unrivalled knowledge of the eastern seas, having seen service there as a young midshipman during the Seven Years War, and then again as a captain under Sir Edward Hughes. Rainier was not an inspiring leader in the Nelson mould and never distinguished himself as commander in a major fleet action. Rather, he was a cautious and conscientious figure possessed of diplomatic skills enough to manage the navy’s relationship with the Presidencies with considerably more success and less acrimony than Hughes, and a talent for the humdrum 166

Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

a­ dministrative work that running a large station entailed. These qualities made him a fine commander for the East Indies station.48 Well before 1803 Rainier had played a major role in the development of the victualling system in the East Indies. It was he who gave Cochrane orders on where to send provisions, took him to task when the quality was not up to standard and, most importantly, it was because of him that there was no Agent Victualler for the contractor to deal with. The original contracts had been made with Cornwallis’s secretary and Agent Victualler, and during Keith’s spell in the East Indies the role of Agent was undertaken by his secretary, John Jackson, to whom Cochrane was directed to render his accounts.49 After Keith left, the responsibility passed back to Charles Arnott, Rainier’s secretary. However, shortly afterwards Rainier discovered that Arnott and Cochrane had made a ‘very improper’ agreement, the details of which are unknown but which was clearly intended to make a profit for both of them.50 Rainier immediately removed Arnott from his post and, deciding that since he was able to check the accounts himself, ‘there is no necessity for the interference of any other person under the denomination of Agent Victualler,’ he suppressed the appointment altogether.51 In addition to the Commander-in-Chief taking on the task of checking the accounts it also now fell to him to authorise Cochrane to draw bills on the Board. In March 1803, for instance, Cochrane remitted his contract and contingent accounts for the first half of 1802, in response to which Rainier noted: And observe the balance due on the former [contract account], amounting to the Sum of £13,153.2.2 Sterling (thirteen thousand, one hundred and fifty-three pounds, two shillings and two pence Sterling) and on the latter the sum of Star Pagodas 2288.37.63 (Two thousand two hundred and eighty-eight Star Pagodas, thirty-seven Tanams and sixty three Cash) and acquaint you, you are at liberty to draw for the former on the Commissioners for Victualling His Majesty’s Navy when it suits your conveniency to do so.52

For Cochrane, taking on the role of Agent Victualler meant that he was responsible for providing ships with ‘necessary money’ to buy provisions where none could be furnished on contract, and providing items not covered by the main victualling contract, such as tea, although this was included in the contracts of 1803 and after.53 Having a contractor who also acted as Agent Victualler was an unusual arrangement but the Victualling Board acquiesced in it, it continued under Rainier’s successors, and the contractors who succeeded Cochrane in 1806 continued to act

48 49 50 51 52 53

Wilkinson, ‘Peter Rainier,’ pp. 91–111; see also Ward, ‘The East Indies Station of the Royal Navy.’ Cochrane, Narrative, p.16. NMM, RAI/4, Rainier to VB, 14 Aug. 1795. NMM, RAI/4, Rainier to VB, 19 Apr. 1795. TNA, ADM 1/173, Rainier to Cochrane, 26 Mar. 1803. TNA, ADM 112/118–9, East Indies Contracts.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

as Agents. Although it was irregular, it was an arrangement that worked. What it did do, however, was to blur the divide between the public servant and private contractor. An Agent Victualler was usually either an employee of the Victualling Board or a naval rating, usually Admiral’s secretary, who performed the role in addition to his usual duties. In both cases, they profited only by their salaries. Cochrane, however, charged a commission on his disbursements as Agent and thereby profited from the office in a way that was not accepted elsewhere. This passed with little comment at the time, but was later to be the cause of considerable controversy.54 Acting as Agent Victualler was an additional responsibility for Cochrane, but most of his time and expertise was expended on buying in provisions via agents he maintained in India, Penang and Canton, processing them and dispatching them to where they were required. A great deal, perhaps the majority, of the provisions came from Bengal, the most fertile part of British India and the location of increasingly sophisticated and complex trades in foodstuffs in the late eighteenth century.55 This was coming to include meat products, although during Basil Cochrane’s tenure as contractor most of the salt beef and pork came from London. In November 1805, for example, the Victualling Board directed that 160,000 pieces of beef, 200,000 of pork and 80,000lb of suet should be shipped out in that year’s East India convoy.56 Some ‘country-cured’ beef was purchased to supplement supplies from England that were late, spoiled or insufficient, but according to Rainier it was ‘of a very inferior quality’ and did not keep well.57 This was changing, however, and by 1811 it was possible for the Commissioner at Madras to instruct the contractors to contract with Bengal curers for a thousand tierces of beef. This was experimental, but Commodore Broughton estimated that it would eventually be possible to procure more than twenty thousand tierces per annum, which would remove the need to ship meat from England altogether. It also represented a considerable cost saving, since ‘country-cured’ beef was cheaper than Irish beef provided in London even before the cost of shipping was factored in. It never quite fulfilled expectations and until after 1815 beef continued to be shipped from England, but the beef cured in Bengal was of acceptable quality and kept well beyond its warranty period.58 It is quite possible that Cochrane’s procurement of beef from Bengal played a part in

54 55 56 57 58

Hansard, 24 Jun. 1823. R. Datta, ‘The Agrarian Economy and the Dynamics of Commercial Transactions,’ The Eighteenth Century in Indian History: Evolution or Revolution, ed. P.J. Marshall (Oxford, 2003), pp. 405–455. TNA, ADM 111/177, VB Minutes, 1 Nov. 1805. NMM, RAI/9, Rainier to Jonathan Duncan, 19 Apr. 1803; TNA, ADM 1/175, Rainier to Basil Cochrane, 4 May 1804. TNA, ADM 112/126, East Indies Contract account, 1811–12; ADM 112/199, Contract Ledger 1813; BPP 1816 XII, Account of Rates of Exchange at which Bills were Drawn at Naval Stations 1808–15; TNA, ADM 1/184, Commodore Broughton to Admiralty, 19 Feb. 1812, Sir Samuel Hood to Admiralty, 1 June 1812.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

encouraging the growth of the curing industry there to the point where the navy could make increasing use of its products in later years. Pease, sugar, rice and wheat also came largely from Bengal, although some wheat was also sourced from Gujarat and shipped via Bombay. Before the victualling was put out to contract, the wheat was milled and bisket baked in Bengal, although Hughes had complained volubly about its quality.59 When he took on the victualling contract, John Cochrane spent £8,000 providing himself with mills and bakeries ‘at the different stations.’60 Basil Cochrane later extended these facilities, and added a cooperage, warehouses and spirit vats.61 Cochrane claimed that he spent £100,000 to provide these facilities, which is not implausible since his successors spent £150,000 buying him out of his buildings and stores and laying in a stock of provisions, and by 1810 their establishment at Madras alone was worth £80,000.62 India was a difficult place in which to operate. As John Cochrane asserted: India is not like Europe where everything can be procured on a short warning, and if a Fleet was to trust to the Chapter of accidents it would be impossible to victual them, every person conversant with the Trade of India must know that the Article of Provisions is the most fluctuating of all others. I have known a Thousand Per Cent difference in the space of a few Days, the Market is constantly in extremes.63

Certainly it was necessary to plan well ahead if large quantities of provisions were to be assembled, which is why Rainier sent a letter marked ‘secret’ to Cochrane in April 1803, passing on information from the Admiralty that more ships were being sent out. ‘Most likely the number of men on board will amount to 2,000 and upwards,’ wrote Rainier, ‘and … they will require Provisions for three months.’64 As Rainier understood, maintaining communication with the contractor was essential, since it allowed him to plan ahead and buy when the markets were favourable. Much the same applied to naval stores, which is why Rainier sent the same information to the Thomas Hoseason as he did to Cochrane. All of the markets in which Cochrane bought provisions were vulnerable to disruption, especially in wartime. Most obviously, enemy action could have a direct impact on the supply chain. Cochrane explained during the negotiations for his second contract in January 1804 that the price he had proposed for bisket was high because wheat was scarce and expensive in Gujarat, partly because of the Maratha


TNA, ADM 1/166, undated observations by Sir Edward Hughes on the victualling of the fleet. 60 NLS, MS 3846, Memorandum on the Supplying of His Majesty’s Ships with Stores and Provisions by the Hon. John Cochrane. 61 TNA, ADM 112/119, Cochrane to Rainier, 7 Jun. 1803. 62 Cochrane, Narrative, p. 51; TNA, ADM 1/183, Messrs Balfour and Baker to Vice-Admiral Drury, 23 Jul. 1810. 63 NLS, MS 3846, Memorandum on the Supplying of His Majesty’s Ships with Stores and Provisions by the Hon John Cochrane. 64 TNA, ADM 1/173, Rainier to Cochrane, 14 Apr. 1803.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

War, and because with the renewal of war he expected the price of wheat from Bengal to rise as trade was disrupted by French cruisers in the Bay of Bengal.65 He had also requested previously that Trincomalee be exempted from the contract price for fresh beef since fighting nearby made it difficult to fatten cattle and he would have to ship them in from Negapatam.66 War also had a serious impact on Cochrane’s ability to raise cash by selling on Victualling Bills. For a while during the fourth Anglo-Mysore war in 1798–99, Cochrane was completely unable to sell them and had to send them instead to his bankers in London, meeting his needs for ready cash by drawing upon them for private bills to pay his suppliers. At times he could raise no money at all and had to use his own money, on which he charged 12 per cent interest. Even when he could dispose of Navy and Victualling Bills, he had to do so at a heavy discount.67 Finally, naval and military procurement themselves had an impact upon the markets for provisions. Where provisions were already scarce, Cochrane’s large-scale buying served to force up prices still further. At times, too, certain provisions became so scarce that he was obliged to buy them outside his usual markets. This first occurred when Rainier was assembling forces to take the Spice Islands in 1795. Sugar and arrack became so expensive that Cochrane was obliged to import them from Batavia.68 Similar difficulties occurred at other times when large concentrations of forces were being assembled. None of this was unique to the East Indies Station. War disrupted provisions flows in various parts of the world and caused prices to rise to very high levels, which at times exposed contractors to heavy losses. However, the East Indies Station, with its inhospitable climate, vast distances, complex administrative systems and relatively rudimentary naval administration, posed particular challenges. Performance Judging the effectiveness of the victualling system established during the 1790s and perpetuated with some modifications until the end of the war is not easy, principally because the bulk of detailed commentary on it comes from Basil Cochrane who, after his return to England, invested an inordinate amount of time and energy in criticising the Victualling Board and talking up his successes as contractor. His lengthy diatribes against the Board go into considerable detail on, for example, how he experimented successfully with packing bisket in wax cloth and how his careful handling of salt provisions reduced wastage to a minimum.69 They are silent, however, on the times when his systems failed and he was taken to task by Rainier for 65 66 67 68 69

TNA, ADM 112/119, Cochrane to Rainier, 31 Jan. 1804. TNA, ADM 112/119, Cochrane to Rainier, 29 Dec. 1803. Cochrane, Exposé, pp. 62–63. Cochrane, Exposé, p. 97. See for example Cochrane, Narrative, pp. 18–26.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

inadequate and poor-quality supplies. Cochrane is certainly not a wholly ­reliable witness. Nevertheless, his self-congratulation was not wholly unwarranted because, although it was far from flawless, the system that he established did work. Moreover, when the contract was made there was only a small naval presence on the station and no doubt the first large deployments there after the outbreak of war with France strained the nascent organisation. However, Cochrane refined his means of procuring and processing provisions as time went on, and the victualling generally improved as a result. Early in the war there were persistent supply failures and quality problems. In August 1795, Rainier wrote to Cochrane stating that he was ‘much dissatisfied’ with the bisket that had been issued to his flagship Suffolk, which he described as ‘illbaked and flinty.’70 However, Cochrane had already acknowledged that the wheat it had been baked from was not of the best quality and that an improvement could be expected when a cargo of higher-quality wheat he was expecting had arrived from Bengal. Rainier accepted this excuse.71 In March 1799, however, he arrived at Bombay only to find that again the bisket was of poor quality and there was insufficient arrack. He demanded in no uncertain terms that Cochrane give an explanation for this ‘manifest breach of contract.’72 Whatever reasons Cochrane gave him were evidently satisfactory since there were no further difficulties, and it is certainly significant that complaints about the quality of the provisions issued by the contractor were rare after the first few years of the war. Cochrane’s investment in flour mills and bakeries gave him greater control over the quality of the bisket, and it seems that this paid off in terms of improved quality. By the end of Cochrane’s tenure as contractor, he could quote with some satisfaction letters from Rainier remarking upon the ‘great satisfaction your correct management of its [the victualling] important concerns has given me,’ and another from his successor, Sir Edward Pellew, expressing ‘considerable regret’ at his leaving India and stating that ‘the squadron has benefited very essentially from your uniform attention to its supplies.’73 It was probably inevitable that there would be occasions when supplies did not reach where they were needed in sufficient quantities, given the difficulties of coordinating victualling on such a large, complex and sometimes inhospitable station. However, there is no evidence that failures of the victualling system had a serious impact upon the squadron’s operational capability. There were problems, but these occurred mainly in the far east of the station, where ships were operating well away from India. The presence of large numbers of troops exacerbated the difficulties, principally because the mechanism for victualling them was less robust than Cochrane’s naval victualling system. Local political upheavals also had their effect. The situation was most serious in 1795–96, during the capture of the Spice Islands.

70 71 72 73

NMM, RAI/4, Rainier to Cochrane, 7 Aug. 1795. NMM, RAI/4, Rainier to VB, 11 Oct. 1795. NMM, RAI/7, Rainier to Cochrane, 9 Mar. 1799. Quoted in Cochrane, Exposé, pp. 115–117.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Even before the islands had been taken, Captain Newcome of HMS Orpheus wrote to Rainier warning him that on his arrival at Malacca he had found that the army commissary ‘had not brought the provisions with him.’ As a result, he was having to supply the troops with naval provisions and was running short of bisket as a result.74 He left orders with the bakers at Malacca to continue baking, but this was insufficient. Rainier expected that once Amboyna had fallen to his forces local supplies of food would help to make up the shortfall, but a rebellion by the natives frustrated his hopes, and to make matters worse he discovered that the Dutch garrison at Batavia had not sent out its usual annual supply of provisions to the islands, meaning that prisoners as well as troops had to be provided for by the navy. To alleviate the situation he despatched a brig to Canton with a letter for Henry Brown, the President of the Company’s establishment there, explaining that he was ‘very little acquainted’ with the Company’s resources there and had had the brig laden with spices which if necessary could be sold to pay for provisions.75 This seems to have been a somewhat desperate expedient, perhaps an insurance policy against supplies from India failing to arrive. They had not done so in sufficient quantities a month later, and Rainier despatched ships to Malacca to collect provisions there.76 Provisions subsequently did arrive, but the shortage of fresh food, which the contractor was not responsible for providing, was causing an outbreak of scurvy. Moreover, there was little salt beef in store. Shortages continued into the following year. Rainier had by then returned to India, leaving Captain Pakenham of HMS Bellona to manage the situation, which he did by chartering local vessels to buy cattle and sheep from neighbouring islands.77 Clearly, the capture of the Spice Islands was attended by shortages, but they were not sufficiently serious to put the operation in jeopardy. Moreover it was the victualling of the army that failed, throwing extra strain onto a naval victualling system that understandably struggled to cope. In administrative terms, turning the victualling system over to contract was a great improvement over direct buying. It removed the need for an Agent Victualler to negotiate with the Presidencies, and thereby eradicated a source of serious friction. Rainier’s considerable diplomatic skills were also a help. The result was that relations between navy and East India Company were generally constructive, and considerably more cordial than they had been in the 1780s. At a more routine level, the making of the contracts with Cochrane and his successors proceeded smoothly, and their day-to-day operation does not seem to have posed any serious difficulties. This relatively smooth day-to-day running was more or less the norm for sea provisions contracts in this period. However, the East Indies contract also provided a prime example of the Victualling Board’s most serious failing, which was its failure to keep up with the accounts. Cuthbert’s accounts were not liquidated until twenty-

74 75 76 77

TNA, ADM 1/168, Newcombe to Rainier, 25 Aug. 1795. TNA, ADM 1/168, Rainier to Henry Brown Esq., 5 May 1796. TNA, ADM 1/168, Rainier to Lord Keith, 6 Jun. 1796. TNA, ADM 1/168, Pakenham to Rainier, 3 Sep. 1797.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

two years after his return from India, by which time he had died and his clerks were either dead or untraceable, meaning that the accounts were never given a thorough examination. Urquhart’s accounts, meanwhile, were written off after the Board’s reorganisation since there was no realistic chance of their being verified.78 This was remarked upon by the Commission of Naval Revision, which went on to say that: An account of still greater importance is now pending, embracing a period of more than eleven years, and involving the sum of £1,418,236 6s 9d; namely, the account of the Honourable Basil Cochrane … in the examination and liquidation of which, too much attention cannot be paid.79

Cochrane had given up his contract in 1806. He claimed later that although he had remitted his accounts to London twice a year, the Victualling Board had never written to acknowledge that they had received them. Whether or not this was entirely true, his departure from India was occasioned by a letter from the Board dated February 1806, demanding duplicates of all papers connected with his accounts up to the date of the letter. Providing them would be ‘a labour that would necessarily have occupied a lengthened period.’ Moreover, he claimed that at around the same time his health began to deteriorate and he suffered ‘infirmities of a very serious nature.’ He feared that, if he should die in India, his accounts might never be settled and the money he had made through the contract might thus be lost to his family. As a result, he decided to go to England to restore his health and settle his accounts. At this stage his intention was to return to India and he proposed to Sir Edward Pellew, who had succeeded Rainier as Commander-in-Chief the previous year, that the Madras mercantile house of James Balfour, Joseph Baker and William Hart should act as his agents during his absence. However, he then received a letter from his agent and brother John, who had been in contact with the Victualling Board, advising him that the Board’s clerks were only just beginning to examine his accounts for 1794 and that several of the papers connected with them had been lost. It was, he claimed, this news that decided him to give up the contract altogether and, rather than appointing Balfour and Baker his agents, to sign it over to them. Hart had dropped out of the partnership by this point, but Balfour and Baker were merchants of long standing and good name, and Pellew agreed that they should take on the contract altogether. The contract was formally transferred on 5 October 1806, and Cochrane sailed for England a fortnight later, arriving the following April.80 Cochrane’s subsequent dispute with the Victualling Board was lengthy and complicated. There were various minor disagreements over small charges he had made, the exchange rate on contingent purchases made in local currency, and so on. Moreover, the Board did drag its feet over examining the contract accounts, Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 9; NAS, GD51/2/514, Nicholas Brown to Lord Melville, 30 Apr. 1814. 79 Commission of Naval Revision, Tenth Report, p. 9. 80 Cochrane, Exposé, pp. 1–4; Cochrane, Narrative, pp. 59–65; TNA, ADM 1/177, Pellew to Admiralty, 10 May 1806.



Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

which Cochrane attributed to a desire to conceal their mismanagement from the Admiralty.81 Much of this was resolved by 1812, five years after Cochrane’s return from India, but the dispute lasted another nine years. The main sticking point was over Cochrane’s charge of 12 per cent interest on purchases he had made with his own money at the time when Bills were hard to sell. Cochrane argued that 12 per cent was the usual interest charge in India. The Victualling Board disallowed it, but a 5 per cent charge was allowed when the case went to arbitration in December 1819. Cochrane had also made a charge of 5 per cent on the total disbursements on his contingent account, believing that other agents were allowed it, including his successors in the East Indies. By 1817 he was unwell, tired of fighting and did not relish the prospect of another dispute in court, so offered instead that if the Board would pay him the usual salary of an Agent Victualler for the time he had acted as such, he would accept that instead. After some wrangling between Cochrane, the Board and the Admiralty, this was accepted. In 1811, the Board had claimed that Cochrane was their debtor to the tune of £9,128: at the final settlement in 1820, he received the sum of £1,282 7s 0d.82 The long, acrimonious and expensive dispute reflected two peculiar complexities of the East Indies station. The first was the blurring of the divide between public servant and private contractor. Cochrane had acted as a merchant even whilst carrying out duties normally undertaken by a public servant, and confusion over what advantage he was entitled to draw from it had been the result. The second was the fact that the East Indies was poorly integrated into the naval administration, most of whose procedures had been established with reference to European and American waters and were not well suited to conditions in India. Distance and slow communications exacerbated the problem. Cochrane had received no instructions on how to act as Agent Victualler or how to render his accounts as such, so he made them up in the style in which he had been trained in the East India Company.83 Even if he had received instructions, however, those for overseas agents were hopelessly out of date and new ones did not come into force until after his return to England. Perhaps above all, however, the dispute reflected the character of one of its parties. Cochrane did have a legitimate grievance against the Board and the confusion over his entitlements was not wholly of his own making, but compromise with the Board was, in his own words, ‘repugnant to his inclinations,’ and he was in large measure responsible for prolonging the dispute.84 The fact remained, however, that Cochrane had established a system that worked. Certainly it worked better than the mechanism for procuring naval stores. At the outbreak of war, this was as rudimentary as the victualling system had been in the 1770s. There was a Naval Officer at each of the Presidencies, charged with buying in 81 82 83 84

Cochrane, Exposé, pp. 13–15. Cochrane, Exposé, pp. 18–27, 41–87; TNA, ADM 114/4, Arbitration between the Victualling Board and the Hon. B. Cochrane, agent in the East Indies. Cochrane, Narrative, p. 54; Cochrane, Exposé, p. 62. Cochrane, Exposé, p. 52.


Basil Cochrane and Victualling in the East Indies

such naval stores – canvas, spars, tar and so on – as the squadron demanded. They drew salaries of £600 per year as naval officer, £300 for their other role as agent for the Sick and Hurt Board and a 5 per cent commission on all disbursements, making the post a lucrative one when consumption of stores was heavy.85 Partly because of this, corruption among naval agents was suspected to have been common. Moreover, at an operational level there seem to have been failures in plenty although the climate, in which sails mildewed, pitch ran and wood rotted quickly, cannot have helped. Captain Pakenham, in the same letter from Amboyna in which he noted his need to buy in animals for slaughter from neighbouring islands, remarked upon the state of HMS Resistance, whose spars were in such poor condition that she was unsafe for sea.86 A decade later, even at Bombay there were serious shortages of naval stores and Pellew was obliged to issue orders to captains to use them as sparingly as possible.87 The situation did not improve when the naval department was reorganised, since at that point all of the naval officers, for whom the reorganisation meant a loss of their commission as well as a cut in salary, resigned and returned to England. This led to a period of ‘something like chaos,’ which did not stabilise until the appointment of Commissioners of the Navy in 1809.88 The arrival of Commissioners also led to the first round of major revisions to the victualling contract since 1803. Goaded by Commissioner Dundas, Vice-Admiral William Drury negotiated a series of price reductions with Balfour and Baker, after which he remarked: That I could have exacted more from the Contractor is true, for their immense concerns throughout India would oblige them to accede to almost any proposition, but far was it from me to press unjustly on Men who were in my power and so satisfactorily fulfilled all their Engagements.89

This bears witness to the fact that the system of victualling that Cochrane had set up was a viable one, and it had kept the navy in India sufficiently well supplied to avoid any major disruption to operations. Later the same year, the invasion of Mauritius passed off successfully and without serious supply failures. Doubtless its efficacy depended upon the conscientiousness of the contractors, but whatever his faults Cochrane had worked hard to set up and refine the system, and Balfour and Baker had proved themselves well able to keep it going. It was, however, still an expensive system to run, as the figures in Table 8.1 go to show. Drury’s reductions in 1810, which were followed by a completely new contract in 1812, reflected sea officers’ and naval Commissioners’ justified view that there was scope for trimming some of the fat from it.90

85 86 87 88 89 90

Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, pp. 338–339. TNA, ADM 1/168, Pakenham to Rainier, 3 Sep. 1797. TNA, ADM 1/179, Memorandum from Pellew to captains at Bombay, 19 Mar. 1807. Northcote Parkinson, War in the Eastern Seas, p. 339. TNA, ADM 1/183, Drury to Admiralty, 1 Aug. 1810. For more detail on victualling in India after Cochrane, see Wilcox, ‘This Great Complex Concern.’


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Well before 1793, victualling the navy by contract in many theatres of war had proved more efficient and less vulnerable to corruption than direct buying by Agents Victualler. That this transition happened later in India than elsewhere reflected the remoteness of the East Indies station from the naval administration in London, as well as its size, complexity and the difficulties of operating there. Nevertheless, provisioning by contract demonstrated after 1790 the same advantages as it had elsewhere. Under Basil Cochrane a system took shape which was less costly, more reliable and more transparent than that which had gone before it. If, however, the case of the East Indies station demonstrates the advantages of victualling on contract, it also points up the difficulties of reconciling public and private interests and the confusion that could arise when a private contractor took on some of the functions of a government employee. This was later to manifest itself in an acrimonious dispute between contractor and government body, between Cochrane and the Victualling Board, exacerbated by the Board’s greatest failing during the wars of 1793–1815; its inability to keep up to date with its accounts. Private-sector involvement was crucial, but it needed to be delineated clearly and managed effectively both by those on the spot and by administrators in London. The case of the East Indies station represents one instance where this was not always the case, and illustrates the problems that could arise as a result. Nevertheless, it also shows how, even on the far side of the globe, the Royal Navy was able to harness the private interests of men such as Cochrane to serve public ends, an ability which was crucial to eventual British victory.


9 Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor

Zephaniah Job is best remembered today as ‘The Smugglers’ Banker,’ the man who financed and organised illicit trade through the small Cornish port of Polperro around the turn of the nineteenth century. This label, however, serves to obscure the range of activities he engaged in, for Job’s business interests ranged far beyond smuggling. Job was a merchant, estate manager, farmer, provider of legal services, a banker for many legitimate business interests aside from smuggling, and a contractor with the Victualling Board. Although compared to the great London merchants he was in a small way of business, his web of contacts spread across England and into continental Europe. He exemplifies very well the range of activities that were pursued by countless small merchants in ports all around the British Isles. His career also illustrates how such merchants took advantage of the opportunity that warfare gave them to supply government, and how they were able to integrate contracting into their regular business activities. Early life Zephaniah Job was born at St Agnes, on the coast of north-west Cornwall, in January 1749, the youngest of five children. In 1748 or 1749, a rich seam of tin was discovered nearby and mining in the area embarked upon a period of considerable growth. Like many of his contemporaries, the young Job entered the mining industry, probably at the usual age of about eight. Dr Jonathan Couch, the renowned naturalist, antiquary and physician who knew and treated Job in his old age described him as a man of ‘singular sagacity and energy.’ He may well have demonstrated some of his qualities at an early age for, according to Couch, he received training as a mine captain. This was a highly responsible position, requiring mental agility and a


J.R. Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution (2nd edn, St Austell, 2008), p. 44. J. Couch, History of Polperro (London, 1871, repub. Truro, 1965), pp. 89–90.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

degree of education in addition to the physical toughness and stamina of the miners ­themselves. He was clearly highly literate and numerate, which was unusual in the remote Cornish fishing and mining communities, and also a shrewd and highly motivated individual with a broad entrepreneurial streak. Job left St Agnes and settled at Polperro around 1770, reputedly moving in haste after seriously injuring or killing another man in a fight. Polperro in the late eighteenth century was an isolated, close-knit community with only a few hundred inhabitants. Its economy was based primarily on farming and fishing, especially drift-netting for pilchards in the late summer and autumn, which were cured for export. A natural complement to fishing was smuggling, or ‘free trade,’ as it was known. Polperro was as close a port as any in Cornwall to the Channel Islands, which were exempt from English customs duties and as a result became major entrepôts for smuggling, since goods could be purchased cheaply there and imported into southern England without paying the duties. The local fishing luggers were fast enough to outrun the Revenue vessels in favourable weather. Moreover, Polperro was secluded enough for cargoes to be landed illicitly in nearby Lantivet Bay and moved quickly inland, where consignments could quickly be broken down and passed into the hands of legitimate traders. All of this made the little port ideal for smuggling, especially when war or a downturn in trade disrupted its pilchard exports, and although there was a resident Customs Officer, he seems to have been ineffective and unable to mount a serious challenge to the trade. Job’s first move at Polperro was to establish himself as a schoolmaster, but this was not lucrative, and within a few years he had turned his attention and his skills elsewhere, acting as agent and book-keeper for local fishermen and traders. This seems to have led him on within a few years to become involved in smuggling, for by 1778 he was acting as commission agent for Guernsey mercantile houses in the illicit trades in spirits and tobacco. They preferred to work through an agent rather than dealing directly with impecunious and perhaps unreliable fishermen, so it was Job who dealt with the financial side of the business. He remitted money to them for stock and placed that in their accounts as a debit, and then credited them with payments remitted to him by the smugglers themselves. Periodically he balanced up the account and settled the difference with them, as well as debiting them for his commission. It was he, too, who fulfilled another function of an agent, selecting reliable and trustworthy men with whom the merchants could deal. This was not always easy. As Job wrote to a firm in St Peter Port in 1788: People in your line ought to be very careful who they give credit to in these precarious times. Though the people of this place have always paid their merchants for


Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, p. 273. J.R. Johns, The Smugglers’ Banker: The Story of Zephaniah Job of Polperro (Clifton-uponTeme, 1997), p. 20.


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor their goods, I know of no one that now comes to your Island (hired men excepted) that are safe to deal with.

Although one woman who knew him remarked that, ‘Mr Job is quite cheering, sees everything in bright colours,’ Dr Couch’s grandson painted a slightly different picture. He described the elderly Job as ‘one of your sour, long-jawed sort, a bit of a lawyer, with a temper like Old Nick.’ He was certainly not a man to be trifled with, which must have been an advantage in both legitimate and illicit trade, either of which could easily generate disputes it fell to him to resolve. Gradually, Job came to dominate the ‘free trade’ of Polperro, and continued to do so until its suppression in the first decade of the nineteenth century. Smuggling and fishing spawned another branch of mercantile activity from Polperro, at least in wartime: privateering. Job became involved at much the same time as he did in smuggling, initially as an agent only, but subsequently he may have sunk some of his own money into the venture. He handled the legal side of the business, applying for the letters of marque, keeping the books and travelling to Liverpool to secure the release of the privateer Swallow when she was arrested as part of a dispute with another privateer. The extent of Job’s financial involvement is unclear, but it seems that the profits from privateering during the War of American Independence benefited him substantially and gave a boost to his nascent mercantile activities. From 1786, Job also managed the estates of the Trelawney family, major landowners in the Polperro area. His salary for doing so was only fifty pounds per annum and the estates were not profitable at the time Job took over their management. However, Job also acted as banker for Sir Harry Trelawney and various other local families. He also farmed a smallholding of his own. Job as merchant and banker From the early 1780s, Job’s principal activity was trade. He shipped local produce to other parts of Britain and mainland Europe and brought other goods in, and to facilitate his activities he invested in barges, ships and other necessaries. He rented lime kilns at Polperro from the late 1780s and was certainly involved in trading lime by 1794, in which year his accounts show sales at Polperro and Shallowpool, near Looe, of nearly 15,000 bushels of lime sold for £840. Most of it went to local farmers for fertiliser, since Cornish soils were deficient in lime. By 1806, sales of lime


Quoted in Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, p. 86. Quoted in Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, pp. 81–82, 86 & 110. Couch, History of Polperro, p. 37; Johns, Smugglers Banker, pp. 24–32. F.H. Perrycoste, Gleanings from the Records of Zephaniah Job of Polperro (Clifton-uponTeme, 2007), pp. 37–45. Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, p. 222.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

and ashes from the kilns totalled nearly £3,000.10 Another trade which Job took advantage of was pilchards, which were caught in increasing quantities after the introduction of seine nets in 1782.11 By 1789 he was sending consignments of cured fish to London by wagon, and within a few years he had begun exporting them to Italy, at the time one of the major markets for Cornish pilchards.12 In May 1795 he wrote to a firm of merchants at Leghorn that the weather had ‘set in remarkably fine,’ and that he was ‘certain of purchasing the fish here as low if not at a lower price than any in the County.’13 However, by August he was less confident, and wrote to Commerell, Lubbock & Co, a mercantile house in Fowey with whom he was arranging shipments: I submit to you … whether it is not too early to charter any Vessels, as there is no fish yet taken, and as Spain hath made peace with France it is probable a general peace may take place before the Vessels may be wanted.14

Job, like any good merchant, was invariably as well informed as he could be on the political situation and how it might affect his business. The peace was not concluded, however, and the shipment did take place, but it was not a success and the pilchards were sold at a loss. Moreover, the firm in Naples to which he had consigned the cargo attempted to shift the cost of the venture onto Job, who responded in June the following year that: I am astonished at your attempting to place the whole of the loss on me when you so fully agreed to take one half in the adventure, first proposed to me by your London friends, and which your letters have since confirmed.   It is enough for me to bear my own proportion of the loss thereon. You may rely I shall not suffer myself to be saddled with your share thereof. Had the speculation turned out a profitable one you would have no doubt readily expected your share of the profit, and you must most assuredly be answerable for your share of the loss.15

He wrote in similar tones to Commerell, Lubbock & Co, laying part of the blame on them and saying that ‘having been introduced to them [Nicholas & Co] I understood I had to deal with men of honour.’16 How the matter was eventually resolved is not known, but Job demonstrated his willingness to resort to law when he had to, for in September the following year he wrote to inform the Fowey merchants that he had instructed Messrs Cutler and Heligan, presumably his solicitors, to commence

10 11 12 13 14 15 16

Perrycoste, Gleanings, pp. 16–27. C. Noall, Cornish Seines and Seiners (Truro, 1972), pp. 137–138. RIC, ZJ/11/2, Job papers, Job to Fairbank, 17 Feb. 1789; Noall, Cornish Seines and Seiners, p. 24. RIC, ZJ/32, Job Papers, Job to Porter and Hoddart, 20 May 1795. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Commerell, Lubbock & Co, 16 Aug. 1795. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to B. Nicholas & Co, 10 Jun. 1796. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Commerell, Lubbock & Co, 10 Jun. 1796, 20 Sep. 1796.


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor

proceedings to recover the money.17 In addition to these principal trades, at one time or another Job dealt in timber, butter, currants, wine, coal, linen and bricks, among other things.18 All of these activities embroiled Job in the complex web of mercantile credit. ‘Transferring funds by dealing in bills of exchange, granting and receiving book credit [and] making use of shop credit … were largely taken for granted’ by merchants, and Job was no exception.19 He maintained accounts with London houses, which gave him access to greater credit than he could obtain locally, facilitated his dealings with those outside his locality and demonstrated his own creditworthiness to potential trading partners. Job well knew that his reputation for integrity was vital to his success in business, and he used his standing in London to emphasise it: If you are not acquainted with our Character or manner of dealing as Merchants, we can refer you to the first Houses in London and in most of the principal Towns in England, as well as most of the neighbouring Nations, or to the most respectable Gentlemen in the neighbourhood where we live.20

It was his involvement with the smuggling trade and privateering that first led Job into contact with the London merchant William de Jersey, and then the mercantile and banking house of Perchard and Brock. Later, London Alderman and merchant Paul Le Mesurier, with whom Job also dealt in the 1780s, joined the partnership.21 It was on the London houses that Job drew the Bills of Exchange he remitted to the Guernsey spirit merchants. Perchard, Brock and Le Mesurier also acted for him when he moved into general trade, although by the mid-1790s Job found that, with the expansion of his business activities, he needed more sources of credit. Accordingly, in the autumn of 1795 he wrote to two more London banking houses, Pybus, Call & Co in Old Bond Street and Sir James Esdaile & Co in Lombard Street, then the centre of British banking: Having enlarged my business, I find it will be convenient for me to open an account with a banking house in London. Be pleased to favour me with your terms of transacting business. For any enquiry you may think proper to make, I beg to have to refer you to my nearest neighbours Sir Harry Trelawney Bart. … who will guarantee any transaction which I may have to do with your house.22

17 18 19 20 21 22

RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Commerell, Lubbock & Co, 9 Sep. 1797. Perrycoste, Gleanings, p. 36; RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to William Clarke, c21 Feb. 1797, Job to George Fox & Sons, 22 Mar. 1786. Hancock, Citizens of the World, p. 247. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Thomas Alison & Co, 1 Jul. 1795. Kent’s Directory of London, 1794; see also RIC, ZJ/11/2, Job papers, various letters to Paul Le Mesurier, 1785–89. Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, pp. 79–80; RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Sir James Esdaile & Co and Job to Pybus, Call & Co, 31 Oct. 1795.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

To both, Job intimated that he may draw on them for £12–15,000 per annum, which is probably why he referred them to Sir Harry Trelawney, safe in the knowledge that Trelawney was his debtor to the tune of £4,000 at that time and was therefore hardly in a position to speak ill of him. Meanwhile, his status can only have been of benefit to Job’s reputation.23 These London houses became essential supports to Job’s activities. He drew bills of exchange on them to pay other merchants for goods and services, drawing, for instance, a bill for £40 18s 2½d on Paul and Havilland Le Mesurier in April 1797 in favour of Henry Hoare & Co.24 He tended to remit bills on him to Perchard, Brock & Co, which included several Navy and Victualling Bills which they were then able to sell on at a discount. Some of these bills were made out to Job for his own contracts, of which more below: others he purchased at a discount from others and sold on at a small profit, especially so after the outbreak of war, as the injection of Victualling and Navy Bills into the local economy presented the opportunity for a little profitable speculation.25 Perchard and Brock also arranged insurance for some of Job’s cargoes, one instance being in January 1792, when he credited their account with him with £14 13s 0d for insurance on a freight of wheat and barley from Looe to Liverpool.26 At a national level, the London banks performed a vital economic function, acting as ‘clearing houses’ for business deals done throughout the country, and helping to direct capital from areas of surplus, where capital lay idle for want of investment opportunities, to industrialising areas where investment capital was in urgent demand.27 During the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, many country banks issued their own notes, backed by their reserves. From 1806, Job began to do the same, engaging a London printer to make him up notes for one, two and five pounds, payable by London bankers Christopher Smith & Co.28 His cash book records debits to himself for note issues, generally of around £100 a time, and occasional credits when he received his notes back. Judging from a credit for £250 in July 1809, he burned the notes that came back to him.29 Note issues were not in themselves profitable to Job, but in Cornwall, as elsewhere, they maintained liquidity in the economy at a time when specie was in short supply. This may have been why Job began issuing notes, or perhaps he saw some opportunity in doing so. Either way, in 1819 he observed, perhaps with some exaggeration, that:

23 24 25 26 27 28 29

Perrycoste, Gleanings, p. 45. RIC, ZJ/19, Job papers, List of Banking Drafts, on whom Drawn and to whom Payable. See entry for 16 Apr. 1797. RIC, ZJ/19, Job papers, List of Banking Drafts, on whom Drawn and to whom Payable. See, for example, entries for 30 Sep. and 16 Oct. 1799. RIC, ZJ/21, Job paper, day book 1790–1798, see entry for 7 Jan. 1792. Hilton, A Mad, Bad and Dangerous People?, p.152; Daunton, Progress and Poverty, p. 349. Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, pp. 82–83. RIC, ZJ/42, Job papers, Cash Book 1808–20. See 24 Feb. 1809.


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor I have the satisfaction to know that my notes are readily received by every banker in the country and by every respectable merchant and shopkeeper.30

After he died, it was found that he had sufficient cash on hand and due to him to honour all of the notes in circulation. He also invested in government bonds, of which he owned £9,681 7s 6d at the time of his death.31 The grain trade Wheat, barley and oats constituted an increasingly important part of Zephaniah Job’s activities. He seems to have embarked on the trade in 1785, via a partnership with a firm already engaged in it. As he wrote to William de Jersey and a Mr de Lisle, attempting to drum up business: Having entered into partnership with Mr John Grigg & Son in the Corn Trade at Looe, shou’d you have occasion for any shou’d be happy to receive your order which shou’d be executed on the most favourable terms.32

Job chose a propitious moment to enter the grain trade. Land was abundant in Cornwall and much remained uncultivated, but the soil in the coastal areas was generally poor, farms were small and agricultural techniques were less advanced than in the agricultural heartlands of England in the Midlands and eastern England, although wheat yields were on the high side of average in 1801, at around twentyfour bushels per acre against a national average of approximately twenty-one and yields of oats were significantly above average, at forty against thirty-four.33 However, grain production lagged behind population growth and the late eighteenth century was marked by periodic shortages, giving rise to periodic ‘distress and riots’ among the poor.34 Even so, in good years there was a surplus, particularly of oats and barley, even though the latter was a staple of the Cornish diet at the time, and Job exported considerable quantities of both.35 Much of it was purchased directly from local farmers and shipped from Looe.36 Job’s corn account book records shipments of barley and oats to other places in the West Country, up the west coast as far north as Chester and Liverpool and along the south coast, with periodic cargoes to

30 31 32 33 34 35 36

Quoted in Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, p. 83. Perrycoste, Gleanings, p. 233. RIC, ZJ/11/2, Job papers, Job to Messrs Jersey & de Lisle, 28 Apr. 1785. Calculated from figures in M. Turner, ‘Agricultural Productivity in England in the Eighteenth Century: Evidence from Crop Yields,’ Economic History Review 35 (1982), p. 507. Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, pp. 211–212; M. Overton, Production and Consumption in English Households, 1600–1750 (Abingdon, 2004), pp. 42–45. B. Thomas, ‘Food Supply in the United Kingdom During the Industrial Revolution,’ The Economics of the Industrial Revolution, ed. J. Mokyr (New York, 1985), p. 140. RIC, ZJ/43, General Account Book, 1808–10.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

London. The bulk of outbound barley and oats, however, went to Dorset, Sussex and Hampshire, to ports such as Weymouth, Southampton, Poole and Portsmouth.37 Wheat was less widely grown in Cornwall, and as a result Job exported less of it. In 1792 he shipped cargoes to Liverpool and to a James Spershott, based in Chichester, who received cargoes from him in February and April. However, Spershott went bankrupt later that year. Job seems to have shipped no more cargoes of wheat out of the West Country after war broke out in 1793. Instead, he commenced importing it from East Anglia and occasionally Hampshire.38 This reversal in the direction of Job’s trade in wheat was a consequence of the way war influenced demand patterns for cereals, particularly through the naval and military victualling organisation. Plymouth victualling yard came to exert a significant influence on grain movements around the West Country, and especially on Cornwall, from which it drew much of its wheat.39 In 1793 alone it took in 10,249 quarters of wheat, supplied on thirty-five separate contracts with fifteen different suppliers. The figures were similar two years later: 10,442 quarters, supplied by thirteen contractors on thirty-eight contracts. This is in addition to deliveries in 1795 of 594 sacks of flour totalling 1,485 hundredweight, and 6,128 hundredweight of bisket, which again was baked locally.40 Many of the contractors were based in Plymouth and the surrounding area, such as John Collier who, along with his brother William, also a victualling contractor, appears as a merchant resident in Southside Street. Others were to be found in towns around Devon. Giles Welsford, who delivered 777 quarters of wheat to Plymouth in 1793, was based in Totnes in 1794, although he resided in Plymouth and owned a wine vault by 1812, when he appears in a directory listed simply as ‘Esquire.’ His son, William Adams Welsford, became mayor of Plymouth ten years later.41 Many more were based in Cornwall, such as millers John Jory of Launceston, James Hawker of Bodmin and William Toll of St Germans.42 Others still were based in the east of England and shipped cargoes from Boston and King’s Lynn.43 Zephaniah Job held only a small number of contracts, all for deliveries of wheat to Plymouth, several of them in partnership with either John Grigg or his son Robert, who took over his business upon the death of his father in RIC, ZJ/25, Job papers, Corn Accounts, 1792–96; Universal British Directory, entry for Portsmouth, 1794. 38 RIC, ZJ/25, Job papers, Corn Accounts, 1792–96. 39 Wells, Wretched Faces, p. 23; C. Emsley, British Society and the French Wars 1793–1815 (London, 1979), p. 42. 40 TNA, ADM 112/179 & 181, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793 & 1795. The 1795 wheat figure does not include 1,000 quarters for which contracts were made, but for which no deliveries are recorded. 41 TNA, ADM 112/179 & 181, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793 & 1795; ADM 111/130, VB Minutes, 16 Mar. 1794; The Picture of Plymouth, 1812; Accessed 17 February 2009. 42 TNA, ADM 112/92, Contract Book, 1812–15. 43 For example, Thomas Guy and Alexander Bowker, both based at King’s Lynn, and S. and J. Sandars (Boston). TNA, ADM 112/92, Contract Book, 1812–15. 37


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor

1794.44 However, he traded extensively with several other contractors, and he clearly shipped many cargoes which were intended to fulfil contracts with the Victualling Board. Job and Grigg’s first contract was made on 29 December 1792, for 500 quarters of wheat. Half of this was to be paid for at the rate of 45s 10d per quarter, the other half at 46s 10d, and the whole was to be delivered in two instalments, half three weeks after the contract was signed and the remainder three weeks later.45 After 1801, clerks were prohibited from charging fees, but at this stage it was still common practice and Job’s day book records the following payments for 26 January 1793: £ s To clerk at Navy Office for drawing up the contract 1 1 Porter 1 Expence with the Clerks 1 5 To Collings for the under Clerks 2 2

d – – 6 –

The cost to Job of clerks’ perquisites was not great, but he did incur more expenses when the wheat was rejected on account of its being kiln-dried, perhaps in Job’s lime kiln at Polperro before being shipped to Plymouth. Job noted that expenses at Plymouth connected with its rejection cost a further £1 2s 0d. What he did with the rejected wheat is not recorded, but Job and Grigg delivered another cargo to Plymouth three weeks later. He paid out £7 11s 0½d to local women to carry the corn aboard ship, and then a further £1 19s 10d at Plymouth for ‘passing the wheat and taking out a bill for two cargoes.’46 The bill, which Job placed to the credit of the Agent Victualler at Plymouth in his account current on 24 February, was for £894 5s 4d. Unfortunately there is no record of how much Job paid for the wheat so it is not possible to ascertain how much of a profit he made. He lost remarkably little, however, when he sold the bill on to London firm of Reeve and Bagshaw, who charged him £4 2s 3d for brokerage and associated charges which, along with £3 14s 1d discount on the bill cost Job a total of £7 16s 4d.47 Moreover, once he had fulfilled the contract he was left with a surplus of wheat on hand, 136 quarters of which the Board agreed to take from him at the end of the month at 46s 10d per quarter.48 Like many others, Job found that there was a profit to be made from overfulfilment of his contract, and in any case, the excess provided him with a buffer against loss or damage to part of the cargo in storage or transit. Whilst deliveries under this first contract were ongoing, on 21 and 22 February, Job and Grigg entered into another two contracts, the first for two hundred quarters of wheat at 51s 9d to be delivered half in three weeks and half in six, the second for four hundred quarters, half at 52s 6d and half at 52s 9d, half in a fortnight and the 44 45 46 47 48

Johns, Smugglers Banker, p. 71. TNA, ADM 112/179, VB Contract Ledger, 1793. RIC, ZJ/21, Job paper, Day book 1790–8, see 26 Jan., 14–15 Feb. 1793. RIC, ZJ/25, Job paper, Corn Accounts, 1792–96. TNA, ADM 111/126, VB Minutes, 16 Feb. 1793.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

remainder a week later. Again the Victualling Office at Plymouth was not overly fussy about how deliveries were timed. The final instalments were not delivered until 28 May, but no penalty for late delivery was inflicted.49 Later, such penalties became a common occurrence. Job paid similar fees as he had before: 10s 6d to Mr Lillicrap, a clerk, for drawing up the contract, 15s 10d on miscellaneous expenses at Plymouth and £19 16s 4½d to a Mr Collings for delivering the wheat to Plymouth.50 On this occasion, however, the rate of discount on the bills he received and sold on was 9 per cent, which after he had paid small charges for commission and assignment of the bill to Reeve and Bagshaw, he was left with £544 11s 9d, out of the £599 17s 0d he had received from the Victualling Office.51 After this, Job and Grigg ceased contracting with the Victualling Board. Since Job’s letters from this period do not survive it is not possible to ascertain why, but their partnership certainly remained intact and they continued to trade in grain with other merchants. Two more contracts for a further thousand quarters of wheat at Plymouth were made in April and May 1793 and executed over the following four months, but these were held by Job alone. After this, he ceased contracting altogether until, for reasons that are not recorded, he began again in 1811. He held three contracts for wheat in that year, another one in 1812 and one more in 1813, after which his involvement with victualling again ceased. These contracts were smaller than those he had held nearly twenty years previously, the largest being for three hundred quarters of wheat. It may well be that the poor harvests and food crisis of 1811 led him to begin contracting again, seeing an opportunity to obtain a good price for the wheat. However, his accounts are problematic, and appear to be contradicted by his records of grain purchases. They show that he received £4 15s 5d per quarter for two of the contracts in 1811, and £6 1s 9d two years later.52 No accounts survive to indicate where he obtained the wheat from, but his purchase book, which records purchases of grain at Looe for the years 1812 and 1813, suggests that in April 1813 he was paying around 30 shillings per bushel for wheat he bought directly from the farmers. For example, he paid £15 for ten bushels from John Roskilly, £9 for six bushels from Joseph Philips jnr and £7 10s for five bushels from John Pearse. This equates to twelve pounds per quarter, so it is hard to see how he could have made a profit on his supplies to Plymouth, especially after transport costs. Contracts were evidently a fairly significant part of his wheat trade at the time, however, since his purchases at Looe between 1 December 1812 and the end of 1813 totalled 263 quarters, and yet according to the same purchase book he shipped 415 quarters to the Victualling Office between 21 December 1812 and 4 May 1813.53 Presumably, he purchased some of what he later supplied on contract from sources not recorded in 49 50 51 52 53

TNA, ADM 112/179, VB Contract Ledger, 1793. RIC, ZJ/21, Job papers, Day book 1790–98, see 8 Mar. 1793. RIC, ZJ/25, Job papers, Corn Accounts, 1792–96. TNA, ADM 112/197–9, VB Contract Ledger, 1811–13; RIC, ZJ/46, Job papers, account of wheat taken in at Looe, 1812–17. RIC, ZJ/46, Job papers, Purchase book 1812–17.


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor

the purchase book. It is harder to believe that a man of Job’s commercial acumen would have persisted long with government contracting had he been making the sort of losses which the prices quoted above seem to imply. It may be that wheat he purchased elsewhere was much cheaper. However, no other relevant papers survive so we shall never know for certain. In partnership with Robert Grigg and on his own, Zephaniah Job held only ten contracts with the Victualling Board, all to provide wheat at Plymouth. He was not in his own right a particularly significant contractor; just one of many who took on a few contracts in addition to their usual trading activities. He supplied around one-fifth of the wheat contracted for at Plymouth in 1793, but in no other year did he play nearly as important a part in the port’s supplies. However, his dealings with other contractors were extensive, and it is here that the significance to the victualling system of men such as him becomes more apparent. Giles Welsford, the Totnes-based merchant whose son was later to become mayor of Plymouth, took out a contract at the Victualling Office in Plymouth on 13 April 1793 to deliver five hundred quarters of wheat within six weeks. It was the one of several contracts he held to supply wheat to Plymouth and on one occasion Portsmouth between 1792 and 1799. He was probably already working in partnership with William Arlot, who held four similar contracts in that year,54 and he was no doubt aware of the activities of Zephaniah Job, who took out a contract on the same day. Job, Grigg, Welsford and Arlot co-operated to execute these contracts. Job’s accounts record a debit to the Plymouth Victualling Office for 668 quarters and three bushels of wheat, which had been shipped around from King’s Lynn in the Lark, a ship which appears to have been regularly employed in the grain trade from East Anglia to the West Country. Of this, half went towards the fulfilment of Job’s contract, 136 quarters towards that held by Welsford, and the remainder was sold to another frequent trading partner of Job’s and occasional contractor, corn factor Jonathan Binns of Looe. John Collier of Plymouth was also involved in the venture, Grigg paying him £74 4s 9d for freight, suggesting that he might have been the Lark’s owner, and £11 5s 8d for his dinner bill, wine and other expenses, after which Job debited his account for £149 9s 3d, the remainder of his share of disbursements on the cargo. This gives some insight into the complexity of the networks of trade and credit upon which the Victualling Board could draw. It also suggests that supplying grain to the Victualling Office was at this time very profitable, since Grigg purchased one hundred quarters of wheat from Arlot at £1 1s 0d each, whilst the prices paid at Plymouth on the contracts of 13 April ranged between £2 16s 2d and £2 16s 10d per quarter. Even allowing for transport costs and expenses in making the contract, which cannot clearly be identified, the profit margin was apparently considerable.55

54 55

TNA, ADM 112/179–85, VB Contract Ledgers, 1793–99. Welsford appeared as a contractor twelve times in a sample of wheat contracts in every second year. RIC, ZJ/25, Job papers, Corn Accounts, 1792–96.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

For no other contracts can this level of detail be ascertained, but this is but one among many in whose execution Job was concerned. Welsford held several more contracts, many of them probably executed in partnership with Arlot, who held only one in his own right, in 1793.56 John Collier, along with his brother William, held only a few contracts before the Peace of Amiens, but afterwards they extended their involvement considerably, delivering 1,288 of the 6,061 quarters of wheat delivered by contractors to Plymouth in 1805 and 1,691 of 8,436 quarters two years later.57 Job also shipped cargoes to John and Thomas Cornish, merchants and occasional contractors in Plymouth, to Portsmouth bisket contractor Matthew Carter, and to the Poole-based firm of Jeffrey Oke & Co, who supplied considerable amounts of wheat and bisket to the victualling yards at both Portsmouth and Plymouth.58 In addition, Job’s trade in oats certainly involved some cargoes that were subsequently sold on to the Victualling Board on contract, and in all probability also applied to fulfilment of contracts for supplying the army. There were large military encampments in Hampshire, which required large quantities of oats to feed cavalry and draught horses. This may account for Job’s extensive trade with Portsmouth-based corn factor Samuel Wheeler.59 Between May 1793 and September 1795, Job supplied him 2,226 quarters of oats for himself and on account of others. The first of these cargoes, of three hundred quarters at the end of May 1793, was certainly intended for the fulfilment of a Navy Board contract, since Wheeler remitted £269 9s 6d to Job for the cargo and 10s 6d ‘per Contract at the Navy Office.’60 It is perhaps significant that Job’s dealings with Wheeler were far simpler than his trades in wheat: he supplied the goods, and Wheeler remitted him the money in bills drawn upon a London merchant. Even if Wheeler was dealing in wheat, he had a ready market to hand in the victualling yard at Portsmouth and had no need to incur the trouble and expense of shipping it to Plymouth. Indeed, the only return cargo evident from his account is 211lb of cheese, which he consigned to Robert Grigg in Jun 1795.61 There is no record of Job consigning further cargoes to Portsmouth after September 1795 but he may have ceased to do so shortly afterwards, for as food prices spiralled serious disturbances broke out in Cornwall and continued well into the following year. Rioting broke out in the summer, directed principally at middlemen who were blamed by many for keeping prices artificially high. In these circumstances, ‘any movement of grain was now likely to provoke crowd action.’62 This was as true in Cornwall as anywhere else, although since Cornwall was a net importer of wheat and it was less widely eaten in the county, popular action tended to be directed at those exporting barley, some of whom prudently withdrew from the trade until the 56 57 58 59 60 61 62

TNA, ADM 112/179, VB Contract Ledger, 1793. TNA, ADM 112/191 & 193, VB Contract Ledgers, 1805 and 1807. RIC, ZJ/25, Job papers, Corn Accounts, 1792–96. Kent’s Directory of London, 1794. RIC, ZJ/25, Job papers, Corn Accounts, 1792–96. RIC, ZJ/19, Job papers, List of Banking Drafts, on whom Drawn and to whom Payable. Randall, Riotous Assemblies, pp. 209–211.


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor

situation had calmed down. Moreover, some of the county gentry and mine owners began employing merchants to buy up grain to support their workforces and damp down rising discontent in the mining districts. This had already erupted into violence, with miners terrorising grain dealers into accepting ‘laws of the maximum,’ for which fifty ringleaders had already been incarcerated in Bodmin jail, three of whom were to hang.63 The authorities in Cornwall were responding to the crisis in much the same way as the national response, with a combination of concessions and repression. Buying up grain to support the poor of the county, however, left little for export.64 As Job wrote to a correspondent in London in November, although that year’s barley crop was ‘of very good quality:’ On account of the dissatisfaction of the lower class of people in this neighbourhood we have for the present declined taking in Barley for exportation this season, before we purchase any we need to see the neighbourhood well supplied and the people’s mind made easy and satisfied that an exportation is necessary to encourage agriculture, we shall therefore have none brought in until about xmas and then most probably it will be demanded for the … mines near St Austle [sic].65

Oats were evidently less affected, for in January 1796 Job offered to ship two or three hundred quarters to Jeffery, Oke & Co in Poole and made no mention of the rioting, although perhaps significantly his letter also asked them to quote a price for a return cargo of a similar quantity of barley.66 Ten days later he reported that ‘the mob have risen to prevent any [barley] being shipped,’ and complained that: The Mayors of those Corporations seem very little disposed to enforce their Authority to protect the shipping of it, altho’ they have been assured it is for the purpose of making Bread for the Mines in the neighbourhood.67

In neighbouring Devon, the presence of a naval force of 25,000 men, 5,000 more than the population of Plymouth, worsened the situation, pushing wheat prices up to five shillings above the national average and provoking a wave of rioting.68 By July, a Grand Jury in Plymouth, whose foreman was the Agent Victualler, William Crees, felt obliged to petition the Mayor to order that two thousand barrels of flour aboard ships in the harbour should be landed ‘for the immediate supply and consumption of the Town and the adjacent Parts.’69 Such was the crisis that the government engaged the great London corn merchant Claude Scott to import wheat in

63 64 65 66 67 68 69

Rowe, Cornwall in the Age of the Industrial Revolution, pp. 104–106. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to unnamed recipient, 17 Dec. 1795. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Daniel de Jersey, 10 Nov. 1795. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Jeffery, Oke & Co, 1 Jan. 1796. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to George Fox & Sons, 11 Jan. 1796. Duffy, ‘Devon and the Naval Strategy of the French Wars 1689–1815,’ p. 187. TNA, HO 42/35, Home Office Letters and Paper, 20 Jul. 1795. We are grateful to Colin Roberts for drawing this to our attention.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

an attempt to bring down prices.70 The other governmental response to the mounting crisis was ‘Pitt’s Terror,’ the suspension of Habeas Corpus and the suppression of dissent, including the prompt arrest of prominent radicals, who were then charged with high treason.71 Job, who had little sympathy with political radicals and was tired of the disruption to his business, wrote to Sir Harry Trelawney in February 1796: You will have seen long since in the newspapers that Mr Pitt carried his two famous Bills through the House notwithstanding the most violent opposition whose leaders dared to recommend resistance by force; those Bills appear to have had their desired effect. The Jacobins are dispersed, their meetings broken up and themselves silenced, I hope forever.72

‘Pitt’s terror’ did suppress the radicals, but food rioting stemmed from a different source, and in Cornwall the high price of barley continued to provoke discontent for several more months. In October 1796 Job had to respond to another request from a Poole-based corn factor, Joseph Garland & Co, with the news that he had ‘declined taking in any lately on account of the high prices and the dissatisfaction of the lower class of people.’73 In all likelihood he had cause to write much the same words during the crises of 1801 and 1811–13 as well. Like many merchants great and small, Job’s business diversified as it grew, and as he built up an ever wider network of contacts and trading partners. As smuggling declined after more effective prevention measures were introduced, he sought other trades to profit from. He probably considered the possibility of engaging in the West Indian trade when in September 1797 he wrote to John Trelawney, the eldest son of Sir Harry who was by then serving as a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy at San Domingo, offering to act as his agent and requesting that Trelawney ‘give me all the information you can worthy of notice that may come to your knowledge in the West Indies.’74 However, this came to nothing and Job’s business remained largely within the British Isles and northern Europe. He continued to operate the Polperro lime kilns and trade in their products, and to act as steward for local landowners. He also continued trading in grain and other produce. He was admitted to the Middle Temple in London in 1804 as a licensed conveyancer and continued to provide conveyancing and other legal services until around 1820.75 The other major investment he made late in life was to buy Polperro Harbour, when its erstwhile owner, the estate of Raphael Manor, died and his trustees put it up for sale. ‘The harbour proved to be Job’s one bad investment,’ for in 1817 it was almost completely destroyed in a storm which wrecked most of the vessels in it and caused damage to the extent of

70 71 72 73 74 75

See Chapter 2. Hilton, Mad, Bad and Dangerous People, pp. 68–71. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Sir Harry Trelawney, 16 Feb. 1796. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to Joseph Garland & Co, 29 Oct. 1796. RIC, ZJ/32, Job papers, Job to John Trelawney, 13 Sep. 1797. Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, pp. 72–76.


Zephaniah Job: Merchant, Smuggler, Banker and Contractor

£6,000 and Job, by then aged 68 and in declining health, was obliged to put a considerable amount of his own time and money into rebuilding it.76 Zephaniah Job died at his cottage in the hills above Polperro on 31 January 1822, at the age of 73. He had never married, and his sister and nephews inherited the £7,766 left from his £20,000 estate, once his business affairs had been wound up and debts paid off.77 Shortly after his funeral most of his books and accounts were burned, probably by those anxious to conceal their involvement in smuggling, which by then was being policed far more effectively than it had been two decades earlier. Enough survived, however, to demonstrate the range of activities he engaged in and to give a rare insight into the business of the eighteenth-century merchant. At a local level, Job’s business was of considerable benefit to the town of Polperro and its surrounding area, since it increased the port’s trade and provided the farmers and fishermen of the area with a wider market for their produce. During the war years, a considerable amount of the wheat produced in the West Country went to the Plymouth victualling yard, where it formed a vital part of the navy’s provisions. Job, both through his own contracts and through his dealings with other contractors, played a vital role in getting that wheat to where it was needed. Moreover, merchants served to link up regional markets, and Job provides a good example of this through his wheat imports from East Anglia and exports of other grains to various parts of the British Isles, his frequent contact with London merchant houses and his occasional forays into European trade. The expansion of the British economy in the eighteenth century, and especially the rising prosperity and influence of even more remote parts of the country, rested in large measure on the growth of trade, and this was brought about by the activities of men such as Zephaniah Job.

76 77

Johns, Smugglers’ Banker, pp. 115–117. Perrycoste, Gleanings, p. 234.


10 Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth, 1796–1802

Although Holland and Britain were at war from January 1795, after which the Dutch lost their possessions in the East Indies, Trincomalee and the Cape of Good Hope, an offensive British force was not established in the southern North Sea until the last weeks of that year, when Admiral Duncan took command. The threat of a combined invasion by the Dutch and French required a constant watch by a strong British fleet on the hostile ships moored in the Texel. Had the winds been fair during the autumn of 1796, Duncan would have carried out his planned attack on the Dutch Fleet. Fifteen years earlier in the American war the base for operations against the Dutch had been Sheerness and the Nore: the decision to give Great Yarmouth and the Yarmouth Roads a central role positioned the English fleet much nearer to their adversary, only 120 miles due east. An additional advantage was that the west–east course from Yarmouth to the blockade position off the Texel lessened the amount of windward sailing for warships and victuallers in the south-west or north-east winds which prevail in the southern North Sea. As a result the port was to have a crucial role in the maintenance of the blockade against the Dutch in the French Revolutionary War. Nevertheless, it was a risky decision to use the Yarmouth Roads, for in north and easterly winds they were and are dangerous and exposed. As a result, Great Yarmouth, a fishing port which also exported a substantial amount of wheat and flour, now became in addition a busy naval base. From the


For a documented account of this period of hostilities off the Dutch coast see the Earl of Camperdown, Admiral Duncan (London, 1898) pp. 49–171; for Duncan’s orders for an attack in October 1796 see pp. 86–87. The average export of corn and flour from Yarmouth 1791–93 was £267,378 quarters, valued at £446,796 (Palmer, The History of Great Yarmouth, vol. 2, p. 106). In February 1797, 1500 quarters of wheat were shipped to Portsmouth and Plymouth, but Yarmouth was soon importing wheat (PLLB, Thomas Pitt to Victualling Board, 19 Feb. 1797). The authors have been able to use this letter book containing correspondence between two successive Victualling Office officials Yarmouth to the Board in London. Thomas Pitt’s correspondence starts on 19 June 1796, when Samuel Lewes took over on 7 April 1797; it finishes on 16 May 1799.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

summer of 1796 victualling systems and networks had to be set up almost from scratch. In the summer months Duncan’s fleet off the Texel had to be replenished with live cattle, vegetables, water and coal. When the ships returned to the Yarmouth Roads, they had to be reprovisioned rapidly so that they could get to sea again. During the winter the fleet was anchored in the Roads, ready to move against a Dutch fleet coming out from the Texel at any time. The blockade continued after the battle of Camperdown in October 1797: the following year Great Yarmouth was supporting a squadron even more numerous. In December 1798, for instance, there were nineteen ships anchored in the Yarmouth Roads, nine of them British ships of the line, as well as frigates, in addition to sizeable Russian ships. On average not far short of ten thousand seamen had to be fed throughout the year. Yet it was a struggle to maintain the fleet in these difficult waters. The depth at the bar at the river entrance was only twelve feet at high tide, so that the river was inaccessible to warships which had to anchor away from the shore in the Yarmouth Roads. To smaller vessels it could be dangerous: a modern coastal pilot book comments: ‘The entrance should never be attempted in strong SE winds when a dangerous sea occurs especially on the ebb tide’. Though the holding was good in the Roads, ships frequently dragged and cables became worn. Reserve anchors and cables needed to be at the ready at all times. Small merchant ships were particularly vulnerable to the shallow and gently shelving coast. Larger warships were not immune from trouble, even though they were moored with two bow anchors to allow for the change of tidal direction. The deepest entry to the Roads was the St Nicholas Gat, but even this was difficult and pilots were employed and there were frequent groundings. A few miles further north were the infamous Happisburgh Sands. The Invincible, a 74-gun ship, hurrying after the Baltic fleet in 1801, struck Hamond’s Knoll at speed and sank rapidly with the loss of four hundred lives. It was not necessary or even possible for the British government to establish a permanent naval base in the middle of wartime. In tune with the general theme of this book, this was an opportunity for the ‘Contractor State’ to support the fleet without a publicly-funded establishment. By relying on local contractors and labour, a temporary, moderate-sized, effective base was created. Many British ports had arrangements in place to support small, cruising warships through sea provisions contracts, but Yarmouth was exceptional because of its new strategic importance and the urgent and rapid growth of its use by the navy. A sea provisions contract was put into place, but the Board also decided to appoint an official to superintend ­business.



PLLB, Samuel Lewes to VB, 2 Dec. 1798, 8 Jan. 1799. Russian sailors were used to more bread than the British, and brandy or gin rather than rum. The Russian admiral also asked, ‘If grits of any kind could be easily procured, I should wish to have them allowed to my crews’ (Admiral Hanickoff to Duncan, 6 Oct. 1796, quoted in the Earl of Camperdown, Duncan, pp. 59–60). The Cruising Association Handbook (London, 1975), p. 128. See Appendix 3b. Derek R. Hayes, His Majesty’s Late Ship the Invincible Third Rate 74 Guns 1765–1801 (Ludham, 1985), p. 28.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

The duties of the post were not as clear-cut as that of an Agent Victualler (and the term is thus avoided in this chapter), since responsibility was shared between the state official and the contractor. This arrangement, which was to last until the Peace of Amiens, was to prove a recipe for conflict. Thomas Pitt arrived in Yarmouth on 19 June 1796 from the Deptford Victualling Yard and was followed by Samuel Lewes who took over on 7 April of the following year. Lewes continued in the post until 1802 when he went back to Deptford as a clerk in the Cutting House. Yarmouth was treated as an outport of Deptford yard, one hundred and forty nautical miles away, and the yard sent large quantities of salt beef and pork, butter and cask packs by victuallers. The provision of casks of fresh water was particularly difficult, a problem which will be examined in detail later in this chapter. Cargoes to Deptford would consist of condemned stores returned by the warships, about which there was heavy correspondence, particularly of bisket and cheese, broken casks, as well as considerable quantities of coal which had been shipped down from Newcastle and stockpiled. Finding enough sound casks was a constant preoccupation, and Pitt managed a small team of coopers in a workshop which he hired on behalf of the Board, who continuously made up packs of staves from Deptford into complete casks, though shiploads of damaged and used casks were transported back there. Pitt and Lewes also managed the navy’s own victualling ships, dealing with protections for the crews, damage and refits, and other general business. An important part of the Pitt and Lewes’s job was to cultivate healthy relations with other branches of government, such as the local excise, with whom compromises were worked out about the storage of wines and spirits ashore, though only after reference to London. It was also important to maintain relationships with local tradesmen and shipowners, other users of the harbour or fishermen who might help to service the fleet, utilising yet more private citizens to support the navy. Pitt and Lewes had split responsibilities: they were answerable to the Victualling Board, yet they serviced the ships commanded by Admiral Duncan, and at various times had to negotiate with Vice-Admirals Macbride, Onslow and Dickson. For most of these years, neither Pitt nor Lewes encountered any major difficulties in their dealings with the navy, though, just over a month after Pitt had arrived in Yarmouth, the cantankerous Vice-Admiral John MacBride caused something of a stir when he saw some beef hanging in a butcher’s shop in Yarmouth and ordered it on board his flagship: not surprisingly the local contractor for beef refused to pay for it. But the

  Pitt was senior and went on to be Clerk of the Cheque at Portsmouth. Lewes was a young clerk with experience, for he had assisted his father when the latter was Agent Victualler at Gibraltar (TNA, ADM 110/50, fo. 436, 30 Apr. 1804; information provided by Janet Macdonald). Lewes’s son in turn was to assist him as a junior clerk.   By October Pitt had successfully hired premises for a cooperage (PLLB, Pitt to VB, 19 Oct. 1796).   Wellcome, 6814/2, VB to Thomas Pitt, 24 Jun. 1796.   PLLB, Pitt to VB, 31 Jul. 1796.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

central task was to manage the local contractors, such as the live cattle contractor, Thomas Martin, who failed and lost the contract.10 Peter and William Mellish then took it over, but there was further trouble in 1797 when Mellish’s agent, Thomas Hudson, died, and Mellish had to make a short visit to regularise business and pay Hudson’s debts.11 John Grant, whom we shall meet later in this story, provided rum.12 But the greatest activity lay in the sea provisions contract, held by a local merchant Samuel Paget jnr, who provided beer, bread or bisket, vegetables and water, and transported all provisions on board the ships anchored in the Roads. Nevertheless in August 1796 there were serious doubts about whether victualling the fleet from Yarmouth was practical without substantial warehouses ashore to house provisions, for conditions for merchant vessels anchored in the Roads were often too severe. On 8 August the victualling transports from Deptford had brought up too much bread and Admiral Macbride ordered 895 bags ashore, ‘in order that the Ships might get the other provisions,’ but it was impossible to find warehouses ashore in order to store the spare bread. Thomas Pitt could find no suitable premises, which had to be next to the river, ideally with a convenient crane. Demand for warehouse space was particularly high in second half of 1796 when any spare capacity had already been taken up by the large quantity of wheat imported from Germany for the government by Claude Scott.13 The Victualling Board wrote to Duncan on 16 August that it had supplied provisions from London to ships in Yarmouth Roads, ‘in order to obviate the difficulty we understood existed in forwarding supplies from the shore whenever there was any considerable surf on the Beach.’ At this point, Samuel Paget offered to let warehouses to the Board and to supply carts to take the provisions to the waterside, but the Board minuted that ‘we have given up the intention we had been entertaining of having storehouses at Yarmouth.’ The situation was serious enough for Duncan to come back to London. Unusually for a senior commissioned officer, on 20 August he attended a meeting of the Victualling Board, to repeat his desire ‘that H.M. ships under his command may be continued to be victualled at Yarmouth from on board victuallers, agreeable to the present mode.’14 The problem was that in rough conditions it was impossible to moor a sizeable victualler next to a warship in anything but the most moderate weather, for the weight of each ship would damage the other when rolling in a seaway. The Board therefore ordered Pitt to use the laborious method of ships’ launches and the

10 11 12 13 14

Wellcome 6814/5, VB to Pitt, 6 Jul. 1796. Wellcome, 6815/6, VB to Lewes, 8 Sep.; PLLB, Lewes to VB, 27 Sep. 1797. SFDB. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 15 Aug. 1796. In late August, for instance, 12 ships arrived laden with foreign wheat which William Youell and his son inspected (NRO, Y/D/87/29, 22, 29 Aug. 1796). TNA, ADM 111/140, VB minutes, 20 Aug. 1796. Duncan was concerned about feeding his crews, for in 1795 he suggested that each of ship should carry ‘a trawl and a proportion of lines and hooks,’ and the Navy Board put forward a table of the different size trawls to be carried by the various rates of ships (NMM, ADM BP/!5a, 28 Apr. 1795).


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

boats of the Victuallers to load provisions. The real issue, however, seemed to be Duncan’s high level of confidence in the sea provisions contractor, Samuel Paget, and the Board backed down: If however it is the Admiral’s opinion that reliance may be placed upon Mr. Paget,

the contractor, to furnish the Squadron with what supplies of Provisions they may from time to time stand in need of … we shall desist from sending any further quantity from hence.15

In the autumn of 1796, Samuel Paget had to find a solution to supplying the Squadron in the Roads safely and speedily.16 Samuel Paget Samuel Paget was, as his son remembered him, perhaps with an overdose of filial respect, ‘a rather small, active, handsome man … a good cricketer, a good speaker, gentle, calm, busy all day, and always seeming to love more than anything the quiet of his home … punctual, constant at work, perfectly fair, liberal and honest: but he was, besides, a thorough gentleman.’17 With the disadvantage of a father of dissolute reputation, Paget was a self-made man, possibly a nonconformist.18 He had started out as a clerk to a merchant named Kerridge, who had held the sea provisions contract at Yarmouth in earlier years. After a period when the contract was held by Thomas Pinkerton, Paget won the contract in June 1794. He was then only twenty and seems to have been undercapitalised. His son recounts: ‘He had to borrow money to begin with; and his mother went about, borrowing for him whereever she could; and they succeeded, in spite of opposition on political grounds and on account of his father’s repute as being concerned in smuggling.’19 With the government’s naval victualling contract and an extensive war in prospect, Paget’s credit would have been good. Paget’s network of contacts in Yarmouth and its hinterland spread impressively. A great deal of cash passed through his hands, for sizeable victualling bills were made out to Paget by Lewes for miscellaneous reasons, such as supplying necessary and

15 16 17

18 19

ADM 111/140, 15, 16, 19, 20 Aug. 1796. The prominent brewer, Sir Edmund Lacon had a convenient warehouse, ‘but he does not seem inclinable to Let it’. Towry was in Yarmouth between 11 and 26 September 1796 (PLLB). Stephen Paget, Memoirs and Letters of Sir James Paget (London, 1902), pp. 1–2, 4. Family tradition had it that Paget persuaded the Victualling Board that he could administer the contract when he was only 17, and when he arrived in the Strand outside Somerset House, bewildered by the press of people, quite unlike Yarmouth, he took refuge in a doorway, waiting for the crowd to pass; it was some time before he realised that the number of people in the street was normal (p. 3). His son James was educated by a Unitarian minister (Paget, Memoirs, p. 9). Paget, Paget Memoirs, p. 3; he died, aged 82, in 1856 (Palmer, Great Yarmouth, p. 277).


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

table money to the Russian ships in the Roads. Local farmers and merchants subcontracted to him. Early in 1796 William Youell, a corn merchant who had retired to Yarmouth, noted that his son William ‘sold 20 combs Whole Peases to Mr. Paget … to go on board the Men of War in the Roads.’20 Local inland vessels, called keels, heavy (between 30 and 90 tons), unwieldy, open-decked and with a single square sail, ferried flour and bisket down the Yare from the flour mills of Norwich, where the owners of the New Mills were installing steam engines.21 At first all went well with the summer weather, even though there were more than the usual reports of leaking molasses or wine casks and mouldy cheese, caused by the problems of transhipment. An example of what could go wrong was noted in the log of the master of the Goliath: Whilst in the Act of hoisting a Butt of Beer, it was ordered to be lowered down again (the ship’s company not making a proper run with it) while lowering it down they let go of the yard tackle, and the Butt falling into the water unslung itself, it blowing fresh, and a strong lee tide going, prevented it being picked up and was lost22

On one occasion Thomas Pitt reported that bread was damaged by some of the bags … wetted by the spray of the sea besides the bag that fell overboard mentioned in a former letter and the Keel in coming up the harbour was drawn on shore by the violence of the Wind, the bread was therefore obliged to be sent up the River in open Craft, and a heavy shower unexpectedly coming on, many of the bags were wetted with the rain. I therefore sent every bag that had received the least wet to a bakehouse in the town and had the whole shot and dried over again.23

Water was still being shipped from Deptford, but Paget also secured the water contract in July 1796 to supply ships at the expensive price of 7s 3d per ton.24 By early September the Board ordered him to fill all his casks with water ‘and put into craft in readiness to be sent off to the squadron under the command of Vice-Admiral MacBride on the instant of their arrival in Yarmouth Roads where they are momentarily expected.’25 In mid-September Commissioner Towry visited Yarmouth to expedite matters when MacBride’s ships came into the Roads. Towry saw for himself how difficult it was to load provisions in the Roads, and ordered two vessels into the river to load and unload wine, ‘it being very dangerous to tranship it in the

20 21 22 23 24 25

NRO, Y/D/87/29, Youell Diaries, 11 Mar. 1796. NRO, Y/D/87/29, 1 Jun. 1796. Wherries at this time were too small for the purposes. See Michael Stammers, Sailing Barges of the British Isles (Stroud, 2008), pp. 55–61. TNA, ADM 52/3833, master of the Goliath, 11 May 1807. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 4 Sep. 1796. See p. 59. Wellcome, 6814/19, VB to Pitt, 6 Sep. 1796.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Roads.’26 He adjusted Paget’s price of the water got from the River Yare down to 7s per ton, though he allowed the water from the Gorleston springs at 7s 6d.27 By 25 September 1796 the provisioning of the fleet of twelve ships of the line and five frigates and sloops was nearly complete, though an estimated seven hundred tons of water were wanting; the wind was blowing hard from the north-east and there was no communication from the shore.28 Four days later the weather had moderated, 210 tons of water had been loaded, with a further 750 tons loading from the beach. Six victuallers were in the harbour, two in the Roads: all vessels had their cables much damaged. A boat from the Squirrel ‘upset at the jetty and two of her men were drowned.’ On 3 October a ‘kech’ taking out water butts to the Venerable, Duncan’s flagship, was lost on Scroby Sands, and four hundred tons were still needed. By now there was a great scarcity of water casks.29 The fleet did not leave until 19 October 1796 and was not off the Texel until two days later.30 As on other important occasions, the loading of water was the main factor in delaying the sailing of a fleet.31 With the Fleet having to stay six weeks in the Roads, not surprisingly, the Board immediately ordered the Agent Victualler Thomas Pitt to investigate better ways of procuring water. Pitt argued that there was no lack of water: what was lacking was the right craft to get it out into the Roads. No more than thirty-five tons of water a day could be obtained from the Gorleston spring, he reported, and the ground between the spring and the river was rough and uneven which would damage the casks; and in any case the inhabitants of Gorleston claimed a right to it. River water was brought down the river by keels in much larger quantities and ‘being river water it is softer and will keep better’. The problem arose from the lack of proper craft to take it out to the warships. When the wind sets a swell on the bar at the mouth of the harbour the keels cannot get out and often an afternoon’s tide is lost when it is moderate, as the keelmen will not go out into the Roads unless they are sure of getting back into the harbour the same evening. They dare not trust their keels in the Roads all night, and are afraid of venturing with them in bad weather.

Pitt argued for larger vessels such as ‘Dover hoys’ or decked lighters, the same craft which took water from Deptford to the Nore and Chatham, to be kept at the mouth of the river, to be supplied by keels bringing water in casks downriver.32 Three weeks later, after ‘enquiring of the keelmen’ he found that Paget was paying them nine guineas each trip (though the price was eight when he had started hiring them) and

26 27 28 29 30 31 32

PLLB, Pitt to VB, 11 Sep. 1796. The Gorleston spring exists and is marked by a plaque naming it ‘Duncan’s Well’. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 25 Sep. 1796. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 29 Sep., 3 Oct. 1796. Earl of Camperdown, Duncan, 88; PLLB, Pitt to VB, 19 Oct. 1796. See pp. 60–61. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 10 Oct. 1796.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

that half of this fee was to bring the water downriver, the other half to take the water out to the warships.33 The increasingly hostile winter weather damaged more ships’ boats when getting stores on board warships. On 20 November one of Paget’s watering vessels was lost after she had loaded water on board the Director. Filled only with empty casks, and therefore lightened and unballasted, a squall swamped her, and she was lost in spite of the efforts of the warship’s crew to weigh her the next day. Pitt concluded his report: ‘She rubbed the Director’s hawser quite asunder and sunk entirely.’34 Pitt then ran into problems with other users of the river. The numbers of supply vessels gathering at the mouth of the harbour in the area known as the ‘Brush’ were causing complaints. The harbour master was responsible to the Mayor, Dover Colby, who ordered the victualling vessels to moor at the Town Quay two miles from the mouth of the river, where, he argued, they could ‘lye without inconvenience or prejudice to the Navigation …’ Pitt protested to the Board, and particularly to George Phillips Towry, who had just visited the port, that the masters of the victuallers had complied with the harbour master’s wish, ‘as they were placed singly with their broadsides close to the quay agreeable to the harbour Master’s direction, and the Masters say they have given every assistance to ships coming in and going out of the harbour.’35 Feelings ran high. The Mayor threatened to ‘apply to the Lords of the Admiralty to get them ordered into the Roads,’ and when he wrote he reported scathingly to their Lordships that, it is manifest to every person conversant with this Harbor and Sea Affairs (which I find by a conversation today with Mr Pitt he is not, he having never been at Sea in his life) … I never saw or had any communication with Mr Pitt before this morning … I cannot learn of any instance where the Masters of Victuallers have rendered any assistance or service whatever to ships coming in or going out the harbour, but on the contrary they have several times obstinately and wilfully impeded and injured the Trade, by cutting and casting off the ropes of small vessels and thereby caused frequent damage to be sustained.36

In spite of the strong language, the matter was resolved, for, with the trade and prosperity brought by the navy to the port, it was hardly in the Mayor’s interests not to smooth things over. Efforts to find the right size of decked water vessel were redoubled. It had to be able to carry a good amount of water yet have a light enough draft to get over the bar of the Haven. A number were suggested by the Board but rejected as being too small. Negotiations with the fishermen failed, since their boats were dismantled for the winter, and as for the fishermen, Pitt reported:

33 34 35 36

PLLB, Pitt to VB, 5 Nov. 1796. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 20 Nov. 1796. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 4 Dec. 1796. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 18 Dec. 1796; Wellcome 6814/37, 15 Dec. 1796, enclosure of 10 Dec. 1796.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815 No proper dependence could be placed upon them. And as the necessity also for their going out might appear greater at one time than another so would their freight account, instance of which occurred the other day when 30 guineas was asked for carrying two cables on board H.M. Ship Circe, as they were much wanted, and 20 guineas for bringing the old ones on shore, and this was when the weather was fine.

In the same letter Pitt reported a violent gale, with sixteen vessels on shore, ‘some light and others with valuable cargoes which will all be spoiled, a great deal of damage has been done around the coast’.37 However, the search for a suitable vessel ended when a captured Dutch ‘schoote’ was put forward. She could take forty tons of water in butts and puncheons, was found to be seaworthy and have a shallow enough draft to operate out of the river.38 When Duncan’s fleet came in to the Roads on 12 March 1797, his ships were at sea again within five days.39 With Pitt’s backing Paget now offered, on 26 March, to provide warehouse space to the Victualling Board for all provisions (except wines and spirits) sufficient ‘for 7 or eight thousand men for four months and to find vessels to take the same on board His Majesty’s Ships in the Roads at the rate of £165 p[er] month.’ The Board asked Pitt’s opinion, and he repeated the problems with the victuallers laying in the Roads, ‘the danger of staving the casks is very great,’ while the ships’ officers did not like using their launches, which were frequently damaged, and they would not send their launches up the river into the town. Pitt concluded: ‘Upon the whole I think Mr Paget’s is a very fair, reasonable and advantageous offer.’40 By 9 April the contract and the securities were sent to the Board. Within a fortnight Thomas Pitt had returned to Deptford and Samuel Lewes took over his post. Lewes soon found that this arrangement left Paget in too strong a position. In early July he complained to the Board that Paget was supplying warships in the Roads without informing him.41 The situation was reviewed during a visit from Victualling Commissioners Rodney and Hunt in July 1797.42 This was not the only trouble that Lewes met in his first days, for he arrived just at the point when the Nore mutiny had spread to the ships off Yarmouth. Though the ­trouble started on

37 38

PLLB, Pitt to VB, 28 Dec. 1796. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 12 Jan. 1797. At Yarmouth they anticipated a more general use by the Navy of Dutch fishing vessels. See the report by the Sheerness Dockyard officers to the Navy Board and Admiralty on captured Dutch vessels of 7 May 1798 (NMM, ADM BP/18a). 39 Even then there was a complaint about delay from Rear-Admiral Onslow against which Pitt protested vigorously to the Board, which he represented as only the result of the Admiral’s secretary, ‘who represented the matter in a wrong light to the Admiral’ (PLLB, Pitt to VB, 17 Mar. 1797). 40 PLLB, Pitt to VB, 23, 26 Mar. 1797. It is not clear where Paget’s warehouse was, though a plan of 1807 shows premises near the Navy Board’s next to the river (NRO, MFQ/1/307/1, ‘Survey of the Ordnance Land … received from Captain Whitmore 3 Sep. 1807). 41 PLLB, Lewes to VB, 2, 6 Jul. 1797. 42 PLLB, Pitt to VB, 26 Sep. 1796; Lewes to VB, 30 Jul. 1797.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

the Venerable in early May when anchored in the Yarmouth Roads, Duncan talked the crew round: the rest of the ships took themselves off to the Nore to join the other mutinous ships. Accompanied only by the Adamant, a 50-gun ship, the flagship kept watch off the Texel, fooling the Dutch who thought the blockade by the whole fleet was still in place, while the mutiny at the Nore was played out. To reward the loyalty of the Venerable, a collection was taken in mid-July by ‘the Gentlemen Merchants and Traders of the Town of Yarmouth,’ amounting to £54, which was spent on porter and vegetables for the crew, affording them, as the crew wrote to the Admiral, ‘a seasonable refreshment for ten days’.43 This can only have been organised by Samuel Paget. Camperdown Yet Admiral Duncan was not confident of maintaining the blockade. In the same week as he received the letter of thanks from his crew for the porter and vegetables, he wrote gloomily to Lord Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty: There is yet a great deal of the summer to come, and we cannot hold out to the end of it. Many of the ships that came from the westward had just come from long cruises, and had not time to get stores, of which they are deficient, and the scurvy is making its appearance. Water will soon grow scarce, and if we go on our ground tiers and [are] obliged to fill salt water, it will be very tedious, particularly at Yarmouth, to recruit.44

In the early part of August five transports with cattle, vegetables and water went out to the fleet off the Texel, but strong southwest winds ‘with a swell’ prevented transhipment until 28 August. On 4 September the wind increased to gale force for several days. The Warrior sprang all her lower masts and Duncan ordered her to the Nore. In the first half of September the Inflexible had just been reprovisioned at Yarmouth after a long stay of two months, but almost immediately she joined the fleet off the Texel she started to make a great deal of water, requiring continuous pumping, and her main yard was sprung. She, too, was ordered back to the Nore. Before she left the fleet on 24 September, as was common practice, she distributed every sort of provision to the Caesar and twelve casks of beef and twelve of pork and much else to the Triumph.45 The Agamemnon was ordered back to port on 22 September. On 23 September three merchant ships carrying 150 chaldrons of coal, or over three hundred tons, reached the fleet: they had left Yarmouth on 16 September a full week before.46 The Glatton was ordered to Portsmouth on 24

43 44 45 46

Camperdown, Duncan, pp. 185–186. J. Corbett ed. The Private Papers of George, 2nd Earl Spencer, vol. II (NRS,48, 1914), p. 140, Duncan to Spencer, 17 Jul. 1797. TNA, ADM 52/3117, master’s log of the Inflexible. PLLB, Lewes to VB, 26 Sep., 15 Oct. 1797. Camperdown, Duncan, pp. 187–189.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

September. Almost all Duncan’s frigates had to leave the blockading fleet during September for repairs. On 26 September 1797 the Admiralty ordered Duncan to bring his ships back to Yarmouth Roads for replenishment, though three went to the Nore for refitting. Six 74-gun and five 64-gun ships came into the Yarmouth Roads. Paget and Lewes were ready for them. Lewes was assisted by another clerk on 6 October from the Deptford victualling yard, John Slight, to be described by Lewes to the Board as, ‘indefatigable both by night and day and has afforded me all the assistance he possibly could.’47 Duncan’s flagship the Venerable came to anchor in the Roads at 5p.m. on 3 October: by one o’clock in the morning a victualler was alongside with water and candles.48 Water casks were first loaded into the lower tiers in the hold, generally in ‘butts’ holding not less that 112 gallons, approximately a ton. The seamen first had to ‘start’ [empty] those water casks which had been filled with salt water as ballast (on the lower tiers) to maintain the ship’s trim when she was at sea. The lieutenant’s log of the Director, a 64-gun ship, commanded by William Bligh, conveys the sense of urgency by the entry of 4 October: ‘Employed starting salt water & clearing the hold. Received vegetables for the ship’s company. AM Came alongside brig with water, employed clearing her.’ For a full five days the Director provisioned from lighters and brigs, but she was ready to sail with Duncan’s fleet on 9 October.49 The Monmouth, a 74-gun ship, was very low in provisions and water. Her crew had to ‘start’ forty tons of saltwater on 5 October and a further thirty the next day. In three days she returned to store over three hundred empty butts, sixty-one puncheons and seven hogsheads, the majority of which had contained water. By 7 October she had replaced the water, hoisted in and stowed twenty-four casks of beef, forty of pork, nine of molasses, ten of flour, five of raisins, twelve of pease, nine of oatmeal, twenty-six of cheese and twenty-three firkins of butter, fifteen pipes of wine and twenty-one puncheons of brandy.50 Fresh beef and vegetables were distributed to all the ships. The Triumph, a 74-gun ship, anchored in the Roads on 1 October, but she needed so much provisioning that she shifted her position to near the jetty by the mouth of the river. There she received over two thousand pounds of fresh beef in two days and loaded an enormous amount of every sort of provision, as well over 120 tons of water.51 The 40-gun frigate Beaulieu took on 103 tons.52 Noticeably beer was not supplied, though there was plenty of wine and brandy. Other ships needed varying varieties and loads of provisions. The Russell had been in Yarmouth Roads for three weeks and by 9 September had her four months’ provisions complete; she needed only water. She was anchored in the Roads for only two days: in that time one of her seamen was 47 48 49 50 51 52

PLLB, Lewes to VB, 8 Oct. 1797. TNA, ADM 52/3517, master’s log of the Venerable. NMM, ADM/L/D/28, 4–8 Oct. TNA, ADM 52/3233, master’s log of the Monmouth. TNA, ADM 52/3507, master’s log of the Triumph. TNA, ADM 52/2747, master’s log of the Beaulieu.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

drowned.53 The Bedford sailed from Spithead in light winds and calms, but came to anchor in the Roads on 6 October and received no provisions at all, except for 1681 lbs of fresh beef.54 The Powerful never came into the Roads, for she sailed straight from Spithead, luckily joining Duncan just before the battle on 10 October. She was back at Spithead nineteen days later.55 The calm weather played a critical part in this rapid reprovisioning, for there was a gentle westerly wind, enough to move the supply vessels, while the sea was sufficiently flat in the lee of the land not to hinder hoisting and stowing the casks. On 2 and 3 October a depression passed to the north of the British Isles, giving the North Sea westerly winds and light rain. In 5 October the Dutch fleet was ordered to sea by the Naval Committee at the Hague.56 ‘The second depression advanced from the S.E. on the 6th and 7th and was heralded by a brief spell of E. To S.E. weather that allowed the Dutch fleet to slip out of the Texel on 7 October, spotted by the Speculator lugger.’57 Just before the Fleet sailed, on 8 October, another keel was lost going out of the river, caused by the swell rather than strong winds, as Lewes reported to the Board, ‘the great surge got on shore and is totally lost, the prov[isions] was got out of her, most of which is damaged.’58 At 11a.m. on 9 October Duncan wrote to the Admiralty from the Venerable: ‘A Lugger this morning appeared at the back of the Sands with a signal flying that the Dutch are either out or preparing for it.’ The Monarch’s master noted in his log: ‘Lugger made a signal for an enemy. Ad[miral] Made the signal to unmoor. At 11.30 got clear of the Buoys & hoisted the boats. In company with 12 sail of Line, Martin sloop and two cutters. 2 Line of battleship to Leeward beating up to the Fleet. 10 October. Cleared ship for action. Powerful and Isis joined the Fleet.’59 Duncan’s thirteen ships of the line, with frigates and sloops, were manned by complements totalling 7,824 seamen.60 Within twenty-four hours the Dutch had been sighted and the action commenced, and Duncan secured a crushing victory. In a year Samuel Paget, in conjunction with Lewes, had brought the fleet re-provisioning time down from five weeks to five days. There can be no doubt that the rapid turn-round enabled Duncan to catch the Dutch fleet and win a critical victory at a very difficult time for Britain. A year later the news of Nelson’s victory at the Nile reached Yarmouth, and on the anniversary of Camperdown, a dinner was held at the Duke’s Head in Great Yarmouth to celebrate both victories. According to Paget’s son, ‘the chief people of the town gave Lord Duncan a great dinner and

TNA, ADM 52/3383, master’s log of the Russell. TNA, ADM 52/2750, master’s log of the Bedford. TNA, ADM 52/3309, master’s log of the Powerful. She was back at Spithead by 29 October. Camperdown, Duncan, 190. Dennis Wheeler, ‘The Influence of the Weather during the Camperdown Campaign of 1797,’ MM 77 (1991), pp. 51–52. 58 PLLB, Lewes to VB, 8 Oct. 1797. 59 TNA, ADM 52/3230, master’s log of the Monarch. 60 Camperdown, Duncan, pp. 212–213.

53 54 55 56 57


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

drank his health, he, as I have heard, pointed to my father and said, “That’s the man that won the battle”.’ 61 Paget’s dominance But Lewes was still unhappy. He was unable even to enter Paget’s warehouse, complaining to the Board in November: I beg permission to take the particulars of the prov[isions]s now in store here, to verify they agree with the remains as Mr. Pitt, when I came down here, only gave the remains from his books, as he had not time to compare it with what was then in the stores which would have taken up some time and be attended with trouble and expense. And as Mr Samuel Paget Jnr was then and has been ever since in the habit of keeping the keys of the warehouses where they are deposited, makes me very anxious to know the state of the same …62

Over the winter the Board was persuaded that something ought to be done to regain some control, asking Lewes on 12 March 1798 to estimate ‘what saving … would arise to Government in the victualling department at this place if the warehouses were hired by the Honble Board.’63 Lewes quickly sent off his estimate of the savings that could be made in provisions, beer and water if it was all done by the Board: but in a long and worried letter two days later he wrote to the Board retracting his estimates. ‘On the strictest search I found only two [warehouses] for which from the knowledge of my being under the direction of the Honble Board the terms were very high notwithstanding they were not well situated for despatch to the service as those occupied by Mr Paget.’ He found that he would have to pay 4s per ton of stores put on board a ship, rather than the 2s 6d he had estimated. ‘The cartage likewise considerably more, and if under the directions of your Honours, craft or cartage would not be procured at so cheap a rate.’ Lewes hoped that the Board would forgive him for being wrongly informed, ‘which I hope the Hon[oura]ble Board will conceive arose from the extreme difficulty which an enquiry of that nature always occasions, and which is so subject to misrepresentation.’ The Victualling Board had to step back from having warehouses in Yarmouth under their own control. It was a convincing demonstration of the strong negotiating position of a local merchant vis-à-vis the state victualling machine. Samuel Paget tightened his hold on the business of naval victualling at Great Yarmouth through 1798. In April he went to London and secured the contract for


62 63

Paget, Memoirs, p. 3. The great dinner cannot have been in 1797 because after the battle Duncan went down to the Nore, but an account of a dinner at the Duke’s Head on 11 October 1798, to celebrate the Nelson’s victory at the Nile, is given in Camperdown, Duncan, pp. 374–377. PLLB, Lewes to VB, 12 Nov. 1797. PLLB, Lewes to VB 16 Mar. 1798.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

warehousing and carrying wines and spirits.64 Two local merchants, J.F. Garwood, a glazier and R.M. Boardman, a baker, stood surety for Paget for his bond of £5,000.65 Amongst many problems that Paget had to solve was transporting live cattle to the ships in the Roads, for which he hired keels and other local vessels on a casual basis.66 Very large numbers of cattle were provided for the North Sea fleet, for the Victualling Board specified to Lewes that ‘each line of Battle ship can carry 20 oxen between the Guns on the main Deck.’67 Paget’s line of communication to the admirals improved, to Lewes’s discomfort, who in October 1798 asked the Board for ‘directions respecting any future orders I may receive from Lord Duncan or Sir Richard Onslow for any more supplies in the future, as Mr Noble, Lord Duncan’s secretary, informs me his Lordship has wrote to the Admy respecting the present supplies he has had and what he may want in the future.’68 Lewes continued to feel sidelined. In late 1798 Paget strengthened his position further by securing the bread and bisket contract, which appeared to come about through a disruption in the bread supply from Deptford. Paget agreed to supply 1,000 hundredweight bags a month, ‘for six months certain at 18s 10d and 1s 6d the bag payable on my drafts on the Board at 30 days’ sight’. Lewes apologised to the Board for not agreeing a lower price, because the demands ‘were so sudden I had it not in my power to make a better agreement’.69 The price remained steady at around 20s a bag for the next two years, and by early 1799 Paget was supplying 2,000 bags a month and 2,500 by May, for which he was paid by Bill of Exchange.70 Through 1800 wheat prices in Britain began to rise sharply and by the end of that year Paget was receiving 47s a bag.71 But pressure on prices in Yarmouth was especially high in early 1801, caused by the gathering of Sir Hyde Parker’s fleet bound for the Baltic: prices of both wheat and bisket rose steeply. As the price of wheat and flour rose to unprecedented levels throughout the country, negotiations between the Board and Paget, through Lewes, became increasingly difficult. In January 1801 Paget held all the advantages, for the fleet had to get away. On 24 January, for instance, Paget held out for 42s a bag, which the Board rejected: ‘the price asked being, in our opinion, extravagantly high.’72 But these were extraordinary times. Within a week, having reviewed the prices around the country, and at Portsmouth in particular, the Board had to go as high as 55s 6d a bag to Paget, though it brought the price down to 50s 6d two days later, even though the price at Portsmouth had crept up to 55s 4d. A month later Paget was offered 52s a bag for

64 65 66 67 68 69 70 71 72

PLLB, Lewes to VB, 12 Apr., 24 Jun. 1798. PLLB, Lewes to VB, 12 Aug. 1798. PLLB, Pitt to VB, 10 Oct.; Wellcome 6814/39, VB to Pitt, 22 Oct. 1796. Wellcome, 6815/6, VB to Lewes, 8 Sep. 1797. PLLB, Lewes to VB, 1 Oct. 1798. PLLB, Lewes to VB, 16, 26, 27 Oct. 1798. PLLB, Lewes to VB, 24 Mar., 7, 20 Apr., 20 May 1799. TNA, ADM 111/157, 22 Dec. 1800. Wellcome, 6815/35, VB to Lewes.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

1,500 bags. Such was the shortage that Lewes asked the Board to send 1,000 bags of bread and 1,000 of bisket from Deptford, to which the Board agreed.73 On 12 March Hyde Parker’s fleet left for the Baltic. It consisted of seventeen ships of the line, four frigates and twenty-five smaller ships, with a total of 18,000 seamen.74 Soon after the Board seemingly tried to break Paget’s dominance, and agreed with another contractor, William Worts of Deptford, to supply bisket at Yarmouth at 50s 6d, less than Paget, though Worts struggled to deliver his stipulated amount.75 Throughout March provisions were still being amassed for a fleet of victuallers to follow the fleet to the Baltic, loaded with a ten-week supply of provisions and it was ready to sail on 31 March.76 Pressure on the prices of provisions at Yarmouth was relieved. In mid-April Paget made an offer of flour to the Board, but the Board rejected it as the price was much too high.77 By 15 April the news of the victory at Copenhagen reached the Admiralty.78 With the prospect of the Baltic opening up and of Prussian grain getting to Britain, the price of flour and bisket generally began to fall. The Board amended Paget’s price on 27 April, ‘the market having considerably declined in price:’ by 1 May it was down to 45s, by 8 July to 38s, and by the end of August to 30s.79 The Board’s hand was strengthened further through the late summer and autumn when peace seemed likely. On 1 October 1801 Preliminary Articles of Peace were signed with France and the Board decided that no more bread and bisket were to be purchased. On 5 October it refused Paget’s offer of bisket at 25s a bag and it did the same four months later, on 8 March 1802, when Paget offered it at 24s. The sea provisions contractor at Yarmouth, like others elsewhere, had been caught at the end of hostilities with large, unsaleable stocks. The end of the contract Hostilities resumed in May 1803 and Samuel Lewes was immediately sent from Deptford to Great Yarmouth. On 27 May the Board considered its options, ‘having it in contemplation to form a depot of Provisions and other suitable arrangements at North Yarmouth … similarly to the mode adopted in the late war.’ It had received ‘several Letters and Proposals … from various persons relative to the providing of

73 74 75 76

77 78 79

TNA, ADM 111/158, VB Minutes, 24, 31 Jan., 2 Feb., 28 Feb. 1801. Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 395. Wellcome, 6815/61, 28 Mar.; 6815/68, 20 Apr. 1801. Alfred Morrison, ed., The Collection of Autograph Letters and Historical Documents Formed by Alfred Morrison: the Hamilton and Nelson Papers (privately printed, 1894) II, p. 150, Nepean to Nelson; Nicholas Harris Nicholas, The Dispatches and Letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson 7 vols. (London, 1844) IV, 23 May 1801, Nelson to Nepean. TNA, ADM 111/158, 28 Mar., 6, 10, 13 Apr. 1801. Nicolas, Dispatches of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, IV, p. 327. TNA, ADM 111/158.


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

storehouses and supplying of different articles of Provisions.’ The Board decided to send up to Yarmouth its two most experienced Commissioners, George Phillips Towry and Robert Sadleir Moody. Their task was to examine prices and premises ‘in like manner as was agreed with Mr Samuel Paget during the late war.’ The specification was tightly drawn; the prospective contractor should allow for an anticipated eight thousand seamen for four months. The two commissioners were also to visit Norwich, ‘with the view of investigating the manner in which are at present furnished by Mr John Grant, and of ascertaining whether any mode, apparently more advantageous to the service can be adopted.’80 Towry and Moody reported back on 9 June, and the Board decided to ask Paget and Messrs Seward and Co of Yarmouth their prices. On 16 June several bids were received, with Paget sending in all seven letters, and in addition coming up to London to press his case; he put in his bid on 13 June. The final bids were between Paget and a latecomer in the bidding, John Grant, who had supplied rum to Yarmouth since 1794, but who we have met before as a major sea provisions contractor.81 He put in his bid on 9 June. The terms of Paget and Grant’s bids are shown in Table 10.1. Table 10.1:  Tenders for the Great Yarmouth contract by Samuel Paget and John Grant, 1803 Paget tender

Grant tender

Bread per cwt

23s 6d

24s 3d

Beer per ton


70s 4s 4d

Beef per 8lb piece

4s 6d

Pork per 4lb piece

2s 6d

2s 5d

Pease per bushel

6s 10d

6s 9d

Oatmeal per bushel

7s 3d

7s 6d

Butter per lb



Cheese per lb



Vinegar per gallon

1s 3d


Bisket bags each

1s 6d


Rum per gallon


12s 3d

Source: TNA, ADM 111/167, VB Minutes, 16 Jun 1803.

Unfortunately for Paget, the Board decided in Grant’s favour. The two competing proposals were similarly priced, with Grant’s slightly lower for beer, beef and rum, whilst Paget’s was more economical for bread. Significantly, however, Paget attached conditions to the effect that if, ‘in the event of a termination of the War or other 80 TNA, ADM 111/167, 27 May 1803. 81 SFDB: see p. 152.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

unforeseen circumstances he should have a considerable Stock of Provisions on hand, such provisions are to be taken from him.’82 The Board rarely looked favourably upon conditions attached to tenders, and were not prepared to accept Paget’s attempt to place the risk of overstocking back onto government. Grant, meanwhile, asked for no such indemnity. The underlying deciding factor seems to have been the scale of Grant’s operations, enabling the Board to, ‘enter into a contract for the Victualling of H.M. Ships than to revert to the mode which was found necessary to adopt in the late War of having a Temporary Victualling Establishment at that place’. Thus Grant’s bid was, ‘Cheapest and most advisable to be accepted and that he is also of adequate competence and ability to the full performance of the undertaking.’ Paget soon gave up the water contract, which Grant took over at the considerable price reduction of 6s 5d a ton.83 There was no place at Yarmouth for Samuel Lewes, who was ordered to hand over the stores in hand to the charge of Grant. The latter also took off the Board’s hands the storehouse so recently hired by Towry and Moody, indicating how late was the change in the Board’s thinking. Three weeks later the Board also wrote to Samuel Lewes, directing him ‘to return to your duty at Deptford without a moment’s further delay.’84 There was a clear financial advantage to Grant’s contract, as well as a considerable transfer of risk away from the government. No trace of political interference in the decision has been found, in spite of the fact that the contract was made in the period of political turmoil during Lord St Vincent’s administration as First Lord. Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Troubridge was the sitting Member for Great Yarmouth and a member of the Admiralty Board. Commissioner Towry was related to the Grey family and friendly with St Vincent, but it seems that in spite of the late bid by John Grant, the contract was awarded logically and fairly.85 Nor is it likely that Paget’s friendship with Admiral Duncan, who was related by marriage to the Dundas family, and on the other side of the political divide, affected a decision that was fairly made. Samuel Paget became wealthy and respectable. He had married in December 1799, and between 1800 and 1813 had eleven children of which six sons and two daughters reached adulthood. In 1803 he became lieutenant-colonel in the local

82 83 84 85

TNA, ADM 111/167, VB Minutes, 16 Jun. 1803. By 1810 Grant was complaining of losses on the Yarmouth sea provisions contract, and the contract went to Belcher Byles: as Chapter 7 explored, both subsequently went bankrupt (TNA, ADM 111/194, VB minutes, 1 Mar. 1810; 111/197, 7 Nov. 1810). Wellcome, 6815/144, 5 May; 6815/159, 6 Jul 1802. David Bonner Smith, Letters of Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of St Vincent (NRS, 1927), vol. II, pp. 136–137, St Vincent to the Hon. Captain Grey, 5 Sep. 1801. A hint of political influence is contained in a letter to William Pitt of 9 Dec. 1796 from John Story, the master of a victualler and a freeman of Yarmouth, who tells that he was encouraged by George Cherry, Chairman of the Victualling Board, to ferry Yarmouth freemen to vote in an election for a government candidate (TNA, PRO 30/8/181).


Samuel Paget and the Sea Provisions Contract at Great Yarmouth

militia.86 He was able to send three elder sons to Charterhouse and in 1812–13 he built a grand house on South Quay, where his youngest son, James was born, who lived to become a famous surgeon.87 In 1817 Samuel Paget became Mayor of Great Yarmouth, then lost most of his fortune through brewing losses, but he lived to witness the start of the Crimean War. Victualling contracting laid the basis of his fortune, but all the evidence points to the fact that he did the job more cheaply and more effectively than it could have been done directly by government.

86 87

Palmer, Yarmouth, p. 286. Paget, Memoirs, p. 15: a particular form of deformity is still known as ‘Paget’s Disease’.



No government can do everything. Even in states with a very large public sector, private enterprise retains a significant role, and the state must at some point depend upon private concerns either to provide essential services or to deliver the raw materials that state concerns require. This is as true of the British state in the eighteenth century as any other, perhaps especially so since the boundaries of the state were very tightly drawn and it depended heavily upon private contractors to deliver many services both military and civilian. We advance the idea of the ‘Contractor State’ to describe these many and complex interactions between government and contractors, and the diverse ways in which private interests were harnessed and directed to serve public ends. This is intended not to dispute but rather to complement, the concept of the ‘fiscal-military state.’ It does, however, serve to highlight the imbalance between the large amount of excellent work that has been conducted on how eighteenth-century governments raised money, and the comparatively little that has been done on how that money was translated into effective military and naval forces. In turn, this imbalance partly reflects the fact that for much of the eighteenth century the state’s ability to raise money efficiently and effectively contrasted with the often piecemeal means of supporting the army, and to a lesser extent the navy, whose need for a permanent infrastructure of dockyards and bases at strategic locations gave its administration a permanence and stability that the army largely lacked. Even so, the early history of the Victualling Board demonstrates the sometimes disorganised nature of naval administration in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, and its subsequent improvement during the course of that century was mirrored elsewhere in the naval administration, and indeed all across government. Among the most important aspects of this improvement was the development of increasingly formalised, transparent and effective processes for engaging, dealing with and then paying private contractors. Contract administration, though a modern phrase, was a vital part of the activities of many government departments. It had to be, for without effective administration of contracts corruption, peculation, poor-quality and inadequate supplies and general inefficiency invariably followed. 210


The beef provided by contractors which was ‘ill-salted and stinketh’ and the ‘beer put into oil cask … which is enough to poison any man’ from which the early seventeenth-century navy suffered are among many examples that could be advanced to illustrate the point. The fact that by the mid-eighteenth century less than 1 per cent of provisions were condemned as inedible bears witness to how far matters had improved, and that improvement continued over the next half-century. In operational terms, the Victualling Board managed well during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Although there were many instances of petty corruption and inefficiency at its yards, these never became serious enough to imperil its core tasks of processing, assembling, storing and delivering provisions to where they were required. As we have shown, it managed thousands of contracts for delivery of raw materials and finished goods to its yards competently and usually without paying much over the market price. It also managed to learn from the mistakes made during its first experiment with employing buyers on commission during the American War, a potentially risky transaction avoided by other departments such as the Navy Board, and used commission agents to considerable effect. The provisions bought and processed were almost always delivered to where they were required in time to avoid serious shortages. For instance, during Lord Keith’s tenure in command of the Mediterranean fleet in 1799–1802, around forty thousand men received rations, the majority of which had been packed in London and sent via bases at Gibraltar, Port Mahon and Malta. Co-ordinating this was no mean feat, and nor was engaging and managing contractors to provision ships where no state victualling yard existed. These contractors were generally well-chosen, the Board’s tendering procedures and requirement for sureties largely weeding out those without the resources, the credit or the ability to fulfil their engagements. Once in force, contracts were not infrequently renegotiated as economic conditions and the exigencies of war led contractors to request, but the Board rarely allowed itself to be taken advantage of by its contractors. Although there were instances where provisions ran short these were localised and rarely serious enough to threaten operational effectiveness. Lord Keith’s understandable concern when he arrived at the Cape in 1795 with many men sick with scurvy and only three weeks’ rations is conspicuous because such near-failures were unusual. In previous wars they had been commonplace, although decreasingly so later in the century. No naval men starved during

Rodger, Safeguard of the Sea, p. 373. Rodger, Wooden World, pp. 84–85. The only species of provisions of which more than 1 per cent was rejected was stockfish (7.9 per cent), which was subsequently dropped from the naval diet because of the difficulty of preserving it.    Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling Board, Chapter 8.    Pool, Navy Board Contracts, p. 126.   MacCranie, Lord Keith, pp. 44–48.    For example, a squadron operating in the Bay of Biscay in 1780 under Admiral Geary was forced into port with 2,400 men suffering from scurvy. Operations to the West Indies were disrupted on many occasions during the course of the century. Closer to home, the Western    


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

the wars of 1793 to 1815. Shortages did occur, especially where ships were operating in more remote areas, but even in the most distant parts of the vast East Indies station serious shortages were rare and localised. Where the Victualling Board did fail was in its accounting practices, a crucial if sometimes overlooked aspect of contract administration. Much as prioritising current business was a sensible, perhaps the only available, option to the Board at the outbreak of war in 1793, the accounts could not be neglected forever, and under the strain of a war of unprecedented duration and expense the growing backlog of unpassed accounts became unsustainable. But this was not a problem unique to the Victualling Board. In 1807, the Commission on Public Expenditure were informed that it was expected the Paymaster-General’s account for 1782 (the year before Burke’s Pay Office Act) would be completed by Christmas 1807, twenty-four years after the date that it was due. Such problems were common all across government, and they were solved by reforms that encompassed much of the machinery of the state. These reforms came out of the 1780s, out of the shock of near-defeat in the American War and changing attitudes towards government and public office. The pressure of war in the 1790s and 1800s, however, saw such reforms implemented more quickly than they otherwise might have been. In the navy, as elsewhere, they encompassed not only changes in accounting, but also a paradigm shift in the way that public offices were perceived. No longer did a man purchase office, make his living mainly from customary fees and perquisites and hold it until he died or decided to sell it on: instead, men were engaged, salaried, prohibited from drawing other emoluments and, when the time came that they were no longer able to perform their roles effectively, they were superannuated with a pension. Shorn of many of its placemen and sinecures the naval administration, like the rest of government, became increasingly efficient. This presaged even further-reaching reforms in the following century, establishing employment practices that persist in modified form to this day. In this respect, and others, the Victualling Board represents a case study of wider and fundamental changes in the way Britain was governed. Much as the Victualling Board’s difficulties with its backlog of accounts was serious, and much as it drew the attention of the Commission of Naval Revision to the weak management of the Board at that time, the accounts in question were generated largely by a small number of very prominent contractors: the major commission buyers and Basil Cochrane. This, much like the contemporary satires and scathing criticisms of contractors by commentators such as Cobbett, serves to divert attention away from the fact that most of the Victualling Board’s contractors were in fact small men: middle-ranking merchants and tradesmen, innkeepers and artisans such as millers and bakers. Such figures provided much of the food that kept the


Squadron cruising in the Atlantic was forced home by sickness on several occasions in 1755–59. Baugh, ‘Naval power,’ pp. 247–256; Duffy, ‘Western Squadron,’ p. 69; Rodger, The Command of the Ocean, p. 347. Bartlett, ‘The Development of the British Army,’ p. 72.



navy at sea, and they did so throughout the war. Their role was, however, overshadowed by the small number of far more prominent contractors. Among these were the commission buyers such as the Mellish brothers, Edward Knight and Jordaine and Shaw, to whom the Board turned for a few years before the Peace of Amiens, when economic crisis and disrupted provisions markets encouraged it temporarily to abandon orthodox contracting for certain goods. More numerous, if not all as wealthy, were the sea provisions contractors, some of them merchants in ways of business little larger than Zephaniah Job. Among them, however, were the few major merchants who dominated sea provisions contracting abroad for most of the war, and at home between the Peace of Amiens, when smaller merchants shied away from the risks and capital requirements inherent in contracts for provisioning such large concentrations of men. However, between 1810 and 1812, a combination of economic crisis, international politics in the form of the American embargo, and sudden changes in deployments of ships on certain stations bankrupted four of the most prominent. Even after this, however, the Board was able to find replacements, which is a testament to the size, resilience and willingness to take risks of the mercantile community in Britain and elsewhere, as well as to the Commissioners’ capacity to judge the market and balance the desire of prospective contractors to make a profit against their need to keep the navy fed at a reasonable cost. The system had two great strengths: the ability to utilise effectively the skills and resources of private entrepreneurs, combined with the adaptability and decentralisation of the victualling system. Critical here were the several methods of procuring provisions, which gave the system flexibility enough to work in all theatres of war that the navy then operated in. Success in sustaining deployments in distant waters was in large measure a product of an effective victualling system, and it gave the Royal Navy an operational range and flexibility that its rivals largely lacked. It is difficult to make judgements about French naval victualling since their records were destroyed, but when the French and Spanish were confronting the British fleets up to the battle of Trafalgar there were times when their fleets suffered from malnourishment and sickness. For instance, Allemand’s squadron left Brest in April 1805 as part of Napoleon’s great invasion plan, stayed at sea for a remarkable 160 days, and reached Brest safely, but ‘with appalling sickness.’ In the long chase over the Atlantic before Trafalgar, Gravina’s Spanish ships suffered severely from sickness on the voyage home. Nelson’s fleet, by contrast, suffered no such difficulties. In the words of Daniel Baugh, the development of an effective victualling system by the Royal Navy was ‘probably the most important triumph of eighteenth-century naval administration.’10 No war of the ‘long’ eighteenth century, or indeed of any other era, can be understood purely in operational terms. Any effective military force must be adequately


E.H. Jenkins, A History of the French Navy (London, 1973), p. 253. Knight, Pursuit of Victory, p. 493. Baugh, ‘Naval Power,’ p. 256.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

funded, competently administered and well supplied. The armies of Napoleon lived largely off the land, which was adequate in Europe but hopeless insufficient in the attempted invasion of Russia. The Russian army’s pursuit of the French all the way back to Paris would not have been possible without the organisation that enabled it to remain well supplied with food, weapons and horses.11 ‘All wars,’ Henry Dundas reminded Pitt, ‘are a contention of purse.’12 This was and remains true, but it is also insufficient. Success in war was not only dependent upon a plentiful supply of money, but also the ability to spend it to best effect. It has long been established that the British state was more adept at tapping taxpayers’ purses than its rivals, but its ability to spend that money wisely was equally important. It did so through a multitude of departments much like the Victualling Board. Their administrative acumen and their effective engagement and management of countless contractors gave Great Britain the decisive edge in the Great Wars with France.

11 12

Dominic Lieven, Russia Against Napoleon: The Battle for Europe, 1807 to 1814 (London, 2009), see Chapter 10. Quoted in M. Duffy, ‘World-Wide War and British Expansion, 1793–1815,’ p. 190.


Appendix 1 1a) Structure of naval administration, 1793–1815


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

1b) Simplified diagram of the victualling organisation and movements of provisions




Appendix 2 Annual naval spending, 1793–1816 Inflation change prev. year % 1793


Naval estimate £

Unfunded debt £

Total expenditure £

Victualling estimate £





Victualling spend £

















7, 613,552




























3,749,815 5,209,248





































































































Sources: Naval Expenditure: N.A.M. Rodger, The Command of the Ocean: A Naval History of Britain, 1649–1815 (London, 2004), p. 645, quoting House of Commons Sessional Papers, 1868–9, XXV, 1177– 1179. Figures have been adjusted to take account of £11,595,529 in naval debt funded into government stock in 1797 (Ibid., p. 646); Hansard, 1803–07, 1809–16; Devon Record Office, Addington Papers, 152M/c1802/ON13 ‘Account of the Expenses of the Army, Navy and Ordnance, 1791–1802’. Naval Estimates: W. Laird Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to the Present (London, 1899) vol. IV, p. 153; vol. V, p. 9; Parliamentary Register 1790s. Naval Unfunded Debt: NMM, ADM BP/39B, Navy Board to Admiralty, 30 Aug. 1819, ‘Total Unfunded Debt of Great Britain in Navy Bills, 1785–1818’. Victualling Estimates: 1793–97 estimated at £4 per man per lunar month; 1797–1802 £7 per man; TNA, ADM 110 series. Victualling Expenditure: NMM, BP/15a, 16a, 21a 1794, 1795, 1800; Hansard, 1803–16.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Appendix 3 3a) Map of Great Britain, showing victualling yards and ports victualled by contract



3b) Chart of Great Yarmouth, 1798 Source: NMM, D18/01, Diston Atlas, ‘A New Chart of the Coast from Lowestoft to Hasborough including Yarmouth Roads and Sands’ (London, 1790).


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Appendix 4 Deployment of ships and men, 1792–1813 The Admiralty List Books (TNA, ADM 8) show the location of the Royal Navy’s ships. They consist of tables for each station showing the name of each ship, her rate and her complement, which are then abstracted into tables showing the numbers of each rate and type of unrated vessel, and their complements. They were collated monthly until 1810, and six-monthly thereafter until the series finishes in 1813. The following tables are abstracted from the List Books and show the total number of men present on the East Indies and Mediterranean stations, in the Caribbean, in North American waters, the Channel Fleet and in home waters in July each year. Prior to 1807 there is no detail on ships’ precise whereabouts, but after that date fuller details are given for ships in home waters and for the first time vessels are listed at particular ports, i.e. Portsmouth, Plymouth, Yarmouth, Leith, Cork. Also, operating areas such as ‘Off Texel and the Scheldt’ appear. These are aggregated in the tables below, as explained in the notes. The full data from which these tables were assembled can be found in the Sustaining the Fleet project database ( The total numbers of ships and men on each station and in each place were sampled for January, April, July and October for every year from 1792 to 1809, and January and July thereafter. Approximate numbers of soldiers to be victualled are also presented for relevant stations.


4a) 1792–1802 1792


East Indies





























































Home waters












Elsewhere & unknown


























Caribbean North America & Canada Channel Fleet


4b) 1803–1813 1803


































North America & Canada
























Channel Fleet












Home waters












Elsewhere & unknown
























Notes: ‘Caribbean’ includes the Jamaica and Leeward Islands stations. ‘North America and Canada’ includes the North America, Nova Scotia and Newfoundland stations. ‘Home waters’ includes ships at Cork, the Channel Islands, Portsmouth, Plymouth, The Downs, Sheerness, Yarmouth, operating in the North Sea and off Texel and the Scheldt, and squadrons under named commanders operating in home waters. ‘Elsewhere and unknown’ includes the Cape of Good Hope, Brazils and the Baltic, as well as ships listed under ‘convoys and cruisers,’ sailing under secret order and squadrons under named commanders overseas or whose whereabouts could not be ascertained.

Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815


East Indies


Appendix 5 Army numbers abroad, 1793–1814 1793 1794 1795 1796 1797 1798 1799 1800 1801 1802 1803 1804 1805 1806 1807 1808 1809 1810 1811 1812 1813 1814

18,194 41,494 40,261 82,182 64,227 34,320 31,445 41,715 72,829 25,494 No figures 17,039 22,375 26,043 35,816 37,217 36,947 38,390 40,543 45,881 52,757 53,729

These figures do not include expeditions abroad, but garrisons, at various times, at the Cape of Good Hope, ‘Brazils,’ Jamaica, Leeward Islands, Bermuda, Canada, Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Gibraltar, Minorca, Malta, India, Goree and New South Wales. They are based on Treasury estimated requirements from TNA, ADM 109/102–9, VB In-letters from the Treasury; WO/30/65, ‘State and Situation of the Forces serving under the British Empire, March 1801’; J.W. Fortescue, The History of the British Army, vol. IV, pt. 2, pp. 938–939; The County Lieutenancies and the Army, 1803–1814 (London, 1919) p. 293, ‘The Effective Strength of the British Army, in rank and file, 1804–1813.’ This latter list does not include commissioned or warrant officers, and the figure for 1814 is taken as at 25 September 1813.


Sustaining the Fleet, 1793–1815

Appendix 6 Wheat prices in four counties

6a) Monthly, 1791–1801



6b) Weekly, 1799–1801


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Abercromby, General Sir Ralph 25, 36 Aboukir Bay 48, 55n Addington, Henry, Prime Minister, 1801–1804 16, 80 Admiralty, Board of 13, ������������������������������� 14, 21, 26–28, 35, 46, 47, 50, 55, 60–61, 66, 83, 99, 105–106, 135, 157, 165, 169, 174, 199, 202 agent victualler 3n, �������������������������������������� 17, 19, 23, 25, 32, 33–36, 44–45, 61, 65, 78–79, 82–83, 85–86, 88–89, 95–96, 98–99, 122, 133, 136, 155, 160, 165, 167, 168, 172, 174, 185, 189, 194, 198 agriculture   cattle, live 2, 36, 56–57, 65–66, 68, 71, 107, 116, 118, 120, 122, 123, 125, 129, 140, 172, 193, 195, 201, 205   droving 56–57, �������������� 68, 116   grain 10, ������������������������� 12–13, 53–54, 69–70, 72, ���� 77, ���� 79–80, ����������� 84, 104, 107, 116, 119–123, 125, 127–129, 131, 146, 153, 160, 183–184, 186–189, 190–191, 206   pig rearing 56–57, ���������������������� 68, 81, 87, 116   prices 70, 72, 81, 110–114, 189 Allemand, Captain Zacherie (French) 213 ��� Amboyna, Molucca Islands, Indonesia 172, �������� 175 Amejan, Harat 96 �� American Revolutionary War 2, ������������������ 4, 11, 32, 50, 41n, 70, 81, 106, 142, 159, 192, 211–212 American War, 1812–1814  50 Amiens, Peace of 11, ������������������������������ 26, 42, 47–48, 50, 55–56, 71–72, 102, 118, 123, 129, 149, 152, 156, 188, 194, 213 amphibious expeditions 6, ���������������������� 16, 24, 48–49, 51, 75–76 Anglo-Mysore War 164, �������� 170 Appledore, Devon 2, ����������� 135, 145

Arlot, William 187, �������� 188 army   British 1, 3, 6, 9, 10, 12–15, 20, 23–26, 28, 43, 47–48, 50–55, 55n, 56, 61, 67, 80, 82, 84, 102, 114, 120, 137, 145–147, 150, 153, 165, 188, 210   French 5, 13, 16, 50   Indian 160, 163–164, 172   Russian 214 Arnott, Charles 167 Atkinson, Christopher 116, 121–125, 128, 131 Atkinson, William 100, ������������������ 109, 118, 124 Auckland, Lord, Postmaster-General, 1798–1804 �� 18 Austria 12, ������ 48 Baker, Joseph 173 ��� bakers 18, ������������ 43, 56, 77–78, ������������������������������ 82, 85–86, 88–89, 103, 107, 117, 172 Balfour & Baker, Messrs 173, 175, 163n Balfour, James 173 Baltic Sea 5, ��� 7, ��������������������������������� 10–11, 34, 46, 49–50, 54, 60, 62–63, 65, 76, 80, 142, 193, 205–206, bankruptcy 14, 15, 100, 126, 129, 151–152, 154 Barbary Coast 53–54 Barham, Lord, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1805–1806  24 barrels 53n, 62, 93 Barrow, John, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, 1804–1806, 1807–1835  61 Batavia 163, 170, 172 Battersea, London 56 Beaufoy & Co 106 Belcher, Andrew 136, �������� 146


Index Bengal 134, 159, 163–165, 168, 169–171 Bentham, Samuel, Inspector-General of Naval Works, 1796–1807 ����������� 15, 59–60, 71 �� Bermuda 136, ������������� 139, 223 Berry, Captain Sir Edward 99 �� Binns, Jonathan 86, ������� 187 Birmingham 8, ������� 15, 74 �� Blackburn, Quintin 145, �������� 146 Blatchford, Peter 44 Block Mills, Portsmouth Dockyard 15 Blockade, Royal Naval 3, 6, 47–49, 54, 58, 60, 62, 64, 66, 73, 159, 192, 193, 201 Blomefield, Thomas 15 Board of Agriculture 68, 75 Bodmin, Cornwall 184, 189 Bogle French & Co 100 ��� Bolland, J. 109 ��� Bolton, Thomas 96 Bombay 35, 96, 134, 156–158, 164, 165, 166, 169, 175 Boon, John 43n, 94 Booth, Richard 65 Borough, London 116 Boscawen, Admiral Hon. Edward 16n, 159 Boston, Lincolnshire 184 Brest 47, 49, 51, 69, 213 brewing 32, 58, 209 Bristol 39, 77, 94, 144, 145, 152, 153 Broughton, Commodore William 168 Brown & McCarthy 137, 138 Brown, Henry 172 Brown, Nicholas, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1808–1830  25, 27, 133 Brown, Timothy 118 Brunel, Marc Isambard 15 Brymer, James 138, 146, 152, 153 Budd, John 104 Budge, William, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1805–1808  25, 105 Bull, James 104 bullocks 36, 65n, 66, 164 Burke’s Pay Office Act 212 Bussaco, Battle of (Spain) 53 Butchers Company 129 Byles, Belcher 153 Caffarena, Frances 65 �� Callaghan, Daniel 54, ��������������� 82, 83, 153 Callaghan, Gerald 45 Campbell, Sir Archibald 161

Camperdown, Battle of 48, 193, 201–204 Canada 40, 52, 75, 136, 140, 150, 221, 222, 223 canals   Grand Junction 68   Grand Union 68 canning of meat 64 Canning, George, Foreign Secretary, 1807– 1809 76, 101 Canterbury 63 Canton 156, 168, 172 Cape of Good Hope 33, 48, 52, 156, 158, 166, 222, 223 casks 29, 32, 46, 55, 57, 58, 61, 62, 63–64, 87, 100, 118, 135, 139, 141, 142, 165, 194, 197–200, 202, 203 cattle, live see agriculture Cawsand Bay, Plymouth Sound 51 Ceylon 157 Chaff, Thomas 104 Channel Fleet 29, 47–49, 60, 65, 220, 221, 222 Channel Isles 135, 135n, 146, 178, 222 Chatham 4, 29, 31, 33, 79, 88n, 90, 103, 110, 118, 125, 147, 198 Cherry, George, Chairman, Victualling Board Commissioners, 1785–1799 ������� 24, 85n Cheshire 57, 68, 140 Chester 183 Chorley, Alexander, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1767–1794  124 Christian, Admiral Hugh Cloberry 51 Christie, William 107 civil unrest 72, ���� 74, ���� 77, ������� 188 Clancy, William 92, ������ 93 Clarke, Richard 91, ����������������� 106, 107, 109 Clevland, John, Secretary of the Admiralty, 1751–1759 �� 17 coal 13, ������������������������������������ 58, 87, 103, 181, 193, 194, 201 Cobbett, William 2, ���������������� 102, 148, 212 Cochrane, Admiral Sir Alexander 150, 151, 160 Cochrane, Archibald 160 Cochrane, Basil 7, ������������������� 19, 155–176, 212 Cochrane, John 134, ������������������ 135, 164, 169 Cochrane-Johnstone, Andrew 160 Codd, Thomas Hudson 82–83 Colby, Dover 208 Collier, John 42, 184, 187, 188 Collier, John & William 42 Collings, Mr 185, 186 Colquhoun, Patrick 38 �� Commerell, Lubbock & Co 180 ���


Index commissaries 1, ��������������������� 9, 10, 15, 52, 165 Commissary-General 52, ���������� 53, 55 commission agents 102, ����������������� 110, 115–131 Commission for Examining the Public Accounts 20, ������� 212 Commission of Military Enquiry 14, 120 Commission of Naval Revision 14, ��������������� 23–27, 29, 33, 34–35, 93, 94, 124, 126, 127, 141, 143, 173, 144 212 Commission on Fees 20, 23, 24, 86 commission, buying on 118–131 Commutation Act 159 competitive tendering 6, 19, 43–45, 107, 113, 121, 137 Congreve, Sir William 9, 15 Constable, William & James 140 Consuls 36, 65, Continental Blockade 10, 12, 49, 63, 73, 84, 105 Contractor State 10, 193, 210 contractors’ losses 50, ����������� 149–154 contracts   compared to direct state provision 5, 8, 36–37, 57, 84, 155, 172, 175, 211   efficiency 3, ���������� 8, 58, 75, ���� 76, ���������������� 89, 143, 210   enforcement 84, �������������� 86, 97–100   importance to British war machinery 8, 15–16, 20, 66, 75, 84, 132–134, 137–139, 142–143, 155, 176, 210–211, 213   performance 86, ��������������������� 135, 141–144, 210   prices 70, ���� 72, ���� 79, ������������������������������� 82, 95, 110, 137–138, 140, 142–144, 148  �������������������������������������������� quality control 11, ���������������������������� 15, 27, 82, 83, 85, 86, 92–94, 99, 100–101, 102, 125, 141, 154  ��������������������� risk 90, ���������������� 108, 148–154   sea provisions 34, 41, 86, 95, 102, 103, 107, 132–154, 172, 192–209, 213   shipping 49, 58  �������������������������������������������� supply 85–114, 116, 119, 121, 139, 146, 152  ��������������������������������������� terms of 13, 86–87, 89–94, 95–97, 115, 122–125, 131, 206–208 convoys 3, 11, 30, 32, 46, 49, 51, 53, 58, 69, 81, 168, 222 Cooper, Mr 98 coopers 23, 32, 63, 165, 169, 194, 194n Copenhagen 16, 48, 52, 76, 206 Cork 22, 23, 33, 45, 54, 79, 81, 82–3, 92, 118, 137, 144, 220 Corn Exchange 80, 116 corn factors 10, 80, 121, 123, 187, 188, 190 Cornish, John & Thomas 188

Cornwall 57, 68, 72, 74, 86, 113, 177, 178, 182, 183, 184, 188, 189, 190 Cornwallis, Admiral Sir William 49, 60, 134, 135, 164, 166, 167 Coromandel Coast 134, 146, 163 corruption  ����������������������������������������������� in contracting 3, 20, 120, 148, 160, 161, 175, 186, 210  ����������������������������������� in government 1, 3, 23, 25, 26, 211 Corsica 48 Cotterill, Edward 107 Couch, Dr Jonathan 177 Coulson, Wilkes & Co 109 course, for paying bills 22, 30–31, 72, 91, 125, 141, credit, importance of 40–41, 79, 145, 181–183, 196, Crees, William 34, 98, 189 Cruden, George 140 Cuddalore, India 160 Cumming, Thomas 42 Cummins, Nicholas 45 Curno, Jonathan 94 Cutforth, James 36 Cuthbert, Arthur 133–135, 172 Cutler & Heligan, Messrs 180 Cuxhaven 2 Cyprus 66 Daily Advertiser 44 de Jersey, William 181, 183 de Lisle, Mr 183 Demerara, West Indies 42, 146 Deptford Victualling Yard 19, 79, 194, 202 Desborough, George 133 Devon 57, 68, 72, 79, 111, 113, 184, 189 Dickson, Vice-Admiral Sir Archibald 194 Donaldson, Alexander 138, 143, 147, 149 Dover 4, 29, 31, 33, 61, 79, 93, 110, 117, 122, 128, 147 Downs, The 33, 51, 60, 61, 90, 118, 125, 222 Droitwich 57 droving, see agriculture Drury, Vice-Admiral William O’Bryen 35, 36, 157, 175 Dublin 81, 138n, 146, 147, 152 Duncan, Admiral Lord 192–196, 200–205 Dundas, George, Navy Board Commissioner at Bombay Dockyard, ca. 1810  35, 175 Dundas, Henry see Melville


Index Dunkin & Brown, Messrs 109 Dunkin, Christopher 109, 115, 116, 127 Dunkin, John 115, 116, 127, 128 Dunsterville, John 45, 79, 82, 83 Dutch Navy 192, 203 Dyer, G. & Co 109 East India Company 8, 12, 134, 156, 157, 160, 161n, 172, 174 East Indies 19, 27, 34, 35, 36, 46, 48, 49, 52, 56, 69, 118, 135, 139, 148, 155–176 East Indies Station 7, 133, 134, 212, 220–222 Egypt 16, 25, 51, 76 Ellenborough, Lord 17n, 72 Ellice, Alexander 41, 42 Elphinstone, George Keith see Keith English Harbour, Antigua 136, 149 Esdaile, Sir James & Co 181 Fairbridge, George 107 Falmouth 59, 89, 94, 144, 146, 151, 152, 154 Fayal, Tenerife 141 Ferguson & Fairlie 163 Ferrol, Spain 49, 51 Fife, Scotland 142 fiscal-military state 3, ������������������������ 4, 5, 10, 11, 20, 210 Flight, Joseph 104 ��� Flower & Co 63 ��� Flower, Sir Charles 100, �������������������� 105, 108, 153, Foote, Samuel 1� Ford, Richard 17 �� Forest of Dean 74 Fort St George 163 France 5, 10, 16, 20, 47, 48, 68, 80, 159, 171, 180, 206, 214 Fraser, Percy, Captain 35 French Revolutionary War 2, 11, 23, 47–48, 84, 192 Galway 2 Garland, Joseph & Co 190 Gibraltar 4, ������������������������������������������� 13, 18, 31, 32, 33, 36, 48, 53, 54, 58, 59, 63, 66, 96, 133, 211, 223 Glasgow 39 Glenny, George 138 Gloucestershire 68, 140 Gordon Riots 74 Gorleston, Norfolk 198 government   accounting 14, 17, 18, 22, 25, 121, 124, 148,

165, 212   pensions 26, 212   purchase of office 212   sinecures 2, 20, 212 Grant, Alexander 41, 154 Grant, John 99–100, 137, 138, 146, 148, 152–153, 153n, 195, 207–208, 218n Gravina, Admiral Frederico 213 Great Yarmouth 2, 25, 51, 59, 62, 74n, 130, 135, 152, 153, 192–209, 219 Greenock, Scotland 97, 152 Grenville, Lord, Foreign Secretary, 1791–1801 80 Grenville, Thomas, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1806–1807  28, 80, 82, 84, 101 Grey, General Sir Charles 51 Grey, Lord (as Charles Grey, then Lord Howick) First Lord of the Admiralty, 1806  16, 17, 208 Grigg, John 183–187 Grigg, Robert 184, 187, 188 Grimsby 59, 129n Guernsey 135n, 178, 181 Halifax, Nova Scotia 4, 136, 139, 146, 150, 151 Hamond, Captain Sir Andrew Snape 13 Hamond’s Knoll 193 Hampshire 72, 111, 184, 188 Hankin, Thomas 106 Hart, William 173 Hartford, Connecticut 140 ��� Harvey, Admiral Henry 51 �� Harwich 99, 146 Hawker, James 184 Hearn, Thomas 85, 101 Heatley, David 17, 65 Hedon, East Yorkshire 121 Henley, Michael & Son 58, 87n Herries, J.C., Commissary-in-Chief, 1811–1816 53, 53n Hoare, Henry & Co 182 Hoche, General Lazard (Fr) 126 Holland 49, 53, 61, 192 Holland, Elizabeth Lady 77 Horsham, Sussex 129 Hoseason, Thomas 165, 169 Hotham, Captain Sir Henry 62 House of Commons 12, 22, 122, 155 Howick, Lord see Grey Howland, James 140


Index hoys 99, 198 Hughes, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward 133–135, 159, 160, 166, 169 Hull 39, 77, 97, 144, 146, 151, 154 Hunt, Joseph , Victualling Board Commissioner, 1790–1798  17n, 63 India 32, 41, 44, 48, 96, 134, 135, 141, 155–176, 223   beef 83, 100 Inglis, James 118, 154 Ireland, export trades 81–82, 118 Irish Sea 46 Isle of Dogs 129, �������� 130 Jacob, John 98 Jamaica 4, 41, 95, 96, 136, 138, 143, 144, 145 158, 222, 223 Jefferson, President Thomas 50n, 84, 150 Jeffrey, Oke & Co 188 Jervis, John see St Vincent Job & Grigg, Messrs 185, 186 Job, Zephaniah 154, 177–191 Johnson, Samuel 1 Jordaine & Shaw, Messrs 108, 109, 118, 123, 124, 126–127, 146, 147, 149, 153, 213 Jory, John 184 Jukes, Edward 98, 103 Keith, Admiral Lord 25, 33, 36, 49, 51, 63, 64, 65, 66, 122, 133, 166, 167, 211 Kennedy, General Sir John 53 Kerridge, Mr 196 King’s Lynn 69, 184, 187 Kingston, Lazarus 154 Knight, Edward 79, 95, 109, 111, 116, 117, 122–125, 127–129, 131, 213 Knight, Joshua 116, 128 L’Orient, France 47, 62 Lantivet Bay, Cornwall 178 Lawe, George 99 Le Mesurier, Haviland 182 Le Mesurier, Paul 181, 182 League of Armed Neutrality 80 Leeward Islands Station 23, 33, 133, 136, 145, 146, 149, 150, 158, 222, 223 Leghorn 2, 36, 65, 180 Leith 2, 95, 135, 142, 143, 144, 146, 151, 154, 220 Lewes, Samuel 61, ����������� 192–208

Lillicrap, Mr 186 ��� Lime 179, 185, 190 Limerick 118 Lisbon 10, 17, 18, 33, 48, 54, 58, 66, 141, Liverpool 39, 57, 77, 135, 147, 179, 182, 183, 184 Liverpool, Lord 77, 80 London Gazette 72, 111, 129 London, City of 2, 58n, 105 Londonderry 152 Looe, Cornwall 86, 179, 182, 183, 186, 187 Lowden & Sons 130 Lynch, Thomas 98 �� Lyons, Dennis 142 MacBride, Vice-Admiral John 194, 197 Madagascar 156 Madras 2, 134, 156, 157, 158, 160–162, 164–166, 168, 169, 173 Madras Gazette 44, 165 Malta 33, 35, 48, 51, 52, 63, 66, 133, 211, 223 Manila 156 Maratha War 169 Mark Lane corn market 72–74, 77, 80, 121 Marsh, George, Navy Board Commissioner, 1772–1800  17 Marsh, John, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1798–1808, Chairman, 1803–1808  23, 24, 25, 61n, 81n, 83, 84 Martello towers 11 Martinique 136, 140, 150, 151 Mauritius (Isle de France) 33, 50, 156, 157, 159, 175 Mediterranean Sea 10, 17, 36, 46, 48, 51, 54, 59, 63, 64, 65, 66, 122, 133, 158   Fleet 25, 33, 49, 65, 66, 211, 220, 221, 222 Mellish, Peter and William 44, 107, 116, 118, 123, 124, 125, 126, 127, 129, 130, 131, 195, 213 Mellish, Robert 130 Melville, Lord, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1804–1805  12, 13, 51, 71, 75, 77, 142, 214 merchants, importance of 10–12, 37–42, 178–179, 191 Middleton, Charles see Barham Milford Haven 139, 141, 147, 152 Militia, Oxford 74 Mills, Thomas & Co 109 Milward, John 93, 106 Moody, Robert Sadleir, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1794–1809  207, 208


Index moral economy 72, 76 Mulgrave, Lord, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1807–1810  105 Napoleon 5, 10, 12, 13, 16, 18, 49, 50, 54, 61, 63, 213, 214 Napoleonic War 3, 6–8, 10, 15, 46–49, 81, 84, 120, 211 national debt 1, 12, 20 Naval estimates 27–30, 217 Navy  ������������������ Bills 30, 182, 217  ������������������������������������������������ Board 6, 11–14, 17, 21, 22, 25, 28, 29, 30, 31, 35, 42, 61, 87n, 106, 147, 158, 188, 195n, 200n, 211 Negapatam, Battle of 160, 170 Nelson, Vice-Admiral Lord 12, 49, 52, 59, 62, 65, 203, 213 Nepean, Evan, Secretary of the Admiralty, 1795–1804  66 New Haven, Connecticut 140 New Romney 97 New South Wales 51, 52, 223 Newcastle 18, 146, 154, 194 Newcome, Captain Henry 171 Newport, Isle of Wight 85 Nootka Sound Crisis 56 Nore 33, 51, 60, 61, 76, 90, 118, 125, 192, 198, 200, 201, 202, 204n Norfolk 57, ������ 68 Norfolk, Virginia 136, 152 North Africa 66, 133 North Sea 7, 11, 46, 48, 52, 60, 136, 192, 203, 222 North Sea Fleet 49, 205 Norwich 197, �������� 207 O’Meara, Stephen 108 Onslow, Vice-Admiral Sir Richard 194, 200n, 205 Ordnance Board 8, 15, 66 Orrill, Richard 44, 90 Paget, Samuel 192–209 Pakenham, Captain John 172, 175 Parker, Admiral Sir Hyde 52, 76, 80, 205, 206 Parker, Rear-Admiral William 95 Patterson, Andrew Todd 145, 149, 154 Pellew, Admiral Sir Edward 62, 157, 171, 173, 175 Penfret Island, off L’Orient 62 Peninsula 10, 12, 84, 53, 55

Peninsular War 53–54 ����� Perceval, Spencer, Prime Minister, 1809–1812  62 Perchard, Brock & Co 181, 182 Philadelphia 54, 140 Phyn, Ellis & Inglis 40, 109, 150, 153 Phyn, James 40, 140 pig rearing see agriculture pilchards 178, 180 Pinkerton, Thomas 50n, 95, 146, 148–153, 206 Pitt, Thomas 192, 194–200 Pitt, William, Prime Minister, 1783–1801, 1804–1806  2, 9, 13, 50, 51, 208n planter’s beef 83 Plymouth 4, 29, 30–34, 41, 42, 43n, 44, 49, 51, 58, 59, 60, 75, 78, 79, 86–89, 94, 97–99, 101–104, 110, 111, 113, 117, 118, 122, 129, 184–189, 191, 192 220, 222, Plymouth Dock Water Company 59 Poland 73, 75 Polperro, Cornwall 177–179, 185, 190–191 Poole, Dorset 145, 184, 188–190 Port Mahon, Minorca 17, 33, 122, 211 Portland, Duke of, Home Secretary, 1794–1801 71, 74, 77, 78 Portsea, Hampshire 104 Portsmouth 4, 15, 22, 23n, 25, 29, 30–32, 34, 36n, 38, 39, 60, 75, 77–80, 85, 86, 88–91, 97, 98, 101–104, 110–111, 118, 125, 128, 147, 184, 187–188, 192, 194, 201, 205, 220, 222 Portugal 53 Post Office 9, 10, 17, 72 Potter, Christopher 22, 121 Potts, Robert & Arthur 106 Powell, Edward 93 price rises  ���������� 1795–1796 73–76, �������������� 95, 143  ��������� 1801  16, 76–80, ����������� 81,  ������������ 1810–1811  84 prices, agricultural see agriculture Prince of Wales Island (Penang) 165, 166 Prince, Son & Johnson 119 prisoners of war 17n, ������� 67 provisions   arrack 139, 163, 166, 170, 171   bacon 69, 70   beer 55–58, 62, 99, 137, 139, 142–143, 194–195, 197, 202, 204, 207, 211   bisket 18, 22, 25, 32, 34, 35, 42–45, 52–56, 62, 75, 78–79, 82, 85, 87–89, 91–93, 97, 101–104, 106–107, 109, 119, 137, 139, 143,


Index 147, 166, 169, 170–172, 174, 188, 194–195, 197, 205–207   brandy 55, 62, 193n, 202   butter 30, 41, 55, 62, 68–69, 71–73 , 75, 81, 87–88, 90, 92–94, 104–105, 108, 112, 114, 118, 127, 137, 139, 143, 147, 181, 194, 202, 207   cheese 25, 30, 55, 68–69, 87–88, 90–91, 104–105, 108, 114n, 137, 139, 140, 143, 188, 194, 197, 202, 207   flour 15, 22, 30–32, 53–57, 62, 69, 74–79, 82, 87, 91, 93, 98, 104, 106, 109, 116, 121, 139, 145, 147, 150–151, 153, 166, 171, 184, 189, 192, 197, 202, 205, 206   fresh beef 3, 33, 41, 44, 45, 40n, 55, 65, 66, 67, 68, 88, 90, 94–97, 99, 103, 104, 117, 118, 122, 123, 125, 126, 130, 137, 139–144, 150, 152, 165, 170, 194, 202, 203, 207   grotts 55, 116, 121   hops 72, 87, 109, 119   lemon juice 65   maize 54   malt 44, 55–56, 86- 87, 89, 109, 116–117, 121–122, 124   meal 42, 55, 78, 87, 91, 106   oatmeal 30, 55, 62, 87, 93, 98, 109, 116, 121, 137, 143, 202, 207   oil 55, 211   pease 30, 55, 62, 75, 87, 109, 116, 124, 137, 143, 166, 169, 197, 202, 207   rice 54, 56, 69, 73, 75, 87, 139, 150, 165, 166, 169   rum 42, 56, 62, 69, 94, 139, 141–142, 144, 152, 163, 166, 193n, 195, 207   salt beef 3, 30, 41, 32, 56, 69, 75, 81, 83, 87, 88, 92, 100, 101, 105, 108, 109, 112, 114, 118, 119, 120, 124, 125, 127, 138, 143, 145, 159, 168, 172, 194, 201, 202, 207, 211   salt pork 30, 32, 55–56, 66, 69, 75, 81, 83, 87–88, 105, 109, 118, 120, 123, 124–125, 127, 137, 138, 141, 143, 145, 159, 168, 194, 201–202, 206   spirits 38, 58, 74, 87, 96, 104, 109, 139, 178, 194, 200, 205   tobacco 38, 39, 96, 139, 152, 178   vinegar 43, 55, 106, 135, 137, 138, 143, 166, 207   water 46, 58–64, 65, 99, 139, 142, 193–195, 197–202, 204  ������������������������������������������������ wine 33, 40, 55, 58, 62, 69, 87, 104, 109, 139, 141, 166, 181, 187, 194, 197, 200, 202, 205

Prussia 10, 12, 41, 206 Purvis, Admiral John Child 66 Pybus, Call & Co 181 Quebec 63, 74, 109, 136, 138, 139, 152 Queenborough 61 Rainier, Vice-Admiral Peter 34, 155, 158, 160, 165–173 Ramsgate 61 Reeve & Bagshaw, Messrs 185, 186 Reeve & Green, Messrs 108, 137, 138 Richmond, Duke of, Master-General of the Ordnance, 1784–1795  9 Rio de Janeiro 12, 33 Rochefort 47 Rodney, Captain John, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1796–1803  60, 200 Rotherhithe 18, 32, 117, 128 Rothschild, Nathan Meyer 10 Rowcroft, Thomas 108, 153 Russia 12, 13, 16, 50, 54, 56, 80, 193, 214 Russian  ����������������� sailors 55n, 193n  ������������� ships 52, 197 Salter, James 98, 99 Sampaio, Henrique Teixera de 10, 54 Sardinia 62, 66 Saumarez, Admiral Sir James 7, 34, 49, 62 Scheldt, River 62, 220, 222 Scott, Burn & Co 145 Scott, Claude 10, 13, 14, 74–77, 190, 195 Scott, Idle & Co 104, 109 Scroby Sands, off Great Yarmouth 198 Searle, Captain John Clarke, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1806–1822, Chairman, 1808–1822  14, 24, 25, 83 Seward & Co 207 Shadwell, London 116, 118, 129, 130 Shallowpool, Cornwall 179 Sharporjee, Hormasjee 96 Sheerness 4, 33, 59, 61, 90, 118, 125, 192, 222 ships   Concord 58   Earl Gower 17   HMS Agamemnon 201 ���   HMS Barfleur 58   HMS Beaulieu 202 ���   HMS Bedford 61, ������� 203


Index   HMS Bellona 172 ���   HMS Caesar 201 ���   HMS Culloden 58   HMS Director 199, 202   HMS Egmont 58   HMS Glatton 61, 99, 201   HMS Goliath 58, 197   HMS Inflexible 201   HMS London 65   HMS Martin 203   HMS Monarch 203   HMS Powerful 203   HMS Russell 202   HMS Squirrel 198   HMS Suffolk 171   HMS Triumph 201, 202   HMS Venerable 198, 201, 202, 203   HMS Victory 28, 59,   HMS Ville de Paris 64   HMS Warrior 201   Lancaster depot ship 61   Lark 187   Speculator 203 shipbuilding 5, 64, 130 Sicily 66 Sick & Hurt Board 21, 65, 175 Slade, John 124 Smith, Adam 71, 72 Smith, Christopher & Co 182 Smithfield Market 56, 72, 117, 129, 146 Smollett, Tobias 1 smuggling 177–179, 181, 190, 191, 196 Solly, Isaac & Co 65, 109 Somerset 57 Somerset House 13, 18, 23, 87, 196n South America 12 South China Sea 156 Southampton 184 Spain 1, 5, 6, 10, 20, 33, 49, 53, 54, 70, 140, 180 Spencer, Earl, George, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1794–1801  47, 70, 75, 201 St Germans, Cornwall 184 St Peter Port, Guernsey 178 St Vincent, Admiral Lord, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1801–1804  13n, 14, 16, 17, 25, 29, 47, 60, 64, 65, 66, 208 St Vincent, battle of 48 St Agnes, Cornwall 177, 178 St Catherine’s (army stores, London) 52, ��������� 54n, 93, 102, 104, 106, 107

staves 40, ������������������������� 58, 63, 105, 109, 194 steam power 15, 32, 57, 61, 74, 197 Suffolk 57, 68 Suffren, Rear Admiral Pierre de (French) 159 Surinam 136, 146 Surry, John & James 92n, 106 Tallack family 88 Tenerife 141 Texel 192, ��������������������������������� 193, 198, 201, 203, 210, 212 Thackrah, J 109 ��� Thompson, William 100 Thomson, Alexander 153, 154 Thomson, John jnr 142–143, 151 Thornton, Mr 98 Tierney, George, MP for Southwark, 1796–1806 71 Timson, Suffren & Co 104 Toll, William 184 Tollervey & Hyde, Messrs 86 Tollervey, Edward 88 Tooke, Thomas 112, 113, 114 Torbay 47, 51, 60, 97, 118 Torres Vedras lines, Portugal 53 Totnes, Devon 184, 187 Tower Hill 31, 32, 52 Towry, Captain George Phillips, Victualling Board Commissioner, 1784–1817, Deputy Chairman, 1803–1817  16–18, 21, 23–26, 28, 72, 75, 196n, 197, 199, 207, 208 Towry, John 17 Transport Board 8, 9 Treasury 6, 23, 24, 30, 50–53, 75, 78, 79, 107, 109, 137, 223 Trelawney, Lieutenant John 190 Trelawney, Sir Harry 179, 181, 182, 190 Trincomalee 48, 165, 170, 192 Trinidad 136, �������� 146 Tripp, John Lewis 94 Troubridge, Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas, Admiralty Board Commissioner, 1801–1804  208 Udney, John 36 United States of America 10, 12, 50, 54, 77, 150 Urquhart, Walter 133, 173 Vauxhall, London 56 Victualling   Bills 28, 30, 36, 41, 43, 109, 125, 126, 130, 141,


Index 142, 144, 158–159, 164, 170, 182, 196   Board 2, 3, 7, 8, 14, 16–19, 21, 22, 25, 26, 36, 40, 42–44, 48, 53–55, 60–69, 72, 74, 75, 77, 81, 85, 87–89, 96, 104, 106, 107, 110–113, 118, 124, 128, 130, 132, 133, 135, 137, 139, 147, 151, 155, 159, 165, 168, 173–176, 185, 187, 194, 195, 200, 204, 205, 210–212    efficiency 3, 14, 16, 17, 18, 25, 26, 28, 36, 46, 48, 66, 76, 79, 82, 83, 88, 101, 107, 113, 114, 120, 121, 124, 127, 170, 172, 211, 212    relations with contractors 43, 84, 86, 97, 106, 131, 176, 204   budget 28–31, 217   Office, Somerset House 7, 13, 17, 18, 23, 87, 125   transports 6, 53, 195, 199   yards and bases 4, 15, 19, 26, 29, 31–33, 42, 55–57, 66, 78, 79, 82, 85, 87–88, 94 , 104, 105, 113, 116–117, 132, 133, 136, 146, 149, 154, 184 , 186–188, 191, 194, 202, 208, 211, 218 victualling   British compared to rivals 5, 8, 213–214   effect on operations 7, 8, 154, 201–204   navy compared to army 23, 50, 51, 53, 56, 161, 172 Walcheren 53 �� Walters, Thomas 109 ��� Waltham Abbey 9� Wapping, London 58, ������������ 107, 146 War of Spanish Succession 20 ��

Ware, Hertfordshire 106 ��� Warwickshire 68, 140 water see provisions water tanks 15, 64 Waterford 41, 147, 152 Wellesley, Arthur, Duke of Wellington, Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces in Spain, 1809–1812  6, 10, 12, 53–55 Wellesley, Richard, Governor-General of Bengal, 1798–1805  157 Welsford, Giles 184, 187–188 Welsford, William Adams 184 West Indies 6, 10, 24, 38, 41, 48, 50, 51, 56, 59, 69, 75, 76, 81, 139, 140, 141, 146, 147, 158, 190 Western Approaches 7, 46, 49 Westham, Essex 104 Weymouth 184 wheat see agriculture, grain Wheeler, Samuel 188 ��� Whitehaven 135, ������������� 145, 146 Wilde, Walls & Boddy 109 ��� Williams, Thomas 15 �� Windeyer, Archibald Charles 147, �������� 154 Woolwich, London 4, �������� 9, 15 Yarmouth Roads 192, ��������������������������������� 193, 195, 197, 201, 202, 219 Yeates, Matthew 162 ��� Yeo, James 122 ��� Yeoland, William 97 �� Youell, William 195n, ��������� 197


Fleet:Irish Rebellion 19/04/2010 14:21 Page 1

For most of his career, R OGER K NIGHT was on the staff of the National Maritime Museum, leaving as Deputy Director in 2000. Since then he has taught at the Greenwich Maritime Institute at the University of Greenwich, where he is currently Visiting Professor of Naval History.

Cover illustration: Caricature by Thomas Rowlandson, 1809, of Charles Flower, a prominent merchant, a major contractor with the Victualling Board and Lord Mayor of London, 1808–09. COVER DESIGN: SIMON LOXLEY

an imprint of Boydell & Brewer Ltd PO Box 9, Woodbridge, Suffolk IP12 3DF and 668 Mt Hope Ave, Rochester NY 14620, USA

K N I G H T & W I L C O X

M ART I N W I LC OX completed a doctorate in maritime history at the University of Hull, and has been employed as postdoctoral research fellow at Greenwich Maritime Institute since 2006.

S U S T A I N I N G T H E F L E E T 17 9 3 – 1815

Provisioning the fleet, and the army overseas, during the French Wars of 1793–1815 was a major undertaking. This book explains how the Victualling Board in London handled this enormous task, focusing in particular on contractors – that is the merchants and brokers, who provided a vast range of commodities including flour and biscuit, salt beef and pork, as well as huge quantities of fresh water and coal, and every other item needed. It shows how these merchants could be large or small concerns, and provides detailed case studies of different kinds of contractors, including examples of contractors based both in Britain and in the navy’s overseas bases. The book demonstrates how, overall, the contracting system represented the mobilisation of a substantial part of the British economy for war; how the performance of contracting was effective, with little or no corruption; and how the contractors took considerable financial risks and made only reasonable margins. It assesses the performance of the Victualling Board, arguing that this was good, and that the problem in the major area of weakness – accounting – was quickly addressed following a major crisis in 1808–09. It concludes that this was ‘an impressive performance’ by the state, but that the overwhelming advantage was the resilience of the market, and that it was ‘upon the success of the contractors that the war at sea was won’.

S U S TA I N I N G T H E F L E E T 17 9 3 – 1815 War, the British Navy and the Contractor State R O G E R