The Loss of the Duke William (part 4)

Another sail!

Just as they had joined us, the people from the fore-top-mast cried out, a sail! a sail! I thought it better to let the ship lie to, as, by seeing the main-mast gone, they might be certain that we were in distress. It was hazy weather, and we could see no great distance from us; but the ship was soon near enough to see and hear our guns. Just after he had hoisted his colours (which were Danish) his main-top-mast sheet gave way; which when I saw, I thought he was going to clew his main-top-sail up, to pend him, and come to our assistance, which was good news I immediately communicated to the priest, &c.

Poor mistaken people! They hugged me in their arms, calling me their friend, but, alas! It was but a short liv’d joy; for, as soon as he had knotted and spliced his top-sail-sheet, he sheeted it home and hauled from us. What pen is able to describe the despair which then reigned among us! The poor unhappy people, wringing their hands, cried out that God had forsaken them! This was about three in the afternoon. I then wore the ship, which she bore very well, and steered tolerably before the wind.

We abandon ship

About half an hour after, the old gentleman came to me, crying; he took me in his arms, and said he came with the voice of the whole people, to desire that I and my men would endeavour to save our lives, in our boats; and as they could not carry them, they would on no consideration would be the means of drowning us. They were well convinced, by all our behaviour, that we had done everything in our power for their preservation, but that God Almighty had ordained them to be drowned, and they hoped that we should be able to get safe ashore. I must acknowledge that such gratitude, for having done only our duty, in endeavouring to save their lives as our own, astonished me.

I replied that there were no hopes of life, and, as we had all embarked in the same unhappy voyage, we would all take the same chances. I thought we ought to share the same fate. He said that should not be; and if I did not acquaint my people with their offer, I should have their lives to answer for.

Accordingly I mentioned it to Captain Moore and the people. They said they would with the greatest satisfaction stay, could any thing be thought of for their preservation; but as there could not, they would not refuse to comply with their request. Thanking them for their great kindness, with tears in all their eyes, they parted from them, and hastened down the stern ladder. As the boats ranged up by the sea, under the ship’s counter, those that went last hove themselves down, and were caught by them in the boat. I told them I trusted to their honour in not leaving me, as I was determined not to quit the ship till it was dark, hoping that Providence would yet send some one to our assistance. They all assured me that they would not leave me.

I had a little norse boy on board, whom no entreaties could prevail on to go into the boat till I did. It growing dark, I insisted upon his going, saying I would follow him immediately. He got on to the stern ladder, when a Frenchman, whom the fears of death had induced to quit his wife and children unperceived by any; got over the taffrel, and, treading upon the Norse boy’s fingers, made him shriek out. Imagining somebody was in danger, I went off to see what was the matter, the old gentleman following me; when to our surprise, we found it to be a man, whose wife and children were then on board, endeavouring to get away to save himself, regardless of them. The old gentleman, calling him by his name, said he was very sorry to find him base enough to desert his family. He seemed ashamed of what he had done, and came over the taffrel again. The people in the boat now begged me to come in, as the blows which she took under the ship’s counter were likely to sink her.

Seeing the priest laying his arms over the rails in great emotion, and with all the appearance of the fear of death, I asked him whether he was willing to take his chance with me. He replied yes, if there was room. I said there was, and he immediately went and gave the people his benediction; and after saluting the old gentleman, he tucked up his canonical robes, and went into the boat. I likewise saluted him, and several others, and then left them praying for our safety.


As soon as I was in the boat, I bade the sailors cast her adrift. It was very dark, neither moon nor stars to direct us. What a terrible situation! We were twenty-seven in the long boat, and nine in the cutter, without victuals or drink, uncertain how far we were from the English coast: we agreed to keep as close to the ship as it was possible to do. It came on to blow very fresh, with sleet and snow. The people were fatigued to death, and in a most dreadful condition, with working so long at the pumps. After sitting in the wet and cold, they began to wish that they had staid in the ship and perished, as now they might die a lingering death. Either alternative was dreadful. With no provisions, it was most probable that one must die by lot, to keep the others alive.1 Our dismal situation roused horrid ideas, and we foreboded the worst that could happen.

Our boats now began to make water, notwithstanding which our men refused to bail them, so weary were they, and, not having slept four nights, they grew careless what became of them. I prevailed on them, however, to heave the water out of the long-boat.

Having a brisk gale, we had run a great way from the time we left the unfortunate ship; when, to our extreme grief, at 10 A.M. it fell calm. his threw the people into despair. Their courage began to fail them, as, now that they could not expect to live to make the land, death seemed to be staring them in the face. I observed that the water was coloured; and, asking for twine, one of the men answered he had a ball in his pocket. We then knocked out the bolts of the knees of the long boat, to make a deep sea lead with, and sounded, to our great joy we found but 45 fathom of water. The people began to complain of great hunger and thirst. I said I was sorry to acquaint them that we had nothing to eat or drink; but they must bear up with manly resolution, as, by our soundings, we were near Scilly, and I did not doubt but if it cleared up we should see the land.

The little Norse boy (who always kept close to me) now told me that he had got some bread. I asked him where it was. He said, in the bosom of his shirt; but, when he came to take it out, it was like baker’s dough; however, it was bread, and very acceptable – I believe it was about four pounds: I put it into my hat and distributed it equally, calling the yawl to have their share. This, instead of being a relief, increased our troubles, it being so very wet and clammy that it hung to the roofs of our mouths, by having nothing to wash it down. Mr. Fox had some allspice, which was of very little service. One of the sailors having a pewter spoon, we cut it in junks, and, by forcing them down our throats, created a saliva, and by that means we swallowed it.

About noon there sprung up a light air as S.W. As I observed before, each boat had a fore-mast, fore-sail, and oars; but, by the boats being foul of the main-mast, &c. the oars were all washed out, except two in each boat.

Hearing a noise among the crew, I asked the reason; when I was informed that two sailors were disputing about a couple of blankets which one of them had brought from the ship. I ordered them to throw them both overboard, rather than suffer them to breed any quarrels; as, in our unhappy situation, it was no time to have disputes. On recollection, I desired that the blankets might be brought to me, as I would convert them to a purpose that might be serviceable to us. On asking for a needle and twine, which I was presently furnished with, I  told the men that I designed to make a main-sail of them, requesting the mate to take the remainder of the painted and unlay it; as, it being a three-strand rope, it would make as shrouds and a stay. We erected one oar for a mail-mast, and the other we broke to the breadth of the blankets, and made a yard of. The people in the cutter seeing what we had done, and having a hammock with them, made a main-sail of that.

Sail ahoy!

At 4 P.M. it cleared up, and we perceived a brig about two miles from us. I then ordered the cutter to give chase, and let them know our distress, as, being lighter than us, we flattered ourselves that she would soon overtake them. The brig, seeing us alter our course, stood from us directly. I suppose, from our making so odd an appearance, it being war time, she took us for one of the lugg sail boats which the French privateers use to frequent the lands off Scilly with. The cutter, however, gained on the brig very fast; but, to our great mortification, by the time that we supposed her midway, it came on very thick fog. There was no remedy but the old one, patience. It continued thick, and we saw neither the brig nor the cutter any more.

Night coming on, and it being very foggy, the people, almost dead for want of sleep, reposed themselves, setting half way in water, it being impossible that so many could find seats. I, anxious for the people’s lives and my own, endeavoured to keep my eyes open, though it was the fifth night that I had taken no rest.

Land ahoy?

About eleven at night it cleared up. I thought I saw land. Everybody was asleep but the man at the helm and myself. I was determined not to call out land till I should be sure that it was so. I squeezed my eyelids together, to let the water run out of my eyes, as I found them very dim, though could not suppose them so weak as they really were. Again I thought I saw land very plain: I could not be deceived. By this time the man at the helm had dropped asleep, and I took the tiller.

I continued some time longer before I would disturb anybody: at last I awoke Captain Moore, and told him I thought I saw land. He, poor gentleman, only answered that we should never see land more, and dropped asleep again. I then awoke Mr. Fox, who had had a good sleep, and seemed quite refreshed. He immediately cried out that we were near land, and close in with the breakers. Lucky it was that I had awakened him, or I verily believe that we should all have perished by running on them, I being quite unacquainted with them.

Mount’s Bay

At the word, Land! Every one awoke, and, with some difficulty, cleared the rocks. At first we could not distinguish what part of the English coast it was; but, clearing more and more every moment, I looked under the lee leche of the blanket main-sail, and discerned St. Michael’s Mount, in Mount’s Bay. The boat would not fetch the land near Penzance; and, as we had no oars, it was determined not to endeavour to run round the Lizard, and so for Falmouth; but wherever she would chance to fetch, to run her boldly on shore.

It was a fine night; and, after we got round the point, we found the water very smooth. We kept the boat close to the wind, and fetched between Penzance and the Mount. The joy of finding ourselves in such a happy condition is not to be described; it gave us a new life and strength. The people forward called out that there were two rocks a-head. I jumped forward, and, my sight being barely come to me, I carried the boat between them without touching ground. In a little time after she ran ashore on a sandy beach.

Back on terra firma

The sailors immediately jumped into the water, and carried me and the priest ashore. He, poor man, knelt down and said a short prayer, and then came and embraced me, calling me his preserver, and saying I had rescued him from death. We left the boat as she was, making the best of our way to the town of Penzance. Some of the people, with sleeping, as I may say, in the water, being wet from head to foot, found themselves so benumbed that they with difficulty got along. I can with truth declare, that, from the time when the misfortune befell us of springing a leak, to that hour, I had no sleep, and very little sustenance.

On our road, as we marched to Penzance, we fell in with a run of fresh water, which we drank heartily of, and it seemed to revive us greatly. We got into town about three o’clock in the morning; and, seeing a light in a tavern, made up to it.

Having been market day, the people of the inn were not all gone to bed, though the mistress of the house was the only person up. She was unlacing her stays, with her back to the fire (which was the light I had seen) when I entered the house. The door was neither bolted nor locked. On her perceiving us, she was terribly frightened, and shrieked out murder! Thieves! Twenty-seven people coming in at such an unseasonable hour, and making such a shocking appearance, I confess was enough to alarm any body. I endeavoured to pacify her, and begged that she would call her husband (if she had one) down, or her servants, to get us some refreshment, as we were ship-broken men, and in great want of it. I saw a man now and then open a chamber, or more properly a staircase door, and shut it again. It was the master of the inn; and seeing we did not attempt to frighten his wife, he at last ventured down. I acquainted him with our distressed condition, upon which he called his servants, who soon got for us what provision the house afforded. After drying and refreshing ourselves, as many as could find beds went to them, and the rest slept on the floor by the fireside.

The search for credit

We slept till pretty late in the morning, when I went with the priest to the mayor of the town, to make a protest before a notary, and to see if I could get credit, for the people, as well as myself, were in want of every necessary, and it was A great many miles to London. He received me very kindly, but told me that he was no merchant; that he never supplied any person in our situation with money; but would, if I pleased, send one of his servants with me to Mr. Charles Langford’s, a merchant, who generally supplied any masters in distress with necessaries. I accepted this offer.

Mr. Langford received me politely, and asked me to breakfast with him. I thanked him, and said I would rather breakfast with my people, at the inn. At the same time I humbly requested that he would furnish me with credit, whereby I might buy my people what they stood in great need of. He told me that he had made a resolution not to supply with credit any man that was an entire stranger, as he had been deceived by one very lately; and though mine must have been a large ship, by the boat which was come on shore, I might not be concerned in her; and as he apprehended that I should want a great deal of money, he begged to be excused. I answered that I was part owner of the ship, and he might be certain that his bills would be duly honoured. He said he could not do it.

Most terribly perplexed, I returned to the inn, where there were several tradesmen come to furnish my people with apparel, &c. I told them I could get no money, and that we must travel on as far as Exeter, where I was sure of having credit. As most of the men wanted shoes, this was very unwelcome news, I desired the master of the inn to get us some breakfast, but he desired to be excused, and wished to know, if I could get no credit, how was he to be paid.

I was at a loss how to act. Being denied victuals as well as credit, I bethought myself that I would pawn or sell my ring, watch, buckles, and buttons. Accordingly I went back to Mr. Langford’s, and begged that he would give me what he thought proper for the above mentioned things. I took the ring from my finger, the watch out of my pocket, and was going to take the buckles out of my shoes (with tears in my eyes) when he stopped me, and said I should have credit for as much as I pleased, as he believed me an honest man, and he saw my people’s distress touched me if possible more than my own misfortunes. He then gave me what money I required.

While these things were doing, the second mate, and the eight men from the cutter, came to us. They informed me that it was so very thick that they could not come up with the brig; that when it cleared, they saw the Land’s End, and got ashore. They had left the cutter, as nobody would buy her, and had inquired the way to Penzance, where, as they were in great distress, they were happy to meet me.

I went to the inn and discharged what was owing; and, for the unkindness which I experienced, determined to stay there no longer, but went to another house to breakfast. After this I got what necessaries my people wanted. I then, with my mates and people, went to make a protest. I requested Mr. Langford to send my son (who could speak French) as an interpreter to the French priest, who was to make as affidavit, before a notary, of my behaviour, and that of my people, during the voyage, not choosing to go myself. He accordingly went with the priest to Mr. George Veal’s, notary-public at Penzance, where the priest made a strong and full affidavit, that I and my people had tried every means and method to keep the ship above water; that we had used them (viz. the French) all the time that they were on board, with the greatest kindness and humanity; and that I, the said master, had parted from them with the utmost reluctance, after saluting them; and even at their desire went into the boat, after all hopes of life were gone.

To Exeter

We staid a day longer at Penzance, to refresh the people. After getting what credit I wanted, and providing a carriage for Captain Moore, our officers, and myself, we sat out for Exeter; the people walking, having got a pass of the mayor. We went through a town in Cornwall called Redruth, where there were a great many French officers on their parole, and likewise an English commissary. I went to him with Father Pierre Greard, and requested that he would give him a pass to go to Falmouth, (as he intended taking a passage in the first cartel going to France) and then took my leave of the priest.

We proceeded to Exeter, where Samuel Killet, Esq., collector of the customs, a worthy friend of mine, then lived. When we came within a mile or two of the town, I desired the people would wait there till I should go to Mr. Killet’s, and inquire whether there were any press gang, and a regulating captain there, and to consult with him how to proceed. Accordingly I went alone, and was shewn Mr. Killet’s house, which joined the custom-house. But my heart was too full, to have courage to knock at the door.

I walked several times backwards and forwards, to give vent to its great emotions, at last I was observed by a servant, who knew me very well having lived with the family several years in the capacity of house-keeper. She was sitting at the parlour window, and Mrs. Killet by the fire, when she desired her to come and look, for she was certain that Captain Nicholls was walking before the door in a shabby condition, and she was afraid that some misfortune had happened to his ship. Mrs. Killet ran immediately up to the custom-house (there being a flight of stairs leading from the house) and told Mr. Killet. He would not believe her; but, looking out of the window, was convinced. He them came and opened the door, and took me in his arms; but we were so affected that neither of us could speak for some time.

At last he said, he feared too much that the Duke William was lost, with near four hundred souls. I told him it was too true, but that I had saved all my own sailors, and had left them at a public house near the city, fearful that they might, to end their troubles, be pressed. He informed me that there was a regulating captain, a friend of his, to whom he would speak about his gang down to Topsham, which he had no doubt would do. I told him my people had behaved with becoming obedience to all my commands, in every difficulty and distress; to which, if I were not able to carry them safe to London, it would add greatly. He went in search of the captain, and returned to tell me, that I might go in the dusk of the evening for my people, while he would muster his gang and go down to Topsham. Mr. Killet provided a house, a good supper, and beds for them, at his own expence.

We staid at Exeter two days to refresh the men. When we set out for London, Messrs. Thomas and Turner had been so kind as to get boats on purpose to ferry over the people to the warehouse, where a cold supper was provided. We got to Messrs. Turner and Thomas’s warehouse at 8 o’clock in the evening, all hearty and well, without losing one man.

Four other survivors

What was most surprising, when we left the ship, in distress, there was a small jolly boat on board, and just before she went down, four Frenchmen threw her, with two small paddles, over board, and swam to her. They got to Falmouth within two days. They were no seamen, nor had ever seen the English coast; so that theirs, like ours, was a most miraculous escape. The ship swam till it fell calm, and as she went down her decks blew up. The noise was like the explosion of a gun, or a loud clap of thunder. The Frenchmen had just left her, when she was seen no more.


On my arrival at London, being a transport in the government service, I was obliged to go to the Admiralty and Navy Office, to be examined about the loss of the ship and people. The Lords of the Admiralty and Commissioners of the Navy told me that I might say more than any man living; that they had no occasion for an affidavit, as I had brought ashore with me the first man of France, a priest, of course an enemy to both our religion and country. If my behaviour had not been good, I should never have attempted it; but at the same time, they acknowledged that without such a proof, they could not have imagined but, finding all hopes gone, I and my people had got away by some stratagem. They would pay, they said, to the hour that the ship foundered, and were very sorry that they could do no more.

So ended this dreadful and unfortunate voyage, with the loss of a fine Ship, and three hundred and sixty souls. The Ruby, likewise, another of our fleet, was lost, and most of the people drowned.

December, 1758.

A contemporary newspaper report describes the voyage more succinctly:

Extract of a Letter from Capt. William Nicholes of the Duke William Transport, Penzance, Dec. 16.

Under the greatest Affliction, I acquaint you, I have been obliged to leave the Duke William, with 300 French Inhabitants on board, from the Island of St. John’s, North America, to sink about 35 Leagues from the Land’s End, Wednesday the 13th Instant, about Four o’Clock in the Afternoon, and believe she could not keep above Water till Eight at Night. We sailed from St. John’s on the 5th of November: and on the 29th, our Ship sprung a Leak, and in a short Time had five Foot Water in the Hold, but having two spare Pumps on board, and a great many Hands to bale, in about 24 Hours gained on her, and kept her in this Situation about eight Days.

On the 9th, being more moderate, hoisted out the Boats and fodder’d2 the Ship, by which Means the Leak stopped, so that we could keep her with one Pump continually going; having hove every Thing off the Decks and out of the Hold we possibly could to ease her; but in Monday the 11th the Leak broke out again, and notwithstanding the four Pumps, and such a Number of Hands bailing from every Hatchway, they could not keep her, so that by Wednesday Morning about Five o’Clock her Hold was full of Water, and we left off Pumping, and  hoisted out the Boats with great Difficulty, that in case any Ships came in Sight we might save our Lives.

At Nine in the Morning we saw two Ships steering towards us, which gave us great Hopes, we hoisted the Signal of Distress and fired a great many Guns, but they hoisted their Ensigns and kept away from us; we then cut away our Mainmast to shew them more perfectly our Distress, but they took no Notice of us, going clear away. At Eleven a Snow passed by viewing our unhappy Situation, and hearing our Guns as plain as we could see their Men on the Decks, but he behaved as the other had done before by running away from us.

The French then gave over all Hopes, and said, God had forsaken them and they were resigned to Death. As in the Term of the Voyage under our Misfortunes they had behaved with the greatest Intrepidity, so as in their last Moments they behaved with the greatest Fortitude; for seeing our Attempts were frustrated, they came and embraced me, saying, they were truely sensible that I, with all my People, had done all in our Power to save the Ship, and our Lives, but as I could be of no other Service to them, begg’d I would save my own life and my Men. Taking their Priest with me, whom I put into the Boat before I went myself over the Stern, there being so much Sea the Boats could not lay long alongside her, after we were in, the Boats laid off the Ship about half an Hour, when their Cries and waving us to be gone almost broke our Hearts.

We then left them about Four o’Clock in the Afternoon, being ourselves in a most unhappy Situation, being 34 Persons in Number, upwards of thirty Leagues from the Land’s End by our Reckoning, and our whole Provisions amounting to eight or nine Pounds of Bread, our Provisions in the Gun Room being all expended, and the whole full of Water, our Mainmast cut away could get nothing from thence. In this melancholy Situation it pleased God to conduct us safe to this Place.

On Tuesday Capt. Sugget in the Violet, with 300 French on board, hoisted Signals of Distress, his Fore yard was gone in the Sling, and his Mizen-mast cut away; I spoke to him the Night before, he told me he could not keep her with his Pumps, so an afraid he suffered likewise.

All I have to comfort myself under this Misfortune is, being sensible I did all in my Power to save the Ship and Lives, which the poor unhappy Sufferers were truely sensible of, and which made them so wishing to let us go; if they had not, so great a Superiority as 300 to 34 might easily have hindered us.

Leeds Intelligencer Tuesday 2 January 1759

  1. Known as the ‘tradition of the sea’ – see article on the Mignonette
  2. ‘fothered’?