The Fairy 1783 – 1784

The Fairy under Capt William Yeo had returned to Plymouth in November 1782 from convoy duties in Newfoundland, and on 31st December 1782, Capt William Thomas succeeded him in command of the Fairy Sloop of War.

The Fairy was then lying in Plymouth. Surprisingly Captain Thomas on 11th January immediately sailed for Mounts Bay, perhaps to reassure himself of the safe anchorages to the South West. His vessel missed stays in Plymouth Sound and he anchored in Cawsand Bay and shifted her shingle ballast. On the 21st January 1783 he anchored in Gwavas Lake by Penzance, firing a 21 Gun Salute for her Majesty’s Birthday. Moving on to Carrick Road, he returned to Plymouth where the Fairy was secured to the Berwick Hulk in the Hamoaze, and remained for some further considerable time, refitting.

In May 1783 Capt Thomas requests that one Henry Pridell, late Lieut of HM Ship Fortune, be appointed as his Lieutenant. The answer came back, that such a name cannot be traced in the Admiralty Registers. Captain Thomas’s mistake. By the 3rd June he had corrected his error – it is Lieut Henry Spriddle of the Assistance whom he wants to be appointed as his second in command.1 This officer is duly identified and William Thomas’s request is approved. Meanwhile the Fairy remains securely within the Port of Plymouth. At first riding at anchor in the Sound, and then moored in the Hamoaze. Here she remained until 16th September 1783 – some nine months after Captain Thomas’s appointment.2

Whether desperate to be at sea or procrastinating, on 30th August Captain Thomas asks, through the mediation of Lord Falmouth and Lord Keppel, to be appointed on one of the Western Stations in the Channel – ‘If so I should esteem it a particular favour if you would get my orders sent I am etc …’ and to enforce his request he offers this his personal aptness and qualification for the task of suppressing the smuggling trade on the Cornish coast:

PS I have a list of men which have committed piracies who belong to Mounts Bay. Several of them I know personally.’3

At last, in mid-September 1783, the Fairy finally sets sail from Plymouth Sound, only for Capt Thomas to find that his Sloop will not come into the wind to tack. He is forced to anchor in Cawsand Bay, where the ballast has to be re-stowed. Finally, after having obtained an ‘Introduction’ to the Falmouth Customs for himself, Lieut Spriddle and the Master of the Fairy, Peter Peterson,4 he takes up his station. From 17th to 26th September they patrolled to the West, before coming to anchor off Pendennis Castle. On the 27th Fairy weighs again, and with studding sails set, passes the Manacles and the Lizard into Mount’s Bay. Spotting a suspicious sail, she fires a shot to bring to a lugger, which proves to be a Revenue lugger – probably the Lark. Later, while anchored close to St Michael’s Mount, Capt Thomas ventures ashore to ‘glean intelligence’.

There was an air of relief and rejoicing in Penzance, when it was appreciated that HM Sloop Fairy was now in commission to guard the South West and Mount’s Bay. However, after patrolling between Cawsand and Falmouth for a few days, the Fairy is again found at anchor in Carrick Roads, awaiting the arrival of HM Cutter Sprightly under Lieut Swann – a supposedly handier vessel to act in consort. But she was not that handy. Meanwhile, Swann has sent a very strongly worded letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty, asking for an increase in the complement of the cutter:

In view of heavy duty, heavy yards and gear in this cutter which compares with cutters of this size which have not the 45 men allocated but 55 men, her mettle larger and her burden but a trifle less … by this obligatory means the crew becomes sickly and I am put to every inconvenience in performing the different evolutions of making and carrying and shortening sail, particularly on the coast like the Western, where I may be frequently embay’d with wind on shore in which case I must risk both the loss of the cutter and lives of the people, for lacking strength sufficient.5

Lieut Swann’s crie de coeur is in every way justified from a seaman’s point of view and gives a very realistic and pressing picture of the risks and dangers for navy vessels carrying out their duties on that coast. The smugglers’ vessels were most typically running from Guernsey, and would choose their weather carefully. Having delivered their cargo somewhere on the English coast, they would return to St Peter’s Port, where there was a secure harbour.

Fairy’s task of reducing the contraband trade begins. On 12th October 1783 she is off Cawsand Bay and two luggers are captured – one of them called Young Man’s Delight. 224 ankers6 of spirits all well sunken and prepared with sinking stones and ropes, together with the two craft are seized and taken into Plymouth.

A few days later, on 15th of the month, there is a significant chase, which is dramatically described in a longer report on smuggling from the Penzance Customs Officers:

We have consulted Capt.n Thomas of His Majesty’s Sloop of War Fairy whose words delivered to us in writing we beg leave here to transcribe. The Ranger Luggar Built by Parkins at Cowsans, mounts Sixteen eighteen Pounders and Six, Six Pounders, Eighty Men have run three Cargoes at the Different Ports between Torbay and Mountsbay and Chased by the Fortune Sloop of War. The Doggerbank Cutter Mounts twenty two Twelve Pounders Sixty Men Chased by Captn. Thomas in the Fairy in Company with the Lark Revenue Vefsel on the 15th Inst , from St Austle Bay, and during the chase fired a great Number of Shot at the Revenue Lugar. We are of Opinion that we have officers Sufficient on Land, what we have Stood in need of most is Afsistance by sea, but as His Majesty’s Sloop the Fairy is now on this Station we hope she will be of great Utility. Some Soldiers we think wo.d be of use to Afsist the officers by land, as the Smugglers are in great Parties when landing their Goods.7

Much is made of the exchange of shots with the Dogger Bank, and the smugglers daring to answer fire, but her speed is such that she gets away as it gets dark. She is much faster, and probably more weatherly: and this is the story for so many of the Fairy’s subsequent encounters with smuggling luggers over the next 18 months. She had the armament, but lacked the speedy lines of the smuggling luggers.

Even so, the most is made of the arrival of the Fairy in the West, and this incident is reported in the press – emphasising in particular the outrage that the smugglers dared return fire on HM Ships.

This heady chase abandoned, Captain Thomas again anchors in Gwavas Lake, off Penzance from 18th to 20th October. Fairy is then brought round to Carrick Roads, where they remain for a month, before returning to Plymouth taking up moorings in the Sound once again.

This inactive execution of his duties did not go unnoticed, and on January 1st 1784, the Admiralty send both Captain Thomas and Lieut Swann, a reprimand demanding the reasons why they had been in port so long [effectively for 49 days out of the last two months], and also for not submitting their Monthly Journals on time.8

Capt Thomas makes a spirited defence replying that he had been carrying out ‘re-rigging’, had stripped both the main and mizzen masts and renewed stores of beer and water. He also describes the weather over December and early January as being:

… gales, hail, thunder and lightening, squally, snow, frosty weather and the conditions in the Channel impossible, conditions such that I would not be able to keep within the Channels for three days in the Sloop which I command.

He promises as soon as the weather lightens he will ‘put to sea taking the Sprightly with him. Lieut Swann’s defence was that:

… November, December was accompanied with very much blowing unsettled weather, notwithstanding which, I was at sea agreeable to your General Order, and my Admiralty Instructions on every Intelligence, where I thought I might be of the least Utility in suppressing the practice of illicit trading.9

This reply being signed by John Beardsmore, Lieut Swann’s absence from his command is not explained. Swann would seem to have been no more dutiful in venturing out to sea, than was his senior officer, and what could Capt Thomas say to that.

Whatever his Admiralty Orders, the Fairy is once again anchored in Gwavas Lake from 24th February until 1st March. Conditions on board were most uncomfortable. There was heavy weather and Capt Thomas must have appreciated that this was never a safe anchorage once the wind backed to the south’ard. And, despite his ‘local knowledge,’ it is always written in his log that he took a pilot whenever he came to Newlyn and anchored in Gwavas Lake.

Come the spring and the Fairy was again chasing smugglers, as Thomas advised the Secretary to the Admiralty in a letter of 3rd March:

You will be pleased to inform their Lordships that yesterday at 10 p.m. I fell in with and gave chase to a large smuggling lugar said to be the Ranger of Cawsand which I fired a number of shot at but who, after many hours have eluded my utmost endeavours to come up with, she sailing so much superior to the Sloop which I command.
I am Yr most Ob: Serv’nt … have the honour to be …

This of course was the same Ranger as was mentioned in the Penzance Customs report of the previous October. On April 17th, 1784, Capt Thomas sends the Admiralty information of another frustrating encounter with the Ranger Lugger which overtook them off Ramshead. Shots were fired for 10 minutes but she quickly out-sailed the naval sloop. Since that incident the Fairy had been joined by HM Cutter Baracouta, Lieut Folliett [then stationed at Fowey], along with the Hawke and Dolphin Revenue cruisers. They had ranged over the whole coast from Ramshead to Mount’s Bay but could not receive any intelligence of her. When last seen the lugger was off the Manacles, standing to the S, as is supposed ‘to Guernsey’.10

Fairy‘s patrols continue and over the next four months there are two more successful seizures, and another disappointment when a long chase after the Long Dog of Garrass [Gerrans ?] and another lugger called the Hope ends with them being found lying innocently at anchor – their cargoes successfully run on shore.

On the 30th September, William Thomas advised the Admiralty, that:

… cheeky Robert Williams Master of the Bantham galley of Cawsand and George Booth of the Kingston lugger of Cawsand were insolent and insulting, shouting and calling out that they were ‘King’s Pilots.11

Catcalls of derision and insolence from two notorious smugglers, and in the face of his crew, must have shaken the Captain’s pride and dignity, and damaged his authority – the implication being that they were untouchable and as ‘King’s pilots’ knew the coast and the Channel better than he did! After a working lifetime in familiar waters and piloting HM ships in and out of Plymouth, they would continue to outsail and elude him.

As if to rub it in, that same day the Fairy carried away her main topmast.

But, to give all hands a bit of encouragement, the years closed with another success in the bag, when on 4th December they seized the cutter Black Joke with 60 kegs of spirits on board.

Read on …

  1. Newly promoted to lieutenant (26/12/1782), Henry Spriddle was to become Edward Pellew’s brother-in-law, when he married Pellew’s sister Jane Constantia. He died young in March 1790. He may have been telling tales to the Pellews about his commander’s lack of zeal.
  2. ADM 52/2297 Masters Log, The National Archives
  3. ADM 1/2593 Captain’s Letters and ADM 51/332 Captain’s Letters, The National Archives
  4. Vessels employed by the Revenue authorities had to have three men on board with ‘deputations’ from the Board of Customs – their legal authorities to make seizures. For the Revenue cutters these would normally be the Master, Mate and a deputed mariner. On board the Fairy, these were the Captain, Lieutentant and Master.
  5. ADM 1/2593, The National Archives
  6. The anker cask was the basic unit for smuggling. Able to be carried by one man, or slung in pairs across a horse’s back. An anker nominally held 9 gallons of spirits, but frequently held as little as 7 gallons, depending on the thickness of staves used in its construction.
  7. Cust 68/12 – Letter 57 20th October 1783, The National Archives
  8. ADM 1/2594, The National Archives
  9. ADM 1/2594, The National Archives
  10. ADM 1/2594, The National Archives
  11. ADM 1/2594, The National Archives