The Fairy 1786

If December 1785 had proved an unsuccessful month, then the auspices for 1786 were not much brighter. On 2nd January the Sprightly, now under the command of Lieut. Henry Carew, sprung her bowsprit, and was compelled to return to Plymouth Dock to secure a replacement – ad-hoc repairs requiring dock-yard assistance not then being encouraged at Falmouth despite their capability.

On board the Fairy one seaman was punished on February 12th with 12 lashes – for theft; on 18th March four men were given 12 lashes each for desertion; and on 3rd April, three seamen were delivered up to the civil authorities, charged with highway robbery – and remanded in custody. Discipline was clearly quite out of hand, and there were still no further successes in taking more smuggling craft.

However there was to be a sudden burst of activity on 4th April, when a raid was made on Prussias Cove.

On Tuesday the 29th March H M Sloop Fairy was moored in Carrick Road. On the following Tuesday, 4th April, with the wind E to SE and in squally fresh gale conditions, Captain Thomas made ready for sea. And at five thirty a.m. he set sail for Mounts Bay. The Lizard was sighted at 12 and:

from time to time tacked and wore ship and anchored in Port Leven Bay at 7 in the evening with the small bower in 10 fathoms of water. Her position fixed with Mullion Point South, Colden [Cudden/Cuddan] Point NW½ N and the/stone Steeple open with the middle of the Valley.

Which gives a fix three quarters of a mile off Gunwalloe beach [the magnetic variation being 22.3 degrees West in 1780].

On Wednesday 5th with the wind East to ESE prevailing conditions strong breezes and squally, at 6 a.m.:

… three boats with about 50 armed men were sent on an information to Prussia’s Cove to search for smuggled goods but with surf running so high it was with Difficulty they landed in doing which one cutter was stove so as to render unservicable, being disappointed for want of a proper information the Long boat and Pinnace were Launched with men Sufficient to row them on board the rest were ordered to travel to Newlin.

Came into the Bay the Hawke and Lark Revenue Luggars with a prize Luggar1 called the Happy go Lucky of 10 Carridge Guns, spoke with the Sea Flower Cutter.

Thursday 6th April

… wind ENE to ESE Moderate breezes, hazey and light Rain. At 3 pm weighed and stood for Mounts Bay. At 7 anchored in Gwavas Lake, moored ship, Dutch sloop of War saluted and the salute returned. At 8 the men came on board from Newlyn.2

It must have been a humiliation and a major disappointment when on Thursday 6th April, Captain Thomas came to anchor the Fairy in Gwavas Lake and learnt the full details of the dramatic action that he had missed. Alas Captain Thomas and the Fairy had arrived on the scene of the action a few hours late and the prize had been snatched from under his mains’l – so to speak.

The Happy go Lucky had landed her cargo of 1,100 casks of foreign spirits on the Sunday before 2nd of April, very probably at Prussia’s Cove and on Tuesday 4th was anchor’d half a mile off Mullion Island where she was surprised at 5 in the morning by the Hawke Revenue Lugger.

Immediately cutting her cable the lugger, mounting ten carriage-guns, crewed by 32 men and commanded by Captain Wellard (a notorious smuggler), set sail – chased by the Lark followed by the Hawke. The smuggler opened fire with a broadside and the engagement commenced. After three quarters of an hour, around 9 a.m., the Hawke caught up and rounding the smuggler’s counter, broke off her outrigger, firing an eighteen-pounder loaded with grape shot from aft down the length of her deck, killing the Captain and the Mate, and injuring about a dozen of the crew. In smuggling terms this was a major engagement. In most confrontations, that is unless they could out-sail a challenging Revenue or Naval vessel, the smuggler would capitulate once faced with superior armament.3

It appears that the encounter with the Happy go Lucky had taken place while the Fairy had still to round the Lizard. While her cutter was stove in the breakers during the subsequent landing near the cove, there is nothing in the log to indicate that her boats had been fired upon by John Carter’s Battery. If there had been a landing of smuggled contraband, at Prussia’s Cove on the previous Sunday, it had been swiftly stashed in one of the secret cellars, or carried away on the backs of Goonhilly ponies, leaving no trace whatsoever by the time Fairy’s fifty armed men landed in the surf at Porthlea.

This occasion was as near as Captain Thomas got to Porth Knowles and the Carter’s Battery. Later, in the November, Capt Isaac Manley, Thomas’s successor, also anchored the Fairy in Porth Leven Bay. But with regard to Carter’s Battery took no invasive action.

Nearly a decade later, close to that same anchorage, Fairy nearly met her grave in 1794. Then under command of Richard Bridges, he found himself embayed and forced to anchor in a heavy swell, on a lee shore, a quarter of a mile off the rocks of Gunwalloe Point. It was only through a brilliant club-hauling manoeuvre that she narrowly escaped being wrecked – and in her Master, Thomas Sinclair ‘s, own poetic words:

making what sail the ship could suffer we dragged off the rocks ... and steering a Channel Course’ as daylight haunted the North we made clear of the Lizard.

In a letter to the Admiralty written on 25th April, 1786, [probably from his home in Tregony] Captain William Thomas reported that he had been taken suddenly ill with ‘pluristic fever.’ ‘I shall not be able without great risques of my life to leave my bed for a considerable time …’ He asks who should take over the ship. The reply from Philip Stephens, who received the missive on 2nd May 4, was that the Lieutenant should take the Fairy to Plymouth to be paid off, but her masts were not to be taken out, as it was intended to re-commission her. Seven young gentlemen, including one Edward Yescomb,5 who had been serving as Captain’s servants, were paid off on May 8th, before she was brought round to Plymouth.

With the Fairy once again securely moored in the Hamoaze, on May 13th the Clerk of the Cheque ‘came on board and paid off the ship and struck the pendant‘.

During the three and a half years that he was in command of the Fairy Captain Thomas was particularly diligent in sending his boats ‘mannd and armd’ to investigate vessels which had been ‘bro’to’. One of the limitations for the Sloop with her 11ft draught was patrolling close in-shore. However, on numerous occasions Capt Thomas sent in one or two boats to patrol Cawsands Bay; several times in Garrons [Gerrans] Bay and St Austell Bay; and ‘up Truro River on information’. Twice he … ‘sent in armd boats’ to Mevagissey Bay, and on another occasion … ‘sent a party of Marines with an Officer’ to assist the Revenue Officer at St Mawes ‘on information’; and again sent in boats to go round the East lndiaman in Falmouth, and to watch the mouth of the estuary at Carrick Road.

While William Thomas was Captain, nineteen vessels were brought­ to and two East lndiamen spoken with, one of them Danish. Twice the ship’s boat was lowered to board craft that proved to be pilot boats. In all Fairy made a total of twenty-five seizures – so she was not entirely ineffective on anti-smuggling duties. There were many chases, but in nine cases his vessel was out-sailed. Many vessels caught up with were found to be in ballast, some were fishermen, and twice the quarry turned out to be revenue cutters. One success was in capturing two luggers which were in the final act of throwing their contraband overboard, but most of this was recovered and together with the two vessels taken into Falmouth and returned into the Custom House.

Throughout 1784 and ’85 there was hardly a day while Fairy was at sea when there were not two or three active firings of her guns to bring too ships, or in sending off her boats to investigate. There are plenty of incidents of rigging and t’gallant masts carrying away, and sails having to be changed, and the yards brought down on deck in heavy weather.

Often in company with the frigate Druid, the Fairy certainly played her protective role on the coast. If a show of her presence to the community was part of her effective duty then it was achieved as much by salutes, not least in Falmouth on 6th November 1784, 19- guns to celebrate the Anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

In drafting his final letter to the Admiralty Captain Thomas had effectively already relinquished command, being then at home ill in bed. Taken out of commission, command of the Fairy passed to Capt Isaac Manley who commanded her until 22nd July 1790. During this latter period there is no record of the Fairy being involved in any incident in the vicinity of Prussia’s Cove.

Read on …

  1. The Happy-go-Lucky is variously described as a lugger or a shallop. She could no doubt be rigged in either manner, and probably was as a means of obscuring her true identity
  2. ADM 51/333 Captain’s Log, The National Archives
  3. From a fair copy by JT (James Tresidder, Attorney) Royal Institution of Cornwall, CUST 1/1; and Osler’s Life of Admiral Exmouth see Samuel Pellew’s Biography, Appendix B in the Bartlett Library
  4. A letter took a week to reach London
  5. Later to become commander of the Falmouth Packet, King George