Collection Highlights: Committee of Whitby Shipowners

By Gwyneth Endersby

Records relating to the Committee of Whitby Shipowners can be found in the Whitby Museum Manuscript collection under the reference ZW VI 11. These records date from 1789 to 1801 and include correspondence and papers relating to various subjects, including smuggling laws and the impressment of seamen.

Smuggling Laws and Petitions to Parliament

The coastguards of the late 1700s and early 1800s were installed in coastal villages and ports in an attempt to prevent smuggling, which was rife in places like Robin Hood’s Bay. Drawn from the Royal Navy initially, they were rarely local men, hailing from as far away as Scotland and Ireland.

At this time, the smuggling laws introduced by King George were fiercely opposed by Whitby shipowners, angry at confiscation of their cargoes at port on account of misconduct by masters and seamen. They regularly petitioned Parliament regarding both smuggling laws and the impressment of sailors, though without much success in spite of William Wilberforce’s support.

Collection ZW (the Whitby Museum Manuscripts) contains letters from William Wilberforce to Whitby ship-owners. In the first letter, dated 18th January 1790, he promises to present their petitions to Mr Pitt and states that he feels great deference for their opinions.

The second letter, dated 8th March 1790, confirms that the petitions had been presented, as promised. These letters are not in his own hand, due to poor eyesight, but signed by him nonetheless.

There are 10 letters relating to smuggling laws held in the Committee of Whitby Shipowners collection dating from 7th December 1789 to 11th March 1790, reference ZW VI 11/1/1-10.

Resistance to the Impressment of Sailors

Whilst Whitby ship-owners petitioned Parliament regarding smuggling laws, it seems they were less motivated in attempting to seek redress from the Treasury regarding the impressment of seamen.

The Royal Navy did not operate on a conscription basis, relying instead on crewmen joining voluntarily. During times of war, however, the Impressment Service – or Press Gang – was legally entitled to forcibly enlist seafarers to fully crew naval vessels. During the mid-late 1700s, the Press Gang actively sought men aged between 18 and 45 with good seafaring experience. The great majority of men pressed were taken from merchant ships at sea, especially those homeward bound for Britain. Outbound merchant ships were exempt from impressment. Britain eventually abandoned the practice of impressment in 1815, but it remained legal until the early 1900s.

In the summer of 1790, Robert Vazie of the Committee of Trade contacted Whitby shipowners, seeking alliance and offering solidarity on behalf of the ship-owners of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He also provided the Whitby shipowners with a comprehensive template, in the form of a copy of the memorial sent by the Newcastle ship-owners to the Lords of the Treasury, to use when making their own complaint. Vazie’s letter and the memorial describe the huge inconvenience and hardship resulting from crews being press-ganged whilst out at sea. Yet despite suffering similar troubles themselves, the Whitby shipowners could not be persuaded to join the cause, thinking it a futile one.

ZW IV 11/2/1/2 Copy letter from John Chapman (Whitby) to Robert Vazie (North Shields) 12th June 1790

The Whitby Museum Manuscript collection contains the correspondence between Robert Vazie (Newcastle) and John Chapman (Whitby), June 1790, reference ZW VI/11/2/1-2.

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