Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Aft through the Hawse!

by Julian Stockwin

In the Royal Navy in the Age of Sail, an officer who had served as a seaman before being promoted was said to have ‘come aft through the hawse.’ A typically colourful mariner’s term! In a ship the hawse is right forward, where the anchor cable comes in at the bow, a tough way of crawling aboard and all the way aft to the quarterdeck...

Officers risen from the ranks of seamen were also known as ‘tarpaulins’, after the canvas cloth impregnated with tar sailors used to waterproof their clothing, the smell of which was said never to leave them.

Richard Gere famously overcame modern day hurdles to become an officer and a gentleman, but they were nothing compared to the almost impossible odds two hundred years ago of moving from one social class to another! The Royal Navy (unlike the Army in which commissions could be bought) although steeped in custom and tradition, did provide a rare means for someone low born to achieve high status – to become a gentleman.

When they first joined a ship, sailors, whether pressed men or volunteers, were all ‘rated’ according to their experience – landmen, the lowest of all and with no useful sea skills; ordinary seamen, the first rung on the ladder for men who knew enough to be useful on deck and then the able seaman who could be trusted aloft and could ‘hand, reef and steer’, the best of these being an elite topman. After this there was opportunity for sailors with leadership skills to become petty officers, then as now the backbone of the Navy.

Of the six hundred thousand or so British seamen who fought in the Napoleonic wars, amazingly, around 120 became officers, crossing the great divide between officers and seamen. Of these, perhaps twenty or so were promoted to captain of their own ship – and five made admiral! History has left us little record of these achievers, but I’ve been able to glean details of some who started their career this way, a number of whom were even press-ganged into the Navy and took to the life.

The Press Gang

There are many misconceptions about the Press Gang. Impressment actually goes back to Anglo-Saxon times, but it reached its heyday in the French wars from 1793-1815. Despite the cartoons by Cruikshank and the like, pressing the general public was in theory off limits. The gangs could only legally seize able-bodied seamen or watermen, who had to be British subjects between 18 and 55, and not carrying a certificate of exemption – these applied to apprentices, masters and mates of merchantmen, crews of merchant men outward bound and Trinity House vessels. Each gang had to be led by a commissioned officer, bearing a warrant signed by a magistrate. There were some abuses of this, and in fact I have my hero, a wig-maker, being caught up in a hot press and being whisked away before anyone could object. Impressment ceased for all intents and purposes with the end of the war in 1815 but the right to operate press gangs remained until modern times. In point of fact this restriction to trained seamen was intended to seize men in the merchant service who could earn anything up to four times the wages of the Navy and who would be immediately effective. If anything, conscription these days, which takes all and every, is much less fair.

As an aside, Georgian terminology has possibly confused the issue of the size of the press gang haul with ‘prest man’ vs. ‘pressed man.’ A prest man received a prest sum of money as an advancement to join; a pressed man was one taken against his will.

Hero from the Isle of Man

John Quilliam, a farmer’s son from the Isle of Man was impressed into the Royal Navy in 1794. He rose rapidly in the Service. Like my hero Tom Kydd he first came into notice at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, when he was made a lieutenant. At the Battle of Copenhagen, in 1801, he was in a frigate under very heavy fire and all his superior officers were killed; he was left in command. At this juncture, Horatio Nelson came on board and enquired who was in charge of her, when a voice, that of Quilliam, was heard, ‘I am,’ and, on the further question, ‘How are you getting on below?’ the answer to the unknown inquisitor was “middlin’ ”.

This apparently amused Nelson, and appreciating Quilliam’s coolness, Nelson took an early opportunity of appointing him to his own ship Victory, where he was first lieutenant. After Trafalgar Quilliam was promoted to captain and placed in command of HMS Ildefonso. He returned to the Isle of Man for a time but went back to sea in various ships until the defeat of Napoleon in 1815.

Simply the best

There have been many outstanding maritime explorers – Columbus had great practical skill, Magellan pushed the bounds of discovery to unknown lands, Dampier was a keen observer of natural history and native peoples. But in Captain James Cook, these skills were united to a degree unmatched by any other in history. Cook was born in very humble circumstances, a labourer’s son who began his sea career as an ordinary seaman – and later joined the exalted ranks of those few who had come aft through the hawse.

In 1776 he was made commander of HM Bark Endeavour for the first of his famous three voyages of discovery. Among his many achievements: he dispelled the myth of a Great Southern Continent, established that New Zealand was two islands and discovered and charted the eastern coast of Australia to a high degree of accuracy. Tragically, Cook lost his life in Hawaii, killed ashore in Kealakekua Bay by natives.

Ninety Six Years of Service!

Only a fraction of those who came aft through the hawse made admiral, but one in particular stands out for a Service record that will never be beaten. Provo Wallis joined the Royal Navy as an able seamen in 1795 and died in 1892 an admiral of the fleet. How was this possible? In 1795 his father managed to get Provo, then aged four, registered as an able seaman on the 36-gun frigate HMS Oiseau. In 1796, young Provo became a volunteer in the 40-gun frigate Prévoyante where he remained (on paper at least) for two years, before returning in the 64-gun Asia where he served until 1800, then was promoted as a midshipman into the 32-gun frigate Cleopatra. It was in the War of 1812, during the now-famous Shannon and Chesapeake action that Provo showed his real mettle. HMS Shannon captured USS Chesapeake off Boston on 1 June 1813. Shannon‘s captain, Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was badly wounded during the action and her first lieutenant was killed.

Second Lieutenant Wallis found himself in command of not one but two ships crowded with dead and wounded – as well as prisoners – and close to the enemy coast. In deference to Captain Broke, lying near death in his cabin, Wallis ordered a silent ship. He then sorted out the most pressing concerns, including organising essential repairs, and set course for Halifax. Such was the burden of this command that he did not change his clothes during the six-day voyage and scarcely slept.

Provo went on to serve in various theatres and eventually became admiral of the fleet in 1877. By having commanded a warship between 1793 and 1815 he had the right to remain on the active list as long as he wished. The Admiralty suggested he might wish to voluntarily resign so as not to have to worry about having to be sent to sea again – but Provo would have nothing of the idea and carried on as the navy’s oldest active service officer into the age of steam and steel, electricity and torpedoes as our own age began.


Julian Stockwin was sent at the age of fourteen to Indefatigable, a tough sea-training school. He joined the Royal Navy at fifteen before transferring to the Royal Australian Navy, where he served in the Far East, Antarctic waters and the South Seas. In Vietnam he saw active service in a carrier task force. After leaving the Navy Julian attended university; he became a teacher and later practised as an educational psychologist. Julian lived for some time in Hong Kong, where he was commissioned into the Royal Naval Reserve. He was awarded the MBE and retired with the rank of Lieutenant Commander. He now lives in Devon with his wife and literary partner Kathy. More information can be found on his website Julian also posts to his own blog, BigJules, and is on Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.

He has written sixteen books to date in his Thomas Kydd historical action adventure fiction series. Although they form a series each title can be read as a stand-alone novel. These are in order: KYDD, ARTEMIS, SEAFLOWER, MUTINY, QUARTERDECK, TENACIOUS, COMMAND, THE ADMIRAL’S DAUGHTER, TREACHERY (published in the US as THE PRIVATEER’S REVENGE), INVASION, VICTORY, CONQUEST, BETRAYAL, CARIBBEE, PASHA and TYGER. In parallel to the Kydd novels, he is writing a series of standalone novels, based on pivotal points in history. THE SILK TREE is the first of these; the second, THE CRAKYS OF WAR, is scheduled for publication in 2016. Julian has also written a non-fiction book, STOCKWIN’S MARITIME MISCELLANY.


Captions and illustrations copyright notices:-

Pressgang Caption: Contemporary caricature of the press gang. Image credit: By Unspecified (scanned from Vaisseau de Ligne, Time Life, 1979) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Quilliam Caption: John Quilliam. Image: Courtesy of Manx National Heritage

Cook Caption: Captain Cook. Image credit: Nathaniel Dance-Holland [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Wallis Caption: Provo Wallis

Victory Caption: Julian Stockwin at HMS ‘Victory

[Giveaways: 1 hardback of TYGER UK edition, 1 hardback of TYGER US edition]


  1. What an interesting read! Thank you.

  2. I had no idea Cook started out an ordinary seamanment. Thank you for posting.

    1. oh dear...what is a " seamanment" much less an ordinary one ?

      I meant " seaman" of course...dang that Kindle


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