[This is also included in a set of six volumes entitled "Seafarers' Voices" available at a discount for SWMHS members. For details of this offer and reviews of the other volumes see Seafarers' Voices]
By Robert Hay ISBN 978 1 84832 068 0 - £13.99
This book running to 225 pages covers the period of the French and Napoleonic wars from 1803-1811 and the career of Robert Hay. It was written between September 1820 and November 1821 and originally edited by his grand-daughter Mavis D. Hay. Robert Hay, was born in Renfrew in 1789 joined the Navy by volunteering to the Press Gang in Glasgow in July 1803, and joining the Prince William Henry sailed to Plymouth, where he was ‘processed’ by the Resolu, an examination ship before being posted to the Salvador del Mundo. He was later chosen as a crew member of the schooner Eling, based in Guernsey and cruising off the French coast. Upon returning to Plymouth he ran away but finding no one would take him, returned to the Eling and later to the Salvador del Mundo, from where he was appointed to the 74 gun Culloden on Channel Blockade duties under Admiral Lord Collingwood. The attention Collingwood paid to the younger boys was remarkable for its paternalism. The Culloden later hoisted the flag of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew and convoyed an HEI fleet to Bombay and Madras, of which there are very good descriptions of life in 1805. After a stay in hospital at Madras, Robert Hay returned in Culloden to Vellore where a land action took place and the French privateer Emiline was captured.
Robert Hay then arranged to transfer from ‘boy’ to learn the shipwrights trade under the ship’s carpenter. At this time most of the repairs to naval ships on the Indian station were carried out by members of the carpenters’ crew. In 1806/9 the British fleet led by Culloden was in action with a Dutch fleet in the East Indies. Later the ship ran aground off the Dutch port of Cressy, and the eventually successful attempts to lighten the vessel are described in detail, at the same time as the port was bombarded by the Royal Naval fleet. In 1809 the Culloden returned home from India, passing through a hurricane on the way to the Cape of Good Hope. During the height of the hurricane the barefoot Admiral Edward Pellew is described thus:- "Dressed in a short jacket, a pair of trousers, a small hunting cap and without shoes or stockings, he went about infusing courage and fortitude into all, but I verily believe that he himself, in his heart, thought it was all over."
Arriving back in Plymouth in July 1809, 5 years after leaving, Robert Hay was given a third of his wages due and 14 days leave. After returning to the receiving ship Prince Frederick and being sent to the Salvadore del Mundo he was posted to the Amethyst, again watching the French coast. She was wrecked in a storm in Plymouth Sound, with crew being drowned (8 crew - official record; Hay says 30 were lost); Hay escaping by being hauled part way along a warp from ship to shore, before running away, and later joining the merchantman Edward bound to Jamaica. Here the majority of the crew deserted and Hay was appointed ship’s carpenter. Upon arrival at Kingsroad, off the mouth of the Bristol Avon, with sugar and rum the vessel was raided by the Press Gang, and although 2 crew were taken Hay remained concealed.
He then took a coach to London from Bath having changed into landsman’s clothes, where upon arrival he was again pressed at Tower Hill and placed aboard the Enterprise and transported to the Ceres at the Nore in October 1811. Using inflated bladders Hay contrived to escape the Ceres and stealing a small boat proceeded to cross the Thames Estuary and make his way to Maldon, where after further trials he gained a boat which took him to Shields, from where he walked to his mother’s house in Paisley. We do not know of his later career but it does seem unlikely he returned to the Royal Navy!
This is one of the best accounts of life in the lower deck and the problems faced with the Press Gang I have read and I commend it to our members.
Reviewed by David B Clement
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