Wight Life

Press Gang!

by Stanley Cotton

AN EXCITED GROUP OF PEOPLE was gathered outside the venerable church of St Mary and St Radegund, in the hamlet of Whitwell. It was mid-summer in the year 1805. Most of the people were ladies, because a wedding was being solemnized in the old church, the contracting parties belonging to two well-known families in Whitwell and the adjacent village of Niton. Besides the ladies present outside the church there was a good sprinkling of children, and surprisingly, not a few men. There was a tension in the air, apart from the usual feeling of expectancy on such occasions, for on the outskirts of the crowd were four men in seafaring garb, and the onlookers needed little telling as to who they were. Why were they waiting for the wedding ceremony to end?

At last the service concluded, the bride and bridegroom emerged into the sunlight through the mellow porch. The bride was smiling radiantly, as brides have done from the beginning, but the groom, while being just as happy inwardly, no doubt, wore a 'glad-when-it-is-all over' expression. The couple were surrounded and showered with the congratulations of their well-wishers, and then they stepped towards their waiting conveyance. This acted as a signal to the four strangers. Acting on a common impulse they moved forward, and a burly sergeant of marines grasped the bridegroom by the arm.

'Robert Stone. That is your name, I believe?' he said.
'It is. What is your business with me?'
'To offer you the King's bounty, and to make a seaman of you fit to serve His Majesty.'
'I refuse!' snapped Robert. He threw off his restraining hand and made to enter the carriage.

'Listen to me, young man,' said the sergeant grimly. 'Take the King's bounty you will; if not willingly then by force. Because it is your wedding-day you must do nothing to distress your bride.' He now addressed the terrified girl. 'Your servant, ma'am,' he said with forced courtesy. 'You will not wish to be upset on such a day as this, but the law must be carried out. The fleet needs your man. As a fisherman he will be most useful, and in the King's name we mean to have him. He'll make a real tarpaulin lad, and just the man to fight against Bonaparte.'

Robert (or Bob as they all called him) freed himself of his tormentor, whereupon he wasroughly seized by the other three men. 'Bring him away!' ordered the sergeant curtly.

`But surely I can be with my wife for this day, at least!' shouted the frenzied bridegroom. `Our friends are to join us in a reception in the church house. On my honour I will go with you tomorrow.'

'Bring him along!' said the sergeant, and Bob, still struggling furiously, was torn away from his wife, being scarcely allowed to kiss her farewell.

'Keep a brave heart, Mary!' he called back. 'I shall be with you soon, never fear!' So she lost her husband of less than an hour, and was led away weeping by her parents. Slowly the horrified spectators dispersed.

Several weeks passed by, and then one day an elderly man from nearby Niton called at Mary's parents' home and asked to see the girl. He had been a seaman most of his life, and had visited most countries, so he said. Because of his enormous nautical knowledge, real and imaginary, he was kown as 'Admiral' Decks. According to Mr Decks the most terrific of Channel storms were mere zephyrs compared with the hurricanes he had experienced. But he was a kindly man at heart, and now came to offer what hope and comfort he could to the distressed wife.

'I have news for you, Mrs Stone,' he said. 'My son John has met your Bob in Portsmouth. John has been ordered to the 'Victory' again.

Old print of the Press Gang at work

The Press Gang at work. Reproduced from an old print.

Picture of the church of St Mary & St Radegund, Whitwell

The church of St Mary & St Radegund, Whitwell

He served aboard her all the way out to the Indies and back again, when Admiral Nelson ,was following the French. It's John's belief that Bob will join him on the 'Victory.' What do 'ee think of that now? Niton and Whitwell men together. Why, Bonet' is as good 'as beaten, if you ask me!'

Mary smiled wanly. She held her own opinion about the strength of the 'Corsican Ogre,' but she held her peace.

'And like as not John will come home on shore leave,' went on the garrulous Mr Deeks. `The 'Victory' will be having a refit now, most likely.'

The young wife shuddered a little as he left her. A refit - for what?

A little while after this time the old salt called again. He now knew for certain, he said, that Bob Stone had been posted to the 'Victory.' By this time the Island (as indeed the whole of the country) was agog with excitement. What would be the outcome of the struggle with the French?

September came, and its third week brought yet another visit by the persistent Mr Deeks, who was acting as if he held the destiny of Britain in his own gnarled hands.

'A letter from John!' he said, flushed with pleasure. 'His last word, I mid say, before he sails. The 'Victory' is anchored off St Helens, and Lord Nelson is expected to go aboard any day. Perhaps today. That means that she might be here tomorrow, and tomorrow morning early will find me top o' cliff with my spy-glass, looking out for her. Join me there, if you like: I could do with your young eyes, for mine be that misky at times.'

Mary promised that she would meet him soon after dawn the next day, the place of rendezvous being the locally-named 'High Hat,' one of the highest points of the chalk cliffs overlooking the Channel. Centuries ago the Court Leets serving Niton and Whitwell were held on this airy promontory, and for years without number it constituted a popular trysting place, and Mary knew it well enough in the latter connection. Had the expectant watchers but known it, that day, the 14th September, 1805, was to prove one of the most important in the history of England.

So it was that Mary rose at dawn, and pausing only to take leave of her parents she made for 'High Hat.' To reach it she passed through the embowered Ash Knowle Lane, which she and her husband had traversed sooften, it being a link between their two villages.

Mary then ascended the slope on her left hand, trying not to look across the meads to where their newly-established home was at Niton, a home which now awaited their reunion. This she left in the hands of Providence; her husband, she knew, would be doing the same. Bit by bit the wonderful expanse of blue sea opened up, and Mary's spirits rose accordingly. She soon reached the edge of the cliffs and idly watched the cawing rooks wheeling over the sea beneath her. The beginning of autumn could be seen in the thickly-wooded Undercliff.

In the distance the young woman saw the approaching figure of Mr Deeks, and soon he came up to her with his inevitable telescope under his arm. They were not alone even at that early hour, for the news of imminent action had spread rapidly. The cliff-line gradually became dotted with figures. Behind Mary and the old sailor a flock of sheep browsed with little concern on the stunted herbage. The sun had now risen, and thus the scene was set for a patient vigil.

The watchers could easily discern several small craft passing up and down, but they could see nothing that could possibly resemble the noble three-decker. Mr Deeks continually scanned the waters to the east without seeing anything of interest, and Mary shared the use of the telescope. All at once the old man uttered a sharp gasp, on which Mary held her breath.

'It is her!' exclaimed the old sailor, his experience now standing him in good stead. `And there is a frigate astern of her - the `Euryalus,' wi'out any doubt. Take a rook, mis'ess, do.' Mary did so, but all she could see was the heaving bosom of the ocean.

'All women be alike when it comes to using a spy-glass!' said the exasperated Mr Deeks. 'There, use my shoulder - so!' It was now the girl's turn to gasp with excitement.

'What do 'ee see?'

A great ship with three masts. There is a small flag at the front -


'And a big one behind -

'At the stern you mean!'

'And another on the first mast.'

'Fore-topmast,' said the old man, still full of professional exactitude despite his emotion. `Ali! that will be the admiral's own flag. But tell me, missy: do 'ee see my John? - no, of , course, you never met him. Or your Bob - buthe mid not be aboard.'

A woman's intuition told Mary that Bob was on board for all that, although , of course, it was impossible to pick him out. She saw a great number of moving figures, but that was all. She handed back the telescope and stood as if rooted to the spot as she realized that in that ship, in the hands of the admiral and his officers, and in the bravery of every man on board her, and on those other ships sent to fight with her, depended her own every hope in life. She struggled to repress her emotion, though her companion was too engrossed with his telescope to think much about her.

Steadily the two stately warships passed down-Channel, and Mr Deeks now pointed his glass to the south-west. At last the 'Victory' was hull-down. Slowly her masts and canvas appeared to sink into the sea, last to disappear being her top-gallants. Mary, a landlubber if ever there was one, wondered why this should be. She was brought back to earth by Mr Deeks, who vowed that he could still see the admiral's flag through his telescope. Neither of them spoke of the 'Euryalus,' nor seemed aware of her presence. Man and woman were conscious only of the ship in the van, and of the two precious lives contained on board her.

With a hand that shook violently Mr Deeks closed his telescope. Their eyes met. 'God's Will be done!' he said. 'Amen!' said Mary.

After this, life went on in the Wight as elsewhere. Many reports came from different theatres of war, some true, some false, but no news came through about the 'Victory' until the tragic-wonderful day when the dramatic news of another 'victory' at Trafalgar burst all at once upon a tensed nation.

The French and Spanish defeated! Nelson fallen in the hour of triumph! Nobody quite knew which feeling ought to predominate - joy or sorrow; but quite naturally it was joy in the end.

And what of the two who waited with a greater hope in Niton and Whitwell? Of course, the great tidings had to come through Mr Deeks. How he obtained it he did not reveal. Good news? Of course it was - for both of them.

'My John and your Bob,' said the old fellow, in a voice which shook with emotion - safe! and neither of them with any hurt at all. To think that I should live to see such a day as this!'

That very day, the gates of two cottages the two villages clicked open and shut behin two stalwart figures with bronzed and eage features. The cottage doors were already ope to admit them, and each received a hero' welcome. Just two of the many gallant me home from the war.

The interrupted wedding reception was dul held -in the old church house at Whitwe Amongst the guests were two men, father an son, who had not been thought about when th feast had been so rudely interrupted on the first occasion.

As Bob often said afterwards, he hated th press-gang and its methods, and he wou continue to hate it, as he would the law of th land which empowered it. But suppose th `Victory' and the other ships had suffered fro the lack of seamen? Why then, it was bu reasonable to think that our nation would h suffered too, with consequences too dreadful think of.

So out of evil good came at last, and always will be so if duty be done and the pa of right followed. That, at least, was philosophy of Bob and Mary, and who con gainsay them?