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Piracy and Plunder in the Bristol Channel

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October 2020

It’s well known that piracy is the second oldest profession, and there were presumably problems with pirates in the Bristol Channel back in Roman times. Certainly in the first century BC the Roman general Pompey pursued pestiferous pirates around the Mediterranean. In the Bristol Channel we have documentary evidence for piracy going back to the 1400s and the research of Philip Ashford was the subject for the inaugural Zoom meeting in October of Thornbury History and Archaeological Society.

By the 1400s Bridgewater had set itself up as a rival port to Bristol. Its main import, as in Bristol, was wine from Bordeaux and Spain, and it exported cloth and beans. When the local Bridgewater lads had drunk a little too much wine, and got bored counting beans, they might try their hand at a little piracy. Nicholas Neth, carrying on the family business, raided Spanish and Genoese ships in the channel, and John Colwell relieved another Spanish ship of its cargo of wine. In 1443 Sir Henry Stradling, wife and daughter were abducted by pirates in the channel, and Henry’s father sold land in 3 counties to ransom his family. The Bridgewater lads were not all bad. Some Spanish sailors were rescued by Bridgewater sailors in 1534 after being abandoned by pirates on Lundy.

Lundy, being easy to defend and convenient for the maritime traffic up and down the channel, has a long history of piracy. Sir Peter Carew was commissioned in 1564 to supply 2 ships to clear Lundy of pirates, but his success was short lived. After sacking the town of Milford Haven, Thomas Sockwell set himself up as ‘King of Lundy’ in 1610 and thence terrorised the channel traffic. His reign was not a long one. He joined forces with another pirate, one Peter Easton, who promptly threw Sockwell overboard. Such is the honour amongst thieves. Easton had a whole fleet of ships with which to blockade the channel. The merchants of Bristol had to seek the help of the Lord Admiral and by 1614 the channel was patrolled by the King’s ships.

Bristol, of course, was no stranger to pirates, being the birthplace of Edward Teach the infamous ‘Blackbeard’. But it was mostly concerned with capturing pirates in order to preserve its lucrative trade. The mayor of Bristol’s audit books reveal the expense of keeping the channel clear. From building gallows at Canynge marsh and arming crews in 1577, supplying barrels of gunpowder in 1582, to dressing and victualing mariners (including 4 tons of beer) in 1584. In 1612 Bristol and Barnstaple fitted out 4 vessels to suppress piracy in the channel and 12 pirates were thrown into Bristol’s Newgate gaol.

Elizabeth the first thought pirates had given themselves rather a bad name. She decided to call them privateers instead and to give them a pirate’s licence in return for a whopping share of the loot. The lads in Bridgewater couldn’t believe their luck. In 1586 the Jonah from Antwerp was brought into Bridgewater with a cargo of sugar worth £1000. In 1588 the Lyon of Bridgewater brought in a vessel with a cargo including Brazilwood valued at £1678 and in 1591 the Mayflower of Bridgewater brought in a cargo of sugar and pearls worth £2000. Multiply by 300 to get today’s values.

As ye sow, so shall ye reap. Other countries quickly cottoned onto the idea of state sponsored piracy. Enter the Ottoman Turks, premier division pirates from the Barbary Coast of North Africa. Between 1610 and 1620 29 Bristol ships were captured by Barbary Turks. Nicholas Moore of Bridgewater renounced his religion and ‘turned Turk’, joining a Barbary crew. In the 1620s the Turks captured Lundy and held it for 5 years as a base from which to terrorise the channel. In 1631 several Bristol ships were taken to Algiers where their crews became merchandise in the white slave trade. A heavily armed ship named ‘the Ninth Whelp’ started to patrol the channel in 1632, and to transport people safely between Bristol and Ireland, one being the famous scientist Robert Boyle. Other countries joined the pirate fun, with ‘Biscayners’ and ‘Dunkirkers’ menacing the channel through the 1600s. It wasn’t until the 18th century, when Britain ruled the waves (Huzzah!), that many of the pirates decided to retire to the more sedate life of smuggling.

Philip has also researched war activity in the channel, of which a snippet. An enemy ship had grounded in the channel in such low water that soldiers on horseback could board and take her. It is a rare occasion of a naval battle being won by the cavalry (no they were not sea horses).

Many thanks to Philip for his diligent research, and for his mastery of the technology.

The Thornbury Local History and Archaeology Society always welcomes new and occasional members. Details of our programme can be found on this website, the library or the Town Hall. Our meetings are on the second Tuesday of the month, held at St Mary's Church Hall beginning at 7.30pm. Visitors are always welcome at the society for the small charge of £2.50.

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