Reply To: The Royal Navy and the Parish of Stepney

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Frank Scott

    There was a whole Task Group in Rio at time, and I was there in HMS Tiger (826 NAS).
    This was a PR stunt by Biggs & the press. Until the furore that the press created he had virtually been forgotten in Britain. In my squadron we agreed that had he walked up to any of us while we were Officer of the Day or Officer of the Watch on the gangway, & stated his name, we would taken no action as we would not have recognised its significance.
    The sailors involved were most upset as they considered that he had abused their hospitality by setting them up. As far as I know no official notice was taken of him, he left when he had achieved his object. Talk of him being escorted off was made up by the press. In the Task Group it was regarded as a storm in a press teacup.

    Although I never heard any reference to the Parish of Stepney, all naval officers and ratings in my time were in no doubt that a British warship in a foreign port was Sovereign territory in which only British law applied, and that foreign police, customs, etc., had no right to come on board except as guests. The exact place where jurisdiction changed was moot, but it was generally understood by our sailors, and by local police, that once they stepped onto the gangway (brow in naval terminology) then the local police ceased to have powers of arrest. In the USA their police officers clearly resented having to surrender their weapons at the gangway, even more so in an era when all our naval gangway staff were unarmed.’
    Warships and designated ‘state-owned ships’ are in a very different legal position to ordinary merchant ships. Inside territorial base lines, let alone in port, a merchant ship is totally subject to local jurisdiction, and local police can board and arrest crew members whenever they see fit. Some recent cases where the Shipmaster has been arrested on dubious grounds after an marine accident have highlighted the vulnerability of merchant seafarers to arbitrary arrest.

    Aside from the over-blown Biggs case, there are many documented examples in the former Dominions (Canada, Australia, New Zealand) of senior citizens coming aboard British warships to confess that some forty plus years before they had deserted from the RN, and now wished to take their punishment. Clearly only paper action would be taken, particularly as they tended to have subsequently served in wartime in the armed forces of their adopted country. Most famously when Captain Beechey in HMS Blossom paid the first naval visit to Pitcairn Island in 1825, John Adams as the sole surviving Bounty mutineer was treated as a part of history, rather than a criminal, and invited onboard. There is a charming description of him stepping onto the main deck of the Blossom and reverting to the deferential habits of a foremast Jack.