Reply To: Irish and Welsh speakers in RN ships

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Nicholas Blake

    I concur with Dr Davies, except that there were many men who had not yet, or never learnt, English.

    For example, a court martial took place in 1799, in which the commander of the Daphne was accused of ‘crimes highly scandalous and detestable’ (ie sexually interfering with several of the men). During the trial it became clear that one of those supposed to have been interfered with, Owen Owens, told a hospital doctor that the claims were groundless; since he could not read or write, the doctor took Owens’s testimony and affixed his mark. Because the matter was so serious a Welshman was called: ‘Mr Jones came and read every sentence to him in Welch which he speaks and the boy answered in Welch — Before Mr Jones came the boy made some hesitation as he did not understand the English language”.

    As to Irish, there are many references at the end of the 1790s, but none that I’ve found that mention punishment thereof, though men are dismissed just for being Irish. Examples include in the Defiance (74) in 1798: ‘testimony of John Price, seaman, asked why he thought the men assembled in the galley:’ To smoke and keep themselves awake – In English they said nothing that any person could take any hold of – In Irish I did not understand what they said.’ and ‘testimony of John Roberts, seaman: ‘About two or three nights after we sailed from Cawsand Bay there were a Club of these Irishmen on the Starbd. side of the Galley As I was passing through the Galley they were drinking I heard a Man say ‘Success to the Royal Irish and bad luck to the English which was said by Foundain – another man got up and said damn you why do you not speak low it was dark and I could not see who it was – they were speaking Irish and I could not understand them except the Toast I knew Fountains [sic] voice.’ . .’ In more peaceable times we find Captain Duff of the Mars (74) writing to his wife in 1804, ‘This is a proper gloomy November day, but not much wind. I went to the theatre last night, and I can assure you it was no bad performance.  Between the play and the farce we had a most excellent Irish song, from one of the sailors’.

    In some ships of course there was a standing order for ‘perpetual silence’ (Cumberland, 1802); in ships that pressed men, a lack of English would persist for a while. The Implacable (74) had 32 countries of origin when under Captain Byam Martin, and there is the famous story of the Swede in the Prompte: ‘When we [the Prompte] arrived in in Yarmouth Roads [in 1794], and came to anchor, the Marquis [of Huntly, a passenger] went on shore in one of our boats, and on his return, in coming along the pier (it being dark), came close to a man standing there and watching his boat. “Come, my brave fellow,” said the Marquis, “will you come along with me?” The poor fellow, a Swede, not understanding a word of English, foolishly enough went into the boat with him and was brought on board, and the Marquis returned to the transport quite forgetting the affair. Next day the man was seen standing on the forecastle, and no one knew who he was, so he was sent for on the quarterdeck, and being asked who he was, replied to every question, “Orla hou,”, which perhaps was “I don’t understand you.” To end the matter he was put on the ship’s books by the name of “Orla Hou” and stationed on the forecastle; and when I left the Prompte, near five years after, he was still in the ship and one of the best seamen on board, and had learnt to speak English as well as any one.’ Mariner of England, 114

    As to Frank Scott’s point, I think this was probably true in the Victorian era, but in Napoleonic and earlier times, ie before universal literacy, dialect as well as accent obtained throughout the kingdom, and there was no guarantee that two English speakers would understand each other.