Saturday, August 7, 2010

Pressgangs and Poetry

As often happens when going in search of women whose achievements have been obscured by history, the route can be an interesting and serendipitous journey in itself. After reviewing “A Merciless Place” in my previous post, I was intrigued to find out more about any individuals – men or women - who had endured and survived the late 18th and early 19th century tragedies and horrors of West Africa as so vividly described in that book. One diversion led me to the Royal Naval doctor in Sierra Leone, Dr Thomas Masterman Winterbottom, an early researcher into sleeping sickness and later founder of the South Shields Maritime College (now South Tyneside College), among his numerous achievements. Clearly he survived “the white man's grave” as he lived to the ripe old age of 93.
Photo courtesy Edward Kirton

But in the process, I stumbled upon a legendary woman whom I really ought to have known more about, given my own family links to Dr Winterbottom's home town of Arbeia (South Shields) but who was perhaps considered persona non grata by earlier generations of town councillors and has only in recent years come into her own right, being commemorated in a statue by Billy Gofton raised in 1987 on the Lawe Top overlooking what would have been her old haunts.
Dorothy (Dolly) Peel (1782-1857) has become part of Tyneside folklore and as inevitably happens in such instances, reports of her activities must be taken with the proverbial pinch of salt. The following extracts from The Borough of South Shields, published 1903 by George B. Hodgson, are the main source of information about her. 
"... Dolly Peel, a fishwife, who in the days before free trade did not scruple to eke out a livelihood by hoodwinking the excise officers, and smuggling ashore brandy, tobacco, cigars, lace, scents— in fact, anything dutiable. She did quite an extensive trade in the contraband way, and would take - and execute - orders for any excisable article that might be required. She was a strong, muscular woman, and absolutely fearless, as the pressgang more than once discovered. A gang was one day in hot pursuit of her husband, who managed to reach home — an upper flat in Shadwell Street. Dolly, singlehandly kept the pressgang at bay until her husband got out of the window on to the roof. He was captured at last and sent on board a man-o'-war, where Dolly accompanied him. When he was in action Dolly was with him and rendered service in the cockpit*. She had a nerve of iron. Had she been an educated woman she might have made a reputation as a poetess. As it was, she was famous for her ability to rhyme extempore on any subject. She composed an address in poetry congratulating Mr. Robert Ingham (with whom she was a great favourite) on his return as the first M.P. for South Shields; also a song on the loss of the barque Dove of Sunderland, laden with Russian tallow, which came ashore on the Herd Sand on November 20, 1836. It was a very hard winter for the 'Townenders,' as the inhabitants living at the 'low end' of the town were called by Shields folk, and Dolly made it appear that the wreck of the 'Russian tallowship' as it was called, was a special dispensation of Providence to help them."   [* In this definition, cockpit means the compartment below waterline in old warships where the wounded were taken and treated during a battle.] 

"What is believed to have been the last severe 'press' in South Shields was made at the outbreak of the war with America in June 1812, when the most stringent methods were adopted to secure men. For instance, it was a regular practice, when the Tyne collier fleets made Flamborough Head, for the convoy to bring the ships up and board every vessel. It was during this press that the famous encounter took place in Military Road, South Shields, between the press-gang, locally known as 'Hunter's Gang' from the commander of the shore party, and one Ralph Peel, the husband of the still more famous Dolly Peel, who is said to have followed her husband aboard on one occasion when he was pressed, and served with him in the Navy. On this occasion the shore gang was reinforced by a detachment from the receiving ship in Peggy's Hole. A great crowd collected, and a serious disturbance ensued, during which it was alleged that a pistol was fired, the bullet passing through the lapel of an officer's coat. On another evening, a boat's crew from the receiving ship landed at the Coble Landing in Pilot Street, and, each armed with a cutlass, made a clean sweep of all the young and middle-aged men, wearing the bluejacket and trousers of the seaman, found in the Low Street, carrying them all aboard. At this time, when the whole Mercantile Marine and Transport service of Great Britain only employed 120,000 men, it was estimated that at least 40,000 British seamen were manning American vessels in order to avoid impressment."
Dolly's husband is called Ralph Peel in this account but, according to both the 1841 and 1851 Census Returns, he was a Mariner named Cuthbart, born in 1781, and the couple lived at addresses that certainly sound apt for smugglers – Ropery Stairs and Lookham Stairs respectively – neither of which exist in modern South Shields. Cuthbart died in 1856 and Dolly a year later.

As to the suggestion that Dolly nicked the cargo of Dove, the Marine Intelligence column of The  Newcastle Courant, 25 November 1836 doesn't mention it – or maybe the lesser part not recovered was Dolly's doings.
"The Dove, Adamson, of Sunderland from St Petersburg with hemp and tallow bound to London sprung a leak at sea and endeavouring to get into this port on Sunday last, got upon the Herd Sand at the entrance to Shields Harbour. The crew, with a great part of the cargo, is saved."
Another Courant report from June 1849, lists Dolly attending court as the aggrieved party in an assault by one Elizabeth Morton, “an old offender”, in which Dolly was awarded the princely sum of five shillings plus costs. Two fighting fishwives – one of whom was nortorious for taking on the pressgangers - was probably something to steer well clear of.

Why she was a “great favourite” of the local MP isn't detailed and a little puzzling, even if politicians in those days could be less guarded about their friendships than modern ones.
Maybe she supplied him with favours in the way of cheap baccy and booze as, judging from her gummy photograph from the Newcastle Libraries collection, her attractions were unlikely to be of the more salacious variety!
If anyone reading this knows whether Dolly's poetry still exists and/or where it may be found, please contact me.