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   Chapter 4 -How Judgment was Passed on the Dorset Smugglers

A Lad of Grit: A Story of Adventure on Land and Sea in Restoration Times By Percy F. Westerman Characters: 15567

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:02

I soon accustomed myself to my new home. My Uncle George treated me with every consideration--a fact that ill-disposed persons would have attributed to the legacy left him under my father's will. Though far from being in needy circumstances--receiving as Clerk of the Survey at the dockyard a salary of £50, paid with more or less irregularity--it was evident that his brother-in-law's bounty did not come amiss.

I have already given a description of my uncle. His wife, my father's sister, was tall, sparely built, and somewhat inclined to verbosity. It did not take me long to ascertain that the pair were ill-assorted, and when on certain occasions their dispute waxed hot, my uncle was invariably driven from the house by the unrestrained reproaches of his spouse.

They had but two children, Maurice, a lad a year older than myself, and Mercy, a child of nine years. I was soon on capital terms with both, though, boylike, I treated Mercy with that sort of contempt that most boys of my age show their female relations.

I lost little time in telling my uncle the story of my adventures on the road, and, happening to mention the name of Middleton, he exclaimed:

"Why, lad, you've made a good friend. 'Tis none other than Colonel Thomas Middleton, lately appointed commissioner of this dockyard, and he who rode with him is Admiral Montague, who comes to take the fleet to Holland."

This, then, was the gallant Montague, a man who, under the Commonwealth, had earned renown when fighting with Blake the fleets of Holland and of Spain, and whose prompt action in co-operating with Monk and taking command of the fleet sent to fetch the king from Holland did much to earn the royal gratitude and favour.

On the morrow following my arrival I, in company with my cousin Maurice, was taken by my uncle to the dockyard.

Here all was activity and noise. Most of the fleet--amongst which were pointed out to me the Yarmouth, Swiftsure, London, and Ruby--lay at anchor at some distance from the wharves, while close alongside were the Naseby, her name being changed to the Royal Charles, and the Montague.

There was but one dry dock, and in it lay the Providence; and on a slip, being nearly fit for launching, stood a large ship of seventy-six guns, her name having but recently been changed to the Royal Oak.

While we were looking on with astonishment at this busy scene, a short, thick-set man, whose portly body was ill supported by a pair of bandy legs, came towards the place where we stood. He wore a blue uniform, with three-cornered hat, and carried at his side a sword that trailed behind him as he walked, and even threatened to become entangled between his legs.

"Ha! Captain Duce of the Lizard! Stand aside, boys, while I have speech with him."

The captain was in a rage.

"A pretty pass! Here lie I ready to weigh and make sail, but ne'er a loaf of bread aboard!"

"I cannot help you, Captain," replied my uncle. "I can only refer you to the Commissioner."

"Hang the Commissioner!" roared the irate officer. "First I am directed to apply to him; he sends me to you; you thereupon give me cold comfort by sending me again to the Commissioner. How can I take my ship to sea lacking bread and flour? Ah! Here, sirrah!" he broke off, noticing a man passing by. "Here, sirrah! You're the person I want."

The man addressed came across to where the captain and my uncle were debating. His calling was apparent, he being covered from head to foot with flour.

"Well, Hunt, how is it Captain Duce can get no supplies from you?"

The baker shook his head. "Over a thousand pounds are due to my partner and me," said he. "We were to be paid monthly, but have received nothing since September last. Verily, I am afraid to go abroad lest I am arrested by my creditors, whom I cannot pay, as the Navy Commissioners will not pay me!"

Without waiting to hear further, for complaints of arrears of payment were a common occurrence, Maurice and I stole away and wandered towards the slip where the Royal Oak was nearing completion.

A noble sight she made, this immense yellow-painted hull, with her double tier of gunports and her towering stern, richly ornamented with gilded quarter badges and richly carved galleries. Little did we know that a short seven years hence would see the ship, the pride of the king's navy, a battered and fire-swept wreck--but I anticipate.

In the midst of strange surroundings the time passed rapidly. Already the Restoration was an accomplished fact. Charles II was again at Whitehall "in the twelfth year of his reign", as the crown document has it. The gilded effigy of his sainted father was restored to its niche in the Square Tower at Portsmouth, where all persons passing were ordered to uncover. With few exceptions the townspeople welcomed the change, the whole place being given up to unrestrained merrymaking.

One morning in June I was called into our living-room, and found myself confronted by a gold-laced individual, who, drawing a paper from his pocket, read in a sonorous voice a summons for me to attend at the courthouse as a witness against Dick Swyre and Caleb Keeping, presented for committing a murderous attack upon divers of the king's subjects on the highway.

On the appointed day I attended the court, accompanied by my uncle. There were several cases dealt with before the one in which I had to give evidence, and, though it was in keeping with the times, the severity of most of the sentences struck me as being most barbarous.

One poor woman, privileged to take chips from the dockyard, had been apprehended in the act of stealing two iron bolts. Her punishment was that she "should return to the Gaol from whence she came, and there remain until Saturday next between the hours of Eleven and Twelve of the Clock in the forenoon, at which time she was to be brought to the public Whipping-post, and there receive Twenty Lashes with a Cat-of-Nine-Tails from the hands of the Common Beadle on her naked back till the same shall be bloody, and then return to the said Gaol and remain until her fees be paid!"

If this were fitting punishment for a petty theft, what, thought I, will be the corresponding penalty for these two highwaymen?

Presently Dick Swyre and Caleb Keeping were placed in the dock. The first-named was the bearded ruffian who had so nearly settled my account in the valley near Petersfield, and now, knowing full well that his neck was already in the hangman's noose, his demeanour was one of sullen ferocity, and, though he was heavily manacled, his appearance was like that of a savage beast awaiting its opportunity to spring.

The other, Keeping, did not appear to be of the same debased kind as his companion, though his matted red hair and sunburnt face and arms betokened a villain whose existence had been of an out-door kind. There was a look of haunting terror in his face that turned the bronze of his complexion into a pale-yellowish hue, while it could be seen that he had great difficulty in keeping his limbs under control.

I was the first witness called, and on concluding my evidence, which dealt solely with the first prisoner, Swyre leant across the front of the dock, raised his fettered hands, and with a terrible oath poured out the most frightful imprecations against me, vowing that sooner or later his mates would doubly avenge themselves on my miserable carcass, till at length, by dint of blows liberally bestowed by his custodians, he was restrained, though his low cursing and threats were distinctly audible during the rest of the trial.

Several of the soldiers of Colonel Middleton's party, including Sergeant Sedgewyke, having given evidence, it was thought that the case for the prosecution was concluded

, but a shiver of excitement ran through the court when an order was given: "Call Joseph Hawkes".

The cry was taken up by the usher and repeated thrice ere there hobbled into the well of the court an object that could scarce lay claim to being called a man. Yet there was no mistaking the fact that Hawkes was or had been a sailor, for a strong odour of tar, which was a pleasant relief to the fetid atmosphere of the crowded court, hovered around him like a cloud. He was about fifty years of age, wizened and bent. His face, burnt by exposure to all weathers, was of a deep mahogany hue. One eye was covered with a patch, the other appeared to be fixed in its socket, inasmuch as whenever he looked he had to turn his head straight in that direction. A mass of lank hair, terminating in a greasy pigtail, covered his head.

His left arm was missing, the empty sleeve being fastened to his coat; and, as if these deficiencies were not enough, his left leg had been cut off at the knee joint, and was replaced by a wooden stump. The fingers of his right hand were dried like a mummy's, the nails being blackened with hard work at sea and the continual use of tobacco, and I noticed that one of his fingers was also missing.

Having been administered the oath, his examination commenced.

"You are Joseph Hawkes?"

"Yes, your Honour."

"Do you know either of the prisoners?"

"Yes, saving your presence, that red-haired villain yonder!"

"Now, sirrah," exclaimed the prosecuting lawyer, addressing Caleb Keeping, "methinks you know this witness!"

But the prisoner replied not, except to shake his head sheepishly.

"Proceed with your evidence, Master Hawkes."

The man hitched at his nether garments, pulled his forelock, and without further delay plunged into his story, which, stripped of its peculiarities of dialect, was as follows:--

"Two years ago last May I shipped as mate of the bark Speedie, of Poole, outward bound for the Tagus. The same night as we cleared Poole harbour we were overtaken by a gale from the south'ard, and soon got into difficulties close to the Purbeck coast. Seven times did we 'bout ship to try and claw off the shore, but at daybreak we struck close to Anvil Point."

Here the younger prisoner began to show signs of terrified interest--a fact that most of those present were not slow to note.

"The masts went by the board, our boats were carried away, and the old Speedie began to break up. One by one the crew were swept overboard, and at last a heavy sea took me, and I remember fighting for life in the waves till I lost consciousness.

"When I came to I was lying on a flat ledge or platform of rock with the hot sun streaming down on me. The gale had now abated, but there were plenty of signs of its results. Numbers of bales and barrels, that had formed our cargo, were being collected on the platform by a number of villainous-looking, half-naked men. A slight tingling pain in my hand made me look down, and I saw that one of my fingers had been cut off, so that one of the wretches could steal a paltry silver ring I was wearing.

"Just then I heard a shout, and, keeping perfectly still, I looked under my half-closed eyelids and saw two of the wreckers dragging a body up the rocks. It was the master of the Speedie, poor old John Cartridge of Hamworthy. The wretches began to hack his fingers off, as they had done mine, and even tore a pair of ear-rings forcibly from his ears. Old John wasn't dead, for this treatment revived him. Seeing this, one of the men, who is none other than that red-haired devil yonder, plunged a knife into his back and toppled his body into the sea."

At this the younger prisoner yelled in a terror-stricken voice: "No, no! You are mistaken. 'Twill be my brother as done it. 'Twas not I."

"Liar!" retorted the old seaman. "I'll prove it. Let your men bare his back, good sir, and if he hath not the sign of the Jolly Roger tattooed there, I'll take back my word."

The justice nodded his assent, and the tip-staves proceeded to remove the clothing from the prisoner's back. Sure enough, there was a death's-head and cross-bones indelibly impressed there.

"Continue your evidence, Master Hawkes."

"Well, your Honour, as I was a-saying, after they had rid themselves of the master's body, the wretches began to carry their plunder into a cave that opened from the back of the flat rock. Presently one of them stops by me. 'What shall us do with 'e?' he shouts. I kept very still, feigning death, yet expecting every moment to have a knife betwixt my ribs. 'Is 'e done with?' asked another. 'Then overboard with 'im.' Next minute I felt myself being dragged across the platform and pushed off the edge. I fell about a score of feet, striking the water with a heavy splash. When I came to the top I struck out, and found myself close to a shelf of rock which the overhanging ledge hid from the villains above. Here I remained till the coast was clear, then I scrambled up, in spite of my wounds, and made my way across some downs till I met with a kindly farmer, who took me to Wareham.

"When I reported the matter to the authorities a body of men were sent from Wareham and Poole; but though they discovered the caves, not a trace of the wreckers, their spoils, or the remains of the Speedie was to be found."

The rest of the evidence was soon concluded, proving without doubt that both men were members of a notorious band of Dorset smugglers, whose misdeeds had caused the utmost consternation for years past; and the case was settled by sending both prisoners to the assizes at Winchester.

It is unnecessary to dwell upon the account of my journey to Winton to repeat my evidence; but on the return journey (having heard both men sentenced to death), as we were passing through a wood between Twyford and Waltham, a pistol was fired at our coach, the ball shattering the glass and passing close to my uncle's head.

This outrage was put down to the highwaymen of Waltham Chase; but in my own mind I attributed it to the vengeance of the smugglers' gang, which surmise I afterwards found was correct.

The two men suffered the extreme penalty of the law. I was taken to see them gibbeted on Southsea beach. Such occasions are invariably regarded as a kind of holiday, and thousands of townsfolk and people from the surrounding country came to see the sentence carried out.

Caleb Keeping died like an arrant coward, whining like a whipped cur as the executioner bound him. Already half-dead with fear, he submitted to being compelled to mount the ladder, whence he was thrown violently, and in a few moments all was over. But with Dick Swyre it was different. Heedless of death, and accustomed to scenes of violence, he strove to the last, cursing the crowd and endeavouring to burst his bonds.

While most of the onlookers jeered, it was evident that some of his friends were present, and at one time it looked as if a rescue was about to be attempted; but the soldiers kept back the press, and in spite of his violent struggles the prisoner was brought underneath the gallows, where a rope was deftly passed round his neck. Still cursing and struggling, the wretch was hoisted, and five minutes elapsed ere his last convulsive motions ceased.

Though the crowd looked upon this incident as a diversion, to me it seemed otherwise. True, two deep-dyed criminals had got their deserts; but I felt that my share in the affair had gained me many unknown enemies. This impression grew after an attempt had been made to burn my uncle's house, and I had been deliberately pushed from the quayside into the Camber by a seaman; and these incidents so preyed upon my mind that I was unfeignedly glad when I was asked if I should like to go to sea.

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