The need for a regular mail service to Spain led, in 1688, to the setting up of a service, first to Corunna then to the West Indies, America and Lisbon. Falmouth, being a natural deep-water port, lent itself well to having the service based there. Ships of 150 to 200 tons were hired under contract, their officers and crew being paid by the post office. During the early part of the 19th century, it was the practice of packet crews to engage in private trading to supplement their wages, a custom frowned on by the post office.
As early as 1800, an attempt was made to stop these “little adventures” by forbidding crews on packets trading with the West Indies and America to take any private goods on board. Those on the Lisbon route were, for some unexplained reason, exempt and, not unnaturally, there was a great feeling of injustice. The underlying problem lay in the fact that the seamen considered their basic wage, around £1 and 4s per month, insufficient for their families to live on.
Early in 1810, a further order was issued forbidding the carriage of private goods on any packet and, to enforce this, customs officers were authorised to board and search the ships before they left Falmouth. This was not designed to win friends, and the men’s resentment came to a head on August 15th when a great number of them marched to the Bells Court offices of Mr Saverland, the post office agent. Two men selected from each ship drew up a letter stating their case, asking for an increase in wages. Mr. Saverland, who was not unsympathetic to the men’s cause, accepted the letter and sent it on to the postmaster general. With typical bureaucratic efficiency, a reply was not received until October, and when it eventually arrived the answer was not particularly helpful. The postmaster general, in effect, washed his hands of the matter. Any question of an increase in wages, he said, was one for the captain to resolve. A yearly payment was made for the hire of the vessels and it was up to them how much they paid their crews. They were also reminded that packet crews were paid a lot more than seamen in the Royal Navy and were immune from press-gangs.
This reply did nothing to ease the men’s feelings and, on 24th October, their patience finally snapped.
Two packets, the Duke of Malborough and the Prince Aldolphus, were due to sail for Lisbon and the Mediterranean. At the last minute, a customs officer went on board both ships and broke open the crew’s chests, seizing goods which he claimed were for private trade. The crew of the Aldolphus refused to sail, despite Mr. Saverland reminding them that by taking this action they had forfeited their right to protection from being pressed. They took no notice, and the senior naval officer at Falmouth, Captain Slade agreed to impress the crew of the Aldolphus, hoping this would influence those on the Duke of Marlborough. The strategy did not work, and the result was that both crews were impressed, and the two packets eventually sailing with naval ratings.
A state of open mutiny now existed, and with tension heightening, a group of seamen marched on the agent’s office demanding the release of their colleagues. Until this was done, they said, they would not serve on their ships. Despite his sympathy with the crews, Mr. Saverland decided that no concessions could possibly be made while they were in a state of open revolt. With a detachment of the local garrison called out for protection, a magistrate was hastily summoned to Bells Court to read the Riot Act. The seamen, their point made, dispersed cheering loudly. On 27th October, the town crier went around the streets of Flushing, where most of the men lived, calling them to a meeting at the Seven Stars public house. A collection was taken and two men, John Parker and Richard Pascoe, both known to be troublemakers, set off on the morning mail coach for London to state their case to the postmaster general.
Once the naval authorities heard of the meeting, they decided that the revolt would probably collapse if the ringleaders could be arrested. A boat crew was quickly mustered which rowed to Mylor creek and marched over the hill to Flushing. It was a wasted exercise; by the time they reached the Seven Stars their quarry was long gone.
Arguments were now breaking out within the ranks of officialdom over the handling of the affair. Mr. Saverland complained that local magistrates did not really want to arrest the men as it was obvious that the people of Falmouth were sympathetic to their cause.
On 29th the men’s delegates arrived in London. The post office representative, Mr. Freeling, was having no truck with them and before they could say anything, they were handed over to the city marshal with the instruction that they should be impressed. Ironically, the law was now to come to their assistance. The Lord Mayor decided that, as they had not committed any offence within the boundaries of the city of London, no action could legally be taken against them. Undeterred, the post office, determined that the two men should be made an example of, ordered them to be held in custody pending further investigation. Three days later, when it was obvious that no crime had been committed, they were set free.
Back in Falmouth rumours, put about by Mr. Saverland, were circulating that if the riots did not stop, the packets would be taken from the port. He had no knowledge of such a plan, but its potential seriousness seemed to work. After a meeting on the 30th October some of the men returned to their ships and it appeared that the situation was beginning to calm down. The men’s main worry now was being pressed, but when posters were put up assuring that this would not happen, the majority of them soon returned on board.
Unknown to Mr. Saverland their Lordships had had the same idea as he and, despite the fact that by November 2nd all the crews were back on their ships, the six packets based at Falmouth sailed under escort to Plymouth. There they berthed in the Hamoaze and a temporary office set up for the agent at the Fountain Inn. Removal of the packets spelt financial ruin for Falmouth and efforts were immediately made to reverse the decision. All 49 Cornish M.P.s were lobbied and a deputation, headed by the mayor, went to London to plead their case, all to no avail.
It was not long, however, before the authorities themselves realised that Plymouth was not a suitable place for the ships. There were frequent delays in sailing and accidents often occurred to vessels at their moorings. Embarrassingly, on more than one occasion, packets had to put into Falmouth to shelter from bad weather. By the end of the year the post office was finally convinced that they had made a serious mistake, and in January 1811, orders were issued to send the ships back to Falmouth.
So ended a particularly unpleasant period in the town’s history. Ironically, during the dispute, the post office had actually given some thought to legalising private trade. The catch was that a portion of the profits had to be paid to them.