‘serious spirit of insubordination’
On October 24, 1810, customs officers boarded the two Falmouth packets Prince Adolphus and Duke of Marlborough, which were about to leave port for the Mediterranean and Lisbon. They broke open the chests of the seamen, confiscating any ‘private ventures’ that they discovered. Enraged, the two crews refused to put to sea. Thus began what became known as the Falmouth Mutiny. However, there was more to it than a suppression of illegal trading, even though the Post Office and Government claimed to have acted because, at a time of war, the presence of goods on board the packets made them more tempting targets for enemy ships and privateers. In contrast, the packet crews felt that this was merely an excuse for a heavy-handed crackdown by the authorities in response to growing restlessness over their rates of pay.
Earlier, in the summer of 1810, packet crews had assembled at the Post Office Agent’s office in Falmouth and presented a demand for higher pay to be forwarded to the Post Office headquarters in London. Their pay had been agreed a decade earlier, but wartime inflation had eaten into its value …
Up to this point the men’s demands had been couched in a respectful and moderate tone and everything had been peaceable. The action of the customs officers in curtailing the men’s supplementary income abruptly changed this. For, not content with merely confiscating their ventures, 13 men from each of the two packet boats that had refused to set sail were forcibly pressed into the Navy, ignoring their traditional exemption. Not too pleased by this, to say the least, seamen from all the packets met the following day. They demanded the release of the pressed men and reaffirmed their call for more pay, pledging not to put to sea until these demands were met. Alarmed, the Mayor was induced by the Post Office agent to read the Riot Act, even though there appears to have been no actual riot. The men dispersed, calling a meeting at the Seven Stars Inn, across the river at Flushing, to formulate their demands and elect delegates to represent them.
On hearing of this meeting, the Royal Navy dispatched a crew in secrecy to Mylor in order to cross the neck of land to Flushing and arrest the ringleaders. By the time they arrived however, the birds had flown and the Seven Stars was innocently empty of any plotting packet seamen. Either the packet crews’ intelligence had been spot on or, as the Post Office agent and Navy suspected, they’d been tipped off by sympathisers among Falmouth’s elite. Lurid and inaccurate reports soon began circulating in the London newspapers. The Times reported a ‘civil disturbance’ so ‘alarming that it was found necessary to call in the civil power, and subsequently the military. The Cornish miners came down in great numbers’ while several had been wounded during the ‘tumult’. Three months later, the same paper admitted that rumours of involvement of the miners and reports of riots by the townsfolk were ‘wholly unfounded’ but failed to remind its readers of its own part in spreading the fake news.
In the meantime, the packet crews had elected two delegates – John Parker and Richard Pascoe – to go to London and present the Post Office directly with their demands. At the same time rumours began to surface that the Government was thinking of moving the packet station from Falmouth. Panicked by this, a meeting of the town’s leading lights was hastily convened. It was decided to encourage the Post Office agent to promise any man returning to the packets that they would have the traditional protection from impressment. This he did, apart from six named ‘ringleaders’. Assured by this, the packet crews began to drift back to their boats.
However, it was too late. While tension was building at Falmouth, the authorities in London had seen their plans to deal with the two expected delegates frustrated. Far from listening to their demands, it had been determined to arrest the pair on their arrival. This the Lord Mayor of London did, but then discovered that he didn’t actually have the legal authority to do it. After a few days in jail, Parker and Pascoe were both released. It was claimed that Parker was an ‘American’, which may have meant he was from the States or that he had ‘American’ views of democracy, while Pascoe had the local nickname of ‘Sir Francis Burdett’, a prominent radical politician who called for parliamentary reform.
Stung by this failure, the Government then leant on the Post Office to remove the packet station from Falmouth, even though by now the men were back at work. This it did on November 6, two weeks after the ‘mutiny’ began. It gave as its reason the ‘serious spirit of insubordination’ at Falmouth and the ‘encouragement and support from the inhabitants’ for the packet crews. A lesson had to be learnt and the town punished, so the packets were moved to Plymouth. As it turned out, poorer and less suitable berthing facilities there combined with heartfelt pleas and assurances of loyalty from Falmouth made the stay at Plymouth fairly short-lived. By June of the following year the packets were safely back at Falmouth. By then too, falling prices were defusing the men’s demands for more pay.
(From Chapter 5 – ‘The Sea’ – of The Real World of Poldark, Cornwall 1783-1820)