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|Orkney Archive reference D2/22/20|
Billy Manson left Ackworth School, Yorkshire, in April 1791, aged 15 and came north to his father’s home in Kirkwall, Orkney. Ackworth was, still is, a Society of Friends, a Quaker, boarding school.
Billy’s father was Captain William Manson, sea captain, trader, ultimately Comptroller of Customs at Kirkwall and co-founder of the settlement of Friendsborough in Georgia, USA. His mother was Dinah Jackson from Whitby. She was William’s first wife, and she disappeared in Georgia sometime after February 1780 when she and William parted company, leaving Billy and his sister Elizabeth with their father, in Georgia. Billy had been born on-board his father’s ship, the Georgia Packet, in December 1775, as his parents, his sister and 100 settlers arrived in Savannah from a 14 week crossing of the Atlantic from Britain. Many adventures later, William returned to Orkney and remarried, in 1787. His second wife was Elizabeth Balfour, sister of John, Thomas and David Balfour, and in marrying her, William probably made the best bargain of his life, finding himself a fine wife and an active and lucrative role in the Balfour family’s burgeoning estates and business interests.
The Mansons, particularly Captain William, figure highly amongst Orkney Archives’ Balfour Papers. There are letters from the Captain, ledgers and financial documentation from his father’s business, from his own business, letters to and from all of Captain William’s siblings, his mother and much else.
And in amongst it all, in bundle D2/22/20, is a letter dated September 8th 1792, from Kirkwall, to an unknown person, written possibly by Billy’s stepmother, Elizabeth. It is a list of what is to go into a chest for W Manson and it becomes clear that this is a list of what a young man i.e. Billy, will need, going to sea for the first time.
Firstly, a list of clothing to be put into the chest, presumably from his current wardrobe, being:
8 white shirts and 6 check shirts
6 pair linen, 6 pair woollen and 1 pair cotton stockings
1 green great coat, 1 brown coat
3 waistcoats and 3 pairs breeches
3 pair shoes and 1 pair buckles
2 silk handkerchiefs and 2 cravats
3 pair worsted mittens, and
3 pocket handkerchiefs
I’m curious about the 12 shirts and how the white are to be successfully laundered, versus the check ones. White shirts suggest smart formality and their preponderance suggests an officer rather than a seaman. Also why 13 pair of stockings - and the specific need for 1 pair of cotton stockings? Why 2 coats of different colours? Were they also of different materials, for different climates? 2 silk handkerchiefs and 2 cravats – also of silk? For land-based or sea-based events?
The following page of the letter then states that further items are to be purchased for Billy at London (does this mean, once he gets there from Kirkwall?), which
‘may be had cheapest & most suitable at a slop shop in Wapping’
A slop shop in Wapping? A shop where ready-made clothing was sold, and in Wapping because it was hard on the River Thames and part of London’s docklands. Young Billy’s uncle Thomas was settled in London and it is probable Billy was with his uncle and his family, pending his departure.
The list of what’s to be bought at the slop ship is headed by more clothing:
2 outside duffle jackets, lined in the body and sleeves with blue flannel and [costing]about 10 to 12 shillings each, with horn buttons - duffle in the 18th Century is about the type of fabric, a heavy-duty woollen flannel, rather than the design of the garment. Horn buttons would have been harder-wearing than wooden.
2 pair canvas long trousers about 2 shillings and sixpence to 3 shillings – canvas would be immensely hard-wearing, and note the fact that they must be long trousers, not knee-length, or any other short trousers.
1 pair blue baize trousers, at 5 shillings – baize being coarse, woollen cloth.
3 pair woollen drawers at 2 shillings to 2 shillings and sixpence i.e. undergarments worn next to the skin. Billy has 12 shirts but only 3 pairs of drawers. It’s an imbalance not to be dwelt on, perhaps.
2 under waistcoats with sleeves, unlined with horn buttons at 5 to 6 shillings – think about the environment Billy is setting out into. The letter is written in September so we can surmise an autumn or early winter departure, from London, out onto a cold, cold Atlantic ocean where layers of warm clothing will be vital.
The list then moves onto miscellaneous items:
I hammock bed of flock, 2 blankets and a rug – not only did a hammock take up least space in the confined world of 18th century ships, but it was a safe place for a sailor to sleep. The hammock moved in rhythm with the ship and held in the sailor, much preferable to being flung about in a bunk.
1 pair block tin buckles with brass chapes and tongues- as 2 buckles are required, it seems probable they are for footwear. Block tin is solid tin, as opposed to tinplate, therefore sturdy, as is the brass from which the chapes and tongues are to be made. And what of the chapes and tongues? Chapes are the plates by which the buckle is attached to the shoe and the tongue is the pin of the buckle.
2 sailors’ frocks of canvas to wear over all – the frock worn by a sailor was a heavy duty, waist length tunic, presumably as protection from weather and dirt. No Gore-Tex for Billy and his companions!
1 French Grammar and Dictionary to be got second hand, and any other small books he may chuse – is this the first clue as to where Billy is heading? His father and Uncle Thomas both had connections to the Caribbean sugar trade, and France had its share of the islands of the Caribbean, which Billy might visit if he too joined that trade. Or - the French Revolution of 1789 was the reason for war across Europe by 1792. Britain was neutral until 1793, but the storm was brewing and perhaps understanding French might be useful for a naval man – prizes to be captured on the high seas, perhaps?
And finally, one navigation book of Hamilton Moor’s that has all the tables used in keeping a ship’s way at sea etc – John Hamilton Moor was Edinburgh born and his The New Practical Navigator and Daily Assistant was published in 1772. Again, an indication that Billy is officer material, to be trained to command and take charge, as his father had done.
The letter’s author believes it is needless to buy a quadrant for him for the 1st voyage, nor sea charts. But notes that if Billy meets up with John Paterson (who was John Paterson?), he should take Paterson’s advice on what it is necessary to have for this first trip.
Finally, the writer states
N.B. His things must be very easy for him as sea clothes are very apt to shrink and get past use in a little time- presumably easy is used in the sense of comfortable and roomy.
There is very little known about young Billy’s sea-going career. He had been born at sea, he had crossed the Atlantic before he was 10 years old, returning from America to Britain, his father was a sea-going man and his London and Orkney families lived by trade which was dependent on the sea: all in all, no surprise then that he goes to sea, aged 16. It may be that more information lies un-catalogued in the Manson letters in the Balfour papers - we don’t know the ships he sailed on; whether he was Royal Navy or Merchant Navy, but probably the latter given his father’s and uncle’s connections.
What we do know, from a sad, torn and tattered little list of family deaths, written up perhaps by his step-mother, is that Billy died in June 1795, of yellow fever in Antigua. He was 20 years old.
Yellow fever is a nasty, tropical virus spread by infected mosquitos. Inoculation helps nowadays and immunity also builds but Billy didn’t benefit from either in 1795. Antigua is one of the West Indies, and was an important British naval base from the 1660s onwards. Was he nursed at the naval hospital at English Harbour, or were its beds reserved for Royal Navy men? Did he die, as he was born, on board ship? And does he have a burial place in Antigua?
A short life, filled with adventure and separation – the loss of his mother, his time at Ackworth, and then away to sea, far from father, step-mother, sister and all the rest. Did he mind? A life lived from sea-chests ………
And a post-script: in April 2018 an Orkney family visited Antigua, made contact with the local Archive
http://www.antiguanationalarchives.org/. There was no immediate trace of Billy there, but they will keep looking – he was one of hundreds, if not thousands of seamen who died in the Caribbean – and so the candle lit for Billy by uncovering the inventory of his sea-chest, will keep burning and we’ll also keep looking for more information in the Balfour papers