John Paul Jones

Whitehaven after the attack of 1778

John Paul the Traitor

First thing in the morning the Magistrates and local worthies gathered in Haile’s coffee shop and instructed that boats were despatched to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, the Magistrates of Belfast and the Commanders of Naval ships to warn them. Messengers on horseback were sent to the militia at Penrith, the Lords of the Admiralty and the towns of Glasgow and Liverpool.

David Freeman the Irishman from John Paul Jones’s crew who had alerted the town was questioned at about 8 o’clock in the morning. The fact emerged that the leader was Jones and that he was probably the same John Paul who had served his apprenticeship in Whitehaven aboard the Friendship. Some authors have stated that Jones hated Whitehaven as the people thought of him as a murderer because of the Mungo Maxwell affair. Contemporary reports don’t suggest this – after all, this had happened after he left Whitehaven, and whilst here he was just one junior sailor out of thousands over 10 years before. It is interesting that he had made a strong enough impression that he was still known to people. However, a letter from Kirkcudbright arrived a few days later about the attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk and they had a much worse opinion of him.

"there is great reason to believe that this John Paul Jones is the same person with a John Paul who commanded a brig in the West India trade, belonging to Kirkcudbright, in the years 1769 and 1770, a native of this S[t]ewartry, and the greatest miscreant under the canopy of heaven; the more dangerous indeed because he is a villain of abilities. He has committed two or three murders, for one of which he narrowly escaped the gallows in the West Indies."

John Paul Jones’s bungled attempt to set light to shipping caused a surprising amount of alarm in Whitehaven and possibly even more in the rest of the country where miss-reporting, and exaggeration in the telling of tales turned Jones into a piratical monster.

Hussar Pursues Ranger

At 10 o’clock the following morning, undaunted by his previous encounter, the brave Captain Gurley of Hussar along with Lieutenant Hollingworth of the militia set out in pursuit to try and keep track of John Paul Jones. By this time Ranger had already made it to the mouth of Kirkcudbright bay. Two hours later Gurley spotted Ranger sailing north-west. Unbeknown to them John Paul Jones had already completed his raid on the Earl of Selkirk’s seat on St. Mary’s Isle. Hussar gave chase in the N.N.E. wind until they were within 2-3 miles of their quarry. There they passed a boat and called to it to sail to Kirkcudbright to warn the coast. By late afternoon within 3 miles of Borough Head Ranger appeared to know she was being chased and started to tack and repeatedly change direction until about 7 o’clock when she put up full sail and headed W.S.W. By 9:30pm, after 2 hours in the dark, Capt. Gurley lost sight of his foe and fearful that she may have doubled back to attack Whitehaven again, headed for home. He sailed to Kirkcudbright the following day and brought back news of the raid on St. Mary’s Isle.

Whitehaven ship Patience taken

The following day John Paul Jones and the Ranger captured H.M.S. Drake. Three of the injured were from Workington and had been forced into service by the press gang only days before. William Davis lost a leg and an arm, Thomas Morgan wounded in the arm and John Kay lost a finger.

The next day, 25th April, his crew was preparing Drake for the sail to France off the coast of County Down. A 300-ton Brig sailing from Whitehaven to Norway called the Patience, Capt. Moore, sailed so close they couldn’t resist taking her as well. The ship and Captain were taken to Brest in France where he and George Jefferson were held prisoner.

Capt. Gurley sailed to Belfast to get news about the Drake in the company of Capt. Perry and Capt. Sharpe - they hoped to bring back more intelligence about Ranger’s whereabouts.

The Thetis a British navy warship was sent out from Glasgow to find Jones and was piloted by Captain Fisher of the Favourite, a Whitehaven vessel, and seven seamen of this port joined the crew. (Another Capt. Fisher of Whitehaven, master of the Friendship of Liverpool, later took the American privateer Gen. Gates.)

Whitehaven Defends Itself

Whitehaven took practical steps to improve its defences. Some two hundred sailors and shipbuilders formed in the space of an hour companies to man the batteries. Also a company of gentlemen volunteers was created for protection of the town. Unlike today, where all defence costs and decisions are met by the central government, people had their own militias commanded by the eminent men and rich landowners such as the Lowthers. The people of Whitehaven had to defend their own harbour. A committee was formed and a subscription started to pay for defences. Most people in the town contributed and about 900 pounds was collected. Immediately they erected two guns on the North wall. A despatch had been sent to Penrith on the Thursday and 3 companies of militia led by Captains Cooper, Barnes and Reed were sent to Whitehaven – setting off at 4 in the afternoon they marched through the night to arrive on Friday at noon.

militia on exercise

A re-enactment of 18th century militia seen at Cockermouth across the Derwent from Wordsworth house.

The following week it was reported that there were 4 companies of militia in Whitehaven and that all the spiked guns had been cleared. At the time of the raid there had been just two batteries – The old fort and the half-moon battery to the West on the shore. John Paul Jones claimed to have spiked 30 guns. A month later a 3rd battery was constructed on the North shore. By September the number of batteries had risen to 6 with the number of guns up to 98 and command given to Colonel Moore of the Westmoreland Militia. A new battery was also created at Workington.

The local magistrates ordered any strangers in town to be detained and questioned. Also, immediately after the raid, officers patrolled the town at night and anyone found without good reason for being out was thrown in the lockup. This led to embarrassment for all concerned when a well-known local gentleman was arrested as a spy whilst taking a moonlight walk to inspect the defences. At a time when the press was respectable they refrained from publishing his name, although it seems that everyone knew who he was. Similarly in May a ship arriving at night had fired a signal gun - the entire town had woken and the harbour was surrounded by armed troops of the Cumberland and Westmoreland Militia.

A rumour also went round that a letter had been delivered to the Grapes Inn on Marlborough Street addressed to John Paul Jones care of Sarah Alkin. In order to protect her and preserve public order two magistrates Henry Ellison, and William Hicks took and advertisement out in the Chronicle to say that they had interviewed the letter carrier John Birkhead who had told them the rumour was completely false.

The Westmorland militia were moved south along the coast to protect St. Bees and Ravenglass. The Cumberland Militia, whose barracks were here, soon left for Sunderland as fears grew of a French attack on that coast. To replace them 280 strong battalion of the Royal Denbighshire militia came from Wales via Chester. They had their headquarters in Whitehaven but garrisoned one company at Maryport and two at Workington. A ball was organised by the militias for officers and the local ladies with a military band providing the music at the assembly rooms.

More Whitehaven ships were lost to American privateers and many refitted as American warships such as the Lonsdale, which became the Bostonian. As the war progressed many Whitehaven vessels themselves gained letters of marque and became privateers, including Daniel Brocklebank’s ship the Castor. With many ships armed for this profession and the massive increase in defences and militia, John Paul Jones’s plan to make another landing at Whitehaven with a French force would probably have been disastrous.

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W&WL 2007