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The Atholl Papers: Captain Dow and the Dutch Dogger

Posted on 24.11.2021

Smuggling! If there was one thing that the Isle of Man was famous for in the eighteenth century, it was its major role as an entrepôt (think modern-day ‘fulfilment centre’) that serviced the illicit trade throughout the British Isles. There were numerous reasons why the island and its merchants, native and foreign, were able to become such key players in this trade. The isle’s geographical position in the Irish Sea and the relatively short sailing distances to the shores of England, Ireland and Scotland are an obvious one. Advancements in sailing technology at the end of the seventeenth century also played their part. But, perhaps the most important of them all, were the unique privileges held by the Lord of Man, with one in particular. The royal writ, and therefore the Commissioners of the Customs’ royal patent, did not extend to the Isle of Man, which placed it outside of the British government’s jurisdiction until the revestment of 1765. However, I must qualify that remark by stating there was a King’s Customs Officer on the island before the revestment, though I do not intend to go into detail on the authority they held, which tended to differ depending on the inclinations of each Lord of Man and their willingness to co-operate. Nevertheless, because in theory the Commissioners of the Customs’ authority did not extend to the isle, the Lord of Man was free to levy a small amount of duty on incoming goods, disregard things like the East India Company’s monopoly over the shipping of its wares to the British Isles, and take no responsibility for where goods went once they left the island’s shores. At least, that seems to be the position the 2nd Duke of Atholl took on the matter (see below).

The running trade’s impact on the British revenue and attempts to combat it, coupled with either ignorance of or disregard for the Lord of Man’s privileges on the island and its surrounding waters, inevitably led to conflict between the Isle of Man and its neighbours. In the records of the 2nd Duke of Atholl, this manifests itself in the seizures and other actions taken by English and Irish revenue cruisers, which were often regarded as acts of piracy by the Manx authorities, and led to a number of confrontations. There is too much in the 2nd Duke’s papers to be covered in one blog, so I intend to focus on the exploits of just one commander, and a saucy fellow he was too: Captain George Dow of the Whitehaven-based cruiser, Sincerity.

Letter from Samuel Martin, Secretary to the Lords of the Treasury, to the Duke of Atholl, 11 July 1758 (AP X14-16), with an accompanying copy of a memorial from the Commissioners of the Customs (AP X14-15) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Copy letter from the Duke of Atholl to the Lords of the Treasury, 3 December 1758 (AP X14-32) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Captain Dow had been commander of Sincerity since 1746, but he does not appear to have come to the attention of the Manx officials until August 1749, when he committed what can only be described as an act of chutzpah, in utter defiance of the Manx authorities. Essentially, one of his crewmen was arrested in Peel for an outstanding debt and detained at its castle. Dow, however, was having none of it, and broke out his crewman under the pretence of him and his men bringing their fellow swabbie some food and drink. Apparently, this was done under the noses of Peel Castle’s guard and porter, and it was not until the next day that his absence was noticed. Once the alarm was raised, the Deputy Searcher of Peel, Captain Murray, went to retrieve the absconded sailor from Dow, but he in turn refused to hand him over on the grounds that crews of revenue cruisers were not liable to be arrested for debt, or so he claimed. Sadly, I have not found any further information on this incident, which leads me to believe that Dow suffered no repercussions for his actions from either British or Manx authorities (provided the account is true, which is found in the record AP X18-32).

In smuggling-related literature, Captain Dow is best known for several incidents that took place at the towns of Douglas and Ramsey, on 26th June 1750. Records from the Atholl Papers and the wider holdings of the Manx Museum help to flesh-out details of that day, along with providing perspectives from the Manx officials, particularly Captain Paul Bridson (Commander of Douglas Fort), Captain Mathias Christian (Commander of Ramsey Fort), and Daniel Mylrea the Elder (Deemster and Deputy Governor). The papers also document a number of brazen acts by Dow in the months following that day, which illustrated his continued disregard for the Manx authorities and the Duke of Atholl’s privileges as the Lord of Man.

The information of Hugh Read, Liber Scaccar 1750 [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Descriptions of what transpired that day differ depending on which account you read, but a general overview of the events can be given. On the morning of 26th June, the Sincerity was lying off Douglas when it came upon a known Irish smuggling wherry making its way in to dock. The wherry, its crew and passengers were searched by Captain Dow and his men, and a sum of 25 guineas (£26 5s; around £3,062 in today’s money) was seized from the passenger, Hugh Read. Following the seizure, the wherry was eventually allowed to continue on its way and docked at Douglas, and Read and the wherry’s captain went to Castletown to petition the Deputy Governors. By noon, the Sincerity itself was docked at the quay in Douglas, and Dow was informed by the King’s Customs Officer, Peter Sidebotham, that a Dutch dogger, Hope, was expected and would be carrying prohibited goods due to be smuggled to the rest of the British Isles. When Hope arrived in the bay, Dow sent a boat with a number of his crew to board the Dutch vessel, but before the Sincerity itself could be cast-off, an altercation arose, and this is where accounts diverge. If you believe Dow, Captain Bridson appeared at the head of a mob, several hundred strong, at the behest of Daniel Mylrea and attacked the crew of Sincerity and also Peter Sidebotham, who was attempting to cast the vessel off, and the crew sent to board the Dutch dogger had to return to rescue their captain. If you believe Bridson, he came down to the quay and boarded Sincerity with Hugh Read’s returned petition, accompanied by a reference from the Deputy Governors, and attempted to deliver it to Dow, who locked himself inside his cabin and refused to receive it. According to Bridson, violence only erupted once he was thrown off the quarter deck to the deck below by Dow’s son. There is more to it on both accounts, but both agree that Dow ended up firing shots into the crowd that amassed at the quay, though luckily no one was killed, and Sincerity was eventually able to cast off.

A copy of Captain George Dow’s statement on the events of 26 June 1750 (AP 60 (2nd)-19) [Click images to enlarge & read.] 

Regardless of what happened at Douglas, Hope made its escape and went to Ramsey, where it grounded itself in an attempt to keep Sincerity at bay, which arrived in the evening. Once the tide was high enough, Captain Dow sent his son with 10 other crewmen on a boat to seize the Dutch dogger and its cargo. Accounts of what follows next once again differ. According to Dow, his son and crew seized the vessel, but were then met by Captain Christian with several boat loads of men from Ramsey, who along with 40 men from Douglas that had (somehow) secreted themselves on the dogger, overwhelmed Dow’s crew and took them prisoner, one being severely beaten in the process. Dow also reports that his captured crewmembers were taken ashore and put into a cellar or dungeon, while the Ramsey townsfolk ferried the Hope’s cargo on to land to be hidden. Christian refutes Dow’s accusations of rescuing a seized ship, stating he was requested by Hugh Read to arrest Dow, who had robbed him of 25 guineas. Therefore, he went to the Dutch vessel in a boat with six men carrying a number of old, unloaded muskets, and apprehended Dow’s crewmen without violence. Christian also dismisses the accusation that Dow’s men were put into a dungeon, once brought ashore, stating he took them to one of the best public houses in town and ‘ordered a bowl of punch and a good fire for them.’ As for being complicit in removing seized goods from Hope and hiding them onshore, Christian states he was aware of boats going back and forth to the dogger, but to his knowledge that was due to townsfolk venturing over to see what was happening, ‘out of curiosity’ (the twenty-first century cynic in me loves that part).

A copy of Captain Paul Bridson’s statement on the events of 26 June 1750 (AP X18-34) [Click images to enlarge & read.]

Following the events of the 26th June, Dow’s son and the other captured crewmen were taken to Castletown, though six would be released by 3rd July and returned to Sincerity, which was dangerously undermanned. Dow’s son and the remaining four men were left to appear at a hearing on 5th July concerning the theft of Read’s 25 guineas, where it was hoped by the Manx officials that Captain Dow himself would appear to either return the money or show proof that he had orders justifying his actions. Dow refused to do so, and did not appear at any other arranged hearings, deeming himself not answerable to the Manx authorities. There were also accusations that he and his detained men were delaying proceedings until Read’s money could be condemned by the British Treasury. Because of delays in resolving this matter, Dow’s men were kept imprisoned until February 1750/51, when they were finally released under directions from the British Treasury. It should be noted that until 6th July, Dow’s men had been free to walk the streets of Castletown unaccompanied, but according to John Quayle the Elder (Comptroller and Clerk of the Rolls), on the evening of 5th July, Dow’s son went to Derbyhaven and sent a message to his father, who was anchored in the bay, ‘to load his guns, prepare grenades’ (AP X12-41). This was taken as a signal to arrange an escape, and Dow’s men were placed into Castle Rushen until their release.

A lesser man (or perhaps a smarter one) might have laid low after what happened on 26th June and 5th July, especially if his son was imprisoned by his enemies. Captain Dow, however, had other ideas, which led to a confrontation with Captain Mathias Christian on 4th August. According to statements made by Christian and other individuals present, Dow sent an invitation for Christian to dine with him on-board Sincerity, which was docked at Ramsey, so they could talk and resolve the issues surrounding Hugh Read’s money and the imprisonment of his crew. Though Christian declined to attend the meal, he did agree to come aboard later, which he did at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon. Ushered into the ship’s cabin, Christian was given a glass of wine and after some ‘indifferent conversation’ they turned to the topic of Dow’s men, and news that they were being ‘closely confined,’ which Christian denied. It is at this moment that Dow is reported to have grabbed a pistol, and along with his mate, wielding another two pistols, pointed them at Christian and ‘with terrible oaths and execrations that for the turn of a shilling they would blow [his] brains out,’ unless the crewmen were released, which Christian replied was not in his power. In what sounds like three hours of terror for Christian and the other guests present, Dow, amongst other things, threatened to blow up Christian’s house with cannon fire; and shackle him in irons, throw him in the ship’s coal-hole and take him to Carlisle to be hanged. Christian was only allowed to leave the vessel once he signed a £500 bond, agreeing to appear at the next assize court in Carlisle.

The Information and Complaint of Mathias Christian, Captain and Commander of the fort and town of Ramsey, 15 August 1750, Liber Scaccar 1750 [Click images to enlarge & read.]

There are a couple of other episodes involving Captain Dow in 1750, but ultimately, the affair between him and the Isle of Man concludes in a rather anti-climactic fashion. Between July 1750 and January 1750/51, various complaints and responses to allegations were sent, but once Dow’s men were freed in February 1750/51, the papers fall quiet on the matter. It is only mentioned in passing by the Attorney General, Daniel Mylrea the Younger, in a letter from September 1751, when he tells the Duke’s Steward, Humphrey Harrison, ‘I fancy there will nothing more be done in that villein Dow’s complaint’ (AP X13-18). I suspect in the end it was judged by the British authorities that Dow, and themselves, had overstepped their boundaries and infringed on the legal rights of the Lord of Man. While confrontations between revenue cruisers and the Manx authorities would continue to occasionally flare-up in the early 1750s, it appears that the British government decided on another course of action to combat smuggling from the Isle of Man: to purchase the island from the Duke of Atholl. However, this is a story for another time.

As is always the case with my blog posts, I’ve had to simplify matters and omit events in order to fit what is most important into an already over-stuffed read. I would have loved to have discussed the various contradictions in the statements issued by the Manx officials, in response to Captain Dow’s complaint over the events of 26th June 1750; some blatant shenanigans afoot! Even more so, I would have liked to have covered the events of 1748, when the Isle of Man was virtually under siege by revenue cruisers, particularly by Captain Luke Mercer of The Bessborough. However, I leave such material for those who wish to research this topic further.

The blog now goes on hiatus until February 2022, as I come to the end of the 2nd Duke of Atholl’s papers, and begin work on those of the 3rd Duke. Upon the blog’s return, there will be an update on my progress, before I cover the revestment of the island into the British crown.

Read The Atholl Papers Blog:

The Atholl Papers: The Jacobite Rising of 1745
The Atholl Papers: The Case of Carolina Elinora Mahon
The 2nd Duke of Atholl’s Inheritance of the Isle of Man
The Atholl Papers: An Introduction to the Project

Gareth Pugh
Manx National Heritage Project Archivist (The Atholl Papers)
email: gareth.pugh@mnh.im

Further Reading

Janssen, Stephen Theodore. (1767) Smuggling Laid Open, in all its Extensive and Destructive Branches. With Proposals for the Effectual Remedy of that Most Iniquitous Practice. London.

Jarvis, Rupert C. (1947) ‘The Customs Cruisers of the North West in the Eighteenth Century’, Transactions, Vol. 99, pp. 41-61.

Wilkins, Frances. (1992) The Isle of Man in Smuggling History. Blakedown: Wyre Forest Press.

Wilkins, Frances. (2004) The Smuggling Trade Revisited. Blakedown: Wyre Forest Press.

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