Since returning from London, I’ve been working on an article that covers “prize culture.” That may need a little explaining, and for that I need you, dear reader, to forget what you think is meant by the term “prize.” Travel, instead, back to London in the middle of the eighteenth century for the type of “prizes” I am about to discuss.

It’s simple, really: a prize was a captured ship. During the Seven Year’ War, the maritime nations involved (United Kingdom, France, Spain, and perhaps Sweden and Russia) made a point to capture ships of their enemies and bring them to a friendly port. The “prize ship” was then stripped down of its valuables, the ship itself sold, its crew either imprisoned or ransomed, you get the idea.

While at the National Archives in Kew Gardens, London, I came across a document that listed the costs involved in processing a prize ship. More correctly, the costs incurred in the processing of 300+ ships Britain’s Royal Navy had captured in 1755, the year before the war began. Nearly all of the captured ships belonged to France, and nearly all of them were merchant vessels, not war ships at all. These captured French maritime ships, their cargoes, and their crews mostly landed in the port towns of Southern England, but a few were brought into Gibraltar and into Leghorn, both Mediterranean ports.

These incurred costs indirectly revealed a surprising breadth of industries associated with the selling off of these captured prize ships and their contents. This brief blog post merely wishes to convey the extensive nature of, what I call, a “prize industry” that, when taken together, make up the mid-eighteenth century phenomenon known as “prize culture.” I have made a list of these costs as revealed by this one document; after the bulleted list I’ll jot down some of the “big idea” comments that come to mind (or the “why should I care?” answers).

  • Here is what I can find on charges levied because of the sales
  • Loss from the condemnation of certain ships
  • Loss toward a one percent charge of “fundamental” expenses
  • Loss from the condemnation of certain produce from certain ships
  • Sundry computations
  • Salaries due to condemnations in UK, Leghorn, Gibraltar
  • Customs Duties on goods sold
  • Examination of prisoners
  • Conveyance of prisoners
  • Brokerage fees on ship sales
  • Wharfage
  • Seaman’s wages
  • Warehousing rents
  • Advertising sales of cargo
  • Expenses related to the attending of sales
  • Ship’s carpenters
  • Smiths working the ships
  • Coopers working the ships
  • Dock and mooring fees
  • Fees for ‘attending’ (guarding) ships and cargo
  • Pilotage of the captured ships
  • Interest Rate Charges
  • Secretarial Charges
  • Accountancy Charges
  • Messenger services
  • Postal fees
  • Salaries of Commissioners
  • Disbursement charges
  • Registration charges
  • Banking fees
  • Purchasing of needed furniture (writing desk and stools)
  • Purchasing of miscellaneous, Gun and a bayonet
  • Fees for the drawing of bonds
  • Attorney fees
  • Copying fees (letters, patents, exemplifications, etc)
  • Stamp fees
  • Affidavit fees
  • Coach delivery fees (taxi)
  • Purchases of stationary
  • Office rent
  • Maintenance of certain seized goods (clocks, etc) fees
  • Coal delivery (heating bill)
  • Candle fees (lighting bill)
  • Gratuities
  • Spring Curtains ( yep, goes with the desk and stools )
  • Glazier work (that’s glass work, windows, desk, etc)
  • State fees, Attorney general, Secretary of States, Privy Seal & Crown officers
  • Treasury remembrancer
  • King’s remembrancer
  • Pipe Office (placing on scrolls)
  • Fees payable to Auditors
Prize Ship

A Robert Dodd painting (1795) showing the HMS Blanche towing in the wounded French vessel: La Pique.

This list touches upon an observation made by Linda Colley, mainly that “one in every five families”[1] drew its income from trade throughout the course of the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries. The United Kingdom’s archipelagic geography necessitated that trade occurred through the use of water: rivers, canals, inlets and oceans. This list, then, appears to justify Colley’s observation.

The costs list, though, can be broken down further – especially upon the concept of time. There were costs involved the moment a captured ship found its way into a British port. Piloting, for example, the hiring of specialized sailors who knew a port’s physical features incurred costs. The wages for the port boatmen who moored the captured vessel, not to mention the moorage fees themselves. There is also the price paid for wharfage, an old term owing to the movement of goods from captured ships, to long boats, to warehouses, to auction blocks.

There are known ending costs, fees associated with crossing the “tees” and dotting the “I’s”. These would be accountancy fees, secretarial fees, postage fees associated with the sending of legal documents, messenger fees for transporting the really important documents, attorney fees, copying fees, gratuities, and the fees associated with various governing officials such as the king’s and the treasury department’s remembrancers – and also the money owed to the Pipe Office that placed all legal works into scroll form.

Then there a fees that occur in between: fees associated with ridding some produce cargo of some of the ships (fish, for example often went rotten while held on a captured ship – disposing of bad fish cost money), for condemning certain ships (usually ships that carried perishable items, but also ships that were brought in heavily damaged and then dubbed no longer salvageable), the paying of guards, customs duty charges as cargoes entered the warehousing system, the wage paid to customs agents, brokers and auctioneers who sold it all, as well as the wages owed to workers who assisted the brokers and auctioneers , advertisements of auctions in newspapers, reporters of newspapers who announced the incoming of prizes in the local press.

There are recurrent fees that occur in all three scenarios: the price paid for candles, stationary, and coal deliveries (which is how offices were heated).

There was a certain sense of congratulatory bravado in Britain’s capturing of French ships. The preemptive strike against French maritime was ordered by the Admiralty Office with George II’s eager approval in July of 1755.Two admirals, Edward Hawke and John Byng, possessed enormous fleets (in Byng’s case a fleet of twenty-four, warships mostly with a scattering of tenders and one hospital ship) as they descended upon unsuspecting French merchant vessels riding the seasonal trade winds back to France (the campaign to seize French ships began in August and ended in November of 1755). Cities themselves, perhaps caught off guard, they, too, began to hurriedly outfit privateers. Liverpool, Bristol, Exeter, Plymouth, Portsmouth, even tiny Deal on the Kent coast built and received letters of marquee to send their heavily gunned small sloops and snows to capture as many French vessels as possible in the Royal Navy’s wake. As per the above list, livelihoods were at stake. War brought a boost to local and regional economies. Retired yardmen, boatmen, and sailors headed to England’s southern ports for employment. There was money to be had. No wonder the overt celebratory prose that emanated from the British press machines as captured ships, hundreds of them, one at a time, found their way into a mooring spot. This is, perhaps, the great lesson: war meant money and the revitalization of a dragged economy. Since this article was about the prize industry after the capture, the money spent on the before side never materialized. But Byng’s fleet of twenty-four needed to be fed with victuals and ordinance spurring hiring sprees while ratcheting up the production of necessary wartime materials, everything from rope, sails, and chain to wheat, ale, and other provisions.

War in the eighteenth century may not have had the patriotic or nationalistic fervor associated with our current times, but war was nonetheless supported by England’s majority. The morality of war, in this case, the capturing of property belonging to French merchants prior to an outbreak of hostilities, that too was supported by most of Britain’s religious clerics, Anglican and Dissenting.

War, in this case, was not hell, but a profitable boost toward economic means.

[1] Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation, 1707-1837 (Yale University Press, 1992), 56.