Book Of the Day: New Light on the Mysterious Tragedy of the Worcester 1704-1705

Worcester Title Page

Today’s offering is third in the trio of books by Sir Richard Carnac Temple concerning Captain Thomas Bowrey. Whilst not a light read, I consider New Light on the Mysterious Tragedy of the Worcester 1704-1705 to be the most balanced account about the ill-fated Worcester although it will never satisfy those who believe Thomas Green, John Madder and John Simpson to have been guilty.

I have read everything I have been able to find on the incident – and that is a great deal of material – and, for once, I cannot fault Temple’s conclusions. Whatever your stance, however much you will not be swayed by the arguments, the research carried out by Temple is impressive. If you have any interest in the history of the period, if you want to understand the still topical question of the union between England and Scotland, it you have any interest in miscarriages of justice or conspiracy theories, this book is well worth reading.

The story of the Worcester is not simply that of the loss of a ship. There many of those on Thomas Bowrey’s papers. The events leading up to the loss, and the consequence of it, are a brilliant example of how complex political affairs can become and how ordinary people can be tragically caught up in them.

Unlike the previous two Temple volumes, I do not believe that this book is available as a modern, print-on-demand book but there are plenty of second-hand copies available all of which are likely to cost you less than the interlibrary loan fee charged by our local library.



On This Day: 11 February 1702

On this day in 1702, Robert Callant dashed off a short note to Captain Thomas Bowrey from Deal in Kent. Callant, the supercargo of the Worcester, was confirming to Bowrey that he had received the letter Bowrey had sent to John Madder, the ship’s chief mate. Callant also mentioned that he had received nothing more for himself.

Callant felt the need to write this note because Bowrey clearly did not fully trust his officers on board the ship. He would often request the same information from more than one of the captain, chief mate and supercargo. This may partially have been because the captain, Thomas Green, was a reluctant correspondent and frustrated Bowrey by his lack of response to queries.

This was not the only evidence of the lack of harmony among those on board the Worcester stirred up by Bowrey’s attempts at total control of the activities of the ship and crew. It was not a good start to their voyage.

On This Day: 9 February 1702

On this day in 1702, Thomas Bowrey sent Robert Callant a map of Delagoa on the east coast of Africa and advised him not to bring home whale fins of less than 4 foot. Bowrey kept a copy of all his letters sent to the Worcester except this one. He simply noted that the map and advice had been enclosed in a cover to Mr Watts of Deal, Kent. It is unclear why this should be.

For a short time before the Worcester departed England, Bowrey became obsessed with a new opportunity. The Greenland Company that had a long-term monopoly of the London whaling trade had just failed and the whaling market had reopened to any merchant adventurer. Whales were to be found at Delagoa Bay on the Worcester‘s proposed route. Their baleen (whalebone or whale’s fin used for corsets) and oil (for lightning and lubricants) had great commercial value. Bowrey enthusiastically researched the trade and sent instruction to the ship’s chief mate, John Madder.

Two professional harpooners were recruited, accommodation built for them on board and Bowrey was excited about the additional possibilities these would add to the voyage. As cabin space was reserved for officers and important passengers, providing separate accommodation was an indication of the harpooners perceived value. A whaling venture was not included in the contract but Bowrey (just one of many owners and freighters) clearly believed that he was free to deviate from this. It is easy to sympathise with the ship’s captain, Thomas Green, who was criticised for accepting cargo as a private venture by another of the owners.

On This Day: 5 February 1702

On this day in 1702, the flurry of correspondence between Bowrey and the senior crew on the Worcester continued with a letter from John Madder who was keen to pass on some good news. No doubt hoping to get Bowrey off their backs for a while.

His news was that they escaped the storm with no damage. Bowrey had lain awake at his home in Wapping during the night of the 3rd listening to the storm outside and worrying about his ship. The next morning he had dashed off a letter to Robert Callant, his supercargo on board, asking for reassurance. Callant, although not yet on board (and, thus, not yet having received Bowrey’s letter), had a clearer understanding of Bowrey’s likely concerns and had already written to say that although several ships were missing, the Worcester was safe.

Madder was not helping to ingratiate himself with employer by not bothering to write until the following day. The captain, Thomas Green, did not bother to contact Bowrey at all.

The news was not that good. The bad weather continued, delaying the Worcester‘s departure for some time yet.

On This Day: 3 February 1702

On this day in 1702, Thomas Bowrey wrote to Robert Callant, the supercargo of the Worcester on behalf of the ship’s owners and freighters. Bowrey and the others had been concerned about Callant’s casual attitude up until he joined the ship. I have written previously how he did not do so until the ship reached Deal. It seems that they were now happier with him. Bowrey was at last pleased with the ship’s progress to the Downs.

Bowrey, however, showed little trust in the senior personnel of the Worcester, often writing the same to each separately. In this letter he checked on what Madder had done. His frustration with the captain, Thomas Green, is understandable. He was a reluctant correspondent, happy to let his chief mate, John Madder, and supercargo write instead. Bowrey was also extremely concerned to hide the plans from the ship from competitors. As I have said before, he issued orders that were not to be opened until they were well on their way and devised a code to be used in correspondence. The details of this code was included in today’s letter.

All this was to backfire later. The secrecy was presented as proof of the illegal intent of the voyage. In addition, Bowrey’s lack of trust may have soured the atmosphere on board. The crew turned against Madder, presenting him in their later evidence as a cruel bully but there is some evidence that this was malicious fiction.

Despite all Bowrey’s concerns he still requested Callant to collect words from Delagoa before continuing with orders for the goods to be purchased on the voyage. Bowrey was an unusual man in his ability to worry about such a variety of details. His management techniques were simply dreadful. It was probably impossible for others to understand what his priorities were from the deluge of orders given to them. On this voyage, what was the priority: the goods purchased, the whaling, the collection of information, or the commercial secrecy?


On This Day: 2 February 1702

On this day in 1702 John Madder, the chief mate of the Worcester,  wrote to Captain Thomas Bowrey with a list of the ship’s crew. He lists thirty-four men headed by himself. He does not list Captain Thomas Green but he does include the two (unnamed) harpooners who had been employed to allow for whaling to be undertaken off the east coast of Africa. The one passenger, Thomas Linstead, is named but not included in the count.

Included in the count was the supercargo and his assistant, the purser, the doctor and his mate, the cook, the carpenter and his mate, the cooper, and the steward. There were also two boys (the captain’s and the boatswain’s), the captain’s servant described as a lusty lad plus a lusty country fellow. It can also be assumed that the two midshipmen were in their teens. If we include the captain, there were only seventeen experienced  adult mariners on board.

Despite what would appear to be a minimum of experienced crew, Madder said that he was very satisfied with everything on board.



On This Day: 24 January 1702

On this day in 1702, the ship Worcester was lying on the Thames at Gravesend. Finally, she was ready to sail but Robert Callant, the supercargo, was not on board.  Thomas Bowrey and the other owners wrote to him ordering him to immediately make his way to the ship where further orders awaited him. These orders were not to be opened until after they had crossed the equator.

Bowrey was impatient for his ship to depart, far too impatient to delay the Worcester much longer. She was moved to the Downs, a stretch of the English Channel off Sandwich in Kent where ships waited for the right weather conditions or a convoy in which to sail for security from pirates, privateers and enemy shipping. Bowery sent a message to the captain, Thomas Green, ordering him to sail in two days whether or not Callant had arrived.

As the supercargo was responsible for the trading undertaken on the voyage and, thus, its success or otherwise, deliberately sailing without one was a drastic measure. What appears to have happened is that Callant arrived at Gravesend to find the ship had sailed. He moved on to Deal, arriving there before the ship reached the Downs. She was delayed because the Worcester had damaged her main top mast and a replacement had to be found. The owners, Bowrey included, were becoming increasingly frustrated with the delays.

On This Day: 9 January 1705

On this day in 1705, Patrick Stewart made a formal complaint to Roderick MacKenzie about the breaking of the seal on the hatches of the Worcester and unloading her cargo. Stewart was acting on behalf of Captain Thomas Green, Thomas Bowrey and the other owners and freighters of the ship which had been seized by the Scots in Leith harbour.

The trial of Green and his crew on charges of robbery, piracy and murder would not start for more than a month and nothing on the ship should have been touched but that did not stop MacKenzie selling the cargo and, in all likelihood, pocketing the proceeds. Later in the year, after the execution of Green, Madder and Simpson, Henry Smith would spend weeks in Edinburgh trying to establish exactly what happened to the cargo, how much it sold for and who had the proceeds. Had he succeeded, Bowrey is certain to have sued for its recovery.

The ship herself was sold to a Captain Gavin, possibly Alexander Gavin who was known in Scotland at the time. As a final irony, whilst Smith was in Edinburgh, he witnessed the last ever reported sighting of the Worcester. She was being used as a convict ship and departing for the West Indies. After being seized by the Scots, the Worcester was rumoured to have run aground and remain stranded for some time. As she had been in poor repair when she arrived in Scotland and little money was likely to have been spent on a convict ship before its human cargo was loaded on board, the chances of the unfortunates arriving safe and well in the West Indies were slim although there is a record of Captain Alexander Gavin being alive in Scotland in 1709.


On This Day: 5 January 1702

On this day in 1701, the Worcester was on the Thames in London receiving cargo for her ill-fated voyage to the East Indies. This had been going on for some time and was to continue a while yet. On this day, she received two deliveries.

James Burn, the boatswain, received on board 367 bars of Crin. I really do not know what this was. Burn’s spelling was interesting: seven was spelled sevin, and Worcester as wistter. Even allowing for this, I have been unable to work out what he meant by crin.

James Burn also signed for three chests from Thomas Bowrey, one of the owners and freighters. These chests were identified with a mark of a circle divided by a horizontal line and a vertical line from the centre of the circle down to the bottom of the circle. There was a “W” in the top segment, “E” in the bottom left segment and “S” in the bottom right. Similar identifying marks were common both in the East Indies and London.

It would appear that the boatswain was on duty for receiving cargo on this day. On other days, other crew members signed receipts. Crew members were only on half pay whilst still on the Thames and were unlikely to have been on duty continually. Burn was a Scotsman, aged 29, and survived to voyage to be arrested with the rest of the crew after the ship was seized by his countrymen. He was tried with the others and convicted of robbery, piracy and murder. Sentenced to be hanged on 18 April 1705, he was quietly reprieved, along with the other survivors, and released a short while after the execution of Captain Thomas Green, Chief Mate John Madder and Gunner James Simpson.