In 1696 hundreds of English sailors starved in Torbay at the end of the war with France, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
The Nine Years' War (1688–97) was a major conflict fought between King Louis XIV of France, and a European-wide coalition. Opposing the French was the Grand Alliance consisting of the Anglo-Dutch William III, the Holy Roman Emperor, a variety of princes of the Holy Roman Empire and the King of Spain.
It was fought primarily in mainland Europe and its surrounding waters - the main fighting taking place around France's borders in campaigns dominated by siege operations. But it also encompassed fighting in Ireland, Scotland and a campaign between French and English settlers and their Indian allies in colonial North America.
By the mid-1690s both sides were financially exhausted. Peace was finally declared in 1697. This would give England and France just enough time to prepare for their next series of battles in the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–1714).
During the Nine Years’ War a number of naval engagements took place with the English navy being involved in successful actions. For example, at La Hogue in 1692 an English fleet destroyed 12 French ships of the line and a number of smaller ships with minimal English casualties.
It may therefore have been expected that England would have been deeply grateful to its sailors. However, on June 24 1696, the Lords of the Treasury received a representation from ‘The Commissioners for Sick and Wounded Seamen and Exchange of Prisoners of War’ stating
“That from Plymouth where there is about 300 seamen and 500 prisoners, our agent writes us positively they must starve for he hath not five pounds more to subsist them. He therefore desires if he cannot be supplied to be discharged from the service. There are from the grand fleet above 700 sick seamen at Torbay, where one of our Board is present to procure quarters for them, and every post writes us to send him money. For though the people are willing, they are not able to provide for them.
“We have no money to send the recovered seamen to their ships, who come dayly from the hospitalls.
“Besides, there is above £6000 drawn on us in bills of exchange, which have not only weekes but months past due. We have at all ports 1400 seamen and 700 prisoners and no money to maintain them.
“Wee most humbly pray your Lordships to belive that nothing but the intollerable necessity of this Service forseeth us to this trouble some importunity for a supply, which if not immediately granted in the money to send down to the ports, the seamen and prisoners must perish.”
The English officers having been able to feed their men in the Flanders campaigns were now finding it impossible to prevent their men from starving on the shores of Torbay.
However, England wasn’t bankrupt. The nation just didn’t have any ready cash.
In 1696 William III had ordered England’s old hammered coinage to be withdrawn. Much of it had been clipped down by people wanting the silver to sell as higher-priced bullion. This meant the coins were of varying shapes and sizes, making nonsense of their face value. The coins were supposed all to be worth the same but in practice each had a different amount of silver in it.
To replace the withdrawn coinage, during 1696 a vast quantity of new coins was produced, with some coming from the mint in Exeter. Yet, it took time to produce the new coins and much of it promptly disappeared into hoards or was sent abroad. Some was also melted down because silver bullion was still worth more than coins of the same weight.
On 11 June 1696 the diarist John Evelyn wrote of the shortage of coins:
“Want of current money to carry on not onely the smallest concernes, but for daily provisions in the Common Markets; Ginnys (Guineas) lowered to 22s: & greate sums daily transported into Holland, where it yields more, which with other Treasure sent thither to pay the Armies, nothing considerable coined of the new & now onely current stamp, breeding such a scarsity, that tumults are every day feared.”
Meanwhile, due to the lack of coins, 700 sailors starved in Torbay …