Testament to Love



Author’s note: this story, whilst fiction, is based on real people and real documents. While researching HMS Indefatigable and her crew and officers in what was a moment of great success for the ship in the year 1797( for details see my biography) I read a number of wills written by ordinary crewmembers in that period. They are written into a printed form which is the same for each man but in which there are blank spaces where personal wishes may be expressed and witnessed by the Captain, Edward Pellew and the sailing master, George Bell.

One of these wills proved different from the run of the mill because in it an able seaman writes of the disposition of his worldly goods in terms that were at once usual and different enough to make them a tale for Speak its name The characters were/are all real people, (other than Geoffery Milner, John Bacchus’ shipmate) and the existence of the will is genuine. The relationships and interactions between them are all of course fictional. Captain Pellew’s letter of condolence and advice is however based on a number of examples I have seen written to loved ones of ordinary crew members. In those circumstances he commonly offered his help with understanding the naval bureaucracy and was always diligent in getting for the legatees outstanding prize money etc. Where I have deviated from history is in reference to John Bacchus’ death, although the Indefatigable was involved in skirmishes off Finisterre in 1798 John Bacchus survived them. He died in 1808 when he was a member of the crew of HMS Hero whose captain was James Newman. He was by then a warrant officer and was ship’s cook.

Testament to Love:

HMS Indefatigable Off Cape Ortegal, 1797

John Bacchus, able seaman, and inevitably known as Jack, stretched himself carefully, mindful of the pain in his left arm. He stretched again as well as be could for his great height, well used by now to avoiding head contact with the wooden beams above him. He wanted to go on deck, to feel the wind in his face, to have at least the illusion that they might be heading home.

But it was late and dark and it was not his watch and truth be told, he needed the sleep badly. He sighed more loudly than he had intended and stretched again, wincing with the effort. His good friend Geoffrey Milner looked up and smiled:

“What’s up Jack, old bones giving you trouble now?” They both laughed at this old joke, knowing Geoffrey to be exactly 6 months younger than Jack.

“Nah—just thinking about what a good job we did today. About how hard it was to get the better of two ships at one time and how well we came through it all.”

“It was a good job—Captain said so didn’t he?”

“Extra rum ration says so too,” added Jack, raising his glass thoughtfully and again registering the pain that went through him.

“Still hurting?” Geoffrey’s face now registered genuine concern. Jack Bacchus was an enigma—friendly enough and a gifted sailor and great to have by you in a crisis but reserved and quiet, he kept his own counsel.

“It’s more thinking about Davy and the others who died—about came awful close today.”

“Came awful close to you mate—nearly took your arm off! See the doctors done you a good turn there with the stitches.”

“Lieutenant Norway saw to that and looked after me. He’s a good man, thinks about us always.”

“That’s because the Captain thinks about us—and sets a good example.”

“Aye” Jack assented but his face still clouded over somewhat.

“Still something the matter?” Geoffrey pursued, glad to find his friend in a forthcoming, if melancholy mood.

“Nah, not really. Just thinking about what would happen if it really had taken me off today. About whether I should make a will and so on.”

“You got someone left behind then to have you? Bet it’s that girl in Plymouth dockyard.”

Jack was well prepared for all eventualities of this kind and grinned back knowingly—it was good misdirection.

“How did you know that?”

“Oh, just because of the way you look sometimes when people talk about Plymouth and going home. Hey, look mate I didn’t’ mean to be rude and if it’s none of my business I am sorr..”

“You weren’t rude. I’m just tired is all, Think I will go and lie down now. ’ Night, mate.”

“’Night Jack.”

Lying in his hammock he pondered—on what Geoffrey really made of him, and on Plymouth dockyard and …on James.

James, who would be left behind should the many perils of war at sea take him. James, who was the leader of his rigging gang and the life and soul of the party, always the popular one, always the one everyone noticed. James, whom everyone noticed, but who himself noticed only one and that one the unlikeliest in his own view, the tall, broad-boned and decidedly craggy Jack Bacchus.

On Jack’s last leave, James had said that whenever the ship was said to be in the offing, and at the first sight reported of her moored in the roads, he went always as soon as he was free, up the hill to verify that she was indeed there and to wait. “Miss you every damn day you are gone Jack,” he had added, and of course had not minded being ribbed about that and called a sentimental old devil. The words themselves were those that he repeated to himself from time to time as he turned over in his mind the joy and anxiety they caused him.

And there were a few things he wanted him to have –well, everything really such as it was but especially the scrappy thing he had started to try to write. For he had been learning to write a little more lately. John Metcalf, the schoolmaster, having been persuaded by the lieutenants to teach more than just the boys and the ‘young gentlemen’ but also, in odd hours, to help those men who were interested to improve themselves.

Lying there, he began once again writing in his head—far easier than on the paper—a little of what he would long to say—of a letter to be delivered in the event of his death . But did he have the words? How did you describe why the colour of someone’s eyes mattered so much? Their eyes when they first caught sight of you, when they welcomed you home, as they lay beneath you in bed…

Or how would you write about how their mouth felt after so long…or just how very…

No, he did not have the words. He supposed they were for those who wrote poems and such, but he would keep trying. And he could at least find the words to ensure that what little he had would come James’ way.

His heart misgave him but he managed to ask for a moment of Mr Thomson’s time. The lieutenant had come through the ranks and was not unapproachable by any means though a daunting figure still.

“Sir—sir, I should like to make a will and I understand that the captain ..”

“You are correct, Bacchus, the captain will see you and discuss your will and he will witness it and Mr. Bell will witness it too, but in his case just the signature. I will speak to the captain and you will be sent for when there is a suitable moment.”

Two days passed before the moment came and Jack, on enforced lighter duties because of his arm, had almost too much leisure to think about what he was determined to say.

And what would the captain say? Would he be angry and ask fierce questions, perhaps tell him it was irregular and wrong, that it could not be? Yet he felt determined—he could perhaps say it as a cousin if he had to.

The third day a boy came running with a message “You are to attend the Captain in his cabin straight away.”

Trying to make himself as presentable as possible and twisting his cap between his hands as he took it off in front of the marine who guarded the captain’s door, he knocked, ducked, entered and found himself for the first time ever in the light of the great aft cabin, with the penetrating gaze he was accustomed to seeing from slightly further away now directed at him alone.

“Mr Thomson has told me you wish to make your will, Bacchus?”

“Aye, sir I…”

“Sit down man! Can’t do something as important as that while standing.” The captain sat himself the other side of his desk and held up the empty will form for Jack to see. “You can read and write a little I gather—can you read enough to understand all this and to read what I shall complete of it—and do you wish to write the provisions yourself ?”

“Sir, I can manage but little, truly, and that in a hand no better than a schoolboy, I would rather you wrote it so that it may be easily understood. I can sign it though,” he added.

“Very well, have you thought then, what you wish to say?”

Jack watched the captain complete his, Jack’s, full name and the name of the ship and the year of our Lord and of the king’s reign and all the while his heart was hammering. Could he do this and take for his own the only statement he truly wanted to make?

“I wish it to say, ‘I bequeath to my beloved James Gormally, of North Corner, Plymouth Dock, all my worldly goods’.”.

Captain Pellew was known for his ability to keep his face straight through all manner of situations, and if he were in any way startled he did not indicate that fact by so much as a flicker. He wrote as Jack had indicated, and turning the paper towards him , let him see it. “That is correct seaman?”

Jack nodded, and then remembered himself and said, “Aye sir, thank you .”

They filled in the rest, the Captain advising on the inclusion of prize money owing at the time of death and a few other matters and then explaining that the will would be stored along with many others of both officers and men alike and that the Captain himself, in the event of Jack’s death, would see to it that the document and details reached those for whom they were intended. “If you have cause to write something that you wish delivered to those receiving the will it can be enclosed with it—it will not be seen by anyone other than myself, or in the event of your changing ship, your new captain should you wish to continue committing it to our care.” Mr Bell, the Master, was sent for and Jack signed in their presence and watched them sign in turn.

Still a little stunned Jack rose to leave, and saluted—as I if reminded by that Pellew looked at him keenly and asked after his arm and the pain. He replied that he hoped to be back at full stretch soon, to which the captain rejoined in a tone slightly less fierce than Jack had experienced hitherto

“You will be placed on full watch again only when the surgeon says it may be so—I know you to be a man who does his duty and intended no slight to your hard work which I know to be the case. Dismissed!”

H M Dockyard, Plymouth,1798

The Indefatigable was home again but she was in a sorry state. The crew had jury rigged a new mizzen mast to get them home and had done what they could with the sails but it was evident even to a casual glance that much would have to be done. Worse than that was the news that some of her number had been killed in an encounter with the enemy off the coast of Spain and that two or three had died of wounds received that day.

James knew already. He had always thought he would know if it happened and somehow he knew now. He finished his shift in a haze of little hope and a great leaden weight in his chest. He knew from past experience that there would be a little knot of women on the quay, waiting and turning away with a howl of grief when the truth was made known. And he could not do that—but he went home and wept and waited and wept again.

Until there was a knock at the door and a naval messenger. He looked as if he were torn between being impressed that one in such humble surroundings received official messages and his natural disdain for the task. He more usually carried messages for the port admiral and lived on the borrowed sheen of that worthy’s eminence. “Message from Captain Sir Edward Pellew. I am to ask you to sign for it and for two enclosures.”

James did just that and the messenger took himself off; he sank down at the table opening the letter carefully.

Two letters and a document with a heavier seal. Jack writing? James had often wished Jack would be home for longer as he was trying to help him write, but on this last time at sea he had evidently come on out of all proportion. The letter he laid aside for later, knowing it would bring tears so uncontrolled he needed night to cover them.

There was a letter in a much more elegant hand:

“ Indefatigable, at sea”

My dear Mr Gormally

I am aware that I do not know you and forgive me that I must break this sad news as a stranger but I write to inform you that your friend John Bacchus died from wounds received in an action with the enemy off Cape Finisterre.

A ball entered his shoulder, which he might well have survived, but he was also shot lower in the chest and the bleeding was too bad for the surgeon to stem.

He died as he had served: a diligent and respected member of this crew and was committed to the sea with all hands present this morning. We mourn him as those on shore will mourn him.

I have the honour to enclose his last will and testament which you will see names you as executor of his estate. If you need advice in the matter of the disposition of his effects you are at liberty to ask myself or my first lieutenant, Mr Thomson. A letter by messenger to the ship will find either of us. There us prize money owing to Mr Bacchus which I can advise you on claiming and any other matters you may need to ascertain information on as part of your duties as executor.

I am, Yours etc

Ed. Pellew, Bart. Captain.

Mr J Gormally

James opened the will and his eyes widened as he took in the statement, at once so familiar and routine and, in this context, so startling:

I bequeath to my beloved James Gormally—he had written those words, words which men used of wives, brothers, mothers. They use them almost formulaically but here the formula told a different story. He had used them in the presence of the captain. Apparently he had received no censure for it. He was conscious of the pain in his throat from the effort of not crying and he let the tears gather again.

“All his worldly goods” —he smiled sadly, they were not much but this was perhaps a gift more than a king’s ransom of prize money. In dying, Jack had been able to do what he had had no opportunity to do living: to have a document which was official testimony to their love. No marriage certificate, no open avowal, but this …this was a gift of rare surprise.

He kept it inside his clothes for days, till he worried that his body heat would smear the ink and print. He heard the Captain explain how one copy would remain in the admiralty’s files and pictured someone throwing out dusty piles of wills in twenty years time –but at least for a while he and Jack would live on, if only in some office cupboard. For them that was immortality of a sort.

The National Archives, Kew, 2010, ADM papers

The researcher looked with satisfaction at the pile of wills she had amassed for members of the Indefatigable’s crew and began to read them. Reaching the fourth one in the pile she read the text; bequeath to my beloved James Gormally, and smiled.

There was more to that than met the eye—there was a document which had allowed a love to be articulated, to speak its name more than two hundred years ago, in a time when such things were considered well nigh impossible.

She laid the will aside .There was a story to be told there someday.

Alex Broughton loves many things about the 18t century but her passion’s particularly the age of sail in both fact and fiction. Together with Anteros, she is working on a project to tell the stories of the crews of the Indefatigable, the Amazon and their encounter with the French ship Les Droits de l’homme and is continuing to realise just how remarkable this cross section of the two navies was. Alex’s other love is poetry and she has recently had the honour to become a guest poet in Charlie Cochrane’s latest Cambridge Fellows Mystery , for which she has written two sonnets. Anteros is urging her to say also that she is writing a contemporary biography of Edward Pellew – well, in her dreams she is !

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29 Responses

  1. That was so lovely, and heart-wrenching.

  2. thank you very much

  3. I am going to comment at LJ too, but want to say this is so moving and real.

    (Well, I mean the fiction parts are real. The real parts obviously are…)

    This was a particularly visual piece somehow. I could really see it. Thanks

    • Thank you – it had not struck me about how far it was visual though I did feel how the different locations – the quiet below desks when the men are sleeping. the captain’s cabin,the dockyard all had their own atmosphere

  4. Lovely – and I hope that biography becomes more than a dream. The only problem with Sir Edward is that his real-life adventures read like fiction..

    • Indeed so – try to tell the story of the Dutton and no one would believe you for instance !
      Still that is part of the fun on the whole

  5. What a remarkable entry. Not only did the story have me in tears but the fact that the will was real and survived to give us an glimpse of a love from the past was remarkable in itself.

    • Thank you – in most archvive there lurk many untold stories I think – and the three ships that are the microcosm of our research project have a remarkable set of people in them which is what makes it so exciting!

  6. I am all sniffly! So lovely.

  7. That was wonderful. Thank you.

  8. Aw, that is so bittersweet. It brought tears to my eyes and was extremely touching.

  9. Oh, that’s so lovely. Gets better on every reading. (And I so much want to know more about these boys…)


    • more about the boys ?- i think there will be more about them in a little while.
      thank you for reading – when you have already read !

  10. Oh lovely, truly lovely. I, too, had to wipe away a tear or two. And I’m astonished that the will is real! Amazing that it survived, or indeed was written in the first place. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Thank you veru much indeed and yes , there are some further pieces of research i want to do
      actaully the men of both army and navy were u into this sotry or its wider parts.it is used to use more openly affectionate terms than people would now – the expression of love for friends etc often reveals a side to the sense of mutuality which characterised them

  11. See it’s not just me that sniffled! And hardly surprising, this is so very, very moving. And as others have said the fact that the will is real makes it almost unbearably poignant. It’s really is wonderful to be able to bring glimpses of these men’s lives to light. Thank you as always.

    • Thank you too – for the possibilites that there are with our project and for all the shared fun we have with this favourite frigate.!

  12. That was so touching, thank you for sharing it.

    • thank you very much . I am impressed to see I have some distinguished namesakes who appaear here!
      I was very honoured to have the opportunity to share it .

  13. What can I say? Very moving piece, Alex. Lovely.

    • Thank you very much George – the real lives of those men are often summarised and seen at brutish and expendable – their feeligns about each other and respectful freindships and working realtionships were often far mroe than that – and of course for men whose loved partner whether male or female was ashore as Jack;s JAmes is, there were vast long separations so that for those who could not write it was even harder to sustain – hence the lieutenants are being thoughtful wehn they ask the schoolmaster to teach reading to the adults .frigates did not merit schoolmasters from the admiralty but Captain Pellew paid the salary of one always himself – {he did have a vested intersest admitedly with two boys of his own and a nephew aboard but it meant very positive things for many of the offciers and men.!}
      thanks again for reading

      • and ps – sorry for the many typos – I am disabled and that, I fea,r is what my hands produce in the morning before the medication kicks in ( just realise that those who don’t know me are not used to that ! Still hope it it is still comprehensible)

  14. Ta, Alex. It was very comprehensible, I assure you.

  15. This is beautiful, made me cry beautiful. It made me think too, which I always enjoy.
    Thank you for sharing.

  16. Sad, but beautiful. 🙂

  17. Oh. I cried when I read the end. It was so sweet, and I’m happy to hear that the will was real and that (I hope) James did in fact recieve all of Jack’s worldly goods, as his beloved. Thank you for sharing this. It makes me smile and cry at the same time

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