Gunner William Peckover wrote to Joseph Banks in 1772 “as you were so good to me During your last Voyage & so generous sinc your Return I am Determined to haxard my Life… in one of the ships newly Commissioned for the South Seas”.
This article looks at the social and economic reasons for William Peckover leaving the agricultural community where his family had worked for generations to follow a career in the Royal Navy, of the late 18th century.
It is an abridged version of an article on the Internet at the web site for the village of Aynho at:
William Peckover was born at Aynho in the county of Northamptonshire, on the 18th June 1748, to Daniel and Mary Peckover, (nee Avies): he was their first-born child. They were married at Banbury in Oxfordshire on the 19th November 1747 and had four other children: Jane (1749), Anne (1752), Elizabeth (1753) and Mary (1755).
The Militia List for Walton and Aynho of 1762 describes Daniel as a poor man with three children; Elizabeth had died in 1757. It also refers to a William Peckover, “shoe maker poor man 1 child”. This is Daniel’s younger brother, born 1723, who married Catherine Side in 1761 and had one daughter Anne born in the same year. (Precise dating at this period was confused by the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar).
William Peckover had seen two of his sisters die: Mary and Elizabeth die and the other two marry: Jane in 1781 and in 1774. His father and uncle were referred to officially as “poor men”, and it is fairly conclusive that there was no inherited wealth.
In such circumstances William Peckover would have nothing to lose by seeking his fortune elsewhere; at the same time there would have been the opportunity to enjoy the adventures of a young man. For young men like William Peckover the World of their local and national experience, must have appeared to be a very uninviting prospect, with little to offer even if one was prepared to be industrious. Even the honest labourer was incapable of earning enough to keep family and home together, and escape from this purgatory would come from either drink (gin was cheap) or from seeking respite abroad in another more amenable society.
William Peckover was raised in a period of English history where social deprivation was endemic throughout the land, with little prospect of improvement. It was a time of transition, where the Agrarian revolution was depriving the people of food and employment, but the Industrial Revolution had yet to manifest its benefits. In time the drift of the population away from rural communities into the towns and cities would solve the problems of poverty, if only for an interim period.
The English Parliament opened its session of 1750 with the inclusion of a proposal to limit the armed services to 18,857 men, including 1,815 invalids and 8000 seamen. The Government had conceded to the Spanish and the French the control of the World’s oceans, the proposition, was opposed by William Pitt amongst others, but was nevertheless passed.
Admiral Vernon said of the Royal Navy, in the reign of George II, “our fleets are defrauded by injustice, manned by violence and maintained by cruelty”. The notorious press gang was the navy’s standard method of recruitment in time of war, and resistance to being pressed into service was high. At Bromsgrove in 1756 a man who was caught by the press gang cut one of his fingers off and mutilated another; the Regulating Officer did not relent, the Naval Officer expressing the opinion that the man was still a match for any Frenchman.
However by 1758 the Government had a change of policy, the size of the Royal Navy was put at 60,000, and the Standing Army at 53,777, but still including invalids of 4,000. Tobias Smollett, in the 2nd volume of “The History of England”, published in 1888, wrote: “In consequence of a motion made by Mr. Grenville, a humane bill was prepared and brought in for the encouragement of seamen employed in the royal navy, establishing a regular method for the punctual, frequent, and certain payment of their wages; enabling them more easily and readily to remit money for the support of their wives and families, and preventing the frauds and abuse attending such payments”.
This change, by the Government, in the numbers required by the Navy came about as a consequence of the declaration of war with France in the previous year. It was also realized that England had to patrol and control the World’s oceans and its trade routes, thus ensuring that the import of foodstuffs and raw materials would not stop.
For William Peckover the vision of his future was opening up before him, with at first a choice between remaining on the land to eke out a living. Surrounded, as he would have been by wholesale discontent throughout the countryside and the towns, or seeking out a better alternative. In some respects though he did not have the option of staying in his native County, because as has been illustrated previously, living for people such as him held out no hope for their future well being.
It is possible that “a recruiting officer”, from The Marine Society, may have passed through the Cherwell Valley following the start of another Continental War, and feelings of loyalty to the Crown arose in him. His later letter to Joseph Banks, 1772, talks of a sense of duty to serve his country faithfully, which without doubt makes it clear he was not pressed into the service. The alternative to joining the army would have been influenced in a way by the empirical evidence, for Peckover would have witnessed the brutality of the army in quelling riots, and the hostility to the army from the people. The Royal Navy offered security and shelter, a regular income and daily bread and according to Maslow, the American psychologist, these are a man’s basic needs on the path to success.
William Peckover was a man of ambition. For as Beaglehole, the biographer of James Cook’s three circumnavigations of the globe, records in the Muster Role, Peckover joined as a gunner’s mate 4th February 1772, from being an A.B. on the first voyage. Beaglehole quotes from the letter to Banks “I ham now Emboldened to solicit your goodness to have me appointed Supernumery Midshipman in one of the ‘ships’.” He was therefore determined to leave behind him the hovel of his childhood and “haxard” his life and future prosperity with the Royal Navy.
See also Cook’s Log, page 697, vol. 12, no. 4 (1989) and page 1909, vol. 25, no. 1 (2002)
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 15, volume 27, number 2 (2004).