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Richard and Michael Littleboy - Watermen


If you read all the information on the websites connected with Captain Cook, you may not realise that the Richard Littleboy who is mentioned on several occasions, is in fact three different people!  The confusion arises out of our ancestors’ custom of naming sons after their father or grandfather. 


Richard Littleboy I


The first Richard Littleboy is mentioned in the will of Timothy Rearden, one of the crew of Captain Cook’s ship the Grenville [see Cook's Log, page 8, volume 26, number 4 (2003)].  He made the will on 29 December 1771 and left his entire estate (such as it was) to “my beloved friend Richard Littleboy and Susannah his wife, of the Parish of St Paul’s Deptford in the County of Kent”.  He also made the couple his sole executors. 


This Richard Littleboy was a labourer and gardener who had probably married Susannah in about 1742.  Four of their children: Anne, Richard, Michael and a second Michael, were baptised in the 1740s in the parish of St Mary Magdalene Woolwich in North Kent.  Two more children: Susanna and Sarah were baptised in the neighbouring parish of St Nicholas Deptford in the 1750s.  At this time Richard and his family were living in Broomfields, a road which then overlooked open fields; today Deptford and Woolwich are in the London Borough of Greenwich and part of Greater London. 


It is possible, but yet to be proved, that Richard Littleboy I is the one baptised in the parish of St Ann Blackfriars in 1720, the son of William Littleboy, a printer whose family came from High Wycombe in Buckinghamshire.  If so, his father died when he was seven, and this may explain why he is found in a rather more humble occupation than his father and living some 8 miles from where he was born.  The fact that a Joseph Littleboy was buried in the church of St Mary Magdalene, Woolwich in 1748 and William Littleboy had a brother called Joseph, lends some support to this theory.  I should add that Littleboy is a fairly rare name. 


Despite his presumably limited means Richard Littleboy was able to pay for the apprenticeships of both his sons to the Company of Watermen and Lightermen: Richard was “bound” on 28 July 1758 to John Alexander, and Michael on 11 September 1761 to Gillet Law, who transferred him to John Alexander in 1762.  Apprentices had to swear an affidavit as to their age and place of birth by the time of Michael’s binding, and amusingly enough, he lied and swore he was baptised on 8 June 1747 in Woolwich, whereas this was the baptism date of his dead elder brother Michael, after whom he was named.  It may be that the Waterman’s Company required a minimum age of 14, especially since some physical strength was required to be a waterman.  At this period the boys Richard and Michael, and were living in Bermondsey, another waterfront parish, closer to the centre of London.


At the end of their lives Richard and Susannah were in Loving Edward’s Lane in the parish of St Paul, Deptford.  Susannah was buried in St Paul’s on 17 October 1775 and Richard only a few months later, on 25 January 1776. 


Richard Littleboy II


Richard Littleboy II completed his seven years of apprenticeship and was “made free” of the Watermen’s and Lightermen’s Company on 26 September 1765.  As a waterman he was able to carry passengers in his boat, but not heavy goods, these were carried by lightermen.  On 27 March 1766 he took on an apprentice of his own: James Robertson.  He had married Rebecca Neale on 16 September 1765 which as he was still technically an apprentice, he was not supposed to do: apprentices were forbidden to marry before their “time” was out. 


Richard and Rebecca married in St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey and their first child, James, was christened in that church on 11 June 1766.  No one else in Richard’s immediate family was called James, and I cannot help wondering whether the baby was named after James Cook, who in the mid 1760s made several voyages to Newfoundland in HMS Grenville, usually returning to Deptford where the ship docked for repairs and refitting.  Cook was living at 7 Assembly Row, Mile End on the north bank of the Thames and needing to make frequent trips across the river to Deptford.  In the days when roads were frequently almost impassable in bad weather, the river was seen as a link and not a barrier, and there were landing places all along the river and plenty of watermen plying their trade, so it was perfectly feasible for Cook to live in Mile End while his ship was at Deptford.  He could thus have got to know both Richard and Michael Littleboy and no doubt when the Endeavour was preparing for her voyage, this would have been known to all the watermen working that part of the river. 


The Endeavour started paying wages to the crew which had already enlisted, on 25 May 1768, but between 9 June and 22 July 17 men deserted and had somehow to be replaced.  The offer of two months’ pay in advance (£2 5s) no doubt appealed to watermen whose wages fluctuated with the weather and season and Michael enlisted on 20 July, giving his real age of 20, this time.  He was actually still an apprentice and because of the voyage his apprenticeship was not completed until 13 September 1771.  No doubt a waterman’s skills would have been very useful once the ship had anchored and small boats were needed to go ashore. 


Richard joined the ship on 4 August, which is a bit of a mystery because the ship was then near Deal Castle and on her way to Plymouth.  It seems rather hard on his wife that Richard left her with two small children, to go on what was really a quite dangerous voyage, but this venture was probably more financially rewarding than being a waterman, and since he still had his apprentice, James Robertson (recorded as completing his apprenticeship in 1773), Rebecca may have kept the waterman’s business going.  Watermen apprenticed to women do appear in the Company’s records. 


Able seamen do not feature very much in ships’ logbooks unless they get into trouble and this was the case with the Littleboys.  They were charged at various times for slop clothes (clothes and bedding supplied by the Navy), also “dead men’s clothes” (which were generally cheaper!) and tobacco.  Richard had several bouts of illness during which he was charged for his bedding and also for “venereals” which must have been the drugs used to treat him: probably mercury at this date.  Richard was found guilty of theft on 2 December 1769, the punishment for this was twenty lashes.  Some members of the crew died on the voyage, among them, John Thurman (who had joined the ship at Madeira).  In his will he left his wages to be shared between Richard and Michael Littleboy and two other crew-members. 


A voyage of this type must have been a real education for Richard and Michael and rather set them apart from other watermen.  Not only were they visiting places few westerners had seen before, but they were part of a major scientific venture. When the Endeavour docked in Woolwich on 19 August 1771, Richard and Michael returned to their former occupations. 


Richard II’s second son, Richard Littleboy III had been born on the 6th and baptised on 15 April 1768 at St Mary Magdalen, only a few months before his father joined the Endeavour’s crew.  Like his brother James he was born in the Folly, a street near St Saviour’s Dock and Jacob’s Island, an area which later was a notorious slum and the site of Bill Sikes’s death in “Oliver Twist”.  At the end of the Folly flowed the River Neckinger which surrounded Jacob’s Island and was heavily polluted in Dickens’ day.  At this date, however, it still flowed through open fields for much of its course.  Richard II’s story from now on is a sad one.  His eldest child, James, died in 1770 at the age of four. 


Three more children, all sons, two called James, were born in the next few years but all were buried as infants or small children.  Then on 31 May 1778 his wife, Rebecca, died at the age of 30.  Of course this was an age of high infant mortality, but it seems likely that Richard was still suffering from venereal disease, and this would have affected his wife and the children born after his return.  To date I have not been able to discover Richard’s burial in St Mary Magdalen Bermondsey nor in any of the surrounding parishes. 


Having completed his apprenticeship Michael married Sarah Chappell on 9 June 1775 at St Alfege, Greenwich.  Their four children Richard, Susanna, Sarah and Mary Ann were baptised in St Nicholas Deptford and their father is described in the parish register as “Michael Littleboy waterman on the Green”.  His wife Sarah was buried in St Nicholas on 2 May 1781.  She had probably died in childbirth, the most common cause of death among young women at this time.  Of these 4 children Susanna died as an infant and nothing more is known of Richard who may also have died in infancy.  Michael married again on 6 May 1783 at St Alfege.  His bride was Hannah Large, a widow. She bore him three more children: William Michael (who lived only 6 months) Elizabeth Hannah and Hannah. 


By 1787 the cost of this growing family was causing Michael financial problems and just at this time he lost his boat.  On 3 February 1787 he wrote to Sir Joseph Banks asking for help.  He hoped “your Honour would not take it amiss for troubling you” but he had had “the misfortune to lose his boat at the beginning of this winter” and “having a very large family and work being scarce [he] can hardly get a maintenance for his family”.  He asked Joseph Banks if he could get him “a Custom house berth” “or any other berth your Honour may have in your power”.  Of course Banks may not have had any influence in watermen’s affairs, which wouldn’t in any case, have come under the jurisdiction of the Navy.  He may have helped Michael financially but when Hannah, the youngest child, died in November 1791, the family were in Deptford Workhouse. 


Michael’s daughter Sarah married Richard Wild on 17 December 1804 at St Mary, Lewisham.  Her sister Mary Ann who was a witness to this marriage, married John Marr, the other witness, at St Giles, Camberwell on 20 July 1806.  I have not been able to discover the burials of either Michael or his wife in either of the Deptford parishes or in any neighbouring parish.  Deptford Workhouse records which might have given more information, do not survive from this period.  It seems likely the family stayed in Deptford because Susanna Littleboy, Richard and Michael’s sister who did not marry, was buried in St Nicholas in February 1817. 


Richard Littleboy III


Richard III was the only surviving child of the marriage of Richard Littleboy and Rebecca Neale.  He went to work in Woolwich Dockyard as a labourer and in about 1791 he married.  His bride’s first name was Ann, but the marriage has not been found so we don’t know her surname.  Some time after his marriage he, like his uncle Michael, found himself in financial difficulties, and decided to write to Sir Joseph Banks, unfortunately his letter is not dated.  He appears to have written the letter himself as the spelling is rather erratic.  He mentions “the favours your generosity confer’d on my father” and the fact that he is now an orphan and “my wagges not being safishent to saport an infant family” asks if Banks could “make me a Sarveyer” assuring him that “My Charicter will bear the Hardest Scruteny”.  Joseph Banks seems to have been moved by this appeal because, although Richard only lived to be 41, by the time of death in 1809 he could describe himself in his will as a “Contractor in the Royal Dockyard”. 


In his will he mentions his leasehold property which he wishes to be sold by public auction in order to raise the money to support his wife and children after his death.  He wants the money so raised to be put into “parliamentary funds” to form a trust.  The inventory of Richard Littleboy’s “goods, chattels and credits” has survived in the Public Record Office and from this it appears that in order to raise sufficient money for the trust, some of the Littleboys’ household goods were also sold in the public auction. 


Richard left six children, of whom the youngest was only 3 at the time of his father’s death.  The three eldest: James, Harriet and William all married; marriages for the younger three have not yet been found.  Despite the auction not raising as much money as he had hoped Richard Littleboy appears to have bettered himself so that the shadow of the workhouse no longer loomed over his family as it did over so many others in the nineteenth century.  It is nice to think that Sir Joseph Banks played a part in this.


Mary Hume

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 19, volume 27, number 3 (2004).

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