During the French Revolutionary/Napoleonic wars, several of the British Post Office’s packet boats were seized by French privateers. As a result, the Post Office decided that the packet boats should be armed. The packet boats were privately owned and contracted to the Post Office,
Arthur Hamilton Norway takes up the story as it applies to the packet boats between Britain and Ireland.
The Waterford packets
It had not been customary in former wars to arm the Holyhead and Dublin boats, but a few light guns were now allowed to them, as well as to those from Port Patrick to Donaghadee. The Packets running between Milford Haven and Waterford were somewhat more exposed to the attacks of Privateers, which might be expected to hang about the entrance to St George’s Channel in the hope of intercepting the shipping out of Bristol, but here a curious difficulty was raised by the proprietors, a body of merchants, nineteen in number.
All but six of these gentlemen were members of the Society of Friends, and, being sincerely convinced of the sinfulness of war, they put in a decided objection against the proposal to provide their vessels with implements of strife and destruction.
The Postmaster General proceeded to reason with these ardent theorists, and pointed out that as, by the existing rule, the Department was bound to pay the value of captured Packets it was but reasonable that it should be allowed, at its own cost, to protect them. The men of peace, touched by the financial argument, admitted this, but retorted that if only the Government would refrain from the wickedness of placing guns and cutlasses in the hands of their sailors, they, that is to say the thirteen Quaker proprietors, would waive all claim to compensation in the event of capture.
It was true, they admitted, that the six proprietors who were not Quakers were by no means ready to make this sacrifice, but the Government, they urged, might fairly be expected to risk the liability for six-nineteenths of the loss when a principle was at stake.
By this time, however, the Postmaster General had become tired of the discussion, and closed it with a brief intimation that if the Packets were not armed the contract would be withdrawn, and in view of this unsympathetic attitude the Quakers sold their shares and retired from the concern.
That the unwarlike attitude of the Quakers was by no means always accompanied by any want of natural courage was demonstrated not long after this period by a certain inhabitant of Falmouth, an old and greatly respected member of the Society of Friends. This gentleman held the appointment of surgeon to the Post-Office establishment, and was one day cruising on board a Packet when a French Privateer hove in sight. It was obvious that there was going to be a fight; and the commander, knowing his passenger’s principles, suggested that he had better go below. The doctor, a fine tall man, declined to budge from the deck; and the captain thereupon offered him a cutlass and pistol, observing that as he intended to remain in the way of danger, he might at least use weapons in self-defence.
But this suggestion also the doctor refused to entertain; and, standing quite unarmed on the quarter-deck, he remained an interested and placid spectator of the action. After a sharp cannonade, the French vessel hurled her boarders into the Packet. The doctor showed no sign of excitement as he saw the fierce St Malo men swarming up the sides, cutlass in hand; but when, a moment later, a swarthy giant came clambering up unperceived, at a point where there was no one to resist him, the doctor calmly stepped forward, threw his arms round the astonished Frenchman with a grip few men could have resisted, and saying, gently, “Friend, thee makes a mistake, this is not thy ship”, tossed him into the sea.
For background, see here on PO packet boats, but note that the article gives undue attention to the Falmouth-based packets. The Dover-based service is covered here. One of the packet service scandals is covered here.
Arthur H Norway History of the Post-Office Packet Service between the years 1793–1815 compiled from records, chiefly official Macmillan and Co, London 1895. Mr Norway, father of the novelist Nevil Shute, was in the GPO in Dublin in 1916