MARVELS OF THE MINSTER: In the last of his series on the lost gravestones, DAVID MORGAN tracks down the military record of an 18th-century Croydon resident
Hundreds of people walk past the gravestone of Jim Thorp each week.
The smooth grey stone is set into a junction in the pathway about halfway between the church and the Tudor gateway in the grounds of Croydon Minster. It provides the starting point for another historical investigation.
We have his name and the date of his death, January 22 1798. The age etched on the gravestone isn’t easy to decipher but looks like 76 years. Using this information, what sort of a picture can be built up of the life and times of Captain Jim?
We know he was married as his wife’s name, Mary, can be found on the same stone. She died on May 30 1794, aged 74. Both Jim and Mary reached a good age. Average life expectancy in the 18th century was just a little less than 50 years, so they must have been healthy, with the right genes and maybe had a bit of good luck, too.
One early problem to solve in the investigation is to determine the use of the word “Capt”.
Was he a captain in the army or the navy?
There is no regimental badge or other lettering on the gravestone to provide a clue.
Since beginning these articles for Inside Croydon on the lost gravestones, I have received several emails from readers, including one from a former work colleague offering help to trace the backgrounds of illusive names in my searches. When I spoke to her about our Captain, she was quick to add her expertise in suggesting we look in the threedecks.org website.
“If he was in the Royal Navy, he will be there,” she predicted confidently.
Entering his name and the date of his death into this database, the information we were seeking could be seen straight away. Jim was indeed a Captain in the Royal Navy, but not perhaps as we had envisaged. He was a Transport Agent.
These men were uniformed navy officers in the employ of the Transport Board but not subject to naval discipline. Their job was to control and organise merchant ships that the government had chartered. To assist them in their duties the agents had a staff of four: a purser, a boatswain, a gunner and a carpenter. They were all appointed by Royal warrant and given naval rates of pay.
Hired vessels with a Transport Agent aboard flew a blue ensign and a plain blue common pendant and could exercise authority over smaller transports that carried no agent. These Transport Agents were always ranked as a Royal Navy Lieutenant, but were termed “Commander”. Between 1754 and 1845 there can be found 15 such agents, of which our Jim was one.
A note exists in the naval records concerning the Esk, a British Hired Transport ship of 1762, early in the reign of King George III – a time when Britain depended on its rapidly expanding global trade, especially with India and the American colonies.
In its service history, on February 22, 1763, there is the following entry:
“Mr Thorpe, Agent for Transports, informs us from Lisbon that Lord Loudoun has asked for the transports listed overleaf to be detained there until the arrival of the next packets”
Unfortunately for us the entry “overleaf” seems to have been lost.
The note continues, “The Esk, Wallington, John Thomas, Loving Friends and Three Sailors have been directed to bring the artillery and stores from Lisbon.”
The crew were paid off on June 7, 1763.
After that date ,we have no further record of Capt Thorp’s service. He will have been in his 40s by then, so we can assume he probably retired from the sea. This voyage from Lisbon to Portsmouth was the final act of a naval career that had spanned 24 years.
James Thorp, as he is referred to in the Admiralty archives, began his time as a merchant seaman in 1739. No reference is made to any of the ships on which he served. The next date on his record sheet is November 6, 1746, when James passed his lieutenant’s examination. The confirmation of him as a lieutenant was made on January 15, 1747.
There is no further detail to be found on his record sheet until we find, by 1762, he has become a Transport Agent, being confirmed as Commander (of his little fleet) and Commanding Officer of the Esk in the August of that year. It is not certain when the little fleet left Lisbon or when they arrived back in this country.
Our captain, it appears, was one of the backroom staff of Britain’s new empire. The merchantmen were needed for the Royal Navy’s fighting ships to function efficiently. They were required to transport extra supplies that were demanded, to relocate the supply depots and pick up any surplus equipment that might have been leftover from conflicts.
In this instance he was a small cog in the very large wheel that was the Seven Years War or, more specifically, the final part of it.
In many respects, the Seven Years War was the first world war, fought between two European powers, France and the newly united kingdom of Great Britain, and fought out around the world, though mostly in north America. Both countries depended heavily on their sea forces.
A few years after British forces under General James Wolfe had defeated the French at the Battle of Quebec, Britain then sided with Portugal in their conflict against France and Spain. Referred to in Portuguese history as “the Fantastic War”, in truth there was very little actual fighting, as the larger numbers of the Spanish and French armies were outmanoeuvred by the British and Portuguese allies. Much overland marching in order to neutralise opposing units, rather like a military chess game, brought the conflict to an end.
Lord Loudoun, a former governor of the colony of Virginia, by 1762 was in command of the British forces in Portugal. When he had no more need of such a large depot of military supplies in Lisbon, Thorp was ordered to organise getting them back to England.
Loudoun was an interesting character. Born in Scotland in 1705, he came to prominence having raised a regiment of infantry that took part in the Jacobite Rising of 1745 on the side of the Hanoverian government. Although he improved the supply chains for the army in North America at the start of the Seven Years War, his indecision and slow reactions were ridiculed by many. He was also deeply unpopular with the plantation owners and traders in Virginia when he shut down the colony’s ports to stop them trading, during the war, with the French.
He was sent to Portugal in 1762 as second-in-command, taking overall responsibility the following year. Here, his patient tactics proved successful.
No additional records have come to light concerning the merchant ship Esk which Thorp commanded. It is a ship’s name which was to continue to be in use throughout the conflicts of 19th and 20th centuries, usually as a Royal Navy warship. But of those ships’ 18th-century predecessor, the naval records can’t give the shipyard where it was constructed, it is not known how many guns, if any, it carried, and the ship type is just listed as “transport”.
The Esk wasn’t used again by the navy after returning from Lisbon and it doesn’t appear in any of the Lloyd’s Shipping Lists either. In 1790, several years after Thorpe’s hired fleet sailed for home, the going rate for hiring out ships to the Royal Navy was 11 shillings per ton per month. Packet boats had already established good sea links from British ports to many trading bases around the world by the 1760s.
The link with Lisbon was an important one because of the lucrative trade in port wine. Many of the most famous producers of port, even today, carry very British- or Scottish-sounding names – Taylors, Grahams, Cockburns – and most of them established their vineyards in Portugal for the production of fortified wines at around this period.
The boats hired by the navy would probably have been regulars on this route. Our Captain Jim must have been a skilled sailor and navigator as he had to negotiate the Bay of Biscay with his little fleet. Any modern-day sailor crossing this stretch of water, even as a passenger in a car ferry, will testify to an experience “if the wind blows”.
Captain Thorp must have been living near Croydon Minster by the time of his death, though where exactly is not known. Did he continue working in some capacity after he retired from the sea?
If any reader can help then please get in contact, as we bring the stories behind the gravestones to life.
David Morgan’s researches will form part of a guided talk he will be giving on Saturday September 18 as ,part of the London Open Houses weekend. Full details, including how to book a socially-distanced place, will be available soon
- To read previous David Morgan articles on the history of Croydon Minster and the people connected with it, click here
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