This month’s item of the month is a recently acquired prize ledger compiled under Sir Coutts Trotter and dating 1786–1792. It illustrates the workings of the administration of the Royal Navy, and how the prize money system was managed during this period. In many ways it is an early example of ‘bonus culture’, a very topical subject!
The ledger concerns shares of prize money, unpaid seamen’s wages and letters of authority. It illustrates the process of paying and claiming prize money from captured ships; several pages record the name of the seamen, name of ship, reason for prize, and who the money should be sent to, usually an agent or close relatives. Prize money was distributed to seamen of all ranks and this volume records the full spectrum of serving men. As Russell Grenfell writes in Service pay: ‘Under the prize-money regulations naval officers could and frequently did make large fortunes out of their captures of enemy and neutral shipping in war.’(p.10).
An entry for November 1787 illustrates an occasion when Coutts Trotter chased up a payment due to a sailor, James Ritchie – the copy of the letter is addressed to an agent George Warrock of Prestonpans, East Lothian:
About five years ago my brother was employed by you to recover some wages etc. then due to James Ritchie of the Fury. The amount of which he remitted in November 82. Since that period the Fury has been paid for a part of the time Ritchie was on board of her, and as my brother, since he has been appointed Paymaster of the Navy, has left off his Agent business in my favour I thought it my duty to receive it and make you acquainted with the amount you may draw for it or mention some persons name in London in whose hands I may pay it.
James Ritchie’s wages from 1 September to 12 December 1781 were £4 - 9 - 6, his prize money £ - 9 -, and commission and postage £ - 6 - 6, leaving £4 - 12 - owed to him .
The ledger complements other manuscripts relating to prize money held in the Archive collection, such as the papers of Alexander Davison, Nelson’s prize agent. The ledger is similar to others held at the NMM, such as those containing details of prize money payments, possibly kept by the naval agents, Messrs Ommaney, dated 1798–1826.
The system of prize money is important to any study of the Royal Navy as it goes to the heart of what motivated a man to fight at sea. Amongst a multitude of reasons the opportunity to make money, occasionally a great fortune, was often foremost in a sailor’s mind. Although this volume refers to land-bound activities, it is as significant as an account of naval engagements for its place in the workings of the administrative machine that was the Royal Navy.
Eleanor, Head of Archive & Library