Witnessing the visits of an American Founding Father and a US Navy Privateer? – The Life of Matthew Grisdale

Posted: November 19, 2012 in History
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Matterdale is a rural land-locked valley community in the lake district of Cumberland. But Cumberland has another side to it; the flat coastal plain was until comparatively recently a major maritime and industrial entrepôt. Thus it’s not surprising that many members of the Grisdale family have from time to time made their way to the coast, to find work and perhaps to make their fortunes. One such was Matthew Grisdale, who might possibly have been present in Whitehaven, Cumberland, when Benjamin Franklin paid a visit in 1771 and when the Scottish, turned American, naval captain and privateer John Paul Jones raided the port in 1778.

Whitehaven harbour in the nineteenth century

For much of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries the town of Whitehaven was a major ship building hub, trading port and coal mining town. It only lost its position slowly as Liverpool rose to prominence. Whitehaven was created in the seventeenth century by the powerful local Lowther family, the Earls of Lonsdale. It remained for a long time a sort of company town. The Lowthers also started, owned and developed an extensive coal mining business in Cumberland, particularly in an around Whitehaven where deep coal seems extended far out to sea. Hundreds of ocean-going ships were built by Whitehaven’s ship-builders and vessels carried on a trade in coal, tobacco, corn and even slaves with America, the East and West Indies, Ireland, the Baltic and Africa. It was quite a hive of bustle and business.

It needs to be said that the working conditions of the men and children in Lowther’s Whitehaven coal mines were horrific. In a previous article on The Wild Peak Blog, I gave the description of a Whitehaven trained slave ship Captain, Hugh Crow, of this “white slavery”:

Think for instance of the poor fishermen, during the winter season – some of the greatest slaves in existence. Think of the miserable beings employed in our coal-pits, and in our iron, lead and copper mines – toiling underground in unwholesome air, which is constantly liable to fatal explosions! Think of all the men, women, and children, confined by hundreds, in heated factories, their health rapidly wasting, and their earnings scarce sufficient to keep soul and body together! Think of other slavish employments – often under masters quite as arbitrary and unfeeling as the planters!  Think of the thousands who are rotting in jails for petty offences, to which many of them are driven by want and starvation! Think of the thousands that have been imprisoned – ruined for killing a paltry hare or a partridge! Think of the wretched Irish peasantry! Think of the crowded workhouses – and do not forget to think of poor Jack, who after devoting himself to a life of toil and danger in a vocation to which his country owes much of her prosperity, is dragged by the hair of his head to shed the blood of his fellow creatures at the hazard of his own life; or, perhaps, to wear out an embittered existence in foreign stations, far from those who are nearest and dearest to his affections!

Martindale, Westmorland, Where Matthew was born

Probably quite a change then for a young Matthew Grisdale when he first arrived in the town, probably in the early 1770s. Matthew was born in the rural Westmorland valley of Martindale in 1753, the tenth and last child of parents Solomon Grisdale and Anne Lowther. Martindale is just across Lake Ullswater from Matterdale, and Matterdale-born Solomon farmed there at a place called Hen How. (If you are interested in which Solomon Grisdale of Matterdale was Matthew’s father, please write to me).

Whether Matthew arrived early enough to be present when Benjamin Franklin came to town in 1771 isn’t known, but I like to imagine he was. Franklin came with:

Sir John Pringle on a sort of voyage of scientific interest. It was suggested he visited William Brownrigg, considered one of the greatest scientists of the day, who by then had given up his medical practice in Whitehaven to concentrate on his scientific endeavours at his home of Ormathwaite, near Keswick. Whilst at Keswick, Benjamin Franklin and William Brownrigg carried out an experiment on Derwentwater to investigate if it was true that oil could calm troubled waters. They found that due to the surface tension oil would spread out to a monolayer on the surface of water and thus a surprisingly small amount could reduce the waves over a considerable area.

After his visit Franklin wrote to his wife Deborah:

In Cumberland I ascended a very high mountain, where I had a prospect of a most beautiful country, of hills, fields, lakes, villas, &c., and at Whitehaven went down the coal mines, till they told me I was eighty fathoms under the surface of the sea, which rolled over our heads; so that I have been nearer both the upper and lower regions, than ever in my life before…

Saltom Mine, Whitehaven, where Benjamin Franklin visited

In a letter the following year he wrote to Jacques Barbeu-Dubourg:

On the nature of sea-coal. To M. Dubourg: I visited last summer a large coal-mine at Whitehaven in Cumberland; and in following the vein, and descending by degrees towards the sea, I penetrated below the ocean, where the level of its surface was more than 800 fathom above my head; and the miners assured me that their works extended some miles beyond the place where I then was, continually and gradually descending under the sea. The slate which forms the roof of this coal-mine is impressed in many places with the figures of leaves and branches of fearn (sic), which undoubtedly grew at the surface, when the slate was in the state of sand on the banks of the sea. Thus it appears that this vein of coal has suffered a prodigious settlement. B. F.

It has been suggested that Franklin was starting to think about plate tectonics years, indeed centuries, before they were suggested. In 1782, he wrote again about his Whitehaven visit:

It seemed a proof that there had been a great bouleversement in the surface of that island, some part of it having been depressed under the sea, and other parts, which had been under it, being raised above it. Such changes in the superficial parts of the globe seemed to me unlikely to happen, if the earth were solid at the centre. I therefore imagined that the internal parts might be a fluid more dense, and of greater specific gravity than any of the solids we are acquainted with; which therefore might swim in or upon that fluid. Thus the surface of the globe would be a shell, capable of being broken and disordered by the violent movements of the fluid on which it rested.

John Paul Jones’ Raid on Whitehaven

But a few years later, after the outbreak of the American War of Independence, Whitehaven got another, not so friendly, American visit from Scottish-born John Paul Jones, who was by now one of the first captains in the fledgling US navy as well as a privateer for his own account. Perhaps with the encouragement of Benjamin Franklin, John Paul Jones, in command of the USS Ranger, conducted a brief raid on Whitehaven – the last time a British port was attacked. At 11pm on 22 April, 1778:

Commander John Paul Jones leads a small detachment of two boats from his ship, the USS Ranger, to raid the shallow port at Whitehaven, England, where, by his own account, 400 British merchant ships are anchored. Jones was hoping to reach the port at midnight, when ebb tide would leave the shops at their most vulnerable

Jones and his 30 volunteers had greater difficulty than anticipated rowing to the port, which was protected by two forts. They did not arrive until dawn. Jones’ boat successfully took the southern fort, disabling its cannon, but the other boat returned without attempting an attack on the northern fort, after the sailors claimed to have been frightened away by a noise. To compensate, Jones set fire to the southern fort, which subsequently engulfed the entire town.

Jones knew Franklin well and perhaps he had his permission for this raid. He orders read: “You shall judge best for distressing the Enemies of the United States, by sea or otherwise.

After the raid Benjamin Franklin and John Adams wrote to Jones:

We shall recommend the men who landed with you at Whitehaven, to the favor of Congress, because we think they merited it; but lest our recommendation should miscarry, we wish you to recommend them, and enclose in your letter an extract of this paragraph of ours. As they have done to themselves so much honor in this expedition, perhaps Congress would approve of the deduction of the advance at the time of entry, which they all received from me, being made from their wages in America, that the men may have their prize money here.

Mercants’ Houses in Irish Street – Like the one Matthew lived in in 1811

Whatever the case, Matthew Grisdale had established himself well enough in Whitehaven by 1783 to marry. His wife was Esther Fletcher. Matthew had become a “corn factor” i.e. a trading merchant. Eight children soon followed: John (1785), Joseph (1787), Lowther (1790), Thomas (1792), Ann (1792), and William (1793), Jane (1798) and Mary (1801).

Things obviously were going well for him because by 1811 his business acumen had enabled him to be living in a fine merchant’s house in Irish Street, Whitehaven. By 1828 he was living, presumedly in an even finer house, in Lonsdale Place and by now was called a “Gentleman”.

Matthew died aged 86 in June 1838. In his will dated 13 June 1837, we can see how wealthy Matthew had become. He divided his estate (unequally) between his children. In cash and government debt he bequeathed around £10,000, plus extensive properties, including his house in Lonsdale Place plus warehouse and shop in Roper Street and extensive household goods. He had done very well!

Many of Matthew and Esther’s children had interesting lives themselves: John became a grocer in Whitehaven, Lowther went to university, became a clergyman and school-master, and was for 28 years the headmaster of Bolton Grammar School in Lancashire, Thomas moved to Liverpool and became a pawn-broker, while William became, like his name-sake Benjamin Grisdale, the manager of Whitehaven’s Customs House. But those stories are for a later date.

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  5. […] He was the son of mariner Matthew Grisdale and his wife Sarah Tickle. Matthew was the grandson of another Matthew, a Lake District man who had made a fortune as a corn merchant in the late eighteenth century in […]

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