Nineteenth Century Red Tape

I was entertaining myself yesterday evening with an 1804 copy of the London Gazette. Most of it isn’t really news at all – it’s more a notices sort of paper, with the odd snippet of what His Majesty was up to (officially, of course, not the mad stuff, which would have been much more interesting.)

I find myself completely fascinated by such things and although a lot of it’s skimmable, it’s a window into another world that I can never resist. Among the notices were:

  • Enough commissions of new officers to delight an entire lost novel’s worth of Jane Austen heroines
  • A frightening amount of bankrupts
  • A request for any remaining subscribers to the City of Dublin Tontine (the world’s most ridiculous get-rich-slow idea) to make themselves known
  • The average price of muscovado sugar (44 shillings, ten pence and three farthings per hundreweight, in case you’re interested)

There were a lot of naval notices too, ranging from the dull-but-lucrative-for-someone “The Principal Officers and Commissioners of His Majesty’s Navy do hereby give Notice that on Thursday 19th of this month at One o’ Clock, they will ready to treat with such persons as may be willing to contract for supplying His Majesty’s Yards at Deptford and Woolwich with Birch Brooms”…

…to a long list of vessels captured and detained by the Squadron under the command of Commodore Hood, along with their contents – from cotton and cocoa to an entire shipment of slaves, who were clearly having an even worse time of it than usual.

If you were lucky enough to have been the Captain, Officers or Crew of His Majesty’s gun-brig Monkey “who were actually on board at the Recapture of the Snow Orforva and the Brig William, on the 26th November 1803,” you’d hit paydirt – part of the loot. Official announcement was given that they would “be paid their respective Shares of the salvage of the said Recaptures on the 21st January 1804.” And the remuneration wasn’t bad, either – ranging from First Class officers in line for a £107, 10s and a halfpence windfall, to £2 16s 4d for fifth class.

But the one that really caught my attention was from the Chest Office at Greenwich, which doled out pensions to retired sailors. The ‘chest’ was the Chatham Chest – literally a big box full of sixpences stopped out of sailors’ wages to provide money for illness. It had been horribly defrauded over the years, but it did still provide some cash for worn-out seamen.

The notice was classic red tape that any of us would recognise today, which was why I loved it. It began

“Notice is hereby given to the Greenwich Chest Pensioners, that each of them as were admitted Pensioners by the governors of the late Chest at Chatham, on Account of total Blindness, or for the Loss of a Limb, will not be required to appear before the Directors at the Expiration of the Term expressed in their Tickets.”

Fair enough – it’s unlikely any of them was about to grow a leg back or suddenly regain their sight. But it goes on to make it quite clear that everyone else will have to jump through hoops a-go-go. What I love about this (the random upper case letters are original, BTW) is the specificity of it all. The following is all one sentence:

“Persons allowed Pension Money by the said late Governor for Hurts of any other Description, will not be paid beyond the Term for which their several Pensions were granted, unless they have been examined at this Office, any Tuesday most convenient to themselves near the Time appointed for them to be reviewed, except those transmitting Certificates from their Captains or Commanders that they cannot be spared from Duty in His Majesty’s Fleet, to whom Payment will be extended Two Years; and also Pensioners who, from ill Health or Infirmities, are unable to appear, from whom a Certificate of the Cause of Inability will be required, Signed by Two Surgeons, and the Minister and Churchwardens of the Parish in which such Pensioners Respectively reside.”

Plus ca change…


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