This is a tale of an ordinary fisherman whose convictions and integrity withstood all that the power of the British Royal Navy could throw at him and touched the lives of some of the tough men around him.
The 17th century saw the rise of non-conformism across England and one of the earliest sects was the Society of Friends – the Quakers. A visit by George Fox to Holderness in 1651 kindled interest in the beliefs and principles of the Friends. Up and down the coast a small tireless group took The Word to villages and hamlets and one man, a fisherman from Kilnsea by the name of Richard Sellars heard The Word.
At the time Britain was at war with the Dutch and the British Navy was always on the lookout for new recruits. One way of obtaining these recruits was through the pressgang – an ugly form of conscription that allowed gangs to take law-abiding citizens in ports and coastal villages and whisk them away to serve, willy-nilly in the Royal Navy ships.
In 1665, the pressgang caught Richard. He refused to go on board the ketch that was collecting up these new crews and was badly beaten before being hoisted onto the ship with a tackle. The ketch worked on behalf of the Ship of the Line the Royal Prince and it took Richard and the other pressganged men to the Nore – a sandbank at the mouth of the River Thames and an assembly point for the navy. There Richard was again hauled aboard the Royal Prince and the following day was ordered to work at the capstan. This he refused to do. Quakers were, and are, pacifists.
His stance was a brave one given the harsh conditions men of the King’s Navy worked under. Richard received a flogging from the boatswain and then the Captain sent for him, demanding to know why he would not fight for the King. Richard’s reply was a gentle one:
“I told him I was afraid to offend God, therefore I could not fight with carnal weapons.”
The Captain replied to this piety with yet another flogging before one of the crew begged for mercy on Richard’s behalf. To which plea the Captain replied:
“He is a Quaker and I will beat his brains out”.
According to Richard’s account, three days later Sir Edward Spragge, the Admiral came aboard the Royal Prince and learned that a Quaker had been pressed. He learned too that the boatswain’s mate had refused to flog Richard further and so demoted him and took his cane – a mark of his position on board –from him. The man appears to have been thankful to have been relieved of his office.
The Admiral, perhaps fearing the subtle influence Richard’s principled stand was having on some of the crew, took a hard line. He called the whole ship’s company together and, in front of them clapped Richard in irons. He then addressed the crew, saying:
“…take notice there is a man called a Quaker, who is to be laid in irons during the king’s pleasure and mine, for refusing to fight and to eat of the king’s victuals; therefore I charge you all and every man, that none of you sell or give him any victuals, meat, drink, or water, for if you do, you shall have the same punishment.”
Despite this warning some members of the crew treated Richard kindly particularly the carpenter’s mate who surreptitiously tried to share his rations with him. However there were others who continued to abuse him to such an extent that one of the younger officers, risking his whole career, went to the Admiral to ask him to put an end to the ill use. The Admiral called a council of the captains of his fleet. As a compromise, they offered him a place on a small ship that acted as a tender. Richard declined this way out and said he would not fight and he would stay on board the Royal Prince and see out his punishment. With no other alternative, the Admiral then sentenced Richard to death.
When this was generally known some of the crew begged for Richard’s life. Again this was a brave act on their part – to plead for a convicted criminal’s life to their Admiral risked their lives as well.
The following day, with the noose hanging from the yard arm at eight o’clock, Richard stepped forward to meet his fate and, ultimately, his Maker. But as he stepped onto the gunwale, Admiral Spragge called for silence. In an extraordinary twist of events, he proclaimed Richard a free man – “as free as any on board the ship”. Why he did this is not clear. Did his conscience stir him? Was he concerned about the effect on his crew that the hanging of a pious man who had done nothing more than hold to his beliefs would have? Whatever his reason, he had cause later to be thankful that he gave Richard his life back.
A few days whilst the ship engaged the Dutch, Richard, now a non-combatant averted certain disaster at least twice by warning of shoals and fire ships and during the battle he carried the wounded away off the decks and down to the surgeon. His actions drew the attention of the Admiral who remarked afterwards:
“It would have been a great pity had his life been taken before the engagement.”
When the ship eventually sailed back to England, the Admiral gave Richard his freedom and instructed the Captain of the Royal Prince to write out a certificate to that effect. From there, the quiet fisherman disappears into the mists of time.