Culture Magazine

Fraud and the Press Gang in Deptford

By Carolineld @carolineld
The Morning Chronicle of 25 January 1812 reported a rather unpleasant deception: 
A man has resided at Deptford for some time past under the name and title of Sir Edward Perrott, stating himself to be the agent of the Admiralty, and that he resided in the neighbourhood for the purpose of transacting business relative to that department of Government, and has by that means practised several impositions. A woman of the name of Elizabeth Bullen, applied to him to procure an Admiralty protection for her husband, who having been in the merchant's service was afraid of being pressed. He agreed to obtain it, and in a few days after produced to her a pretended protection, written on a skin of parchment, with an Admiralty seal on it, but which no doubt had been taken off an official instrument and pasted on the pretended protection. At the time he delivered it to her he gave her a bill for the charge of it, amounting to 60l. [£60] in different items, for parchment, writing, and different fees. Mrs Bullen did not expect, nor was she prepared to pay so large a sum, but she paid him £23l. 13s. 9d. in part, and he took from her, as a security for the rest, a large mahogany dining table and chest of drawers, and read to her a letter, pretended to be sent to him from the Admiralty, saying the charges for the protection were very reasonable. 
Since £60 was a significant sum of money in 1812, why was Mrs Bullen prepared to pay so much to protect her husband? The Napoleonic Wars were still underway, and England desperately needed sailors for its navy. With willing recruits in short supply, men with sailing skills were 'pressed' into service - so Mr Bullen, who had been in the merchant navy, was vulnerable to being coerced in this way. The Royal Navy paid its sailors less than they would earn on merchant ships, even if the food and workload were often preferable, and paid many months in arrears. Naval service in wartime was also, of course, dangerous; in fact, the accused in this case had been wounded and lost his arm.
There was a legitimate way of avoiding the press gangs: the Admiralty could issue protections. These documents, which had to be carried at all times, were issued to those in specific types of employment. It was one of these documents which Mrs Bullen - whose husband presumably did not qualify under the Admiralty rules - was prepared to pay so heavily for. However, the forgery she received would do her husband no good. The report continues:
Mrs Bullen's husband then went about his business in perfect security, and was pressed, the pretended protection being treated with ridicule. Mrs Bullen in consequence applied to Sir Edward Perrott, who said there must be some error in the protection, and desired to see it, and on her giving it to him he refused to let her have it again, and destroyed it. She not being able to obtain any redress applied to Mr Goodhew, a Magistrate, residing in that neighbourhood, who immediately saw the imposition, and dispatched Crouch, Tucker, and Price, three constables, who took the self-created Knight into custody...
Perrott was committed for trial, the Admiralty were informed, and investigations were made. At trial, he was convicted and sentenced to imprisonment, but the matter did not end there. The defendant, whose name was in fact Henry Dundas Perrott, was later released because of an error on the indictment. (At this period, an error in the document setting out the charge against the accused would usually make it invalid.) Unsurprisingly, the Admiralty were unimpressed by his being released on a technicality; satisfied that the evidence against him established his guilt, they upheld his dismissal from the service. As a result, he did not get the half-pay to which he would otherwise have been entitled as a naval officer.
Perrott did not let matters rest, but petitioned Parliament about his treatment by the Admiralty. Indeed, the petition was put forward by the real Sir Edward Perrott; but it met with a frosty reception. Henry may have had a distinguished record of over twenty years' service in the navy, and been wounded in action, but the crime was a very unpleasant one. Mrs Bullen, a servant-woman, had handed over all the money and valuable possessions she had in return for the worthless 'protection'. Whatever the technical deficiencies of the indictment, Henry Perrott had been found guilty by a jury. 
Joseph Hume, the MP who had presented the petition to Parliament, was invited to withdraw it and did so. Perrott, who claimed in his position 'that for several years past he had been scarcely able to obtain a meal, and was in want of almost the common necessaries of life', would receive neither reinstatement nor a pension. 

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