The History of Leith

June 4, 2006

A Leith Battle at Sea

The Edinburgh and Leith Shipping Company was established in 1801 by a group of Leith Merchants. Seven years later this became the London and Edinburgh Shipping Company. The parent Company began with six armed Smacks and the crews had special exemption from impressments. At this the country was at war with France and the Smacks were armed at Government expense for the protection of the coast. Each ship carried six 18lb carronades and two 4lb guns. Not very impressive but at least a Smack could make a fight of it. And a celebrated encounter was reported in the Edinburgh Weekly Journal of the Ist Feb 1804 as follows-

“The Queen Charlotte packet, William Nesbitt master, left London on the 22nd of the present month. That day and the following were spent chiefly adjusting the guns and properly arranging the ammunition. About 12 o’clock of the day, on the 24th being then between Cromer and the Spurn, the Mate called up the Master, who had just gone to bed for a little, to come look at a suspicious vessel, which the latter had no sooner done, that he immediately recognised as a French privateer, and from the superiority of his sailing, there seemed to be little chance of escaping that way, he ordered all hands to fill cartridges, and to get the guns ready as fast as possible. This determination created no small alarm among us all, both from the apparent great superiority of the enemy in number of guns and men, but also the uncovered state of the Smack, the bulwark of which being a little higher than the level of the guns, the men on the deck were nearly as much exposed as if no barrier existed at all.

About 10 o’clock the enemy approached close upon our weather quarter, fired a gun, and hailed us in good English, ordered us to haul down our mainsail-which was enforced by a broadside, and a shower of musquetry from the deck and yards, which were crowded with men.

Our Captain asked what brig that was, and desired them to cease firing until that point was settled, to which the enemy replied only by a new discharge of artillery.

Mr Nesbitt then ordered the firing to be returned, which was immediately done, but with little effect in the first instance, as the guns hadn’t been properly pointed. A brisk firing was then kept up by both sides within pistol shot, for nearly three quarters of an hour, when the enemy having shot ahead, wore, which Mr Nesbitt did at the same time. This brought us to the windward of the privateer, which, however, immediately came up again, and gave us a fresh broadside, which we readily returned. At this time our Jib-haulyards being shot away, the enemy gave three cheers, conceiving that we must now inevitably fall into his hands; but upon his attempting to tack, he found that his own gall-haulyards had shared a similar fate; and although our vessel came easily around notwithstanding this disaster, he was obliged to wear; yet he persisted in returning to the charge, and in passing our lee-quarter gave us another broadside, which was returned with so much effect from the Smack that the enemy bore up and left us to pursue our course unmolested.

Mr Nesbitt and one of the sailors were the only persons wounded on this occasion the former received a shot in the side early in the action and the ball fell at his feet but he carefully concealed this circumstance from everyone around him and gave his directions and managed the helm with the same precision and determined coolness till the affair was over as he had done at the commencement. The packet received considerable damage in her hull and rigging.

The enemy was a large brig, appeared to carry fourteen guns, regularly fitted up and crowded with men and from the superiority of her sailing her commander had a fair opportunity of choosing his station. The Queen Charlotte had six 18lb carronades and her crew only sixteen in number, more than half of which were boys…

Leith 27th Jan 1804 A passenger

Source-“Old Leith at Work” James Scott Marshall

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