J D Davies

The Real Tarpaulins, Part 1

In recent posts, I’ve looked at the lives of some of the real ‘gentleman captains’ who became models for my fictional character, Matthew Quinton. Drawn from the aristocracy and gentry, often possessing very little prior experience of the sea, the ‘gentlemen’ became increasingly dominant in the navy of Charles II and Samuel Pepys. By doing so, they gradually restricted the opportunities for ‘tarpaulins’ to rise to command – men like Matthew’s friend Kit Farrell, professional seamen who had either worked their way up through warrant officer posts or had come in from the merchant service. (These career paths often overlapped; like the seamen themselves, ‘tarpaulins’ frequently moved between naval and merchant ships during the course of their careers.) In this and the next couple of posts, I’ll outline the careers of a few tarpaulin officers who provided inspiration for the character of Kit.

Sir John Berry, c.1636-90 – Berry’s background was respectable; he was the son of a Devon vicar. But his father was removed from his living for Anglican and royalist tendencies, so the family fell into poverty and John and his brothers had to seek a living as best they could. He served in merchant ships before moving into the navy after the Restoration. By 1663 he was boatswain of the Swallow Ketch in the Caribbean, and when the command fell vacant, Berry was appointed to it by the governor of Jamaica, Sir Thomas Modyford, a fellow Devonian who was related to George Monck, Duke of Albemarle, the architect of the Restoration and joint admiral of the fleet in 1666. These connections benefited Berry when he returned to England in the latter year; Albemarle gave him several commands, and in 1667 he went back to the Caribbean as captain of the hired ship Coronation, commanding the squadron which won the Battle of Nevis against the French in May 1667. This success cemented Berry’s reputation. He held several important commands before the outbreak of the third Anglo-Dutch war; when that began he was given command of the Third Rate Resolution, earning his knighthood for his defence of the Duke of York’s flagship during the Battle of Solebay (28 May 1672), and he also served in all three major battles in 1673. In 1676-7 he went to Virginia in command of the Bristol, leading the naval forces assigned to put down ‘Bacon’s rebellion’. So respected was Berry that in 1680-1 King Charles II entrusted him with the naval training of his illegitimate son the Duke of Grafton during a Mediterranean cruise aboard the frigate Leopard.

In 1682 he was given command of the Gloucester, carrying the Duke of York to Scotland, but the ship was wrecked off the Norfolk coast. No blame attached to Berry; quite the opposite, as it was probably only his efforts that saved the heir to the throne’s life. In 1683 he went to Tangier as vice-admiral of the fleet tasked with evacuating the expensive English colony. During the voyage he befriended Samuel Pepys, a relationship that paid dividends in 1686 when Berry was appointed to Pepys’s special commission for rebuilding the navy. In 1688 Berry became rear-admiral of the fleet entrusted with defending against William of Orange’s invasion, but he was staunchly anti-French and anti-Catholic, becoming an active Williamite conspirator and even got involved in a plot to kidnap the admiral, Lord Dartmouth. Berry’s health deteriorated markedly through 1689 and he died on 14 February 1690, being buried at Stepney church.

Berry did very well out of his naval service: at his death he owned a house in Mile End and other property in Middlesex and Kent. Perhaps his greatest failing was a tendency toward immodesty. He was an outstanding seaman, greatly respected by the men, and he lost no opportunity to trumpet his own competence and popularity. Ultimately, though, his career had owed much to those two vital factors for the success of any 17th century naval officer: luck and good connections.