Walking around the quiet little harbour of Flushing in Cornwall, it is difficult to imagine that some 200 years ago this was a bustling port full of ships of the navy and the postal service. In the 1790’s two naval squadrons were stationed here, one was under the command of the famous Sir Edward Pellew, and the other Sir John Borlase Warren. The captains, officers and crews of these commands gained handsomely from the capture of French ships, winning enormous rewards in prize money. This in turn greatly fed the local economy.
Also in this Port, the postal service operated a fleet of some 30 to 40 three-masted full rigged ships. These vessels were small in size but of a most elegant model, built exclusively for speed and passenger accommodation, carrying important communication across the globe. Both officers and men aboard the packets also made large fortunes not just from running these exceptional ships, but by the private contraband trade that they carried on under the protection of being government ships. This was a most popular service, and so the crews were a hand-picked elite, well-dressed, generally young, and of handsome disposition.
When ships returned safely from voyages across enemy seas, there was great reason for celebration. The captains entertained at their houses on a lavish scale. While the sailors thronged the nine local taverns and the many ‘kiddlewinks’ (off licensees)
While the ships lay at anchor, barges and launches ran back and forth supplying them with stores and services. Along the quays, the docks and shipyards were kept busy maintaining their seaworthiness. On the piers, one would often see a dozen boats, cutters, gigs, launches, jolly boats, and the barges for the commanding officers. The boats crews mostly dressed in dashing marine trim; in the winter- blue jackets and trousers with bright scarlet waistcoats overlaid with guilt buttons. In the summer- striped Guernsey frocks and white flowing trousers
The greater number of the captains and officers of the naval ships, as well as the packet ships, lived in Flushing, adding to the wealth and elegance of the place. The streets of the village literally sparkled with gold epaulets and lace and brilliant uniforms as they thronged too and froe. Gentlemen, with tricorne hats, and square-tailed coats, gold-trimmed and large-buttoned pockets and sleeves, with their silver buckled shoes, they strode forth with the flourish of a tall gold-headed cane, in the company of ladies robed in stiff quilted satin petticoats overlaid with bright dresses open at the front to display rich pattern lace aprons and stately v shaped stomachers. At the time, there was probably no spot in England where there was so concentrated into as small a village this amount of gaiety and elegance. Dinners, balls and parties were held at one or other of the captains houses every evening, not a night passed were there not three or four dances.
To set the scene, one must understand the attitude of the day towards drink. It was normal practice to constantly drink alcohol, water was unsafe to consume, and so beer was used to quench one’s thirst. It is safe to say that pretty much everyone was at least mildly inebriated most of the time. No one thought of intoxication as unbecoming, but rather the mark of a gentleman, as indicative of high breeding. The high classes seemed more frequently inebriated than the lower, their means of indulgence being stronger, their tipple being fortified wines rather than beer. It was thought to be very shabby hospitality that allowed any guest to leave the table sober, hence the expression ‘Drunk as a lord’. The streets bustled through the night with revellers returning from festivities.
Today walking through these quiet streets, it is very difficult to imagine the lives of these people that trod this very same ground.