Your browser is unsupported and may have security vulnerabilities! Upgrade to a newer browser to experience this site in all it's glory.
Skip to main content

People’s histories can become lost, and one aim of the maritime project is to retell some of these stories.

Of course, first-hand accounts, such as Ian Martin’s ‘ “It was one hell of trip” – a stormy trip to Bermuda’, which you can read here are super and as Ian is a volunteer with the project very local. But what about stories from the more distant past. Life stories that are not complete or not fully recounted in books, newspapers, or museum records. What about those tales we can only gather fragments of?

Here our thanks go to Anne Pollitt from Brisbane, Australia for bringing one such story to us. Anne’s paternal family, the Cherry family, were in Hull in the 1700s and 1800s and worked as shipwrights and mariners. During her research she came across a man with the same name as an ancestor, one Richard Mitchell, Captain of His Britannic Majesty's revenue service Cutter Swallow.

Captain Richard Mitchell died at Hull in 1785 aged 47, and his burial in Sculcoates was recorded in the parish register. His wife was named Anna, probably the widow Anna Robertson of Leven. Two children appear in records, Richard junior, and Robert Snow Mitchell who died as a baby. Captain Richard may have been a son of Robert Mitchell, mariner of Scarborough, and Mary Ann Snow of Beverley.

HM Cutter Swallow was stationed at Hull and the accounts suggest patrolled in the Humber and as far north as Whitby. Cutters were provided to revenue officers from the 1680s to both patrol the coast and catch smugglers.

River Hull (general area of the original harbour in 1700s)

There was a Custom House was on the riverside among the quays and staithes and the site was redeveloped as The Corn Exchange in 1856 (now part of the Hull and east Riding Museum).

Blue plaque on frontage of Hull and East Riding Museum in the High Street

Many of the grand or bigger buildings of High Street from that time are still there. William Wilberforce was born at Wilberforce House on the High Street in 1759 and first became MP in for Kingston upon Hull in 1780. In 1784 the Bounty (famous for the Mutiny on the Bounty led by Fletcher Christian) originally the collier, Bethia, was built at Blaydes Yard nearby Blaydes House on the river Hull. Both Pease Warehouse and Maister House were there in Captain Richard Mitchell’s time.

Blue Plaque showing site of Blaydes Shipyard River Hull High Street
Weathervane representation of the Bounty on building on the High Street Hull

So what of Captain Richard Mitchell himself?

E. Keble Chatterton wrote in his 1912 book, King’s Cutters and Smugglers 1700-1855, as follows:

April 24, 1777, Captain Mitchell was cruising in command of the Revenue cutter Swallow in the North Sea. Off Robin Hood's Bay he fell in with a smuggling cutter commanded by a notorious contraband skipper who was known as "Smoker," or "Smoaker." Mitchell was evidently in sufficient awe of him to give him a wide berth, for the cruiser's commander in his official report actually recorded that "Smoker" "waved us to keep off"! However, a few days later, the Swallow, when off the Spurn, fell in with another famous smuggler. This was the schooner Kent, of about two hundred tons, skippered by a man known as "Stoney." Again, did this gallant Revenue captain send in his report to the effect that "as their guns were in readiness, and at the same time waving us to go to the Northward, we were, by reason of their superior force, obliged to sheer off, but did our best endeavours to spoil his Market.

Now was Captain Mitchell prudent and protective of his crew against greater fire power, or sympathetic to smugglers, or waiting on better chances of thwarting the smugglers? We cannot know.

Using a number of examples from Mitchell’s reports of incidents, Chatterton reveals that he didn’t think highly of Mitchell’s valour. However, he was passing judgment 125 years after Mitchell’s death.

A different impression may be gained from contemporary newspaper items. For example, the Leeds Intelligencer reported on 22 April 1783, On Thursday se’nnight the brig Blessing, of Sunderland, was brought into that harbour by the Swallow cutter of Hull, Captain Mitchell, commander; and marked with the broad R. having been taken at sea in smuggling practices. This is a terrible stroke upon the trading smuggling; and a few more such capital seizures would prove the best preventative and severest scourge of those canker-worm enemies of their country.

And two months later, on 26 June 1783, the Stamford Mercury reported, Capt. Mitchell, of the Swallow revenue cutter, stationed at Hull, has carried in there, a smuggling vessel laden with 287 half-ankers of Geneva, which he took in Filay Bay. This is the fourth vessel he has brought in within these three months.

For many years there was no support for a man or his family if he was disabled or killed in the course of his work for Customs. It was not until 1780 that the Custom’s Board began to pay the sum of £10 per annum to every mariner employed on board their cruisers who should lose a hand or foot, or receive any greater injury by firearms "or other offensive weapons of the smugglers while in the actual execution of their duty so as to disable them from further service; and we have also resolved to pay the surgeons' bills for such of the mariners as may receive slighter wounds”.

These were still the times of press gangs for the Royal Navy. The crews of smuggling vessels would also be extremely reluctant to be caught for fear of that outcome.

In his book Chatterton wrote that the schooner Kent was finally captured later in 1777, and that it took four vessels to do it: instead of acting single-handed, the sloops Prince of Wales and the Royal George—both being employed by the Scottish Excise Board, aided by H.M.S. Pelican and Arethusa—four of them—at last managed to capture this schooner. She was found to be armed with sixteen four-pounders and twenty swivel-guns, and also had a large stock of gunpowder, blunderbusses, and muskets. "Stoney" was taken out of her, and he was said to be an outlaw whose real name was George Fagg.

Clearly both patrolling the sea in pursuit of smugglers and smuggling itself were dangerous endeavours.

The Revenue Cutter 'Bee' 28 Tons Commanded by Anthony Somerscales off the Hull Garrison on the River Humber. Thomas Whitcombe (c. 1752-1824) in Hull Maritime Museum

Captain Richard Mitchell’s surviving son began to sail in 1783 and became mate of H.M. Customs cutter Bee as seen in the image above.

There is a sad footnote for this family. Richard junior drowned in 1795 as reported in Hull Advertiser and Exchange Gazette 23rd May 1795.

It happened on the Humber in a very heavy sea. A wave entered and overturned the small open lug boat he was in. Of the four men aboard, two managed to swim ashore but Richard and another man did not. Both the bodies, his and a man named Robert Johnson, were recovered.

It is unknown if there are any ongoing relatives of Captain Richard Mitchell 1738-1785.

Our thanks go to Julie Corbett, Maritime Volunteer for telling Anne's story.