On 21 June 1764, William Gunton Saword, 24 years old, boarded the Royal Yacht Augusta, where he was to fulfil the duties of clerk. From her Greenwich mooring, close to the Royal Navy Dockyards of Deptford and Woolwich, the Augusta sailed up-river to the City of London or down-river to the mouth of the North Sea, frequently making the crossing to the Continent.
Royal yachts provided private, convenient and comfortable transport for members of the royal family on personal trips and to political appointments. They also had a diplomatic role, providing stylish transportation for British and European nobility, ambassadors and other dignitaries, along with their numerous servants. Yet another task of the yachts was to help mark important royal events and anniversaries with glitz and firepower.
In 1764, the House of Hanover included the royal family of Great Britain and Ireland and the monarchies of many other European states, and inter-marriage was the norm. Indeed, just a few months earlier, HMY Augusta had transported the Hereditary Prince of Brunswick and his attendants to England for his marriage to Princess Augusta, sister of King George III. William was to be right in the midst of these important international alliances.
The crew of forty was mustered every other month, sometimes on land and sometimes at sea, and taking the muster roll was probably one of William’s responsibilities. On his second day as clerk the roll recorded that the ship had her full complement of 40 men. Muster rolls and paybooks show that while many of the crew came from the local area — William himself had been born in Deptford in 1739 — others came from further afield — like James Sutton from Normskirk in Lancashire, Thomas Garman from Pembrokeshire and Thomas Kindred, the Gunner’s Mate, who hailed from Dublin.
William, my husband’s 5x great grandfather, almost certainly had his sea legs before this appointment, and the world of the Royal Dockyards would have been second nature to him. His father and grandfather, both also called William Saword, had worked at Woolwich and then Deptford in different aspects of shipbuilding for the Navy. They were skilled craftsmen and masters of their trades, but they were also literate and business-savvy, carefully negotiating their relationship with the Admiralty, on whom they relied for steady work.
In 1667, William’s grandfather (b. 1640), a blacksmith, sent a ‘humble petition’ to the commissioners of the Navy at Deptford. He had delivered reeds to His Majesty’s yard at Woolwich and trunnel wedges to Deptford, and these goods ‘were all used since his Majesties blessed Restoration’ but he hadn’t been paid. Moreover, 10,000 spiles had been requested from him by Mr Pett the builder (the ‘Pett Dynasty’ was a famous family of naval shipwrights). William made it clear that although he could make the items cheaply and well, he was unwilling to deliver more goods without at least a warrant showing that the previous goods had been received. He reminded them that he was ‘a poore man, and more a Cripple.’ Additional pieces of naval correspondence indicate that by 1700, he was in a more administrative position, responsible for contracting others to produce supplies. In spite of being disabled as a young man (and possibly from birth), he had his son and heir, William, at the age of nearly 60, and lived to the age of 78. William Gunton’s grandfather died before he was born, but it was his skill and determination that enabled the Saword family to flourish in the royal dockyards.
William’s father (b. 1700) started out as a shipwright, but by his mid thirties, he was a Clerk in the Store Office, King’s yard. (The Great Storehouse at Deptford, built in 1513, was a two-story building with an attic that stood 35 feet high. It survived until the 1950s.) By 1739, when William Gunton was baptised, his father was a ‘gentleman’.
Now, three decades later, William was following in his father’s footsteps. But his father hadn’t been his only mentor. At the age of about 15 he had started a seven-year apprenticeship with Charles Carne, his father paying Carne a premium of £21. Charles Carne, gentleman of Paddington, was a master draper and at one point the joint owner of the linen-drapers Carne and Ellison. He was later a Master of the Drapers’ Company. While linen might seem far removed from shipping, Carne’s merchant business required the ownership of sea-faring vessels such as the Grantham. It could well be that William learned the art of a ship’s clerk from him.1
However, William didn’t complete his apprenticeship; on 4 November 1761, two years before his apprenticeship was due to end, he married Frances Raggett, signing the marriage allegation at St Holy Trinity Minories with a flourish. Frances, who signed her own name in the parish marriage register too, was the daughter of Edward Raggett, a master joiner in Deptford dockyard (by 1765, her father retired on a pension after serving there for 63 years). There’s no sign that William took up the Freedom of the Drapers’ Company or of the City of London. Perhaps his father secured him the position on the Augusta before his term ended, or perhaps his desire to marry was so strong that he was willing to break his indenture. Either way, the newly-weds settled in Greenwich, and William embarked (ha!) on his new career.
As clerk of the Augusta, William had one foot on land and one at sea. The position was based at the Clerk of the Cheque’s office in the Royal Naval Hospital in Greenwich (now known as the Old Royal Naval College), which was not a hospital in our modern sense, but rather a retirement home for hundreds of naval pensioners. William’s boss, the Clerk of the Cheque himself, was a scotsman, John Maule.
The Clerk of the Cheque was responsible for mustering and paying workers and managing expenses, such as maintenance and food (victualling).
A document from 1772 lists items that William had purchased for the Augusta — knives and sieves for the cook, a large white stone teapot and a large tin coffee pot, sheets for the state bed, towels, six decanters, two dozen plates and five dozen ‘dorlies’ (doileys (with various spellings) were fashionable ornamental dessert napkins).
(John Cross. Account of timber for which William Saword has been paid for the Augusta yacht and asks for it to be received at Deptford and a bill to be made out. 1772 Oct 14. The National Archives, ADM 106/1208/272).
However, the Augusta was also moored at the hospital when she wasn’t in service — Greenwich Hospital was ‘the London base for the royal yachts from the 17th century to the end of the age of sail.’2 — and William was frequently on board the yacht, whether on a local journey on the Thames, or en route to and from Europe. On water, William’s commander was the ship’s captain, Charles Wray. Earlier in his naval career, Wray had been deployed to America, where in 1748 he captured Spanish and French privateers and took them to Charlestown. In the 1750s he served in the Mediterranean and by 1761 he was in command of the Augusta. Although Capt. Wray was twenty-five years Saword’s senior and an experienced naval officer, he later appointed William Saword as his executor, suggesting a relationship of mutual respect and even close camaraderie.
The Augusta was one of several royal yachts; a list of the entire naval fleet with every vessel’s commander was published every year in the Royal Kalendar.
Muster rolls indicate that William also spent time on the Royal Charlotte. He was ‘prest’ from there in 1765. At other times, he was pressed from Paybooks. I rather think he would have been glad to get out of the office.
HMY Augusta, which weighed 184 tons and was armed with eight four-pounder guns, was rebuilt from the Charlotte and renamed the Augusta in 1761 (possibly when the engagement was announced between Princess Augusta and the Duke of Brunswick). At the same time, HMY Caroline was renamed HMY Royal Charlotte. The sumptuous refurbishment and new names were in honour of Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, bride of George III. The Royal Charlotte conveyed her from Kiel (in present-day Germany) to Harwich, accompanied by warships as well as royal yachts Augusta, Mary, Katherine, and the oddly named Fubbs. Although the Augusta had been renamed before William’s tenure, he was still listed as clerk of the Queen Charlotte in some muster rolls, whether due to habit or confusion!
In 1771, the Augusta was again rebuilt at Deptford. This painting of her launch, purportedly (but quite unbelievably) painted by the 8-year-old son of the king, was not an accurate portrayal.
(Launch of the Royal Yacht ‘Augusta’, Deptford 1771. Royal Museums Greenwich.)
The master’s and captain’s logs of the Augusta are held at the National Archives. They give a flavour of both the mundane and thrilling activities on board. Thanks to mudlarker Nicola White, who I recently met at an exhibition in Watermen’s Hall, I know that the logs were initially taken on chalk slate boards, and then copied neatly into books later.
Weather was reported obsessively (they were very fond of the word ‘squaly’!) and each day began with an obligatory reading of the ‘Articles of War’. Some trips were extremely short, simply delivering people from the dry dock to a moored ship. However, it must have been exciting for William when they voyaged to cities in Europe, collecting and returning queens, dukes and princesses.
On 3 October 1766, the Augusta picked up the newly-wed Queen of Denmark and her entourage at Harwich, where she received a 21-gun salute from the whole fleet. The queen was a British princess, Caroline Mathilda. The prior year she had been engaged to her first cousin, Christian, Crown Prince of Denmark, when Christian was 15 and Caroline just 13. In January 1766, wedding preparations were in full swing when Christian’s father, the king, died suddenly. Christian, a teenager, was now King Christian VII of Denmark. On 1 October, the marriage of Christian and Caroline was held by proxy in London (with Caroline weeping violently). Two days later the 15-year-old queen boarded a royal yacht (possibly Mary), which was to take her across the sea to her husband and her throne.
Sadly, although Caroline gave birth to the future Frederick VI of Denmark, the marriage was a desperately unhappy one that ended in divorce, imprisonment, execution of her lover, and banishment, before her death of scarlet fever, aged just 23. She became known as the ‘Queen of Tears’.
(Portrait of Caroline by Catherine Read, 1767 (Public Domain).)
In 1767, the Augusta transported the body of Edward, Duke of York and Albany (younger brother of the king, who had died at sea near Monaco) to Greenwich Hospital, where each royal yacht fired 20 minute guns3. Although it was peacetime, William would have often heard the sound of gunfire — in salutes for royal passengers and also to mark important dates, such as the King’s birthday (on 4 June), the anniversary of the King’s ascension to the throne (25 March), and on the 5 November, the ‘papist conspiracy’ (i.e., the gunpowder plot).
The King and Queen (George III and Charlotte) travelled on the Augusta several times. The ship’s log records one occasion on 26 September 1771:
At anchor off Deptford Yard at 7am. Lieutenant Perry came on board … At 10 Capt Wray went on shore, received instructions and Signals…….At 2 o’clock His Majesty accompanied with the Queen and Duke of Cumberland came into the stage, manned the yacht and gave 3 cheers, saluted and immediately displayed our Colours which made a magnificent appearance.
I like to think that William’s responsible position meant that he was able to interact with the yacht’s prestigious passengers, or at least with their entourage. Even if he was not permitted to engage with the royal family, he would have been able to observe members of the nobility at close quarters.
During William’s time on the Augusta, he and his wife Frances were also trying to start a family. Sadly, their first child, Frances, was buried in 1765, and a son, William Henry, was buried in 1771.4 Soon after his son’s death, William Gunton made a significant change to his life that would have enabled him to spend much more time on land; on 5 Feb 1772 he was appointed Butler of Greenwich Hospital. There was more good fortune to come … Just over a week later, he finally inherited his maternal grandmother (Eleanor Wheatley)’s property in Deptford, 16 years after her death. And in 1773, William and Frances had a healthy son, Edward William Saword, who would carry the family’s naval tradition forward another generation.
At around the same time, the Augusta was renamed the Princess Augusta to mark the occasion of the King reviewing the fleet at Portsmouth. I wonder if the name change was also in honour of Princess Augusta, mother of George III, who had died the previous year. George had also named his second daughter, b.1768, after her: Princess Augusta Sophia.
On 25 June 1773, King George III boarded the Princess Augusta to review his fleet at Spithead, an event captured in a painting by Francis Holman.
On 24 October 1773, William and Frances Saword baptised their son Edward, probably in the beautiful chapel of Greenwich Hospital. Just a week later, on the last day of October, Charles Wray, Captain of the Princess Augusta, died. William Saword, ‘Chief Butler of his Majesty’s Royal Hospital at Greenwich’, was an executor of his will, a task for which he received £20.
William worked as the Butler at the Greenwich Hospital for more than 32 years. He was there when a major fire destroyed the chapel in 1779, witnessed the lying-in-state of Nelson in the Painted Hall in 1805 and gave testimony in two enquiries into alleged corruption at the institution. He also married two more times. (Part 2 of William’s story, ‘Butler of Greenwich Hospital’, is coming soon!)
Meanwhile, the Princess Augusta continued to play a significant role in British history. In 1795, Princess Caroline of Brunswick (daughter of the Duke of Brunswick and Princess Augusta) travelled on the Princess Augusta to Greenwich Hospital on her way to marry her cousin, the Prince of Wales and future George IV. The marriage would be a disaster. But the optimism and pomp of her arrival was captured in this dynamic engraving by Isaac Pocock, which appeared in the Naval Chronicle. It was fully titled ‘View of the River Thames, with Greenwich Hospital in [the] distance and the ‘Augusta’ Yacht as she appeared on the Fifth of April 1795, with Her Serene Highness the Princess Caroline of Brunswick on board….’ A print of this picture has pride of place above my fireplace.
In 2021, Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced plans to build a new royal yacht to replace the famous royal yacht Britannia. The lavish project was heavily criticised, but following the death of Queen Elizabeth II just three days ago, will HMY Elizabeth now be built and launched in Her late Majesty’s honour?
- The information I have on William’s apprenticeship bond, published on LondonRoll.org, is derived from ‘Boyd’s Roll’, 1934 and does not state what art he was to learn; I don’t know if any original sources have survived. Charles Carne was listed as an owner of the Grantham in London Merchant 1695-1774: A London Merchant, by Lucy Stuart Sutherland.
- ‘ATTRIBUTES REFLECTING NATIONAL, REGIONAL AND LOCAL VALUES’, Maritime Greenwich
- All of the references I have found to ’20 minute guns’ are from interments (on land or at sea). I’m not sure exactly what form this salute took.
- Frances and William Henry’s father was William Saword, ‘joiner of Greenwich’; although the timing and place match, the occupation does not, so this may have been another William Saword; research is ongoing.