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John Boulderson, A Limehouse Mariner

September 20, 2020
by Sally Jeffery

Sally Jeffery introduces the life of mariner John Boulderson, one of those featured in her book, Mailrunning: Three Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Lives.

In Limehouse

John was born in Ratcliff. Beneath its accretions of wharves and tenements lay a low red cliff which had once been a landmark for early seafarers coming upstream and seeking the gravelly landing among the marshlands. Never a parish, the hamlet of Ratcliff is a reminder that the main road into the city was always the broad looping highway of the Thames. On a coloured print of Rocque’s 1766 map, the river looks like a fat blue shiny snake. The hamlets clinging to the banks – Wapping, Shadwell, Ratcliff, Limehouse on the north bank, Bermondsey, Rotherhithe, Deptford to the south – grew up on land reclaimed from the water and John, like most of the inhabitants, made their living from the river one way or another.

He was baptised John Philips Boulderson in 1717 at St Dunstan’s, Stepney, son of a fly-by-night painter-stainer named Joseph who probably worked in one of the small shipyards in Shadwell. The wider family included several shipwrights on both sides of the Atlantic who were not so much migrants as itinerant craftsmen. John had a few years’ schooling at the parochial school in Shadwell or one of the Ratcliff charity schools. Most likely he studied at the Ratcliff Hamlet school in White Horse Street. Founded in 1710, its subscribers included numerous sea captains. The school clothed its pupils and paid for their apprenticeships.

In 1674, a group composed mainly of ships’ masters set up the Stepney Society with the purpose of paying for orphans and the children of the poor to be apprenticed in the marine trades. The society’s status rose in the next century under the patronage of Sir Charles Wager, a Rochester-born rear-admiral who brought more admirals and other magnificos on board. It may have been under this scheme that in 1733 John Boulderson was apprenticed aged sixteen to a lighterman named Thomas Barnes at St Katharine’s just below the Tower, who loaded and unloaded cargoes by the Custom House quay.

By the end of his seven years’ apprenticeship John went to sea on the ships the lightermen served. In 1740 he was living on Risby’s Ropewalk in Limehouse shared with a mariner named John Smith, whose sister he would later marry. Four years later, aged not quite twenty-seven, John sailed as boatswain on the Baltimore, a merchant ship commanded by Jerningham Bigg of Limehouse. War with France had been declared and the vessel was armed. After trying their luck at privateering in the Channel for a while, they headed for the colonial province of Maryland with a consignment of swords, guns, powder and ball destined for the provincial government.

The Baltimore’s owner Samuel Hyde had offices in Rood Lane, a few minutes’ walk from the Custom House and legal quays between London Bridge and the Tower. Cargoes were inspected there by the Customs men, with variable results. One London merchant wrote in 1771 to his partner in Maryland: ‘I find that the duty on hams is taken off so that, if any of my friends would be so polite as to present me with one now and then, you may assure them there is no danger from the Customs House officers. I likewise have discovered a method to get safe a few bottles of such good old spirit as we used to have. Should anyone incline that, I should drink their healths with it. I now and then keep company with Z. Hood Esq, who is very friendly indeed, but, Jonny, you know we have studied the art of smuggling.’ (Zachariah Hood had been a colonial tax official)

The year after the Baltimore left Maryland for London, there came press reports of a fight off Ostend between British men-of-war and French privateers. The privateers had taken four Atlantic merchantmen and three smaller vessels, the Baltimore among them. The navy ships recaptured the French prizes, but only by running them aground, and themselves also, both sides still firing.

A correspondent in Ostend wrote: ‘I have just been down to the Sands (where they all lye) on board the Royal Privateer who had 40 Men kill’d and 30 wounded, the Dutchess de Penthievre had 30 kill’d and as many wounded, and their Sails so shatter’d that they are Sieves: The Royal’s Main-sail is stain’d all over with Blood, and the Blood in great Quantity ran out of her Scupper-Holes. Our Loss is so trifling that it is hardly to be credited.’

The Baltimore remained stranded, only the cargo of tobacco was salvaged. Unsurprisingly perhaps, after the fight off Ostend John seems to have washed his hands of the merchant trade. He returned home to Limehouse and joined the Post Office packet service.

John married Katherine Smith in June 1746 at St Katharine by the Tower. The Bouldersons remained at Risby’s Ropewalk for ten years, where Katherine gave birth to four children before 1755, when no more children were born for another eight years. A reasonable deduction would be that John had found work on the Dover–Ostend packet service, then transferred to the Falmouth–New York route when it was launched in 1755, while Katherine and the children remained in Limehouse until he could establish himself in the west. They knew the perils of his occupation, especially in wartime when the packets sailed under government orders to defend the mail to the last.

After John got his own command on the Falmouth packet service in 1759, his family joined him in Cornwall and there were more children, with the Bouldersons becoming a substantial Falmouth clan.

Only one of John’s children returned to the Thames. After a career with the East India merchant fleet, his son, Falmouth-born Joseph Boulderson, was appointed Superintendent of the new London Dock at Wapping which opened in 1805. An engraving of the opening ceremony features a top-hatted gentleman standing on the deck of a ship about to enter the dock, who is evidently the Superintendent. The man beside him decorated with a garter star is Earl Camden, Secretary of State for War, who appears to be pointing to a flag-bedecked vessel.

On closer examination, the Superintendent seems to have his hand cupped to receive a backhander from the Earl, who may in fact be pointing to the young women conspicuously arranged on the dock wall, rather than to the ship. The artist was Edward Francis Burney, who worked mainly as an illustrator but also produced satirical watercolours.

Stepney from the 1755 edition of Stow’s Survey of London

Map of Ratcliff & Limehouse from John Rocque’s 1746 Plan of London

Limehouse by Robert Dodd, 1793

The Custom House by Louis-Philippe Boitard, 1757

At Custom House Quay

A view of the opening of the London Docks Wapping on the 31st January 1805, Edward Francis Burney, 1805

In this detail, Joseph Boulderson, Superintendent of the London Dock, can be seen cupping his hand to receive a backhander from Earl Camden, Secretary of State for War, who is pointing out the young women on the dock.

Click here to order a copy of Sally Jeffrey’s ‘Mailrunning: Three Eighteenth-Century Atlantic Lives’

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5 Responses leave one →
  1. Penelope Gardner permalink
    September 20, 2020

    Very nice. I often stay @ St Katherines Foundation and walk the Thames beach. I do find find that the development has not been sympathetic to the area. To many dwellings sold to to absent or transient renters. Too many imported locals who know little of the old ways. The destruction of the Isle of Dogs is the graveyard of the common man.It was always dump, but it’s now quite horrible. Here’s to its ruin and to new diverse life from its broken glass and rusted girders. Not in my time,sadly.

  2. September 20, 2020

    The author had me at “hamlets clinging to the banks”. Thank you for this wonderful/personal history and vivid re-telling of shipwrecks, mariner’s lives and loves, and tales of “defending the post to the last”. I especially enjoyed the 1755 map — one of the most impressive maps I have seen here, with the possible exception of Adam Dant’s.

    Hurrah and huzzah.
    Stay safe, all.

  3. September 20, 2020

    Thanks for this fascinating piece! From the Rocque plan, it looks as though Salmon Lane used to be Sermon Lane? Any connection to the Stepney Meeting??? (https://bit.ly/3hRXbgd)

  4. paul loften permalink
    September 20, 2020

    Shiver me timbers, if ’twere I that had to man one of those there privateers it would take no less than a dozen of those black hearted scoundrels to have press ganged me. T’is no place for me with the main sails so stain’d with blood . Fair makes me tremble in me boots, it does

  5. Gillian Tindall permalink
    September 21, 2020

    That section of the Rocque plan shows Limehouse rather than Stepney, so there is not likely to have been a connection with the Stepney Meeting House. Earlier maps, the 17th century Restoration ones and the Elizabethan one, do not go that far east – reasonably, since the whole of what was to become the East End then lay well outside London.
    `Sermon Lane’ (still called that in the early 19th century) was a main route to St Anne’s Church, Limehouse, so the old name probably derives from that. Later in the Victorian era, when Commercial Road had been constructed and became the main route to the church, overtaking old Rose Lane, the origin of `Sermon’ had presumably been forgotten – hence the verbal change to `Salmon’, something many dwellers in Limehouse might have been more familiar with than sermons!

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