Waterford’s St James’ Day flotilla

Sir William Brereton was an English politician and writer who did a tour of Ireland in 1635 and wrote an account of it that is available online. Interesting in itself, what I found fascinating was his departure from Ireland. Brereton sailed on St James Day, July 25th 1635 in a fifty strong convoy, which had gathered at Passage East to await favourable winds.  He sailed on a Royal Navy ship that was required to protect the flotilla from pirates.
one of the Whelps, accessed from
Having traveled to Passage on the 24th he had difficulties finding accommodation, such was the number of travelers gathered for the journey. One can only assume it was no different on the Ballyhack side. But on the following day, the weather changed.  Here’s how Brereton put it;
“… upon St. James day the wind was sufficiently calmed and stood fair, and they in The Whelp discharged a piece of ordinance to summon us aboard very early, so I was constrained to go aboard without my breakfast…About six hour I went aboard one of the King’s ships, called the Ninth Whelp, which is in the King’s books 215 ton and tonnage in King’s books. She carries sixteen pieces of ordinance, two brass sakers, six iron demi-culverin drakes, four iron whole culverin drakes, and four iron demi-cannon drakes… 
This ship is manned with sixty men…We had (through God’s mercy) a quick, pleasant, and dainty passage, for within twenty-six hours after we parted with Ireland, the utmost point I mean of Irish shore, we were landed at Minehead in Somersettshire. 

This is a most dainty, steady vessel, so long as she carries sail, and a most swift sailer, able to give the advantage of a topsail to any of the rest of this fleet, for whom we made many stays, and yet could not keep behind them, so as they did not put up all their sails as they otherwise might, but suited their course to the pace of this fleet, whom they waited upon to waft over from Waterford to Bristoll fair, and to guard them from the Turks, of whom there was here a fear and rumour that they were very busy upon the coast of France. These are full of men, ordinance and small shot…” (1)

As I said, fascinating. But what can take from the account? Well, the Ninth Whelp was part of a fleet of naval ships stationed on the coast of Ireland aimed at protecting the crowns interests and guarding against outside influences on the Irish.(2)  Here’s a fascinating piece on the background to the Whelps including the ninth.
St James Fair in Bristol was then the second largest fair in England. It had started in Bristol in 1238 and had grown from a one day event with a few stalls in St James church, to a two week long gathering encompassing the neighbouring streets of the town. It had grown to such an extent, and attracted so many merchants and businesses that it was a prime target of privateers and pirates. The Turks mentioned in Breretons account are the notorious Barbary pirates, who had sacked Baltimore in 1631. The Bristol Channel was patrolled by the Royal Navy in the run up and throughout the fair in an attempt to thwart the threat.
A typical medieval fair scene
accessed from: http://sherwoodforesthistory.blogspot.ie/2012/10/goose-fair.html
The reason for the Waterford convoy then is probably protection. But why was it such a popular event. The following gives a sense of the scale of trade and entertainment at the fair;
“Blankets and woollens from Yorkshire, silks from Macclesfield, linens from Belfast and Lancashire, carpets from Kidderminster, cutlery from Sheffield, hardware from Walsall and Wolverhampton, china and earthenware from Staffordshire and other counties, cotton stockings from Tewkesbury, lace from Buckinghamshire and Devon, trinkets from Birmingham and London, ribbons from Coventry, buck and hog skins for breeches, hats and caps, millinery, haberdashery, female ornaments, sweetmeats and multitudinous toys from various quarters arrived in heavily ­laden wagons and were joined by equally large contributions from the chief industries of the district.
To these again were added nearly all the travelling exhibitions and entertainments then in the country – menageries, circuses, theatres, puppet shows, waxworks, flying coaches, rope-dancers, acrobats, conjurors, pig-faced ladies, living skeletons, and mummers of all sort who attracted patrons by making a perfect din.
It need scarcely be added that the scene attracted a too plentiful supply of pickpockets, thieves, thimble-riggers and swindlers of every genus.” (3)
One of the details that the account fails to shed light on is the type of ship and the numbers leaving Waterford harbour. Roger Stalley who has written on medieval travel suggests the most popular type of craft at the time was most probably a Carrack. As regards the numbers carried, accounts of the time of pilgrim ships suggest anything from 50 to 200, and in one notably case from New Ross, 400 pilgrims aboard a single ship. (4)
Parade of sail at 2011 Tall ships, the closest image that comes to mind to compare
Accessed from: http://www.shetlandtimes.co.uk/2011/07/08/christian-radich-with-

Even to take the lower figure of 50 passengers still gives us a head spinning number departing these shores for the journey and underlines the importance and relevance of Waterford and Bristol trade links. Realistically, the numbers would suggest that this represented a large contingent from not just the city, but the surrounding hinterland and towns. Indeed it may also suggest ships from around the coast, gathering into the safety of a naval escorted convoy.

I don’t think any modern reader can imagine the scene, except perhaps if they have seen the parade of sail which we were so lucky to host here in the harbour twice as part of the Tall Ships Festival of 2005 and again in 2011.  Once again however, we have an example of our harbours rich maritime past. One also wonders how many other flotillas departed for similar events down the years, that we had not the fortune to be captured by a writer.

(1)  William Brereton, Travels in Holland, the United Provinces, England, Scotland and Ireland, 1634–1635, ed. and publ. by Edward Hawkins, printed for the Chetham Society, vol. 1 (Manchester 1844.)

(2)  John de Courcy Ireland.  Ireland’s Martime Heritage.  1992. Criterion Press. Dublin

(3)  http://www.prsc.org.uk/flying-coaches-and-pig-faced-ladies-reinventing-the-bear-pit/

(4)  Stalley, R. 1988. ‘Sailing to Santiago: Medieval pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela and its artistic influences in Ireland’, In Bradley, J. (ed.) Settlement and Society in Medieval Ireland. Studies presented to F.X. Martin, o.s.a. Kilkenny: Boethius Press, 397-420

A very thoughtful and interesting blog on the origins of fairs

The Origins of Fairs

Thanks to Damien McLellan for the Roger Stalley paper.

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