Fascinating Revolutionary War-dated archive comprised of fourteen handwritten letters penned by Lieutenant Edward Down of theHMS Blondeto his wife Mary, consisting of 21 total pages, with letters ranging in size from 7.75 x 10.25 to 7.75 x 13. The correspondence is dated from May 5, 1775, to February 6, 1779, a period in which Down, an officer of the Royal Navy posted on theHMS Blonde, was stationed in Halifax, Nova Scotia. Written in Down’s precise cursive, each letter is annotated with the date, location, and sometimes an internal numbering system, and are addressed to “My dear Life,” as he called Mary, who lived in southwestern England with at least five known children: Will, James, Edward, Sally, and Mary. Throughout the nearly four-year correspondence, subjects of discussion vary from mundane domestic matters involving the payment of bills and the health of his family, to highly informative daily events from aboard the H.M.S. Blonde, such as thorough accounts of movements, the capture of enemy vessels, and even the weather, with Down occasionally providing commentary about American customs or practices, the American Revolution, and the French. Excerpts from the correspondence are as follows:
Clements Inn, May 5,1775, in part: “In my letter of Tuesday last, I promis’d you a Copy of the Petition, which I now send you (on the other Side) and hope it will meet with your approbation it is thought to be well drawn, it is concise, but much to the purpose, had it been a lone one, it might have deterred H.M.S. from perusing it.” The petition, which requests an appointment as commander of a Post Office packet ship, on the reverse, in part:“To the Queens most Excellent Majesty, The humble Petition of Edward Down, a Lieutenant in the Royal Navy, Most humbly showeth, That your Petitioner served as a Midshipman, in the yatch [sic] that conducted your Majesty from Stadt to England, and by the desire of your Majesty had the peculiar Honour of being appointed an Officer on that Occasion. That your Petition being now on half pay, finds great difficulty in supporting himself and a large Family.”
HMS Blonde, November 8,1777, in part: “I once flatter’d myself that the Blonde would have returned this winter to England and that matters would soon be settled, but at present I see very little prospect of it. In this out of the way place, we hear no news of what is going on in America, I mean the South part of it, where our Armies are in Action. There is now and then some of their Privateers brought in here, and some retaken Ships, every thing very dear, and but little fresh Provisions to be got except fish which we have in great abundance.”
Halifax, January 15,1778, in part: “We fell in with Several of the Enemy’s Vessels, but from the shortness of the day, and gales of wind coming on whilst in chace, we only took possession of one which we sent in to this Port, a Brig from Madeira bound to New York call’d the Brothers worth £10,000 Sterl: but as we are only paid an eight part for Salvage, my share will not amount to more than 50£, she had on board 150 Boxes of preserv’d Citron. I shall endeavor to send one by a Ship bound to Bristol at present we are told no part of her Cargo is to be sold but if it is to be had, I shall be very happy in procuring you one…I am so sanguine in my expectations that I would not take a Hundred Guineas for my chance of Prize money for the first Cruize, their Privateers are very numerous. We should have stopp’d some of them last cruize had not our Ship been very foul, and the days short. The Prospect of getting something considerable by remaining in America is so great that I have refused a Change, onto one of the Ships now bound home; and might have had a consideration for the exchange pray God direct him for the Best, but I am resolv’d to see the End of this War if please God…I should have been very uneasy at times had he [Down’s son Will] been with me, the Ship till lately having been very sickly and buried 30 Men since we left England. In August last we were sent up a narrow, intricate River to destroy some saw mills, but the rebels and Indians were better prepar’d for us than we expected, so that after burning some of their houses & Stores, and losing a few of our men, we were oblig’d to embark again, and was near losing the Ship, in getting down the River.”
HMS Blonde, May 17th1778, in part: “On the 5thApril retook a Brig from Cork with Provisions, on the 8thtook a Brig from Salem in Ballast, on the 21sta Brig from Bilboa for Boston, on the 23d a Sloop Privateer 6 Guns and 30 Men, the same night a brig Privateer of 10 Guns surrender’d to us but a thick fog and blowing weather coming on, she got away, the next day, we drove on Shore in Liverpoole Bay a French frigate call’d Le Duc de Choseil of 24 Guns and 120 Men, loaded with Arms, Cloathing &c for Boston, we were very unfortunate in not being able to get her off, had we carried her into Halifax, my Share would have been full fifteen Hundred Pounds, we got out of her five thousand stand of Arms, as many suits of Cloathing, Twelve Brass, and thirty two Iron Cannon, and many other Articles, she had on board a great quantity of Tea, Silks, Cambricks, &c which the Saltwater damaged so much as to be of no Service to us. They had the presumption to engage us for a short time, but after having eight of their Men Kill’d, and as many wounded, they submitted, thus ends our Cruize, now for all these Prizes, I don’t expect to get more than 250£, had they been carried to any other port suppose it would have been double that Sum.”
HMS Blonde, August 13,1778, in part: “As the Marines are to embark in a few days for England, you will by that conveyance receive it…I have no happiness when absent from you. Twenty frigates are to be sent home from America, so that it is very unlikely the Blonde will winter in America. I cou’d wish my dear Life, you would consult your Father about building a Skift and if possible to get a Commission for her, as we are now on the Eve of a French war.”
HMS Blonde, October 2, 1778, in part: “I had great hopes that the Blonde wou’d have convoy’d home the Battalion of Marines, but now the Greyhound is order’d for that Service…for these three months past the attention of this Squadron has been taken up in watching the French fleet, which has prevented the Blonde from meeting with that success she would have had. They are now at Boston, three of their largest Ships, dismasted and much shatter’d by three of our fifty Guns ships and by late accounts from thence it appears there is no great Harmony between the Americans & French. They are cutting one another’s throats very fast, are very much distraught for Provisions (Bread in particular) I hope there is not a rascal of them will get back to France. Had they not interfer’d in this dispute matters wou’d have been settled long ago, and the Blonde in England by this time, however I am not without hopes of seeing you this Year, but I believe it depends on the French fleet leaving the Coast of America.”
HMS Blonde, November 24,1778, in part: “My last was by the Pacific dated Octr 12thsoon after we sail’d for Boston Bay on a Cruize from which I had great expectations but we had scarcely arrived on our Station when we met with a Violent Gale of Wind, obliged to heave our Guns overboard which put an End to our Cruize of Course, and we made the best of our way to this Port; where we arriv’d about ten days since and on examining our Masts find both Fore & Mainmasts much sprung…the Iris and Scarboro Men of War sail for England in three Weeks or a Month.”
HMS Blonde, February 6,1779, in part: “My last letter dated Novr. 20thwas sent by a Brig bound to Falmouth she sail’d without Convoy, or Guns to protect her from the Enemy…We have the greatest Reason to expect happiness with our new Captain, he has great interest with the Commander in Chief Admiral Gambier, having formerly been his Captain, that we may expect the best of Cruizes…I have been sent to twice by ? George Collier who comm’d at Halifax to be her first Lieut in the Rainbow, but as the Ship is directly in Harbor, I thought it against my Interest to accept of it. As the Blonde will go to the Leward, and likely will be Frequently at New York, therefore beg you will write me by the Packett to be left at the Post office there…We have only receiv’d the first dividend for the French Ship, and no part of the French brig Catherine taken in June last…It is a great mortification to us to be laying here froze up and doing nothing in the beginning of the French War.” Also included are numerous address leaves, the bulk of the which are addressed to “Mrs. Down, Ilfracombe near Barnstaple, Devon,” and one letter written by Down’s wife, dated May 1, 1778. In overall very good to fine condition, with occasional professional repairs.
Down served as a lieutenant on the HMS Blonde, a ship confiscated from the French during the Battle of Bishop’s Court, a naval engagement that took place on February 28, 1760, during the Seven Years' War. After capture the Blonde was outfitted as a 32-gun fifth-rate frigate in the British Royal Navy, modifications which elevated the ship to the second highest class for a fighting vessel, with records from 1760 indicating that the Blonde weighed roughly 703 tons and could accommodate 220 crew-members. Fast and well-armed, fifth-rate frigates were frequently tasked to disrupt enemy shipping lanes. Assignment aboard a fifth-rate frigate, while risky, yielded considerable opportunity as crew-members received shares of the profits, “prize money” which Down mentions throughout his letters. As the target for both American and foreign navies, Nova Scotia was guarded by a dense Royal Navy that sought to protect its various settlements and interests. The Blonde intercepted American and French vessels carrying arms, fabric, tea, foodstuffs, and lumber from Europe, the Caribbean, and the colonies, with confiscated goods later sold at Halifax. A remarkable collection of Revolutionary War letters describing American and French movements as seen from the other side.
Terms and abbreviations used in our descriptions.