The 'Headers In Life & Legend
by Russell W. Knight

A Britisher Outwitted
Back in the so-called "good old days," the sons of Marblehead's stalwart fishermen were as bold, brazen and incorrigible as Old Scratch himself. And tales handed down from one Old Timer to another have pictured them as a noisy, obstreperous band of rough-and-ready youths. Free-for-alls were common because rival gangs from various quarters of town tested each other's mettle, and once started, they fought to a finish. No holds were barred. They fought, gouged and clawed. And whenever their animal spirits got the best of them, they peppered their opponents with a shower of stones, rubble and trash.

But when they tired of this so-called sport, or whenever they felt scores had been settled, bygones were bygones. The cuts and bruises were forgotten, the black eyes, aches and pains shrugged-off, and their torn and tattered clothing dismissed with laughs. Peace and harmony would prevail, and ancient feuds would be brushed aside. And while bone-weary and puffing like a school of winded grampuses, they would gather in a knot to rest, relax and relive their most notable deeds. One would boast of the telling blows he had struck, another would claim he had bloodied an opponent's nose, while yet another would swear he had lambasted and trounced a vaunted cock of the walk. As they whiled away an hour or two, each gang cheerfully continued to lampoon and disparage their erstwhile rivals, sparing neither friend nor foe.

To the uninitiated, visitors, strangers and newcomers, such extraordinary donnybrooks were something to behold, a truly mindboggling spectacle capped by an equally extraordinary denouement. In fact, an oft-repeated tale from the past maintains that a naive out-of-towner was so flabbergasted by the scene he had just witnessed that he unwittingly fathered an amusing quip, albeit a meaningful one.

Reportedly, the man told a companion he had been told that during the early days most children had learned their ABC's at their mother's knee. But now that he had watched a gang of young Marbleheaders at play, he was sure they must have learned their lessons at some other joint!

They were truly a feisty, rugged, rambunctious and spunky lot, their boyhood short and their diversions few. And at age ten to twelve, their parents shipped them to the Grand Banks as "cuttails" to learn the "art, trade and mystery" of fishing.

In 1741, Ashley Bowen, thirteen years old and the son of Nathan and Sarah Bowen, was apprenticed by his father for a term of seven years to a Captain Peter Hall, whose Hawke was soon to sail for Philadelphia. Though her voyage to that port was uneventful, her return to Marblehead was not. By a fluke of fate, she was hailed by a British man-o'-war stationed near Graves Ledge and ordered to heave to. Minutes later, a Royal Navy barge manned by a crew of husky seamen approached the Hawke and prepared to board her. To the consternation of Captain Hall and his crew, it now became all too obvious that a British press gang was about to search the Hawke and seize -- by fair means or foul -- any able-bodied seamen it needed to fill a navy shy of manpower.

Impressment was an age-old practice, and the Royal Navy's way of recruiting men to replenish crews decimated by sickness, death, war and desertion. Though His Majesty's hardbitten tars were not supposed to seize any mariner in American waters, their officers were known to look the other way whenever a press gang returned with a bevy of able-bodied seamen. In time, the infamous custom was to have a marked effect upon the events leading to the War for Independence. And in 1741, the only American sailors passed over were the very young and very old.

Thus, the sight of a Royal Navy barge commanded by a midshipman and manned by a crew of sailors armed with cutlasses and belaying-pins sent cold shivers racing up and down the spines of Captain Hall and his worried hands. None doubted their purpose because they knew only too well that -- barring some extraordinary development -- the oncoming press gang would not return to their vessel empty-handed.

Turning to young Ashley Bowen, who chanced to be standing nearby, Captain Hall, acting on the spur of the moment, bid him to find some out-of-the-way hiding place large enough to conceal the men most likely to be pressed. It was a tall order for one so young, and as time was fast running out, it was a seemingly futile gesture. Nevertheless, the thirteen-year-old Marbleheader willingly leapt at the chance to prove his mettle, to outsmart the boarding party and by doing so, to deny the press gang the satisfaction of collaring one or more experienced hands.

Because there were no compartments built into the Hawke likely to be overlooked by a gang of veteran seadogs, Ashley's intuition sent him rushing down to the captain's quarters. It was not a large cabin, but it did contain two small but adequate clothes lockers. Into these, he managed to wedge Robert Knight and Jacob Hawkins, two strapping fellow Marbleheaders.

He then persuaded Jacob Waters, a Charlestown man, to hide in an even smaller locker used by the mate. Then, with bated breath, Ashley waited for the boarding party to check out the crew and the vessel. But he did not have long to wait; the tramp of feet on deck soon announced their arrival, and within minutes he was accosted by a midshipman.

"Where are your men?" the Britisher demanded, having noted how few hands were manning the Hawke.

"They were sent ashore at Marblehead," replied Ashley, hoping his innocent air would lend credence to his explanation.

The Britisher, apparently satisfied that such was the case, next turned his attention elsewhere. For one long suspenseful moment, it appeared that he had been completely misled by a callow unlettered apprentice. The boy, however, was soon disillusioned. Without further ado, the midshipman entered Captain Hall's cabin and gave it a thorough once-over. Seeing the clothes locker, he strode towards it, obviously planning to probe its depths.

But just as the midshipman was about to unfasten the locker's door, he felt a hand tugging at his coattails. Swinging around, he found himself gazing into the beaming face of the youth he had just questioned. To his astonishment, the youngster asked him if he would enjoy a dram of rum. The offer was too tempting to refuse so the Britisher accepted with alacrity. The Royal Navy was no longer doling out a pint of neat rum a day to every crewman, and when asked if he would care to have his rum sweetened with sugar, the midshipman not only welcomed the suggestion, but asked that the rum be put in a flask and taken to his barge.
Ashley did not hesitate.

Trailed closely by the midshipman, he obtained a flask and filled it with rum. Next, the boy coolly ushered him to the deck. From there, the Britisher boarded his barge and departed after casually mentioning to his waiting crew that he had not found one able-bodied man aboard the vessel. As soon as the barge had pulled away from the Hawke, the young, audacious Marbleheader made a beeline for the captain's cabin. It was good he did, because as he stated later, Ashley found the three concealed seamen "Almost Strangeled to Dath from being so close confined." In fact, after he had freed them, they promptly vented their feelings, swearing that if they had realized what it would have been like to be cooped up within an airless locker that they would have preferred to remain on deck to fight the boarding party!

Ashley Bowen would long remember the stirring encounter and the months preceding it. For one so young, those months had been extremely difficult, troublesome and joyless. Ashley's mother had died, a brother had been impressed by the British Navy, his father had promptly remarried -- and just as promptly indentured him to Captain Peter Hall for a seven-year-term. Yet, as fate would have it, those grievous blows would in no way undermine his spirits or cast a blight upon his future.

For the better part of his life, Ashley would earn a meager and often precarious living as seaman, day laborer, sailmaker, hauler of wood and shiprigger. And as a strong-willed, hardworking jack-of-all-trades, he was destined to provide succeeding generations of Marbleheaders with an accurate and unusual picture of their picturesque seaport as it appeared to him during his lifetime. In an era of stress and strain, of trials and tribulations, of hardship and want, he would become a diarist and a keen, discriminating observer. Few events of any consequence ever escaped his sharp eyes, inquiring mind or ever-present pen.

An entry, dated 1756, records the seizure of the schooner Swallow in the Caribbean by a pair of French warships. Ashley, who was mate of the Swallow, was imprisoned at Martinique. Subsequently, he and two fellow officers escaped sometime later, stole a small two-master, and sailed away undetected under cover of darkness. When they arrived at St. Eustatius, a Marbleheader employed there arranged for him to return as master of the sloop Olive!

Three years later, Ashley -- a bridegroom of twelve months -- enlisted in the English Navy, and was subsequently appointed as a midshipman aboard the 60-gun warship H.M.S. Pembroke. There, he met the vessel's sailing master, James Cook, now known to history as "Cook the Circumnavigator." While serving on the Pembroke, he participated in the Siege of Quebec where -- by chance -- he met General James Wolfe, who shortly thereafter died a hero's death on the Plains of Abraham. Ashley never forgot Cook and General Wolfe, and constantly bragged in his old age of his association with them.

Following his release from naval service, Ashley returned to Marblehead where at age thirty-five he abandoned the sea as a livelihood. From that day on, he was frequently unemployed, short of money and burdened with worries. Fortunately, he never neglected his ever-present diary and his succinct entries.

On October 1, 1766, he ruefully admitted in his diary that he had "nothing to do today," and confessed the next day that he "walked to and fro Pilgrim-like," presumably pacing the streets to calm his restless spirits. And as was his wont, he made it a habit to jot down the names of the vessels entering and clearing the harbor, including the names of their masters and other pertinent details.

His interests, however, did not focus on the waterfront. It mattered not whether a child was born to a neighbor or that a friend's servant had died. Each was promptly committed to paper.

As the relationship between the colonies and the mother country worsened, Marblehead's recalcitrant townspeople began to assail the Church of England. Inevitably, they forced St. Michael's Church to close its doors. And that was a crushing blow to its communicants, one of whom was Ashley Bowen. Shaken by the lamentable act, Bowen still held fast to his Anglican faith. He also painstakingly copied by hand the church's prayer book so that he might always have one available for comfort and spiritual renewal.

Notwithstanding the fact that he was born and reared in a seaport renowned for its adherence to the patriot cause, Ashley was a staunch Loyalist. He not only boldly defended the King, but so denounced the views of his liberty-loving fellow townsmen that they, in turn, persecuted him unmercifully. They refused to sell him food and supplies, and daily subjected him to a virtual tirade of insults and indignities. This so wore him down that he began to worry, fearing that the strain would compel him to capitulate to their demands. But fortunately for him, fate intervened. A sea captain preparing to sail on an extended voyage signed him on as mate and thus saved him from taking the humiliating step.

During the years just after the American Revolution, Marblehead was beset by a sea of troubles. The town's once vaunted fishing fleet had dwindled to fewer than a score of aging vessels, and it was no longer a flourishing seaport. For Ashley Bowen, sailmaker and rigger, there would be days when he would ruefully note that he had "no business at hand." Yet, despite straitened circumstances, he would often spend a day praying at St. Michael's which had been reopened, and on occasion, at one or another of the town's other churches.

Interestingly enough, the town fathers had hired him to "smoke" (fumigate) people and vessels against smallpox, generously overlooking his former attachment to the mother country.

And so his life continued until 1813, when Ashley Bowen passed to his reward on February 2 at age eighty-five. He had been granted a long life, had been married three times and had sired fourteen children. He was a master craftsman, a diarist, watercolorist, sketcher -- a diamond-in-the-rough. In short, he was a rare soul, a man of incredible vitality spiced by an unquenchable interest in the affairs of his home town.

Next... || Previous

Table Of Contents