Bridlington and the Privateering Coast

In earlier times England was regularly at war with France and sometimes other continental countries and during such conflicts this coast was almost always haunted by enemy privateers. Privateers were privately owned ships which preyed upon merchant ships but these vessels not pirates as they carried an official authorisation from their home government – a so-called letter of marque - which allowed them to attack and capture enemy vessels during times of war.

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Britain also had many privateering ships when at war with France or Spain but these vessels tended to patrol the coasts of opposing countries whilst many enemy privateers made straight for this stretch of coast. Rich pickings were to be had amongst the many unarmed trading vessels which sailed by Bridlington or sought shelter in the Bay. In May 1745, for example, their depredations were said to have so terrified local coasting vessels that few dare venture out of port and in 1797 the seas from Flamborough southwards were described by one correspondent as being infested with privateers.

These enemy privateers frequented Bridlington Bay and the surrounding coasts to prey on the passing merchant ships. Typically they were fast and heavily armed luggers which had the speed to outrun slow trading vessels. In 1757 there were reports from Bridlington Harbour about a privateer operating of the coast armed with at least 16 guns, nearly all six pounders and around 200 crew. Few trading ships, even those that were lightly armed, stood much chance. Privateers targeted and chased down many unfortunate ships, opening fire if necessary to make them surrender. The crews of the captured vessels were then confined below decks before an armed prize crew from the privateer sailed the vessel back to their home port, places such as Dunkirk and Flushing, where both the vessel and cargo were sold. Sometimes the crews of these captured ships were held captive for long periods though at other times they were allowed to make their own way home.

In war-time the Bridlington authorities did their best to try to warn passing vessels of the whereabouts of privateers. In 1796 for example they flew warning flags from the fort. A yellow flag was flown when an enemy vessel was thought to be off the coast but position unknown whist a yellow flag with a yellow pendant above was hoisted when the privateer was known to be to the southward of the town. If the privateer was known to be north of Flamborough head then the flagstaff flew the Union flag with a yellow pendant below.

The crew of privateers could make their fortune if they succeeded in capturing a number of heavily laden cargo ships during a privateering voyage but the work was dangerous as the Royal Navy patrolled the coasts to try and capture or destroy them. Local newspapers from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries recount the tales of many actions between privateers and the Royal Navy in this vicinity. In 1745, the hunters became hunted when HMS Fox, surprising a French privateer, Le Bon Ame Louise, about four leagues off Flamborough Head chased down and captured the heavily armed vessel and its 145 man crew who were taken into captivity

The final end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 marked the end for the privateers off the Yorkshire coast. In 1856, after several decades of North Sea peace, most countries signed an international declaration making privateering illegal. Never again was shipping passing Bridlington Bay to be tormented by vessels carting the notorious letters of marque.

Banner image: ‘Ships’ Unknown artist & date, Courtesy of East Riding Museums Service
image: Defence of Captn Pearson in his Majesty's Ship Serapis and the Countess of Scarborough Arm'd Ship Captn Piercy, against Paul Jones's Squadron, 23 Sept 1779. Robert Dodd. Public domain.