• The Curious Fate of the Merchantman Lady Margaret

    by  • July 24, 2017 • Fiction • 0 Comments

    An essay by Hugh Arden, as provided by Candida Spillard
    Art by Luke Spooner

    (A full report on this matter, drawn up by a team headed by Oceanographic Surveyor Hugh Arden, was to have been submitted to the Marine Accident Investigation Bureau.

    When the request for the report was cancelled without explanation and Dr Arden transferred at short notice to a different project, he wrote up the salient points as an academic paper and submitted it to Journal of Maritime Archaeology. The paper was accepted for publication but, strangely, never published.

    He has therefore passed a copy to his sister, Dr Candida Spillard, for safekeeping.)



    We present a possible cause of the demise of the Merchantman Lady Margaret, recently retrieved from the sea bed within the area of the Atlantic Ocean known as the Sargasso Sea.

    The ship appears to have been catastrophically vandalised while still afloat, hundreds of miles from the nearest land, in what would have been a suicidal move by the crew at the time.

    This paper describes the circumstances of the find and offers a tentative explanation for this bizarre state of affairs, based on a forensic examination of the ship’s structure and the artefacts found.


    Background and Context

    Recent advances in marine sensing and Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) technology have pushed back the frontiers of maritime archaeology to the point where it is now possible to locate, retrieve, and carry out thorough investigations of shipwrecks at practically any location, and in any depth of ocean.

    The pioneering step in this area was the raising, in 1982, of Henry VIII’s flagship the Mary Rose which lay partially embedded in sand at a depth of 6 fathoms, two miles from shore under the estuary of the River Solent on the southern coast of England for over four centuries.

    Construction of a “cradle” to hold what remained of the ship enabled it to be lifted, more or less intact, so that it could later be preserved in a controlled atmosphere and viewed by the public.[1]

    Since that time, undersea ROVs have been developed with enhanced excavation capabilities, able to dig away sand and grit from underneath partially embedded wrecks, so as to facilitate their lifting at much-reduced cost and risk.

    Historians have learned much about life in previous centuries from these subsequent investigations of what are, effectively, moments caught in time.



    As with most seagoing vessels at the time, the Lady Margaret had been insured.

    Records at Lloyds, available to the public, show that her owners, Grosvenor, insured her to the value of £2,850 8s 6d, an unusually high value for a vessel of this type.

    The ship’s cargo was listed simply as “Machinery.”

    She was scheduled to set sail from London on 30 September 1772 under the captaincy of one C. Davey, with a crew “of the highest calibre and discretion.” This choice of wording, and indeed of departure date,[2] is unusual.

    Further investigation turned up, at the British Library, a Manifest of the ship’s officers and crew. All two hundred individuals, with the exception of Captain Davey and one of the officers, had signed up with a “mark” as opposed to a written name. From this we conclude that barring these two, the ship was crewed entirely by illiterates.

    Although this was common for the men of ships’ crews at the time, illiteracy among officers was all but unknown.


    Physical Condition of the Ship

    The first oddity noticed by divers on reconnaissance was the lack of an anchor chain in its windlass. There was no evidence of damage of the type that may have been done on losing the chain in rough seas.

    Further on-site observations turned up curious truncations to the timbers, and even the mast. These seemed, judging by the cleanness of breaks, to have been made deliberately.

    No remnants of tackle, sheets, or rigging were to be found on or near the deck, but no damage had been done of the type that would have been evident had the rigging been carried away in a storm, or the mast felled in haste to avoid capsizing.

    No navigation equipment (ship’s compass, sextant, chronometers, rules, dividers, etc.) could be retrieved, even after a complete search of the site and a hundred square miles of the surrounding area.

    Neither was any evidence found of the ship’s cargo: the unspecified “Machinery.”

    At this stage of the investigation, we believed the ship to have been the victim of piracy. Insurance fraud was also a possibility: the laws of the time banning “Interest or no Interest” insurance (whereby a voyage could be “insured” by someone unconnected with it, who would then stand to gain if it failed) were as yet incomplete and difficult to enforce.

    Art for "The Curious Fate of the Merchantman Lady Margaret"

    The first oddity noticed by divers on reconnaissance was the lack of an anchor chain in its windlass. There was no evidence of damage of the type that may have been done on losing the chain in rough seas.


    The Crew

    Permission was sought to bring the remains of some of the crew members to the surface. This is a delicate matter: as a final resting-place, the sea bed is considered Consecrated Ground.

    Here we looked again to the pioneering Mary Rose operation. With England in the throes of the Reformation at the time of the ship’s sinking (1545), the exact religious beliefs of the crew could not be ascertained. An Ecumenical Service was therefore held for all with blessings, on reburial, for those whose remains were examined.

    Examination of the Lady Margaret‘s crew’s remains threw up a further puzzle: no evidence of violence could be found, nor any weapon.

    None of the crew wore any jewellery. Neck-chains, rings, ear-rings, etc., were common at this time, and sailors would have worn them for a variety of reasons.

    We believed at this point that the wreck may have been subject to a previous “treasure-hunting” raid. If so, then it would have been an extraordinarily thorough one.


    The Captain’s Quarters

    Excavation under the structure had been continuing while the artefacts were being catalogued and examined. This excavation, having reached the stern of the ship, revealed an unusually structured hold beneath the Captain’s quarters.

    This hold, partitioned off from the other areas below decks, contained the missing anchor, chain, sheets, tackle, and rigging, along with jewellery, weapons, galley equipment, and the remains of quantities of provisions.

    It also contained a strong-box, which was found to be perfectly sealed. The box was brought to the surface in a carefully controlled operation, so as to preserve the seal.

    It contained a parchment letter and the ship’s log book.


    The Ship’s Log Book

    Initial entries in the log book portray a ship’s crew ill-at-ease, the departure date being the first, obvious, factor.

    Floggings were frequent.

    A week into the crossing the Captain increased the grog ration.

    The more germane log entries thereafter are reproduced below, verbatim, as they tell the tale so completely.


    8th October 1772 Crew still restless. Oswald the Purser has suggested an excellent way out of this pickle: we are able to pay the crew daily while they work, rather than have them wait until they’re ashore to collect their pay. The money, arriving before due time as it does, will of course be subject to Interest. We have set the rate at twenty percent.

    12th October 1772 First interest payments. Some are being made in the form of silver, jewellery, and metalwork. Offers of extra labour in lieu of hard payment will not be accepted, as we have sufficient man-hours already.

    14th October 1772 Jenkins given 6 lashes for failure to pay interest.

    15th October 1772 Toothache. Tooth extracted by Follett (ship’s surgeon) who had the insolence to demand payment first. When I protested, he summoned the Bosun, who offered to “Take that tooth out the old-fashioned way, Cap’n. If you get my drift.”

    When I told Oswald of this outrage, he came up with the splendid notion that all treatment should be paid for in this way: half to the Surgeon, and half to us.

    18th October 1772 Becalmed in the Sargasso Sea. We have raised the price of limes on board.

    28th October 1772 Still becalmed. Interest payments are now being made in the form of rope, cloth, and wood. I have had to have the Hold extended to store it all.

    5th November 1772 Wind enough for us to sail. Arden the Pilot reports, however, that we are unable to move. Crew showing signs of scurvy.

    8th November 1772 Have introduced flogging for showing signs of scurvy. Arden has disappeared, along with the Boat.


    It can only be surmised that the failure of the crew to attempt mutiny under these circumstances can be put down to the character of the individuals chosen.

    Tucked into the back page of the log book we found a certificate of insurance. Captain Davey stood to gain handsomely in the event of the loss of his ship.

    However, records show that no claim was ever made with regard to this policy.


    The Cargo of the Lady Margaret

    It has now been ascertained that the letter found in the Captain’s trunk constituted the entirety of the Lady Margaret‘s cargo.

    Signed by King George III but drawn up by figures in government who did not wish to see the country plunged into another war, it set out “A Machinery for the Creation of an Independent Means of Finance for the Colonies.”

    At the time the issue of currency for the Continent was a taxing one, in both senses of the word. Devising a means of exchange subject neither to destabilising degrees of inflation nor to the vagaries of fluctuations in commodity values had proven all but impossible. The fate of the paper currency known as “Continentals” provides the best-known illustration of the problems of that time.

    The “Machinery” detailed in the document comprised a currency to be centrally issued in quantities determined by a strict mathematical formula [3] and backed, as security, by the value of Land. This backing was an unusual, but not unknown, departure from the conventional means, namely bonds or reserves of Gold.

    It is believed among historians I have consulted on the matter on both sides of the Atlantic that implementation, for example in the Currency Act 1773, of the ideas set out in this document would have had a strong chance of averting the financial grievances that led to the War for Independence.

    As a result, it is probable that the thirteen states and subsequently the entire USA would have been autonomous, with an independent and publicly owned banking infrastructure and, therefore, a negligible tax burden and no national debt.



    We surmise that the Lady Margaret and her crew were the victims of what may turn out to be the most bizarre instance of mismanagement in English maritime history.

    However, having been chosen for their discretion and, one can assume, deference and lack of education, the crew never mutinied.

    Had the voyage concluded successfully, either with or without the ship’s Captain, the course of history would have run differently indeed.




    [1] Mary Rose http://www.maryrose.org/

    [2] The date is considered extremely unlucky by seamen, who remain superstitious even to this day. In this case with good reason: late September usually brings gales (“The Equinoxials”) in the Atlantic. cf. the children’s nursery rhyme “The Big Ship Sails on the Ally Ally O.”

    [3] The formula, a method of Matrix Inversion, was later refined and published by Gaspard Riche, Baron de Prony in 1795: R. Prony (1795) ‘Essai éxperimental et analytique’, Journal de l’École Polytechnique, Floréal et Prairial (May and June, French Revolutionary calendar), year III (1795), volume 1, issue 22, pp 24-76.

    Hugh Arden was Oceanographic Surveyor for the British Maritime and Coastal Agency until 2014. He is now an independent consultant.

    Noting the coincidence of surname with the pilot of the Lady Margaret, along with family rumours of a West Indian connection, he calculated the possible course of a small boat adrift from the location of the wreck and concluded that it would have come ashore in the Bahamas.

    A letter, published in the Nassau Guardian, elicited a flurry of responses from which it was eventually ascertained that one James Arden was in fact found, sunburned, starving and close to death, on Christmas Day 1772 on a windward beach by a lady walking her pet monkey. He eventually married the lady and they went on to raise a family of eight children and to found a school.

    Candida Spillard is a lapsed physicist, having researched for over twenty years into the effect the weather has on radio wave reception.

    She has a passion for all things environmental, self-sufficient, or just plain eccentric.

    She has sometimes been used for the purposes of Mad Science, but has never knowingly come to harm.

    The family do not, in fact, have any known links to the West Indies but there are rumours, on her mother’s side, of a Princess of the Raj marrying a British officer during those enlightened times before the Victorians put a stop to this sort of thing.

    Luke Spooner, a.k.a. ‘Carrion House,’ currently lives and works in the South of England. Having recently graduated from the University of Portsmouth with a first class degree, he is now a full time illustrator for just about any project that piques his interest. Despite regular forays into children’s books and fairy tales, his true love lies in anything macabre, melancholy, or dark in nature and essence. He believes that the job of putting someone else’s words into a visual form, to accompany and support their text, is a massive responsibility, as well as being something he truly treasures. You can visit his web site at www.carrionhouse.com.

    “The Curious Fate of the Merchantman Lady Margaret” is © 2017 Candida Spillard
    Art accompanying story is © 2017 Luke Spooner

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