1756 - Percival Stockdale - A Pernicious Custom
Percival Stockdale was born in Branxton, Northumberland in 1736. By nature an intellectual and by inclination a writer of both prose and poetry, he was forced to join the army after his family ran into financial difficulties. In the 1750s he accepted an offer to become a lieutenant in the Welsh Fusiliers and was subsequently stationed in Gibraltar.
In 1757 he left the army because of ill health and became a deacon. Later as a fully fledged priest he was once more able to indulge in his intellectual pursuits and became an admirably avid reformist participating in the political struggle against slavery.
He completed his autobiography - Memoirs of the Life and Writings of Percival Stockdale - in 1802 in two volumes, by which time he was sixty-six years old. It was published in 1809 and contains several references to his sojourn in Gibraltar in 1756 mostly during the short but interesting governorship of the Lord Tyrawley. The following covers those chapters which refer to his short stay on the Rock.
The fleet sailed from Spithead about the middle of April. In our voyage to Gibraltar we encountered a violent storm in the Bay of Biscay. . . .
In the beginning of May . . . Mr Byng's fleet anchored in the Bay of Gibraltar. . . on my landing at the water-port, and going on to the high street |(adjacent to which was the old parade; and where there were, then, two coffee houses, the one almost opposite to the other, I joined some of my friends. . . I was considerably struck with the romtanick situation of Gibraltar; but I was more pleasingly affected with it genial warmth, and cerulean sky . . .
On our anchoring in the bay of Gibraltar early in May, we were informed that war had been declared, in England against France . . . a council of war met in Gibraltar in which it was determined that . . the English fusilier which made part of the garrison, should be sent aboard of Mr. Byng's fleet to act as marines . . The resolution . . . was met with considerable opposition from General Folkes . . . for that . . however he was dismissed from his government.
Admiral John Bing
Mr Byng was, of course, Admiral John Bing who was court-martialled and found guilty of failing to 'do his utmost' to prevent Minorca falling to the French. As explained more fully in another chapter, Folkes was also court-marshalled and eventually relieved of his duties as Governor. Folkes had not helped his cause when - during his short governorship - he ordered eighteen deserters to be shot in a single day. As Stockdale put it;
A barbarous and wanton effusion of human blood; because the execution of that number was far more than was necessary as an awful example.
Stockdale's admirable criticism of Folkes' excesses as Governor of Gibraltar are at odds with his later complimentary comments about the man - and his wife.
In the summer of this year (1756) Lord Tyrawley, and Sir Edward Hawke, arrived at Gibraltar; the former, to succeed General Folkes in the government, there; the latter, to take from Mr. Byng, the command of the Mediterranean fleet.
These two unfortunate men sailed in the same ship, for England. Mr. and Mrs. Folkes took leave of Gibraltar, with extreme grief; and with the reciprocal sorrow of their friends; he had been governor there for many years ; they were both naturally much liked by the garrison, for they were very hospitable, and gay.
They were, in person and face, a remarkably agreeable pair. His loss of his government, was an unexpected, and great shock to him : when he was about to leave the place, he said, with tears in his eyes, that " he had been assured in his own mind, that his bones would be laid in the red sands of Gibraltar.'
Lord Tyrawley himself, was Governor of Gibraltar, when I was there, in the year 1756 . . . He was a man of political, but much more of amorous intrigue; and he was deemed a person of extraordinary talent for humour, and repartee.
One day when I dined with lord George, at Chatham, an officer who was in company, asked him what he thought of lord Tyrawley as a bel esprit ? - 'The first time (replied he) 'that I heard him converse, I thought him very entertaining; the second time, very well; and the third time, very indifferent.
As mentioned elsewhere, Tyrawley was a military man who eventually attained the rank of Field Marshal despite the fact that he was only ever involved in one campaign and that was a fiasco. He was a man with a certain amount of influence back home who belonged to that species of upper crust Englishman whose veneer of courtliness hid a venal impulse to see the world as a place in which he could do whatever he pleased answerable to nobody. Greed was a given, almost an obligation.
Tyrawley has often been quoted for his complaint about Gibraltar which if nothing else shows him to have had a fine line in irony. ‘That Gibraltar is the strongest town in the world, that one Englishman can beat three Frenchmen, and that London-bridge is one of the Seven Wonders of the World,’ he wrote, ‘are the natural prejudices of an English coffee-house politician.’
He soon became weary of Gibraltar, a ‘scandalous place’ that was unworthy to pretend to call itself a fortress. It was, he suggested, a huge drain on Britain’s resources and about as useful as a naval base as ‘Eddystone Lighthouse’.
He thought that the Rock was a place that had ‘dwindled into a trading town for Jews, Genoese and pickpockets.’ In fact he was growing ‘intolerably weary of Gibraltar’, which was ‘in all respects upon the most scandalous foot that ever a town was’ that pretended to call itself a fortress.
He was also reputed to have had three mistresses - mostly acquired while he was abroad, - and fourteen children, all of them illegitimate.
Drinking in Gibraltar
There was much hard drinking at Gibraltar, in my early youth; there is too much of it still, there. . . . As I was of a lively and social temper, I entered too deeply into the conviviality of the place; and often made too large libations to Bacchus. . . .
There is a fashion in drinking, as in other objects of social life. In the year 1756, strong punch after dinner, was the prevailing liquor at Gibraltar: and it was a pernicious custom there, to drink a weaker kind of punch, with a great proportion of lemon-juice in it (which they called sour, and weak) in a forenoon. In consequence of an imprudent manner of living, I was suddenly seized with a violent dysentery . . .
Contemporary plan of the Rock ( Universal Magazine )
The Pora Sisters
There were, at that time, two beautiful Spanish toasts in Gibraltar ; they were sisters; Barbara, and Joanna Pora. I very much admired the latter lady, and wrote some verses on her ; every word of which, I perfectly remember.
Long have Europa's rival nations strove,
Each in their own to fix the seat of love.
England has boasted her majestick dames ;
And soft Italians set the world in flames;
But now no longer these disputes remain;
For beauteous Pora gives the palm to Spain
Nothing can show the salubrity of the climate more, than the general good health of the garrison, amidst a great deal of intemperance. The late general O'Hara told me, that he had been stationed, as a soldier, in many different climates; but that he never knew such moderate lists of the sick, in the common course of health, as those of the military hospital of Gibraltar.
The Skinner Family
Miss Hester Lawder . . . was afterwards married to Mr. Skinner who, at the time of their marriage, was an ensign. He was the son of the General of the engineers. Mr. Skinner was one of the most hospitable of men, he was polite to me when I was a lieutenant in the Welsh fusiliers, and in the year 1756 at Gibraltar. . . . I can never forget the universal admiration which did homage to her charms, in the governors garden at the convent; . . . .
Lieutenant-General William Skinner
Stockdale's friend was the future Captain William Campbell Skinner. His father was Lieutenant-General William Skinner historically one Gibraltar's long line of military engineers and jointly responsible for the first general survey of its defences in 1724. Miss Hester Lawder's successes at the Convent must have been before Tyrawley's time as the elder Skinner had become embroiled in an argument about the new defences in Gibraltar. They had been constructed according to the Governor's specific orders and he thought they were - to put it politely - a waste of money.
The fact that Skinner was forced to appear at the bar in London to justify his criticism - and was cross-examined by Tyrawley himself - cannot have done much to improve their relationship.
Skinner's 1740s plan of Gibraltar's northern fortifications ( detail )