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Pretty Polly: continued

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Murder Ballads
Secret London

To illustrate this point, Fowler quotes a Madden Collection ballad called New Sea Song which, he says, "gives the sailor's view of such duty":

Our ship, she is unrigged, all ready for docking,
Straightway on board of these hulks we repair,
Where we work hard all day, and at night go a-kissing,
Jack Tar is safe moored in the arms of his dear.

Billson left no widow behind to receive his out-standing Navy pay after death, so we know he was a single man. If he really is the model for William, this spell of guard ship duty would have been his ideal opportunity to seduce Molly with the promises of marriage the ballad records and enjoy her to the full when those efforts prevailed. Ample time too, for Molly to discover her delicate condition, and remind William of his obligations to her more forcefully each day. She knew full well that a Navy carpenter had to sail with his ship when hostilities broke out - "in time of war, to the sea you must go" - and that peaceful interludes like these never lasted for long.
And so it proved. On January 26, 1726, Edmund Hook, the Bedford's captain, received orders that he should prepare the ship for active duty. Spain had joined with Austria to threaten the British territory of Gibraltar, and was now thought to be plotting with Russia too. Acting on Admiralty advice, King George I ordered the Bedford and 19 other Royal Navy ships to stage a show of force in the Baltic and remind the Russian navy that Britain wasn't to be messed with.
Hook's log entry for January 26 reads: "This forenoon, received their Lordships' direction to man and get fit for channel service as soon as possible, to the highest complement, together with four press warrants which I issued out to my lieutenant to be put into execution". (13)
The new orders meant Hook had to get the Bedford's crew up from the minimal 80 men it used as a guard ship to its full complement of 440, and to get this done in double-quick time. The press-gang warrants gave his men the legal powers to force any seamen they found in Portsmouth's pubs and brothels to join the Bedford whether they liked it or not - a crude form of conscription. In extreme cases, reluctant recruits were simply knocked unconscious and dragged on board against their will. This practice was known at the time as "pressing" or "impressing" the crew.
The new orders sharply increased the workload for Billson and his gang of carpenters too, as Hook began pushing them to complete the thousand and one jobs needed to get the ship ready for active service.

If Billson did have a pregnant girlfriend ashore, she'd know his departure was looming very near

"The crisis in the lovers' relationship comes on 26 January 1726 with the news that the Bedford is to be outfitted for duty with the Baltic fleet," Fowler suggests. "Word goes out that 'the king wants sailors' (as the ballad reports), and impressing of the ship's crew begins. Possibly at this time, the girl informs the carpenter that she is with child, in the hope that this will persuade him to marry her before going to sea."
If Billson really did have a pregnant girlfriend ashore, she'd have known his departure was now looming very near, and that there was no guarantee he'd ever return to Gosport again. If she was going to get him to marry her - no small matter for a single girl in her condition at the time - then she couldn't afford to let him forget the issue for a moment. Billson's only escape from this would have been the equally relentless pressure he faced at work, so his mood would have been far from sunny.
On January 27, 1726, the day Stewart signed up, Hook's log confirms the Bedford has already begun press-ganging new men and getting them on-board. Stewart's own name in the pay book has the single word "pressing" noted against it, but he does not appear on a separate list of men recruited in this way. Fowler concludes that "pressing" was an indication of Stewart's duties rather than the reason he joined.
Although he gave his signature on January 27, Stewart did not come aboard the Bedford until two weeks later, and Fowler thinks that's because he was busy ashore recruiting others. "As a press gang member, he would have been more likely than the average to be known personally to the captain, and would spend more time ashore when the ship was in port," Fowler says. This may help to explain why the Stewart of the ballad was so willing to take his fears to the captain, and – as we'll see in a moment - why he's the only crewman given his real name in full.
On January 30, the Bedford was towed alongside a hulk in Portsmouth dockyard so Billson and his gang could remove the old mizzen mast and get a new one set in its place. Next day, they began the huge job of lightening the ship by removing anything that wasn't nailed down so she could be hauled into dry dock for her caulking to be renewed. The ship spent from February 5 to February 7 in dry dock, with Billson and his gang working on her all this time, and then returned to Portsmouth harbour, where she spent the next three weeks.
All this time, Hook's frantic efforts to rope in the crew he needed were continuing. He'd got the total up to 410 men by the time the Bedford sailed out of harbour to the Navy's Portsmouth anchorage at Spithead on February 26, at which point shore leave became very rare. Still, Hook was adding new men every day, eventually getting the ship up to a strength of 486 crew against its supposed capacity of 440. The Bedford stayed at Spithead for six weeks as she and the rest of Admiral Sir Charles Wager's fleet completed their preparations, then sailed for the Baltic with everyone else.
All this suggests that any real murder behind The Gosport Tragedy - and therefore behind Pretty Polly as well - most likely happened between January 26, 1726 and February 26 the same year. Any earlier, and the Bedford would still have been months away from sailing. Any later, and its carpenter would have had no opportunity to murder Molly or anyone else in Gosport. Once the Bedford left for Spithead, John Billson would never tread on English soil again.

Fowler's own guess is that Molly announced her pregnancy towards the end of January, just as the Bedford was getting ready to go into dry dock, and that the murder itself came around February 1. "Her news drives the carpenter to desperate measures," Fowler writes. "He kills his mistress, buries her in a lonely place, and returns to his ship, where he is now caught up in a whirlwind of activity preparing the Bedford for sea duty."
The six weeks at Spithead that followed trapped the entire crew on their over-crowded ship, but gave them far less work to do than the frantic preparations in harbour. Fowler thinks this is when gossip about a ghost on-board may have started circulating. Perhaps this began because someone in the crew noticed Billson was having disturbed nights, or perhaps because he was foolish enough to confide in one of the other men.
"The first stirrings of conscience start to haunt the carpenter, and the first rumour of voices heard in the night begin to come from the crew," Fowler writes. "The ballad offers some support for the anchorage setting in the cry of the ghost: 'This ship out of Portsmouth never shall go / Till I am revenged for this overthrow', meaning that the Bedford shall not leave the Portsmouth anchorage [at Spithead] until she has her revenge."
With little to do in their off-time but get drunk, rumours of a ghost swirling throughout the ship and plenty of time to swap tall stories, the Bedford's crew must have been ready to glimpse spirits in every shadow. It's at this point that a sloshed Charles Stewart stumbles into the dimly-lit hold and sees what he thinks is a beautiful woman holding a baby in her arms. He steps forward to embrace her, but the image instantly vanishes. You or I would conclude this was trick of the light, remind ourselves how primed we'd been to expect something like this, and swear to lay off the rum in future. For an 18th century sailor, though, a very different explanation suggested itself - he'd just seen Molly's ghost! (14)
There's more evidence for Spithead being the setting for this episode in the ballad's report of Hook's reaction. If there really is a murderer on board, the ballad's captain says, then "our ship in great danger to the sea must go". Partly, that line is just a reflection of the seamen's usual superstition about murderers, but the timing it implies is interesting too.