The Great Whisky Caper

The Great Whisky Caper- Isle of Eriskay, Scotland

The year was 1941, the location, the tiny Hebridean Isle of Eriskay off the West coast of Scotland. Famous for being the spot where Charles Edward Stuart first stepped foot on British soil at the beginning of the 1745 uprising. Now, 200 years later, this island was about to become infamous for an entirely different reason.

The war was taking its toll on this remote island with the residents suffering under rationing. Although they grew their own food, whisky was almost impossible to come by.

In February, the SS Politician set off from Liverpool to Kingston, Jamaica and New Orleans. It’s cargo? Bicycles, linen, tobacco, £145,000 in Jamaican 10 Shilling notes and most importantly, 264,000 bottles of the finest Scotch whisky.

Distilleries and warehouses had been targeted in the war by the Nazis. The ignition of such a flammable substance was found to be as dangerous as hitting live shells. After a mass public campaign the whisky was loaded up to be sold in safer places across the Atlantic.

As the SS Politician passed the Isle of Wight, gale force winds forced the ship to change its course. The storm continued to batter the ship, pushing it further off track. On the morning of the 5th of February, 1941, it ran aground off the Isle of Eriskay. With its oil tanks ruptured and the engines no longer working, the crew had no choice but to abandon ship. The hold in which the whisky was kept had been flooded with water and fuel oil. Therefore, the captain didn’t believe that the cargo could be salvaged.

The ‘helpful’ islanders hoped otherwise and set up unofficial salvage teams to collect the cargo. Many men donned their wive’s dresses to keep their clothes clean from the ship’s leaking oil. Under the cover of darkness, they rowed out to the SS Politician and used their wits to get to the flooded hold. They salvaged whatever they could carry.

When word got out of the whisky on board, people from neighbouring islands, some as far as Lewis (130 miles away), made their way to Eriskay. In the words of one man, they were simply “rescuing the whisky”. In all, around 24,000 bottles were salvaged. To put that into perspective, the population of the entire Isle of Eriskay at that time was around 400. Local resident Mairi MacInnes later recalled that, “Men were dancing in the streets and singing songs and everyone joined in. It was very exciting.”

The authorities, and certainly the ship’s owners, saw the islander’s salvage efforts as nothing short of thievery. After all, duty hadn’t been paid on any of the cargo. The customs officers began combing the islands, confiscating the loot and arresting those found with it.

The locals on the Isle of Eriskay were crafty when hiding their spoils. Bottles were hidden everywhere, in hen houses, amongst rocks and buried deep in people’s gardens. Very little of it was hidden in their homes. Many of them simply tried to drink the evidence, although there was far too much to get through so quickly. Very few were ever caught with their loot. Eriskay was awash with a sense of adventure, community spirit and whisky!

After many months, the authorities finally gave up and the islanders were left alone. To deter any further looting, the hull of the ship was destroyed. This prompted one resident to declare, “Dynamiting whisky. You wouldn’t think there’d be men in the world so crazy as that!”

Although the incident was never publicly reported, the story was picked up by Scottish author Compton MacKenzie and made into a book, Whisky Galore, which was later immortalised on film.

To this day, whisky is still being found under water and in forgotten hiding places on the island. In 2013, two recovered bottles of whisky were sold at auction for just over £12000.

The money has its own story. In the hold, the cases of Jamaican notes had been covered with fuel and water and later believed to be swept out to sea. However, within a few years, notes began showing up in banks in Northern Scotland, Liverpool, Stoke-on-Trent and London and later internationally. By 1958, just over £105,000 had been recovered. To this day, no one knows exactly how the Jamaican shillings could be used in such remote parts of Scotland in the middle of a war.

For more information on this story, have a look at this online exhibition at     The Merseyside Maritime Museum: http://www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/maritime/archive/displays/politician/ 

Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Stephen Hopkins: The Incredible Life of a Mayflower Passenger

Let’s face it, some people are just more interesting than the rest of us, Teddy Roosevelt, Brian Blessed, Forest Gump (ok, he’s not real, but still…). Their exploits are what fill history books and propel our world forward.

One of the most interesting people in early American history is someone you’ve probably never heard of. Yet you may have heard whispers of his existence in great literature and maybe your school governance classes. He rubbed shoulders with famous people, sailed on famous ships and signed a very famous document. He is one of America’s great pilgrim fathers, Stephen Hopkins.

Hopkins was born in Hampshire, England during the reign of Elizabeth I. His early life seemed to be fairly uneventful, he married, had children and worked as a ministerial clerk. In 1609, Hopkins was given the opportunity to sail to the Jamestown Colony in the new world. He left his wife and children and sailed out on the Sea Venture in June of that year. His fellow passengers included John Rolfe (future husband of Pocahontas) and Thomas Gates, the new governor of Jamestown.

Castaway

Two months into the voyage, the Sea Venture was was hit by a storm, strayed off course and ended up shipwrecked in the Bahamas. The survivors, of whom there were many, managed to land on a tropical paradise with plenty to eat. The group built new ships to sail the rest of the way to Jamestown. Some opted to stay and form a new colony. I mean, why wouldn’t you?

Before they set sail, Hopkins voiced his dislike of Thomas Gates’s leadership and was arrested for mutiny and sentenced to death. However, it seems that the other castaways liked Hopkins and pleaded his case thus winning his release. Hopkins, along with several other men sailed for Jamestown.

News of the shipwreck and the attempted mutiny eventually reached England. It is believed that the story may have inspired William Shakespeare’s play The Tempest. The character Stephano, a drunken fool, may have been a thinly veiled nod to Stephen Hopkins.

Jamestown

When they arrived in Jamestown, they found the inhabitants starving and the settlement near collapse. In truth, Jamestown had been colonised by a group of upper-class privileged dandies who considered the manual labour required for survival beneath them. Luckily, a supply ship followed soon after and, with the colony saved from starvation, Hopkins and his fellow shipmates stayed.

During his time in Jamestown, Hopkins learned the ways of the Native American including their language, a skill which would come in handy in years to come. It is believed that Hopkins probably met Pocahontas not long before she married his fellow Sea Venture castaway, John Rolfe.

Four years after arriving in Jamestown, news reached the colony that Hopkins’s wife had died. He immediately travelled back to England to be with his three children. He stayed in England for several years and eventually remarried. However, the lure of the new world never left him.

Pilgrim

In 1620, Hopkins learned of a new venture led by a group of Separatists to create a new settlement in the colony of Massachusetts. Hopkins took his wife and children and they boarded The Mayflower, on their way to the new world. Along the gruelling two month journey across the sea, his wife gave birth to a baby boy, Oceanus, the only baby born during the journey.

Once they arrived in Massachusetts, Stephen Hopkins was one of 41 men to sign The Mayflower Compact, one of the most important documents in early American history. This was the first time anyone had written down a framework of governance in the colonies and is sometimes referred to as the world’s first constitution.

Stephen Hopkins and his family settled into their new home in Plymouth Colony. Because of his earlier experience with Native Americans in the Jamestown colony, Hopkins was used as an expert when dealing with the local tribes. The first meeting between the settlers and the natives was held at the Hopkins family home. Over the years his understanding of native languages proved useful and he was sent to accompany the pilgrims on visits to meet with the natives, including the great Wampanoag leader Massasoit.

Rogue

Years later, Stephen Hopkins opened a tavern. While the community allowed him to sell alcohol, he had to obey their strict laws. This is where he began to run afoul of the authorities. During his time as an innkeeper, he seriously wounded someone in a fight, was fined for serving alcohol and allowing shuffleboard on a Sunday, he was charged with selling beer at double the price and for allowing people to drink excessively in his house.

The real trouble came in 1638 after his maidservant Dorothy Temple fell pregnant by a man named Arthur Peach. Peach was a highwayman who was caught and hanged after the murder of a Native American. Plymouth Court ruled that Hopkins was financially responsible for Dorothy and her child for the two years remaining on her terms of service. Hopkins refused and was found in contempt of court, landing him in custody. Another man stepped in and agreed to support Dorothy and her child thus releasing Hopkins of his obligations.

Hopkins continued to run his tavern until his death in 1644. In his will he requested to be buried alongside his wife.

From a possible Shakespearean muse, to a pilgrim father, to town troublemaker, Stephen Hopkins lived a life filled with more adventure than most people could ever dream. His spirit embodies the toughness and perseverance required to survive in the early days of America.

For more information about Stephen Hopkins, the Pilgrim Hopkins Heritage Society have their own website here: http://home.pilgrimhopkins.com

Magna Carta’s Little Brother

Magna Carta's Little Brother: The Forest Charter

The Magna Carta, one of the world’s most influential documents, was signed in a field near the English town of Runnymede in 1215 by King John. After a bitter dispute with his barons over rising taxes, John was forced to sign a charter calling for more rights for the noble class. This was the first time that the divine right of a king had been challenged and John had no intention of following its authority. The Pope sided with the king and had the original version of the Magna Carta annulled.

While the king and the barons bickered, common folk were suffering from a different type of royal excess. Their rights to the fair use of forests were being abused, making life very difficult for the poor.

A forest in medieval terms was any land officially set aside for hunting purposes. This could include fields, villages and heathland as well as woodland. During the reigns of Henry II and his sons Richard and John, royal forests were greatly expanded. They took up nearly 1/3 of the land in England with a large population of the country living within them. People who needed access to these forests faced strict regulations with penalties including heavy fines or even death. In a time when use of the land was vital for daily survival, forest laws were oppressive.

A year after the death of King John, his son Henry III signed a new version of the Magna Carta. This one was accompanied by a second smaller document, The Forest Charter. While the Magna Carta was for the benefit of the barons, the Forest Charter held up the rights of the land for all other freemen. The two documents would forever be linked in English Law.

The Forest Charter was made up of sixteen articles, far fewer than the 63 in the Magna Carta. However, its rules eased the living conditions of a much larger percentage of the population. It put the boundaries of royal forests back to where they were before Henry II, freeing many people from any regulations for land use. It also allowed people to farm pigs, collect timber or charcoal, build structures such as mills and hunt on the land. Most importantly, the penalties for poaching were reduced. After the Forest Charter, poaching was no longer punishable by death.

Over the centuries, The Forest Charter was ignored by some kings and used for political advantage by others. Early Parliaments used the Charter to set up private game parks and aid in the production of timber. In the 20th century, as the country moved away from an agricultural economy, the public used The Forest Charter as a right to use the countryside for recreational purposes.

The Forest Charter was repealed in the 1970’s. By then, most of its original articles were imbedded in different aspects of English Law, a testament to the importance of public access to the countryside. Today, societies such as The Woodland Trust are calling for a new Forest Charter as a means to protect the environment.

The Forest Charter gives us a glimpse into the lives of Medieval commoners. For people who survived by living off the land, the countryside served a vital purpose. Henry II, Richard and John had put many lives at risk by taking away their right to use the land freely. Their misuse of such an important resource sparked a countryside revolution with the implications lasting centuries.

If you’d like to see an original copy of The Magna Carta and The Forest Charter, take a trip to Lincoln Castle. You can find out more information at https://www.lincolncastle.com

Outside of the UK, the best place to see these documents is on The British Library’s website https://www.bl.uk/collection-items/the-forest-charter-of-1225