Royal Tars of Old England

Royal Tars of Old England poster

Royal Tars of Old England poster

This “Royal Tars of Old England” poster is moderately famous and is reproduced in various ways. I’ve seen it on tea towels and faux rusted tin wall hangings alongside modern copies of Kitchener and his pointing finger and the “Keep Calm” poster that has been turned to a mind-boggingly large number of purposes (“keep calm and I love shopping” being one I’ve seen, and I’m not sure that even makes sense as a sentence).

This poster is an original though, printed in Lewes, nearly 220 years old and picked up for just a few pounds and for much less than the modern copies. I like the rips in the corner where it was pulled off whatever wall it was nailed to before being folded and put away somewhere as posters for other conflicts replaced it. I don’t know where it came from but perhaps one of many pubs that displayed these posters when they were printed in 1797.

It’s an appeal for men to join the navy (“any Ship o’ War”) down the road in Shoreham, where a blockade was set up at sea to help ensure merchant ships could land. “Let us…protect and defend our good KING and COUNTRY against…our natural enemies who intend in this year to invade OLD ENGLAND…to murder our gracious King as they have done their own, to make whores of our Wives and Daughters…to teach us nothing but the damn’d Art of murdering one another…now is the time to show your love, all who have good hearts…who hate the French and damn the Pope”.

The language is a great piece of marketing, picking numerous angles so you’re sure to find one that resonates with you. The King…but if that’s not your thing then how about bashing the Pope? Protecting womenhood? Fighting the French? Patriotism too of course, and the financial incentive isn’t small either – the landmen’s “bounty” of 30 shillings was nearly a month’s salary upfront.

It was printed by William and Arthur Lee in their premises at 64 High Street, Lewes, which is now where Rowland Gorringe trade. The Lee’s father was something of a revolutionary and was a member of the Headstrong club with his friend Thomas Paine, and printed his first pamphlets for him too.

England in 1797 would have felt DSC_0185 very genuinely under threat, which is perhaps why such strong language is used. This year the French actually invaded, landing in Wales, captained by an American. This was the last time Britain was invaded but they weren’t to know that then. It wasn’t just the French who were being fought either, it was also the year Nelson lost his arm fighting the Spanish. The world was an increasingly uncertain place with revolutions, new alliances and the old order being overturned, and the dominance of the Empire was being questioned and challenged in a way it perhaps hadn’t been before.

When this poster was being printed Lewes was going through a period of transition too: a smattering of new large residential dwellings were going up, and the Freemason’s hall had just been built for the first time. The Market Tower and Friends Meeting House were new buildings too. In fact, a lot of the Lewes we recognise today first appeared within a decade either side of this poster being produced.

Reading the newspapers of the time gives a strong sense of the kinds of fears and uncertainties the town and nation endured too: the French, not content with invading, and not for the first time, were capturing trade shipping within sight of the Sussex coast and taking the boats, their supplies and their crews with them (hence the need for the blockade and enlarged navy this poster is recruiting for). The Lewes MP – one of the Pelham family whose name lasts on in town businesses – went missing in October 1797 for such a long time and causing sufficient concern it made the press. Eventually he turned up in Bath “in good health” though no reason appears to have been given.

Even now with the benefit of hindsight it’s hard to read the stories and not get the impression everything was on the edge of tipping over into chaos. Hard to imagine though what it would have felt like to live through it.

There’s humour too though – a local flax dresser “for a trifling wager” started the year by deciding to eat a square foot of plum pudding in a fortnight. According to the newspaper that’s 1738 cubic inches and would weigh “if properly baked” 42 pounds. For a modern equivalent I think that’s about 400 jam filled sugary doughnuts…

Georgian Lewes feels in many ways like Lewes today though – the posters are very different obviously and while the challenges and changes may be less existentially threatening than they were, if in 220 years anyone is looking at the posters and newspapers of today they’ll unquestionably still see echoes from the 18th century into the 21st.

I don’t know if there’s any record of how many people from Lewes responded to the poster but it took 18 years for this particular threat to diminish via Waterloo, Trafalgar and a host of other battles that I’m sure would have had men from Lewes involved.

More on them some other time perhaps.