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The lives and some experiences of our leading men – Thomas Button

Admiral Sir Thomas Button (1565-1634)

Button - colour Copyright up close

Button was for much of his career Admiral of the Narrow Seas – that water defined by the Bristol Channel and across the whole of Southern Ireland. His job included not only protecting vessels and coastal communities from pirates (from here in the British Isles, France, Spain, and north Africa – the Barbary Coast) but also, specifically, the many vessels, from local ports all around the southwest of England, going out and back to and from Newfoundland each year.

Our Three Leading Men – Sir Thomas Button (1565 – 1634)

A Welshman, born in Glamorgan, he was Sir Robert Mansel(l)’s nephew. Mansel was very well placed in the Royal Navy; for a time (1604-1618) he was treasurer for the Navy.

Thomas Button began his naval service in 1588/ 89 and by 1601 was captain of the pinnace Moon during the Spanish invasion of southern Ireland when he won a commendation and a pension for life of 6s 8d per annum. He subsequently went on privateer raids in the West Indies.

In 1612 as a member of the Northwest Company (or Northwest Passage Company) at the instruction of his patron Prince Henry, son of James I, he was commissioned to command two ships, Resolution and Discovery, to lead the search for the Northwest Passage linking Europe with Asia.

This search for a direct way to China and the Asian spice markets had for some time been supposed to be possible by that route. In 1613 he returned; his patron had died in the meantime and his records of the voyage were never shared in public. Some commentators report he was also sent out to search for Henry Hudson, the English explorer and navigator who, on his fourth quest for the same passage, had been cut adrift by mutineers in1612. While no mention of this was made in Button’s instructions two of the mutineers on Hudson’s previous exploration accompanied him on this trip.

The loss of the Resolution, which was crushed in the ice, meant that both of Button’s crews had to return on the smaller Discovery vessel. In 1616 after he had been recognised for skilled seamanship in an operation against rebels in the west of Scotland he was knighted in Dublin by Sir Oliver St John, Lord Deputy of Ireland.

His earlier commissions in the Narrow Seas (Bristol Channel and coast off southern Ireland) were sponsored and financed by merchants of Bristol who had suffered at the hands of pirates in the Bristol Channel and around the southwest coast. The pirates concerned were not just those from the southwest, Wales and southern Irish shores, who were plentiful enough, but also from further afield in surprising numbers – Barbary pirates from North Africa and corsairs in particular. These remained his chief adversaries throughout his career in the Narrow Seas, albeit he also had to contend with many more local villains.

Button was lauded by some commentators then for having rid the Narrow Seas of pirates; no mean feat when so many were involved.

In 1620 he joined the ineffectual Algiers Raid as a Rear Admiral (his uncle led the raid). In Autumn 1620 they freed around 40 British captives and then withdrew until 1621. When their raid resumed it had little effect. They had set out with the aim of dismantling the pirates’ nest and its slave trading operations in Algiers and area but largely failed to secure that end. In May 1621 Button’s uncle was recalled to England and Button returned to carry on his role as Admiral of the King’s Ships in the Narrow Seas.

Over the period from 1621 to his death in 1634 Button continued in his role as the Admiral of the Narrow Seas, supporting those on land and sea from the threats of raids, and from the smuggling and piracy that was rife. In carrying out this work he generally had two vessels at his command and in those days victualling and maintenance of the vessels were the responsibility of the commander and the Admiralty.

A particular feature of his responsibility was to protect the interests of the Newfoundland fleet each year on its trip out and back to Newfoundland. The potential for piracy was ever present and with hundreds of small vessels plying the route, mostly from English ports, but also some from Ireland, there was a steady opportunity for pirates to rob the owners, the seamen and their merchant backers.

The ports from which most vessels went out to Newfoundland included Bristol, Bideford and Barnstaple from the Bristol Channel-North Devon area; Plymouth, Dartmouth, Teignmouth, Topsham and Exmouth from South Devon; Weymouth and Poole in Dorset; Southampton in Hampshire, and London. Several ports, especially Bristol and the major harbours in South Devon and Dorset, forged migration links which lasted nearly four centuries. Whitbourne estimated that some 250 vessels went out and back in 1615, involving up to 5,000 men and fish worth nearly £120,000.

Towards the end of Button’s career there were increasing disagreements with the Admiralty about how he conducted his affairs. In 1631 when he should have been at sea and on watch with his sister vessel, he was in fact back home in Cardiff and the ship docked, which prevented him and his vessel and its crew taking any part in searching for the Barbary Pirates who raided Baltimore in western Ireland, carrying away as captives 111 people (English settlers and Irish people, men women and children) to slavery in North Africa. He was also thought to have profited from prizes captured by pirates that were sold to local dignitaries in Ireland.

Clearly a very important responsibility was for Button’s ship and another to protect the Newfoundland convoys from Barbary pirates off southern Ireland and southwest England so he was regularly directly linked to the fortunes of Poole fishermen. It is clear that any support that Button and his men could provide in making the trip more secure for seamen, owners and merchants would have been much appreciated.

Could he have been recognised for valour during a particular episode involving Poole fishermen or ship owners? Perhaps this could be a reason for an alley in Poole to be named after him?

In our work we found no particular evidence of such a direct link to Poole fishermen and their Newfoundland interests; so we feel that the quest for why Button’s Lane is so named is still to be pursued.

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