John Paul Jones, one of the founders of the American Navy, learned his trade as a sailor in the port of Whitehaven in Cumbria on the North West coast of England. Years later he returned to the town to stage the first invasion of England since 1066.
The American Revolution was raging when, in 1778, Scots-born Commander Jones took his ship, the Ranger, up the west coast of Britain, preying on merchant shipping and generally causing havoc. Jones decided that Whitehaven would make a prime target. At the time, Whitehaven was one of Britain’s principal ports and he knew the harbour would be stuffed with vessels of all kinds.
The raid, on April 22, was described graphically in the popular BBC TV series “Coast.” It was an almost total failure, partly because of the American seamen’s reluctance to “burn poor people’s property,” as one of them put it, but also because some members of the landing parties ended up in a pub.
David Allan, former Whitehaven harbourmaster, and an expert on the incident recalled: “The American sailors came ashore, got a sniff of the rum and beer and ended up a little bit tight.
Here in Whitehaven was the only place where he (Jones) actually set foot and committed this act of gross aggression as we call it.”
The Ranger stood two miles off the coast and lowered two boats carrying about 30 heavily-armed men. Jones himself took charge of one of the boats and the second was commanded by Lieutenant Wallingford of the Marines.
The plan was for Wallingford and his men to burn shipping in the harbour while Jones’s party was to spike the heavy cannons in a battery near the town fort. This was to enable the boats to escape without being fired on. The fort’s guards were taken by surprise and captured without bloodshed. Jones then went with a midshipman, Joe Green, to spike the guns while the rest of his men were ordered to the harbour to help in the destruction of shipping.
Meanwhile, Wallingford and his men had landed and headed straight for the pub where they got drunk. To be fair, they had probably intended to secure the building to ensure no one raised the alarm. They also told Jones later that they needed a light to set fire to their incendiaries.
Jones’s men managed to start fires in a number of ships, one of which was badly damaged but not put out of action. Meanwhile, one of the raiders, David Freeman, roused the residents of nearby Marlborough street to warn them that the fires had been started and the whole town was at risk. The townspeople quickly dealt with the danger.
Jones and his men got safely back to the Ranger and they headed northwards towards Scotland. . Not a drop of blood on either side had been shed. They never set foot on British soil again.
More than 200 years later, Whitehaven forgave the Americans. In 1999, American Marines took part in Whitehaven’s first maritime festival. Mr Allan, then still harbourmaster, and an officer from the American navy signed a proclamation of forgiveness. John Paul Jones would have appreciated the gesture. He had sailed to his new life in America as ship’s boy aboard The Friendship of Whitehaven.
Mr Allan said: “We offered them the freedom of the harbour, much like the freedom of the town – you can send one of your military ships to Whitehaven once a year and we won’t charge you any fees.
“The Americans took this very seriously and that proclamation ended up on the desk of Bill Clinton. It’s now on display in the American navy academy at Annapolis in Maryland.”
Ironically, John Paul Jones and his raiders did Britain a favour. Their exploits awoke Britain to the fact that the country could be vulnerable to attack. Coastal defences and local militias were strengthened and this helped to discourage a feared invasion by the real enemy – France.