John Bunn, seaman 1789

John Bunn, seaman 1789.

Frances Neale gave us an excellent talk about John Bunn – and without the aid of PowerPoint!

Having spotted a chance reference to a John Bunn, seaman, in the Wedmore records, she and Hazel Hudson were intrigued. Why would a man from a small farming community be a sailor? Not impossible but it seemed rather unlikely and certainly worth further investigation and that investigation led Frances into areas of research she had never been to before.  Much to her delight!

Records showed that the Bunn family had been small farmers in Wedmore since, at least, the 1560’s when the existing registers date from and Bunn is a common name in Wedmore. Being small farmers who rented their land rather than owned it, there are very few records about them but the Parish has a very good run of poor law records and this was where they found the reference to John Bunn when she and Hazel Hudson were cataloguing the records (now in the Somerset Heritage Centre).

What they had found was a magistrates order written on 3 sides of paper. It was a standard order for the safe passage of a homeless person back to the Parish responsible for them. John Bunn, discharged seaman, to be conveyed from Isleworth, Middlesex to Wedmore.   What was unusual was the amount of detail it contained about the journey back to Wedmore and that it had been signed off by several people on the way. As Frances said, it made John Bunn seem like a parcel.

The magistrates order said that John Bunn, had been found “begging and lying about in the air” ie sleeping rough. His place of settlement was Wedmore in Somersetshire and the order instructed him to be taken back, with his pass, to the overseers of Wedmore. It was dated 30 November 1789.

The next page outlined the examination of John Bunn in which he swore on oath that he was born in Wedmore and all his family were legally settled there. He further stated that he had served in His Majesty

Yorke, William Horde; HMS ‘Eurydice’ at Sea; ©National Maritime Museum;

Navy on the frigate Eurydice and had been legally discharged from the Navy as an invalid. He could not write and signed with a cross.

The question was why was he in Isleworth? Frances surmised that as a navy man he would presumably have been put ashore in Woolwich or Deptford and if he couldn’t read or write then the logical thing might be that he would follow the river Thames and head westwards but only got as far as Isleworth before he ran out of money.

The next step was to consult the archivist at Maritime Museum, who was able to give Frances full particulars of the HMS Eurydice. In 1789 HMS Eurydice was patrolling in the Mediterranean under the captaincy of George Lumsdaine.

The muster list of June/July 1788 shows the ship was in dock at Woolwich and that John Bunn was number 46 on that list. The full complement was 140 men, who were later joined by 22 marines. It would appear that John Bunn had joined the ship at Woolwich having, perhaps, recently come off a returning ship. He gave his age as 45 years old which, as Frances observed, is old for an able seaman, most of the crew being in their teens to thirties. Frances had lots of details about the provisioning of the ship and the various activities she undertook. In 1789 the ship was in Gibraltar and on 31st March John Bunn was discharged as “unsuitable.” No explanation was given as to why. Apparently “unsuitable” is a term that covers everything except criminality or mutiny. After his discharge, he continued to be listed in the muster book but was then in Gibraltar Naval hospital and was given his due allowances of clothes, tobacco and pay until some time before November 1789 when he returned to England.  Details of why he was there were not available


1910 postcard of the Naval Hospital

Frances went on to describe the various places that John Bunn passed through on his journey back to Wedmore. a journey of 137 miles which took about 8 days. The details of his journey back, in a succession of formal handovers, was organised and paid for by local officials and was all detailed in the pass document. The fact that he was “conveyed” from place to place suggested to Frances that John Bunn had, perhaps, been invalided out of the Navy after losing a leg. This proved to be untrue as later records showed.

Back in Wedmore John Bunn was handed over to the overseers and appears in the accounts of January 1790 when he was given 7s in “illness” and 3s 6d for a spade. Clearly he was expected to work and had not lost a limb!

Frances detailed the various payments that John Bunn received during his time in the care of the overseers. He often required extra payments because he was ill and there are also medical records of him being attended to on several occasions for various complaints. It would appear that Wedmore looked after its poor very well; apart from regular payments made to him, he received shoes and clothing including “Canvas and Flannel for a truss “ and “Flanell for a Waistcoat.”

The reason why John Bunn was discharged from the Navy or had such a long stay in Gibraltar Naval Hospital remains a mystery but he lived on in Wedmore for 25 years after his discharge, often ill and unable to work for long periods, but cared for by the parish.

St Mary’s church Wedmore © Allen Goodwin-Hancock

He died in January 1814 and the burial register states that he was aged 75 years old and was buried in the churchyard paid for by the overseers.

That entry, therefore, revealed another small mystery. If John Bunn was 75 years old when he died then he would have been 49 years in 1788 when he joined the Eurydice and not 45 years old. As Frances said, he might have taken a few years off his date of birth in order to join the ship – who knows!

It was a fascinating story and, as ever with historical research, leaves a lot of questions still unanswered. But that’s the joy of it!!

Frances and Hazel Hudson have written their account of John Bunn, which will be published in the March edition of “Notes and Queries for Somerset and Dorset” a publication Frances highly recommends.



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