Untold lives blog

22 June 2021

Adopting an alias on board an East India Company ship

In December 1756, Robert Young joined the East India Company ship Boscawen as a seaman on a voyage to India and China.  His monthly wage was set at £2 5s.  Young received two months’ imprest or advance pay, and five months’ absence money was paid to his ‘attorney’.

Sailor strapped to ship, heaving the lead 'Heaving the lead' - illustration by George Cruikshank from Thomas Dibdin, Songs, naval and national (London, 1841)  Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

The journal of the Boscawen records that Robert Young died at sea on the afternoon of 18 August 1758 during the passage from Madras to China.  There were unpaid wages to claim, but his family had a problem: Robert Young did not officially exist.

The sailor’s real name was Robert Wood and the explanation behind the adoption of an alias can be found in the probate records held at The National Archives.  Robert wrote his will, using his birth name of Wood, on 16 August 1758, just two days before his death when ‘weak in Body’.  He left everything to his mother Margaret Wood of Warkworth, Northumberland.

The Boscawen arrived back in the Thames in March 1760.  On 21 March 1761, Mary Wood, spinster of St James Westminster, gave evidence to the Prerogative Court of Canterbury.  She stated that she was acting for her mother Margaret Wood, now the wife of Henry Taylor.  Mary understood that Robert had taken on his mother’s maiden name of Young when he joined the Boscawen in case he was pressed by a Royal Navy warship on the homeward bound voyage.  He might then desert with greater safety by reverting to his real name and evading detection.  Several other sailors who had entered the ship with him had taken on aliases for the same reason.

Receipt signed by Mary Wood on 3 April 1761 for the balance of Robert Young’s wages  in the BoscawenReceipt signed by Mary Wood on 3 April 1761 for the balance of Robert Young’s wages  in the Boscawen IOR/L/MAR/B/572 G(2) Public Domain Creative Commons Licence

Probate was granted on 28 March 1761 to Mary Wood as attorney of Margaret Taylor.  Mary then applied to the East India Company for the money owed to Robert.  On 3 April 1761 she was paid a balance of £28 3s 9d.

Margaret Makepeace
Lead Curator, East India Company Records

Further reading:
Journal and pay accounts for the Boscawen 1756-1758 - IOR/L/MAR/B/572C, 572G(1), 572G(2).
Probate of will for Robert Wood, otherwise Young, 28 March 1761 - The National Archives PROB 11/864/155.


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