The price of a slice of the truth

Nearly 350 years ago William Prynne, a lawyer from Lincoln’s Inn, found himself in a dank and dirty corner of the Tower of London.
It was a place where soldiers and civil servants refused to work ‘for fear of fouling their fingers, spoyling their cloathes, endangering their eyesight and healths by the cankerous dust and evil scent.’
Prynne was King Charles II’s new keeper of the National Archives.
And he was no stranger to the Tower. He had been jailed for life, had his cheeks branded with the letters SL – for seditious libel – and his ears chopped off, for a pamphlet attacking actresses and, by implication, Queen Henrietta Maria, wife of Charles I.
A report of  the trial of William Prynne Esq, in the Star Chamber, for writing and publishing 'A Scourge for Stage-Players,' can be found in the Archives. Subsequent keepers have been less harshly treated.
Prynne wrote: ‘In raking up this dung heap I found many rare antient precious pearls and golden records &c.’
It is a sentiment echoed every day in the modern National Archives building at Kew, where researchers request 600,000 document files a year and millions of documents are viewed online.
These are just some of the gems from my researches, many of them published for the first time, but none of them worth losing an ear for.

© These pages and their content are copyright of Peter Day 2014.

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dod orsborne
Dod Orsborne

Trawler skipper sailed the Atlantic with a sixpenny atlas for charts

As a transatlantic sailor Dod Osborne was big on ideas, short on navigational skills. To be fair he didn’t have the right equipment for the 2,500 mile journey: a matchstick and a cigarette paper as a sextant and a sixpenny child’s atlas in place of charts.
His crew had been recruited by the traditional method – a 48 hour pub crawl of the bars and drinking clubs of Grimsby. It netted him a first mate, Harry Stone, deck hand John Harris and ship’s cook Howard Stephen, aged 17.
Dod’s brother Jim stowed away in the hold of their vessel, the Girl Pat, so that the owners would not know he was on board. A Danish engineer had already been assigned to them but he didn’t last long.
The Home Office file on Dod’s great adventure, which gripped the world in 1936, has only just been released, 76 years later, at the National Archives.
The Girl Pat was a 75 foot diesel-powered North Sea fishing boat and Dod, then aged 32, had been commissioned to do a few days fishing. He had his heart set on greater things. On leaving Grimsby they headed south, pausing in Dover to get the Danish engineer drunk and leave him in port.
Then they sailed on, across the Bay of Biscay, to Corcubion in Spain, where they needed engine repairs, fuel and provisions, none of which they paid for. Further south still, after running aground, they put in at Dakar in Senegal, West Africa on May 23, again with out food or water. Once more they had to make a dash back to sea to avoid paying for provisions, this time leaving the mate Harry Stone behind, receiving treatment in a local hospital.
According to Dod Orsborne’s account they had on board 30lbs of potatoes, one and a half loaves of bread, two tins of bully beef, half a pound of beans, about a ton of fresh water, tea and coffee and they were making for Florida.
It was not enough, the engines failed and they had to rig up a sail. Dod hadn’t a clue where they were and they were reduced to boiling a handful of mouldy peas in a saucepan of water for sustenance. Apart from one sighting by a transatlantic liner, they were not seen for nearly a month until they finally made landfall on the notorious penal colony at Devil’s Island just off the coast of French Guiana in South America. They were finally arrested at gunpoint in Georgetown, capital of neighbouring British Guiana. By then they had become worldwide celebrities and their first thought was to head for Hollywood and sell the film rights. The prosaic reality was that Dod was brought back to London and sentenced to 18 months prison with hard labour for theft of the vessel.
His celebrity lingered on. By the time he sold his story to Life Magazine in December 1948 he was claiming that the Girl Pat had been an intelligence service boat with a retractable funnel to change her appearance. He described carrying out sabotage attacks in the Mediterranean, and smuggling agents abroad, hunting for pearls in Patagonia and man-eating tigers in India.
His wartime exploits included the commando raids on the German submarine pens at St Nazaire, on Dieppe and Tobruk, and the troop landings in Sicily and in Normandy on D-Day. In fact he spent the early part of the war as a second hand on a North Sea drifter – a trawler converted for mine sweeping duty but he did eventually get his skipper’s licence back and he was present on the beaches on D-Day.
Post-war he attempted a single-handed crossing of the Atlantic and had to be rescued, along with a stowaway on his yacht. He organised - or rather disorganised - a round the world voyage following the route of Charles Darwin’s Beagle. Thatculminated in Dod being arrested for gun-running in Trinidad. He died in 1957 of a heart attack while sailing a yacht single handed along the French coast.
The newly released file adds nothing to the story. It contains about a dozen insignificant legal documents and nearly 100 pages of newspaper cuttings. But it would be wrong to scoff too much at Dod’s claims to have been working all along for British Intelligence – the Home Office still has one secret file on him and is not due to release it until the year 2038.



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