This story originally appeared in the Christmas edition of the Illustrated London News published on 3 Dec 1888 [thanks John Weedy]. It later appeared in various US newspapers between Dec 1888 and 1889. These included The Buffalo Morning Express (NY) 16 Dec 1888 (possibly the first), The Geneva Gazette (NY) 20 Dec 1889, Waverly Free Press (NY), The Columbian (Bloomsburg, PA) 27 Dec 1889, The Dispatch (??) 25 Dec 1889, and The Climax (Richmand, KY) 25 Dec 1889. The US versions all have the same type setting with American spelling and that is what I have retained here. Where the story came from originally I have no idea but I have checked some references (below) and it is certainly fiction as it stands though may be an amalgam of various factual tales.

Research (incomplete)


At the corner of the market square in the ancient town of St. Ives, Cornwall, there stands a picturesque old hostelry called the “Golden Lion.” Until quite lately it had for its near neighbor an inn equally picturesque, and perhaps even older—the “George and Dragon.” Both these ancient houses of entertainment must have witnessed many strange events, besides being the scene of many a jovial drinking bout after the gathering in of the “harvest of the sea,” or at the less lawful landing of a contraband cargo, or at the end of a successful privateering expedition. For all these things your Cornishman hath an excellent relish. On the spot was the palladium of the liberties of St. Ives, for here stood the whipping post, the cage and the stocks.

The George and Dragon must have been the fashionable hotel, for after the Cornish pilgrimage of grace the king’s commissioner, Sir Anthony Kingston, lodged here, and entertained at dinner the portreeve of St. Ives, whom he afterwards politely hanged in the market square for his treasonable practices. Here, also, the Duke of Bolton, when he visited the town in 1699, “was treated with six bottles of sack.” The two houses stood so close together—being divided only by the narrow street leading into the market square—that the occupants could wish each other good morning from the windows.

In the days of George II Peter Hexel was landlord of the George and Dragon, and John Renowden ruled the Golden Lion. They were not only neighbors, but fast friends. There was, perhaps, something in the similarity of the circumstances of these two men that strengthened their friendship. They were both widowers, and each had an only child. Richard Hexel was a handsome, strapping fellow of three-and-twenty. Mary Renowden was nineteen, and the pride of her father’s heart. As children they had played together; but there came a time when they only looked and smiled and nodded to each other from the opposite windows. Then Richard would watch for Mary when she went out, and would follow her into the field or on the seashore; and so it came to be at length another version of the old, old story, which surprised nobody—least of all, the landlords of the George and Dragon and the Golden Lion, who looked forward to the time when the interests of both hose ancient establishments should become one and indivisible.

But there was one person who watched the growing affection of the lovers with a bitter and jealous heart. This would not be a true love story, according to the ancient and regular pattern, had there been nothing to interrupt its smooth and even course. A certain Thomas Champer found that he was rejected in favor of one who had been his successful rival from boyhood. Richard Hexel had “taken him down” at school—in the wrestling bouts at “Feastentide” had thrown him in the “Cornish hug,” and had constantly snatched the victory from him in the game of “hurling.” All these defeats he had endured with comparative indifference, but to be beaten in the game of love was not so easy to bear. He watch the lovers in their walks, till he felt he could do anything short of murder to get his rival out of the way. He thought if Hexel were once removed from the scene he might yet succeed with Mary, trusting to time and the chapter of accidents. About this time the government declared war against Spain, and it was certain that men would be wanted for the navy.

If the king’s ships could not be manned by other means, the press gangs would be out, and they would first of all try their luck at the seaports. What if they should visit St. Ives! It was not unlikely—and they would be glad of a hint where good men were to be found. Thomas Champer turned this matter over in his mind till he persuaded himself that he would be doing good service to the state, and furthering his own interests at the same time, if he could lend a helping hand in manning the navy, provided, always, he could keep himself out of the way, for he had no desire to serve his country on board a man-of-war. He was full of such thoughts when he made one of his periodical journeys to Falmouth on mining business, and sought out a certain “crimp” or agent for entrapping seamen for the press-gang. What he did there, or what arguments he used to advance his plans, we need not inquire, but the “crimp” was richer by some pounds at the termination of the interview.

It was Christmas eve, and the good people of St. Ives were preparing to keep the festival with due honor. The usual excitement of the season had been increased in the course of the afternoon by the appearance of a sloop-of-war, which anchored in the bay, and it was expected that some of the officers and crew would come ashore to join in the general merrymaking. After dark a band of mummers entered the market square, and, stopping in front of the George and Dragon, commenced the performance of the Christmas drama of “St. George.” Soon a large crowd was collected, and the noise brought to the doors and windows of the houses most of the persons who were within, including the frequenters of a little club which met at the George and Dragon and the Golden Lion alternately.

In the midst of a terrific combat between St. George and the Turkish knight there was a commotion among the crowd, and a party of armed sailors appeared, headed by a tall fellow, who flourished a naked cutlass, cried, “In the king’s name!” The crowd at once broke away amid the screams of women and cries of “The press! the press!” The sailors made a dash at some of the younger men in the crowd, and among them secured was Richard Hexel, who was standing at his father’s door. The party then retreated with their captives, closely followed by the crowd, crying “Down with the press gang! Down with them!” More than once the sailors were so hard pressed that those in the rear had to turn and make a stand in the narrow streets, and a serious conflict was threatened. But they reached their boats with the men they had captured, and at daylight next morning the sloop of war in the bay had disappeared.

That night there was much wailing among the women of St. Ives, and a fruitful subject of talk was afforded to the club at the George and Dragon. Among the members of this club were Capt. Trenwith, a retired officer of the navy, who sailed with Admiral Benbow, and had lost a leg in the service of his country; Mr. Matthews, ropemaker and mayor of St. Ives; old Will Nance, who had once been a smuggler, and who wore a patch over his left eye, which had been knocked out in some encounter with revenue officers; and lastly John Tackabird, the town barber, who, although occupying a lower social position, was allowed to associate after business hours with the men whose wigs he dressed in the morning. But the barber was in advance of his time, and held opinions which Capt. Trenwith and the mayor thought little less than treasonable. John Tackabird was, in fact, a Democrat; and on the present occasion he was loud in his denunciation of the press gang, which he said was contrary to Magna Charta and the bill of rights—a tyrannical and unconstitutional violation of the liberty of the subject, and showed the English to be a nation of downtrodden slaves, writhing under the iron heel of despotism.

“Where,” said he, waving a newspaper in his hand, “where are our boasted liberties, when the hirelings of a corrupt government can thrust themselves into our houses and carry off our sons and brothers, and force them to fight in the unholy quarrels of kings and their unscrupulous ministers? How long are we to be chained to the chariot wheels of a bloodthirsty obligarchy[sic]? How long”—

“Tut, tut!” interposed Capt. Trenwith with warmth. “Stop thy palaver, John Tackabird. The king must have men for his ships.”

“Men for his ships, Capt. Trenwith!” retorted the barber; “let the king get them by fair and honest means, and then he will perchance have men who will stick to their colors, and not run away as one of Admiral Benbow’s ships did in the West Indies!”

This was a sore subject with Capt. Trenwith, who could endure no slur on the British navy, and who had himself been an officer on board Admiral Benbow’s ship at the time referred to. The barber felt he had gone too far, but the mischief was done.

The captain rose from his seat, his face purple with rage. “Thou d—d chin scraping rascal! how durst thou rake that matter up in my presence. I’ll drive my staff down thy throat for pratting of matters beyond thy barber’s brain!”

“Nay, nay, cap’n,” cried Will Nance; “let John Tackabird be. Mayhap he hath spoken unwisely, but ’tis well known Cap’n Wade and Cap’n Kirby were shot at Plymouth for deserting the admiral.”

“Yes,” said Capt. Trenwith, resuming his seat, his anger having passed away as suddenly as it came—“yes, and shooting was too good for them. They ought to have been hanged at the yardarm—and so should some others that I wot of!” here he looked hard at the ci-devant smuggler.

“Well, but”—resumed the barber, whose tongue must needs wag in spite of his fear of the captain—“touching this matter of the press gang”—

“I’ll hear no more on’t,” cried Capt’ Trenwith; “ ’tis in every fool’s mouth that one volunteer is worth ten pressed men; but I have seen pressed men fight as bravely as the best—and as for Admiral Benbow, he fought his ship like a hero, and died the death of a gallant old sea dog as he was. If some of his men left him in the lurch, enough remained to save the honor of England. But hark ye, John Tackabird, let me warn thee that there are some matters had better be forgotten.”

At that moment a steaming bowl of punch was brought in, all further unpleasantness disappeared under its soothing influence. The party, which now included Peter Hexel and John Renowden, drew in their chairs, and the former proceeded to fill the glasses of his guests with a silver punch ladle that had a guinea let into the bottom of it. As it was not yet known that young Hexel was one of the pressed men, there was nothing to cloud their enjoyment. A visit from the press gang was too common an occurrence in seaport towns in those days to excite much remark, save among those who were the immediate sufferers. Capt. Trenwith said he would take it upon himself to propose a toast which he hoped no one present would refuse to drink.

The king of England had declared war against Spain, and, as the Spaniards had seized all the British ships in their harbors, he thought the sooner they closed with the enemy the better. He begged to propose the health of King George and success to the British arms. If they lived to see another Christmas eve he doubted not they would be able to say the honor of England had been well maintained. As the punch was exceeding good, and had put much heat into every man of the company, the toast was drunk with great enthusiasm. Even John Tackabird smacked his lips with satisfaction.

“It hath been reported,” said Will Nance, “that Admiral Vernon is gone as commander-in-chief to the West Indies, and that he swears to take Portobello on the Spanish main, even if he hath no more than six ships wherewith to do it.”

“I know not how that may be,” said the incorrigible barber. “If he has only pressed men to back him, I doubt it.”

With an ominous look at the last speaker, Capt. Trenwith cut the matter short. “We shall see,” said he. “When ’tis done we shall doubtless hear on it—but what noise is that outside? What now, Tom Champer? What’s amiss?”

“There’s much amiss, Capt. Trenwith,” said young Champer, who now entered the room. “Dick Hexel is among the pressed men. He was seen in the last boat when they put off from the shore.”

“What! my son taken by the press gang!” cried Peter Hexel, starting to his feet. “Zounds! I’ll not believe it—there must be some mistake.”

“I fear there is no mistake,” said Champer; and there was a gleam of satisfaction on his face, which he tried to conceal with a pretended look of concern. “There be those outside who saw him carried off, and the officer swore he would sink the first boat that dared to go nigh the ship.”

Old Hexel hurried out, followed by John Renowden.

“If the lad is really pressed,” said Capt. Trenwith, “I hope he will remain in the service. Sure I am he won’t disgrace it. No lad of spirit should refuse to serve his country when old England’s enemies are afloat. But come, sit down, Tom Champer, and help us to finish the punch.”

Will Nance, who was already “three sheets in the wind,” as he would have himself expressed it, boisterously inquired of Champer how it was that he himself has escaped capture by the press-gang.

“Thou are a likely lad enough,” said he, “and would swab a deck as well as another.”

“I was not in the town,” answered Champer. “I have but now walked over from Zennor.”

“Ah!” cried Nance, with a drunken wink at the rest of the company, “trust a Zennor man to take care of himself. They’re wise folk in their gen-er-eneration. They know why the cow ate the bell rope.”

“Just as St. Ives folk know why they whipped the hake,” retorted Champer angrily.

The captain interposed. “Come, come,” said he; “no more cross words on Christmas eve. ’Tis near midnight. You and I, Mr. Mayor, must set a good example by appearing in church to-morrow morning, so let us jog homewards.”

The mayor crossed the room with a devious gait. “Your shervant, Cap’n Tren’th. Shervant, sir, happy to ’t’nd you,” and the mayor solemnly staggered after Capt. Trenwith, who stummed away on his wooden leg, escorted by his black servant carrying a lantern. The rest of the company also departed, and the George and Dragon was left in solitude and darkness. But lights were burning in the Golden Lion long after midnight. Three anxious hearts were there holding a communion, and vainly trying to find a way out of the trouble that had come upon them.

After the first shock of grief for the loss of her lover was over, Mary Renowden dried her tears and reviewed the situation with a strength of mind and a coolness of judgment that astonished he father and Peter Hexel.

“Dick will return after a time,” she said; “I am sure he will. He is strong and brave, and has always been lucky. Perhaps he will do something that will make his name famous, and then we shall all be proud of him.”

Cheered by this hopeful spirit of hers, the two old men plucked up their hearts, and all three appeared in their usual places at church on Christmas day. After service, as they stood in the Churchyard gazing rather wistfully over the sea, they were joined by Thomas Champer, who wished them a “Merry Christmas!” and uttered some clumsy expressions of condolence about Richard Hexel. He had heard, he said, that the sloop had gone to Falmouth, and if it would be any satisfaction he would write to a friend there, and even go over himself to make any arrangement they pleased for helping Dick; but he feared there was little hope of his release now that war had broken out.

These friendly overtures rather softened the hearts of the two fathers, but Mary felt sure that Champer was insincere. His hypocrisy was not proof against her woman’s instinct. She turned coldly away, and he left them racking his brain for some means of presenting his suit in a favorable light.

Day after day Thomas Champer came to the Golden Lion and sought every opportunity of addressing Mary, but his perseverance was useless. She would not listen to him. He saw that his suit was hopeless, and that he had gained nothing by the absence of Richard Hexel. Yet he continued to haunt the neighborhood of the Golden Lion, until one night he encountered the press gang, which had made another descent of St. Ives, and he was caught in the same trap he had set for his rival.

In the mean time, letters had come from Richard Hexel. He wrote that he was well, and only unhappy because he was parted from Mary. He had joined the West Indian squadron under Admiral Vernon, and expected he would soon be able to tell them something about the war. So time passed on and the spring came.

The club had assembled one Saturday evening in the parlor of the Golden Lion. The customary bowl of punch was on the table, but Capt. Trenwith had not arrived, and the serious business of the evening could not begin without him. To pass the time Will Nance stirred the fire and, lighting a pipe, remarked that the evenings were something chilly, though the spring had come, in spite of the men of Towednack.

“What have the men of Towedbnack to do with the spring?” said the mayor of St. Ives.

“Why, know you not,” replied Nance, “that the men of Towednack built a hedge around the cuckoo to keep the spring back? But what’s this news from the fleet? ’Tis rumored Portabello is taken.”

“ ’Tis true,” said John Renowden, “my daughter hath a letter from Richard Hexel, who was on board the Hampton Court and engaged in the fight.”

“What? Dick Hexel hath smelt gunpowder, then, in a real battle? Hurrah for old England and beloved St. Ives!”

“Amen!” cried Capt. Trenwith, who came stumping into the room. “Yes, friends ’tis all true. Here is a copy of The Daily Post, dated March 29, wherein is an account of the battle, writ by a gentleman on board the Burford, the admiral’s own ship. Fill the glasses, and John Tackabird shall read out the narrative.”

Under the combined attractions of the punch and the newspaper, all eagerly drew around the table, and the barber, clearing his throat, commenced:

“On the afternoon of the 21st, about 2 o’clock, we came up with Portobello harbor, where the Spaniards had hoisted upon the Iron castle the flag of defiance. They welcomed us with a terrible volley, which, being at so short a distance, took place with almost every shot. One struck away the stern of our barge; another broke a large gun upon our upper deck; a third went through our foretopmast, and the fourth, passing through the arming within two inches of our mainmast, broke down the barricade of our quarter deck very near the admiral, and killed three men in a moment, wounding five others who stood by them. This looked as if we should have bloody work, but was far from discouraging our brave fellows”—

The barber continued to read how the spaniards were driven from their guns and the English landed: “One man set himself close under an embrasure whilst another climbed on his shoulders and entered under the mouth of a great gun. This so dismayed the Spaniards that they threw down their arms and fled for their lives”—

“I would give a guinea to know ’twas a Cornish man who did that,” cried Capt. Trenwith; “ ’twas a brave action.”

“Set your heart at rest, then, captain,” said Peter Hexel; “ ’twas Richard Hexel who did it. I have a letter from my son wherein he recounts this very same adventure.”

“Then your son is a credit to Cornwall, and we’ll drink his health, my friend,” and the captain got up and heartily shook Peter Hexel by the hand. “Compound us another bowl of punch, John Renowden, and see that it be worthy of the occasion.”

That night the rafters of the Golden Lion rang with the cheers which greeted the toasts of “The British Navy” and “The Hero of St. Ives”—as Capt. Trenwith was pleased to call Richard Hexel.

It was doubtless the darkness that made it so difficult for the mayor and the captain to find their way home that night, though they were escorted, as usual by the black servant with a lighted lantern. The mayor accounted to his wife for a headache which oppressed him next morning by the extreme exertion that he had been obliged to use in supporting Capt. Trenwith, who, poor man! having only one leg, could not be expected to walk as firmly as other people.

You may be sure the heart of Mary Renowden was gladdened by the news that had come about her lover; but months passed away, and nothing more was heard of him. At length there came a letter, stating that he had been severely wounded in an action with a Spanish ship in the West Indies, had been discharged, and was then lying in hospital at Falmouth. Old Hexel at once started for that place, and found poor Dick pale and thin from wounds and fever, but in good spirits and anxious to return home. The doctors, however ordered the patient to lay up a week or two longer, and then, perhaps, he might be allowed to go. His father was, therefore compelled to leave him and return to St. Ives, where he was eagerly expected by John Renowden and his daughter. When two weeks had passed, they all three went over to Falmouth, when the finishing touch was put to Dick’s recovery by the embrace of his happy sweetheart.

“Time, though old, is strong in flight,” says the old song; and he has brought us once more to Christmas eve. The club is assembled at the George and Dragon; there is a brimming punch bowl on the boards, and the silver ladle with the golden guinea is in active operation. The talk is of the war, and John Tackabird has been reading aloud an account of a battle in the Bay of Biscay, where a large SPanish ship had been taken, and where the name of Tom Champer figured among the killed.

The mummers, having finished their Christmas play, have departed on their rounds; but suddenly they are heard returning, with cheers and shouts. The clatter of horses’ hoofs is heard on the paved streets.

“ ’Tis Dick Hexel come back,” cries the barber, looking out of the window.

“Let us give him welcome,” said Capt. Trenwith. “He is a brave lad, and hath fought and bled for the British flag!”

“Hurrah!” cried the crowd outside.

“Hurrah! hurrah!” shouted the captain and his companions as they hurried to the door, and there, sure enough, was Dick Hexel, on horseback, with Mary Renowden seated on a pillion behind him, while Peter Hexel and John Renowden had already dismounted, and were undergoing a vigorous handshaking among the crowd. The club sat late in session that night, and Capt. Trenwith would fain have had Dick in to tell how he had scaled the ramparts of Portobello; but Dick excused himself on the plea of fatigue, and he spent the evening much more to his liking in the company of Mary Renowden. “I do suppose,” said Will Nance, “Dick Hexel will have a considerable sum in the way of prize money coming to him?”

“If he lives o be an old man it may perhaps, come to him,” said John Tackabird; “but the tyrannical abuse of power under an oligarchy”—

“D—n your hard words!” cried Capt. Trenwith; “they would break any man’s jaw but yours. I tell ye, a true man will do his duty whether he is paid for it or no; and may I never live to see the day when a British tar will think more of profit that of honor.”

This sentiment of the good old captain ought, according to the usual custom of the stage, to bring down the curtain on our little drama; but to satisfy the reader, we beg to state that in the early spring Richard Hexel espoused Mary Renowden in the parish church of St. Ives, and Capt. Trenwith proposed the health of the young couple in the parlor of the Golden Lion, which ancient hostelry is still standing in evidence of the entire truth of this narrative.—M. J. in Illustrated London News.

More Stories