Coast Stories #1 – Alnmouth and the American War of Independence


September 23rd 1779. An unimportant day as far major historical events go, however for a tiny coastal village in Northumberland it became a very memorable day indeed. On this day the inhabitants of Alnmouth unexpectedly  found themselves caught up in the American War of Independence, a war which had been mainly fought thousands of miles away. 

The American War of Independence (or the American Revolutionary War as it is sometimes known), started in 1775 following an increasingly strained relationship which built up between Great Britain and her American colonies. This culminated in open conflict between the two nations and America declaring her independence from Britain on the 4th July 1776. The War was not only fought on land on the American continent, but also on sea in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans where American warships sought to attack their British counterparts. 

“Naval Battle in Chesapeake Bay” by Jean Antoine Theodore de Gudin (1802-1880)

Naval skirmishes had been part and parcel of the War ever since the War’s outbreak, however they mainly took place off the North American coastline. It wasn’t until France officially entered the war in 1778 that the naval war spread across the globe, with the French looking to settle old scores against their historical enemies, the British. The Revolutionary War somehow managed to find its way into the North Sea when on that memorable September day, the American Privateer, John Paul Jones, decided to attack the unassuming port of Alnmouth. 


John Paul Jones
“John Paul Jones” by Charles Willson Peale (1741-1827)

John Paul Jones was born in 1747 on the estate of Arbigland near the Solway Coast in Scotland (his father was a gardener on the estate). At the age of 13, John Paul boarded a vessel on the Solway coast which took him to Whitehaven on the Cumbrian coast. Here he signed up for a seven year apprenticeship as a seaman. During his apprenticeship John Paul sailed across to the Carribean and also the American colonies where he spent some time living in Fredericksburg, Virginia with his older brother who had emigrated there and set up a business as a tailor.

Returning to Whitehaven as a 17 year old, John Paul went into the slave trade, joining the King George of Whitehaven as a third mate. Two years later he transferred to another slave ship, this time running out of Jamaica, where he was promoted to first mate. He didn’t agree with the slave trade, calling it an “abominable trade” and so left and returned on a ship bound for Kirkcudbright (called the ‘John‘) in Scotland, not too far from his childhood home. During the voyage the captain and first mate died of fever, so John Paul had to pilot the ship for the rest of the journey to Scotland. The ship’s owners were so pleased with him that they appointed him captain of the John at the extraordinarily young age of twenty-one.

“John Paul Jones” by Jean-Michel Moreau (1741-1815)

Captain John Paul later took command of a West Indian ship and spent time living and working in the West Indies. He soon had to leave after killing the ringleader of a mutiny over a dispute about wages. Local feeling was against him and he had to flee to Virginia, then a British colony. During his time in Virginia John Paul became sympathetic to the Colonists’ cause against the British, and when war was declared in 1775 he joined the newly formed ‘Continental Navy’ where he was appointed First Lieutenant.

By 1777 John Paul was in charge of his second naval ship, the Ranger which he sailed to France to join up with America’s new allies. The following year John Paul sailed from Brest in France to the Irish Sea where he began to capture and destroy small vessels along the coast.


He also raided the Cumbrian port town of Whitehaven on the 22nd April 1778. Landing at the port with a shore party of two boats he aimed to capture the town’s two forts, one for each boat in the party. John Paul’s boat were able to capture their fort without too much trouble, destroying the fort’s cannons in the process, however when he went to check in on the other fort, he found that the other boat’s crew had gone off to the pub instead. Feeling a bit miffed, John Paul knocked out the other fort, set fire to a few things and managed to get all of the crew back to the ship safely. Following a failed attempt to kidnap the Earl of Selkirk, and a successful battle with a British ship off the coast of Northern Ireland, John Paul returned to the French port of Brest. He was now a household name in Britain.

The Bonhomme Richard.jpg
The Bonhomme Richard” by F. Muller (1883-1966)


On his return to France he was given command of the Duc de Duras which he renamed Bonhomme Richard in honour of his friend Benjamin Franklin. In August 1779, John Paul sailed in his new ship at the head of a squadron of seven ships whose purpose was to raid the British coast and disrupt and destroy British commerce. He sailed round the coast of Ireland and Scotland before entering English waters in September 1779. John Paul and the Bonhomme Richard came across the port of Alnmouth, which at this time was a port of some repute, and decided to fire at the village’s church with a cannonball. Fortunately it missed the church, however the cannonball bounced three times before smashing into a farmhouse roof. The ship also captured an English brig off the Alnmouth coast. During the next couple of days the Bonhomme Richard sailed down the North East coast and also went on to attack the village of Skinningrove in East Cleveland with cannonball before allegedly raiding the village for supplies.

Most sources give the date of the attack on Alnmouth as the 23rd September 1779, however on this day John Paul and his squadron of ships were involved in a fierce battle with British ships at Flamborough Head, some 100 miles south of Alnmouth so the date of the attack on Alnmouth might not be entirely accurate. It was at the Battle of Flamborough Head where John Paul nearly became unstuck. He was very fortunate to escape with his life when the Bonhomme Richard was sunk during the battle. John Paul was able to escape to the Netherlands on a British ship captured during the battle, the Serapis. 

Battle between USS Bonhomme Richard and HMS Serapis Sept. 23, 1779 (Battle of Flamborough Head). Illus. in: Memoirs de Paul Jones, frontispiece.


Following his incursions along the British coast, John Paul went on to receive a gold sword and the Order of Military Merit from King Louis XVI, becoming somewhat of a folk hero amongst the French public. He was just as popular in American and on his return there he received thanks from Congress, another gold medal, and then spent the rest of the war advising on the training of naval officers and further establishing the American navy, for which he gained the title “Father of the American Navy”. 

After a brief period as a Rear Admiral in the Russian Navy, John Paul retired to Paris where his health started to fail. On the 18th July 1792 John Paul died at his Parisian home as a result of  interstitial nephritis. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Paris in a cemetery belonging to the French Royal Family. Four years later, following the overthrow of the Royal Family during the French Revolution, the cemetery was sold on and the grave was forgotten about. It wasn’t until 1905 that John Paul’s grave was re-discovered thanks to the efforts of General Horace Porter, the then US Ambassador to France. The body was brought back to America on the USS Brooklyn and was escorted by a flotilla of ten US Navy battleships on it’s arrival back in the States. John Paul’s body was re-buried in Annapolis, Maryland, following a ceremony presided over by President Theodore Roosevelt, which just shows how valued John Paul was, and still is, in the USA.


So what became of the Bonhomme Richard whose guns caused great drama around the British coast and also in Alnmouth? Well it’s still at the bottom of the North Sea. A number of unsuccessful efforts have been made, including an attempt by the US Navy, to locate the wreck which is believed to lie in approximately fifty five metres of water off Flamborough Head.

And finally…In 1999, the Cumbrian coastal town of Whitehaven, which had found itself the focus of a nighttime raid by John Paul in 1778, finally forgave him by giving him an official pardon. The American Navy was also given the Freedom of the Town and a peace treaty was signed between Whitehaven and the USA, although I’m guessing this was more of a public stunt designed to get people to attend the town’s maritime festival rather than an actual attempt at international diplomacy.




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