In the Tyneside coastal town of South Shields, high above the southern bank of the River Tyne stands an unremarkable statue of an elderly woman. The lady in question has a cheeky smile on her face almost hidden behind a hand cupped to her cheek as she gazes out over the River Tyne while in her other hand a fishing basket is held. Who is this lady and why is there a statue of her in an non-prominent part of the town? This is the story of the life and times of Dolly Peel, South Shields’ 19th century poet, naval veteran and folk hero.
EARLY LIFE AND MARRIAGE
The story starts in 1782 in South Shields with the birth of one Dorothy Appleby who was born on the riverside in Shadwell Street. Dorothy (or Dolly as she was popularly known) was born into a town which was home to a number of industries, particularly salt making where during the 17th and 18th centuries South Shields had become the most important salt-making town in Great Britain. Shipbuilding, fishing and glass-making were also prominent in the town and it is likely that Dolly’s family would have found work in one of these industries.
In 1803, Dolly married Cuthbert Peel. Cuthbert was a fisherman, and Dolly would have gone door to door selling fish from a basket. The fishing industry didn’t exactly inundate its employees with money and so the Cuthbert’s found other activities to supplement their income – namely smuggling, which is where Dolly would begin to make a name for herself.
Dolly began an extensive trade in contraband goods such as brandy, cigars, tobacco and lace and was known to be a strong muscular woman and utterly fearless, which is why she probably managed to get away with smuggling for so long. Nearby Marsden Bay was a well known centre of smuggling along this stretch of the coast and it is possible that Dolly may have been party to the nefarious activities that took place on this secluded cove.
PRESS GANGS AND PETTICOATS
Against this backdrop of smuggling and criminal goings on along the South Tyneside coast the country was embroiled in the fierce Napoleonic Wars. During the twelve year conflict between the Coalition Powers of Great Britain, Russia, Austria and Prussia (to name but a few)and the French Empire and its allies, up to a million British men fought in the war. Many of these men signed up to fight voluntarily, however more often than not the largely peaceful recruitment drives failed to recruit sufficient numbers of fighting men. This led to the practice of war impressment – or press gangs as they were known.
During the 17th century the Crown believed it had a permanent right to seize men who had seafaring experience and force them to fight in the Royal Navy. Various Acts of Parliament had made this official and during the Napoleonic Wars a number of violent press gangs were in operation in British coastal towns forcing men who were usually sailors in the merchant fleet into Naval service.
At some point between 1803 and 1808 Cuthbert Peel had gained employment in the merchant fleet. In 1808 he is shown in the records of the HMS Amelia as being pressed into Naval service on that warship from a merchant boat, the Crawford in Quebec, Canada.
The HMS Amelia saw much action during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1809 she took part in three sea battles which involved the complete destruction of two French warships. In a daring operation HMS Amelia destoyed a big shore battery of guns whilst a number of fireships were sailed into a large French fleet which were anchored up in harbour causing great destruction. Whilst all this was going on, Cuthbert was working amongst the dense smoke of battle as a gunnery specialist – a very dangerous job indeed as the crash of French cannon balls would throw up lethal splinters of wood.
It is possible that Dolly may have been on board the HMS Amelia at this time as it was not unusual for women to serve on board with their husbands. However, as the Royal Navy didn’t record women on their ships, there is nothing to confirm this and it is likely that she was still back in South Shields.
A story from this time goes that a man was running through the streets of the town to escape the press gangs that were chasing him when he bumped into Dolly. Ever the quick thinker, Dolly lifted up her voluminous petticoats and long skirt and told the man to hide under them. Fearful for his freedom the man duly obliged and dived underneath. As the press gangs came shooting round the corner they too bumped into an innocent-looking Dolly who sent them off in completely the wrong direction in search for the man. Once they were out of sight the man underneath the petticoats emerged back into the daylight and was sent on his way in the opposite direction to the press gang.
1812 – DOLLY ON BOARD
At some point in 1811 Cuthbert had managed to return home from his service on board the HMS Amelia. For a few months over the winter of 1811-1812 the Peels would have had a relatively quiet life in South Shields, however this wasn’t to last as another war loomed – this time with the United States – and the press gangs were coming back.
In March 1812 a press gang (known locally as the ‘Hunter’s Gang’) was in hot pursuit of Cuthbert Peel who managed to make it to the Peel’s home in Shadwell Street. Single-handed, Dolly managed to keep the press gang at bay whilst her husband escaped out of the window. Unfortunately he didn’t get very far as he was captured, along with their son, Ralph and both were pressed in to service on the HMS Lyra which was waiting at nearby Peggy’s Hole in North Shields on 28th March 1812. In the records they were described as ‘stragglers’ which meant they had deserted from another ship so presumably Cuthbert (and maybe Ralph) had deserted from the HMS Amelia at some point.
A huge crowd at congregated at Peggy’s Hole and understandably the situation was a bit tense. Tempers flared and a huge fight kicked off. At point it was said that a pistol was fired with the bullet passing through the lapel of an officer’s coat. Whilst all this commotion was going on where was Dolly? Well, she was actually hiding on board the HMS Lyra. Presumably she had taken advantage of all of the trouble to sneak on board the ship to be with her husband and son.
She remained hidden for three days until she was discovered. The captain and crew wanted to dump her off the ship somewhere along the west coast of Africa, however she was put to work in the sick bay as a nurse to sick and wounded sailors. She did such a good job that she was allowed to stay on board with her family, often being used as a ‘powder monkey’ in addition to nursing duties, which meant that she supplied gunpowder to the cannons during battle.
The Peels were involved in numerous major sea battles and would have been entitled to naval service medals, however never claimed them. Life was tough at sea, and sadly Ralph Peel lost his life in August 1813 when he fell out of the ring of HMS Nereus and drowned.
LATER LIFE AND LEGACY
In late 1815, following the Battle of Waterloo, the Peels were allowed to return home where Dolly received a pardon for her initial attempts to interfere with naval practice. The Peels were also made exempt from any future press-ganging.
Dolly didn’t take too kindly to the Royal Navy following her and her husband’s discharge, despite the pardon and exemption from any future press-ganging. Thereafter she was forefont in organizing groups which prevented the Navy’s ships from docking in South Shields and was also known to lure vessels on to the rocks in the River Tyne where she could board them and take their goods and give to the poor of the town.
This won her many admirers and for the rest of her life she championed the down-and-outs of South Shields and continued to hide men under her petticoats from the press gangs. She was a famed poet and story teller at the market place in South Shields (below) where she would make up rhymes and stories about topical subjects such as the loss of the barge Dove of Sunderland which ran aground on the Herd Sand in November 1836 whilst carrying Russian tallow. This would have been a godsend for the local people during the cold winter of 1836-1837 and in her poem Dolly made the wreck seem like it was divine providence. It’s also possible that Dolly herself may have lured the doomed ship on to the sands although this is not proven.
Dolly was also popular with the town’s first M.P. Robert Ingham for whom she composed a poem congratulating him for his election victory in 1832. Quite why an Member of Parliament would associate himself with a dubious, albeit popular character such as Dolly is not known. Perhaps she supplied with him cheap contraband goods smuggled into the town?
Nothing more substantial is known of her later life. She is recorded in The Newcastle Courant in June 1849 as attending court as the aggrieved party following an assault by an Elizabeth Morton, “an older offender” and fellow fishwife. Dolly was awarded a substantial sum of five shillings plus costs.
Cuthbert Peel sadly died in 1856 and so did Dolly at her home the following year in 1857 after a severe attack of bronchitis. She was 75, which proves just how tough she was, to reach such an age in trying times.
Dolly’s story didn’t end there though. In the decades following her death, wild legends were passed down through the generations about her life and adventures. In the 1920’s, local playwright wrote a play about Dolly, setting it in 1832 at the time of the election of Robert Ingham. The play was first performed in 1913 and revived a few times afterwards but was subsequently lost until a hand-written copy was discovered in South Shields in 2004. The play was revived the following year, being performed in South Shields’ Customs House Theatre in 2005.
In the 1980’s Reg Peel of South Tyneside Metropolitan Council, who was also Dolly’s great-great-great grandson, commissioned a statue of her which not only commemorated her life but also honoured the strength of local working women. The statue was unveiled in 1987 and stands on a grassy area overlooking the River Tyne.
It is good to see that Dolly is still remembered in South Shields over 160 years after her death. The story of her life still crops up in local newspapers in the 21st century, plays about Dolly are performed in the town, and even a pub in South Shields is named after her, all of which continue to promote her legacy for future generations. It is people like Dorothy Peel, and the stories of their lives that make the British coastline so interesting and full of variety and there are many of them waiting to be told.