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First episode, taken from The Hotspur issue: 938 October 30th 1954.


Storms, Pirates, Fires at Sea—All these dangers have to be faced and

fought by the men of the first Royal Mail Ships.


“Well hit, Jamie! That was a good shot! Keep it up, man, an’ they’ll rue the day they tried to stop us.” The boom of their guns, the shouts of the excited men, the swish and splash of the water under the ship’s bows, made an unforgettable background to the voice of Captain Cutlass Ridd. This was not the first time his ship, the Black Horse, had done battle on the high seas. Ridd was a Cornishman, famous as a fighter and proud of his name of Cutlass.


The Black Horse was a mail-packet, one of that fleet of tough craft which carried His Majesty’s mails at the early part of the nineteenth century from the shores of England to the Continent, to the Baltic, the West Indies, and even further. French craft and privateers were their chief enemies, but there were others interested in interfering with the mails as well. On this occasion the big brig which had come out from the shore mists to intercept them seemed to Captain Ridd to be a Dutchman. He knew what this meant. The sealed mail bag which had been brought aboard under armed guard at Harwich was for Holland. Friendship was being established between Britain and her old seafaring foe. A treaty had actually been drawn up with the Dutch Government, and had been sent to England for revision and signing. The signed treaty was in the mail bag. It represented peace between the two countries. But there was another party in Holland who did not want this peace. Jamie Bruce, the dour Edinburgh gunner, was ready to ram in another charge as soon as his assistant had swabbed the smoking barrel of the stern chaser. Boom! Dan Shanton on the other side of the deck was doing his best to bring down their pursuer’s mast. Spars and ropes flew, but the main mast was not hit. None but a lucky shot could hope to bring about that result. Boom! There was a dull thud and splinters flew when a ball from the Dutchman crashed into their stern. Jamie Bruce set his teeth, glared along his gun, and touched the hot iron to the vent. There was a roar, the gun jumped back in its tether ropes and smoke blotted out the stern of the packet. There came another delighted roar from Cutlass Ridd. “Well done, Jamie! Their bridge is gone.” The privateer swerved from the wind. Men around the bridge were lifting others from the wreckage. A short, stout man, with sallow face, squirmed out from the debris. It was the skipper of the Dutchman, and he was unhurt, but he was in a towering rage. The fight had gone much longer than he had expected. Now a stronger wind was coming up astern, and with their bigger spread of canvas he hoped to get to closer quarters, where weight of numbers would tell. Captain Ridd looked anxious. He had put on all the canvas he could carry. He could not hope to increase his speed, and the position of the privateer enabled her to steal some of the wind. Things looked bad.


The distance between the two vessels was shortening. The Cornishman muttered to the mate, a battered, square built Somerset man named Ben Mattock. The mate hurried below, returning with two heavy mail bags and one smaller one. All three were placed beside the captain on the bridge, with heavy iron weights attached to them. It was the usual procedure. If the worst happened, and the Black Horse was captured, those mails would be hurled over the side. A cannon ball came over the rail and tore up the deck within six feet of Dan Shanton. He had just been about to fire and the whizz of splinters round his ears made him duck. He jerked the barrel of the gun as he fired it, and the ball flew high. It had not been aimed in that direction, but it carried away the cross tree at the top of the brig’s mainmast. Roars of delight came from the packet men. Dan Shanton danced a jig with delight, and grinned at his Scottish rival. He was not going to say that shot was an accident! The falling crosstree brought with it a mass of canvas which enveloped the man at the wheel. The privateer turned from her course almost at right angles. It was only for a minute that she lay in this position, but that was long enough for Jamie Bruce. Boom! Went his gun, and the heavy ball smacked into its target, the steering post. A second later the privateer’s rudder swung loosely, and it lost way, crippled. Jamie Bruce scowled at his rival across the deck. “Time enough to crow when you can put in a shot like that, Shanton!” A cheer went up from the sweating crew of the mail packet. The British flag seemed to fly more defiantly than ever. The crew waved their hands ironically at the helpless privateer and Ben Mattock hefted the mail bags and carried them below once again. They were now in no danger. There was not another sail within sight. Nothing could prevent the Black Horse from reaching Heyst.


Every possible stretch of canvas was flying. Full speed was demanded all the time. The Black Horse could not afford to dawdle. A special messenger was awaiting near Heyst, with fast horses. A signal at a certain point would tell Cutlass Ridd if the coast was clear, and there the mail bag was to be handed over. The special messenger would gallop it northwards over the Dutch frontier.


It was not the first time the mail men had worked to plan like this, but it was the first time they had landed mail at this particular place, and as the packet skirted the flat coast in the growing evening gloom, the Cornish skipper looked grim. “It’s been too easy, Mattock,” he told the mate. “There be powers in France who knew full well the treaty was to be aboard us. It was not one privateer I was expecting, but three or four.” Ben Mattock scanned the horizon and shook his close cropped head. He was an old Royal Navy man, having been carried off by a press gang when sixteen years of age. Very proud of his thirty years’ service afloat was he. “It’s all clear now, Cap’n,” he growled. “Aye, it looks like it!” The Cornish skipper was frowning at the innocent looking shore, no more than a mile distant. Like most West Cornishmen, he was superstitious, and that afternoon he had seen a black gull, a bad sign. “I don’t feel easy about it! Have ye ever been ashore at Heyst, Mattock? There’s some kind o’ fort there, I’m told.” “Aye, a big, powerful fort with a dozen guns. ‘Tis the home town of the Duc de Robesaart or some such gentry. I remember we was entertained there once a long time back. ‘Tis a snug little port.” “Well, I don’t intend to run inside. We’ve got to keep on for Flushing and be there before morning. The ordinary mails can’t be delayed. I’ll put the other stuff ashore at Heyst meself. Stand by to watch for that signal. We’ll burn a green flare when we’re within sight of the port.” The fair breeze kept up all early evening. It was not much after nine o’clock when they sighted the sandy cliffs on which the coastal stronghold stood. Time had been when the old Dukes of Robesaart had been pirates and had used this as their base, but the present owner was a peaceful man. Ridd burned the green flare, according to the instructions, and a few minutes later a red flare showed up brightly on the cliff to the left of the tiny harbour. Captain Ridd sighed with relief. It seemed his forebodings were false after all. He ordered a boat to be lowered away with six men, and personally fetched the precious mail bag containing the treaty. “It’ll not take me more than thirty minutes to be in there and out again,” he told Ben Mattock. “Hold her off. No Need to anchor.” The men rowed strongly, and not long afterwards were passing between the high walls of the harbour entrance. A few fishing craft, and one sleek cutter were the only craft in the harbour. Captain Ridd admired the lines of the cutter as they passed. A group of figures awaited them on the quay. Shouted instructions brought them to the foot of the some steps, and Captain Ridd was the first ashore, the mail bag in his hand. “Captain Cutlass Ridd?” questioned a tall, bearded man in muffled greatcoat. “Yes, I’ve something for Captain Leende, of the Dutch Army. He has a letter to show me—”


Something sharp prodded him in the back. It was a sword. All the men around him had drawn swords. The muffled speaker whipped out a heavy pistol. “Captain Ridd, you will hand over the mail bag!” snapped the latter, and an instant later it was grabbed from the Cornishman’s hand. The skipper gave a roar of rage. He leapt at the man who had taken the mail bag. The instant Ridd’s big hands closed on this fellow the foreigner gave a howl of pain. There was tremendous strength in those gripping fingers, and, like most Cornishmen, the mail packet skipper was an expert wrestler. A twist, a jerk, and he cross buttocked the holder of the bag, and hurled him into the harbour. Ridd retained the mail bag. “You fool!” roared the man with the pistol, and fired almost into Ridd’s face. Fortunately for Cutlass one of his men had pushed forward at that moment, and he jogged the foreigner’s arm, and the heavy ball missed by inches. That was the signal for a free fight. Men leapt in from all sides. There at the edge of the quay the sailors staged a terrific fight as they tried to get back to their boat, but the trap was set too well for that. A boatload of men came up behind them and took them in the rear, and finally Cutlass himself was felled and the bag taken from him. He was dragged to his feet and pulled inside a doorway. Dazed, bewildered, his head ringing like a peal of bells, he found himself in a lighted compartment where a group of well dressed men sat behind a table. There were Belgians and Dutchmen. The mail bag with the treaty was placed on the table, and the grey haired leader of the group examined the seal. “You have done very well, Van Neuzen,” he grunted. “It is intact. In this condition it shall be delivered to our friends in Rotterdam.” Cutlass tried to struggle loose. “Rotterdam!” he roared. “That treaty has got to be handed over at Flushing—not Rotterdam. Has everyone gone mad here?” The group at the table smiled mockingly. Then the grey haired leader murmured: “Nobody here is mad, Captain Ridd, but unfortunately for you, Heyst has changed hands…temporarily.” “Changed hands! Isn’t the Duke any longer a friend of the British?” “Maybe. He is visiting in Holland at the moment. The fact that you reached here at all proves you have beaten off our privateer.” “Privateer! You are in league with those scoundrels?” “It so happens, Captain, that those scoundrels’ are my friends. There are certain people in Holland who have no wish for that treaty to reach its destination. We took precautions to stop it. The privateer was the first line of our attack, but we made sure that if you beat her off you would still fall into a trap. A hundred of us crossed the frontier and seized Heyst. We learned what signal you were expecting and saw that you got it.” It was a bitter blow for Cutlass Ridd. His boat’s crew had been taken away somewhere else. They also were prisoners. He wondered how long Ben Mattock would wait before realising there was something wrong ashore. Not that there was very much his men on the packet could do. If the fort was in the hands of this crowd the packet could not very well stage a rescue. “The mail bag will go to Holland exactly as it is,” the grey haired man was saying. “You and your men will go with it. Certain parties will be interested to see the famous Captain Ridd! Get him aboard the cutter and take his men with him. They knocked out the battered Cornishman again, and then carried him to the cutter, where he was cast into the small hold with his six men.


Sail was hoisted. A crew of ten leapt to their posts, and the mooring ropes were cast off. The sleek craft glided for the mouth of the harbour, and just then an order was given in the fort that guarded the bay. Boom-boom! Cannon balls whistled out to sea in the direction of the waiting mail packet. The Dutchman were taking no chances. They were warning the Black Horse to keep off. As soon as the heavy balls from the fort came skipping over the water around them, the crew of the Black Horse knew their suspicions were justified. “They’ve got Cutlass! There’s been treachery. He’s on that cutter and they’re takin’ him north,” roared Mattock, and bellowed orders for the ship to get under way. Boom! Boom! A ball crashed into their bows. It was a grim warning to keep their distance. No pursuit of the cutter was to be allowed. It would have been suicidal to try to cut in close to the coast as the cutter was doing. Ben Mattock changed course further out to sea. The Black Horse would have to circle in order to keep beyond range of those guns, and that would give the cutter a big start.


It was the booming of the guns ashore which brought Cutlass Ridd to his senses in the hold of the cutter. He sat up and felt his splitting head. The Dutchmen had not tied him. They considered him safe enough down there in the hold, and his men were tightly bound.


They all started to speak at once, telling him what had happened. Captain Ridd tottered to his feet. Boom-boom! went the coastal guns, and he knew what their target must be. “That’s the packet, after us!” he grunted. “Ben Mattock’s trying to follow. They’re warning him back. He won’t be fool enough to sail too close.” Cutlass Ridd gritted his teeth. The mail bag was aboard the cutter, and there could not be more than a dozen men in charge of her. Ben Mattock would be trying to keep up, astern. If Mattock could only get within gun range the cutter would be at his mercy, but the delay caused by the guns of the fort had given the faster craft a good start. The cutter was increasing speed every moment. Once it turned the headland and got the full force of the wind it would walk away from the heavier packet. It was not his own safety, but the fate of the mail bag that appalled the Cornishman. It had always been his boast that he had never lost an important letter. In all parts of the world he had run the gauntlet of ships of many nationalities. Was he to be beaten by the craftiness of this international gang? The veins stood out on his forehead as he groped for the ladder under the hatch. Up he went, and heaved at the barrier which kept them penned below. It was of solid oak, and well battened down. Cutlass Ridd went back and untied his men. Some of them were badly battered, but they had no wish to fall into the wrong hands in Holland. To be shipped as slaves to the East Indies did not appeal to them. “Listen, me hearties,” snarled the tall Cornishman. “If we could all heave together on that hatch we’d lift it. The trouble is there’s only room on the ladder for two of us. But I’ve got another idea. Gather round!” They groped their way around him. It was pitch dark down there. They could not even see the stout ladderway. Their leader found it, and they heard him tearing the ladder loose from its moorings. Once the ladder was free, he up-ended it and pushed one end against the centre of the hatch. “Now, me bonny lads, gather round. All get a grip on the ladder. Shoulder to shoulder does it!” commanded Cutlass Ridd. “Now bend,” he ordered. “Bend, and when I say heave we’ll send the ladder up with all our might. Ready! Heave!” There was a chorus of grunts as seven men straightened with all the strength of their backs, legs and arms. There was a mighty crash as the ladder met the centre of the hatch and a louder tearing noise as the battens were ripped from their fastenings.


British brawn had triumphed. The hatch had been torn from its seating so violently that it was sent flying over the side of the deck. “Out with ye!” roared Ridd. He was on the deck before the startled cutter’s crew knew what was happening. The cutter was still not far from the coast, but round the headland from the fort. A mile astern, and further out at sea, was the Black Horse, dropping further and further behind every moment. The cutter was making a great pace. Her tall, single mast was bending under the strain. So much Cutlass Ridd saw in those first few seconds, then a roar of anger came from the captain of the cutter. He was the muffled Van Neuzen who had met them when they had been trapped. There was no doubt about him being a skilled seaman. Leaving one man at the wheel, the entire crew swarmed forward to cut down the escaped prisoners. All carried cutlasses or short boarding swords. The leader had his pistol. “Get down into that hold again or we’ll kill the lot of ye!” he roared. Cutlass Ridd had not torn his way out of the bowels of the ship just to tamely surrender. “Grab weapons, me lads! Make use of anything,” he hissed, and dived for an axe which rested amongst some wood which was going to be used for the galley. Bang! The pistol in the hand of Van Neuzen exploded. Cutlass felt the ball tear past his ear. Before the Dutchman could reload, the Cornish skipper had rushed, swinging the axe madly. The crew fell back in disorder, and Cutlass Ridd gained the foot of the mainmast. A dazzling idea come to him. There was a way of stopping the cutter! If the mainmast was down it would be helpless! Ridd’s men were at his heels. Heavy belaying-pins, iron marlin-spikes and pulley blocks on short pieces of rope were all they had been able to grab. Captain Ridd bellowed: “Form a circle round the mast. Let no one past. That’s all I ask, lads.” The got his idea. The six of them stood completely surrounding the foot of the mast. In their centre, Cutlass Ridd raised the axe and brought it down with all his force just above the point where the mast was stepped. The keen edge cut a deep gash. The Dutch crew realised his intentions. They hurled themselves forward like tigers. Their cutlasses and swords flashed. Against them were only the improvised weapons of the British sailors. One of Ridd’s crew received a wicked gash in his right arm at the first onslaught, changed his marlin-spike to the other hand, and felled his attacker. The circle remained unbroken. Thud! Thud! Thud! Chips flew from the hard wood of the mast. It was tough going with such a small axe. “Hold on another minute, me lads. It’s coming!” Ridd hissed, as there was another rush. This time the Dutchmen got to grips. Two of the sailors from the mail-packet were cut down. The circle was broken. Someone leapt for Captain Ridd with uplifted cutlass, but at that same moment he jerked the axe back to get another swing. The Dutchman caught it in the face and reeled backwards with a scream. One of the wounded Britishers tottered to his feet, and again the circle of men closed. Thud! Thud! The axe flashed in the air. Every ounce of the Cornishman’s strength was behind it. He heard a cracking noise, shouted a warning, and sprang aside as the great mast came swinging outwards with a rush.


The mast and sails were whirled over the side, a mighty wave swept along the deck, and when it had passed only that little group about the mast remained. They had been clinging to each other and so had saved themselves. For a few moments it was touch and go whether the cutter would capsize but she weathered the conditions long enough for the mail-packet to come alongside. Ropes were thrown, and two minutes later the gallant do-or-die squad were saved. Ben Mattock leapt aboard ready for a fight, but there was no one to fight. Those Dutchmen who had survived were swimming for the shore with the news that their plans had failed. The mail bag was found in the cabin below. The cutter was allowed to drift ashore a total wreck. It had been an expensive failure for those who had tried to tamper with His Majesty’s mails on the high seas. Half an hour later the packet continued on her way towards Flushing. The secret treaty would reach its destination a bit behind the time anticipated. But for the devotion of the do-or-die squad and the quick wits of Cutlass Ridd it would never have got through at all.


CUTLASS CARRIES THE MAILS 7 Episodes The Hotspur issues 938 – 944 (1954)

© D. C. Thomson & Co Ltd 

Vic Whittle 2007