- A.N. Other
- History - general
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 1996 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Recently, in discussing Patrick O’Brian’s books, some of the younger members of the group were intrigued – if not incredulous – when I mentioned that I had received Prize Money after WWII. They were too polite to say so, but I had the impression that they thought mine was just an old sailor’s tale! On returning home, I hastened to my nautical “bible”, The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea and found that my memory had not failed me. For the Prize Act did come into force at the beginning of WW II, but for the last time.
My share – again from memory – was less than ten shillings!
“PRIZE MONEY, the net proceeds from the sale of ships and goods captured in prize and condemned in an Admiralty Court.
In Britain, all prize captured at sea is forfeit to the Crown and is known as Droits of the Crown; all prize taken by shipwreck or from ships driven ashore pertains to the Lord High Admiral, or to the Commissioners for executing his office, and is known as Droits of Admiralty. The High Court of Admiralty became the legal prize tribunal in 1589, with Vice-Admiralty Courts exercising local jurisdiction wherever they were set up. In 1692, with a view to making service in the British Navy more popular, the Crown waived its right to part of the Droits of the Crown, granting it to the actual captors in a scale of shares laid down by Royal proclamation. By an Act of Queen Anne in 1708, known as the Cruiser’s Act, the whole of the Droits of the Crown were allocated to the captors, the value of the prize being divided into Bights, of which three went to the Captain, one to the Commander-in-Chief, one to the Officers, one to the warrant officers, and two to the crew. Any unclaimed prize money was allocated to Greenwich Hospital. Prize Acts lapse at the end of a war but are normally re-enacted at the beginning of the next. The last Prize Act in Great Britain came into force on the outbreak of the Second World War, but when it lapsed after the end of the war it was announced that this was the last occasion on which the money would be paid, thus bringing Britain into line with most other maritime countries, which had already abolished it. Each nation had, of course, its own prize law and decided its own method and scale of distribution.
Prize in British naval history was always a considerable incentive to recruitment and large numbers of men were tempted to join the navy for the chance of quick riches from this source. One of the most remarkable instances of prize distribution followed the capture in 1762 of the Spanish treasure ship Hermione by the frigates Active and Favourite. She was condemned in prize for £519,705, and each of the two captains received £65,000, every lieutenant £13,000 and every seaman in the two ships £485. There were other captures as rich as this, but in most cases the numbers entitled to share in the distribution were considerably greater than the crews of two frigates, and thus the individual shares were proportionally smaller.”