The Hartlepool captain who skippered the invasion of Poland

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MOST of us like to think Hartlepool punches above its weight on the national and international stage – but perhaps invading Poland would be a little ambitious.

However, Victorian sea dog Captain Robert Weatherley was happy to have a go – for a while at least, until he had second thoughts.

The story, told in the Mail 60 years ago this week, concerned the January Uprising, one of Poland’s attempts to throw off the yoke of its hated Russian masters.

Among ordinary people in England, particularly workers and students, the Polish cause was popular.

Propaganda meetings and fund raising proved sufficient to charter a steam schooner, the Ward Jackson, named after Hartlepool’s most famous citizen Ralph Ward Jackson.

The vessel was chartered from West Hartlepool Steam Navigation Company as her captain, Robert Weatherley, was familiar with the Baltic Sea.

On March 20, 1863, in Gravesend, the ship was loaded with 300 powder kegs and 1,200 rifles for the Polish insurgents.

Customs officials were told the cargo was “hardware” but, discovering the truth, refused clearance.

The Mail’s article in February 1955 took up the story: “Captain Weatherley’s reply was to weigh anchor and sail with two Customs officials still aboard.

“He landed them at at Southend and there embarked a little Polish army of 200 men. Then he promptly put to sea.”

But tsarist intelligence agents in London were aware of the expedition, and on its way to the Baltic Sea the Ward Jackson was followed by a Russian warship.

The invasion vessel put into Helsingborg, Sweden, where a council of war revealed to the Hartlepool captain how deeply he had committed himself.

“The gallant Poles’ resolution to blow up the ship rather than surrender was not shared by its master,” said the Mail columnist Commentator.

Captain Weatherley put in at Copenhagen under the pretext of needing water and made a beeline for the British consulate, refusing to take the Poles any further.

Undaunted, they hired a Danish crew but in Malmo, under strong pressure from the Russian diplomats, the Swedish authorities seized the ship and its cargo of arms.

The stubborn volunteers chartered another schooner to get to Poland, but without the weapons, and the uprising ended in failure after 18 months of fighting.

Captain Weatherley returned to Hartlepool before being summoned before the justices of Gravesend, who fined him £50 for sailing without clearance papers, with £10 costs.

Email andrew.levett@jpress.co.uk or write to him at Hartlepool Mail, New Clarence House, Wesley Square, Hartlepool, TS24 8BX.