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Naval Prize Bounty

by Peter Schofield

Prize Bounty or Head Money was a grant from the Crown out of moneys provided by Parliament as a reward for the sinking or capture of an armed vessel belonging to enemy forces, and intended primarily as an encouragement of personal gallantry and enterprise. The award originated in the time of the Commonwealth, when it was felt extra remuneration should be given to those who by personal exertions destroyed a recognised enemy warship. In the middle of the seventeenth century it was enacted that, for all ships of war of the enemy 'burned, sunk or destroyed', there should be paid for an Admiral's ship £20 per gun, for a Vice Admiral’s ship £16 per gun, for other Ships of War £10 per gun.

The captors were also allowed a certain award of pillage or plunder out of all prizes whether warships or merchant vessels. Lawlessness resulted and later a decent share of the prize was given to the captors in lieu of plunder. In the case of a warship taken or destroyed a bounty of £10 was awarded for 'every gun mounted on a prize'. These provisions being considered too restrictive, it was finally enacted that the bounty might be paid for the 'taking or sinking, burning or otherwise destroying an armed ship of the enemy'.

By Order of Council of 2nd March 1915, His Majesty the King declared his intention to grant bounty (by virtue of the Naval Prize Act of 1864) to the officers and crews of such of his Ships of War as were actually present at the destroying or taking of any armed ship of any of His Majesty’s enemies. Such officers and crews were entitled to have distributed among them as prize bounty 'a sum calculated at the rate of £5 for each person on board the enemy ship at the start of the engagement'.

Numerous awards were made during the First World War to British submarine officers and crews for gallant and destructive work in the Baltic, North Sea and the Dardanelles. Not least of these was the destruction in the Sea of Marmora and the Dardanelles of three Turkish warships by E11, a daring exploit leading to the loss of 866 enemy men. The amount awarded was £4,330 and, by the scale of sharing, the commander Eric Martin Nasmith, VC received £580 11s. Other officers received £306 6s 6d and each able seaman £76 1s 6d, a considerable amount at the time. This was one of the largest share-outs of bounty during 1916 but nothing as compared to that awarded to the officers and men of E14.

The prize money for E14 for the sinking of the Guj Djemal , it was reported by the Dundee Evening Telegraph of Wednesday, May 1920, was now ready for issue. ‘Does this make your palm itch’ asks the Daily Express. Perhaps not, but there were a score or so who would have an extra round on the strength of it. E14's account was £31,000, the greatest sum awarded to any one ship for prize bounty in the war.

The commanding officer - Edward Courtney Boyle, VC - received about £5,000 and each able seaman was entitled to about £700 out of the Kitty despite the fact the case was fought hard by lawyers and had to go to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council before it was decided.

In 1917 Boyle claimed this huge total in respect of torpedoing the Turkish transport carrying 6,000 troops. The claim was that £5 per head bounty should be paid in respect of the troops as well as the crew of 200. The argument was over whether the transport was an armed ship belonging to a fighting unit of a fleet. Their Lordships eventually reversed judgements by two former Presidents of the Prize Court, both of whom held the transport was not an armed ship within the meaning of the Naval Prize Act.

It should also be mentioned that in the case of men who lost their lives in the service of capture or destruction of enemy warships, the bounty award was given to the next of kin.

Finally, in comparison to these awards, it is interesting to note that after the Battle of Trafalgar, Nelson received £18,517 13s 6d as his share of the bounty and his four subordinate Admirals (Collingwood, Northesk, John Knight, and Thomas Louis) each received £4,629 8s 4d, a total for the four Admirals equal to Nelson’s one share. Parliament however, thought the prize bounty insufficient recompense for the inestimable services rendered in securing the victory, and voted a sum of £300,000 for the Fleet.

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