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Robinson, William [pseud. Jack Nastyface] (bap. 1787, d. in or after 1836), seaman and writer, was born near Farnham in Surrey and baptized on 18 November 1787 at Ash, the son of James Robinson, shoemaker, and his wife, Elizabeth, née Wells. His parents had been married at Ash on 5 December 1785. A younger brother, Thomas, was baptized on 1 May 1791 at Frimley, a hamlet in the parish of Ash, but it is not known whether he had other siblings. William received little in the way of education, though he clearly acquired considerable skill in writing at a later date. He was ‘early put to the business of shoe-making’. However, it was not an occupation that his ‘roving mind’ would suffer him to pursue. Aged about twenty he therefore went to the rendezvous or naval recruiting centre on Tower Hill in London and volunteered for the sea service on 9 May 1805 (Nastyface, x).

Robinson's initial experiences were not reassuring. Many of those who had joined the service at the same time were pressed men, including released prisoners who were anxious only to desert. They were sent to the Zealand, the admiral's tender, and on 17 May Robinson joined the Revenge, the ship in which he was to serve for the whole of his naval career. Within six months of his joining as a landman, the Revenge played a major part in the battle of Trafalgar. He had high praise for Horatio Nelson who ‘was adored’ (Nastyface, 21) and recalls with pride the role played by the Revenge.

Robinson was given leave on his return to England but the remainder of his career seems to have been something of an anticlimax. He was involved in two of the more significant engagements of the later stages of the war, the attack on the Basque Roads and the Walcheren campaign, but over the former he disliked the use of fireships and viewed the attack as an expensive exhibition of fireworks, though he was proud of the number of enemy ships destroyed. The latter was a complete disaster and he was critical of the whole expedition and disliked the grand display put on by the aristocratic military. However, these were highlights and most of his time was spent blockading Bordeaux, Rochefort, or Cadiz or one of the other enemy ports. His last voyage was transporting troops to Lisbon.

It seems unlikely that Robinson himself proved much of a seaman. However, in 1809 he was appointed to the role of purser's steward, a desirable and potentially lucrative office. Certainly in Walcheren he went ashore ‘two or three times a week’ to purchase stores and provisions and clearly carried some responsibility. Then in January 1811 he reverted to landman, the most junior rate. Why he lost his comfortable billet is unknown. He may have perpetrated some fraud, though he was never charged. Equally a new captain or purser may have preferred to advance another rating. At all events, the loss of his rate seems to have turned him against the ship and the service and from then on Robinson bore a clear grudge. Three months later, on returning to England, he deserted or, as he put it, ‘took my leave of the naval service’ (Nastyface, 104).

We know little of the remainder of Robinson's life. He certainly married and raised a family and possibly returned to his father's trade. In 1836, in London, he published, under his pseudonym and nickname Jack Nastyface, a book of memoirs entitled Nautical Economy, or, Forecastle Reflections of Events during the Last War. It is this work that has gained him considerable renown or, maybe, notoriety. It records, quite accurately, the activities and engagements of the Revenge but is noteworthy for a detailed description of the punishments carried out on board and for an outspoken dislike of the service and in particular the officers. It has been widely quoted both by serious naval historians (Laird Clowes, 5.20–31) and by those wishing to portray the seamier side of the sailing navy (Neale, especially 38–41). It was, in part, a radical pamphlet of the time, and many of the excesses to which Robinson draws attention had already been either abolished or ameliorated by 1836. Yet it is a highly graphic account of the less pleasant side of Nelson's navy, and remains an excellent picture of aspects of life on the lower deck.

Henry Baynham

Sources  

Jack Nastyface [W. Robinson], Nautical economy, or, Forecastle reflections of events during the last war (1836) · captains' logs of the Revenge, TNA: PRO, ADM 51/1535, 1572, 1603, 1714, 1790, 2776, 2777 · muster lists of the Revenge, TNA: PRO, ADM 36/16545–16547; 37/154–157, 1184–1186, 2194–2196, 2828–2829 · C. Pitcairn Jones, ‘The “identity” of Jack Nastyface’, Mariner's Mirror, 39 (1953), 136–8 · H. Baynham, ‘William Robinson, alias Jack Nastyface’, Mariner's Mirror, 87 (2001), 77–80 · marriages, baptisms, and rate returns, Surrey HC · H. Baynham, From the lower deck (1969) · W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the present, 7 vols. (1897–1903); repr. (1996–7) · E. P. Thompson, The making of the English working class, new edn (1968) · J. Neale, The cutlass and the lash (1985)