HUTCHINGS, RICHARD, ship’s captain and merchant; b. c. 1740, probably in Newfoundland, son of Robert Hutchings, a Devon planter in St John’s; m. 1769 Hannah Sparke, daughter of merchant Henry Sparke, in Dartmouth, England, and they had at least two sons; d. there 1808.
Although Richard Hutchings began life with nothing but the advantage of a father who was known to the merchants of St John’s, he reached maturity in England at a time when the fishery was expanding and any lad of ambition could hope to find useful employment. He eschewed direct involvement in the fishery by going to sea in trading ships, and in 1760 was appointed commander of the Mary and Ann, a sack ship of Dartmouth. His vessel was taken by a French privateer on the way to Newfoundland in 1761, but he ransomed her for £750 and for the next ten years led an uneventful life as a ship’s master. In 1766 he became commander of the Prince of Brunswick sack ship owned by the firm of Henry and Robert Sparke of Dartmouth. What little time he had ashore he spent in Dartmouth, where he attracted the approbation of Henry Sparke and, more to the point, the affection of Sparke’s daughter.
Henry Sparke’s trade was growing rapidly and in 1771 Hutchings was appointed his agent in St John’s. He lived there every summer and for several winters until 1782, and as one of the few resident merchants took an important place in the primitive society. He dutifully signed petitions complaining about the custom-house [see Richard Routh], competition from New England merchants, and the pernicious effects of Palliser’s Act (which enforced the payment of wages to fishermen and their return to Britain each year), but he was appointed to no office. He was a prominent supporter of the Church of England in St John’s – one of a desperately small band in those irreligious times. He was also the first surveyor of roads (unpaid and unofficial) in Newfoundland.
Hutchings’s retirement to Dartmouth in 1782 was occasioned by the death of his father-in-law two years earlier. Sparke had sons of his own but they betrayed neither aptitude nor interest in the business, and Hutchings probably returned to Dartmouth in order to manage the main concern. Under his hands it flourished: by 1785 the firm of Sparke, Hutchings, and Sparke owned six vessels and was one of six firms that more or less monopolized the importation of bread and flour into Newfoundland.
In 1786 circumstances changed abruptly when the Sparke heirs decided to terminate the partnership. This event resulted in a heavy withdrawal of capital, and forced Hutchings to look for new premises with which to carry on his trade in Newfoundland. He chose the harbour of Cape Broyle, south of St John’s on the so-called Southern Shore, lightly inhabited at this time but an excellent place for operating bank ships. It was not a good decision. The Southern Shore was already heavily populated with merchants and the economic possibilities of the area were not great. Even in Cape Broyle another firm, that of Henry Sweetland and Company, was already established. Hutchings and the other merchants fought tooth and nail for the trade of the resident planters of the region, and in 1787 he embroiled himself in a legal dispute concerning the debts owed him by a planter. The local magistrate, who was also a merchant, found against him. Hutchings then appealed to Captain Edward Pellew, the naval surrogate, who also found against him. In 1788 Hutchings appealed Pellew’s decision to the Court of Quarter Sessions in Devon and won on the grounds that the surrogate had no authority to hear the case. This judgement, which exposed the fact that practically none of the courts of law in Newfoundland were legally constituted, brought about the collapse of the system of civil justice in 1789 and led to the establishment of regular courts under the aegis of John Reeves* [see also Aaron Graham; Mark Milbanke].
With the termination of this case, Hutchings returned to the shadows as just another merchant. His trade, although not large, was sufficient to provide a decent living and in 1789 he decided to give up the annual voyages to Newfoundland, appointing one of his ship’s captains to act as agent for him. By now his two sons were approaching manhood and Hutchings made what, from his point of view, may have been an unfortunate decision concerning their education. He sent both of them to Portugal, where they learned much about the commission trade and the importation of fish, training which hardly fitted them for the rude life of an outport merchant. The elder son Charles reluctantly went to Newfoundland in 1799 only to be taken prisoner when returning to England in January 1800. He soon returned from captivity and settled in Cape Broyle, but his brother, Henry, never took any part in the business. By 1805 the firm was trapped in a small outport with no possibility for expansion. Richard Hutchings now owned only two vessels, and when he died in 1808 the great promise of the 1780s was gone. Charles continued the business, but in 1810 he too retired to Dartmouth to live off the residue of his fortune and the business was left to a succession of agents. In 1829 the premises at Cape Broyle were sold.
Devon Record Office (Exeter, Eng.), 2992A; 2993A. Dorset Record Office, D365/F2–F10. Hunt, Roope & Co. (London), Robert Newman & Co., journals and letterbooks (mfm. at PANL). PANL, GN 1/13/4; GN 2/1; GN 5/1/B, Harbour Grace records; GN 5/1/C/1, Ferryland records; GN 5/2/A/1; GN 5/4/A. PRO, ADM 1/471–76; 7/154–55; 7/363–400; 68/89–219; BT 1; BT 5; BT 6/187; 6/189–91; BT 98/3–17; CO 194; 324/7; IR 26/140/121; T 64/82. Lloyd’s List. St. James’s Chronicle or the British Evening Post (London). Trewman’s Exeter Flying Post, or Plymouth and Cornish Advertiser (Exeter). Reg. of shipping.