01935 429609
Somerset & Dorset
Family History Society

The Dirdoe family of Gillingham, Dorset, and their capture by pirates

Thomas Dirdoe who was born in 1588 in Gillingham, Dorset, was the 11th Great Grandfather of SDFHS member, Arnaud Aurejac-Davis, who tells the fascinating story of the capture of Thomas and his son by Barbary pirates.

The first Thomas Dirdoe (1588-aft.1643) was baptized on 22 March 1588, at Gillingham, Dorset, the fourth son and child of Charles (described as a ‘gent.’) and Joane. Thomas must have been a boisterous young man since in July 1613, at the age of only 25, he was granted a pardon for piracy! He seems then to have acquired some measure of respectability as on 21 April 1627 he was put in charge of conducting 232 men for the King’s service from Dorset to Portsmouth, and on the 27 May 1628, John Foyle (1564-1648) of Shaftesbury, writing to Sir Edward Nicholas (1593-1669) Secretary of State to Charles I, recommended Captain Thomas Dirdo for employment in one of the King’s ships, and prays that his (Foyle’s) son, Richard, may be purser in the same ship.

By April 1633, we know that Thomas was living at Shaftesbury but the major drama occurred in April 1636 when Thomas and his son, also named Thomas (1619-1676), were taken prisoner by pirates, as described by the unfortunate and desperate father:

Feb 1636/7 … Petition of Capt. Thomas Dirdo, late prisoner in Sallee, to the Council. Petitioner, about April, last, going for Ireland in a little bark, called the Red Lion, was, with his only son and others, taken by two Turkish men-of-war and carried prisoners into Sallee, and there prisoner and his son were sold for slaves. But petitioner, being sick in those parts, upon the entreaty of some merchants, was admitted to come for England for a ransom for his son and the rest. His son, not being above 18 years of age, has been tortured, and is like to undergo other tortures. Having been bred a seaman and formerly employed in his Majesty’s service, he has remained about London in expectation to have been employed [in the expedition to Sallee], but the officers being appointed his expectation is frustrated. Prays that some speedy course may be taken for the release of his son.” (Public Record Office, Calendar of State Papers, Domestic series, Charles I)

Since the 16th century and the exploits of the Barbarossa brothers, the Moors were widely buccaneering on the Mediterranean Sea, later extending their activities, which included ship-wrecking and kidnapping, up to the English coast from Cornwall to Dorset and later to Ireland during the 17th century. They caused a huge amount of damage and disruption to European sea-trade, looting and stealing an impressive number of ships every year. The worst were the pirates of Salé, now a peaceful area in Rabat, Morocco, but it is only fair to add that ranks of these Moorish pirates were often reinforced by European renegades, mainly English and Dutch.

Melcombe-Regis-ship02 Melcombe-Regis-ship01

Contemporary drawings of ships in the Weymouth and Melcombe Regis parish registers

The younger Thomas Dirdoe (baptized 14 June 1619 at Gillingham), was only 17 when he was captured. He was sold as a slave and more than a year elapsed until the Lords of Admiralty decided in March 1637 to form a successful venture with English merchants and sent six ships with the intention of ending the havoc caused by the pirates. The battle of Salé lasted until 27 July, though it did not finally resolve the problem.

Against this, [William] Rainborow had delivered a catastrophic blow to the Salé rovers, destroying more than a dozen ships and killing hundreds of men. By making alliances with both the Saint and the sultan (who remained implacable enemies to each other), he had completely destabilised the pirate republic. And if he hadn’t managed to extract much in the way of compensation from New Sale, he had liberated its Christian captives. The final count was an impressive 348, comprising 302 English, Scottish and Irish, including 11 women; 27 Frenchmen, 8 Dutchmen and 11 Spaniards. The expedition was a tremendous success by any standards. And there was more to come.

By 8 August 1637 all the freed slaves had been handed over. Rainborow sent off the Antelope, the Hercules and the two pinnaces, telling them to ‘rove and range the coast of Spain, and to look for Turks’ men-of-war’. They were all back in England six weeks later, having cheerfully disregarded their instructions.” (Adrian Tinniswood, Pirates Of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in the 17th-Century, p.159)

The younger Thomas Dirdoe seems to have been among the 348 Christians freed from their appalling captivity and returned to their native countries, as he reappears in 1642 during the Civil War, as a lieutenant in Colonel [Joseph] Bamfield’s regiment, fighting on the parliamentary side.

The next mention we find of his father, the elder Thomas Dirdoe, who recovered his only son – which was not so common in those harsh days of piracy – is on the 6 November 1643, in a petition to the Lord Chancellor of Scotland signed by 18 eminent people, mainly English and Scottish squires and gentlemen who had settled in Ireland since the beginning of the 17th century during the first protestant colonization, and probably sent from Londonderry to Norwich. In Shaftesbury St. James parish registers (difficult to decipher), in 1645/6 it reads: “Cicile daughter of Thomas Derdoe gent. was baptized the xx (20) January”. On 16 February 1665/6, Frances Dirdoe, younger daughter of Thomas Sr and younger sister of Thomas Jr, made her will and bequeathed £20 to her ‘cozen’ (ie. her niece, as often used in several wills of that time) ‘Cecil Dirdoe’ the aforesaid ‘Cicile’, my ancestor.

Captain Thomas Dirdoe Sr., after the turmoil of his long life  and  the  troubled  period  of  the Commonwealth,  wrote his  last  will  in Gillingham on  the  30  January  1675/6, in which he bequeathed his three Irish estates of Edenreagh (in the parish of Termonamongan, Omagh West, co. Tyrone), Siranhie (Shannaghy, in the parish of Termonamongan, Omagh West, co. Tyrone) and An Srath Bán (Ardstraw Br., between Castlederg & Newton Stewart, Strabane, co. Tyrone) to his grandson Philip, still a child, the son of Thomas Jr.   After  the many  turbulent  events of his life Thomas Sr.  died  peacefully at the grand age of 87 and  was  buried  on  15  February  at  Gillingham.

Arnaud C. Aurejac-Davis

Member and Guest Blogs Welcome

We welcome guest and member blog posts on any topic with a family history connection and invite you to send your contributions, which should include photo/photos, to the editor Barbara Elsmore