He was a man of the sea, a Quaker, who travelled the world between 1729 and 1755 having extraordinary adventures before retiring to become a grocer in Holt.

John Secker was a Norfolk sailor who wrote his personal recollections of around 65 voyages mainly undertaken in British and foreign merchant vessels to destinations in Europe, Africa, Asia and the Americas.

Norwich Evening News: Engraving of Secker’s cousin, Daniel Boulter

The son of a Quaker miller and born at Swafield near North Walsham in 1716, he was taught to read and write, and through the influence of maritime relatives, went to sea aged 14.

A remarkable narrative of his working life is among the treasures of the Norfolk Record Office, one of a handful of autobiographical accounts that survive for able seaman before the Napoleonic Wars.

And now the book, first published in 2011, is available at a discounted price for our readers.

Secker was almost constantly at sea between the ages of 14 and 40, progressing through the roles of servant, cook and cabin boy, to seaman and chief mate in coastal and long distance voyages.

He became a self-taught navigator in the process, learning languages such as French and Spanish on board vessels with multi-national crews.

His independent mindedness, perhaps installed in him during his Quaker upbringing, led him into many clashes with captains he served under whose incompetence his journal repeatedly calls into question.

Norwich Evening News: On this day, November 28 in 1897, lives were lost, boats sank off the Norfolk coast and much damage

Secker’s first voyages were on the coasting trades and to the Low Countries but by his late teens to was off round the world.

He crossed the Atlantic 16 times and went on to visit India, St Helena and Peru travelling to some places where few English had ever been before.

And when he put ashore at La Conception in the South Seas, he discovered “an ancient English man” from Great Yarmouth, who had lived there since being taken out of an English privateer 36 years earlier.

His cargoes were generally foodstuffs although they did include semi-luxuries such as coffee, tea, wine, spirits and tobacco, mainstays of a colonial economy that enabled the increasing British ascendancy in global trade.

Norwich Evening News:

The success was paid for by merchant seamen enduring cramped quarters, poor food, disease, disabling accidents, shipwrecks and pay arrears.

The largest ship on which Secker served was the Spaniard, The Grand Tuscany, which carried him to Peru, which he recalled at “about 1000 ton burden” with a crew of 160.

It was on board this vessel that he provided wrote about the Spanish Pacific, including his passage round Cape Horn, to Chile and Ecuador. His sketches of the coastlines appear in the book.

His last voyages were closer to home returning to the important port of Great Yarmouth. He gives some rich contemporary descriptions of the town and gives a detailed account of his narrow escape from the notorious press gang.

It was time for Secker head for dry land. He married a Quaker shopkeeper, Phebe Ransom of Ashill, at Swaffham, on March 10 1756. They moved to Holt where they bought a house to run as a grocery. A business he knew well.

In around 1765 he wrote about his life and times along with notes and sketches he made at the time…he wanted to justify his seafaring life and hoped readers would learn from his travels and experiences.

Secker died and was buried at Holt in 1795. Two shops now occupy the site of his resting place.

Norwich Evening News: The way it was in Holt…where John Secker gave up his life on the ocean waves to become a grocer

After his death a copy of his narrative was made in 1800 by Samuel Mason, a Yarmouth Quaker related to Secker’s wife. It is likely this copy adorned the Museum of Natural and Artificial Curiosities which was owned by his cousin, Daniel Boulter, who did much to bring the manuscript to local attention.

Today John Secker provides us with a rare glimpse of what a middling-sort of trading man from Norfolk made of the wider world.

His independent, questioning temperament will endear him to modern readers.

And he offers us a rare view of seafaring from the “bottom up,” and a reminder that for an empire based on its commerce Britain relied upon its John Seckers just as much as its Horatio Nelsons.

*With thanks to Andrew Hopper.

*The World of John Secker 1716-95, Quaker Mariner is edited by Andrew Hopper and published by the Norfolk Record Society. Normal price for non-members is £18 but there is a 20pc discount for our readers using the Promo code EDP202024 on website shop: https://www.norfolkrecordsociety.org.uk

Norwich Evening News: The way it was in Holt…where John Secker gave up his life on the ocean waves to become a grocer