Somewhere over the gunwales.

Dear Word Detective:  Greetings from Oz. I have become a little obsessed with the term “tier-ranging.” I came across this term whilst reading a book entitled “The Man Who Stole the Cyprus,” a factual story set in convict times between Van Diemen’s Land and England during 1829 and 1831.  I am aware that “tier-ranging” describes a criminal activity, however I am unable to determine what this term relates to.  I would be most grateful for any guidance. — Spencer G. Jones, Bellingen, New South Wales, Australia.

Oz?  Awesome.  Oh, right, Australia.  I was going to ask you to pass a message to Glinda, but never mind.  It’s just that these things are way too tight and I think the batteries must be dead.  Anyway, that’s a good question, if one takes “good” to mean “maddening” and perhaps a bit exhausting.  Then again, I started out from a position of disadvantage, because “Van Diemen’s Land” rang absolutely no bells with me, not even a tinkle.

For the benefit of readers similarly ignorant, “Van Diemen’s Land” was the original name  (original to European explorers, at any rate) for what is now called Tasmania.  Tasmania is a very large island (and state) lying off the southeastern tip of Australia, named after the Dutch explorer Abel Tasman, who was, in 1642, the first European to visit the island.  Tasman, however, initially named the island Anthony van Diemen’s Land after his sponsor, and it was known as Van Diemen’s Land until the mid-19th century.  For the first half of the 19th century, Van Diemen’s Land served as a penal colony, housing prisoners (as many as 75,000 over the years) transported from England.

One of those prisoners was a man named William Swallow (originally William Walker), the subject of the book you read.  Sentenced in London to be “transported” to the penal colony in Van Diemen’s Land for a petty crime, Swallow and a group of his prison pals there stole the government ship “Cyprus” and sailed across the Pacific all the way to Japan.  It sounds like a fascinating story.

Judging from the previews available on Google Books, the term “tier-ranging” occurs five times in the book, and it seems to have been the default occupation of William Swallow.  A “tier-ranger” in the 19th century was a thief who specialized in stealing from moored ships, especially those berthed in the “tiers,” the long ranks of ships being loaded and unloaded, in the Thames river in London.  These thieves “ranged” in the sense that they went from ship to ship, usually at night, and took what they could, whether it was tools or more expensive loot such as sextants, which they then fenced.

We use “tier” today primarily to mean a horizontal row of a thing or things (such as seats) placed above or below other rows (as in a stadium), but since English adopted the word around 1569 from the Old French “tire” (meaning “rank, order or sequence”), “tier” has acquired a wide range of specialized uses, from a row of guns on a man-of war to overlapping ruffles on a dress.   From the early 16th century until well into the 20th, “tier” was also used to mean, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “A row of ships moored or anchored at a particular place; hence, an anchorage or mooring-place where ships lie in rows or columns.”

While “tier-rangers” like William Swallow are a thing of the past, the crime was common enough in the mid-19th century to make two appearances in Charles Dickens’s 1858 essay “Down with the Tide” about life on the Thames waterfront (“Tier-rangers, who silently dropped alongside the tiers of shipping in the Pool, by night.” and “We took no Tier-rangers … nor other evil-disposed person or persons.”).

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