“Oh, a sailor’s life is the life for me”
A conversation with my Mother has prompted this blog post, and hopefully several more will follow over time. We were discussing the Blennerhassetts, my maternal grandmother being of that name. My cousin has shared on-line his study of the family, an undertaking of huge proportions. On the home page (www.blennerhassettfamilytree.com) he states:
“WHO WERE THEY?
They were gentry, farmers, craftsmen, miners, engineers, medics, nurses, lawyers, teachers, clergy, soldiers, seafarers, police, writers, poets, painters, musicians, cottiers, farm labourers, servants, paupers… Four were knighted, one created Baronet of Blennerville in Co.Kerry. They were politicians, appointed or elected Councillor, Bailiff, Sheriff, Mayor or Member of Parliament in both England and Ireland.”
There are indeed a great many characters among these families, and I thought I might let them lead me into areas of history to me unknown or unfamiliar (or to occasions that may seem familiar but about which I know little).
Where to start? How to select my travelling companion for today? It was by chance that my choice fell to James Primrose Blennerhassett, born in Hampshire in 1785 to Lt. James Blennerhasset R.N. and Isabella Primrose. I have always felt sympathy for this man, especially as a youngster, surely he could not escape teasing with a name like that. This is not intended as a biography of James, rather he is our travelling companion and guide to this particular period of history.
At the age of 15 James joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer on HMS ‘Pomone’ under Captain Robert Carthew Reynolds and Captain Edward Leveson Gower.
‘Pomone’ was a 40-gun 24-pounder frigate of the French Navy built in 1783. The British captured her, along with Babet and Engageante, off the Île de Batz during the Action of 23 April 1794. She was subsequently re-commissioned in the Royal Navy as HMS ‘Pomone’ mounting 48 guns.
In 1794, officer’s servants were abolished and a new class of volunteers called ‘Volunteer Class I’ was created for boys between the ages of 11 and 13 who were considered future midshipmen and who lived in the gunroom on a ship-of-the-line or with the midshipmen on a frigate or smaller vessel. By 1816 the rating of ‘midshipman ordinary’ was phased out, all apprentice officers being rated as midshipmen.
This was an exciting (and dangerous) time to be in the Navy, the French Revolutionary Wars followed very swiftly by the Napoleonic wars ensuring there was plenty of action for a young man on one of her Majesty’s ships.
HMS ‘Pomone’ had been active the previous year, capturing 6 ships, heading back to Plymouth for a refit in April 1799. In August 1801 the ‘Pomone’ was cruising off Elba and under the command of Captain Edward Leveson-Gower took another prize, the Carrere, 44 guns and 356 men. ‘Pomone’ lost two men dead and three wounded, one of whom died of his wounds shortly after. September also saw more action with ‘Pomone’, ‘Phoenix’ and ‘Minerve’ engaged in the successful recapture of ‘Success’ and the destruction of the 46 gun frigate ‘Bravoure’. Men from the ‘Pomone’ were also involved in operations ashore on Elba.
In April 1802 young James and his shipmates were escorting a convoy in the Mediterranean before returning to Portsmouth on the 16h July, perhaps getting a little shore leave, before sailing once more on the 23rd July with a number of other ships to collect Dutch troops to carry to Cuxhaven.
Two months later disaster befell them when the ‘Pomone’ struck a rock whilst entering St Aubin’s Bay and sank. She was refloated and towed into Portsmouth in October but was pronounced not worth repairing. The unfortunate pilot, John Geram, was tried by court martial and along with fines was sentenced to three months imprisonment in the Marshalsea.
By the Napoleonic era a midshipman was an apprentice officer who had previously served at least three years as a volunteer, officer’s servant or able seaman. By March 1803 James was just two months shy of this three year term, and we find him signed on as midshipman on HMS ‘Tonnant’ an 80 gun captured French ship built in Toulon and launched in 1791.
‘Tonnant’ was built of Adriatic Oak, and the superior durability this gave her was highly valued. She was captured by Admiral Nelson at Aboukir Bay in August 1798. Her name, meaning ‘Thundering’ in French, remained unchanged, and was well earned during that last battle under French command, severely damaging HMS Majestic and causing nearly two hundred casualties, including 50 killed. Aristide Aubert Du Petit Thouars, who had both legs and an arm shot off, commanded his ship until he died. ‘Tonnant’ was the only French ship still engaged in the morning, with her colours flying, ‘though aground. It was not until 3rd August that she finally struck her colours and admitted defeat.
She was taken to Plymouth and underwent repairs between December 1801 and April 1803, during this time being ‘laid up in ordinary’, i.e. in reserve. She was commissioned in March 1803 under Captain Sir Edward Pellew.
Midshipmen were taken on by a captain generally as a result of ‘interest’ (or patronage – familial influence). There was no requirement for approval by the Admiralty, and thus they joined the Navy with no ceremony or remark from that quarter.
Two years as a ‘first-class volunteer’ or two years at the Naval Academy at Gosport were pre-requisites of becoming a midshipman.
The minimum age for a midshipman in 1790s was 11, but in 1812 this was raised to 13, with the exception of officers’ sons who could come aboard at the age of 11.
Instruction in navigation, nautical astronomy and trigonometry was given every morning by a schoolmaster who was also responsible for the behaviour of the boys. He was almost always the ship’s chaplain. If no chaplain or schoolmaster was on board the captain taught the midshipmen himself.
Reaching the age of 15, and properly rated, a midshipman became known as an ‘oldster’ and had a pay rise, no more lessons and daily grog allowance. He moved from the gun room into the midshipmen’s berth on the orlop deck.
After 6 years at sea (at least two as a midshipman), and over the age of 19, a midshipman was eligible to take Lieutenant’s exam conducted by three senior captains. He had to show himself skilled in seamanship, navigation, and discipline. He also needed to possess strength of character, but there was no medical examination.
Without a vacancy in a ship, even though the examination is passed, the successful candidate may remain a midshipman, berthing with the other midshipmen with classification ‘passed for lieutenant’. 2000 young men were in this position in 1813.
Once commissioned as a lieutenant his name was added to the Sea Officers List and he was then eligible for half pay when without a ship.
As ‘youngsters’ (up to the age of 15) midshipmen slung their hammocks in the gun room, with 14 inches being all the space they had for their hammocks, one next to the other. Older midshipmen generally berthed below the waterline in the stinking, dark and crowded after cockpit. They had a mess boy whose job it was to keep the berth clean, and ‘hammock men’ who would lash/stow/unlash the midshipmen’s hammocks, in exchange for a glass of grog each Saturday night. While at sea other seamen would wash their clothing in exchange for more grog or tobacco. When in port the clothes would be sent to a washerwoman.
Midshipmen wore their hair short, not tied in a queue. Uniforms, ‘though not standardised, generally consisted of a blue tail-coat lined with white silk, ornamented with small gold anchor-buttons, white breeches and a waistcoat. His hat was similar to a top hat and he wore a black silk handkerchief around his neck. His shoes were black leather and his shirts of frilled white linen. In bad weather he had a glazed hat and a watch-coat.
Given the hard service these garments were put to, when they wore out he had to buy clothes from the slop chest. During a battle he would sensibly wear his oldest, dirtiest clothes, but when a show was required he’d spruce up as best he could.
To ‘fit out’ a midshipman would cost his parents between £70 and £80 for a home/Channel station, up to £90 to £100 for a foreign station.
Life for midshipmen was hard, and to survive needed strength of character. Bullying and ‘pranks’ were common place and there was no privacy to be had. Not the place for a sensitive soul.
HMS ‘Tonnant’ boasted 12 midshipmen in 1805. The eldest, William Chesnaugh was 3 years older than James, the youngest, Richard Langdon and John Marshall both 6 years younger than he. Their homes were scattered, they came from as far afield as Devon and Shropshire, from Somerset to Norwich.
The midshipmen ate the same food as the men. Their diet would be mostly boiled pork or beef, bread, butter, which after a period at sea might well be rancid, beer, oatmeal, cheese, dried peas and hard tack. This would be supplemented by whatever the master’s mate purchased when in port, each member of the mess paying in to the kitty each week.
After 1794 a first-class volunteer earned £9 a year, with £5 deducted for the schoolmaster. A midshipman would earn between £2 and £2 15s 6d a month, depending on the class of ship. Expenses for a volunteer would generally be between £30 and £40 per year, for a midshipman this rose to between £70 and £100. Obviously expenses exceeded income, so it was essential that he should have private means.
Their income would be augmented by prize money paid by an Admiralty court after a captured enemy vessel reached a home port. This prize money was distributed among all men serving on the victorious ship.
The share-out of prize-money is given below in its pre-1808 state, after 1808 the regulations were changed.
- 1/8 Flag Officer
- 2/8 Captain(s)
- 1/8 Captains of Marines, Lieutenants, Masters, Surgeons
- 1/8 Lieutenants of Marines, Secretary to Flag Officer, Principal Warrant Officers, Chaplains.
- 1/8 Midshipmen, Inferior Warrant Officers, Principal Warrant Officer’s Mates, Marine Sergeants
- 2/8 The Rest
On board the ‘Tonnant’ James’s duties would be varied and many. They generally oversaw the men, ensuring that all tasks were done properly, from the lashing of hammocks to the furling sail aloft. They carried messages for the lieutenants, commanded parties bringing in water, took charge of boats ferrying men and supplies between ship and shore, helped to take soundings and marked the ship’s position on a chalkboard.
Combat was but one threat to the life of a midshipman, with disease and accident accounting for more fatalities. Midshipman Lord Henry Lennox, the 14 year old son of the Duke of Richmond, fell to his death while furling sail aboard the ‘Blake’ in 1812. During combat the midshipmen supervised the sailors with the rigging and sails and at the guns. They could also be called upon to fight as marksmen or as part of a boarding party. Despite the dangers to themselves, losses amongst their officers offered opportunities for promotion to the midshipmen, so action would be welcomed by young men keen to rise.
Well, there was action enough for even the most blood thirsty amongst the crew in this period.
In January 1804 Captain Sir Edward Pellew reported to the Admiralty on the growing French activity at Ferrol and Corunna in Spain, which was at the time nominally neutral. HMS ‘Tonnant’ took part in the blockade of Ferrol, a leading naval centre in north western Spain. On the 24th May Tonnant shared with the cutter Resolution in the capture of the Esperance and the Vigilant. Then in the early days of June Tonnant, Mars and Spartiate captured the Dutch ships Coffee Baum and Maasulys, followed towards the end of August in the action to recapture the Lord Nelson. Pellew received £1667 10s 2 ½ d in prize money, with a seaman receiving £2 14s 6 ½ d.
At the end of October Tonnant shared in the capture of the Perseverance, and then on 29th November Ardent destroyed the Bayonnoise with Tonnant being among the vessels sharing the bounty money. In February 1804 Tonnant and the ships of Admiral Sir Robert Calder’s squadron recaptured the brig Eliza.
Captain Sir Edward Pellew was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1804, and appointed Commander-in-Chief of the East Indies Station. Tonnant was now under the command of Captain William Henry Jervis.
Captain Jervis was born William Henry Ricketts, and this was his name at the time of his marriage to Lady Elizabeth, daughter of the 6th Earl of Cavan. Captain Jervis had been very active in Sir Sidney Smith’s squadron until he was sent with despatches to the West Indies in 1796. These despatched contained information of the probably rupture with Spain.
“At this period, a war with Spain was by no means certain; but the probability of that country being forced to coalesce with the French republic against Great Britain, was so strongly to prevailing opinion, that Captain Ricketts (as he was then) undertook to detain a valuable Spanish ship from Cadiz, bound to Vera Cruz, which he fell in with on his passage. The declaration of war, which followed shortly after, proved this proceeding to have been well judged.”
On 14th of February 1797 Captain Ricketts’s uncle was raised to the peerage with the title Earl St Vincent. On the 21st April, 1801 His Majesty was graciously pleased to renew his grant of the dignity of Viscount St Vincent of Meaford with remainder to Captain Ricketts, who soon after received royal license to use and take the surname of his illustrious relative. So from 1797 Captain Ricketts was known as Captain Jervis.
He took command of HMS ‘Tonnant’ in May, 1804, forming part of the Channel fleet cruising off Ferrol, Rochfort and Brest. During the winter of 1804 in the Bay of Biscay the ‘Tonnant’ suffered much in a violent storm, her main-mast being severely damaged, and one man killed with ten wounded by lightning.
Following this storm it was discovered that the enemy squadron at Rochefort had escaped from the port. Rear-admiral Sir Thomas Graves despatched the ‘Tonnant’ to the Channel fleet to apprise Vice-admiral Sir Charles Cotton of this news. On 26th January 1805 Captain Jervis left the ship in one of the boats to proceed to the St. Joseph, the flag ship. Unfortunately when she got about half way there the sea broke over the boat and capsized it. Captain Jervis and another of the crew were drowned, despite every effort being made to save them.
On the 5th February 1805 command of ‘Tonnant’ was given to Captain Charles Tyler.
Charles Tyler, born in Cavan, had joined HMS ‘Barfleur’ as a volunteer in 1771. From 1775 to 1778 he was Midshipman on HMS ‘Preston’, but on the 31 May 1778 he was discharged sick, and on the 30th September 1778 he was discharged ‘unserviceable’ to the New York hospital. However, no keeping a good man down, and in April 1779 he made Lieutenant aboard HMS ‘Culloden’, rising through Commander and Captain of various ships until we see him on board the ‘Tonnant’.
He worked his ship and men hard, and Admiral of the Fleet Sir George Sartorius, who was midshipman in the ‘Tonnant’ at Trafalgar, attributed the ship’s success over the ‘Algesiras’ entirely to superior gunnery.
” She (the Tonnant)” he says, ” was one of the very few, perhaps
one of the four or five, that had been constantly exercised at her guns.
At the battle of Trafalgar a line-of-battle ship ran alongside us, her
yard got entangled with our main rigging, and in the course of six-
and-thirty minutes, from the extreme rapidity of our firing we
managed to knock away all her masts, and to kill and wound 436 of
her men. Had we not been well exercised at our guns, I think the
Frenchman would have got the advantage of us. We had actually our
engine playing on her broadside to put out the fire caused by the
flame of our guns.”
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Trafalgar beckons, but that story will be the subject of the next blog.