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Royal Naval Biography/Ayscough, John

[Post-Captain of 1806.]

Son of the late Captain Ayscough, R.N. a gallant and veteran officer, who was often wounded whilst fighting the enemies of his country; who expended a large portion of his private property in raising several thousands of seamen for her service, at the period when she was engaged in a serious dispute with Spain, respecting the occupancy of Falkland’s Islands; and whose last injunction to his sons, then very young, was “Serve your King and Country[1].”

The Ayscoughs are of very ancient origin, and connected with many of the oldest families in the kingdom. Dean Ayscough, great uncle to the officer whose services we are about to notice, was Preceptor to his Majesty George III.; and he married a sister of the celebrated Lord Lyttleton.

The subject of this memoir was born on board the Swan sloop of war, during a desperate action fought by that vessel, when returning from the coast of America; in which engagement his father, who then commanded the Swan, and who had married during his absence from England, lost for ever the use of a leg, and was otherwise severely injured.

Having lost his gallant parent at a very early age, Mr. John Ayscough commenced his naval career under the auspices of the late Admiral Sir James Wallace, Knt., and served his time as a Midshipman on board the Goliath 74, Juno and Hebe frigates, and Hector, Alcide, and Monarch, ships of the same class as the Goliath.

In the autumn of 1791, the Juno, commanded by that excellent officer the late Sir Samuel Hood, K.B., was employed in attendance upon their late Majesties, at Weymouth; and Mr. Ayscough had the honor of being much noticed by all the royal family, but particularly by the King, who never went on board without recognizing the young relative of his esteemed preceptor. One morning, the monarch missed his juvenile favorite, enquired where he was, and desired Captain Hood to send for him.

We should here remind our readers, that Midshipmen of the good old school were occasionally in the habit of making their own mess-puddings. Mr. Ayscough happened to be thus engaged when his Majesty’s message reached him, notwithstanding which he instantly obeyed the royal mandate. We should likewise remark, that his head was at that time covered with a profusion of ringlets; and that, in the hurry of running upon deck, they incommoded him by falling over his face.

“Ah! youngster, what’s the matter? what’s the matter? – I say, Hood, what does he keep his hands behind him for?” exclaimed the King, on seeing Mr. Ayscough place himself in that posture; and having discovered the cause by walking round him, he desired his august consort to come and look also. The royal pair then joined in a hearty laugh, after which his Majesty said, “Well, but tell me, tell me, youngster, what you have been doing?” – “Making a pudding, please your Majesty.” – “Well then,” continued the King “go below and finish it; and when it is done, let me know.” Mr. Ayscough did as he was commanded; the sovereign of Great Britain, and most of the royal family, went down to the Midshipmen’s birth, partook of the homely pudding with their usual affability, and good humouredly declared it to be excellent!!

Mr. Ayscough received his first commission in 1793, and subsequently served on board the Monarch, Romney 50 (as senior Lieutenant), and Queen Charlotte; the two former ships successively bearing the flag of his friend and patron Sir James Wallace, on the Newfoundland station[2]; the latter a first-rate, commanded by the late Sir Andrew Snape Douglas[3], with whom he continued until his promotion to the rank of Commander, in 1797.

In the summer of 1799, we find Captain Ayscough commanding the Blanche frigate, armed en flute, and accompanying the expedition under Vice-Admiral Mitchell and Sir Ralph Abercromby, to Holland, where he served as a volunteer at the time of debarkation near the Helder, and continued with the fleet until the surrender of the Texel squadron[4]. Returning from thence, with a convoy under his protection, he had the misfortune to be wrecked, through the ignorance or misconduct of his pilot, as will be seen by the following extracts from his official narrative:

H.M.S. Blanche, Nieuve Diep, 29th Sept. 1799.

“Sir,– It is with great concern I have to state to you, that, agreeable to your orders, I got under weigh from the Mars Diep on the 27th instant, at 1 P.M., making several signals for the convoy to follow me, the wind then being at S.E. At 4 P.M., the pilot, who had the charge and direction of the ship, got her on shore on the Middle, in the Soulp Gat; we very shortly got her off, but at 6 o’clock she got on shore again, Kyck Duyn bearing S.S.E. about 2 miles. I then made the signal for having struck on a shoal, and repeated it several times. It being the top of high water, and finding it impossible to get her off, I struck lower-yards and top-gallant-masts; started all the water except the ground-tier, and got a stream anchor out ready to heave her off when the next flood-tide made, which we succeeded in about 1 A.M. on the 28th, and came to with the small bower in 4 fathoms. At 5 o’clock we attempted to weigh, but the wind had shifted to S.W., and blew so strong that it was impracticable; therefore we cut the cable, made sail, and steered the course the pilot directed, which very shortly brought us up upon Dalrymple shoal; the black buoy bearing S. by W., distant one cable length. I then made the signal for boats with anchors and hawsers, likewise for schuyts, it being my intention to put the guns and all the heavy stores into them; but these plans were frustrated by the gale increasing, so much so that it was scarcely possible to stand the deck, the sea breaking over us on every side, and the ship having so much motion[5]. About 11 A.M., I ordered the main-mast to be cut away; and a little after, the ship broaching to, I likewise cut away the mizen-mast, and rigged two boat-sails on the poop, to endeavour to steer her, having previously lost the rudder, and nothing left to steer the ship in case she drifted over the shoal. I continued repeating the signal for assistance until I saw that none could be afforded; several boats being overset, and many lives lost in attempting it. By this time, the ship making three inches of water every minute, and gaining very fast upon us, the officers and men were almost ready to drop with fatigue. About 4 P.M. she drifted off the shoal, having only the foremast standing, and the water in the cable tiers; I therefore thought the only chance I had to save the ship’s company was to run her on shore; which I fortunately succeeded in, by backing and filling with the foresail and the above mentioned boat-sails, the foreyard being lowered down almost to the gunwale. * * * * * *.”

(Signed)John Ayscough.”

To Capt. John Lawford, H.M.S. Romney.

On the receipt of Captain Ayscough’s letter, the senior officer in the Texel roads directed a survey to be taken of the state and condition of the Blanche; when it was found that the tide ebbed and flowed inboard of her, evidently proceeding from a general bilge of her flooring or bottom; that her whole frame was hogged upwards in different parts, and her stern-post disunited from the wooden ends; that it appeared absolutely impossible to remove her in a perfect body from alongside the mould in the Nieuve Diep, where she was then lying aground; and that it would therefore be impracticable ever again to render her serviceable to his Majesty. The surveying Captains, George Bowen, Richard Worsley, and John Larmour, concluded their report in the following terms:–

“At officers we feel ourselves called upon to remark that, from the perilous state of the ship, as before described, not less our admiration than our astonishment is excited that she should have been navigated from the place of her disaster to her present situation; a circumstance which, in our minds, reflects the greatest credit on her commander, officers, and ship’s company.”

That the Blanche did not get on shore through any neglect or fault of Captain Ayscough, and that no endeavours were wanting to extricate her, will be further seen by the sentence of the court-martial assembled to enquire into the cause of that unfortunate accident, a copy of which sentence we shall now lay before our readers:

“The Court is of opinion, that the ship was ran on shore through the entire fault of the Pilot; that very peculiar exertions were made, and great professional skill shown by the captain, officers, and company of the Blanche, to get her off, and afterwards to save the lives of the people and the remaining stores, which redounds greatly to their credit; they do therefore most honorably acquit Captain Ayscough, the officers and crew of the late Blanche, and they are hereby so acquitted accordingly.”

Captain Ayscough’s trial took place, at Sheerness, Nov. 1, 1799; and in the course of the same month, the Board of Admiralty marked their approbation of his conduct by appointing him to the Inconstant 36, armed en flute, in which ship he was attached to the different expeditions that were afterwards undertaken against Quiberon, Cadiz, and the French army in Egypt[6]. On each of those occasions he volunteered to land with the army, and his offers were always accepted.

At Quiberon, Captain Ayscough was selected by Sir Edward Pellew, now Viscount Exmouth, to command a party of seamen, intended to assist at the storming the enemy’s works. Circumstances, however, arose which frustrated the plan of operations, and his orders were consequently countermanded at the very moment when he was about to proceed with scaling ladders and every thing necessary to carry them into execution. Off Cadiz, he met with a similar disappointment, owing to the mortality then raging in that city; but during the Egyptian campaign he did not want opportunities of distinguishing himself as a zealous and gallant officer, the sole charge of two important posts, at the entrance to the lakes, near Alexandria, being entrusted to him, and the force under his orders employed in a series of active and arduous services, which he continued to conduct in a very able and spirited manner, until obliged to quit the camp in consequence of catching the plague, by which dreadful malady he was deprived of the use of his hands and feet for a very considerable period.

Captain Ayscough received a gold medal for his services in Egypt, from whence he returned to England, Dec. 4, 1801. His next appointment was, about June 1803, to the Camel store-ship, in which we shortly afterwards find him proceeding to Jamaica, where he had not been long before he was nearly deprived of his life by a violent attack of yellow fever; but notwithstanding the additional shock his constitution then sustained, and the danger of a relapse if he remained in the West Indies, he declined the commander-in-chief’s offer to send him home for his recovery, being determined not to quit that station until he could attain the rank which he had ever fondly looked forward to, and constantly endeavoured to merit. That his reputation as an excellent officer was by this time well established, will be readily inferred from the handsome terms in which Sir John T. Duckworth spoke of him to his former distinguished Admiral:–

Shark, Port Royal, Jamaica, Dec. 16, 1803.

“My Lord,– I was honored with your letter by Captain Ayscough, and should have pleasure in paying attention to any person you take an interest about, but thia officer seems to be a child of the service, as every body speaks highly of him, consequently we all owe attention to such merit, and you may depend upon my endeavours to serve him. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)J. T. Duckworth.”

To the Right Hon. Lord Keith, &c. &c.

In 1804, the subject of this memoir was appointed to command Sir John T. Duckworth’s flag-ship; and he appears to have also acted for some time as flag-captain to that officer’s successor, the late Vice-Admiral Dacres; by whom, we believe, he was successively appointed to the Reynard and Goelan sloops, Malabar 50, and Success frigate. His post commission was confirmed by the Admiralty, April 18, 1806.[7] At the close of 1806, Captain Ayscough convoyed a large fleet of merchantmen to England; and after refitting his frigate, he was employed blockading Havre, until Nov. 1807, when his friend Sir Samuel Hood, who was at that period appointed to command an armament destined against Madeira, did him the honor to apply for the Success to be placed under his orders; intending to assign her a conspicuous station, should it be found necessary to use force, in order to obtain possession of that island. We have already hinted, that the subject of this memoir served part of his time as midshipman under Sir Samuel Hood; and we have mentioned the above circumstance merely to shew that, in every situation, he has had the good fortune to obtain the favorable opinion of his superior officers.

The Success returned to England with the bearer of Sir Samuel Hood’s despatches announcing the peaceable surrender of Madeira; and we subsequently find her proceeding to a high northern latitude, for the purpose of affording protectection to the Greenland fishery. In Aug. 1808, having embarked the Turkish ambassador and his suite, together with Viscount Jocelyn, now Earl of Roden, Captain Ayscough took charge of the outward bound Mediterranean trade; and on his arrival at Malta he received a letter signed by the masters of the merchantmen, requesting him to accept their “sincere thanks for the great and unremitted attention he had paid to the fleet under his convoy, the safety of which was ensured by his judicious measures.”

The Success was next employed in conveying the Turkish ambassador from Malta to the coast of Albania; and she afterwards proceeded with part of his suite to the entrance of the Dardanelles, where she landed her passengers on the 28th November. In Mar. 1809, she brought two Austrian messengers, charged with important despatches, from Valette harbour to Portsmouth, making the voyage in twenty-three days. In the following month, she again sailed for the Mediterranean, with another valuable fleet under her escort.

On the 24th June 1809, Captain Ayscough joined the expedition proceeding against the islands of Ischia, Procida, &c. and understanding that a debarkation was to take place next day, he immediately volunteered to serve wherever his presence and exertions would be most useful. In consequence of this officer, he was directed by Rear-Admiral George Martin to land with the troops; and we know that (as was the case on the Helder expedition) his boat was either the first or second that touched the shore. A short time, ever, had only elapsed, before he discovered that there would not be much to do on shore; and he therefore returned to his ship, which had assisted in covering the landing of the array, and was now occasionally engaged with three of the enemy’s sea batteries, the fire of which was at length completely silenced.

On the following morning, June 26th, some gun-boats under Captain Ayscough’s directions assisted at the capture and destruction of fifteen armed vessels, from Gaeta bound to Naples[8].

On the 30th July, 1809, the boats of the Success, then off Cerigo, captured two French privateers; one mounting 9 carriage guns and 4 swivels, with a complement of 78 men; and the other 1 gun and 20 men.

From this period. Captain Ayscough continued in the Archipelago, until Nov. following, when he received the Persian ambassador and his suite on board at Smyrna, and proceeded with them to Malta; from whence, if we mistake not, they were conveyed to England in the Formidable 98.

The next service performed by the Success is thus described by Captain Ayscough, in a letter addressed to the senior officer on the coast of Calabria, April 1810.

“On the 4th instant while running along the coast and abreast of Castiglione, I observed three vessels on the beach, and men loading them. I thought it an object worth while to attempt their destruction, as they appeared to me capable of carrying 150 men each; and I therefore despatched the boats of this ship, manned with volunteers, under the orders of Mr. George Rose Sartorius, the third Lieutenant, accompanied by the boats of the Espoir, under the command of Lieutenant Robert Oliver; the frigate and sloop covering their landing.

“I am sorry to say, that when about musket-shot from the shore, three boats swamped, having struck on a sunken reef, by which accident two seamen belonging to the Espoir were drowned; all their ammunition being wet, the officers and men swam to the beach with cutlasses in their mouths, when the enemy fired upon them from two long 6-pounders, and 4 wall-pieces, they being secreted behind the rocks, and not perceived until the boats grounded.

“This fire served only to increase the zeal of the party; and their perseverance so intimidated the enemy that they deserted their guns, and retreated to the houses which were near, keeping up a heavy fire of musketry from the windows: but being also dislodged from them, they ultimately fled to the mountains.

“The guns were now spiked, the carriages destroyed, two vessels set on fire, and their carrgoes, which consisted of oil, stove; when our people with difficulty launched the boats that were swamped, and returned on board,” (with only the additional loss of 2 private marines killed; one belonging to the Success, the other to her consort).

“Lieutenant Sartorius speaks in the highest terms of all the officers, seamen, and marines under his orders, particularly of the conduct of Lieutenant Oliver, Mr. George Lewis Coates, Master’s-mate of the Espoir, and Mr. Richard Peace, mate of this ship.”

By reference to our memoir of Sir Jahleel Brenton, it will be seen that Captain Ayscough was unfortunately becalmed in the offing whilst his brother officer was so gallantly supporting the honor of the British flag in the bay of Naples, May 3, 1810[9]; a circumstance which must have caused him infinite mortification, particularly as he had been the senior officer on that part of the coast for some time previous to the arrival of the Spartan, and had not only joined her in pursuit of the enemy, two days before the action, but had actually got so near to the Ceres French frigate on that occasion, as to have had at one time a fair prospect of bringing her to battle; the Success being a faster sailing ship than her consort[10].

After this very severe disappointment. Captain Ayscough was stationed at Messina, with two frigates and several sloops under his orders, for the purpose of protecting Sicily from invasion, Joachim Murat, the usurper of the crown of Naples, having assembled 40,000 troops, and about 200 gun-boats, on the opposite shore; besides putting innumerable fishing-vessels, and other small craft, in requisition, on every part of the Calabrian coast. Together with his appointment to this responsible command, Captain Ayscough received a letter from Rear-Admiral Martin, under whose orders he was still serving, wherein we find a passage worded as follows:–

“I must confide in your zeal and judgment, to take such station, and to act in such manner, as may appear to you most likely to interfere with, or defeat the plans of the enemy.”

The station taken by Captain Ayscough, was to the northward of the Faro, where he moored his ship with hawsers to the shore, keeping springs on her cable, and her top-sail-yards constantly at the mast-heads, so that she was always ready to act on any emergency. The anxiety he experienced during the time he held that important command, with every thing left to his own discretion, will readily be conceived by our readers; and we shall therefore only add, that he spent the greater part of every night upon deck, kept the squadron under his directions in the most perfect readiness for immediate battle, inspired the troops in and about Messina (principally foreigners in British pay) with the greatest confidence, and effectually deterred Murat from attempting to gain a footing in the island, which he would soon have over-run, had it been possible for his formidable flotilla and numerous transports to have eluded the vigilance of British seamen. Whilst thus employed in the defence of Sicily, the boats of Captain Ayscough’s squadron destroyed two Neapolitan gun-vessels and thirty-four craft of different descriptions, fitted for the conveyance of troops.

After the breaking up of Murat’s camp. Captain Ayscough was sent, with seven men of war under his orders, to reconnoitre the coast between Naples and Civita Vecchia, it having been reported that a French armament had touched at the latter place on its way to the Neapolitan capital.

Finding that this was a mere rumour, Captain Ayscough returned to Sicily; and there received a letter from the Right Hon. Charles Yorke, then First Lord of the Admiralty, who informed him that he was “by no means unapprized of his zeal and activity as an officer,” and that he would take an opportunity of recommending him to Sir Charles Cotton “for an exchange to a larger frigate.”

Unfortunately for Captain Ayscough, the Success shortly afterwards encountered a very heavy gale of wind, whilst on a cruise off Candia, and sustained so much damage that it became absolutely necessary for her to return home before the commander-in-chief could comply with Mr. Yorke’s wishes.

During the gale. Captain Ayscough was obliged to swifter the ship’s sides together, by means of cables passed under her bottom; and also to dismount all the after-guns, her stern having separated from the stern-post. The Success was paid off at Chatham, Aug. 12, 1811.

Since the peace, Captain Ayscough has held the chief-command of the Ordinary at Plymouth, during the established period of three years. Whilst there he observed, that when ships were taken from under his charge in order to be commissioned, their housings were nearly all destroyed; and to prevent a continuance of that very unnecessary and heavy expence, he suggested a plan for covering them in future, by the general adoption of which we have no doubt that many thousands of pounds will soon be saved to government. The following is a description of the housing recommended by Captain Ayscough, a model of which was most ably executed by Mr. Simmonds, carpenter of the Ocean.

The frame consist of a ridge piece, rafters, &c. secured with screw-bolts and nuts, so that it can be taken to pieces by a few men in a very short space of time. Instead of long planks, nailed to the rafters as heretofore, the frame is entirely covered with hatches, which, from their having ring-bolts at each end, can be lifted up with the greatest ease, either to admit air, get the gun-carriages in and out, or for any other purpose. Whenever a ship, thus covered, is ordered to be got ready for service, the whole of these materials can be stowed away in a small compass, the hatches being only 6 feet by 3; and in case another ship of the same class should then be coming out of dock, the housing removed from the one can be placed over the other in a few hours, thereby saving the newly built, or newly repaired, ship from the least exposure to wet weather. The hatches being all of the same size, may be used as covering for any ship or vessel from a first-rate to a gun-brig or cutter, and they will continue fit lor use until they are completely decayed. The advantages to be obtained by adopting this plan are too obvious to require any further remark; we shall therefore merely state, that the Navy Board readily attended to Captain Ayscough’s suggestion, and that he had the gratification of seeing a frigate and a 74 covered in that manner long before the expiration of his command in the river Tamar.

Captain Ayscough married, Dec. 18, 1813, Anna Maria, eldest daughter of the late Captain Thomas Parr, R.N. (of Langdown House, co. Hants, a descendant of the celebrated Earl Godolphin); and has issue one son and two daughters.

Agent.– Sir F. M. Ommanney.

  1. Captain Ayscough, senior, was between forty and fifty years in the royal navy. His son, James, was a Lieutenant of the Monarch 74, at the sanguinary battle off Copenhagen, April 2, 1801; on which occasion he distinguished himself in a most gallant manner. Shortly after the renewal of hostilities, 1803, we find him serving in the Centaur 74, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Hood, by whom his conduct in storming a battery of six 24-pounders, on Cape Salines, Martinique, was so highly extolled, that the Patriotic Society at Lloyd’s resolved to present him with a sword, value 50l. He fell a victim to the climate of the West Indies, when commanding the Hawke sloop of war, April 8, 1808. A monument to his memory is now standing in the island of Mariegalante.
  2. Sir James Wallace died in Gloucester Place, Portman Square, Mar. 6, 1803.
  3. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 54.
  4. See Vol. I. note at pp. 414–417.
  5. Every heavy article was consequently thrown overboard, except the guns, which it would have been dangerous to dispose of in that manner, there being only from 8 to 10 feet water alongside, and the Blanche’s draught 17 feet 3 inches.
  6. See Vol. I. pp. 129, 219, and 54; note †, at p. 259; and p. 313.
  7. On the 20th Nov. 1806, Captain Ayscough despatched his barge and another boat in pursuit of a small felucca, which he observed running into Hidden Port, near Cumberland harbour, Cuba. The officers employed on this occasion were Lieutenants William Duke and Charles Spence, acting Lieutenant Dowel O’Reilly, and Mr. William Rand Hughes, Master’s-mate. On their approach, they found that the crew of the felucca, about 50 in number, had landed with their small-arms, and their only long gun; lashed the vessel to some trees, and posted themselves on a hill close to the beach, from which eminence they soon began to fire down on the boats, with grape and musketry, in a most determined manner. Lieutenant Duke was killed the first volley; but Lieutenant Spence and his brave companions maintained a warm action for one hour and twenty minutes, during which several of the enemy were observed to fall, and 7 of the British, including Mr. O’Reilly, were wounded. The barge being by this time shot through in many places, and the enemy’s position too commanding to be attempted by escalade with any probability of success. Lieutenant Spence very prudently resolved to content himself with carrying off the felucca; which he accomplished without any further loss, although the enemy did all in their power to sink her, and so nearly succeeded in effecting their purpose, that she went down astern of the Success, very soon after her capture. She proved to be le Vengeur Frenoli privateer, belonging to St. Domingo.
  8. See p. 91, first par.
  9. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 268, and note * at p. 269.
  10. The captains, officers, and ships’ companies of the Spartan and Success, had previously agreed to share with each other in all prizes taken by either frigate; but as the latter had no share in the action of May 3, 1810, Captain Ayscough, his officers and men, could not reconcile themselves to share for the capture of the Sparviere, and they consequently relinquished their claim without waiting to ascertain whether she was of much or little value.