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Royal Naval Biography/Becher, Alexander

[Post-Captain of 1802.]

This officer is the fourth and only surviving son of the late John Becher, Esq., a Commander R.N. He was born at Sheet-End, (in Staffordshire) near Stourbridge, co. Worcester, April 6, 1770; received his education at the maritime academy, Chelsea; entered the naval service on board the Latona frigate about March 1783; and served nearly eight years as a Midshipman in that ship, the Carysfort 28, Trusty 50, and Pearl of 28 guns, on the West India and Mediterranean stations; during which time he distinguished himself by his assiduity in making astronomical observations, and surveys of the various places visited by the different ships to which he belonged.

In Feb. 1791 , being then at Gibraltar without the least prospect of promotion, he introduced himself to Rear-Admiral Peyton by a letter, stating that he was the son of a deceased officer, and that he had made such observations and surveys between that place and Constantinople as might probably be found useful to the squadron; mentioning at the same time that the drawings alluded to had been forwarded to the Admiralty by the Captains under whom he had had the honor of serving.

The Rear-Admiral received this letter in a very kind manner, and instantly ordered him to be discharged into his flagship, the Leander of 50 guns, from whence he promoted him to the rank of Lieutenant in the Bull Dog sloop of war, on the 11th Aug. in the same year.

As a Lieutenant, Mr. Becher employed his spare time in studying naval tactics, composing signals, and forming plans, many of which he has since had the pleasure of seeing adopted by the Admiralty.

At the commencement of the French revolutionary war we find him serving on board the Proserpine frigate, and commanding one of her boats at the capture of a ship laden with colonial produce, lying close to the jetty at Gonaives in St. Domingo. This vessel he conducted to Jamaica, and she proved to be the first prize captured on that station. He subsequently joined the Defence of 74 guns, commanded by Captain (now Lord) Gambier, under whom he served as fourth Lieutenant in the battle of June 1, 1794. The following anecdote, with which we have been furnished since the publication of his Lordship’s memoir, will serve as an instance of the zeal displayed by that gallant officer on the memorable occasion alluded to:

“The Defence, by bearing up at the instant the signal was made to that effect, became so far advanced that an officer suggested to Captain Gambier the propriety of bringing to a little to wait for the other ships. He smilingly replied, ‘No, no, Sir, the signal is made and I shall obey it; every man must answer for his own conduct this day.’ The Defence continued her course, was the first ship that broke through the enemy’s line, and presently in the thickest of their fire.” The loss and damage sustained by her has been correctly described at pp. 78 and 79 of Vol. I.

In the following month Lieutenant Becher was removed into the Royal George, a first rate, bearing the flag of his god-father the late Lord Bridport, under whom he served in the action off l’Orient, June 23, 1795.

The Captain of the Marlborough having been deprived of his command, and treated with great indignity by her crew, during the general mutiny at Spithead in May 1797, Captain Eaton, of the Medusa troop-ship, was appointed by Lord Bridport to succeed him; and Mr. Becher, at that period first Lieutenant of the Royal George, to act as Commander of the Medusa, which ship, in common with the rest of the fleet, had yard ropes rove in order to strike terror into the minds of the officers, and those who might feel disposed to side with them.

Pursuing the same temperate though firm line of conduct that he had previously done in the flag-ship, Captain Becher succeeded in restraining the violent disposition of his crew, and soon after rendered an essential service by conveying a regiment to Ireland, at a moment when the presence of fresh troops was much required, to overawe the rebellious natives of that country. For this service he received the approbation of the Admiralty, by whom Lord Bridport’s appointment had been confirmed on the death of Captain Eaton[1].

We next find Captain Becher proceeding to Gibraltar, where he had the misfortune to be wrecked, whilst under orders to join Lord Nelson in the Mediterranean, where the Medusa was to have been established as a post ship under his command.

After this disaster, he appears to have been very usefully employed in equipping the expedition destined against Minorca, and superintending the conduct of his officers and men during their occasional services in gun-boats, under the immediate command and observation of Earl St. Vincent. He subsequently held a command in the Sea Fencibles at Feversham, Kent. His post commission bears date April 29, 1802; a sufficient proof that the nobleman then presiding at the Admiralty, and who had witnessed the Medusa’s fate, did not attach any blame to her Commander, whatever he might have laid to his own charge, on account of her loss[2].

Captain Becher’s last appointment afloat was in Sept. 1802, to la Determinée, a frigate armed en flute, in which he was again unfortunate. On the 24th Mar. 1803, having received on board a detachment of the 81st regiment, he sailed for Jersey, in company with the Aurora, but without a pilot. In the afternoon of the 26th the ships passed through the passage of the Great Kussel. The weather being fine and wind moderate, Captain Becher resolved to follow in his consort’s wake. At 4h 15' P.M., being close hauled, and nearing the harbour, the Aurora was observed to be in stays: every thing was of course prepared, and in momentary readiness for tacking. In about five minutes after the helm was put a-lee, the ship came instantly to the wind, and the after yards were swung; but the main-brace was scarcely belayed when she struck on a rock, and in less than three minutes the water inside of her was of equal height with the surface of the sea, Being apprehensive, from the strength of the tide, that the ship might fall into deep water, Captain Becher ordered both anchors to be let go, which was done, and the cables batted and stoppered. The panic that prevailed among the soldiers’ wives and children occasioned indescribable confusion, and every effort to suppress it proved ineffectual. The sails were by this time clewed up, and the top-gallant-sails handed; but Captain Becher fearing that the weight of the men on the topsail-yards might tend to upset the ship, ordered them down to hoist the boats out. The large cutter was soon over the side; but the anxiety of the people who crowded into her plainly foretold their fate. In vain did Captain Becher remonstrate on the folly and impropriety of their conduct, and solicit them to let the women and children only go in the boat: both reason and persuasion had lost their influence. The ship now fell on her broadside, and Captain Becher with many others were thrown into the sea, where they remained ten minutes before they could regain the wreck; but at length, having reached the mizen-top, he had once more an opportunity of advising those left with him how to save theie lives, though still unable to prevent many from jumping into the water. Too much praise cannot be given to the officers and men sent to his assistance: by their exertions, although; the tide was running near six knots per hour, in the course of three hours and a half every person was removed, and then only did Captain Becher quit his post.

On the 5th April following a court-martial, assembled at Portsmouth, determined that no blame was imputable to Captain Becher for his conduct on the occasion of la Determinée’s loss; that he used every means in his power to obtain a pilot for Jersey, both before he sailed from Spithead, and during the voyage, without effect; that he was actuated by commendable zeal for the service in attempting to enter the harbour by endeavouring to follow the Aurora’s track; and that his cool and officer-like conduct, after she struck, was highly meritorious, especially in ordering the anchors to be let go, to prevent her drifting into deep water, by which means many lives were in all probability saved; the court did therefore adjudge him to be acquitted of all blame[3].

Captain Becher subsequently commanded the Sea Fencibles at Alnwick, in the county of Northumberland. He married, in 1793, Frances, daughter of the Rev. ___ Scott, of Queen’s College, Oxford, Rector of Kingston and Port Royal in Jamaica (and brother of the present Countess of Oxford), by whom he has issue Alexander Bridport[4], a Lieutenant R.N., and acting pro tempore as Hydrographer to the Admiralty; Elizabeth Emma Maria, married to Captain Wood, son of General Wood; Ann, married to Lieutenant Charles W. Nepean, son of General Nepeau, and nephew of the late Right Hon. Sir Evan Nepean, Bart., Governor of Bombay; two other sons, and three daughters. Four of his children died in their infancy. His eldest brother, the Rev. Michael Thomas Becher, of King’s College, Cambridge, was Head Master of the Royal Foundation School at Bury St. Edmunds, during a period of 21 years.

Agent.– J. Woodhead, Esq.

  1. The untimely death of Captain Eaton is described by Captain Brentqn in his Naval History, Vol. I, p. 456.
  2. The Medusa was lost through the interference of Earl St. Vincent, occasioned by his Lordship’s impatience to get her out of Gibraltar mole. We have been told by an old Post-Captain, (not the subject of this memoir) that had her Commander been allowed to proceed in his own way, no accident of the kind would have happened. The Admiral dictated to him from the shore by means of a speaking trumpet.
  3. La Determinée’s crew and passengers were all saved, with the exception of 19 persons.
  4. It is rather a singular circumstance that Lord Bridport should have stood sponsor both for father and son; but such was the case.