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Royal Naval Biography/Bruce, William Henry

[Post-Captain of 1821.]

Third son of the late Rev. Sir Henry Hervey Aston Bruce, Bart, of Downhill, co. Londonderry, by Letitia, daughter of the late Rev. Dr. Henry Barnard, of Bovagh, in the same county (second son of William, late Bishop of Derry, and brother to Thomas, late Bishop of Limerick).

This officer derives his descent from Sir Robert de Bris, a Norman knight, to whom William the Conquerer granted, as a reward for his services, no less than ninety-four lordships in Yorkshire, among which was the barony of Skelton, in Cleveland, his principal residence.

Mr. W. H. Bruce entered the navy at an early age, in 1803, under the protection of Captain (now Sir Henry) Blackwood, with whom he served in the Euryalus frigate and Ajax 80, until the latter ship was destroyed by fire, near the island of Tenedos, in the night of Feb. 14, 1807. He was consequently present at the glorious battle of Trafalgar[1].

After the destruction of the Ajax[2], Mr. Bruce and three other midshipmen joined the Endymion frigate, Captain the Hon. Thomas Bladen Capel, which ship, in re-passing the Dardanelles, after Sir John T. Duckworth’s unsuccessful demonstration before Constantinople, received two stone shot, each weighing upwards of 700 pounds, and sustained a loss of several men killed and wounded[3].

The Endymion formed part of the squadron employed in covering the retreat and embarkation of Sir John Moore’s army at Corunna, in Jan. 1809; and Mr. Bruce continued to serve under Captain Capel until the month of July following, when he rejoined Captain the Hon. Henry Blackwood, then commanding the Warspite 74. His promotion to the rank of lieutenant took place Jan. 5, 1810, when he was appointed to the Prospero sloop; but soon removed from her to the Belvidera frigate, Captain Richard Byron.

On the 22d July, 1810, the master of the Belvidera was fired at by two Danish schooners and a sloop-rigged gun-vessel, while employed in sounding a deep bay near Studtland, on the coast of Norway. Their subsequent capture and destruction was thus reported by Captain Byron, in an official letter to the Admiralty:

“On the following morning, the launch, barge, and two cutters of the Belvidera, well manned and armed, under the command of Lieutenants Nisbett and Bruce; and the launch, pinnace, and yawl of the Nemesis (28), under Lieutenants Hodgskins and Smith; rapidly advanced to attack the enemy, who soon began to cannonade them. Our boats firing their bow guns with great effect, the DanisL; colours were soon struck, and the schooners. Bolder and Thor, each carrying two long 24-pounders, six howitzers, and 45 men, speedily in our possession; the sloop, mounting one 24-pounder with 25 men, was chased up a creek, abandoned by her crew, and blown up by our people, whose excellent fire, and resolution to close, threw the enemy in confusion, and, notwithstanding the firmness of the Danish commanders. Lieutenants Dahlreup and Rasmusen, caused their fire to be ineffective; they had four men killed. I cannot sufficiently praise the conduct of all the officers, masters’-mates, midshipmen, and every seaman and marine of the Belvidera. Captain Ferris has expressed to me his perfect approbation of all belonging to the Nemesis[4].”

The vessels thus gallantly captured were conducted to Sheerness by Lieutenant Bruce, who was also very highly praised by Captain Byron, for his able direction of the Belvidera’s main-deck stern-chasers, in her memorable retreat from an American squadron, under Commodore Rodgers, June 23, 1812[5]. On this occasion, one man was killed at Mr. Bruce’s quarters ; and another mortally, two severely, and himself and two men slightly wounded, by the splinters of a shot which struck an 18-pounder while he was in the act of pointing it.

We next find this gallant officer assisting at the capture of an American armed schooner, by the boats of a squadron under the orders of Captain George Burdett, whose official report was as follows:

H.M.S. Maidstone, Lyn-Haven Bay, 9th Feb. 1813.

“Yesterday morning, at 9 a.m. a schooner was observed in the N.W. standing down the Chesapeake Bay; at the same time I made the Belvidera and Statira’s signal. No. 239, with the N.W. compass signal. As the stranger approached the squadron, I perceived her to be a vessel of considerable force; Captain Byron at the same time made the signal for her being superior to the boats in chase, but not to those of the squadron united. I immediately made the signal for all barges, cutters, &c. to proceed in the same direction, upon which the schooner made all sail in the direction from whence she came, and I had the satisfaction to see she was quite becalmed. At one p.m., the stranger opened a well-directed fire upon the headmost of our boats from his stern-chase guns, and I was happy to find those in advance rested on their oars until they all came up, when a vigorous and gallant attack was made by all of them, nine in number, under the orders of Lieutenant (Kelly) Nazer, second of H.M.S. under my command, who happened to be senior officer, through a very heavy fire from all the enemy’s guns, when he was boarded and carried, sword in hand, after a most obstinate resistance, which was maintained upon the deck of the enemy for a few minutes. She proves to be the Lottery, of 210 tons, mounting six 12-pounder carronades (but pierced for 16;, with a complement of 28 men, from Baltimore bound to Bourdeaux, with a cargo of coffee, sugar, and logwood: she is coppered and copper fastened[6].

“I also have the honor to enclose a list of the killed and wounded in the different boats of the squadron, which, I am happy to add, is trifling, when compared to the obstinate resistance made by the enemy, whose loss was very great, the captain and 18 men dangerously wounded.”

The British had one man mortally, one dangerously, two severely, and two slightly wounded. A few days afterwards, the boats of the Maidstone, Belvidera, Junon, and Statira, captured the schooner Cora, of 8 guns and 40 men, laden with brandy, wine, silks, flints, &c. &c.

In addition to the above mentioned services. Lieutenant Bruce assisted at the capture of the Bunker’s Hill schooner, of 7 guns and 72 men; and at the destruction, by the Belvidera’s boats alone, of the Mars, another privateer mounting 15 guns, with a complement of 70 men. His first commission as commander bears date May 27, 1814.

In August following, Captain Bruce, then commanding the Manly brig, accompanied Rear-Admiral Cockburn up the Patuxent river, as far as Nottingham, where he continued with the flotilla under Captain Nourse, until the return of the British army from Washington[7]. The Manly then hoisted the flag of Rear-Admiral Cockburn, received on board several sick and wounded officers, and supplied the whole of the forces with bread and rum. She also formed part of the squadron sent up the Patapsco river, in Sept. 1814, to threaten the water approach to Baltimore, during the advance of Major-General Ross by land[8].

After that fruitless descent upon the enemy’s coast, Captain Bruce was removed to the Rover sloop, and ordered home with despatches. In 1815, he accompanied Rear-Admiral Sir George Burlton, and the outward bound East India trade, to the southward of the equator; touched at Maranham; and convoyed a fleet of merchantmen from Barbadoes to England. He subsequently cruised off Dieppe, in order to intercept Napoleon Buonaparte, should that personage attempt to escape from thence to America; and was proceeding with despatches from Lord Keith to Sir Henry Hotham when he met the Bellerophon, 74, off Ushant, with the idol of the French army on board.

The Rover was paid off in Oct. 1815; and Captain Bruce remained on shore from that time till March 1821, when he was appointed to the Sappho sloop, fitting for the Irish station, where he happened to be the senior commander employed when his Majesty visited the sister kingdom, and was received by the squadron under Sir Josias Rowley. He was consequently promoted to post rank on the 16th Nov. 1821; and superseded in the command of the Sappho on the 24th of the following month.

Captain Bruce married, in Feb. 1822, the second daughter of Admiral the Hon. Sir Alexander J. Cochrane, G.C.B. whose flag-ship, the Britannia 120, he commanded from Oct. 4, 1823, until she was paid off, at Plymouth, April 3, 1824. His eldest surviving brother, Sir James Robertson Bruce, Bart, is in the royal artillery, with which distinguished corps he served in the peninsula and at Waterloo.

Agents.– Messrs. Cooke, Halford, and Son.

  1. See Vol. I. Part II. pp. 645 et seq.
  2. See id. p. 648 et seq.
  3. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 197.
  4. Lieutenant Samuel Nisbett, who conducted this enterprise, was afterwards appointed to the command of the Chubb schooner, in which vessel he perished, with all his crew, on the Halifax station, Aug. 14, 1812.
  5. See Vol. II. Part II. pp. 622–626.
  6. See Vol. II. Part II, pp. 576 and 627.
  7. See p. 14.
  8. See the note at p. 17.