Royal Naval Biography/Byng, George


Rear-Admiral of the Red; Doctor of the Civil Law; Fellow of the Royal Society; Patron of the Maidstone Masonry Society; a Vice-President of the Literary, and Covent Garden Theatrical Funds, and of the Merchant Seamen’s Auxiliary Bible Society, the Seamen’s and London Hospitals, the Mile End Philanthropic Society, the Eastern Dispensary, and the British and Foreign Philanthropic Society.

This nobleman is descended from the Byngs, of Wrotham, co. Kent, who flourished in the reign of Hen. VII. In that of Elizabeth, Thomas Byng was Master of Clare Hall, Regius Professor of Civil Law, and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge. Robert, his elder brother, and ancestor of the subject of this memoir, served for the borough of Abingdon in the first parliament of that Queen, and also in the 34th year of her reign. His eldest son, George, received the honor of knighthood from Queen Anne, for his gallant behaviour in the battle off Malaga[1]; and after performing many other signal services, he was raised to the dignity of the peerage by the title of Baron Byng of Southill, co. Bedford, and Viscount Torrington, of Torrington, in Devonshire. He died First Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, Jan. 17, 1733, in the 80th year of his age. The unfortunate Admiral John Byng, who after giving many proofs of courage, was at length shot upon a dubious sentence for neglect of duty, March 14, 1757, was his fourth son[2].

The officer of whose services we are now about to speak, is the eldest son of John, fifth Viscount (great-grandson of the first peer), formerly a Colonel in the 3d regiment of Guards, and afterwards a Commissioner of the Stamp Office, by Bridget, daughter of Commodore Arthur Forrest, who died Commander-in-Chief at Jamaica, and was buried at Kingston in that island[3]. Lord Torrington’s maternal grandmother was also connected with the navy, from her birth, having been born on board H.M.S. Prince Frederick, on the passage to Jamaica, on St. Cecilia’s Day, whence she was christened Cecilia Frederica Marina. George Byng, the subject of this memoir, was born in London, Jan. 5, 1768, and received the rudiments of his education under the late Dr. James, at Greenwich; from whence he was removed to a respectable seminary at Paddington, conducted by a Mr. Boucher. Being destined for the naval profession, he embarked Feb. 23, 1778, as a Midshipman on board the Thunderer, of 74 guns, commanded by the Hon. Boyle Walsingham[4], which ship formed part of the fleet under Admiral Keppel, in the action with the Count d’Orvilliers, on the 27th July, in the same year[5]. Some time after that event, Mr. Byng joined the Alarm frigate, Captain Sir Richard Pearson[6], and subsequently the Active, of 32 guns, Captain Thomas Mackenzie[7]. In the latter vessel he was engaged in the affair at Porto Praya, between Commodore Johnstone and M. de Suffrein; an account of which will be found in our memoir of Sir Henry D’Esterre Darby.

The Active was one of the squadron afterwards detached by the Commodore to escort a fleet of transports and merchant ships to the East Indies; and on her arrival there, Mr. Byng was received on board the Superb, of 74 guns, bearing the flag of Sir Edward Hughes, the gallant protector of India; under whom he served in two severe actions with de Suffrein, one of the ablest officers that the French marine has ever produced[8]. In the last of these conflicts Mr. Byng had a very narrow escape, all the men at the gun at which he was stationed being either killed or badly wounded by the destructive effects of a single shot, whilst he himself received no material injury, although struck by a splinter.

Some time previous to this event, the Superb having been dismasted, and otherwise greatly damaged in a heavy gale of wind, Sir Edward Hughes was obliged to shift his flag, pro tempore, into the Sultan, of the same force. On the 5th Nov. 1783, the former was driven from her anchors in Tellicherry Road, and drifting towards the shore, she struck upon a rock and sank; but fortunately her crew were saved. Hostilities having ceased soon after the last battle, the Commander-in-Chief sailed for Europe, and Mr. Byng was removed into the Defence, 74, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore, afterwards Sir Andrew Mitchell, with whom he returned to England in the month of Dec. 1785. On his arrival, he passed the usual examination for a Lieutenant; soon after which he joined the Jupiter, of 50 guns, the flag-ship of the late Sir William Parker, on the Leeward Island station, and served under that officer during a period of three years. A short time previous to Commodore Parker quitting the West Indies, a vacancy occurring for a Lieutenant, he sent for Mr. Byng, who was at that time the only gentleman on what is usually called the Admiralty list, and a brother Midshipman, the present Rear-Admiral Bingham, and desired them to throw a die for the appointment; it was done, and the latter proved successful. Of this mode of disposing of a commission to which Mr. Byng considered he had a superior claim, he naturally complained; however, the start he subsequently got of his competitor, was no doubt considered by him as an ample compensation for the mortification of the moment.

Commodore Parker was succeeded by the late Sir John Laforey, and Mr. Byng was received by the latter on board the Trusty, 50. At length, in the month of Sept. 1790, after more than twelve years active service, in the course of which he had participated in no less than four general actions, our officer received a commission from England, promoting him to the rank of Lieutenant, in which capacity he returned home in the Shark sloop of war.

Early in the ensuing year Mr. Byng was appointed to the Illustrious, of 74 guns, Captain (now Sir C. M.) Pole; from that ship he removed into the Druid frigate, as first Lieutenant, and in her assisted at the capture of several privateers, merchantmen, and smugglers. His next appointment appears to have been to the Impregnable, a second rate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Caldwell; but ill health compelling him to go to sick-quarters, he was thereby unfortunately prevented from sharing in the glories of the memorable first of June, 1794. He however rejoined his ship on her return to port[9], and in the month of Oct. following was advanced to the rank of Commander, in the Ferret sloop, employed in the North Sea. We subsequently find him acting as Captain of the Artois frigate during the temporary absence of the present Sir Edmund Nagle.

On the 18th June, 1795, Captain Byng was made post, into the Redoubt, of 20 guns, stationed as a floating battery in the river Tyne, where he rendered essential service to the shipping interest, by his spirited conduct in suppressing an unlawful combination of the seamen, entered into for the purpose of extorting exorbitant wages. For his conduct on that occasion he received the thanks of the Trinity House at Newcastle, and the Corporation of North Shields, as also of the shipowners of those places[10].

Our officer’s next appointment was to the Mercury, of 28 guns, attached to the squadron on the Newfoundland station, under the orders of Sir James Wallace. In 1796, when the French Admiral Richery invested that settlement with seven ships of the line and three frigates, having 2,000 troops on board, the Vice-Admiral defended it with one ship of 50 guns, two frigates, and two sloops; and, aided by the bravery and vigilance of Captain Byng and the other officers of his small squadron, ultimately succeeded in compelling the enemy to abandon their project of subjugating the colony.

In the following year, 1797, Captain Byng was appointed to the Galatea, of 32 guns, in which frigate he cruized during the remainder of the revolutionary war, on the coasts of France and Ireland, and captured several armed vessels, one of which was le Ranger, a French corvette of 14 guns; he also recaptured the Kenyon, a British West-Indiaman, valued at 40,000l.

Towards the latter end of the year 1801, Captain Byng was elected a Burgess of the ancient borough of Plymouth. This mark of respect was paid him upon his return from a cruize in the Bay of Biscay, during which the Galatea encountered a violent hurricane, and had nearly foundered; her mizenmast was carried over the side, at the same time her fore and main-top-masts also went, though there was not a stitch of canvas set. One man went over with the mizen-mast, and several others were much hurt.

Subsequent to the treaty of Amiens, the Galatea was stationed on the S.W. coast of Ireland, for the suppression of smuggling; and Captain Byng continued on that service until the month of May, 1802, when he was compelled to relinquish his command, in consequence of ill health, occasioned by long and severe cruizes during the preceding winter.

On the renewal of the war with the French republic, Captain Byng, then in a state of convalescence, tendered his services, and was immediately appointed to the Texel, of 64 guns, as commanding officer of the block-ships stationed in the Medway; and on the retirement of Earl St. Vincent from the Admiralty, that nobleman paid Captain Byng the flattering compliment of promoting his First Lieutenant and two Master’s-Mates to superior ranks.

In the month of August, 1804, our officer was appointed to the Malabar, of 50 guns, and commanded that ship until Mar. 1805, when he removed into the Belliqueux, of 64 guns; and in the following autumn, accompanied the late Sir Home Popham on an expedition against the Cape of Good Hope. The squadron, having on board a body of troops under Major-General Sir David Baird, arrived in Table Bay, Jan. 4, 1806; and on the 18th of the same month, the Dutch Governor (Janssens) having signed a capitulation for a general surrender, England became once more possessed of one of the most important settlements in the world, and which has since been permanently annexed to the British empire.

The land forces employed on the above occasion, were strengthened by a marine battalion, commanded by Captain Byng, from whose great exertions the service derived much benefit, which was warmly acknowledged by the joint commanders in their respective despatches, wherein they highly commended “the perseverance and determination with which Captain Byng, the officers and seamen under his command, overcame the obstacles opposed by an extreme difficulty of country to the conveyance of artillery[11].”

The presence of the ships belonging to the East India Company, which had assisted in the reduction of the Cape, being no longer necessary, Captain Byng was directed to escort them to Madras; on his arrival at which place he received an address from their commanders, some of whom had served with the Marine Brigade, expressive of the sense they entertained of his constant and unremitting attention to them, and requesting his acceptance of a piece of plate, of the value of 100l. as a testimony of their respect.

In the course of the same year, the Belliqueux formed part of Sir Edward Pellew’s squadron at the capture and destruction of a Dutch frigate, seven brigs of war, and about twenty armed and other merchant-vessels, in Batavia Roads[12]. During the operations, the Commander-in-Chief publicly expressed his satisfaction at Captain Byng’s activity and good conduct, by the telegraphic signal, “Your zeal I have noticed.” From this period nothing material occurred until 1809, when our officer hoisted a broad pendant on being appointed to conduct an armament sent from Bombay to occupy the island of Roderiguez, and thus pave the way for the reduction of the isles of Mauritius and Bourbon, This object was successfully accomplished; and Captain Byng had the satisfaction of receiving the thanks of the Government of Bombay, together with a present of 300l. for the very cordial and important assistance afforded by him to the military under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Keating.

The Belliqueux continued on the East India station until the month of June, 1810, at which time Captain Byng received orders to proceed to China, for the purpose of affording protection to the homeward-bound trade. On the 14th Feb. 1811, he sailed from Macao Roads, in company with seven of the Hon. Company’s ships; and, after encountering very tempestuous weather in the vicinity of the Cape of Good Hope, arrived with his charge at St. Helena (May 15), where he was joined by the Menelaus and Chiffonée frigates, five Indiamen, and several South-Sea-whalers, the whole of which reached the Downs in safety, on the 8th of August following. Previous to leaving India for China, the Belliqueux had exchanged 50 of her healthy men, for a similar number from other ships, whose constitutions had been much impaired by a service of ten years and upwards, in the oriental tropics; she also received on board 32 men invalided from various diseases. During the voyage from China to England, no less than 224 men had been placed on the sick list, the whole of whose cases happily yielded to medical treatment, to which due efficacy had been given by a light and proper diet of fresh food, very large quantities of which had been procured through the liberal donations and judicious arrangements made by Captain Byng[13].

The Belliqueux was paid off at Chatham, soon after her arrival; and the Right Hon. Charles Yorke, then at the head of the Admiralty, immediately offered Captain Byng the command of either of the new 74’s about to be commissioned; but our officer, preferring a ship of the old construction, made choice of the Warrior, to which he was accordingly appointed. Some time after this event, he received a letter from the Secretary of the India House, communicating the thanks of the Court of Directors “for his care and attention to the fleet recently under his convoy 5 and informing him, that in consideration of the zeal;tnd attention to the Company’s interests, evinced by him on various occasions, the Court of Directors had resolved to present him with the sum of 1,000 guineas for the purchase of a piece of plate, as an acknowledgement of his services.” Captain Byng succeeded to the title on the demise of his father, Jan. 8, 1813. That nobleman had survived his brother, George, the fourth Viscount, only 14 days.

The Warrior was principally employed in the Baltic and North Seas, under the Admirals Young, Foley, and Hope, by whom our officer’s conduct on all occasions, was most warmly approved[14]; and in the year 1813, when our neighbours, the Dutch, having thrown off the yoke of Napoleon Buonaparte, recalled the ancient House of Nassau to rule over them, he was selected to convey William Frederick, Prince of Orange, to his native country, for the purpose of assuming the station and honors so long enjoyed by his progenitors.

His Serene Highness embarked on board the Warrior in the Downs, Nov. 25th, and on the following morning sailed for the coast of Holland; but owing to unfavorable winds, did not reach Scheveling until the 30th, when the Prince and Lord Clancarty, the British Ambassador, with their respectives suites, landed amidst the hearty huzzas of the numbers assembled from all parts to witness their debarkation. H.S.H. was attended to the Hague by Lord Torrington, whom he favored with the most gracious expressions for his attention, accommodation, and hospitality, during the time he had the pleasure of being his guest. The same illustrious individual afterwards conferred upon his Lordship the insignia of the Order of Wilhelm of the Netherlands, for which an elegant gold-hilted sabre, with a suitable inscription, has since been substituted.

Lord Torrington subsequently convoyed a fleet of merchantmen to the West Indies; and during his absence was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral, by commission dated June 4, 1814.

On perusing the foregoing sketch of the Viscount’s professional career, drawn from various authentic sources, it will be seen that 33 years and a half of his life have been spent in active service at sea; 15 of which in the East and West Indies. An impaired state of health, occasioned thereby, and the claims upon his attention of a numerous progeny, obliged him, in 1818, to decline the offer of a foreign command[15]; his time, however, is not mis-spent, being divided between his family, his senatorial duties, and the amelioration of the condition of his poorer fellow subjects. We are not aware of his Lordship ever having published any work, though the pages of the Naval Chronicle are enriched with numerous hydrographical communications made by him. We are likewise ignorant of the periods at which he attained the degree of D.C.L., and the no less creditable designation of F.R.S.

Viscount Torrington has been twice married; his first wife was Elizabeth, daughter of Philip Langmead, of Hoegate-house Plymouth, Esq. M.P. His present lady, to whom he was united Oct. 5, 1811, is the second daughter of Sir Robert Barlow, K.C.B., late Commissioner of Chatham Dock-yard, and niece to Sir George H. Barlow, Bart.

Residence.– Yotes Court, near Meriworth, Kent.

  1. Aug. 13, 1704.
  2. Admiral Byng’s trial, with all the extraordinary circumstances connected therewith, form a very interesting portion of the second volume of Horace Walpole’s Memoirs of the last ten Years of the Reign of Geo. II., recently published from the original MSS.
  3. Commodore Forrest died May 26, 1770: a memoir of this gallant officer, with a portrait, will be found in the Nav. Chron. v. 25, p. 441. His son, Thomas Forrest, Esq., died at Gibraltar in 1780, of wounds he received when third Lieutenant of the Ajax, in the action between Sir George B. Rodney and Don Juan de Langara. See note †, at p. 3 of this volume.
  4. Afterwards a Commodore, and perished in the West Indies. See note at p. 68.
  5. See note †, at p. 195.
  6. Sir Richard Pearson was the officer who so nobly defended the Serapis, a 44-gun ship, against a squadron commanded by the noted Paul Jones, Sept, 23, 1779. He died Lieutenant-Governor of Greenwich Hospital, in 1806.
  7. Captain Mackenzie commanded the Gibraltar, of 80 guns, in Earl Howe’s action, June 1, 1794; and died a Flag-Officer, Sept. 20, 1813.
  8. An account of the different encounters between those officers will be found at pp. 135, 242, &c.
  9. Mr. Buller, who had superseded Lieutenant Byng in the Impregnable, was mortally wounded in the battle.
  10. The following is an extract from the Times and Newcastle Advertiser:

    Newcastle, Oct. 20, 1795.

    “At a meeting of ship-owners, held in the Trinity House in Newcastle-upon-Tyne this day,–

    “Resolved unanimously,

    “That the thanks of this meeting be given to George Byng, Esq. commander of H. M.’s floating battery Redoubt, at Shields, for his spirited conduct in suppressing the late violent proceedings of the seamen, when stopping ships proceeding to sea, with a view to extort exorbitant wages; and that the same be conveyed by letter, from the Chairman; which was accordingly done by Mr. Lawton, the Chairman; also the thanks of the mayor and corporation, and gentlemen ship-owners of North Shields.”

  11. Extract from Sir David Baird’s public despatches, addressed to Viscount Castlereagh.

    Cape Town, Jan. 12, 1806.

    “On every occasion where it has been found necessary to call for the co-operation of British seamen in land enterprizes, their valor has been so conspicuous, and their spirit of labor and perseverance so unconquerable, that no tribute of my applause can add a lustre to their character; but I discharge a most agreeable portion of my duty in assuring your lordship, that in the recent employment of their services they have maintained their reputation. And in this place it behoves me to inform your lordship, that the uniform good conduct of those gallant fellows, and the zeal of Captain George Byng, who commanded them, together with that of every subordinate officer, have merited my fullest approbation.”

    The heroic Captain Hardinge, who afterwards commanded the St. Fiorenzo, and fell in action with la Piedmontaise, served on shore under the orders of Captain Byng, with whom he had sailed from England as a passenger to join the Salsette frigate at Bombay. On quitting the Belliqueux, he thus addressed her commander:–

    “Amongst the sensations which an event like this awakens, the only painful one is, that I am to be separated from those I love, and for a period so indefinite. But no space or time can ever separate me from you.”

  12. See p. 223.
  13. In the Naval Chronicle, vol. 28, p. 57, and six following, there appears a letter from R. W. Bampfield, Esq. late Surgeon of the Belliqueux, recording the mode of treatment adopted towards the patients, from which we make the following extracts, illustrative of the benevolent exertions of Captain Byng: P. 59. “The useful experience acquired by a residence in India,” says the writer, “of the most prevailing diseases on long voyages, had taught us, that the scurvy, contrary to received opinion, is sooner induced in a tropical, than in a cold climate; and is not only most destructive itself, but impedes the cure of all other diseases, or aggravates them; while we had certained, that the oriental diseases would commonly yield to experienced medical treatment, if a proper diet could be obtained. Preparations were therefore made to check this Boa Upas of sailors in the East.

    “Arrangements had been made to allot a retained proportion of the vegetable money, drawn by the Purser, to purchase a sea stock, to which was added a donation of 150 dollars from Captain B. With these sums were purchased twelve dozen fine capons, 2000 pounds of potatoes, 200 pounds of carrots, 798 pounds of pomkins, 500 pounds of dry onions, two catties of rusk; and about 2000 pounds of onions and nopal leaves were pickled on board, with good vinegar, and plenty of nutmeg, mace, cinnamon, ginger, and pepper, the native spices of India, under the direction of Mr. W. Griffiths, Assistant-Surgeon. Besides which, the Captain, with his usual attention to every circumstance that tended to exemption from disease, and the recovery of the sick, directed six bullocks to be carried to sea, to be killed at different periods of the voyage, for distribution among the sick and scorbutics; and supplied occasionally a quarter of mutton from his own stock. The carrots were packed in dry sand, in the way directed to be preserved by the College of Physicians; but they fermented, and became putrid in a fortnight. The pomkins should be turned daily, or the juice they contain will gravitate to the most depending part, and occasion putrefaction.”

    P. 61. “The arrangements to prevent the access, and counteract the progress of scurvy, were these: Every man who was sick, or had a small wound or ulceration, or who had evinced a predisposition to scurvy on former voyages, or who became scorbutic in the course of the present one, was supplied with one pound of potatoes on four days in the week, except when beef or mutton was served; and an unlimited allowance of pickles on the other three days, with his salted meats. The pomkins, with lime-juice, orange-peel, and spices, made good mock apple pies. When a bullock was killed, or when a donation of a quarter of mutton was presented from the Captain, all were supplied with soup and meat, with abundance of vegetables. The capons, with onions, pomkin, and rusk, made excellent soup, and a light diet for the worst cases of disease; and it was found, that a fine capon, thus cooked, was sufficient to dine from four to eight, and sometimes ten, as the appetite becomes much impaired in all oriental diseases.

    “The Captain’s wines, and other luxuries of his store-room, were at the service of those who wished or required them; and he sometimes condescended to see the ingredients he furnished for soup, put in the kettle himself.”

    P. 62. “It is well known, that the supply of animal food at St. Helena, in not only very dear, but very limited, and only granted by an order of the Governor in Council. Here was an occasion that displayed the lively interest Captain Byng felt for the health and welfare of the seamen under his command :  *  *  *  *  *  *  * : by his earnest representation! to the Governor, and the address he employed in conciliating and gaining his attention, he obtained more bullocks and sheep than had ever been allowed to one ship; while a recent and liberal regulation of the Commissioners for victualling the navy, furnished ample supplies of vegetables, which, on this island are good, abundant, and dear. A beautiful water-fall descends from a high precipice, at the extremity of James’s Valley, and forms a fine clear rivulet, which, in its meandering course through the valley, exhibits on its surface the green leaf of the water-cress growing in luxurious abundance. Hither the convalescents and some scorbutics were daily sent to eat this wholesome vegetable, and to perform the task of gathering two or three bags of cresses for the use of the ship’s company.

    “The strength of the people was much recruited, and the scorbutic dispositions corrected, by the salutary refreshments we procured at the island; from which we departed on the 9th June.  *  *  *  *  *  *  * Captain Byng directed as large a proportion of vegetables as was deemed necessary, to be reserved out of the liberal allowance of Government, for a sea stock, and presented a donation of 100 dollars, for the purchase of poultry, sheep, and other articles useful to the sick. Nearly the same quantity of vegetables and pickles was preserved as in China; but the enormous price of ten shillings for a large fowl, greatly limited the stock of poultry, a circumstance which was compensated by the Captain ordering some of the sheep bought for the ship’s company, to be exclusively appropriated, during the voyage, to the use of the sick, and those who should become scorbutic.”

    p. 63, “_____ _____ Ninety-one cases had been placed on the sick list, during the voyage from St. Helena to England, and some few scorbutics, but not one of the Belliqueux’ had been lost from disease, during the whole voyage from China.”

    Mr. Bampfield is the Author of “Practical Treatises on Tropical and Scorbutic Complaints,” published in 1818, and dedicated to Viscount Torrington, “as a tribute of respect, due to the benevolence, zeal, and ability, which his Lordship displayed in his earnest efforts to preserve the lives of those confided to his command, and in his judicious, and, at last, eminently successful arrangements, to prevent the scorbutic form of disease treated of in that work from prevailing among them; as a sense of obligation for the condescension and humane feeling with which his Lordship received and adopted every suggestion for their welfare; and as a grateful offering for some personal acts of friendship conferred during ten years’ associated services.”

  14. The Editor avails himself of this opportunity to acknowledge the obligation conferred upon him by the officer who so kindly furnished him with the following copies of testimonials from several of the distinguished characters under whom Lord Torrington served when in the command of the Warrior:

    “My Lord. – It is so much the duty of a Commander-in-Chief to do justice to the merits of officers who serve under his command, that I can have no hesitation in bearing testimony to your’s, during the time of your serving in the fleet in the North Sea; and in so doing, I have great pleasure in being able to say, that from the time of your joining the fleet to that of your being removed from it, I had every reason to be satisfied with the Zeal, attention, and alacrity, with which you performed every service on which you were employed.

    “I had frequent occasions to be pleased with your anxiety to be employed on active service, and particularly with the earnest desire you expressed to be allowed to serve on shore when the seamen and marines were landed to capture, and to defend the Islands of Zealand.

    (Signed) “W. Young, Admiral.”

    “I have great satisfaction in stating, that during the time the Warrior was under my flag, I had every reason to approve of the manner in which the service was conducted in that ship, and that I always considered the promptitude and regularity, which I could not fail to observe, as the effect of the correct system of discipline established by your Lordship.

    (Signed) “R. Bickerton, Admiral.”

    “I can with truth say, I had every reason to approve and applaud your conduct in every respect, while I had the honor of being on service with your Lordship.

    (Signed) “Thos. Foley, Vice-Admiral.”

    “I have pleasure in stating, that wherever I have had the pleasure of serving with you, both this war and the last, in frigates and ships of the line, I always thought the ships you commanded excellent, efficient men of war, and had full confidence in your zeal and ability.

    (Signed) “Graham Moore.”

    This latter officer, when appointed to a command in the Baltic, proceeded thither in the Warrior.

  15. The chief command at the Leeward Islands was offered to Lord Torrington previous to its being tendered to Rear-Admiral Donald Campbell, who died Nov. 11, 1819.