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Royal Naval Biography/Byron, Richard

A Companion of the most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1802.]

It being our intention to present the reader with some very curious and interesting particulars of the Byron family, under the head of their representative, the present Captain Lord Byron, we shall merely state in this place that the officer now before us is the eldest son of the late Hon. and Rev. Richard Byron, by Mary, daughter of Richard Farmer, of Leicester, Esq., and sister of Dr. Richard Farmer, Master of Emanuel College, Cambridge, a Canon residentiary of St. Paul’s, and the celebrated commentator on Shakespeare, and frequently mentioned by Malone and Steevens[1].

Mr. Richard Byron was born in 1769; and entered the naval service at the commencement of 1782, as a Midshipman, on board the Andromache frigate, commanded by his first cousin, the late Captain George Anson Byron, then about to sail for the West India station, where he arrived in time to witness the defeat and capture of Count de Grasse, by the fleet under Sir George B. Rodney[2]. He was also present at the relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe, at the latter end of the same year[3].

Mr. Byron subsequently served for several years in the Druid frigate; and early in 1789, we find him accompanying his cousin to the East Indies, in the Phoenix of 36 guns, forming part of the squadron sent thither under the orders of Commodore Cornwallis. Ever active, Captain Byron sought the first occasion of assisting in the war against Tippoo Saib; and, at the very outset, performed a signal service, by intercepting the Sultan’s transports, loaded with military stores. After this he distinguished himself by landing some of his guns, and leading a party of his men to assist the Bombay army in reducing the fortress of Cannanore, and other strong holds on the Malabar coast, and in re-establishing the Rajah of Travancore, whose dominions had been over-run and occupied by Tippoo. For these services he was publicly praised in the official accounts that were sent home; but, unfortunately, he fell a victim to his alacrity and zeal; for, on crossing the bar of Billiapatnam river, near Cannanore, in order to communicate with Major-General Abercromby, who was then marching towards Seringapatam, his boat was overset by a heavy sea; and when endeavouring to extricate himself, her gunwale struck him twice upon the breast with so much violence, that on being taken up it. was not supposed he could survive the shock his frame had sustained. He however lingered about a year after his return to England, and survived his wife several months. He died at Dawleish, in Devonshire, June 11, 1793.

The subject of this memoir was made a Lieutenant into the Perseverance frigate at Trincomalee, about Oct. 1792; and served as such on board the Impregnable, a second rate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Caldwell, in the battle of June 1, 1794. From her he removed into the Queen Charlotte of 100 guns, which ship formed part of Lord Bridport’s fleet in the action off l’Orient, June 23, 1795[4]. We subsequently find him serving as first Lieutenant of the Doris frigate, commanded by Lord Ranelagh, and employed as a cruiser in the Channel.

In 1797, Mr. Byron was appointed flag Lieutenant to Sir Hugh C. Christian, K.B., whom he accompanied to the Cape of Good Hope in la Virginie, of 44 guns. He there joined the Tremendous 74, from which ship he was promoted to the command of the Cornwallis brig in Mar. 1798[5]. His next appointment was to the Rosario sloop of war, fitting at Plymouth for the Jamaica station, where he was employed during the peace of Amiens, watching the motions of a fleet sent from France to co-operate with General le Clerc, in his attempt to recover possession of St. Domingo. Captain Byron’s post commission bears date April 29, 1802. He fitted out the Inconstant frigate in 1804; and obtained the command of the Belvidera, rated at 36, but mounting 42 guns, Feb. 11, 1810. On the 22d July following, the boats of that ship, in company with those of the Nemesis 28, captured, after a smart action, the Danish schooners Balder and Thor, each carrying two long 24-pounders, 6 howitzers, and 45 men; they also destroyed a sloop, mounting one 24-pounder, with a complement of 25 men. Of this gallant affair, which took place on the coast of Norway, an account will be found under the head of Captain William Henry Bruce, who served as a Lieutenant on that occasion.

The Belvidera was afterwards ordered to the Halifax station, where she had a rencontre with an American squadron, the particulars of which are thus related by Captain Byron in his official letter to Vice-Admiral Sawyer, dated June 27, 1812[6]:

“Sir,– I beg leave to inform you, that in pursuance of the orders I had the honor to receive from you at Bermuda, the Belvidera was on the 23d instant in lat. 39° 26' N., long. 71° 10' W., in expectation of the French privateer Marengo coming out of New London. At break of day, the officer of the watch informed me the upper sails of five vessels were seen in the S.W. I stood towards them to reconnoitre; and when about six miles from us they hauled to the wind by signal in chase of the Belvidera[7]. I tacked from them, and made sail in consequence of their not answering the private signal[8]. At 11h 30' A.M. we hoisted our colours, and the strange squadron shewed the American flag. The breeze falling light with me, but still favouring them, brought their van ship, which I believe to have been the President[9], within point blank distance on our weather quarter. At 4h 20' P.M. she opened her fire from her foremost guns. I had given the most positive orders to my Lieutenants to prick the cartridges, but not to prime the guns[10]. Although ignorant of the war, we were of course prepared; and about five minutes afterwards opened ours, with two 32-pounder earronades, and two long 18-pounders from the stern[11]. In light winds the President sailed better than the Belvidera; and as her second, a very heavy frigate[12], sailed as well, I acknowledge I was much surprised at the nearest ship yawing repeatedly, and giving starboard and larboard broadsides, when it was fully in her power to have run up alongside the Belvidera[13]. I thought it my duty to make a firm retreat from three frigates of the largest class, accompanied by a small frigate or sloop, and a brig of war, two of which bore broad pendants[14]. The cannonading continued on both sides until seven o’clock. About half an hour previous to the close, the President’s second began an ineffective fire. At 10h 30', by the good advice of the Master, I shifted the course at once six points to starboard: the enemy hauled up after us, but with less decision, evidently apprehensive of losing some of her consorts; and at 11h 30', there being a fine moon, we saw her wear, and heave to on the opposite tack; also her second and the other frigate; and I conclude the two sternmost did the same as they came up. The necessity of retreat was painful to every one on board the Belvidera. The stem and quarters are damaged, main-top-mast shot through, and cross-jack-yard cut away in the slings; the sails are also damaged, With some standing and running rigging. The President must have suffered considerably from the excellent direction of the two quarter-deck guns by Lieutenant John Sykes, first of this ship, an officer of seventeen years standing; and the firing of the two 18-pounders was very quick arid well-directed by Lieutenants William Henry Bruce, and the Hon. George Pryse Campbell[15]. To the Lieutenants I am much indebted, and equally so to Mr. James Ker, the Master, for his speedy refitment of the rigging, as it was shot away, and his spirited activity in resetting the studding sails, as their haliards were cut. Much praise is due to Lieutenant James Campbell of the royal marines, for the determined example he shewed to his party. I am infinitely satisfied with the valorous and steady conduct of the warrant and petty officers, seamen, and marines, of the Belvidera. Herewith I enclose the small list of killed and wounded, which in some measure is to be attributed to the endeavour of the enemy to dismantle us. John Hill the armourer, and William Gould of the fore-castle, were very good men[16]. I feel obliged to account for not waiting on you personally, having received a contusion above my knee, by one of the carronades breaking loose in firing, but which will very soon be well. The bearer of this, Lieutenant John Sykes, is an excellent officer, and will give you every information. I hope my conduct will meet your approbation. I have the honor to be, &c, &c. &c.

(Signed)R. Byron[17]

To Herbert Sawyer, Esq.
Vice-Admiral of the Blue,
&c. &c. &c.

The conduct of Captain Byron on this occasion was highly applauded both by government and the public. Had it not been for his discretion and promptitude on first falling in with the American squadron; his perseverance in leading Commodore Rodgers out of the track of a valuable Jamaica fleet, which both parties knew was then on its passage to England under a very trivial escort[18]; and his bravery in defending the Belvidera, during a long and arduous chase, while engaged with a force so greatly superior; the country would have sustained a much greater loss than that resulting from the capture of six or seven insignificant merchantmen, which, with one solitary recapture, were the only trophies of Commodore Rodgers’ prowess, obtained by him during a cruise of two months and eight days, although he had sailed from New York with the singular advantage of his hostile intentions being unknown to any British cruiser.

On the 5th of the following month, Captain Byron sailed from Halifax in company with a squadron sent to cruise off the enemy’s coast, under the orders of Captain (now Sir Philip) Broke; and eleven days after assisted at the capture of the Nautilus of 14 guns and 106 men, off Sandy Hook[19]. At 3 P.M. on the same day, a strange sail was seen in the wind’s eye, which afterwards proved to be the Constitution of 56 guns, on her way from Chesapeake Bay to New York. A general chase ensued, and was continued during the night. At day-light on the 17th, it being then calm, the enemy’s ship and her pursuers hoisted out their boats to tow, and at 7h 30' the former began warping herself ahead, in 24 fathoms water. She then bore from the Belvidera S.W.b.S. distant four miles. At 9 o’clock a light air sprang up from the S.S.E., and the Belvidera trimmed sails on the larboard tack. At 10 h 30' the breeze freshened, but in a few minutes died away to a calm; when Captain Byron, observing the benefit that the Constitution had derived from warping, immediately commenced the same operation, bending all his hawsers to one another, and working two kedge anchors at the same time, by paying the warp through one hawse-hole as it was run in through another opposite. The effect of this was soon visible; and at noon the American, whose booms had just before been thrown overboard, was within gun-shot of the Belvidera. At 2 P.M. the enemy opened a fire from his stern-chasers, which was returned occasionally by Captain Byron’s bow-guns. At 3, a light breeze enabled the Constitution to gain ground, and the firing ceased; but the chase continued till day-light on the 18th, by which time she was four miles a-head, and being a clean ship she ultimately effected her escape. The pursuit was finally given up by the British at 8 A.M. on the 19th, a little to the southward of Delaware Bay, the wind at that time blowing very fresh, and the enemy’s hull being no longer visible[20]. The Belvidera’s situation when chased by Commodore Rodgers was far more critical than that of the Constitution on this occasion, she being ignorant of the war, and having to sustain the fire of a ship vastly superior in force.

On the 21st Aug. in the same year, the Belvidera captured the Bunker’s Hill schooner privateer of 7 guns and 72 men; and on the 8th Feb. 1813, her boats assisted at the capture of the Lottery letter of marque, mounting 10 guns, with a valuable cargo from Baltimore, bound to Bourdeaux. The active manner in which Captain Byron was employed at the latter period will be seen by reference to the copy of a memorandum issued by Rear-Admiral Cockburn, and inserted in our memoir of Captain George Burdett at p. 576. The following acknowledgment of his liberal and humane conduct towards the wounded men of the Lottery, was made by Captain Stewart of the Constellation frigate, dated in Norfolk Harbour, Feb. 15:

“Sir, Captain Gould has handed me a note you addressed to him on the 11th inst., in which you state, ‘by authority of the senior Captain of H.B. Majesty’s squadron in Lyn-haven Bay, that Captain Southcomb and his two wounded men will be delivered to any vessel that may come for them,’ I send a flag down to you for the purpose of receiving those men, and avail myself of this opportunity to thank you for your attention and humanity to the unfortunate. I have the honor to be, very respectfully, your obedient servant,

(Signed)Charles Stewart, Senior Officer.

“P.S. Dr. Ray goes with the flag to attend the wounded men, should there be any necessity.”

To Captain Richard Byron,
H.B.M.S. Belvidera.

The Belvidera subsequently captured the United States’ schooner Vixen, pierced for 18 guns; and destroyed the Mars privateer, carrying 15 guns and 70 men. She also recaptured the Nocton, a Falmouth packet, which had been taken by the Essex frigate on the coast of Brazil. She was paid off at the latter end of 1814; and Captain Byron received the insignia of a C.B, as a reward for his meritorious services in 1815.

The subject of this memoir married, Sept. 23, 3801, a daughter of the late James Sykes, Esq., Navy Agent, of Arundel Street, Strand, London, and by that lady has four sons, viz. Richard, a passed Midshipman, now serving on board the Spartiate 76, bearing the flag of Sir George Eyre, commander-in-chief in South America; James, an Ensign in the 8th, or King’s regiment; John, a student at Exeter College, Oxford; and William, at Emanuel College, Cambridge.

Agent.– Thomas Stilwell, Esq.

  1. The Hon. and Rev. Richard Byron, third son of William, fourth Lord Byron, by Frances, second daughter of William, Lord Berkeley, of Stratton, was born at Newstead Abbey, Oct. 24, 1724. His brother, the late Hon. Vice-Admiral John Byron, served as a Midshipman under Commodore Anson, during his celebrated voyage round the world; and having had the misfortune to be cast away in the Wager, on a desolate island off the coast of Chili, suffered great hardships for more than five years. He was an able and gallant seaman; but, on the whole, an unfortunate commander, having always the elements to contend with rather than the enemy. His action with M. d’Estaing, July 6, 1779, though indecisive, was highly honorable to the British fleet; for it is evident that the French Admiral declined coming to a close engagement, though the force under his command was vastly superior to his opponents. Vice-Admiral Byron died April 10, 1786.
  2. Captain G. A. Byron was instrumental in bringing on the battles of April 9 and 12, 1782; for, being stationed off the Diamond Rock, he kept the strictest watch upon the enemy, by sailing into the mouth of the harbour where de Grasse lay, and gave Rodney such immediate notice of the French Admiral’s motions, that the British ships, by slipping their cables, were enabled to intercept and bring him to action. He also rendered an essential service in the midst of the conflict on the 12th, by putting fifty barrels of gunpowder on board the Monarch 74, without causing that ship to lose her station in the line for a moment. The Andromache was afterwards selected to carry home Lords Cranston and Robert Manners; the former charged with Rodney’s despatches relative to the victory, the latter returning to England on account of his wounds; and Captain Byron’s conduct was reported in the most honorable terras to the Admiralty. Unfortunately for his country, Lord Robert Manners only survived about a week after his removal from the ship he had so gallantly commanded, during which period he was closely attended by Mr. Richard Byron. When his Lordship’s death was announced at Court, the King told the Duke of Portland, he would rather have lost three of the best ships in his service.
  3. See Vol. I, pp. 17 and 106.
  4. See Vol. I, note at p. 75 et seq. and Vol. II, Part I, note at p. 54. Lieutenant Byron on the latter occasion was placed in a very honorable post, his Captain, Sir Andrew Snape Douglas, having directed that his division of guns, the seven foremost on the lower deck, should alone commence the action; the remainder to consider his firing as a signal for them to begin with effect. He accordingly waked until his guns pointed directly for the French Formidable’s broadside, when he let fly, and every shot from the Queen Charlotte was thus expended to good purpose. It should be remarked, that the enemy’s three sternmost ships had previously opened a heavy fire upon her, but without shaking the determination of her commander, not to throw away a shot in vain.
  5. La Virginie conveyed Lord Mornington (now Marquis Wellesley), from England to the Cape of Good Hope, from whence the Cornwallis returned home with despatches.
  6. The United States had declared war against Great Britain nine days previous to the date of this letter.
  7. The enemy when first seen were steering to the eastward, with the wind blowing a moderate breeze from W.N.W.
  8. This was at about 8h 15' A.M. The Belvidera kept away between four and five points.
  9. Captain Byron’s conjectures were right. His nearest opponent was the President, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Rodgers, and mounting thirty-two long 24 pounders, and 22 carronades, (42-pounders,) exclusive of top guns; with a complement of 475 men. The Belvidera mounted twenty-six long 18-pounders, and 16 carronades, 14 of which were 32-pounders, the other 2 only nines. She had on board only 230 officers, men, and boys.
  10. This was done to prevent the possibility of any such charge being laid against the Belvidera, as had been made so much of in the case of the Little Belt. See Captain Arthur Batt Bingham.
  11. The wind had by this time shifted to W.S.W.; the Belvidera and her pursuers continuing their course to the N.E. was consequently running nearly before it.
  12. The President’s second was the Congress, of twenty-eight long 18-pounders, twenty 32-pr. carronades, and two long nines. Her complement was 440 men.
  13. One of the President’s 24-pounders burst ten minutes after she had opened her fire. By this accident 16 persons were killed and wounded, including among the latter Commodore Rodgers himself severely in the thigh; and the main and forecastle-decks near the gun were so much shattered, as to prevent the use of a bow-chaser on that side for some time.
  14. The third American ship was the United States, Commodore Decatur, armed precisely the same as the President, with the addition of an 18-pounder travelling carronade, used through a port at the gang-way. She also carried a howitzer in each top. The other vessels were the Hornet and Argus sloops of war.
  15. No less than 300 round shot were discharged from the main-deck stern-chasers.
  16. It is related of John Hill, that after having both arms amputated he wanted to go on deck to have another shot at the enemy. He died the day after the action, two of his ribs having been fractured and driven into his lungs.

    The Belvidera had only the above men killed, and 22 wounded, including among the latter her Captain and second Lieutenant. The President, according to the American official account, had 2 Midshipmen and 1 marine killed; Commodore Rodgers, 1 Lieutenant, 1 marine officer, 3 Midshipmen, and 12 seamen wounded; 1 of whom mortally, and several severely.

  17. The long bolts and breechings of the Belvidera’s carronades gave way repeatedly during the action. Captain Byron was in the act of pointing and firing one of them when the bolt drew, and the carriage slide turning suddenly round, the corner of it came in contact with his groin. The wound inflicted was very severe, although he treated it so lightly in his public letter. Such instances of modesty, although by no means rare, are always praiseworthy. It is something singular that Commodore Rodgers should also have been wounded in the thigh.
  18. Captain Byron’s position at day-light on the 23d June is stated in the above letter. The West India fleet just alluded to were that day, at noon, in lat. 39° 35' N., long. 61° 38' W. From the course that Commodore Rodgers was steering when first discovered by the Belvidera, and from the circumstance of his bringing a westerly breeze from the American coast, it is obvious that he had every chance of coming up with the convoy.
  19. See Vol. II. Part I, p. 370.
  20. The enemy being a clean ship just out of port, sailed much better than any of the British squadron, either in light or strong breezes.