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Royal Naval Biography/Compton, Henry


HENRY COMPTON, Esq.
[Commander.]

A native of Limerick, and son of Francis Compton, Esq., by Miss Widenham, one of whose brothers was an alderman of that city.

This officer was born in 1774, and received the naval part of his education at an academy near Deptford, conducted by Lieutenant Lane, who had accompanied the immortal Cook in one or two of his voyages round the globe. Amongst his school-fellows were the present Vice-Admiral Fleeming and the late Captain James Moutray, who was killed in a battery at the siege of Calvi.

Mr. Compton entered the service as midshipman on board the Cumberland 74, Captain (afterwards Admiral) Macbride, but first went to sea in the Actaeon 44, armed en flûte, commanded by the present Vice-Admiral Joseph Hanwell, and employed in conveying troops to and from the West Indies. On the breaking out of the French revolutionary war, he joined the Romulus 36, Captain John Sutton, then about to sail for the Mediterranean, where he arrived in time to witness the occupation of Toulon; after which he was obliged to come home, in la Melpomene prize-frigate, for the recovery of his health. We next find him serving on board the Minotaur 74, bearing the flag of his early patron, Vice-Admiral Macbride, and attached to the Channel fleet. He subsequently returned to the Mediterranean, in the Blonde 32, Captain William Pierrepont; taking with him a strong recommendation to Vice-Admiral Hotham, by whom he was received on board the Britannia 110, early in 1795.

On the arrival of Sir John Jervis, to assume the chief command in that important quarter, Mr. Compton was removed by him into his flag-ship, the Victory, where he continued until appointed a lieutenant of the Agamemnon 64, commanded by the heroic Nelson, in Jan. 1796. On the 25th April following, he displayed great gallantry in a successful attack upon four French vessels, lying under the batteries of Loäno, near Voltri, on the coast of Italy; and on the 31st May, he again distinguished himself at the capture of two national vessels and five transports, the latter laden with battering cannon, &c. for the siege of Mantua[1].

Shortly after the performance of this important service, Commodore Nelson, then in the Captain 74, to which ship Lieutenant Compton and many other of the Agamemnon’s officers had also removed, was about to enter the harbour of Genoa, from whence he had sailed in pursuit of the enemy’s convoy; but to his great surprise, when near the mole-head, he was fired upon by all the sea-batteries. The Captain and the other ships of Nelson’s little squadron, were instantly cleared for action, and the unexpected warlike salute returned with considerable effect. In the midst of the firing. Lieutenant Compton received a message to attend the Commodore, whom he found in his cabin, deliberately writing a letter of remonstrance to the Doge, against what he considered such an unjust attack. “Be seated until my letter is ready,” said the hero, “and in the mean time a boat shall be hoisted out.” The despatch was soon sealed and handed to Lieutenant Compton, with instructions to proceed immediately on shore and deliver it. On landing, he found the city in the greatest consternation, a strong column of French troops having gained admittance, and taken possession of all the sea-defences: his boat’s crew were soon seized and imprisoned, but he himself succeeded in reaching the residence of the English consul, whose house was then completely closed, with a strong guard in front of it to protect him from threatened violence. He then proceeded, in company with that gentleman, to the palace of the Doge; and on his presenting Nelson’s letter, it was determined that the senate should immediately be summoned. After some time spent in deliberation. Lieutenant Compton was informed that a representation of the whole matter should be made to the English minister at Turin; and he was also given to understand, though in an indirect way, that his detention had been resolved upon. He then returned home with the consul, who immediately decided upon endeavouring to get him off in a fishing-boat, could any native be found who would undertake so dangerous a service: his first efforts proved ineffectual, but at length he succeeded in finding a man who was in the habit of going out every night the weather permitted, and who, for a large sum of money, agreed to meet his wishes; which promise he most faithfully fulfilled.

On the following morning, at day-break, not one of the squadron was to be seen, and it became a subject of deep and anxious solicitude with Lieutenant Compton, whether to return to Genoa or to proceed in an open boat to Leghorn. He resolved upon going to the latter place, where he expected to find the Agamemnon; but it required the exertion of all his persuasive powers to bring the boatmen into the same way of thinking. A strong N.W. gale now began to blow, and drove him considerably to the southward of his intended course; it proved, however, the most fortunate circumstance that could have happened, for on the evening of the second day after his escape from Genoa, he had the infinite satisfaction of re-joining the Agamemnon, off Capreja, an island belonging to the Genoese republic, and which Nelson was then about to take possession of, in return for his late unwelcome reception[2].

The truly glorious part borne by the officers and crew of the Captain at the memorable battle off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14th, 1797, on which day they boarded and carried one ship of 112 guns and another of 84, has been fully noticed in Vol. I. Part II. p. 774 et seq. and Vol. II. Part II. pp. 567–569.

In the month of May ensuing, Lieutenant Compton followed Sir Horatio Nelson into the Theseus 74; and after the unsuccessful attack on Santa Cruz, we find him returning home with his wounded chief, in the Seahorse frigate, Captain T. F. Fremantle. In Dec. 1797, he joined the Vanguard 74, fitting out for the flag of the great hero, and under which he bore a part at the memorable battle of the Nile. On the first anniversary of that glorious event, Nelson wrote to the Admiralty as follows:–

Foudroyant, Naples Bay, 1st Aug. 1799.

“Too much praise cannot be given to Captain Troubridge, for his wonderful exertion in bringing about these happy events” (the expulsion of the French from Naples, Capua, and Gaieta[3]). “Captain Hallowell has also the greatest merit. Captain Oswald, whom I sent to England, is an officer most highly deserving promotion. I have put Lieutenant Compton, who has served with him as lieutenant since January 1796, into, the command of the Perseus, and beg leave to recommend him as highly meriting promotion.”

In Sept. following, the Perseus was employed on the Roman coast, under the orders of Commodore Troubridge; and on that officer being recalled by Nelson, after obtaining possession of Civita Vecchia[4], he addressed the following order to her commander:–

H.M.S. Culloden, Sept. 30th, 1799.

“Sir,– Having received directions from the Right Hon. Lord Nelson, K.B. to leave the fulfilling the solemn engagement which I entered into with the French General commanding the troops of that nation in the Papal States to a discreet officer, and to join him myself immediately, with all the force which con be spared from this service, off the west end of Sicily; you will therefore remain here with H.M. ship under your command, and proceed to carry the articles of capitulation entered into with the French General into effect, conducting the transports in which his troops will embark, to Toulon, whence you will immediately proceed to Palermo, and, after communicating with H.M. Ambassador at that Court, join Lord Nelson, according to the best information which you may receive there of his lordship’s movements.

(Signed)T. Troubridge.”

Commander Compton was subsequently sent by Nelson to Alexandria, in Egypt; and on his return from thence he appears to have been employed in the blockade of Malta, a service for which the Perseus was but badly calculated, she being an old ship, and in a very crazy condition. On her passage from off Malta to Naples, with despatches, she encountered a severe gale of wind, and sustained so much damage, that Commander Compton, instead of returning to his former station, was under the necessity of proceeding to Gibraltar; where, it being found impracticable to repair the Perseus sufficiently for active service, he received orders from Lord Keith to return home with a number of merchant vessels and transports under his protection. After leaving the ruck, he encountered a series of most violent gales, and the ship had frequently from four to five feet water in the hold: his convoy was dispersed, and he reached England in a state of great distress; but had soon the satisfaction to learn that every vessel was safe in port. The Perseus was then ordered round to Woolwich, and put out of commission early in 1801.

After this. Commander Compton’s health became so bad, owing to the fatigues of service, that he was obliged to refrain from soliciting active employment. He married, in 1807, Miss Molloy, niece to Edward Molloy, of Oporto, Esq., and has issue four sons and one daughter. One of his brothers, William, obtained the same naval rank as himself, commanded the Lilly sloop, and was slain in action with a French ship of superior force, on the Halifax station, July 15th, 1804. His other brother, Francis, an officer in the 68th regiment, fell a sacrifice to the yellow fever, while serving at one of the West India islands. One of his sisters is the widow of William Blood, Esq., who was murdered by a banditti when travelling from Limerick to Dublin; and the other is married to M. Fitzgerald, Esq. of the Irish capital.