Royal Naval Biography/Cumby, William Pryce

[Post-Captain of 1806.]

This officer is the only surviving son of the late Captain David Pryce Cumby, R.N., by his first wife, Eleanor, second daughter of William Jepson, of Heighington, co. Durham Esq.[1]

He was born at Dover, in Kent, Mar. 20, 1771; and entered the naval service in May 1784, as a Midshipman on board the Kite cutter, commanded by Lieutenant Henry Gunter, and employed as a cruiser against the smugglers on the N.E. coast of England. That vessel being paid off in Nov. 1786, he then embarked on board a merchantman, and made several voyages to Holland, the Baltic, and Canada, for the purpose of improving himself in nautical science. In 1789 we find him joining the Brazen, a King’s cutter; and during the Spanish armament, he appears to have been successively removed into the Alfred 74, Meleager 32, and Leviathan, a third-rate, the latter commanded by the late Lord Mulgrave, who subsequently placed him under the protection of Captain Henry Savage, of the Pomona frigate, a most active, zealous, and experienced officer, with whom he continued until the termination of the Russian armament, towards the close of 1791. Mr. Cumby then joined the Hebe, of 38 guns, and served in that ship, under the command of Captain Alexander Hood, on the Channel station, till Mar. 1792; when he passed his examination for a Lieutenant, and was soon afterwards sent by Lord Mulgrave to the Newfoundland station, in the Assistance 50, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Richard King, Bart., with whom he returned to England at the commencement of the ensuing winter.

On his arrival at Portsmouth, Mr. Cumby had the grief and mortification to learn that his excellent friend and powerful patron had paid the debt of nature; his Lordship having died at Spa but a very few weeks before. The prospect of a war, however, with republican France, still induced him not to despair of promotion; and his hopes were fortunately realized, through the influence of the present Lord Mulgrave, in Oct. 1793, when he received a commission as third Lieutenant of the Assistance, at that time commanded by Captain Nathan Brunton, under whom he had before served in the Meleager frigate[2].

Mr. Cumby’s next appointment was, in May 1795, to the Astraea 32, commanded by his old shipmate, Lord Henry Paulet, who had requested him to become his first Lieutenant, and whom he afterwards followed into the Thalia 36, where he continued until his Lordship’s removal from the command of that frigate, by the sentence of a court-martial assembled off Cadiz, in the month of June, 1798[3].

From the Thalia, Mr. Cumby was removed into the Excellent 74, Captain Cuthbert Collingwood, in which ship he remained, as third Lieutenant, until paid off, at the latter end of the same year. In June 1799, he was again called into service; and for three years from that period we find him holding the appointment of Flag-Lieutenant to Vice-Admiral Graeme, commander-in-chief in the Medway.

At the renewal of the war between Great Britain and France (May 1803), Lieutenant Cumby obtained the command of the Swift cutter, on the North Sea station; and in May 1804, he received an appointment to the Norfolk district of Sea Fencibles; from which service he was removed in Nov. following, the late Captain John Loring having applied for him to be appointed his first Lieutenant, in the Bellerophon of 74 guns. Fortunately for Mr. Cumby’s interests, Captain John Cooke, who succeeded to the command of that ship, consented to his remaining with him in the same capacity; and it consequently fell to his lot to command a third rate in the most glorious battle ever fought at sea.

The Bellerophon, it will be remembered, was one of Lord Nelson’s fleet, and bore a most distinguished part in the memorable engagement off Cape Trafalgar. The death of Captain Cooke is thus described by the subject of this memoir, in a letter addressed to the brother of that heroic officer:–

“You will naturally expect to know the circumstances attending Captain Cooke’s death, which must ever reflect the highest honor on himself, and endear his memory to his friends and country. Having, with the greatest gallantry and judgment, conducted the Bellerophon into action and broke through the enemy’s line, under the stern of a Spanish 74 (Monarca), in hauling up to engage her to leeward, we fell on board the French ship, l’Aigle, which the smoke hindered us from seeing till too late to prevent our laying her on board on the weather quarter. She being a much loftier ship than ours, and full of troops, our quarter-deck, poop, and forecastle, became exposed to their musketry, from which we suffered much. About this time I was sent down by Captain Cooke to explain to the officers on the main and lower-decks the situation of the ship, and with his orders to direct their principal efforts against the ship we were foul of, vis. to take the beds and quoins from under the guns, and blow up the enemy’s decks. On my return to the quarter-deck, a few minutes after, I found he had fallen at 11 minutes past one o’clock, whilst in the act of reloading his pistols, which he had discharged two or three times. He was taken below, and on the surgeon opening his waistcoat, he found him just dead, having received a musket-ball or grape-shot in his right-breast, which had broken two of the ribs, and passing through the lungs, occasioned almost instant death. On inquiring of the men who carried him. below, I find that when seeing him fall, they asked him if they should take him down – he answered, ‘Let me lay one minute,’ which they did; – these were the last words he spoke[4].”

At this early period of the battle, the Bellerophon was closely engaged with the Monarca, as well as l’Aigle, and exposed to a distant cannonade from three other of the enemy’s ships. Lieutenant Cumby, however, had soon the satisfaction to see his more immediate opponent disentangle herself and drop astern, of which he took advantage by pouring several broadsides into her stern as she was in the act of falling off; and then directing his fire against the Monarca, compelled her to surrender.

In this tremendous conflict, the Bellerophon had no less than 150 officers and men killed and wounded[5]: l’Aigle is supposed to have lost nearly two-thirds of her crew. The Monarca must also have suffered severely, but her loss has never been recorded.

On his return to England, Lieutenant Cumby was promoted to the rank of Post-Captain, by commission, dated Jan. 1, 1806, as a reward for his gallant conduct; and in the course of the same month he had the melancholy gratification of following the remains of Nelson to the tomb. In July, 1807, he was appointed pro tempore to the Dryad 36, in which frigate he made several valuable captures during a three months’ cruise on the Irish station. His next appointment was, May 1808, to the Polyphemus 64, fitting for the flag of his friend Vice-Admiral B. S. Rowley, commander-in-Chief at Jamaica; to which station he proceeded in July following, convoying thither a large fleet of merchantmen, the whole of whom he conducted safely to their respective destinations.

The Vice-Admiral residing constantly on shore, his flag was frequently shifted to the Shark sloop, for the purpose of affording Captain Cumby opportunities of cruising against the enemy. On one of those occasions the boats of the Polyphemus captured the Colibry, French national schooner, of 3 guns and 63 men, reputed the fastest sailing vessel attached to the colony of St. Domingo.

In June, 1809, Captain Cumby was appointed to command a squadron sent from Port Royal, with a military detachment, under Major-General Hugh L. Carmichael, to co-operate with the Spanish troops investing the city of St. Domingo. The following extracts from Vice-Admiral Rowley’s public letter to the Hon. W. W. Pole, will shew the success which attended his exertions.

“Sir,– I have the honor to acquaint you, for the information of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that H.M. sloop Tweed arrived here last night, from off St. Domingo, bringing me a despatch from Captain Cumby of the Polyphemus, announcing the surrender on the 6th inst. (July) of the French troops composing the garrison of that city. * * * * The exemplary vigilance and unremitted exertions of the officers and men composing the crews of his Majesty’s ships and vessels named in the margin[6], employed during this short but vigorous blockade, under the immediate orders of Captain Cumby, have contributed most essentially to accelerate the reduction of this last possession of the enemy on the Jamaica station. The fullest testimony is borne by Major-General Carmichael to the cordial support which he received from them after the arrival of the British troops; and I have no doubt that the conduct of Captain Cumby, and that of the officers, seamen, and marines under his orders, will be distinguished by their Lordships’ approbation, as it has already been by mine. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)B. S. Rowley.”

Soon after the death of Admiral Rowley, Oct. 7, 1811, Captain Cumby proceeded to Vera Cruz and Havannah, on his way to England, in the Hyperion of 42 guns, to which ship he had been appointed in the preceding month of March. After refitting at Portsmouth, he was ordered to Davis’s Straits, where he cruised for the protection of the whale fishery during the whole summer of 1812. He subsequently took a convoy from Newfoundland to Barbadoes, and then returned to St. John’s harbour, where his ship was frozen up almost immediately after her arrival.

By the above statement our readers will observe that the Hyperion had been twice in the West Indies, spent a whole summer amidst icebergs, and commenced a long and severe winter at Newfoundland, all within twelve months: an instance of sudden and repeated change from one extreme of temperature and climate to the other, rarely equalled. The health of her crew, however, suffered less from these rapid and severe changes than might have been expected, owing in a great degree to the precautions taken by Captain Cumby, who obliged his men to purchase a large supply of warm cloathing when they received their arrears of pay at Portsmouth.

In Nov. 1813, Captain Cumby sailed from Newfoundland with the trade bound to Portugal under his protection; and during the remainder of the war we find him employed cruising in the British Channel and Bay of Biscay, where he captured, after a long chase, the American privateer Rattlesnake of 16 guns, an uncommonly fine brig, nearly new, 298 tons burthen, which had already taken twenty-eight of our merchant vessels, (several with valuable cargoes); and from her extraordinary fast sailing, would no doubt have done still greater injury to the trade of his Majesty’s subjects. The Hyperion was paid off at Portsmouth, Aug. 31, 1815.

Captain Cumby married, first, in 1801 , Miss Metcalf, of Richmond, in Yorkshire; and by that lady, who died in Jan. 1815, he had two sons, one of whom is intended for holy orders; the other has already embarked as a Midshipman R.N. Secondly, Dec. 29, 1818, Elizabeth, eldest daughter of the late Rev. Thomas Wilson Morley, of Eastby House, near the same town, by whom he has one son. He has also a daughter by his former marriage. His half brother, Charles Cumby, is a Commander in the navy.

Agent.– Isaac Clementson, Esq.

  1. His grandfather, Mr. John Cumby, died of fever, when serving as Master of the flag-ship at Jamaica; his great uncle, David Pryce Cumby, died a Master and Commander; and his maternal uncles, Anthony ar Sandford Jepson, were Lieutenants in the royal navy.
  2. Captain Nathan Brunton had served under Lord Mulgrave, in the Courageux 74, and was long honored with that nobleman’s friendship and confidence. He was afterwards promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral, and died at Stockton-upon-Tees, Nov. 19, 1814.
  3. Lord Henry Paulet’s trial will be more fully noticed in our Supplement to the Addenda, see Vol. I. p. 833.
  4. It had ever been Captain Cooke’s strongest wish, even when he had no thought of employment, to be once placed under the command of Nelson:– to be in a general engagement with Lord Nelson, would, he used to say, crown all his military ambition. By the concurrence of events, this actually happened, and they were both doomed to fall at the same moment, and almost in the same manner.
  5. See Vol. I. p. 205.
  6. Polyphemus, Aurora, Tweed, Sparrow, Thrush, Griffin, Lark, Moselle, Fleur-de-la-Mer, and Pike.