Royal Naval Biography/Debenham, John
JOHN DEBENHAM, Esq.
Was born in 1772; and commenced his career in the royal navy, Nov. 3d, 1788. Previous to the French revolutionary war, he served under Captains Isaac George Manley, Thomas Spry, George Roberts, and Thomas Troubridge, in the Fairy and Discovery sloops, and Thames frigate, on the African, Leeward Islands, Home, and East India stations. In the latter ship, he visited China, and was present at the capture of Tippoo Saib’s “Fortified Island,” close to Onore, on the coast of Malabar.
We next find Mr. Debenham serving on board the Duke 98, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore George Murray, and attached to the squadron under Rear-Admiral Gardner, at the unsuccessful attack upon Martinique, in June 1793 He afterwards joined the Glory 98, and behaved with distinguished bravery, under the command of Capt. John Elphinstone, at the memorable battle of June 1st, 1794. From that ship he was removed into the Prince of Wales 98, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Henry Harvey, in which he assisted at the capture of three French two-deckers, by the fleet under Lord Bridport, near l’Orient, June 23rd, 1795. His extraordinary good conduct while on board one of these ships, having been duly represented by the prize-master, Lieutenant now superannuated Rear-Admiral Alexander Wilson, obtained him the patronage of the rear-admiral, by whom he was immediately ordered to be rated master’s mate; and in the following year presented with a commission, appointing him to the Invincible 74, Capt. William Cayley, on the Leeward Islands station. In her he bore a part in an attack upon some shipping under the batteries of St. Eustatius, and also at the subsequent reduction of Trinidad.
Previous to Mr. Debenham’s promotion, the Invincible had lost several commissioned officers and half her crew, by yellow fever. His exertions, in supporting the discipline of the ship, particularly in preventing drunkenness, and not allowing the men to sleep in the open air, appears to have given great offence, and caused them to clamour much against him; which coming to the knowledge of Lord Camelford, then commanding the Favorite sloop, induced that officer to invite him to become his first lieutenant<ref>See Addenda ☞.<ref>. He accordingly joined that vessel in the spring of 1798, and continued in her, on the West India and North Sea stations, until June 1800; the latter part of the said time under the command of Captain Joseph Westbeach. The opinion entertained of him by the above nobleman will be seen by the following, dated Dec. 6th, 1799.
“Dear Debenham, – Captain Manby, whose character I have already sufficiently delineated to you, wishes you to leave the Favorite and come to town, when I shall be very happy to make you acquainted over a plain pudding dinner. Lose no time in getting clear of the ship, as the Isis will soon be ready to receive your active exertions. Your true friend and humble servant,
Lieut. Debenham’s next appointment was to the Formidable 98, in which ship he served, under Captains Edward Thornbrough and Richard Grindall, on the Channel and West India stations, from Aug. 1800 until Oct. 1802. The following testimonial was granted to him by the former excellent officer:
“These are to certify the Right Honorable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that Lieutenant John Debenham served under my command, on board the Formidable, and always conducted himself in an officer and gentleman-like manner, and very much to my satisfaction.
In 1805, Mr. Debenham was first lieutenant of the Devastation bomb, on the Downs station, and present in several actions with the enemy’s flotilla, collected for the invasion of England. In 1806 and 1807, he commanded the Furious gun-brig, and displayed great vigilance in blockading Calais, Ostend, and the intermediate ports. Whilst thus employed, he cut out a vessel from under the batteries on Calais cliff; and afterwards drove a smuggler ashore near Dunkirk, where he landed and took possession of her under a heavy fire from a battery near at hand, with the soldiers belonging to which, who, when their guns would no longer bear upon him, came out to drive him away, he maintained a contest until some horse-artillery were seen advancing from Nieuport. He subsequently made an attack upon several vessels of the same description at anchor under the two batteries of Nieuport haven, and persevered in endeavouring to capture them until his boat’s mast was shot away. It is proper to state, that these several attacks were conducted by himself in a six-oared boat, unsupported by any other, and in the open day.
In addition to the above services, the active commander of the Furious saved several British merchant vessels from falling into the hands of the enemy; retook a transport full of horses, close in with Dunkirk; and captured several Danish and other merchantmen.
In Dec. 1807, having received a violent contusion of the foot, and had three of his toes dislocated, by the firing of a gun, Lieutenant Debenham was obliged to resign the command of the Furious, and from that period to use crutches, until Aug. 1808. He then obtained employment as an agent of transports, in which capacity he was present at the battle of Corunna, and subsequent reduction of Walcheren. During the embarkation of Sir John Moore’s gallant army, he saved from destruction several transports, which, being under the fire of the enemy’s artillery, would, but for his exertions, have been lost on the rocks or set on fire, in the confusion which then existed.
In Feb. 1810, Lieutenant Debenham was appointed to the command of the Deptford tender, employed between Limerick and Plymouth, under the orders of Captain James Murray Northey, regulating officer at the former port, who bears strong testimony to his exemplary conduct on every occasion, during a period of nearly two years and a half. His last appointment was, in June, 1813, to be an agent of transports employed on the north coast of Spain, where he continued until Oct. 1814. The important services which he there performed are thus detailed by himself in two memorials, one presented to our late sovereign in July 1819, the other to his illustrious brother the Lord High Admiral, April 21st, 1828.
“While on this duty, he was employed in such a manner as can hardly fall to the lot of any other officer belonging to the transport department; for he was entrusted with the superintendence of two stations at a distance of eighteen miles asunder, and without the aid of any immediate superior to whom he might apply, or martial law to intimidate those with whom he had to deal, or even so much as a boat’s crew whom he could at any time call together: he had to compel the refractory, to encourage the diffident, to stimulate the idle, and to instruct the ignorant masters of transports in duties to which they were not only adverse, but which were both difficult and dangerous in themselves: and often to incur a personal responsibility which he might easily have avoided, and from the consequences of which he might have expected to be involved in ruinous law-suits, had the result been different to what he contemplated; but from which responsibility, if he had shrunk back, the public service would have been very materially hindered.
“As a proof of which, he will mention his having, in the middle of a stormy night, gone about to press men, with whose aid he removed a large Swedish ship which had anchored, where, had she continued only one hour longer, she would have lain aground ten days, and most effectually blocked up the mouth of the haven of Socoa, from whence the military supplies for the siege of Bayonne were furnished; he was obliged to remove her to a situation of comparative danger, and this he did by mere force, notwithstanding the protestations of the master, and the remonstrances of the commissariat.
“In the month of February, 1814, he was at St. Jean de Luz with a division of transports, and directed by Rear-Admiral Penrose to procure as many volunteer seamen as he could from among them, for the purpose of entering the Adour, of establishing a bridge across that river, and of co-operating with a division of the army under General Sir John Hope, in commencing the siege of Bayonne. He accordingly procured as great a number of volunteers as he was able, and delivered them to the proper officer, who, in the flotilla under Rear-Admiral Penrose, sailed on the evening of the 22d, leaving your memorialist, the only naval officer at Socoa, or indeed nearer to the enemy than Passages.
“Through the night of the 22d, and during the day of the 23d, owing to calms, and a strong adverse current, the flotilla, instead of advancing any thing towards the Adour, had been drifted to leeward as far as Fontarabia, and as the night of the 23d set in there was no appearance that any part thereof would be able to regain the ground it had lost. It is needful to mention these circumstances, as they explain the nature of an important document herewith respectfully submitted.
“About ten of the same night, as yourwas about to lie down, very much fatigued with the duties of the day, a dragoon arrived bringing a letter from Sir John Hope to Rear Admiral Penrose, then at sea, and another from Colonel (now Sir Home) Elphinstone, the commanding officer of engineers to your memorialist, stating that the army had advanced upon the Adour, and had obtained possession of both its banks; but that from the non-arrival of the flotilla, or any naval assistance, the greatest difficulty had been found in crossing over the troops and stores necessary; that from the strength of the tide it was found quite impracticable, without naval aid, to transport horses, artillery, &c.; that such of the troops as had crossed in pontoons were in the greatest danger of being taken, if they could not be timely supported; and requesting your memorialist, as an affair of the greatest consequence, to send every boat and seaman he could possibly spare, to their assistance immediately.
“Your memorialist instantly repaired to Colonel Elphinstone (who had been himself despatched by Sir John Hope, to procure and to hasten the above) through a road the enemy had spoiled, great heaps of stones in some places, in others up to the calves of his legs in mud, noisome with the carcases of cattle which had fallen down and expired under their burthens; the night pitch-dark; the distance a mile; his object to gain information as to the entrance of the Adour; but could obtain none on that subject: he however assured the colonel he would, without fail, be on the spot by day-light, with all the assistance he could possibly bring.
“Returning through the same road, he went from ship to ship to collect men; the transports were small, and their complements few. By their help, and by the light of lanthorns, he dragged his boat over a long flat of oaze, in which his feet sank at every step, the tide being out.
“He embarked about midnight in his boat, with as many men as she could well contain, to proceed on his way to the Adour, being about eighteen miles distant, on the open sea, at that time running high; and expecting the enemy would not suffer him to proceed unmolested, he provided himself with a number of bottle corks, to stop up any holes in the boat their small shot might make – his only defence.
“He arrived before day-break at a place, which from the soldiers’ fires, as he afterwards found them to be, had well nigh proved fatal to him; for here he got suddenly entangled with a very heavy surf. Having extricated himself, he lay to till day-light, supposing he could not be far from the place where he was wanted.
“As the day broke, he perceived the surf, of amazing height and of vast breadth; so that the low part of the land could not at all he seen. He also observed in the offing, Rear-Admiral Penrose and the flotilla; the wind having favored them in the night.
“He repaired on board the rear-admiral, delivered the letter from Colonel Elphinstone, and obtained permission to fulfil the engagement he had made with that officer. By this time the signal for attempting the passage was flying, and Captain Dowell O’Reilly, of the Lyra sloop, having with him a Spanish pilot and a number of boats, had advanced towards the mouth of the river, where he was reconnoitring at the back of the heavy surf.
“Stimulated by the known necessities of the troops, as well as by the promise he had made, and apprehensive lest the tide would soon be too far spent, your memorialist proceeded onwards, passed by those boats, and soon arrived at a spot from whence it would have been impossible to return; nor, indeed, had he any such desire. Feeling it absolutely necessary to go on, he mentally commended himself to the Almighty, encouraged his men with his voice, waved his hat with one hand, and with the other steered his little and deeply laden boat, which, urged with the utmost force of oars and sails, and borne on the top of several enormous waves, each of which broke under her, seemed to fly along. As he cheered, the strength of his men seemed redoubled. Suddenly he perceived that he was running upon a spit of sand, which jutted out into the river, and, though surprised, he instantly gave the necessary orders for beaching, which were as promptly obeyed; a heavy wave now threw the boat upon the bank, and retiring, left her nearly dry; still he kept the men fast in their places, till a succession of similar waves had carried the boat into further security: he then made them Jump out, and by the help of the still coming water, drag her upon the sand: he would not himself quit the boat till this was effected, lest his men should slacken in their endeavours, as every thing appeared to depend on their exertions.
“Captain O’Reilly, who followed immediately after him in a larger and much better boat, was upset, his boat stove, himself much hurt, five of his men drowned, and he himself and several, your memorialist believes all, the survivors of his crew, dragged out of the water by him and his people. If any other boat at that time followed, it was swallowed up.
“Taking his masts and oars for rollers, your memorialist then launched his boat over the sand into the river, and proceeded to where the assembled officers and soldiers were in crowds witnessing the scene. He immediately began to cross troops over the river; and also to construct a raft for a similar purpose. After Captain O’Reilly’s disaster, no other attempts at entrance were made till the afternoon, when the attempt was renewed, and with ultimate success, but not without considerable loss, by the upsetting of boats, and even of decked vessels. Every open boat which attempted the passage was upset, your memorialist’s alone excepted, whatever was its size, whether larger or smaller than his.
“Upon the renewal of the attempt at entrance, your memorialist discontinued the transportation of troops, in which he was engaged, and went down in his boat to the inner edge of the breakers on the bar of the river, endeavouring to render what assistance he could: here he saved several of those who were upset; no other boat, person, or other kind of human assistance whatever, was in attendance.
"Having constructed his raft before the establishment of the bridge, he crossed over cavalry, about sixteen horses with their riders, complete for service, at a time, – cannon, waggons, soldiers, whatever indeed was brought to him, making about ten trips a day. The Ardour, where this took place, is about as wide as the Thames at London Bridge; and the tide as rapid as in the latter river, a little below the fall of the said bridge. This rapidity it was which foiled the engineers, though aided by a brigade of Portuguese marine. Your memorialist, however, surmounted the difficulty; and during three days, this transportation, as to any thing heavy, was performed almost exclusively by him and his boat’s crew, aided by some soldiers. On the third day, a large and well-constructed raft by Major Tod, of the royal engineers, was sent him; on this he crossed over six pieces of battering cannon, complete for service; he also, at the pressing instance of Colonel (now Sir Colin) Campbell, aide-de-camp to the Marquis of Wellington, crossed over in safety, during a furious storm, the travelling and another carriage belonging to his lordship; for which the colonel returned him thanks in the handsomest terms.
“He continued upon this service during a week; for not till then was the bridge, and the quay and wharf belonging to it, fit to bear heavy carriages; and when his labors for the day were concluded, which they never were while he had strength to stand, he then went on board a vessel, where he had to sleep in his clothes upon the deck, wrapped up in a sail. Previous to his quitting the Adour, he received the personal thanks of Sir John Hope and Rear-Admiral Penrose; by whom, in public despatches, he was strongly recommended to their respective commanders-in-chief, the Marquis of Wellington and Viscount Keith.
“He returned by land, through a violent storm and incessant rain, to St. Jean de Luz, in order to attend his charge at that place; and shortly afterwards, he had the happiness there to save from the most imminent danger of shipwreck, several transports, by going on hoard of them in the midst of a heavy gale, supplying as many of them as he could with pilots, and giving the others directions for crossing the bar. He subsequently saved a transport which hud grounded on the bar of the Adour, and was there left nearly dry.
“In the course of these services, your memorialist was once upset in his boat; once driven out in her to sea, where he remained during a whole winter’s night, without compass, provisions, or water, the wind blowing most violently, the rain pouring down in torrents, his men drooping and desponding, and the boat only kept from sinking by constant bailing with his hat; once, while rendering assistance to vessels in dangerous situations, he was washed off a pier-head; and on two other occasions, during storms, borne by waves into the sea, and not easily extricated; at another time he was knocked down, by a hawser slipping, and severely wounded in the head.”
Previous to his return home, Lieutenant Debenham received several handsome letters and testimonials from his superior officers, of which the following are copies:
“Boucant, 7th March, 1814.
“Dear Sir,– I beg leave to enclose you an extract from Admiral Penrose’s letter to me of the 25th February, and at the same time will avail myself of the opportunity of returning my most sincere thanks for the many services you rendered to the boats and vessels on their passing the bar of Bayonne, on the 24th ultimo. In the first place, I beg you will accept my kindest acknowledgments for the manly and humane assistance you rendered to me and my boat’s crew, without which a much greater number of lives must have been lost. In the second instance, your Country is much your debtor for the truly able and gallant style in which, regardless of the attendant danger, you pushed out into the breakers on the bar, and saved the lives of two seamen belonging to the Lyra’s gig, which was upset, a midshipman and two men being drowned before you could reach her; and also for saving three lives out of four that were upset in a transport’s long boat. I particularize those two instances, out of many, of your meritorious actions, because they came immediately under my own observation. I have been careful to report to the Rear-Admiral your unprecedented good conduct and exertions on this most trying occasion. I have only now to beg you will accept my best wishes for your welfare, from yours most sincerely,
“To Lieut. Debenham, Agent of Transports, Socoa.”
“Sir,– Although it was with the most anxious concern I observed the casualties of yesterday, and remain most solicitous to hear that they are not as great as I might apprehend, from the nature of the service, yet it was with the most lively satisfaction I witnessed the skill and energy which overcame obstacles apparently insurmountable; and I only wait more certain information, to express my public thanks, both on the spot where the service took place, and to the commander-in-chief at home. Offer my cordial thanks and approbation to Lieutenant Debenham, for his extremely good conduct at the passage of the bar.
(Signed)“C. V. Penrose.”
“Porcupine, Passages, 8th March, 1814.
“Sir,– In reply to your letter of the 4th instant, I have to inform you that the letter you put into my hands on the morning I met you off the bar of the Adour, was, I believe, sent by me to Captain O’Reilly, to inform him of the state of the troops; but its nature fully warranted you in ordering all the assistance in your power, which might have proved the only safety to the troops who had passed and were trying to pass. Your coming yourself, and ordering the other boats to follow, was highly to your credit; and all your conduct on the occasion marked the zealous, good officer: of that conduct I have borne testimony, both to the commander-in-chief, and to Field-Marshal the Marquis of Wellington. I am, &c.
(Signed)“C. V. Penrose, Rear-Admiral.”
“To Lieut. Debenham, Agent of Transports, Socoa.”
“Passages, 8th March, 1814.
“Sir,– The rear-admiral expresses himself highly pleased with your conduct. I transmit you an extract of my letter to the Board:
“‘Rear-Admiral Penrose expresses himself highly pleased with the exertions of Lieutenant Debenham, in crossing the troops over the Adour, where he was most useful. I have ever found him correct and steady, and if entrusted with any particular duty, very diligent in the performance of the service: to say more would be presumptuous on my part; to say less I could not.’
(Signed)“Thomas Delafons, Principal Agent of Transports.”
“To Lieutenant Debenham, Socoa.”
“Passages, May, 26th, 1814.
“Sir,– As the principal agent of transports on this coast, I cannot quit it without publicly returning you my thanks for your constant attention, and the ready assistance you have ever given me, which has enabled me to carry on the various duties I have been engaged in, so as to procure my recent promotion, and to assure you, on my leaving this port, I shall not fail, in the strongest manner, to make known my sentiments of your good conduct to the Transport Board. I am, &c.
(Signed)“Thomas Delafons, P. A. T.”
“To Lieutenant Debenham, Socoa.”
“Porcupine, Passagee, June 13th, 1814.
“Sir,– On re-perusing and considering your letter to me since the promotion of Lieutenant Delafons, and his appointment to other service, I have to inform yon, that notwithstanding you are become the senior officer of the transport service on this coast, I deem your experience and zeal, of both which I am fully sensible, will be more usefully directed in forwarding round to this place all vessels, &c. &c. &c. You will observe, that in the separate charge I have thus given you of two very important posts, I shew the reliance I have, both on your zeal and ability; and also, that as more responsibility naturally attaches to such a. distinct duty than if you were acting here under my immediate superintendence, you have the means of making your exertions more conspicuous, and probably your seniority of standing more efficacious. I am, &c.
(Signed)“C. V. Penrose.”
“To Lieutenant Debenham, Socoa.”
The following notification was also transmitted to him by the Transport Board:
“Admiralty-Office, 8th September, 1814.
“Gentlemen, – Having laid before the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of yesterday’s date, transmitting an extract of a letter from Rear-Admiral Penrose, bearing testimony to the highly meritorious and unceasing exertions of your several agents on the north coast of Spain, therein named, and recommending those officers, and particularly Lieutenant Debenham, to their lordships’ favourable consideration, – I am commanded to acquaint you, that my Lords have been pleased to promote Lieutenant Debenham to the rank of commander. I am, &c.
(Signed)“J. W. Croker.”
“To the Commissioners for Transports, &c.”
Commander Debenham’s commission bears date Aug. 27th, 1814; since which period he has repeatedly solicited employment in any part of the world, but always without success. In 1816, a sum of money having been voted by Parliament, as a reward to a part of the navy employed on the north coast of Spain during a certain time, and presuming that his services there would without doubt entitle him to participate in the said reward, he gave in his name as a claimant to the agents, from whom, when the time of distribution approached, he had the mortification to receive a letter as follows:
“New Broad Street, London, 17th June, 1819.
“Sir,– We are authorized by Lord Keith to acquaint you, that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, to whom his lordship referred your claim to participate in the late parliamentary grant for the north coast of Spain, have decided that you ought not to share; and we think it right to add, in case you may consider it necessary to pursue your claim farther, that the only course open to you is by memorial to H.R.H. the Prince Regent in Council, as the above decision will be final and conclusive, agreeably to the Order in Council for distribution, unless His Royal Highness shall he pleased otherwise to direct within three months We are. Sir, your most obedient servants,
(Signed)“John Jackson & Co.”
Lord Keith, it should be observed, considered Commander Debenham’s claim as well founded, and so reported to the Admiralty; yet, because he had been employed as an agent of transports, the Board determined to reject it. Acting according to the advice of his lordship, he lost no time in drawing up a memorial, which was submitted in the first instance to Viscount Melville, from whose private secretary he received the following communication, dated July 3d, 1819:
“Sir,– I am desired by Lord Melville to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 24th ultimo, together with its enclosures, and to express his Lordship’s regret that, after a full consideration of the case in all its bearings, and of the claims you have set forth, he has not felt at liberty to recommend a compliance with the prayer of your memorial, although, from his Lordship’s opinion of your services, he would have felt satisfaction in being enabled to accede to your wishes. I have the honor to be, &c.
(Signed)“R. W. Hay.”
In his memorial to the Prince Regent, after stating the peculiar nature of his services on the north coast of Spain, and making but very slight allusion to others which we have recorded, Commander Debenham expresses himself in the following terms:
“He earnestly desires to deprecate the idea of vain or presumptuous boasting, but he finds at length there are occasions on which not to have a proper sense of what one has done, and of what passes in the world, is to manifest a blameable apathy; and he cannot but know that under happier auspices, the exploit of Sir Roger Curtis, in saving the drowning Spaniards, before Gibraltar, is a theme celebrated by the painter and poet, and was rewarded by the highest patronage; but for certain, the exertions of that highly esteemed officer, so worthily and so universally venerated, were not greater, either with respect to personal danger, or as to bodily or mental protrusiveness, than were those of your Royal Highness’s memorialist at the mouth of the Adour. But how different has been the meed: he has been, indeed, promoted to the rank of Commander since that period; but it was for his general services, and this boon has been attended with, first, the immediate loss of his employment as agent of transports: and, secondly, it has disabled him from getting two of his sons into Christ’s Hospital on Travers’s foundation, to which he would otherwise have had a right, worth at the least five hundred pounds. His meed, therefore, on account of the above services, seems chiefly to rest in his having been personally thanked and honourably mentioned by Sir John Hope, in his despatches to the Duke of Wellington, and by Rear-Admiral Penrose to the naval commander-in-chief. Lord Keith; – distinctions which he highly values, and which he trusts are no light recommendations to some more substantial recompense.
“In conclusion, your Memorialist presumes to hope that your Royal Royal Highness will, on viewing these premises, be graciously pleased to cause his name to be placed on the distribution-list. The naval commander-in-chief. Lord Keith, approves his claim; and even at the Admiralty its rejection is considered a hardship: the very boat’s crew who were with him are included in the list which he himself is called upon to furnish; and he understands that Captain O’Reilly, by virtue of the Order in Council, on account of his great exertions, and the great peril and sufferings which he underwent at the Adour, is to be remunerated beyond other officers of his class; but your Memorialist it was who went before him or any one else in the perilous path of duty on that river; who led them, or marked out to all of them the way; who, when that officer was upset, saved him and several others, to render those exertions so conspicuously noticed. The immortal Admiral Nelson, in order to incite others to emulate his deeds, though at a humble distance, assumed, with his Sovereign’s approbation, for his motto, ‘Palmam qui meruit.’ Then be it so. The parliamentary grant, to which your Royal Highness gave the fiat, proceeds doubtless upon this principle. How then can your petitioner be rejected? But if certain official forms are an obstacle, he rejoices at the circumstance; because it places him within the immediate reach of the beams of your royal munificence, and will therefore, he feels confident, cause him to be remunerated in some other manner, which, as it will be a personal favour done him, and a favour from the Great, is doubly a favour; how much more so when it proceeds from Royalty, and is extended to so humble a Petitioner, now, after such long services, pining on pay, with which to maintain himself, a wife, and eight children; – obliged to keep at a distance (such is the world) even from his friends, and thereby incapacitated from bringing forward his family."
This memorial, after having been submitted to the Prince Regent in Council, was sent back to the Admiralty with a favorable recommendation; to which their Lordships, however, merely replied, that they had “no funds.” In the one afterwards presented to the Lord High Admiral, it is stated by Commander Debenham, “that he has never received the least compensation of any kind for the serious injury sustained in his foot, while commanding the Furious, although he was thereby obliged to give up the most eligible appointment he ever held.” He also states, “that the refusal of any compensation for this hurt, was made a ground for preventing him the attainment of an object he subsequently had in view;” and then adds, “that, on one occasion, having detained, and brought in for adjudication, a Papenbourgh vessel[errata 1] from one of the enemy’s ports bound to another, she was not only set free, but the whole expenses of the proceedings allowed to fall upon him; whereas, had he not detained her, pursuant to the existing Orders in Council, he would have been liable to a court-martial.” His memorial to the Admiralty on this occasion was attended with no success.
In 1823, Commander Debenham received the following testimonial from Captain James Anderson, under whom he had served at Corunna and Walcheren; and another, of which we shall subjoin a copy, from the late Sir George Collier:
“36, Hans Place, Chelsea, 10th Jan.
“These are to certify, that John Debenham, Esq. commander in the royal navy, served under my command on various dangerous and difficult services, with great credit to himself and to my entire satisfaction, and I can recommend him with the utmost confidence, from the knowledge I have of his vigilance, diligence, attention, uncommon sobriety, and great humanity of disposition, mixed with firmness, as a fit person to fill any situation particularly requiring the rare concurrence of these qualifications.
“Knowle Cottage, Exeter, Dec. 17th.
“Having been solicited by Captain John Debenham, of the royal navy, formerly employed under my orders upon the north coast of Spain, as lieutenant of the transport service, to certify as to his general zeal and good conduct, I have great pleasure in so doing, and more particularly so, in the knowledge I have, that his zeal, enterprise, and good conduct were as conspicuous while he was under the orders of Rear-Admiral Penrose, upon the eastern shores of the Bay of Biscay, as they had been while Captain Debenham served under my orders at Passages and on the more western parts of that coast, where, as an agent for transports, he manifested zeal, activity, and attention. I have therefore great satisfaction in recommending him to the consideration of the Right Honorable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, as a zealous and trust-worthy officer.
(Signed)“George R. Collier, formerly Commodore
on the north coast of Spain.”
On the 19th Dec. 1826, Commander Debenham had the honor of receiving the fullowing letter from the Ordnance Office:
“Sir,– I am directed by the Duke of Wellington to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th instant; and to acquaint you that his Grace has referred it to Sir Byam Martin, informing him at the same time, that he was highly satisfied with your services in the transport department during the time you were under his orders. I am, &c.
(Signed)“Fitz Roy Somerset.”
Commander Debenham is the author of several polemical disquisitions, &c. &c. all of which have been printed for gratuitous distribution.
JOHN DEBENHAM, Esq.
(See p. 313, et seq.)
The prize line-of-battle ship in which this officer served under lieutenant (how superannuated Rear-Admiral) Alexander Wilson, was the Alexander, formerly a British 74. On his return from her to the Prince of Wales 98, he was sent for by Rear-Admiral Henry Harvey, who, to his great astonishment, told him that the lieutenant had written a letter in his favor, stating that it was in a great measure owing to his exertions that the said prize was got safely into port: the Rear-Admiral, after expressing entire approbation of his conduct, added, “if you continue to behave well, I shall always be your friend,” – a promise which that distinguished veteran, to whom he was previously but little if at all known, made a point of conscience and honor to perform, notwithstanding Mr. Debenham had, in the interim, fallen under his displeasure, by beating no less a personage than his own cook. On giving the young man a lieutenant’s commission, he observed, “I will not let my personal anger stand in the way of fulfilling a promise made to one in every other respect deserving!”
The Invincible, to which ship Mr. Debenham was then appointed, had previously lost all her lieutenants, except one, by yellow fever; both he and her captain had suffered severely from the same dreadful disease; the master and half of the ship’s company had fallen victims to it. Of the remainder of the crew, several were Irish seamen, liberated from French prisons in the year 1796, after having been well tutored how to act as apostles of rebellion in the British fleet. Often, on board the Invincible, ropes were found to be cut, without any one but the recreants themselves knowing how or by whom ; but they were such as only marked the malevolence of the wretches, without doing any harm. On the arrival of a ship from England, with intelligence of the general mutiny at Spithead, the Invincible was lying in Fort Royal Bay, Martinique. Shortly afterwards, while Captain Cayley was dining with the Admiral, and Lieutenant Debenham carrying on the duty of the ship as commanding officer, the men, instead of going aloft to furl sails when ordered, began to cry out “No more irons – no more flogging.” The captain of the main-top being foremost in this act of insubordination, was immediately collared by Lieutenant Debenham, and given in charge of the sentry at the cabin door: the marines were then got under arms, and the affair soon terminated without any act of violence, no other ship’s company having evinced a similar rebellious spirit. The clamour raised against Lieutenant Debenham, of which we have taken notice in p. 313, was but a mere pretence, to get rid of an officer determined upon maintaining strict discipline.
When returning home as first lieutenant of the Favorite sloop, Mr. Debenham discovered that the magnetic force of an iron staunchion, placed by chance exactly under the double binnacle on the quarter-deck, had long affected the compasses to the extent of two points, without any one being aware of the circumstance.
This meritorious officer’s second son, Frederick Debenham, now nearly twenty years of age, was placed on the list of candidates for a commission in the royal marines, by command of his present Majesty, when Lord High Admiral, in 1828; and is, we believe, still continued thereon by Sir James Graham; but, unfortunately, without much prospect of soon obtaining that appointment, for which alone he is now fit.
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