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Royal Naval Biography/Devonshire, John Ferris


JOHN FERRIS DEVONSHIRE, Esq
[Post-Captain of 1801.]

This officer was made a Lieutenant by Sir John Jervis, into the Terpsichore of 32 guns, during the West India campaign in 1794. He subsequently served in succession on the Halifax, Leeward Islands, North Sea, and Mediterranean stations.

Early in Oct. 1796, the Terpichore was despatched from Gibraltar to inform the commander-in-chief, of the squadron under Rear-Admiral Mann having been chased thither by the Spanish fleet. On her return she fell in with, and captured an enemy’s frigate of far superior force. The particulars of the action, with its splendid result, we here submit to our readers in the words of her gallant commander, Captain Richard Bowen, who unfortunately fell at Teneriffe in the following year[1].

Gibraltar, Oct. 23, 1796.

“Sir,– On the morning of the 13th inst., at day-light, we discovered a frigate to windward, standing towards us. About eight I could perceive her making every preparation for battle, and she was then apparently in chase of us; our situation altogether was such as to prevent my being over desirous of engaging her: out of our small complement of men, (215) we had left 30 at the hospital, and we had more than that number still on board on our sick and convalescent lists, all of whom were either dangerously ill, or extremely weak. We were scarcely out of sight of the spot where we knew the Spanish fleet had been cruising only two days before, and in fact we had stood on to look for them, with a view of ascertaining their movements; a small Spanish vessel, which we conjectured to be a sort of tender, was passing us, steering towards Carthagena; so that I could hardly flatter myself with being able to bring the frigate off, in the event of a victory, or of even escaping myself if disabled. On the other hand, it appeared that nothing but a flight and superior sailing could enable me to avoid an action; and to do that from a frigate apparently not much superior to us, except iu point of bulk, would have been committing the character of one of his Majesty’s ships more than I could bring myself to resolve on. I therefore continued standing on, without any alteration of our course. Having, with infinite satisfaction and comfort to myself, commanded the Terpsichore’s crew for two years and a half, through a pretty considerable variety of services, I well knew the veteran stuff which I had still left in health to depend upon, for upholding the character of British seamen; and I felt my mind at ease as to the termination of any action with the frigate in sight only. At half-past nine she came within hail, and hauled her wind on our weather beam; as I conceived she only waited to place herself to advantage, and to point her guns with exactness, and being myself unwilling to lose the position we were then in, I ordered one gun to be fired, as a trier of her intention. It was so instantaneously returned, and followed up by her whole broadside, that I am confident they must have done it at the sight of our flash. The action of course went on, and we soon discovered that her people would not, or could not resist our fire. At the end of about an hour and forty minutes, during which time we had twice wore, and employed about twenty of the last minutes in chase, she surrendered. At this period she appeared almost entirely disabled, and we had drawn close up alongside with every gun well charged and pointed. It was nevertheless with considerable difficulty that I prevailed on the Spanish commander to decline receiving such a broadside, by submitting; and from every thing I have since heard, the personal courage, conduct, and zeal of that officer, whose name is Don Thomas Agalde, was such during the action, notwithstanding the event of it, as reflects on him the greatest honor, and irresistibly impressed on my mind the highest admiration of his character. After (from the effect of our fire) his booms had tumbled down, and rendered his waste guns unserviceable, all the standing rigging of his lower masts shot away, and I believe every running rope cut through, and a great number of his people killed and wounded, he still persevered, though he could rally but few of his men, to defend his ship, almost longer than defence was justifiable. Had there been the smallest motion in the sea, every mast must inevitably have gone by the board. Our loss[2] has been much less than could have been expected; but our masts, sails, and rigging, were found to be pretty much cut up. The spirited exertions of every officer, man, and boy, belonging to the ship I command, as well in the action as in securing the two disabled ships, and bringing them off instantly from a critical situation, by taking the prize in tow, and by their incessant labour ever since, will, I trust, when their small number is considered, place them in a light superior to any praise I could bestow. I am even unwilling to speak of the particular conduct of any of the officers; but the talents displayed by the first Lieutenant, Devonshire, who was but just out of the sick list, during the action, added to his uncommon fatigue in taking care of the prize, and the very able manner in which he conducted and prepared to defend her, entitle him to this distinction, and prove him highly deserving of the recommendation you gave him with his appointment in the West Indies; and although I had rather any other person should observe the conduct of a brother of mine in action, and speak of it afterwards, yet I feel it my duty, as Captain of the ship, to state that I thought Mr. Bowen’s conduct was particularly animating to the ship’s company, and useful, from the number of guns he saw well-pointed in the course of the action; added to which, from the absence of the first Lieutenant on board the prize, the labouring oar of this ship has fallen on him, and, in my mind, the task we have had, has been infinitely more arduous than the action itself[3]. The name of the prize is the Mahonesa, carrying on the main-deck twenty-six Spanish 12-pounders, weighing 18 ounces more than ours; 8 Spanish sixes on the quarter-deck, and a number of brass cohorns, swivels, &c.; had on board 275 men, besides six pilots, qualified for the Mediterranean as high as Leghorn, and to be put on board Admiral Langara’s fleet, which she had been sent from Carthagena to look for. She was built in 1789, at Mahon; is of very large dimensions, measuring 1114½ tons (Spanish); was before the action in complete good condition; and is considered by the Spanish officers the fastest sailer, one of the best constructed, and what they attach considerable importance to, the handsomest frigate in their navy. Both the ships have this moment anchored in safety. I am, &c.

(Signed)“richard Bowen.”

“Mahonesa, by the best accounts I have been able to collect, had about 30 killed or died of their wounds the day of the action, and about the same number wounded, several of whom are since dead.

“R. B.”

In consequence of the well-merited commendation bestowed in the above letter, the Admiralty promoted Lieutenant Devonshire to the rank of Commander. His post commission, dated April 27, 1801, was given him as a reward for his gallant conduct when commanding the Dart sloop of war, attached to Lord Nelson’s division, in the battle off Copenhagen. The Dart on that occasion had a Lieutenant and 2 men killed, and 1 man wounded. During the late war he commanded several line-of-battle ships, but does not appear to have had any opportunity of further distinguishing himself.

Agents.– Messrs. Cooke, Halford, and Son.

Addendum


JOHN FERRIS DEVONSHIRE, Esq.
[Post-Captain of 1801.]

Entered the naval service in 1789, as midshipman on board the Cumberland 74, Captain John M‘Bride; served afterwards in the Penelope frigate, Captain Sir John Lindsay, on the Halifax station; and subsequently in the Trusty 50 and Queen 98, bearing the flags of Sir John Laforey and the first Lord Gardner, at the Leeward Islands.

In 1794, just twelve months before he had completed the usual period of service as a petty officer, Mr. Devonshire was appointed by Sir John Jervis (afterwards Earl of St. Vincent) to act as ninth lieutenant of his flag-ship, the Boyne 98; a distinguished mark of that officer’s approbation of his conduct on various occasions, whilst entrusted with the command of the Berbice schooner and various other small vessels, but more particularly for his active and successful co-operation with a Spanish brig of war, employed in clearing the coasts of Porto Rico of pirates and French privateers, by which the communication with St. Domingo had been interrupted, and the supplies for the British army at Martinique materially obstructed. His services during an insurrection amongst the slaves in St. Lucia, to which island he had conveyed the late Lieutenant-General Sir William Myers, in the hurricane season, procured him also thanks from General Sir Charles Grey, the military commander-in-chief.

Upon Sir John Jervis resigning the chief command in the West Indies, he appointed Mr. Devonshire a lieutenant of the Terpsichore frigate. Captain Richard Bowen, then employed in the important service of defending the British garrison of Fort Matilda, in Guadaloupe. Lieutenant-General Prescott, in one of his official despatches detailing the events of the siege, states, that the duty allotted to the Terpsichore was performed in a manner that “beggars all description.” The particular share assigned to Lieutenant Devonshire was that of keeping up with the boats the communication between the ship and the garrison, conveying supplies, &c. which it was necessary to do for upwards of two months, under a constant heavy cross fire.

The Terpsichore was latterly employed on the Mediterranean station, under the orders of Sir John Jervis, who in a private letter, dated off Toulon, July 27th, 1796, expresses himself as follows:–

“My dear Sir,– Devonshire is every thing that you or his mother can wish him to be, and now first-lieutenant of the Terpsichore. Should she have the good fortune to fall in with a French frigate, I will be responsible for the issue being successful, when he will get promotion off his own bat. It is a lamentable thing that Lord Spencer, in all other respects an unexceptionable man, should have deprived commanders-in-chief on foreign stations of the means to reward merit. Your’s sincerely,

(Signed)J. Jervis.”

To John Lemon, Esq.

Captain Bowen’s official report to Sir John Jervis, of the subsequent capture of a Spanish frigate, the Mahonesa, has been given at full length in p. 411 et seq. of Vol. II. Part I. and will be found to contain the following eulogy on Lieutenant Devonshire’s conduct in and after that gallant action:–

“I am unwilling to speak of the particular conduct of any of the officers; but the talents displayed by my first-lieutenant, Devonshire, who was but just out of the sick list, added to his uncommon fatigue in taking care of the prise, and the very able manner in which he conducted and prepared to defend her, entitle him to this distinction, and prove him highly deserving of the recommendation you gave him with his appointment in the West Indies.”

The Mahonesa, though entirely dismantled, and otherwise much injured, was soon re-equipped at Gibraltar, and there commissioned by Lieutenant Devonshire, whose conspicuous bravery and zeal did not fail to procure him immediate promotion. After commanding her for four months, he was superseded by a post-captain, at Lisbon, from whence he returned home with despatches. His next appointment was, in July 1800, to the command of the Dart sloop, which vessel he commanded at the memorable battle of Copenhagen, April 2d, 1801.

On this glorious occasion, the Dart was selected by Nelson to board one of the Danish block-ships; but the grounding of the Bellona and Russell 74’s, rendered it necessary for her to join the ships opposed to the Crown batteries. Immediately after the battle, her commander was appointed acting captain of the Alcmene frigate; but on the 23d May, we find the great hero thus addressing him:–

St. George, May 23d, 1801.

“Dear Sir,– I am sorry that it is necessary to send any captain to the Alcmene, which will render it necessary for you to return to the Dart; but, if you will take my advice, make the best of the case; for as it must be, it is of no use going against the arrangement of the First Lord of the Admiralty. Report says, that Captain M‘Kinley is not confirmed post, as the Admiralty consider it as their vacancy, and I think it very possible you may be intended for it. That it may prove so, is the sincere wish of your most faithful servant,

(Signed)Nelson & Bronte.”

“P.S. Join me off Rostock.”

As Nelson conjectured, so did the Admiralty decide. Captain M‘Kinley, a most gallant, intelligent, and worthy officer, was not confirmed; and Captain Devonshire, no less meritorious and brave, received the much-coveted commission, dated April 27th, 1801; from which period he commanded the Glatton 56, until she was paid off, in consequence of the treaty of Amiens. His patron, the Earl of St. Vincent, was then at the head of naval affairs, and subsequently wrote as follows:–

Rochetts, 7th May, 1811.

“My dear Sir,– I have great pleasure in bearing testimony to the meritorious services of Captain Devonshire, who obtained the different steps, up to the rank he now holds, by his good and gallant conduct, under the auspices of your very sincere and obedient servant,

(Signed)St. Vincent.”

To John Lemon, Esq., 43, Piccadilly.

Captain Devonshire’s next appointment was, in Jan. 1812, to the Armada 74, in which ship he escorted an outward bound East India fleet to a certain latitude, and then proceeded to Cadiz, where he assumed the command of the St. Albans 64, and continued until the raising of the siege of la Isla de Leon, the principal events of which we have before related.

In Feb. 1813, the St. Albans having been paid off. Captain Devonshire was appointed to the Albion 74; and during the very severe winter of 1814, we find him, with a frigate and a sloop under his orders, capturing many American merchant vessels, off Nantucket shoals. Unavoidable exposure to the weather during the time that he was thus employed, having brought on frequent attacks of gout in a very aggravated form, he was induced to exchange into the Sceptre 74, under orders for England; and, unfortunately, ill health obliged him to give up the command of the latter ship, soon after her return home. He subsequently received a letter from our present most gracious Monarch, of which the following is an extract:–

“I am glad to have received, and shall keep the detail of your services. Nothing will, in the event of future war, give me more real pleasure than that of having the advantage of your presence under my immediate command.

Brighton, Jan. 21st, 1815.”

In consequence of the order in council of June 30th, 1827, Captain Devonshire, though he had already commanded five rated ships, found it necessary to solicit an appointment to another, in order that he might qualify himself for promotion, agreeably to the new regulations. His applications were at length attended with success, and in Jan. 1829, he assumed the command of the Kent 78, stationed as a guardship in Hamoaze, where he had the honor of displaying a broad pendant during the temporary absence of his commander-in-chief. Admiral the Earl of Northesk.

On the 22d July 1830, a general promotion of flag-officers, &c. took place in honor of the accession of King William IV., when Captain Devonshire was placed on the list of Retired Rear-Admirals, and immediately superseded in his command, the retention of which for about four weeks longer would have fully entitled him to a flag. The hopes he had long and anxiously cherished, of arriving at the highest grade in his profession, to which he considered his devotion to the service for so many years entitled him, were thereby destroyed; and his naval career terminated in a manner most unexpected and distressingly painful. He subsequently submitted his case to the sovereign, urging the very peculiar and unprecedented hardship of being debarred from promotion by the retrospective effect of an order in council, and of being prevented from completing the newly prescribed term of service by an earlier supercession than was customary; but his memorial has not yet met with the favorable consideration which he was once rather sanguine in expecting. We may venture to state, however, that he has been sympathized with, and much commiserated, by all to whom his merits as an active, brave, indefatigable, and zealous officer are known. His brother, Richard, is a commander in the royal navy.



  1. See note * at p. 94.
  2. Four men wounded.
  3. Mr. George Bowen, second Lieutenant of the Terpsichore, died a Post-Captain in 1817. See note * at p. 94.