Royal Naval Biography/Dillon, William Henry
WILLIAM HENRY DILLON, Esq.
[Post-Captain of 1808.]
Son of the late Sir John Talbot Dillon, of the distinguished family of that name in Ireland.
This officer entered the naval service early in 1790 under the auspices of Vice-Admiral Roddam, commander-in-chief at Portsmouth; by whom he was placed on board the Saturn 74, for a passage to his proper ship, the Alcide, commanded by Sir Andrew Snape Douglas, and forming part of the grand fleet, then lying in Torbay, under the orders of Earl Howe. While belonging to the latter third rate, Mr. Dillon was occasionally lent to the Hebe, Niger, and other frigates employed as Channel cruisers.
In Dec. 1792, the subject of this memoir joined the Thetis 38, Captain Francis J. Hartwell; which ship was employed convoying a fleet of East Indiamen from St. Helena to England, at the commencement of the French revolutionary war; and paid off in Sept. 1793. We next find him serving on board the Defence 74, under the command of Captain (now Lord) Gambier, and bearing a part in the glorious battle of June 1, 1794. On that memorable day, Mr. Dillon was stunned by a splinter striking him in the head; but although he lay for some time senseless, under the bodies of two men who were slain at the same moment, he does not appear to have sustained any serious injury. His quarters, we should observe, were the three foremost lower-deck guns; and they suffered more than any others on that deck, one gun being quite disabled, and 14 men killed and wounded.
In the ensuing winter, Mr. Dillon followed Captain Gambier into the Prince George 98, then fitting at Chatham, and afterwards attached to the Channel fleet, under Lord Bridport. Of that ship he was the senior midshipman at the capture of three sail of the line, near l’Orient, June 23, 1795, but unfortunately he had not then served a sufficient time to qualify him for promotion.
In Aug. following, the Prince George was ordered to be fitted for the flag of Rear-Admiral Christian; with whom, being warmly recommended to that officer, Mr. Dillon successively removed into the Glory 98, and Thunderer 74. On the 16th Nov. 1796, Rear-Admiral Christian and Sir Ralph Abercromby sailed from St. Helen’s, with a large naval and military force under their orders, destined against the enemy’s West India colonies; but when abreast of Torbay they encountered a violent S.W. gale, which dispersed the fleet and drove many of the transports on shore. In consequence of this disaster, and having lost her rudder, the Prince George put back to Spithead (towed by the Colossus 74), where the Rear-Admiral’s flag was shifted to the Glory; and the utmost efforts were made to repair the damages sustained by the rest of the squadron.
On the 9th Dec. Rear-Admiral Christian again sailed, with such ships and transports as were ready; but scarcely had he cleared Scilly, when the wind flew round from E. to N.W, and S.W., and blew with almost unremitted violence for several weeks; during which storm many vessels foundered, and the Glory narrowly escaped a similar fate, a heavy sea having struck her, and filled the lower deck with water. Of two hundred and forty sail, only thirteen remained in company with her when she was also obliged to bear up for Portsmouth.
Notwithstanding these disasters, the object of the expedition was persevered in; and so satisfied were H.M. ministers that Rear-Admiral Christian had done every thing in his power to forward their design, that, in Feb. 1796, he was created a Knight of the Bath.
A third attempt to clear the Channel was more successful. On the 20th Mar. 1796, Sir Hugh Christian and his military colleague put to sea in the Thunderer; and when past Madeira, the Rear-Admiral removed into the Astrea frigate, being anxious to arrive as quick as possible at Barbadoes, in order to make immediate preparations for an attack upon St. Lucia.
The skill, alacrity, and unremitted exertions of himself and his subordinates, during the siege of that island, were duly acknowledged by Sir Ralph Abercromby, a copy of whose “general order” will be found at p. 134 of our first volume. After the surrender of Morne Fortunée, Mr, Dillon was sent with a detachment of boats to take possession of Pigeon Island, and we believe that he himself hoisted the British colours in the battery, May 27, 1796.
A short time subsequent to the reduction of St. Lucia, Mr. Dillon was appointed to act as Lieutenant of the Ariadne 20; which ship he left in order to join l’Aimable frigate, commanded by Captain Jemmet Mainwaring, an active and enterprising officer, whose melancholy fate we have already recorded.
Owing to the varied nature of the services on which she was employed, l’Aimable frequently came in contact with the enemy’s batteries; and she appears to have sustained some damage, besides having several men wounded, in an unsuccessful attack upon a squadron of French frigates lying at St. Eustatia: the ships in company with her on that occasion were the Bellona 74, Captain George Wilson; Invincible 74, Captain William Cayley; and Lapwing 28, Captain Robert Barton.
About this period, Lieutenant Dillon was strongly recommended to Sir Henry Harvey for promotion; and being well acquainted with the French language, he was subsequently often employed as the bearer of a flag of truce to Victor Hugues, governor of Guadaloupe, for the purpose of effecting an exchange of prisoners. The difficulties attending a negociation with that ferocious republican will readily be conceived; but notwithstanding the arduous nature of the duty thus imposed upon him, we know that the services he rendered to his country on those occasions were highly appreciated by all his superior officers.
In Dec. 1797, Lieutenant Dillon was offered an appointment to Sir Henry Harvey’s own ship, with a promise of early advancement; but his health was then so bad, occasioned by more than ordinary exposure to the climate of the West Indies, that he was under the necessity of returning to England, where he arrived in Mar. 1798; the commander-in-chief having shewn the sense he entertained of his services by granting him leave of absence for six months (instead of causing him to undergo a survey), and thereby affording him an opportunity of joining the flag-ship at the expiration of that period. In May 1798, finding that his health was not sufficiently re-established for service in a tropical climate, Lieutenant Dillon joined the Glenmore frigate, forming part of a squadron employed co-operating with the King’s troops in the suppression of the Irish rebellion. Whilst on that service he assisted in taking possession of Wexford, and was afterwards sent with a brother officer to apprehend a man named Skallion, who had assumed the appellation of Admiral, and borne a conspicuous part in all the treasonable proceedings of that alarming period. The discovery and caption of this traitor was attended with considerable risk, as he was to be searched for and secured in the midst of a disaffected populace; but by good management he was conducted to head-quarters without injury to either party. On delivering up their prisoner, Lieutenant Dillon and his companion received the thanks of a court-martial then sitting (to try such offenders), for the very effectual and expeditious manner in which they had fulfilled their mission.
In the course of the same year. Lieutenant Dillon was successively appointed to the Venerable 74, and Crescent frigate; the latter commanded by Captain William Granville Lobb, under whom he sailed for Barbadoes and Jamaica, in company with a fleet of merchantmen, about Sept. 1799. The capture of El Galgo, Spanish brig of war, near the Mona passage, is thus officially described by that officer in a letter to Sir Hyde Parker, dated at Port Royal, on the 22d Nov, following:
“On the 15th instant, the S.W. end of Porto Rico bearing N.E. 10 or 12 leagues, we fell in with a squadron consisting of a line-of-battle ship, frigate, and corvette. As the two former were directly in our course on the larboard tack, I made the convoy signal to haul to the wind on the starboard tack; then made sail to reconnoitre them; and on joining the Calypso (stoop), which had previously chased, perfectly coincided with Captain (Joseph) Baker, that they were enemies. The line-of-battle ship and frigate keeping close together, I was in great hopes of drawing them from the convoy, by keeping within random shot to windward; and bore up for that purpose, making the Calypso’s signal to chase N.W. the direction the body of the convoy was then in: at 9, the enemy tacked, and I was under the necessity of making the the signal to disperse. The Calypso bore up for that part of the convoy that was running to leeward. The corvette, which had been seen some time before, was standing for the ships that had kept their wind; I immediately made sail to relieve them, and had the good fortune to capture her. The enemy were previously chasing the ships to leeward, and I was happy to observe them haul their wind, I suppose on perceiving the situation of the corvette; but this, as well as their other manoeuvres during the course of the day, appeared so very undetermined, that they did not take the necessary steps to prevent our obtaining possession of her; nor had they brought to any of the convoy at dark, notwithstanding they had been near them for twelve hours: ond their situation was such as to give me sanguine hopes not any have been captured. The squadron proved to be Spanish, from St. Domingo, bound to the Havannah, consisting of the Asia 64, Amphitrite 44, and Galgo of 16 guns.”
El Galgo was conducted to Jamaica by Lieutenant Dillon, who became first of the Crescent on her arrival at Port Royal; where it was ascertained that only one ship had fallen into the enemy’s hands, and that she also might have escaped, if her master had paid proper attention to the signals and motions of his superiors.
We next find the Crescent cruising in the gulf of Mexico, where she intercepted a Spanish armed packet. Returning from thence, through the gulf of Florida, she also captured, after a long chase and two hours’ running fight, the Diligente, French national brig, mounting 12 long 12-pounders, with a complement of more than 100 men.
This latter prize was taken possession of by Lieutenant Dillon, whose attention was soon drawn to a noise below; and, on listening, he plainly heard some one threatening to blow up the vessel. Rushing down to the magazine, he there found the republican captain in a state of intoxication, and in the act of holding a lighted candle to one of the powder-barrels, with the diabolical intention of carrying his menace into effect, but which was thus providentially frustrated through Mr. Dillon’s knowledge of the French language. Had any other officer of the Crescent been sent to take possession instead of him, there is no doubt that every person on board the Diligente would have perished, as the wind had by that time increased to a gale.
After the capture of Curaçoa, in Sept. 1800, the Crescent was selected by Lord Hugh Seymour to convey reinforcements thither; and she appears to have hoisted that officer’s flag when he first visited the newly-acquired colony.
In June, 1801, Lieutenant Dillon assisted at the destruction of the Meleager 32, which ship had grounded on the Triangles, in the gulf of Mexico, and was there burnt by order of Captain Peter Halkett, commanding the Apollo frigate.
We should here state, that when the Meleager first struck upon these shoals, her Captain, the Hon. T. B. Capel, directed a number of the officers and men to proceed to Vera Cruz, and there to deliver themselves up, as prisoners of war, to the Spaniards: himself and the remainder of his officers and crew were preparing to follow, when the Apollo and Crescent fortunately arrived from an adjacent cruising ground, brought them off, destroyed their ship, and conveyed them to Jamaica. The exchange of the whole was afterwards effected by Lieutenant Dillon, whom we find employed as a negociator both at Vera Cruz and the Havannah.
The subject of this memoir subsequently proceeded in a small prize felucca, with 23 other volunteers under his command, to attack a large schooner, supposed to be a Spanish privateer belonging to St. Jago de Cuba; but after rowing all night he had the mortification to find that she was an American trader. In the mean time, the Crescent had departed from her cruising ground, and Lieutenant Dillon, having used every endeavour to rejoin her without success, was obliged to beat up to Jamaica, where he arrived after being upwards of three weeks on bread and water only. At the close of that anxious cruise, he appears to have had a very narrow escape, the master of an English merchant ship, although aware that peace had taken place, having opened a warm fire of round, grape, and musketry upon the felucca, which was then becalmed near Port Royal, and within hail of her wanton assailant, one of whose shot (a 9-pounder) tore away part of Lieutenant Dillon’s trowsers; but providentially neither himself nor any of his people sustained the least injury. Our officer’s active and zealous conduct had by this time obtained him the favorable notice of his new commander-in-chief, the late Sir John T. Duckworth, who placed him on his list for preferment; but unfortunately Mr. Dillon’s health became so bad that he was obliged to return home as first Lieutenant of the Judo 32, which frigate was paid off at Woolwich, in Aug. 1802.
At the renewal ot hostilities, in 1803, the subject of this memoir was employed raising seamen at Hull; and after remaining a short time on that service, he received a commission appointing him first Lieutenant of the Africaine 38, then considered “one of the finest frigates in the British navy.”
In July, 1803, Lieutenant Dillon experienced one of the most extraordinary vicissitudes of a naval life. On the 20th, whilst blockading Helvoetsluys, he was sent into that port with a flag of truce from Lord Keith to the Dutch Commodore Valterbuck, who gave orders for him to be detained, separated from his men, and placed in confinement on board a small schooner lying in the harbour. In this state of durance he continued until the arrival of despatches from the Hague, which were given to him with an intimation that be was at liberty to depart. The order for his release, however, proved to be a mere pretence; for when on the point of shoving off from the Dutch schooner, an armed launch belonging to a French frigate demanded his immediate surrender; and, having no means of making resistance, he was obliged to submit to this unwarrantable summons. On hearing of his captivity, remonstrances were made by England, first to the Batavian republic, and finally to the French government, for the liberation of Lieutenant Dillon and the boat’s crew; but, notwithstanding these circumstances, he was detained a prisoner upwards of four years, in defiance to the law of nations, and in open violation of every privilege in relation of flags of truce, as established and acknowledged by all civilized powers.
At the time this outrage was committed, there were lying in Helvoetsluys two French frigates, in addition to the Dutch squadron commanded by Commodore Valterbuck. After confining him for some time on board a dogger, where he flag of truce was kept flying as if in derision, the French Commodore removed Lieutenant Dillon to his own ship, the Furieuse; and whilst in her he caught a malignant fever, which nearly proved fatal to him. From that frigate he was sent on board la Libre; and after being kept for several weeks in a state of cruel suspense, it was at length intimated to him, that if he would sign a document in the shape of a parole of honor, he should be allowed to land and proceed into the interior of Holland. Worn out as he was by the nature of his imprisonment, and being hopeless of obtaining his liberation from the persons then at the head of affairs in France, he reluctantly assented; and took his departure for Rotterdam, from whence he was successively ordered to Breda, Antwerp, Brussels, Luneville, and Verdun.
In 1806, when the British government sent over Lords Yarmouth and Lauderdale to negociate for peace, these noblemen were instructed to apply for the liberation of Captain Dillon, and three other officers who had likewise been detained in an unjustifiable manner; but Napoleon Buonaparte gave his decided refusal to the request, thereby adding to the unmerited hardships they had already undergone. It is here proper to remark, that the subject of this memoir was promoted to the rank of Commander in the spring of the preceding year, and that his exchange was at length effected by his private friends in Sept. 1807.
On his return to England, Captain Dillon found that his captivity had been attended with most serious calamities as respected his private fortune; in fact, this treacherous act of the enemy may justly be considered as the principal feature in his professional life; and future historians will no doubt dwell upon it, in order to show the spirit of the government that Great Britain had then to oppose – our own limits will not admit of any further comments.
Early in 1808, Captain Dillon was appointed to the Childers brig, of which vessel the following just description is given by Mr. James, in the second edition of his Naval History, Vol. V. p. 39 et seq.
“Notwithstanding the fate of the ‘sloop of war’ Lily, vessels of that denomination, inferior in force to a gun-brig, were still suffered to remain in the British navy. One of the ‘cruisers’ of this class was the Childers, a brig of 202 tons, built as long ago as the year 1778; a vessel so unseaworthy as to have been obliged, on more than one occasion, to throw overboard her guns (long) 4-pounders, in order to save the lives of her crew. The brig at length became so crazy, that 18-pounder carronades were found too heavy for her, and she was fitted with fourteen 12-pounders. In this state, and manned with a crew, nominally, of 86, but really of 65 men and boys, including only one Lieutenant (there not being accommodation for more), the Childers, Captain William Henry Dillon, in the month of January (1808), lay in Leith roads, waiting to give her ‘protection’ to the trade proceeding to Gottenburgh. But the merchants, the instant they knew the force and qualifications of the Childers, objected to place their property under her care; supposing, very naturally, that so small and ill-armed a vessel was incapable of beating off the privateers that infested the northern waters. Ludicrous as the application would have appeared, the merchants, had they wished for a vessel of nearly double the force of the one they had rejected, might have requested the board of admiralty to appoint, instead of ‘the sloop of war’ Childers, the ‘gun-brig’ Insolent, then cruising on the Downs station. What vessel the merchants at last obtained we know not; but the Childers proceeded by herself to the Baltic (station), to effect as much, in the way of annoying the enemy, as her small powers would admit.”
Having thus made our readers acquainted with the force of the vessel placed under Captain Dillon’s command, we shall now present them with a copy of his official letter respecting the very gallant action for which he was deservedly rewarded with a post commission:
“Leith, March 18, 1808.
“Sir,– I have the honor to acquaint you, that on the 14th inst., at 4 P.M., when standing in for the coast of Norway, a sail was discovered inshore, and, on seeing us, appeared to be seeking a port of safety. We instantly gave chase, with a fresh breeze from the eastward; and as we neared her, she hauled among the rocks, out of our sight, to take shelter in the small port of Midbe. Immediately a number of boats came out to her assistance, I suppose with the intention of removing her cargo. I despatched Mr. Wilson, acting-master, accompanied by Mr. (Thomas Edward) Knight, mate, with the cutter well armed, to bring her out: the jolly-boat was also sent, with Mr. M‘Nicholl, gunner, and Mr. Le Neve, purser, who volunteered his services. This duty was performed by Mr. Wilson with the utmost gallantry for when mixed with the enemy’s boats, the latter were dispersed in all directions, leaving him at liberty to board the vessel, in doing which he was opposed by some of the inhabitants with musketry, whilst others hurled down stones upon our men, from the top of the precipice under which she lay secured: however, she was carried without any loss, to the astonishment of an increasing multitude, who crowded together on the surrounding heights. She is a galliot, with only part of her cargo on board, consisting principally of oil and fish.
“Scarcely had the galliot hove in sight from under the rocks, when a large brig was observed coming out of Hitteroe: she bore down on us with confidence, indicating a vessel of force, and apparently with the design of rescuing the prize. About 6 P.M. she got upon our weather-beam; and judging her to be within reach of our guns, I sent a challenge, by firing a shot over her. The enemy then hauled his wind close, and kept in shore. Finding he would not join us, I made sail for the purpose of bringing him to action, which soon commenced at half gun-shot range, distant from the shore half a mile, passing each other on different tacks. When he received our first broadside, he caught fire forward; and had we been closer at the moment, to profit by his confusion, I have no doubt of the result. He kept so near the land, that he was held from our view, so that we could only be guided in our fire by the flash of his guns, and were also, from this circumstance, prevented weathering him, We continued engaging him in this manner for three hours; but found he had a decided advantage over us. The Dane was a man of war, well appointed in every respect, carrying long 18-pounders, and seemingly had taken fresh courage after a few of our broadsides, as if aware of our inferiority to him in weight of metal, the Childers bearing only 12-pounder carronades:– latterly, his guns were 80 well-directed, that every shot did us mischief, particularly between wind and water. Observing that nothing could be done whilst he kept so near his own port, from whence he might at pleasure draw fresh supplies of men, I conceived the plan of enticing him out to sea, where the contest would be more equal, by giving us an opportunity of forcing him to close action, which he had hitherto so repeatedly avoided. In order to effect this, I stood out under easy sail: it was some time before he relished the idea of following us, but in the end he did so. At 11, he was about three miles off the land; I set the courses, and tacked, intending to weather him. As we approached, the wind unfortunately headed us, and foiled our attempt. I therefore passed under his lee, as close as it could he done without touching, and poured round and grape upon his decks, which I imagine did the Dane much damage, for we distinctly heard the groans of the wounded: his guns also did us material injury, most of his shot taking us between wind and water; and when on the point of renewing the battle, it proved impossible. In the mean time the enemy tacked, and made sail to regain the shore; and we shortly after lost sight of him. I was mortified that our situation would not admit of our pursuing the enemy: – we had 5 feet water in the hold, the magazine afloat, the lower masts wounded, bowsprit and main-mast badly, and the leaks increasing on us in such a way as to make it doubtful whether we should be able to prevent our vessel from sinking under us. In this situation we bore up to secure our prize, with the only satisfaction left us of having drove a man of war, of much superior force, off the field of action, which we kept during the space of six hours in the very entrance of his own harbour.
“I therefore trust, that when the above particulars are seen in thoir proper light, it will be found that, although not successful in capturing the enemy, the Childers has supported the glory of the navy, and the honor of the British flag. I am happy to have this opportunity of testifying the spirited conduct of my first Lieutenant, Mr. Thomas Edmonds, as well as of the other officers and crew, who on this occasion behaved with that determined courage which at all times distinguishes English seamen. Not being able to keep at sea, from the nature of our leaks, and having wounded masts, I could not put into execution the remaining part of your orders; and have in consequence judged it proper to return to this anchorage with my prize. I am, &c.
(Signed)“W. H. Dillon.”
“To Rear-Admiral Vashon, &c. &c. &c.”
In this gallant action, Captain Dillon was badly wounded in both legs, and his arms and shoulders were very much contused: the total loss sustained by the Childers was 2 petty officers killed, and 8 persons, including her commander and 2 midshipmen, wounded. The Danish brig, thus driven back to her anchorage by the vessel whose services the merchants of Leith had rejected, was afterwards ascertained to be the Lougen, mounting 18 Danish long 18-pounders and 2 sixes (the latter stern chasers), with a complement of 160 men and boys. Captain Dillon dees not state his reason for attacking so superior a force; but we know that his object was to prevent her from making any attempt upon the convoy then expected from Scotland, and which hove in sight the day after the action. It is sufficient to say that the Admiralty duly appreciated his brave and skilful conduct, and that he received the thanks of the Board in terms of the most flattering description; as also a sword, value 100 guineas, from the Patriotic Society at Lloyd’s. His post commission bears date Mar. 21, 1808.
Captain Dillon’s next appointment was, pro tempore, to l’Aigle frigate, and in her he accompanied the grand expedition to the Scheldt. He subsequently acted as captain of the Camilla 20, a«d Bellerophon 74; after which we find him commanding the Leopard of 50 guns. In the latter ship he was stationed for some time at Lisbon, and also actively employed on the south coast of Spain, under the orders of Rear-Admiral Hallowell, by whom he was entrusted with the command of a small squadron sent to act in conjunction with the British troops stationed at Carthagena, to prevent that place from being taken by surprise. The Leopard likewise saved several villages on the coast of Murcia from being ravaged by the common enemy.
On the 18th Jan. 1814, Captain Dillon was appointed to the Horatio 38, in which frigate he successively served at Newfoundland, in Davis’s Straits, and, as senior officer, at Guernsey. Proceeding from thence to watch the Harbour of Cherbourg, the Horatio struck on a rock in the Little Russel Passage, beat off 25 feet of her main-keel and the garboard streak, whereby her timbers were left completely bare, and she was only saved from foundering by the most extraordinary exertions, as she made eight inches of water in a minute, and continued to do so until her arrival in Portsmouth harbour. After undergoing the necessary repairs, she was sent with a small squadron to blockade the above port, from whence it was understood by government that Napoleon Buonaparte would attempt to escape after his final overthrow at Waterloo. Captain Dillon subsequently visited China and India; but peace being fully established, he was ordered home in 1816, and paid off at the commencement of the following year. His last appointment was, April 14, 1818, to the Phaeton 46, which ship likewise made a trip to the East Indies, and was put out of commission in Oct. 1819.
Agents.– Messrs. Stilwell.
- Robert Roddam, Esq., senior Admiral of the Red, died at Roddam, co. Northumberland, Mar. 31, 1808, aged 89 years.
- The Hebe and Niger were commanded by two very distinguished officers – the late Captain Alexander Hood, and the present Sir Richard Goodwin Keats.
- See Vol. I., Part I., note at p. 75 et seq.; and Vol. II., Part II., p. 582.
- See Vol. I., p. 246; and Vol. II., p. 93.
- At the critical period alluded to above, when many of the Glory’s crew were ascending the fore-rigging under the impression that the ship was foundering, Sir Ralph Abercromby came to the cabin door and asked a midshipman whom he saw standing near the wheel, if much danger existed. Being told that the sea was coming in through the lower-deck ports, the heroic General very coolly remarked, “I shall only be in the way – I’ll go back to my cot!”
- See Vol. II. Part II. note † at p. 603.
- Victor Hugues, “the Robespierre of the colonies,” died at Bourdeaux, in 1826.
- See Vol. I. p. 389. N.B. The town was taken possession of by a naval detachment, previous to the entry of the troops.
- The Crescent was a 36-gun, 18-pounder, frigate; the Calypso, a ship-sloop, rated at 16 guns.
- See Vol. II. Part I. p. 12.
- Lieutenant Dillon was warmly recommended to Lord Hugh Seymour, who marked his kind intentions towards him, by allowing him to remain first of an active frigate, whilst he kept a vacancy for him in his flag-ship. Unfortunately, however, the noble Admiral was suddenly cut off in the midst of his honorable career [[[Royal_Naval_Biography/Seymour, George Francis#sp1_p158|see p. 158]]]; and Mr. Dillon’s prospects were consequently blighted.
- See Vol. II. Part I, p. 208.
- A boat’s crew belonging to the Leda frigate, Captain Robert Honyman.
- Errata, Vol. II. Part I. p. 208, line 2 from the bottom, for the space of five years, read for more than four years.
- Captured by a French privateer, July 15, 1804.
- Now a Lieutenant.
- The shot that fell on board the Childers weighed 20 pounds.