Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Fane, Francis William

[Post-Captain of 1803.]

This officer is a son of John Fane, Esq. M.P. for Oxfordshire, cousin to John, tenth Earl of Westmoreland, by Lady Elizabeth Parker, daughter of Thomas, third Earl of Macclesfield.

In 1796, we find him serving as a Midshipman on board the Terpsichore, of 32 guns, commanded by Captain Richard Bowen, whose gallant action with the Mahonesa, a Spanish frigate of superior force, has been recorded in the preceding part of this work[1].

On the 12th Dec., in the same year, while cruising to the westward of Cadiz, the Terpsichore discovered an enemy’s ship about four miles on the weather quarter. Chase was immediately given, and continued, with much manoeuvring on both sides, for nearly 40 hours; during which, from the weather being extremely squally, the Terpsichore sprung her top-masts. At length, however, the stranger, finding it impossible to avoid an action, brought to; and about 10 P.M. on the 13th, Captain Bowen had the satisfaction of getting alongside. A most spirited battle immediately commenced, yard-arm and yard-arm; and, after a hard contest of nearly two hours, the enemy was obliged to surrender. She proved to be la Vestale, French frigate, of 36 guns, and 270 men, 30 of whom, including her commander, were killed, and 37 wounded. The Terpsichore, whose complement, from various causes, had previously been reduced to 166, officers, men, and boys, sustained a loss of 4 killed and 19 wounded; among the latter were Mr. Fane and Captain Bowen’s brother, who was the only Lieutenant then on board.

Both ships had by this time drifted near the rocks of St. Sebastian, and it was with great difficulty that the Terpsichore could gain an offing, after putting the Master and a boat’s crew on board la Vestale. On the following morning, Captain Bowen stood in and anchored a-head of his prize, then totally dismasted, riding in shallow water, between Cadiz and Conil. In the evening, a favorable slant of wind gave him an opportunity of getting under weigh, with la Vestale in tow; but the hawser getting foul of a rock, he was obliged to abandon her, and stand off again for the night. During his absence the prisoners rose upon the small party of Englishmen, and the next morning he had the mortification to see a number of Spanish boats towing her towards the harbour, which she reached in safety, notwithstanding all his efforts to prevent her. Captain Bowen, after a painful detail of the unfortunate sequel to the exertions of himself and his brave followers, adds – “As we feel conscious of having done our duty to the utmost of our power, we endeavour to console ourselves with the expectation of our conduct being approved.” How well this expectation was answered, the following honorable testimony, from the pen of his Commander-in-chief, will shew:–

Victory, in the Tagus, Jan. 15, 1797.

“Dear Bowen,– The intelligence we received from the patrons of two pilot boats, when off Cadiz, on the 17th Dec., that the French frigate then lying between the Diamond and Porques rocks, had been dismasted and captured by an English frigate, impressed us all with an opinion that the Terpsichore had achieved this gallant action. I lament exceedingly that you and your brave crew were deprived of the substantial reward of your exertions: but you cannot fail to receive the tribute due to you from the government and country at large. I was very much agitated with the danger you apprehended your brother was in, when you wrote: I have, however, derived great consolation from the report of Captain Mansfield, that he was much recovered, and able to walk down to the Mole, before he sailed from Gibraltar[2]. The account you gave of Francis Fane is very grateful to my feelings, and I have sent your postscript to Lady Elizabeth, as the greatest treat I could give to a fond mother, and a high-minded woman. * * * *. I desire you will remember me kindly to your brother, and to all the good fellows in the Terpsichore, and believe me tobe, most truly your’s,

(Signed)John Jervis.”

Mr. Fane subsequently joined the Emerald frigate, commanded by Captain Jacob Waller[3]; under whose eye he performed a philanthropic action highly deserving of notice. The circumstance is thus described by the Rev. Cooper Willyams, in his account of the Swiftsure’s “Voyage up the Mediterranean” at p. 93, et seq.

“The next day (Sept. 2, 1798) the Emerald made a signal for a sail bearing E. by S. We accordingly gave chase, and off the Arab’s Tower saw a cutter standing towards the shore. The Emerald fired several shot to bring her to, but she persisted, and at length ran aground a little to the west of the tower of Marabou[4]. Our boats, and those of the Emerald, were sent to bring her off: the French, in the mean time, made good their landing; but a high surf soon destroyed the cutter. At this moment nothing was to be seen but barren and uncultivated sands as far as the eye could reach; but in a short time we descried several Arabs advance, some on horseback, others on foot. The French now perceived their error, but it was too lale; some of them, indeed, were so fortunate as to get on board our boats, which pulled towards the shore in hopes of saving their unfortunate enemy, and a Midshipman from the Emerald [Mr. Fane], with a noble spirit of humanity, threw himself into the water, and swam through a high surf to the shore, having a rope in his hand, by which the French Captain and 4 seamen were saved. From him we learned, that the cutter was called l’Anemone, of 4 guns and 60 men, Citizen Gardon commander; having on board General Carmm and Captain Valette, aid-de-camp to General Buonaparte; also a courier with despatches, and a party of soldiers. Perceiving there was no possibility of escape from us, the General ordered Captain Gardon to run the cutter ashore, who urged the dangers of a high surf, and the numerous hordes of wild Arabs that infested the coast. The General said he would cut his way through them to Alexandria, which was not more than 2 or 3 leagues off, the towers and minarets being plainly to be seen. No sooner had he landed, however, and perceived the Bedouins, who till this time were hid behind the sand-hills, but now began to show themselves, than dismay and terror seized on all; nor could we behold their distress without commisseration, although they had so entirely brought it on themselves by refusing to surrender to us, and had fired on our boats when escape was no longer in their power. We perceived that the officers and men suffered themselves to be stripped without resistance. Many were murdered in cold blood, apparently without any cause, and among them the unfortunate General and Aid-de-camp, who, on their knees, entreated for mercy. An Arab, on horseback, unslung his carbine and drew the trigger, but the piece did not go off; he renewed the priming, and again presented at the General, but the shot killed the Aid-de-camp, who was on his knees a little behind him; he then with a pistol fired at the General, who instantly fell. The courier also, who endeavoured to escape, was pursued and murdered. An Arab who got possession of his despatches, instantly rode away with them; and we have since learned that they were afterwards recovered by the French for a sum of money. We now perceived a troop of horse from Alexandria marching along the strand, and the Arabs retired into the desert with their surviving prisoners. The French troops, proceeding towards the scene of action, at length arrived on the spot where lay the remains of their murdered countrymen; but, probably, tearing that they should be surrounded with superior numbers, they wheeled about and retreated to the city. The commander of the vessel most gratefully acknowledged the humane treatment he met with from our people, and extolled the gallantry of the young Midshipman who had thus saved him at the risk of his own life.”

The above account is confirmed in all its particulars, in a a letter from the late Sir Samuel Hood to Lord Nelson, published in the London Gazette, and dated “Admiralty Office, Nov. 23, 1798” which closes with this passage:–

“On the approach of our boats, the French cutter fired on them, cut her cable, and ran among the breakers. General Carmin, and Aid-de-camp Valette, having landed with the despatches and the whole of the crew, were immediately attacked by the Arabs. The two former and some others were killed, and all the rest stripped of their clothes. Her commander and a few of the men made their escape, nuked, to the beach; where our boats had by this time arrived, and begged, on their knees, to be saved. I am happy in saying, the humanity of our people extended so far as to induce them to swim on shore with lines and small casks to save them, which they fortunately effected. Amongst these was particularly distinguished a young gentleman, Midshipman of the Emerald, who brought off the French commander, at the hazard of his own life, through the surf.”

Captain Fane obtained post rank, Aug. 30, 1803; and subsequently commanded the Lapwing, Hind, and Cambrian frigates, the latter employed on the Coast of Catalonia in co-operation with the patriot General O’Donnell, whom he conveyed to Tarragona, in a wounded state, after recovering several towns from the enemy, and taking about 1400 Frenchmen prisoners[5].

On the 12th Dec. 1810, the Cambrian joined a squadron under the orders of Captain (afterwards Rear-Admiral) Thomas Rogers, who had been sent by Sir Charles Cotton, to cut off the supplies intended for Barcelona, where the enemy had assembled in great numbers, with but little means of subsistence. A French ketch of 14 guns and 60 men, two xebecs of 3 guns and 30 men each, and eight merchant vessels laden with provisions, were then lying in the mole at Palamos, and the senior officer, relying on Captain Fane’s knowledge of the place, immediately determined to attempt their destruction. The unfortunate result of this enterprise is thus described by Captain Rogers in his report to the commander-in-chief:

“I therefore formed my plan, and Captain Fane did me the favor ta volunteer the command of 350 seamen, 250 marines, and 2 field-pieces, selected from the ships under my orders[6], and well appointed for this desirable service. The enemy’s vessels lay in the mole, protected by two 24-pounders, one in a battery which stood high over the mole, and the other with a 13-inch mortar on a very commanding height; there were also, from the information I received, about 250 soldiers in the town.

“It was near one o’clock in the afternoon of the 13th, before we could get far enough into the bay to put the men on shore; and they were soon after landed on the beach in the finest order under cover of the Sparrowhawk and Minstrel sloops, without harm, the enemy having posted themselves in the town, supposing we should be injudicious enough to go into the mole without dislodging them; soon after our men moved forward to take the town and batteries in the rear, and the enemy withdrew to a windmill on a hill, where they remained almost quiet spectators of the detachment taking possession of the batteries and the vessels. The mortar was spiked and the cannon thrown down the heights into the sea; the magazine blown up, the whole of the vessels burnt and totally destroyed, save two which were brought out; in short, the object had succeeded to admiration: and at this time with the loss of no more than 4 or 5 men from occasional skirmishing; but I am sorry to relate, that in withdrawing our post from a hill which we occupied to keep the enemy in check until the batteries and vessels were destroyed, I fear that our people retired with some disorder, which encouraged the enemy, who had received a reinforcement from St. Felice, to advance upon them, and by some unhappy fatality, instead of directing their retreat ta the beach where the Cambrian, Sparrowhawk, and Minstrel lay to cover their embarkation, the brave but thoughtless unfortunate men came through Ike town down to the mole: the enemy immediately occupied the walls and houses, from which they kept wp a severe fire upon the boats crowded with men, and dastardly fired upon and killed several who had been left on the mole, and were endeavouring to swim to the boats. Nothing could exceed the good conduct of Captains Pringle and Campbell, and Lieutenant Conolty of the Cambrian, (who commanded that ship in the absence of Captain Fane) both in the landing and withdrawing the men, and the officers in the launches with carronades, and the 2 mortar-boats of the Cambrian: indeed the officers and men of all the boats distinguished themselves beyond all praise in going to the mole to bring off the men who had been left behind. In performing this arduous service they suffered much, but I had the satisfaction to perceive the fire of their carronades and mortars upon the enemy was very destructive.

“Unfortunately Captain Fane, as I am informed, was at the mole giving directions to destroy the vessels, when our men were withdrawn from the hill; he remained there with firmness to the last, and is among the missing, but I have received a satisfactory account that he is well.

“I feel, Sir, with unfeigned grief, that our loss has been severe, but had it not been for the indiscretion of the people straggling from their post and coming into the town, contrary to my caution, the enemy would not have dared to approach them, and the loss would have been very inconsiderable, compared with the importance of the service performed. The French had entered Catalonia with an army of 10,000 men, and as I was ordered to this coast for the express purpose of depriving them of their expected supplies, I considered that some energy and enterprise were necessary to accomplish it; the force I employed was fully adequate to this service; and I confided the execution of it to an officer of reputation.”

The total loss sustained by the British on this disastrous occasion was 2 officers, 19 seamen, and 12 marines, killed; 15 officers, 42 seamen, and 32 marines, wounded; and 2 officers, 42 seamen (including one deserter from the Kent), and 43 marines, missing.

Captain Fane subsequently commanded the Pomone frigate. He married, July 20, 1824, the youngest sister of Sir Charles William Flint, Knt. Resident Under Secretary of State for the affairs of Ireland.

Agent.– Thomas Stilwell, Esq.

  1. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 411, et seq.
  2. Lieutenant George Bowen was severely wounded in the shoulder by a shot fired after la Vestale had actually struck. He also received several bad contusions in different parts of his body.
  3. See Vol. II. Part I. note * at p. 327.
  4. The Emerald was at this time attached to the squadron left by Lord Nelson, after his glorious victory in Aboukir bay, to watch the coast of Egypt, and cut off the supplies sent from France for the Republican army in that country.
  5. See p. 597.
  6. Kent 74, Captain Thomas Rogers; Ajax 74, Captain Robert Waller Otway; Cambrian 38, Captain Fane; Minstrel 18, Captain Colin Campbell; and Sparrowhawk 18, Captain James Pringle.