Royal Naval Biography/Grey, George

[Retired Captain.]

Knight Commander of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; Resident Commissioner of Portsmouth Dock-Yard; Marshal of the Vice-Admiralty Court at Barbadoes; an Alderman of Portsmouth; a Vice-President of the Naval and Military Bible Society, &c. &c. &c.

This officer is the fourth son of the late Earl Grey, K.B., a General in the army, Colonel of the 3d regiment of dragoons, and Governor of Guernsey, by Elizabeth, daughter of George Grey, of Southwick, co. Durham, Esq.[1]

He was born Oct. 10, 1767; and at the commencement of the war with France, in 1793, we find him serving as a Lieutenant on board the Quebec of 32 guns; from which ship he was promoted to the command of the Vesuvius bomb; and on the 1st Nov. in the same year, he obtained post rank in the Boyne, a second rate, bearing the flag of Sir John Jervis; with whom he served during the memorable West India campaign[2]. At the siege of Guadaloupe he commanded a detachment of 500 seamen and marines, landed to co-operate with the army.

At 11 A.M. on the 1st May, 1795, soon after Captain Grey’s return to England, and whilst he was attending a court-martial in Portsmouth harbour, a fire broke out on board the Boyne, then at Spithead. The flames burst through the poop-deck before the fire was discovered, and spread so rapidly, that in less than half an hour the ship was in a blaze fore and aft; every exertion on the part of the officers and crew to save her proved abortive. All her guns being loaded, went off as they became heated, the shot falling among the shipping; and some even reached the shore in Stokes Bay. Two men on board the Queen Charlotte were killed, and one wounded.

About lh 30' P.M. she burnt from her cables, and drifted slowly to the eastward, till she struck on the Spit opposite Southsea castle, where she continued to burn until near 6 o’clock, when she blew up with a dreadful explosion. Fortunately, on the fire being first observed by the rest of the fleet, all the boats were sent to the assistance of her crew; the whole of whom, eleven only excepted, were happily rescued from the impending destruction. All the other ships were promptly removed to St. Helen’s out of the reach of danger.

This unfortunate accident has, by some, been attributed to the funnel of the ward-room stove being overheated, and setting fire to some combustible matter in the Admiral’s cabin; but the evidence given by Lieutenant, now Rear-Admiral, Winthrop, who was the commanding officer at the time, completely contradicts this assertion, as he proved that the funnel, instead of passing through the Admiral’s cabin towards the poop, led upwards through the lobby on the outside of the bulk-head, and, consequently, could not have occasioned the disaster. It seems much more probable that the bottoms of the cartridges fired by a party of the 86th regiment, then doing duty on board as marines, and who were exercising on the poop at the moment when the ship was tending to the tide, had entered the ports of the cabin, into which Sir John Jervis’s stock had recently been removed, preparatory to its being landed, and thereby set fire to the hampers, &c. The rapidity with which the flames extended throughout, may be attributed to the state of her planks and timbers, which had become perfectly dry through long exposure to a West India sun. It should be observed also, that she was riding with her stern to the wind, which no doubt greatly accelerated the progress of the fire towards her forecastle[3].

Captain Grey subsequently commanded the Glory, another ship of 98 guns, forming part of the Channel fleet. In the following year we find him in the Victory, a first rate, bearing the flag of Sir John Jervis, with whom he continued during the whole period that officer held the command on the Mediterranean station. He consequently assisted at the defeat of the Spanish fleet, off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14, 1797[4], on which occasion the Victory had only 1 man killed and 5 wounded.

Previous to his return to England, his friend the Commander-in-Chief gave him the dormant appointment of Adjutant-General of the Fleet, under which he acted in a certain degree, so as not to give offence to the senior Captains. The Admiral, in a letter to Earl Spencer, announcing his intention of resigning the command to Lord Keith, mentions this circumstance, and adds, “In the state I am in, Captain Grey is essentially necessary to my comfort, and I hope your Lordship will approve of his accompanying me.

In the spring of 1800, Earl St. Vincent hoisted his flag on board the Ville de Paris of 110 guns, as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel fleet; and at the same time our officer assumed the command of that ship, which he held until the month of March, 1801. He was soon after appointed to one of the yachts in attendance on the royal family at Weymouth, and continued to be employed on that sort of service till about April, 1804, when he succeeded Sir Isaac Coffin, as Commissioner of Sheerness Dockyard, from whence he afterwards removed to Portsmouth, where he now resides.

In June, 1814, his present Majesty, (then on a visit to the fleet at Spithead, in company with the allied sovereigns) presented Commissioner Grey with the patent of a Baronetcy; and on the 20th May, 1820, he was graciously pleased to nominate him an extra K.C.B.

Sir George Grey married, in July, 1795, Mary, sister to the late Samuel Whitbread, Esq., M.P. for Bedford, (who had some years previous thereto been united to one of his sisters) by whom he has had several children.

  1. The Greys are a junior branch of an ancient baronial family in Northumberland, the chief of whom was created Baron Grey, of Werke, by James I., and advanced to the Earldom of Tankerville by William III.; which titles became extinct at the commencement of the last century; and the heiress having carried the estates, by marriage, to Charles Benuet, Lord Ossulton, that nobleman was, in consequence, created Earl of Tankerville in 1714. The late Earl Grey was an officer of great experience, having served at the battle of Minden, under Prince Ferdinand; ami on the plains of Abraham, as aid-de-camp to the immortal Wolfe. He next commanded a body of troops during the colonial war; and in 1793, was appointed to command the army sent against the French West India colonies. He was born Oct. 23, 1729; created Baron Grey de Howick, June 23, 1801; Viscount Howick and Earl Grey, April 1, 1806. His Lordship died Nov. 14, 1807; and was succeeded by his eldest surviving son, Charles, the present peer.
  2. See Vol. I. pp. 19, 710 et seq., and 840 et seq.
  3. A man who had lived some years upon a comfortable annuity at a small village in Staffordshire, died in 1806. On his death-bed he declared that he had been hired to set fire to the Boyne.
  4. See Vol. I. p. 21, et seq.