Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Henderson, William

[Post-Captain of 1815.]

Nephew to Captain David Willmott, R.N. an officer of the highest reputation, who greatly distinguished himself on many important occasions, was eight times wounded in battle, and at last fell, assisting in the glorious defence of St. Jean d’Acre, April 8th, 1799[1].

It was about this period, that Mr. Henderson first embarked as a midshipman, for the purpose of joining his uncle, then commanding the Alliance 20, under the orders of Earl St. Vincent, whose respect for the character of that gallant officer was so great, that he spontaneously took the nephew under his protection, and continued his friendship to him during the remainder of his valuable life.

In May 1802, Mr. Henderson was paid off from the Ville de Paris 110, late flag-ship of Earl St. Vincent; and we immediately afterwards find him joining the Belleisle 74, Captain John Whitby; in which third-rate he also served under Captain (now Sir William) Hargood, and bore a part at the ever memorable battle of Trafalgar, Oct. 21, 1805. On that occasion, the Belleisle had 2 lieutenants and 31 men killed, 93 wounded, her bowsprit and all three lower-masts shot away, both sides of her hull terribly mauled, and every boat, except one, destroyed[2]. After the tremendous conflict, she was in a very perilous situation, and narrowly escaped being wrecked, both off Trafalgar and Tariffa, but by uncommon exertions she escaped destruction, and with great difficulty reached Gibraltar.

On Earl St. Vincent hoisting the union flag, as Commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, in Mar. 1806, Mr. Henderson again joined his patron; and, on the 26th of the same month, being then in the Hibernia 110, was appointed acting lieutenant of the Niobe frigate, Captain John Wentworth Loring; under whom he assisted at the capture of le Néarque, French national brig, of 16 guns and 97 men[3]. His appointment was confirmed by the Admiralty, April 11, following.

Early in Mar. 1809, the French troops under Marshal Soult having entered the province of Tras los Montes, in Portugal, occupied the town of Chaves, and proceeded on their march towards Oporto; the Niobe, then at Lisbon, took on board a quantity of arms, ammunition, &c. and hastened with them to the entrance of the Douro. On her arrival off that river, Lieutenant Henderson was sent up to the city with despatches for the governor, and to superintend the landing of those supplies. This was on the 25th March. Next day the enemy appeared, and reconnoitred the defences of the city. On the 27th and 28th, he attacked them, and was each time repulsed; but on the 29th, owing to the mistrust of the Portuguese in their officers, he succeeded in forcing their lines, and entered the town with little loss. The scene of murder, rapine, and plunder, which ensued, is not to be described; suffice it to say, that the streets were covered with the unfortunate victims of a ruthless conqueror.

In the meanwhile, a gale of wind had compelled the Niobe to slip her cable and put to sea; while a heavy surf on the bar prevented Lieutenant Henderson from re-crossing it, and forced him to become a prisoner. He was then placed in close confinement, and ultimately obliged to accompany the French in their forced retreat towards Gallicia.

On the 16th May, 1809, being then about two leagues west of Amaranta, Lieutenant Henderson was fortunate enough to effect his escape; and after surmounting great difficulties, and enduring severe privations, he at length got back to Oporto; from whence he returned home in the Nautilus brig. Captain Thomas Dench, whom he found on the point of sailing, with Sir Arthur Wellesley’s despatches, announcing the defeat of Marshal Soult, and the capture of a fourth of his army, with all his artillery and baggage[4].

On the 27th of the ensuing month, Lieutenant Henderson was appointed first of the Active frigate. Captain (now Sir James A .) Gordon, under whom he served, principally in the Adriatic, until Aug. 1, 1811. During that period, he assisted at the capture and destruction of many of the enemy’s vessels; and bore a part in one of the most severe and brilliant actions that has ever been recorded[5]. For his gallant conduct at the battle off Lissa, which is spoken of by Captain Gordon “in the warmest terms,” he was advanced to the rank of Commander, immediately the intelligence reached England, and his commission dated back to the day on which that victory was so nobly achieved.

On the 27th July, 1811, the boats, small-arm men, and marines of the Active, the whole under the command of Lieutenant Henderson, who had not yet been informed of his promotion, were detached by Captain Gordon, to attack a convoy which had ran. above the island of Ragosniza, and taken shelter in a creek on the main. From the narrowness of the entrance, and three gun-vessels protecting it, with about 150 armed men on each point, Lieutenant Henderson was induced to land in the night, in order to take possession of a hill which appeared to command the creek, leaving the boats, under Lieutenant James Gibson, to push for the gun-vessels the moment a concerted signal was made from the top of the hill.

On Lieutenant Henderson and his party gaining the summit, after dislodging several soldiers who fired upon them during their ascent, he found himself immediately above the gun-vessels and 28 sail of merchantmen; he then made the signal for the boats to advance, and at the same time descended the hill, exposed to the fire of one gun-vessel and some soldiers; but the attack was so well planned, and so gallantly executed, that his party had only time to fire two vollies into the vessels before they were boarded. The enemy, finding themselves attacked so warmly, then fled in all directions, leaving behind them a number of killed and wounded. The guns were immediately turned on the fugitives, and the whole convoy taken possession of; 21, including the gun-vessels, were brought out, and all the others burnt. In the performance of this dashing service, the British had not a man killed, and only four wounded. Captain Gordon, in his official account of the enterprise, says:

“Lieutenant Henderson, whose gallant conduct on this and many other occasions since the ship has been employed in the Adriatic, makes it a duty incumbent upon me to recommend him in the strongest manner to the commander-in-chief, speaks in the highest terms of the assistance he received from Lieutenant George Haye, who, though an invalid, very handsomely volunteered. Lieutenant Mears, R.M. and Mr. Charles Friend, master’s-mate, who landed with him. Lieutenant Gibson, who gallantly led the boats to the attack, speaks in praise of every officer, whose names I beg leave to state to you, as I trust you will recommend them to the notice of the commander-in-chief:– Messrs. Henry Padon Lew, Redmond Moriarty, Norwich Duff, William Simpkins, Joseph Cammilleri, Nathaniel Barwell, Charles Bentham, George Moore, William Wood, and William Todd Robinson, all midshipmen.

“I am informed by the prisoners, and several persons I have just seen, that the convoy arrived at Ragosniza the evening before, chiefly laden with grain for the garrison at Ragusa, and were defended on shore by 300 armed men, which, considering the force opposed to a ship’s boats, is a proof that every officer and man did his duty, like a British seaman.”

On leaving the Active, Captain Henderson proceeded to Malta, from whence he sailed for England, in the Pomone frigate. Captain Robert Barrie: he was consequently wrecked in that ship, on a sunken rock, near the Needles Point, Oct. 14, 1811.[6]

This officer’s next appointment was in April 1812, to the command of the Rosario brig, on the Downs station. In May 1813, he conveyed the heroic Duke of Brunswick Oels from Harwich to the Elbe, and was recommended by his Serene Highness to the favorable notice of the Admiralty. On the 7th of the ensuing month, Captain Henderson was removed to the Dasher sloop; and in October following he accompanied the outward bound trade to the Leeward Islands, Surinam, Berbice, and Demerara.

The Dasher formed part of the squadron under Sir Philip C. Durham, at the reduction of Guadaloupe, in Aug. 1816[7]; and was paid off by Captain Henderson, May 16, 1816. It is here deserving of remark, that during the time she was in the West Indies, a period of two years and a half, she did not lose a single man from the effects of the climate; so zealously attentive were her commander and his officers to the comfort of her crew.

Captain Henderson’s post commission bears date Oct. 9, 1815. He married, in June, 1817, the second daughter of John Henderson, Esq. many years secretary to the late Admiral Lord Bridport, and sister to Captain George Henderson, R.N. He formerly had three brothers in the same service, viz. John, a Lieutenant, and commander of the Maria schooner, stationed at the Leeward Islands, which vessel foundered with all her crew, in a hurricane, about Oct. 16, 1807[8]: Benjamin W., admiralty midshipman of the Leven, who died on board that ship’s tender, in Delagoa bay, whilst employed in surveying the east coast of Africa, in March 1823 ; and Richard Willmott, who obtained the rank of Lieutenant, May 26, 1823, and is now serving as first of the Gloucester 74, in the Mediterranean[9].

  1. See Vol. I. Part I. note at p. 301.
  2. See Suppl. Part III. pp. 184–186.
  3. See Vol. II. Part II. p. 547.
  4. The passage of the Douro, May 12, 1809, has justly been reckoned among the most brilliant exploits of this great general.
  5. See Vol II. Part II. p. 939.
  6. See Vol. II. Part II, p. 727.
  7. See Vol. I. Part II. pp. 454 and 868 et seq.
  8. See Suppl. Part II. p. 409.
  9. The Leven’s tender, out of a complement of 20 persons, lost 14 by deaths in the short space of three months.