Royal Naval Biography/Hickey, Frederick

[Post-Captain of 1814.]

Was born Aug. 22, 1775. He entered the navy as a midshipman on board the Porcupine 24, in 1787; and served in that ship, under Captains Lambert Brabazon and George Martin, on the Irish and Scotch stations, until 1792; when he was removed to the Lion 64, commanded by Sir Erasmus Gower, and fitting for the reception of Lord Macartney, who was then about to proceed on an embassy to the court of Pekin[1]. During the voyage from Batavia to the Yellow Sea, he appears to have been occasionally employed in the Clarence and Jackall tenders[2].

On his return home from China, Mr. Hickey was immediately promoted into the Hind 28, of which frigate he served as first lieutenant, under Captains Richard Lee and John Bazely, until the latter was turned on shore, with all his officers, during the general mutiny at Spithead, in 1797. This measure, we should observe, was not adopted by the Hind’s crew on account of ill treatment, or any other grievance; but solely in consequence of two larger ships having anchored near, and threatened to fire into her, if she did not follow their example.

Our readers will remember, that the insurrection at Spithead was followed by one of a still more alarming nature among the seamen of the North Sea fleet; and that a formidable force was ordered to be equipped in the river Thames, for the purpose of reducing the seamen at the Nore to submission. Lieutenant Hickey, being then unemployed, lost no time in tendering his services, which were immediately accepted. He was at first nominated to the command of a gun-vessel, under the orders of Sir Erasmus Gower; but ultimately appointed to the Neptune 98, bearing that officer’s broad pendant, and manned with volunteers raised by the merchants of London[3].

After the suppression of this second mutiny, and the trial and punishment of the principal offenders, the Neptune joined the Channel fleet, as a private ship, under the command of Sir Erasmus Gower, who continued in her until his promotion to the rank of Rear-Admiral, Feb. 14, 1799. She was subsequently employed, for a short time, on the Mediterranean station[4].

In 1800, Mr. Hickey was appointed to the Waakzaamheid 26, Captain David Atkins, with whom he removed, as first lieutenant, to the Princess Royal 98, bearing the flag of their mutual friend, Sir Erasmus Gower, about Feb. 1801.

The Princess Royal formed part of the squadron under Sir Andrew Mitchell, during the mutiny in Bantry bay[5]; and was paid off on her return from Ireland, early in 1802. A grand promotion was then about to take place, in consequence of the peace of Amiens, and it was naturally supposed that Mr. Hickey would be included therein: Earl St. Vincent, however, decided otherwise, and he had the mortification to see a junior officer made commander, while he himself was reduced to the situation of a half-pay lieutenant. His fortunate messmate was the late Captain Edwards Lloyd Graham, who had very recently joined the ship from Haslar hospital, and never been under sail in her.

Previous to the renewal of hostilities, Mr. Hickey was offered an appointment, as senior lieutenant, to the Britannia of 100 guns, which he accepted, on being told by Captain Markham, then a Lord of the Admiralty, that, in the event of a war, it would certainly ensure his promotion. The Britannia was at that time intended for Captain James Vashon, (Sir Erasmus Gower’s successor in the Neptune); but, by a subsequent arrangement, Mr. Hickey’s expectations were again defeated.

The Britannia had not been commissioned above 6 or 7 weeks, when the Earl of Northesk arrived, and took the command of her, bringing with him an old follower, senior in rank to Mr. Hickey. His lordship expressed himself highly pleased with the forward stale of the ship; informed the hitherto executive officer, that he was much esteemed at the Admiralty; and told him that he should be happy (if he would remain as second lieutenant) to do all in his power to serve him, as soon as the first was provided for. This was very natural on the part of the Earl, but by no means palatable to Mr Hickey, who shortly afterwards joined the Fisgard frigate, at the particular request of her captain. Lord Mark Kerr, one of his earliest shipmates and friends[6]. We next find him in the Isis 50, bearing the flag of Sir Erasmus Gower, on the Newfoundland station, where he continued until his promotion to the rank of commander, Jan. 22, 1806.

In April, 1807, Captain Hickey was appointed to the Atalante sloop, building at Bermuda; and previous to her being launched, he appears to have held the acting command, for short periods, of the Squirrel 24, and l’Observateur brig, both on the Halifax station.

lu July, 1812, the Atalante captured a ship of 359 tons, from Civita Vecchia, bound to Salem, laden with wines, brandy, silks, and sundries. In Dec. following, she took the Tulip, American letter of marque; and in May, 1813, we find her towing into Halifax harbour five other prizes, laden with cotton, indigo, &c. During the whole of her career, she was always most actively employed, either in cruising against the enemy; in affording protection to the trade between Nova Scotia, and the West Indies, or in the blockade of the American ports. The following letter was addressed to Captain Hickey, by his ship’s company, in Feb. 1813:–

“Sir,– Perceiving by the Halifax newspaper, that a scandalous report (far from the character of British seamen) has arisen, that the crew of H.M.S. Orpheus, and other ships on this station, would not fight in case of falling in with an American frigate, and having read the letter from the crew of the Orpheus to Lieut. Fayrer, for the information of Captain Pigot[7], the crew of the Atalante do most readily coincide in their comrades’ representation, and their loyal disposition for their King and Country; and beg it may be made known also, that should an opportunity occur, the Atalante will never surrender, even to a superiority of force; that all on board are loyal and true, and have devoted their lives to the service of their beloved Country.”

(Signed by 17 petty and non-commissioned officers).

The subsequent loss of the Atalante, is thus described by Captain Hickey: –

“On Thursday the 4th Nov. 1813, having received orders from Captain Oliver, of H.M.S. Valiant, to proceed to Halifax with despatches, and for the purpose of completing provisions and getting new cables, I sailed from off New London about 10 o’clock in the forenoon, having then not quite 14 days’ provisions on board. At day-light on Monday morning, the land was discovered between Cape Sable and Shelburne, bearing from N.N.W. to N.W. by N., distant about 7 or 8 miles. At 8 A.M. on Monday, the weather became foggy, and we lost sight of the land. At noon, same day, the weather was quite thick and hazy, very little wind between S.S.W. and W.S.W., steered N.E. by E. and N.E. by E.½.E. sounding frequently – made but 24 miles distance in 24 hours, and the soundings corresponding with the chart. The whole of Tuesday thick foggy weather; continued to steer N.E. by E. till 6 P.M., when the course was altered to E.N.E. Moderate breezes, the ship going from 4 to 5 knots, the deep-sea lead kept going every two hours until 4 A.M. on Wednesday, after which it was hove every hour. At day-light on Wednesday, the officer of the watch called me and reported the soundings, to the best of my recollection 61 fathoms: I then judged we must be approaching Sambro light-house, and directed a fog signal-gun to be fired, which I repeated at intervals of fifteen or twenty minutes, the ship going under easy sail (top-sails and jib only), at the rate of four or five knots. At about 8-16 A.M., the report of a gun was heard in the N.N.W., supposed to be from the light-house; sounded in 46 fathoms, and continued to fire guns, which were answered till past 9 o’clock. At 9, sounded in 38 fathoms, set top-gallant-sails, and stood in to make the land, steering about N.N.E., aman looking out on the jib-boom-end, another at the bowsprit-end, and a good leadsman in the chains, expecting the fog would clear sufficiently, as we approached the shore, to see any danger that might present itself. Not hearing any guns fired in answer to ours for three quarters of an hour before the ship struck, I considered her sufficiently far to the eastward to clear the Sisters, on the course we were then steering. At 10-10, as near as I can recollect, having just before asked the man in the chains if he had any bottom, and being answered that he had none with 20 fathoms up and down, I apprehended no danger, and consulted the master, who agreed with me in supposing, that, at the easy rate we were then going, we should get soundings, or see any danger that might lie before us, in sufficient time to avoid it; but I had scarcely done speaking when the look-out man at the jib-boom-end called out ‘starboard the helm;’ and conceiving it was to avoid some vessel near us, the fog being excessively thick, the helm was immediately put to starboard; but before it was hard over the ship was in the breakers, and in a few minutes the rudder, the stern-post, and part of the keel were knocked off. Perceiving immediately there was no hope of saving the ship, my whole attention was turned to saving the lives of my valuable crew; to effect which, I directed, in the first place, the quarter boats to be lowered, and the jolly-boat to be launched from the poop. I had also given directions for the guns to be thrown overboard; but the ship filled before any of them could be cast loose. All those above water were fired as signals of distress, and I sent men aloft to hook the yard-tackles for getting the pinnace out; but the tottering state of the masts compelled me to call them down again; and, ordering every body to windward, I directed the main and fore-masts to be cut away, which was immediately done, and they both fell on the starboard side without injuring the boat. Immediately after the fall of the masts, the ship parted in two places, just before the mizen and main-chains. A few of the crew were then on the larboard side of the ship, the only part above water, and the remainder clinging about the masts and on the booms. About 60 men got into the pinnace, which was still supported by the booms; but as there were ro hopes of saving the boats with that number in her, I persuaded about 20 or 30 to come out and endeavour by main strength to launch her clear of the wreck, which they succeeded in doing in a most miraculous manner. The jolly-boat was stove and filled with water immediately after being launched, and there then remained but three boats, (the pinnace, the cutter, and a gig) one of which I despatched to a brig observed to be near us, with orders to anchor her close to the wreck, if possible. The boat returned after having let go the brig’s anchor, which did not reach the bottom, and we saw no more of her. Nothing being now left to trust our lives to except the boats and a raft, as many men as the former would apparently contain got into them, some by swiming from the wreck, whilst others were hauled off by means of oars and small spars. The booms had been rafted together immediately after the pinnace was launched; on which, after the boats were apparently filled with men, myself and 37 others remained a considerable time; but seeing no chance of getting it clear, and the wreck drifting into worse breakers, I caused the small boats to come near us, and each to take in a few more men, distributing them with each other and the pinnace till I succeeded in getting every man and boy safe off the raft, when, with three cheers, the wreck was abandoned. After pulling near 2 hours without seeing the land, guided only by a small dial compass, which one of the quarter-masters had in his pocket, we picked up a fisherman, who piloted the boats safe into Portuguese cove, where we landed about 2 o’clock, the boats containing 133 persons. The poor inhabitants of Portuguese cove behaved towards us all with every possible mark of hospitality, kindness, and attention, that humanity could dictate.”

On the 12th Nov. 1813, a court-martial was assembled on board the Victorious 74, at Halifax, “to enquire into all the particulars attending the loss of H.M. sloop Atalante, and to try Captain Hickey, the officers, and crew of that sloop for the same.” The foregoing narrative was then read, and the following proved in evidence.

That the sound of the last gun heard by the Atalante’s officers, &c. bore about W.N.W.,and appeared to have come from a distance of at least 3 miles. That every one on board supposed the guns were fired by the people on Sambro island. That Captain Hickey, relying on the accuracy of the Admiralty chart, and concluding that there was no danger to he apprehended until he shoaled his water to 10 fathoms, had at various times, and at different seasons of the year, made the coast of Nova Scotia in thick foggy weather, and, guided by the guns of Sambro island, anchored the Atalante in Halifax harbour, when one side of it could not be distinguished from the other. That Sir John Borlase Warren had recently entered the same port with ten sail of the line and frigates, during the prevalence of a thick fog. That the Atalante had parted 3 cables before she left the blockading squadron off New London. That Captain Hickey was the last person who quitted the wreck, at which time he had nothing on but a pair of drawers, a shirt, and a hat. And that many lives would have been lost, had the boats been less ably managed than they were under his directions. After the examination of his officers and crew, Captain Hickey addressed the Court as follows:–

“Mr. President, and Gentlemen of this highly honorable Court,– From a careful revision of the evidence which has appeared in the course of the prosecution, not a doubt remains in my mind of every fact stated in my narrative being incontrovertibly established, and that it will appear in the clearest light, that no exertions of myself or others on board could have prevented H.M. late sloop from utter destruction after her first striking. It then remains only for me to establish the fact of the ship not having been lost through wilfulness, negligence, or other default on the part of myself, the officers, or crew; and this, I trust, without taking up much time of the Court, T shall be able to prove, if that has not already been done, equally to the full conviction and satisfaction of every member composing it. The reasons I shall first offer to the Court for incurring the slightest risk of H.M. late sloop are as follow:– the great importance of a ship short of provisions at this season of the year, together with her being furnished with no other than worn out cables, which had been condemned by survey as unfit to trust to, reaching a port in safety. These would, in my opinion, of themselves be sufficient reasons to advance in justification of an officer less experienced in the navigation of this coast than myself incurring some risk in attempting to make the harbour; but I beg, in addition to them, to point out for the information of this most honorable court, that I was charged with public; letters and despatches from Captain Oliver, the senior officer off New London, for the commander-in-chief, and which I took for granted were of considerable importance, believing they related to the movements of the enemy, who were reported, when I left New London, to be determined on putting to sea at all risks: those letters and despatches were all I was enabled to save from the wreck, and which I delivered in person to the commander-in-chief soon after I landed.

“It now becomes a pleasing task to me to state in the fullest manner that the conduct of my officers and ship’s company, under the most trying circumstances in which human beings could be placed, was orderly, obedient, and respectful, to the last extremity. I have only to add, that having been 26 years in the service, with the exception of the last short interval of peace, twelve years of which have been passed in the performance of the arduous duties of a first lieutenant, in ships of every class, from a first to a sixth rate, and the last six years and a half on a foreign station, commanding the sloop I have lately had the misfortune to lose, my character and reputation as an officer and a seaman have remained untarnished; and I feel a confidence, from the high veneration and respect I hold for the members composing the tribunal before which I am arraigned, that justice, in its fullest measure, will be done me, in whatever shape my sentence may appear.”


“The Court having diligently enquired into all the particulars attending the loss of H.M. sloop Atalante, and maturely and deliberately weighed and considered the same, it appears to the court that H.M. sloop was lost by running on the Sisters Rocks, or the eastern ledge, off Sambro island, in a fog, having mistaken the guns of some ship or vessel for the fog-signal guns on the same island, which fog-signal guns are established for the guidance of H.M. ships on approaching Halifax harbour in thick weather; but in consideration of the ship being short of provisions, of her having despatches on board for the commander-in-chief, and of its having been the practice for H.M. ships on this station to run for the said harbour under similar circumstances of weather by the sound of Sambro island guns, the court doth acquit Captain Frederick Hickey, the officers, and company of H.M. late sloop Atalante, of all blame on that occasion.”

It was afterwards ascertained that the guns were fired by the Barrosa frigate. The following is an extract of a letter from Jeremiah O’Sullivan, Esq. of Limerick, who had recently escaped from New London, and was then a passenger on board the Atalante:–

“In twelve minutes she was literally torn to pieces; the crew swam to the boats; and to see so many poor souls struggling for life, some naked, others on spars, casks, or any thing tenable, was a scene painful beyond description. I was in the cabin when the ship struck; the shock told me our fate. To the honor of Captain Hickey, he was the last who left the wreck; his calmness, his humanity, and his courage, during the entire of this awful scene, was superior to man: every thing is lost but our lives.”

Captain Hickey’s post commission bears date Feb. 19, 1814, He subsequently commanded the Prince Regent 56, bearing the broad pendant of Sir James Yeo, on Lake Ontario; the St. Lawrence 102, in which ship he continued until the peace with America; and the Blossom 24, on the South American station, from whence he returned home, with specie to a large amount, Aug. 8, 1819.

In 1815, when returning from Canada, through the United States, Captain Hickey was arrested at the suit of a Yankee skipper, whose schooner had been accidentally run down by the Atalante, so far back as the year 1810. The sum thus unexpectedly demanded of him was no less than 40,000 dollars, for which he was obliged to find bail before he could leave the country. On this occasion, an American lawyer most handsomely said, that a British officer should not be consigned to a gaol, under such circumstances, for want of a surety, and instantly gave his bond for the full amount of the alleged damages. In 1820, the trial took place; – Captain Hickey had made a point of proceeding to New York, for the purpose of awaiting its issue. The evidence was altogether in his favor: it was clearly proved that the prosecutor had persisted in running away from the Atalante, until she got close up to his vessel, and that the accident was the result of his own folly in attempting to cross her bows while she still had considerahle head-way. Emmet, the Irish refugee, conducted the prosecution; sophistry and national prejudice overcame truth; the defendant was sentenced to pay 38,000 dollars; and – the plaintiff, after very little consideration, consented to accept exactly one-half of the sum for which the original writ was issued. The schooner and her cargo could not have been worth much more than 1000l. sterling. We are happy to state that the Admiralty, admitting the hardship of his case, most liberally and expeditiously released him from all embarrassments by recommending the Lords of the Treasury to reimburse him out of the droits of Admiralty, which was accomplished by the time his bills on England became due.

Agent.– J. Hinxman, Esq.