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Royal Naval Biography/Higgs, William Henry


Commenced his naval career on the 1st Jan. 1796, as volunteer on board the Daphne hired armed lugger, of 18 guns, commanded by Lieutenant Robert Pearson, and employed in keeping up a communication with the French royalists on the coast of Normandy. From Sept. 1st following until April 6th, 1797, he served on board the Bravo 16, Captain D’Auvergne, Prince of Bouillon, commanding the Jersey flotilla. At the latter date he joined the Monarch 74, Captain John Elphinstone, attached to the Channel fleet; and on the 11th July 1797, followed that officer into the Queen Charlotte first rate, bearing the flag of Lord Keith, in which ship he continued until June 4th, 1798. He subsequently served, for nearly two years and a half, under Captain (now Vice-Admiral) Ross Donnelly, in the Maidstone frigate, principally employed on the West India and North American stations. During this period, he suffered most severe sickness, having had three attacks of yellow fever, and but for the extreme, we may say almost parental, kindness of Captain Donnelly, he could scarcely have survived. In Oct. 1800, we find him proceeding in the Chichester store-ship, Captain John Stephens, and afterwards in the Salamine brig. Captain (now Rear-Admiral) Thomas Briggs, to rejoin Lord Keith, then in the Foudroyant 80, Captain Philip Beaver, on the Mediterranean station. During the Egyptian campaign, he was removed into the Peterel sloop, in which vessel he served, as master’s mate, under Captains Charles Inglis, and John Lamborn, till Mar. 12th, 1802.

On the 7th Dec. 1801, Captain Beaver, then commanding the Determiné 24, at Malta, wrote to the sister of Mr. Higgs as follows:–

“Madam, – Although it be some time since I left Lord Keith’s ship, yet he was fortunately in this port when I received your letter concerning your brother William.

“Captain Aylmer, just appointed to the command of the Peterel, was also here, going to join his ship. Lord Keith readily promised to take care of your brother on his joining the Foudroyant, to which ship I begged Captain Aylmer would send him without delay; so that I trust his promotion is not far distant. Whatever little interest I may have, will I ever be readily employed in the service of merit, and I know no one who possesses more than your brother William. I have the honor to be. Madam, with very great respect, your obedient and humble servant,

(Signed)P. Beaver.”

To Miss Higgs, Dawlish, Devon.

Unfortunately for Mr. Higgs, the Peterel was ordered home before he had an opportunity of rejoining the Foudroyant, into which ship, or some other belonging to the Mediterranean station, he then had every prospect of being almost immediately promoted. All his hopes of early advancement thus destroyed, he afterwards passed a few weeks as supernumerary on board the Cambridge 80, flag-ship of the commander-in-chief at Plymouth; and subsequently served for nine months, as Admiralty midshipman of the Hunter sloop, under Captains George Jones and Samuel H. Inglefield, on the West India and Channel stations. In Mar. 1803, he joined the Conqueror 74, Captain (afterwards Sir Thomas) Louis, then fitting out with the greatest expedition in Hamoaze: and May 27th following, the Monarch 74, bearing the flag of Lord Keith, on the North Sea station. His promotion to the rank of lieutenant took place in May 1804, on which occasion he was appointed to the Sulphur bomb. Captain Donald M‘Leod, employed off Boulogne, where he witnessed an attempt to destroy the enemy’s flotilla, by means of “catamarans,” Oct. 2d following[1]. His subsequent appointments were, – on the 28th of the latter month, to the Cygnet sloop, then commanded by Captain M‘Leod, but afterwards by Captain Robert Bell Campbell, with whom he again went to the West Indies; – Aug. 6th, 1806, at the particular request of Captain Campbell, to be first lieutenant of the Alligator 26, in which ship he returned home from that station; – May 9th, 1807, to the Barfleur 98, Captain Sir Joseph S. Yorke, employed in Channel service; and, June 8th, 1807, to l’Espoir sloop. Captain Henry Hope, fitting out for the Mediterranean; to which quarter he proceeded with the following recommendation from Lord Keith to Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Louis:–

June 21st, 1807.

“Dear Louis, – Now that I am a gentleman at large, I must endeavour to push my followers among my old friends. Mr. Higgs, of l’Espoir, may deliver you this. He is a good young man, and was with me in the Queen Charlotte, Foudroyant, and Monarch. If you can shew him any civility, it will very much oblige your faithful and obedient humble servant,


Unluckily, the distinguished officer to whom Lieutenant Higgs was thus strongly recommended, had died previous to the date of Lord Keith’s letter[2]. On a former occasion, he had met with a similar disappointment, as will be seen by the following letter, intended for Sir Andrew Mitchell, K.B. commander-in-chief at Halifax, but which he never had an opportunity of presenting:–

London, Oct. 12th, 1802.

“Dear Mitchell, – This will be presented to you by a very fine young man, who unfortunately left me when my flag was struck, and went to the West Indies, by which he lost promotion. If you can give him a lift, it will be a very great favor conferred on, my dear friend, your faithful humble servant,


“P.S. – Higgs is my young friend’s name.”

On the 26th April, 1808, Mr. Higgs was ordered by Lord CoUingwood to act as commander of l’Espoir. “During the time I commanded that sloop,” says Captain Hope, “he served as my senior lieutenant, and, upon every occasion, conducted himself very much to my satisfaction, as an officer deserving of promotion” “In the following year, being then under the command of Captain Robert Mitford, he assisted at the capture of the islands of Ischia and Procida; and in April 1810, at the capture and destruction of several Neapolitan vessels on the coast of Italy[3]. In 1812, l’Espoir formed part of a light squadron employed in the Archipelago, for the purpose of conciliating, as far as possible, the good understanding then subsisting between England and the Sublime Porte, and of affording protection to our commercial relations in that quarter. From April 14th, 1813, until July 7th following, she was again commanded, pro tempore, by Lieutenant Higgs. On the 8th Aug. in the same year, then under the command of the late Hon. Sir Robert C. Spencer, she assisted at the attack of Cassis, near Toulon, on which occasion five land batteries, three heavy gun-boats, and twenty-five French merchant vessels, were captured and destroyed[4].

On the 16th Oct. 1813, the Countess Spencer thus wrote to the mother of Lieutenant Higgs:–

“Madam, – It is true that Captain Spencer has informed me of his intention of remaining on the Mediterranean station for some time longer. Consequently, we shall not see him yet awhile, I am sorry to say. But, although my son may remain absent, it does not follow that your’s should, for Captain Spencer tells us that, if l’Espoir should be ordered home, us she probably will, he hopes to be appointed to another vessel in the Mediterranean, thereby giving us to understand that, though l’Espoir may anchor any day at the Mother Bank, yet that it certainly will be commanded by some one besides him. That it may be commanded by your son, Madam, I heartily hope, although, by so hoping, I indulge a wish contrary to my son’s interest and advantage, since in the loss of Mr. Higgs’ advice and assistance he will experience a very considerable one, the abilities of his first lieutenant having been dwelt on by him with great praise, when writing to us about his ship’s company. I am. Madam, with sincerity, &c.

(Signed)Lavinia Spencer.”

On the 10th Dec. 1813, Captain Spencer, then at Portsmouth, and still commanding l’Espoir, officially certified that Lieutenant Higgs had invariably “conducted himself as an able, zealous, and good officer, and much to his satisfaction.” At a subsequent period he invited him to become his first lieutenant in the Ganymede 26, but which offer was not accepted.

On the 25th July, 1814, the subject of this sketch was appointed to the Glasgow 50, Captain the Hon. Henry Duncan, in which fine frigate he served as first lieutenant until paid off at Chatham, Sept. 1st, 1815. His next appointment was, June 27th, 1818, to the Liffey 50, commanded by the same excellent officer, with whom he had been a messmate in the Maidstone, and whose favourable notice he had particularly attracted whilst serving in l’Espoir. On visiting the Liffey, in the autumn of 1819, his late Majesty, then Prince Regent, paid Captain Duncan and his officers the flattering compliment of saying that he did so “because he had never seen a ship that pleased him so much before[5];” and on the same occasion, H.R.H.’s private secretary, the Right Hon. Sir Benjamin (now Lord) Bloomfield, was pleased to say to the Liffey’s first lieutenant, “I have been on board many of H.M. ships. Sir, but never saw so perfect a man-of-war.” In consequence of this royal visit, Mr. Higgs was promoted to his present rank on the 11th Oct. 1819; the twenty-second anniversary of the memorable battle of Camperdown. In a letter subsequently written by Captain Duncan, he says: – “To every good quality an officer can possess, Commander Higgs adds a mildness of manner to the men beyond what I ever met with.” We should here state, that his appointments to the Cygnet, Alligator, Espoir, Glasgow, and Liffey, were specially requested by Captains M‘Leod, Campbell, Hope, and Duncan; and that Sir Joseph S. Yorke was likewise desirous to have him again under his command. On the 15th Jan. 1830, he received the following communication from Viscount Melville’s son and private secretary:–

“Dear Sir,– I delivered your letter to Lord Melville, but he has no recollection of having received the former one. He desires me to say, that your case and claims are well known to him, but he is sorry that his answer to your letter at present can only be an assurance of his willingness to serve you with as little loss of time as possible, and he will be most happy, whenever he has it in his power, to give you an appointment. I am. Dear Sir, your faithful and obedient servant,

(Signed)R. S. Dundas.”

On the 11th June 1831, Commander Higgs was appointed to the Revenge 78, Captain James Hillyar, C.B.; but for reasons with which we are unacquainted, he was superseded at his own request on the 20th of the same month.