Royal Naval Biography/Knight, John

Admiral of the White; Knight Commander of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath.

This officer embarked with his father, the late Rear-Admiral Knight, at a very early period of life, and served in the Tartar frigate on the expeditions against Cancalle[1], Cherbourg, &c.; and was with the squadron under Lord Anson, which escorted his late Majesty’s consort to England, in the month of September, 1761. During the long calm that preceded the war with the colonies, we find him assisting in the maritime survey of the coast of North America.

In 1775, Mr. Knight was second Lieutenant of the Falcon, commanded by Captain John Linzee, in which sloop he arrived at Boston three days previous to the fight at Lexington. The Falcon was one of the vessels that covered the attack on Bunker’s Hill; some time after which event, Lieutenant Knight had the misfortune to fall into the hands of the enemy, when attempting to bring off an American vessel that had been driven ashore.

After a residence of several months, on parole, at Northampton and South Hadley, in the province of Massachusetts, an exchange of prisoners took place, about Dec. 1776, and our officer once more returned to the duties of his profession. In Feb. 1777, he was appointed by Lord Howe to the command of the Haerlem, of 12 guns and 65 men; and his judicious and spirited conduct, in entering an enemy’s port, and taking from thence several small vessels, was so much approved, that that nobleman directed his personal share of the prize-money to be distributed among the immediate captors.

In the month of July, 1778, the Haerlem fell in with the French fleet under Count d’Estaing, and narrowly escaped capture, having received several shot from a 50-gun ship, then in chace of a British frigate. Lieutenant Knight immediately gave intelligence of his falling in with the enemy to the Commander-in-Chief; and was thereupon removed into the Eagle, of 64 guns, bearing the flag of Lord Howe, with whom he returned to England in the ensuing October. Towards the conclusion of the American war, Mr. Knight had the good fortune to be appointed First Lieutenant of the Barfleur, of 98 guns, the flag ship of Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, on the Leeward Island station; and to that excellent officer he owed his advancement to the rank of Post-Captain, Sept. 21, 1781; on which occasion he was appointed to the Shrewsbury, of 74 guns, her former commander, Captain Mark Robinson, having lost a leg in the action with the French fleet, off the Chesapeak[2], on the 5th of the same month. Our officer remained with Sir Samuel Hood, and was present at all his brilliant achievements in the years 1781 and 1782. In such estimation were Captain Knight’s abilities at this time held, that, in the hour of battle with M. de Grasse’s superior fleet at St. Kitt’s[3], the Rear-Admiral thought it proper to remove him from the Shrewsbury, to command his own flag-ship, the Barfleur.

On the evening of the memorable 12th April, 1782[4], Captain Knight received, and presented to his Admiral, the sword of Count de Grasse, and those of all the surviving officers of the Ville de Paris. A few days after the action, Sir Samuel Hood was detached in pursuit of the beaten enemy; and on the 19th came up with, and captured, two ships of 64 guns each, together with a frigate and a sloop[5].

For six months preceding the peace of 1783, Prince William Henry performed the duty of a Midshipman in the Barfleur, a portion of each day being allotted, by the Admiral’s desire, for a particular part of naval education and study under Captain Knight, from whose tuition H.R.H. derived acknowledged advantage.

When the account of a cessation of hostilities had reached Jamaica, in March 1783, Lord Hood permitted the Prince to visit Cape Francois, and the Havannah. H.R.H. was received at both places with every mark of distinction and politeness. After which, his Lordship returned to England with the squadron under his command, and arrived at Spithead on the 26th June, in the same year.

It being a period of profound peace, Captain Knight remained without any appointment until the year 1790; when, on the appearance of a rupture with Spain, Lord Hood again hoisted his flag, and our officer received the flattering compliment of being appointed his Lordship’s Captain, in the Victory of 100 guns, which he continued to command until the final adjustment of the dispute with Spain, and that which subsequently took place between Great Britain and Russia, in 1791.

On the commencement of the war with the French republic, Lord Hood was immediately called forth to command a powerful fleet, destined for the Mediterranean; and Captain Knight was again selected to accompany him. In the fatigues of service at Toulon[6] and Corsica[7], he bore his full share, and received due encomiums from his noble patron, with whom he returned to England in the month of December, 1794. In the month of May following, his Lordship had prepared to resume his command, when most unexpectedly he was ordered to strike his flag, which was never after hoisted[8]. Captain Knight, however, continued to command the Victory as a private ship, and on the 25th May, sailed from St. Helen’s in company with a squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Mann, and the trade for the Mediterranean.

In the partial action which took place between the British and French fleets, July 13, 1795[9], the Victory particularly distinguished herself, as will appear by the following extract from Admiral Hotham’s official despatches. “If the result of the day has not been so completely satisfactory as the commencement promised, it is my duty to state, that no exertions could be more unanimous than those of the fleet under my command; and it would be injustice to the general merit of all, to select individual instances of commendation, had not superiority of sailing placed some of the ships in an advanced situation, of which they availed themselves in the most distinguished and honourable manner; and amongst the number was the Victory, having Rear-Admiral Mann on board, who had shifted his flag to that ship upon this occasion.

In the month of December following, Sir John Jervis having hoisted his flag on board the Victory, Captain Knight returned to England across the continent; and on his arrival was appointed to command the Montagu, of 74 guns, belonging to the North Sea fleet. Nothing material occurred until the spring of 1797; when it was discovered that the mutiny at Spithead[10] had spread its deleterious contagion through the ships employed under the orders of Admiral Duncan; for on that officer putting to sea, to cruize off the back of Yarmouth Sands, the Montagu and Nassau refused to weigh their anchors, under pretence of being in the course of payment. This sad example was followed in a few days by the rest of the squadron, leaving with the Admiral only the Venerable and Adamant. The mutinous ships proceeded to the Nore, where they joined others likewise in a state of insubordination[11]. The whole rebel force at that anchorage on the 6th June, consisted of the Sandwich, of 90 guns; the Montagu, 74; ten 64’s; two 50’s; five frigates, and seven smaller vessels; and for some time the most fatal result was apprehended from this lawless combination. Happily, however, the firmness evinced by the constituted authorities removed the impending evil; and the spirited and glorious conduct of these misguided men, in the subsequent action with the Dutch fleet, an account of which will be found in our memoir of Admiral Sir Henry Trollope, completely wiped away the disgrace incurred by their late proceedings.

Subsequently to the battle of the 11th October, our officer enjoyed a separate command on the coast of Ireland; after which he served in the Channel Fleet, and on the Mediterranean station, under Lords St. Vincent, Bridport, and Keith. In August, 1799, Captain Knight returned from the latter station, and for some time commanded the advanced squadron before Brest. On this service the Montagu’s boats made more than one successful attack on the enemy’s coasting vessels[12].

January 1st, 1801, Captain Knight was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral of the Blue; but did not serve again during the remainder of the war.

In the month of April 1805, the Rear-Admiral’s flag was flying on board the Queen, of 98 guns, under orders for the Mediterranean; and in the summer of that year he succeeded to the command at Gibraltar, on the resignation of Sir Richard Bickerton; and hoisted his flag on board the Guerrier guard-ship, at that place.

Our officer was promoted to the rank of Vice-Admiral, Nov. 9, 1805; Admiral, Dec. 4, 1813; and nominated a K.C.B., Jan. 2, 1815. He married a daughter of the late Hon. Col. Peter Fry[errata 1], who was Judge of the Superior Court of Massachussets, previous to the revolt of the colonies. By that lady he has had a numerous family. Two of his sons are officers in the navy; several of his daughters are married.

To Sir John Knight’s peculiar abilities, in addition to his professional talents, the public are much indebted for his nautical observations, in many valuable charts of America, the Mediterranean, British Channel, &c.[13]

  1. On the 1st June, 1758, the Tartar sailed from Spithead, in company with a squadron of ships of war, and a large fleet of transports, &c., under the orders of the Hon. Commodore Howe, having on board a considerable train of artillery, and several thousand troops, commanded by the Duke of Marlborough, on an expedition against the coast of France. On the morning of the 5th, the armament entered Cancalle Bay, where a body of troops were disembarked under cover of some of the small vessels of war. On the 6th, the remainder were landed; and on the following day, the whole army, excepting one brigade, which remained at the village of Cancalle to secure a retreat, marched to the neighbourhood of St. Maloes. In the evening, the Duke of Marlborough reconnoitred the town; and observing that the suburbs, with the store-houses and ships in the basin, were entirely unprotected by its cannon, he determined to destroy them. As soon as it was dark, a detachment of the army was ordered to proceed on this service, furnished with hand grenades and other combustibles. By midnight the ships were in flames; and being aground, the fire soon communicated to the magazines, which were filled with naval stores. The conflagration now became general, and they burnt with great fury all night, and most of the succeeding day. The loss the enemy sustained on this occasion, was computed at 800,000l. sterling.

    The number and force of the French King’s ships burnt, were as follows; one of 50 guns, two frigates, and two corvettes, ou the stocks; one new frigate completely rigged; and three corvettes ready for sea, laden with stores. Sixty-seven sail of merchantmen, six sloops, and many small craft, were also destroyed.

    The army having re-embarked on the 11th, the fleet proceeded to Cherbourg, and the necessary preparations were made for a descent; but the weather becoming very tempestuous, the Commodore found it necessary to return to Spithead.

    The fleet having refitted and prepared for a second expedition to the enemy’s coast, sailed from St. Helen’s on the 1st Aug.; but, experiencing bad weather, it did not anchor in Cherbourg Road until the 6th. The enemy, to guard against an attack, had erected several batteries, which greatly annoyed the ships. The next morning the Commodore, and Lieutenant-General Bligh, who had taken the command of the troops, the Duke of Marlborough having been appointed to that of the army in Germany, reconnoitred the shore, and judged it necessary to move the fleet into Marais Bay, about two leagues to the westward of Cherbourg. On the 8th the debarkation was completed under cover of the frigates, sloops, &c., which were ranged along the shore, and keeping up a heavy fire, obliged the enemy to abandon their entrenchments. The army immediately pushed on to Cherbourg, which place they found deserted by the French, and entered it without opposition. The fort and town being secured, orders were given to demolish the piers at the entrance of the harbour, the basin, magazines, stores, and batteries. One hundred and sixty-three iron guns, and three mortars, were either rendered useless or thrown into the sea, together with a great number of shot and shells. By the 15th the demolition of Cherbourg was completed, and the next day the army re-embarked vithout molestation. Twenty-two brass cannon, and tvo mortars of the same metal, were put on board two of the enemy’s ships, and conveyed to England. Eighteen other vessels were either burnt, or sunk across the entrance of the harbour. Not more than 20 men were killed, and 30 wounded, on this service. On the 17th, the fleet sailed for England, and two days after came to an anchor in Portland Roads.

    On the 31st of the same month, the fleet sailed again for the coast of France; and on the 3rd Sept. having come to an anchor in the Bay of St. Lunaire, about two leagues to the westward of St. Malo, the troops were landed without opposition. The next day, the General sent a detachment of 500 grenadiers to the small town of St. Briac, just above St. Malo, where they burnt about twenty small vessels, and destroyed some batteries. Upon examining more narrowly the state of St. Malo, it was found to be so strongly fortified, and supplied with so numerous a garrison, that the force which General Bligh had brought against it, was by no means considered adequate to reduce it; and, in a council of war, held on the 6th, the Commodore gave it as his opinion, that by reason of the very bad anchorage, the ships of war could not approach near enough to the town to bombard it, without great hazard of their being lost; and for the same reason it would be necessary to move the fleet into St. Cas’s Bay, in order to re-embark the troops. On the 27th, the army decamped from before St. Malo; but was so dilatory on its march, that the French had time to collect a considerable body of troops, who not only harassed them, but, getting possession of the village of St. Cas, greatly impeded the embarkation; most probably the whole army would have been cut off, had not a brisk and well-directed fire from the frigates and bombs for some time checked the progress of the enemy; but Major-General Drury having injudiciously ordered a detachment to dislodge a party of the French who had taken possession of a wood, obliged the vessels to cease firing, lest they should strike our own men. The enemy availed themselves of the interval to pour down in great numbers on the beach, where they attacked our remaining troops, who made a most obstinate defence, until overpowered by numbers, when they dispersed and fled. Some attempted to swim off to the boats; but, unluckily the sailors, contrary to their usual intrepidity on such occasions, shewed a reluctance to pull in shore, lest the fire from a French battery should destroy them. Commodore Howe no sooner observed the backwardness of the boats, than he ordered his barge to be rowed amidst the thickest of the fire; by this heroic example the sailors became animated, all fear vanished, and the lives of many brave men were saved. A great number, however, perished; and the carnage would have been still more dreadful, had not the Commodore ordered the frigates to stop firing, upon which the enemy gave quarter. Many officers of distinction were killed, wounded, and made prisoners; among the first were Major-General Drury and Sir John Armitage. The Captains Rowley, Maplesden, Paston, and Elphinstone, who under Captain Duff superintended the re-embarkation, were made prisoners. The loss sustained on this disastrous occasion amounted to 822 men, mostly the flower of the British army. A few days afterwards the fleet returned to England.

  2. See note at p. 133.
  3. See Retired Captain J. N. Inglefield.
  4. See p. 35, et seq.
  5. See p. 37.
  6. See pp. 46, 60.
  7. See Admiral W. Wolseley.
  8. Viscount Hood was subsequently appointed Governor of Greenwich Hospital; his Lordship died at Bath, Jan. 27, 1816.
  9. See Admiral Sir John Sutton.
  10. See Vice-Admiral Edmund Griffith Colpoys.
  11. The mutineers, in imitation of what had been done at Portsmouth, chose two delegates from every ship, of whom a man of the name of Richard Parker was appointed president; besides these, there was, in each vessel, a committee consisting of twelve men, who determined, not only all affairs relative to the internal management of the ship, but decided upon the merits of the respective delegates. On the 20th May, they sent a statement of their demands to Vice-Admiral Buckner, to be by him transmitted to the Admiralty; to which they peremptorily demanded compliance, as the only terms upon which they would return to obedience. To these demands, on the 22d May, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty replied, refusing the principal part of them, and promising forgiveness to them, if they should yet return to their duty. After the Vice-Admiral had delivered this reply to the delegates of the fleet, they were allowed only ten minutes to consider and return an answer; in place of doing which, they took to their boats, went into the harbour, and brought out all the gun-boats there to the Great Nore. After they had passed the garrison of Sheerness, the gun-boats all fired at the fort, not, as they said, with an intention of doing any damage, but to show their defiance of it. The determination of the delegates, in consequence of the above answer from London was, “That nothing could be settled till three of the Board of Admiralty fame down to Sheerness.”

    On the 23rd, the mutineers at the Nore struck the flag of Vice-Admiral Buckner on board the Sandwich, and hoisted the red flag, the symbol of mutiny, in its stead. They also compelled all the ships which lay near Sheerness to drop down to the Great Nore, in order to concentrate the scene of their operations.

    On the 24th, the seamen received another letter, repeating the offer of pardon; to which a peremptory refusal was sent, signed by Richard Parker, their president.

    At the commencement of the mutiny, the delegates came every day to Sheerness, where they held conferences, and paraded the streets and garrison. Parker, who was considered as the rebel Admiral of the Fleet, marched at the head of these processions, which were accompanied with music and flags, and had a triumphal appearance, calculated to make new converts to their illicit proceedings. The delegates and committee-men went on shore and returned on board as they pleased. This indulgence was soon put an end to, by the arrival of Lord Keith and Sir Charles Grey, who had been sent down to superintend the naval and military proceedings in that quarter.

    On the 27th, fourteen of the delegates went up the river Thames, to persuade the crews of the King’s ships lying in Long Reach to drop down to the Nore; they were fired at by the fort below Tilbury; and having landed at Gravesend, were taken into custody by the loyal inhabitants of that town; but on some pretence soon after recovered their liberty, when they prevailed on the crew of the Lancaster to join them in the mutiny. Matters had now risen to such an alarming height, that a deputation of the Lords of the Admiralty thought proper to go down to Sheerness. On the 29th, their lordships held a board at Commissioner Hartwell’s house; the delegates were sent for, and every conciliatory measure tried to induce the seamen to return to their duty; a declaration was read on board of all the mutinous ships; but this, and all the expostulations of their lordships, proved ineffectual; and finding, that instead of being inclined to submission, the mutineers grew more insolent and disobedient, the deputation returned to town, first signifying to the seamen that they were to expect no concessions whatever further than what had already been made by the legislature, the benefit of which they might yet enjoy on returning to their duty.

    The seamen now began to perceive their desperate situation, and proceeded to take measures which indicated a design either to secure their present situation, or to seek safety by flight; some of the most violent among them suggested the idea of carrying the ships to the enemy; but the majority revolted at so treacherous a proceeding, though even adopted to save their lives; declaring, that a redress of grievances was their primary, and should be their ultimate object.

    With a view of extorting compliance with their demands, they ordered the Standard, Brilliant, Inspector, and Swan, to moor across the Thames, in order to prevent a free passage up and down the river to the London trade. The ships of neutral nations, colliers, and a few small craft, were suffered to proceed, having first received a passport, signed by Richard Parker, as president of the delegates.

    In order to concentrate their force, the line-of-battle ships were drawn up in a line, at about half a mile distant from each other, and moored with their broadsides a-breast. In the space between the ships of the line, the merchantmen and other vessels which had been detained, were moored. As all communication was stopped with the shore, the mutineers supplied themselves with water and provisions from these vessels; a party also landed on the Isle of Grain, and carried off a number of sheep and other provisions, giving in return bills drawn on the Admiralty.

    The, delegates ordered the ships of war to be supplied with stores out of the Grampus, which had been laden with naval and ordnance stores for the fleet in the West Indies. Notwithstanding the enormity of their offence against the laws of discipline and the articles of war, the deportment of the seamen to their officers, with some exceptions, was respectful. [footnote: The Surgeon of the Montagu was tarred and feathered, then rowed through the fleet, with some other officers who were obnoxious to the mutineers, and afterwards sent on shore. Two midshipmen of the Ardent were ducked, and four of the best seamen on board the Brilliant severely , for speaking disrespectfully of the delegates.]

    On the 4th June, being the Sovereign’s birth-day, the whole fleet evinced its loyal disposition by firing a royal salute, and displaying the colours usual upon such occasions; the red flag was however kept flying.

    Upon the return of the Lords of the Admiralty to town, a cabinet council was immediately held, when it was determined to employ the most vigorous measures to reduce the rebels. A proclamation was issued for the suppression of the mutinous and treasonable proceedings of the crews of certain of his Majesty’s ships at the Nore, at the same time offering pardon to all such as should immediately return to their duty.

    On the 6th June two bills were brought in, passed through both houses of parliament, and received the royal assent: one, “for the better prevention and punishment of attempts to seduce persons serving in his Majesty’s forces by sea or land, from their duty and allegiance, or to entice them to mutiny or disobedience.” The other, “for the more effectually restraining intercourse with the crews of certain of his Majesty’s ships now in a state of mutiny and rebellion, and for the more effectual suppression of such mutiny and rebellion.”

    The most active measures were at the same time taken to compel the rebellious crews to submit; the shores on both sides were lined with batteries; the forts of Tilbury, Gravesend, and Sheerness, were furnished with furnaces for red hot shot. The buoys at the Nore and along the coast were removed. The Neptune, of 98 guns, commanded by Sir Erasmus Gower as Commodore, manned with volunteers, raised by subscription of the merchants of London; with the Lancaster, of 64 guns, whose crew had returned to their duty, accompanied by the Agincourt, and several gun-boats, were ordered to drop down the river, and proceed to attack the rebels.

    The firmness of the mutineers began at length to be a little shaken, and they determined to try to effect a reconciliation with government through the medium of the Earl of Northesk; their demands, however, were rejected as exorbitant and unreasonable. Captain Knight, whom they had permitted to go on shore, carried down the refusal of the Lords of the Admiralty.

    All hopes of accommodation being now at an end, measures were taken by Lord Keith and Sir Charles Grey to attack the fleet from the works at Sheerness, with gun-boats, &c.; but fortunately, on the 9th June, symptoms of disunion appeared among the mutineers, which rendered the application of force unnecessary. On that day the Repulse and Leopard made their escape, the latter up the Thames; but the Repulse unfortunately ran a-ground, and in that helpless situation was pursued and fired upon in a most brutal manner by the Monmouth and Director; happily no lives were lost; Lieutenant Delanoe lost his leg, and a seaman was wounded. At night the Ardent effected her escape, but not without loss, having several of her crew killed and wounded by the Monmouth’s fire. Confusion and discord now pervaded the rebel councils; and it was evident that the combination was falling to pieces. On the 10th several other ships struck the red flag, and the trade was allowed to pass up the Thames. On the 12th, most of the ships followed their example, and signified a desire of returning to obedience; only seven having then the flag of defiance flying.

    The next morning the Agamemnon, Standard, Nassau, Iris, and Vestal, deserted the rebels, and went up the Thames, or under the guns at Sheerness; the crews however of these vessels were far from being unanimous, as several men were killed or wounded in the struggles which took place on board them, between the partisans of the officers and those of the delegates.

    The following day the crews of all the ships intimated an inclination to submit, provided a general pardon should be granted. The crew of the Sandwich was particularly desirous, and Parker did not oppose this spirit a spirit greatly accelerated by the arrival on board of Lieutenant Mott, with the proclamations, acts of parliament, &c. of which the men complained they had been kept in ignorance till that period. In the course of the evening they resolved to submit and accept of the King’s mercy, conceiving, no doubt, that it would be extended to those who had not known to what extent they had offended. In this state the crew of the Sandwich carried the ship to the Little Nore the next morning; upon which the Port-Admiral sent his boat with a guard of soldiers to arrest Parker, and bring him on shore; as soon as he had heard that a boat was come alongside for him, he surrendered himself to four of the ship’s crew to protect him from the outrages of the rest of the seamen, whose vengeance he feared; upon this the officers of the Sandwich delivered him and a delegate by the name of Davies, who had acted as captain under him, with about 30 more of the ringleaders, into the hands of the soldiers; these were landed amidst the hisses of the surrounding multitude, and committed to the Black Hole in the garrison of Sheerness. On the first appearance of the soldiers, one of the delegates, Wallace, shot himself dead, and was afterwards buried in the highway.

    On the 22d of the same month, Richard Parker was tried by a Court-Martial, assembled on board the Neptune, off Greenhithe; and on the fourth day of the trial the following sentence was pronounced. “That the whole of the charges are fully proved; that the crime is as unprecedented as wicked; as ruinous to the navy, as to the peace and prosperity of the country: the Court doth therefore adjudge him to death; and he is ordered to suffer death accordingly, at such time and place as the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, or any three of them, shall appoint.”

    On the 29th June, Parker was executed on board the Sandwich; he died very penitent and with great composure; acknowledging the justice of the sentence under which he suffered, and expressing a hope that his death might he deemed a sufficient atonement, and save the lives of others. He solemnly denied having the least connection or correspondence with any disaffected persons onshore, and declared, that it was chiefly owing to him that the ships had not been carried into an enemy’s port.

    The Court-Martial continued sitting and trying the other mutineers, more than a month, during which time a great number received sentence of death; several were flogged through the fleet, and others imprisoned in the Marshalsea. Many of the ringleaders were executed; a considerable number remained under sentence, confined on board the prison-ship in the river Thames; but on the signal victory obtained by Admiral Duncan over the Dutch fleet, on the 11th Oct., the King sent a general pardon to these unhappy men.

  12. See Captain G. W. H. Knight, in our next volume.
  13. The late Captain Wm. Robt. Broughton, who died at Florence, on the 12th March, 1821, was a Midshipman in the Falcon, and taken prisoner with Lieutenant Knight, in whom he ever afterwards found a steady patron. Captain Broughton being some years afterwards employed on a voyage of discovery, found an island in lat. 48° S., long. 166° 44’, to which he gave the name of Knight’s Island, as a compliment to his friend.

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