Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Little, John


JOHN LITTLE, Esq.
Agent for His Majesty’s Post Office Steam Packets at Port Patrick.
[Commander.]

Son of the late Mr. Samuel Little, an American loyalist, and a master in the royal navy.

This officer was born at Halifax, Nova Scotia; and first went to sea with his father, in a merchant vessel belonging to that port, in 1791 . Early in the following year, he was wrecked on one of the Seal Islands, eight leagues from the west point of Nova Scotia, where he remained, with his parent and thirteen other persons, for fourteen days, with nothing to subsist on but a cat and a dog which fortunately happened to be washed on shore.

In 1793, Mr. John Little embarked on board the colonial brig Earl Moira, tender to the governor of Nova Scotia, commanded by Lieutenant Minchin, and principally employed in cruising against American smugglers. In 1795, he entered the royal navy as midshipman on board the Prevoyante frigate, Captain (now Sir John Poo) Beresford, under whom, and his successors, Captains Charles Wemyss and J. Seater, he continued, on the Halifax, Channel, and Downs stations, until paid off in 1800. During this period he witnessed the capture of several privateers and many merchantmen, the cutting out of la Desirée French frigate from Dunkirk roads[1], (on which occasion he was employed in a boat sent to pick up the crews of the fire-vessels, which had been prepared for the destruction of the enemy’s squadron), and the detention of the Danish frigate Freya and convoy near Ostend<ref>See Vol. I. Part II. p. 830.</ref>.

On the Prevoyante being put out of commission, Mr. Little joined the Leyden 64, Captain (afterwards Vice-Admiral) Bedford, employed in the blockade of Goree Island, coast of Holland, from which officer he received the following handsome testimonial:

“These are to certify whom it may concern, that Mr. John Little served as master’s mate of H.M. ship Leyden, under my command, from the 26th September, 1800, to the 15th August, 1801, when I gave him the command of one of the boats to be employed against the Boulougne flotilla, in which he was wounded, and all the crew (fifteen in number) either killed or wounded (except three), and yet he succeeded in making good his retreat; and on my representation of his gallant and judicious conduct on that and other occasions, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and at my particular request appointed lieutenant of the Leyden, in which capacity he conducted himself on all occasions as an able seaman and good officer.

(Signed)William Bedford.”

On the particular occasion alluded to by Captain Bedford, this officer served under the immediate orders of the heroic Nelson, and succeeded in boarding and carrying a French gun-brig; but in consequence of her being secured by a chain to the shore, and the very severe fire of grape and musquetry kept up by the batteries and troops, he was obliged reluctantly to abandon her. The general result of the affair was thus officially stated by Lord Nelson, August 16th, 1801:–

“Having judged it proper to attempt bringing off the enemy’s flotilla, moored in the front of Boulogne, I directed the attack to he made by four divisions of boats, for boarding, under the command of Captains (Philip) Somerville, (Isaac) Cotgrave, (Robert) Jones, and (Edward Thornbrough) Parker; and a division of howitzer boats under Captain John Conn. the boats put off from the Medusa[2] at half-past eleven o’clock last night in the best possible order, and before one o’clock this morning the firing began, and I had, from the judgment of the officers, and the zeal and gallantry of every man, the most perfect confidence of complete success; but the darkness of the night, with the tide and half-tide, separated the divisions, and from all not arriving at the same happy moment with Captain Parker, is to be attributed the failure of success; but I beg to be perfectly understood, that not the smallest blame attaches itself to any person; for although the divisions did not arrive together, yet each (except the fourth, which could not be got up before day) made a successful attack on that part of the enemy they fell in with, and actually took possession of many brigs and flats, and cut their cables; but many of them being aground, the moment of the battle ceasing on board them, the vessels were filled with vollies upon vollies of musketry, the enemy being perfectly regardless of their own men, who must have suffered equally with us, it was therefore impossible to remain on board, even to burn them; but allow me to say, who have seen much service this war, that more determined persevering courage I never witnessed, and that nothing but the impossibility of being successful, from the causes I have mentioned, could have prevented me from having to congratulate their Lordships; but although in value the loss of such gallant and good men is incalculable, yet, in point of numbers, it has fallen short of my expectations[3]. * * * * From the nature of the attack only a few prisoners were made; a lieutenant, eight seamen, and eight soldiers, are all they brought off.”

Mr. Little’s commission as lieutenant bears date Aug. 18th, 1801. He afterwards served for a short time, during the suspension of hostilities, on board the Zealand 64, Captain William Mitchell, stationed as a guard-ship at the Nore; and subsequently commanded a Nova Scotia merchantman. On the 26th June, 1803, being then a homeward bound passenger on board the Lady Hobart packet, Captain W. Dorset Fellowes, he volunteered to take charge, as prizee master, of a French schooner, laden with salt fish, which vessel he conducted to England, she having happily escaped the fate of her captor, by steering a different course during the night of the 27th[4]; on this occasion, he lost the greater part of his property, having taken but a few articles with him when he left the packet.

On his return home. Lieutenant Little was appointed to the Vulture sloop. Commander ____ Green, stationed off Boulogne, where he bore a part in many skirmishes with the enemy’s batteries and flotilla. In May 1805, we find him removed to l’Athenienne 64, Captain (now Vice-Admiral) John Giffard, which ship was sent out with stores for the fleet at Gibraltar, after Nelson’s last glorious victory. She subsequently formed part of the squadron under Sir W. Sidney Smith, employed in the defence of Gaieta, at the capture of the island of Capri, and in making frequent descents on the coast of Calabria. When quitting l’Athenienne, Sept. 20th, 1806, in order to assume the command of the Zealous 74, Captain Giffard certified that Lieutenant Little had always “conducted himself very much to his satisfaction, and shewed himself an attentive, zealous, deserving officer.”

On the 20th Oct. 1806, l’Athenienne, then commanded by Captain R. Raynsford, was wrecked on the Esquerques, or Skerki, a reef of rocks in the Mediterranean sea, the existence of which had long been doubted by some, and as positively asserted by other experienced officers, but which must have been accurately laid down in the charts of that day, as Captain Raynsford observed, one moment before the ship struck, “If the Esquerques do exist, we should now be upon them[5].” The following account of this most melancholy disaster was written by one of l’Athenienne’s officers.

“H.M. ship Athenienne, having 470 officers, men, and passengers on board, sailed from Gibraltar on the 16th Oct., with a fair wind, and arrived off Sardinia on the 20th, from whence she proceeded towards Malta, but unfortunately, at 9-30 p.m., when going nine knots, she struck on the Esquerques. It immediately became necessary to lighten the ship, to prevent her from falling over on her broadside, and the masts were cut away for that purpose; but in less than half an hour after, from the violent concussion, she filled up to the lower-deck-ports, and fell over to port on her beam-ends. Captain Raynsford, who, from the first, foresaw the total loss of the ship, ordered the boats to be hoisted out, with an idea that they would be useful in towing a raft that was constructing to leeward, and which might have been the means of saving a great many from destruction; but so soon as the two quarter boats were lowered, and clear of the ship, the men (for there were no officers in them) bore up, and were no more seen by their unhappy shipmates who staid by the wreck. the cutter and barge, in hoisting out, were stove and swamped, and thirty men, unable to regain the ship, perished. By the fall of the masts several people wore killed, and others desperately wounded; – two midshipmen wore killed by the spanker-boom crushing them between it and the side. The termination of the sufferings of all appeared fast approaching; and the launch, being the only boat that was not either stove or swamped, was filled with men on the booms, and, without having the means of mechanical power, or the necessity of using it (the sea having at this time covered the whole wreck, with the exception of the poop), she floated off the booms, to the great joy of every one, and escaped the many dangers she had to encounter with the floating pieces of the ship and masts. She afterwards came under the stern, where many, in attempting to swim to her; shared the untimely fate of those who had preceded them. At this time, ll-30 p.m., there being but little hope of the ship holding together till the morning, I urged Captain Raynsford to save himself by swimming to the launch, but in vain – he declaring to me that he was perfectly resigned to his fate, and determined not to quit his post whilst a man remained; but at the same time advising me to do that which I had recommended to him. I accordingly, at the moment the launch (full of people) was bearing up before the wind, leapt into the sea, and succeeded in gaining the boat, and providentially escaped the unhappy catastrophe of the remaining officers and crew, 347 in number, who, I lament to say, most probably perished that night, as the wind continued to increase after she first struck, and the next day it blew stronger. Early on the following morning, we fell in with a Danish brig, and put two officers and some seamen into her, to beat to windward, to endeavour to save as many of the people as might be still clinging to the wreck – but without effect. We afterwards continued our course to Maretima, and arrived there on the 21st. The next day we started for Trapani, in Sicily; where, finding a small vessel bound to Malta, we embarked, and arrived at Valetta on the 25th, after encountering all the horrors of a shipwreck, as dreadful, perhaps, in its consequences, as was ever experienced.”

The launch had neither sail, bread, nor water, on board. There was a compass; and for sails the officers displayed their shirts, and the seamen their frocks. One of the officers put on board the Danish brig was Lieutenant Little, whoso attempt to save more of his shipmates was unhappily frustrated by violent and adverse winds.

In Jan. 1807, Lieutenant Little was appointed first of the Revenge 74, Captain Sir John Gore, under whom he served “as an able, zealous, and meritorious officer,” until Aug. 1808[6]. His next appointment was, in the course of the latter month, to the command of the Firm gun-brig, on the Guernsey station, where, under the orders of Commodore D’Auvergne, the nominal Duke de Bouillon, he appears to have been for some time employed in afording succour to persons secretly communicating with the partisans of the house of Bourbon. In Jan. 1800, he captured and destroyed three French vessels, on the coast of Normandy. On the 20th April 1810, the boats of the Firm, in concert with those of the Surly cutter[7], and Sharpshooter gun-brig, boarded and brought off from the mouth of Piron, where she had ran on shore, l’Alcide privateer, under a heavy fire of musquetry from upwards of 400 troops. In the performance of this service, which was very creditably performed under the direction of Sub-Lieutenant Hodgkin, of the Firm, that vessel had her second master killed, and boatswain’s mate wounded.

In July 1810, Lieutenant Little saved the life of a marine by jumping overboard in St. Hillier’s bay, Jersey. On the 12th Mar. 1811, he witnessed the capture of H.M. sloop Challenger, by a French frigate and an armed store-ship near Morlaix; but succeeded in effecting his own escape from the same enemy by beating to windward within a sunken reef. On the 28th of June following, being off Granville, in company with the Fylla 22, he attacked two praam brigs which had come out to drive away the boats employed in reconnoitring, and were unable to regain their port; but owing to their being so flat and drawing very little water, he could not bring the Firm near enough to engage them with effect. On the following night, in wearing round to come out of Cancalle Bay, after discovering that the enemy had run ashore, the Firm took the ground at the top of high water; and all efforts to save her being ineffectual, she was set fire to and destroyed, in the presence of some hundreds of Frenchmen, who had assembled with field-pieces to prevent it. Lieutenant Little, with his officers and crew, not one of whom was hurt, were taken to Jersey in the Fylla; and a court-martial subsequently assembled to inquire into the circumstances attending the loss of the Firm, signified their approbation of what had been done, by a full and honorable acquittal.

In Dec. 1811, Lieutenant Little was appointed to the command of the Charles hired armed schooner, employed on the Downs station, where he retook two merchant vessels, and witnessed the capture of two French privateers. In Dec. 1813, we find him attached to the fleet under Admiral Young, anchored off Walcheren; and in the ensuing spring carrying over to France part of the suite of Louis XVIII. On his return from the latter service, he was appointed to the Whiting schooner, sent with despatches to America, and there actively employed under the orders of Rear-Admiral (now Sir George) Cockburn, until the termination of hostilities in 1815. During Napoleon’s 100 days’ war, he carried despatches to various places; and, after the battle of Waterloo, having removed into the Telegraph schooner, received the thanks of his commander-in-chief for his successful exertions in raising men at Bristol, for the fleet going against Algiers. On paying off the Whiting, he was presented with a service of plate by her officers and crew. On the morning of Jan. 20th, 1817, the Telegraph was wrecked under the Eastern Hoe, Plymouth, in the same violent gale of wind which proved fatal to the Jasper sloop and Princess Mary packet[8]. On the 28th, Lieutenant Little, and his officers and crew, were tried by court-martial, and all fully acquitted. In the course of the evidence it appeared, that the schooner was anchored in clear ground, and partly sheltered by the Breakwater; that when she struck, the staysail was hoisted, which laid her broadside to the rocks: and by good management on the part of Lieutenant Little, the crew were all saved except one man, William Kells, who was crushed to death by the side of the vessel in getting on shore; and that Lieutenant Little did not quit his post till he had seen every officer, man, and woman out of her. The Court having considered all the circumstances, pronounced that the loss of the Telegraph was occasioned by the violence of the gale, and the insufficiency in the length of the cables, and weight of some of her anchors; that no blame whatever was attributable to Lieutenant Little, his officers and crew, for their conduct on this occasion; but, on the contrary, that great praise was due to Lieutenant Little, for his coolness and judgment in the management of the vessel, by which the lives of the crew were saved.

That Lieutenant Little’s conduct on this occasion was highly approved by the Admiralty, is evident from his having been immediately afterwards appointed to the command of the Pigmy schooner, and subsequently to the Hind revenue cruiser, in which latter vessel he continued until the summer of 1820, as will be seen by the following correspondence:–

Custom House, Falmouth, 13th July, 1820.

* * * * * * “In justice to the merits of Lieutenant John Little, who has completed his three years in the command of the Hind revenue cutter, we take the liberty of laying before your Lordship a copy of a report we made by the last post to our Board on the subject of his valuable and meritorious services. We are, &c.

(Signed)S. Pellew.”
J. Laffer.”

Right Hon. Viscount Exmouth,
“Commander-in-chief, &c. Plymouth.

(Copy) No. 413.

“Honorable Sirs, – Lieutenant John Little having completed his period of three years in the command of the Hind revenue cutter, on thin station, we think we should not do justice to that meritorious officer, were we not to express to your Honours the high sense we entertain of the activity and zeal displayed by him throughout that period. His exertions have been successful, not only in several instances of seizure, but also in the preservation of derelict cargoes to a considerable amount; and we are convinced his vigilance and judicious arrangements have tended greatly to the protection of the coast of his district from illicit practices. If we thought it within the line of our duty to correspond on this subject with the Lords of the Admiralty, we should feel happy in making a representation of his services to their Lordships. We are, &c.

(Signed)S. Pellew.”
J. Laffer.”

To the Hon. Commissioners,
Customs, London.


On his quitting the Hind, Lieutenant Little was presented with a silver snuff-box, from her officers and crew. His next appointment was, Feb. 14th, 1821, to the Lady Hobart packet, employed in carrying mails to Bermuda, New York, and Halifax. His promotion to the rank of commander took place July 19th, 1821. From Feb. 1st, 1823, until July 2d following, he commanded the Countess of Chichester packet, on a voyage to and from South America; and on the 10th April 1824, he obtained the civil appointment of agent to H.M. post office packets at Port Patrick. His only son is a midshipman in the royal navy.



  1. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 290 et seq.
  2. Nelson’s flag-ship.
  3. Total, 4 officers and 40 men killed; 14 officers and 114 men wounded.
  4. See Vol. II. Part II. p. 954, et seq.
  5. See Brenton’s Nav. Hist. Vol. IV. p. 56.
  6. See Suppl. Part II. p. 482.
  7. Lieutenant Richard Welch, senior officer.
  8. See Vol. IV, Part I. p. 208, et seq.