Royal Naval Biography/Nowell, William
WILLIAM NOWELL, Esq.
This officer, the second son of the late Cradock Nowell, of Tee-Maur, Nottage, Glamorganshire, Esq., and nephew of the late Rev. Dr. Nowell, thirty-seven years Principal of St. Mary’s Hall, Oxford, entered the naval service in 1769, on board the St. Antonio, of 60 guns, commanded by Captain Clark Gayton; and continued to serve in different ships until 1776, when he was promoted by his patron, (at that time Commander-in-Chief at Jamaica,) to the rank of Lieutenant, and appointed to the Badger sloop, the boats of which vessel he commanded at the capture of fifteen sail of French merchantmen, laden with warlike stores, near Hispaniola, and two American brigs from under the guns of the fort at the entrance of Cape François.
The Badger returned to England in April, 1777, and Lieutenant Nowell soon after exchanged into the Resolution, of 74 guns, commanded by Sir Chaloner Ogle, and at that time stationed on the coasts of Spain and Portugal for the purpose of intercepting vessels belonging to the revolted colonies. She was subsequently attached to the Channel fleet, under-the Admirals Keppel, Hardy, Darby, Digby, and Kempenfelt, until the latter end of 1779, when she accompanied Sir George B. Rodney to the relief of Gibraltar; and was consequently present at the capture of the Caracca convoy, and the discomfiture of Don Juan de Langara, Jan. 8 and 16, 1780. On the former occasion, the St. Firmin, of 16 guns, and six sail of transports, were taken possession of by Lieutenant Nowell.
In the action with the Spanish squadron, the Resolution got along-side of the Princessa, a 70-gun ship, and in 40 minutes compelled her to surrender. The sea at this time ran so high that Lieutenant Nowell, who had been ordered by Sir Chaloner Ogle to take charge of the prize, was knocked down several times by the cut rigging, before he could get on board; and the weather continued so tempestuous as to prevent the possibility of removing the prisoners for three days. The situation he found the Princessa in was perilous in the extreme, owing to the injudicious disposal of the powder. Opposite the guns on the upper decks were open racks, capable of containing from twelve to fourteen cartridges each; these he immediately directed to be cleared, and their contents thrown into the sea. On descending to the lower-deck, he observed a train of loose powder, and followed it to the gun-room, where a large hatch that communicated with the magazine, was off; and on entering the latter, the impression of the men employed in filling cartridges during the action, appeared on the surface, the whole being stowed in bulk. The circumstance of the Princessa having escaped the fate of the St. Domingo, can only be attributed to the after-guns not being fired; as it was, repeated explosions on board her were observed from the Resolution; and of near 200 men whom Lieutenant Nowell found killed, wounded, and blown up, the greater part appeared to be of the latter description.
It was three weeks after the action before Lieutenant Nowell was enabled to anchor at Gibraltar, where, in the presence of Sir Chaloner Ogle and Lord Robert Manners, he received the thanks of Commodore Don Manuel de Leon; his Captain, St. Felix; and the officers of the Princessa, for the particular care he had taken to prevent their property being pillaged; and an invitation from the former, a Grandee of Spain, to visit him on the restoration of peace, for the purpose of being introduced to his Monarch.
The Resolution, to which ship Lord Robert Manners had been appointed on Sir Chaloner Ogle hoisting a broad pendant, formed part of the squadron sent to England with the prizes, under the orders of Rear-Admiral Digby; and on the passage home captured the Prothée, of 64 guns and 700 men, after a close action of 27 minutes, in which the enemy had 97 men killed and wounded. She afterwards accompanied Rear-Admiral Graves to the North-American station, and from thence proceeded with Sir George B. Rodney to the West Indies.
Early in 1781, Sir George received intelligence of hostilities having taken place between Great Britain and Holland; and immediately proceeded to attack the Dutch settlements in that quarter. On his arrival off the Bay of St. Eustatia, he made the Resolution’s signal to anchor within musket shot of a large frigate lying there, and oblige her to surrender. Lord Robert Manners supposing that Count Byland, who commanded her, knew nothing of the war, sent Lieutenant Nowell on board to inform him. The Count appeared greatly surprised at the information, and at first considered it as a jest; but being undeceived, he said, that it was the second time he had been placed in a like situation, and that he was determined to fight his ship as long as she would swim. Lieutenant Nowell, however, assured him that resistance would not avail; and remarked that the Count would be blamed for the useless sacrifice of lives that must ensue. Being at length convinced of his error, he intimated that he would not strike until he had discharged his guns; whereupon our officer desired permission to see that they were pointed clear of the British ships, and their coins and beds taken out, saying that in such case he would communicate the Count’s wishes to Lord Robert Manners, and if approved of, the Resolution would fire a gun clear of him, when he might discharge his broadsides. To this the Dutch commander assented, and on Lieutenant Nowell’s return to the Resolution, he was desired to proceed with the affair according to his own arrangement, which had no sooner been carried into effect than two other line-of-battle ships, the Gibraltar and Prince William, opened their fire on the Dutch frigate, whose crew very prudently went below, and thereby avoided the slaughter which such a precipitate act would otherwise have occasioned. The ship, however, sustained so much damage thereby, that it took Lieutenant Nowell many days, with the carpenters and best seamen from the Resolution, to set her to rights.
After the surrender of the Dutch colonies of St. Eustatia, St. Martin’s, &c, our officer was appointed to the Swallow sloop, in which vessel he returned to England for the purpose of joining Sir Chaloner Ogle; but on his arrival, in the summer of 1781, finding that that officer was not likely soon to hoist his flag, he obtained an appointment as first Lieutenant of the Hercules, 74, in which ship he again visited the West Indies, and had the good fortune to contribute very materially towards the defeat of Count de Grasse, in the battles of April 9 and 12, 1782.
The Hercules, on the latter day, ranged the whole of the enemy’s line from van to rear, and was the fifth vessel a-head of Sir George Rodney’s flag ship, the Formidable, when engaging the French Admiral. Lieutenant Nowell, whose station was on the quarter-deck, received his gallant Captain’s orders to reserve a full broadside for the Ville de Paris, and not to fire until fairly alongside of her. These orders were so punctually obeyed, that half a minute did not elapse between the firing of the first and last gun; the two ships were at this time not more than 50 yards apart; fortunately the Hercules received but a few shot in return from her mighty adversary. When alongside the French Admiral’s second a-stern, Captain Savage received a severe wound, which obliged him to quit the deck; but before he was carried below, he requested his first Lieutenant to keep the ship close to the enemy, and on no account to strike the colours; to which Mr. Nowell replied, that two ensigns were flying, one at the staff, another at the mizen-peak; the former nailed, and the halliards of the latter so belayed that it could not be hauled down.
From this period the Hercules was most ably manoeuvred by Lieutenant Nowell, whose gallant conduct excited general admiration. Her loss amounted to 7 men killed, and 19 wounded; and the damage she sustained in her masts, sails, and rigging, was greater than that of any other ship in the British fleet, the Duke alone excepted. It was on this occasion that our officer introduced the mode of loading with two round shot next to the cartridge, and only one wad outside, the advantages of which are very apparent. The outer shot by this means will go to a greater distance than the inner shot when two wads are made use of; and the gun can be loaded with a single motion after spunging. To prevent accident, the shot were besmeared with the blacking supplied for the rigging; and although the officers of the next ship a-stern of the Hercules, affirmed that her sides were in a constant blaze during the action, not a single instance occurred of the powder hcing ignited when in the act of loading.
The high opinion entertained of Lieutenant Nowell’s conduct in the above action, may be inferred from the circumstance of his gallant commander declining to go to sick-quarters until assured by Sir George B. Rodney that no other person should be appointed to act for him during his absence. Whilst at Jamaica refitting, the Hercules narrowly escaped destruction; and the impending evil appears to have been averted solely through the exertions of the subject of this memoir. Perceiving a large navy store-ship, which lay between the Hercules and the dock-yard, to be on fire, he sent a Midshipman on board her with orders to cut away her anchors, that she might be retained in her situation until scuttled; but some other officers who had arrived to her assistance, thought proper to cut her adrift and tow her towards Port-Royal; the inhabitants of which place cast off her shore-fast, when, with her sails loose and all in flames, she ran a-board the Hercules, giving her the stem at the main-chains. Lieutenant Nowell had previously caused water to be thrown upon his rigging from the engine, and buckets in the tops, and stationed men with spars ready to bear her off. Fortunately the force with which she struck the Hercules caused her to rebound, and her sternway being increased by the assistance of the spars, she drifted a-stern, and crossing the hawse of the Namur went on shore between Fort Augusta and Salt Pan Bay. Had not Lieutenant Nowell changed the position of the Hercules in the first instance, by heaving her a-head to her anchor, the burning vessel must have fallen athwart her bows; and from the crowded state of the harbour, the destruction of that ship would have been attended by that of many others, particularly of the Duke and Ville de Paris, which were lying close to her.
The Hercules continued on the West-India station until the peace of 1783, when she returned to England, and was put out of commission. On his arrival in town Lieutenant Nowell was introduced by Captain Savage to Lord Rodney, who received him very favorably, and spoke highly of his conduct, but lamented his inability to obtain him that promotion to which he had established so strong a claim. From this period he remained on half-pay until Jan. 1787, when, at the particular request of Captain (the late Sir Charles) Thompson, he was appointed to the Edgar, of 74 guns, in which ship the Hon. Leveson Gower afterwards hoisted his broad pendant as Commodore of a squadron of evolution.
Our officer’s next appointment was in 1790, to the Queen Charlotte, a first rate, bearing the flag of Earl Howe, by whom . he was at length promoted to the rank of Commander in the Incendiary; and from that vessel removed into the Woolwich, a 44-gun ship, armed en flute. In the following year he obtained the command of the Ferret sloop; and after cruizing for some time in the Channel, was sent to the Jamaica station, where he appears to have been principally employed in convoying vessels laden with provisions, sent by the merchants of Kingston for the relief of the distressed white inhabitants of St. Domingo.
It will be remembered by many of our readers, that at this period (1792) a civil war was carried on in the French part of that fine island, occasioned by the attempts made to deprive the people of colour of their landed and other property, which agreeably to the then existing laws, they were entitled to possess to an unlimited amount. Whenever any prisoners of this description were taken, they were broken on a wheel, decapitated, and sawed in two, and their heads stuck on poles. On one occasion, Captain No well, being on his way through the square to the Assembly of Aux Cayes, witnessed some ferocious wretches roasting a Mulatto chief, a man of excellent character, the proprietor of above half the town, and supposed to be worth a million sterling. The blacks on their part were by no means deficient in cruelty. Captain Nowell, on his return from Aux Cayes, anchored off l’Isle de Vache, for the purpose of obtaining a supply of wood, water, and fruit. The inhabitants of the former place had previously bribed the soldiers, and detached them from their officers. A Colonel, the commander of the troops, in endeavouring to escape, was driven into a cane patch, and there burnt to death. The chief officer of engineers was also overtaken in his flight, but his life was granted him on condition that he would undertake to fortify the town. He had nearly finished the works, and knew that his death would follow their completion; availing himself, therefore, of so favorable an opportunity as the presence of the Ferret afforded him, he came off with his faithful black servant in a canoe, and implored Captain Nowell to save him; his joy on being assured that he would be protected, and restored to his friends at Cape François cannot be described; it drew tears from most of the spectators. The blacks at this time had possession of Fort Louis on the other extremity of the bay, where they kept 80 young French ladies in a state of concubinage; in fact the atrocities committed by all parties, but particularly the French, almost exceed credibility. Our limits will only allow us to add one other instance to those already related: – About 500 blacks had been embarked at Cape Nichola Mole, for the purpose of being landed on the Spanish Main. The wretch to whose care they were confided, and who held the rank of a Lieutenant in the French marine, fell in with some sandy keys at a distance from the coast, landed them with only one day’s provisions, and left them there to starve. Some days after they were discovered by a party of Englishmen employed in turning turtle, who immediately returned to Honduras with the information. The humane inhabitants, although poor, sent two brigs amply victualled to their relief, and forwarded those left alive, numbering about 300, to Port Royal, from whence they were sent to Cape François by Admiral Affleck and Governor Williamson, who received many compliments and thanks from the French authorities for their humanity; but no sooner had the English vessels departed, than the poor creatures were placed in a large unoccupied store-house, and every one of them sabred in cold blood.
The Ferret returned to England towards the latter end of 1792; and on the commencement of the war with the French republic, was placed under the orders of Rear-Admiral M‘Bride, on the Downs station, where she captured six of the enemy’s privateers. For this service Captain Nowell was presented with a handsome piece of plate by the merchants of London. We next find him serving with the Channel fleet under Earl Howe; but being sent to the North Sea previous to the great battle of June 1, 1794, he unfortunately missed that promotion to which, as the senior Commander, he would otherwise have been entitled. His disappointment on that occasion, however, was in some measure compensated by his success in intercepting several vessels laden with upwards of 300,000 quarters of wheat, coming from the Baltic, Holland, &c, bound to France. In the autumn of the same year he was sent, at the request of Earl Howe, to attend upon their late Majesties at Weymouth; and from thence ordered to Ostend, where he met with a serious accident, which compelled him to retire for a time from active service. His advancement to the rank of Post-Captain took place Oct. 24, 1794; and from that date he remained unemployed until the spring of 1803, when he was appointed to the command of the Glatton, of 54 guns, in the Baltic, from whence he returned to England in the ensuing autumn; and on his arrival at Chatham, was ordered to take the command of the Isis, a 50-gun ship then in dock, and to fit her out with the utmost expedition.
The exertions used by Captain Nowell on this occasion are worthy of notice. Notwithstanding he had to fit the ship with new rigging, and but very few seamen among his crew, yet on the ninth day she was taken to the Nore fully equipped and ready for sea. The Isis formed part of the force assembled off the French coast under Lord Nelson, of whom Captain Nowell, with several other officers of the same rank, requested permission to assist in the attack made upon the Boulogne flotilla, but which his Lordship, with his usual consideration, handsomely declined to grant, as in the event of success, their presence would probably have been of some hindrance to the promotion of those Commanders whom he had selected to head the different divisions of boats employed on that occasion. From the Isis Captain Nowell removed to the Ardent, 64; and during the remainder of the war he was entrusted with the command of a squadron stationed at the entrance of the Thames, to prevent any hostile force from proceeding up that river.
The Ardent was paid off in April 1802, and from that period Captain Nowell remained on half-pay until the year 1811, when he assumed the command of the Monmouth, of 64 guns, bearing the flag of the present Sir Thomas Foley, in the Downs. His commission as Rear-Admiral bears date Dec. 4, 1813.
Residence.– Court Place, Iffley, near Oxford.
- Captain Gayton became a Rear-Admiral Oct. 18, 1770; was made a Vice-Admiral Feb. 3, 1776; and immediately afterwards appointed to the chief command at Jamaica. Returning from thence in the Antelope, he fell in with a large ship, which was at first mistaken for an enemy, and preparations made to receive her accordingly, though of force infinitely superior to the Antelope. The Vice-Admiral, though so extremely infirm as to be almost unable to walk, came upon the quarter-deck, and after concisely exhorting his crew to behave like Englishmen, told them, that for his part, “he could not stand by them, but he would sit and see them fight as long as they pleased.” This gallant officer died at Fareham, in 1787.
- See Note † at p. 3.
- The Princessa had previously received the fire of the Bedford and Cumberland 74’s, as they passed her.
- Previous to the Resolution sailing for America, Lieutenant Nowell distinguished himself by his spirited conduct in quelling a mutiny which had taken place in that ship, the particulars of which are as follow: On ordering the capstern to be manned for the purpose of unmooring, the crew came up one hatchway and went down another, at the same time lowering the ports. This was the first hint the officers received of its existence. On enquiry Lieutenant Nowell learnt that the ringleader was one of the carpenter’s crew, and he immediately volunteered to go below and secure him. Accompanied by another officer, Lieutenant Shordich, he went down the after hatchway, and made the men haul up the lower deck ports as he advanced forward to the berth a-breast of the main-mast, where this rascal was haranguing and cheering the men collected about him. Lieutenant Nowell placed a blow under his throat that knocked him backwards over a chest, then seized him, and declared he would run any man or men through who should attempt his rescue. A compromise now took place, on the ship’s company promising obedience if their leader was released; but the next day they acted in a similar manner; and it was not until the officers and marines were drawn up under arms, and about to attack them, that they proceeded to get the ship under weigh, even then declaring they would surrender to the first French man-of-war they were laid alongside of. To this threat Lord Robert Manners replied, ‘I will take care you shall be placed close enough.’ Their only plea for these acts of insubordination appears to have been a draught of men lately received on board, one of which was the carpenter already alluded to, had not received their advance. No doubt they had been tutored to this before they joined the Resolution, as they declared they had no complaint to make against any officer in the ship. This batch of villains were sent into the Port-Admiral’s ship at Plymouth, and nothing mutinous took place afterwards.
- See note, at p. 127.
- The Mars, of 38 guns and 300 men.
- Sir Chaloner Ogle had recently returned home, being promoted to a flag.
- See note, p. 35, et seq.
- The present Admiral Savage.
- The celerity with which the Hercules’ guns were loaded, was also greatly increased by the use of pike-staves fitted as rammers and sponges, in lieu of the unwieldy ones furnished by government. The credit of this invention is due to Admiral Savage.
- Now called Port Anderson.
- The event alluded to above occurred during the night, which may account for a number of men belonging to the Hercules, principally waisters, many of whom had behaved uncommonly well in the late battle, jumping overboard whilst their shipmates were booming off the cause of their alarm.
- Soon after the battle of the 12th April, 1782, Mr. Nowell was given to understand that Captain Savage was to have the command of Sir George Rodney’s flag-ship, the Formidable, and himself to be appointed First Lieutenant, all her former officers of that rank having been promoted. This pleasing prospect was destroyed by the arrival of Admiral Pigot from England to assume the chief command of the fleet. At their interview in London, Lord Rodney reminded Lieutenant Nowell of what his intentions had been towards him; adding, “You shortly afterwards would have been promoted; I am now in the opposition, and have no interest whatever; I cannot get my own son a ship.”
- In our memoir of Admiral Russell, p. 142, et seq., we have already mentioned the case of a British officer, named Perkins, who had been doomed to an ignominious death by the French, under the pretext of having supplied the blacks with arms. We avail ourselves of this opportunity to correct a few passages in that statement; The Ferret, instead of heaving-too off Jeremie Bay, actually entered it, and in consequence of the north wind setting in towards the evening, had some difficulty in working out again to join the Diana. Lieutenant Perkins was not confined in a dungeon on shore, but was kept a close prisoner in a brig of war lying off the town, from whence he was received on board the Ferret. The time fixed for his execution was two days from that of his rescue, and not the next morning, as before stated. The other parts of our statement are, we believe, perfectly correct. Captain Nowell, on landing, was surrounded by at least 300 villains armed with sabres, and together with Lieutenant Godby, who accompanied him, had occasion to keep his hand on his sword during the whole of the conference which took place.
- It is somewhat remarkable, that the Ferret did not bury a man during the twelve months she was employed in the West Indies.
- As the paucity of Captain Nowell’s services during the late wars may occasion some surprise to those who have perused the preceding part of this memoir, it appears necessary to state the occasion of his secession for awhile from the duties of his profession. During a gale of wind, and when in the act of ascending the side of a cutter lying outside the harbour of Ostend, from which place he was returning, charged with despatches from H.R.H. the Duke of York, the man-ropes slipt through his hands, and he sank between the vessel and his boat. The sea at the time running very high, the next rise brought his head in contact with the under part of the cutter’s channel, and deprived him of his senses. In this state he was conveyed to the Ferret; and the necessary precaution of bleeding him having been omitted by the surgeon, a violent fever ensued; on his recovery from which he found that, in addition to the dislocation of several toes of the right foot, his vision was so affected that every object appeared double. On his arrival in London, he placed himself under the care of Dr. Weir, from whose mode of treatment he derived considerable benefit; but notwithstanding the skill of that celebrated oculist, every attempt to restore his sight to its original strength failed of success, and he was thus doomed to many years of painful inactivity, at a period, when, but for this misfortune, the talents and zeal which he had already displayed on so many occasions would, in the common course of events, have secured for him a participation in those honors which are enjoyed by his more fortunate compeers. To the same cause may probably be attributed the nonappearance of a treatise on sea-gunnery, which we have reason to believe he at one time had it in contemplation to publish; and which, from his well-known proficiency in that art, there can be no doubt, would have met with a most favorable reception from the naval world.