Royal Naval Biography/O’Neill, Terence


Is the son of an old naval officer, a branch of the O’Neills, of Shanes Castle, co. Antrim, Ireland. One of his grand-uncles was a Portuguese Field-Marshal, and another held the same rank in the Spanish army.

This officer was born at Bristol, in, we believe, the year 1773; and towards the end of 1781, we find him joining the Magnificent 74, Captain Robert Linzee, in which ship he was present at the battles between Rodney and De Grasse, April 9th and 12th, 1782; and also at the subsequent capture of two French 64’s, a frigate, and a corvette, in the Mona Passage, by a squadron detached under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. On the former occasions, the Magnificent had six men killed, and eleven, including Captain Bagg, of the marines, wounded.

Mr. O’Neill next joined the Shrewsbury 74, Captain (now Sir Isaac) Coffin, and had the honor of serving on the Jamaica station at the period when his present Majesty was there in the subordinate capacity of midshipman. At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, he was received on board the Britannia, first rate, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral (afterwards Lord) Hotham, by whom he was appointed a lieutenant of la Censeur, French prize 74, in March, 1795. During the siege of St. Lucia, by the fortes under Sirs Hugh C. Christian and Ralph Abercrombie, he commanded a prize-schooner, of 10 guns, taken by the Aetraea frigate, and named after the latter officer. On the reduction of that island he returned to the Astraea, in which ship he had proceeded from England to the West Indies, and in which he subsequently served, under the command of Captain (now, Vice-Admiral) Richard Dacres on the North Sea station.

On the 27th April, 1797, the Albion, two-decker, Captain Henry Savage, having been wrecked on the Middle Sands in the Swin Channel, the Astraea was sent from the Nore to assist in saving her stores; on which occasion the boats of the frigate were placed under the directions of Lieutenant O’Neill, who, in the course of thirty-six hours, succeeded in removing all her bent and spare sails, running rigging, and every other portable article, amounting altogether in value to upwards of £10,000; nor were his exertions discontinued until a gale of wind obliged the Astraea to cut and run, the Albion at the same time falling to pieces.

In June following, having previously assisted in rescuing the Astraea from the mutinous fleet at the Nore, Lieutenant O’Neill addressed himself to Admiral Duncan as follows:–

Astraea, off the Texel, 27th June, 1797.”

“Sir,– it appearing practicable to me to burn the transports now lying in the Texel, I beg leave to offer myself as a candidate for that service. I have the honor to be, with great respect, &c.

(Signed)Terence O’Neill.”


“Sir,– Should the subject of the letter in which this is enclosed meet your approbation, I most respectfully beg leave to point out the plan which to me would appear most practicable; but any other you may think necessary I shall use my utmost exertions to execute, should you be pleased to honor me with your commands.

“From the number of galliots passing and repassing, a vessel of that description would be least liable to suspicion; therefore, if one is obtained and fitted up as a fire-vessel, with so much secrecy as to prevent the enemy having any knowledge of it, and being seen off and on the Texel the evening preceding the night of the attempt, under Danish (if necessary to hoist any) colours, apparently endeavouring to get in, she would, I think, pass without any particular notice, and consequently be enabled to effectually perform the proposed service: the Dutch transports being moored together so thick that they cannot easily separate themselves.

“I further beg leave to observe, that I cannot suppose we shall be challenged until nearly abreast of the transports; and if we are then unable to proceed without molestation, we must dash boldly on; but, from the short distance between the fort and the transports, I may reasonably hope to get the vessel laid in the best situation circumstances will admit of, and to set her on fire, before the enemy will be enabled to judge our intentions: nor can they well fire at us, as we shall be in a line between skips and batteries; and before they shall have recovered from their surprise and confusion, I hope we may be able to escape. To effect this, I would request a good rowing boat, with stout fellows, well armed, and any vessel you may be pleased to appoint to pick us up, and to protect us from pursuers. But above all, I beg leave to observe, it will be absolutely necessary to have a good pilot, to enable us to go in with safety; our escape we can effect in any direction, unless very bad weather. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Terence O’Neill, Lieut.”

To Admiral Duncan, &c.

Although not permitted to attempt the destruction of the Gallo-Batavian transports, then collected for the invasion of Great Britain, Lieutenant O’Neill was warmly applauded for his zeal, and afterwards employed by the heroic Duncan in many services of a confidential nature. On the 10th July, 1797, he was sent with a flag of truce to Admiral De Winter, and it being found necessary for him to remain at the Texel until a message could be received from the Hague, he contrived to obtain some valuable information, which again obtained him official commendation. On the 30th April, 1798, he was appointed by Earl Spencer to command the Cobourg hired cutter, of 210 tons, 16 guns, and 60 men; and on the 1st Feb. in the ensuing year, he captured the Flushinger, Dutch privateer, commanded by the captain of a frigate.

Whilst serving in the Cobourg, which vessel was latterly brig-rigged, Lieutenant O’Neill paid frequent visits to the Texel, with messages from his commander-in-chief, and on every occasion acquitted himself so as to obtain general commendation. So highly pleased were the Dutch authorities with his gentlemanly and officer-like demeanour, that on one occasion, when very short of provisions, he received an abundant supply from those whom, in the performance of his public duty, he was strenuously exerting himself to annoy, and which present was accompanied by the following note:–

On board the Washington, 14th Aug. 1799.

“Commodore Capelle takes the liberty to send these few refreshments, and some meat and vegetables, to the disposition of the commanding officer of H.B.M. cruising cutter the Cobourg, and hopes that Lieutenant O’Neill will accept them, with the assurance of the Commodore’s best respects.”

In the course of the ensuing month, Earl Spencer’s private secretary wrote to Lieutenant O’Neill as follows:–

“Sir,– Lord Spencer, in answer to your letter of the 10th instant, has directed me to say, that your conduct has been very satisfactory; and that, by-and-by, his lordship hopes to have an opportunity of promoting you: but he cannot do it at present. I return Commodore Capelle’s note, and am. Sir, &c.

(Signed)R. Martin.”

About this period, an agreement was entered into between the hostile powers, that the fishing vessels of England and Holland should be allowed to pursue their avocations, within certain limits, unmolested. A complaint of an infraction of this agreement having been forwarded to Lord Duncan, then at Yarmouth, the commander of the Cobourg was immediately despatched, vested with discretionary authority, to take cognizance of the affair. On the 25th Mar. 1800, we find him addressing the senior naval officer at the Texel as follows: –

“I have been directed by my admiral to inform you, that the British fishing vessels have been chased and disturbed in his district by a cutter presumed to be a Dutch privateer. I am therefore commanded to acquaint you that, if enquiry be not made into the same, and satisfactory and immediate redress given, he will not permit fishing vessels to come out of any port in Holland. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Terence O’Neill.”

In answer to this intimation, Admiral De Winter and his locum tenens at the Texel both wrote to Mr. O’Neill, acquainting him that the offence had been committed by a French privateer, over which they could not possibly have any control. In addition to the foregoing services, this active officer obtained information which led to the capture of two Dutch men-of-war by the Sirius frigate. Captain (now Sir Richard) King; an event which, owing to the hitherto improper representation thereof, we shall hereafter more fully notice. On the 25th April 1800, Lieutenant O’Neill received the following satisfactory announcement:–

“Lord Spencer has directed me to inform you, that you are appointed to the Tromp[1], with the rank of master and commander. I am. Sir, &c.

(Signed)John Harrison.”

The Tromp was destined to be converted into a prison-ship, and stationed at one of the Leeward Islands, the commander-in-chief on which station received instructions from the Admiralty to place Captain O’Neill in the way of further promotion. Lord Hugh Seymour, however, the officer to whom we have now occasion to allude, was under the necessity of suddenly proceeding to Jamaica, and unfortunately neglected to inform his successor, the late Sir John T. Duckworth, of Earl Spencer’s favorable intentions. In consequence thereof. Captain O’Neill, after burying most of his officers, and nearly one-half of his crew, found himself under the necessity of returning home, at his own expence, passenger on board a transport; the Tromp having been placed, as was originally intended, under the command of a lieutenant. This most mortifying disappointment produced the following communication from Earl Spencer, then no longer in office:–

St. James’s Place, 3st Oct. 1801.

“Sir,– I am very sorry that my delay in answering your letter of the 13th instant, which arose from the accidental circumstance of my having moved about very much in the country since I received it, should have given you the trouble of writing again, and occasion to suppose my silence was owing to some other cause.

“I have no hesitation in repeating to you what I said in my last letter, that I think your case peculiarly hard. My only motive for giving you promotion, was the very active manner in which you had on several occasions distinguished yourself, in the North Sea and on the coast of Holland, during the war; which had obtained you repeatedly the strongest expressions of approbation from Lord Duncan and other your superior officers. Your appointment to the Tromp was under the expectation of your being able, on your arrival in the West Indies, to get removed to some more active situation, which would have given you an opportunity of further distinguishing yourself, though by some untoward accidents, in which you had no share, it proved of serious disadvantage and inconvenience to you; and after your return home, I fully intended to have availed myself of the earliest opportunity that might present itself, consistently with other very pressing engagements, to put you again into active service, in order to make you some amends for your disappointment. I have no objection to your making any use you please of this letter, if you think that my testimony to the above circumstances can be of any service to you.”

In April 1802, an extensive promotion took place, but the subject of this memoir was not included. He consequently made another appeal to Earl Spencer, and received the following answer:–

St. James’s Place, 27th May, 1802.

“Sir, – I am concerned to find you have not been included in the late naval promotion, and beg you will not suppose that any thing in your former letters has given me the least offence, or caused any other impression than that of regret. I was so circumstanced as not to have it in my power to be of use to you on the occasion.


On application to the Earl of St. Vincent, he was, Mar. 12th, 1803, appointed regulating captain of the impress service at Poole, with permission to select his own lieutenants. Soon after his arrival there, he had occasion to counteract >various attempts to bring that ever unpopular service (which had been in a manner forced upon him) into still greater disrepute. In the month of May following, he received a letter from the Earl’s private secretary, acquainting him that the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty were well satisfied with his conduct, “and that it would not fail to operate in his favor.” He also received the following letter from one of the members for Poole, whose son he had obliged to apologize for some intemperate conduct:–

London, 9th May, 1803.

“Sir,– In addition to many reasons you have before given me to approve the equally liberal and spirited manner in which you have exerted yourself to discharge the painful duties of the impress service at Poole, I beg leave to add my acknowledgments for your recent conduct towards the crew of the ship Industry. I do not wish to weaken those sentiments in your opinion, and I assure you they have not been lessened in mine by any extraneous circumstances which arose relative to that ship, and which, although matter of regret, can never be to you or me subject of reproach. But if any thing relative thereto, which in the slightest or most remote degree implicates the character of my son, has been mentioned to the Admiralty, if it be not making an improper request, I beg the favor of a correct copy thereof; and with respectful compliments to Mrs. O’Neill, I have the honor to remain, &c.

(Signed)Geo. Garland, M.P.”

On the 7th June following, Captain O’Neill was appointed to the command of the Nimrod 18, then the finest and most handsome ship-sloop in the British navy; and on his application she was armed with 24 instead of 18-pounder carronades, and her complement increased from 86 to 121 men. Whilst employed in this vessel, with the Sea Gull sloop and two revenue cruisers under his orders, on the Mount’s Bay station, he was informed that some improper reports respecting him were in circulation at Poole, upon which he directed his informant to stick up in the town-hall a paper, wherein he dared the corporation and inhabitants, both generally and individually, to openly exhibit and substantiate any charges disreputable either to his private or public character. The result of this challenge was thus officially communicated to him:–

Poole, 6th December, 1803.

“Sir,– Mr. Strong has communicated to me the subject of your letter lately addressed to him, and I can truly say, that my astonishment was only equalled by my indignation at the infamous insinuations which have been made to you respecting the intentions of the merchants of this place.

“I consider it a duty incumbent on me, and an act of justice due to them, to deny the truth of it in the most positive and unequivocal terms; and to pledge myself, that either individually or collectively, they have never, in the most distant manner, entertained so ungenerous an idea. Be assured. Sir, that they are as incapable of the meanness imputed to them, as they are satisfied that you are of any action unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman. I trust that you will think it a piece of justice due to them to trace, if possible, this malignant report, which I am satisfied will be found to have its origin in malevolence, that has perhaps equally for its object the merchants of Poole and yourself. I am. Sir, &c.

(Signed)Mark Street, Mayor.”

About the same period. Captain O’Neill received the thanks of the Admiralty, for communicating to their lordships his ideas on the subject of a new code of signals. In July 1804, he felt himself obliged, in consequence of suffering most severely from sea-sickness in bad weather, occasioned, we are told, by the effects of an attack of brain-fever in early life, to resign the command of the Nimrod. That he was not a voluntary seceder from the service of his country, at so momentous a period, will be seen by the following document:–

Admiralty, 29th July, 1804.

“Sir,– I have received your letter, and herewith return the enclosures transmitted therein. I have perused the memorial you addressed to the Board, and, in consequence of the circumstances stated therein, I shall be glad, when my arrangements will admit of it, to give you some suitable employment. I am, &c.


On the 14th Oct. 1804, Captain O’Neill was appointed to a command in the Kinsale district of Sea-Fencibles; and on the 15th Dec. in the same year, the following communication was addressed to his senior officer:

“Sir,– Having laid before my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty your letter of the 9th instant, inclosing one from Captain O’Neill, requesting that the Sea-Fencibles under his command may be paid for the assistance they rendered to the crew of a vessel which was wrecked within his district, I am commanded by their lordships to acquaint you, that as Captain O’Neill states he has pledged himself for the payment of this charge, they are pleased to allow it, being satisfied with his motives for incurring it. But although the conduct of the persons who exerted themselves on this occasion, in saving the lives and property of their fellow creatures, is highly meritorious, it has no relation to the service for which they were enrolled, and the precedent, if followed in all other parts where Sea-Fencibles are established, would occasion a very heavy expence to the public. I am, Sir, &c.

(Signed)William Marsden.”

To Captain Samuel Campbell Rowley, S.F., Kinsale.

In Nov. 1805, having the chief command during Captain Rowley’s absence on leave, and reading the account of Nelson’s victory and death, Captain O’Neill instantly called out his men, proposed to them to subscribe one day’s pay for the widows and children of the slain, advanced the amount, 42l. 12s. 7d., out of his own pocket, and immediately transmitted it to Rear-Admiral Wolseley, superintendant for the levy of seamen in Ireland. In addition to his setting this example to other naval officers in Ireland, he influenced Major-General Champaigne and the forces under his command to promise to subscribe their pittance, if leave could be obtained from head-quarters. If he had carried his point, this would not only have been the means of raising a very large sum for the present, but would also have established a precedent for similar united-service subscriptions on every future occasion. Jealousy, however, caused cold water to be thrown on the project; and it was even intimated to Captain O’Neill, by a high naval personage, that to propose such a thing officially would appear like dictating to the army. In the ensuing summer he saved the crew and cargo of a vessel laden on Government account, which service was thus acknowledged:

Navy Office, July 8th, 1806.

“Sir,– We approve of the award you have made to the different persons employed in saving the stores out of the Mary sloop, and you may draw upon us for the amount. We very much approve of the zeal and exertions you have manifested, not only in saving the stores, but in making the award to the several persons concerned. We are, &c.

(Signed)S. Gambier,
(Signed)F. J. Hartwell.,
(Signed)E. Bouverie.”

To Captain O’Neill, Kinsale.

This active and zealous officer was subsequently removed to the Bunowen district, county Galway, where he remained until the general breaking up of the Sea-Fencible establishments, in 1810. He married, first, in June 1799 a Miss Stuart, by whom he had three sons, viz. Charles Stuart O’Neill, the eldest, born on board the Tromp, off Madeira; served sixteen years as midshipman and master’s-mate; obtained most handsome certificates of superior talent and merit, from all his captains, together with strong recommendations for promotion, “as one who would do honor and credit to the service;” and died in command of the Cochin schooner, of 14 guns, tender to the flag-ship of Rear-Admiral Gage, on the East India station: the second son is married to a lady of fortune at Dublin; the youngest died at Scilly. Captain O’Neill married, secondly, Helena, eldest daughter of John Burke, of Derrymacloughney Castle, co. Galway, Esq. (one of the most ancient and respectable families in Ireland), and relict of Andrew French, of Rahoon, in the same county, Esq.


(See p. 312.)

Returned home from Jamaica in the Ajax 74, Captain Nicholas Charrington; and subsequently served under Captains Lambert Brabazon, Thomas Byam Martin, Robert Hall, and George Gregory; Lieutenant George Clarke Searle; Captain Robert Linzee, and Lieutenant Henry Gunter; in the Porcupine 24, Pylades, and Serpent sloops. Liberty brig, Saturn 74, and Pilote cutter ; on the Channel, West India, and Irish stations. At ihe commencement of the French revolutionary war, he successively joined the Alcide 74, Commodore R. Linzee; the Windsor Castle 98, bearing the flag of the same officer as a Rear-Admiral; and the Britannia first rate, flag-ship of Vice-Admiral Hotham. He removed from la Censeur into the Cyclops 28, Captain William Hotham, and in that frigate visited the Archipelago.

  1. A Dutch 50, armed en flûte.