Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Owen, Edward William Campbell Rich

[Post-Captain of 1798.]

Knight Commander of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; Commodore, and Commander-in-Chief on the West India station.

This officer is the son of a Captain, R.N., who lost an arm in the service of his country. We truly regret that the Commodore’s absence on a foreign station prevents us from applying for the necessary memoranda, wherewith to frame a correct memoir of so distinguished an officer: we shall, however, endeavour to do justice to his merits, at least as far as the materials in our possession will enable us.

He was educated at Chelsea; made a Lieutenant in 1793; and advanced to the rank of Post-Captain, April 23, 1798. In the course of the same year, if we mistake not, he commanded the Northumberland 74, in the Chanael and Mediterranean; and in 1801, the Nemesis of 28 guns, on the North Sea station. His next appointment was to l’Immortalité frigate, about May, 1802; and, soon after the renewal of the war, we find that ship, in company with the Julousc and Cruiser sloops of war, driving le Commode and l’Inabordable, a French brig and schooner, each mounting 4 guns, on shore near Cape Blanc Nez, where they were taken possession of by the boats of the squadron, under a heavy fire from the enemy’s batteries.

The only operation of any consequence, at all connected with the navy, that occurred on the home station during the year 1803, was the bombardment of Granville, Dieppe, and St. Valery en Caux; the two latter places, by a small force under the orders of Captain Owen, hut without any material effect. There was, however, not the slightest blame to be attributed to any person engaged; on the contrary, it evinced the spirit of the officers and men of the British ships, and drew forth applause and approbation on their respective commanders. The following is a copy of Captain Owen’s report to Lord Keith, dated Sept. 14.

“In obedience to the orders of Rear-Admiral Montagu, I, at eight o’clock this morning, in company with the Perseus and Explosion bombs, commenced an attack on the batteries which protect the town of Dieppe, and vessels building there, in number seventeen.

“The firing was continued on both sides till past eleven, when the lee-tide making strong, and the town having taken fire badly in one place, and slightly in two others, I caused the bombs to weigh, and proceeded with them off St. Valery en Caux, where they are constructing six vessels; and at 3 P.M. opened our fire on that place for an hour. The enemy was for the most part driven from their batteries, the inhabitants flying to the country, and judging from the direction in which many of the shells burst, they must have suffered much.

“On a service of this nature, we cannot expect to escape unhurt: I have, however, pleasure in reporting, that, although the enemy’s fire, especially from Dieppe, which is very strong in batteries, was heavy and well-directed, and many of their shot took effect, our loss has been but small. The Perseus has one man missing, and the serjeant of artillery is wounded. The boatswain of this ship and three seamen were bruised by splinters, but did not leave their quarters: the other damage, but that not material, is confined chiefly to the rigging.

“The manner of executing my instructions, and the judgment shewn in placing and managing the bomb-vessels, entitle Captains Methuist and Paul to my best and warmest thanks; their conduct has been every thing I could wish: and they speak highly of the officers and detachments of the royal artillery embarked with them, as well as of the officers and men of their respective crews. My opinion of the first Lieutenant of this ship, C. F. Payne, is already known to your Lordship; and his conduct this day, as well as that of the other Lieutenants, officers, and men, without exception, has fully justified the reports I have made to your Lordship concerning them on former occasions.”

From this period, Captain Owen kept the French coast in a continual state of alarm; and l’Immortalité was well known to the inhabitants for the daring manner in which, in spite of banks and batteries, she approached their shores. The next official report we find of his proceedings, was made to Rear-Admiral Louis, July 20, 1804, and couched in the following terms:

“The wind yesterday set in strong from the N.E. by N., and made so much sea that the enemy’s vessels in the road of Boulogne became very uneasy; and about 8 P.M. the leewardmost brigs began to get under weigh, and work to windward; whilst some of the luggers ran down apparently for Staples: their force was then forty-five brigs and forty-three luggers. I made a signal to look out on these vessels, which was immediately obeyed by the Harpy, Bloodhound, and Archer, who closed with them, giving their fire to such as attempted to stand off from the land. The Autumn was at this time getting under weigh, and lost no time in giving her support to the vessels already on this service, and continued with them during the whole weather tide, firing from time to time on such of the enemy’s vessels as gave them opportunity. At day-light this morning, there were nineteen brigs and eight luggers only remaining in the bay; and about six o’clock these began to slip single, and run to the southward for Etaples, or the river Soraine, the Autumn and brigs being then too far to leeward to give them any interruption. As soon as the tide permitted this ship and the Leda to weigh, we stood in for Boulogne, when I perceived that a brig, a lugger, and several large boats, were stranded on the beach west of the harbour: the enemy were shipping and endeavouring to save from them what they could, but I have not a doubt the running tide would complete their destruction. Three other brigs and a lugger were on the rocks near the village of Portée, totally destroyed. A brig and two luggers remained at anchor close to the rocks, with wafts up, and the people huddled together abaft; the brig had lost her top-masts and lower yards, and one of the luggers the head of her main-mast; the sea was making a perfect breach over them, and if the gale continues her situation is hopeless.

“The merits of Captains Jackson and Heywood, as well as those of Lieutenants Richardson and Price, are so well known to you, that I need only say, they acted with the same decisive promptness they have always shewn; and though the night prevented my seeing all that passed, there cannot be a doubt but their well-timed attack caused the enemy’s confusion, and occasioned much of their loss, which, taking every circumstance into consideration, is I doubt not, far beyond what fell within our observation. I have not yet been able to collect the reports of these officers, but will forward them the moment they join me.”

In the French version of this affair,, no mention is made of the presence of the British. All is ascribed to the fury of the gale, which did, indeed, play havoc among the enemy’s flotilla. The exact number of gun-vessels that foundered, or were stranded, is not stated; but the account admits, that upwards of 400 soldiers went down in the former, and that a great many perished with the latter. Napoleon Buonaparte was a spectator of the scene, and, if we are to credit the French writers, evinced much sensibility on the occasion. He, no doubt, was taught a lesson by the disaster: seeing that the British cruisers were not all he had to fear, in his attempt to invade Great Britain.

Boulogne being the head-quarters of the grand armament preparing for that purpose, occupied a due share of our attention. The British squadron that cruised off that place in August, 1804, was under the orders of Rear-Admiral Louis, whose flag was flying on board the Leopard of 50 guns. The main body usually lay at anchor, in fifteen fathoms water, about ten miles N.W. of the port; and a division of five or six vessels, commanded by Captain Owen, generally cruised just out of the range of the enemy’s shells, which were fired from mortars brought down to the beach during the ebbing of the tide. On the 25th of that month, an unusual degree of bustle prevailed in the road of Boulogne, which then contained no less than one hundred and forty-six armed vessels of different descriptions. At 1h 45’ P.M. a division of this flotilla got under weigh, and worked up towards Pointe Bombe, where the Cruiser, an 18-gun brig, lay at anchor. This was probably done to amuse Buonaparte, who nine days previously, had presided at the grand ceremony of distributing to his troops encamped at Boulogne and Montreuil, the cross of the Legion of Honor. In a short time a firing commenced between the parties, and soon brought Captain Owen to the spot; who, at about 2h 30’ opened his broadside at the gunvessels, and received in return a heavy fire from the batteries on the edge of the cliff. One shot only struck the Immortalité, and did no great injury. It now became necessary to haul further from the shore; and having done so, he hove-to about three miles in the offing. On the following day, a second division of gun and mortar-vessels weighed, and, joining their friends between Vimereux and Ambleteuse, formed a total of sixty brigs and more than thirty luggers. Napoleon himself, it appears, was at this time in the road in his barge, attended by two of his Generals and Admiral Bruix. At 4 P.M., the Immortalité, Harpy sloop of war, Adder gun-brig, and Constitution cutter, made sail towards the flotilla, and in a quarter of an hour afterwards opened their fire; but the gun-vessels kept near the shore, purposely to draw the British within reach of the land batteries. There was no withstanding the temptation; and Captain Owen, with his three companions, tacked and stood in, within three quarters of a mile of the batteries, which kept up an incessant fire. As if that were not enough to preserve the gun-vessels from capture, the greater part of those in the road weighed and proceeded to their assistance. At about 5 o’clock, a shell fell into and sunk the Constitution, but without injuring the crew, all of whom were picked up by the boats of their friends. This little vessel had been setting a noble example, both by the boldness of her advance and the skilful manner in which she plied her small artillery. A shell also fell on board the Harpy, and killed one of her crew, but did not explode. The Immortalité was twice struck by shot in the hull, and had 4 men slightly wounded. The British squadron now hauled off, whilst some of the French vessels were compelled to run on shore on account of the shot-holes in their hulls; and the remainder bore up for the road of Boulogne. On the two succeeding days some slight skirmishes took place, but nothing decisive could be effected on account of the batteries; nor was any injury done to Captain Owen’s division, beyond a wound in the Cruiser’s bowsprit.

We have dwelt thus long on events which to some of our readers may appear too trivial to require so minute a detail; but let it be remembered, that they had the salutary effect of teaching the French despot what the gales of the British Channel, and our cruisers, would do with his flotilla, if it fell in the way of either.

On the 23d Oct. following, Captain Owen being off Cape Grisnez, about 3 h 30’ P.M. discovered three praams, seven brigs, and fifteen luggers, which soon after bore up to the westward, keeping close to the beach, under cover of their batteries, and accompanied by horse artillery, making the best of their way to shelter themselves within the Banc de Laine. By making all sail to windward he was enabled to close the praams about a quarter before five, and to open his fire upon them within the distance of grape-shot, under the high land of Cape Blanc Nez, the Orestes sloop and Basilisk gun-brig joining in the attack, the enemy still pushing to the westward, and returning at first a brisk fire, but it latterly slackened much. This running fight continued till near six o’clock, when, having been thrice obliged to sheer out into deeper water, Captain Owen found himself still within the end of the Bane de Laine, where the falling tide prevented him from following them, and obliged him to haul off, with the loss of 1 man slain, and a Lieutenant and 10 men wounded, 3 of whom died soon after. Captain Owen, in his letter to the Rear-Admiral, says, “from the manner in which our grape-shot covered the enemy’s vessels, their loss in men must have been very great – I never saw guns pointed better, or so coolly.” Early in the ensuing year the Immortalité captured El Entrepreda Conine, a Spanish privateer, of 14 guns and 66 men.

The following letter, which never appeared in the London Gazette, records the particulars of an action with a part of the Boulogne flotilla on the 18th July 1805.

“Sir,– In consequence of the information brought me by the Bruizer, which I had the honor to communicate to you this morning, I moved, with the detachment under my orders, to windward of Cape Gregory, in readiness for attacking the enemy’s vessels, should they give opportunity, by pursuing their course towards Boulogne.

“About half past three I perceived their flotilla steering along shore: our Calais squadron was then standing for them, and opened their fire about 4h 30’ P.M. abreast of Cape Blanc Nez. The force of the enemy consisted of three praam ships under French, and twenty-two large schooners under Dutch colours. These latter had drawn themselves into a line, and were about half-a-mile a-head of the praams. I therefore made a signal for the brigs of my detachment to attack this part of their force, which was done about five o’clock, most handsomely, by the Watchful, Pincher, Sparkler, and Arab; Captain Maxwell of the latter pushing in-shore with the brigs, whilst he found water barely sufficient to keep his ship afloat. They were also joined by the Jackall, and two other brigs of the Calais squadron, whose names I do not know, which were previously engaged with them; and the other brigs of my detachment pushed in as they came up from to leeward.

"The junction of the Calais squadron about this time brought our ships, of which a great number had collected, very close together; and as we had already a force fully sufficient engaged with the enemy, I hauled out, making the signal for open order, and calling off the Hebe, Utile, and Diligence; at the same time directing the brigs to chase and engage the enemy close. In consequence of this signal, the Arab and gun-brigs pressed close upon the enemy’s schooners. In passing Cape Grisnez, three of them had already grounded, and struck on the Banc de Laine. Two others ran ashore between Cape Grisnez and St. John, to keep themselves from sinking; and several others seemed cut up in their rigging, and thrown into great confusion.

“The three praams having at length cleared the channel, were passing within the Banc. I stood for them, and at half-past six brought them to a tolerable close action, which continued with some little intermission, occasioned by the difficulty of keeping a-stern with them, till half-past seven, when we were abreast of Ambleteuse, where the praams anchored with the schooners already arrived. We were followed in this attack by the Hebe and Diligence, who availed themselves of every opportunity to join in it. I cannot particularize the number of ships which joined and occasionally fired upon the enemy; but the commander of that squadron will of course make his report to Vice-Admiral Holloway.

“Of the detachment under me, I feel it my duty to report my most perfect satisfaction: all were anxious and eager to seize every opportunity which presented itself for closing with the enemy. The situation of Captain Maxwell of the Arab, and Lieutenants Marshall and Aberdour, of the Watchful and Pincher, enabled them to do this most conspicuously; and I am sure with the greatest effect. Nothing could excel the Arab, whose draught of water made her closing with thetn still more difficult.

“Of the conduct of Lieutenant Marshall on former occasions I have had to speak, and you, Sir, know full well the high opinion I had of this most estimable officer. It was his fate to fall; and no one could fall more admired, or more regretted. I can say nothing which will do justice to my feeling of his merit; his vessel was still conducted well by the Sub-Lieutenant.

“My own ship’s company and officers acted fully up to every good opinion I had formed of them; they were cool and steady. I have so frequently spoken of Lieutenant Payne’s merits, that it is needless to say more than that I had his assistance: he and every officer was what I have always found them. Mr. Taper, the Master, merits my warmest approbation, for the coolness and steadiness with which he directed the ship’s course along shore.

“Of the enemy’s loss in such an action it is impossible to judge; but from the direction of the shot, and every thing of which I could form a supposition, it must have been very great. I have the honour to be, Sir,

“Your most obedient humble Servant,
(Signed)E. W. C. R. Owen.”

To Billy Douglas, Esq.
Rear-Admiral of the White

The Immortalité on this occasion had her fore-mast, main-top-mast, spanker-boom, and three boats shot through; her rigging and sails much cut; her hull struck in several places; two carronades disabled; 4 men killed and 12 wounded, several of them severely. The damages sustained by her consorts, will be noticed in the memoirs of their respective commanders or senior surviving officers.

The decisive trial that was intended to have been made of Mr. Congreve’s rockets, in Nov. 1805, having been thwarted by the too advanced season of the year, the ensuing winter was employed in preparations for returning to the charge in the spring: but this attempt was almost as ill-fated as the first. No sooner was all in readiness at the proper season, than negociations for peace were act on foot, and the passage of our Plenipotentiary was counted a sufficient reason for tacitly suspending hostilities against Boulogne, and the summer of 1806 was consequently consumed in the journies of messengers; till at length, on the 8th Oct., the Earl of Lauderdale being then known to have quitted Paris re infecta, Captain Owen, who had some time before hoisted a broad pendant in the Clyde frigate[1], was tempted not to lose a favorable coincidence of wind, weather, and tide, far from frequent on that station so late in the autumn. Accordingly, on the evening of that day, boats, armed in an appropriate manner, took their stations in Boulogne Bay, to the number of eighteen.

Notwithstanding the want of expertness naturally attendant upon a first apprenticeship, not less than 200 rockets were discharged in half an hour; and in about ten minutes the town appeared on fire: while such was the panic on shore, that scarcely a shot was returned from the batteries. The nature and extent of the mischief could never be thoroughly ascertained: it was reported, however, that some vessels in the harbour were destroyed; and it is certain that a considerable range of buildings, apparently barracks or store-houses, were burnt – the fire could not, from its duration, have been trifling, having blazed from two A.M. till the evening. The ruins of eight buildings were discernible from the Clyde; and from the extreme jealousy with which Lord Lauderdale and his retinue were guarded on passing through the town a few days afterwards, there is reason to believe the ravages were serious, and more extensive than met the eye on board Commodore Owen’s squadron[2]. It was only to be regretted that the conflagration had not taken effect more to the right, where the bulk of the flotilla lay: nevertheless, the efficiency of the weapon, and the vulnerability of Boulogne, were completely shewn; since it could not be doubted that what had destroyed houses of substantial masonry, would have annihilated shipping, crowded together in a dock, had it fallen amongst them: besides, as the part of the town burnt was more remote from the boats than the basin, the range of the rockets was also demonstrated beyond a doubt; and lastly, the facility of using this weapon in small craft afloat was satisfactorily proved. The effect produced by it at Copenhagen in the following year, produced a general conviction of its powers.

From this period we find no particular mention of our officer until the month of August 1809, when he assisted at the siege of Flushing. The following are extracts from Sir Richard Strachan’s despatches to the Admiralty, announcing the capture and evacuation of that place:

St. Domingo, Flushing Roads, Aug. 17th.

“The bombs and gun-vessels, under the direction of Captain Cockburn of the Belleisle, were moat judiciously placed at the S.E. end of the town; and to the S.W., Captain Owen of the Clyde, had, with equal skill and judgment, placed the bomb and other vessels under his orders. I had much satisfaction in witnessing the fire that was kept up by the squadrons under the commands of these two officers, and the precision with which the shells were thrown from the bombs.

“This squadron was led in by the St. Domingo, bearing my flag, and I was followed by the Blake, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Lord Gardner; the other ships advanced in succession. Soon after we had opened our fire, the wind came more southerly, and the St. Domingo grounded inside of the Dog Sand. Lord Gardner not knowing our situation, passed inside of us, by which the Blake also grounded. The other ships were immediately directed to haul off, and anchor as previously intended.

“After being some time in this situation, during which the enemy’s fire slackened, by the active and zealous exertions of Captain Owen of the Clyde, who came to our assistance, and anchored close to the St. Domingo, she was got off, and soon after I had the satisfaction of seeing the Blake also afloat, and come to anchor with the rest of the squadron.”

Blake, in Flushing Roads, Dec. 13, 1809.

“In addition to my despatch of this morning, I have now to transmit a letter, and an extract of one I have just received from Commodore Owen: every time I hear from that gallant and animated officer, I have fresh cause to admire his conduct.

“I propose, as soon as I have made my final arrangements at Flushing, to leave this command with Rear-Admiral Otway, and proceed to the Vere Gat, to communicate with Commodore Owen.”

St. Domingo, in the Downs, Dec. 28.

“It is with great pleasure I inform you of the arrival of Commodore Owen in the Clyde, who gives me the pleasing intelligence of the divisions under his command and that of Captain Mason, having sailed from the East and West Scheldt, and are by this time at the mouth of the Thames, if not at the places of their respective destination: I enclose the Commodore’s report of his proceedings. It is my duty to draw their Lordships’ attention to the excellent conduct of Commodore Owen in the discharge of the various and arduous duties he had to perform; and I beg, in the most earnest manner, to recommend to their Lordships’ notice, the zeal, bravery, and perseverance of the captains, officers, and seamen, composing the flotilla under the Commodore’s orders[3].

We next find Commodore Owen with his broad pendant on board the Inconstant frigate, in the Gulf of Mexico, where that dreadful scourge the yellow fever appears to have carried off many of his officers and crew, about the month of April 1811. He subsequently commanded the Cornwall of 74 guns, employed in the North Sea; and at the close of 1813, distinguished himself by his exemplary conduct at the head of the Royal Marines, landed from the British fleet to co-operate with the Dutch royalists in the island of South Beveland, which was soon freed from the presence of their quondam allies.

For some time after the termination of hostilities, our officer commanded a royal yacht. He was nominated a K.C.B. Jan. 2, 1815; obtained a Colonelcy of Royal Marines, July 19, 1821; and in Nov. 1822, was ordered to hoist a broad pendant on board the Gloucester of 74 guns, in which ship he proceeded to the West Indies, where he still continues. The House of Assembly at Jamaica, has recently passed a vote of thanks to him for his prompt attention to the commercial and naval interests, charing the period of his, command on that station.

Agents.– Messrs. Maude.

  1. Broad pendants were first ordered to he worn by officers commanding squadrons as Commodores, in the year 1674.
  2. In order to relieve the compunctious visitings of such cosmopolite patriots as reserve their philanthropic sympathies for the enemies of their country, be it known, that the destruction of the town formed no part of that project, nor was it wantonly attempted: but the precise situation of the flotilla basin not being visible from the cruising station, owing to the interposition of rising ground on the western side of the harbour, the rockets were thrown by guess in the dark, rather too much to the eastward.
  3. Commodore Owen’s report, alluded to in the foregoing letter, will be found at length in the Nav. Chron. v. 23, pp. 78, 79, 82, et seq. For a great variety of naval state papers relating to the expedition, see id. pp. 113 to 135; 200 to 241; 301 to 308; and 423 to 428. The preceding vol. abounds with Gazette letters written by the different naval and military commanders during its progress.