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Royal Naval Biography/Purvis, John Child


JOHN CHILD PURVIS, Esq
Admiral of the Blue.


This officer is descended from a very respectable family in the county of Norfolk. His grandfather, George Purvis, was an old Post-Captain, and, at the time of his demise, one of the Commissioners of the Navy Board. Of the period of his birth, or of his entering the service, we are not in possession; but at the commencement of the war with France, in 1778[1], we find him serving on the American station, as a Lieutenant of the Invincible, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Evans, in which ship he returned to England; and on his arrival was appointed to the Britannia, a first rate, carrying the flag of Vice-Admiral Darby, with whom he remained until his promotion to the rank of Commander.

On the 19th Aug. 1782, Captain Purvis, being on a cruise off Cape Henry, in the Duc de Chartres, of 16 guns and 125 men, fell in with, and after a smart action captured, the French corvette l’Aigle, of 22 guns and 136 men, of whom 13, including their Commander, were slain, and 12 wounded. The British sloop had not a man hurt. For his gallant conduct on this occasion, Captain Purvis was posted Sept. 1, following; but peace taking place soon after, we find no further mention of him until the commencement of hostilities against the French Republic, in Feb. 1793, when he was appointed to the Amphitrite frigate, and subsequently to the Princess Royal, a second rate, in which latter ship he was ordered to Gibraltar, to receive the flag of Rear-Admiral Goodall, and from thence proceeded with the fleet under Lord Hood, to the southern coast of France.

On the 29th Aug. the fleet entered the port of Toulon, and Rear-Admiral Goodall having been appointed Governor of that town, Captain Purvis received directions to take the Princess Royal as high up the N.W. arm of the harbour, and as near the enemy’s batteries, as possible. This being done, and the ship properly placed, not a day passed in the course of the six weeks she was so stationed, without an engagement with the Republicans; and notwithstanding their works (being constructed with casks, sand-bags, fascines, &c.) were soon disabled, they invariably repaired the damages during the night, and again presented complete batteries on the ensuing morning. The Princess Royal was consequently much cut up, and had many men killed and wounded. The loss sustained by the enemy was also very considerable.

We next find Captain Purvis assisting at the reduction of St. Fiorenzo, and Bastia[2]. He likewise participated in the partial actions of March 14[3], and July 13, 1795[4]; and was subsequently employed in the blockade of a French squadron, consisting of seven ships of the line and fire frigates, in Gourjan Bay.

The Princess Royal having returned to England, was paid off in the month of Nov. 1796, and Captain Purvis soon after obtained the command of the London, another second rate, attached to the Channel Fleet. In this ship he remained near four years, under the orders of Admirals Lords Bridport, St. Vincent, and Gardner, Sir Henry Harvey, and Lord Keith.

Early in 1801, the London, in consequence of her easy draught of water, was selected to form part of the expedition destined for the Baltic, and Captain Purvis was appointed to the Royal George, of 100 guns, into which ship he removed off Ushant, and continued to command her until April 1802, on the 24th of which month she was put out of commission.

The rupture with France in 1803, again called our officer into service; and from that period until his promotion to the rank of Rear-Admiral, April 23, 1804, he commanded the Dreadnought, of 98 guns, and served under the orders of the Hon. Admiral Cornwallis, in the Channel. On the 1st June 1806, he hoisted his flag on board the Chiffone, and proceeded off Cadiz, the blockade of which port lasted two years and seven months, after his arrival on that station, one year of which it was conducted by himself during the absence of Lord Collingwood in the Mediterranean; and what is here worthy of remark, the Rear-Admiral continued at sea at one time, without ever being driven through the Gut or even letting go an anchor, for the space of nineteen months, during which period not a square rigged vessel entered or quitted the harbour, except on one occasion, when several were allowed to proceed, having regular passes from England.

In the spring of 1808, at which period Cadiz was threatened to be invested by the satellites of an adventurer, who had already usurped the throne of France, and compelled another branch of the Bourbon family to renounce his legal inheritance, Rear-Admiral Purvis and Major-General Spencer, with whom he co-operated, appear to have rendered essential service to the common cause, by establishing peace and friendship with the Supreme Council of Seville, at least as far as they had authority to go[5].

Rear-Admiral Purvis having transmitted to the Governor of Gibraltar, Lieutenant-General Sir Hew Dalrymple, the state of Cadiz, there being great commotion, and a strong disposition in the inhabitants to resist the power of France, that officer detached Major-General Spencer, with a corps under his command consisting of 2,500 men, with directions to concert with the Rear-Admiral such measures as circumstances might render necessary for the advantage of the public service. The Major-General in consequence having taken his residence with his naval co-adjutor, those officers immediately determined on circulating certain papers, with invitations to the various descriptions of persons who were most likely to accede to their desires. No reply however was returned, and on the appearance of the transports all the French and Spanish ships were moved up the Channel leading to the Caraccas. On the 18th May an address was despatched to the Marquis Solano, Governor-General of the province of Andalusia, who acknowledged the receipt of the letter, but requested no more communications of the kind should be forwarded to him. The Marquis soon afterwards fell a victim to the fury of the populace.

At length, after several long conferences and many letters had passed between the British Commanders and the leading persons of Cadiz, particularly stipulating on the part of the former, that the French ships should be made over to them as a preliminary act, a Convention was signed by each party; but nothing could induce the Spaniards to allow their new friends to interfere in the capture of those vessels, nor would they permit the English troops to take post in the vicinity of the port, declaring that they were themselves in sufficient force to reduce their quondam ally, whom they afterwards attacked, and compelled to surrender at discretion[6].

Affairs were in this state when, on the 11th June, Lord Collingwood came into the fleet, and Rear-Admiral Purvis delivered to his Lordship the despatches he had made up for the information of the Government at home.

Towards the close of the same year, the Commander-in-Chief having resumed his station off Toulon, Rear-Admiral Purvis, on the receipt of intelligence that the French had possessed themselves of Madrid, proceeded from Gibraltar to Cadiz, in the Atlas of 74 guns, in order to secure the Spanish fleet from falling into the hands of the enemy. On his arrival he found only one ship of the line and a frigate in commission, and all the others in sad disorder in every respect. His first object was to obtain permission to fit the Spanish ships and prepare them for sea, for which purpose he applied to the Governor of Cadiz, the Commandant-General of the Marine, and the Prince de Montforte, Governor-General of the province. The replies made to his letters were by no means satisfactory, except that from the Prince de Montforte, who assured the Rear-Admiral that he would without delay submit his proposal to the consideration of the Supreme Central Government of the kingdom. In consequence of this hesitation on the part of the Spanish authorities, much time was wasted before the ships could be fitted for service; however, the necessary orders being at length issued, and a large supply of cables and cordage brought from the stores at Gibraltar, all those which were deemed seaworthy were rigged and brought down from the Caraccas by the British seamen; the remainder wre appropriated for the reception of the French prisoners, there being at that time confined in them and at Isle Leon, nearly 13,000 sailors and soldiers of that nation.

On the 23d Jan. 1810, Vice-Admiral Purvis[7] learnt that the French had forced the passes and were marching in great force towards Cadiz, whereupon he obtained the Governor’s consent to his blowing up the forts and batteries along the east side of the harbour, a measure which he had before proposed without effect. On the 7th March following, during the prevalence of a heavy gale of wind, a Spanish three-decker and two third rates, together with a Portugueze 74, were driven on shore on the east side of the harbour, and there destroyed by the hot shot from the enemy’s batteries.

Fort Matagorda having been garrisoned by British soldiers, seamen, and marines, the French on the 21st April opened their masked batteries at Trocadero, and commenced a heavy fire on it and the San Paula, which ship had been officered and manned by the English. The latter was in a very short time on fire in several places, occasioned by the hot shot; but the wind being easterly she cut her cables, ran to leeward of the fleet, and by great exertions the flames were extinguished. The fort was bravely defended by Captain Maclaine of the 94th regiment, until it became a heap of rubbish, when the garrison was brought off by the boats of the men of war. On the 28th of the same month, Admiral Sir Charles Cotton arrived at Cadiz in the Lively frigate, on his way to the Mediterranean,to assume the command of the fleet on that station, vacant by the recent demise of the gallant Collingwood[8].

At this period Vice-Admiral Purvis had an application from the British minister, to put in execution a plan proposed by Admiral Valdez, to make an attack on the enemy’s works, with the ships of his Britannic Majesty. Our officer replied, that the risk of their destruction was too great to allow him to acquiesce, the effect of the hot shot lately experienced, independent of what he had seen on other occasions, being sufficient to deter him from the trial; but nevertheless, if the Regency placed so much dependence on the success of the enterprize, and would direct as many of their ships to be placed at his disposal, he would man them and hold himself responsible for their being rendered as effective on the service required as if they had been British ships. On the very day Sir Charles Cotton arrived at Cadiz, the Vice-Admiral received another application respecting the employment of the vessels under his orders against the batteries, which he submitted to the Commander-in-Chief, who desired him to say he was clearly of opinion that an attack on the well constructed field works of Trocadero, by the ships, could not have the effect which Admiral Valdez had stated in his plan, whilst the ships must necessarily be exposed to almost certain destruction. Soon after the termination of this correspondence, the Vice-Admiral returned to England, after serving four years on the Cadiz station, the principal part of which time he was employed, first in blockading, and afterwards in contributing to the defence of that important place. He became a full Ad- Aug. 12, 1819.

Our officer married, Aug. 2, 1804, Elizabeth, daughter of the late Admiral Sir Archibald Dickson, Bart., and relict of William Dickson, Esq., a Captain in the 22d regiment of foot, who died at St. Domingo, in the year 1795. By a former marriage the Admiral has a son, who was promoted to the rank of Post Captain in 1809, and some time since commanded the Magicienne frigate, on the East India station.

Residence.– Vicar’s Hall House, Lymington, co. Hants.

  1. On the 6th Feb. 1778, the definitive articles of a treaty of alliance between France and the American colonists were signed at Paris, by which the absolute sovereignty and independence of the Thirteen United States of America were unequivocally recognized; and on the 13th March, the French Ambassador to the Court of St. James’s delivered in a declaration from his Cabinet, in which the independence proclaimed by the Americans in July 1776, was stated as a justification to France for beginning to form a connexion with the new Republic, and for consolidating it by a treaty of friendship and commerce. A desire was professed of cultivating a good understanding with Great Britain; but it was also intimated, that the French Monarch having determined to protect the lawful commerce of his subjects, and to maintain the dignity of his Flag, had taken measures for that purpose, in concert with the United States. A copy of this declaration was laid before Parliament on the l7th March, and on the 27th hostilities with France commenced in the usual mode, of seizing all vessels belonging to that nation found in British ports.
  2. See Admiral W. Wolseley.
  3. In this action the Princess Royal had 3 men killed, and 8 wounded. The Ca Ira, of 80 guns, one of the French ships captured on this occasion, surrendered to her, after being warmly engaged with several others of the British line. An account of the skirmish will be found under the head of Vice-Admiral Sir Davidge Gould.
  4. See Admiral Sir John Sutton, and p. 159.
  5. Napoleon Buonaparte, by a series of almost incredible events, had, at the above mentioned period, obtained a cession of the Spanish monarchy from Charles IV and his son Ferdinand VII; and having sent them with the whole of their family into places of security in France, had given the crown to his brother Joseph, whom he had formerly made King of Naples, but whose place on the Neapolitan throne he now filled with his brother-in-law Joachim Murat. As soon as the French usurpation was known, an explosion of indignant patriotism burst forth in the mass of people from one extremity of Spain to the other, which, as might be expected, at first displayed itself in some atrocities, but at length subsided in a settled and determinate purpose of resistance. Provincial juntas, or assemblies, were in many parts established, which gave a regular organization to the popular efforts; among which the supreme junta of Seville took the lead, and on the 6th June, proclaimed Ferdinand VII, and war with France. Peace with Spain was published in London on the 5th of the following mouth; the Spanish prisoners were liberated, clothed, and sent to join their countrymen; the British arsenals furnished all the warlike means that could be desired; to the public aids afforded or promised, private subscriptions were added; and one spirit in favor of Spanish independence seemed to animate the whole island. Portugal, which had been overrun by the French armies, caught the flame of patriotic enthusiasm, and made common cause with Spain; and a league offensive and defensive between the two nations was signed at Oporto, on the 14th July.
  6. The French squadron at Cadiz consisted of five ships of the line and out frigate, under the orders of a Flag-Officer.
  7. He had been advanced to that rank, Oct. 25, in the preceding year.
  8. Lord Collingwood died on board his flag-ship, the Ville de Paris, March 7, 1810, two days after his departure from Minorca, on his return to England for the recovery of his health, which had long been in a very reduced state. A portrait and biographical memoir of this estimable and distinguished officer will be found in the fifteenth volume of the Naval Chronicle, p. 353, et seq. His Lordship’s remains were deposited in the very stone coffin which Cardinal Wolsey had prepared for himself. It had remained, as lumber, in a room adjoining St. George’s Chapel, Windsor; and for its last purpose was given as a present by his late Majesty.