Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Ricketts, William

[Post-Captain of 1802.]

The subject of this memoir commenced his naval career under the patronage of Sir John Jervis, afterwards Earl of St Vincent; served as a Midshipman on board that officer’s flag-ship, during the Spanish armament, in 1790; arid was made a Lieutenant by him into the Woolwich 44, when proceeding to the attack of the French West India colonies, at the latter end of 1793; previous to which he had acted in a similar capacity on board the Queen, an armed vessel, employed on the Leith station.

During the operations carried on against the enemy in the island of Martinique, Mr. Ricketts served on shore with the naval battalion, commanded by Captain Josias Rogers, whom he accompanied to the memorable assault of Fort Royal, on the 20th March 1794[1]. He subsequently received an appointment as first Lieutenant to the same officer, and proceeded with him in the Quebec, of 32 guns, to the coast of America, where he was ohliged to quit that ship for the purpose of recruiting his health. In 1798, we find him serving as first Lieutenant of l’Aigle frigate, on the Lisbon station; and afterwards re-joining his noble patron in the Ville de Paris, a first rate; from whence he was promoted to the command of El Corso, a brig mounting 18 guns, about the autumn of 1799.

El Corso formed part of the squadron under Lord Nelson at the capture of le Généreux, a French 74, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Perree, and a large armed transport; the former having a number of troops on board, and the latter laden with stores, provisions, &c., for the relief of Malta, in Feb. 1800.

The French army was at this time in possession of Egypt; and Napoleon Buonaparte, feeling it necessary to conciliate the Bashaw of Tripoli, had sent an emissary with some rich presents to that chieftain’s court; and had so far succeeded in his views as to cause the dismissal of Mr. Lucas, the British Consul General, whose return at any future period was positively forbidden by the barbarian government. Lord Nelson, however, conceiving that the re-establishment of the same functionary was intimately blended with the dignity of Great Britain, no sooner heard of that gentleman’s arrival at Palermo, than he instructed him to prepare for his immediate return, and selected El Corso for his conveyance to Tripoli; a circumstance which produced a strong remonstrance from Mr. Lucas on the inadequacy of that vessel’s force for the accomplishment of a service which he himself supposed would require the presence of a strong squadron, and an officer of very commanding rank. “My Lord,” said he, “the cruelty and perfidy of those barbarians can only be restrained by their fears; and you force me to return to a place where my life is threatened, not with a squadron, not even in a frigate, but simply in a small brig.” “I know it,” replied Nelson, coolly, “I know what I am about; we do not want a squadron at this time to blow the Bashaw’s palace about his head, we want only the British flag, and an officer who has sense enough not to commit himself in new circumstances, and spirit sufficient to repeat what I say when he arrives. Let Buonaparte send his diamonds and his legions; I send the representative of the British nation, and the British flag.” “It will not do, my Lord,” exclaimed Mr. Lucas; “you know not the man; his hands have been already dipped in the blood of his father and brother; he will think it an insult that I am forced upon him in a brig of 18 guns.” “Let him,” returned his lordship, “and what then?” “I shall have the bow-string at my throat,” said the Consul in a mournful tone. “Let him,” repeated the hero, energetically, while fire seemed to flash from his eye; “only let him, I say, do that I wish he would.” “My Lord!” exclaimed Mr. Lucas with astonishment. “Let him, I say,” his lordship added, “and we will have a glorious burning pile.” Then turning to Captain Ricketts, and handing him the copy of a letter which he had written to the Bashaw, with an intimation that he was to guide himself by its contents, he directed him to put the original into the Bashaw’s own hands, and to see that Mr. Lucas was fully reinstated in his office. “This,” said his lordship, “must be complied with; and at all events, nothing but force is to prevent you from landing him in the town; then let the Bashaw do his worst: but do not fail to tell him, in a way he cannot misunderstand, that the British Consul must be honorably received, or I and my fleet will soon be there.

In compliance with the orders of his determined chief, Captain Ricketts proceeded on his delicate mission, accompanied by Mr. Lucas, whose alarm did not subside until he was convinced that the menace of the British Admiral had made a salutary impression upon the mind of the Bashaw, who after some hesitation consented to receive him in his former capacity, with all due honours.

It should here be remarked, that the difficulties which Captain Ricketts had to encounter were greatly aggravated by the desertion of two of his crew, who took shelter in the palace of the Bashaw’s mother, and declared their resolution to become Mahometans; but who were given up to him on his making a peremptory demand to that effect.

The address displayed by Captain Ricketts throughout his negociation with the Bashaw, relative to Mr. Lucas, induced Lord Nelson to send him a second time to Tripoli, on a business of much delicacy, which he executed with nearly equal success. Whilst thus employed it became necessary, from diplomatic considerations, for him to give a dinner to the different Consuls residing at that place, and to invite some of the Bashaw’s principal officers. Among the latter was the Admiral of his ships, a Scotch renegade, who, after drinking very freely, began to boast of his many successful enterprises; and added, with furious imprecations, that the brightest prospect of his life had been forfeited by his own cursed delicacy. This prospect, it appears, was his share of the ransom that would have accrued from the seizure of the King of Naples, whom he had once discovered amusing himself in a fishing boat without guards, at a considerable distance from Palermo; and the delicacy alluded to was his abstaining from making that monarch a captive, at a time when Naples and Tripoli were at peace. This circumstance he had communicated to the Bashaw; who, so far from feeling a similar sentiment of delicacy, expressed considerable anger on the occasion, and sternly charged him never again to let any thing stand in the way of his capturing a King, and thereby securing a royal ransom. With this splendid project still in view, the Admiral had his flag then flying on board an English built merchant vessel, armed with upwards of 20 guns, and intended on all occasions, when near Palermo, to sail under British colours, hoping that fortune would again favour him with a sight of the illustrious fisherman. This momentous intelligence was communicated at the earliest opportunity to Commodore Troubridge, who undertook to apprise the King of his danger; but we cannot venture to say positively that it contributed to save that august personage from so great a calamity as captivity in Barbary; for although we have been told that he afterwards followed his favorite amusement with greater caution, it is quite certain that not the slightest thanks for information respecting the pirate’s project were ever transmitted to Captain Ricketts; which appears the more extraordinary, as his Majesty’s gratitude was subsequently evinced by the distribution of rings, snuff-boxes, and honorary titles, on a variety of less important occasions.

We shall conclude this part of our memoir of Captain Ricketts by observing, that during his visits to Tripoli he had frequent interviews with the ruler of that province, who appeared remarkably solicitous to show him every public honor, and entered into conversation with him, not only with the frankness of equality, but with what appeared to be the novel delight of meeting a young man, whose conversation seemed totally uninfluenced by any considerations of his grandeur, his prejudices, or his power. The Bashaw, though his hands had been so deeply stained in blood, as before stated, was himself little more than thirty years of age, of a fine commanding person, open countenance, and generally frank manner.

Captain Ricketts was subsequently employed in the blockade of Genoa; and on one occasion we find him dispersing a convoy laden with grain, for the use of the famishing garrison; an event which greatly accelerated the fall of that important city[2]. He also rendered an important service to the army under Sir Ralph Abercromby, by giving that General timely information of the disastrous turn of affairs occasioned by the battle of Marengo, and cautioning him of the danger he would have incurred by continuing his course towards the Genoese capital, which had been re-occupied by the French, and from whence he was but a short distance when fallen in with by El Corso.

The subject of this memoir was next employed by Lord Keith as senior officer in the Adriatic. His early proceedings on that station are thus officially related by himself:

El Corso, Ancona, Aug. 28, 1800.

“My Lord, In compliance with your order to destroy the vessels in the harbour, and make a proper example of the town of Ceseuatico, I proceeded with his Majesty’s cutter the Pigmy, off that port; but, finding it impossible to get within grape-shot of the mole, was under the necessity of deferring the attempt till the night of the 26th, when the boats of both vessels, under the orders of Lieutenant Yeo, first of El Corso, proceeded to Cesenatico, and soon after day-light I perceived them in possession of the town, successfully maintaining a position against some French troops in the neighbourhood; but, about eight, observing a party of horse in full speed from Cervia, I judged it prudent to call them immediately on board, though not before we had the satisfaction of seeing that the gallantry of Lieutenant Yeo, aided by Mr. Douglas, Master of the Pigmy, had been crowned with the fullest success, the vessels and harbour at that time forming but one flame; and, that the intent of this enterprise might not be lost on the coast, I shortly afterwards sent in the attached note. I have the honor likewise to enclose the report of Lieutenant Yeo, and remain, &c. &c.

(Signed)W. Ricketts.”

To the Right Hon. Vice-Admiral
Lord Keith.

“To the Inhabitants of Cesenatico.

“The treachery of your municipality, in causing to be arrested an officer with despatches, has been long known to the British Admiral in these seas. The municipality may now sadly know, that the severity of judgment, long delayed, is always exemplary. That the innocent suffer with the guilty, though much to be regretted, is the natural feature of war; and the more terrible infliction on this occasion, the more striking the example should prove to surrounding muucipalities.

(Signed)W. Ricketts.”


“Of thirteen vessels of different descriptions lying within the mole of Cesenatico, two were sunk and eleven burnt, one of them deeply laden with copper money and bale goods; the harbour choked by the wreck of four, sunk in the mouth of it, and both piers entirely consumed.

(Signed)J. L. Yeo.”

For this service Captain Ricketts received the thanks of Lord Keith; a letter of approbation from the Board of Admiralty: and a congratulatory epistle from the Austrian General Melas; whilst his success at one time promised to be productive of very important results. The people of the Cisalpine states, irritated and disgusted by the pillage and impiety of the French, had it seems come to a resolution of throwing off their yoke, and by a general massacre freeing themselves as they hoped for ever from Gallic tyranny; but as to those views they confessedly united the splendid and alluring project of establishing the independence of their country, fears were justly entertained by the leaders of the insurrection that insurmountable obstacles would be thrown in their way by the Austrians; and to obviate this difficulty, they were desirous at this moment of obtaining the protection of the British flag. For that purpose some of their chiefs entered the town of Ancona in disguise, obtained an interview with Captain Ricketts, and after a few preliminary precautions, explicitly opened to him the whole of their plans, which were in substance the pouring down, at an appointed time, large bodies of men from the Appenines, divided into three columns, whose march in the first instance would be directed against as many principal cities, where the inhabitants on their approach were prepared to rise and massacre all the French, who were to be found in office, or bearing arms, and then instantly to proclaim their independence, which they doubted not would spread a similar spirit like wild fire over all the states of Italy. With the government of Great Britain there was not time to communicate, neither did they wish for any present supply of men, arms, or money, their sole object being the protection of a flag, which would at least neutralize the conduct of the Austrians, and give confidence to their partizans at the general rising; but this they conceived could not be effected unless Captain Ricketts was personally among them, and ostensibly their leader; and they proposed that one of his officers should hold an important command wherever the British colours were displayed; concluding with a positive assurance that large bodies of men were already collected in the mountains, and that the lower classes of the people were generally prepared, and every where ardently disposed to rise.

Considering the safety of El Corso as of very little moment, when compared with the important consequences that might result from encouraging this insurrection, Captain Ricketts scarcely hesitated a moment to take on himself the responsibility of the measure; but he naturally required some proofs of the existence of so extensive a conspiracy, beyond the mere assertions of four titter strangers; nor could he under any circumstances authorise so shocking a retaliation as that contemplated by them. After some discussion, in a second interview, it was agreed that the French and their partizans not actually opposing themselves in arms against the insurrectionists, should be spared; and generally, that all those opposed to the rising of the people should be considered as prisoners of war. To obviate the other objection respecting; the authority and means of the negociators, a plan of attack was agreed on, in which the officers and seamen of El Corso could co-operate, without the British flag being committed in any way inconsistent with its humanity or its glory; and it was finally determined that, on a certain night, Captain Ricketts, with nearly the whole of his crew, should proceed in certain prize-vessels, drawing but little water, off the mole head of Pesaro, then in possession of the French, and under cover of the night wait for the commencement of an attack by the insurrectionists on the land side. Accordingly, on the night specified, Captain Ricketts proceeded with Lieutenant Yeo, his surgeon, several other officers, and about 90 men, embarked on board some trabacolos prepared for the occasion, and waited off the mole, with extreme anxiety, until after the day had dawned, totally unable to account for his disappointment; which, however, was sufficiently explained in the next interview with the chiefs, as well as by the voice of public rumour, which stated that the Austrians had totally disapproved of the enterprise, and that their out-posts had refused to suffer any of the persons connected with it to pass. It is worthy of observation, that an Austrian column afterwards marched through the Cisalpine territory, and took possession of the different towns on the coast.

In the course of the same year Venice, the grand depot of stores for the Imperial armies, was thrown into the greatest consternation by the approach of a formidable French force, and both the Minister of Marine and the Austrian Commandant wrote to Captain Ricketts, in the most urgent and desponding terms, for the assistance of the vessels under his orders; the latter repeatedly stating that he was “their only hope,” although at this time they had not only ships of the line in their harbour, but frigates and numerous gun-boats at sea, or on their canals ! He accordingly proceeded thither with El Corso and the Pigmy, and took the necessary measures for assisting in the defence of that place, the inhabitants of which were soon after relieved from their fears by an armistice between the contending powers. His promptitude and judicious arrangements on this occasion obtained him the most public and grateful thanks of the principal Austrian authorities; in addition to which he had the honor of receiving a communication from Lord Minto, the British Ambassador at Vienna, expressing his Imperial Majesty’s “marked approbation” of his conduct in hastening to the succour of a city whose commerce had once been the wonder of the world, whilst her fleets were the dread of the remotest of the Mediterranean shores.

On the 4th Jan. 1801, the merchants of Trieste presented Captain Ricketts with a handsome diamond ring, accompanied by the following letter, as an acknowledgment of his services in the Adriatic:

“Sir,– The honorable nature of your proceedings in the Adriatic, the protection you have afforded our commerce against the corsairs of France, and the assistance which, on all occasions, you have rendered to the friends of his Britannic Majesty, exact on our part, at the commencement of the year, the warmest expressions of gratitude; and in wishing you a happy beginning of it, in the name of this body of merchants, we wish to mark our acknowledgments; and, in order to preserve us in your memory, have presumed to accompany this with a small token of our respect. Wishing you all manner of felicity, we remain, the deputation of the mercantile body,

(Signed)J. Manzewany; Luzovick Govanuchi;
(Signed)J. Reyes; Fran. Potte; J. Catraro;
(Signed)Sorrei Rede.

To this letter Captain Ricketts replied in the following terms:

El Corso, Trieste, Jan. 5, 1801.

“Gentlemen,– After five months incessant cruising on the shores of the Adriatic, it is with singular satisfaction that, at the commencement of the new year, I have received your elegant and flattering mark of approbation; and it is with peculiar earnestness I wish you to believe, that if any thing on earth could augment my zeal in the cause we are labouring for, it would be so honorable a testimony of successful service[3] from such respectable characters as those who compose the trading community of Trieste. I am, &c. &c.

(Signed)Wm. Ricketts.”

On his return from the Adriatic, Captain Ricketts touched at Corfu, and there found letters from Lord Elgin, the British Ambassador at Constantinople, addressed to Sir John Borlase Warren, earnestly requesting that officer to proceed with the squadron under his orders to Zante, for the purpose of dispossessing a Colonel Calander, who had usurped the command in that island, and fomented an insurrection against the Turks, under the unauthorised sanction of the British flag, at a moment when the least interruption of the harmony subsisting between England and the Porte would most likely have proved beneficial to France, and might have been productive of alarming consequences to our gallant army in Egypt. It is obvious that a service which Lord .Elgin considered as requiring the presence of an Admiral with a powerful squadron, was but little likely to be effected by the commander of a sloop of war, whose comparative insignificance might rather invite opposition, and lead to slaughter, than terrify into obedience, or produce pacific results: but the contents of his Excellency’s letter, and the exposed situation of the abovementioned army, seemed not to admit of a moment’s delay; and Captain Ricketts accordingly resolved to try what could be done. Accompanied by the President and Consul-General of the Ionian republic, and followed by three Turkish frigates, he immediately proceeded to the scene of revolt, succeeded in overcoming all obstacles, (although a formidable band of Albanians were in the service of the usurper, who had ordered furnaces to be prepared for heating shot) and restored the island to its rightful masters. In the performance of this service he appears to have had a very narrow escape, a musketball fired from the shore having passed between him and the coxswain of his boat.

The letter of thanks which Captain Ricketts afterwards received from Lord Elgin for his zealous exertions, was couched in the most handsome and energetic terms; but it has been said, that, from circumstances not necessary to be recited in this place, the service alluded to was not viewed by the Foreign Office in an equally striking light. Be that as it may, the Board of Admiralty evinced their perfect approval of Captain Ricketts’ conduct, by promoting him to post rank on the 29th April, 1802. He subsequently commanded the Dido of 28 guns; and during the greater part of the late war we find him holding an appointment in the Kentish district of Sea Fencibles.

It is well known to those officers who held commands previous to the peace of Amiens, that the private signals then in use were much exposed to discovery in a variety of cases, and consequently might, in the possession of an enemy, have led to disastrous results. To obviate this danger, Captain Ricketts turned his attention to the subject, and planned a code on an entirely different system, at once so simple as to be readily understood by the meanest capacity; and so safe from discovery, that even if they lay open before an inquisitive stranger, or fell into the hands of the keenest of our enemies, no danger could be incurred, because it would be impossible under such circumstances to comprehend them. This improved code he submitted to his patron, the Earl of St. Vincent, who entered at once into its merits, and lost no time in returning a letter expressive of his strong approbation, acknowledging the absolute necessity that existed for its adoption, and offering to recommend it himself to the Admiralty, although he feared he had no longer any influence there, having some time before retired from office. This offer was gratefully accepted by Captain Ricketts, who subsequently made several applications on the subject, in consequence of a report that a change was about to take place in the private signals; but at length, after the lapse of several years, he had the mortification to receive his own code back without the slightest comment, and to see another, somewhat similar, though much more complex, brought into general use.

Captain Ricketts’ zeal for the public service does not appear to have been damped by this disappointment. In “Phillips’s Guide to all the Watering and Sea-Bathing Places,” published about 1809, we find the following notice under the head of “Folkstone:”

“In 1808, the temporary rudder of Captain Ricketts was first used in steering one of the Folkstone boats , and it was in the Clyde frigate, commanded by Commodore Owen, that the same officer’s Sea Friend, better known by the name of the Folkstone Machine, was successfully tried, and found to perform the operation of working the great chain pumps of that ship without the slightest assistance from any person on board.”

The first of the above inventions was a temporary rudder, which might be applied, under any circumstances, in a short space of time, by means of a resource highly approved of by H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence, as being also well adapted to Pakenham’s rudder. The second was a machine occupying little space, and easily placed so as to pump out ships by the power of their way through the water. Captain Ricketts was indebted to the kindness of Sir Richard Bickerton for an order for the latter to be tried on board the Clyde, whose commander reported favorably of its merits; but at last, worn out by ill Health, the apathy of others, and accumulating expenses, he ceased to prosecute an invention that might have been of incalculable advantage to the navy and ships in general. The apparatus, we believe, is still to be seen in Portsmouth dockyard.

The copy of an interesting paper on the subject of waterspouts, transmitted by Captain Ricketts to Sir Joseph Banks, in 1802, and afterwards deposited in the archives of the Royal Society, will be found in the Naval Chronicle, Vol. xx, p. 392 et seq. Several letters from its assiduous author, containing the description of a nipper invented by him for the purpose of facilitating the weighing of an anchor in cases where it may be necessary, either from the weakness of the messenger, or the insufficiency of the capstan’s power, to apply an additional purchase; and various valuable suggestions on other subjects also appear in the same rich repository, at Vol. xx, p. 446; Vol. xxi, pp. 38, 212, 398; and Vol. xxiii, p. 292. Their great length, and our scanty limits, prevent us from giving them a place in this work, which we should otherwise have felt great pleasure in doing.

Agent.– ___ M‘Inerheny, Esq.

  1. See Vol. I. note at p. 859.
  2. See Vol. I, p. 53.
  3. Among the numerous prizes captured by El Corso and her consort during their continuance in the Adriatic, we find several armed vessels, but none of force sufficient to merit particular notice.