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Royal Naval Biography/Roberts, William Gilbert

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Youngest son of William Roberts, Esq. late a captain in the 2d, or Queen’s, regiment of dragoon guards, by Sarah Gawen, of Salisbury, whose family, for many generations, possessed considerable estates in Wiltshire. His paternal ancestors were related to the former Earls of Radnor, and long settled in Yorkshire, from whence his grandfather emigrated to Poland, where he formed a noble alliance, and had several children[1].

This officer was born at Salisbury, co. Wilts, July 21st, 1791. He entered the royal navy early in 1804; and served the whole of his time as midshipman in the Terrible 74, Captain Lord Henry Paulet, on the Channel, West India, and Mediterranean stations. On the 19th Aug. 1806, while pursuing a French squadron under Mons. Villaumez, that ship was totally dismasted in a hurricane, which continued with unabated violence for thirty-six hours[2].

A few days after he had passed his examination, Mr. Roberts received, through the interest of Lord Henry Paulet, an appointment from Lord Collingwood, to act as lieutenant of the Terrible; which was confirmed by the Admiralty on the 3d March, 1810. His next appointment was, about May 1811, to the Dreadnought 98, Captain Samuel Hood Linzee, then preparing to sail for the Baltic; from whence she departed in November following, in company with the ill-fated St. George, Defence, and Hero. On her return home, after encountering much severe weather, she was found unfit for further service, and ordered to be paid off at Plymouth.

Lieutenant Roberts afterwards served under Captains William Isaac Scott and George Bell, in the Freya troopship and Medusa frigate, the former employed in taking out reinforcements to the army in the peninsula, and bringing to England French prisoners for the different depôts; the latter as a cruiser on the North coast of Spain.

In December 1813, lieutenant Roberts was recommended by his warm and constant friend Lord Henry Paulet, then at the Board of Admiralty, to Sir Alexander Cochrane, who had just obtained the chief command on the North American station. On the 30th of the same month, he was appointed to that officer’s flag-ship, the Asia 74; and we subsequently find him following the vice-admiral into the Tonnant 80. During the operations against Washington and Baltimore, he was actively employed in boats and on shore; and he appears to have been severely wounded in the head, while commanding the barge of the latter ship, under the orders of Captain Nicholas Lockyer, at the capture of five heavy gun-vessels on Lac Borgne, Dec. 14th, 1814[3].

After the failure of the expedition against New Orleans, Lieutenant Roberts commanded a detachment of boats employed in watching Fort Boyer, for the purpose of preventing the American garrison from escaping to, or having any communication with, the town of Mobile.

On the 11th Feb. 1815, at the close of the day, a furious tornado suddenly convulsed the Mobile-river in a most extraordinary manner, and hurried its stream, with almost overwhelming velocity, into the ocean. Lieutenant Roberts, then in the Tonnant’s launch, lying at a grapnel off the recently surrendered fort, instantly used every exertion to dismount the boat’s carronade, and to prepare her to withstand the violence of the storm; but such was its suddenness and impetuosity, that, before he could effect his object, the grapnel rope parted, and he was blown, in a nearly water-logged state, out to sea; every returning wave making the fate of himself and his companions, (24 in number,) apparently the more inevitable. Providentially, however, although in the gloom of night, the Meteor bomb. Captain Samuel Roberts, was discovered at anchor, and in such a truly fortunate direction that the boat drove near to, and by means of ropes thrown to her, was hauled alongside, scarcely a minute before she went down, in nine fathoms water, taking with her every article both of public and private property.

For his exemplary conduct on the above occasions, Sir Alexander Cochrane was pleased to appoint Lieutenant Roberts acting commander of the Sophie sloop; the Committee of the Patriotic Fund presented him with £50 for the purchase of a sword; and, as a finale, the Board of Admiralty signed a commission, promoting him to his present rank, Sept. 20th, 1815. In the following year, he volunteered his services in the expedition against Algiers; but this, like every subsequent effort on his part to obtain further employment, proved abortive. In Sept. 1818, and June 1825, he received letters from Admiral Sir Alexander I. Cochrane, of which the following are copies:

“Dear Sir,– My absence in the Highlands has prevented me from replying to your letter of the 22d ultimo sooner, and I feel a sincere regret that I cannot aid you in your views to obtain a ship. I really have little or no interest with the Admiralty; and I am at a loss how to obtain an appointment for my son, to place him in the way of promotion. Your pretensions are good; and I recommend your applying to Lord Melville, who often acts from the impulse of the moment, and may lend a favorable ear to officers of merit. Wishing you every success,

(Signed)Alex. I. Cochrane.”

“In reply to your letter of the 19th, I have much satisfaction in bearing testimony to the zeal and ability you displayed, while under my command upon the coast of America. In the various services carried on during the last years of the American war, I was particularly fortunate in being so well supported by the officers serving under me, and by none more than yourself. As those services were officially made known to the Admiralty, I should hope that they will be considered in any application you may make for employment; which I sincerely hope you may obtain. I am, dear sir, your most faithful and obedient humble servant,

(Signed)Alex. I. Cochrane.”

Commander W. G. Roberts married, Feb. 5th, 1823, Sophia Frances, youngest daughter of the late William Wyndham, of Dinton, co. Wilts, Esq. whose descent may be traced from the same source as that of the Earls of Egremont.