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Royal Naval Biography/Schanck, John

Admiral of the Blue; and Fellow of the Royal Society.

This scientific officer is descended from a very ancient family in Mid Lothian, a branch of which settled at Kinghorn, in Fifeshire, and got lands there in the reign of Robert Bruce, anno 1319.

The subject of this memoir is a son of the late Alexander Schanck, of Castlereg, Fifeshire, Esq., by Mary, daughter of Mr. John Burnet, minister at Moniemusk in Aberdeenshire, of the ancient and honourable family of Burnet. He was born about the year 1746; went to sea in the merchant service at an early age; and, in 1757, served for the first time in a man of war, the Elizabeth, of 74 guns, commanded by the late Sir Hugh Palliser. We next find Mr. Schanck in the Emerald frigate, Captain (afterwards Sir Charles) Douglas, with whom he went to the North Cape of Lapland, in order to observe the transit of Venus; an intention, however, which the prevailing gloominess of the weather prevented.

About the year 1771, our officer joined the Princess Amelia of 80 guns, fitting for the flag of Sir George B. Rodney, who had recently been appointed to the command on the Jamaica station. Previous to this, he appears to have had the good fortune to save the life of Mr. Whitworth, son of Sir Charles, and brother to Lord Whitworth, who was overset in a small boat in Portsmouth harbour, and afterwards lost in America, while serving under Lord Howe.

In the month of June, 1776, after a laborious service of eighteen years continuance, Mr. Schanck was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and appointed to the Canceaux, an armed schooner, employed on the river St. Lawrence[1]. This command he nominally retained for a considerable time; we say nominally, for almost immediately after the commencement of the war in Canada, the late Admiral Vandeput, with whom he had served as a Midshipman in India, and who had conceived a just idea of his talents, recommended him as a proper person to fit out a flotilla, to act against the revolted colonists on the Lakes; in consequence of which he was appointed superintendant of the naval department at St. John’s; and in the year following, received a second commission, nominating him to the elevated station of senior officer of the naval department in that quarter. In fact, he might have been truly called the civil Commander-in-Chief, all the conjunct duties of the Admiralty and Navy Board being vested in him. His exertions and merit were so conspicuous as to draw forth the highest encomiums from the Admiral commanding on the station, particularly on account of the celerity and expedition with which he constructed a ship of above 300 tons, called the Inflexible, the very appearance of which vessel on the lakes, struck with insurmountable terror the whole American fleet, and compelled it to seek for safety in ignominious flight, after having held out a vain boast of many months’ continuance, that the first appearance of the British flotilla would be the certain forerunner of its immediate destruction.

The Inflexible was originally put on the stocks at Quebec; her floors were all laid, and some timbers in; the whole, namely, the floors, keel, stem, and stern, were taken down, and carried up the St. Lawrence to Chamblais, and from thence to St. John’s. Her keel was laid, for the second time, on the morning of the 2d Sept. and by sunset, not only the above mentioned parts were laid and fixed, but a considerable quantity of fresh timber was, in the course of the same day, cut out, and formed into futtocks, top-timbers, beams, planks, &c. On the 30th Sept., being twenty-eight days from the period when the keel was laid, the Inflexible was launched; and on the evening of the 1st Oct., actually sailed, completely manned, victualled, and equipped For service. In ten days afterwards this vessel was engaged with the enemy; so that it might be said without the smallest exaggeration of Lieutenant Schanck’s merits, that he built, rigged, and completed a ship, which fought and beat her enemy, in less than six weeks from the commencement of her construction. Many other curious particulars relative to this extraordinary circumstance are unavoidably omitted for want of room; suffice it to say, that it was no uncommon thing for a number of trees, which were actually growing at dawn of day, to form different parts of the ship, either as planks, beams, or other timbers, before night. Few professional men, and methodical shipwrights, would perhaps credit this fact, were it not established beyond all possibility of controversy[2].

Exclusive of the armaments which he had fitted out and equipped for service on the lakes Ontario, Erie, Huron, and Michigan, Lieutenant Schanck had the direction of four different dock-yards at the same time, situated at St. John’s, Quebec, Carleton Island, and Detroit. In all these multifarious branches and divisions of public duty, his diligence and zeal were exceeded only by the strict attention which he paid on all occasions to the economical expenditure of the public money.– A rare, and highly honorable example, particularly at that time of day, when peculation and plunder were charges by no means uncommon, and the opportunities which he possessed of enriching himself, without danger of incurring complaint, or risking discovery, were perhaps unprecedented. His services on this occasion were not solely confined to the naval department; he attended the army under General Burgoyne, and became not only the inventor, but the constructor of several floating bridges, by the assistance of which it’s progress was materially aided, and without which it would have been in all probability totally impeded much sooner than it really was. They were so constructed as to be capable of navigating themselves; and were not only absolutely equipped with masts and sails for that purpose; but, having been built at the distance of seventy miles from Crown-Point, were actually conveyed thither without difficulty, for the purpose of forming a bridge at that place. The unhappy result of General Burgoyne’s expedition for the subjugation of the Colonies, is too well known; and it is almost unnecessary to remark, that the floating bridges, like the army destined to pass over them, were but too soon in the power of the enemy[3].

It is but fair to suppose that such services as these would be followed by correspondent rewards; and we accordingly find the subject of this memoir promoted, first to the rank of Commander, and then to that of Post-Captain; the latter event occurred Aug. 15, 1783.

It might naturally have been expected, that the interval of public tranquillity that ensued after the contest, which ended in the complete emancipation of our trans-atlantic colonies, would have proved some bar, if not to the expansion, at least to the display of Captain Schanck’s ingenuity and nautical abilities; this, however, was by no means the case. He invented, or might rather be said to have improved, a former invention of his own, relative to the construction of vessels, peculiarly adapted for navigating in shallow water. These were fitted with sliding keels, worked by mechanism[4].

After many years’ application, in consequence of a favorable report from the Navy Board, two vessels were ordered to be built at Deptford, of thirteen tons each, exactly similar in all respects, in regard to dimensions; one being formed on the old construction, and the other flat-bottomed, with three sliding keels. In 1790, a comparative trial took place, in the presence of the Commissioners of the Navy, on the river Thames, each having the same quantity of sail; and although the vessel formed on the old model had lee-boards, a greater quantity of ballast, and two Thames pilots on board, yet Captain Schanck’s beat her, to the complete satisfaction of all present, one-half the whole distance sailed.

This experiment proved so satisfactory, that a cutter of 120 tons was immediately ordered to be constructed on the same plan; and Captain Schanck was requested to superintend her completion. This vessel was launched at Plymouth in 1791, and named the Trial. The Cynthia, sloop of war, was also built according to the new principle, and, as we have reason to believe, under the immediate inspection of the original projector.

All the officers of the Trial cutter certified, on the 21st Feb. 1791:–

“That with her three sliding keels she did tack, wear, and steer upon a wind, sail fast to windward, and hold a good wind. They also certified, that they never were in any vessel of her size or draught of water, that sailed faster, or carried a greater press of sail, or made such good weather.”

She was inspected again, in 1792, by orders from the Admiralty-Board; and the report, which was very favorable, stated, that she had outsailed the Resolution, Sprightly, and Nimble cutters; as well as the Salisbury, Nautilus, and Hyaena sloops.

The several advantages with which this invention abounds, have been repeatedly detailed at length to the world, and to those we must refer[5]; we shall content ourselves with stiying, that, added to numerous instances not less striking, though perhaps less important, a small vessel, brig-rigged, called the Lady Nelson, but nick-named his Majesty’s Tinder-box, being of no more than 60 tons burthen, and constructed in conformity to Captain Schanck’s plan, and under his direction, made a voyage to Botany Bay. She was afterwards employed in that quarter, on a long and dangerous expedition of discovery, which she executed without difficulty, notwithstanding the perils that must unavoidably occur in exploring an unknown coast; and many sagacious persons had been induced, on account of her very diminutive size, both on her quitting England, and the Cape of Good Hope, to prophesy that she never would reach the first port of her destination[6].

To return, however, to Captain Schanck. After the commencement of hostilities with France, consequent to the French Revolution, his abilities were considered far too valuble to be neglected; and he was accordingly appointed to be principal Agent of Transports in the expedition sent to the West Indies, under the orders of Admiral Sir John Jervis, and General Sir Charles Grey. This fatiguing and important service he executed not only with the strictest diligence, but with an attention to the national finances uncommon, and perhaps unprecedented[7].

So conspicuous was his assiduity in the preceding service, that when the reverse of war compelled the British troops to quit Flanders and retire into Holland, whither they were followed by the armies of the French Convention, Captain Schanck was appointed superintendant of all the vessels employed in the various services of conveying either troops, stores, or property, from one country to the other; and his exertions tended at least to reduce disaster within its narrowest possible limits.

The acquisition of coast gained by the enemy, and the general complexion of public affairs, causing an apprehension that an attempt might be made to invade Britain, a new and formidable system of defence was, by the orders of the Admiralty-Board, projected, arranged, and completely carried into execution, under the direction of Captain Schanck. In short, the defence of the whole coast> from Portsmouth to Berwick-upon-Tweed, was confided to him; and few commands have ever been bestowed of more magnitude and importance, or requiring more extensive abilities. The objects he had to attain were infinitely more multifarious than generally fall to the lot either of a land or a naval officer; for he was not only under the necessity of contriving and constructing a variety of rafts, and vessels of different descriptions, capable of receiving cannon, but he was also compelled to fit and adapt for the same purpose, the greater part even of the small boats which he found employed in different occupations on the coast. When even these difficulties were overcome, he had still to undergo the task of teaching the inhabitants throughout the several districts, the art of fighting and managing this heterogeneous, though highly serviceable flotilla, in case the necessity of the country should be such as to require their personal exertions. To have overcome these multiplied difficulties, would in itself be a matter of sufficient praise, to entitle a man to the highest tribute public gratitude could bestow, were every other occasion that could call for it wanting. In 1799, Captain Schanck was again appointed to superintend the transport service connected with the expedition to Holland[8]; and on the formation of the Transport Board, he was nominated one of the Commissioners; a station he continued to hold with the highest credit and honour to himself, till the year 1802; when, in consequence of an ophthalmic complaint, he was under the necessity of retiring from the fatigues of public service.

On the promotion of Flag-Officers, which took place Nov. 9, 1805, Commissioner Schanck was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral. He became a Vice-Admiral, July 31, 1810; and an Admiral of the Blue, July 19, 1821.

Our officer married Miss Grant, sister to the late Master of the Rolls.

Residence.– Dawleish, Devon[9].

  1. It was about the same period that Mr. Schanck exhibited a talent for mechanics. This had formerly displayed itself, indeed, on several occasions,for the good of the service; but what caught the eye of the multitude was the construction of a cot, which by means of pulleys might be raised or lowered at pleasure, at the will of the person who reclined in it; while by means of castors, it could also be removed by himself from place to place without any difficulty. This was afterwards presented, we believe, to the grandfather of the present Lord Dundas, and obtained for the inventor the familiar appellation of “Old Purchase,” among his companions.
  2. A list of the British and American Flotillas in the engagement on Lake Champlain, on the llth and 13th Oct. 1776. The former commanded by Captain T. Pringle; the latter by General Arnold:–


      Inflexible, ship, Guns.
    Inflexible, ship, 18 12-pdrs. Lieutenant Schanck.
    Maria, schooner, 14 6-pdrs. Lieutenant Starkie.
    Carleton, schooner, 12 6-pdrs. Lieutenant J. R. Dacres.
    Thunder, radeau, 6
    Lieutenant Geo. Scott.
    Loyal Convert, gondola, 7 9-pdrs. Lieutenant Longcroft.
    20 gun-boats, each carrying a brass field-piece, from 24 to 9-pounders.
    4 large boats, with a carriage gun mounted in each.
    24 long boats, with provisions and stores.

    The whole manned by a detachment of seamen from the King’s ships at Quebec, and transports. Their numbers amounted to 8 officers, 19 petty officers, and 670 men. The loss in killed and wounded did not exceed forty.


    Royal Savage, schooner 8 6-pdrs. 4 4-pdrs. Burnt.
    Revenge, do. 4 6-pdrs. 4 4-pdrs. Escaped.
    A sloop 10 4-pdrs. Ditto.
    Congress, galley 2
    Blown up.
    Washington, do. 2
    Trumbull, do. 2
    Boston, gondola 1 18-pdr.s 2 12-pdrs. Sunk.
    Jersey, do. 1 18-pdr.s 2 12-pdrs. Taken.
    Lee, cutter 1
    1 12-pdr.s Destroyed.

    Six gondolas were driven ashore and destroyed; a large schooner and a galley not in the action. Their loss not known, but supposed to have been very considerable.

  3. See p. 210.
  4. While in America, our officer became known to Earl Percy, afterwards Duke of Northumberland; and it was during a conversation with that nobleman, that the idea of this new construction appears to have been first elicited. His Lordship, who discovered a taste for naval architecture, amidst the devastations of a civil war, and the various operations of a land army, happened one day to observe, “that if cutters were built flatter, so as to go on the surface, and not draw much water, they would sail much faster, and might still be enabled to carry as much sail, and keep up to the wind, by having their keels descend to a greater depth; and that the flat side of the keel, when presented to the water, would even make them able to spread more canvas, and hold the water better, than on a construction whereby they present only the circular surface of the body to the wave.” Mr. Schanck immediately coincided in this opinion; and added, “that if this deep keel was made moveable, and to be screwed upwards into a trunk, or well, formed within the vessel, so that, on necessity, they might draw little water, all these advantages might be obtained.” Accordingly, in 1774, he built a boat for Lord Percy, then at Boston; and she was found to answer all his expectations. It should here be observed, that the balza of South America preceded the sliding keel invented by the subject of this memoir. The balza is a raft, composed of eight or ten large pieces of timber, connected together by transverse beams, having a mast and sail; it is steered by boards about three yards long, and half a yard in breadth, which are placed vertically between the timbers, by raising and lowering which, the raft tacks, wears, and performs all her evolutions with great facility.
  5. See the History of Marine Architecture, vol. iii, p. 338, et seq., together with Grant’s Narrative of a Voyage of Discovery, performed in his Majesty’s vessel, the Lady Nelson, of 60 tons burthen.
  6. The following objections against the general adoption of sliding keels, appear very forcible:– “Sliding keels must weaken a vessel in the most essential part – her keel; for it may be called the back-bone of a vessel; and unless animals had two instead of one, it is most likely that one keel is more compact, and stronger than two. Sliding keels take up part of the stowage of a ship or vessel; and although, in some flat-floored vessels, they may act as well as a lee-board, would no doubt, in very large ships, endanger both their safety, and the lives of their crews.”
  7. During the West India campaign, in 1794, 46 masters of transports, and 1100 of their men, died of the yellow fever. On board one vessel the disease raged with such violence, that the mate, the only survivor, was obliged to scull his boat on shore to fetch off negroes to throw the dead overboard; and he himself died soon after.
  8. See Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Bertie.
  9. The subject of the foregoing memoir was one of the original members of the Society for improving Naval Architecture, set on foot by the late eccentric John Sewell, the bookseller; and some of the papers published by that Institution were the productions of this ingenious officer. He appears also have been the inventor of gun-boats with moveable slides, for firing guns in any direction. He likewise fitted the Wolverine sloop with the inclined plane in her gun-carriages, which is justly considered as the greatest modern invention in gunnery.