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Royal Naval Biography/Shield, William


WILLIAM SHIELD, Esq
Resident Commissioner of Plymouth Dock-Yard.
[Retired Captain.]

The result of an action brought against this officer, in the Court of Common Pleas, in March 1792, gave peculiar energy to the 36th naval article of war[1]. The plaintiff complained of an assault and violence used to his person, in consequence of his refusing to obey an order of Mr. Shield, who was first Lieutenant of the Saturn 74, and for the time being, commanding officer, which order was in itself of the nature of punishment; namely, directing him to go to the mast-head, and there to remain for a certain time, or until called down. On his refusing to obey, Lieutenant Shield ordered some men to secure him with a rope, and hoist him up to the masthead. The usage of the service, with respect to the mastheading of midshipmen for minor offences, was proved by the testimony of several naval officers. Lord Chief Justice Loughborough observed, in summing up, that the custom of the service justified the first order, and rendered it legal; therefore the disobeying such order justified the measures taken to enforce it. The jury, without hesitation, returned a verdict for the defendant.

On the 16th July, in the preceding year, Admiral Lord Hood, Vice-Admiral Hotham, Rear-Admiral Gower, Sir Hyde Parker, and Captain Richard Onslow, had, in compliance with an order from the Admiralty, formed themselves into a Court of Inquiry, in order to ascertain whether Lieutenant Shield’s conduct towards Mr. Leonard, the plaintiff in the above action, had been such as to render it necessary for a court-martial to be granted, according to the wishes of the complainant. Their report stated that there was no just ground for a court-martial to try Lieutenant Shield on the charges of tyranny and oppression, alleged against him by Mr. Leonard; but on the contrary, it appeared from the testimony of all the Master’s-Mates and Midshipmen on board the Saturn, that the general tenor of Lieutenant Shield’s conduct had been the very reverse of tyrannical and oppressive; and moreover, that the circumstances of the alleged tyranny and oppression originated from Mr. Leonard’s having neglected his duty, in the first instance, and disobeyed the orders of his commanding officer, subsequent thereto, in a contemptuous and seditious manner.

During this investigation, the court discovered that a combination of the Mates and Midshipmen of the London and Edgar had been formed on board these ships; and in consequence thereof, letters of a seditious nature written to and circulated among the Midshipmen of the other ships of the squadron, all tending to the hindrance of the public service, and to the subversion of good order and discipline in the fleet. And it appearing to the court that Mr. Edward Moore, a Midshipman belonging to the London, had been principally concerned in those meetings, &c., they directed the said gentleman to be confined, and submitted to the Admiralty the necessity of his being tried for the same; adding at the same time their opinion, that the discipline and good order of the fleet would be at an end, were such combinations to pass without the most exemplary punishment. Mr. Moore was in consequence tried by a court-martial; and the charge preferred against him being in part proved, he was sentenced to be imprisoned for the space of one calendar month in the prison of the Marshalsea, and to be severely reprimanded, and admonished to be more circumspect in future.

At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, the Saturn was ordered to the Mediterranean, on which station Lieutenant Shield was promoted to the rank of Commander, in la Sincere of 20 guns, one of the Toulon prizes. He subsequently commanded the Berwick 74, and Windsor Castle, a second rate, the latter bearing the flag of Admiral Linzee, under whom he had before served in the Saturn. His post commission bears date Oct. 7. 1794.

Some time in the course of that year, a most alarming mutiny broke out on board the latter ship, in St. Fiorenzo Bay. The reason assigned by the mutineers, was a dislike to their Admiral, Captain, first Lieutenant, and Boatswain, all of whom they declared should be changed before they would return to their duty. Captain Shield demanded a court-martial on his conduct; but there not appearing any thing to criminate him in the least, he was acquitted; notwithstanding which, Admiral Hotham, the Commander-in-Chief, to satisfy the refractory crew, sent another Captain, Lieutenant, and Boatswain, to the Windsor Castle; and strange to relate, the mutineers also received a pardon.

In the following year, Captain Shield obtained the command of the Audacious of 74 guns, and was present in that ship at the destruction of l’Alcide, a French 74, off Frejus, July 13, 1795[2]. A few days after that event he was appointed to the Southampton frigate, and employed under the orders of Commodore Nelson, harrassing the enemy’s coasting trade on the western shores of the Gulf of Genoa, and in co-operation with the Austrian army encamped at Savona.

Our officer’s next appointment was to l’Unite, another frigate, stationed in the North Sea, the command of which he resigned on her being ordered to the West Indies, in 1799; and from that period we lose sight of him until the summer of 1805, when he commanded the Illustrious of 74 guns, on the coast of Spain. His subsequent appointments were as follow: To be Commissioner at Malta, about May, 1807;– In the following year, to superintend the payment of ships afloat at Portsmouth;– From thence to be Commissioner at the Cape of Good Hope, where he remained about four years, and then succeeded the late Captain Schomberg at the Navy Board;– In the summer of 1814, to be Deputy Comptroller of the Navy; and, finally, at the latter end of 1815, Resident Commissioner at Plymouth[3].



  1. By the 36th naval article of war, it is declared, “that all other crimes not capital, committed by any person or persons in the fleet, which are not mentioned in this act, or for which no punishment is hereby directed to be inflicted, shall be punished according to the laws in such case used at sea.” This sweeping clause applies to the punishment of those offences which were not foreseen by the senate at the time of legislation, and which could not therefore be specifically provided against; and, in order that justice may not be retarded in its course, nor offences pass with impunity, the old standing customs and usage of the service are directed to be resorted to, in like manner as the unwritten law is made auxiliary to the statute.
  2. See Vol. I. note at p. 264.
  3. Plymouth dock-yard was first established in 1691; previous to which year the master shipwright and artificers were borne on board one of the King’s ships, fitted for their reception. Woolwich (called by Camden the mother dock), Deptford, and Portsmouth yards, were founded in the reign of Henry VIII. In 1650, there was no mast-house or dry dock at the latter, and the Commissioner resided within the garrison walls; the first house built for that officer was begun in 1664, and finished in 1666. The first yard established at Chatham stood where the gun-wharf now is; but it being too confined a spot, and having only one small dock, was removed about the year 1622, to its present situation. The fort at Sheerness was built by Charles II. whom we must therefore consider as the founder of the yard at that place.