Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Smith, John (b)

[Post-Captain of 1822.]

Is related to Rear-Admiral Isaac Smith, and to Mrs. Cook, of Merton Abbey, Surrey, widow of the great circumnavigator.

This officer made his way to the rank he now enjoys, from a very humble station in the navy, entirely by his own conduct. He was left an orphan when extremely young. His mother died before he was sensible of the loss; and his father, who was a younger son of a numerous family, became insane, while he was yet at a country boarding school. Although in that unhappy state, his surviving parent was permitted to remain without any controul whatever, until he had squandered and made away with what property he had, till at last his relations found it absolutely necessary to confine him in a private lunatic asylum, where he breathed his last, leaving his children totally unprovided for.

When at a proper age, Mr. John Smith wa« bound apprentice to a mechanical trade; but his spirit rebelling against this arrangement, he took French leave of his relatives, and of the master they had provided for him; applied to the Marine Society, and was equipped and sent into the naval service by that institution, in 1798. Having received a tolerable education, and being a steady well-behaved lad, he was, after some time had elapsed, taken on the quarterdeck of the Merlin sloop. Captain William Robinson.

In Sept. 1801, the Merlin, cruising on the north side of Jamaica, captured a small Spanish privateer, mounting one gun on a circular sweep, and Mr. Smith, then rated master’s-mate, was sent in her with 20 men to cruise as a tender. “ln a few days,” says he, “at least half the crew were affected with nyctalopia. We were chased one calm morning by a large xebec, carrying from 80 to 100 men, and towards evening she was fast pulling up to us, our people having been fagging at their oars many hours, without any relief. Knowing that night would deprive half our crew of sight, it was proposed to try our strength with the enemy, while it was yet day-light; this was answered by three cheers. The oars were run across, and, the enemy by this time being within gun-shot, the action commenced. After a time, to our great relief, he sheered off and pulled away from us; we, in our turn, became the pursuers; but when night came on, we took especial care to lay our head from the xebec, and saw no more of her. This circumstance put me on devising some means of curing the people affected with night blindness, and I could think of none better than excluding the rays of the sun from one eye during the day, by placing a handkerchief over it; and I was pleased to find, on the succeeding night, that it completely answered the desired purpose, and that the patient could see perfectly well with the eye which had been covered during the day; so that in future, each person so affected had one eye for day, and the other for night; and it was amusing enough to see Jack guarding, with tender care, his night eye from any the slightest communication with the sun’s rays, and occasionally changing the bandage, that each eye in turn might take a spell of night duty; it being found that guarding the eye for one day was sufficient to restore the tone of the optic nerve, a torpor of which, and of the retina, is supposed to be the proximate cause of the disease. I much question whether any purely medical treatment would have had so complete, and, above all, so immediate an effect. Persons affected with nyctalopia become perfectly blind as night approaches, and continue so till the return of day-light; the medical treatment recommended is bleeding and purging, blisters applied repeatedly to the temples, close to the external canthus of the eye, cinchona bark, joined with chalybeates, &c.; all of which was impracticable by us, having no medicine on board our little vessel. I am aware that this disease frequently attends scurvy in tropical climates, and is sometimes occasioned by derangement of the digestive organs and hepatic system, in which cases our simple treatment would be useless; but in the above instance it was evidently caused only by the sun.”

In Mar. 1803, Mr. Smith joined the Terror bomb, commanded by Captain George Nicholas Hardinge, and then employed in attendance upon the Princess of Wales, during her sojourn at East Cliff, Ramsgate, but subsequently forming part of the squadron under Sir James Saumarez, at the bombardment of Granville; on which occasion she had two men wounded by splinters[1].

Shortly after this event, Mr. Smith followed Captain Hardinge into the Scorpion brig, where he remained until that officer was appointed to the Valorous, a post-ship, in Jan. 1805, when he rejoined his old commander. On quitting the Scorpion for that purpose, he received the following certificate from the late Sir Philip Carteret Silvester, under whom he had served ever since the brilliant exploit for which Captain Hardinge was promoted[2]:

“These are to certify the Principal Officers and Commissioners of H.M. navy, that Mr. John Smith served as master’s-mate on board sloop Scorpion, under my command, from the 14th day of April, 1804, to the date hereof.

“Although I have so far complied with the usual custom of giving a certificate in the above form, yet will I abstain from continuing it any further, as the words are, to my apprehension, wholly inadequate to express the very high sense I entertain of his zeal, his merit, his enterprising character, and abilities in his profession, which, if necessary, I am ready to corroborate and confirm by letter.

“Given under my hand, on board the said sloop, in Sheerness harbour, this 30th day of January, 1805.

(Signed)P. Carteret.”

The value of this testimonial was improved by the manner in which it was granted. On being asked for a certificate, Captain Carteret wrote it himself, folded it up, and desired Mr. Smith to put it in his pocket, and peruse it at some other time. Well might he do so, if he wished to spare the young man’s blushes on the occasion, for we believe very few certificates could be found so strongly worded.

Immediately after his removal from the Scorpion, Mr. Smith went up from Woolwich to pass his examination for lieutenant at the Navy Office. Another certificate was necessary, to shew that he had actually joined the Valorous; and meeting with Captain Hardinge on the road, he asked him for one. The gallant officer stepped into a shop, called for a sheet of paper, signed his name at the bottom of it, and told him to write what he pleased above the signature. They immediately left the house together, and each went his own road. Very few captains would have acted thus. We mention the circumstance as a trait in the noble character of a deceased hero; and it is proper to add, that so far from taking an undue advantage of the confidence reposed in him, Mr. Smith adhered most strictly to the common form of a certificate, merely stating, that he had “behaved with diligence, sobriety, and attention, and was always obedient to command.” In a day or two afterwards, he was made a sub-lieutenant; and before the end of the following month, he received a commission, appointing him lieutenant of the Namur 74, Captain Lawrence W. Halsted; for which rapid promotion he considers himself principally indebted to the late Sir John Colpoys, G.C.B. then a Lord of the Admiralty, and a Vice-President of the Marine Society.

On the 21st August, 1806, the French fleet at Brest, consisting of twenty-one sail of the line, stood out of the Goulet, and anchored between Camaret and Bertheaume. The Namur was then off Ushant, in company with sixteen other line-of-battle ships, under the command of Admiral Cornwallis, who immediately proceeded to reconnoitre the enemy, and, having ascertained their exact force and position, issued the following laconic and pithy general order:

“The admiral intends to attack the enemy’s fleet at their anchorage to-morrow morning. Each ship will do her utmost to sink, take, or destroy the enemy’s ship opposed to her, by every means in her power.

(Signed)Wm. Cornwallis.”

Knowing the strength of the enemy’s land batteries, the officers of the Namur all made their wills. The brush that took place between the hostile fleets, on the morning of the 22nd August, is thus described by Mr. James:–

“Admiral Cornwallis anchored for the night, a short distance to the southward of the outer Black Rock. On the 22nd, at 4-30 a.m., the British fleet weighed, and, with the weather hazy, and the wind at N. by E., stood in on the larboard tack, for Camaret bay, in close order of battle; the Ville de Paris leading, and next to her the 80-gun ship Caesar, Captain Sir Richard John Strachan, and 74-gun ship Montagu, Captain Robert Waller Otway. At 6-30 a.m., the Porquelle rock being close a-head, the ships of the fleet tacked in succession. On the haze clearing away a little, the French fleet was seen at anchor; but at 8 a.m. the ships of the latter began getting under weigh. In 20 minutes afterwards the British tacked in succession, and again stood in under easy sail. At 9 a.m., the Indefatigable (frigate) being a-head, stood towards the French 80-gun ship Alexandre, Rear-Admiral Willaumez, who was leading the French fleet, then standing out in line of battle. At 9-30, the Alexandre fired a broadside at ihe Indefatigable, but without effect, and was answered by the latter’s main-deck guns, the distance l)eing too great for the carronades. On this the Indefatigable tacked, and the Ville de Paris and ships in her train[3] made sail towards the French fleet; but the latter presently tacked for the harbour’s mouth, as if to avoid an engagement. At 10-45 a.m., the Caesar and Montagu hauled out of the line to attack the Alexandre, who, with the Foudroyant and Impetueux, formed the rear of the French line. This, at about 11 a.m., brought on a fire from the batteries, which the Ville de Paris, Caesar, and Montagu returned, the three rearmost French ships already named, and the Valeureuse and Volontaire frigates also taking part in it. At 11-30, the west point of Bertheaume bearing N.½E., distant one mile and a half, the British fleet wore and stood out, in order of battle, the batteries keeping up until a quarter past noon, a constant fire of shot and shells.

“The damage done to the British van, principally by the batteries, proved how well the latter were calculated to protect the French fleet at its new anchorage. On board the Ville de Paris one shell struck the spare anchor, and burst into innumerable pieces, which flew in all directions. A piece, weighing about a pound and a half, struck Admiral Cornwallis on the breast, but, being entirely spent, did not hurt him. A second piece struck and slightly wounded one of the midshipmen; the ship had her hull struck in several places, and her rigging and sails a great deal cut. The Caesar and Montagu both suffered in their rigging and sails; the former, indeed, owing to the close position she took, had 3 men killed and 6 wounded. The Montagu had the heel of her fore top-mast shot away, but does not appear to have sustained any loss in men.”

The next services in which this officer was engaged, will be seen by the following testimonial:

“These are to certify, that Lieutenant John Smith served on board H.M.S. Namur, under my command, from the 26th Mar. 1805, until the 2nd July, 1807, during which time she was one of a squadron under the orders of Sir Richard Strachan, at the capture of a French squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Dumanoir[4], and the Formidable (flag-ship) having surrendered to the Namur, the said Lieutenant Smith was sent on board her, to assist in taking her into port, which service he performed much to my satisfaction; and, although his name did not appear in the list of casualties, it seems he received a contusion in his right thigh during the action.

“I do further certify, that Lieutenant Smith was on board the said ship Namur, when under the orders of Sir J. B. Warren, at the capture of the French ships Marengo and Belle Poule, commanded by Rear-Admiral Linois[5], during all which time he conducted himself very much to my satisfaction.

(Signed)L. W. Halsted.”

The Namur being paid off in July, 1807, Lieutenant Smith immediately joined the Monmouth 64, Captain Edward Durnford King, then about to convey Rear-Admiral William O’Brien Drury to India; in which ship he was present at the capture of the Danish settlement of Tranquebar. On her being put out of commission, Sept. 24, 1808, his captain recommended him as an officer “well qualified to command any small vessel the Lords of the Admiralty might think fit to appoint him to.”

We next find Lieutenant Smith serving as first of the Doterel brig, Captain Anthony Abdy, and assisting at the destruction of three large French frigates, near the powerful batteries of Sable d’Olonne, Feb. 24, 1809[6]. In Oct. following, he was appointed senior lieutenant of the Rifleman brig. Captain Alexander Innes, which vessel was twice saved from destruction through his watchfulness and presence of mind. Under that officer’s successor, Captain Joseph Pearce, he assisted at the capture of the Danish cutter Alban (formerly British) of 12 guns and 65 men, May 11, 1811[7]. His promotion to the rank of commander took place, at the intercession of the Marine Society, July 3, 1812; on which occasion he was appointed to the Buzzard brig, of 18 guns, fitting for the Mediterranean station.

In the summer of 1813, while employed in the blockade of Valencia, then occupied by the French army under Marshal Suchet, Captain Smith was informed by a Spaniard, that several privateers, and other vessels lying within the mole-heads of the Grao, were loaded with property to the amount of 500,000 dollars, partly captured at sea, and partly plundered from the inhabitants of the city, with which they were preparing to sail for France the first favorable opportunity; that there were then not more than 1000 troops at Valencia; that he had reason to suppose the guns and mortars on the mole-heads were spiked, as the enemy was about to quit the place; and that it might be possible to get possession of the vessels in the mole, by a spirited and sudden attack. Immediately on receiving this intelligence, the Buzzard stood in, under Greek colours, to make the attempt; but when within range of grape and canister, a fire was opened on her from the privateers and both mole-heads, on which were mounted several long 24-pounders, and one or two 10-inch mortars. This fire was returned by the Buzzard, and with such effect, that one mole-head was immediately deserted; the Buzzard’s guns were then brought to bear on the other, which in like manner the enemy was obliged to quit (the defence being composed of nothing but sand-casks). They however returned back to the one previously abandoned, from whence a fire was again opened; and this method was continued for some time, when, in consequence of one mole-head commanding the other, it being impossible to bring the Buzzard’s guns to bear on both at the same time, and troops beginning to pour down from Valencia, it was considered imprudent to prosecute the attempt any further ; the Buzzard was then anchored just out of shell-range, and some armed Gibraltar smugglers being on the coast. Captain Smith called them to his assistance, and so completely surrounded the moles, that the enemy, finding it impossible to escape with their booty by sea, landed and conveyed it to the city, where great part of the property was left behind, when the evacuation took place, owing to the want of means to carry it away. After the enemy had quitted Valencia, the Buzzard’s boats landed and took possession of seven vessels, three of which being privateers, were sent to Alicant, and left there in charge of Mr. B. Athy, the British consul; the others remained in the mole of Valencia, and Captain Smith being ordered on a distant service could not attend to them; those sent to Alicant were afterwards claimed by the generous and grateful Spaniards, as national property, in consequence of their having been captured within gun-shot of the coast, although actually at the time under the jurisdiction of a provisional government appointed by the enemy, and although the Spanish General Elio, on his arrival at Valencia, approved of the measures adopted by Captain Smith, and ordered all the stores, sails, &c. of the vessels to be delivered up to him as lawful capture. We next find the Buzzard present at the fall of Tarragona; and the last shot fired by the French, from that fortress, was directed against her, while reconnoitring in the bay.

On the 11th Sept. 1813, Captain Smith was struck by the main-boom on the right hypochondrium, forced against the larboard round-house, and nearly crushed to death. When taken below he appeared lifeless, and more than a month elapsed before he could leave his bed. During that period, “the antiphlogistic regimen was pursued and pushed to a great extent, leeches were repeatedly applied, occasional doses of calomel and an timonial powder, friction with ammoniated liniment, &c. administered.” By this treatment, he was at length enabled to “crawl about;” but he continued to suffer severely as long as the Buzzard remained in commission, which was till Oct. 1814[8]. At a subsequent period, he presented a petition “to the King’s Most Excellent Majesty in Council,” of which the following is a copy:

The Memorial of John Smith, Esq. a Commander
in your Majesty’s Navy.

“Humbly sheweth,

“That your Memorialist, while commanding your Majesty’s sloop of war the Buzzard, in the month of September, 1813, was proceeding down the Mediterranean, towards Gibraltar, when, in consequence of a rope called the boom-guy breaking from a heavy roll of the ship, your Memorialist at the time standing on the poop, by the larboard roundhouse, was struck a most violent blow, on the ribs of the right side, by the main-boom, a piece of timber 60 feet in length, and 12 inches in diameter, which crushed him down over the sharp edge of the round-house, contusing the liver and integuments on the right side, and rupturing a blood-vessel, with other injury of the kidney on the left; that, on being freed from this dreadful situation by the succeeding roll of the ship, he was carried, nearly in a lifeless state, to his cabin; and by proper remedies, was in a manner recovered (that, for a considerable time afterwards, he was subject to a discharge of blood from the kidneys and bowels, with disordered liver; which complaints he has been at times affected with ever since; that, latterly, these attacks have occurred so frequently, accompanied with a spitting of blood, and have so debilitated and shattered his constitution, that it is only by an almost constant medical attendance that he is enabled to exist; that his expenses for this advice and attendance have increased so much that he is no longer able to defray them, having no other income but his half-pay, as a Commander in your Majesty’s navy, to support a wife and five children.

“That your Memorialist does not complain that the period of his natural life will most probably be considerably shortened in consequence of these internal wounds and bruises – he received them in your Majesty’s service, and is content; but he most humbly prays that, if on due examination, his case may appear to merit some relief, your Majesty may be most graciously pleased to take it into your royal consideration.

(Signed)John Smith, Commander, R.N.”

We should here observe, that Mr. Mauritius Power, the surgeon of the Buzzard, had pressed Captain Smith to take a smart-ticket; but which he refused to do, under the idea that “a short time on shore would re-establish his health.” He was subsequently examined by medical men at the Admiralty, who reported that his hurts were not equal to the loss of a limb! and therefore he has never received any compensation whatever. Since that examination, part of his breast-bone has exfoliated; and strange to say, his health is now (1830) much better than it was ten years ago.

On the 18th Aug. 1815, Captain Smith was appointed to the Alert brig, and sent to the river Tyne, to keep the refractory seamen there in order. He afterwards cruised for the suppression of smuggling, on the North Sea station, and made eleven seizures during his three years’ service. In the afternoon of Dec. 19, 1816, being then on the edge of the Garbard sand, and running for the Downs, he observed the Maeander frigate working towards Yarmouth, and standing, as he thought, rather too near that dangerous shoal. Entertaining no great opinion of North Sea pilots in general, from having repeatedly witnessed their extreme ignorance in many instances, he made the signal to the Maeander, that she was standing into danger, which signal was seen and answered, but unfortunately the frigate soon afterwards struck upon the sand. Her perilous situation, during the ensuing night and day, has been described at p. 946 of Vol. II Part II.

In May, 1817, Captain Smith rescued a Hamburg ship and a Pappenburg galliot, with the whole of their crews, from two Tunisian cruisers, one a corvette of 20 guns and 130 men, the other a schooner of considerable force, then cruisng in the Narrow Seas. In this novel affair, he acted entirely on his own responsibility, having neither instructions how to proceed in such a case, nor copies of the existing treaties with the Barbary states; but which were afterwards furnished to every captain and commanding officer afloat. His conduct, however, was approved by the Admiralty; and their Lordships were pleased to allow a sum of money, handsomely presented by the owners, and amounting to about one-tenth part of the value of the vessels and their cargoes, to be distributed as prize-money among those concerned in their recapture. Captain Smith had previously refused to accept an individual gratuity of 200l., which he was offered on his return from escorting the corsairs clear of the English Channel.

While commanding the Alert, which sloop he frequently brought from the Downs to the Nore, through the Queen’s Channel, without any pilot. Captain Smith repeatedly witnessed the inefficiency of the common anchor ring, when a chain cable had been attached to it, in consequence of the great stress thrown on a single inch of one so large. He therefore requested that an oval ring of smaller size, or a shackle similar to those on the bilbo-bolt, might be fitted to one of his anchors, when the following answer was returned to his application:

Navy Office, 17th October, 1817.

“Sir,– We have received your letter of the 15th instant, with one addressed to you by Captain Smith, of the Alert, suggesting that a shackle, or small oval ring, may be fitted to the anchor instead of the ring in use at present, and requesting that that sloop may be furnished with another chain-cable; and we acquaint you, that an additional iron cable cannot be supplied without the authority of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, their Lordships’ directions to us allowing one cable only to each of H.M. sloops.

“With respect to the oval link or ring for which Captain Smith has applied, we think it necessary to observe, that by adopting that shape, it appears his object would be defeated, as instead of its possessing the uniform strength of a ring, which wears equally all round, the strain would be borne upon two points only, and in the event of the oval link altering its position, it is extremely probable that it would break. In addition to this objection, it also occurs to us, that when the oval link becomes much worn (which it certainly would) the link will become useless, but a ring, by shifting the puddening from time to time, as may appear to be necessary, is not liable to this objection, and will therefore be found more durable. Under these circumstances, we cannot comply with Captain Smith’s request. We are. Sir, your very humble servants,

(Signed)T. Tucker,
(Signed)E. Stewart,
(Signed)P. Fraser.”

To Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Rowley, K.C.B.

Some months after this, having in the mean time seen, or heard, that other rings of anchors, having chain-cables attached to them, had broken, Captain Smith repeated his application for the Alert’s anchor to be fitted as he had before pointed out, and was answered quite short, that his request could not be complied with ; but since he has been on half-pay most of the anchors of small vessels in H.M. service, using chain-cables, have been fitted with a shackle as he originally proposed. The following is a copy of a letter from his late commander-in-chief:

“51, Wimpole Street, May 28, 1819.

“Sir,– I have pleasure in bearing my testimony to your zeal, perseverance, and judicious conduct during the period you were under my orders while I commanded at the Nore; and I considered the prompt and decided steps you took in bringing the ships captured by the Tunisian squadron into a British port, as well as by inviting the captain of the Tunisian man of war to accompany them, was of essential benefit to the commerce of this country. I remain, Sir,– &c.

(Signed)C. Rowley.”

To Captain John Smith, late of H.M. Sloop Alert.

This officer was made post, for his exertions in the Alert, Dec. 26, 1822; and we believe he affords the only instance in the service, of a youngster fitted out by the Marine Society, having risen to that enviable rank[9]. He is the author of “A Letter to Mr. Hosier, on his work entitled ‘the Mariner’s Friend;’” and he has also published a translation from the Italian treatise “Il Giuoco Incomparabile degli Scacchi.” His relative, Mrs. Cook, of Merton Abbey, has lately placed in his possession all the remaining books, charts, and instruments formerly belonging to her renowned husband.

Captain Smith married, in 1809, his cousin Anne, eldest daughter of Charles Smith, of Stratford Green, co. Essex, Esq. and has a family of five sons and two daughters.

Agents.– Messrs. Stilwell.

  1. See Suppl. Part I. p. 44.
  2. See Suppl. Part III. p. 102 et seq. N.B. Mr. Smith was then absent in charge of a prize.
  3. The Caesar, Montagu, Namur, and three other 2-deckers; the remainder of the British ships were then several miles astern.
  4. See Vol. I. Part I. p. 289.
  5. See Vol. I. Part II. p. 436.
  6. See Vol. II. Part I., note at p. 490, and make the following correction in the seventh line of that note – for “another British frigate soon after heaving in sight,” read “the Indefatigable, another British frigate, having previously joined in the pursuit”.
  7. The Alban, Lieutenant W. S. Key, was totally wrecked near Aldborough, Dec. 18, 1812; and the whole of her crew, &c. except one man and one woman, perished.
  8. Surgeon’s certificate.
  9. The Marine Society was instituted in the year 1756, and incorporated in 1772. Owners and masters of ships and vessels are supplied with boys in a state of discipline, by applying at the office, in Bishopsgate Street, London, or on board the depot ship, moored off Greenwich.