Royal Naval Biography/Spear, Joseph


JOSEPH SPEAR, Esq.
Post-Captain of 1809.]

This officer was born at Weymouth, in Dorsetshire; and he appears to have first embarked as a midshipman, in 1779, under the protection of Captain Taylor Penny, a native of the same place, then commanding the Marlborough 74.

The commencement of Mr. Spear’s naval career was by no means an unpromising one, as the Marlborough formed part of the fleet sent under Sir George B. Rodney to the relief of Gibraltar, in Dec. 1779; and she consequently assisted at the capture of a Spanish convoy, and the defeat of Don Juan de Langara, Jan. 8 and 16, 1780. On these occasions the enemy lost eight sail of the line, six armed ships belonging to the Royal Caraccas Company, and fourteen transports laden with naval stores, provisions, &c. Returning from Gibraltar to England, Mr. Spear also witnessed the capture of a French 64-gun ship, and three transports, part of a fleet bound to the Mauritius[1].

From this period, the Marlborough served with the Channel fleet until the commencement of 1782, when Captain Penny was sent out to reinforce Sir George Rodney’s fleet at the Leeward Islands, where he arrived a few days previous to the decisive battle of April 12th, and on that occasion had the honor of leading into action. The Marlborough’s loss was 3 killed and 16 wounded.

Mr. Spear continued in that ship until she was paid off at the conclusion of hostilities; from which period he served on board the Orestes sloop, Ardent 64, and Bellona, a third rate, till promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, Oct. 15, 1790. During the remainder of the peace we find him serving as first of the Swan sloop, on the East India station. His subsequent appointments were to the Audacious 74, Triton frigate, Saturn 74, Jupiter 50, and St. Albans 64; the latter ship bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Vandeput, by whom he was made a Commander into the Lily sloop, on the Halifax station, about Sept. 1799[2].

In 1802, Captain Spear exchanged into the Chichester 44, armed en flute, which ship returned home Feb. 13, 1808. In June following, he conveyed the second battalion of the Royal Scots from Portsmouth to Barbadoes, making the voyage in 26 days. While disembarking the troops in Carlisle Bay, he observed a brig passing the anchorage under Dutch colours, and as a renewal of the war with Holland appeared very probable at the time of his departure from Spithead, where the Chichester had been kept two days waiting for despatches after she was reported ready for sea, he immediately sent his boats out to detain her, the ship he commanded being the only one then in the bay. Two days afterwards Commodore Hood arrived, and on being made acquainted with the circumstance he thanked Captain Spear for putting money in his pocket so soon, informing him, at the same time, that the despatches he had brought out contained orders to seize all vessels belonging to the Batavian republic. The brig thus judiciously detained was the Vrow Elizabeth, with a cargo of coffee and cotton, which sold for 20,000l. Barbadoes currency.

After assisting at the reduction of St. Lucia, Tobago[3], Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice[4]. Captain Spear proceeded to Tortola, and took charge of the homeward-bound trade, consisting of sixty-three sail, the whole of which reached England in safety, although the fleet was thrice dispersed by different gales of wind, and the Chichester had only one small vessel of war to assist her in re-collecting them.

Having refitted his ship at Portsmouth, Captain Spear again sailed for the Leeward Islands, to join Rear-Admiral Cochrane, by whom he was successively appointed, pro tempore to the Ethalion frigate, to command the Dart sloop, and to act as Captain of his own flag-ship, the Northumberland 74. Whilst in the Ethalion, he recaptured the ship Eliza, from Cork bound to Antigua, with a cargo of provisions.

Captain Spear’s appointment to the Northumberland took place about the time that Monsieur Villaumez made his appearance in the West Indies, with a French squadron under his orders, consisting of the Foudroyant 80 (flag-ship), Cassard, Impétueux, Patriote, Eole, and Vétéran, 74’s (the latter commanded by Jérome Buonaparte); the Valeureuse frigate; and two brig-corvettes, with the names of which we are not acquainted.

On the 9th June, 1806, Jérome Buonaparte anchored in Fort Royal bay, Martinique, having narrowly escaped an encounter with the Northumberland, which ship arrived a few hours afterwards from Barbadoes, in consequence of information that the Veteran had been seen off the north end of that island. On the 15th, at 3 A.M., the Northumberland, in a heavy squall, carried away her fore-yard and top-mast, and was obliged to bear up for St. Lucia, in order to replace them. On the afternoon of the same day, the Eole and Impétueux arrived at Port Royal; on the 20th, the Foudroyant and Valeureuse succeeded in reaching the same anchorage, although chased by Sir Alexander Cochrane’s squadron; and on the 24th, the like good fortune attended the Cassard and Patriote. During the pursuit of the two latter ships, the Northumberland, a second time, carried away her foreyard. The enemy’s subsequent proceedings have been described at p. 69 et seq. of this volume, and it therefore only remains for us to state, that they abandoned their intention of attacking the 280 valuable British merchantmen then collected at Tortola, rather than run the risk of engaging the very inferior force under Sir Alexander Cochrane, consisting of only three 74’s, and the Agamemnon 64, to which ship Captain Spear had been appointed, pro tempore, on the 28th June, eight days previous to the meeting off Tortola.

After having contributed to the preservation of so much valuable property, Captain Spear returned to the Dart, in which sloop he captured la Jeune Gabriella, a three-masted schooner privateer, of 8 guns and 75 men, Nov. 9, 1806; and recaptured a brig from Halifax bound to Trinidad, laden with fish, &c.[5]

Captain Spear’s next appointment was to the Nimrod sloop, and in her we find him capturing la Firmeza, a Spanish packet, from Cadiz to Carthagena; also la Nouvelle Enterprise, French privateer, of 5 guns and 55 men: the latter vessel fell into his hands Dec. 26, 1807.

From the Nimrod, Captain Spear removed to the Goree, mounting 16 twenty-four-pounder carronades, 6 twelves, and 2 long sixes, with a complement of 120 officers, men, and boys[6].

On the morning of April 22, 1808, being then at single anchor in Grand Bourg bay, Marie-Galante, Captain Spear discovered two brigs of war in the S.E., standing to the northward; and at nine o’clock, finding that they paid no attention to the private signal, he slipped his cable and made all sail in chase, with a moderate breeze at E.S.E.

Confident in their strength, the strangers immediately shortened sail, and hoisted French colours. At 10 A.M., the action commenced (about four miles from the town of Grand Bourg), one brig to leeward of the Goree, within pistol-shot, the other on her weather quarter; and both of them giving their guns the greatest elevation, in order to cripple her aloft, which unfortunately they accomplished.

At the end of an hour’s cannonade, observing the approach of a British brig, the enemy bore up, and were speedily under a press of canvas, leaving the Goree with her top-sail-yards shot through in the slings, the fore-yard without lifts or braces, the starboard quarter of the main-yard cut through, and the sail torn away from the part remaining aloft, the whole of the lower-masts and top-masts badly wounded, scarcely a shroud or brace left uninjured, the peak-haliards gone, and the ship in other respects so disabled as entirely to preclude the possibility of pursuing them. Owing, however, to the high firing of her two opponents, the Goree had only 1 man killed, and not more than 4 persons wounded; whereas their joint loss amounted to 8 slain and 21 wounded.

The enemy’s brigs were both intercepted by British cruisers in Oct. following, and proved to be the Pylade and Palineur, each mounting 14 twenty-four-pounder carronades and 2 long guns (nines and sixes), with a complement of 110 men. Sir Alexander Cochrane, when reporting the capture of the latter vessel) informed the Admiralty that she was “the last of the two which were so gallantly beaten by his Majesty’s sloop Goree[7].”

It has been incorrectly stated by a contemporary, that Captain Spear, “having ascertained that they were enemy’s vessels,” previous to his leaving Grand Bourg bay, “hoisted a signal to that effect to the brig-sloop Supérieure, of 12 eighteen-pounder carronades and 2 long twelves. Captain Andrew Hodge, at an anchor a few miles off in the N.W.”[8] It is true that the vessel alluded to had arrived in St. Louis’ bay the preceding evening; but she anchored so close to the shore, in the bight of the bay, that it was impossible to see even the heads of her masts from where the Goree lay; and, moreover. Captain Spear was quite ignorant of her being there. The fact is, that the Supérieure knew nothing of what was going on to windward, until an officer, sent round by the governor of Marie-Galante, informed her commander[9] that Captain Spear had already commenced action. We mention this circumstance in order that the latter may not be deprived of any portion of the credit justly due to him, for having so promptly gone out to fight an enemy of nearly double his own force, no other British vessel being then in sight, and the Goree eight men short of complement. At the same time great praise is also due to the commander of the Supérieure for his activity in getting under weigh immediately the governor’s message reached him, particularly as he was then in the act of landing his empty water casks, and his vessel unavoidably in disorder.

The same author says, that, after the action, when “with no other sail to set than her fore-sail and driver, the Goree hauled her wind for Marie-Galante, and in about half an hour regained the anchorage she had left;” whereas we know that Captain Spear, finding he had not a whole sail left, and his small bower-cable being shot through, brought up with the stream-anchor, in deep water, on the very spot where the enemy left him; and continued there until the boats left at the slip-buoy in the morning were brought back, manned, and sent a-head to tow. In the mean time Captain Robilliard prevented, the French brigs from gaining Guadaloupe, and kept up a running fight with one of them until they reached the Saintes.

As soon as the Goree was secured in Grand Bourg bay, Captain Spear went on shore to dine with the Governor; and on landing he found the whole garrison drawn up to receive him, presenting their arms as he passed, the drums at the same time beating a march, and the fifes playing “Rule Britannia.” This flattering compliment was paid him at the request of the marine officers, who were such near spectators of the combat[10]. Captain Spear shortly afterwards received a letter of thanks from his commander-in-chief, of which the following is a copy:

Belleisle, Carlisle Bay, Barbadoes, 9th May, 1808.

“Sir,– I have to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 23d April, acquainting me with your having engaged two French corvettes; and I am sorry that the spirit and gallantry displayed by yourself, officers, and crew, did not meet with the success which you all so evidently deserved. I request you to accept my thanks; and also to make the same known to your officers and crew. I am, &c.

(Signed)Alex. Cochrane.”

To Captain Spear, H.M. sloop Goree.

During the above gallant action, Captain Spear felt something like a blow on the left shoulder, and on looking round saw the helmsman in the act of throwing his epaulette into the binnacle. The man being questioned as to his motive for tearing it off, coolly replied, “I saw a fellow in the Frenchman’s fore-top levelling a musket at you.” This little anecdote will serve to show that the commander of the Goree possessed the esteem of his crew. The seaman who thus considerately stripped him of his honorable badge was an American, originally impressed into the British service, and naturally anxious to return to his native country: he was at that time doing duty as quarter-master, and, being coxswain of the pinnace, he had had frequent opportunities of deserting; but, as confidence wan reposed in him, he would not betray his trust. The first time Captain Spear had an interview with Sir Alexander Cochrane after the action, he made a point of relating the above circumstance, and the Admiral, with a very proper feeling, immediately ordered the worthy fellow to be discharged.

We cannot refrain from noticing another circumstance connected with this exploit, equally creditable to all the parties concerned.

While the Goree was shifting her lower-masts and bowsprit, in English harbour, Antigua, the Hon. George Alfred Crofton arrived there with an Admiralty commission appointing him to the command of that vessel; and Captain Spear, at the same time, received an appointment to the Fawn sloop, vacant by the recent demise of Captain Fasham Roby. Captain Crofton, in a very handsome manner, remarked to Sir Alexander Cochrane, that as a battle often caused officers and men to become more strongly attached to each other. Captain Spear would probably wish to continue in the Goree; in which case he himself had no objection whatever to take the Fawn. The Admiral, in an equally kind and accommodating mood, signed two commissions, leaving a blank for each ship’s name, to be filled up according to mutual agreement. It is almost unnecessary to add, that Captain Spear preferred remaining in the Goree.

Although the official account of the above action was not gazetted (Captain Spear’s gallant exertions having proved unsuccessful), the Admiralty signified their approbation of his spirited conduct by immediately confirming the gentleman who was acting as his second Lieutenant[11]. The first, Mr. James Locke, son of Captain (now Vice-Admiral) Locke, fell a sacrifice to the yellow fever, brought on by over exertion, and exposing himself too much in the sun, while forwarding the re-equipment of the sloop, at Antigua. In him the service lost a fine promising young officer, of whom Captain Spear entertained the highest opinion.

On the 24th Nov. 1808, the Goree captured le General Villaret, French ship letter of marque, of 8 guns and 32 men, with a cargo of sugar, coffee, and cotton. She subsequently assisted at the reduction of Martinique, from whence Captain Spear returned to England with Sir Alexander Cochrane’s official account of that conquest, in which we find the Rear-Admiral referring the Lords of the Admiralty to him for any other information, and describing him as “an old and deserving Commander.” He arrived in London April 12, 1809, and was promoted to post rank on the following day.

Captain Spear subsequently commanded the Royal Sovereign of 100 guns, and Temeraire 98; the former for nearly twelve months, as a private ship, off Toulon, under the orders of Sir Charles Cotton, Bart.; and the latter bearing the flag of his worthy friend Rear-Admiral Pickmore, third in command of the Mediterranean fleet. His appointments to those ships took place in April, 1810, and Mar. 1811[12].

On the 7th Aug. 1811, the British fleet anchored in Hieres bay, leaving a squadron of observation off Cape Sicie. On the 13th, when getting under weigh, the wind fell, and the Temeraire drifted close to a heavy battery, at the N.E. end of Porquerolle. The second shot fired by the enemy (a 36-pounder) came in on the gangway, where Captain Spear was conversing with the master, Mr. Robert Duncan, took off one of that officer’s legs and the fleshy part of the other, then passed through the quarter-deck, and dismounted one of the main-deck guns on the opposite side. Without waiting for a signal from Sir Edward Pellew, then chief in command, the Temeraire immediately opened a tremendous fire, which had such an effect on the Frenchmen’s nerves that, although some time elapsed before she could be towed out of range, not another shot struck her. When conveyed to the cockpit, Mr. Duncan would not suffer the surgeon to perform the necessary operation until a miniature picture of his wife was brought to him, when, having hung it round his neck, he desired him to “go on!” The worthy man did well, and, we believe, is still living. Five of the Temeraire’s men were slightly wounded by splinters on the same occasion.

After this affair, the Temeraire proceeded to Mahon for the purpose of shifting her mainmast, which had been sprung a considerable time. While there, a fever broke out among her officers and crew, and nearly half of them were soon in the hospital, to which her commander was also under the necessity of going. On the arrival of the fleet, the physician. Dr. Burnett, reported to Sir Edward Pellew, that the state of Captain Spear’s health rendered it absolutely necessary for him to hasten home; and the commander-in-chief was kind enough to allow him to do so without undergoing a survey. Rear-Admiral Pickmore having shifted his flag into the Royal George, a first rate, sent out to relieve the Temeraire, and to which ship Captain Spear would also have removed, had his health permitted him to continue in the Mediterranean[13].

The subject of this memoir married, 1st, in 1809, Grace, second daughter of Ludovick Grant, eldest son of James Grant, of Knockandow, in Murrayshire, Esq., by Lady Grizel Gordon, third daughter of Charles, second Earl of Aboyne: 2dly, Grace, eldest daughter of the Rev. Patrick Grant, and, as well as his former lady, a second cousin to the present Earl of Aboyne.

Agent.– Joseph Dufaur, Esq.



  1. See Vol. I. note † at p. 3 et seq.; and the text at p. 4.
  2. Lieutenant Spear was in the Jupiter with Commodore Payne, when that officer conveyed her S.H. the Princess Caroline of Brunswick from Cuxhaven to the Thames; and with Vice-Admiral Vandeput, at Lisbon, previous to his assuming the command at Halifax.
  3. See Vol. I note at p. 481.
  4. Demarara and its dependencies were taken possession of by the British Sept. 20, 1803; Berbice also surrendered by capitulation on the 25th of the same month. The Dutch shipping captured at those places consisted of one corvette, one schooner, and twelve merchantmen.
  5. The Wolverene brig appears to have been present at the capture of the privateer.
  6. The above vessel had recently been restored to the British navy. She was formerly the Favorite sloop, built in 1794, captured by a French squadron off the Cape de Verds, Jan. 6, 1806; and retaken by the Jason frigate, near the coast of Surinam, Jan. 27, 1807; at which period she mounted 16 long sixes on the main-deck. See p. 135 of this volume.
  7. The Palineur, subsequent to her action with the Goree, captured the Carnation, a British brig mounting 16 thirty-two pounder carronades and 2 long sixes. See Captain Samuel Bartlett Deecker.
  8. See James’s Nav. Hist. 2d edit. vol. v. p. 59.
  9. Captain William Robilliard, not Andrew Hodge.
  10. Marie-Galante had been taken by the British on the 2d of the preceding month, and was garrisoned by a detachment of royal marines. The manner in which it was captured will be seen by reference to pp. 110 and 111.
  11. Mr. Thomas Clack.
  12. Vice-Admiral Pickmore, Governor of Newfoundland, died at St. John’s, Feb. 24, 1818. “His natural kindness of heart, while it smoothed his own course down the rugged stream of life, endeared him to his private friends, and fixed the esteem and attachment of those engaged with him in the arduous duties of his profession.” See Nav. Chron. vol. xxxix. p. 344.
  13. On the above medical report being made to Sir Edward Pellew, he was kind enough to say that Captain Spear should go home in the command of his own ship; for he understood “she was well appointed,” and hoped that by the time Captain Spear got as far to the northward as Cape St. Vincent his health would be much better; which was the case.