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Royal Naval Biography/Spencer, Richard

A Companion of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1812.]

Only son of the late Richard Spencer, Esq. merchant of London, in which city he was born Dec. 9, 1779.

This officer entered the navy, as a midshipman on board the Arethusa frigate. Captain the Hon. Seymour Finch, in Sept. 1793. In the month of April following, he joined the Leviathan 74, commanded by the late Lord Hugh Seymour, under whom he bore a part in the memorable battles of May 28 and 29, and June 1, 1794[1]. We next find him in the Sans Pareil 80, bearing the flag of that heroic nobleman, and forming part of Lord Bridport’s fleet at the capture of three French two-deckers, off l’Orient; on which occasion he was slightly wounded[2]. In 1796, and the three following years, he served under his friend Captain Robert Larkan, in the Hornet sloop and Camilla of 20 guns, on the Channel, North American, and West India stations.

On the 4th Dec. 1799, Mr. Spencer quitted the Camilla in order to join the Queen Charlotte, a first rate, bearing the flag of Lord Keith, on the Mediterranean station; and in April following, he was appointed lieutenant of the Guillaume Tell, French 80, recently captured by the Lion, Foudroyant, and Penelope. He shortly afterwards removed to the Camelion brig, Captain Frederick Lewis Maitland.

In that vessel, Lieutenant Spencer proceeded to Aboukir bay, where he commanded one of the armed launches employed in covering the debarkation of the British troops under Sir Ralph Abercromby[3]: he subsequently led the other gun-boats up the lake on the left flank of the army; and continued there until after the defeat of General Menou, Mar. 21, 1801. An account of the operations in which he was engaged during that period will be found at pp. 852 et seq. and 385 et seq. of our second volume.

In Sept. 1801, the Camelion’s cutter and jolly-boat, commanded by Lieutenant Spencer and Mr. Charles Royer, master’s-mate, succeeded in bringing off from the beach near Tarragona, a Spanish felucca mounting two 6-pounders and two swivels: the guns of two other feluccas, similarly armed, were at the same time thrown overboard, it being found impossible to get them afloat under the heavy fire of musketry that was kept up by a number of soldiers assembled on the shore, in addition to their crews. It is proper to remark that those three vessels, intimidated by the appearance of a single 6-oared boat, had run aground before Mr. Royer formed a junction with Lieutenant Spencer. The manner in which the Camelion was employed at the commencement of the late war, will be seen by reference to p. 84 of Suppl. Part I.

Lieutenant Spencer’s next appointment was, Sept. 18, 1803, to the Triumph 74, Captain Sir Robert Barlow; and on the 2d Dec. following, Lord Nelson was pleased to honor him with the command of le Renard schooner (stationed at Malta), mounting ten 12-pounder carronades and two long fours, with a complement of 48 officers, men, and boys. This vessel was subsequently named the Crafty, there being already a Renard in the British navy.

In Oct. 1806, Lieutenant Spencer was sent by Sir Alexander J. Ball to negociate with the Dey of Algiers for the ransom of some Maltese who had been captured and enslaved prior to their island falling into the possession of the English. The Dey, at first, declined to accept the terms offered by the British governor; but on Lieutenant Spencer taking his leave of him, and expressing regret at the unsuccessful termination of his mission, he answered with much warmth, “to convince you how much I wish to be friendly with your countrymen, I will give you the slaves; – go, and send me a frigate immediately to carry my ambassador to Constantinople.” On the following morning, Lieutenant Spencer had the pleasure of receiving on board the Crafty, 30 men, and 2 ladies with their servants, who had been upwards of fifteen years in slavery. On his return to Valette, the government of Malta presented him with a piece of plate, value 100 guineas; and at a subsequent period, he was requested to accept another, value 40 guineas, as an acknowledgment of his exertions in protecting the trade of the island. While thus employed, he drove on shore and totally destroyed a Cisalpine privateer of 4 guns, which had come out from Syracuse to attack some merchant vessels under his convoy.

In the night of Jan. 2, 1807, the Eagle 74, Captain Charles Rowley, having broke from her moorings in Valette harbour, brought up immediately astern of, and so close to the Crafty, that it was expected every moment she would cause her destruction. The schooner was then lying in the fair way of the harbour and her commander on shore. At day-light, observing the imminent danger of his vessel, and the sea running so tremendously high that neither of her boats could attempt to land. Lieutenant Spencer managed to attract the attention of his people, divested himself of his coat and boots, dived through the surf, and swam on board. He then got a spring well secured on the cable, cut, and ran to a safer anchorage. The danger attending this manoeuvre appeared so great, that the bows and fore-channels of the Eagle were full of men, with ropes in their hands, ready to assist the schooner’s crew.

On the 8th Mar. following, the Crafty had one of her carronades dismounted in an action with several Spanish gun-vessels belonging to the Algeziras flotilla; and on the following day, she was captured, in a small bay near Tetuan, after a long and most desperate resistance, by a detachment consisting of El Generalissimo and El Huron, each mounting two 24-pounder carronades and two long sixes, with a complement of 70 men; and la Pastora, of two 18-pounder carronades, 2 sixes, and 70 men: – the whole having on board, in addition to their regular crews, a number of useful volunteers, and commanded by a most gallant officer, who had received no less than three steps of rank in his Catholic Majesty’s marine, for the capture of as many British national vessels.

In the midst of the conflict. Lieutenant Spencer was badly wounded in the forehead, eyes, and nose, by a shot striking the lock of a gun that he was pointing, in the hope of sinking El Generalissimo, her crew having just been repulsed in their first attempt to board, and her bowsprit being still over the Crafty’s quarter. At the close of the battle, he was again struck down by the blow of a cutlass on the left side of the head, and his assailant was in the act of stabbing him in the breast, when the master of the schooner, who was loading a musket, seeing the imminent danger of his commander, fired the iron ramrod through the Spaniard’s body, and killed him on the spot. The total loss sustained by the British in this sanguinary affair, was 3 slain and 13, including Mr. Matthew M‘Laughlin, master’s-mate, Mr. John Poore, midshipman, and Mr. Samuel Wadland, clerk, wounded. Among those who lost their lives on the opposite side, were the Spanish commodore and his captain, both of whom fell by the same ball, when attempting to board the Crafty. Each gun-vessel had at least as many men killed and wounded as the British schooner, including a large proportion of officers. Had the commodore survived, he would have been rewarded with a pension, and the rank of rear-admiral.

In Sept. 1807, Lieutenant Spencer sailed for the East Indies, as first of the Monmouth 64, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral William O’Brien Drury; with whom he removed to the Russell 74, at Madras, in Feb. 1808. He subsequently served, for about three months, in the Cornwallis frigate, successively commanded by Captains Fleetwood Pellew, and William A. Montague.

Captain Spencer’s commission as a Commander is dated April 8, 1808, but he did not join the Samarang, a 20-gun corvette to which he was then appointed, until Nov. 23d following. In that ship he assisted at the capture of Amboyna, Feb. 19, 1810; and afterwards took possession of the adjacent valuable islands of Saparoua, Harouka, and Naso-Laut[4]. On the 22d of the ensuing month, he was sent to reconnoitre Bauca; from whence he proceeded, in consequence of some intelligence obtained through a successful stratagem, to attack the neighbouring island of Pulo Ay, the garrison of which was so completely taken by surprise, that it surrendered without resistance.

After embarking the enemy’s troops, ordnance, and much valuable public property, Captain Spencer had the additional good fortune to capture the Dutch national brig Recruteur, with supplies of money, cloathing, and provisions for the said island; the governor of which, formerly a captain in the navy of Holland, was so much chagrined at being taken by such an insignificant force, that he destroyed himself very soon afterwards.

On his return to Madras, Captain Spencer was appointed, pro tempore, to the Blanche frigate; and at the same time the commander-in-chief strongly recommended him to the favorable notice of Lord Mulgrave, as will be seen by the following letter:–

Cornelia, 1st August, 1810.

“My Lord,– The Blanche becoming vacant, from Captain Montague of the Cornwallis being obliged to go home in consequence of ill health, I am induced to nominate Captain Richard Spencer of the Samarang, to the command of the Blanche, for his highly judicious and gallant conduct at the capture of Amboyna, and afterwards his capturing the Recruteur Dutch sloop of war, of 12 guns, and the fort and island of Pulo Ay, single-handed, in the Samarang.

“Captain Tucker, in his private letters, speaks with as much warmth in approbation of Captain Spencer’s gallant and active exertions, as his public letters bear testimony of; to which I can only add, that I consider Captain Spencer to be an officer of high promise, and well worthy of your lordship’s notice. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)W. O’B. Drury.”

On the evening previous to his leaving the Samarang, Captain Spencer was presented with a letter, written by one of his boatswain’s-mates, which we shall here copy verbatim:

Port Cornwallis, 17th August, 1810.

“Sir,– The Petty officers and Ship’s company of H.M. sloop Samarang under your command, being Senciable that you are on Eve of leaving them. Have to Request your Acceptance of a Sword value 100 Guineas – as a Testimony of their Esteem For your Fatherly Conduct and Universal attention To every thing Conducive to their health and Comfort During the time they Had the honour of being under your Command – And in Commemoration of the Gallant Exploit at Amboyna, And the Events of the last Cruise in General, and Particularly the Circumstance of Pulo Way – But being at a loss how to write to Mr. Bromley our Agent to put the same into Execution, have to request your Advice relative to the same.

“We have the Honour Sir, of Subscribing Ourselves Your Truly Sincere and Obedient Servts.

(Signed)“Samarang’s Ships Company.”

To Capt. R. Spencer.

Captain Spencer continued to command the Blanche until April, 1811, when, being in a sinking state, she was hauled on shore at Trincomalee, and put out of commission. His promotion to post rank took place Feb. 7, 1812; from which period he remained unemployed till his appointment to the Eurydice 24, on the Irish station, in June, 1815. On the 6th Sept. following, he removed to the Erne 20, fitting for the Mediterranean; from whence he returned home, to be paid off, at the close of 1817. He was nominated a C.B. Dec. 8, 1815.

In 1825, Captain Spencer presented the public with an easy plan to render any common boat buoyant and manageable when full of water, in a high sea, so that she may be used as a temporary life-boat in cases of shipwreck, of several air-tight cases, made of the thinnest sheet copper, enclosed in boxes of ¾-inch deal board, joined in the best manner to render them water tight, and one secured under each thwart:– also two similar cases lashed outside each gunwale of the boat, which will secure her from upsetting.

This plan is particularly recommended to the attention of the owners and commanders of all merchantmen, as the probable means of saving many lives. In the event of a ship being stranded, a boat fitted with these cases would safely carry a line on shore, from whence she might be hauled back to the ship as often as required, till the whole crew were landed: the boat being stove on the rocks or beach, would be of no consequence, for so long as the cases continued secure in their places, she would be equally safe as when whole. The cases being very light, they might at all times be kept fixed under the thwarts of a boat hoisted up astern at sea. Six cases to fit any common boat, with the wooden boxes to prevent them from being bilged or bruised, and clasps made of thin plate iron to secure them to the thwarts, will cost under 20l.

In Oct. 1825, the following trials were made by Captain Spencer, near his residence on the coast of Dorsetshire. On the 3d, the wind then blowing a fresh gale at S.W. and S., with a high sea, three cases were lashed under the thwarts, and one outside each gunwale of a 4-oared boat. She was then filled with water, rowed with the plug out into the heaviest sea, and laid broadside to the surf, which broke over her with so much violence, as to render it difficult for the men to avoid being washed overboard; but in no instance had she the least inclination to upset. Having tried her in every way, and found her perfectly safe, when full of water, the plug was put in, the water baled out, and the boat again rowed into the midst of the breakers, where she was laid broadside on, and in every direction against the sea, for near an hour, without the smallest risk of capsizing.

On the 15th, six cases were fixed to one of the 4-oared gallies belonging to the pilots of Lyme Regis; and when full of water, with the plug out, 8 men stood on one gunwale, swam off together, then back again, and all scrambled into her with perfect safety. The two cases were then removed from the gunwales, when she carried 6 men, but not so steady and safe as she had done nine with the cases lashed outside. Lord Exmouth, Sir William J. Hope, Sir Charles V. Penrose, Sir Pulteney Malcolm, and numerous other naval officers, think very highly of Captain Spencer’s plan; but Sir Robert Seppings, the surveyor of the navy, reports, that although “it may be used with effect in particular situations, he does not think it can be usefully employed in ships’ boats.”

Captain Spencer married, Aug. 31, 1812, Miss Anne Warden Liddon, of Charmouth, co. Dorset, by whom he has several children now living.

Agents.– Messrs. Stilwell.