Royal Naval Biography/St Clair, David Latimer


DAVID LATIMER ST. CLAIR, Esq.
Knight of the Rot/nl Swedish Order of the Sword.
[Commander.]

This officer is the third son of the late Colonel William St. Clair, of H.M. 25th regiment (who served with zeal and fidelity for the long space of forty-six years), by Augusta, daughter of the late John Tinling, Esq., and sister of the following gentlemen: viz. Lieutenant-General Isaac Tinling, grenadier-guards; Lieutenant-General David Latimer Tinling-Widdrington; Rear-Admiral Charles Tinling; Major George Tinling, 11th foot; John Tinling, Esq. of Fareham, Hants; and William Tinling, Esq. of Moira Place, Southampton. His grandfather was also a general officer, and a descendant of Walderness Compte de Saint Clare, the head of an ancient French family, cousin-german of William the Conqueror (with whom he came over to England, in 1066), and the common ancestor of Baron Sinclair, the Earl of Rosslyn, and the Earl of Caithness.

Mr. David Latimer St. Clair was born at Chichester, co. Sussex, in May, 1786; and appears to have first embarked, as midshipman, on board the Royal Sovereign 110, bearing the flag of Sir Alan (afterwards Lord) Gardner, in May, 1798. Towards the close of the same year, we find him removed to the Scorpion sloop, commanded by his maternal uncle. Captain Charles Tinling, under whom he served in the expedition against the Helder, in 1799[1]. He next joined la Nymphe 36, Captain Percy Fraser; and whilst in that frigate, was very badly wounded by the bursting of a gun, which rendered it necessary for him to become an inmate of Plymouth Hospital for a period of three months. On a subsequent occasion, he was thrown overboard by the breaking of her spanker-boom, on which he happened to be standing when it caught the main-stay of a smuggling vessel, in her endeavour to escape to leeward. On the 22d Nov. 1802, being then only in his seventeenth year, he received a lieutenant’s commission, appointing him to the Caroline 36, Captain (now Vice-Admiral) B. W. Page; in which ship he assisted at the capture of several armed vessels, and many valuable merchantmen, on the East India station, where he lost the use of his left thumb, by a sabre cut, when in the act of boarding a privateer; and twice narrowly escaped drowning – first, by the upsetting of a boat, on which occasion his life was saved by a Newfoundland dog; secondly, by the swamping of another, in which he was returning, with Captain Peter Rainier, from a shooting excursion up the Vizagapatam river. In Feb. 1806, he was obliged to invalid at Bombay, in consequence of ill-health, occasioned by extreme fatigue when docking and refitting the Caroline, of which ship he was then the senior lieutenant. His necessary expenses between this period and the time of his arrival in England, including passage-money, amounted to 250 guineas; but, although he produced the necessary documents, together with a certificate from the commander-in-chief in India, his applications for reimbursement all proved unavailing, and even his half-pay, for nearly fourteen months that elapsed before he reached home, was withheld upwards of ten years, and then only paid through the interference of a friend in office. After a continued illness of more than three years, his health began to improve; and, about May, 1810, he joined the flag-ship of Sir James (now Lord De) Saumarez, whose high opinion of him will be seen by the following testimonial:

Admiralty House, Devonport, 10th June, 1826.

“Dear Sir,– I have great satisfaction in the opportunity you have afforded me of giving my testimony to your character and conduct during the two years you served as lieutenant of H.M.S. Victory, under my flag, upon the Baltic station, which was most strictly that of an officer and a gentleman; and, upon one occasion particularly, met my highest approbation – when you were detached with the boats of the Victory to attack two Danish privateers, between Anholt and Wingo Sound, and by capturing them prevented their further annoyance of our trade. “I shall he happy if this testimony can strengthen your claims for that promotion which I consider you so justly entitled to; and I remain, dear Sir, your’s very sincerely,

(Signed)James Saumarez.”

To Commander D. L. St. Clair.”

The privateers alluded to above were taken by boarding, at a distance of sixty miles from the Victory’s anchorage; six of their men were slain in the conflict, and several officers wounded: the British boats had only one man killed, and another shot through both arms. For this service, Lieutenant St. Clair had the honor of receiving his admiral’s thanks on the very spot where Nelson last fought, and fell. His promotion to the rank of commander took place Nov. 20th, 1812; on which occasion he was appointed to the Sheldrake sloop of war. He soon afterwards captured l’Aimable d’Hervilly, French privateer, in the vicinity of Möen island; and subsequently ran through the Malmo passage, without pilots; as did also, at the same time, the Aquilon frigate. Captain Thomas Bowles.

From the Sheldrake, Commander St. Clair exchanged into the Reynard sloop, likewise on the Baltic station, where he captured another French privateer, commanded by an officer of Napoleon’s navy; and assisted at the destruction of seven large English ships, laden with hemp, that had run on shore in a thick fog, near Stralsund[2]. In 1813, he accompanied the Orion 74, Captain Sir Archibald Dickson, and fifteen Russian line-of-battle ships, from the neighbourhood of Bornholm, through the Great Belt, to England. During the first part of this voyage, the Courageux 74, Captain Philip Wilkinson (now Vice-Admiral Stephens), kept company with the fleet; but on Sir Archibald anchoring in Samsoe bay, she made sail for Wingo Sound, taking the Reynard with her by signal:– in the course of a very few hours, she met with a disaster which had nearly proved fatal to all on board.

At 8-30 p.m., Commander St. Clair observed that the Courageux was steering direct for the N.W. part of Anholt reef, and accordingly made the necessary signal to apprise Captain Wilkinson that he was running into danger. Of this no notice was taken, although the Reynard fired several guns, and was then not far from her consort’s quarter. The destruction of the Courageux consequently seemed inevitable, as she was going large, at the rate of ten knots an hour. In order to avoid sharing the same fate. Commander St. Clair hauled to the wind, in thirteen fathoms water, keeping a light hoisted, and firing a gun every ten minutes. His anxiety at this period may readily be conceived, as well as his feelings on hearing the report of gun after gun in the exact direction that the 74 was steering. No sooner was the first report heard, than he bore up, and placed his sloop in the best position for affording succour to the crew of the Courageux, in the event of her going to pieces. At daylight the next morning, however, he had the gratification to see her anchored in deep water, but without masts, rudder, or guns. On comparing Captain Wilkinson’s account of the course steered with his own, it appeared that their compasses differed two points and a half; occasioned, as was soon discovered, by the marines’ bright muskets being kept upon the main-deck of the Courageux, immediately under the binnacles.

In Dec. 1813, Commander St. Clair was directed by the Admiralty to carry on the port duties at Harwich, and at the same time a squadron of gun-brigs and cutters, with twenty sail of transports, were placed under his orders. Whilst thus employed, he superintended the embarkation of H.R.H. the Count d’Artois (now the ci-devant King of France), H.R.H. the hereditary Prince of Orange, the late Marquis of Londonderry (then Viscount Castlereagh), the present Viscount Goderich, and General Pozzo di Borgo: the two former personages being on their way to Holland, in consequence of the revolution in that country; and the others proceeding to the head-quarters of the allied sovereigns, at Chatillon. Some years afterwards, when at Paris, he received the following note, and much kind attention, from one of the Count’s gentlemen in waiting:

“Le Duc de Maillé a l’honneur de faire ses compliments à Monsieur le Capitaine St. Clair, et de l’informer que Monsieur ne revenant pas d’ici à quelques jours, Son altesse royale le verra avec plaisir à la premiere reception des ambassadeurs, qui aura lieu Mardi prochain.

“Aux Tuileries, ce 1er Aôut, 1820.”

Early in 1814, Commander St. Clair sailed for the north coast of Spain, where he was actively employed under the orders of Rear-Admiral Penrose; with whom he also served during the whole of the important operations in the Gironde river, subsequent to the occupation of Bourdeaux[3]. His gallant and zealous conduct at this period obtained him the highest commendation.

The Reynard was afterwards attached to the fleet assembled at Spithead, for the purpose of being reviewed by the Prince Regent and his illustrious visitors, the sovereigns of Russia and Prussia, in whose company, and that of many celebrated statesmen and warriors, her commander had the honor of dining. She next proceeded on a cruise off Cadiz, where she captured a large American merchant brig, and chased, but could not overtake, a corvette belonging to the United States.

From thence, Commander St. Clair went up the MediterraLean, under the orders of Lord Exmouth, who sent him with despatches to Tunis, where he had the gratification of rescuing a poor Neapolitan slave. This man, it appears, jumped from a wharf into the Reynard’s boat, as she was passing the golletta, on her return from the town; and, twisting the British colours round his arm, called out, in Italian, “I am free!” The Turkish governor, who was sitting in his verandah, smoking a pipe, saw the slave’s proceedings, and immediately ordered the boom to be drawn across the canal, thereby preventing the egress of the boat: his orders, however, were countermanded the moment that Commander St. Clair approached him, demanding a free passage; and thus was an unfortunate being restored to freedom, after a captivity of seventeen years.

During part of the time that Napoleon Buonaparte resided in Elba, Commander St. Clair was stationed off that island, but had no authority to interfere with any person passing to and fro. In consequence thereof many soldiers of the old French guard were enabled to join their late emperor, which might otherwise have been prevented. At a subsequent period, the Reynard, whilst proceeding from Palermo to Naples, fell in with six vessels, having on board Joachim Murat and those of his adherents who accompanied him in his fatal expedition to Calabria.

We next find Commander St. Clair employed in the Archipelago, where he captured two Greek pirates, and rendered essential assistance to the captain, officers, and crew of H.M. late frigate Phoenix, wrecked in Chismé harbour, on the coast of Natolia, Feb. 20th, 1816[4]. After this, he proceeded to Malta, and was about to assume the command of the Trident 64, guard-ship in Valette harbour, when a mortifying communication from Lord Exmouth’s secretary, of which we here give the copy, reached him:

H.M.S. Boyne, Leghorn, Jan. 22d, 1816.

“My dear St. Clair, – I am extremely sorry to inform you, that Lord Exmouth finds himself mistaken in the supposition that Reid, of the Calypso, had been promoted at home. As he is the first on the Admiralty list for post promotion, his lordship has been obliged to cancel your appointment to the Trident. I regret this extremely, and so does bis lordship, who I assure you, on all occasions, expresses the greatest friendship for you, and had mentioned to Lord Melville his intention to put you in the vacancy, from motives of personal friendship, as you are not on the Viscount’s list. I am now up to my chin in despatches, to and from all the world, therefore God bless you: believe me your sincerely attached friend,

(Signed)J. Grimes.”

On the 2d Feb. 1816, Rear-Admiral Penrose addressed the disappointed commander of the Reynard as follows:

“My dear St. Clair, – Having heard a report that all the commanders on the station, except yourself and Cutfield, were made post, I had great hopes that the favorable intentions of our chief towards you would have been realised; but I am disappointed. It was fully Lord Exmouth’s intention to have made you post, till he discovered the mistake. * * * Yours faithfully,

(Signed)C. V. Penrose.”

In the course of the same year. Commander St. Clair visited Athens, where he found the late Queen Caroline residing on board a polacre. Being then on his return to Malta, he, of course, felt it his duty to wait upon the Princess, in order to receive her commands; but the ridiculous story, afterwards circulated in London, of his having accompanied her to a Turkish dance, was no less absurd than false.

In 1817, the Reynard was ordered home, and put out of commission ; since which, although anxious to serve. Commander St. Clair has never been employed. On the 14th May, 1818, he received a letter from H.R.H. the late Duke of Kent, couched in the following friendly terms:–

“My dear St. Clair, – I have received this morning your letter of the 13th, and though hurried out of my life, by preparations for my departure for the continent, which will probably take place to-morrow, I cannot think of setting out without apprising you that I have written to Mr. Arbuthnot, Secretary to the Treasury, in your behalf, which is all I could do, for I have not much weight in that, nor indeed in any other public, department; however, we will hope it may be of use.

“I assure you, it was a real mortification for me, to find that I missed your good father and yourself, when you did me the favor of calling at Kensington Palace; it was impossible for me, overwhelmed as I have been with business, from my arrival until now, to receive any of my friends, without their making an appointment beforehand; but I trust you both know me too well to doubt the sincerity of my regard. To your mother and sisters I desire my affectionate remembrance, and I remain ever, with friendship and esteem, my dear St. Clair, yours faithfully,

(Signed) " Edward."


It is proper here to observe, that Commander St. Clair’s father served at Gibraltar when the Duke of Kent was attached to that garrison, as colonel of the Royal Scots; and that he was always considered by the Prince “as one of his best friends.” The commander married, in 1819, his cousin, Elizabeth Isabella, daughter of John Farhill, of Chichester, Esq. and grand-daughter of Sir Thomas Wilson, Knt. His brothers, three in number, made choice of the military profession:– the eldest, James Paterson St. Clair, was a lieutenant-colonel in the royal artillery; – the next in succession, William, a captain in the 25th foot, after distinguishing himself on several occasions abroad, was killed at the storming of the heights of Sourrier, in Martinique, Feb. 2d, 1809, on which occasion he commanded a regiment composed of the flank companies of the army; – the youngest, Thomas Staunton St. Clair, lieutenant-colonel of the 94th foot, was honoured with four medals for his services during the peninsular war. The Hon. Matthew Sinclair, who perished when commanding the Martin sloop of war, in 1800, was a cousin to those gentlemen.