Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Thicknesse, John


JOHN THICKNESSE, Esq.
[Commander.]

Son of the late Captain Philip Thicknesse, formerly Lieutenant-Governor of Landguard Fort, grandfather of the present Lord Audiey, and author of several well-known literary productions, by his third wife, the only child of Mr. Ford, Clerk of the Arraigns, and niece to Gilbert Ford, Esq., Attorney-General for the island of Jamaica.

This officer was made a lieutenant in 1795; and taken prisoner, while commanding the Charlotte schooner, off St. Domingo, in Nov. 1799. He obtained his present rank on the 29th Jan. 1800; and was subsequently appointed to the command of the Pelican sloop. On the 9th Nov. in the same year, that vessel was driven on the rocks in St. Aubyn’s Bay, Jersey, during a tremendous gale, which proved fatal to her consort, the Havick 18, Captain Philip Bartholomew; but providentially, the officers and crews of both vessels, together with those of the Lion armed cutter, similarly situated, were enabled to escape, after nearly six hours exposure to a sea running mountains high, and which made so clear a breach over them that they expected every moment would be their last. On the 14th Oct. 1806, Commander Thicknessse, then in the Sheldrake, a new 16-gun brig, addressed an official letter to the commander-in-chief on the Guernsey station, of which the following is a copy:–

“Sir,– I have the honor to inform you, for the information of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, that H.M.S. Constance, in company with the Sheldrake, Strenuous (gun-brig), and Britannia (hired cutter), weighed on the 12th instant, at 6 a.m., from the anchorage at Chausey, with the tide of ebb, and a light breeze at S.E.: on standing in to reconnoitre St. Maloes, a sail was discovered off Cape Fréhel, to which the squadron gave chase, employing their sweeps nearly the whole way; it was soon discovered, by her manoeuvres, that the chase was an enemy, who about noon succeeded in getting into Bouche d’Herqui, hauling close in with the rocks, carrying out bow and quarter springs, and otherwise preparing for an obstinate defence, covered by a battery on the hill, as well as field-pieces and musketry, brought down for that purpose; in this state they waited to receive us. Their determined appearance only increased the ardour of the brave Captain Burrowes, who, I am sorry to add, fell by a grape-shot in the heat of the action. The Sheldrake, by superior sailing, had the good fortune to lead into action, followed by the Strenuous, the squadron being anchored within pistol-shot of the enemy, with springs on their cables: at 2 .m., a most spirited fire commenced on both sides, which was supported with great gallantry and obstinacy on the part of the enemy’s ship till 4 p.m., when it pleased God to give us the victory! I sent my first lieutenant to take possession of her, and the British colours were immediately hoisted. She proved to be the Salamandre, French frigate-built ship, mounting 26 long guns, manned, by their own account, with 150 men, and commanded by a lieutenant de vaisseau (Mons. Salomon), who was killed in the action: she was from St. Maloes bound to Brest, and laden with ship-timber.

“H.M S. Constance having taken the ground, and the prize being also aground, every exertion was used to get both ships off; but, I am sorry to add, without success; the fire of the cannon and musketry from the shore becoming now so galling and tremendous, that the people could not show themselves on deck. The Constance having had both cables cut during the action, and the warps, which had been run out to heave her off, being shot away at the moment of her floating, she drifted with the wind further on the rocks, which obliged the officers and crew to abandon her. Observing, however, that as the tide rose she began to float, I was induced, great as the risk was, to make another attempt to save her, which also proved unsuccessful, those employed on this service being either killed or made prisoners. Night now closing on us, it became necessary to consult the safety of the Sheldrake and Strenuous, the latter with her fore-top-mast shot away. At break of day, on the 13th, I stood in to see if any thing further could be done, and was happy to observe the Constance high and dry on the rocks under the battery, and lying keel up, a perfect wreck[1]; the prize, which had not drifted so far in, I succeeded in totally destroying by fire, at low water: I have saved about 100 of the officers and crew of the Constance, and of those missing I hope most are made prisoners, though I fear some may have fallen in the second attempt to recover H.M. ship.

“The lamented death of my respected friend. Captain Burrowes, leaves me the duty of bearing testimony to the determined courage, coolness, and ardour displayed by every officer and man in the squadron. I must particularly mention the assistance I received from my first lieutenant, Richard Kevern, a most meritorious old officer, whom I presume to recommend to their Lordships’ favorable notice[2]. I must also bear testimony to the zeal and bravery of Lieutenant John Nugent, commanding the Strenuous gun-brig, who on this, as well as on former occasions, has shown himself a gallant and zealous officer. Mr. William Lawrence, my second lieutenant, to whom I committed the service of destroying the prize, performed it very much to his own credit and my satisfaction. I am sorry to state that Mr. Henry Frazer, master of the Sheldrake, who volunteered in the most gallant manner to accompany Mr. Richards, first lieutenant of the Constance, in the second attempt to save that ship, is amongst the missing. I herewith have the honor to enclose as correct a list of the killed and wounded as I have been able to obtain; also a list of prisoners saved from the prize.

(Signed)John Thicknesse.”

To Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez, Bart. K.B.
&c. &c. &c.

Constance, of 22 guns, – Captain Alexander Saunderson Burrowes and twelve seamen and marines killed; Mr. Daniel M‘Cawley, boatswain, and one man badly wounded; Lieutenant George Spencer Richards and nine men slightly wounded.

Sheldrake, of 16 guns, – One man killed, two wounded.

Strenuous, of 14 guns, – Mr. Robert Bond, midshipman, and four men wounded, only one of the latter severely.

Taken out of the Salamandre, – nine wounded men, two of whom were in a dying state. Commander Thicknesse adds, in a postscript, as follows:

“Lieutenant Lawrence saw about thirty killed lying on the Salamandre’s decks, and I conceive the slaughter on board her must have been very great, Numbers of her crew escaped in boats, and by swimming to the shore, on her striking.”

On the 19th Feb. 1809, Commander Thicknesse captured a French ship laden with wheat, and was conducting her to Guernsey when she suddenly went down head foremost, and all on board, except one man, perished. The persons lost on this occasion were Mr. William Hubbard, master of the Sheldrake; a midshipman, name unknown; nine British, and two French seamen.

Commander Thicknesse married, in 1806, the daughter of Angus Eraser, Esq. of the royal invalids, quartered in Plymouth citadel.



  1. She was soon afterwards got into St. Maloes, and there repaired for sea.
  2. He was superannuated, with the rank of commander, Dec. 3d, 1827.