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Royal Naval Biography/Thomas, Frederick Jennings

[Post-Captain of 1813.]

Is the second and youngest son of Sir John Thomas, Bart, of Wenvoe Castle, in Glamorganshire, by Mary, daughter of John Parker, of Harfield Court, co. Gloucester, Esq. His ancestor, Jevan-ap-Harpwaye, of Tresimont, in Herefordshire, married the daughter and sole heiress of Thomas-ap-Thomas, of Wenvoe, and took the name of Thomas, which his descendants have ever since retained.

The subject of this memoir was born in the New Forest, co. Hants, in April 1787; and he commenced his naval career, in 1799, as midshipman on board the Boston frigate. Captain John Erskine Douglas, under whom he served nearly six years, on the Halifax and West India stations[1]. At the early age of 15 years, he displayed an extraordinary degree of coolness, intrepidity, and promptitude, at a time of the greatest difficulty and danger, as, the following circumstance will shew.

Although then so very young, his captain had marked the high opinion he entertained of his ability and steadiness, by giving him the charge of a valuable prize, with orders to conduct action with the enemy, when co-operating with the Spanish regiment of Toledo, on the expedition commanded by Lord Blayney.

“The Memorialist, after an action of two hours, was sunk by the enemy, near Malaga[2]; and though wounded, landed, and remained with the army, then engaged with the enemy, until obliged to repair on board the commodore’s vessel: the commodore, at the time, having made the following complimentary communication to the Memorialist:–

Rambler, 11 A.M.

“My dear Thomas,– Your firm and spirited example on this expedition, has given celebrity to your character, and placed your merit far above the reach of my praise; be assured I will strongly recommend your gallant conduct to the commander-in-chief. Very sincerely yours,

“‘Robt. Hall.’”

“The commodore ordered the Memorialist the temporary command, and the Memorialist remained on deck, in action with the enemy, until the fulfilment of the commodore’s orders.

“The Memorialist received thanks from the commander-in-chief for his conduct on that expedition.

“The Memorialist, after his vessel was sunk, and himself wounded, instead of returning to England, which his health and private affairs required, rather chose to remain in Spain, and volunteered immediately repairing to Cadiz, to solicit a command in defence of that city, which was then closely invested and besieged by the French; and the Memorialist, immediately on his arrival, was appointed to the British flotilla; and conducted a successful attack against the enemy in the Cano de Trocadero, the night he took the command (of his division).”

The principal actions in which the flotilla was engaged, from this period until the battle of Barrosa[errata 1], have been noticed at pp. 323–326 of Suppl. Part II.

“The Memorialist was strongly recommended to the commander-in-chief, for his services while co-operating with the army under Lord Lynedoch. When proceeding with an expedition to co-operate with the combined armies, the Memorialist was particularly thanked for his circumspection and foresight, in altering the course of the British flotilla, when following the commodore into inevitable destruction! The unskilful pilot of the leading vessel having run the commodore upon the rocks of Sainti Petri; and the Memorialist took the responsibility entirely upon himself of conducting the squadrons through a most difficult navigation, in a heavy gale of wind, without a pilot; and fortunately succeeded in anchoring them at their appointed rendezvous, in time for co-operation with the combined armies: and the Memorialist afterwards returned to afford assistance to the commodore, though the sea was so rough that it was with great difficulty, and the loss of two boats, he could put a party of men on board; and the Memorialist, for his unsparing exertions on that occasion, was particularly thanked and recommended to the commander-in-chief.”

Lieutenant Thomas was advanced to superior rank, and appointed second in command of the Cadiz flotilla, Mar. 4, 1811. On that occasion, he removed to the Rambler gun-vessel (rated a sloop of war) which had hitherto borne the distinguishing pendant of the senior officer, from whom he received the following handsome letters, accompanied by a sword:–

Cadiz, April 21, 1811.

“My dear Thomas, – As you are now to supersede me in the Rambler, you must allow me to discharge the last, though not the least satisfactory part of my duty; which is, that of doing justice, if possible, to your distinguished services, while under my immediate orders; indeed, my gallant and inestimable friend, you have most honorably supported me in every enterprise, and in every danger, through a series of the most imminent and important services in which a naval officer could be engaged. Such distinguished conduct fully merits the highest encomiums from my pen, and calls forth this unfeigned acknowledgement of my gratitude and regard. I will deliver over to you all the orders, &c. to morrow, when you will likewise receive my public thanks. Believe me, very faithfully yours,

Robert Hall.”

Cadiz, 22nd April 1811.

“My dear Thomas, – As I have now relinquished my command, I have to return you my public thanks, for your distinguished services, while under my immediate orders: your character, for courage, fidelity, vigilance, and talent, has met with universal applause. As my supporter, gallant intrepidity, and sound judgment, marked your professional conduct, while you have been no less conspicuous for gentlemanly deportment and high honor in private life: and I request you will do me the favour to receive the accompanying sword, as a lasting memento of my grateful acknowledgements. And I sincerely wish you a fortunate issue out of all your services. Believe me very sincerely yours,

Robert Hall.”

On assuming his rank and command, Captain Thomas had also the pleasure of receiving a congratulatory address from the officers of the Cadiz flotilla. The unfortunate result of a most gallant enterprise, which he subsequently undertook, is thus described by him in an official letter to the flag-officer commanding at Cadiz:–

Flotilla, off the Guadalquiver, July 8, 1811.

“Sir,– I have the honor to acquaint you, that on the 5th last, when reconnoitring Rota, with part of the division of flotilla under my command, I received information of a French armed schooner having left Seville, and anchored at San Lucar, with property on board to a considerable amount, belonging to the French army, which I deemed an object of sufficient importance to authorise my attempting her destruction. I therefore proceeded with gun-boat No. 20, and the crew of gun-boat No. 5, commanded by Lieutenants Style and Wrottesley, off the Guadalquiver, where I was met by the Fearless gun-brig, Lieutenant Le Blanc, who volunteered to accompany me on this service; and, indeed, from whom I received the information.

“I anchored the gun-boats a short distance from the bar, and proceeded with the small boats, at midnight, and succeeded in getting up with a schooner, which was conceived to have been the object, but proved to be an American. This greatly detained us; and the wind unfortunately setting in strong from the S.W. with a heavy sea, the boats were hardly able to keep their ground, notwithstanding the utmost exertions were made use of.

“The enemy at this time were alarmed in all quarters; a strong guard of soldiers was put on board the schooner, the batteries opened, a fire of musketry was poured into the boats, which was productive of considerable loss on our part, and mortally wounded Lieutenant Le Blanc and 4 men in my own 6-oared gig. Notwithstanding almost every man on the larboard side of the boats commanded by Lieutenants Style and Wrottesley, were either killed or wounded, they still persevered in endeavouring to board; but the wind increasing to a gale, and the loss sustained in killed and wounded, induced me, however painful to my feelings to leave the French flag flying, to order the boats to relinquish their object, and gain the opposite side of the river, which, from the wind and tide, we with difficulty accomplished. This arduous service, in which we have been employed, has therefore been unattended with success; but nothing was wanting on the part of the flotilla-men; their conduct was admirable, and I beg leave particularly to notice the anxious zeal and distinguished gallantry of Lieutenants Style and Wrottesley. I am also particularly indebted to Lieutenant Stephens, R.M. for his zeal and bravery. I herewith enclose a list of 20 killed and wounded, and have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Frederick J. Thomas, Commr.”

Rear-Admiral Hon. A. K. Legge

On the 2nd Nov. 1811, Captain Thomas reported to the same officer, the melancholy fate of Lieutenant Daly and 25 men, who were blown up in a gun-boat, while assisting at the destruction of several of the enemy’s vessels under fort Catalina. The body of the unfortunate gentleman was afterwards picked up near Cadiz light-house, and interred with military honors.

Immediately after the evacuation of the enemy’s lines before Cadix, the city of Seville was also freed from the of Andalusia, by a combined force under General La Cruz and Colonel Skerrett. Captain Thomas “commanded a naval detachment on that expedition, and having overcome a multitude of difficulties, while beating through a dangerous navigation, disembarked the troops, without an accident, in the neighbourhood of Wucha. The armies immediately marched forward upon Seville: he volunteered his services to accompany them, and, anxious that the navy should cooperate with the advance of the Spanish force, undertook an enterprise to accomplish that object, which fortunately proved successful.

“The pilots would not undertake to conduct to a proper station the flotilla, destined for that service, when, availing himself of that alternative, which the necessity of the case required, he pushed the gunboats through by Wucha creek, dragged them through a gut, and joined the advance with General Downie, who fell at the assault of Seville, covered with honorable wounds.”

The French were driven out of Seville on the 27th Aug. 1812; and about that period, Captain Thomas became the senior commander of the flotilla[3]. He subsequently received the following letter and testimonial from his worthy commodore, with whom he had left England in 1810:–

“My dear Thomas,– I have made over your letters, &c. &c. to Rear-Admiral Linzee, who has now relieved me in my command; but, I am happy, before I leave this station, to offer you my very sincere good wishes, and to express my cordial approbation of your valuable services, and to thank you for your attentions in all parts of the service in which I have been personally concerned; and I shall always hear of your success with the sincerest pleasure; and remain always, with great respect and regard, very truly yours,

(Signed)C. V. Penrose.”

“During the time Captain Thomas was under my command, his conduct gave me the most entire satisfaction; and he had opportunities, which he failed not to seize, of evincing the greatest intrepidity and sound judgment.”

(Signed as before.)

We next find Captain Thomas receiving two very handsome letters from the flag-officer at Gibraltar, of which we shall here give copies:–

“My dear Thomas,– The convoy you detained has arrived safe, with the exception of one American ship, which is just entering the Gut, and your Sierra Leone brig is in a fair way for condemnation. How incomparably well you must have disposed of your forces, to have intercepted so large a convoy; what an extraordinary good look out, and what vigilance and zeal you must possess. Instead of wanting rest after all your toils and dangers, if report speak true, you have entered upon a new and laborious system of catching prizes, extended a chain of gunboats across the harbour, and anchored yourself in the middle, so that nothing can enter or depart. Highly commendable, indeed, is such zeal, inseparably connected, as it is, with your prudence and good judgment; and, indeed, every body speaks of your moderation and kindness with affectionate regard. You do well, be assured, always to consider, that you are in a friendly port, and how necessary it is, rigidly to adhere to the laws of neutrality. I have such confidence in your understanding, that I am sure you cannot mistake those laws; and I feel such security from your judgment, that you will ascertain what is the proper distance to be observed in the detention of contraband trade: with these hints, without wishing to altate any of your zeal, I shall hope for a continuation of your success, and remain, very sincerely yours,

Sam. Hood Linzee, Rear-Admiral.”

“My dear Thomas,– I am happy to inform you, that you are appointed to command the San Juan, bearing my flag; and I have to express to you, how fully I appreciate the appointment of such an honorable and distinguished officer, and one who possesses my confidence and esteem in the fullest extent. Whenever you can leave your Cadiz friends, I shall be glad to see you. Very sincerely yours,”

(Signed as before.)

At the conclusion of his memorial to the Spanish government, which, owing to the unhappy state of that nation, has hitherto remained unnoticed, Captain Thomas asserts, that, during the Peninsular war, he was at the storming or destruction of 12 batteries; and at the spilling, capture, and destruction of several hundred pieces of ordnance, and upwards of 150 sail of vessels: that at his own expense, he fitted out two armed vessels, resembling in rig and construction the French privateers of Rota and San Lucar, which proved a great protection to the trade, and often succeeded in decoying the enemy; that he co-operated with the Spanish naval and military forces in every enterprise undertaken against the French, in the south of Spain; and that the then existing government particularized him in a vote of thanks for his “patriotism, bravery, and zeal.”

The services of the flotilla in general were fully and gratefully acknowledged by the Aejantamiente of Cadiz, in an address to Rear-Admiral Legge, dated Sept. 18, 1812, of which the following is an extract:–

“Cadiz, free from the treacherous siege with which the enemy has molested it during thirty months, now enjoys the satisfaction of seeing its independence secure; and a wise constitution restores to the Spaniards their liberty and their rights. These advantages, as well national as allied, are owing to the brave defenders of this island; the English marine which hath taken so active a part in all operations, and not only has deserved the esteem and gratitude of the inhabitants of Cadiz, but also hath rendered itself entitled to the rewards and distinctions of the English nation. If your Excellency, by your knowledge of the merit of the captains, officers, and ships’ companies of the vessels under your command, especially those of the flotilla, and of the great fatigues they have undergone in the midst of the greatest dangers, would be pleased to intercede in favor of those meritorious officers, the city of Cadiz, which is so much interested in their welfare, will have the satisfaction of seeing rewards distributed as a recompense for such signal services.”

To this the Rear-Admiral replied as follows:–

“The services of the British officers and men who have so long served in the flotilla, in whose welfare you have been kindly pleased to interest yourselves, are duly appreciated by me, and I have not failed to represent them to the notice of the British government.”

On the 25th May, 1813, Lord Fitzroy Somerset, military secretary to the Marquis of Wellington, informed Captain Thomas, by letter from Matitta, that his lordship had written, by that day’s post, “to Viscount Melville, regarding his promotion.” He was also recommended for advancement by the British Ambassador, who had resided at Cadiz during the siege; the following is a copy of his Excellency’s letter to the head of the naval department: –

“My dear Lord,– I hope you will pardon the liberty I take in transmitting you the enclosed, from Captain F. J. Thomas, who commanded a division of gun-boats, during the siege of this place. I believe there are few examples of a more arduous service than that in which Captain Thomas was engaged for a period of nearly two years and a half; and there is scarcely an inhabitant of Cadiz, who cannot bear testimony to his indefatigable exertions, and to the skill and gallantry which he displayed in all his encounters with the enemy. I hope, therefore, that I may be allowed to recommend Captain Thomas to your lordship’s favorable consideration, and I need scarcely add, that his object is promotion to the rank of Post-Captain, &c. &c. &c.”

(Signed)Henry Wellesley.”

The Right Hon. Viscount Melville.

After commanding the San Juan about six months. Captain Thomas was at length advanced to post rank, by commission dated Dec. 8, 1813. He returned to England in the Eurotas frigate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Linzee, early in the following year. It is worthy of remark, that, although he served longer at Cadiz than any other commander, he is the only one that has not received an honorary distinction. Captains Hall, Fellowes, and Carroll, were nominated Com panions of the Bath, at the enlargement of that Order; we rejoice that it has been in our power to prove that Captain Thomas was no less deserving.

Captain Thomas is the author of a work entitled “England’s Defence.” In 1818, he invented a life-boat, to pull and sail at the average rate, with three keels; the two outer support the bilge, and will prevent the vessel fmm upsetting or sinking. In 1820, he suggested plans for constructing a pier at Brighton, similar to that at Hyde, in the Isle of Wight, and for sheltering it by a breakwater, to be formed of forest timber. In 1821, he tendered a schedule to open a communication between the S.E. and S.W. parts of Sussex, by means of a bridge across the river Arun, which would obviate the necessity of passing through Arundel, and thereby cut off a circuitous route of several miles.

This gallant and meritorious officer married, Aug. 7, 1816, Susannah, daughter of the late Arthur Atherly, Esq., and sister to the then M.P. for Southampton. Mrs. Thomas died July, 23, 1828.

  1. See Vol. I. Part II. p. 651.
  2. See Lord Blayney’s official letter, at p. 199.
  3. See p. 201.

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