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Royal Naval Biography/Thomas, Richard

[Post-Captain of 1805.]

This officer is the brother of Dr. Charles Thomas, Physician to the Devonport and Stonehouse Public Dispensary. He was born at Saltash in Cornwall, entered the royal navy at an early age, and served as Midshipman from June 1790 till Jan. 1797, on board the Cumberland 74, commanded by Captain John M‘Bride; Blanche frigate, Captain Robert Murray; Nautilus sloop of war, Lord Henry Paulet; and Boyne and Victory three-deckers, bearing the flag of Sir John Jervis, whose patronage he obtained by his gallant conduct at the storming of Fort Royal, Martinique, Mar. 20, 1794, an event already described at p. 859 of our first volume[1]. We next find Mr. Thomas serving as a Lieutenant on board the Excellent 74, commanded by Captain Cuthbert Collingwood, in the battle off Cape St. Vincent, which took place a very few weeks after his promotion[2]. On that glorious occasion the Excellent is acknowledged by Nelson to have taken a very distinguished share, and to have rendered him the most effectual support in the hottest part of the battle, as will be seen by the following laconic note, which he addressed to her commander, and an extract from his own account of the transactions in which he himself was personally engaged[3]:–

“Dear Collingwood! – A friend in need is a friend indeed.”

“At this time (about 2-15 P.M.) the Salvador del Mundo and San Isidro dropped astern, and were fired into, in a masterly style, by the Excellent, Captain Collingwood, who compelled the San Isidro to hoist English colours; and I thought the large ship, Salvador del Mundo, had also struck; but Captain Collingwood, disdaining the parade of taking possession of a vanquished enemy, most gallantly pushed up, with every sail set, to save his old friend and messmate, who was to appearance in a critical state; the Blenheim being a-head, the Culloden crippled and a-stern. The Excellent ranged up within two feet of the San Nicholas, giving a most tremendous fire. The San Nicholas luffing up, the San Josef fell on board her; and the Excellent passing on for the Santa Trinidada, the Captain resumed her station abreast of them, and close alongside.[4]

Lieutenant Thomas continued in the Excellent until Oct. 1798, at which period he was appointed to the Thalia frigate, from whence he removed into the Defence 74, commanded by his former Captain, Lord Henry Paulet, with whom he served till the year 1800, when he rejoined the worthy Collingwood, whose flag, as a Rear-Admiral of the White, was then flying on board the Triumph, another third-rate, stationed off Brest. He subsequently followed the same officer into the Barfleur of 98 guns, and remained with him, on Channel service, till the suspension of hostilities in 1802. His last appointment as a Lieutenant was to the Cambrian frigate, from which ship he appears to have been promoted to the rank of Commander, in the Chichester 44, at Halifax, Jan. 18, 1803.

Returning from Nova Scotia, as a passenger on board the Lady Hobart packet, commanded by William Dorset Fellowes, Esq. (now Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain of England), Captain Thomas experienced shipwreck on an island of ice; but after being exposed to the most imminent peril in an open boat for seven days, with scarcely any thing to subsist on, succeeded in reaching Island Cove, to the northward of St. John’s, Newfoundland, from whence he returned to Bristol in a merchant vessel, Aug. 3, 1803. The following are extracts from the official narrative of Captain Fellowes, published by authority soon after their arrival.

After giving an account of his sailing from Halifax, June 22, 1803, and the capture of a French schooner on the 26th, laden with salt fish, Captain Fellowes, thus proceeds:–

Tuesday 28th June. Blowing hard from the westward, with a heavy sea and hazy weather, with intervals of thick fog. About 1 A.M., the ship then going by the log at the rate of seven miles an hour, struck against an island of ice, with such violence, that several of the crew were pitched out of their hammocks. Being roused out of my sleep by the suddenness of the shock, I instantly ran upon deck. The helm being put hard a-port, the ship struck again about the chest-tree, and then swung round on her heel, her stern-post being stove in, and her rudder carried away, before we could succeed in our attempts to haul her off. At this time the island of ice appeared to hang quite over the ship, forming a high peak, which must have been at least twice the height of our mast-head; and we suppose the length of the island to have been from a quarter to half a mile.

“The sea was now breaking over the ice in a dreadful manner, the water rushing in so fast as to fill the hold in a few minutes. Hove the guns overboard, cut away the anchors from the bows, got two sails under the ship’s bottom, kept both pumps going, and baling with buckets at the main-hatchway, in the hope of preventing her from sinking; but in less than a quarter of an hour she settled down to her fore-chains in the water.

“Our situation was now become most perilous. Aware of the danger of a moment’s delay in hoisting out the boats, I consulted Captain Thomas of the navy, and Mr. Bargus, my Master, as to the propriety of making any further efforts to save the ship; and as I was anxious to preserve the mail, I requested their opinion as to the possibility of taking it into the boats, in the event of our being able to get them over the ship’s side. These gentlemen agreed with me, that no time was to be lost in hoisting them out; and that, as the vessel was then settling fast, our first and only consideration was to endeavour to preserve the crew.

“Having fortunately succeeded in hoisting out the cutter and jolly-boat, the sea then running high, we placed the ladies in the former. One of them, Miss Cotenham, was so terrified, that she sprung from the gunwale, awl pitched into the bottom of the boat with considerable violence. This accident, which might have been productive of fatal consequences to herself, as well as to us all, was unattended by any bad effects. The few provisions which had been saved from the men’s berths were then put into the boats, which were quickly veered a-stern. By this time the main-deck forward was under water, and nothing but the quarter-deck appeared: then ordered my men into the boats: and having previously lashed iron-pigs of ballast to the mail, it was thrown overboard.

“I now perceived the ship was sinking fast, and called out to the men to haul up and receive me, intending to drop myself into the cutter from the end of the trysail-boom, fearing she might be stove under the counter; and I desired Mr. Bargus, who continued with me on the wreck, to go over first. In this instance, he replied, that he begged leave to disobey my orders; that he must see me save over before he attempted to go himself. Such conduct, and at such a moment, requires no comment; but I should be wanting to myself, and to the service, if I did not faithfully state to their Lordships every circumstance, however trifling: and it is highly satisfactory to me to have this opportunity of recording an incident so honorable to a meritorious officer.

“The sea was running so high at the time we hoisted out the boats, that I scarcely flattered myself we should get them out in safety; and in. deed, nothing but the steady and orderly conduct of the crew could have enabled us to effect so difficult and hazardous an undertaking: it is a justice to them to observe, that not a man in the ship attempted to make use of the liquor, which every one had in his power. Whilst the cutter was getting out, I perceived one of the seamen (John Tipper) emptying a demijean, or bottle, containing five gallons, which, on inquiry, I found to be rum. He said that he was emptying it for the purpose of filling it with water from the scuttle-cask on the quarter-deck, which had been generally filled over night, and which was then the only fresh water to be got at: it became, afterwards, our principal supply. I relate this circumstance, as being so highly creditable to the character of a British sailor.

“We had scarce quitted the ship, when she suddenly gave a heavy lurch to port, and then went down head foremost. * * * * * * I cannot attempt to describe my own feelings, or the sensations of my people Exposed as we were, in two small open boats, upon the great Atlantic ocean, bereft of all assistance, but that which our own exertions, under Providence, could afford us, we narrowly escaped being swallowed up in the vortex. Men used to vicissitudes are not easily dejected; but there are trials which human nature alone cannot surmount. The consciousness of having done our duty, and a reliance upon a good Providence, enabled us to endure our calamity; and we animated each other with the hope of a better fate. * * * * * *

“Having at length surmounted dangers and difficulties which baffle all description, we rigged the foremast, and prepared to shape our course in the best manner that circumstances would admit of, the wind blowing from the precise point on which it was necessary to sail, to reach the nearest land. An hour had scarcely elapsed from the time the ship struck, till she foundered. The distribution of the crew had already been made in the following order, which we afterwards preserved:

“In the cutter, of the following dimensions, viz. 20 feet long, 6 feet 4 inches broad, and 2½ feet deep, were embarked three ladies and myself; Captain Richard Thomas, of the navy; the French commander of the schooner; the master’s-mate, gunner, steward, carpenter, and eight seamen; in all 18 people: whose weight, together with the provisions, brought the boat’s gunwale down to within 6 or 7 inches of the water. From this confined space, some, idea may be formed of our crowded state; but it is scarcely possible for the imagination to conceive the extent of our sufferings in consequence of it.

“In the jolly-boat, 14 feet from stem to stern, 5 feet broad, and 2 feet deep, were embarked Mr. Samuel Bargus, Master; Lieutenant-Colonel George Cooke, of the First Regiment of Guards[5]; the boatswain, sailmaker, and seven seamen, in all 11 persons[6].

“The only provisions, &c. we were enabled to save, consisted of between 40 and 50 pounds of biscuit; one vessel containing 5 gallons of water; a small jug of the same, and part of a small barrel of spruce beer; one demijean of ruin, a few bottles of port wine, with two compasses, a quadrant, a spy-glass, a small tin mug, and a wine-glass. The deck-lantern, which had a few spare candles in it, had been likewise thrown into the boat; and the cook having had the precaution to secure his tinder-box and some matches that were kept in a bladder, we were afterwards enabled to steer by night.

“The wind was now blowing strong from the westward, with a heavy sea, and the day had just dawned. Estimating ourselves to be at the distance of 350 miles from St. John’s, in Newfoundland, with a prospect of a continuance of westerly winds, it became at once necessary to use the strictest economy. I represented to my companions in distress, that our resolution, once made, ought on no account to be changed; and that we must begin by suffering privations, which I foresaw would be greater than I ventured to explain. To each person, therefore, were served out half a biscuit and a glass of wine, which was the only allowance for the ensuing 24 hours, all agreeing to leave the water untouched as long as possible[7]. During the time we were employed in getting out the boats, I bad ordered the Master to throw the main-hatch tarpauling into the cutter; which being afterwards cut into lengths, enabled us to form a temporary bulwark against the waves. I had also reminded the carpenter to carry with him as many tools as he could: he had accordingly, among other things, put a few nails in his pockets, and we repaired the gunwale of the cutter, which had been stove in hoisting her out. Soon after day-light we made sail, with the jolly-boat in tow, and stood close-hauled to the northward and westward, in the hope of reaching the coast of Newfoundland, or of being picked up by some vessel. Passed two islands of ice, nearly as large as the first. We now said prayers, and returned thanks to God for our deliverance. At noon, observed in lat. 46° 33' N.; St John’s bearing about W. ¾ N., distant 350 miles.”

It was not until the 4th July, after encountering a succession of heavy gales, and being reduced by famine to almost the lowest possible state of existence, that they made the land in Conception Bay, on the coast of Newfoundland. Those alone who have been in similar situations, can accurately judge of the sensations experienced by them on seeing the shore. By Captain Fellowes they are thus affectingly described:–

“I wish it were possible for me to describe our sensations at this interesting moment. From the constant watching and fatigue, and from the languor and depression arising from our exhausted state, such accumulated irritability was brought on, that the joy of a speedy relief affected us all in a most remarkable way; many burst into tears; some looked at each other with a stupid stare, as if doubtful of the reality of what they saw; several were in such a lethargic state, that no consolation, no animating language, could rouse them to exertion.

“At this affecting period, though overpowered by my own feelings, and impressed with the recollection of our sufferings, and the sight of so many deplorable objects, I proposed to offer up our solemn thanks to Heaven for our miraculous deliverance. Every one cheerfully assented; and as soon as I opened the prayer-book (which I had secured the last time went down to my cabin), there was an universal silence; a spirit of devotion was so singularly manifested on this occasion, that to the benefits of a religious sense in uncultivated minds, must be ascribed that discipline, good order, and exertion, which even the sight of land could scarcely produce.

“The wind having blown with great violence from off the coast, we did not reach the landing-place at Island Cove till four o’clock in the evening. All the women and children in the village, with two or three fishermen (the rest of the men being absent), came down to the beach, and appearing deeply affected at our wretched situation, assisted in carrying us up the craggy rocks, over which we were obliged to pass to get to their habitations.

“This small village afforded neither medical aid nor fresh provisions, of which we stood so much in need; potatoes and salt fish being the only food of the inhabitants. I determined, therefore, to lose no time in proceeding to St. John’s, having hired a small schooner for that purpose. On the 7th July we embarked in three divisions, placing the most infirm in the schooner; the master’s-mate having charge of the cutter, and the boatswain of the jolly-boat: but such was the exhausted state of nearly the whole party, that the day was considerably advanced before we could get under weigh. * * * *. Towards dusk it came on to blow hard in squalls off the land, when we lost sight of the cutter, and were obliged soon after to come to an anchor outside of St. John’s harbour. We were under great apprehensions for the cutter’s safety, as she had no grapnel, and lest she should be driven out to sea; but at day-light we perceived her and the schooner entering the harbour; the cutter, as we afterwards learned, having had the good fortune to fall in with a fishingvessel, to which she made fast during the night.

“The ladies, Colonel Cooke, Captain Thomas, and myself, conducted by Mr. Lilly (a planter resident at Island Cove) in the jolly-boat, having left the schooner when she anchored, notwithstanding the badness, as well as extreme darkness of the night, reached the shore about midnight. We wandered for some time abqut the streets, there being no house open at that late hour; but were at length admitted into a small tenement, where we passed the remainder of the night on chairs, there being but one miserable bed for the ladies. Early on the following day, our circumstances being made known, hundreds of people crowded down to the landing-place: nothing could exceed their surprise on seeing the boats that had carried 29 persons such a distance over a boisterous sea; and when they beheld so many miserable objects, they could not conceal their emotions of pity and concern. I waited on Brigadier-General Skerrit, who commanded the garrison, and who immediately, upon being informed of our situation, ordered down a party of soldiers to take the people out of the boats, and with the utmost kindness and humanity directed beds and every necessary article to be prepared for the crew[8].”

Being anxious to return to England, Captain Fellowes engaged the cabin of a small vessel bound to Oporto; and on the llth July he embarked with Lieutenant-Colonel Cooke, Captain Thomas, and Mr. Bargus, leaving the Mate in charge of his late crew.

“During a voyage of 15 days we had a few difficulties to encounter, such as pumping continually, the vessel having sprung a leak in a gale of wind; and we were obliged to throw overboard a considerable part of her cargo. On the 26th July, we fell in with an American ship, the Bristol Trader, of New York. The owner, Mr. William Cowley, being told our distressed situation, and that we had been shipwrecked, immediately hove to, and, with a benevolence and humanity that will ever reflect the highest honor on his character, received us on board, and brought us safe to Bristol; where we had the happiness to arrive on the 3d August[9].

Postscript. I regret that, in the hurry of drawing up this Narrative, I should have omitted to make more particular mention of Captain Richard Thomas, R.N., from whose great professional skill and advice, throughout the whole of our perilous voyage, I derived the greatest assistance.

The character of the work from which we have made the foregoing extracts, and the praise to which Captain Fellowes and his associates in misfortune are entitled, for their firm and pious conduct in the hour of danger, are so admirably touched in the following minute thereon, made by their Lordships the Post-Master-General, as to render any farther eulogium on our part unnecessary.

August, 1803.

“We have perused this report with a mixed sentiment of sympathy and admiration. We are satisfied, that in the loss of the packet and of the public correspondence, no blame is imputable to Captain Fellowes, to his officers, or to his seamen. In their exertion after the ship had struck on the floating mass of ice, and in their subsequent conduct, they appear to have shewn all the talents and virtue which can distinguish the naval character.

“Let a proper letter be written in our names to the friends and family of the very worthy French officer who perished[10]. And we shall be solicitous to learn the entire recovery of the other passengers, who met such dangers and sufferings with the most exemplary fortitude.

“Mr. Freeling will return the Narrative to Captain Fellowes, with our permission to him to communicate it to his friends; or, if he shall think proper, to give it to the public. It cannot fail to impress on the minds of all who may read it, the benefit of religion, and the consolation of prayer under the pressure of calamity; and also an awful sense of the interposition and mercies of Providence, in a case of extreme peril and distress. To seamen it will more especially shew that discipline, order, generosity of mind, good temper, mutual benevolence, and patient exertion, are, under the favor of Heaven, the best safeguards in all their difficulties.

“With respect to Captain Fellowes, we feel highly gratified in having it in our power so immediately to give him a promotion, which we have reason to believe will be particularly acceptable.

(Signed)C. Spencer[11].”

The subject of this memoir commissioned the AEtna bomb in Dec. 1803, and soon after joined the fleet under Lord Nelson on the Mediterranean station, where he was very actively employed covering Sardinia, and on various other services, till the glorious battle of Trafalgar; from which period he served as Flag-Captain to Lord Collingwood, in the Queen, Ocean, and Ville de Paris, 3-deckers, until the death of that gallant and worthy nobleman, which took place off Minorca, on the 7th Mar. 1810. His post commission bears date Oct. 22, 1805.

It should here be remarked, that Lord Collingwood, satisfied with the ability of his protege, wholly dispensed with the assistance of a Captain of the Fleet, and consequently much of the duty of that office was performed by Captain Thomas, who continued in the command of the Ville de Paris, as a private ship, till the autumn of 1810, when he gave her up in consequence of private concerns requiring his attendance in England.

Captain Thomas’s next appointment was, about Feb. 1811, to the Undaunted, a fine 38-gun frigate, employed in co-operation with the Spanish patriots on the coast of Catalonia, where he displayed great zeal and activity on a variety of occasions, for which the thanks of the Admiralty were conveyed to him through his senior officer, the present Sir Edward Codrington. He was subsequently entrusted with the command of a squadron stationed in the gulf of Lyons; and on the 29th April 1812, we find him directing an attack to be made by the boats of his own ship, the Volontaire frigate, and Blossom sloop, upon a fleet of French merchantmen near the town of St. Mary’s. This service Was ably performed under the orders of Lieutenant John Eager, who succeeded in capturing seven vessels, and destroying thirteen others, laden with provisions and stores, together with a national schooner of 4 guns and 74 men, under whose protection they were proceeding to the relief of Barcelona.

In Aug. following, Captain Thomas was charged with the blockade of Toulon, which port he watched with a squadron consisting of four frigates and two brigs, during the absence of Sir Edward Pellew, who had determined to try the experiment of watering his fleet at the mouth of the Rhone, and afterwards to create a diversion in favor of the army under Sir John Murray, by proceeding to the Spanish coast, and making a shew of attacking the enemy’s posts in the bay of Rosas. This object being effected, Captain Thomas was sent back to resume his command off Marseilles, where he remained till Jan. 1813, when ill-health obliged him to resign his ship and return to England. He has recently been relieved in the superintendence of the Ordinary at Portsmouth, to which service he was appointed in April, 1822.

  1. The Cumberland formed part of the squadron sent to the West Indies, under Rear-Admiral Cornish, during the Spanish armament in 1790. The Nautilus assisted at the capture of Tobago, April 15, 1793; and at the reduction of Martinique and St. Lucia, in 1794. The Boyne was destroyed by fire, at Spithead, May 1, 1795. See vol. I. pp. 59, 514, and 19; also vol. II. part I. p. 83.
  2. See memoir of Earl St. Vincent, in vol. I.
  3. The document alluded to is given at full length in vol. I. at p. 774, et seq.
  4. The Excellent succeeded in getting close under the lee of the Santissima Trinidada, mounting 130 guns, and engaged her for nearly an hour, assisted by the Orion, Irresistible, and Blenheim. According to an entry in the Orion’s log, this huge ship was compelled to haul down her colours, and hoist a British ensign; but the approach of 13 other Spanish ships prevented her opponents from profiting by the advantage they had gained. The Excellent’s total loss was 11 men killed and 12 wounded.
  5. The present Lieutenant-General Sir George Cooke, K.C.B., who commanded the Guards, and lost an arm, at the battle of Waterloo.
  6. Two French prisoners are included among the seamen mentioned in the above lists. Two of the schooner’s crew were left on board to assist in navigating her into port. The remainder were put on board two English merchantmen, for a passage to Newfoundland, soon after her capture.
  7. This small allowance was obliged to be curtailed on the following day, in consequence of the biscuit being much damaged by salt water during the night.
  8. The greatest circumspection was found necessary in administering nourishment to the men, who were so much frost-bitten as to require constant surgical assistance. Many of them lost their toes; and it was determined they should continue at St. John’s until the whole were in a fit state to be removed to Halifax in a schooner hired by Captain Fellowes for that purpose.
  9. The Oporto trader was never heard of after Captain Fellowes and his companions left her; but there is every reason to believe that she perished in the same gale that proved so fatal to H.M. sloop Calypso, and the Jamaica fleet under her protection, in Aug. 1803.
  10. M. Rossé, commander of the French schooner captured by the Lady Hobart, threw himself overboard in a fit of delirium, on the 3d July. He had for some days laboured under a despondency which admitted of no consolation. One of the other prisoners, at the same time, became so outrageous, that it was found necessary to lash him to the bottom of the boat.
  11. Captain Fellowes, who then held the rank of a commander in the navy, by commission dated in 1800, was appointed Agent for the Packets stationed at Holy head, in Aug. 1803, and held that office till his retirement from the service in 1815. He became Private Secretary to the late Lord Gwydir in 1819; and received his present appointment as Secretary to the Lord Great Chamberlain of England, in 1820. He is the author of “An Account of the celebrated July 1816,” written to Lord Gwydir; and of “A Visit to the Monastery of La Trappe, and the interesting country of La Vendee.” His eldest brother, James, served as Physician to the British army during the peninsular war, and received the honor of knighthood, Mar. 21, 1810. Another brother, Thomas, who greatly distinguished himself as a commander of flotilla at Cadiz, obtained post rank Mar. 4, 1811; and was nominated a C.B. in 1815.