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Royal Naval Biography/Thompson, John (b)

[Post-Captain of 1812.]

This This officer passed his examination for lieutenant previous to the Spanish armament, at which period we find him on board the Queen Charlotte a first rate, bearing the flag of Earl Howe, in consequence of whose recommendation he was promoted, by commission dated Nov. 22, 1790. During the French revolutionary war, he successively served, and principally as first lieutenant, under Captains Richard Lee, John William Spranger, William Luke, and William Bowen; in the Serpent sloop, Woolwich 44, and Blonde and Caroline, frigates; on the West India, Downs, Lisbon, and Mediterranean stations.

Soon after the renewal of hostilities, 1803, Lieutenant Thompson was appointed to the Venerable 74, at the particular request of her captain, the late Vice-Admiral Hunter; in which ship he continued until she was wrecked, in Torbay, Nov. 24, 1804. The following account of that disaster is given by one of his brother officers:–

“It was about 5 P.M. the wind blowing very fresh, and the evening dark and foggy, that she touched on a ridge of rocks, but at what part of the hay could not, at first, he exactly ascertained. Every exertion was instantly made to get her off, but to no purpose. The weather rather clearing, we soon perceived the danger of our situation. It was truly terrible, and scarcely left us the most distant prospect of life. Our brave and worthy captain, however, with the most undaunted fortitude I ever beheld, still continued to animate the crew to hope and further perseverance. This he did with as much collectedness and self-command as if conducting the ordinary duty of the ship; never in my life did I witness such utter disregard to death and danger. Not the least alteration took place in his looks, words, or manner, from the moment she struck, until, at our joint and earnest importunity, after all the crew were safe, he left the ship. Every thing was done that the most able and experienced seaman could suggest, but all in vain. Signals of distress were now made, and most fortunately reached the Impetueux and Goliah, which ships immediately stood back into the bay, and sent their boats to our assistance. All the rest of the fleet were beyond the hearing of our guns; and the people on shore did not attempt to give us any kind of help.

“Having tried every thing in vain for the safety of the ship, we now turned our thoughts to the lives of the crew, and as they could be of no further use, they were told to provide for their own safety in the boats of the Impetueux and Goliah, that had by this then approached the ship, the captain and all the officers having declared their intention to remain on board till all the men were safely out. This was about 9 o’clock; the ship being then bilged against the rocks, the masts cut away, and the waves breaking over us at every roll. I now gave over all thoughts of saving myself, as, I believe, did every officer in the ship. As the boats approached, the attempt became more and more dangerous every time, the night still continuing very dark and foggy, with gusts of wind and drivelling sleet, that seemed to freshen every hour. In this forlorn and dismal state, the officers continued on the outside of the ship (for she was nearly on her beam ends), encouraging the men, and affording every possible assistance for their escape on board the boats, which exerted themselves on this occasion with great skill and intrepidity. The ship was now a mere wreck beating against the rocks, and with every wave expected to go to pieces; yet all this while we were so near the shore as to be able to converse with the people whom the report of our guns had at length brought down to the rocks. With some difficulty, we at last contrived to fling a line to them, which being made fast, some of the crew attempted to haul themselves ashore by it. The surf, however, broke so tremendously between us and the land, though I do not believe we were 20 yards from it, that all the poor fellows who made this attempt were either drowned or dashed to pieces. It was now past 5 a.m. (25 Nov.), the weather still getting worse, and all the crew out but a few drunken wretches who lay senseless on the deck, and about 17 noble souls who declared they would die with their officers; a dreadful sea was breaking over us, the fore part of the ship entirely under water, and the rest expected to go to pieces every minute; the wind still freshening, and being conscious that our remaining on board any longer could be of no possible use; it being moreover probable that the boats would not again be able to approach the ship, the officers now persuaded their good and still undaunted captain to think of saving his life, and with it their own, as they had resolved one and all to share his fate. After some time he consented, on condition that the officers should go first. This point being concluded, the hope of life, long dismissed from our minds, began to revive, when another difficulty arose, that seemed to cast it further back than ever, – which of the officers was to lead the way? The extinction of this reviving hope was indeed dreadful, and the pause had nearly been fatal to us all. At length, one of the junior lieutenants, long known to the crew, and as brave a man as ever trod the quarter-deck, agreed to lead, the rest solemnly promising to follow. One after another we now descended from over the stern (the only part of the ship above water), by single ropes, cold, benumbed, and wet through, and in this condition gained the boats, then in perilous attendance underneath. In this manner it was that we left the poor old Venerable, and, about 6 o’clock, reached the Impetueux, where, it is needless to say, we were treated with every attention and kindness that one ship’s officers could show to those of another in distress. When the morning broke, we perceived the ship had gone to pieces, and that if we had staid aboard, all of us by this time must have perished. On the beach, the people with whom we had been conversing were plundering every article of the wreck as it floated ashore.”

On the 11th of the following month, Captain Hunter, his officers, and crew, were tried by a court-martial, at Plymouth, for the loss of the Venerable, and the whole of them fully acquitted of all blame, with the exception of one man, who was found guilty of drunkenness, disobedience, &c. and sentenced accordingly.

Lieutenant Thompson was next appointed first of the Namur 74, Captain (now Sir Lawrence William) Halsted, under whom he served at the capture of four French line-of-battle ships, by Sir Richard J. Strachan’s squadron, Nov. 4, 1805[1]. His promotion to the rank of Commander took place Dec. 24 following.

We subsequently find Captain Thompson commanding the Bonne Citoyenne sloop, on the north coast of Spain; Brune troop ship, employed in conveying reinforcements to the army under Lord Wellington; and Bristol 64, on the Lisbon station. He was advanced to post rank Aug. 12, 1812; and superseded in the command of the latter ship in 1813.

  1. See Vol. I. Part I. pp. 289 and 431.