Royal Naval Biography/Tomlinson, Nicholas

[Post-Captain of 1801.]

This officer is the third son of the late Captain Robert Tomlinson, R.N. by Sarah, only daughter of the late Dr. Robinson, President of the College of Physicians, and granddaughter of Dr. Robinson, Bishop of Carlisle. By the paternal batteries when assisting in the defence of York Town, Oct. 10, 1781; and from that period, till the surrender of Earl Cornwallis and his army to the American and French forces, Mr. Tomlinson commanded one of the British advanced batteries, where he conducted himself in such a manner as to obtain his Lordship’s personal thanks[1]. He returned to England in Jan. 1782, and was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the Bristol, a 50-gun ship, commanded by Captain James Burney, on the 23d March in the same year.

The Bristol sailed from England with a fleet of Indiamen under her convoy in Sept. 1782; and on the 19th April following lost 19 of her crew by the blowing up of the Hon. Company’s ship Duke of Athol, in Madras Road. The total number of lives lost on this melancholy occasion exceeded 200, including 6 Lieutenants, 5 warrant officers, and 127 of the best men belonging to the squadron under Sir Edward Hughes. Lieutenant Tomlinson, who had volunteered to go to the Duke of Athol’s assistance, in the room of another officer who was ordered on that service, received a severe contusion in his breast and left side, and his whole body a dreadful shock[2]. He subsequently bore a part in the last action fought between Sir Edward Hughes and M. de Suffrein[3], on which occasion the Bristol had 13 men wounded.

Lieutenant Tomlinson removed into the Juno frigate, commanded by the late Captain James Montagu[4], Sept. 14, 1784, and returned to England with that gallant officer in the spring of 1785. His next appointment was, July 10, 1786, to the Savage sloop of war, in which vessel he continued till Aug. 12, 1789.

During this latter period of service, nothing very particular occurred, it being a time of peace; but Lieutenant Tomlinson enjoyed the unspeakable felicity of preserving the lives of two of his fellow creatures: one, Mr. Campbell, a young gentleman who could not swim, and whom he rescued by jumping overboard after him; the other, a poor fisherman who had been overset, and to whose assistance he repaired in a small boat during a heavy gale of wind, at the evident peril of his own existence[5]During the Spanish armament in 1790, he was sent to Greenock upon the impress service, and while there displayed his usual activity; but as no rupture ensued, he was recommended by Lord Hawke to Count Woronzow, the Russian Ambassador, through whose interference he obtained the command of a ship of the line belonging to the Imperial navy. No sooner, however, did a war between England and France appear inevitable, than relinquishing the most flattering prospects, he returned to his native country, made an offer of his services, and was appointed first Lieutenant of the Regulus 44, in which ship he served for eight months, and then left her to take the command of the Pelter gun-brig, at the particular request of Sir W. Sidney Smith.

To whatever extent boarding and cutting out the enemies’ vessels from under forts, &c. may have since been carried, we have reason to believe Lieutenant Tomlinson had the honor of setting the example in the French revolutionary war (at least in Europe) , by boarding and carrying a lugger, in a single boat and in open day-light, while lying within pistol-shot of a battery, with the adjacent sand-hills lined with troops.

The Pelter appears to have been engaged in a variety of operations on the coast of France; and on one occasion had an encounter with three armed vessels, two of which were of equal force with herself, lying in the road of Staples, protected by a battery. In June 1795, she accompanied the fleet under Sir John Borlase Warren to Quiberon Bay, where she was employed to cover the landing of the French royalists[6], and in various skirmishes along the coast; in all which Lieutenant Tomlinson’s conduct was witnessed and highly approved by Captain Albemarle Bertie, of the Thunderer 74, who had the direction of the gun-vessels attached to the expedition.

The critical assistance rendered to the royalist army on the 21st of the ensuing month deserves particular notice. Unassisted by any other vessel, she went so near, and continued running along the coast so advantageously with the troops, as to be able to cover their retreat, and prevent the republicans from destroying the greatest part of them; and at length, when their situation became desperate, afforded both time and opportunity to conclude a capitulation. On this occasion, Lieutenant Tomlinson was honored with the thanks of Sir John B. Warren, on the quarter-deck of la Pomone, in the presence of many distinguished officers of the navy and army.

On the 10th Aug. in the same year, Lieutenant Tomlinson was ordered to attack a fleet of chasse marees, which he did with great promptitude, and took one of them, although she had anchored under a battery at the mouth of the river Crach, the fire of which was silenced by the Pelter. This exploit produced a flattering letter on the part of Sir John B. Warren, and a generous relinquishment of the prize to her captors alone by the officers and seamen of the squadron. The Pelter, in company with three other gun-vessels, had previously destroyed a corvette of 24 guns, and a national cutter, in the Morbihan river.

At length, in consequence of incessant fatigue, nearly 30 of the Pelter’s crew were confined to their hammocks[7]; and the rest, with Lieutenant Tomlinson at their head, in so reduced a state, that the vessel was obliged to be towed home by the Robust 74.

In Oct. 1795, the Pelter being paid off, the subject of this memoir joined the Glory, of 98 guns, as first Lieutenant, from which ship he soon after removed into the Vesuve gun-vessel. Oh the 29th of the following month he was advanced to the rank of Commander, and appointed to la Suffisante of 14 guns.

On the 27th May, 1796, Captain Tomlinson, after a chase of eleven hours, and an action of thirty minutes, captured la Revanche French national brig, of twelve long 4-pounders and 85 men, between Ushant and the Main, then a lee shore. The enemy had 2 men killed and 7 wounded; la Suffisante only 1 man wounded. Vice-Admiral Onslow, when reporting this capture, expressed himself as follows:

“From all the accounts I hear, Captain Tomlinson’s conduct upon this occasion was highly honorable to himself as an officer and a seaman, as more danger was attached to la Suffisante, from the risk of shipwreck upon the enemy’s coast, in the passage le Fore, than from the force of the enemy, from which difficulty he very ably extricated himself.”

In the following month Captain Tomlinson captured la Patriote and le Morgan French privateers, the latter mounting 16 guns; an American ship, and a Danish brig, the one laden with contraband stores, the other with French property; and re-captured six valuable British merchantmen.

On the 1st Aug. in the same year he attacked a French convoy, consisting of a brig mounting 16 guns, two cutters of 14 guns each, and seventeen sail of merchant vessels, eight of which he drove on shore and destroyed. He subsequently captured a large ship laden with rice and wine, and two other French vessels; a Dutch vessel laden with wine, and a ship with masts and spars, the latter bound to Spain; and four Spanish vessels, one of which he gave up to the prisoners.

For these and other services he was deservedly advanced to the rank of Post-Captain, Dec. 12, 1796; nor was this the only reward he received for his zealous exertions, as will appear by the following documents:

Meeting of the Committee for encouraging the capture of French Privateers, Armed Vessels, &c. July 14, 1796.

Resolved, That Captain Tomlinson, of H.M.S. la Suffisante, be requested by this Committee to accept of a piece of plate, value 50 guineas, in acknowledgment of his gallant behaviour in the capture of la Revanche French brig, in the action on the 27th May; and also in the action on the 27th June last, when he captured the Morgan French privateer, and re-captured six British merchant ships, her prizes, and in testimony of the sense this Committee entertain of the protection he has thereby afforded to the commerce of Great Britain.”

At a Court of Directors of the Royal Exchange Assurance, July 20, 1796.

“The Committee of Averages of the 14th inst. having recommended a piece of plate, of the value of 50 guineas, to be presented to Captain Tomlinson, of his Majesty’s sloop la Suffisante, in consideration of his spirited and active conduct in the capture of the Morgan French privateer, and the re-capture of six merchant ships, her prizes, on the 27th June last, off the French coast:

Resolved,– That the Court do approve thereof; that the secretary do acquaint Captain Tomlinson with the resolution of the Court; and that the Company’s silversmith be directed to prepare a piece of plate accordingly, with a suitable inscription thereon.”

Unfortunately for Captain Tomlinson, his post commission was not accompanied by an appointment; and having no prospect of immediate employment, his eagerness to distress the enemy led him beyond the limits of his profession, and caused him to incur the displeasure of the Admiralty.

In imitation of the Raleighs, the Cavendishes, and the Drakes of former days, he appears to have made an offer of fitting at his own expense, and commanding in person, a private ship of war; but not being able to obtain the sanction of the Board for that purpose, he determined to send a vessel into the Mediterranean, under the superintendence of a man of approved ability; and having procured leave of absence for three months, he embarked in the Lord Hawke privateer, belonging to himself, for the purpose of establishing a correspondence for her at Oporto. In the course of the voyage seven of the enemy’s merchant vessels, and a Spanish packet returning from the West Indies, worth about 12,000l., were captured; a valuable British brig was retaken, and a French privateer destroyed. The crew of the packet threw the mail which she was conveying overboard, but it was recovered by one of the Lord Hawke’s men, who jumped into the sea after it.

The displeasure of the Lords of the Admiralty, alluded to above, proved of very serious consequence to Captain Tomlinson; as we find by their Secretary’s letter of Nov. 20, 1J98, that his name was struck off the list of Captains in the royal navy, in consequence of a complaint made against him by two of his brother officers, for having used the private signals when on board the Lord Hawke, and chased by the frigates they commanded.

In the hope that, on a due explanation of his motives, and a statement of his past services, he might be reinstated in his rank, the subject of this memoir petitioned the Board to rescind their resolution; but he was informed in answer, that their Lordships saw no grounds for altering it. Thus disappointed, he presented a Memorial to the King, which was also rejected.

In March 1801, he accompanied Sir Hyde Parker as a volunteer to the Baltic, and was so highly spoken of by that Admiral for his distinguished conduct in the battle off Copenhagen, that on a second memorial being presented to the Sovereign, his Majesty was most graciously pleased to restore him to the rank of Post-Captain, with seniority from the 22d Sept. of that year. He was afterwards appointed to the command of the Sea Fencibles at Southend, in Essex.

Some time before the attack on the French squadron in Aix Roads, Captain Tomlinson transmitted a plan to the Secretary of the Admiralty, for conducting fire-ships when leading down to attack the enemy, which was afterwards adopted; and in June following, he was appointed to fit out and command all the vessels of that description intended to accompany the expedition under Earl Chatham and Sir Richard J. Strachan to the Scheldt. In Dec. following, when the island of Walcheren was evacuated, he assisted in destroying the basin, arsenal, and sea defences of Flushing; and his exertions on that occasion were mentioned in highly satisfactory terms by Captain Graham Moore, who commanded the detachment of seamen and artificers employed in that undertaking. On his return to England he resumed the command of the Sea Fencibles in Essex.

We are indebted to a pamphlet long since out of print, for the bulk of our information respecting Captain Tomlinson’s services. Other subjects alluded to by the writer thereof are of too delicate a nature for us to attempt handling them, during the existence of the parties to whom they refer.

Captain Tomlinson married, in 1794, Elizabeth, youngest daughter and co-heiress of Ralph Ward, Esq. of Forburrows, near Colchester, by whom he has four sons and four daughters. One of his sons is a Midshipman, R.N., and another an officer in the army.

Agents.– Messrs. Goode and Clarke.

  1. We have already stated (at p. 63) that Earl Cornwallis had entered into a capitulation for the surrender of York and Gloucester on the 17th Oct. 1781. Two days afterwards those important posts, together with the Guadaloupe frigate, Bonetta sloop of war, many transports, a numerous artillery, and a large quantity of military stores, were given up to the combined armies. About twenty transports had been sunk or burnt during the siege. Earl Cornwallis, with all the military and naval officers, except such as were necessary for the care of the soldiers and seamen, were set at liberty on their parole. The American commissioner who drew up the articles of capitulation, was the son of Mr. Laurens, the late President of Congress, whose capture by the British we have already noticed (see p. 14), and who was still a close prisoner in the Tower of London, under a charge of high treason.
  2. Mr. Tomlinson was first Lieutenant of the Bristol at this period; a junior officer had been ordered to assist the Indiaman, but, as appears by Captain Burney’s certificate, was not immediately ready to do so.
  3. See Vol. I. note at p. 425.
  4. See Vol. I. note at p. 41 *.
  5. Mr. Campbell was related to Mrs. Carter, wife of the Duke of Portland’s private secretary.
  6. See Vol. I. note at p. 169 et seq.
  7. Her complement was 50 officers and men.