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Royal Naval Biography/Wight, John

[Post-Captain of 1802.]

This officer was born at Eyemouth,a seaport town in Berwickshire; and having lost the protection of his father, who changed his name to White, and died a Purser, R.N., was destined by his mother for the medical profession; but feeling a predilection for the naval service, he embarked at a very early age as a Midshipman on board the Culloden 74, under the patronage of his worthy relative, and future father-in-law, the late Admiral Schanck, of whom a memoir will be found at p. 324 et seq. of our first volume[1].

In 1791, after serving about a year in the Culloden, Mr. Wight joined the Trial, a cutter built with sliding keels, according to a plan proposed by Captain Schanck; and in the following year he removed into the Orion 74, commanded by the late Sir John T. Duckworth, under whom he served on the Channel, West India, and North American stations, till the latter end of 1793, when he was received by the lamented Captain Riou[2] on board the Rose frigate, attached to the expedition about to sail for the reduction of Martinique, Guadaloupe, &c.

During the operations carried on in the former island, he landed with his gallant commander, and was entrusted by him with the charge of a 3-gun battery, constructed by the Rose’s crew on Point Carriere, at the distance of between two and three hundred yards from the walls of Fort Louis, on the opposite side of the Carenage. Whilst thus employed he had two remarkable escapes; a sailor, named John Williams, being killed by a splinter of a shell, when in the act of receiving a biscuit from his hand, on which occasion he was covered with the blood of the unfortunate man; and another of his party, James Wamsley, being slain by a shot whilst in close conversation with him[3].

From this battery he accompanied Captain Faulknor, of the Zebra, to a spot close in the enemy’s front, where that heroic officer made such observations as afterwards enabled him to lay his little sloop alongside the walls of Fort Louis; the result of which enterprise has been already stated under the head of Rear-Admiral Williams[4].

Mr. Wight’s conduct during the six days he held the above command, was so exemplary as to induce Captain Riou to place him at the head of a division of men to be employed in the grand attack upon Fort Louis; and although but a lad, he had the good fortune to be among the foremost of those who so bravely stormed the enemy’s works; thus setting a noble example Jo the party under his orders.

His juvenile gallantry being duly reported to Sir John Jervis, the commander-in-chief, Mr. Wight was taken by that officer into his own flag-ship, the Boyne, a second rate, where he had a very severe attack of the yellow fever, and nearly fell a victim thereto. On his recovery he was landed with a party of seamen attached to the army under Sir Charles Grey, and was frequently engaged with the republican troops commanded by Victor Hugues, who, during his illness, had succeeded in recovering possession of fort Fleur d’Epée, and other posts, in the island of Guadaloupe[5].

After the evacuation of Grand Terre, the Boyne proceeded to the relief of Fort Matilda, then closely invested by the enemy; and Mr. Wight was sent in the jolly-boat with an officer, bearing despatches from Sir Charles Grey to General Prescott, who commanded there. On his arrival opposite the sea front of that fortification, he hailed the garrison, in order to obtain an escort from the beach to the sally-port; but receiving no reply, and the night being dark, he determined on landing in the town of Basse Terre, and proceeding through the main street, which was the only road by which he could approach the draw-bridge. Taking with him one man belonging to his boat’s crew, he passed through the town without molestation, although many soldiers were distinctly seen by the reflection of the lights, sitting at the doors with muskets in their hands, and arrived at the ditch surrounding the works at a moment when the republicans were firing in all directions. After a considerable pause on the part of General Prescott, the draw-bridge was lowered, and the gate of the fort was fortunately opened at the moment when a French dragoon, who had rode up to Mr. Wight, was in the act of taking out his pistol to fire at him. Having informed the General of the object of his visit, and that the enemy were in possession of the town, a suitable force was sent to guard the officer charged with Sir Charles Grey’s despatches, who was thus enabled to execute his mission in safety[6].

In Nov. 1794, Sir John Jervis presented Mr. Wight with an appointment to act as a Lieutenant on board the Beaulieu frigate, commanded by his friend Captain Riou; from which ship he was afterwards removed into l’Aimable of 32 guns, on the same station. This promotion was conferred upon him as a token of the Admiral’s approbation of his very distinguished conduct during the preceding campaign.

The Beaulieu was engaged in a variety of active services, and on one occasion destroyed a French troop-ship, mounting 24 guns, and laden with military stores, after an action of two hours with the battery of St. François, Guadaloupe. Previous to her being set on fire, a shot struck her fore-mast, against which Mr. Wight was leaning, and passed through it about twelve inches above his right arm. L’Aimable, commanded by Captain Mainwaring, had a very sharp contest with the Pensee, a French frigate, mounting 44 guns, with a complement of 400 men, 28 of whom were killed, and 36 wounded, whilst, strange to say, she herself had not a man slain, and only two or three persons wounded. During this conflict Captain Mainwaring and Mr. Wight were knocked down by the hammocks, &c., set in motion by the enemy’s shot, but sustained no material injury[7]. The following particulars of the action have been furnished us by a gentleman who bore a part therein. We give them at length, in consequence of no other correct account ever having appeared in print:

“At sun-set on the 22d July, 1796, l’Aimable being on a cruise off Guadaloupe, discovered the Penseé rounding Englishman’s Head, and instantly made sail to prevent her getting into Anse-la-Barque. Whilst stretching inshore, Captain Mainwaring assembled his officers and ship’s company, consisting altogether of 192 men and boys, pointed out to them the superior force of the enemy, and assured them that if they did not despair of coping successfully with their republican foe, he would lead them into action with sincere pleasure. “To glory or death!” was the enthusiastic response, and in less than 30 minutes the ships were closely engaged. The battle continued an hour and three quarters, during which time there was little or no wind, and the sea perfectly smooth. The combatants being greatly cut up in their sails and rigging, and Captain Mainwaring seeing no likelihood of terminating the action speedily, except by boarding, availed himself of a light breeze that now sprung up, and being a little to windward of his opponent, kept away for that purpose; but in attempting to cross the Pensée’s stern, was thrown on his back as above stated, and before he could recover himself from the shock sufficiently to give the necessary orders the enemy had put his helm up, and run athwart l’Aimable’s bows. He soon after made sail before the wind, and by daylight next morning had increased his distance about six miles, although no effort was wanting on the part of Captain Mainwaring to overtake him, all possible sail having been set in pursuit, the stays slackened, the wedges of the masts loosened, and the ship brought to her best sailing trim by the shifting of guns, &c., to bring her to her proper bearings. About 8 A.M., on the 23d, the French commander, observing the inferiority of the frigate opposed to him, hove to, with the seeming determination of renewing the action. Preparations were now made for lashing the Pensée’s bowsprit to l’Aimable’s main-mast; but on Captain Mainwaring arriving within pistol shot of the enemy’s weather quarter, the latter filled and set his courses, having first greeted the British frigate by pulling off his hat to her commander and waving it over the hammocks, his officers following his example. This apparently chivalrous salutation was very naturally returned; and our countrymen’s feelings may readily be conceived when they found it a mere ruse de guerre. L’Aimable, however, immediately bore up; and her flying-jib-boom passing close to the Pensée’s taffrail, she had an opportunity of pouring in a broadside through the enemy’s cabin windows. A very close action now commenced, both ships running before the wind under their top-sails alone, and was kept up for nearly half an hour; when the Pensée having fore-reached on l’Aimable sheered off, and succeeded in effecting her escape. The trivial loss sustained by the latter must be attributed to her antagonist having fired high. The slaughter on board the former is easily accounted for, she being much loftier than l’Aimable, whose guns had but little elevation given them.”

Three days after this gallant affair, l’Aimable arrived at the island of St. Thomas, where she found the Pensée with her main-mast out, and obtained correct information of her loss. Whilst there, the British and French commanders dined together at the Danish Governor’s table.

The Pensée being at length refitted, Captain Mainwaring took under his protection a number of English merchantmen, and sailed from thence to the northward; but not before he had given the enemy an opportunity of again meeting him in battle, by laying to for twelve hours as near the shore as the laws of neutrality would allow, which Mons. Valto, the French Captain, did not think proper to avail himself of.

Mr. Wight subsequently removed into the Ariadne of 28 guns, and returned to England at the latter end of 1796. On the passage home his ship experienced very tempestuous weather, parted company with the greater part of a fleet under her convoy, and was obliged to throw all her guns overboard. His commission as a Lieutenant was confirmed by the Admiralty on the 5th Sept. in the same year.

Lieutenant Wight’s health being at this period much impaired by the West India climate, he solicited and obtained permission to come on half pay; but an invitation from Captain Riou, who, although a young officer, had recently been appointed to the command of the Augusta yacht, induced him to join that vessel, from which he was promoted in consequence of her bearing the Admiralty flag, and forming part of the royal squadron when his late Majesty proposed visiting the victorious fleet under Lord Duncan at the Nore[8].

Early in 1798, Captain Wight was appointed to the Admiral Devries, a Dutch 68-gun ship, armed en flute, and placed under the orders of the Transport Board, for the purpose of being employed in the conveyance of the prisoners taken in Ireland during the unhappy rebellion in that kingdom.

After encountering much bad weather, and springing her main-mast, the Admiral Devries reached Cork and Waterford, at which places she received on board 400 of those deluded men, with a detachment of the 60th regiment, and proceeded with them to Martinique. On the passage out two dreadful explosions took place in the gun-room, owing to the carelessness of the gunner and his crew when fumigating the ship; but by the exertions and cool intrepidity of her commander, the fire was each time subdued, and the lives of 900 men, women, and children, preserved. She subsequently sprung a leak off St. Domingo, whilst on her way to Jamaica; and being surveyed at the latter island, was found utterly unfit again to cross the seas.

Captain Wight now removed his pendant into the London transport, and embarked a detachment of troops ordered to Savanna la Mer, at which place he received on board a party of the York hussars, for a passage to England. Whilst thus employed he was attacked by the yellow fever, from which he had scarcely recovered when the London sprung a leak under the chesstree, about four feet beneath her water line, and was with great difficulty kept afloat until her return to Port Royal, where she was discharged from the service, and her passengers removed into other vessels.

Having at length returned home in safety, he received an offer of further employment in the same line of service; but it not being his wish to avail himself thereof, he declined an appointment to a frigate under the Transport Board, and remained on half-pay till July 1800, when he obtained the command of the Wolverene, a brig fitted according to a plan proposed by Commissioner Schanck, with guns on the inclined plane, and grooves in her deck, by which she could fight them all on one side[9].

On the 19th of the following month, Captain Wight, being at anchor near the islands of St. Marcou, on the coast of Normandy, discovered two large French sloops attempting to make their escape from the river Isigny, and lost no time in pursuing them, with the Wolverene, two gun-brigs, and a cutter. The enemy finding themselves hard pressed, ran into the bay of Grand Camp, and anchored under cover of two batteries, which Captain Wight immediately attacked and kept in play, while his boats, under Lieutenant John Gregory, boarded and set fire to the largest vessel, lying aground within half pistol-shot of the beach, on which 200 men with muskets and three field-pieces were posted. The other sloop was at the same time so much cut up by the Wolverene’s shot as to render it impossible for her to proceed.

Captain Wight’s abilities as a seaman were no less conspicuous than his zeal and bravery as an officer on this occasion, he having taken charge of the Wolverene upon her pilot declining to conduct her within gun-shot of the heavy battery to which she was about to be opposed, and laid her within pistol-shot of the enemy’s works, where her keel was only a few inches free of the ground. His spirited example was followed by the officers under his orders, their pilots having likewise disclaimed all responsibility. This gallant exploit being performed in sight of tire garrison at Marcou, he received the most hearty congratulations on his return to that anchorage, and afterwards had the satisfaction to hear that the Admiralty highly approved of his conduct. The enemy, it appears, had 4 men killed on the beach; but although their troops came down to the margin of the water, the British had not a man slain or wounded by their fire. The Wolverene, however, had three of her crew dreadfully shattered by an explosion on board one of the sloops, and suffered some damage in her sails and rigging.

In the following month Captain Wight captured a vessel laden with naval stores, near Havre; and on the 4th Nov. in the same year he drove a French cutter on shore to the westward of Cape Barfleur, where it is supposed she went to pieces during a gale of wind from the southward, which obliged him to haul off and leave her surrounded by breakers. Five days after this event he encountered a tremendous storm, the disastrous effects of which among the shipping in the Channel have seldom if ever been exceeded. The Wolverene’s escape, indeed, may be considered miraculous, as she actually struck on the Goodwin Sands, bu^ providentially forced her way into the North Sea, and arrived at Yarmouth in safety. The anxiety experienced by his family at this critical period may be inferred from the following passage contained in a letter written to him by Commissioner Schanck, on hearing of his arrival at that port:

“My dearest John, I never knew how much I loved and valued you till I thought I had lost you for ever. I most sincerely return God thanks for your preservation. I have only time to say, every moment of my life shall be employed in being useful to you in all manner of ways. * * * * * *.”

In a preceding letter, alluding to the affair in Grand Camp bay, the worthy Commissioner says:

" Go on and trust in God. * * * *. I will try and find out an acting Master for you. You may think as you please, but your being able to take charge of the ship is a strong recommendation to you, and will please Admiral ___, as it does me. * * * *. You are much talked of at all the Boards; and indeed it makes me a most happy man. Take care of your health; and I am sure you will do your duty.”

Captain Wight subsequently received a note from Earl St. Vincent’s private secretary, acquainting him that his Lordship was very glad to find he had, through his meritorious conduct, procured the rank then enjoyed by him; and recommending him to persevere in his exertions, as the only path to obtain promotion. That this advice was not disregarded we shall soon have the pleasure of shewing.

On the 5th May, 1801, Captain Wight, being off Havre, discovered a large sloop coming down the Seine, and made sail towards her. The enemy having anchored just before dark, the Wolverene was brought up in an advantageous position to the eastward of the Trouville bank, and a boat under Lieutenant Gregory sent to attack the French vessel, which he boarded without resistance, her crew retreating to the shore as he advanced. She proved to be laden with merchandise; and strange as it may appear, although considerably up the river, the captors were allowed to bring her out unmolested. On the 15th of the following month, Captain Wight drove a similar vessel on shore, under the cover of three batteries at St. Vallery, where she was cannonaded by him; but owing to the strength of the tide, and a heavy sea, it was found impracticable to bring her off. A few days after, whilst cruising off the Seine, he discovered a division of the enemy’s flotilla on the southern shore, coming from the westward, and notwithstanding the great inferiority of his force, lost no time in offering them battle. They, however, crowded sail, and pushed into Havre, closely pursued by the Wolverene.

Captain Wight was now placed under the orders of the late Captain Newman, who was employed with a small squadron watching the port of Havre, where a considerable force had been collected for the purpose of assisting in the meditated invasion of Great Britain. Thirty-six sail of brigs, luggers, and other armed vessels, being moored in the form of a half moon between the heads of the piers, and Captain Wight feeling confident that the Wolverene’s easy draught of water and peculiar armament would enable him to annoy them considerably, he prevailed upon his commanding officer to sanction an attack by her alone, although the appearance of the flotilla lying in shoal water, close to the shore, and under the protection of a formidable citadel and several land batteries, afforded but little probability of her being able to dislodge the enemy without the aid of other small vessels.

Captain Wight’s first attempt proved ineffectual; and after maintaining a close action with the flotilla and batteries for nearly an hour, he was obliged to haul out without making any apparent impression on them. He, however, had tlie gratification of being saluted on his return by three hearty cheers from Captain Newman, and all the officers and men who had witnessed his gallant conduct. The next day it was agreed upon that he should lead the Loire and Maidstone frigates as close as possible along the southernmost side of the bank de la Jambe, and denote the soundings by signal as he proceeded. His second attack was commenced with great spirit, the Wolverene approaching close to the enemy’s centre, and sustaining a very heavy fire for about an hour, in little more than twelve feet water. Captain Wight at length determined upon boarding some of the outermost vessels, but had scarcely filled his main-top-sail for that purpose, and directed the whole of his fire against six of them, when they cut their cables, and were drifted by the flood tide into the harbour. The wind now dying away, the Wolverene was unavoidably driven so near the piers that the French troops began to engage her with musketry; and it is said that the present American Commodore Rodgers, then at Havre, personally directed the fire of a heavy piece of artillery against her. Her situation had indeed become rather alarming; but fortunately a light breeze from the land enabled Captain Wight again to close with the British squadron, where he was again received in the most gratifying manner. The next morning he had the additional pleasure of finding that the whole of the enemy’s Vessels, dreading a renewal of the attack, had moved into the harbour during the night, nor were they ever afterwards seen outside of the pier-heads. Napoleon Buonaparte, then First Consul of the French republic expressed his displeasure at their conduct, but at the same time stated that they were not in an efficient state to combat. What then had become of all his celebrated artillerists, a portion of whom had been ordered for the service of each division of the flotilla on which he had rested his fondest hopes? but such excuses from his mouth were by no means uncommon.

The Wolverene being ordered into port for the purpose of repairing her damages, was applied for by Lord Nelson, as a desirable vessel to be employed in his intended attack on the Boulogne flotilla, but he was told by the Admiralty that she could not be spared from the Havre station, where Captain Wight continued to serve with his usual activity and zeal, repeatedly receiving the public approval of his superiors, during the continuance of the war. Among other vessels taken by him were a number of neutrals, the whole of which were condemned as lawful prizes. He was put out of commission April 15, 1802, and promoted to post rank on the 29th of the same month, the first Lord of the Admiralty at the same time passing some high encomiums on his professional character. On paying off the Wolverene he made a favorable report of that vessel’s qualities, and spoke of the utility of the shell shot invented by the late General Melville, and used by her in common with solid 24-pound shot, in her different actions on the French coast. The General’s own ideas on the latter subject will be gathered from the following document:

Brewer Street, London, Aug. 31, 1801.

“General Melville, who for many years past has been disqualified from writing letters with his signature, must take the pleasure of acknowledging in this, his usual mode, Captain Wight’s very obliging favor of the 13th instant, with a P.S. relative to General Melville’s friend Captain Walker of the Tartar, and a sketch made by Captain Wight himself of the late operations against the enemy at Havre-de-Grace; for all which trouble General M. begs leave to assure Captain Wight of his best thanks. As General Melville was the first proposer very long since, of that species of artillery between the howitzer and cannon, with a view to unite as far as might be the advantages of both, without the peculiar disadvantages of either, and which were afterwards called carronades, from the first place of their construction in 1779, he has always been a zealous advocate for their use, especially of those of the largest sort; being fully persuaded that these pieces with shell or carcase shot, as might best suit the case, might be a permanent advantage to the British, if the boldest and closest fighters, as he trusts they are and always will be. General Melville has already given, and will continue to give, communications to proper persons, of what Captain Wight has so clearly and satisfactorily stated to General M. on the success of the shell shot, and of the best manner of putting them either into the carronades or long guns; but whether any means will be found to impress these ideas sufficiently upon the mind of the present first Lord of the Admiralty[10], with whom General M. has not the honor to be personally acquainted, if averse to them, is very doubtful. General M. however should think that if Captain Walker and others would join in an application for a proportion of the shell shot, it might be useful, and that the late adoption of howitzers by Lord Nelson, on his second expedition against Boulogne, may be considered as a favorable omen of a growing opinion for the more general use of the shell shot from large carronades, or guns, as being often fit to produce either alarm or execution, in cases when neither could be the effects of solid shot of the same calibre. And were the shell shot in some proportion once established, General Melville would not doubt but that some fit number also of carcase shot would be added; for there are certainly cases when these last might be also used to good purpose.

“General Melville’s very ingenious friend, Commissioner Schanck, is now with Mrs. S. in Devonshire; but on his return he and General M. will have conversation on the contents of Captain Wight’s communications, which, with his successful practice against the enemy, do not only much honor to his zeal, judgment, and exertions, but furnish very instructive, as well as strong grounds, for the farther prosecution of such methods of practice on fit occasions.”

Captain Wight’s next appointment was, in 1805, to the Cleopatra of 32 guns, in which frigate he served for a considerable time on the North American station, where he made many valuable captures, but from whence he was obliged to return through ill-health, arising from a disorganized liver, and the powerful medicines he had been compelled to take in order to subdue that disorder.

In May 1824, Captain Wight invented a rudder “for the more easy and safe conducting all classes of H.M. ships, and those in the merchants’ service” by the use of which he is of opinion they will be enabled to perform the evolutions of tacking and wearing with less helm, and require less manual force on the wheel or tiller. From the description we have seen of this invention, we have no doubt that it will be found to possess many advantages over the rudder now in use, particularly in cases where it may be necessary suddenly to alter the vessel’s course; and on the other hand to prevent her broaching to when scudding in a heavy gale of wind, a disaster which has too often caused the loss of ship and lives. We regret our inability to attempt a philosophical description of it.

Captain Wight is at present very actively employed as a Commissioner of Roads and Bridges at Teignmouth, in Devonshire. His lady died there in May, 1812, leaving issue three sons and one daughter, the survivors of whom are, by their late grandfather’s will, to take the name and arms of Schanck, on the demise of his respected widow[11]. The Admiral’s property is, we believe, left to Admiral Viscount Exmouth, in trust for those children, one of whom is now serving as a Midshipman under Commodore Grant, in the East Indies, and another studying the law. His daughter is also living; but the other child, a god-son of Lord Prudhoe, and intended for the naval profession, was drowned in the river Teign at twelve years of age.

Agent.– Thomas Stilwell, Esq.

  1. Captain Wight’s mother was a member of the ancient and respectable family of Greive, well known in Berwickshire, and a first cousin of Admiral Schanck, of whom farther mention will be made in the Supplement to the Addenda, already promised at p. 883 of Vol. I. His half-brother, George White, is a Lieutenant, R.N.
  2. Captain Riou was killed at Copenhagen in April 1801; he will be more particularly spoken of in a subsequent part of this work.
  3. Mr. Wight, when a boy at school, had a very narrow escape, his coat tails being accidentally shot through by a Mr. John Planta; and when serving as a Midshipman of the Trial cutter, he was twice cast away in her boats, and each time obliged to swim for his life. In addition to these instances of the miraculous interposition of Providence, it appears that, although twenty times in action with the enemy during his professional career, and frequently knocked down by the wind of shot, &c., he never received a wound!
  4. See Vol. I. note at p. 859; and for other particulars respecting Captain Faulknor, see Vol. II, part I, p. 320, et seq.
  5. See Vol. I, note at p. 841; and Vol. II, part I, p. 108 et seq.
  6. Fort Matilda (formerly Fort St. Charles) had a very high wall next the sea, and was completely commanded on the other three sides by land; so that, although impregnable against an attack by ships, it was not capable of maintaining a long defence against a vigorous enemy on shore. It was taken by the British, April 22, 1794, and evacuated Dec. 10, in the same year.
  7. Captain Jemmet Mainwaring was lost in la Babet, oa his passage to the West Indies, in 1801.
  8. See Vol. I, p. 152.
  9. See Vol. I, note * at p. 332.
  10. Earl St. Vincent.
  11. Mrs. Schanck is the mother-in-law of the late Mrs. Wight, who was the Admiral’s only child by his first wife.