Royal Naval Biography/Williams, Robert

Rear-Admiral of the Blue.

This officer entered the naval service under the auspices of Lord Mulgrave, in 1777, as a Midshipman, on board the Ardent, a 64-gun ship, stationed in the Bay of Biscay, to intercept the trade belonging to our revolted colonies, and cut off any succours that might be sent thither from France. He was afterwards removed into the America, 64, commanded by Lord Longford, which ship formed part of Admiral Keppel’s fleet in the action with M. d’Orvilliers, July 27, 1778[1], and on that occasion had 1 man killed and 17 wounded. Subsequent to this event, Mr. Williams joined the London, a second rate, bearing the flag of the late Lord Graves, under whom he proceeded to North America, and continued to serve till Aug. 1781, when he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, in the Royal Oak, of 74 guns.

During his continuance in this ship, Mr. Williams, who had previously shared in the action between Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot and the Chevalier de Ternay[2], bore a part in the battles with Count de Grasse, Sept. 5, 1781[3], and April 9 and 12, 1782[4]; on which latter occasion, the Royal Oak, commanded by Captain Thomas Burnet, had 8 men killed and 30 wounded.

Lieutenant Williams’s next appointment was to the Argo, 44, Captain Butchert, which vessel, being on her return from Tortola to Antigua, fell in with, and after a warm action of five hours, during which period it blew so fresh that she could not open her lower-deck ports, was compelled to surrender to the French frigates la Nymphe and l’Amphitrite, each mounting 46 guns. She was, however, re-captured about 36 hours after, by the Invincible, 74; and Admiral Pigot, the Commander-in-Chief on that station, was so well pleased with the gallantry displayed by her officers, that, immediately after they had passed the usual ordeal of a Court-Mar tial, and obtained an honorable acquittal, he offered to re-appoint the whole of them to her. This proposal being accepted by Mr. Williams, he became first Lieutenant of the Argo, and continued in the same ship till the peace of 1783, when she returned to England, and was put out of commission. We subsequently find him in the Myrmidon, of 20 guns, whose Captain, the present Admiral Drury, was ordered to escort a beautiful yacht sent from England as a present to the Crown Prince of Denmark; which circumstance afforded Lieutenant Williams an opportunity of visiting the capital of that kingdom.

At the period of the Spanish armament (1790), our officer obtained an appointment to the Elephant, 74, commanded by the late Sir Charles Thomson, Bart.; and on the breaking out of the war with revolutionary France, he accompanied the same officer in the Vengeance, another third rate, to the West Indies; from whence he returned after the failure of an attack made upon Martinique by the forces under Rear-Admiral Gardner and Major-General Bruce, in June 1793[5].

Towards the latter end of the same year, Captain Thompson hoisted a broad pendant as second in command of the squadron sent under Sir John Jervis to attack the French settlements in the West Indies. On the arrival of the armament in Fort Royal Bay, Lieutenant Williams was selected to command a division of the gun and guard-boats to be employed in the approaching siege of Martinique. While on that service, and under the orders of Lieutenant Bowen, of the Boyne, he distinguished himself by his gallantry in boarding the Bienvenu, a French frigate, lying in the Carenage close to Fort Louis. This enterprise was undertaken for the purpose of rescuing a number of English prisoners said to be confined on board her, and consequently exposed to the fire of the British batteries on Point Carriere. The attack was made at noon on the 17th March, 1794, in the presence, and to the astonishment of the whole fleet and army. The instant the boats appeared at the entrance of the Carenage, the enemy prepared to give them a warm reception. The walls of Fort Louis were covered in an instant with troops, who kept up an incessant fire of musketry on the assailants; at the same time the frigate endeavoured to keep them off, by plying both her great guns and small arms; but at length, intimidated by the boldness of the attempt, her crew fled from their quarters, the greater part retreating to the shore. The British now boarded the frigate, and turned her guns upon the fort, but was prevented bringing her out of the harbour in consequence of the wind blowing directly in, her sails being unbent, and the impracticability of sending men aloft to bring them to the yards, exposed as she was to the enemy’s fire. Lieutenant Bowen, therefore, after ascertaining that the English prisoners were in another vessel further up, from whence it was impossible to release them, contented himself with bringing off the French Captain, a Lieutenant, and about 20 men, whom Lieutenant Williams had discovered on the lower deck, and forced into his boat through the bow port of the frigate, by which he had entered. Being distributed among the other boats, they were conveyed in triumph to Sir John Jervis, who, in his official letter to the Admiralty, declared that “The success of this gallant action determined the General and himself to attempt the fort and town of Fort Royal by assault[6]."

After the conquest of Martinique, Lieutenant Williams removed with his patron, who had by this time become a Rear-Admiral, into the Vanguard, 74. He subsequently commanded the flat-boats employed in landing the second battalion of light infantry, (under Lieutenant-Colonel Blundell) at Ance du Chocque in the island of St. Lucia; a service which he performed without any loss, although exposed to a very heavy fire from the enemy’s batteries. On the reduction of that colony, he returned to Martinique in the Vanguard, and during the absence of the fleet at Guadaloupe was sent in a sloop to inspect the different posts and fortifications along the coast.

We next find our officer serving with a brigade of seamen landed under the orders of Captains Robertson and Sawyer to co-operate with the army in an attempt to recover Guadaloupe from the hands of the republicans[7], and receiving a severe wound whilst employed in the erection of a masked battery on the heights near Fort Fleur d’Epée. He soon after left the Vanguard and returned to England in the Minotaur, another ship of the same force. On his arrival he was appointed first Lieutenant of the Prince George, a second rate, fitting for the flag of Vice-Admiral Thompson, but which she did not receive till after the battle off Cape St. Vincent, on which occasion she bore that of Rear-Admiral Parker, and sustained a loss of 8 men killed and 7 wounded[8].

Lieutenant Williams, for his conduct on this memorable occasion was immediately promoted to the rank of Commander, and appointed to the Dolphin, a 44-gun ship armed en flute; but previous to his joining her he acted for some time as Flag-Captain to Rear-Admiral Parker, in the Blenheim 98, and served pro tempore in the Kingfisher sloop of war. From the Dolphin he was posted into the San Ysidro, a Spanish 74, which he conducted to England in Sept. 1797. His post commission, however, was not confirmed by the Admiralty till Nov. 10th in the same year, when he received an appointment to the Formidable of 98 guns, the command of which he retained till Jan. 1798.

From this period we find no mention of Captain Williams till May 1802, when he obtained the command of the Dryad frigate, stationed off Portland for the suppression of smuggling. In Feb. 1803, he was removed into the Russel 74, and soon after ordered to escort the outward bound trade to the East Indies, from whence he was obliged to return home through ill-health in 1805. His subsequent appointments were to the Ruby 64, Dictator of the same force, and Gloucester 74. In these ships he served on the Baltic station during five successive seasons, and was principally employed in affording protection to the different convoys passing through the Great Belt, a service of the most harassing nature, owing to the difficulty of the navigation, and the annoyance afforded by the enemy, whose gun-boats were ever on the alert[9]. Returning to England each winter, he was occasionally sent to Leith with French prisoners; and on one occasion attached to the fleet blockading the Scheldt, under Admiral William Young.

In 1814, the Gloucester convoyed a fleet to the Leeward Islands, and from thence escorted the 90th regiment to Quebec. She returned to England with the trade from Barbadoes under her protection in September of the same year, and was soon after paid off at Sheerness.

Captain Williams was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral April 9, 1823.

Residence.– ___ near Bath.

  1. See note †, at p. 195.
  2. See p. 40.
  3. See note *, at p. 133.
  4. See note at p. 35, et seq.
  5. See Sir George Montagu.
  6. In consequence of the determination of the British commanders, mentioned in the above extract from the London Gazette Extraordinary of April 22, 1794, a number of scaling ladders were made of long bamboos connected with strong line; and the Asia 64, and Zebra sloop of war, commanded by Captains Browne and Faulknor, were ordered to hold themselves in readiness to enter the Carénage, for the purpose of battering the fort, and covering the flat-boats, barges, and pinnaces, under the command of Commodore Thompson, supported by Captains Nugent and Riou; while a detachment of the army advanced with field-pieces, along the side of the hill under Fort Bourbon, towards the bridge, over the canal, at the back of Fort Royal, This plan of attack, which was put into execution on the 20th March, succeeded in every part, except that of the Asia getting into her station, which failed through the misconduct of M. de Tourelles, the former Lieutenant of the port, who had undertaken to pilot her in, but afterwards refused to do so under pretence of shoals. Perceiving the Asia baffled in her attempts, Captain Faulknor, who, with an indescribable firmness, had, for a length of time, sustained a shower of grape-shot, determined to undertake this service alone. Accordingly, with matchless intrepidity and conduct, he pushed his little ship close under the walls of the fort, leaped into a boat, and followed by his crew, scaled the ramparts before Prince Edward’s brigade from La Coste and Cas Navire, and the storming party of seamen from the camp at Point Negro, under Captains Rogers, Scott, and Bayntun, could come to his assistance. Seeing the Zebra go in, all the boats seemed to fly towards the scene of action. Those from Point Carriere landed near the Zebra; and their men mounting the walls, assisted the gallant Faulknor in driving the enemy out of the fort. The republican flag was immediately hauled down, and the British union hoisted in its stead amidst three hearty cheery from alt who had witnessed this brilliant exploit. The capture of Fort Louis led to the surrender of the whole island on the 23d of the same month.

    During the siege the gun-boats, which by the French were called “Les petits Diables,” were of infinite service, and gained the officers commanding them immortal credit, by the steady and well-directed fire Ijjev constantly kept up, both day and night; and though continually exposed to a heavy discharge both of round and grape, their loss did not exceed 4 men killed and wounded.

  7. Guadaloupe was taken by Sir John Jervis and Sir Charles Grey, in April 1794; and re-captured by the French early in June following. Some interesting particulars relative to its subjugation by the British, will be found at pp. 711 and 841.
  8. See p. 21.
  9. On the 5th July 1811, a number of merchantmen under the protection of the Cressy, Defence, and Dictator ships of the line, Sheldrake sloop of war, and Bruiser gun-brig, were attacked by a Danish flotilla, consisting of seventeen gun-boats and ten heavy row-boats. The enemy were defeated without the loss of any of the British vessels; but the greater part retreating into shoal water, effected their escape. Four of the gunboats, however, were captured, and each found to carry one long 24-pounder, 4 brass howitzers, and 30 men.