Royal Naval Biography/Withers, Thomas

A Knight of the Imperial Ottoman Order of the Crescent[1].
[Post-Captain of 1809.]

Was born at Knapton, North Walsham, co. Norfolk, Sept. 17, 1769; and received a nautical education in the mathematical ward of Christ’s Hospital, London, under the tuition of the late Mr. William Wales.

Although we know that the subject of this memoir was borne on the books of one or two ships during the last three years and nine months of the American revolutionary war, and that he subsequently served as a midshipman and master’s mate, on the East and West India stations; it is not in our power to state with precision the names of the different commanders he sailed under, previous to his joining the renowned Nelson, at the commencement of hostilities against France, in 1793.

The Agamemnon 64, commanded by that heroic officer, formed part of Lord Hood’s fleet, at the occupation of Toulon; and was subsequently sent to cruise off Sardinia, where she appears to have fallen in with four French frigates and a brig, under the orders of Commodore Perrée. While pursuing one of the former, in hopes of cutting her off before the others could come to her assistance, the British ship had one man slain, six persons wounded, and her masts, sails, and rigging much damaged. Mr. Withers afterwards assisted at the reduction of Bastia and Calvi; and he also bore a part in Vice-Admiral Hotham’s partial actions with the republican fleet, off Genoa and the Hieres islands, in March and July, 1795.

In Aug. following. Captain Nelson was sent to co-operate with the allied armies in an attempt to expel the enemy from the Genoese territories; and whilst thus employed, Mr. Withers was engaged in numerous boat affairs, on one of which occasions he received a slight wound, and upon another was taken prisoner by the French, who sent him to Montpelier, from whence he was allowed to return to his ship after a detention of little more than three months. Napoleon Buonaparte consenting to exchange his captives, in consequence of Nelson having thought proper to restore to that General some personal property, which had been captured by the Agamemnon and her consorts.

In June 1796, Mr. Withers joined the Captain 74, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Nelson, under whom he had the honor of serving as master’s-mate at the defeat of the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14, 1797[2]. On the ensuing day he was made a Lieutenant, and appointed to the Salvador del Mundo of 110 guns, in which ship he continued until paid off at Plymouth, in the month of Dec. following. After remaining on half pay for about two months, Lieutenant Withers received an appointment to the Terrible 74, then commanded by Sir Richard Bickerton, Bart.; under whose flag we also find him serving during the memorable expedition against the French in Egypt. An important service performed by Lieutenant Withers at that period was thus handsomely acknowledged by Captain (now Sir Alexander) Cochrane, in a letter addressed to the above officer:

H.M.S. Ajax, 24th Aug. 1801.

“Sir,– I had almost given over every expectation of being able to conduct the ships you did me the honor to put under my command, into the harbour of Alexandria, when a signal was made from the Port Mahon that she could lead into port. I called Captain Buchanan on board, who informed me that Lieutenant Withers, of the Kent, had surveyed the western Channel so completely as to conceive himself adequate to conduct the squadron into port. Well knowing how anxious the General was for the arrival of the ships, as the left flank of the army could not be covered from the fire of the enemy’s ships, upon their near approach to Alexandria, unless by a naval force, I did not therefore hesitate one moment to enter the port, which enabled the army to move on at day-light next morning.

“I have in justice to Lieutenant Withers to beg that you will lay his services before the commander-in-chief, as to him it is entirely owing that the army moved in the morning, aad gained a situation from whence they can begin their approaches against Alexandria.

“I have also to beg you will be pleased to signify to his lordship, how perfectly pleased I am with the behaviour of the three Turkish men of war, who conducted themselves in a most judicious manner; the shells from the bomb were thrown with much precision; and the commanders of the different British ships were animated with that proper zeal for his Majesty’s service which does them much honor. I am, &c.

(Signed)“Alex. Cochrane.”

The British detachment under Captain Cochrane’s orders consisted of the following sloops:– Cynthia, Captain John Dick; Bonne Citoyenne, Captain Robert Jackson; Victorieuse. Captain John Richards; and Port Mahon, Captain William Buchanan. The subject of this memoir had been sent in the Kent’s barge to assist the boats of those vessels in the blockade of fort Marabout, a strong castle on an island of that name, situated at the western entrance of the western harbour. We should here observe that, whenever detached from his ship upon an enemy’s coast, Lieutenant Withers always took with him a lead, line, and compass, by which means he was enabled, at this critical period, to discover and survey the western bogaze, of which no one in the squadron had the least previous knowledge; the attention of the several masters having been solely directed to the middle passage, which the enemy’s gun-boats prevented them from surveying and buoying with a sufficient degree of accuracy. The following is a copy of Sir Richard Bickerton’s letter to Lord Keith, reporting the result of his Lieutenant’s zealous exertions:

Aug. 24, 1801.

“My Lord,– I have much pleasure in transmitting to your lordship a letter of this day’s date from the Hon. Captain Cochrane, acknowledging the services of Lieutenant Withers of the Kent, by whose exertions the sloops of war were conducted into the harbour of Alexandria in safety, and thereby enabled the detachment of the British army (under Sir Eyre Coote) to approach that town. I am convinced your lordship’s report to the Admiralty on this subject will do justice to the merits of Lieutenant Withers; and beg that you will recommend the Turkish officers so highly spoken of by Captain Cochrane to the attention of his highness the Capitan Pacha.

(Signed)Richard Bickerton.”

In April 1803, Lieutenant Withers was appointed by Sir Richard Bickerton to command the Expedition 44, armed en flute; in which ship we find him principally employed on the Mediterranean station until May, 1804, when he received orders to pay her off at Chatham, she being reported unfit for further service. His next appointment was, June 1804, to the Tartarus bomb, attached to the Dungeness squadron, under the orders of Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Louis. In that vessel he had the misfortune to be wrecked, on the sands near West Gate bay, Margate, when proceeding to refit at Chatham, Dec. 20, 1804.

In Sept. following. Captain Withers accepted employment under the Transport Board, and was entrusted with the charge and direction of a division of transports sent on an expedition to the Elbe and Weser, under the command of Lieutenant-General Lord Cathcart[3]. His conduct as principal agent at the reduction of Alexandria, in 1807[4], was warmly spoken of by Major-General Fraser, and Captain (now Sir Benjamin) Hallowell; the former declaring him “entitled to praise, for his activity in landing the troops, and for the exertions he afterwards made for supplying them with provisions;” the latter describing the debarkation as “a most arduous service, from the great distance the boats had to row, and the surf they had to encounter on the beach.”

At the close of 1807, Captain Withers returned home with a body of troops under Sir John Moore; and in Feb. 1808, he embarked another division, commanded by Sir George Prevost. After landing that officer and his corps at Halifax, he proceeded to the river St. Lawrence; but returned from thence in Oct. following, for the purpose of superintending the equipment of the shipping intended to convey four chosen regiments from Nova Scotia to Barbadoes, where a grand expedition was then preparing for the attack of the French West India islands.

On his arrival in Carlisle bay, Captain Withers received the sole charge of all the transports attached to that expedition; nnd Captain Philip Beaver, who superintended the landing of the main body of the army in Bay Robert, Martinique, acknowledged receiving from him “all that assistance in the various arrangements he had to make, which could be expected from an officer of great zeal and clear comprehension.”

After the landing of the troops to windward, some delay occurred in getting the heavy artillery into position, owing to the nature of the roads along which it had to pass; and as the naval detachment serving on shore under Captain Beaver was fully employed, Captain Withers, having first completed the watering of the transports, volunteered to land with 100 picked men from them. This offer was gladly accepted by Lieutenant-General Beckwith, who expressed great satisfaction at the manner in which the guns were afterwards brought forward. His zealous conduct on this occasion being duly reported to the Admiralty by Sir Alexander Cochrane, Captain Withers was promoted to post rank shortly after the receipt of that officer’s despatches; his commission bearing date May 13, 1809.

Captain Withers returned to England in Nov. 1809, and was soon afterwards appointed to succeed Captain (now Rear-Admiral) Cochet, as principal agent for transports on the Mediterranean station.

In 1810, when Joachim Murat marched into Lower Calabria, and encamped his army immediately opposite Messina, threatening to invade Sicily, and boasting that he would effect the subjugation of that fine island in less than 20 days, Captain Withers, and the people under his orders, rendered essential services to the Anglo-Sicilian garrison, by contributing to the formation of a flotilla, and co-operating in most of the conflicts that took place between it and the enemy’s numerous gun-boats, during the time that the usurper continued his warlike preparations; a period of more than four months. The following is a copy of a letter which he received from Lieutenant-General Sir John Stuart, shortly after the breaking up of the Neapolitan camp:

Messina, 17th Oct. 1810.

“Sir,– The departure of the enemy from the opposite coast, and the suspension of his demonstrations having, for the moment, put a term to the operations in which we have lately been engaged, I avail myself of that opportunity to take the liberty of betokening to you the sense I entertain of the material assistance which, during the whole of that period, the army has derived from the department under your direction, as well as returning to you my best acknowledgments for the voluntary exertions of your personal services, for which we were often indebted to your zeal and activity; – and I have further to request, that you will be so obliging as to become the channel of conveying to the masters and crews of the transports under your orders, my due impression of the promptitude and alacrity with which, by the employment of their boats and other means in their power, they have afforded us essential support on most occasions of danger as well as fatigue.

(Signed)J. Stuart, Commander of the Forces.”

To Captain Withers, &c. &c. &c.

From July, 1812, until the termination of hostilities, in 1814, Captain Withers was very actively employed on the east coast of Spain; and although the army sent thither from Sicily did not add much lustre to his Majesty’s arms, it may be said, with truth, that the expedition was attended to the last with very great fatigue, and oftentimes danger, on the part of the navy and transports. The valuable services of the latter were thus acknowledged in a letter from Rear-Admiral Hallowell to Captain Withers, dated June 19, 1813:

“Sir,– The ardor with which I have been supported by you, and the officers, masters, and seamen of the transports attached to the squadron under my command, engaged in co-operation with the army upon the coast of Catalonia, and the indefatigable zeal and cheerfulness with which they performed the laborious duties that fell to their province, have been so conspicuous as to entitle them to the highest praise on my part; I therefore request that you will accept of my acknowledgments to yourself, and express to the several officers, masters, and seamen of the transports under your direction, my grateful sense of their recent exertions, and my confidence in the continuance of them, whenever the opportunity shall be given.

(Signed)Ben. Hallowell.”

This letter was written the day after the embarkation of the troops recently commanded by Sir John Murray, whose sudden abandonment of the siege of Tarragona afterwards became the subject of a public investigation, on which occasion Captain Withers was summoned to attend at Winchester as a witness. He subsequently returned to the Mediterranean, and continued on that station until the summer of 1816, since which he has not held any appointment. The arduous and responsible nature of his situation at the latter part of the war will readily be conceived, when we state, that the tonnage of the transports under his directions at one time amounted to more than 50,000 tons.

Agents.– Messrs. Cooke, Halford, and Son.