Royal Naval Biography/Wolfe, George
GEORGE WOLFE, Esq
A Companion of the most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1800.]
This officer was born Aug. 3, 1766, and had the misfortune to lose his father when only eight years of age. His mother (a daughter of Colonel Sharpless, who served with credit under Charles, second Duke of Marlborough), after repeated attempts to divert him from his early intentions of becoming a sailor, at length yielded to the persuasions of the late Lady Spencer, under whose patronage he entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Ocean of 90 guns, commanded by Captain George Ourry, April 2, 1780.
The Ocean formed part of the Channel fleet under Admiral Geary, at the capture of twelve French West Indiamen, valued at 91,000l., July 3, 1780. She was likewise present at the relief of Gibraltar, by Vice-Admiral Darby; and the capture of fifteen transports, laden with military stores and full of troops, in 1781; as also at the capture of twelve others, April 20, 1782.
Mr. Wolfe continued in the Ocean, which ship was successively commanded by Captains Ourry, Edgar, Cleland, and Phipps, till May 1782, when he was removed into the Royal George, a first rate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt, in the Channel fleet. Fortunately for him he escaped sharing the fate of many of his former messmates, who were lost in that noble vessel at Spithead, by following Captain Phipps into the Berwick of 74 guns. This may with propriety be termed the third miraculous escape he had experienced in less than two years and a half, from the commencement of his professional career.
The Berwick accompanied Earl Howe to the relief of Gibraltar, in 1782; and bore a part in the subsequent action with the combined fleets off Cape Spartel, on which occasion Mr. Wolfe was wounded in the face and neck. During the remainder of the war, we find her stationed in the West Indies, under the orders of Admiral Pigot. She was put out of commission June 30, 1783.
During the ensuing peace, Mr. Wolfe served in the various ships commanded by Captains Herbert Sawyer, Charles Chamberlayne, Robert Fanshawe, Charles M. Pole, J. Smith, and Thomas Hicks.
In 1790, an explosion accidentally took place on board the Orion 74, Captain Chamberlayne, then at anchor in Carlisle Bay, Barbadoes. Mr. Wolfe was at that time confined to his bed by a fever, which had already carried off 23 men, and to which the Surgeon, who was an atheist, predicted he would also fall a victim in less than twenty-four hours. So great was the alarm among the crew, that many of the people jumped through the ports and were drowned. During the confusion, Mr. Wolfe’s cot was broken down, and as he lay on the deck, his ears were assailed by the dreadful cries of some who were drowning, and others in distress. Not relishing the idea of being burnt alive, he contrived to pull on his trowsers and crawl to the gun-room ports, where he saw the Surgeon hanging by the rudder chains, kicking and screaming most furiously, and holding out his purse as an inducement for a boat that had been sent to the Orion’s assistance, to come and save him from being devoured by the sharks: so much for the carelessness about futurity, of a person who denied the existence of a God, and attributed “surrounding nature and all its astonishing phoenomena to chance, or a fortuitous concourse of atoms.” Strengthened in an extraordinary manner by the fright to which he had been subjected, Mr. Wolfe managed to hand the poor wretch a rope’s end, by which he was enabled once more to obtain a firm footing on the Orion’s deck, and observe the recovery of his patient; the preservation of whose life may reasonably be attributed to his dormant pulse being suddenly roused into action by the terror excited in his breast, on hearing the appalling cry of “fire,” and witnessing the despair of his shipmates.
At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, Mr. Wolfe, who had passed his examination upwards of four years, joined the Windsor Castle, a second rate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Cosby, with whom he soon after sailed for the Mediterranean station. During the occupation of Toulon by the allied forces, he served as a volunteer in several land and floating batteries, and was consequently often engaged with the enemy. After the evacuation of that place, and while the fleet was lying among the Hieres islands, an hospital ship parted her cable, and drifted into a small bay, where she was completely commanded by the republicans. The boats of the fleet were immediately sent to take out her wounded and sick inmates; but owing to the sharp fire kept up by the enemy from behind a breastwork, as they approached, the Windsor Castle’s launch, commanded by Mr. Richard Hawkins, a Midshipman, was the only boat that succeeded in boarding her. On this occasion, one of the launch’s crew was killed, but 12 wounded soldiers were rescued.
It being determined to renew the attempt, an order was issued for all the boats to assemble alongside a frigate, sent in shore to cover them in their approach. The Windsor Castle’s launch was this time commanded by Mr. Wolfe, who volunteered his services, and was fortunate enough to bring off 13 more of the wounded men. He was soon followed by a boat manned with French royalists, who behaved most nobly, and the vessel was at length finally cleared, and afterwards set on fire by Lieutenant Thomas George Shortland, of the Nemesis. In the execution of this hazardous service, Mr. Wolfe was very much hurt by a soldier in a heavy wooden cradle falling from the gunwale of the hospital ship into the launch, striking him on his head, and bending him backwards with such violence, as to cause the blood to gush from every aperture in his head and body. In consequence of this accident, he was confined to his hammock for the space of two months; a circumstance, which however painful in itself, was by no means so mortifying to him as that of seeing the Lieutenant who had been sent from the Victory to command the boats promoted to the rank of Commander, whilst his own conduct and sufferings passed unrewarded.
Subsequent to his recovery, Mr. Wolfe served on shore, under Captains Serecold, Miller, and Cooke, at the reduction of Corsica. By the latter officer he was introduced to Lord Hood, who received him very kindly, and ordered him to be removed to the Victory; in which ship he returned to England as Master’s Mate, towards the close of 1794.
On his arrival at Portsmouth, Mr. Wolfe was advanced to the rank of Lieutenant in the Phaeton frigate, commanded by the Hon. Robert Stopford, with whom he continued about two years and nine months. In Sept. 1797, he was made a Commander, and appointed to the Sally armed ship, on the North Sea station.
Soon after this promotion, Captain Wolfe being on a cruise off the Yorkshire coast, in a very thick fog, suddenly found himself close to a French ship, which afterwards proved to be le Republicain of 36 guns and 360 men. The Sally, originally a collier, mounted 14 old fashioned carronades (24-pounders), and had a complement of 45 men. On the fog beginning to disperse, the enemy, then within pistol-shot, was observed lowering a boat to take possession of his expected prize, whose starboard guns, loaded with two rounds of grape-shot, were instantaneously discharged into the French frigate, and with such effect as to bring down her jib and spanker, which afforded Captain Wolfe an opportunity of putting about and effecting his escape: the confusion on board le Republicain, occasioned by this unexpected salute, being so great, that by the time she had wore and come to the wind on the other tack, the Sally was at least a mile on her weather bow. Captain Wolfe’s conduct on this occasion was highly approved by the Admiralty.
The Sally was afterwards employed affording protection to the Baltic and Hamburgh trade; and in the course of the two following years, captured several Dutch vessels, two of which were Greenlandmen.
Captain Wolfe obtained post rank Dec. 10, 1800; and was appointed to the Galatea of 32 guns in April 1801. During the ensuing peace, we find him employed conveying troops from Guernsey and different ports in England, to Holland. His next appointment was Dec. 24, 1802, to the Aigle frigate, then recently launched; and in March following he received orders to repair to Portland, for the purpose of impressing seamen, and raising volunteers for the navy. On his arrival he communicated with the Mayor of Weymouth, and found that the sailors belonging to that neighbourhood had placed themselves under the protection of the stone quarry men, who soon proceeded to acts of violence against his own people, who after being severely handled, were obliged to retreat from the quay to their boats. Confiding in the promise of the Mayor, who had agreed to furnish a sufficient number of constables to assist him and preserve order, Captain Wolfe landed, at 4 P.M. on the 1st April, at the head of 50 seamen and marines, but had scarcely got on shore before his party were fired on by a number of sailors collected on the beach; A scuffle now ensued, and two of the rioters, named Porter and Wey, were secured, the one armed with a poker, the other with a reap-hook. The remainder of the mob retiring towards the Bill of Portland, were soon re-inforced by nearly 300 men, armed with muskets, pistols, and cutlasses, which had been plundered from the transports wrecked on that coast in 1795. This formidable body, urged on by two constables, lost no time in attacking their unwelcome visitors, 16 or 17 of whom were dreadfully wounded. At length, after the most patient forbearance on the part of Captain Wolfe, who was himself seized and cruelly treated, the marines opened their fire, killed 4 of the rioters, and obliged the remainder to retreat; which they did with so much precipitation, that only 3 could be secured.
As soon as the Aigle’s wounded men reached their ship, Captain Wolfe despatched a Lieutenant, (the present Earl of Huntingdon) to lay a correct account of this unfortunate affair before the Admiralty, and prevent the misrepresentations with which public opinion is usually abused in like cases; but on his landing at Weymouth, that officer and Mr. Morgan, a Midshipman, were recognized by the mob, who seized them, and compelled the Mayor, by threatening worse consequences, to commit them to Dorchester gaol for the alleged murder of the unhappy men who had fallen the victims of their own disloyal conduct.
The Coroner having returned a verdict of wilful murder against Captain Wolfe, Lieutenant Francis Hastings, Lieutenant Jefferies of the marines, and Mr. John Fortescue Morgan, the Midshipman, those gentlemen surrendered themselves for trial at the ensuing summer assizes, and after a full investigation of their conduct were fully acquitted, the jury agreeing that they had merely acted in self defence.
In the interim, between the holding of the coroner’s inquest and his trial, Captain Wolfe went on a cruise, and was fortunate enough to intercept six homeward bound French West Indiamen. Towards the latter end of the same year, he captured, after a long chase, l’Alert privateer of 16 guns and 90 men.
On the 12th July, 1804, the Aigle fell in with two French corvettes, proceeding from Rochefort to Bayonne, with ordnance and stores for a ship of war just launched at that port. These vessels, at first, seemed resolved to try their strength with the British frigate; but on her near approach, fired a single broadside, and ran on shore about ten leagues to the southward of Cordouan. Every effort was made by Captain Wolfe, during the ensuing night and part of the next day, to get them afloat again, but without effect; and he was at length obliged to destroy them by fire. They proved to be la Charante of twenty 6-pounders, 4 swivels, and 104 men; and la Joie of eight 12-pounders (pierced for 14 guns), 2 swivels, and 75 men. The greater part of their crews escaped to the shore; several were drowned by the swamping of the boats, owing to the heavy surf on the beach; and the remainder, amounting to 26 officers and men, were taken prisoners. In Sept. 1805, Captain Wolfe, being off Vigo, was attacked during a calm, by nine Spanish gun -boats. After an hour’s cannonade, a breeze sprung up, and enabled him to capture the Commodore’s vessel, sink another, and drive the rest on shore. The prize carried a long 24-pounder, and 29 men, 4 of whom belonged to the artillery.
From this period, we find no particular mention of Captain Wolfe till March 1808; in the course of which month, he discovered two French frigates pushing for l’Orient, under a press of sail. The Aigle, at this time cruising near the Glenan islands, immediately went in pursuit, passing between Isle Groais and the main; and after sustaining a heavy fire from the land batteries on both sides, compelled one of the enemy’s ships to take shelter under a fort on the S.E. side of the island. The other, la Furieuse of 40 guns, was soon after brought to close action, and ultimately obliged to run ashore on Point du Chat. The Aigle, in this dashing affair, had three guns split and dismounted, a bower anchor cut in two, her masts and yards much damaged, and 22 officers and men wounded: among the former we find the names of Captain Wolfe and Lieutenant Lamb. She subsequently captured, after a long chase, les Six Freres of 18 guns, from Bourdeaux bound to the Mauritius.
The Aigle formed part of the detachment sent from Lord Gambier’s fleet to attack a French squadron in Aix Roads, April 12, 1809; and on that occasion was the second ship which opened her fire on the enemy. After assisting at the destruction of four 2-deckers, Captain Wolfe relieved Lord Cochrane in the command of the advanced squadron, consisting of a bomb, several gun-brigs, and other small vessels; obliged the enemy to burn a frigate which had got on shore in the Charante, and the remainder of their ships to retreat up that river, after throwing overboard all their guns and stores. On this anxious and fatiguing service, he continued as long as there existed a possibility of annoying and harrassing the fugitives; the Aigle preserving her station above the Boyart shoal, although much exposed to an attack from the French gun-boats, for a period of fifteen days, during which Captain Wolfe was never once in bed.
On the llth Aug. following, the Aigle had 1 man killed and 4 dreadfully wounded, by the explosion of an 18-inch shell, which fell on board her when forcing the passage of the Scheldt, in company with a squadron of frigates, under the orders of Lord William Stuart.
In Sept. 1810, Captain Wolfe being on a cruise off the Western islands, fell in with, and after a chase of one hundred and thirty-four miles, in thirteen hours, captured le Phoenix French privateer, mounting eighteen 18-pounders, with a complement of 129 men, commanded by M. Jacques Perrond, a Lieutenant in the French navy, and a Member of the Legion of Honor. In addition to the foregoing services, he appears to have taken, at different times during the war, two Prussian, three Danish, one American, one Russian, and upwards of one hundred and fifty French vessels; the latter principally coasters of from 10 to 100 tons. He was nominated a C.B. in 1815.
- So determined was the subject of this memoir to go to sea, that he twice decamped from his maternal residence for that purpose. The first time he succeeded in reaching the metropolis, and getting on board an Indiaman; but to his great disappointment, was delivered up to his mother and brother on the morning after his entry. His second trip from Northamptonshire towards London, was interrupted by an unexpected meeting with some friends of the family, by whom he was compelled to return home, after trudging twenty-two miles on foot in pursuit of his favorite object.
- See Vol. I. p. 4, note ‡ at p. 33, pp. 58, and 15.
- During the winter of 1780, while the Ocean was lying with the grand fleet in Torbay, her launch was sent to Torquay for water; and Mr. Wolfe having been engaged to dine with the father of his messmate, Mr. Broderick Hartwell, was descending the side for the purpose of going on shore by her, when the boat-rope broke, and caused him to be left behind. On her return, the launch unfortunately sunk, and a Lieutenant, 2 Midshipmen, one of whom was Mr. Hartwell, and 19 seamen perished.
Soon after this melancholy catastrophe, the Ocean and several other ships struck the ground in Torbay, unshipped their rudders, and were under the necessity of proceeding to Portsmouth to repair their damages. Early in 1781, Mr. Wolfe fell overboard whilst playing about the Ocean’s hulk in a small boat, and was carried by the tide to the mouth of the harbour, before he could be rescued from his perilous situation.
- See an account of the sect calling themselves atheists, in Evans’s Sketch of all Religions, p. 2, et seq.
- The Phaeton was one of the squadron that escorted the Princess Caroline of Brunswick from Cuxhaven to England, in April 1795. She afterwards resumed her station in the Channel; and among other services, destroyed l’Echoué of 28 guns; captured la Bonne Citoyenne of 20 guns; three large privateers, and a number of merchant vessels; and assisted at the capture of two French frigates, one mounting 36, the other 30 guns. She also formed part of the squadron under Vice-Admiral Cornwallis, during his masterly retreat; an account of which will be found in Vol. I. note *, at p. 354.
- The Cruiser, Captain Charles Wollaston, was in company at this latter capture.
- See Vol. I. note †, at p. 89.
- John Manning, a quarter-master belonging to the Aigle, had his cutlass broken whilst warding off a blow aimed at his Captain’s head. Nine of the wounded men were discharged from the service, in consequence of the injuries they received.
- The following circumstances connected with, this unfortunate affray, will serve to shew how deeply the principle of self-love is implanted in the heart of man. The Coroner, an attorney, finding that another limb of the law was engaged to draw up the affidavits of those officers against whom he had returned a verdict of murder, went on board the Aigle and begged Captain Wolfe to employ him; stating, at the same time, that the verdict was given in consequence of his dreading the resentment of the populace, had he acted more leniently. A surgeon of the same town, having an eye to number one, also waited upon Captain Wolfe, and solicited him to entrust the Aigle’s wounded men to his care; stating that he had had the charge of all the sick men belonging to the navy who had come into Portland road during the late war, and if Captain Wolfe would comply with his request, he should be able to obtain a renewal of the former contract. On the morning of the trial, this disciple of AEsculapius made his appearance in court, and stated that a young girl who had received a wound in the late tumult, declared to him before her death, that Captain Wolfe was the person who had shot her. We do not pretend to divine by what motives he was actuated; but this we know, that the grand jury rejected his evidence in toto.
The unfortunate girl alluded to was a sister of one of the impressed men, James Wey, by whom Captain Wolfe was first apprised of her being wounded. Two days after the riot, her father, by his dismal account of her sufferings, prevailed on Captain Wolfe to liberate his son, whom he described as the only support of himself and family. About a week after, the old man, who had previously received two guineas from Captain Wolfe to procure necessaries for the girl, wrote a distressing letter, begging him to forward five pounds to pay the surgeon’s bill. On the latter being asked why he had not informed Captain Wolfe what Mary Wey had said, when he solicited the care of the Aigle’s men, which was several days after she had been wounded, he replied, that she did not make the declaration till three weeks after. We should here state, though not without cautioning the young officer against acting precipitately in such a case, that the Court acquainted Captain Wolfe he had done wrong in communicating with the Mayor of Weymouth, when acting under an order from the King in Council.
- The shell passed through the bulwark, quarter, main, and lowerdecks, to the bread room, where it burst. The splinters, in their ascent through the decks, occasioned the loss we have stated.
- Mr. Perrond was a most experienced and scientific officer. He had previously commanded the Bellona privateer upwards of nine years in the East Indies, where he committed great depredations on our commerce. Le Phoenix was a beautiful ship, built in imitation of the Bellona. She tried the Aigle on every point of sailing; and had there been less wind, would most likely have escaped from her, as she had before done from four other cruisers. The capture of so fine a vessel may justly be deemed a service of importance.