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Royal Naval Biography/Woodriff, Daniel

[Post-Captain of 1802.]

This officer was made a Lieutenant April 1, 1783; and obtained the rank of Post-Captain, April 28, 1802. Towards the close of the latter year he was appointed to the Calcutta, a 50-gun ship armed en flute, and fitting for the conveyance of convicts, to establish a new settlement at Port Philip, in Bass’s Straits, on the southern extremity of New Holland.

Captain Woodriffe sailed from Spithead, April 28, 1803, and arrived at the place of his destination on the 12th Oct. following; but on surveying that port and the adjacent coast, it was found totally ineligible for the purpose intended, the difficulty of egress, on account of the prevailing winds, being very great, fresh water remarkably scarce, and the soil uncommonly poor. He therefore removed to the river Derwent, on the south coast of Van Dieman’s Land, where a settlement, named Hobart, was established, and from whence he proceeded to Port Jackson, for the purpose of taking on board 800 tons of large timber, with which he arrived at Spithead July 23, 1804[1].

After her return from New South Wales, the Calcutta was fitted for sea as an effective 50-gun ship, and then sent to St. Helena to bring home such merchantmen as might be waiting there for the protection of a man of war. Whilst in the performance of this service, she fell in with and was captured, after a gallant defence, by a French squadron, consisting of one 3-decker, four ships of 74 guns each, three 40-gun frigates, and two brigs of war. The circumstances of the action are thus related by Captain Woodriffe, in his letter to the Secretary of the Admiralty, dated on board the Majestueux, at Teneriffe, Nov. 7, 1805:

“In obedience to the orders of the Right Hon. the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, I waited at St. Helena until the 3d Aug. collecting such of the Hon. Company’s and other ships as might arrive, and were willing to take the protection of H.M. ship. On that morning I sailed, having under my convoy the extra ship Indus from Madras; the African, whaler, from Desolation; Fox, whaler, from the Mosambique Channel; and Grand Sachem from the coast of Peru, all full ships; the Wilhelmina, under Prussian colours, detained by the Calcutta on her passage out; and the Carolina, a large Swedish ship from China, which claimed my protection. Nothing material happened during the passage until the 14th Sept., when I fell in with the ship Brothers, of London, from Tobago, being one of a very large fleet from the Leeward Islands, under convoy of H.M.S. Illustrious, from which she had separated in a gale of wind, with many others. This ship being very leaky, and much in want of provisions, the master requested my protection and assistance. I accordingly gave him instructions, and sent two men to assist at the pumps; but she was so ill found, and sailed so heavy, that she detained us at least one-third of our daily distance.

“On the evening of the 24th, the Grand Sachem requested permission to part company, being bound to Milford, which she did accordingly the next morning. We were then to the northward, in the stream of Scilly, and in long. 12 W. At noon we saw several ships to the W.N.W., but too distant to form any positive idea of their being either friends or enemies. It was then nearly calm; but a light breeze springing up from the westward enabled them to near us fast, and night coining on, I kept between them and the convoy.

“At day-light on the 26th they had neared us considerably; and the Brothers sailing so much worse than the rest of the convoy, kept me considerably astern. Had I not been unfortunately detained by this ship, all would have been well. At six A.M. observing the number of strange ships increased to thirteen, apparently large vessels, closely connected, and evidently in chase of us, I made the necessary arrangements for the escape of my convoy, should they prove an enemy’s squadron. At 11, I made the private signal, and waited until noon for its being answered, which did not take place. I then hailed the Indus, informed the Captain that it was an enemy’s squadron in chase of us, and ordered him to make all possible sail ahead with the convoy, ami at the same time the signal was made to them that an enemy was in sight

“The squadron nearing us fast, I soon perceived a three-decker, and four other ships of the line, with frigates and smaller vessels; and as I saw it was next to impossible for both H.M. ship and the convoy to escape, I determined to protect the latter, and favour their escape at all events. My own convoy having made all sail ahead, I again dropped astern to speak the Brothers, and recommended him to haul upon a wind to the northward, which he immediately did. I then made sail to intercept a large frigate, which was drawing up fast with the convoy. At three P.M. this frigate being on our starboard bow, having passed me out of gun-shot, began firing her stern-chase guns, which we returned with a bow chase. This continued until, by the frigate’s shortening sail, we got abreast of her, when both ships opened their fire, but without any material effect, in consequence of the distance the frigate preserved by her superior sailing, and my leading off to the southward to favor the convoy escaping. The distant cannonade continued upwards of an hour, when the frigate hauled entirely out of gun-shot. During all this time I kept running to the southward, in hopes of drawing the enemy’s squadron after me, and am happy to find it had the desired effect; for tins partial action brought the whole of the squadron down, except the Sylph brig, which was detached after the Brothers. At five the headmost line-of-battle ship began firing her bow-chase guns, which was returned by the Calcutta’s stern-chasers, still running to the southward under all possible sail, but with very little wind. As the iine-of-battle ship was close upon our starboard quarter, and the Thetis about a quarter of a mile on our larboard quarter, I was of opinion the sooner I attacked the line-of-battle ship the better, as disabling her was the only chance remaining of escape. I immediately put the helm aport, and when within pistol shot commenced the action; which was instantly returned by the enemy, and continued without intermission for fifty minutes.

“As I was under the necessity of bringing the ship to action under all possible sail, she was soon completely unrigged by the enemy’s fire, Finding the ship totally unmanageable, and our escape rendered impossible, by the near approach of the rest of the enemy’s squadron, I saw that it would be only sacrificing the lives of my people to contend any longer, and I was therefore under the painful necessity of ordering his Majesty’s colours to be hauled down. At day-light next morning I had much satisfaction in finding that His Majesty’s ship had not been uselessly sacrificed; for the ships of the convoy being all out of sight (except the Brothers, which was brought in by the Sylph), I trust they will arrive in safety. I am further gratified, that in consequence of their escape, information will be given of this powerful squadron cruising immediately in the tract of our homeward bound trade; and the certainty, if my convoy arrived safe, of a superior squadron being immediately sent after them, determined the Commodore to quit that latitude, and run to the S.W., but not till he had captured seven sail of the Illustrious’s convoy, and destroyed twenty-four neutrals in the course of the cruise, to prevent information of his situation.

“During the action, both with l’Armide frigate and la Magnanime line-of-battle ship, though in the face of the squadron, the officers and men I had the honor to command did their duty like men, so truly courageous, that no superior force had power to depress them. Much praise is due to Mr. J. Tuckey, my first Lieutenant, Lieutenant R. Donovan, and acting Lieutenant, J. Collas, for their spirited conduct and active exertions during the pursuit by the enemy and subsequent action; and though His Majesty’s ship has been captured, I trust the country has been materially benefited by the escape of the convoy, and its subsequent consequences.”

Captain Woodriffe, his officers, and crew, after being three months on board the French squadron, and experiencing very bad treatment, were landed at Rochelle, and marched from thence to Verdun, a distance of 600 miles, in the inclement months of Jan. and Feb. 1806. Whilst at that depot, Captain Woodriffe made several applications to Talleyrand to procure his release, but without success. About June, 1807, however, he received an order, signed by Buonaparte, then in Poland, directing him to proceed immediately to England, and to take the route of St. Maloes, a town which no Englishman was at that time permitted to enter. On his arrival there he found that all his letters, directed to him at Verdun, had been forwarded from the latter place by order of the French government; and on his proceeding to engage a vessel to convey him to England, for which he expected to pay 40 or 50 guineas, he was told that one was already provided for him, free of every expence. The British government, not to be outdone in generosity, immediately released a French officer of the same rank as Captain Woodriffe, and sent him to France on terms of equal liberality. It is almost needless to say, that the sentence of the court-martial, subsequently assembled to try Captain Woodriffe for the loss of his ship, contained a most honorable acquittal of all on board of her in the action, and pronounced his conduct to have been that of “a brave, cool, and intrepid officer.”

At the close of 1808, Captain Woodriffe was appointed agent for prisoners of war at Forton, near Gosport. Towards the latter end^of the war we find him residing as Commissioner at Jamaica. One of his sons is a Commander, and another a Lieutenant, R.N. His eldest daughter married the late Lieutenant-Colonel Tomkins of the 58th regiment, and died in 1820.

Agent.– Messrs. Maude.

  1. The Calcutta left Rio Janeiro on her passage out, July 19; touched at the Cape of Good Hope, Aug. 16, 1803; sailed from Port Jackson, on her return home, Mar. 17, 1804; doubled Cape Horn, and arrived at Rio Janeiro on the 22d May; thus accomplishing a voyage round the world, besides discharging and receiving a cargo, in ten months and three days.