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Symonds, William (1782-1856) (DNB00)


SYMONDS, Sir WILLIAM (1782–1856), rear-admiral, second son of Captain Thomas Symonds (d. 1793), of the navy, by his second wife, was born on 24 Sept. 1782 at Bury St. Edmunds. After having been borne for several years on the books of various ships commanded by his father, he first went afloat in September 1794, on board the London, flagship of Rear-admiral (afterwards Sir John) Colpoys [q. v.], and in her was present in Lord Bridport's action of 23 June 1795 [see Hood, Alexander (1727-1814), Viscount Bridport], and during the mutiny at Spithead in 1797. He was afterwards in the Cerberus and other frigates on the western station and coast of France, and on 14 Oct. 1801 was promoted to be lieutenant. In June 1802 he was appointed to the Belleisle, and in March 1804 to the Royal Sovereign, then flagship of Rear-admiral (afterwards Sir Richard Hussey) Bickerton [q. v.] in the Mediterranean and the Bay of Biscay. In September 1805 he was moved into the Inconstant, then at Portsmouth; and afterwards served in the West Indies, on the coast of Brazil, in the North Sea, and in the Channel, till the peace. From 1819 to 1825 he was captain of the port at Malta, during which time he seems to have turned his attention to naval construction. In 1821 he built a yacht, the Nancy Dawson, on experimental lines; and on his promotion to the rank of commander on 4 October 1825 was, not without some difficulty, permitted to build the Columbine brig, which was completed by 26 Dec., and, under Symonds's command, proved a decided success during the experimental cruise of 1827. He was rewarded by a commission as captain on 5 Dec. 1827. He afterwards built the 10-gun brig Philomel, an improved Columbine, the Snake of 16 guns, the Vestal of 26 guns, and the Vernon, a 50-gun frigate, all of which proved to be remarkably fine vessels of their class—fast, weatherly, and roomy.

On the abolition of the navy board in 1832 Symonds was appointed on 9 June surveyor of the navy, and held that office till 1847; during this time he built over two hundred ships, among them the Pique frigate, the Queen of 110 guns, the Albion of 90 guns, and the royal yacht Victoria and Albert, afterwards Osborne. On 15 June 1836 he was specially knighted by the king, whose private secretary wrote to the first lord of the admiralty that, ‘considering the situation which Captain Symonds holds, the able manner in which he fills it, and the necessity of upholding him in it,’ his majesty considered such a distinction called for. During a holiday trip to the Baltic in 1839 Symonds formed a careful estimate of the Russian fleet, on which, and on the Swedish navy, he reported to the admiralty. In 1841 he made a similar journey to the Black Sea, again reporting to the admiralty on the Russian and Turkish navies. In 1840, 1842, and 1843 he visited the Forest of Dean, the New Forest, and the Apennines, in order to regulate the supply and understand the quality of timber for shipbuilding.

The most important changes introduced by Symonds, as surveyor of the navy, lay in giving his ships greater beam and a more wedge-shaped bottom, thus obtaining greater speed and stability, and, by requiring less ballast, increasing the stowage and permitting heavier armaments. He also introduced the elliptical sterns, on the merits or alleged demerits of which a furious controversy raged for some years. That by bodily heaving the system of naval construction out of the rut which it had worn for itself he rendered an important service to the country must be admitted; but he was guided mainly by experience and observation, and was in no sense a scientific constructor. While possessing great stability, his ships were apt to roll excessively; their heavy lee lurch was almost proverbial; and on the general introduction of steam his special designs quickly went out of favour.

The innovations of Symonds evoked much opposition, and in 1846 the admiralty decided on the appointment of a committee of reference to sit in judgment on the surveyor's work and alter or modify it at discretion. Symonds found such a system impracticable, and in October 1847 he retired with a pension of 500l. a year in addition to his half-pay as captain. On 1 May 1848 he was nominated a civil C.B. He was appointed naval aide-de-camp to the queen on 22 July 1853, and became a rear-admiral on the retired list in 1854. After his retirement he spent the winters abroad, chiefly in Italy or at Malta, for the benefit of his health. He died on 30 March 1856 on board the French steamer Nil, while on his way from Malta to Marseilles, where he was buried.

He was thrice married: in 1808 to Elizabeth Saunders, daughter of Matthew Luscombe of Plymouth; in 1818 to Elizabeth Mary, daughter of Rear-admiral Philip Carteret [q. v.], and sister of Sir Philip Carteret Silvester [q. v.]; in 1851 to Susan Mary, daughter of the Rev. John Briggs. By his first wife he had one daughter and four sons, of whom the eldest, William Cornwallis, an officer in the army, founder of Auckland, New Zealand, and surveyor-general of the island, was drowned on 23 Nov. 1842. The second son, Sir Thomas Matthew Charles Symonds [q. v.], is separately noticed. In 1840 Symonds published privately a book of sketches of men-of-war and yachts, which he entitled ‘Naval Costume.’ He was also the author of ‘Holiday Trips’ (London, 1847, 12mo), a little book not incorrectly described on the title-page as ‘extempore doggerel,’ and some professional pamphlets.

[O'Byrne's Nav. Biogr. Dict.; Sharp's Memoirs of the Life and Services of Rear-admiral Sir William Symonds (8vo, 1858), published in accordance with the terms of Symonds's will; Facts versus Fiction, or Sir William Symonds's Principles of Naval Architecture Vindicated.]

J. K. L.