Chaplet/Wreath of LaurelsChaplet/Wreath of Laurels FranceUKSpain


Contents Back Chapter V Home Exmouth

Edward Pellew - By Parkinson, C. Northcote, London, 1934


CHAPTER IV - The Partisan


'I had the good luck, in my passage home . . . to fall in with the very French frigate I wanted.' - 'Persuasion,' Jane Austen.

(74) LORD FALMOUTH'S letter, quoted in full near the close of the last chapter, is one of solemn admonition; but it is lacking in confidence. It betrays weakness. The letter opens on a proper note of pained surprise, but the expressions of blame resemble the last volleys of a beleaguered garrison; they are the prelude to surrender. The latter half of the admonition is conciliatory, and the final sentences almost pleading. The truth is that Falmouth could not carry his resentment very far. His affairs at Truro were in a critical position, and he was unwilling to quarrel with one who was, in general, a dependable adherent. Still more important, Pellew was the stronger man of the two. Falmouth could expect no crawling submission from so determined and positive a character - a man of tremendous personality, and one of the bravest men in the navy. Indeed, he obviously found it difficult to avoid being bullied. As the probability of war grew stronger he had to submit to a spate of urgent, and eventually almost abusive demands from him.

During his first few months ashore Pellew attempted to farm the few acres his elder brother had inherited at Treverry, near Falmouth. He had made very little money during the last war. His prize-money was little more than enough to cover his expenses. And this farming enterprise was intended to supplement his half-pay. Needless to say, that was not the effect it produced. Its sole result was the transmission to posterity of a story of how he tried to sell a neighbour's bull under the impression that it was his own. Farming on these lines was likely to prove an expensive hobby. The experiment did not, however, last long.

In 1792 the English Government was genuinely anxious to avoid war. Pitt was guiltless of the slightest attempt to prepare for it; and hardly more than half the population (75) saw that it was inevitable. But Pellew scented the battle afar off. As early as July he began to clamour for employment. To one of his letters Lord Falmouth replied as follows.

Tregothnan, July 22nd 1792

I will certainly take an opportunity of complying with your wishes by applying to Ld Chatham in the manner you desire, with what probability of success I can't say. If the Andromeda is to be given up soon, I should think it would be the best way for me to ask for it for you at once, as pofsibly the Admiralty may object to my naming the station. But on this head I am ready to do as you shall point out tome. But you will please to consider that by this application I shall be totally precluded from serving your Brother Israel, as you wished me to do in the Winter; as it will be impofsible for me to make more than one application of this sort at a time, especially when it is remembered how many favours I am under the necefsity of troubling Ld Chatham for from time to time, at the instance of other friends of mine.

Believe me at all times, Dear Sir
Your most faithful friend
and obedient Servant

It may strike the reader as odd that Lord Falmouth should wish to 'name the station' on which Pellew was to serve. But his anxiety was natural enough. He wanted to please Pellew by getting him a command; but he did not want an alderman of Truro belonging to his party to go too far away. If on the Channel station, Pellew could put into Falmouth in case of emergency and reach the Guildhall at Truro in time for an election. For him to be sent to the West Indies, say, would mean the loss of a zealous supporter. The application referred to in the above letter failed, it seems, because the Andromeda was not to be 'given up soon' after all.

Charles Street            
Berkeley Square

I received your favour on Wensday last and in consequence of it I wrote an immediate application to Lord Howe: but very soon after I found on meeting with Mr Leveson at the Palace that Capt. Byron has by no means given you the warning you imagined of his intentions of giving up; for Mr. L. told me on Thursday that the Druid had already been in
(76) Comifsion (to Capt. Ellison) for a week past. Yesterday I received Lord Howe's answer which I enclose to You. I much regret this as the appointment would have suited you exactly and at the same time not deprived your friends of the Pleasure of seeing you now and then. However if you are ambitious for service either at home or on a foreign station, I shall be always ready to forward your wishes, and anxious as I am to have you in the Corporation at Truro, I hope it will not be long before that Borough will be in such a State as not to prevent my friends from following their pursuits in any quarter of the Globe.

Pray give my best Complim'ts to Mr Pellew and the Ladies of your Family and believe me

Your most faithful Ser't
and sincere friend

It is painful to record that the borough of Truro never reached the happy state alluded to in this letter ; and it is difficult to believe that the Reform Bill was not received by the Boscawens with a sigh of relief. Pellew remained a burgess of Truro until his death, despite the fact that his pursuits often led him to the most distant quarters of the globe. But the third viscount, George Evelyn, the writer of the above letter, did not live to bewail his absence at election times. He died the following year.

Falmouth's next letter was written in December. It shows that the Viscount - moved by his own hopes - thought that the tardy preparations for war by then on foot would come to nothing; while Pellew - also, perhaps, moved by his hopes - thought otherwise. It is clear that Pellew was dancing with impatience to get a frigate and train his crew before war began; and it is as clear that he cared not at all if he should be sent to a station inconveniently situated as regards Truro.

Tregothnan Dec'r 5th 1792

I trust you are perfectly afsured of my sincere desire of obliging you at all times, and I certainly will do so now in the manner you desire, if you insist on it. But as I am convinced of the reality of your attachment to me, and of your regard for my interest at Truro, from the many proofs you have given me of it; I will venture to represent to you the great danger it may incur from your absence at this juncture when my affairs there are in such a precarious situation and when the Majority of my friends there is so small that the removal of even one of them must threaten it with almost certain
(77) destruction. These considerations will I hope prevail on You, out of friendship to me, to suspend your wish 'till some more favourable opportunity, when by the chances of fortune I shall have been able to obtain such an addition to our number as to make your absence lefs dangerous. As the wishes and interest of the nation tends towards peace, probably this armament may be only a temporary one, and Mr. Pitt with his usual clevernefs in negotiation may accomodate matters without going to war. Should it turn out so I shall even then have opportunities of applying to Ld Chatham in your favour; but in the present instance, I have no doubt that your goodnefs will represent the matter in its proper light to you and prevail on you to comply with the wishes of,

Dear Sir,
Your most faithful Servant
and sincere friend

A more infuriating letter can hardly be imagined. Pellew's only patron seemed to contemplate robbing him of the opportunity of his life merely for the sake of preserving his interest in one of his boroughs. As Pellew knew, the beginning of a war offered splendid opportunities to frigate captains. It was in that period of confusion following the outbreak of hostilities, when the big fleets were still fitting for sea, when the enemy's richly laden Indiamen were homeward bound, blissfully unaware of the war having begun; that was when the first frigates to get to sea reaped their harvest. And Falmouth chose that moment to ask Pellew to stay on shore until a few of the Vyvyans' trusted sidemen should have perished of old age

The above letter from Lord Falmouth was written, it may be noted, from Tregothnan - his country house near Truro - to Pellew's elder brother's house at Falmouth, where Pellew was staying. Pellew did not trust himself to reply. It is obvious that he, there and then, shouted for his horse and rode to Truro as fast as his 'boatswain's mate' methods could make it gallop. He found his patron at Truro, absorbed in borough-mongering, and had a short interview with him before riding the ten miles back to Falmouth. On the 8th, Viscount Falmouth sent him the following note

Tregothnan, Saturday Dec 8th '92

If the public businefs of the day had not detained me to a late hour, I could have wished to have had a few minutes
(78) more conversation with you before you left Truro. I will certainly make it my businefs to apply to Lord Chatham immediately on my arrival in London to obtain a frigate on the Coast Station; and I earnestly hope that will comply with your present wishes, as it cannot admit of a doubt that your removal to a foreign Station will in the present juncture give a fatal blow to my interest, which I am sure you would not wish to endanger, after having so strenuously and effectually supported it for these many years past.

I am Dear Sir
Your most obed't Servant

It appears that the hurried interview at Truro was not altogether unsatisfactory. Pellew had at least succeeded in keeping his temper. But now he had to wait for another week, while the coach of the maddening politician rolled slowly up to London, to Falmouth House in St. James's Square, and so - at long last - to the doors of the Admiralty. Falmouth had an interview on the 15th with the harassed and not especially competent brother of the Prime Minister who presided there. He sat down to write to Pellew the same day.

Falmouth House Dec'r 15th 1792

I this morning waited upon Ld Chatham (the first moment he could allow me an opportunity of an interview with him) and made your wishes known to him. His Lordship was pleased to say that notwithstanding the numerous applications he had received and the engagements he was under, he would embrace the first practicable opportunity of complying with your request if the armament continued: but was afraid that it was out [of] his power to appoint you on the home Station, as there was no vacancy in the Ships there at present. I should tell you, that I informed him, in justice to you, that you were ready to serve in any part of the globe that you were ordered to, but that the desire of keeping you near home was only to suit my convenience. That certainly must give place to your interest, and I must rest contented if you obtain such an appointment as will be advantageous to it, tho' mine should suffer thereby.

The general talk at present here is War: some even say that it is impofsible to be avoided: but the news of General Custine's defeat and the retaking of Frankfort has given us some little hopes of peace, as it is supposed such checks (and some it is hoped they will have) will put it out of their power to meddle with Holland. You will be happy to hear that all (79) is quiet in the Metropolis and that the greatest unanimity and Spirit of Loyalty and affection for the King and Constitution prevails: He was received on his going to the H. of Lords on Friday and yesterday, at the Playhouse, with greater acclamations from the Populace than ever I witnefsed or heard of. Mr Fox by his conduct has become very unpopular and is left by the most respectable of his friends. I beg . . . my best Com'ts to Mrs Pellew, and am,

Dear Sir,
your most faithful Serv't and friend

It is easy to visualize the scene in Lord Chatham's room; and it was easier still for Pellew to visualize it: the throng of applicants in the outer rooms - the bustle of messengers - the tired minister's wig bent over his littered desk - the arrival of the influential lord - a few very polite, hasty, utterly meaningless sentences - the visitor bowed out. It was also easy for Pellew to imagine Falmouth's fit of generosity as he went down the stairs; his deciding - too late - to waive his objection to a foreign station. He again succeeded in stifling his exasperation. He replied shortly,

I had the honour of your Lordships letter this day and am very happy to observe the readinefs you have shown towards the Accomplishment of my Wishes, but as Your Lordship knows the instability of Ministerial promises, permit me to hope you will follow up the application and ask Lord Chatham to give me the Command of La Nymphe or Thalea both Frigates at Port'th fit for Service.

I am etc etc

In a few day' he wrote again, more urgently, to Lord Falmouth:

Dec. 29th, 1792

I had yesterday the honour of a few lines from Lord Chatham to thank me for some interesting intelligence I sent him - but his Lordship did not mention a word of any intention of Serving me, and I find that several of my friends of the same standing have already obtained appointments, Who tho' worthy men have not I am sure any Interest. Considering this the Crisis of my future fate - you will not be surprised at my anxiety on this Account or at my prefsing entreaties that your Lordship do exert your influence with effect - I must not bring myself to think you will desert a friend Who has so long and so faithfully served you. Whatever Lord Chathams
(80) engagements may be they can not in such great numbers supersede your just claims upon him, and we must think he wants inclination to serve Your Lordship if he does not comply with such a reasonable request.

I am etc etc

This hint of disbelief in Lord Falmouth's influence was apparently enough to sting that nobleman into fresh endeavour:

Badminton, Jan 3rd 1792
[obviously a mistake for 1793]

Immediately on the receipt of your last letter I wrote to Ld Chatham to desire he would appoint you to the Nymphe or the Thalea according to your request. I have not yet had the answer, but as I have always found him disposed to oblige me in every instance consistent with reason, I have no doubt that he will do it with regard to you, if the nature of the Service and his duty to his Country will permit it. I have therefore on this occasion, as in all former ones, done everything in my, power to promote your interest: I therefore can not help declaring to you how very unpleasant certain exprefsions in the latter parts of your letter must be to me, which I have marked and return to you: and I have no doubt but that on the re-perusal of them it will strike You that such indelicate insinuations, tho' indirect, are as unmerited and as hurtful to the feelings, as a direct accusation. I am, Dear Sir

Your most faithful Servant and friend

To this dignified protest Pellew probably replied in an apologetic tone. He could afford to be polite once more, for on January 11th he was appointed to La Nymphe, the French-built thirty-six-gun frigate he had asked for. It was indeed the 'Crisis' of his 'future fate;' and no apology need be made for giving in full the details of how he came to command her - nor even for including this, the last letter of the series:

Falmouth House
Feb 4th 1793

As you are stationed at Portsmouth I will beg leave to trouble you concerning the Hogshead of Sherry your goodnefs has procured for me. It would be more convenient for me to have it sent to Tregothnan than here ; but can you tell me how to get it there safe ? . . . the duties I believe are paid . . . . 

(81) All appearances here are very warlike: but we have some faint hopes that a lucid interval in the brains of these frantic Murderers will shew them that [it] is not their interest to quarrel with us. If we go to War where will you fight them, unlefs they attempt an invasion here which for such desperate Sans Culottes is a measure not improbable.

Yours most faithfully

Lord Falmouth's faint hopes were not justified. France had declared war on the King of England three days before his letter was written. As for the problem as to where Pellew was to fight them, it was solved in a little more than three months.

The eighteenth-century English navy could never get to sea very quickly at the beginning of a war. The ships might be tolerably prepared for sea, but manning them was, in the nature of things, a slow process. It was at once the strength and weakness of our fleet that it depended on the merchant service for its personnel. It was a source of strength in that the men were genuinely anxious to finish the war and return to comparative comfort. It was a source of weakness in that the outbreak of war invariably found most of the potential heroes at the other side of the globe, in the East or the West Indies; anywhere but where they were wanted - at Portsmouth. It took about two years to bring them all home, and about a year before the fleet could fight a battle. For the first twelve months the homeward-bound trade was partially unprotected, and there were opportunities for the cruisers of both sides to prey on commerce and fight each other. In 1793 the French were at least as slow in getting to sea as their opponents. The opportunities were reciprocal.

Pellew, as we have seen, was delayed in obtaining a ship. When, on January 15th, he arrived in Portsmouth to take command of the Nymphe, the press-gangs had long since swept all the available seamen into other ships. But if he had difficulty in finding a crew, his ship was all that could be desired. La Nymphe was a thirty-six-gun frigate, armed with 12-pounders. Her burthen was 938 tons. During the last war, in 1780 she had been taken from the French by the Flora frigate in a single-ship action. Her capture was largely due to her carrying too many men and not enough guns. This position, when Pellew took command of her, had been reversed. For there were, at that moment, plenty of guns and no men whatever. Being French-built (82) the Nymphe was not ill-designed for speed. Having been rearmed in an English dockyard she carried carronades. Her rating at '36-guns ' was a convention. If carronades were excluded, she only carried twenty-eight guns. With carronades included she carried forty guns. Her exact armament was as follows: Twenty-six 12-pounders on the main deck, twelve 24-pounder carronades on the quarter-deck and forecastle, and two 6-pounders in the bows.

In appearance, the Nymphe was more attractive than the ships with which England finished the Napoleonic Wars. She was flush-decked, with the waist covered in with gratings. 'Above the copper she was painted with a broad black belt, which followed the sheer of the ship, irrespective of the tier of port-holes, which were almost as level as the water-line. A broad stripe of yellow covered the ports and topsides . . . the upper works were navy-blue outside, and inside they were the same deep red as the ports. The tops and yards were painted black.'

When Pellew came on board his ship, she was totally unprepared for sea, being even without lower masts. But the necessity of getting cruisers to sea before French privateers should have wrought havoc among the homeward-bound merchantmen had spurred the Portsmouth rigging-lofts into unusual activity. Her masts were stepped alongside the Sheer Hulk on the 22nd. She was in dock for a week, and was alongside the jetty, ready for sea, on February 6th.

Meanwhile, Pellew was gradually assembling a few men. Finding Portsmouth already swept bare, he wrote to his elder brother at Falmouth, asking him to raise some men for him there. Again he was too late to obtain seamen. Others had been there before him. But the appeal was not altogether in vain.

During years of scarcity, the first part of the population to suffer was the non-agricultural part. And the first part of the country to be affected was that in which least corn was grown. Now, Cornwall was then chiefly inhabited by miners and fishermen. It was consequently one of the first districts to suffer from dearth; and, of the Cornish, it was the miners who suffered most acutely, living as they did, farthest from possible sources of supply. The three bad harvests of 1793, '94, and' 95, under war-time conditions, were enough to produce an almost unparalleled scarcity. The price of bread had risen, by 1800, to almost double the normal. In these years of scarcity the Cornish miners, 'tinners ' as they were called, came near to starvation.

(83) When times were at their worst, the tinners used to raid the towns in search of food, occasionally taking it by force, more often compelling bakers to sell them bread at pre-war prices. A numerous and resolute set of men, 'dressed in the mud-stained smock-frocks and trowsers in which they worked underground, all armed with large clubs . . . and speaking an uncouth jargon, which none but themselves could understand,' they met with little resistance. Their sole weakness lay in their religion. They were one and all followers of Mr. John Wesley. It was by taking advantage of this that a resourceful inhabitant of Falmouth saved that town from being plundered by them. Calling out 'Silence for a hymn !' he told a small boy who 'had nearly all Dr Watts's collection by heart,' to lead the singing. Wisely choosing one of the few of Dr. Watts's hymns not dealing with the subject of eternal torment, the boy began

'Salvation! oh ! the joyful sound
'Tis music in our ears
A sovereign balm for every wound,
A cordial for our fears.'

At the conclusion of the hymn, the miners retired in peace.

In 1793, however, the scarcity had hardly begun. The miners who began to appear in the vicinity of Falmouth that winter were comparatively few; and they did so rather in anticipation of want than from actual hunger.

But the collector of Falmouth, having received his brother's letter, knew how to deal with them. He offered them bodily, not spiritual sustenance. He described the joys of life afloat. He told them, that, in entering for the Nymphe, they would be serving under a Cornishman like themselves. It is to be hoped that he resisted the temptation of describing Captain Pellew as a Wesleyan as well. But, whatever he said, the response was all he could have desired. Less guileless men might have detected a rather suspicious eagerness in the collector's tone, but eighty of the tanners failed to do so. They were sent on board the Lizard frigate, which took them up to Portsmouth; and their departure was a cordial for the fears of the Falmouth townsfolk. Had the captain of the Nymphe ever had any fears their arrival on board his ship would hardly have served as a cordial for them. To have a ship filled with landsmen was bad enough. But to have a ship filled with landsmen 'speaking an uncouth jargon, which none but themselves could understand ' must have been an appalling experience.

(84) The Nymphe's proper complement was 220. When, on February 12th, she ran out of Portsmouth Harbour and moored at Spithead, there may have been rather more than half that number of men on board, including thirty-two marines. Of seamen there were hardly any. What few there were had been impressed from a merchant vessel called the Venus. Having taken the crew of this ship Pellew sent for the mate, whose name was Gaze, and said to him: "I cannot press you; but if you will enter the service I will place you on the quarter-deck, and take care of you." This offer was accepted. Mr. Gaze had little alternative, and was probably glad of the opportunity. But what Mr. Lacon, the brewer of Great Yarmouth, who owned the Venus, then did with that vessel is not apparent. It would be interesting to know how, and whether, it ever reached Great Yarmouth again. The securing of Mr. Gaze must have seemed a momentous event at the time. From this distance of time, it seems even more important. For Gaze became Pellew's devoted follower, outlived him, and supplied much of the material for his biography.

On February 19th, the Nymphe left Spithead, and sailed for Falmouth under Admiralty orders. The weather was rough and the effective crew of the frigate must have been less than thirty, including the officers. The marines were probably equal to handling the capstan. 'There were not six men in the ship who could take the wheel, which the Capt often took himself for 3 or 4 hours together.' As for the tinners, it may be assumed that they were all rolling in the lee scuppers.

Under these discouraging conditions, Pellew cautiously worked his way down Channel, stopping at Cowes, Yarmouth, Portland Roads, and Torbay. He did not anchor in Carrick Roads until March 7th. This was the outer anchorage of Falmouth, and men-of-war usually dropped anchor there. A few days later his inexperienced crew upset the cutter in going to Falmouth and lost their oars. But Pellew was taking steps to improve the quality of his ship's company. Falmouth did not yield him more than two or three seamen, but he could at least get rid of dead-weight. Summoning the tinners he generously gave them leave ashore until Sunday the 17th. At least half of them went with alacrity. But they did not rejoin on the 17th for at least two good reasons; one being that the Nymphe had sailed two days before; the other, that they had finally decided against a nautical career. They may have been looking for the (85) collector. At any rate, they did not appear again. Those that remained became useful men.

On sailing from Falmouth, the Nymphe escorted a convoy to the Downs, arriving there in three days. Having taken toll, in the form of men, from the merchantmen he had convoyed, Pellew left them under the protection of Admiral Macbride and proceeded to the Buoy of the Nore. There he found Vice-Admiral Dalrymple with a squadron. He had scarcely, however, fired his salute, before he cunningly bettered his position. It was on the 20th that he 'Weigh'd the Anchor & dropt a mile or two to the Eastward & let it go again.' The object of this unostentatious movement was to ensure his sighting homeward-bound craft before Dalrymple could. He wanted to take the pick of the crews of merchantmen bound for London River before the ships of the line could send on board them. His forethought was rewarded next day: 'Boarded several Sail of Merchant Men bound to the River.'

He sailed with a convoy of twenty sail for the Texel on April 1st, and arrived at Cuxhaven a fortnight later, returning then with another convoy to Sheerness. He was back at Spithead on May 16th, and three days later sailed from there in company with the Venus frigate, commanded by Captain Faulknor with whom Pellew agreed to share prize-money. After chasing some French vessels into Cherbourg, the two frigates lost touch with each other on the 25th, but with very unequal fortune. For, on that day, the Nymphe captured a French privateer, the Sans Cullotte brig of sixteen guns and seventy-five men, five weeks out of Brest. Whereas, two days later, the Venus fell in with the French frigate Semillante and failed to take her. After some hours of fighting both ships were considerably damaged. The Semillante went back to Cherbourg with thirty-two casualties and five feet of water in her hold ; the Venus came into Portsmouth, crippled aloft, and with twenty-two casualties. To be just to Captain Faulknor it must be stated that the Venus was at the time under-manned and without marines. But Pellew did not think highly of that officer, and was later to refer to him as 'my old thick head friend'. An abler man might, perhaps, have made up his complement of men sooner. Pellew met his damaged consort on the 29th, on her way back to Portsmouth, with shrouds and stays shot away, masts tottering and sails riddled.

After cruising in the Channel for some days without further success, Pellew ran over to Ireland, where he took on (86) board his brother Israel. It will be remembered that Lord Falmouth professed himself unable to support the claims of the younger as well as the elder brother. As a result of this, Captain Israel Pellew, who was still only a commander, could get no ship at this early stage of the war. He served on board the Nymphe as a volunteer.

On June 17th the Nymphe put into Falmouth and anchored in the outer road, sailing again on the following day for Portsmouth. Pellew shaped a course parallel to the English coast, and well within sight of it, until off the Start. Then he said to the officer of the watch: "Steer to the Southward under easy sail, for the chance of seeing something. We shall reach Portsmouth soon enough." This order was given at about nine o'clock in the evening when the frigate was five leagues W. by S. of Start Point. At four next morning, that is to say at daybreak on the 19th, a strange sail was sighted to the SE., and sail was made in chase. At five the private signal was made without being answered. When first seen the stranger was four or five miles away. She stood from the Nymphe at first, but under easy sail so that the English frigate overhauled her rapidly.

The chase was the national French frigate La Cleopatre, of forty guns, commanded by Captain Jean Mullon, one of the few officers of the old regime still remaining in command of a French man-of-war. He was an able man, and had served under Suffren. La Cleopatre was one of a class regarded as the crack ships of the French navy. She carried twenty-eight guns on her main-deck and twelve on her quarter-deck, thus differing little from the Nymphe in armament. In weight of metal the Nymphe had a slight advantage; for although the Cleopatre carried 36-lb. carronades, she had only four of them. The Cleopatre's broadside was 286 lb., as compared with the Nymphe's 294 lb. Like the Nymphe, when taken from the French thirteen years before, she carried too few guns for her size. Although armed in almost exactly the same way as the English ship, she was fifteen feet longer, three feet wider, and carried a hundred more men. She had been more than a year in commission, and had sailed from St. Malo three days before.

The two frigates were fairly equally matched, for although the French ship had a hundred more men this preponderance could hardly have any effect on the issue of an artillery duel. The Cleopatre had been longer at sea, so that her crew was better trained. But Pellew had not wasted his time in the three months he had commanded the Nymphe. (87) 'By that time the men had been got into very good order as to Gunnery. Capt. Pellew paid particular attention to the great guns. It was always his forte to the end of the Chapter.' As to the quality of the men, both ships were very largely manned by seamen-in this respect Pellew can seldom have had as good a crew again. It was in 1793 that the English ships had on board them the pick of the merchant service. As to war experience, there was again something like equality; in the main, neither crew would have seen much service, but each would contain a proportion of men who had. The Nymphe had indeed triumphantly taken a privateer a few weeks before, but there had been no fighting.

Although the action about to begin was not the first engagement of the war, the only previous encounter between frigates, that between the Venus and the Semillante, had been indecisive. Both captains, therefore, and both crews, considered themselves the champions of their sides. They were opening the war at sea for their countries, and still more for the conflicting principles for which their countries stood. Each frigate seemed to defend a cause; the one representing Democracy, the other, less certainly, Monarchy. This symbolic quality of the struggle was, of course, recognized only in England; and there only after the event. It was hailed as an omen once it had declared itself to be a favourable one. No frigate action, probably, attracted so much attention, in retrospect, until the Shannon and Chesapeake met, twenty years later.

The fight was prefaced by a sort of ritual of defiance on the one side and on the other. Both crews observed the routine silence until six, when the Nymphe ran up within hail. Pellew then ordered his men from their quarters to the shrouds, calling 'Long live King George the Third,' for whom the crew gave three cheers. Captain Mullon manned ship in the same manner, and 'coming forward on the gangway, waved his hat, exclaiming, Vive la Nation ! which his crew accompanied with three cheers.' A few minutes later the Nymphe was almost abreast of her opponent. It must be understood that the Cleopatre was not attempting to avoid action. It was not a running fight. Mullon's retreat had been merely to gain time to clear for action.

On hailing, Pellew had taken off his hat to the French captain. As he arrived on the Cleopatre's quarter, he put it on again by way of signal for his men to open fire. The aim was good on both sides. The first shot from the Nymphe struck the foot of the Frenchman's wizen-mast. The (88) gunner who fired it was Israel Pellew, who had taken charge of the after guns on the main deck. It was the first of a series of shots fired at the wheel of the Cleopatre, and although it missed the wheel the splinters from it killed the steersman. Israel's deadly aim killed three more men at the Cleopatre's tiller before he succeeded in shooting away the wheel itself - which was what he had undertaken to do. And about the same time, that is to say at half-past six, this concentrated fire upon the Frenchman's quarterdeck sent her mizen-mast over the side. Becoming unmanageable, La Cleopatre fell on board of her opponent a quarter of an hour later, bow on to the Nymphe's broadside, her jib-boom hard against the Nymphe's mainmast. The furious cannonade of the last half-hour and more had made so dense a cloud of smoke that Pellew could see nothing of the Cleopatre but her bowsprit over his deck, and was perhaps unaware that the collision was unintentional. He concluded that the French intended to board him, and called up part of his crew to resist them. Nothing happened for a minute. The French made no attempt to board. So Pellew promptly ordered his men to board La Cleopatre instead. The first lieutenant, Mr. Amherst Morris, led a party of men over her bows. The second lieutenant, Mr. George Luke, followed with another party. They at once knew why the French had not attempted to board. For there were hardly any of them left on deck. The captain had been mortally wounded, and was lying on the quarter-deck trying to eat what he took to be his signal code, but which was actually his commission. The second captain was still on deck but without more than half a dozen men unhurt. Some sixty of the crew were killed or wounded, including three lieutenants. The rest had run below.

The Nymphe's boarding party, meeting no resistance, hauled down the Cleopatre's flag and received the surrender of the second captain - his sword being given up to Lieutenant Amherst Morris, whose descendants still possess it. Mr. Luke hoisted English colours on the Cleopatre as the two ships fell alongside each other, head and stern. The Nymphe's wounded mainmast was for a time in danger from the strain of the main-yard being caught in the Cleopatre's leech rope. But an offer from Pellew of ten guineas resulted in two seamen running up the shrouds and cutting the leech rope. Meanwhile, about half the French crew came on board the Nymphe as prisoners. Once the transfer of prize-crew and prisoners had been carried out, (89) Pellew separated the two ships by letting go his small bower anchor in forty fathoms, cutting the cable when wind and tide had carried the Cleopatre clear.

The French losses have been described. The damage done to the Nymphe has still to be detailed. Her main and fore-mast were badly wounded, and her main, mizen, and top-mast stays shot away. The mainsail was shot to pieces and the lower rigging much damaged. There were fifty-two casualties of whom twenty-three were dead. Among the killed were the boatswain, two midshipmen, and a master's mate called Richard Pearse; among the wounded, the second lieutenant, the lieutenant of marines, and two midshipmen. For the period this casualty-list is very long.

On June 21st the Nymphe came into Portsmouth with her prize in company, all the ships in harbour cheering her as she passed. And a few days later-perhaps as early as the next day the King himself announced the news of this, the first success of the war, from his box at the opera. Shortly afterwards the west country newspapers had the following announcement to make

'London, Saturday, June 29th. The King held a levee at St James - Captains Edward and Israel Pellew were Yesterday introduced to the King at the Levee by Lord Chatham, when the honour of Knighthood was conferred on the former, and the latter kissed his Majesty's hand on being promoted to the rank of Post-Captain.'

Pellew accepted his knighthood somewhat unwillingly, pleading his poverty. But the King was in a generous mood, and silenced this objection by granting Lady Pellew, as she now became, an annuity of £150 from the Privy Purse; the equivalent of perhaps £500 a year in the currency of the present time. The Earl of Chatham, in a not dissimilar mood, promoted Mr. Amherst Morris to the rank of commander, and the master, Mr. Thomson, to the rank of lieutenant. He was probably much relieved by the news of this success, for the first encounters of a war attract attention; and he had been by no means certain of success in them.

The capture of the Cleopatre was celebrated, as was fitting, in verse

Come all you British heroes, listen to what I say;
'Tis of a noble battle that was fought the other day;
And such a sharp engagement we hardly ever knew
Our officers were valiant and our sailors so true.

This is the opening verse of the ballad produced for the (90) occasion. The last two verses of the song - for such it is, although no tune is given - are as follow.

Her colours being struck, my boys, she then became our prize
And our young ship's company subdued our enemies;
Altho' they were superior in metal and in men.
Of such engagement you may seldom hear again.

And now in Portsmouth Harbour our prize is safely moor'd.
Success to all brave sailors that enter now on board;
A health to Captain Pellew, and all his sailors bold,
Who value more their honour than misers do their gold.

If such engagements were seldom heard of, verses such as these were to be heard very frequently. Pellew in a long life inspired enormous quantities of poetic matter. Not all of it, however, reached the standard of the above ballad.

After the action, Pellew had written to his elder brother at Falmouth

DEAR SAM - Here we are - thank God ! safe - after a glorious action with la Cleopatre, the crack ship of France . . . . We dished her up in fifty minutes, boarded, and struck her colours. We have suffered much, but I was long determined to make a short affair of it. We conversed before we fired a shot, and then, God knows, hot enough it was, as you will see by the enclosed. I might have wrote for a month, had I entered on the description of every gallant action, but we were all in it, heart and soul . . . . I will write again in a day or two, and do all I can for every body . . . . God be praised for his mercy to myself, and Israel, and all of us.

Yours ever, E.P.

Be kind to Susan - go over, and comfort her; I cannot write to Pearse's mother for my life - do send her a note; I really cannot. I loved him, poor fellow, and he deserved it.

Samuel Pellew replied at once.

Falm'th 22nd June 1793

Oh my Dear Brother, with what words and with what Language can I exprefs to you my Gratitude, my Love, my Adoration for your Conduct - I have before denounced to you when you felt the Sun of our Family would be out for ever - Gracious most Benevolent Providence, I bow with humility before thy Altar, and to thy dispensations I attribute the Laurels you have attcheived in this great and singularly Glorious Action. Susan with ourselves have been beside ourselves and frantic with joy. She is now very composed and intends joining us in Prayers of thanksgiving to Morrow at Fal'th - poor dear (91) Pearce and Edialls family are as well as can be, your regard and your mention of them to their Country is all the reward they can now receive. I know you love them all as the father of a Family and will do them that justice they deserved. The List of Kill'd and Wounded I have not received and fear your hurry of writing might have mislaid it, send it me for Gods sake that I may relieve the Father Mother or Child, particularly Rich'd Smith of Mevagifsey, Spencer and indeed all the Western Men. This whole Country redounds with your Praise - the Cleopatre is said to be their first Frigate and Commanded by one of their first Officers and in whom the Convention had the utmost expectations, that the Prisoners at Tregall . . . have repeatedly said she will take any two of the English Frigates . . . . May God Almighty Blefs and reward you . . . and may your Example point the way to Fame, My Dearest Ned Yours ever S.P.

After the ceremony of knighthood, Sir Edward returned to Portsmouth, where, on July 11th, it was announced that 'La Nymphe Frigate, Sir Edward Pellew, and the Venus frigate Capt. Faulknor are refitting with all possible speed.' One of his first duties was to attend the funeral of Captain Mullon, who was buried with all military honours. For this respect shown to his opponent's remains he 'subsequently received the freedom or some corresponding Compliment, of the City of Paris.'

That Samuel Pellew was right in supposing that the Convention had expected a very different result from a combat between La Cleopatre and an English frigate is shown by a letter Sir Edward received from Raffé, Mullon's second captain. In July, that officer was a prisoner of war, and not anxious for an immediate exchange.

Waltham 25th July 1793

I do myself the honour to adrefs you and to afsure you of my esteem, in requesting you to render me a piece of Service which may be easily performed and that will be of material Consequence to me - it is to request you will favour me with a Certificate of the number of Men you found on our Decks, fore and aft, at the time you boarded us. I had the honour to ask this favour of Mr Morris, yr Second Captain - however it is probable he did not comprehend me as I am unacquainted with the English Language. Do, Sir, I pray you grant my request, without it I dare not return to my Native Country but with great risk to my Life. Altho' I have justice on my side my Defence will not be credited, however I may stick to
(92) the Truth. Give me leave to say that our Commander Mullon manoeuvred badly both before and during the Action, that I did not surrender to you until the Decks were left without Men, and that I was deserted by all but five or six at most, and with this small number how could I resist your Boarders ? Captain Mullon before he was wounded had given the necefsary orders for boarding you, which were repeated by me after his fall, but the Men pretended not to understand me. And these very People that behaved so ill are now my greatest Enemies. I again entreat you to afford me some consolation by Declaring the whole truth, without it I am certain I shall be executed on my return, which will be the more readily affected by the Declaration made by the Ships company to the Minister of the Marine. I conceive myself sufficiently punished by the deprivation of Liberty and every other comfort of Life, altho it is my Reputation only that I am afraid of - I am Father of three unfortunate children who without your justice will suffer - Only once let me petition you . . .

Second Captain of the Cleopatre

There can be no doubt that the writer of this letter was genuinely frightened of the guillotine. And it may be guessed that his part in the action had been of no very heroic kind. There was something displeasing to Pellew in the tone of the letter, and he replied briefly and coldly: '. . . without entering into the consideration of your Ship being properly manoeuvred, I am ready to declare . . . that the Cleopatre was bravely defended . . . . I am free to say that I do not think it was in your power to have resisted any longer . . . the situation of the Nymphe was such as to put it quite in my power to have destroyed half your remaining people . . . .' As neither ship had made the least attempt to manoeuvre, Raffé's criticism of his dead commander amounts to nothing; and Pellew obviously resented it. The exact number of men left on the Cleopatre's decks when Morris boarded her, Pellew did not attempt to give probably because he did not know.

There are certain features of the action between the Nymphe and the Cleopatre, on which some comment at this point may seem not irrelevant.

It was, to begin with, a fortunate thing for England's reputation at sea that those two frigates had happened to meet. Had the Cleopatre encountered the Venus instead of the Nymphe, there can be little doubt that the Venus would have been sunk or taken. There is an illuminating contrast (93) between the actions fought by Pellew and by Faulknor at this time. The gunnery of both the Venus and the Semillante was apparently very ineffective. Those two frigates fought for three and a half hours without either damaging the other decisively. The Semillante was able to return to port at the end of the fight, however badly she had been hulled. On the other hand, all her shot must have tended to go high, for the Venus had only twenty-two casualties, and of these only two were killed; while a hundred shot holes were counted in the Venus's mizen staysail, and her main topsail was shot clean out of the bolt ropes. Had the gunnery of these two frigates equalled in accuracy that of the Nymphe and Cleopatre, three hours and a half of fighting would have left both ships without a man unhurt. The firing of the Semillante at her opponent's rigging may have been deliberate, to prevent pursuit ; but in that case the ineffectiveness of the means taken was as discreditable as the end in view, for the Venus lost no single spar throughout the action. The contrast between the damage sustained in the two actions is the measure of the difference between well and badly trained crews.

But, if it was fortunate that the Cleopatre met a ship of roughly equal force, it seems fairly clear that, as far as gunnery went, there was little difference between her and her antagonist. The losses were roughly equal, in proportion to the number of men on each side under fire. And that the one ship lost a mast before the other may be put down to luck as much as to Israel Pellew's marksmanship - for two of the Nymphe's masts were hit. It must, in short, appear that, although Pellew had trained his men well, he did not capture the Cleopatre by superior gunnery - not, at any rate, by superior rapidity of fire. His success can only be ascribed to the French running away. He claimed, it is true, that the Nymphe's position at the end of the action was such as to place the French ship at his mercy. But his raking position (attained by accident) was only useful so long as the French did not board him. And the only answer to the question of why they did not board must be that they were afraid to - that they had already run below. The recriminations after the event suggest, however, that their discipline was essentially bad. So that it may be near the truth, as well as more in accordance with modern ideas, to ascribe the French defeat to bad selection of officers rather than to national character.

As a final note on this affair, it may be worth recording (94) that La Cleopatre was taken into the navy. Her name was, however, changed to L'Oiseau, since there was already a frigate in the service with the name Cleopatra.

The Nymphe did not come out of harbour until July 26th, and she did not reach Falmouth, her recruiting rendezvous, until the 1st of August. Sir Edward began to cruise again a fortnight later. In company with the Circe he cruised at first off Cape Clear and Cape Finisterre; later, off the Gironde. Except for meeting with, and escorting, a Spanish ship laden with specie, out of Vera Cruz, bound for Corunna, nothing of note occurred. In September the Nymphe was in the Channel once more, but months went by before her crew had any further success. There was nothing extraordinary in this, for the French had already lost all their predominance in the Channel. After six or eight months of war, nearly all the English cruisers were at sea. Home waters were crowded with frigates, 'seeking what they might devour' - the Pomona, Phaeton, Venus, Southampton, and a dozen more. As a moral support for their offensive curiosity, Lord Howe was at Torbay with twenty-three sail of the line. La Nymphe, one of the most inquisitive of these frigates, chiefly haunted the neighbourhood of Ushant. And it was there, just outside Brest, on November 30th that Pellew took a French national brig, L'Espiegle. A French ship of the line, with a frigate in company, arrived too late to save the brig and chased Pellew off the coast to prevent further havoc. This retreat apparently brought the Nymphe to the vicinity of the Lizard just in time to retake a ship carrying naval stores from Stockholm to Corunna, which a French frigate had taken in the North Sea - a result his pursuers hardly intended. Pellew came into Spithead on December 13th.

The Nymphe had hardly dropped anchor before her captain was involved in a dispute about prize-money. It was a subject eternally causing jealousy among frigate captains. This particular dispute was brought about by Captain Faulknor claiming an equal share in the head-money for the capture of the Cleopatre, for himself and the crew of the Venus. This he claimed by virtue of an agreement entered into between the 'Captains, Officers, and Companies of the said ships.' Sir Peter Parker and Admiral Macbride arbitrated, and decided against Faulknor on the ground that the Venus having gone into port to refit cancelled the agreement. Three days after this decision the crew of the Nymphe received their prize-money. (95)

Meanwhile, Sir Edward had been applying for another frigate. There is no evidence, apparently, in existence to show why he was anxious to leave the Nymphe. But subsequent events prove fairly conclusively that she was not sufficiently fast for her work. Pellew asked Lord Chatham for the command of the Diamond instead. The reply was immediate.

Admiralty December 15th 1793

I received your letter on the subject of the Diamond, and should be happy to meet your wishes with regard to her, but as the time of her being ready is uncertain, I have another arrangement to propose to you, which may pofsibly be more agreeable to you, which is to move with your people into the Arethusa, which Ship Captain - 's state of health obliges him to Decline - let me have your answer as soon as you can. Should you like her, I shall be very anxious for the Nymphe being in good hands and getting to sea again without delay as Frigates are most extremely wanted at the moment . . . . If your wishes lead you to give a preference to ye Diamond etc etc . . . but I am told they are not likely to improve much upon ye Arethusa . . . .

I am etc etc

You would of course take all your Officers with your People

It is evident that Pellew was in favour at the Admiralty, and could have any frigate he liked. The First Lord, who liked him personally, was anxious to give him the best ship at his disposal. Pellew accepted the Arethusa instantly, and with reason.

The Arethusa was not only a better sailer than the Nymphe - she was a more powerful ship in every way. She was English-built, but copied from the French. She had been launched about twelve years before. We have seen that the Nymphe had a heavier weight of metal than a French forty-gun ship, owing to the latter carrying ten 6-pounders to oppose to her opponent's twelve 24-pounder carronades. But compared with the Arethusa's, the Nymphe's broadside was child's play. On her main deck the Arethusa carried twenty-eight 18-pounders, and her armament was completed by two 'long nines' as chasers, and fourteen 32-pounder carronades. This meant that she was almost exactly half as formidable again as the Nymphe.

According to one of Captain Marryat's characters, the (96) Arethusa had yet another advantage in the length of her name. 'No name can be too fine for a pretty girl, or a good frigate, Mr Simple; for my part, I'm very fond of these hard names. Your Bess, and Poll, and Sue, do very well for the Point or Castle Rag; but in my opinion they degrade a lady. Don't you observe, Mr Simple, that all our gun-brigs, a sort of vessel that will certainly d - n the inventor to all eternity, have nothing but low common names, such as Pincher, Thrasher, Boxer, Badger, and all that sort, which are quite good enough for them; whereas all our dashing saucy frigates have names as long as the main-top bowline, and hard enough to break your jaw - such as Melpomeny, Terpsichore, Arethusy, Bacchanty - fine flourishers, as long as their pennants which dip alongside in a calm ? '

To add to all this, the Arethusa was already a famous ship, on account of the affair with the 'famed Belle Poule' in the last war. She was the subject of a well-known ballad.

Come, all ye jolly sailors bold,
Whose hearts are cast in honour's mould,
While English glory I unfold,
Huzza for the Arethusa !
She is a frigate tight and brave,
As ever stemmed the dashing wave;
Her men are staunch
To their fav'rite launch
And when the foe shall meet our fire,
Sooner than strike, we'll all expire
On board of the Arethusa.

The Arethusa was in no great danger of having to strike while she was commanded by Sir Edward Pellew; nor, for that matter, were many of her crew called upon to expire.

On December 24th, Pellew was 'employed shifting the People from La Nymphe to Arethusa, they being turn'd over by Admiralty order.' He was glad enough to keep the crew he had trained, and when he came to view the Arethusa he was probably doubly glad to have his own men rather than a crew left him by his predecessor in the command.

The last captain to command the Arethusa had been one of the few well-born officers the Service at that time boasted. Captain the Hon. Seymour Finch was a son of Lord Winchelsea. Now, all captains had considerable latitude in rigging, painting, and manning their ships, but Finch's social position seems to have allowed him to treat his frigate as though she had been his own yacht. He was thought (97) to be 'very clever but very mad,' and Pellew found the Arethusa transformed, bearing evident marks of her late captain's ingenuity, and perhaps of his insanity also. She was beautiful to look upon, but quite unfit for service. There was 'not a block to be seen in the ship - all gins or other contrivances for the ropes.' Finch had refused, when on peace-time service, to enter any man under six feet high. As nearly all seafaring families tended, and perhaps tend, to shortness of stature, this selection of seamen on the principle governing the choice of footmen must be classed as a symptom of extreme eccentricity. But the absentmindedness which left his successor to pay for the 'gins and other contrivances' can be regarded in a different light.

Pellew did not, however, pay for Finch's mechanical devices. Instead, he hurled them all out of the ship and declined to pay the bill.

With his appointment to the Arethusa, a new period in Pellew's life began. His days of independent cruising were over, and for the remaining years in which he commanded frigates he was to be engaged in operations on a larger scale.

In the spring of 1794, the Admiralty determined to organize the frigates in home waters into squadrons. In the previous year, it would have been quite impossible to attempt any such organization. Then, the problem had been how to fit the ships out sufficiently quickly, and how to find crews for them. Although the difficulty of manning the navy was by no means over, most of the ships had been by this time sent to sea. A systematic Press carried on between London Bridge and the Nore had had its effect. At the time the Arethusa was preparing for sea, in January 1794, The Times reported that 'Sailors are so scarce that upwards of sixty sail of merchants' ships bound to the West Indies, and other places, are detained in the river, with their ladings on board; seven outward-bound East Indiamen are likewise detained at Gravesend, for want of sailors to man them.' By means of crippling the merchantmen the fleet had been put ready for service. So that, while, the year before, each frigate had been sent out as soon as it was ready - or, as in the case of the Nymphe, long before it was anything like ready - it was now possible to plan some system for patrolling the Channel.

There were many advantages in concentrating frigates at one port and under one officer, and in making them sail in squadrons. First of all, this arrangement imparted some regularity to their movements. The First Lord of the (98) Admiralty had some idea where they were. When wanted to act as scouts to a fleet, they could be found. From the frigate captain's point of view even, the scheme had certain merits. For cruisers sailing independently, or in pairs, wasted half their time chasing each other by mistake. On successive days, the same ships would sight each other in the distance and set off in hot pursuit, only to find their private signal answered. A less pleasing feature of the system - less pleasing to some of the captains at least - was that it prevented individuals neglecting their duty through greed, looking for money rather than for the enemy. Yet another advantage of forming squadrons was that it enabled the frigates to make a cordon across the entrance to the Channel.

In the words of the beautiful sea song 'Spanish Ladies' - 'From Ushant to Scilly 'tis thirty-five leagues.' Perhaps the distance is more easily grasped as rather more than a hundred land-miles. Now, this is quite a narrow gap to patrol. When five or six frigates were fairly strung out they could, while still within sight of each other, prevent any ships from proceeding up Channel without being sighted. In the same way, that number of frigates could form a net to sweep the Channel at its narrower part, and again be fairly certain that no French privateer could slip through the meshes.

The immediate determination of the Admiralty, however, to form these squadrons was owing to another consideration. The advantages described above rather perpetuated than originated the arrangement. Its first institution was mainly due to the French having thought of it first; and if there had been no merit in the system it would still have been followed. That the English Government had timely warning of the French intention is not remarkable. Each government had, at that time, a fair knowledge of the other's intentions. This was partly due to the existence of discontented minorities in both countries; partly to the admirable impartiality with which smugglers sold information on both sides of the Channel.

Falmouth was the base from which the frigates were to operate, and as it was at this time, or rather earlier, that Pellew took up his residence at Flushing, the next chapter will begin with some account of that port; the reasons for its use as a base for cruisers; and the part played by the Pellew family in the life of the town.



Contents Back Chapter V Home Exmouth