- Bassett, R.J., Commander, RAN (Rtd)
- Biographies and personal histories
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- June 1978 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
IN JULY 1948 whilst I was standing by HMAS Sydney at Devonport Dockyard, I bought a collection of manuscript volumes which had belonged to James Bradshaw and which covered his career from the 1st April 1800, when he joined HMS Adventure as a Midshipman, until December 1811, when he paid off HMS Eurydice as a Post Captain.
There are twelve well bound volumes consisting of his Midshipman’s Journal, Log Books for the ships he commanded, his Order books, Letter books and original orders received from the Admiralty, Senior Officers, The Navy Board, etc.
They shed a fascinating light on Naval Life in a momentous period in our Naval History, but what should be of particular interest to any person connected with the RAN is his period as Midshipman in HMS Penguin, one of ten ships which have borne that name, which is now, of course, the property of the RAN
Our hero joined Penguin, an 18 gun brigrigged Sloop commanded by Robert Mansel, in the Cove of Cork on the 21st July 1800, having transferred with Mansel from HMS Adventure; a common practice in those days.
Mid-1800 was the period when, following the failure of Pitt’s second Coalition, England stood virtually alone against Napoleon and was enforcing a very strict blockade of the whole of Europe.
Penguin’s activities at this time were a classic example of the proper exercise of sea power. She escorted East Indies, West Indies and local convoys, she searched all shipping and on occasions took prizes to the vast contemporary value of £175,000, and she once was in action with a French Privateer, and two heavily armed prizes off Tenerife.
Her duties took her from the Irish ports of Cork, Belfast and Lough Swilly to The Downs, Spithead and Plymouth, and in the last phase she operated in the Atlantic, and when Bradshaw left her Penguin was part of the Cape Squadron of 11 ships based at Simonstown.
It is a popular misconception that Naval History of this period was all about the major fleet actions of Jervis, Duncan and Nelson, but the pressure which finally defeated Napoleon came from many ships all over the world, of which Penguin is a good example.
Mahan’s felicitous phrase, ‘Those far distant, storm beaten ships upon which the Grand Army never looked stood between it and the domination of the world’, could very well have been written to describe HMS Penguin at this period of her service.
Of passing interest to the RAN is an entry for 7th August 1800 whilst she was guard ship in the Cove of Cork, which reads: ‘Took guard. Private signal from HMS Cerberus‘. The Cerberus of those days was a 5th Rate built in 1794 and sold in 1820. Her only distinction is that she was present at Hoste’s memorable frigate action at Lissa.
The modem sailor will recognise the note of Bradshaw’s entries from the 19th November 1800 to 6th February 1801, for in this period Penguin was in the hands of Devonport Dockyard. There was the usual chaos of dry docking, scraping the side and bottom, frequent drafts in and out, and a constant procession of dockyard officers, including the Master Attendant, and the Master of the Cheque who paid the sailors for the only time in a year.
The Georgian Navy seems to have been a pretty dull outfit because the entry for 25th December 1800 reads, ‘Strong gales, and cloudy. Employed as before.’ No hint of any extra grog or Xmas Fare.
Two entries during this period in Devonport are of particular interest.
‘Monday, 15th December 1800. At 4 the San Josef came out of the dock.’
‘Thursday, 22nd January 1801. A.M. Went out of the harbor (sic) HMS San Josef.’
Nelson joined San Josef on 17th January 1801 as Second in Command of the Channel Fleet to St. Vincent.
Although Carola Oman says in her masterly biography ‘His carriage rolled over the cobbles of Plymouth Dockyard with dusk on January 17th, and when his flag was hoisted blue at the fore, in the San Josef, it was cheered by the whole fleet’; it is sad to note that as far as James Bradshaw was concerned, San Josef was just another ship.
On 7th February 1801 Penguin shook off the dust of Devonport Dockyard and ‘sailed from Plymouth with sealed orders and completely victualled for 6 months’, for the area of the Canary Islands.
On Tuesday 19th February 1801 the monotony of blockade was relieved, and whilst 100 miles South East of the Peak of Tenerife the joumal entry is:
‘At 1 discovered three sail in WNN bearing down on us. Made the private signal which not being answered took in studding sail, and cleared ship for action.
At 3.30 hauled down the private signal, and reefed T. Sails. Two of the strange ships kept their wind, the other two still bearing down on us. Hauled up Main Sail, and took in Top Gallant Sails. At 3.50 the strange ship hauled her wind, and rejoined her comrades. The latter gradually edging away for that purpose made all sail in Chase our distance then about 3 leagues they plainly appeared to be a Corvette, and two Merchantmen, (convoy or prizes) both armed, and all with American colours. (Observed them all heave to, and boats with men passing from the Corvette to the Merchantmen). At 5 the Corvette reefed Top Sails and forming a line ahead bore down on our Starboard Quarter. At 5.20 they all hoisted French Colours, and the Corvette fired a gun. At 6 we commenced a brisk fire on the three ships as they passed our weather quarter stood on to gain the weather gage. At 6.20 the Corvette backed her Mizzen Top Sail, and the Merchantmen then bore away S.E. Stood after them, and fired upon the Westernmost (which was carrying a press of sail for our Starboard beam, apparently to run us down, fired our starboard broadside) when she struck and lowered her Top Sails. Left her and stood on with an intention to tack and engage the Corvette which was then about a quarter of a mile on our Lee quarter, but carrying a press of sail to effect that purpose.
At 7.30 the Fore Top Mast gave way and hanging in an angular direction before the Fore yard rendered it unserviceable. Being brought up sharp on the Starboard Tack. At 7.15 the Corvette came up on our Lee quarter and commenced at brisk fire upon us which we returned for about 40 minutes when the Enemy bore up apparently with his Mizzen Mast gone and stood for her comrades which were carrying a press of Sail from us to the W. During the action the Fore Top Sail and rigging from the explosion of the guns caught fire and the sails and rigging being otherwise much damaged from the Langridge they fired at us and the ship being unmanageable by the loss of the Fore Top Mast found it impracticable to make any pursuit. At 8.20 lost sight of them, at 11 steered our course. A.M. employed getting up a new Fore Top Mast’. So ends a memorable day.