- Payne, Alan
- History - general
- None noted.
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- December 1979 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
‘Having an uninterrupted succession of fair weather, with light western breezes in the intermediate time,‘ wrote Lord Howe, ‘the fleet arrived in the Channel on the 11th, a part of it under the direction of Admiral Graves was ordered to Plymouth for being refitted; and the rest, with the Charlotte, anchored on the 13th instant at Spithead.‘
As soon as King George III heard of the victory, he wrote a most generous letter to Lady Howe and after Howe’s squadron arrived at Portsmouth with the French prizes, he came to Portsmouth to do honour to Lord Howe. Amongst those attending the Royal Family was Lady Mary, who saw everybody and recorded accordingly. The favour shown to his friend Lord Howe had never been shown to earlier commanders and was not repeated. It was certainly a novel sight at Portsmouth to see a triumphant fleet with six of the enemy’s line-of-battleships in tow, and crowds lined the shore from every part of the country. The victory was not won without heavy casualties, which consisted of 279 killed and 877 wounded.
When the King had left Portsmouth, Howe stayed for several days to entertain his captains, and to discuss the battle with them. On one occasion he noticed the absence of Captain Payne and asked where he was. Nobody knew the answer, and Howe sighing, said that he missed him and remarked, ‘There is no pleasure without pain.‘ This was considered a very great compliment as his Lordship, being rather taciturn and reserved, was not given to such remarks. Captain Payne had served under Lord Howe as a midshipman in his flagship in 1777 and owed his commission as a Lieutenant to Howe.
In the eighteenth century it had been common to award Knighthoods to captains after a particularly gallant action and higher awards to admirals after major engagements. The system of decorations and medals did not then exist, as these awards only really began in the nineteenth century. It was King George III who started the idea of giving gold medals to flag officers and captains who had distinguished themselves in action. Although it took about two years to mint the gold medals, they were awarded to all those officers mentioned in Lord Howe’s report. It was unfortunate that this system had its faults and worthy officers were omitted, the most noticeable being that of Captain Collingwood, who eventually did receive the coveted award years later. The blame for this can probably be put to the fact that Captain Curtis was largely responsible for the recommendations for the awards. Even Lord Howe, who received a diamond sword and a gold medal and chain, had to wait three years for the Order of the Garter, which the King had wished to give him at once. Several captains were omitted. Captain Payne was awarded a gold medal and in view of what Admiral Pasley had reported, it would have been difficult not to award him one. Admiral Pasley had been very critical of some of the captains, but considered that Lord Hugh Seymour in the Leviathan and Captain Payne in the Russell ‘deserved my warmest praise, particularly the former who supported me most gallantly during the whole of the battle.‘
Payne entered the Royal Academy, the naval college in Portsmouth Dockyard, at the age of fifteen in 1767 and after two and a half years study, joined a frigate and went to the West Indies. After two periods of service in the West Indies, Payne passed his examination for promotion to Lieutenant and was appointed to the North America Station. Lord Howe had been appointed commander-in-chief in February 1776 and on the 4th July the rebel United States had come into existence. The Commander-in- Chief ashore was General Howe, Lord Howe’s brother. Some time after the Declaration of Independence, Lord Howe took Midshipman Payne into his flagship and in March 1777 Payne was promoted to Lieutenant in the frigate Brune, commanded by Captain Ferguson. A warm friendship developed between Ferguson and Payne. In April 1779 Payne was appointed to the Romney, bearing the broad pennant of Commodore Johnstone, who appointed him commander of the Cormorant in November of that year. Payne had now received his first promotion as a commissioned officer. Less than a year later he was made a post captain at the age of 28. His first command as a post captain was to the magnificent French frigate the Artois, captured by the squadron. During the eighteenth century the French warships were vastly superior in design to the British and such a command was every post captain’s dream.
In January 1783 when in command of the 50-gun ship Leander, Captain Payne fought a severe action near Guadeloupe with a large French or Spanish warship, which carried 36 pounders and also troops. Payne and his officers considered the enemy was a French ship of 74 or 80 guns. Capture or sinking of such a ship would have meant a knighthood, but in recognition of his gallant conduct Payne was given the 80 gun ship Princess Amelia which he took to England for the peace.
The restless energy which had won Payne distinction in war, unfortunately, carried him in times of peace, into reckless dissipation. One day when dining with friends at a favourite haunt of the Prince of Wales, the Prince heard Payne talking about naval topics and approached him. This was the well known time when the Prince asked Payne if he was bred to the sea. Payne and so many others were not employed at sea during the peace and he became a Member of Parliament, like several other naval officers including Lord Howe, who was four times member for Dartmouth and only gave it up when he was raised to the peerage of Great Britain. Later the Prince appointed Payne his private secretary, comptroller of the household and personal friend. In 1788 when the Prince claimed the regency during the King’s insanity, Payne fully supported his right in the most unscrupulous language. This is said to have drawn a sharp broadside from the Duchess of Gordon: ‘You little, insignificant, good-for-nothing, upstart, pert chattering puppy, how dare you name your royal master’s royal mother in that style.‘ Captain Payne would probably have been far happier at sea, but given the choice of halfpay or service under the Prince, he had no hesitation in choosing the latter.
In March 1796 Captain Payne was ordered to hoist his broad pennant in command of a squadron appointed to bring over the unfortunate Princess Caroline. Payne, who was now in poor health, must have been amused that his naval duties had directly involved him in the service of the Prince of Wales. Later that year the Admiralty paid Payne a great compliment in appointing him the command of Impetueux, an 80 gun ship formerly called the America and captured by the Russell on the 1st June 1794. During the summer of 1797 he again hoisted his broad pennant in command of a detached squadron and again in March 1798. But bad weather and exposure brought on a serious illness and he was forced to resign his command. He never served at sea again, but in February 1799 he was promoted to Rear Admiral. A few months later he was appointed treasurer of Greenwich Hospital, where he died in November 1803.
John Payne was basically a warm hearted man with the great gift of friendship, his tragedy was that he attracted the friendship of the Prince of Wales. Like many naval officers he was at his best fighting the enemy and using his own restless energy to good purpose. It seems certain that Payne’s life would have been very different if in the peace of 1783-93 he had been, like hundreds of others, an officer on half-pay.