William Witt’s Time in The Royal Navy

Researched and written by his 3 x great-grandson David Witt, who gave permission for it to be reproduced here.

               This is the William Witt who was born in Newport, Isle of Wight, on 7 October 1776.  His service on two separate ships of the Royal Navy, La Juste and Cambrian, is recorded in the muster books and paybooks of these ships, kept at the Public Record Office (now the “National Archives”), as is his discharge after a period in the Naval Hospital, Plymouth.
               According to these records, William served on La Juste from 22 November 1795 to 17 June 1797, and on the Cambrian from 18 June 1797 until 26 April 1800.  He is recorded as born in Newport, Isle of Wight, and also as being 21 years of age when joining each ship, which was an exaggeration in both cases, though only a few months short of it in the case of the Cambrian.  He got the £5 “bounty” (equal to about 17 weeks’ pay) on joining La Juste, which shows he was a volunteer.  On each ship his “quality” is recorded as “Able Seaman”, which normally meant someone with at least a year’s experience at sea.  So he may have served on other ship(s) before that, either naval warships or merchant ships.
Was he at one of the famous sea-battles of the time?
               The record left by his grandson James Martin1 says that he “fought under Lord Howe off Cape St Vincent”, and “Lord Howe was created an Earl after the battle which was fought in June”.  This seems to confuse two quite separate battles.  Lord Howe was not at the battle of Cape St Vincent, which was fought on 14 February 1797, with the English fleet led by Rear-Admiral John Jervis, who was made Earl St Vincent in recognition of the victory.  La Juste, on which William was serving, was in Portsmouth at the time, and not involved in the battle.  But Earl Howe was commander-in-chief at the battle fought off Ushant on 1 June 1794, known as “the Glorious First of June”.  It is possible that William was on one of the 38 ships2 at that battle, aged 17, and 18 months before joining La Juste, but a search of the paybooks of 37 of them has failed to turn him up. (Of the 38th vessel, a hospital ship, I have been unable to find any record whatever.)  The fact that I have not been able to find him is not proof that he was not there.  I may have missed him, or the paybooks may be in error (they are copied from the muster books, but have the advantage over them of having indexes).
The ships he served in3
               La Juste was a “2nd-rate” line-of-battle ship (i.e. of the next-to-largest size), of 80 guns and 2144 “tons” (“builders’ measurement” in fact, but approximating to modern “tons displacement”).  Her complement was 738 seamen.  She had been a French ship, but had surrendered at the battle of 1 June 1794, and now, after repairs etc was commissioned into the Royal Navy under the same name.  Her Captain for most of William’s time on her was Thomas Pakenham.
               Cambrian was a brand-new frigate (a “5th-rate”) in 1797, built by Parsons at Bursledon on the River Hamble.  Her “builders’ measurement” was 1160, and she carried 40 guns.  Her complement was nominally 320, but in her muster book for the year 1800 her crew are numbered up to 450 (William at No.296) plus 26 “boys” aged 12-16, 79 marines and 36 “supernumeraries”.  Her Captain for William’s time with her was Arthur K. Legge.
What the ships were doing
               The sources for this are the Captains’ or Masters’ logs, and the letters written by the Captains to the Admiralty, all to be found in the Public Record Office.
               In 1796 La Juste was used mainly on convoy escort duty, with quite long intervals back in port.  On 27 February her Captain logged “Cape Finisterre SW 23 leagues.  120 sail of the convoy in sight”.  Quite a sight this must have been.  In March-April 1797 she was cruising between Ushant and the South of Ireland, as part of a squadron., and under a different Captain, William H. Kelly.  Thomas Pakenham returned in May.  There was a naval mutiny (in practice a successful strike for more pay because of inflation) at Spithead in April 1797, but this was before La Juste’s return.
               Cambrian on the other hand seems to have had more varied employment, perhaps more interesting and in one respect more profitable.  In July-October 1797 she was on convoy duty, but later that year and for most of 1798 she was cruising in the Channel, the Western Approaches, or the Bay of Biscay, on blockade duty.  She would intercept neutral ships to check their cargoes and ask for any news, and engage with any small enemy ships she came across, usually “privateers”.  Sometimes the privateers had with them English or neutral ships that they had captured, and the Cambrian was often able to recapture them.  She seems to have taken at least seven French or recaptured ships into Falmouth or Plymouth, and no doubt in several cases got prize money for them.  Though most of such prize money went to the Captain and other officers, a quarter of it went to the seamen and marines, so it is likely that William acquired a useful sum.  I found two mentions of prize money being distributed, but not of the sums involved.
               In July 1799 Cambrian was sitting just off Le Havre, keeping an eye on the French naval ships in the port, to see if they showed any signs of getting ready for sea, but also getting involved in some “secret service” activity.  She picked up two French Royalists with “dispatches of a secret nature for the British Government”, and later had to land “two French gentlemen” on the coast – see Appendix for the unfortunate consequences.  She then had to convey the Duke of York and a party of generals to Holland, and was then sent to join a squadron in the Bay of Biscay.  While there she recaptured a Liverpool merchantman that had been taken by the French.
               Captain Legge’s letters to the Admiralty give an interesting view of the ship’s activities, and extracts or précis of a few of them are appended.  Arthur Legge was the sixth of eight sons of the 2
nd Earl of Dartmouth.  His great-great-grandfather had been the Admiral whose fleet had been locked in the Thames Estuary by Easterly winds in 1688, so had been unable to prevent William of Orange sailing down the Channel to land at Torbay (the “Protestant wind”!).  The Dictionary of National Biography describes Arthur’s father as “an amiable, pious man ...... entirely without any administrative capacity”, but my impression from his son’s letters is that he, by contrast, was well able to run his ship, or indeed his small squadron, and was probably a rather good commander to serve under.
William’s discharge
               Cambrian returned to Plymouth on 25 February 1800, and stayed there until 3 April.  But on 28 March William was admitted to Plymouth Naval Hospital suffering from a “contusion”, and stayed there for 53 days, until 20 May.  He was then discharged as “unserviceable”.  (His ship had sailed weeks before, and at the end of April was off the Spanish coast.)
King’s Freeman4
               The City of London had regulations forbidding those who were not “Freemen of the City” from practising their trade there, but to ease unemployment among ex-servicemen, the Government had passed legislation exempting them from such “restrictive practices”.  They simply had to produce a certificate outlining their service, and those who escaped the ban in this way were known as “King’s Freemen”.  William applied for such a certificate on 19 January 1810, quoting his service on HMS Cambrian. The application, and, on the back, the certificate issued by the Navy Office next day, are preserved in the Corporation of London’s Record Office in the Guildhall.  He presumably needed this piece of paper to be able to run his wine business in Bishopsgate.  It was this reference to his ship, added to James Martin's record, that enabled this phase of his life to be traced.
References at the Public Record Office
La Juste (or Juste), for 1795-1797:
Paybooks, ADM35/821 & 822
Muster book, ADM36/11505 (William Witt at No.829)
Captain’s Log, ADM51/1159, 1139 & 1181
Cambrian, for 1797-1800:
Paybooks, ADM35/346 & 347
Muster Books, ADM36/13003, 13004 & 15239 (William Witt at No.296)
Captain’s Log ADM51/1250 &1299
Master’s Log ADM52/2808, 2809 & 2810
Captain’s letters to the Admiralty ADM1/2062, letters 173-186 (1797)
  ADM1/2064, letters 206-211 (1798)
  ADM1/2065, letters 175-195 (1799)
  ADM1/2066, letters 159-185 (1800)
Muster of patients in Plymouth Naval Hospital, 1800, ADM 102/610

1  Written in a family bible about 1910, and transcribed by Verity Baylis, James Martin’s great-granddaughter
2  W.L. Clowes, The Royal Navy, A History, Vol 4, AMS Press Inc New York 1966 (1st ed 1899)
3  Technical data from J.J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy, An Historical Index, David & Charles, 1969
4  Vivienne E. Aldous, Records of King’s Freemen in the City of London in the 18th and 19th centuries, Genealogists’ Magazine, Vol 27 No 9, March 2003, pp 415-421.

Extracts from letters written to the Admiralty by Hon. Arthur K.
Legge, commander of the “Cambrian” frigate
(Normal type represents direct quotes, italic represents précis or added information)
25 October 1797, at Spithead
               On the 21st in Lat 48° N & Long 7° W I recaptured the Betsy of Dundee from Quebec bound to London, she had been taken on the 13th in Lat 48 50 & Long 30 W from Paris by L’Hydre a French ship Privateer of 26 guns belonging to Nantes.  The above Privateer had been out 5 weeks from Nantes and had also taken an English Brig belonging to Liverpool called the Lorenzo de Medici, and a Galliot under Swedish colours.
Cambrian, Plymouth Sound, January 31st, 1798
               I have to request you will inform their Lordships of my arrival here this afternoon in His Majys Ship under my command.  I have brought in with me an American Indiaman called the Providence, from Batavia bound to Hamburgh, she had been captured by L’Heureuse Nouvelle, a French Privateer belonging to Brest, and was in Company with the above Privateer when we fell in with them in the afternoon of the 28th inst; in Company with His Majys Ship the Indefatigable to the Westward of Scilly.
               Sir Edward Pellew having ordered me to Chace the Providence went himself in Pursuit of the Privateer, in consequence of which we parted Company from the Indefatigable, and as I found the Prize to be leaking and requiring many hands to keep her free, as such (sic) as to work her, I thought it my Duty to see her safe into Port, and with that intention bore up for Falmouth, but having experienced a very heavy gale of wind at 11 h with thick weather, I was not enabled to make the Lizard & the gale increasing & veering to the Westward drove me so far to Leeward  that we could but just weather the Eddystone this afternoon.  I therefore thought it right to put in here.
               As I find from the Papers of the Providence that great part of her Cargo is Dutch property, I mean to prosecute the ship in the Court of Admiralty, of which I hope their Lordships will approve.
               I understand from the Prisoners that the Heureuse Nouvelle had been out 36 days from Brest on a cruize off the Western Islands, had taking (sic) nothing but the Providence & was returning with her to Brest; she was formerly an English Letter of Marque called the Henry of Liverpool, mounts 14 guns and is ship rigged.
               Being in want of some sails & running rigging in consequence of the late Gales, I mean to procure these stores here & return with all possible dispatch to join the Indefatigable off Scilly, which I hope will meet with their Lordships’ approbation.
  I have Honor to remain
  Your very faithful Humble Servant
    Arthur K. Legge
Evan Nepean, Esq
 &c &c &c     Written by the Admiralty on the bottom:
(Secretary of the Admiralty, 1795-1804) Acknowledge, and approve of his rejoining the
    Indefatigable as soon as possible
8 February 1798
               The ship’s officers, hearing of the establishment of a fund for “repaying the exigencies of the War”, have made a collection, which the Captain forwards to the Admiralty, adding on his own account 1 month of his own salary and £50.
30 March 1798
               Reports that he has captured a French privateer, ‘Le Pont de Lody’, of 16 guns, 102 men, 5 days out of Bordeaux on her first cruise.
30 May 1798
               Reports and supports a request from one of his seamen that his brother be allowed to transfer to the Cambrian from another naval ship in the Downs. (Admiralty agreed)
3 March 1799
               Reports on a look into Brest, to see the state and number of French ships in there.
22 March 1799
               Asks for the Cambrian to be fitted with shorter and lighter guns of the same calibre, as the ship complains much in blowing weather in the Upper Works & Water Ways, from the great weight of the Twenty-Four Pounders.  Each main-deck gun weighs 50 cwt, 5 cwt more than the older type of gun, and is 6 inches longer. The change would save 6 tons, and the replacement of 6 of the 9-pounders on the quarter-deck by 32-pound carronades would save two more tons.
(A 32-pounder carronade, having a short barrel, could indeed be lighter than a standard 9-pounder gun.  The Admiralty agreed the change.)
12 May 1799
               Has been at sea since 20 February, and her lower masts being much crippled, she will require some repairs and refitting.
Cambrian, off Havre, 5 July 1799
               A boat having come off this morning from L’Honfleur to the Trial cutter, with the enclosed  letter to the senior officer of His Majesty’s ships off Havre; I have directed the Lieutenant commanding the Trial to proceed to Spithead with the ... persons mentioned therein, said to be charged with dispatches of a secret nature for the British Government.
               The frigates and corvettes laying in Havre are in a dismasted state, and I understand their crews have been sent round to Brest some time ago to man the Fleet.
               The above Persons inform me that Accounts are received in France of the defeat of the French Fleet in the Mediterranean, whether true or false I must leave their Lordships to judge.
  I remain, Sir,
  Your very Obedient
  Humble Servant
  Arthur K. Legge
Evan Nepean Esq.
Enclosed letter dated 3 Juillet 1799:
               The bearer hereof is a person in the service of the King of France, as he is going to England for some earnest business, I beg of you to hasten his arrival as much as it in your power; I’ll be infinitely obliged to you.
  - - - - - - - - - - - - -
    - - - - - - - - - - -
      Your most humble servant
      Adolphe La Cours
Cambrian off Havre, 28 July 1799
               I have to acknowledge the receipt of your two letters to me of the 14th inst, containing their Lordships’ directions to land the six French Fishermen (named in the margin) on the coast of France the first favourable opportunity; and also for obtaining intelligence from ----- through the means of Messieurs de la Tour and de Faye.
               He landed the six fishermen under flag of truce.
Cambrian off Havre, 31st  July 1799
               I have to inform you that in pursuance of their Lordships directions communicated to me in Mr. Marsden’s letter of the 14th Ulto, I order’d His Majesties Cutter the Trial to proceed off the Southern shore of the entrance of the Seine for the purpose of communicating through the means of Monsr de La Tour and Monsr de Faye, with the French fishermen on that part of the Coast, particularly at the entrance of the Touque River, according to their wishes; the Trial having been on that station several days without the smallest appearance of any inclination on the part of the Fishing boats to communicate with her, and having been fired upon by one of the Enemies Gun Brigs by which she lost her topmast & had two men wounded, she rejoined me.  The two French Gentlemen were accordingly put on board the Redbridge schooner for the same purpose; Lieut. Hayes her commander informed me that having proceeded close off the entrance of the Touque on the evening of the 29th  inst., not having been able prior thereto to procure the smallest communication with any fishing boat; at the earnest sollicitation of the two French Gentlemen he sent them after dark to be landed in his own boat, & I am grieved to have to add that the boat has not since been heard of, I am therefore under the greatest apprehensions that she must have fallen into the enemies hands.  There were seven of his best seamen & a Petty Officer in the boat besides the two French Gentlemen.
               There does not appear to be much chance of communication with French Coast off Havre through the fishing boats (even supposing the fishermen to be so disposed) as they have always some small Republican armed Vessel with them when they fish, & they make for the shore upon the approach of an English Vessel.
               On the 30th His Majesties hired cutter Alert joined me with orders from Admiral Sir Peter Parker Bart to put on board the Cambrian a Person calling herself Madame Williams & and to return  after having done so to Spithead.  After interrogating Madme Williams I found she was sent over for the Purpose of communicating with the Coast of France between Dieppe & Boulogne; and not having any Vessel with me on this station excepting the Redbridge who was employed with Messrs De La Tour and de Faye; I directed Lieut Innes Commanding the Alert to proceed with her to that part of the Coast of France for the above purpose.  I have stated to Admiral Sir Peter Parker my reasons for having detained the Alert, which I hope will meet with their Lordships & his approbation.
  I remain Sir
  Your very Humble Servant
  Arthur K. Legge
Evan Nepean Esq.
9 August 1799
               Hears from a Danish Galliott that she saw the Redbridge’s boat captured by one of the enemy’s armed sloops at daybreak.  Deduces that they probably did land the Frenchmen, and then got carried further up the Seine by the flood tide.
13 November 1799
               Having recaptured on 5 November the ‘James’, Letter of Marque of Liverpool
               When we fell in with her, she had only her Foremast and Mizen Mast standing, and it was with extreme difficulty we were enabled to tow her out of the Bay of Biscay against the late violent Westerly Gales.
               The James was captured the 16 October in Latitude 43, Long 40° 40' W of London by the Grand Heureux Ship Privateer of Bordeaux mounting 24 Twelve Pounders and 230 men after an Action of two Hours, which does great credit to Mr. James Murray the Master of the James and her Crew consisting in all of 40 men.
               He took her into Falmouth, being the first English port he could reach
4 December 1799
               Justifying himself against a report that he allowed a Danish vessel into Le Havre, by saying she was carrying only coal, and he had no orders to enforce a blockade against neutral vessels carrying such cargos.
 (The Admiralty note on the bottom was to look up what his orders actually were.)
               Arthur Legge was born in 1766, and died in 1835 aged 68.  He reached the rank of Admiral in 1830, having been Rear-Admiral from 1810, and Vice-Admiral from 1814.  He was made K.C.B. in 1815.5

5  Clowes, op.cit, Vol 5, p 41

Other miscellaneous transcripts

Page last updated: 19th February 2004, e-mail: martin@hagger.org