In May 1795, at the age of twelve, Rowland Mainwaring (1782 – 1862), my fourth great grandfather, joined the Royal Navy as a ‘young gentleman’, an aspiring officer. He was under the patronage of Admiral Sir John Laforey. His first ship was the Jupiter, a 50-gun fourth-rate ship of the line commanded by Captain William Lechmere.
In the same year he became a midshipman on the Scipio, a 64-gun third rater, serving on the West Indies Station. He also served for a short while on the Beaulieu, a 40-gun fifth-rate frigate, and on the Ganges a 74 gun third-rater. In just over a year Mainwaring had served in four ships, ranging in size from 40 to 74 guns. The Beaulieu had a notional complement of 320 officers and men and the Ganges 590 (naval vessels of the period were usually short-handed).
In 1796 Mainwaring transferred to HMS Majestic, a 74-gun third-rater under Captain George Blagdon Westcott. The Majestic was taking Admiral Sir John Laforey back to England from the Leeward Islands Station. In June 1796, John Laforey died of yellow fever aboard the Majestic on his return voyage to Portsmouth.
HMS Majestic under Westcott then joined the Channel Fleet, and was present at the Spithead Mutiny in April and May 1797. The mutiny at Spithead (an anchorage near Portsmouth) lasted from 16 April to 15 May 1797. It was one of two major mutinies in 1797. Sailors on 16 ships in the Channel Fleet protested against the living conditions aboard Royal Navy vessels and demanded a pay rise, better victualling, increased shore leave, and compensation for sickness and injury. During the mutiny the mutineers maintained regular naval routine and discipline aboard their ships (mostly with their regular officers), allowed some ships to leave for convoy escort duty or patrols, and promised to suspend the mutiny and go to sea immediately if French ships were spotted heading for English shores. Because of mistrust, especially over pardons for the mutineers, the negotiations broke down, and minor incidents broke out, with several unpopular officers sent to shore and others treated with signs of deliberate disrespect.
The mutiny ended with an agreement that saw a royal pardon for all crews, reassignment of some of the unpopular officers, a pay raise and abolition of the purser’s pound. Afterwards, the mutiny was to become nicknamed the “breeze at Spithead”.
The Battle of the Nile was fought from 1 to 3 August 1798 at Aboukir Bay, on the Nile Delta, 20 miles (32 km) northeast of Alexandria. The British fleet, led by Nelson, decisively defeated the French under Vice-Admiral François-Paul Brueys d’Aigalliers.
At this time Rowland Mainwaring was 15 years old. He never forgot the experience and frequently mentioned the anniversary in his diary entries. In later years he commissioned the marine artist Thomas Luny to paint the battle, himself sketching what he remembered of the scene, in particular the terrible moment when the flagship of the French Navy, L’Orient, was hit by a cannonball in her gunpowder magazine and exploded. The painting by Luny showing the battle at 10 p.m. on 1 August 1798 still hangs in Whitmore Hall.
Although it was late afternoon and the British fleet had no accurate charts of the bay, Nelson ordered an immediate attack on the French who were unprepared and unable to manoeuvre as the British split into two divisions and sailed down either side of the French line, capturing all five ships of the vanguard and engaging the French 120-gun flagship Orient in the centre. At 21:00, Orient caught fire and exploded, killing most of the crew and ending the main combat. Sporadic fighting continued for the next two days, until all of the French ships had been captured, destroyed or had fled; eleven French ships of the line and two frigates were eliminated.
Majestic was towards the rear of the British line, and did not come into action until late in the battle. Together with HMS Bellerophon, Majestic, passed by the melee and advanced on the so far unengaged French centre. In the darkness and smoke Majestic collided with the French ship Heureux and became entangled in her rigging. Majestic then came under heavy fire from the French ship Tonnant. Unable to stop in time, Westcott’s jib boom became entangled with Tonnant‘s shroud. Trapped for several minutes, Majestic suffered heavy casualties. The captain of the Majestic, George Westcott was hit by a musket ball in the throat and killed. Lieutenant Robert Cuthbert took command and was confirmed as acting captain by Nelson the day after the battle.
The Battle of the Nile was a great defeat for the French. The Royal Navy lost 218 killed and 677 wounded; the French losses were 2,000–5,000 killed and wounded, 3,000–3,900 captured, 9 ships of the line captured, and two ships of the line and two frigates destroyed.
The strategic situation between the two nations’ forces in the Mediterranean was reversed, and the Royal Navy gained a dominant position that it retained for the rest of the war.
A medal was issued for those who took part in the Battle of the Nile. Rowland Mainwaring claimed his medal only in 1847 and received it in 1850 with a medal for the Siege of Copenhagen. I am not sure why he left it so late to claim these honours.
In 1826 the English poetess Mrs Felicia Hemans wrote her well-known ‘Casabianca‘, which begins:
The boy stood on the burning deck
Whence all but him had fled;
The flame that lit the battle's wreck
Shone round him o'er the dead.
The poem commemorates the young son of the commander of the French ship L’Orient who refused to desert his post without orders from his father.
(I will write separately about the rest of Rowland Mainwaring’s career.)
Parallels with the fictional Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey
Horatio Hornblower and Jack Aubrey are fictional Royal Navy officers of the Napoleonic war years. Hornblower is the protagonist of a series of novels and stories by C. S. Forester published 1937 to 1967; Jack Aubrey is a fictional character in the Aubrey–Maturin series of novels by Patrick O’Brian published 1969 to 2004. Hornblower and Aubrey are both a little older than Rowland Mainwaring.
In Forester’s novel ‘Mr. Midshipman Hornblower‘ his hero has that rank between 1794 and 1799. In his fictional career Hornblower served under the famous admiral Sir Edward Pellew; Mainwaring also served under Pellew, evidently with respect and admiration, for he christened his second son ‘Edward Pellew’.
Sources and notes
- O’Byrne, William R. A Naval Biographical Dictionary: Comprising the Life and Services of Every Living Officer in Her Majesty’s Navy, from the Rank of Admiral of the Fleet to that of Lieutenant, Inclusive. 1849. Page 711. Retrieved through archive.org.
- Marshall, John. Royal Naval Biography : Or, Memoirs of the Services of All the Flag-officers, Superannuated Rear-admirals, Retired-captains, Post-captains, and Commanders, Whose Names Appeared on the Admiralty List of Sea Officers at the Commencement of the Present Year, Or who Have Since Been Promoted, Illustrated by a Series of Historical and Explanatory Notes … with Copious Addenda: Captains. Commanders. 1832. Pages 126 – 130. Retrieved through Google Books.
- Bradford, Ernle. Nelson: The Essential Hero. Open Road Media, 2014. Retrieved through Google Books.
- Cavenagh-Mainwaring, James Gordon. The Mainwarings of Whitmore and Biddulph in the County of Stafford; an account of the family, and its connections by marriage and descent, with special reference to the manor of Whitmore, with appendices, pedigrees and illustrations. 1934. Pages 104, 114, and 115. Retrieved through archive.org
- Cavenagh-Mainwaring, Christine and Britton, Heather, (editor.) Whitmore Hall : from 1066 to Waltzing Matilda. Adelaide Peacock Publications, 2013. Page 82.
Note: Although the birthdate of my fourth great grandfather Rowland Mainwaring is usually given as 31 December 1783, he was baptised at St George, Hanover Square London on 18 January 1783 and thus his date of birth is actually 31 December 1782. [City of Westminster Archives Centre; London, England; Westminster Church of England Parish Registers; Reference: SJSS/PR/5/16 retrieved through ancestry.com]