A Letter from H.M.S.Queen
Edited by Keith Raynor
Twenty years as a reenactor, Mr Raynor is an experienced and thorough researcher in England and contributes articles regularly to Magazines such as First Empire and the Age of Napoleon. Mr Raynor assists the Discriminating General considerably in unearthing key documents and artifacts that allow us to more accurately manufacture of our products.
Surviving memoirs and letters from the ordinary seaman and soldiers of Britains armed forces during the Napoleonic era are rare items. So it is of interest when any such material is found from which to study the period. One such letter is from a sailor who was aboard H.M.S. Queen during the battle which became known as the "Glorious 1st of June". (1)
Spithead ? nd. of July 1794
Honourable Sir I make bold to write thieas few lins to you hopeing thay will fiend you and your Farther Brothers and Sister all well as thay leave me rather better thanks be to god for it - now Sir to leet you know that I belong to H M Ship the Queen (2) of 98 guns as Steward to the Whard Roome and to leet you know Sir that I Have bene to the Westindies in this ship and to leet you know that i was in the action of the 29 and the first of June (3) against the French fleet consisting of 29 sail of the line and we ad but 26 sail of the line and on the 29 in the morning a bought eight oclock we came to action and we ingaged for Five howers succesfull as hard as we cold fire till at last the french run from us then we turnd two and prapaired hower riging and masts
then on the First of June we came to action againe a bought eight oclock in the morning and it lasted till two the sameday and to leet you know that hower ship ad to run the gantlet twice throw the french lins and we ad no less then three ships uppon us at one time but by the help of god we made thiem strike to us and in the time of action we sunk two of the french ships one of 80 guns one of 74 guns (4) and a bought one thousend men sunk with the ships and in one ship that we tooke we cild right houte five hundred men ded and in hower ship we ad one hundred and thirtey eight cild and wounded (5) and to leet you know that at the gun that i was quarted at we ad 4 shot Come in and cild two men and wounded five do witch I was - wounded in my left harm and in my brest - but thanks be to god im a grate deal better and to leet you know that hower Captn. lost is leg and since dead and the Marster of the ship e was cild right hout in the time of action
and to let you know that on the 28 of June (6) sume of hower ships ingaged a bought eight oclock at night but the best of hower fleet cud not come to action as the french fleet was to windward of us but we lay uppon the decks at hower guns all night for two nights and three days as the french fleet still ceept in sight and to let you know that before the action we tooke 10 ships (7) that the french ad taken from us and we sunk theiam all and one french brig of 14 guns we captured and a ship of 22 guns and a cutter of 14 guns and we took all the french prisoeners houte and then sunk theain all (8)
but to leet you know that we have brought 6 sail of the french line of Battleships into portsmouth harbour whear the King and Queen as bene to see theiam and lykewise to see hower shatterd ships - Sir in the time of action you would of thort the ellement ad been all on fire and the shot flying a bought hower eds 42pr and case shot and dubbeleded shot it was all the same as a hale storme a bought the ship
but to let you know that we are all ready for sea againe and I believe that we shall go in 6 or eight days time from heare and to leet you know that admiral gardner is hower Commander and i have bene this three years at sea and as but ad my foot on shore 5 times please to be so good as to give my best respects to Salley Borroues and to Cobbert Parsons familey and all that I know of you please at Kirby woodhous (9) and to Mr.Mills if a live as e is some relation of mine I ad liked to of forgot im but i hope you will not forgat to spake of me and to leet theiam know whear I am but I hope this whar will not belong and then I meane to cum down to see you plas god to settel at home witch I make no doupt but what you wood be glad to see your old servant once more all tho it is so long since that i live with you as a boy you may of forgoot me but I lived with you when Mearcy seaman was your housceeper
Jno. Wilkinson I am your mast on board H.M.ship obt and Homble sert the Queen of 90 guns Jno.Wilkinson Spithead portsmouth Mr. Jno. Clark Farmer in Kirkby woodhouse Near Cirkby Nottinghamshire.
1. Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France for 14 months by the time of the events culminating in the naval battle of the 1st June 1794. By 1794, France was on the threshold of starvation due to a bad harvest and political disturbance. Because of this, the French authorities had assembled a convoy of some 117 Merchant ships in Chesapeake Bay, USA. The holds of these ships were filled with grain and stores for the relief of France. The French had to run this convoy of ships back to their home ports to help avert the approaching crisis. To accomplish this the French formed a plan. An immediate escort of 4 ships of the line commanded by Admiral Vanstabel would accompany the convoy. A second squadron commanded by Rear Admiral Neilly would sail to meet the convoy and help escort it back to France. Meanwhile the main French fleet commanded by Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse would sail from the port of Brest to provide any necessary cover should the convoy be threatened by Britains Royal Navy. The policy of Admiral Howe the C-in-C of the Royal Navy in the opening months of the war was to protect British trade whilst disrupting that of the French. This was to be accomplished by the use of frigates and sloops. An encounter with the main French fleet was only likely when it was at sea to protect a large convoy or to cover troopships belonging to any attempted invasion. Neither of these events had yet happen. By April 1794 Howe had assembled his fleet off St.Helens, on the Isle of Wight. He had 32 ships of the line with attendant frigates. The scene was now set for the events leading to the battle on the 1st June and they can be briefly summarised as follows :
i. The French convoy sailed from the U.S.A. on 11th April escorted by Vanstabels squadron. ii. On 2nd May, Howe sailed from Spithead with 26 ships of the line after detaching Rear Admiral George Montagu with 6 ships. Montagu was to provide close escort to outward bound convoys, particulary one for the East Indies. He was to rejoin Howe with speed once the merchantmen were safely beyond French reach. Two more ships not under Montagu's command would escort the merchantmen further south. Howe would act as general cover for the convoys. iii. Ships on the Royal Navy make a reconnaissance of the French Naval port of Brest. The main French fleet had not sailed. Howe therefore moves south-west, putting himself between the French convoy and their covering force, and in position to deal with the convoy first and fight Villaret- Joyeuse. iv. On 6th May, Rear Admiral Neilly sailed from Rochefort with 5 ships of the line and a number of frigates and corvettes. Neillys orders were to meet Vanstabel and see the convoy safely back to France. v. On 16th May, Villaret-Joyeuse sailed from Brest with the main French fleet. vi. Howes frigates discover Brest to be empty of the French fleet on May 19th. Howe moves towards Montagu and the convoys he is escorting thinking him to be in danger. Also on May 19th Villaret-Joyeuse is joined by one of Neillys squadron with the news that a British convoy escorted by H.M.S.Castor has been captured. Soon Villaret-Joyeuse himself captures the large part of a convoy bound for Lisbon. Howes fleet meanwhile is also joined on May 19th by the frigate H.M.S.Venus. It brings news that Montagu has captured a small French warship, the Marie-Guiton belonging to Neillys fleet and recaptured part of H.M.S.Castors convoy. The French prisoners state that Neilly and Vanstabel intended to join forces, though Montagu hoped to intercept Neilly before he does so. Howe surmizes that Montagu is in no danger and that Villaret-Joyeuse was likely to act independantly. vii. 21st May. Howes fleet recaptures more of the Castors convoy including the brig Argo. From the liberated crew Howe learns the course of the main French fleet. viii. 25th May. Two French corvettees from Brest sighted. They are steering after the British fleet thinking it to be their own. Both are captured and burnt. Howe cannot afford to loose men as prize crews with a battle imminent. ix. 28th May. Howes frigates report the French fleet in sight, so he forms his fastest ships into a flying squadron. By about 2pm five ships manage to get into action with the French. H.M.S. Audacious and the French Revolutionaire are both badly damaged and both are detached to their own home ports. Revolutionaire is escorted to Rochefort by L'Audacieux a ship of the Line, which had joined Villaret-Joyeuse from Neilly's squadron earlier on the 28th. x. There is renewed fighting on the 29th May. Howe wins the weather gauge and more French ships are damaged. Villaret-Joyeuse is joined by Le Trente-et-un Mai, a ship of the Line from St. Malo. xi. May 30th is foggy. Howe stays in contact with the French fleet who are now reinforced by the rest of Neillys squadron, which includes 4 ships of the line. This makes up for the French ships damaged in the previous days encounter. xii. At Mid-day on May 31st, the fog lifts, but Howe decides to postpone any attack until the next day in order to make certain of the result. xiii. On the 1st June, the contending fleets numbered 25 sail of the line for the Royal Navy and 26 for the French fleet. Howe dressed his line with care, then signalled to his fleet, "...having the wind of the enemy, the Admiral means to pass between the ships in the line for engaging them to Leeward." Howe's intention was to bring on a melee by breaking through the enemy line at all points, confident that superior British seamanship would tell. An hour later he signalled again,"Each ship independantly to steer for and engage her opponent in the enemy line." An hour later at 0930 hours Howe signals, "To engage if closer, a red pennant over the flag." The battle now commences; By 1225 hours, the main action was over. Six French ships of the line are captured and a seventh, the Vengeur-du-peuple sunk by gunfire. No British ships are lost. Howe does not pursue the French as the British fleet is far from land with many of its ships damaged, some seriously. As Howe in his Official dispatch recorded, " The greatest number of the...ships of the British fleet were at this time so much disabled or widely separated...that two or three, even of their dismasted ships [i.e. the French] attempting to get away under a spritsail singly, or a smaller sail raised on the stump of the foremast, could not be detained." xiv. The final moves of the campaign were played out in the two weeks following the battle. Montagu had been ordered to cruise until the 20th May. However he extended his search and did not return to Plymouth until the end of May. On the 3rd June he received news of Howe and the French fleet from the damaged H.M.S. Audacious, which had returned to England. Montagu immediately made his ships ready for sea again and by June 8th was off Ushant. His squadron consisted of eight 74's, one 64 and three frigates. Villaret-Joyeuse who was making for Brest saw Montagu's ships on the morning of June 9th. He remembered " My ships were in a shocking state, the lower decks crowded with invalids and wounded. A fight was the very last thing we would have chosen." Montagu had just chased a small French squadron into Brest when he saw Villaret-Joyeuse. The French Admiral put on a brave face and with his least damaged ships made for, and pursued Montagu for a short distance before breaking off contact. By June 11th the French fleet was anchored outside Brest, and Montagu made his way back to England having achieved nothing. On June 12th the French convoy was sighted by the French fleet and two days later they entered Brest together. xv. The two big "what-ifs" of the campaign were that if Howe had pursued Villaret-Joyeuse with Montagu lying in wait outside Brest, then the French could hardly have escaped disaster. Secondly, If Montagu having outdistanced Villaret-Joyeuse on the 9th June, had then gone after Vanstabel and the French convoy, he could have destroyed or captured a great part of it. However it was not to be. xvi. For the French the battle was a tactical defeat, but a strategic success. Their aim was to run a large much needed convoy through the Royal Navy's blockade and in this they had succeeded. As the French Admiral, Villaret- Joyeuse was to relate to a Royal Navy Officer in later years, he was, "...at his peril not to allow the great convoy to fall into the hands of Lord Howe. If he did so, his head should answer for it under the guillotine...he only gave battle when he knew that the convoy was near at hand, and that it would fall prey to the British fleet unless that fleet was disabled by action, or busied in securing prizes, for he had made up his mind to the loss of a few ships." Villaret-Joyeuse also recollected, " What did I care for half a dozen rotten old hulks which you took ? " He had "...saved his convoy and his head". The French might have saved their convoy but from the British point of view Howe's victory was a great morale boost to the nation. Also the sight of six French prizes anchored at Portsmouth only served to confirm the Royal Navy's ascendancy over their opponents. 2. H.M.S. Queen was built at Woolwich in 1769 by W.Gray. She was a 2nd Rate with a complement of 98 guns (c.1810). A summary of her career is as follows: 1776: Commissioned in November. 1777: Assigned to the Channel fleet. 1778: Present at the Battle of Ushant 27th July. 1779-80: Assigned to the Western Squadron. Coppered in 1780. 1781: Relief of Gibraltar. Sailed 13th March, arrived 12th April. Took part in Kempenfelt's action 12th December. 1782: 23rd April, took part in the capture of the L'Actionaire. Between September and October again took part in relieving Gibralter. 1783: Paid off in April. 1783-85: Commissioned April, becoming a guard ship at Portsmouth 1786: Paid off in March. 1792-94: Commissioned December 1792. Sailed for the Leeward Islands 24th March 1793. Took part in the attack on Martinique. Present at the Battle of the 1st June 1794. 1795: Present at the action at Isle de Croix, 23rd June. 1796-99: Sailed for Jamaica 11th August 1796. Stationed at Jamaica. 1800: Paid off in October. 1804: Commissioned in March. Assigned to the Channel fleet. 1805: Part of escort to Craig's force. 1806: Becomes Collingwood's flagship, 31st October. 1807-08: Assigned to the Mediterranean fleet. 1809: Possible use as a prison ship at Gillingham, Kent. 1811: Commissioned in September. C.1812: Reduced to 80 guns. 1813: Operating in the North Sea. C.1814: Reduced to 74 guns. Possibly operating in the Mediterranean. 1821: Broken up in April.
3. H.M.S. Queen was in action on the 29th May. She made four different attempts to break the enemy's line, but did not succeed. This was partly due to the French rearguard being so compact and from the subsequent damage she sustained. Queen's Master, Mr. Mitchell was killed and Captain Hutt lost his leg. The ship was fought by Admiral Gardner with the help of a number of Lieutenants. For most of the afternoon, Queen repaired her damage, the French fleet at one point trying to cut her off. Some other ships of the Royal Navy came to her assistance and the French ships wore off. By this time Queen had 23 Officers/Men killed and over fifty wounded.
On June 1st, Queen engaged the French ships from 9.45 am. onwards. As one Officer recalled, "Received the fire from several of the enemy's rear ships, going down to bring an opponent to close action, which she easily declined by making sail from us, our ship then being very much disabled in her masts, sails and rigging". By 10.15 am. Queen had brought the next enemy ship to close action, and by 11.00 am. this French ship was, "...totally dismasted, and her fire silenced called for quarter. Our boats all being shot through, could not take possession of the enemy." Later in the day, Queen was nearly cut off by other French ships who, "...began a heavy fire on us, which was so faithfully returned, occasioned them to pass on, not wishing to have anymore fire from a disabled British ship."
Howe seeing Queen in trouble sent H.M.S. Pegasus to assist, who took her in tow. By 6.30 pm. Queen had run up a jury mainmast and Pegasus was able to cast off. Queen reached home unassisted, though her casualties were greater than any other ship in Howe's fleet, except H.M.S. Brunswick. According to one witness, Queen used 25 tons of gunpowder and 60 tons of shot in firing her 130 broadsides. In less efficient ships her feat was regarded as incredible. 4. Only one French ship was sunk by, the Vengeur-du-peuple, of 74 guns. The French ships captured were the: Le Juste 80 guns, Sans-Pareil 80 guns, L'America 74 guns, L'Achille 74 guns, Le Northumberland 74 guns, and L'Impetueux 74 guns.
5. The casualties for H.M.S.Queen during the actions 29th May to 1st June were; 36 killed and 67 wounded. The ships Captain John Hutt died of wounds, a monument being erected to him in Westminster Abbey.
6. It is probably that Wilkinson means the 28th May not the 28th June. Also the action had started at about 2.00 pm. that afternoon.
7. This most probably refers to the partial recapture of H.M.S. Castor's convoy.
8. This refers to the two French corvettes captured by Howe on the 25th May and subsequently burnt.
9. Now part of Annesley Woodhouse a few miles north of Nottingham, England.
Original letter by J.Wilkinson, reference no. DD WD 105/1. Printed with the permission of the Principal Archivist, Notts Archivies Office.
The Glorious First of June, by Oliver Warner. Batsford 1961.
History of H.M.S.Queen, 1769-1821, by permission of the National Maritime Museum.
Dictionary of the Napoleonic Wars, by D.Chandler, Macmillan 1979.
Nelsons Navy 1793-1815, by Brain Lavery, Conway Maritime Press, 1989.
This article was published in "Age of Napoleon", England
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