“Captain Harte was a little man, with a certain resemblance to Lord St. Vincent, a resemblance that he did his best to increase by stooping, by being savagely rude to his subordinates and by the practice of Whiggery…” – Master and Commander
John Jervis was born in Staffordshire in 1735. He was the son of a barrister who gave him £20 on his joining the navy in the week of his fourteenth birthday and thereafter refused all support. He served alongside Captain James Cook and General Wolfe at the siege of Quebec in 1759 before service in the War of American Independence (1776-78). In the French Wars he commanded the Mediterranean and Channel Fleets. Jervis was known as a stern disciplinarian with a grim sense of humour. Admiral Jervis took command of the fleet at a time when, in his own words ‘it was at the lowest ebb of licentousness and ill discipline’. Through his own ruthless determination he transformed the fleet into a highly efficient fighting service.
Jervis issued daily orders for the fleet. Decks were to be scrubbed before daylight, ‘so that the ships may seize that favourable moment to get under way, chase and fall suddenly upon an enemy’; the guns were to be exercised each day, seamen’s bedding (hammocks) was to be regularly aired and all slop clothing was to be soaked in salt water. Admiral Jervis exerted his personality over all, from Captains to common seamen, punishing the wrongdoers and rewarding those who deserved.
Jervis gave £100 to a frigate captain who had given long service to fit out for a voyage on which there would be the possibility of prize money. When one of is best seamen, Roger Odell, lost his savings of £70 whilst swimming, Jervis refunded the money out of his own pocket in the presence of the entire ship’s company.
Jervis never tired of reminding officers that, ‘the present indiscipline of the Navy originated with the licentious conduct of the officers’. He tested his officers and moved them around from ship to ship. Sir Charles Knowles of Goliath was described by Jervis as, ‘an imbecile, totally incompetent, the Goliath no use whatever under his command’. Knowles was ordered to exchange ships with Captain Foley of Britannia. Foley restored Goliath to order whilst Britannia slid under Knowles. When Theseus arrived from England with a crew, a ‘hotbed of mutiny and intrigue’, Jervis ordered Nelson to shift his flag to Theseus and take Captain Miller, Midshipmen Hoste and Bolten and such other men from the Agamemnon as he wished, with him. ‘Nelson and Miller will soon put Theseus to right’, said Jervis.
Two weeks later a scrap of paper was found on the quarterdeck of Theseus. On it was printed:
Success attend Admiral Nelson! God bless Captain Miller! We thank them for the Officers they have placed over us. We are happy and comfortable, and will shed every drop of blood in our veins to support them, and the name of the Theseus shall be immortalized as high as the Captain’s.
By careful movement of officers and others such as the segregation of Marines and the forbidding of the use of the Irish language, Jervis was able to forestall mutiny in his own fleet. However, there was a small rising in a ship newly arrived from the Channel fleet. A seamen aboard Marlborough was seized, court martialled and sentenced to execution as the ring leader of a plot to seize the ship and sail her to Ireland. Jervis made an order for the execution to be carried out the following morning at 8.00am by the man’s own ship-mates, ‘no part of the boat’s crews from other ships to assist in the punishment’. The Captain of Marlborough (Captain Ellison, an old and severely wounded officer) feared that the crew would not carry out the order. Ellison returned to his ship and carried out Jervis’ instructions to close his gun ports and roll back the guns. Next morning Marlborough was surrounded and orders were given that she was to be pounded by carronades until Jervis’ orders were carried out. Resistance aboard collapsed and the prisoner was walked to the cat head, a noose placed around his neck and, as the watch bells tolled for 8.00am, hauled to the foremast yard arm by his ship-mates.
On another occasion, three mutineers were convicted on a Saturday, to be executed at 8.00am the following morning. Vice-Admiral Thompson protested about the execution on a Sunday and was immediately overruled by Jervis who had him removed from the fleet. Later in 1797, Jervis wrote to Captain Lord Garlies:
We have had five executions for mutiny and a punishment of 300 lashes given alongside two disorderly line-of-battle ships and the frigate to which the mutineer belonged. He took it all at one time and exhorted the spectators to mind what they were about, for he had brought it upon himself. Two men have been executed for sodomy and the whole seven have been proved to be most atrocious villains, who long ago deserved the fate they met with for their crimes. At present there is every appearance of content and proper subordination.
Through his ruthless attention to detail Jervis transformed the fleet in the last quarter of the 18th century, paving the way for his own and Nelson’s great actions at St. Vincent, the Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar.
Admiral Jervis was appointed Commander in Chief, Mediterranean in November 1796. He was then aged 62, an officer of wide experience.
Admiral Sir John Jervis commanded the smaller British fleet at St. Vincent from aboard his flagship, Victory. Following the victory at St. Vincent he was created Baron Jervis of Meaford in the County of Staffordshire and Earl St. Vincent. He was awarded a pension of £3,000 per annum.
When Earl St Vincent was replaced as Commander in Chief, Mediterranean, Nelson wrote on behalf of his captains to exhort him to stay:
My dear Lord,
We have a report that you are going home. This distresses us most exceedingly and me in particular; so much so that I have serious thoughts of returning, if that event should take place. But for the sake of our country, do not quit us at this serious momemt. I wish not to detract from the merit of whoever may be your successor; but it must take a length of time to be in any manner a St. Vincent. We look up to you……be again our St. Vincent, and we shall be happy.
Earl St. Vincent was replaced by Admiral Lord Keith and eventually retired from the Channel Fleet in 1806. He became ill and went to live in the south of France in 1818. A year later, somewhat better, he returned to England and in 1821 was promoted Admiral of the Fleet. Earl St Vincent was the first officer to hold such a rank (with the exception of the Duke of Clarence). He died in 1823.
Courtesy of St. Vincent College.
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