A fascinating footnote to the famous action between HMS Shannon and the USS Chesapeakeoff Boston Harbor in June 1813 is the effect it had on the career of Provo Wallis, second lieutenant of the British frigate, who went on to establish a record in the Royal Navy for length of service.
Old Salt Indeed: The Amazing Career of Lieutenant Provo Wallis of the HMS Shannon
By Donald E. Graves
Provo William Parry Wallis was born in Halifax on 12 May 1791, the son of Provo Featherstone Wallis, the Chief Clerk of the Royal Navy Dockyard in that port. Provo senior wanted a naval career for his son and, being knowledgeable about the rules for officers’ entry into the navy, managed to get young Provo, at the age of four, officially registered on 1 May 1795 as an able-bodied seaman on the books of the 36-gun frigate Oiseau, Captain Robert Murray commanding. This, of course, was a paper transaction intended to get around the regulation that all candidates for the rank of lieutenant (the lowest commissioned rank in the Royal Navy) must have first served at least six years at sea and two of those as a midshipman. Entering young boys as seamen or captain’s servants on ships’ books to gain them the required experience (on paper at least) was a common practice and Captain Murray probably did so to repay favours on the part of Provo senior whose position at the dockyard made him a man to be courted by warship captains needing stores or swift repairs. Murray was not the only officer who helped out — the next year young Provo “became” a volunteer in the 40-gun frigate Prevoyante where he remained (on paper at least) for two years before returning to Captain Murray’s command in the 64-gun Asia where he “served” until 1800 before being “promoted” a midshipman into the 32-gun frigate Cleopatra. Thanks to his father’s skilful career management, by the time Provo Wallis finished his schooling and actually reported on board the Cleopatra at Portsmouth as a 13-year-old midshipman in October 1804, he had nearly a decade of seniority behind him.
Under the command of Captain Sir Robert Lowrie, HMS Cleopatra sailed for the West Indies and it was not long before young Provo saw his first action. On 17 February 1805, Lowrie engaged the 48-gun French frigate Ville de Main but, in attempting to cross the enemy vessel’s bow to rake her, a roundshot destroyed the Cleopatra‘s wheel and she became unmanoeuverable. The Ville de Main closed to board and, after a furious action, in which the Cleopatra lost all of her masts and a third of her crew, Lowrie struck his colours. Both ships were heavily damaged and, a week later, were captured by HMS Leander, 52 guns. In the next six years, Provo served in a number of warships based in the West Indies. He was promoted lieutenant and appointed to the brig, HMS Curieux, which, unfortunately, ran aground on the coast of Guadaloupe in November 1809. A court martial board, which found the captain of the Curieux guilty of negligence and dismissed him from the service, detained Provo ashore and it was not until December 1811 that he received his next seagoing appointment as second lieutenant in the 38-gun frigate, HMS Shannon, Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke commanding, based at Halifax.
The story of Broke and the Shannon and the action she fought with the USS Chesapeake, commanded by Captain James Lawrence USN, near Boston on 1 June 1813 is well known and need not detain us here. The relevant fact is that Broke was badly wounded during the action and the Shannon‘s first lieutenant was killed. Provo Wallis served as temporary captain of the British frigate for a period of exactly six days as she made her way back to Halifax with the Chesapeake. It must have been a very proud moment for Provo’s parents when the two ships entered the port on Sunday evening, 7 June, the Chesapeake flying the Blue Ensign above the Stars and Stripes.
For his services during the action, Provo was appointed master and commander of the gun-brig Snipe, 14, but, when the great war with France ended in 1815, he went ashore on half pay (actually about 40% of full pay) where he remained nearly nine years. His share of the prize money from the Chesapeake, which was purchased by the Crown for £19,183, gave him some security and in 1817 he married. Two years later, Provo was promoted post captain which meant that his promotions would go by seniority and that, if he kept his record clean and survived, he would eventually reach flag rank. In 1824, Provo finally received command of HMS Niemen, a 28-gun, fir-built frigate but she was decommissioned in 1826 and he went back ashore on half-pay. Although he bombarded the Admiralty with requests for a seagoing command, it would be another twelve years before Provo again walked the deck of ship as its captain. The problem was that the expansion of the Royal Navy between 1793 and 1815 had caused a tremendous increase in the list of post captains while the concomitant reduction in the navy in 1815 meant that, for decades afterward, there were more qualified officers than ships for them. Although a competent and deserving officer, Provo was far down on the seniority list and it was only in 1838 that he received his next command, HMS Madagascar, 48, and that only because of the sudden illness of her captain. The next year, however, he was back on shore.
By this time, however, the list of post captains eligible for active sea appointments had been radically thinned by a decision on the part of the Admiralty. Recognizing that most of the wartime post captains were seeking seagoing appointments because of financial considerations, the Admiralty promulgated a regulation that retained on the active list any captain who had commanded a warship between 1793 and 1815 at full, not half pay, even if they did not serve at sea. Since this effectively increased the financial benefits for those on the upper part of the list, many of whom were now well into their 60s or even 70s, they stopped seeking seagoing appointments, clearing the way for younger officers. As life expectancy in the first half of the 19th century was considerably shorter than the biblical three score and ten, the Admiralty calculated on not having to pay these old salts the higher rate of pay for long while, at the same time, the reduction in the number of post captains seeking ships meant that commands could now be found for deserving younger officers. Having commanded HMS Shannon for six days, Provo Wallis qualified under this regulation.
As it was, he got command of HMS Warspite, 50, in 1841 and retained it until 1845, seeing much service in the Mediterranean. In 1851, he was promoted rear-admiral by seniority but it was not until 1857, at the age of 66, that he hoisted his flag as the commander of a squadron assigned to anti-slavery patrol in the South Atlantic. He served in this appointment only a year and, in August 1858, went ashore to stay, more than a half century after he had first gone to sea.
Provo was now retired although, because of the special dispensation given to officers who had commanded vessels during the great war, he remained on the active list although noone, certainly not Provo himself, contemplated he would ever go to sea again. In 1860 he was knighted for his long service and, in 1863, reached the rank of full admiral by seniority. In 1877, thanks to the relentless pressure of the actuarial tables, this native Canadian became the senior admiral in the navy and received the appointment of Admiral of the Fleet. Theoretically, the Admiral of the Fleet was the commanding officer of the Royal Navy and, although it was largely an honourary title because real command was vested in the First Sea Lord or naval commander-in-chief, it was a position of tremendous prestige.
By 1877, of course, the 86-year-old Provo Wallis was an anachronism in a navy of armoured and steam-powered warships, a throwback to the glorious days of the great war with France when iron men went to sea in wooden ships. His little manor house at Funtington in Sussex where he lived with his second wife (his first having died in the 1840s) was a pleasant place full of souvenirs and mementos of the action between the Shannon and the Chesapeake — paintings, a sword presented to him by Broke, a snuff box carved from the American frigate’s timbers — with a pond at the back where Provo liked to row with his wife in a little boat, to get some exercise and work up an appetite for lunch. It was also not far from the great naval base at Portsmouth and, if the wind was right, he could hear the sound of the guns being exercised. Provo was a frequent and honoured visitor on board warships at Portsmouth and he and his wife entertained a seemingly never-ending succession of naval officers who called to pay their official respects to the Admiral of the Fleet. They wanted to take the opportunity to talk to this bearded and gentle patriarch who had once set eyes on the great Nelson himself before this venerable relic from the past was inevitably called to the great quarterdeck in the sky and, given the fact Provo was pushing 90, that might not be too long.
But Provo Wallis simply refused to fall off his perch. He remained healthy and active, telling one concerned person who tried to help him over a fence during a walk that, even at his age, “My dear fellow, I don’t need it. I could go to the masthead now.” He turned 90 in 1881 and continued to row and visit the base at Portsmouth, and be visited by respectful naval officers. Six years later, he was still going strong and often took the morning train up to London to meet with his banker and have lunch at the Army and Navy Club before returning home on the late afternoon train.
It was all very well for Provo but as long as he was alive, he would be the Admiral of the Fleet, holding up the promotion of everyone below him on the admirals’ list. As Provo climbed into his late 90s with no signs of slowing down, the Admiralty became somewhat concerned and sent him a polite letter pointing out the problem and asking him to retire voluntarily, despite the fact that as an officer who commanded a warship between 1793 and 1815, he had the right to remain on the active list. Provo sent a polite reply that he was content with the current arrangement. The Admiralty then sent Provo another (perhaps less polite) letter pointing out that, as he was technically on full pay as an active officer, he was liable for sea duty. Provo responded by stating that he was, of course, obedient to whatever Her Majesty Queen Victoria would wish, and expressed his great pleasure at going to sea once more but noted that, as Admiral of the Fleet, he would immediately command any ship or group of ships in which he sailed and unfortunately all his experience had been with sailing vessels and he knew nothing about modern steam warships — although he was quite willing to learn. This put a lid on the matter and Provo Wallis sailored on as the navy’s oldest active service officer.
In 1889, at the age of 98, he was an honoured guest on board the battleship, HMS Monarch, four 12-inch guns, during the great naval review held at Portsmouth to honour the recently-crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany. Provo’s opinion of the German monarch, a well-known sabre rattler, is not known but an awestruck young midshipmen on the Monarch remembered being told that Admiral of the Fleet Wallis was “the oldest officer alive at the time” and that he and the other young gentlemen were to pay him particular respect and “to take special note of him, as he had been second lieutenant of the Shannon when she captured Chesapeake of Boston in 1813.” Two years later, Provo turned 100 and received a flood of congratulatory telegrams and letters including one from Queen Victoria and another from a native of Halifax who had, as a very young boy, watched the two frigates enter the harbour that memorable Sunday evening nearly 77 years before. By this time, unfortunately, the sands were beginning to run out and Provo gradually became bedridden, forced to shelter, as he stated, “in Blanket Bay, under Cape Rug.”
The last survivor of the action between the Shannon and the Chesapeake died just before his 101st birthday and, on the day of his death, four admirals below him on the active list gained immediate promotion. As he requested, Provo Wallis was laid to rest as a sailor in a plain wooden casket with a blanket for a shroud. Six Royal Navy captains served as his pallbearers and hundreds of other officers followed them from Funtington manor to a grave in the village churchyard along a street lined by men of the Royal Marine Light Infantry and Royal Marine Artillery. The firing party was drawn from a detachment of 50 seaman from HMS Excellent, the naval gunnery school at Portsmouth. By the time of his death, Provo Wallis had officially served 96 years in the Royal Navy (counting the 9 years he was borne on the books of several ships). This is a record for length of service that has never been bettered and it is not likely that it ever will be.
It is interesting to note that one of the mourners at Provo Wallis’s funeral was Midshipman Andrew B. Cunningham. In 1939, Cunningham was appointed Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, where he would serve brilliantly for four years before becoming First Sea Lord in 1944. It is also interesting to note that, when Provo Wallis joined the Cleopatra in 1804, the First Sea Lord at that time was John Jervis, Lord St. Vincent, who had first gone to sea in 1748 and had fought at the siege of Quebec in 1759. Between them, these three officers account for 197 years of continuous naval service.
J.G. Brighton, Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis, G.C.B. (2 vols, London, 1892); J.J. Colledge, Ships of the Royal Navy … (London, 1987); William Heine, 96 Years in the Royal Navy(Hantsport, NS, 1987); Peter Kemp, ed., The Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea (Oxford, 1988); Peter Padfield, Broke and the Shannon (London, 1968); Hugh Pullen, The Shannon and the Chesapeake (Toronto, 1970).
Copyright Donald E. Graves, not to be reproduced without permission of the author 2001
Courtesy of Donald E. Graves and TheWarOf1812.ca