Paper to be presented at the Press Gangs, Conscripts and Professionals Conference, at the National Museum of the Royal Navy, Portsmouth, September 2013, by Heather Noel-Smith and Lorna M. Campbell.
Slides to accompany this presentation are available from Sildeshare here.
This paper focuses on the recruitment and subsequent naval careers of two Scottish seamen, Alex McVicar and John McKerlie, who served together as junior officers aboard the frigate HMS Indefatigable in the late 1790s. As merchant recruits McVicar and McKerlie are far from unique, however their entry into the navy from the merchant service, and their subsequent careers, are particularly illustrative of this route to royal naval command. Their formative years aboard the Indefatigable also highlight how an astute captain could make good use of skilled and versatile seamen recruited from the merchant service, while rewarding their experience by lobbying the Admiralty for promotion on their behalf.
From 1795 to 1799 the Indefatigable was captained by Sir Edward Pellew a gifted sea officer who had already established his reputation as a successful and daring frigate commander. Pellew began his naval career in 1770 and first made his mark in the Lake Champlain campaign during the American War of Independence. He served in the Royal Navy for over forty years, eventually retiring from active service in 1822 as Admiral Lord Exmouth, and in retirement he rose to the highest naval office, Vice Admiral of the United Kingdom.
This research forms part of a wider on-going project focusing on the lives and careers of the young gentlemen; the volunteers, midshipmen and masters mates, who were serving aboard the Indefatigable on the 17th of January 1797 when she, and her consort Amazon, took on the French 74 gun ship of the line Les Droits de L’Homme in the celebrated engagement off the coast of Audierne Bay. The Droits de L’Homme engagement is well known and documented and is still regarded as one of the most iconic frigate actions of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. For the young midshipmen of the Indefatigable, the Droits de L’Homme engagement formed a highly significant point of reference to which they looked back throughout their lives. Regardless of subsequent naval laurels and public honours, it is notable that, almost without exception, it is this engagement that is referred to in their obituaries and memorials up to fifty years later.
The 1797 January / February muster of HMS Indefatigable records the presence of 19 young gentlemen of various ranks and social standing, ranging from the son of an earl to the sons of packet captains and merchant seamen. Using a wide range of original sources, including Admiralty records, public and private archives, genealogical sources, personal correspondence, contemporary journals and press reports, our research is undertaking a detailed exploration of the naval careers and personal lives of all 19 of the young gentlemen.
The elder of our two Scots, Alexander McVicar was born in Leith on the 29th of October 1768, the sixth of eight children. His father William is described in his baptismal record as a sailor, most likely with the merchant service. McVicar entered the Royal Navy in 1796 when he joined the Indefatigable as a Volunteer at Falmouth on the 18th of February. Little is known of McVicar’s career before he joined the navy, however in marginal notes written in a family copy of Edward Osler’s biography of his father, Admiral Lord Exmouth, Fleetwood Pellew records that:
Capt Bell and Capt Thomas Groube were both taken from a West Indiaman. Capts Gaze and McVicar the same (merchant vessels).
A single marginal note may be a slender thread on which to hang evidence of McVicar’s early merchant experience however his later career bears out this connection to the merchant service.
Our second Scot, John McKerlie, was born in 1775 at Glenluce in Wigtonshire, son of John McKerlie, stonemason. He was baptised on August 12th, the eldest of three siblings. McKerlie entered the navy in April 1794, as a volunteer rated able, when he joined Captain Sir Edward Pellew’s previous ship, the Arethusa. McKerlie came to the Arethusa, via the receiving ship Royal William, from a ship whose name is unfortunately indecipherable on the muster. The following year, when Pellew left the Arethusa, McKerlie followed him to the Indefatigable where he was initially rated quarter-gunner. Marshall’s Naval Biography relates that McKerlie first went to sea “when very young” with a friend of his father’s who was employed in the Baltic trade. Although there is no indication of how long McKerlie remained in the merchant service, Marshall records that he made several voyages across the Atlantic.
In 1797 the Indefatigable was part of one of two detached frigate squadrons based at Falmouth. These independent squadrons, initially established by the Admiralty in response to the threat posed by marauding French frigates in the Channel, were composed of fast, heavy frigates commanded by some of the navy’s most gifted young commanders. Rather than being attached to a fleet and answerable to a Commander in Chief, the squadrons operated independently, under direct Admiralty orders. This arrangement had a number of advantages; some tactical, some political, some financial. In addition to harassing the enemy at sea and undertaking shore based operations, such as destroying signal stations and cutting out vessels, they also played an invaluable role in gathering intelligence, and undertaking strategic and tactical reconnaissance.
The first squadron, which included Pellew’s frigate Arethusa, had been commanded by Sir John Borlase Warren since 1794. Such was the success of this squadron that the Admiralty split the force in early 1795 and established a second independent squadron, also based in Falmouth, under Pellew’s own command. Pellew’s squadron was composed of five powerful frigates, Indefatigable, Concorde, Jason, La Revolutionnaire, and Amazon, plus supporting vessels.
Typically of this period, the larboard berth of the Indefatigable contained young gentlemen with a wide range of seagoing experience. Some had built up their skills within the naval service, others, relatively new to the navy, brought considerable experience from the merchant service, while some were boy volunteers with little or no previous seafaring experience at all.
During the period we are studying the Indefatigable’s young gentlemen ranged in age from 13 to 27, with McVicar being the eldest, but far from the most senior. First impressions suggest that McVicar was en route to becoming one of the failed older midshipmen characterised by N.A.M. Rodger as:
…the disappointed midshipmen, embittered and often hard drinking men in their thirties or even forties who had hoped and failed to get a commission.
Looking at McVicar’s muster entry in isolation reveals a confusing pattern of promotion and demotion that might suggest a rather chequered start to his naval career. His entry in the 1797 muster reads as follows:
Midshipman till 7th June, then masters mate to 4th September then Mid to 27th September then MM to 30th Oct then Mid to 11th December then MM.
It is only when one looks at the records of the squadron as a whole that the full picture of McVicar’s rating is revealed, and his part in series of personnel movements that illustrate how Pellew managed his squadron.
McVicar’s first two re-ratings took place in the summer and autumn of 1796 during a phase of promotions which saw the Indefatigable’s acting sailing master, John Thomson (2), as the muster describes him, move to La Revolutionnaire as acting master. This was evidently a temporary promotion as he returned to the Indefatigable three months later. During Thomson’s absence, his place as acting master was taken by former merchant seaman George Bell, a position that he had occupied on previous occasions. Later, Bell himself was seconded to the Jason as acting master for a short period of two months. On the 10th of December 1796, the Indefatigable’s first lieutenant, Richard Pellow, was discharged “on promotion”, setting off a complex chain of subsequent re-ratings. The following day John Thomson, the ship’s second lieutenant and father of John Thomson (2), was promoted to first lieutenant. Like McVicar, Thomson senior came from Leith and had a background in merchant shipping. John Norway, third lieutenant was then promoted to second, and George Bell, sailing master was advanced to acting third. Meanwhile, John Thomson (2), son of the Lieutenant Thomson, was promoted from masters mate to acting sailing master, and finally, McVicar himself was promoted to masters mate.
These temporary promotions and re-ratings are part of a pattern, visible throughout the muster and pay books of the squadron that demonstrates Pellew’s strategic use of key personnel on short-term assignments. By filling in for one another, skilled officers, who had often gained their experience in the merchant service, could be shared with other ships that may have lacked officers as a result of sickness, injury or secondment to prize crews. Thus we get a sense of the Indefatigable and her squadron acting very much in consort. Lower down the scale this strategy also provided men like McVicar with opportunities for advancement.
John McKerlie’s career on the Indefatigable developed quite differently from his fellow Scot. Initially rated able on joining the Arethusa, he came to the Indefatigable as a quarter-gunner, however for a period during 1797 he also served as the ship’s schoolmaster. At the age of 22 McKerlie can not have been much older than the boys that he tutored, and he is likely to have been younger than some of the men. On entering the Royal Navy, McKerlie was both literate and relatively well educated, and this, together with his previous sea going experience, would have made him a valuable addition to Pellew’s crew and a natural choice for the position of the frigate’s schoolmaster. McKerlie appears to have been a versatile individual who also served for a period as acting boatswain, following the dismissal by court martial of the Indefatigable’s previous boatswain for neglect of duty.
Temporary transfers and promotions provided young officers with the opportunity to assume greater responsibility and to develop their skills in new contexts, while at the same time ensuring that the entire squadron was efficiently manned. Another way that the Indefatigable’s young gentlemen were afforded the opportunity to test their skills, was selection for prize crews. Taking and crewing prizes was a highly significant aspect of service aboard detached frigates. While the entire crew stood to gain proportionally from taking prizes, crewing prize vessels often brought significant challenges, particularly when it was not unknown for the Indefatigable to capture three or four prizes in as many days, as recorded in this log entry. For example, in one ten-day period between the 11th and 21st of March 1796, Pellew’s squadron captured nine vessels.
A captain such as Pellew had to balance the requirements of his own ship and squadron as a whole, with those of the prizes, and to select the prize crews accordingly. Decisions had to be taken as to which home port to send the prize to, what size of crew was required, how many men the squadron could afford to loose and which officers and ratings had the requisite skills to crew the prize safely home. Ambitious young recruits may have dreamed of captaining prizes but the reality was not without significant risk. While the Indefatigable successfully captured many prizes, she also lost several prize crews when their vessels were re-captured by the French.
Being given command of a prize vessel was all part of a young officer’s training and also provided an opportunity of proving readiness for command. McVicar was awarded command of one of the squadron’s prizes in 1797, but the muster records that his prize was re-taken by the French. We know something about the loss of this prize from the personal correspondence of one of the Indefatigable’s younger midshipmen, Nicholas Pateshall. In a letter to his brother dated 20th January 1797, Pateshall explained that:
The most valuable of our prizes which I mentioned in my last was retaken by a French privateer within 5 miles of Falmouth in which I lost a worthy messmate and two other midshipmen.
It must have been galling for McVicar to be captured so close to home, just as he was anticipating the kudos of bring his prize into port, and more particularly given the apparent value of the prize. Pellew appears to have been equally galled, as he wrote to the Admiralty requesting temporary command of a vessel to retake his prize, a request the Admiralty refused. Luckily however, the prize crew’s captivity in French hands was short lived, as they were soon transferred to a cartel and handed over to the frigate Phoebe and thence to their “proper ship”, as the Phoebe’s captain Sir Robert Barlow referred to the Indefatigable in his supernumeraries list.
Despite the apparent failure of the mission Pellew clearly regarded McVicar’s conduct during this incident as exemplary, as soon after his return he wrote to Lord Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, recommending McVicar for promotion though he lacked the requisite six years of naval service. Spencer’s reply was encouraging but typically non-committal.
I will set Mr McVicar’s name down on my list of Candidates for Promotion, and shall be glad to take as early an opportunity of giving him a Commission as prior Engagements will permit.
It is interesting to note that Spencer makes no mention of McVicar’s lack of naval service and it seems possible that, in this case, his merchant experience was taken into consideration. In the meantime Pellew himself promoted McVicar to acting-lieutenant of the Indefatigable. McVicar’s lieutenant’s commission was confirmed the following year and he left the Indefatigable on the 30th of September to take up the position of lieutenant of the armed ship Sally. Pellew was evidently keen to keep his adaptable officer and even before he had left the frigate he had written to Spencer on the subject, which elicited this somewhat weary reply, only the day after McVicar’s departure from the Indefatigable:
I shall have no objection to Mr McVicar being restored to you by and by
A minute of the Admiralty Board records that McVicar was indeed reappointed to the Indefatigable on January 24th 1799.
John McKerlie, being younger and having less experience than McVicar, had to wait longer for opportunities to prove his abilities and to receive his lieutenant’s commission. We have yet to find evidence of McKerlie being appointed to a prize crew from the Indefatigable, possibly owing to the fact that he was recovering from severe injuries sustained during the Droits de L’Homme engagement in which he lost his right arm. However on transferring with Pellew to his next command, the 74 gun Impetueux, he had numerous opportunities to prove his abilities. In addition to participating in multiple boat actions during the Quiberon expedition in 1800, McKerlie was also given command of a prize ship intended to land troops during the aborted Belleisle operation. When the Belleisle attack was abandoned, Pellew appointed McKerlie to the frigate Thames as acting-lieutenant. Unlike McVicar, McKerlie’s commission was not confirmed in this instance, as Spencer raised the objection that he had not yet passed his lieutenant’s examination.
The Vacancy for lieutenant in the Thames having been officially reported the board have filled it accordingly and had this not been the case Mr McKerlie not having passed the usual examination it would not have been in my power to comply with your wishes in that gentleman’s behalf but I shall have great pleasure in doing so as soon after he is qualified and I can find a proper opening for him.
I am dear Sir Edward, your very obedient humble servant.
Spencer’s reply may have been influenced as much by Pellew’s thorny relationship with the Admiralty at this time as with McKerlie’s lack of examination certificates, however he did receive his lieutenant’s commission in October 1800.
Marshall includes an anecdote from this period of McKerlie’s career relating that when he had not been informed of his intended role in the Belleisle attack, he asked Captain Pellew and General Maitland how he was to be deployed during the debarkation. Pellew is reported as replying
McKerlie you have lost one hand already, and if you loose the other you will not have anything to wipe your b******* with; you will remain on board with the first lieutenant and fight the ship as she is to engage an 8-gun battery.
Promotion to the commissioned ranks of the Royal Navy did not preclude further merchant service. In 1802 with the advent of the Peace of Amiens, Alex McVicar wrote to the Admiralty requesting leave to captain the merchant schooner Hazard on the Leith to Danzig route. Then in December of the same year he wrote to the Admiralty again requesting a longer extension to take the Hazard to Malaga. The quite literal fruits of this voyage are documented in an advertisement in the Caledonian Mercury of December 1802:
New Fruits from Malaga
Just arrived, per the Hazard, Capt. McVicar
Muscatel and Bloom raisins, in boxes and jars
Sun and Lexia Raisins in Casks and baskets
Wine grapes, figs, shell almonds, lemons
And china oranges
Also mountain wine
Please apply to
Chas. Cowan and co
Leith Nov 24,1802
NB A few boxes, half boxes and quarters new French plumbs yet remain for sale
This command was mutually beneficial for both McVicar and the Admiralty. Not only did the lieutenant acquire valuable experience of command, familiarity with coastal waters, ports and merchant shipping routes, he also gained knowledge of the types and capabilities of merchant vessels that detached frigates sought to take as prizes. Merchant service of this kind provided the type of experience that was invaluable to junior officers who might be required to lead shore operations, boat actions and prize crews. Contacts established in merchant ports during trading voyages may also have been useful for gathering intelligence on the resumption of hostilities.
In addition, at a time when many royal naval lieutenants found themselves beached on half pay, McVicar’s ability to re-enter the merchant service provided him with additional financial benefits and security. It is surely no coincidence that, in the April of 1803 following the voyages to Danzig and Malaga, McVicar and his fiancée, Margaret Reid, the daughter of a Leith merchant, were able to marry.
After the breakdown of the Peace of Amiens, McVicar returned to the Royal Navy and served as lieutenant of the Minotaur at Trafalgar. Later in the Napoleonic wars, the experience of northern waters that McVicar gained during the Hazard’s Baltic voyages was put to good use when he was appointed to temporary command of the 18-gun ship-sloop Rover in 1809. In the October of that year, The Lancaster Gazette reported
That active and zealous officer Captain McVicar, while acting commander of His Majesty’s ship Rover, on a seven weeks cruise, on the coast of Norway and Jutland, took and destroyed eighteen sail of the enemy’s vessels, and only lost one marine killed, the bosun and one seaman wounded. In making one of the above captures, the Rover chased so close to the shore, within two feet of her own draft, under the fire of the enemy, the crew having abandoned the vessel, and the Rover’s boats being all detached on other service, several seamen of the Rover volunteered swimming to take possession of the prize, which they effected, unhurt, under a heavy fire from the enemy on land.
McVicar further demonstrated his flexibility when he was commissioned by the Admiralty in 1813 to undertake sea trials of new ships’ compasses while based in his hometown of Leith. McVicar was finally appointed to the rank of post captain in 1817 but appears to have left the service around this time. However he continued his association with the Royal Navy and served as Admiralty Commissioner for the Harbour and Docks of Leith when the new Leith Dock Commission was established in 1826.
Returning to John McKerlie, during the Peace of Amiens we find that he retained his commission and served first with the Channel fleet and later on the Newfoundland Station. Like his former Indefatigable shipmate, McKerlie also went on to serve at Trafalgar, as first lieutenant of the Spartiate. Although McKerlie did not return to the merchant service at this time, he was seconded from the navy between 1806 and 1808 to work with Thomas Telford with whom he surveyed harbours, roads and bridges for an 1809 parliamentary report on communications between England and Ireland, via the North West of Scotland.Marshall relates that Telford requested
…to be assisted by a naval officer: and Captain M’Kerlie, being then on the spot, and well acquainted with the country, as well as with the harbours and packets, was recommended by the Earl of Galloway to the Admiralty, as a proper person to be thus employed.
McKerlie returned to active service as commander of the brig Calliope from 1808 to 1813 during which time he served on the North Sea Station, participating in the capture of Flushing and the Walcheren expedition. In recognition of his gallant service on the Scheldt he was awarded the north coast of Holland and Heligoland as a cruising ground where he succeeded in capturing a large number prize vessels. By 1813 McKerlie, had been put in command of the squadron of ships stationed off Heligoland where he was instrumental in overseeing the defence and retreat from Cuxhaven and was responsible for destroying enemy shipping on the Braak. McKerlie returned to the UK at the end of 1813 but, despite finally being awarded the rank of post captain, he was unable to obtain another command. In 1816 he received a pension for the loss of his arm and in the same year he applied to accompany his former patron Lord Exmouth on the expedition to Algiers. In a personal letter to McKerlie, Pellew refused this request
I am very glad to hear you are well I should have been glad if you had been with us … Had you been there I know your ship and your fin would not have been out of hail of your old commander and friend EXMOUTH.
Pellew refused the offers of many of his friends and former colleagues, as he considered the expedition to be so dangerous. Instead McKerlie returned to his native Galloway where he became the owner and captain of the merchant vessel Garlies, which operated between Wigtonshire, Waterford and Liverpool, a route he had previously surveyed while working with Telford. He also married around this time and served as a local magistrate. One final unexpected opportunity for naval service did eventually come McKerlie’s way when he was appointed as captain of the experimental frigate Vernon between 1834 and 1837, after almost twenty years ashore.
During the period of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, a large number of merchant recruits entered the navy both voluntarily and through the activities of the press gang, however few made the transition to the quarterdeck. In The Wooden World N.A.M. Rodger discusses the relatively small number of warrant officers, and even smaller number of commissioned officers, who began their career in the merchant service. He argues that the navy attracted these skilled men as it offered the possibility of honour, gentility, wealth and a chance of bettering themselves.
Simply to reach warrant rank was, socially and financially, to “break even” by the change, for low pay in the Navy was counterbalanced by prize money, half-pay and widow’s pensions. To reach commissioned rank was to open new worlds of honour and profit.
However the advantage was not all one way, the Royal Navy also benefitted significantly from the recruitment of officer candidates from the merchant service. In the case of the Indefatigable, merchant service recruits leavened the frigate’s cohort of midshipmen with adaptable and skilled sea officers who had valuable practical and navigational experience. Such recruits were ideally suited to service with detached frigate squadrons where their flexibility, resourcefulness, knowledge of coastal waters and harbours could be exploited to the full during shore operations, cutting out expeditions and taking and crewing prizes.
A wider study of the transition of merchant service recruits to the quarterdeck is beyond the scope of our research, however N.A.M. Rodger has pointed out that
There were certainly many who achieved modest good fortune in the Navy, reaching warrant or commissioned rank without ever making a mark in history.
There were many men like McVicar and McKerlie in the Royal Navy and although their names are not to be found in the cannon of the great and the good, detailed study of their individual careers through the more obscure pages of the Admiralty archives is not without reward. Although they may not have left their mark on history on the grand scale, their resourcefulness, adaptability and skill made a significant contribution not only to the Royal Navy but also to civic life and technological innovation and their legacy should not be overlooked.