Warning: of minimal or no interest to non-Blackwells – unless you’re into British naval history.
Blackwells, from an early age, heard stories about a fabled ancestor who had been a surgeon on Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar. Trafalgar, fought on 21 October 1805, was a pivotal sea battle against the French during the Napoleonic Wars.
This mythic personage – mythic for all we knew – was a forebear of our paternal grandmother, Vera Isobel (nee Lillies), who married Matthew Drummond Blackwell in 1916. (Matthew was one of two sons of Richard Henry Blackwell who emigrated to Australia from England in the late 1800s. Richard and Matthew were both entrepreneurs in Melbourne.)
Last year, when I started researching family history, one of the first things I went looking for was our naval surgeon. I discovered contemporary records, logs of Royal Navy ship’s surgeons from the period, online, and found our man. His name was George Lillies. What I did not realize until quite recently is that our Dad, John Blackwell, had tracked George down years ago, without benefit of the Internet.
George Lillies first appears in the log as a surgeon in February 1805. This means he could have been at Trafalgar. But in fact, it’s almost certain he was not. George joined HMS Explosion in 1805, before Trafalgar. Explosion was a bomb vessel with specialized mortars for lobbing explosives at fixed defences. As Trafalgar was a pitched sea battle, it would not have been useful, and does not appear in the surviving order of battle.
|Page from British Navy log showing George Lillies first posting as a surgeon on HMS Explosion|
The British Navy kept detailed records of where its ships went and what they did. Some of this material is available on the Web. We know George was posted to HMS Antelope between December 1809 and July 1813, for example. And according to P Benyon's Naval index, an exhaustive but largely anonymous online source of naval historical information, Antelope spent time in Newfoundland on a couple of occasions in the lead-up to the War of 1812. So there’s a previous Canadian connection for the Blackwell-Lillies line.
George spent a fair amount of time in North America during this period. He was on his next ship, HMS Severn, a 50-gun frigate, from 1813, the year it was launched, until 1820. Severn was active during the War of 1812, blockading the Americans. It captured “privateers” – usually perfectly legitimate merchant ships – off the the U.S. coast on a few occasions. It also participated in an aborted sea attack on Baltimore, sailing up the Patapsco River to bombard the city.
|"...bombs bursting in air..."|
The Battle of Baltimore, a combined land and sea action, which the British lost, inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem “The Defence of Fort McHenry.” That poem later provided the lyrics to the “Star Spangled Banner.”
Severn was also involved in the Battle of Algiers in 1816, a bombardment by an Anglo-Dutch force of the north African port, aimed at shutting down the trade in white Christian slaves in the Ottoman Empire.
|Bombardment of Algiers by Anglo-Dutch force, 1816|
George Lillies spent another 15 years in the navy, during which time he married Fanny Collyns and started a family in Devonshire. I’ll have more about George and his descendants, and maybe more about the life of a naval surgeon, which is fairly well documented for this period, in future posts.
I'll also come back to our father’s previously lost research on the Lillies. Preview: we have theatre moguls in the family too.