Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Sawing Bones on the Seven Seas

Back to George Lillies, triple-g grandfather to baby-boom Blackwells (and Lillies and Breens.) He is arguably our most interesting ancestor.  

When I left off last time, George, a Royal Navy surgeon, was on the HMS Severn, a serious war ship (an Endymion-class frigate, to be exact) with 50 guns. Severn saw action in North America during the War of 1812, and later on the other side of the Atlantic. George’s next two postings may have been half-steps to retirement, reward for long service. In December 1820, he joined the William & Mary, a “yacht.”

His Majesty’s Yachts (HMY) were lightly armed naval vessels similar in design to modern-day pleasure and racing yachts, and often used to move important people around, including, as with the 20th century HMY Britannia, the royals. According to a Wikipedia article about Sir John Phillimore, who took command of the William & Mary the same year George joined as surgeon, the yacht was at this period used as a conveyance for Earl Talbot, the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland.

Earl Talbot, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, 1817-1821

An online biography of a previous W&M captain, Thomas Francis Freemantle, who commanded the yacht ten years earlier, suggests his appointment, which came at the end of his career, “allowed him to live in semi-retirement for three years.” The William & Mary would have spent long periods in port, would not often have strayed from European waters, and was probably rarely if ever in harm’s way.

George may have been similarly rewarded with a soft posting. After all, he had been sawing bones on war ships since 1805, the year of his first appointment as a surgeon. And before that, he had been an “acting mate” on HMS Stately, and who knows where else previously. He had also married the year before, in 1819, and was by now 42, practically elderly for a man of his class in that period.

His captain on the William & Mary, Sir John Phillimore, was an old pal. The two had served together early in their careers on HMS Belette, Phillimore’s first command in 1807. George joined Belette on 24 April 1806. It was a brand-new 18-gun “Cruizer-class brig-sloop,” launched just the month before. He was on Belette until his posting to HMS Antelope in 1809. So he would have known Phillimore well.

Not the Belette, but a similar Cruizer-class brig-sloop from the period

This is an episode from George’s early career that I omitted earlier. It’s worth a flashback. The Belette was active under Phillimore’s command during the Napoleonic wars, capturing enemy merchant ships. It was credited with grabbing three or four. And it also participated in the successful attack on Copenhagen in 1807.

Copenhagen? Why would the British attack those nice Danes, you might wonder? Perhaps revenge for past Viking atrocities? Nope. Denmark was a sometime ally of Napoleon, or perhaps more accurately, it was Nappy’s lickspittle. The Brits were afraid the Danes might help close the Baltic to British shipping. So they shelled the crap out of the capital until the Danes said uncle and meekly handed over their entire navy.

Copenhagen on Fire 1807, by Christoffer Wilhelm Eckersberg

The Belette as a result had a share in prize money realized from the ships and provisions the British seized. What share would a surgeon have received? According to one uncorroborated online source, the total amount of prize money was significant, an estimated £700,000, a fortune in today’s currency. Another uncorroborated source says petty officers received £22 11/- each, about 40 times the average weekly wage of a labourer. Surgeons were warrant officers, higher ranking in other words, so presumably got a larger proportionate share.

Okay, back to 1820.

As far as I could make out from the contemporary naval records I found online last year, the William & Mary was George’s last posting. But apparently that was not the case. I recently found some documents left by my father, John Blackwell. He too was interested in family history and covered some of the same ground I did, only without benefit of Internet. John had to go to records offices when he was in the UK and sift through paper documents. This was in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Among his papers are two photocopied pages from what appears to be the same handwritten log of naval surgeons I found online, but they're two pages I hadn’t seen. They summarize George’s late career. He spent time on another yacht, the Royal Charlotte, starting in 1826. It too was used by the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, although a different one by then. 

My father's documents show George going on "half pay" in 1828. This is the pay officers in the Royal Navy and British Army received when retired or not on active service. (Many settlers in Canada in this period were half-pay officers who needed to supplement their meagre pensions.) But the line in the ledger referring to George's half-pay status was later crossed out, with the annotation, “Warr! [sic] Cancelled.”

Which war? Excellent question. The only war mentioned in Wikipedia’s “Timeline of the British Army 1800-1899,” is the First Ashanti War 1823-1831, a minor scuffle pitting the British against the Ashanti Empire in present-day Ghana. But it had been ongoing for five years in 1828 and doesn’t appear to have had a naval component. So, it’s a mystery.

Especially so since it doesn’t look as if George ever went to sea again, warr or no warr. His postings after that are in Portsmouth. In 1832, according to documents available at the National Archiveshe was appointed Surgeon of the Ordinary for Portsmouth, whatever that means. I'm assuming it means he was responsible for medical care of sailors in the port. Portsmouth was a major naval base. He is also shown as going on half pay again in 1832. 

And then on 12 January 1835, George was “placed on the retired list at the rate of 10/- [ten shillings] a day.” This is not a bad pension: over £180 a year (£1 = 20 shillings), which would have given him the same buying power as over £20,000 ($31,000 CDN) in today’s money.

The document above is the second of the pages John had photocopied. It appears to be an of accounting of George's pay during the period he was on half pay. If anyone was patient enough to decipher the handwriting in the Remarks section on the right hand side, that would be helpful. (Hint, hint.)

George had a late-life career as a village physician in Devon, where he had been born, and also found time to sire a family. (Good thing too, because otherwise we wouldn't exist.) So more Lillies to come. Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment