Thursday, 16 June 2011

Napoleon and after - HMS Maidstone, Part 1

Ever wonder what happened to the frigates of Hornblower, Ramage or Aubrey in the post-Napoleon world? Here is one example, HMS Maidstone, a little (947 tons) 5th rate frigate of the Apollo class with 36 guns. First we'll see her brief, but busy, wartime career and then where she was sent next.

Incidentally, here I draw heavily on an amazing resource of practically all Royal Navy ships, some in huge detail, at

Against Napoleon ....

The Maidstone was launched on the 18th of October 1811, towards the end of the Napoleonic wars. Trafalgar had been 6 years earlier, but there was still plenty of work to do, and she was prepared for service in the Mediterranean.

HMS Euryalus, sister ship to HMS Maidstone

Believe it or not, the wartime medical logs of the Maidstone are online at the National Archives, starting with surgeon Augustus B Granville. Various seamen are abandoned in London before cruising down to the Med (not a few with syphilis!) or dropped off in port as she makes her way to Menorca, leaving a Seaman Brown and Midshipman McMahon in Port Mahon hospital in March. From March to May a new surgeon, Henry Osborn, took charge and he logs the discharge of a Lieutenant Smith of the Royal Marines, with phthisis (tuberculosis), and gunners mate Henderson who fell when intoxicated and broke his clavicle!

On the 4th of April 1812 the Maidstone captured the French ship Marinet in the Mediterranean. Actually it was sailors and marines under Lt. McKeekan, in boats from the Maidstone, who captured her. Most of her impressive haul of captures over the years were by men sent out in the boats.

On the 29th she was in Plymouth for a week, before heading out again to Lisbon escorting a troop convoy. Wellington was about to launch a major offensive against the French, starting from Lisbon in May and decisively defeating Joseph Bonaparte at Vitoria in June. Over 52,000 British soldiers were at Vitoria, and the Maidstone played her part by getting some of them there.

.... and Madison

By August the Maidstone was off the Canadian coast, under Captain George Burdett. Here the problem was privateers, basically licensed pirates armed by the American government. From the medical logs we see her calling in at the bases at Halifax and Bermuda.

A typical privateer schooner

On the 1st of August she and the Spartan captured two US privateers, the Polly and Morning Star, which were burnt. Four more were trapped in Little River two days later, and boats were sent out to capture them. The crews mostly escaped, but the ships were captured.

On the 12th she and the Colibre captured another privateer, and then on the 17th, with the Spartan, she scored a major success. The Rapid, with 14 guns and 84 crew had been fitted out in Portland with 3 months supplies and a remit to attack shipping from Bermuda to the Azores. She didn't make it. Just 3 days out of Portland she was spotted and after a 9 hour chase she was overhauled and captured.

More successes followed, especially in 1813 when the energetic Sir George Cockburn arrived to command the squadron. Ten more privateers were picked off, including the Cora on February 14th, Valentines day. She was supposed to be the fastest schooner out of Baltimore and was on her maiden voyage, returning from Bordeux with wine and spirits.

In April, boats from the Maidstone, Fantome, Mohawk and High flyer, 180 seamen and 200 marines in all, were sent up the Elk river. They destroyed military stores at Frenchtown, and burnt 5 ships. Returning from this raid they passed the town of Havre de Grace, at the mouth of the Susquehanna river, and determined to attack. Havre was a tough nut to crack, as shallow shoals prevented the larger ships getting close and two batteries guarded the town. So 16 boats of sailors and marines, about 150 in total were sent in. This could have been disasterous, the boats sailing into the teeth of the cannons could have been decimated by grapeshot, and to try to minimise casulaties they set off at midnight, on the 3rd of May. Fortunately, the militia guarding the town ran away, especially after the employment of the new super-weapon, Congreve rockets on boats! (apart from one drunkard who tried to man the cannon by himself and got knocked over by the recoil). Cockburn's report is in the London Gazette online, and I will try to post it in full on another occasion.

Unfortunately, disaster struck in December, when a terrific storm hit Halifax, and the Maidstone was driven ashore. Delayed by repairs, she started the year quietly, but by April her boats were part of a fleet that attacked the Conneticut river and destroyed 27 ships.

From May 1812-13, on the American tour, the surgeon was William Carlyle. Here we see the Maidstone calling in at Halifax and Bermuda, and on 24th Feb 1813 the first injuries from enemy action, seaman Bingham receiving two wounds from musket balls. Various musket and cutlass wounds follow, reflecting the heavy fighting in 1813, through to the last records available, in May. The youngest on the lists was William Twyford, who came down with catarrhus (a bad cold) in London in 1811, the oldest John Fletcher who shattered two fingers of his right hand when at sea.

In 1817 HMS Maidstone was back in Woolwich for a much needed refit. There she rested before being sent to a very different station - Africa!

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