John Race Godfrey and John Race Godfrey… confused yet?

Continuing the family history stories of my friend, Heidi Mellings, this time with what started off as utter confusion. Two cousins, born within a year of each other who both went into the military (being spares, not heirs) with identical names – John Race Godfrey.

The family context of the John Races

The first John Race Godfrey I’ll discuss was the younger brother of Sarah, Heidi’s four-times great-grandmother.  This John Race was born 11 March 1790 and entered the brutal world of the Royal Navy on 9 June 1803 at the age of just thirteen. He was taken on board the Prince of Wales, a 98-gun, three-deck battleship and the flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder. This was probably as a favour to the boy’s parents, Admiral Calder being the brother of the boy’s great-uncle by marriage.

John Race Godfrey joined the service as First Class Volunteer, a position reserved for boys usually under the age of sixteen who were destined to become officers. The position gave them sea-experience before they were formally made midshipmen, the lowest officer rank.

On 19 Feb 1805, Vice-Admiral Calder on the Prince of Wales was detached from the Channel Fleet to take the command of the blockading squadron off Ferrol where he arrived on the 1 March. By this time John Race Godfrey was a midshipman. On arrival off Ferrol, Calder maintained the blockade for the next five months until word reached him of a combined French-Spanish fleet returning to Europe from the West Indies approaching his position.

On 15 July 1805, Calder sailed with his squadron 30 to 40 leagues off Finisterre to intercept them. The two fleets sighted each other around 11am on 22 July and Calder made the signal “Engage the enemy”. Calder had 15 ships of the line, two frigates and two smaller ships under his command, against Admiral Villeneuve’s Franco-Spanish fleet of 20 Ships of the line and seven frigates.

After several hours of manoeuvring the engagement began at about 17:15. In patchy fog and indifferent visibility the action became a confused melee. Calder’s flagship had its rudder shot away, thus losing all steering but the British ships forced two Spanish ships to strike before night brought an end to the action.

Battle of Cape Finisterre, the “Prince of Wales” in the foreground

Daybreak on 23 July found the fleets 27 kilometres (17 mi) apart. Calder was unwilling to attack a second time against superior odds. He had to protect two of his own ships that had been badly damaged and protect the large captured Spanish prizes. Accordingly, he declined to attack and headed northeast with his prizes.

This decision led to Calder’s downfall. Back in England the press tore into him, accusing him of dereliction of duty and cowardice.

Nelson, who had by now taken command of Calder’s fleet in addition to his own force that had returned from the West Indies chasing Villeneuve, was ordered to send Calder home to face charges at the Admiralty. Unusually, Nelson allowed Calder to take the Prince of Wales home on 14 October 1805, rather than putting him on a smaller, faster ship for the journey and retaining the big ship in his line-of-battle. Thus it was that the Prince of Wales, with John Race Godfrey aboard, missed the Battle of Trafalgar fought just a week later.

While Admiral Calder was cleared of the charges of cowardice, he was severely reprimanded by the Admiralty for his decision not to re-engage the enemy on the day after the action at Finisterre and was never given a sea command again.

However, John Race Godfrey remained with the Prince of Wales and, under the command of Captain William Bedford, was involved on 16 Jul 1806 when the ships’ boats from the Prince-of-Wales and seven other vessels captured the French 16-gun brig-corvette César from the River Gironde in a hazardous cutting-out operation.

The following year John Race Godfrey sailed with the Prince of Wales now bearing the pennant of Admiral James Gambier as a part of a fleet of 38 vessels for Copenhagen and was present for the siege and bombardment of the city and the capture of the Danish Fleet. Apparently John Race Godfrey served on land during the bombardment of Copenhagen probably either manning guns or bringing in ammunition. And he gained a medal for this service.

After Copenhagen, John Race Godfrey served in a number of different ships. He was finally promoted Lieutenant on 15 March 1815 and on 7 July 1817 married Augusta Maria Marsh, daughter of the late John Marsh, Esq., of Thornbury, Gloucestershire, with whom he had six children.

In 1820 he obtained an appointment in the Coast Guard and after 12 years’ service with them was placed on half-pay, thereafter living on private income.

This John Race Godfrey died in November 1864.

Now, John Race Godfrey, the other one, was born five months before his cousin on 6 October 1789, son of the Rev. Race Godfrey, who was the elder brother of Heidi’s five-times great-grandfather, John.

Newly minted Lieutenant

This John Race opted for a land-based military career, enrolling in the Honourable East India Company’s army on 1 July 1806. Two years later he was made Lieutenant in the 24th Regiment Native Infantry of the Madras Presidency. (The HEIC had three main sub-divisions for its rule in India which it referred to as Presidencies – Bombay, Madras and Bengal – and each had an army made up of European and native troops.)

A blot on Godfrey’s record came in 1811 when he was tried by Court Martial and found guilty of “having acted unbecoming an officer in having entered the garrison in a most shameful and improper manner” (presumably drunk) and was severely reprimanded.

In August 1816, Godfrey was given extended leave in England for three years in which time he married Jane Woodhouse on 15April 1819, the service conducted by John Race’s elder brother, Rev. Daniel Godfrey. The newly married couple must have set off almost at once for India because John Race was reported as having returned to duty on 3 Oct 1819.

The couple would ultimately have ten children, all but one born in India and all of whom survived into adulthood, a rare thing then and even rarer for Europeans in the blistering heat of southern India.

At the end of 1819, John Race Godfrey was appointed Interpreter and Quartermaster in the 2nd Battalion 1st Regiment Native Infantry. It’s interesting to note that the East India Company very much encouraged its European officers to learn the local languages and it is evident from this posting that John Race Godfrey must have been fluent, possibly in Hindi but more likely in Tamil, the most commonly spoken language in the Madras area.

John Race Godfrey was promoted to Captain on 27 March 1821.

When war broke out in Burma in 1824, Godfrey’s unit was involved throughout. This was the principal military campaign the Madras Native Infantry were engaged in. Otherwise, their responsibilities mainly involved maintaining order within the Presidency, thus allowing the HEIC to trade unhindered and to make heaps of money.

John Race Godfrey was promoted to Major on 15 June 1833 and retired from service on 10February 1836, returning to England the following month on the ship, Duke of Argyll.

Northernhay House

Godfrey sold his commission and, on his return to England, bought the elegant Northernhay House, near Exeter and lived on his private means until his death in 1855.

Note: Northernhay House was bought by Exeter Council and demolished in 1914. On the site now stands student accommodation for the University of Exeter, called Northernhay House.

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