Benjamin Godfrey… John Company man.

Continuing the stories from my friend Heidi Mellings’ family history… this time it’s a nautical tale.

Benjamin Godfrey (Jr.) was Heidi’s great-great-great-great-great-great-grandfather (phew, that’s a lot of greats) and was born in Exeter on 12th July 1720, the eldest son of Benjamin Godfrey, the owner of a cooper’s business in the city.

But Benjamin Junior had no intention of following his father in the barrel-making business. Instead, he left home to follow a career at sea and joined the HEIC – The Honourable East India Company – the most powerful commercial organisation in the world which, in the mid-18th century, accounted for over half of the entire world’s trade! They focused on basic commodities and dominated the trade in cotton, silk, indigo dye, sugar, salt, spices, saltpetre, tea, and opium!

When Benjamin served “John Company” as it was known, it was at the height of its power, to all intents and purposes ruling vast tracts of land in the east – setting and administering laws, levying taxes and it had its own army. It was General Clive, leading Company forces, that defeated the French at the Battle of Plassey in 1757 to secure British rule in India that would last for 200 years. That was how powerful the Company was.

That power extended to its ships. Although East Indiamen were intended to carry goods, they were also well armed to defend themselves against pirates and could be fitted out during time of war to carry as much firepower as Royal Navy ships of equivalent size.

We know nothing of Benjamin’s early life, but in 1757 he married Mary Elizabeth Race, daughter of the Head Cashier of the Bank of England. Together they would have three sons.

However, we know a considerable amount about Benjamin’s later career as, by 1759, he had risen through the ranks to become one of the HEIC’s captains. He took command of the 3-deck East Indiaman “The Duke of Richmond” on 29th November 1759 at Blackwall Yard on the Thames where the ship had just been launched. The Duke of Richmond had a gun-deck length just shy of 138 feet and a burthen of 767 tons. (Note: Burthen was a traditional measure of the carrying capacity of a ship with an imperial ton being the equivalent of a “tun of wine”, a tun being the largest size of barrel.)

The East Indiaman, “Asia”, the same size as the Duke of Richmond built by the same shipbuilder in the same yard.

The Duke of Richmond took on cargo in The Downs, a safe anchorage between North and South Foreland, near Dover and set sail from there on 21st February 1760. She sailed south, round the Cape of Good Hope and then east across the Indian Ocean. First stop was Benkulen, a 300-mile long strip of land on the south-west coast of what is now Sumatra in the possession of The Company which she reached on 24th July 1760. A month later, on 27th August 1760, the ship arrived at Kedah in what is now the north-west part of the Malay peninsula. From there she sailed south to Malacca further down the Malay peninsula, arriving there on 16th September 1760.

From there Benjamin took his ship north-east across the pirate infested South China Sea, past Hong Kong to Whampoa, (now Huangpu, a suburb of Guangzhu) in China, arriving there on 19th April 1761 and remaining there for two months.

The harbour at Whampoa

After that I would guess the ship went on a three-month anti-pirate cruise in the South China Sea because on the 15th December 1761, the ship was back in the Pearl River estuary at Second Bar, a safe anchorage 20 miles from Whampoa, presumably to take on cargo in preparation for her return trip to England. The ship stopped off at Malacca, arriving there on 14th January 1762 then re-crossed the Indian Ocean, rounding the Cape of Good Hope but this time continuing west out into the middle of the south Atlantic to stop off at St Helena on the 24th April 1762. Then she began the final slog north-east back to England, arriving in Plymouth on 14th July 1762 and finally returning to Woolwich on the Thames on the 3rd August having been away for two and a half years. Benjamin would remain at home for the next eighteen months but on 20th February 1764 he took the Duke of Richmond south again, calling at St Helena on 27th March then set off eastwards, back round the Cape of Good Hope and across once more to Benkulen, arriving there on 7th July 1764. From there he sailed to Batavia (now Jakarta in Indonesia) arriving there on 9th December.

Batavia in the mid 1700s.

Sadly, while still in Batavia, Benjamin was taken ill and died in the town on 1st February 1765. The following day, he was buried in the graveyard of the Dutch Church there. He was 44 years old.

Months later, his death was reported in the London press.

Thomas Alfred Perry Marsh, Surgeon-Major…

Continuing the research into the family history of a friend, Heidi Mellings. Thomas Alfred Perry Marsh was born on 23rd Feb 1856, a younger brother of Mary Marsh, Heidi’s great-great-grandmother.

From his initials, he was known as “Tap”.

He was destined for a medical career and, following school, attended University College Bristol where he had a dazzling record, sweeping the board in terms of academic prizes – Clark Scholar in Surgery, Sanders Scholar in Medicine and Haberfield Prize Winner in Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics. He continued his professional qualifications at St. George’s Hospital, London.

He was admitted to the Royal College of Surgeons on 28th April 1881. For a short time he was house surgeon at Weston-Super-Mare hospital but then elected to join the army and was gazetted Surgeon on 29th July 1882, joining the Royal Victoria Military Hospital at Netley.

A couple of years later he was posted to India, based in Madras and was then attached to the British force engaged in the 3rd Anglo-Burmese War of 1885-87, being the surgeon attached to a battery of field artillery. He was present at several engagements near Nyngyam and Yemethen.

By 1894, he was stationed at the garrison in Gibraltar and was promoted Surgeon-Major on 29th July 1894.

In 1897, Thomas married Cecelia Bacquera, a Spanish lady from a Malaga family who he presumably met while stationed in Gibraltar.

On 4th Nov 1899, at the outbreak of the 2nd Boer War, he sailed to South Africa on board the “SS Kildonan Castle” where he took charge of the No. 3 Stationary Hospital, set up at De Aar, a strategically important junction between Cape Town and Kimberley. Before the set-up of the hospital was completed it was inundated with wounded from three actions in rapid succession.

Then, with conditions at the hospital still very poor, and coinciding with Lord Roberts’ offensive in Orange Free State, enteric fever (or typhoid as we know it now), broke out.

It was at this point that Thomas’ own health broke down and he was evacuated to the Imperial Yeomanry Hospital at Deelfontein to recuperate. However, once there it was discovered he had contracted typhoid himself and he died there on 22nd May 1900, aged 44.

He was buried in the hospital cemetery.

In his obituary in the British Medical Journal it was said:

World War 2 Service of William Trevor Gibbs

William Trevor Gibbs enlisted in the British Army on 28 May 1942 at the age of 34. Here is his attestation card.

From this I identified that he was assigned to the Royal Artillery and located his Royal Artillery Tracer Card which at first glance, and indeed second glance looks like hieroglyphics. But there are some very helpful people on the interweb and a chap on a WW2 forum translated it for me.

So it translates as:

28/5/1942. 206 Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft Training Regiment
6/10/1942. 573 Battery, 172 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment
18/12/1944. 608 Battery, 183 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment
9/6/1945. 232 Army Troops Company Royal Engineers 21st Army Group.
X(vii) List X(vii) was the standard code for “Officers and Men Seconded”

5/6/1946. Class ‘A’ Release Y/7 List (Y7 was the code for a “Standard Release” after service)

That enabled me to start tracking down the unit histories to come up with a more or less complete story for William’s service.

On enlisting, William was assigned to a training unit, of Anti-Aircraft Command, namely the 206th Heavy (Mixed) Anti-Aircraft (HAA) Training Regiment.

As a side note, the “Mixed” designation refers to units that integrated women of the Auxiliary Territorial Service into the unit’s personnel. I suppose it’s quite comical now, but while ATS personnel operated searchlights, range finders and sound detectors and even aimed the anti-aircraft guns, army rules meant that only men were allowed to fire them! Bless…

ATS women operating a height and range finder on an HAA gun site

The “heavy” designation also referred to the type of guns employed by the unit. The units in which William served used the Vickers Quick-Firing 3.7-inch anti-aircraft gun that had a crew of seven to operate it and could fire its 13kg shell to 30,000 feet.

Following his training period he was assigned to his first operational unit…

573 Battery, 172 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment

This unit was formed at Woodthorpe House, Nottingham in August 1942 from Territorial Army troops and female ATS personnel. William joined on 6th October 1942. It served in and around Nottingham as anti-aircraft defence through until being disbanded in 1945.

However, William was transferred before that to…

608 Battery, 183 (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment

183rd (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment was an air defence unit of which two-thirds of its personnel were women from the Auxiliary Territorial Service (ATS). The regiment was heavily engaged in Operation Diver, defending England against V-1 flying bombs in 1944.

Following D-Day, once 21st Army Group had captured Brussels and Antwerp, these cities became targets for V-1s launched from within Germany, and anti-Diver or ‘X’ defences had to be established around those cities.

Anti-Aircraft Command’s experience had shown that specialist equipment to augment the guns was required to deal effectively with V-1s, but 21st Army Group’s mobile HAA units did not have experience with this equipment. Hence, in December 1944 the first overseas deployment of Mixed HAA units began, and 183rd (Mixed) HAA Regiment was one of those selected.

It was at this point that William Gibbs was transferred to the unit, 18 Dec 1944.

The regiment arrived at Antwerp in January 1945, taking over Mk IIC 3.7-inch guns in bitter weather and were immediately in action against the onslaught of V-1s.

The Antwerp ‘X’ defences under 80 Anti-Aircraft Brigade to which William’s unit was attached, involved an outer line of Wireless Observer Units sited 40 miles (64 km) to 50 miles (80 km) in front of the guns to give 8 minutes’ warning, then Local Warning (LW) stations positioned half way, equipped with radar to begin plotting individual missiles. Finally there was an inner belt of Observation Posts (OPs), about 20,000 yards (18,000 m) in front of the guns to give visual confirmation that the tracked target was a missile. The LW stations and OPs were operated by teams from the Anti-Aircraft regiments, usually ATS personnel. Radar-controlled searchlights were deployed to assist in identification and engagement of missiles at night. The success rate of the X defences had been low at first, but after the arrival of Mk IIC guns and experienced crews from AA Command the results improved rapidly, with best results in February and March 1945. The number of missiles launched at Antwerp peaked at 623 a week in February and in the last week of action the AA defences destroyed 97.5 per cent of those reaching the defence belt.

The war in Europe ended on VE Day, 8 May 1945. 183rd (Mixed) Heavy Anti-Aircraft Regiment, was disbanded on 25 May.

232 Army Troops Company Royal Engineers 21st Army Group

At this point, on 9 Jun 1945, William Gibbs was transferred out of the Royal Artillery and into a specialist unit of the Royal Engineers, readying to ship out to South East Asia where the war against the Japanese was still on-going.

This unit specialised in the capture of river crossings and making them safe from traps, mines and bombs. However, before the unit sailed, the war ended with the dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan and so William remained in Europe.

William was discharged from the army on 5th June the following year.

The Chanticleer

James Hubsdell was my great-great-great-grandfather, born in about 1800 in Gosport who enlisted in the Royal Navy in 1821. He served on three ships during his 10-year service – the Chanticleer, the Atholl and the Blonde – as shown in his service record.

james hubsdell service record

During his time with each vessel it seems like he must have seen some “interesting” service and the first was HMS Chanticleer.

HMS Chanticleer was a Cherokee-class 10-gun brig and was launched on 26 July 1808. She served in European waters (mainly the North Sea) during the Napoleonic Wars and was paid off and laid up at Sheerness in July 1816 at the end of those wars. It is unclear when she was brought back into service but on 23 October 1821 Captain Henry Eden took command. He sailed her to the Mediterranean, where he was “very efficiently occupied during the revolution in Greece.”

Commander Burton MacNamara replaced him in July 1822 and for the next two years the ship was employed in a number of mostly diplomatic missions around the Mediterranean.

During that time her ship’s surgeon William Black wrote an account of the cruises and illustrated it himself. The following is from his book:


Chanticleer in the Port of Pireus, Athens

When piracy out of Algiers recommenced under Huseyn Dey the Chanticleer was sent to join the fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Harry Neal which bombarded Algiers. This action was notable as the first recorded use of a steam ship in action.

Shortly afterwards, Charles James Hope Johnstone took command of the Chanticleer in September 1824 when my ancestor transferred to the Atholl, bound for the west coast of Africa….

…the subject of a separate post.

A naïve and sentimental super-hero…

(c) Government Art Collection; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Thomas Cochrane became one of the most celebrated naval heroes of his day. Napoleon dubbed him Le Loup des Mers (literally ‘The Wolf of the Seas’) and his career inspired C.S. Forrester’s fictional hero Horatio Hornblower and Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey. He was an inspiring leader and innovator, yet his political naivety and radical outspokenness almost cost him everything.

Thomas Cochrane was born at Annsfield, near Hamilton, in Scotland in 1775, the son of Archibald Cochrane, 9th Earl of Dundonald. He joined the navy at the age of 17 on the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 as a midshipman serving in HMS Hind, a frigate commanded by his uncle, Captain Alexander Cochrane.

In less than three years Cochrane was promoted lieutenant and then in 1800 promoted to commander, taking command of the brig-sloop HMS Speedy later that year. In his 13-month cruise aboard the Speedy, Cochrane captured, destroyed or drove onshore over 50 enemy vessels. His most notable exploit was the capture of the Spanish xebec frigate El Gamo, on 6 May 1801. El Gamo carried 32 guns and 319 men, compared with Speedy’s 14 guns and 54 men. Cochrane flew an American flag and approached so closely to El Gamo that its guns could not depress to fire on the Speedy’s hull. The Spanish tried to board and take over the ship but each time they massed to attack, Cochrane pulled away briefly and fired on the concentrated boarding parties with his ship’s guns. Eventually, Cochrane boarded El Gamo, despite being outnumbered about five to one, and captured her.


HMS Speedy captures the frigate El Gamo

Given command of the new frigate HMS Pallas (32) in 1804, he cruised the Azores and French coast capturing and destroying several Spanish and French vessels. Transferred to HMS Imperieuse (38) in August 1806, he returned to terrorizing the French coast. Now a master of coastal warfare, Cochrane frequently led cutting out missions to seize enemy ships and captured French coastal installations.

But in 1809, his star came crashing down.

At the Battle of the Basque Roads in April of that year, Cochrane’s initial attack using fire ships greatly disrupted the French fleet. But his commander, Lord Gambier, failed to effectively follow up to completely destroy the enemy. Elected to Parliament in 1806, Cochrane had sided with the Radicals and frequently criticized the prosecution of the war and campaigned against corruption in the Royal Navy. These efforts had lengthened his list of enemies in higher office. Publically criticizing Gambier in the wake of Basque Roads, he alienated many more senior members of the Admiralty. Their retribution was swift and Cochrane was removed from his command and denied any other. Though loved by the public, he became isolated in Parliament as he angered his peers with his outspoken views.

In 1814, his fall was made humiliatingly complete. Cochrane was implicated in a stock market fraud based on the rise of government stock following false rumours of Napoleon’s death. In June with five others he was brought to trial for fraud in a trial presided over by the harsh, overbearing and Radical-hating Lord Ellenborough. The outcome was never going to be in question and, even though the prosecuting counsel admitted the evidence was circumstantial, Cochrane was found guilty.


An 1815 caricature “Things as they have been. Things as they are now.” depicting Cochrane as the naval hero on the left while the right side shows him as the disgraced and imprisoned civilian

Cochrane was sentenced to 12 months imprisonment, fined £1,000 and was ordered to stand in the pillory opposite the Royal Exchange for one hour. In subsequent weeks, he was dismissed from the Royal Navy by the Admiralty and expelled from Parliament following a motion in the House of Commons. Cochrane was further humiliated by the loss of his knighthood in a degradation ceremony at Westminster Abbey. His banner was taken down from the Chapel of Henry VII in the Abbey and physically kicked out of the chapel and down the steps outside.

Persona non grata in his own country, Cochrane elected to sell his military services overseas. He went on to command the Chilean, Brazilian and Greek navies, helping them fight for independence. In 1831 he succeeded to his father’s title, becoming 10th Earl of Dundonald.

Returning to Britain, Cochrane was finally pardoned in May 1832 at a meeting of the Privy Council. Though restored to the Navy List with a promotion to rear admiral, he refused to accept a command until his knighthood was returned. This did not occur until Queen Victoria reinstated him as a knight in the Order of Bath in 1847. Now a vice admiral, Cochrane served as commander in chief of the North American and West Indies station from 1848-1851. Promoted to admiral in 1851, he was given the honorary title of Rear Admiral of the United Kingdom three years later. Troubled by kidney stones, he died during an operation on October 31, 1860.

Cochrane was buried in the central part of the nave of Westminster Abbey. The inscription, written on his tomb by Sir Lyon Playfair, reads: