In the graveyard of All Saints Church in Horsford, Norfolk lies a very young person of mystery who clearly had received a heroes burial from those who thought highly of him. One may well ask what his qualities might have been in life and what had he done to deserve such a place in the memories of others. His gravestone, name and inscription raises so many questions but few answers. In this day and age one can only speculate!
All we have is the inscription on his headstone. It tells us clearly that his name was John Pirsins, he was 13 years old and he had died from wounds received at the Battle of Camperdown which took place on 11th October 1797. John Pirsins had survived, and presumably suffered, for five weeks before giving in to the inevitable. His gravestone states the following:
Where does one start in trying to identify this young lad and his circumstances. For a start, take his name – John Pirsins. In the 18th century, one in four seamen were apparently named ‘John’, this may have been their baptismal name or the one the authorities or mates would bestow in the absence of a known name. Then there is the surname which is a rare, so rare that one may well construe that it came about in error. How come is the obvious question? Well – John, let’s assume this to be correct, appears to have been a rural lad from the heart of the Norfolk countryside and he left home to join the British Navy. Literacy, at the time, was not a strong point in either area of occupation, so when it came to registering one’s name, the presence of illiteracy, local dialects and unclear pronunciation came into play: “Name”. “John Parsons (Pirsins) Sir” Who knows, but the surname stuck!
Did John Pirsins really come from the lower classes, or did he have connections with a higher status from where favours were often bestowed on family members and friends? Take the the quality of the gravestone as another faint clue. It is clear that the stone, and the skill required to inscribe it, would not have come cheap. Whilst it is commendable that more than a few of his mess-mates had, apparently, rallied round to find the money to erect such a monument in his honour, one wonders if they, in turn, were helped by a sponsor? Did this someone, as a possible favour to his parents, also have taken John on board ship as, maybe, an officer’s servant with intentions for him to be trained as an able seaman if not midshipman? – just like Horatio Nelson some 25 years earlier. But then, if all this was true then would not his surname and connections be better known today? Crucially, does any of this fit? Did John Pirsins enlist on his own volition because he wanted an adventure? Where did he join his first ship and at what level was he recruited? Two options stand out – did he become a Cabin Boy and/or a Powder Monkey?
As Cabin Boy, he just about fitted the criteria with regard to his age. In this role he would have been expected to undertake a variety of day-to-day duties; these would have included waiting on the officers and passengers of a ship and especially running errands for the captain. He would also have been expected to help the cook in the ship’s galley and carry buckets of food to the forecastle where the ordinary seamen ate. Then there was running from one end of the ship to the other carrying messages and becoming familiar with the sails, lines and ropes and the use of each in all sorts of weather – and that was not all. He would have had to be able to scramble up the rigging into the yards whenever the sails had to be trimmed and occasionally stand watch, like other crewmen, or act as helmsman in good weather and holding the wheel to keep the ship steady on her course. Then, in times of battle, he may well have been expected to undertake the role of ‘Powder Monkey’.
As a powder monkey, or powder boy, John Pirsins would not have held any official naval rank but would have been employed to man naval artillery guns as a member of a warship’s crew. His chief role would be to ferry gunpowder from the powder magazine in the ship’s hold to the artillery pieces, either in bulk or as cartridges; this practice was designed to minimise the risk of fires and explosions. One can assume that he would have been selected for the job for his both his speed and height. If so, then John Pirsins was a short individual, in order for him to move more easily in the limited space between decks. As a powder monkey John would have had the comfort of knowing that being hidden behind the ship’s gunwale, kept him from being shot at by enemy ships’ sharp shooters. However, he would have been as vulnerable as the rest of the crew in situations where the ship was hit by heavy cannon fire. Is that what happen when he was mortally wounded?
If John Pirsins had, indeed, been a powder monkey then it is more than likely that he had come from the poor working classes. The Marine Society that encouraged youths to join the British Royal Navy did so by providing clothes, bedding, and a rudimentary education once they had enlisted. In the mid-1790’s it is estimated that the Society was sending five or six hundred boys a year to the fleet, although not all of these boys became powder monkeys. Of the boys who were recruited; most had no other option than to join the navy as their parents could not afford to raise them. However a significant number had familial ties to the sea by having cousins, fathers, and even grandfathers who were, or had been, sailors. These role models made youngsters want to continue family traditions and exploit their sense of adventure. So, does any of the foregoing detail fit with our John Pirsins? As things are, we know much more about the Battle of Camperdown of 1797 and HMS Triumph, on which John Pirsins enlisted and became a hero.
HMS Triumph was a Large Type, 74 gun, third rate ship of the line, built at the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich. She, together with her sister-ship HMS Valiant were the prototypes, re-designed from the ground up for the Royal Navy. Their descendants would become by far the most numerous type of ship in the Royal Navy and would form the backbone of the Royal Navy’s battle-fleets until well into the 19th Century. But, what was significant about these two ships was not the long list of significant naval battles they fought in, or that they were commanded by any particularly famous or infamous naval officers, but the political machinations which led to their being ordered, designed and built.
During the Second Hundred Years War, and specifically in the 1730’s, the French began to introduce a new type of ship of the line, one carrying 74 guns on two gun decks. The British soon found that these new French ships were bigger, faster, more manoeuvrable and more heavily armed than their own. Something had to be done, but the British, were struggling with their own naval departmental problems which were rather more political than tactical or technological. Two departments existed with different aims and responsibilities which were the cause of much procrastination, delays and poor designs which, for several years, failed to produce anything that matched up to those of the French.
Then, on 14th May 1747 at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre, the British captured one of the finest of the French 74-gun ships, L’Invincible. On being taken into British service, L’Invincible was found to be capable of up to 16 knots in ideal sailing conditions; a good three knots faster than the best of her British counterparts. It was also found that in ideal sailing conditions, she could open her lower gun-ports, well clear of the water. As a direct result, the Admiralty began to pressure the Navy Board to do something about it, ideally, to produce a British 74-gun ship along the lines of the French ones. But habits die hard and it was not until the old guard in the Navy Board had either died or had been pensioned off that the situation began to improve. That did not begin until the mid-1750’s when more enlightened men were employed, led by a Thomas Slade. However, even under new management, nothing would be achieved until the Navy Board gave in to the Admiralty’s continuing pressure for two new ships which, essentially, had to be direct copies of L’Invincible but adapted for British use. The first , HMS Valiant was ordered from the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and launched on 10th August 1759. On the other hand, HMS Triumph was ordered from the Royal Dockyard at Woolwich where, despite its keel section being laid on 21st May 1757 was not launched into the great River Thames until Saturday 3rd March 1764 – long before our John Pirsins was even born.
On completion, HMS Triumph was an enormous ship for what she was. Very nearly as big as a first rate ship, HMS Triumph was 171ft 3in long on her upper gundeck and 138ft 8in long in her keel. She was 49ft 9in wide across her beams and her hold (between the orlop deck and the bottom of the ship) was 21ft 3in deep. Fully loaded, HMS Triumph was a ship of 1,825 tons. She was armed with twenty-eight 32-pounder long guns on her lower gun deck, thirty 24-pounder long guns on her upper gun deck, fourteen 9-pounder long guns on her quarterdeck and two 9-pounder long guns on her forecastle. She was manned by a crew of around 650 officers, men, boys and Royal Marines.
HMS Triumph had taken almost seven years to be built as opposed to the three years or so which the construction of a ship like her would be expected to take. This meant that by the time HMS Triumph was completed, the war for which she had been built was over and the Royal Navy rushed to pay off the great first and second rate ships of the line. It would fall to ships like HMS Triumph to provide the heavy firepower for the peacetime navy until May 1766 when the ship was commissioned into the Channel Fleet only to find that by the 11th December of the same year she was paid off and went into the ‘Ordinary’ at Chatham for the next five years.
Then in January 1771, HMS Triumph was recommissioned under Captain Hugh Pigot as part of Britains response to the Falklands Crisis of 1770 and went into the Royal Dockyard to be fitted for sea. Captain Pigot left the ship just three months later, having made sure that her Midshipmen’s berth was fully occupied and the ship was fully manned. This meant that when Captain Suckling took command of the ship, there were no vacancies for Midshipmen. In turn, this meant that his young nephew was forced to take up a position as his cabin servant with a nominal rank of Able Seaman. His young nephew had briefly served in Suckling’s previous command, HMS Raisonnable, as a midshipman because Suckling had been able to man that ship from scratch. The young boy, who was aged just 12 when he joined his uncle aboard HMS Triumph, was Horatio Nelson.
For clarification, it should be explained that Nelson’s role on HMS Triumph would have been as a ‘Midshipman in Ordinary’; for although the ship had her quota of Midshipmen aboard, and there was no room for the young Horatio aboard in an official role, the captain was entitled to have up to a dozen servants. For that reason, they often took boys of friends, family and anyone else they owed a favour to or were doing a favour for, aboard as Midshipmen-in-Ordinary.
The boys in this role were on the ships books as Captains` Servants, rated and paid as Able Seamen, but wore the uniform and did the job of a Midshipman proper, that is to assist a Lieutenant in his day-to-day duties. They also lived in the Midshipmen’s quarters, which was in the cockpit, located on the ships Orlop level. They would have continued in this role for two years until they gained two years sea service at which point the Admiralty would have appointed them as Midshipmen proper, enabling them to transfer (or be transferred) between ships in order to gain experience and to further their careers.
On 7th May 1773, Captain Suckling managed to find a vacancy for his nephew, Nelson, as Midshipman in the bomb-vessel HMS Carcass but this came to an end in October 1773, when the vessel was paid off at Sheerness and went into the Ordinary. Nelson returned to Portsmouth and to HMS Triumph, once more to take up the only position available to him, as the Captain’s Servant with a nominal rank of Able Seaman. This, however, was for a very short time because his uncle had found a vacancy for him as Midshipman proper aboard the 24-gun sixth rate post-ship HMS Seahorse. Nelson was never to return to HMS Triumph.
Over the next 20 years, or so, HMS Triumph was involved in many skirmishes and more than a few refits to maintain its battle readiness. In between, it undertook policing and peace keeping roles with reduced crew levels. Then in January1792, she was decommissioned and went into the Royal Dockyard at Portsmouth for a ‘Great Repair’, which amounted to an almost complete rebuild. The work was completed in January 1795 and had cost £46,499, more than it had cost to build the ship in the first place. By now, HMS Triumph’s upper gun deck of 24-pounder long guns had been replaced with smaller 18-pounder long guns, while the rest of her armament remained as built. In this, HMS Triumph was unusual in that she was never fitted with carronades. HMS Triumph was recommissioned and joined the Channel Fleet.
The Battle of Camperdown:
The beginning of May of 1797 saw HMS Triumph lying at the Nore, as part of the North Sea Fleet under Admiral Sir Adam Duncan. By the 12th of the month it became caught up in the Great Mutiny which had spread from Spithead. Whilst Spithead, along with Plymouth, ended peacefully on the 15th, that of Yarmouth was put down forcibly with that of the Nore proving irritable to the authorities. Having started on 12th May in the 90 gun 2nd rate ship HMS Sandwich at 9:30am, it quickly spread to the other ships in the anchorage including HMS Triumph.
It was at this time that Captain Sir Erasmus Gower was replaced in command of HMS Triumph by Captain William Essington. In the meantime, while the mutiny at the Nore was continuing, the Dutch fleet was making preparations to break out and join the French fleet at Brest. Admiral Duncan was ordered to immediately blockade them and ordered his ships to set sail for the coast of Holland. All but two of his ships disobeyed the order and joined the mutiny. Nevertheless, Duncan set to his task with the handful of ships available to him and by a mixture of subterfuge and luck, kept the Dutch bottled up in Texel. However, while Duncan was at sea, the mutiny at the Nore fell apart and he was joined by more ships, including HMS Triumph. In October 1797, news reached the Admiralty that the Dutch had called off their plans to break out and the fleet was recalled to Yarmouth to refit and resupply; this included HMS Triumph.
On 8th October however, the Dutch fleet under Admiral de Winter did indeed break out. They were followed by ships Duncan had left behind to watch them, these included the hired armed cutter Black Joke. When the Dutch fleet, consisting of four 74-gun ships, seven 64-gun ships, four 50-gun ships and four frigates was seen putting to sea, it was the Black Joke (Other accounts say it was the hired cutter Active.) that was dispatched to Yarmouth to summon Admiral Duncan and the fleet. When the Black Joke was seen off Yarmouth in the early morning of 9th October flying the signal, all hell broke loose in Yarmouth as ships prepared to put to sea immediately – John Pirsins must have certainly been in the thick of thing! By noon, Admiral Duncan’s fleet was at sea and at 7am on 11th October, Duncan’s fleet sighted Captain Trollope’s squadron who were flying a signal ‘Enemy in Sight to Leeward’. At 08.30, the Dutch fleet was sighted.
Because of the widely differing sailing qualities of the British ships, Duncan’s force was in a very loose order when the enemy was sighted. In order for his ships to take their allotted stations, Duncan’s first signal was for his vanguard, or leading ships, to shorten sail. This was followed, at about 11:10, by signals ordering each ship to engage their opposite number on the enemy’s line of battle and then for the British vanguard to attack the rear of the enemy fleet. De Winter the Dutch commander, for his part and on sighting the British, ordered his ships to go about and head closer to the shore, where his smaller, flatter bottomed ships would have the advantage in shallower waters than their larger round-bilged British opponents. Seeing the Dutch heading into shallower waters where he knew they would have the advantage, Duncan gave up trying to get his fleet into their proper order and instead issued signals to the effect that his fleet was to form into two rough divisions and sail towards the enemy line as best they could and engage the enemy in close action. The fleet formed into two uneven divisions with Duncan leading the Starboard division in his flagship HMS Venerable and his Second-in-Command, Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Onslow leading the other division in his flagship, HMS Monarch.
HMS Triumph was part of Duncan’s Starboard Division, second in line behind the flagship. Because of the lack of time, the British ships were all jockeying for position to get into the thickest part of the action, which soon became intense. At one point in the battle, Captain Essington could see that both HMS Ardent and HMS Venerable were surrounded and immediately took HMS Triumph into the thick of things by engaging the Dutch ship Wassenaer with everything it had. Wassenaer eventually surrendered to HMS Triumph which then moved on to directly support the damaged HMS Ardent in her action against the Dutch flagship, Vrijheid. The Vrijheid was eventually forced to surrender by HMS Director after having been dismasted and left helpless, crippled and alone. The British had won a spectacular victory. They had defeated a Dutch fleet within sight of their own coastline. In the Battle of Camperdown, HMS Triumph had suffered casualties of 12 men dead with 55, including Captain Essington and John Pirsins, being wounded. She had suffered damage to her hull and masts and had had ten of her heavy 32-pounder guns knocked off their carriages.
By fast clipper, the news of this victory spread fast with the nation already celebrating by the time the ships returned to Great Yarmouth. The grateful nation breathed a sigh of relief that their ‘rebellious’ navy had, once again, restored its authority on the high seas, along with the strong and blatant patriotism, unashamedly renewed among the British people. The dead were buried and those of the wounded that could not function normally were cared for in the town. John Pirsins was amongst them, suffering from extensive injuries incurred in the heat of battle. Only his closest mates would have witnessed the circumstances of his heroism; it would have been they who visited him as he lay in the hospital in Great Yarmouth; and it would have been they who hoped he would recover. As it turned out, John Pirsins did not, but it was these same mates who dipped into their pockets and paid for his headstone back at his home village of Horsford and its All Saints Church.
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