James Hawker

@1730-1786. He was the son of a Plymouth wine merchant and his wife, the daughter of a local alderman. He became the father of Admiral Edward Hawker and the brother-in-law of Rear-Admiral Lucius O’Bryen.

Hawker entered the navy in 1743 aboard the Shrewsbury 80, Captain Solomon Gideon, as a servant to the ships first lieutenant, Lucius O’Bryen. He moved with the latter officer to the storeship Portsmouth which was at Lisbon in the early part of 1744, and he was employed thereafter with Captain O’Bryen aboard the Sheerness 20, Ambuscade 40 in 1746, Colchester 50 until 1748, the Unicorn 28, Captain Molyneux Shuldham, and the Peggy 8 once more with Captain O’Bryen who had that vessel from 1749-55. On 31 December 1755 he was commissioned lieutenant with his appointment to the Colchester, which was once again commanded by Captain O’Bryen. In 1757 this vessel sailed to meet the East India convoy at St. Helena, and two years later was with Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s fleet off Brest.

Hawker was promoted commander on 6 August 1761 and joined the bomb vessel Granado 8, serving in Rear-Admiral George Rodney’s attack on Martinique in early 1762 before exchanging in March with Commander Stair Douglas of the Barbadoes 14, which vessel he commanded at Admiral Sir George Pocock’s reduction of Havana in the summer. He later commanded the French prize Sardoine 14, recommissioning her in April 1763 and sailing for New York in July. Hawker earned some notoriety at the port of Charlestown in South Carolina where he spent most of 1767 by insisting that the merchant marine obey the law pertaining to the collection of Customs documentation. The Sardoine was paid off in March 1768.

He was promoted post captain on 26 May 1768, and in March 1770 recommissioned the Aldborough 24 in which was employed for the next three summers at Newfoundland, sailing out in May 1770, May 1771, and May 1772, and retaining her until the spring of 1773.

During April 1776 Hawker recommissioned the Mermaid 28 at Plymouth, going out to North America where in June of the following year he was cruising off Seal Island, near Cape Sable on the southern tip of Nova Scotia. When news was received of a rebel presence in the St. John’s River he led the naval detachment sent to dislodge it, although in effect his mere arrival had the enemy scurrying for the woods around the harbour from where they were later driven off by the army. Remaining on that station, he joined Commodore Sir George Collier in thwarting a planned invasion of Nova Scotia by American forces at Machias, destroying their accumulated stores and inflicting a great deal of damage on the local American shipping. He also took the rebel privateer Active on 18 November.

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Captain Hawker fought a ferocious but inconclusive and eventually controversial action with the French frigate Hermione in 1780

On 8 July 1778 the Mermaid was chased into the Delaware river by the Comte d’Estaing’s fleet which had just arrived in the Americas from Toulon. Hawker ensured that all the ships’ cannon and small-arms were thrown overboard before he drove her ashore on Assateague Island and surrendered to the Americans forces. Initially incarcerated, Hawker was released on parole as it was acknowledged that he had always treated his American prisoners with ‘humanity and tenderness’.

In July 1779 he recommissioned the Iris 32, which was the ex-American frigate Hancock, going out to North America in November and cruising off Nova Scotia. On 6 June 1780 he fought the Hermione 36, Captain Réne Madeleine Le Vassor de La Touche Tréville, off New York in a bloody encounter which left both ships disabled, and seven killed and nine wounded on the British side as opposed to ten killed and thirty-seven wounded on the French side. The action was terminated, but by whom it was never established. The matter remained unresolved despite much correspondence, with La Touche Tréville insisting that his was the best vessel on the coast and that the British had ran away. The dispute was still emotive enough to incur Nelson’s wrath against the Frenchman when La Touche Tréville commanded the Toulon fleet and Nelson the Mediterranean fleet some twenty-four years later.

Having exchanged with Captain George Dawson, Hawker returned to England with a convoy on 1 August 1780 in command of the Renown 50, and on 10 November he was appointed to the Hero 74 which he commanded at Commodore George Johnstone’s action in the Cape Verde Islands on 16 April 1781, receiving special attention from the French admiral and flying his commodore’s broad pennant in the subsequent chase. He left the Hero shortly afterwards due to ill-health, and returning from St. Helena aboard the Jason 32, Captain James Pigot, he saw no further employment but retired to Plymouth where he owned several properties.

Captain Hawker died on 23 March 1786 and a monument to his memory was erected in Charles Church, Plymouth.

Hawker was married to Dorothea O’Bryen, the sister of his early captain, and had three sons and five daughters. Three of his daughters married serving officers, these being Vice-Admiral Charles Boyles, Vice-Admiral Edward Oliver Osborn, and Rear-Admiral Sir Michael Seymour. Another daughter married Sir William Knighton who became the private secretary and keeper of the Privy Purse in service to King George IV. Two of his sons joined the army and one, Edward, became an admiral in the navy.

In his early days Hawker was a protégé of Admiral Sir George Pocock, the M.P for Plymouth, who arranged his promotion to the rank of commander.