Captain Durham’s Hind escapes from five French Frigates – 13 January 1794
The frigate Hind 28, Captain Philip Durham, was returning from Guernsey on 13 January having escorted a fleet of transports delivering the 80th Regiment to that island from Portsmouth, when a squadron of five frigates and a cutter were seen standing to the south off the Casquets, some ten or so miles to the north-west of Alderney. A signal was sent up the halliards of one of the vessels, whereupon they turned towards the Hind, and at 11 a.m. their hoisting of the tricolour colours confirmed Durham’s worst fears that the strangers were French.
The Hind had been launched in 1785 at Sandgate in Kent and had been the command of Captain Hon. Alexander Forester Inglis Cochrane from May 1790 through the subsequent years of peace and the opening nine months of the French Revolutionary War. She had then been joined in the autumn of 1793 by the thirty year-old Captain Durham, a post captain of only a few months seniority who had seen much service in the American War of Revolution under his fellow Scot, Commodore John Elliot, and had been fortunate to survive the sinking of the Royal George 100 in August 1782, having been the officer of the watch on deck and thus able to make good his escape when she had begun to heel over. The Hind’s crew was predominately made up of volunteers and was considered a very proficient one.
Durham’s command also proved to be a good sailor, for as the chase developed only one of the French frigates, reportedly one of 40 guns, was able to close to within musket shot to windward, and having opened with a broadside the two vessels then maintained a mutual engagement which saw several broadsides exchanged. Yet although the Hind was giving a good account of herself against her larger opponent, Durham knew that if the other French vessels were able to join the engagement he would have little chance of survival, and so deciding that his best hope lay in flight alone, he ordered his crew away from the guns to lie flat on the deck whilst he, the first lieutenant and the sailing master remained standing.
Sure enough, the remaining French vessels struggled to make up the leeway, and the Hind’s hopes of avoiding capture were further bolstered by the sight of a large man-of-war standing up the Channel. A signal of distress was hoisted but unaccountably the vessel, soon identified as a ship-of-the-line, appeared to ignore it, and as the tackle aloft had been severed the Hind’s crew could not launch one of the frigate’s usual boats to send across to her. Somewhat providentially however, Durham had earlier purchased a light gig whilst passing through the Downs, and as the sea was little more than a millpond his men were able to launch this craft by hand. Half a dozen strong oarsmen and an officer then set off for the ship-of-the-line to alert her as to the Hind’s peril.
The strange vessel proved to be the Resolution 74, Captain James Cumming, which was on passage from Plymouth to Portsmouth. About ten miles to leeward of her, and thus largely unaware of all the excitement, was another sail of the line, the Impregnable 98, Captain George Blagden Westcott, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Benjamin Caldwell. At this stage the Resolution’s captain and all of her officers were under the impression that the French pursuit of the Hind was nothing more than a ruse to lure their undermanned vessel within range of what they believed to be two or three sail of the line amongst an enemy squadron, and this was a view that was shared by Commander William Bradley of the fireship Comet, which was also in sight.
Seeing the Hind’s boat approach, the Resolution nevertheless brought to, and upon being appraised of the situation Captain Cumming immediately signalled the Impregnable to join and hauled her wind to bear down and assist Captain Durham. At the sight of this immense reinforcement the leading French frigate backed off, and upon her hoisting another signal she and her consorts, which were about six miles to windward of the Resolution, hauled their wind and retreated. The hunter then became the hunted as the Impregnable, Resolution, Hind and Comet maintained a pursuit to within some fifteen miles of Guernsey, but by the following morning the weather had become very thick and the chase was called off.
During the action with the French frigate the Hind had sustained casualties of two marines killed and four men wounded, whilst up aloft the damage had been substantial, with thirty-nine holes in the foresail alone, three fore-shrouds shot away, and the tackle cut up. The French vessel had also suffered, with her crochet-yard shot away and her crew in apparent confusion.
Having previously put an account of the chase onto a Torbay fishing boat for onward transmission to the proper authorities, Captain Durham resumed his voyage to Spithead where the Hind arrived on the afternoon of the 14th to spend several days refitting. Meanwhile the enemy frigates, which had stood over to the coast of France before returning to British waters, took six prizes out of the Belfast convoy and chased the Pegasus 28, Captain Robert Barlow, into Torbay. Here an express was sent around to the admiral at Plymouth, but although a strong convoy under the orders of Commodore Thomas Pasley of the Bellerophon 74 was sent to seek out the enemy the French were able to make good their return home.