Hon. John Byron
1723-86. He was born on 8 November 1723, the second son of William, 4th Lord Byron, and his wife, Hon. Frances Berkeley, the daughter of the 4th Lord Berkeley. He was the grandfather of the poet Lord Byron.
In September 1740 Byron sailed as a midshipman aboard the store ship Wager, Captain David Cheap, one of Commodore George Anson’s squadron in his famous voyage to the Pacific Ocean. On 14 May 1741 the Wager was wrecked on the Chilean coast, and after the survivors separated Byron remained with his captain, although for a time he found himself desperately surviving with a group of native people whose manner towards him alternated between that of hostility and brutal kindness. When he eventually rejoined the captain and his three surviving companions they were taken to the relative civilisation of a Spanish settlement, from there moved to a prison at Valparaiso, and then allowed to reside at Santiago for two years. In December 1744 they sailed from Valparaiso in a French ship, and after reaching Brest on 31 October 1745 they were released three months later and allowed to return to England.
In his absence Byron had been commissioned lieutenant on 22 March 1745, and after arriving home he was promoted commander on 21 April 1746, joining the Vulture 10. He was posted to the frigate Syren 20 at Gosport in succession to the dismissed Captain John Stringer on 30 December, remaining in her until October 1747 having served in the Bay of Biscay and home waters. He then immediately joined the Falkland 50, entering Plymouth from a cruise in June 1748, and retaining her until August.
In December 1748 he was appointed to the St. Albans 50, which was recommissioned as a Plymouth guardship, and in the early part of 1752 she sailed from the Devonshire port for the coast of Guinea via Madeira in a small squadron of three men of war under the orders of Commodore Matthew Buckle to observe French operations. She returned to Plymouth from that coast in June and Byron left her shortly afterwards.
He recommissioned the guard ship Augusta 60 at Plymouth in January 1753, which he retained until October, and after removing to the Vanguard 68 he took troops out to Minorca from Plymouth in May 1754 with the rank of commodore before returning to Portsmouth on 18 July after a passage of seven weeks with troops collected from Port Mahon. During November the Vanguard was ordered to be fitted out for Channel service, and in March 1755 she was stationed at Plymouth, from where she went around to Spithead with half-a-dozen other men-of-war towards the end of the month. Having remained some weeks with the fleet, she then put back for Plymouth at the end of May, and on 21 June she was towed from Plymouth Sound up the Hamoaze to be copper-sheathed. In July she received orders for Spithead once more, but upon leaving Plymouth on 20 July she struck a rock off Mount Edgcumbe Point and had to return to dock to be examined.
The Vanguard finally got away from Plymouth in early August 1755 in conveyance of three tenders for Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s fleet off the coast of France, in the course of which duty she discovered a French 64-gun vessel bearing down upon her. Although the two countries were not officially at war, tensions were high through Hawke’s interception of shipping bound for French ports, and Byron felt sufficiently threatened as to fire two shots which damaged the other vessel’s rigging. He then demanded that a French officer report on board the Vanguard, and although satisfied by that gentleman’s explanation as to the French captain’s conduct he then had recourse to order thirty men from the tenders to join him aboard the Vanguard when the other vessel appeared to threaten him once more. Apparently noting this reinforcement of the Vanguard’s crew the French vessel then made off.
In September, with war still not declared, the Vanguard captured three homeward-bound French merchantmen from St-Domingue and a vessel from Newfoundland which were sent into Falmouth and Plymouth, their total value reputedly being between fifty and a hundred thousand guineas. Continuing to operate out of Plymouth, the Vanguard added a further prize to her haul on 17 November with the capture of another vessel homeward-bound from Guadeloupe.
In January 1756 the Vanguard was attached to Rear-Admiral Temple West’s squadron at Plymouth, sailing out of the Sound on 3 February to join Rear-Admiral Henry Osborn’s force which had orders to observe the French movements at Brest. She then rejoined the fleet under Hawke at Spithead. Shortly afterwards she captured another homeward-bound French merchantman, this time from Martinique, and by the beginning of May she was back at Plymouth again. She later saw service under Vice-Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen in the Bay of Biscay, and whilst returning to Plymouth in early September in the company of the Harwich 50, Captain Joshua Rowley, she was unsuccessfully pursued by two 74-gun French men-of-war. Towards the end of the year she served under Vice-Admiral Charles Henry Knowles out of Plymouth.
At the beginning of April 1757 Byron was appointed to the new America 60 which was commissioned at the end of the month, being attached to the Grand Fleet at Spithead, and remaining with that force into the autumn whilst participating in the disappointing expedition against Rochefort. He enjoyed a most eventful cruise at the end of the year off Cornwall and the French coast in the company of the Coventry 28, Captain Carr Scrope, and Brilliant 36, Captain Hyde Parker, with the squadron re-taking a Hull vessel laden with tar and oil, capturing a fish-laden vessel from Gaspe Bay, rescuing two dozen men out of a crew of seventy from a richly-laden French snow carrying furs that had caught fire whilst attempting to avoid capture, re-taking the 24-gun privateer Dragon, and sinking the Bayonne privateer Intrepide 14 whilst rescuing all her surviving crew of one hundred and twenty men.
On 31 May 1758 the America arrived at Portsmouth to join Admiral Lord Anson’s Channel Fleet which put to sea shortly afterwards, and in November she left Plymouth in the company of the frigate Maidstone 28, Captain Dudley Digges, on reports of the presence of French men-of-war in the St. George’s Channel, although this proved to be a fruitless errand. From the spring of 1759 Byron commanded the newly commissioned Fame 74, arriving from the Downs to join the Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke at Spithead in May, and serving under that officer off Brest from where his command briefly put into Plymouth during August.
Next ordered to hoist a broad pennant in early 1760, Byron sailed for North America in March with a team of engineers to effect the demolition of the Louisbourg fortifications in order to prevent their future use by the French. Whilst engaged in this duty, and in the company of the Repulse 32, Captain John Carter Allen, and Scarborough 20, Captain John Stott, he destroyed a French squadron consisting of the frigates Machault 32, Bienfaisant 22, and a sloop, the Marquis de Malauze, in addition to a score of other vessels in nearby Chaleur Bay in the Gulf of St. Lawrence on 8 July. He returned to Plymouth from Louisbourg in November.
On 22 February 1761 Byron’s house in Plymouth was broken into by a couple of sailors from the Intrepid 64, Captain Stephen Colby, who felled Byron’s wife and also knocked him down before he secured them and had them taken away by the constable and guard. He returned to duty under the orders of Commodore Matthew Buckle off Brest, and in August the Fame entered Plymouth from a cruise having fallen in with and escorted home two Indiamen. In the subsequent spring she was still serving off Brest where she remained with little opportunity for distinction until Byron left her at the beginning of 1763 following the end of the Seven Years War.
In March 1764 he was appointed to the Dolphin 20, which was fitted out and copper-sheathed at Woolwich during the spring, and on 3 July, in company with the Tamar 16, Commander Patrick Mouat, he embarked from Plymouth on a secret voyage to the South Seas, having been ordered to hoist a broad pennant as the commander-in-chief designate for the East Indies so as to prevent the Spanish discovering his true intentions. His crew, who had no idea of their destination, were all picked men and contained no ships’ boys. In October the two ships were at Rio where it was announced that they would be departing for the Cape and then Bengal, and as late as January 1766 it was being reported that reinforcements were to be sent out to join him in the East Indies. Instead, after visiting the Falkland Islands and recommending their possession in the name of the King, Byron sailed through the Straits of Magellan, later making curious claims, corroborated by his crew, that Patagonia was peopled by civilised giants over seven feet tall, or as reported in the papers between eight and a half and nine feet tall. Thereafter he discovered the Isles of Disappointment but made little attempt to explore the Pacific, maintaining a direct route to Batavia and from there to the Cape of Good Hope. Whilst the Tamar sailed for Antigua in order to replace her rudder, the Dolphin returned to the Downs on May 9 1766, with Byron immediately striking his broad pennant and setting off for London. Only six men were lost during the voyage around the world, and such was Byron’s popularity that his crew, having been paid double wages, marched to his residence at Mortlake via the Queen’s Palace and the Admiralty to attend him and sing a song composed in his honour. Nevertheless, amongst the authorities there was some disquiet at the little time he had spent on what was supposed to be a more exhaustive voyage of discovery.
In February 1769 he kissed the King’s hand on his appointment as governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland, and flying his broad pennant aboard the Antelope 50, Captain George Gayton, he sailed from Portsmouth on 5 June with instructions to be stricter in the prevention of French fishing encroachments. Arriving back at Spithead at the end of November with two huge Newfoundland dogs as presents to his brother Lord Byron and the Earl of Hillsborough, he departed again for Newfoundland in May 1770 before coming home at the end of the year. He then flew his broad pennant aboard the Panther 60, Captain Gayton, when setting sail for a final season in May 1771, although he had to put back to Plymouth when the vessel lost her mainmast, and he finished his tenure in Newfoundland when arriving back at Portsmouth in mid-November after a seventeen-day passage.
Byron remained unemployed and in relative obscurity for the next six years, although In May 1773 he inherited Lord Berkeley’s estates in Yorkshire and Hampshire when that nobleman, his uncle, died without an heir.
He was promoted rear-admiral on 31 March 1775, in which year he declined the position of second-in-command in North America due to his poor health, and he was advanced to vice-admiral on 29 January 1778. With the American War of Revolution gaining pace and attracting the interest of the old enemy, France, it was intended that he would go out to assume the command of the East Indies station, and his flagship Albion 74 was actually fitting out for this service when reservations about Rear-Admiral James Gambier’s fitness to command a fleet that was to be sent to North America led to the King and the prime minister, Lord North, advocating Byron for the command instead. Unfortunately, by that time a good proportion of his personal property had been despatched to the East Indies aboard the Asia 64, Captain George Vandeput, which had sailed on 27 April 1778.
On 9 June 1778, with his flag flying on the Princess Royal 90, Captain William Blair, Byron’s fleet of thirteen ships of the line set sail to intercept Vice-Admiral d’Estaing’s Toulon fleet of twelve sail of the line. Not only was his force late in departing England, but the ships were poorly fitted out and they had a large quota of gaol men aboard. Not surprisingly the squadron dispersed in the first storm it encountered, and with scurvy and gaol fever prevalent it eventually reached America in a state of distress and separation. The Princess Royal arrived alone at Sandy Hook on 18 August from where she was forced to bear away from the French fleet off Long Island. Byron was able to collect what remained of his force by 26 September, and on 18 October he returned to sea, although he then lost more time as the squadron was immediately afflicted by another storm and was forced to proceed to Rhode Island to refit.
On 13 December he set sail for Martinique in order to blockade d’Estaing, who had taken advantage of the British tribulations to move unmolested into West Indian waters. After arriving in the Leeward Islands with ten sail of the line on 6 January 1779, Byron superseded, albeit reluctantly, the local commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington, although he allowed his subordinate to run the station on a day to day basis. The French were generally happy to remain in port until the opportunity to avoid the blockading force came, and this occurred in June when Byron retired to St. Kitts in order to escort the trade convoys, allowing d’Estaing to escape and take Grenada. The French then received reinforcements of which Byron was unaware, and when he did arrive off Grenada on 6 July his fleet of twenty-one ships was worsted by d’Estaing’s twenty-five in a poorly conducted, and often criticised, action. Suffering from poor health and a nervous fever, Byron shortly afterwards turned over his command to Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker in order to return home. He arrived at Portsmouth on 10 October aboard the frigate Maidstone 32, Captain William Parker, and went straight up to London to report to the Admiralty and the King.
Byron did not see any further service although he declined the Mediterranean command in 1783 and others that were offered, including the East Indies in 1784. He died on 10 April 1786 of a disorder of the liver at his house in Bolton Row, London.
He married Sophia Trevanion of Cornwall in August 1748 and had nine children, of whom three died in infancy. His eldest son, ‘Mad Jack Byron’ was the father of Lord Byron, the poet, whilst his other son, George Anson Byron, captained the Andromache 28 at the Battle of the Saintes, having had the honour of delivering news of the French course to Admiral Sir George Rodney. His grandson, the son of George Anson Byron, was born on 8 March 1789, was present aboard the frigate Tartar 32 when the gallant Captain George Bettesworth was killed off Norway on 16 May 1808, was posted captain on 7 June 1814, and succeeded his cousin Lord Byron in the family title on his death on 19 April 1824. Byron’s daughter Augusta married Vice-Admiral Christopher Parker. His seat was in Warwickshire.
Nicknamed ‘Foul-Weather’ Jack, Byron was over six feet tall. He was brave and an excellent seaman who had not fought in a battle prior to commanding the fleet at the Battle of Grenada, and although he suffered the worst of luck on that occasion his naïve tactics could have led to a decisive defeat but for the failures of his opponent. Similarly his virtually fruitless voyage of discovery through the Pacific in the 1760’s suggested that he was a far from ideal explorer. He published a narrative of his shipwreck in 1768, and his grandson, Lord Byron, adapted parts for his work ‘Don Juan’. A notorious rake, he took many lovers, and his grandson said of him that he ‘had no rest at sea, nor on shore’.