Hon. John Byron
1723-86. He was born on 8 November 1723, the second son of William, fourth Lord Byron and Frances, daughter of 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, which formed part of Commodore George Anson’s squadron on its famous voyage to the Pacific Ocean. Unfortunately this ship was wrecked off the Chilean coast on 14 May 1741, and when the survivors separated Byron remained with his captain, although for a time he found himself living with a group of native Indians whose manner alternated between that of outright hostility and brutal kindness. When he eventually rejoined the captain and three surviving companions they were taken to the relative civilisation of a Spanish settlement, from there moved to a prison at Valparaiso, and finally they were allowed to reside at Santiago for two years. In December 1744 the group sailed from Valparaiso in a French ship, reaching Brest on 31 October 1745, and three months later they were released and allowed to return to England. Byron later wrote a journal of this great adventure entitled ‘The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron’ which proved to be a most popular publication.
He had been commissioned lieutenant in his absence, and after arriving home he was rapidly promoted commander in early 1746, joining the Vulture 10 at Sheerness and later serving out of Plymouth. On 30 December he was further promoted by being posted captain of the frigate Siren 20 in succession to the dismissed Captain John Stringer, and he remained with her until the peace of October 1747.
In December 1748 Byron recommissioned the St. Albans 50 as a Plymouth guardship and in 1749 he cruised off the coast of Guinea, retaining her until 1752. Having recommissioned the guard ship Augusta 60 at Plymouth in January 1753, he removed in 1754 to the Vanguard 70, taking troops out to Minorca before serving in the North Americas during the following year and in the Channel during 1756.
From 1757-60 he cruised off the coast of France in Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s fleet or in command of his own squadron, serving initially with the new America 60 which had been commissioned in April, and from the spring of 1759 aboard the newly commissioned Fame 74. Ordered to hoist a broad pennant in early 1760, he demolished the Louisbourg fortifications to prevent their use by the French in Canada and then destroyed a French squadron consisting of the frigates Machault 32, Bienfaisant 22 and a sloop, the Marquis de Malauze in nearby Chaleur Bay on 8 July. The following spring saw him serving off Brest, where he remained until the end of the war.
In command of the Dolphin 20, and in company with the Tamar 16, Commander Patrick Mouat, Byron left Plymouth on 3 July 1764 with orders to hoist a broad pennant as the commander-in-chief designate for the East Indies. This was but a ruse to prevent the Spanish discovering his true intentions, for he was actually under secret orders to embark upon a cruise into the South Sea. After visiting the Falkland Islands and naming Port Egmont he claimed possession of those islands in the name of His Majesty before sailing through the Straits of Magellan, making curious claims, corroborated by his crew, that Patagonia was peopled by giants over seven 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. His unexpectedly early return to England on May 9 1766 caused some dismay as it was felt an opportunity to undertake a great voyage of discovery had been forsaken.
Byron served as a steady if unspectacular governor of Newfoundland for the three summer seasons from 1769, going out in June 1769 with his broad pennant aboard the Antelope 50, Captain George Gayton, and again with that vessel in May 1770, before making his final voyage out un June 1771 with his broad pennant aboard the Panther 60, once more commanded by Captain Gayton.
He was promoted rear-admiral on 31 March 1775 and vice-admiral on 29 January 1778. It had been 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 it was intended should 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.
On 9 June 1778, with his flag aboard the Princess Royal 90, Captain William Blair, his fleet of thirteen ships set sail for North America to intercept Vice-Admiral d’Estaing’s Toulon fleet of twelve sail of the line. Not only was Byron late in departing England but his ships were poorly fitted out and they had a large quota of gaol men aboard. Not surprisingly the squadron was dispersed by the first storm it encountered, and with scurvy and gaol fever prevalent the ships eventually reached America in a state of distress and separation. Byron’s flagship arrived unaccompanied at Sandy Hook on 18 August from where she was forced to bear away from the French fleet off Long Island. By 26 September he had managed to collect what remained of his force, and on 18 October he returned to sea, although more time was lost when they were immediately overtaken by another storm and was forced to enter Rhode Island to refit.
On 13 December Byron 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 reluctantly superseded 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 content to remain in port, awaiting their chance to avoid the blockading force, and this occurred in June when Byron retired to St. Kitts in order to escort the trade convoys. d’Estaing immediately set sail for Grenada and captured that island. The French then received reinforcements of which Byron was unaware, and when he did arrive off Grenada on 6 July 1779 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 turned over his command to Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker in order to return home, arriving in England on 10 October.
There ensued some criticism as to Byron’s conduct but the King eventually received him, and he was given a letter of appreciation from the Admiralty. In 1783 he declined the Mediterranean command and others that were offered including the East Indies.
Admiral Byron died on 10 April 1786 at his London residence.
He married Sophia Trevanion of Caerhays, Cornwall on 8 August 1748 and had nine children, of whom three died in infancy. His eldest son, ‘Mad Jack Byron’ became a captain in the Army and 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 taking news of the French location 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.
He was nicknamed ‘Foul-Weather Jack’ because his ships often ran into that type of weather, and perhaps because his career could have been far more productive than it was. Byron was over six feet tall, was a brave man and excellent seaman who had not fought a battle prior to 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 indicated that he was a far from ideal explorer. His grandson, Lord Byron adapted parts of his ‘The Narrative of the Honourable John Byron’ for his work ‘Don Juan’. A well-known rake, Byron took many lovers, and his grandson said of him that he ‘had no rest at sea, nor on shore’.