John Moutray

1723-1785. He originated from Roscobie in Fifeshire, being the younger son of James Moutray, the 5th Laird of Roscobie, and of his wife, Emelia Malcolm of Innerteel.

Having been commissioned lieutenant of the Orford 70, Captain Perry Mayne, in the West Indies by Rear-Admiral Sir Chaloner Ogle on 12 May 1744, Moutray had to wait until 16 February 1757 before his next step up in rank, becoming commander of the hospital ship Thetis 44. On 21 July, a hot press in Portsmouth saw several of his crew removed to other men-of-war, but the Thetis was able to join the Grand Fleet which put to sea under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke on 8 September, and she was back in the harbour during October, prior to returning to the fleet.

On 5 December 1757 the Thetis went out of Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead, and later that month she departed for the Mediterranean. After being posted captain by Rear-Admiral Thomas Brodrick on this station on 28 February 1758, Moutray remained with the Thetis as she had been reclassified as a 32-gun frigate. Regrettably, the Admiralty found this promotion to be ‘irregular’, and it was not confirmed until almost five years later, on 24 January 1763. Meanwhile, Moutray continued to serve in the Mediterranean, sailing from Messina on 24 October 1758 with the Swiftsure 68, Captain Thomas Stanhope, and St. Albans 60, Captain James Baker, in the hope of intercepting a French squadron bound from Malta to Toulon, and when that mission proved fruitless, departing with the fleet from Leghorn on 12 November. In February 1759 the Thetis was off Portugal, and in the spring of 1760, she assisted the Rainbow 44, Commodore Richard Gwynne, in the capture of the St. Malo privateer Victoire 24, together with three of her prizes.

On 17 July 1761 the Thetis received the surrender of the French frigate Bouffonne 32 at the conclusion of an action of thirty-six minutes some fifty miles off Cadiz after this vessel and her consort, the Achille 64, had been attacked by a squadron of two sail of the line and a frigate under the command of Captain Charles Proby of the Thunderer 74. The Thetis did not suffer a single casualty in this engagement because in endeavouring to escape, the Frenchman had fired exclusively into Moutray’s rigging. In return, the Bouffonne reportedly suffered the appalling casualty figures of thirty-two men killed and thirty-eight wounded. The Thetis returned to Portsmouth from the Mediterranean in December 1762, and Moutray left her on 17 January 1763 after she had been taken into harbour.

The Franco/Spanish fleet’s interception of Moutray’s convoy in 1780

After a period of unemployment, Moutray was appointed to the frigate Emerald 32 on 16 August 1769. This vessel was at Sheerness during May 1770, and by November she was at Spithead. In December she was detailed to take General John Mostyn, the governor of Minorca, out to his post, and Moubray put his residence at Dunfermline up for let in the expectation that he would be abroad for some time. Sailing from Portsmouth on 3 January 1771, the Emerald reached Minorca eighteen days later, having also given passage to Lord George Lennox and Lady Lennox. She arrived back at Spithead from Cadiz on 16 April with, reportedly, over five hundred thousand guineas which had originally been shipped from Jamaica, and a week later Moutray resigned the command to Captain Hugh Dalrymple.

In 1773 he became the 7th Laird of Roscobie on the passing of his elder brother, and at the end of the year he put his residence on the Links of Leith up for let in in order to join the frigate Thames 32, to which he was officially appointed on 17 December. Sailing from Portsmouth for Gibraltar on 9 March 1774, he undertook a mission to Algiers with the British consul, a Mr Frazer, but that gentleman was forbidden to land by the Dey, and on 26 May the Thames arrived back at Spithead from the Mediterranean with the consul. In early July she set off from Portsmouth once more with the Tripoline ambassador and his suite, and she returned from the Mediterranean via Lisbon to the Hampshire port at the end of September, with news that the dispute between Britain and the Algerines had escalated, and that all the merchant ships in the Mediterranean were now required to be convoyed.
With instructions for the Thames to be paid off being rescinded, in early November 1774 she was ordered to fit out for service in the Americas. Just before Christmas she put out, and on 27 April 1775 she returned to Portsmouth from Madeira with a dozen British seamen who had been engaged in piracy, and who had been detained by the Portuguese. She also brought with her what was believed to be the largest amount of silver carried by a single ship in many a year. In June she was taken into dock, and she was paid off in July. Although it was then reported that Moutray would put the Arethusa into commission to sail for North America, the command instead passed to Captain Digby Dent.

After twenty-one months unemployment, Moutray was appointed to the Warwick 50 on 11 April 1777, which vessel was the chief beneficiary of a hot press in June. In early August she put out from Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead, and on the 16th she sailed for New York. Departing Quebec for England on 26 October, Moutray arrived at the Admiralty on 2 December with alarming dispatches from Major-General Sir Guy Carleton advising of Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga.

In January 1778 the Warwick took a convoy south to St. Helena, and she brought ten homeward-bound East Indiamen and their escort of two frigates back from the island to arrive at Portsmouth on 6 August, prior to going around to the Downs.

On 27 August 1778 Moutray was ordered to commission the newly launched Britannia 100, and he reportedly took aboard a number of men from the recently returned East India convoy to complete his crew. This vessel was still in Portsmouth Harbour when in January 1779 he sat on the court martial of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel, which considered the commander-in-chief’s conduct at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, and it was not until 6 April that the Britannia finally sailed out for Spithead, by which time she had been designated the flagship of Vice-Admiral George Darby, who in turn had selected Captain Charles Morice Pole as his flag-captain.

Moutray had been appointed to the Ramillies 74 on 31 March 1779, but it appears likely that he did not join her until the end of April, during which month she and the Terrible 74, Captain Sir Richard Bickerton, had potentially earned immense riches by taking twenty prizes out of a homeward-bound Martinique convoy, the fortunate acting-commander of the Ramillies being Captain Thomas Allen. Joining the Grand Fleet at Spithead, the Ramillies was detached into Plymouth on 2 August, with one hundred sick men of the fleet, and to obtain provisions. At this time the allied fleet was entering the Channel, and after Moutray’s command had left the Devonshire port days later to rejoin Admiral Darby’s fleet, rumours abounded that she had been captured. News eventually arrived that she was safe, and she subsequently participated in the Channel Fleet Retreat. In October she was once more at sea with the fleet, and at the end of December she was taken into Portsmouth Harbour to be docked.

In early March 1780, the Ramillies left Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead, and in the same month Moutray sat on the court martial of Captain Philip Boteler, who had surrendered the Ardent 64 to the allied fleet in the previous August. On 8 April the Ramillies sailed from Portsmouth with the West Indies convoy under Commodore Hon. Robert Boyle Walsingham, but this officer’s force was to be delayed in Torbay for weeks by contrary winds, during which time Moutray’s command collided in a heavy storm with the Bienfaisant 64, Captain John MacBride, with reports that both vessels had lost their rudders and been obliged to cut away masts. Accordingly, on 9 May the Ramillies sailed for Plymouth to enter dock, from where she was released in early July.

Receiving instructions to command the escort of the East and West Indies trade, Moutray sailed from Plymouth on 29 July 1780, but upon running into another substantial fleet on 8 August he failed to alter his course. The strangers proved to be a largely Spanish force under the command of Admiral Don Luis de Cordova, comprising thirty-one sail of the line including a squadron of seven French vessels in addition to a half-dozen frigates. Acting on intelligence, it had been sent out from Cadiz to intercept the convoy and by daylight on 9 August it had been able to capture fifty-five ships. The loss to the insurers was over £1.5m, many valuable troops were captured, and Spain was emboldened to continue a war from which she had considered withdrawing. On 15 August the Ramillies reached Madeira where just six remaining ships from the convoy were able to join him, and they made their way to Jamaica to arrive on 13 November. Three months later, on 13 February 1781, Moutray was brought to a court-martial at Port Royal aboard the Princess Royal 90, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Joshua Rowley, and after eight days deliberation he was suspended from his command, being ‘reprehensible in his conduct for the loss of the convoy’. Moutray’s supporters would claim that the government had failed to provide adequate resources to ensure the safety of the convoy, but his contemporaries clearly had little sympathy for his management of the situation.

Mary Moutray

He resumed employment shortly before the government fell in 1782, being appointed to the Edgar 74 on 2 March at Portsmouth and flying the broad pennant of Commodore John Elliot in the Grand Fleet. On 6 May he was appointed to commission the Vengeance 74, which was fitting out at Portsmouth, and which captured the Dutch privateer cutter Dogger Bank 20 after a six-hour chase off the Scilly Isles on 9 August. After sitting on the court martial into the loss of the Royal George on 29 August, Moutray commanded the Vengeance at the relief of Gibraltar on 18 October and at the Battle of Cape Spartel, where he lost three men killed and fourteen wounded. He subsequently left the Vengeance on 23 December.

In February 1783, Moutray was appointed the resident commissioner of the navy at Antigua, a civil position to which he was conveyed by Captain Cuthbert Collingwood in the Mediator 44, departing Portsmouth in mid-October. On 29 December 1784 he was ordered to hoist a broad pennant in the absence of any senior officer by Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes, the commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands, and he did so aboard the Latona 38, Captain Charles Sandys. When Captain Horatio Nelson of the Boreas 28 entered the harbour, he refused to recognise Moutray’s unofficial appointment, and upon being ordered by the young captain to strike his pennant, Moutray acquiesced. When the Admiralty learnt of the incident, they declared Hughes’ action to be illegal, and in 1785 they recalled Moutray, by which time he was in any case very ill.

Captain Moutray retired to Bath where he died on 22 November 1785, being buried in the Abbey Church.

He married Mary Pemble, twenty-eight years his junior and the daughter of a retired naval commander, on 9 September 1771 at her hometown, Berwick-on-Tweed. She was a most attractive woman, both in looks and character, and they had issue a son and daughter. Mrs Moutray remained on friendly terms with Collingwood for the next twenty years, as she did with Nelson, who not only made a fool of himself yearning for her, but also helped shape the career of Moutray’s son, James, until he died of a fever at Calvi in 1794 whilst a lieutenant. Moutray also had two illegitimate children with a woman by the name of Elspeth London.

Moutray suffered ill health in the latter years of his career, and he was sent out to Antigua despite his entreaties not to serve in a tropical climate.