John Whitby

1774-1806. Born on 7 October 1774, he was the eldest of seven sons of the Reverend Thomas Whitby of Creswall Hall, Staffordshire, and of his wife, Mabella Turton. The brother of Captain Henry Whitby, he was distantly related to Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of St. Vincent.

In February 1789 Whitby went out to India as a midshipman with his patron and mentor, Commodore Hon. William Cornwallis aboard the Crown 64, Captain James Cornwallis, and having apparently been commissioned lieutenant in 1791 he was promoted commander in 1792, in which capacity he was commanding the brig Dispatch 12 at the end of that year.

Whitby was the protege and close friend of Admiral hon. William Cornwallis.

Remaining in the East Indies, he was posted captain at the age of nineteen with seniority from 20 April 1793, and he commanded the frigate Minerva 38 with the flag of the promoted Rear-Admiral Cornwallis on 23 August at the reduction of Pondicherry. The Minerva then returned home flying Cornwallis’ flag to be paid off in April 1794, having been chased up the Channel by the Intrepid 64, Captain Charles Carpenter, who believed her to be a French frigate.

When Cornwallis raised his flag aboard the Excellent 74 in the Channel in May 1794 Whitby joined him as his flag-captain, and in June they departed with twelve sail of the line in order to escort the East India convoy out from the soundings before cruising in the Bay of Biscay. Whitby moved with Cornwallis to the Caesar 80 in August, replacing Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy who was preparing to face a court martial in respect of his alleged misconduct at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. Whitby then left this vessel in the autumn on Captain Molloy’s impending return, and after Cornwallis joined the Royal Sovereign 100 in December 1794 Whitby replaced Captain Henry Nicholls on that vessel in the following March.

Continuing in the Channel, Whitby commanded the Royal Sovereign in the celebrated Cornwallis Retreat on 17 June 1795. In February 1796 Cornwallis was appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands, and with Whitby acting as his flag captain once more he set sail on 1 March, only to return on the 15th after the Royal Sovereign had been fouled by a transport, causing the loss of one hundred and forty two men when that vessel went down. Shortly afterwards Cornwallis struck his flag following a court martial and dispute with the Board of Admiralty, and Whitby left the Royal Sovereign with him.

In May 1799 Whitby recommissioned the Severn 44, going out to the Leeward Islands with a convoy in the spring of 1800, but he left that vessel on her return within the year. From June to September 1801 he commanded the Ville de Paris 110 with the flag of Cornwallis in the Channel. He subsequently commanded the Belleisle 74 in the Mediterranean and at Malta from 7 October 1801, retaining her through the peace to the resumption of hostilities in 1803, latterly off Toulon. Having been succeeded by Captain William Hargood on 18 March 1804 he later rejoined Cornwallis, who was now the commander-in-chief in the Channel, commanding the Ville de Paris 110 through 1805 until the beginning of 1806.

Following the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1805 it was Whitby who was sent by the Admiralty to break the news of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s death to Lady Hamilton at Merton.

Whitby’s next appointment was to the Gibraltar 80, but before he could join her he died at Cornwallis’ seat of a ‘malignant fever’ on 7 April 1806.

In 1802 Whitby married 19 year-old Mary Ann Theresa Symonds, daughter of Captain Thomas Symonds, and they later lived with Cornwallis at his estate of Newlands, near Lymington in Hampshire. The childless Cornwallis was extremely fond of the young couple, and following Whitby’s death his widow remained at the house with her daughter, Theresa John Cornwallis Whitby, and cared for Cornwallis until his death in 1819, whereupon she inherited the estate. Cornwallis was buried next to Whitby at New Milton. Mrs Whitby died in 1850 having established a reputation as a writer and an expert on silkworms, in which subject she corresponded with Charles Darwin.

At the time of his absurdly early promotions in the early 1790’s Whitby was poorly regarded and considered too young for his post, being so eager to flog, particularly as a deterrent to swearing, that Cornwallis had to order him not to punish anybody without his authorisation. Nevertheless he was considered to be a good seaman, and the Minerva operated efficiently without orders when tacking or wearing. By 1804 his reputation had clearly improved, for Nelson wrote to Cornwallis in praise of him, stating that he would be universally missed on his departure from the Mediterranean fleet.