John Willett Payne

1752-1803. He was born at St. Kitts in the Leeward Islands on 23 April 1752, the youngest of three sons of Ralph Payne, the lieutenant-governor of that island by his second wife, Margaret Gallwey, also of that island. An elder step-brother became Lord Lavington in the Irish peerage and served as the governor of the Leeward Islands.

Having enjoyed a private education in Greenwich Payne entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1767. Two and a half years later he joined the frigate Quebec 32, Captain Francis Reynolds Morton, as an able seaman sailing to the Leeward Islands. Removing to Rear-Admiral Robert Man’s flagship Montagu 60, Captain Richard Smith, he remained there for another two and a half years before transferring to the sloop Falcon 18 Captain Cuthbert Bain, in which he served in the expedition to St. Vincent in 1772.

John Willett Payne

He returned to England in early 1773 aboard the Seahorse 20, Captain Thomas Pasley, and it has been stated that he found employment aboard the Plymouth guardship Egmont 74, Captain John Elphinston. His next ship was the Rainbow 44, Captain Thomas Collingwood, serving off the Guinea Coast in 1774 and visiting Antigua where his elder brother, Sir Ralph Payne, was the governor of the Leeward Islands. Upon returning to England and apparently the Egmont he passed for lieutenant on 10 May 1775.

Towards the end of 1775 Payne joined the Bristol 50 carrying the broad pennant of Commodore Sir Peter Parker, and after sailing to North America on Boxing Day he was present at the unsuccessful attack on Charleston on 28 June 1776 and the occupation of New York from 3 July. He was then taken aboard the Eagle 64, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, and serving as an aide-de-camp he passed messages between that officer and his brother, General Sir William Howe, whilst also commanding many different craft in the process.

On 9 March 1777 he was commissioned lieutenant of the frigate Brune 32, commanded by the brave if somewhat eccentric Captain James Ferguson, and in 1778 he joined the Phoenix 44, Captain Hyde Parker. With this vessel he was present at both the defence of New York in July under Lord Howe, and the operations off Rhode Island in July/August.

After returning to England aboard the Roebuck 44, Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, Payne joined the Romney 50, Captain Roddam Home, initially serving in the Channel fleet and some little time later becoming the pennant ship of Commodore George Johnstone, for whom Payne was the ship’s first lieutenant. It was this officer who appointed Payne to his first command, the Cormorant 14 on 6 November 1779, prior to the squadron sailing for Lisbon. He remained with Johnstone thereafter, assisting the cutter Rattlesnake 12, Lieutenant John M’Laurin, in the capture of a large Vigo privateer in the following spring.

Payne was posted to the Artois 40 on 8 July 1780, this being a beautiful French-built frigate which had recently been captured by Johnstone’s squadron. In August 1780 he was falsely accused by the Portuguese Government of entering their nationals to his ship in the Tagus against their will, but he subsequently received an apology.

He left the Artois in favour of Captain John MacBride during the winter of 1780-1, and in the following August he recommissioned the Enterprise 28 in which he escorted the Baltic convoy with the Albemarle 28, Captain Horatio Nelson, and the Argo 44, Captain John Butchart. Upon going out to the Leeward Islands in April 1782 he enjoyed a successful period in operations against the enemy, resulting in his transfer to the Leander 50 by Admiral Hugh Pigot in December.

Whilst in the vicinity of Guadeloupe on the night of 19 January 1783 the Leander engaged a disabled enemy ship that was carrying additional troops aboard her. A ferocious two hour action followed, the enemy apparently flying Spanish colours but firing 36-pound French shot which indicated that she was probably at least a 74-gun vessel. Both ships were severely damaged in the one hundred and forty minute duel, with the Leander having to repel three boarding attempts. The identity of her opponent was never truly established. Shortly afterwards Payne was appointed to the Princess Amelia 80 having exchanged with Captain John Reynolds who had brought her out with Rear-Admiral Richard Hughes’ flag, and he took her back to England at the peace where she was converted into a church-ship at Chatham.

Prince George, the future King George IV as shown in Gillray’s famous caricature

For most of the next ten years Payne lived ashore in some disrepute, sharing a London house with Captain Lord Hugh Seymour and indulging in general frivolity. During an interim period in the winter of 1785 he accompanied Lord Northington, the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, through France and Italy, enjoying walks amongst the glaciers and residing for a while in Rome. For a short while during the Dutch Armament in the autumn of 1787 he held the command of the new frigate Phoenix 36, but he left her after two months having never taken her to sea.

From 1785-95 he served as the private secretary to the Prince of Wales, and increasingly he became the dissolute royal’s prime supporter and confidant, assisting him in all his intrigues against the King and his many political enemies. Although Payne himself was not politically active he became the M.P for Huntingdon in 1787 in the interest of Lord Sandwich, being one of many gentlemen of means who had lent money to the ex-first lord of the Admiralty. In the following year the Prince assumed the regency as a result of King George’s illness, and Payne’s fierce and persistent support of his friend alienated many amongst the high and mighty. During the summer of 1791 he toured the continent seeking funds for the prince.

On the commencement of war with France in 1793 Payne was appointed to the thirty year-old Russell 74 in May, sailing to join the Channel fleet in August and taking part in the Channel fleet cruise of October-November 1793. The Russell fought well at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, where she took possession of the Amerique 74 after she had been defeated by the Leviathan 74. Although Payne’s men were ordered off that prize by officers from the Royal Sovereign they were later compensated with taking possession of the Impétueux 74. During the action the Russell lost eight men killed and twenty-six wounded.

In December 1794 he was ordered to hoist a broad pennant aboard the Jupiter 50, Captain William Lechmere, so that he could escort Princess Caroline of Brunswick, the betrothed of the Prince of Wales, to England. Collecting her from Cuxhaven on 28 March 1795 he brought the princess back to Gravesend on 4 April before returning to the Russell after Captain Thomas Larcom had acted for him. He was thereafter employed in the Channel and North Sea through to the autumn of 1796.

During 1796 Payne fell out with prince over the failure of his marriage to Princess Caroline whom he personally liked, and having earned the enmity of the prince’s mistress, the Countess of Jersey, he was soon completely alienated. He renounced his various sinecures, including his position as the auditor of the Duchy of Cornwall which he had held since 1792, and he resigned his seat in parliament.

Although not in the best of health, Payne next fitted out the re-built and re-christened Impétueux 80 to his own design, this vessel having been the Amerique which had been captured at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. After transferring the crew from the Russell into her he departed Portsmouth in November 1796, and he was present in indecisive operations against the Ireland-bound Brest fleet in December, and at the Spithead mutiny that erupted on 16 April 1797.

Payne’s support of Princess Caroline resulted in his falling out with the prince, although they were later reconciled.

In June 1797 he was ordered to act as a commodore in the Channel fleet, taking three sail of the line and two frigates in chase of a French squadron off Cape Ortegal. During this cruise his ship assisted in the capture of the privateer Zoé 20 on 11 June, and additionally forced two frigates and a corvette to seek shelter at Rochefort. The following month saw him despatched from Torbay with two frigates in company to seek out two richly-laden Spanish merchant vessels from Havana, but sadly he was unable to return with anything else bar a handful of lesser prizes.

In early 1798 Payne succeeded Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren in command of a detached squadron of frigates, and he sailed from Portsmouth on 24 March. Unfortunately inclement weather caused several of his squadron to return home for repair, whilst the Impétueux was lucky to escape being wrecked off Quiberon. The squadron’s sole success was the capture by the Sylph 16, Commander John Chambers White, of the chasse-marée Sainte Famille on 5 April 1798. By 16 April Payne and his ship, the both equally exhausted, were returning to Spithead.

He now resigned his command as he was suffering severely from gout and rheumatism. After receiving a promotion to rear-admiral on 14 February 1799 he was appointed the Treasurer of Greenwich Hospital six months later, despite there being more worthy contenders for the post. That the position was offered to him was primarily because he had been reconciled with the prince. Selling his house in Brompton, he took up residence near the prince at Carlton House and resumed his position as the royal’s confidant. In this role he conducted an interview with the new prime minister, Henry Addington, in 1801 on behalf of the price, but he was also accused of keeping the radical Charles James Fox away from his former Royal friend.

In 1802 he failed to win the Admiralty seat for Queenborough which would have allowed him to join the Board of Admiralty under the Earl of St. Vincent, and he spent most of his time thereafter at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton with the prince.

Payne suffered a stroke in his carriage when accompanied by his protégé, Commander Francis Mason, and he died at Greenwich on 17 November 1803. He was buried eight days later at St. Margaret’s, Westminster in a funeral presided over by the Rev. James Stainer Clarke, the chaplain and librarian to the prince.

Known as ‘Jack’ or ‘Jacko, he never married. A crony of the Prince of Wales, a dedicated rake and prolific womaniser, he was allegedly the father of a child by the future Lady Hamilton who he had met when she was a 14 year-old prostitute under the name of Emma Lyon, his relationship lasting from about 1780 until he transferred her to Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh in the following year. Such was his notoriety that in February 1788 he was blackballed when suggested as a member of the Brook’s Club, although he was later admitted. Not least amongst his many detractors was the Duchess of Gordon, who during the 1780’s addressed him as ‘you little, insignificant good-for-nothing upstart pert chattering puppy!’ after he had been caught bad-mouthing Queen Charlotte.

At the time of the Great Mutiny in 1797 Payne believed that the Jacobins were responsible for all the troubles, and so he advocated a public denouncement of the seamen in their favourite newspaper, the Star, and urged that the batteries ashore have their guns trained on the ships of the fleet. In addition to his royal backing and social standing he was also an outstanding seaman who, but for his poor health, would have undoubtedly earned greater opportunities and recognition. He was described by the Rev. James Stainer Clarke, a man who had served with him, as ‘brave, zealous and sincere’, and another contemporary stated that he was ‘one of the most honest and honourable men of his time’.