Joshua Rowley Watson

1772-1818. Born on 17 April 1772 at Topsham, Devon, he was the son of Captain Thomas Watson, who died in action in the Leeward Islands in May 1780 whilst commanding the Conqueror 74, and of his wife Mary Burges, who died in 1774. Following his parents’ early deaths he was raised by his maternal grandmother, Mary Rundle Burges, who came from a seagoing family and was the mother of Captain Richard Rundle Burges, who was killed at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797.

In June 1781, Watson was entered onto the books of the Resource 28, commanded by a kinsman, Captain Bartholomew Samuel Rowley, followed by the books of the Diamond 32 with the same officer until April 1783, from which year he was schooled at Ewell in Surrey, and at the Maritime School in Chelsea. In 1786 he completed his education in France and went to sea aboard the sloop Savage commanded by his uncle, Commander Richard Rundle Burges, serving in home waters for the next three years. During the summer of 1789 he transferred to the sloop Porcupine commanded by another kinsman, George Martin, and he saw further service aboard the Plymouth guardship Hannibal 74, Captain John Colpoys, which he left in October 1791. During the next fifteen months he remained out of employment but reportedly undertook a trip to Jamaica.

Following the commencement of the French Revolutionary War in January 1793, he joined the Queen 90, Captain John Hutt, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner, serving in that year’s Leeward Islands campaign. He was commissioned lieutenant on 10 August of the Winchelsea 32, Captain Richard Fisher, who was succeeded on the frigate’s return to England two months later by Captain Lord Garlies. Going back to the Leeward Islands with Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis’ expedition, he served in operations ashore against Martinique during the campaign of 1794, and after the Winchelsea came home to England in the autumn, he transferred to the Lively 32 with Lord Garlies.

HMS Lively

In the spring of 1795 Commander George Burlton assumed temporary command of the Lively when Lord Garlies took leave of absence for political reasons, and Watson was the senior lieutenant of the frigate when she captured the French corvette Espion 18 off Brest on 2 March, and the French frigate Tourterelle 28 some forty miles off Ushant on 13 March.

In recognition of the Lively’s captures, Watson was promoted commander on 16 March 1795 of the Espion, which was renamed the Spy, and which he fitted out at Plymouth that summer before turning her over to Commander John Young at the end of October. Joining the Trompeuse 16 after the sudden death of Commander Lucius Henry Dawson earlier that month, his new command joined a convoy sailing from Spithead to Cork in November, and in February 1796 she arrived in the Downs from Milford Haven. In April she underwent repairs at Portsmouth as she was notoriously leaky, and once back on the Irish station, she sent the Brest privateer brig Eveille 6 into Cork in June after capturing her off Youghal. Unfortunately, on 15 July, the Trompeuse was wrecked on the Farmer Rock, Kinsale, although all the crew were saved. Watson and his officers were acquitted of her loss at the subsequent court martial, but the local pilot was found guilty.

Returning to England, he spent time in London, Bath, and Devon whilst seeking another command, but when an opportunity did come it was under the saddest of circumstances, as following the death of his uncle, Captain Richard Rundle Burges, at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, Watson’s grandmother prevailed upon the Admiralty to re-employ him. Accordingly, in November he was ordered to commission the French prize Legere 18 at Plymouth, and in the following January he was placed in command of that port’s gunboats whilst fitting the sloop out. Once the Legere was ready for sea, he sailed her to Ireland where, having been posted captain on 23 March 1798, he ceded the vessel to Commander Cornelius Quinton.

Watson may have achieved the long-desired elevation to the rank of post captain, but it was at the price of a protracted period of unemployment, and it was not until ten years later that he joined the Inflexible 64, taking her out of Sheerness Harbour for the Little Nore at the end of July 1807. Attending the expedition to the Baltic, he led a battalion of seamen and marines ashore in the assault on Copenhagen on 7 September. His command, which was known for her poor sailing qualities, departed Elsinore on 4 October with a convoy of eighty-six sail, but days later she was forced into Gothenburg by rough weather. By the 25th she was off the Scaw in company with another convoy, the whole totalling one hundred and eighty-nine ships, but two days later she ran into a troop transport, and the latter vessel, with only her foremast standing, drifted onto the Dutch coast. As a result, three hundred troops became prisoner, although the Inflexible’s boats had at least managed to take off another one hundred and thirty men before the transport went ashore. Once she reached England, Watson’s command was taken into Sheerness Harbour. Shortly afterwards, he was presented to the King, but he then entered another fifteen months of unemployment.

In February 1809 he was appointed to the Alfred 74, joining her at Portsmouth and departing on the 26th to join Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Strachan’s North Sea squadron, prior to sailing for the Baltic on 10 April. In July the Alfred was present at the siege of Flushing, and she was back at Portsmouth by the end of August. On 8 November she sailed from the Hampshire port for the Leeward Islands where she blockaded Basseterre during the campaign that saw the capture of Guadeloupe in February 1810. She returned to Plymouth on 11 August having sent her convoy up the Channel, and she was then taken into harbour to be docked for a month.

Embarking a company of artillery, the Alfred sailed for the defence of Cadiz in September 1810, and on 23 April 1811 Watson succeeded Captain George Cockburn aboard the Implacable 74 when that officer was sent home on a diplomatic mission. His new command was present at the blockade of Toulon that summer, and she participated in the skirmishes with the French fleet during July – November. Returning to Plymouth on 26 September 1812 with a hundred French prisoners, the Implacable was paid off on 7 November 1812, and thereafter Watson did not see any further service.

During 1816-17 he and his family spent time visiting friends in North America, and he produced a number of fabulous watercolours and drawings whilst touring between Boston and Chesapeake Bay that as recently as the end of the twentieth century were published in book form.

Captain Watson died suddenly on 27 May 1818 at his residence in Barnfield Crescent, Exeter, having risen in the night under the impression that his house was on fire and then dropped dead when returning to bed.

On 20 November 1798 he married Mary Manley from his hometown, Topsham. The couple had six children, of whom one son, Rundle Burges Watson, was posted captain in 1842 and died as the superintendent of Sheerness Dockyard in 1860.