Sir Henry Nicholls
1758-1830. He was born in Shirehampton, Bristol, the son of the agent to the politician Lord de Clifford of Kingsweston.
Nicholls was described as displaying an honest bluntness that earned the respect of Lord de Clifford and saw him despatched at a young age, somewhat appropriately, to a school in Yorkshire. He entered the Navy on 18 April 1774 aboard the Plymouth-based guardship Albion 74, Captain Hon. John Leveson-Gower, and in October of the following year moved to the Pallas 36, Captain Hon. William Cornwallis, in which he served off the coast of Guinea. He then followed Cornwallis to the Isis 50 in December 1776, which vessel went out to North America, and he later served in Vice-Admiral Lord Howe’s fleet in the Philadelphia campaign from 25 August. He remained with Cornwallis when that officer transferred to the Bristol 50 in the following December.
Returning home with Cornwallis aboard the Chatham 50 in April 1778, Nicholls initially joined the Prince George 98, Captain Jonathon Faulknor, flying the flag of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel, and then moved with both officers to the Victory 100, in which he fought at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July. Following Keppel’s resignation he remained on the Victory, which now became the flagship of Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, and on 23 October 1779 he was promoted lieutenant of the Foudroyant 80, Captain John Jervis, his commission being confirmed on 20 May 1780. He afterwards returned to the Victory, Captain Henry Duncan, now flying the flag of Admiral Lord Howe, on 10 April 1782.
Following the relief of Gibraltar on 18 October 1782 Nicholls was promoted commander of the Barracouta 14 on 9 December. He retained this command until March 1783 when he removed into the Echo 18, serving with Vice-Admiral John Campbell on the Newfoundland station having sailed there in July, and going out in the same month in each of the ensuing two years to return home as winter approached. He was also employed in the preventative service in home waters during the early months of 1785, and in February drove a smuggler’s cutter onto the rocks near Seaford, Sussex.
After returning home from Newfoundland for the final time in December 1785 Nicholls remained on half-pay until 5 January 1787 when he took the Cygnet 14 out to Jamaica from Woolwich in March, thereafter patrolling off the Mosquito Shore. He was posted captain of Commodore Alan Gardner’s pennant ship Expedition 44 on 1 December 1788 in succession to the late Captain Hon. John Whitmore Chetwynd, and along with Sam Hood and Joseph Peyton was the only officer to receive that step in 1788. Shortly afterwards he exchanged with Captain John Brown into the frigate Amphion 32, remaining on the Jamaican station, where towards the end of 1789 he was prevented by the Spanish authorities from entering the port of Cartagena on the Spanish Main.
Having returned to England the Amphion was paid off at Plymouth in early July 1790, but her crew were immediately transferred to Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington’s flagship Royal George 100, which was being commissioned as a consequence of the Spanish Armament. During the Russian Armament from March to September 1791 Nicholls was flag captain to Rear-Admiral Hon. John Leveson-Gower aboard the Formidable 98.
At the start of the French Revolutionary War in February 1793 Nicholls recommissioned the Royal Sovereign 100 as flag-captain to Vice-Admiral Thomas Graves, and this vessel participated in the Channel fleet cruises of July-August, and October – December, including the chase of Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s squadron on 18 November.
On 29 May 1794, during the preliminary manoeuvres leading up to the Battle of the Glorious First of June, Nicholls demanded that the Royal Sovereign be allowed to stand out of the line to assist Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner’s beleaguered flagship Queen 98, Captain John Hutt, and when refused by Graves on account of the commander-in-chief’s signal to form line of battle he took advantage of a distraction to do so nevertheless. He later stood in with great skill for Graves when the admiral was badly wounded in the right arm after thirty minutes of the battle on 1 June, and his ship performed excellent service in engaging two enemy flagships, the Terrible 110 and Montagne 120, suffering casualties of fourteen men killed and forty-four wounded. As a result Nicholls was one of the favoured captains to receive a gold medal.
After Graves had been invalided home Nicholls continued to command the Royal Sovereign as a private ship until the end of 1794 when she received the flag of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis. In March 1795 Cornwallis appointed his favourite, John Whitby, to be his flag-captain, and Nicholls moved to the Marlborough 74, serving under the orders of Rear-Admiral Hon. William Waldegrave in the Western Approaches. In the middle of June the Marlborough entered Plymouth for repairs, and it was reported that her crew were to be turned over to the Formidable, then preparing for sea. In early September, shortly after the Formidable returned to Plymouth to enter dock, the Marlborough sailed to join the Channel fleet, and at the beginning of 1796 she set out on a cruise, returning to Portsmouth in March and then rejoining the Channel fleet.
Unfortunately for Nicholls the Marlborough was conspicuous amongst those ships that mutinied at Spithead on 16 April 1797, and following a second mutiny at St. Helens he was obliged to resign the command. He immediately wrote to the Admiralty demanding a court-martial on himself but this was rejected.
Nicholls remained unemployed until he joined Vice-Admiral Charles Pole as his captain of the fleet aboard the St. George 98, Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, in the Baltic following the Battle of Copenhagen in1801, and he then assumed the captaincy of the ship when Pole transferred to the Cadiz station in the autumn. In early December he returned to Portsmouth with Pole aboard the Ramillies 74, Captain Samuel Osborn, whereupon he retired ashore and did not see any further active service.
From December 1802 Nicholls was a commissioner of the naval inquiry that had been set up following the Admiral Earl of St. Vincent’s tour of the establishments from August 1802, and it was largely his report that saw Viscount Melville impeached and removed from office because of financial irregularities. Having been appointed comptroller of the navy in February 1806 he resigned four months later on the official grounds of ill health, although it was later claimed that he had become resigned to the fact that even this position did not allow him enough power to tackle the abuses prevalent in the naval establishment at that time.
He was promoted rear-admiral on 2 October 1807, vice-admiral on 1 August 1811, created a K.C.B. on 20 May 1820 and became an admiral on 27 May 1825. Retiring to Bristol and spending a great deal of his time keeping the books of his mercantile friends, the unmarried Nicholls died after several years of ill health on 17 August 1830 at Sion House, Clifton, Bristol.
Described in old age as stoutly-built and above the middle stature, he was a protégé of Rear-Admiral Hon. John Leveson-Gower. A cruel and oppressive officer, Nicholls flogged one sailor to his death and was renowned for assaulting others, be it with a speaking trumpet, telescope, fists or boots. He was not afraid to voice an opinion to a senior officer, as illustrated by his attitude to Vice-Admiral Graves in the days before the Battle of the Glorious First of June, and in an earlier incident involving Captain Sir John Jervis when he refused to bow to that officer’s policy regarding the removal of hats when in conversation on duty. A direct, un-affected man who in later life was regarded benevolently as a rough, kind, seaman, he was an avid snuff-taker.