Sir Isaac Coffin

1759-1839. He was born in Boston, Massachusetts on 16 May 1759, the fourth and youngest son of Nathaniel Coffin, paymaster of the customs, and of his wife Elizabeth Barnes, the daughter of a merchant from that city. He attended the Boston Latin School from the age of seven and enjoyed an idyllic childhood in America with his loyalist family. His father later relocated to Bristol, England. He was the cousin of Rear-Admiral Francis Holmes Coffin.

Although Coffin was carried on the books of the Captain 70, Captain Thomas Symonds, at Boston from 1771 under the patronage of the local commander-in-chief, Rear-Admiral John Montagu, his opening service was from 1773 with the brig Gaspé 6, Lieutenant William Hunter, at Rhode Island, moving afterwards to the Kingfisher 14, Commander George Montagu, whom he followed to the Fowey 20 in 1774.

Whilst with the brig Diligent 10, Lieutenant Edmund Dod, he was commissioned lieutenant on 18 August 1776, but was still serving as a midshipman when in September he joined the Romney 50, flying Commodore John Elliott’s broad pennant at Newfoundland. In June 1778 he transferred as a midshipman to the Europe 64, Captain Francis Parry, flying the flag of Vice-Admiral John Montagu on the same station.

Sir Isaac Coffin

Finally assuming a lieutenant’s position yet remaining on the Newfoundland station, Coffin commanded the cutter Placentia from October 1778, and after a short spell in the following spring as a volunteer aboard the Sibyl 28, Captain Thomas Pasley, he was appointed to the cutter Pinson at Newfoundland in June. This vessel was unfortunately wrecked on the coast of Labrador in August, but following the subsequent court-martial at St. John’s Coffin was cleared of any blame for her loss.

Towards the end of 1779 Coffin left Newfoundland for England and he spent the next six months assisting in the commissioning of the brand new Adamant 50 at Liverpool. In June 1780 he sailed with the Adamant under the command of Captain Gideon Johnstone from Liverpool to Plymouth as her second lieutenant and then continued to New York with her in escort of the trade. In February 1781 he joined the London 90, Captain David Graves, with Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves’ flag in North America, transferring a month later to the Royal Oak 74, Captain William Swiney, the flagship of Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, and officiating as the signal lieutenant at the Battle of Cape Henry on 16 March.

On 3 July 1781 Coffin was promoted commander of the sloop Avenger in the North River at New York, and in the following January he succeeded Captain Hon. Alexander Cochrane aboard the sloop Pacahunter 14. He immediately sailed for Barbados, and with the rest of his crew he volunteered to serve upon the Barfleur 98, Captain Alexander Hood, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, at the Battle of St Kitts on 25 / 26 January 1782. Shortly afterwards, and having returned to the Pacahunter, he led his men with others in putting out a fire which had engulfed the town of St. John’s on the island of Antigua.

Having conveyed the crew of the Santa Monica 36, Captain John Linzee, to Jamaica following the loss of that frigate off Tortola 1 April, he was posted captain to the Shrewsbury 74 on 13 June 1782 at the instigation of Hood, who had been a frequent visitor to Boston in Coffin’s youth and knew his family well. Within a matter of weeks Coffin caused a rumpus when he rejected three of Admiral Lord Rodney’s nominees as lieutenants to his ship, claiming that the men were too inexperienced for their duties, having a bare eleven years service between them instead of the minimum six years each. He subsequently faced a court martial for contempt and disobedience at Port Royal on 29 July but was acquitted on both counts, and the lieutenants only remained on board as long as it took the Admiralty to accede to his request that their commissions be suspended. Coffin thereafter joined the Hydra 20 in December, which vessel left for England in escort of the Jamaica convoy with the Ardent 64, Captain Richard Lucas, reaching Portsmouth in to be paid off in March 1783.

From 1783 Coffin lived in France before returning to England to recommission the frigate Thisbe 28 in April 1786, bound for North America that September in conveyance of the new governor-in-chief, Lord Dorchester, and his family. This posting was at the special request of the diplomat who, as General Sir Guy Carleton, had enjoyed the support of Coffin’s family when commander-in-chief of loyalist forces in Canada during the early years of the American Revolutionary War. After depositing Lord Dorchester at Quebec the Thisbe sailed for Halifax, Nova Scotia, to winter there. During 1787 Coffin spent a good deal of time in the Gulf of St Lawrence, looking to the interests of the Magdalen Islands.

In May 1788, whilst at Nova Scotia, Coffin was accused by the ship’s master of falsifying the ships musters by the inclusion of three absent boys who had been entered as servants in order to earn them sea-time pending the sitting of a lieutenant’s examination. This was a common enough practice and the charge was purely the result of a personal feud, but nevertheless he could only be found guilty of signing a false muster role. The correct punishment for this misdemeanour was that the offender be cashiered, and even though the court attempted to do no more than dismiss him from his ship, Admiral Lord Howe at the Admiralty determined to uphold the law by striking him off the Navy List. An appeal was made, the Judiciary was asked to investigate by the King, and in 1790 the dismissal was quashed.

In the meantime, with his faith in his vocation much shattered, Coffin had departed for Flanders to fight with the Brabant patriots against the Imperial power of Austria. He returned to England in 1790 and was appointed to commission the new Alligator 28 in June, but within a matter of weeks he sustained a rupture whilst rescuing a drowning seaman during a strong tide and high wind at the Nore. In 1791 the Alligator spent the early months at Portsmouth where she briefly flew the flag of Rear-Admiral Phillips Cosby during the Russian Armament, and afterwards she sailed to Quebec in March to collect Lord and Lady Dorchester before returning to Spithead in October after a difficult seven-week passage. In November Coffin was honoured by being presented to the Queen by Vice-Admiral Lord Hood, and in the following year his command was paid off at Deptford.

The frigate Melampus by Chris Woodhouse. – Cwmarineart, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7840624

After spending a prolonged time seeking employment in the Baltic navies during 1792-3, Coffin returned to England on the commencement of the war with France, and in May 1793 he was appointed to the eighteen-pounder frigate Melampus 36. Whilst at Liverpool dock in August he once again dived into the water to rescue an injured man, on this occasion by gathering him under his arm and swimming for the quay. During December he joined Rear-Admiral John MacBride’s squadron at Guernsey, and in January 1794, being in company with the Active 32, Captain Edmund Nagle, the Melampus was forced to flee from a French squadron of six frigates and a cutter to the south of Portland whilst sailing to join a squadron forming under Captain Sir James Wallace of the Monarch 74 at Plymouth. Within a short time the Melampus departed on a cruise off France from which she returned to Plymouth in March for a refit, having sustained storm damage. During this cruise Coffin was so incapacitated by his previous rupture that his active career was brought to an end.

After a spell recuperating and then serving as the regulating captain at Leith, Coffin was appointed the commissioner of the navy at Corsica in October 1795, taking passage in the Blanche 32, Captain Charles Sawyer, and retaining this position until the navy’s evacuation of the island in October 1796. He then fulfilled the same duties at Lisbon, departing Gibraltar aboard the storeship Dromedary, Commander Bartholomew James, in company with the frigate Southampton 32, Captain James Macnamara. During their passage these vessels were pursued by the entire Spanish fleet prior to its interception and defeat by Admiral Sir John Jervis at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent on 14 February 1797. In August 1798 Coffin returned to England on private business aboard the packet Walsingham, bringing despatches from the ennobled Jervis, who was now the Earl of St. Vincent.

Coffin later served as the commissioner of the dockyard at Minorca in 1798, and following the breakout of the Brest fleet on 25 April 1799 he and the invaliding St. Vincent witnessed the French pass Gibraltar on 5 May. Desperately, the commander-in-chief attempted to send instructions to his temporary replacement in command of the Mediterranean fleet, Vice-Admiral Lord Keith, who was patrolling off Cadiz, but he was only able to do so once Coffin obtained a Spanish passport which allowed him to travel overland to Lisbon and arrange the delivery of a message desiring Keith to rendezvous at Gibraltar.

On 28 September 1799 Coffin was appointed the commissioner at Sheerness, but shortly afterwards he took passage to Halifax aboard the Venus 32, Captain Thomas Graves, to arrive in November as a temporary replacement for Captain Henry Duncan who had obtained leave to receive medical treatment in England. Departing for home six months later, Coffin assumed the position at Sheerness that he would retain until 1804. During his tenure he earned great praise from the new first lord of the Admiralty, Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent, for his competence in dealing with corruption, although he alienated many for allegedly going too far with his reforms, and in December 1800 even received a letter threatening his life unless he left the town.

Coffin returned to active service with his promotion to rear-admiral on 23 April 1804, and he was immediately appointed the second-in-command to Admiral Sir George Montagu at Portsmouth, hoisting his flag on 5 May aboard the Gladiator 44, Lieutenant Thomas Harrison. Two weeks later he was created a baronet at the Earl of St. Vincent’s insistence as a reward for his efforts as the commissioner at Sheerness. In the absence of Admiral Montagu during September 1805 he briefly shifted his flag to the Royal William 100, Captain John Wainwright, and he officiated at Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s funeral as a pall-bearer on 9 January 1806. He remained at Portsmouth with his flag aboard the Gladiator 44 under the command of Lieutenant Harrison until that officer was replaced by Lieutenant John Price in the early part of 1806, and he finally withdrew from active service on 28 April 1808 upon being promoted vice-admiral.

In the latter part of 1808 Coffin went out to Quebec on personal business, this being one of an apparent thirty times that he crossed the Atlantic during his lifetime. On 6 April 1811 he adopted the name of Greenly in honour of his wife before reverting to that of Coffin on 13 March 1813, and on 4 June 1814 he was promoted to the rank of admiral. After several unsuccessful attempts to enter parliament he served as the M.P. for Ilchester from 1818-26, his allegiance nominally being to the Whigs, and he frequently spoke in the House and took a particularly robust line on naval matters. Having left politics voluntarily in 1828 he spent a good deal of time thereafter in America, although back in England he was nominated a GCH in 1832.

Admiral Coffin died in a hotel at Cheltenham, Gloucestershire, on 23 July 1839, and he was buried in the town.

On 3 April 1811 he married Elizabeth Browne, who was ten years his junior and the daughter and heiress of William Greenly of Titley Court, Herefordshire. The couple had no issue and their marriage was an unhappy one, so much so that Coffin had no contact with his wife for seven years from 1812 after allegedly becoming worn down by her zealous devotion to the writing of religious tracts and sermons, particularly in the dead of night. Conversely, her many friends and acquaintances claimed that he treated her badly. She later moved to Bath, taking the name of Lady Greenly, and they rarely met thereafter. Nevertheless, although Coffin only wrote to her once between 1823 and 1835 he always thought kindly of his wife, and indeed after being shipwrecked in 1829 whilst on passage from Charleston to Liverpool he gave his watch to the captain with the intention that it be passed on to her. She predeceased him in January 1839.

Coffin was a favourite of the influential Admiral lord hood, who had been a friend of his father

Coffin was a tall man of impressive stature. He was admired greatly by the Earl of St. Vincent for his zeal in driving fraudulent practices and excessive costs out of the dockyards, and he was also highly regarded by Viscount Hood, who had been a friend of his father. His first senior officer, Lieutenant William Hunter, reckoned Coffin the brightest officer he had ever nurtured. In later years he suffered from gout, brought on by his frequent attendance of social events. Always a favourite with children, he was renowned for his activity, joviality, practical jokes and lust for adventure, whilst his lively character and penchant for amusing stories kept up the spirits of his fellow shipwreck victims in 1829. On the negative side his impulsiveness could cause offence, and in his role as a commissioner young midshipmen viewed an audience with him in terror. One correspondent unconnected with the navy described him as a ‘strange old madcap’.

He was well off, and during his career made a good deal of prize-money, allowing him to contribute liberally to charitable causes. Although his residence was given as Repham, Lincolnshire, he never really established a home of his own, preferring to live with relatives and in hotels or, if attending Parliament, in lodgings. He was a regular visitor to North America in peaceful times, and was the owner of the Magdalen Islands in the St. Lawrence River, which been bestowed on him by the government in 1798 following a chance remark to Lord Dorchester whilst the Thisbe was becalmed off them in 1787. In the event he only visited them once, in 1808. At various times in his life he manufactured tin pots and invented an oven for baking bread.