Sir Thomas Williams

c1762-1841. He appears to have been christened on the Isle of Wight on 20 June 1762, the eldest of three sons of Captain William Williams, who died on Saint-Domingue in 1778, shortly after being wounded in an action that saw his frigate, the Active 28, captured by two French frigates. He was the uncle of Captain Edward Richard Williams.

In 1768 Williams was entered onto the books of his father’s command, the brig Peggy, but he probably first saw service at sea under his father aboard the frigate Active 28 from February 1776, being present at Commodore Sir Peter Parker’s attack on Sullivan’s Island on 28 June. In 1778 he joined the Prince of Wales 74, Captain Benjamin Hill, which served as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington in the Leeward Islands from the summer of that year, and he was present at the Battles of St Lucia on 15 December and Grenada on 6 July 1779. It seems likely that shortly after the latter engagement he returned to England with Barrington and Hill aboard the Ariadne 20, Captain Thomas Pringle.

Once back in England, on 8 December 1779 Williams was promoted lieutenant of the America 64, Captain Samuel Thompson, which sailed with Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet for the relief of Gibraltar at the end of the year but was despatched home with those prizes taken from the San Sebastian convoy on 8 January 1780, thereby missing the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent a week later. She next went out to New York with Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves’ reinforcements in the summer, being present at the Battle of Cape Henry on 16 March 1781. In May Williams transferred to the Assurance 44, Captain William Twiney, as her first lieutenant, and he assumed the command of this vessel upon his captain being taken ill, enjoying a fruitful cruise against the enemy privateers.

On 15 April 1783 Williams was promoted commander of the floating battery Rhinoceros 34 by Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby in North America, and he spent the next year assisting in the evacuation of troops and loyalist sympathisers from New York. On 14 January 1784 his command returned in convoy to Plymouth, and at the end of the month she sailed around to Portsmouth and from there for the Thames to be paid off.

He remained unemployed for the next five years of peace until he was appointed to the Otter 14 in June 1789, engaged in the Preventative Service. On 31 August he took a smuggling lugger from Dover into Yarmouth, and continuing on the North Sea station, he made several other such captures over the next year. In May 1790 the Otter stood into the harbour mouth at Hull to instigate a hot press of seamen, and within days up to two hundred men had been taken. She later sailed from Harwich for the Nore on 2 June with her cargo of pressed men, and she remained on the North Sea station throughout the Spanish Armament, at the conclusion of which Williams was one of many officers posted captain on the 22 November, being appointed to the Ceres 32, apparently for purposes of rank only.

In December 1792 he was appointed to the frigate Lizard 28 at Portsmouth, and he took the opportunity to get married whilst his new command was fitting out. On 13 January 1793 the Lizard sailed out to Spithead, and after putting to sea on 16 February, she passed Deal two days later to make for the Nore and take on board pressed seamen. Serving in the North Sea during early March, she captured the French privateers Sans Culotte 8 and Vaillaint Custine 4, which prizes were sent to the Nore whilst the prisoners were landed by the Lizard at Yarmouth, and in addition to picking up several other merchant vessels she also assisted the Cleopatra 32, Captain Alexander John Ball, in the capture of the privateer Trois Amis 4 on 24 March. These successes earned Williams a gift of plate from a committee of merchants.

During April 1793 the Lizard took a convoy from Hull to the Texel, and by the end of July she was at Portsmouth, from where she sailed for the Baltic to collect a convoy. Contrary winds in the Skaw held up her return voyage for some time, and it was not until 12 October that she was back at Portsmouth, having delivered her charges to safety. Further convoy duty followed in November when she joined the escort of the Lisbon and Oporto trade, and she made the return voyage from Portugal in January 1794 with a large body of merchantmen, having to battle through rough weather that saw several ships part company. Williams left the Lizard when she was laid up at Portsmouth in May.

On 30 July 1794 he was appointed to the twelve-pounder frigate Daedalus 32, in which he arrived at Portsmouth from the Downs with a convoy on 18 October. Towards the end of January 1795, following the founding of the Batavian Republic, the Daedalus prevented a number of Dutch vessels at Harwich from sailing for Holland, and Williams led his men in boarding these ships and unbending their sales. On 25 February his command departed Harwich for Embden with transports, and he earned praise for his zeal in driving these vessels through the frozen Ems River to evacuate troops from the Duke of York’s army. Conversant with orders from Captain Home Riggs Popham, the men were eventually embarked without resistance from the enemy on 25 March.

In July 1795 he was appointed to the year-old eighteen-pounder frigate Unicorn 32, serving off Ireland, in which he captured the Dutch sloop Kemeet 18 on 26 August. His frigate later recovered a merchantman off Norway that she had been escorting, and during March 1796 she cruised out into the Atlantic with the Diana 38, Captain Jonathon Faulknor, and Seahorse 38, Captain John Peyton, to await the homeward-bound Jamaica fleet.

Williams’ command, the Unicorn, captures the French frigate Tribune in 1796.

On 8 June 1796, whilst in company with the Santa Margarita 36, Captain Thomas Byam Martin, the Unicorn engaged two French frigates off the Scilly Islands, with each British vessel capturing their opponent. Williams’ prize was the Tribune 44, whose capture he effected without suffering a single casualty, even though the enemy had been handled well by her officers. The French frigate was bought into the Navy under her existing name, and as the senior officer, Williams was honoured with a knighthood in the following month.

On 11 September 1796 the Unicorn was lying off St. Helens when a signal alerted her to the presence of two enemy cruisers off the coast, but although she immediately set off in pursuit, her search appears to have been fruitless. She then went out on a cruise, and after sending in a Weymouth-based smuggler, she had the good fortune to fall in with the Amsterdam-bound Surinam fleet, capturing five vessels, on board of one of which was the governor of Cayenne. Convoy duty to Ireland followed, and a further capture was the Brest-based privateer Enterprize 4, which was sent into Plymouth. Thereafter, the Unicorn sailed into the North Sea where she safely delivered the Baltic convoy into the Yarmouth Roads.

On 7 January 1797 the Unicorn captured the Ville de Lorient 36 armed ‘en-flute’ and carrying four hundred and fifty hussars and cargo, this vessel having been part of the Ireland-bound French invasion fleet which had left port in the previous December. On the next day Williams had to extricate his frigate from the remnants of the French fleet and two enemy frigates which had appeared on her opposite bow, but after falling in with the Doris 36, Captain Hon. Charles Jones, she helped that frigate take the corvette Eclair 18 on the 16th, some one hundred and eighty miles south-west of Cape Clear

In March 1797 Williams was appointed to the newly launched twenty-four pounder frigate Endymion 40, although one of his first acts was to sit on the court-martial aboard the Neptune 90 off Greenhithe of the leading Nore mutineer, Richard Parker. On 3 September his command sailed for Elsinore from Sheerness with a convoy, and upon returning she fell in with Admiral Adam Duncan’s North Sea fleet two days after the Battle of Camperdown on 11 October. In the aftermath of this engagement Williams was ordered to attack Rear-Admiral Johan Arnold Bloys Van Treslong’s flagship Brutus 74, which had anchored inshore, but despite obtaining a raking berth he was unable to take her, and when he tried again on the following day with the assistance of the Beaulieu 40, Captain Francis Fayerman, the Dutchman escaped into Goree. On the next day Williams rescued a prize, the Jupiter 74, from a lee shore, and after some initial apprehension for their whereabouts, he was able to land the prisoners and wounded at Hull where he was presented with the freedom of the borough. The Jupiter then proceeded to the Nore where she eventually anchored, a month after the battle.

The Endymion sailed for Cork in the early days of 1798, on which station in May she captured a Spanish packet sailing from Havana, the San Antonio. Meanwhile, her privateer captures during this tour of duty were numerous, including the Revanche 12 on 30 April, the Brutus 6 in early May, and the Huit Amis on 10 May, all of which were sent into Cork. In June Williams was cruising in command of a frigate squadron in the St. George’s Channel to prevent any supplies reaching the Irish rebels at Wexford, into which harbour he sent his boats to prevent any possible escape. On the 21st he was joined by two sloops which on working inshore were fired upon by a fort, and after sending the squadron’s boats into attack, his men put two hundred rebels to flight. During these operations a hundred vessels intended for the rebels’ use were destroyed.

HMS Vanguard

On 9 August 1798 he suffered a personal tragedy when Lady Williams was killed upon being thrown from her carriage on the Isle of Wight. This tragic news might well have occasioned the Endymion’s return to Portsmouth in early September, bringing with her another prize, the fast-sailing French privateer corvette Sophie 20, which capture was in addition to a homeward-bound Indiaman, and an American vessel which had fallen to a French privateer. Just days before reaching Portsmouth, an unfortunate incident occurred in the Endymion’s wardroom when a marine officer fired what he had thought to be an unloaded pistol in the direction of the surgeon, sending a ball through the man’s ear and carrying away part of his tongue. Miraculously, the surgeon survived to be taken ashore to Haslar Hospital.

On 8 October 1798 Williams sailed for Le Havre to assume command of the blockading squadron from Captain Sir Richard Strachan, but his command was back at Portsmouth a week later, and on 20 November she sailed for Lisbon with the trade, pausing to collect a number of vessels at Falmouth. In January 1799 she brought the homeward-bound Portuguese convoy of seventy-five vessels into the Downs, and here she immediately captured two Spanish privateers, the Casualidad 6 and Prudentia 1. Williams was at Portsmouth in May where he sat upon the court-martial of Captain Lord Augustus Fitzroy of the Sphinx 20, and shortly afterwards the Endymion was about to sail with sealed orders when she was stopped by a telegraph. When she did eventually put out, it was to take the trade south to St. Helena, and she began the return voyage with a convoy on 2 September to reach Plymouth in early November.

In early February 1800 the Endymion escorted a body of troops from Portsmouth to Ireland, and on 21 February she arrived at Portsmouth with a couple of ships recaptured from French privateers. She took the Bordeaux privateer Scipio 18 and the privateer Le Paix 10 in May, prior to returning to Spithead in June where she received orders to escort the trade out to Oporto and Lisbon. Departing Cowes on 18 July, she arrived at Lisbon on 2 August before returning home. On 28 December Williams embarked Prince Augustus, the future Duke of Sussex, at Portsmouth to take him out to Lisbon for the benefit of his health. They arrived in the Tagus on 16 January 1801, and after the prince was landed the Endymion returned to Portsmouth on 11 February.

HMS Vanguard

In January 1801 it was reported that Williams was to have the Russell 74 in the Channel Fleet, in February this was amended to the Juste 84, but then shortly afterwards he joined the recommissioning Vanguard 74, in which he sailed from Portsmouth on 20 April to join the North Sea Fleet. The summer was spent in the Baltic under Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson and Vice-Admiral Charles Morice Pole, prior to going out to Cadiz with Pole’s squadron in the early autumn. In December the Vanguard was ordered to join a force that was being dispatched to Jamaica, but the indisposed Williams left her before she sailed, and he returned to Sheerness from Gibraltar on 13 December aboard the Pearl 32, Captain Samuel James Ballard. Once ashore, he departed for his residence at Bursledon in Hampshire.

Williams remained unemployed due to ill health until May 1804 when he was given the Neptune 98, which sailed out of Plymouth on 2 June and then departed at the end of the month for the Channel Fleet before returning briefly to Plymouth at the end of August. In February 1805 she sailed with Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder in search of the Rochefort squadron, but by March she was back with the main body of the fleet off Brest, and Williams continued to command her without any incident until invaliding ashore once more when she arrived at Plymouth on 7 May.

From 1806-7 he had the command of the Sea Fencibles at Gosport, and in August 1807 he was re-appointed to the Neptune following her exit from dock after extensive repairs to damage incurred at the Battle of Trafalgar. Her crew was largely made up of men from the Northumberland 74, which had returned in a state of disrepair from the Leeward Islands under Captain Nathaniel Day Cochrane, and she eventually got out of harbour towards the end of October. During November it was announced that she had joined Rear-Admiral Richard Keats squadron, which was to proceed on a secret mission, but this was cancelled. The Neptune was at Portsmouth at the beginning of December when Williams was ordered to take possession of two Russian ships which had valuable coin and stores aboard for their troops in the Mediterranean, and with one hundred and seventy-five men manning the boats he summoned their surrender in five minutes.

On 9 December 1807 the Neptune finally departed for the Channel Fleet, and when Rear-Admiral Zacharie Jacques Théodore Allemand escaped from Rochefort, and Vice-Admiral Honoré-Joseph Ganteaume from Toulon on 7 February 1808, she joined Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth’s squadron in its voyage of thirteen thousand miles to America and the West Indies, prior to arriving back at Plymouth in the latter part of April, having failed to find the French. Williams was created a colonel of marines on 28 April, and the Neptune joined a squadron of half a dozen sail of the line forming at Cawsand Bay under the orders of Rear-Admiral Hon. Michael de Courcy which was provisioned for six months with expectations that it would be sent on a secret mission, although this was again cancelled. Instead, by the end of June, the Neptune was with Admiral Lord Gambier’s fleet off Brest, from where she entered Plymouth on 5 September. Later that month she sailed for Barbados to reinforce Rear-Admiral Hon. Alexander Cochrane in the West Indies, and with that officer taking her as his flagship on their arrival in October, Williams returned to England aboard a packet.

At the end of May 1809, he attended the King at a private levee, and he was promoted rear-admiral on 25 October, being presented to the King once more in November. He returned to his seat in Wiltshire from Kirkham’s Hotel, London at the beginning of December, but by 30 May 1810 he was back in London to again be presented to the King, prior to hoisting his flag in the Downs on 2 June aboard the Agincourt 64, Captain William Kent. Three days later he transferred to the Venerable 74, Captain Andrew King, and he sailed on the 8th to succeed Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Strachan off the Schelde pending the arrival of Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew. His flagship was back in the Downs on 4 August, and three days later she reached Portsmouth where on 4 September, having transferred to the newly launched Hannibal 74 with Captain King, Williams sailed out of the harbour for Spithead.

By 11 September 1810 Williams was in the Downs once more. but he then sailed for Plymouth from where he put out for the Basque Roads in early October, for although nominally appointed to the position of second-in-command of the Channel Fleet, he had orders to succeed Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Stopford off Rochefort. His squadron removing thereafter to Lisbon, he supported Lieutenant-General Viscount Wellington’s army from this station and superintended the passage of Lieutenant-General Rowland Hill’s corps across the Tagus before in early 1811 he took his squadron out on a cruise.

By 22 April 1811 Williams was back at Spithead with the Hannibal, and on the 29th he hoisted his flag aboard the Royal George 100, again with Captain King, to reassume his position as second-in-command in the Channel Fleet. At the end of May his flagship had to put back into Portsmouth after contrary winds had prevented her passage to the Basque Roads, and by 2 June she was at Plymouth before proceeding to her station. She then returned to Plymouth at the beginning of September.

In October 1811 he was appointed the commander-in-chief at the Nore with his flag aboard the Namur 74, Captain Charles Austen, a position he took up at Sheerness on the last day of the year, although it was contrary to his desire for a more active role. During September 1812 he was on leave, but he was back in his role by December when he gave a grand ball to the officers of the Russian Fleet, which at that time was lying in the Medway. On 29 March 1814 he hosted a visit from the Duke of Clarence, and on 4 June he was promoted vice-admiral, prior to leaving his position on 30 November 1814.

Sir Thomas Williams’ grave

On 2 January 1815 Williams was nominated a K.C.B., being presented to the Prince Regent at a large levee in February. He attended another of the Regent’s levees in June 1819, and he carried the Duke of Sussex’ s train at King George III’s funeral on 16 February 1820. In July he was mentioned in the newspapers when his farm buildings near Cobham in Surrey burned down, in June 1822 he was present at another levee, and he attended a grand dinner with other senior officers and the Duke of Clarence in February 1828. Continuing to be a prominent member of society, and often staying in Brook Street, London, he also officiated at King George IV’s funeral on 15 July 1830. He became an admiral on 22 July 1830, being introduced to the newly installed King William IV shortly afterwards, and by October he was at Brighton. Created a G.C.B. on 13 September 1831, he was again at Court shortly afterwards.

In January 1833 he was appointed the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth in succession to the late Admiral Sir Thomas Foley, putting off from Charles Street, Berkeley Square, for Portsmouth and hoisting his flag on the 30th aboard the Victory 100, Captain Edward Williams. Within a fortnight he was taking off on six weeks’ leave and going up to London for yet another visit to Court. On 7 March he and his wife dined with the King and Queen at Windsor before departing for Portsmouth to re-hoist his flag, and by early April he had taken up residence in the Commissioner’s House. In July he visited Cowes, in September he hosted Princess Donna Maria and the Duchess of Braganza of Portugal, and in July 1834 he undertook a four-week tour of the various outposts on his station, returning from Alderney with four cows for his farm in Surrey.

Reports in October 1834 suggested that Williams was to resign the Portsmouth command because of his third wife’s illness, but he continued in his post, although in January 1835 he took a few days leave, as he did again in June, with his long time second in command, Rear-Admiral Sir Frederick Maitland, again taking over. Returning to duty a short while afterwards, he undertook another tour of his station, including a visit to Poole. On 1 January 1836, after much delay, he shifted his flag into the Britannia 120, again commanded by Captain Edward Williams, and at the end of March he entertained Prince Ferdinand of Portugal. He finally struck his flag on 4 April, and after going up to London for a levee departed for his seat in Surrey.

Sir Thomas Williams died at Burwood House, near Cobham in Surrey on 10 October 1841.

In December 1792 he married Jane Cooper of Sonning, Berkshire, the cousin of the future Admiral of the Fleet Sir Francis Austen, and of the novelist, Jane Austen. She died in a carriage accident caused by a loose horse on the Isle of Wight on 9 August 1798 whilst returning to her residence at Ryde from Cowes. He next married Mary Wapshare of Salisbury at the cathedral in that city on 12 December 1800, but he became a widower following her death at Brighton after a long illness on 17 December 1824. He finally married Mary Anne Mallory of Woodcote, Warwickshire, on 29 May 1828 at Clifton.

Both the future Admiral of the Fleet Sir Frederick Austen, and his younger brother the future Rear-Admiral Charles Austen, served with Williams in the Unicorn and the Endymion, and he did much to promote their careers. During the 1800’s he lived at Brookwood near Southampton. Benevolent to Naval charities, he gifted 500 guineas in 1839 to found a school for the education of naval daughters. He was a groom of the bedchamber to the Duke of Sussex.