Sir James Wallace and the Trial of Lieutenant Bourne – 5 June
In the early summer of 1783 the newspapers were gripped by the trial of a lieutenant of Marines, Charles Bourne, late of the Warrior 74, on the prosecution of her former captain, Sir James Wallace, the officer who had been so active in the American Revolutionary War whilst commanding in succession the Experiment 50, Nonsuch 64, Resolution 74 and Warrior. The charges were those of libel and assault, and the examination of them would entail a great deal of claim and counter-claim involving most of the commissioned officers from the Warrior.
The affair had begun at the Whitehall Stairs, London, in August 1781 when Sir James was in town having recently returned home in temporary command of the Resolution 74. Upon going down the stairs by the waterfront Wallace had eased a dog out of the way with his stick, to which action the owner had taken exception and struck Wallace in the face. This blow had been instantly reciprocated leading to a scuffle, and somehow the argument had been carried into a room where Lieutenant Bourne was recovering from wounds incurred during the war. Being both a friend of the dog owner and knowing the identity of Captain Wallace, Bourne had attempted to intercede in the dispute.
From this point onwards the subsequent testimony of the two officers would differ greatly. According to the marine lieutenant Wallace grabbed him by the throat when he tried to intervene and threatened to transfer the dispute to him instead. Conversely, Wallace would state that the argument with the dog owner ended amicably without further violence once the contrite man discovered that he had struck a naval officer of such repute. Wallace’s version was later corroborated by a witness.
In November, to Bourne’s apparent horror, he was assigned to Wallace’s new command, the Warrior 74, and in his later testimony he would state that he did everything in his power to avoid taking up the position, but that no other officer would exchange with him and serve under Wallace. Once the Warrior departed for the Leeward Islands to join Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet Bourne would state that without cause his new captain treated him most uncivilly by blackening his name with the Portuguese governor at Madeira, forbidding him from walking on the same side of the quarterdeck, labelling him a ‘scoundrel’ along with other epithets, and on one occasion flying at him in a rage and raising his fists to his face.
Yet by the account of Wallace’s first lieutenant, Thomas Spry, Bourne initially voiced his appreciation of the opportunity to serve under Wallace and was thereafter treated with the usual civility. When Bourne asked for three days leave before sailing from England Wallace reluctantly agreed, whereupon the marine absented himself for fifteen days. Notwithstanding this abuse of trust, when the Warrior reached Madeira Bourne managed to trick the captain into allowing him and the third lieutenant, Augustus Markett, a night ashore in spite of instructions that all the officers should remain on ship. That evening Bourne and Markett went to the theatre and behaved so insolently before the great and the good, including refusing to remove their hats, that they were ejected. They then became so outrageously drunk, boorish and objectionable that they were abused and insulted by the peeved locals. Bourne then failed to return to the Warrior at the allotted time, and when he did eventually go aboard he wrote to Wallace insinuating that the captain was to blame for his troubles ashore by not having introduced them to the Portuguese governor. Wallace was understandably furious, and after a heated interview he announced that he would have nothing more to do with Bourne.
The Warrior then continued on to the Leeward Islands where she fought at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April. Two weeks later there was a commotion in the wardroom for which Bourne was the instigator, and despite his assertion that one of the naval lieutenants had been drunk he was not even supported in this claim by the two other officers who had become his toadies. The commotion only ended when the candles were extinguished, for which act Bourne demanded to know whether the captain was responsible. After another heated interview Wallace announced ‘Go along, Sir, you are a very troublesome young man!’
On the quarterdeck the next morning the drama continued, whereby according to Bourne’s testimony and that of the fourth lieutenant, George Paris Monke, Wallace approached the marine with clenched fists and maniacal eyes to declare that he could not walk on the same side of the quarterdeck as the captain. Wallace’s supported evidence was that Bourne approached him on the quarterdeck and with an insulting, hectoring manner brushed passed him several times, whereupon Wallace instructed Spry to prohibit Bourne from walking on the same side as him.
At the end of April the Warrior reached Jamaica and here Bourne applied for a court martial on Wallace. Wisely Admiral Rodney refused it and instead arranged for the marine officers’ transfer to the French prize Hector 74, Captain John Bourchier, which had been captured at the Battle of the Saintes and was to be sent to England. Two weeks later on 15 May Bourne surprised Wallace by stepping out of a Negro hut in a Port Royal street in the dark of night. Allegedly he asked Wallace for an explanation of his conduct, to which the captain replied that he would consider of it. Bourne would later attest that this exchange represented a challenge on his part, but conversely Major William Varlo, the senior marine officer of the Warrior who was accompanying Bourne at the time, testified that the lieutenant said to Wallace ‘I want to have some private conversation with you’, to which Wallace responded ‘I will have no private conversation with you. If you have anything to say speak out like a man, in the presence of Major Varlo.’ Two days later the Warrior sailed from Jamaica.
Bourne then left Jamaica for England aboard the Hector in July with Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves’ convoy, during which voyage the ship became detached from her consorts and had to repel the attack of two French frigates, the Aigle 40, and Gloire 32. Lieutenant Henry Inman assumed command when Bourchier was severely wounded, but shortly afterwards the Hector was dismasted in the Central Atlantic Hurricane which claimed so many of Graves’ convoy when it struck on 16 September. Eventually the tiny Dartmouth-based privateer Hawke, Captain John Hill, arrived as the Hector was on the point of foundering and her crew was conveyed to Newfoundland.
Upon returning to England Bourne went straight to Bath where Wallace was living, and by his testimony wrote demanding satisfaction, although he did not attend Wallace personally as he believed that the captain was ‘in the company of ladies’. Bourne then intercepted Wallace near his lodgings in Milsom Street the next day and by his subsequent account threatened him with his cane, whereupon Wallace took a pistol from his coat and declared ‘strike and I’ll shoot you!’ Bourne insisted that they should meet on a private ground to settle their dispute, and ten minutes later he called at Wallace’s house only to be refused access. He then wrote a second latter to Wallace stating that the captain was ‘a dastardly coward and scoundrel’ and a ‘liar’, and that he would follow him to the ends of the earth to obtain satisfaction.
Unsurprisingly Wallace’s testimony was contrary. He stated that the first advice he received in Bath was an anonymous message by word of a mouth from a waiter who merely asked him to meet a gentleman at the White Hart Inn. When Wallace asked for the name of the gentleman the waiter was unable to advise him, but he did mention that the man had a pistol and a sword to hand. A second message came yet still no name, whereupon Wallace sent a reply asking who wished to see him. When he was advised it was a Mr Bourne he replied that he had nothing to say to Mr Bourne, but that if Bourne sent a gentleman with his terms then he would be answered. Knowing that Bourne was a threat to his person Wallace had then felt it necessary to arm himself with the pistol, resulting in the encounter in Milsom Street the next day. Shortly afterwards Wallace departed for London where he prepared to lay an account of Bourne’s conduct before the Admiralty, and having followed him the marine officer apparently despatched a second to call on Wallace, but the man was denied access.
In mid-December the dispute reached national attention when an anonymous paragraph appeared in the Morning Herald, which by the insertion of the names of the ships Wallace had commanded in the war was clearly intended to deprecate him. The paragraph stated: ‘A certain naval character, who has made more than one hazardous Experiment during the present war, is said to be at this time so awkwardly situated, in consequence of a personal difference with a brother-officer, that he ceases to be the Nonsuch of valour he was once taken to be. It has indeed been observed that he gave up the Warrior some time since; but his greatest enemies will hardly think so meanly of him as to conceive he means to fly to the other extreme; and be terrified at a country from whose Bourne no traveller returns’. To this insulting missive Wallace responded with a letter in the same publication dated 20 December 1782 which named and defamed Bourne and accused him of having never sought satisfaction, or ‘of coming to the point’ in Jamaica, Bath or London.
Bourne then published his own letter in the paper to defend both his honour and his courage, claiming that the anonymous paragraph had been inserted without his knowledge. Sometime later, on 6 February, by which time the Admiralty had declined Wallace’s request for a court martial on the lieutenant, Bourne was walking with an acquaintance near the Salopian Coffee House, Charing Cross, when he happened upon Wallace who was walking on the other side of the street towards the Admiralty. Grabbing a small brass-headed stick from his companion, Bourne ran up to Wallace.
Once again the testimony of the two men was to differ. According to Bourne and his acquaintance there was a minute’s conversation which was civil on Bourne’s part but off-hand on Wallace’s, and this concluded with the marine officer stating that if Wallace persevered in refusing to give him satisfaction then he must disgrace him. Wallace would state that Bourne simply shouted ‘You Scoundrel! Sir James Wallace!’ What was beyond doubt was that there followed ‘several harsh expressions’ before Bourne belaboured Wallace about the head and on his left arm with the stick. A linen draper witnessed the blows which carved through Wallace’s hat and its leather lining, and which continued until the two men were separated by a gathering crowd and Bourne’s broken stick was thrown over the Admiralty wall.
An exasperated Wallace now decided to settle the matter once and for all by bringing charges of assault and libel against Bourne. The marine decided that in the case of the libel he would suffer judgement to go against him by default, or in other words he would not contest the charge, but to maintain his honour and to denigrate Wallace he would admit the assault but plead not guilty. The case opened in the Court of the King’s Bench in Westminster Hall on Thursday 5 June before Mr Justice Buller, and a titillated press reported that Wallace appeared in a ‘brown frock’ whilst Bourne wore full uniform and had many marine officers in the gallery to support him.
In defence of Bourne a number of deponents provided glowing testaments. Lieutenants Monke and Markett had nothing but praise for the marine’s gentlemanly demeanour and excellent conduct, although tellingly whilst Market confined himself to simply honouring Bourne’s qualities Monke attacked Wallace by on one occasion ‘betraying every symptom of insanity’ and otherwise stating that the captain had treated Bourne in a most ‘un-officer like, infamous and insulting manner’, and that he had been ‘in the highest degree tyrannical and oppressive’ towards Bourne. Captain James Hawker, late of the Iris, mentioned that Bourne had been severely wounded on 6 June 1780 in action with the French frigate Hermione, and in confirming his bravery reported that he had never been troublesome or quarrelsome, and that he had always behaved like a gentleman in every respect. Lieutenant Inman, the man who had saved the Hector, opined that Bourne was incapable of any degree of malice, and that he was a quiet, sober, amiable and brave officer. Captain Bouchier of the Hector said that he would have no compunction in serving again with Bourne, and a whole plethora of marine officers made affidavits in a similar vein.
In support of the prosecution Major Varlo, who had been Bourne’s immediate senior aboard the Warrior and had been present in most of the key incidents, confirmed every part of Wallace’s testimony whilst also affirming that he had never seen the captain treat the marine with any kind of insolence or abuse. Lieutenant Spry, who had only recently arrived back in England from the West Indies aboard Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s flagship Barfleur, similarly confirmed Wallace’s account whilst adding that Bourne had done all he could to sow discord in the wardroom amongst the officers and against the captain. A junior lieutenant, Robert Farris, added that the officers in the wardroom had enjoyed a harmonious relationship until Bourne had come aboard, whereupon he had inserted himself in any petty squabbles and had encouraged divisions. The carpenter and schoolmaster confirmed Wallace’s account whilst adding that they had heard Bourne frequently speak disrespectfully of Wallace, and that he had prevailed upon Markett and Monke to oppose the rest of the officers and in particular the captain.
There were initially three charges of assault in the indictment preferred by Wallace, these being an assault with the intention to commit murder, assault and battery with a stick, and common assault, although by the time of the trial Wallace and his counsel had agreed not to prosecute the first and most serious charge on the indictment. A surgeon confirmed the contusions caused by the blows to Wallace’s forehead which he stated could have been fatal had they been on the middle of the head, and the draper provided his evidence relating to the caning. However, as the defence had decided not to contest the charge of assault the case was a cut and dried one, so the jury found Bourne guilty of the latter two indictments but cleared him of any ‘felonious intention’.
On Saturday July 5 Bourne re-attended court where the counsels put their side of the argument for five and a half hours before he was committed for sentencing, then four days later he received judgement before Mr Justice Willes on the charges of publishing a libel and assault. The judge was particularly censorious of the fact that a junior officer had struck his senior, and he sentenced Bourne to be held in the custody of the marshal of the court for two years, and to give securities himself in a thousand pounds, together with two other securities in five hundred pounds to keep the peace with Wallace for seven years. He also made it very clear that Bourne’s testimonies, and by implication that of Lieutenants Monke and to a lesser degree Markett, had been falsehoods, and that at no point had Bourne actually issued Wallace with a challenge. With regard to the libel the judge had harsh words for Wallace in publishing his letter in response to the anonymous paragraph, and accordingly he merely fined Bourne fifty guineas with a proviso that he would be imprisoned until the fine was settled.