Balchen, John (DNB00)

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BALCHEN, Sir JOHN (1670–1744), admiral, was born, according to local tradition and an anonymous inscription on his picture, 'of very obscure parentage, 4 Feb. 1669-70, at Godalming, in Surrey;' but he himself, in a memorial to the admiralty, dated 12 June 1699, related all that is really certain of his early history. 'I have served in the navy,' he said, 'for fourteen years past in several stations, and was lieutenant of the Dragon and Cambridge almost five years, then had the honour of a commission from Admiral Neville in the West Indies to command the Virgin's prize, which bears date from 25 July 1697, and was confirmed by my lords of the admiralty on our arrival in England. I continued in command of the Virgin till September 1698, then being paid off, and never at any time have committed any misdemeanour which might occasion my being called to a court martial, to be turned out or suspended.' He was asking for the command of one of the small ships employed on the coast of Ireland; but it was fully eighteen months before he was appointed to the Firebrand for the Irish station. In December 1701 he was turned over to the Vulcan fireship, was attached to the main fleet under Sir George Rooke on the coast of Spain, and was with it at the capture or burning of the French and Spanish ships at Vigo, 12 Oct. 1702. It is uncertain whether' the Vulcan took any active part in the burning, but Balchen brought home the Modéré prize of 56 guns. A few months later, February 1702-3, he was appointed to the Adventure, 44 guns, and continued in her for the next two years, cruising in the North Sea and in the Channel, and for the most part between Yarmouth and Portsmouth. On 19 March 1704-5 he was transferred to the Chester, and towards the end of the year was sent out to the Guinea coast. He returned home the following summer, and continued cruising in the Channel and on the Soundings, where, on 10 Oct. 1707, he was one of a small squadron which was captured or destroyed by a very superior French force under Forbin and Duguay-Trouin. The Chester was taken, and a year later, 27 Sept. 1708, when Balchen had returned to England on parole, he was tried by court-martial and fully acquitted; the decision of the court being that the Chester was in her station, and was engaged by three of the enemy, who laid her on board, entered many men, and so forcibly got possession of the ship. He was, however, not exchanged till the next year, when, in August 1709, he was appointed to the Gloucester, a new ship of 60 guns then fitting at Deptford. On 8 Oct. he had got her round to Spithead, and wrote that he would sail in a few days; but he had scarcely cleared the land before he again fell in with Duguay-Trouin (26 Oct., in lat. 50° 10' N.), and was again captured. He was therefore again tried by court-martial for the loss of his ship (14 Dec. 1709), when it appeared from the evidence that the Gloucester was engaged for above two hours with Duguay's own ship, the Lis, 74 guns, another firing at her at the same time, and three other ships very near and ready to board her. She had her fore-yard shot in two, so that her head-sails were rendered unserviceable, and had also received much damage in her other yards, masts, sails, and rigging. The court was therefore of opinion that Captain Balchen and the other officers and men had discharged their duties very well, and fully acquitted them. It may be added that the French sold the Gloucester to the Spaniards, and that for many years she was on the strength of the Spanish navy under the name of Conquistador.

Within a few months after his acquittal Balchen was appointed to the Colchester, 48 guns, for Channel service. He continued in her, between Portsmouth, Plymouth, and Kinsale, for nearly five years, and in February 1714-15 was transferred to the Diamond, 40 guns, for a voyage to the West Indies and the suppression of piracy. His orders were to stay out as long as his provisions would last, or he could get others cheap at Jamaica. He came home in May 1716, and whilst lying at the Nore waiting for orders was involved in a curious difficulty with a custom-house officer who desired to search the ship, but would show no authority and was exceedingly insolent. Balchen put him in irons as an impostor, but released him on the representation of the master, who seemed to have some knowledge of the fellow. Balchen was afterwards called on for an explanation, and wrote a somewhat lengthy and very amusing account of the whole affair, which began with a bowl of punch on the quarter-deck, round which the captain, the master, the surgeon, the stranger, and the stranger's friend sat drank and Quarrelled (Calendar of Treasury Papers, 22 Nov. 1716).

Immediately on paying off the Diamond Balchen was appointed to the Orford guardship in the Medway, and continued in her till February 1717-18, when he commissioned the Shrewsbury, 80 guns, and in her accompanied Sir George Byng to the Mediterranean. On arriving on the station, Vice-admiral Charles Cornwall, till then the commander-in-chief, put himself under Byng's orders, hoisted his flag on board the Shrewsbury, and was second in command in the battle off Cape Passaro, 31 July (Balchen's Journal, Log of the Shrewsbury). The Shrewsbury returned to England in December, and in the following May Balchen was appointed to the Monmouth, 70 guns, in which ship he accompanied Admiral Sir John Norris to the Baltic in the three successive summers of 1719, 1720, and 1721. Between the years 1722 and 1725 he commanded the Ipswich guardship at Spithead, and in February 1725-6 was again appointed to the Monmouth, and again went for the then yearly cruise up the Baltic, in 1726 with Sir Charles Wager, and in 1727 with Sir John Norris. He was afterwards, in October 1727, sent out as part of a reinforcement to Sir Charles Wager at Gibraltar, then besieged by the Spaniards, but came home in the following January, when the dispute had been arranged. On 19 July 1728 he was promoted to be rear-admiral, and in 1731 went out to the Mediterranean as second in command under Sir Charles Wager, with his flag on board the Princess Amelia. It was a diplomatic pageant rather than a naval expedition, and the fleet returned home in December. In February 1733-4 he was advanced to be vice-admiral, and commanded a squadron at Portsmouth for a few months. In 1740 he had again command of a squadron of six sail of the line, to look out for the Spanish homeward-bound fleet of treasure-ships, which, however, escaped by keeping far to the north, making Ushant, and then creeping to the south well in with the coast of France, whilst the English squadron was looking for them broad off Cape Finisterre. In August 1743 Balchen was promoted to be admiral of the white. He commanded for a few months at Plymouth ; but in the following April he was appointed to be governor of Greenwich Hospital, and was knighted. The appointment was considered as an honourable retirement from the active list, and in addition to its emohunents a pension of 600l. a year on the ordinary estimate of the navy was settled on him during life (13 April, Admiralty Minute) ; but on 1 June he was restored to his active rank as admiral of the white. A large fleet of store-ships on their way to the Mediterranean was blockaded in the Tagus by a powerful French squadron under the Count de Rochambeau. Balchen was ordered to relieve it, and, with his flag on board the Victory, sailed from St. Helen's on 28 July. Rochambeau was unable to oppose a force such as Balchen commanded ; he drew back to Cadiz, whilst Balchen convoyed the store-ships to Gibraltar, saw them safely through the straits, and started on the return voyage. In the chops of the Channel his fleet was caught in a violent storm, on 3 Oct. ; the ships were dispersed, but, more or less damaged, some dismasted, some leaking badly, all got into Plymouth or Spithead, with the exception of the Victory. She was last seen in the early morning of 4 Oct., and nothing was ever positively known as to her fate, whether she foundered at sea, or whether,as was more commonly believed, she struck on the Caskets. It was said that during the night of 4-5 Oct. her guns were heard by the people of Alderney, but even that was doubtful. Her maintop-mast was washed ashoreon the island of Guernsey (Voyages and Cruises of Commodore Walker [1762, 12mo], p. 45). The admiral, Sir John Balchen, her captain, Samuel Faulknor, all her officers and men, and an unusual number of volunteers and cadets, 'sons of the first nobility and gentry in the kingdom,' being in all, it was estimated, more than eleven hundred souls, were lost in her. A gift of 500l. and a yearly pension of the same amount was immediately (27 Nov.) settled on the admiral's widow, Dame Susan Balchen, and a monument to his memory was erected at the public cost in Westminster Abbey. His portrait, by Sir Godfrey Kneller, and bearing the inscription above referred to, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. He had one son, George, a captain in the navy, who died in command of the Pembroke in the West Indies, in December 1745.

[Official Letters and other Documents in the Public Record Office; Charnock's account (Biog. Nav. iii. 156), more especially of the early part of Balchen's career, is very imperfect and inaccurate; Lediard's Naval History (under date).]

J. K. L.