Moutray, John (DNB00)

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MOUTRAY, JOHN (d. 1785), captain in the navy, was on 12 May 1744 promoted by Sir Chaloner Ogle in the West Indies to be lieutenant of the Orford. After serving in several different ships, mostly on the home station, without any opportunity of distinction, he was promoted on 16 Feb. 1757 to the command of the Thetis hospital ship attached to the fleet which, in the latter part of the year, sailed for the Basque Roads under Sir Edward Hawke. She was afterwards attached to the fleet in the Mediterranean, and on 28 Dec. 1758 Moutray was advanced to post rank by Rear-admiral Brodrick, though he remained in command of the Thetis during the war. This irregular promotion was confirmed by the admiralty on 24 Jan. 1763. In 1769 Moutray commanded the Emerald for a short time, and in 1774 the Thames in the Mediterranean (cf. Playfair, Scourge of Christendom, p. 211). In the Warwick, in 1778, he convoyed the East India trade to St. Helena. He was then appointed for a few months to the Britannia, and in March 1779 to the Ramillies. In July 1780, with the Thetis and Southampton frigates in company, he sailed in convoy of a large fleet of merchant ships and transports for the East and West Indies and for North America. In view of the exceptional importance and value of this fleet, two other line-of-battle ships and a frigate were ordered to accompany it a hundred leagues westward from the Scilly Islands. On the way it fell in with the Channel fleet under Admiral Geary, who also kept it company with his whole force, till 112 leagues to the westward; from that point the Ramillies, with the Thetis and Southampton, was considered sufficient protection.

The miscalculation was extraordinary, for the combined Franco-Spanish fleet was enforcing the blockade of Gibraltar, and might be met with anywhere off Cape St. Vincent. At sunset on 8 Aug. some distant sail in the south were reported. Moutray thought it a matter of no importance, and ran on with a fresh northerly breeze. At midnight lights were seen ahead, and not till then did it occur to Moutray that it would be prudent to alter his course. He made the night signal to steer to the westward, but the merchant ships, never quick at attending to signals, on this occasion paid no attention at all. By daylight they were right in among the enemy's fleet and were almost all captured. A few only, with the men-of-war, managed to escape. The loss was extremely heavy. To the underwriters it was estimated at upwards of a million and a half sterling, exclusive of the stores and reinforcements for the West Indian fleet. Diplomatically, too, the results were serious; the court of Spain, which was already listening to secret negotiations at Madrid, conceived new hopes and would hear of no terms which did not include the surrender of Gibraltar (R. Cumberland, Memoirs, ii. 44, 112). Moutray meantime pursued his way to Jamaica, where, by order of the admiralty, he was tried by court-martial on 13 Feb. 1781 ; he was pronounced to be 'reprehensible in his conduct for the loss of the convoy,' and sentenced to be dismissed from the command of the Ramillies. In deference to the widespread personal interest in the case, the publication of the minutes was specially sanctioned by a resolution of the court, and it was ordered 'that they be sent to England by the first conveyance and published accordingly.' Moutray had certainly not taken proper precautions, and the finding of the court was perfectly just, but much of the blame properly rested with the admiralty, who had neglected the warning of the similar disaster which was sustained in the same locality ninety years before [see Rooke, Sir George].

It has been incorrectly stated that Moutray had no further employment under Lord Sandwich's administration (Carnock, vi. 333). He was appointed to the Edgar on 2 March 1782, nearly three weeks before the fall of the ministry. In May he was moved into the Vengeance, one of the fleet under Lord Howe at the relief of Gibraltar and the rencounter off Cape Spartel in October. It was Moutray's solitary experience of a battle. In February 1783 (just before the peace) he was appointed, in place of Sir John Laforey [q. v.], resident commissioner of the navy at Antigua, a civil appointment held on half-pay and giving the holder no executive rank or authority. Notwithstanding this, on 29 Dec. 1784, Sir Richard Hughes [q. v.] directed Moutray to hoist a broad pennant in the absence of the flag and to exercise the functions of senior officer. Nelson, coming to Antigua shortly afterwards, refused to acknowledge Moutray's authority, which Moutray, on his part, did not insist on. The matter was referred to the admiralty, who replied that the appointment was abolished, and it was therefore unnecessary to lay down any rule (Nicolas, Despatches and Letters of Lord Nelson, i. 118 et seq.; Laughton, Letters and Despatches of Lord Nelson, pp. 29-31). Moutray was accordingly recalled; he died at Bath a few months later, 22 Nov. 1785, and was buried in the Abbey Church (Gent. Mag. 1785, ii. 1008, 1788, i. 189). His wife, who appears to have been many years younger than himself, was with him at Antigua, where she won the affectionate friendship of Nelson and Collingwood, both young captains on the station. This friendship continued through Nelson's life, and after Trafalgar Collingwood sent her an account of Nelson's death (Nicolas, vii. 238). She had one son, James, a lieutenant in the navy, who died of fever at the siege of Calvi in 1794 (ib. i. 486).

[Charnock's Biog. Nav. vi. 331; commission and warrant books and other documents in the Public Eecord Office.]

J. K. L.