Fitton, Michael (DNB00)

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FITTON, MICHAEL (1766–1852), lieutenant in the navy, was born in 1766 at Gawsworth in Cheshire, the ancient seat of his family. He entered the navy in June 1780, on board the Vestal, with Captain George Keppel. On 10 Sept. the Vestal gave chase to and captured the Mercury packet, having on board Mr. Laurens, late president of congress, on his way to Holland as ambassador of the revolted colonies. During the chase young Fitton, being on the foretop-gallant yard, hailed the deck to say that there was a man overboard from the enemy. The Vestal sent a boat to pick him up, when the object was found to be a bag of papers, which, being insufficiently weighted, was recovered. On examination these papers were found to compromise the Dutch government, and led to a declaration of war against Holland a few months afterwards. Fitton continued with Captain Keppel during the war in different ships, and as midshipman of the Fortitude was present at the relief of Gibraltar in 1782. In 1793 he was again with Captain Keppel in the Defiance of 74 guns, as master's mate. In 1796 he was appointed purser of the Stork in the West Indies, and in 1799 was acting lieutenant of the Abergavenny of 54 guns, from which he was almost immediately detached in command of one of her tenders. One of his first services was, in the Ferret schooner, to cruise in the Mona Passage, in company with the Sparrow cutter, commanded by Mr. Whylie. The two accidentally separated for a few days. On rejoining, Fitton invited Whylie by signal to come to breakfast, and while waiting caught a large shark that was under the stern. In its stomach was found a packet of papers relating to an American brig Nancy. When Whylie came on board, he mentioned that he had detained an American brig called the Nancy. Fitton then said that he had her papers. 'Papers ?' answered Whylie; 'why, I sealed up her papers and sent them in with her.' 'Just so,' replied Fitton; 'those were her false papers; here are her real ones.' And so it proved. The papers were lodged in the admiralty court at Port Royal, and by them the brig was condemned. The shark's jaws were set up on shore, with the inscription, 'Lieut. Fitton recommends these jaws for a collar for neutrals to swear through.' The papers are still preserved in the museum of the Royal United Service Institution.

Fitton's whole service during the three years in which he commanded the Abergavenny's tenders was marked by daring and good fortune (James, Nav. Hist. 1860, ii. 398, iii. 38). Several privateers of superior force he captured or beat off. One, which he drove ashore, he boarded by swimming, himself and the greater part of his men plunging into the sea with their swords in their mouths (O'Byrne; a friend of the present writer has often heard Fitton tell the story). When the war was renewed in 1803, Fitton was again sent out to the West Indian flagship, and appointed to command her tender, the Gipsy schooner. At the attack on Curaçao in 1804, being the only officer in the squadron who was acquainted with the island, he piloted the ships in, and had virtually the direction of the landing. On the failure of the expedition the Gipsy was sent to the admiral with despatches, and Fitton, in accordance with the senior officer's recommendation, was at last promoted to be lieutenant, thus receiving, as 'the bearer of despatches announcing a defeat, what years of active employment and of hard and responsible service, what more than one successful case of acknowledged skill and gallantry as a commanding officer had failed to procure him' (James, iii. 296). His promotion, however, made no difference in his employment. In the Gipsy and afterwards in the Pitt, a similar schooner, he continued to wage a dashing and successful war on the enemy's privateers, and on 26 Oct. 1806, after a weary chase of sixty-seven hours, drove on shore and captured the Superbe, a French ship of superior force, which had long been the scourge of English trade, and on board of which a list of captures made showed a value of 147,000l. The captain of the Superbe afterwards equipped a brig which he named La Revanche de la Superbe, and sent an invitation to Fitton to meet him at a place named; but before the message arrived Fitton had been superseded by a friend of the admiral, Sir Alexander Cochrane, 'not to be promoted to the rank of commander, but to be turned adrift as an unemployed lieutenant' (ib. iv. 184). All that he seems to have got for capturing or destroying near forty of the enemy's ships, many of them privateers, was the thanks of the admiralty, a sword valued at 50l. from the Patriotic Society, and his share of the prize-money, which, from his being in command of a tender, was only counted to him as one of the officers of the flagship. He was left unemployed till 1811, when he was appointed to the command of a brig for service in the North Sea and Baltic, and which was paid out of commission in 1815. In 1831 he was appointed a lieutenant of the ordinary at Plymouth, and in 1835 was admitted into Greenwich Hospital, where he continued till his death, which took place at Peckham on 31 Dec. 1852.

It is now impossible to say what was the cause of Fitton's being so grievously neglected. The record of his services is brilliant beyond that of any officer of his standing; and the story of his career is in marked and painful contrast with that of Sir Thomas Cochrane, whose rapid promotion by the admiral who superseded Fitton has been already related.

[O'Byrne's Nav. Biog. Dict.; Gent. Mag. 1853, new ser. xl. 312; United Service Journal, 1835, pt. i. p. 276; Allen's Battles of the British Navy (see index). Allen was an intimate friend of Fitton in the days of his retirement at Greenwich, and his notices of Fitton's achievements may be considered as practically related by Fitton himself.]

J. K. L.