Royal Naval Biography/Austen, Francis William

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A Companion of the most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1800.]

This officer is a son of the late Rev. George Austen, Rector of Steventon in Hampshire, by Cassandra, youngest daughter of the Rev. Thomas Leigh, formerly Rector of Harpsden, or Harden, near Henley on Thames, Oxfordshire[1].

He was born at Steventon, April 23, 1774; and admitted a student at the Royal Naval Academy, April 15, 1786. Whilst there, he applied so closely to his studies, and behaved in so exemplary a manner, as to obtain from the Lords of the Admiralty, (to whom his good conduct had been officially reported) a recommendation to the Hon. Commodore Cornwallis for promotion, as soon as his time should be completed.

Mr. Austen embarked as a Midshipman on board the Perseverance frigate, about the latter end of 1788; and served in that ship, the Crown 64, and Minerva of 38 guns, on the East India station, till Dec. 28, 1792, when he was advanced to the rank of Lieutenant. From that period we find him serving successively in the Dispatch armed brig; Minerva; Lark sloop; Andromeda of 32 guns; Prince George and Glory, second rates; Shannon, Triton, and Seahorse frigates; and London of 98 guns; under the respective commands of Captain John Whitby, Commodore Cornwallis, Captains Josias Rowley, Thomas Sotheby, William Taylor, James Bowen, Alexander Fraser, John Gore, Edward J. Foote, and J. Child Purvis[2].

On the 3d Feb. 1799, Lieutenant Austen was promoted to the rank of Commander, in the Peterel sloop of war at Gibraltar. In this vessel he was employed affording protection to the Mediterranean trade, carrying despatches, and occasionally cruising amongst the Balearic islands, on the coast of Catalonia, and in the gulfs of Lyons and Genoa, where he captured and destroyed upwards of forty vessels of various descriptions. Whilst performing these services, the Peterel was repeatedly exposed to a heavy fire from the enemies’ batteries; and on one occasion had her first Lieutenant mortally wounded[3]. He also assisted at the capture of a French squadron returning from Egypt, in July 1799[4].

On the 21st March, 1800, Captain Austen, whilst cruising near Marseilles, under the orders of Captain Oliver, of the Mermaid frigate, fell in with and attacked three French national vessels, two of which, le Cerf, a ship mounting fourteen 6-pounders, and le Joilliet, a xebec of 6 guns, were driven on the rocks, where the former was totally wrecked; the third, la Ligurienne, a brig of fourteen brass 6-pounders, two 36-pr. howitzers, of the same metal, and 104 men, was obliged to surrender, after a running fight of about an hour and a half; during which the Peterel was never more than a cable’s length from the shore, and frequently not half that distance. This service was performed under a heavy fire from a battery of four 24-pounders; and fortunately, without the loss of a man on our side. La Ligurienne had her commander and 1 man killed, a midshipman and 1 seaman wounded. Captain Oliver was in sight to leeward, but out of gun-shot; the following is an extract from his official letter to Lord Keith: “At one time the Peterel’s stern touched a rock, where she stopped for a few minutes. It is impossible for me to express in terms strong enough, the gallant conduct of Captain Austen, his officers, and ship’s company, on this occasion, in a contest against so superior a force[5].”

The Peterel was subsequently employed blockading Genoa, and stationed for a considerable time as the advanced ship of Lord Keith’s squadron, with directions never to be more than three miles distant from the mole-head, whether by day or night. The manner in which those orders were obeyed may be inferred from the circumstance of her having been twice fired at by the British gun-boats; their officers imagining, from her closeness to the shore, that she was an enemy’s vessel attempting to enter the port. It is almost superfluous to add, that Captain Austen received the Admiral’s thanks for his zeal and diligence in so arduous and anxious a situation. After the surrender of Genoa, in June 1800[6], Captain Austen was sent to join Sir W. Sidney Smith on the coast of Egypt. In Aug. following, he rendered an important service to the allied forces, by preventing the French from landing the ordnance of a Turkish 80-gun ship, which had grounded bn a reef between Aboukir Castle and Bequiere island. Indjee Bey, her commander, with part of his crew, surrendered to the enemy; the remainder escaped to two Ottoman corvettes, and refused to give the English sloop any assistance, saying they had saved their clothes, and that they could not think of exposing themselves to the fire of the Frenchmen, who had obtained possession of their ship, and were removing her guns into some djerms at the time Captain Austen arrived to their aid. The Peterel anchored within gun-shot, compelled the enemy, about 300 in number, to abandon their intention, and succeeded in setting fire to the ship; by which she was soon consumed to the water’s edge. For his conduct on this occasion, our officer was presented by the Capitan Pacha, with a rich sabre and pelisse. On the 20th Oct. in the same year, he received the first intelligence of his promotion to post rank, for his action off Marseilles, from Captain Inglis, by whom he was succeeded in the command of the Peterel at Rhodes. His commission bears date May 13, 1800.

On his return to England, in the spring of 1801, Captain Austen found his friend Vice-Admiral Gambier was about to assume a command in the Channel fleet, and had applied for him to be appointed his Captain in the Neptune of 98 guns[7]. Circumstances, not necessary to be detailed here, prevented him joining that ship till September following; from which period he continued to command her till Oct. 1802, when he was superseded by Captain Drury, and at the same time declined the offer of a frigate made him by Earl St. Vincent[8].

At the renewal of hostilities in 1803, Captain Austen was appointed to embody and command a corps of Sea Fencibles at Ramsgate, where he remained ten months. In May 1804, he received a commission for the Leopard, a 50-gun ship, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Louis, with whom he served during the remainder of that year, off Boulogne; and afterwards removed into the Canopus of 80 guns, on the Mediterranean station; the Rear-Admiral having been sent thither at the particular request of Lord Nelson, who in a letter to Earl Moira (now Marquis of Hastings), written about this period, makes the following mention of Captain Austen:

“You may rely upon every attention in my power to Captain Austen. I hope to see him alongside a French 80-gun ship, and he cannot be better placed than in the Canopus, which was once a French Admiral’s ship, and struck to me. Captain Austen I knew a little of before; he is an excellent young man.”

The Canopus accompanied Lord Nelson to the West Indies, in pursuit of the combined squadrons of France and Spain, and continued under his orders till Aug. 15, 1805, the day on which his Lordship formed a junction with Admiral Cornwallis off Ushant[9]; from whence she was sent with a strong detachment under Sir Robert Calder in quest of the enemy, and having joined Vice-Admiral Collingwood near Cadiz, remained at the head of the advanced squadron, watching that port till Nelson arrived from England and resumed the chief command of the Mediterranean fleet, when Rear-Admiral Louis was detached to Tetuan and Gibraltar with the Canopus, Spencer, Queen, Tigre, and Zealous, for the purpose of procuring supplies of water and provisions. During the absence of this squadron, the combined forces put to sea, and the glorious battle of Trafalgar took place. Captain Austen was thus unfortunately deprived of the opportunity of sharing in that most brilliant victory: an event which appears to have been anticipated by the Rear-Admiral, who, when taking leave of the commander-in-chief, expressed his reluctance to go, saying, “I know, my Lord, the enemy will come out, you will have an action, and we shall be thrown out.” “My dear Louis,” replied his Lordship, “I have no other means of keeping my fleet supplied, but by sending them a few at a time to compleat, and I send you first, because I would have you with me in the day of battle; I consider your squadron as my right hand: the enemy will come out, and we shall fight them, I am confident of that; but you will be back first, – so make yourself easy: I need not tell you to make haste back.”

We have related the substance of the last conversation that ever took place between Nelson and Rear-Admiral Louis, lest our account of the battle of Trafalgar should be considered by others as calculated to convey a wrong impression, and one not very creditable to the latter officer. We beg leave to add, his Lordship did not detach the Canopus and her companions on a particular service[10], in the common acceptation of those terms, but simply to compleat their water and provisions. This service was completed on the third day after they had passed the Streights; and Rear-Admiral Louis only waited for a wind to carry him back through the Gut, when a valuable convoy arrived from England, which he received orders to escort past Carthagena, where nine sail of the line were lying ready for sea. The squadron actually sailed from Gibraltar for this latter purpose, the very day M. Villeneuve quitted Cadiz. As to the open manner[11] in which we have stated the Rear-Admiral to have been detached, we merely alluded to the impossibility of such a squadron reaching Gibraltar without being seen by the Spaniards at Algeziras; from whence notice of its arrival at the rock would of course be immediately transmitted to Cadiz.

Rear-Admiral Louis was subsequently employed watching the remnant of the combined fleets, under the orders of Sir John T. Duckworth, who left his station late in November to pursue a French squadron, which had chased the Lark sloop of war near Madeira. Gaining no information of the enemy at that island, nor off the Canaries, Sir John was returning towards Cadiz, when at day-break on the 25th Dec., six sail of the line and a frigate were discovered about four leagues distant to the eastward. The English squadron, consisting of the Superb, Canopus, Spencer, Donegal, Powerful, and Agamemnon, two deckers, Acasta and Amethyst frigates, chased the enemy till the following day at noon, when they effected their escape; and Sir John T. Duckworth, in consequence of his ships having been run so far to leeward, and being in general short of water, determined, after despatching the Powerful to the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies, and the Amethyst to England, to proceed with the remainder to Barbadoes, where he arrived on the 10th Jan. 1806[12].

From Carlisle Bay, Sir John T. Duckworth proceeded to St, Kitt’s, where he commenced watering and refitting his ships; intending, as he heard nothing of an enemy in that quarter, to return as expeditiously as possible to his proper station. On the 1st Feb., however, Captain N. D. Cochrane arrived in the short space of twenty-four hours from St. Thomas’s, with intelligence of a French squadron being at St. Domingo. Sir John T. Duckworth, reinforced by Sir Alexander Cochrane with the Northumberland and Atlas 74’s, a frigate and two sloops, immediately sailed thither; and on the 6th, attacked and defeated the enemy, capturing three sail of the line, and destroying a 3-decker and an 84-gun ship. In this action the Canopus had 8 men killed and 22 wounded. After refitting at Jamaica, she sailed in company with the Spencer, Donegal, and the prizes, for Plymouth, where she arrived at the latter end of April.

For his conduct in the battle off St. Domingo, Captain Austen received a gold medal, the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, and a vase, value one hundred pounds, from the Patriotic Fund at Lloyd’s. He left the Canopus June 22, 1806, and did not serve again till the beginning of April 1807, when he was appointed to the St. Albans of 64 guns; in which ship he convoyed five East Indiamen to the Cape of Good Hope, from whence he returned home in company with the Lion 64, and a valuable fleet of Chinamen. In the ensuing year, we find him escorting another fleet from St. Helena to England; and subsequently a number of transports, having on board about 2000 troops, commanded by General Anstruther, to the coast of Portugal, where this reinforcement was landed just in time to assist at the battle of Vimiera; after which Captain Austen superintended the embarkation of the wounded men belonging to Sir Arthur Wellesley’s army, and conducted them in safety to Oporto. On his return to Spithead, he was ordered to the North Sea; but soon after removed from that station, in consequence of his ship requiring to be docked. The next service he performed, was that of superintending the debarkation at Portsmouth of those brave troops who had survived Sir John Moore’s disastrous campaign in Spain.

In April 1809, Captain Austen sailed with seven of the East India Company’s ships tinder his protection for China, where he arrived in September; and, pursuant to his orders, remained to convoy them home. A dispute with the Chinese caused a total suspension of the trade for six weeks, but was at length happily settled without any compromise of our national honor; and the St. Albans with her valuable charge, consisting of thirteen ships, worth nearly two millions sterling, took her departure on the 2d March, and arrived in the Powns at the end of July 1810. Captain Austen’s conduct on this occasion, and the remonstrances presented by him to the Chinese government, were highly approved by the Admiralty; and the Court of Directors voted him 1000 guineas, as a testimony of the sense they entertained of his attention to the interests of the Honorable Company.

Our officer continued in the St. Albans till Sept. 1810, when he accepted an offer from Lord Gambier, to become his Captain in the Caledonia, a first rate, which ship he joined at Spithead about November following. From that period until the expiration of his Lordship’s command, he was employed in Basque Roads, and cruising off the French coast.

In July 1811, Captain Austen was appointed to the Elephant 74, attached to the North Sea fleet, commanded by Admiral Young. During the winter of 1812, he was sent with the Phoebe and Hermes under his orders, to cruise off the Western Islands; where, in company with the latter vessel, he captured the Sword Fish, an American privateer of twelve 6-pounders and 82 men. The Elephant was subsequently stationed in the Baltic, from whence she returned in Dec. 1813. She was put out of commission in May following, and Captain Austen has ever since been on half pay. He was nominated a Companion of the Bath, at the extension of that order in 1815.

Captain Austen even when a boy, was very fond of practical astronomy and hydrography, and his taste for the latter science led him on all possible occasions to employ his leisure hours in making surveys of the various places he visited, of which there are several specimens in the Hydrographical Office.

He married, in July 1806, Mary, eldest daughter of John Gibson, Esq., of Ramsgate. That lady died July 13, 1823, leaving issue six sons and five daughters. His eldest son is now serving as a Midshipman on board the Revenge 78, bearing the flag of Sir Harry Neale, in the Mediterranean.

Captain Austen has two brothers living; one, a clergyman, took the sirname of Knight, on succeeding to considerable property in Kent and Hampshire. The other is a Post-Captain of 1810. Another brother (deceased) was in holy orders.

Agent.– ___

  1. Captain Austen is descended by his father’s side, from an old and respectable family long settled in Kent, at present represented by Thomas Austen, Esq., of Kippington, near Seven Oaks, late a Colonel in the army. His mother was a descendant from the noble family of Leigh, proprietors of Stoneleigh Abbey, Staffordshire.
  2. Mr. Austen was first Lieutenant of all the above vessels except the Minerva, Prince George, and Glory. The Lark formed part of the squadron sent to escort H.S.H. the Princess Caroline of Brunswick from Cuxhaven to England; she also assisted at the evacuation of Ostend and Nieuport by the British troops. The Andromeda was employed convoying the trade to and from Elsineur. The Prince George bore Rear-Admiral Christian’s flag, which was afterwards removed to the Glory, in consequence of the damages sustained by the former ship when attempting to clear the Channel, in Nov. 1795‡. The Triton, whose commander had been a Lieutenant of the Perseverance when Mr. Austen belonged to that ship, was concerned in the capture of five French privateers, and destroyed several of the enemy’s coasting vessels. The London formed part of the fleet under Earl St. Vincent, employed in the blockade of Cadiz.

    See p. 96, et seq.

  3. The officer alluded to was Lieutenant Brenton, brother of the present Captains Sir Jahleel and Edward Pelham Brenton. He was unfortunately shot through the breast in a daring attempt to capture an armed vessel near Barcelona, see p. 270.
  4. The French squadron consisted of three frigates and two brigs, whose names appear in Vol. I. at p. 267. They were first discovered and chased by the fleet under Lord Keith; but only four 74’s, five frigates, and the Peterel, were present at their capture. Since we published Admiral Markham’s memoir, we have been credibly informed that that officer was fortuitously the senior present: he had not been entrusted with the command of a squadron.
  5. According to James, the Peterel mounted sixteen long 6-pounders, and eight 12-pr. carronades, with a complement of 120 men. Captain Austen, in his report of the action, noticed the previous capture of two vessels laden with wheat, which had sailed from Cette that morning under protection of le Cerf and her consorts; and the absence of his first Lieutenant, gunner, and 30 men, in prizes. He also described la Ligurienne as a very fine brig, built on a peculiar plan, being fastened throughout with screw bolts, so as to be taken to pieces and set up again with ease.
  6. See Vol. I. p. 53.
  7. Lord Gambier and the late Sir H. Martin, Comptroller of the Navy, were Captain Austen’s first naval patrons.
  8. The Neptune was paid off at the peace in April 1802, and re-commissioned as a guard-ship at Portsmouth by Captain Austen.
  9. See Vol. I, note at p. 589, et seq.
  10. See Vol. I. line 14 of note at p. 202.
  11. See Vol. I. line 15 of note at p. 202.
  12. Having stated in our first volume, page 345, that Sir John T. Duckworth had been sent by Lord Collingwood in quest of a squadron which had sailed from France to relieve St. Domingo, and that the Powerful was despatched from the Leeward Islands to the East Indies, we lose no time in correcting those errors (into which Mr. James has likewise fallen). Neither Lord Collingwood nor Sir John T. Duckworth had heard of the sailing of any such squadron so destined; and the latter merely went to the West Indies, in consequence of the impossibility of regaining his station without previously procuring supplies. Lord Collingwood was much displeased when he heard of his departure from before Cadiz. The Powerful was detached from off the Cape de Verd Islands, as stated in the text above.