Royal Naval Biography/Mason, Francis

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A Companion of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1806.]

This officer was born Feb. 10, 1779, and had the misfortune to be left an orphan at a very early age. He entered the naval service under the protection of the late gallant and worthy Rear-Admiral John Willet Payne, by whom he was received as a Midshipman on board the Russel 74, at Chatham, in May, 1793; and with whom he bore a part in the memorable battle of June 1st, and also in the preceding actions of May 28 and 29, 1794; on which occasions the Russel sustained a total loss of 8 men killed and 26 wounded, received considerable damage in her hull, under water, and was much cut up in her masts, sails, and rigging.

In the ensuing winter, Mr. Mason was lent to the Jupiter 50, on board which ship his patron had hoisted a broad pendant, as Commodore of the squadron destined to escort H.S.H. the Princess Caroline of Brunswick, from Cuxhaven to England[1]. On his return from that service he rejoined the Russell, then commanded by Captain Thomas Larcom, a brave and zealous officer, under whom he served in Lord Bridport’s action, off l’Orient, June 23, 1795; on which day the Russell was the third ship that closed, and one of those most warmly engaged with the enemy; her loss, however, consisted of only 3 men slain and 10 wounded, including among the latter a military officer, who was doing duty as captain of marines[2].

Mr. Mason continued in the Russel, on the Channel and North Sea stations, until the latter end of 1796,when the whole of her officers and crew were turned over to the Impetueux of 78 guns[3], the command of which ship had been conferred upon Captain Payne, who was subsequently employed as senior officer of a cruising squadron, but whose ill-health obliged him io come on shore in the spring of 1798, without having had an opportunity of adding to his well-earned reputation by the performance of any greater service than that of capturing two French privateers and several Spanish merchantmen.

After remaining a short time with Captain Payne’s successor, the present Admiral Edwards, Mr. Mason was recommended by the former officer to the Hon. Robert Stopford, commanding the Phaeton 38, in which frigate he completed his time as a Midshipman. His first commission, appointing him to the Alecto sloop of war, stationed at Lymington, bears date July 8, 1799; his subsequent appointments as a Lieutenant were to the Beaver brig, and Romney of 50 guns; the latter successively commanded by Captain (now Vice-Admiral) Lawford, and the late Sir Home Popham, K.C.B.

In the summer of 1800, the Romney accompanied Vice-Admiral Dickson to Copenhagen[4]; in Nov. following, she was obliged to cut away her main and mizen-masts during a very heavy gale of wind, near Margate; and on the 5th of the ensuing month she sailed from Sheerness in company with a small squadron, armed en flute, destined to convey a detachment of troops up the Red Sea, in order to form a junction with the army from India, under General Baird, and afterwards to co-operate with the Anglo-Turkish forces then proceeding to act against the French in Egypt[5].

During his absence from England, a period of two years and four months, Lieutenant Mason visited the Cape of Good Hope; the Comorra islands, lying between Madagascar and the continent of Africa; Mocha, a large city of Arabia, having an harbour near the straits of Babelmandel; Jeddah, the port of Mecca; Cossire, from whence the British troops marched to the Nile; Calcutta, Pulo-Penang, Madras, Suez, Aden (in Arabia Felix), Bombay, and St. Helena:– he also surveyed various parts of the Red Sea, particularly from Suez to Tor; and formed part of Sir Home Popham’s retinue during that officer’s political mission to the Arab States, in the course of which the embassy experienced many indignities, and was exposed to considerable danger, through the perfidy of the natives[6].

Mr. Mason was promoted to the rank of Commander in April 1802, but did not hear of his advancement until the Romney’s arrival at Bombay, in Nov. of the same year. Finding, on his return to England, that active preparations were making for the renewal of hostilities, he lost no time in soliciting employ; notwithstanding which he did not obtain an appointment till Jan. 1804, when he commissioned the Rattler, a ship sloop mounting 24 guns, and used every exertion to get her ready for sea. While on half-pay, he had the honor of being presented at court by Sir Home Popham, from whom he had always experienced great kindness and attention[7]. He had likewise the melancholy gratification of witnessing the last moments, and attending the funeral, of his amiable friend and patron, at whose demise there would have been an end to all his professional prospects, had not his present Majesty, out of respect to the memory of Rear-Admiral Payne, graciously condescended to interest himself most warmly in his behalf, and obtained for him the appointment already noticed. We should here observe that the subject of this memoir, whenever unemployed, either as a Midshipman, Lieutenant, or Commander, had always lived at the Rear-Admiral’s table, except when the latter was a guest at Carlton-house; and that he was in the carriage with him when that lamented officer was attacked with the paralytick stroke that caused his death[8].

In Feb. 1804, Captain Mason joined the squadron under Sir W. Sidney Smith, off Flushing; and on the 16th May following we find him displaying great gallantry in an action with a formidable flotilla, the particulars of which have been given in our memoir of Captain John Hancock, C.B. The Rattler’s loss on that occasion consisted of only 2 men killed and 10 wounded; but her damages appear to have been very considerable, three shots having entered between wind and water, whilst several others passed through different parts of the hull. Her quarter-deck was stove in by a shell; the whole of her lower-masts were disabled by shot, and all her yards, sails, and rigging much injured.

After shifting her masts, and refitting at Sheerness, the Rattler resumed her former station, where she had another brush with the Ostend division of flotilla, as will be seen by the following extract from a journal belonging to one of her officers:

June 23, 1804.– Observed twenty-six schuyts coming from Ostend towards Flushing, made ready for slipping, and cleared the ship for action. At 5-30, made all sail towards the enemy. The Galgo and Inspector commenced action. Crossed the Binnen sand in 3 fathoms, and stood in shore to the same depth of water. At 5-60, bore up and commenced action within 1/8th of a mile from the schuyts, the enemy’s batteries, artillery, &c. firing shot and shells smartly; backed and filled occasionally to close with the enemy. At 7-40 running along shore and keeping up a brisk fire. At 8-40, being close in with Ostend, and the pilots fearful of the Stroom sand, ceased firing and hauled off, having driven only one vessel ashore. Examined the state of the Rattler, found several shot and shells in the hull, one gun-carriage on the main-deck disabled by a shot, two quarter-deck planks stove in by a shell, which burst on the main-deck without doing much further injury, and the head of the main-mast damaged by another which struck it a third in[9].

In Oct. following. Captain Mason was thrice engaged with the enemy’s flotilla, at Dieppe, on which occasions the Rattler was also much exposed to the land batteries, but without sustaining any material loss or damage.

On the 5th Jan. 1805, a gallant but unsuccessful attempt was made by a detachment sent from that sloop and the Folkstone lugger to bring out a French privateer which had anchored near St. Valery en Caux; the particulars thereof will be found in our memoir of Commander W. C. C. Dalyell.

In May 1805, the Rattler sailed for Newfoundland, in company with the Isis 50, bearing the flag of Sir Erasmus Gower, from whom she parted in a fog, after making the outer bank, and the same night had a most providential escape from shipwreck on an island of ice, which was not discovered until she had run nearly alongside of it. During the ensuing five daya and nights her situation was very perilous, she being constantly surrounded by large floating masses, the weather often tempestuous, and extremely foggy.

On his return to England, with a fleet of merchantmen under his protection, Captain Mason was again ordered to the same station, in company with two frigates and the outward bound trade. Proceeding thither the convoy encountered most dreadful weather, and the Rattler was at length obliged to bear up for Kinsale, in consequence of her having been ran foul of by one of the merchant vessels. After repairing the damages thus sustained, Captain Mason lost no time in resuming his voyage; but had not been many days out of port when he fell in with a French squadron from Rochefort, and very narrowly escaped capture.

During the ensuing winter, the Rattler was frozen up in St. John’s harbour, from whence she sailed on a cruise. Mar. 31, 1806. On the 3d July following. Captain Mason was superseded in the command of that sloop, he having been advanced to post rank, Jan. 22d. in the same year.

His next appointment was, through the gracious interference of H.R.H. the Prince of Wales, to the Daphne of 20 guns, in which ship he accompanied the military and naval reinforcements sent to Buenos Ayres, under the late Sir Samuel Auchmuty, and Captain (now Vice-Admiral) Donnelly, in Oct. 1806. He was consequently present at the capture of Monte Video, and continued in the Rio de la Plata until the final evacuation of Spanish America, from whence he returned to Portsmouth in Jan. 1808.

The Daphne was afterwards employed on the Baltic station, under the orders of that most excellent officer Sir James Saumarez, Bart. On the 25th April, 1808, Captain Mason, judging from the cargo of a Danish sloop recently destroyed, that a number of the enemy’s vessels lying in the harbour of Flodstrand, near the Scaw, were also laden with provisions, and destined for the relief of Norway, conceived it to be an object of importance to cut them out, for which purpose he despatched the boats of the Daphne and Tartarus, under the command of his first Lieutenant, the present Captain William Elliot, C.B., who succeeded in capturing five brigs, three galliots, one schooner, and a sloop; the whole, except one galliot, deeply laden with grain and provisions. In the execution of this service, although exposed to a heavy fire of round, grape, and musketry, from a castle mounting ten guns, and a battery of three guns, together with some opposition from several armed boats, the British had not a man slain and only 5 persons wounded, one of whom was the gallant leader of the party, who soon after obtained the reward his distinguished conduct had so highly merited. To that officer’s memoir, we must refer the reader for a copy of Captain Mason’s official letter relative to this capture.

In Aug. following. Captain Mason captured the Acutif, Danish national schooner, pierced for 12 guns, but mounting only 8 long 3-pounders; and at the same time drove on shore a cutter of 4 guns.

Ill health, about this period, obliging him to quit the Daphne, Captain Mason returned to England and continued on half-pay till Oct. 1809, when he was appointed, pro tempore, to the Fisgard frigate, off Flushing, from whence he brought off the rear-guard of the British army at the evacuation of Walcheren. The following are extracts from Sir Richard Strachan’s public letters to the Admiralty, dated Dec. 27 and 28, 1809:–

“At 8 A.M. (Dec. 26), I sailed to the mouth of the Duerloo to see whether the division under Captain Mason got out, and perceiving it under sail, I parted, in hopes to make the coast of England by the evening. When I got half-channel over, I had the mortification to find the wind N.N.W. and had doubts whether the two squadrons could get out; but I have no uneasiness for the conduct of either Commodore Owen or Captain Mason, they having proved themselves deserving of my fullest confidence.

“It is my duty to draw their Lordships’ attention to the excellent conduct of Commodore Owen, in the discharge of the various and arduous duties he had to perform; and I beg, in the most earnest manner, to recommend to their Lordships’ notice, the zeal, bravery, and perseverance of the captains, officers, and seamen of the flotilla under Captain Mason, of the Fisgard; and when I get that officer’s report, I shall have great pleasure in introducing his merit to their Lordships’ particular notice.”

From this period till the spring of 1810, Captain Mason was employed as senior officer off the Scheldt; and subsequently under the orders of his former Admiral in the Baltic, where he cruised with considerable activity and success, as will be seen by the following abstract of captures made by the Fisgard and her boats previous to his return home at the commencement of the winter season: Juliana, Danish privateer, of 6 guns; a schooner of 1 gun; a French privateer of 2 guns, and fifty-six sail of merchant-vessels, captured; and the Ziska, Danish privateer, of 6 guns and 40 men, destroyed.

On his arrival in England, Captain Mason found himself confirmed in the command of the Fisgard; and in Feb. 1811, he accompanied a squadron under Sir Joseph S. Yorke to the Tagus[10]. We next find him conveying a Portuguese Ambassador to Revel, and afterwards capturing several of the enemy’s vessels in the gulf of Bothnia.

On the 25th Dec. 1811, about 8 P.M., whilst cruising off Flekeroe, on the coast of Norway, the Fisgard was hailed by a small boat, which on coming alongside was found to contain the crew of a Danish galliot, that had foundered about 5 o’clock in the morning, on a voyage from Jutland to Norway. The crew consisted of the master and five seamen; their boat, from the heavy and tremendous sea then running, was quite full of water, and one of the men had drank raw spirits until he sank down between the thwarts, lifeless. The agony of these poor sufferers must have been very great; they had seen the Fisgard in the afternoon, standing towards them, although they were not discerned by any one on board; the frigate then wore in chase, and after steering away from them for about an hour, during which she spoke the strange vessel, again wore, and providentially happened to stand in the direction of their boat again. At the very instant that the almost exhausted Danes hailed her, the helm was up to go in pursuit of another vessel to leeward, and in five minutes she would have been out of hearing. It was such a bitter cold night, that, with the boat full of water, the Danes must all have perished in a few hours, the wind being directly off the land, and blowing very strong, so as to preclude the possibility of getting into smooth water. We need scarcely add that Captain Mason took the first opportunity of sending them ashore. This was the third crew which he had been the providential means of saving in twelve months.

The Fisgard returned to England in Jan. 1812, and about the same time intelligence was received of the melancholy fate of H.M. ships St. George, Hero, and Defence, a circumstance which we are induced to mention, the subject of this memoir having been on a court-martial with the unfortunate Rear-Admiral Reynolds and Captains Guion, Newman, and Atkins, few days before they all perished; the three former on the coast of Jutland, and the latter on the Haak sands, in the same gale which proved so fatal to the above mentioned Danish vessel.

After refitting at Spithead, the Fisgard was sent to cruise off Cherbourgh, where she continued until found to he perfectly worn out. She was consequently paid off in July, 1812, and Captain Mason remained unemployed till May 1813, when he was appointed to the President of 46 guns, in which ship he was present at the storming of St. Sebastian[11]; and afterwards cruised on the Cork station till April 1814; when peace appearing certain, and his lady being in a precarious state of health, as also much afflicted by the recent loss of her gallant brother[12], he determined upon resigning his; command; since which he does not appear to have been again afloat. He was nominated a C.B. in June, 1815.

Captain Mason married, April 16, 1805, Selina, second daughter of the present Viscount Hood, by whom he has four sons, and the same number of daughters, still living. His eldest son, Charles, a virtuous and amiable youth, who had gone through the Royal Naval College with great credit, and was beloved by every captain he had served under, was unfortunately involved in the awful catastrophe that befel the Arab sloop of war, on the Irish station, in Dec. 1823[13].

Agents.– Messrs. Cooke, Halford and Son.

  1. See Vol. I. note ‡ at p. 353, et seq. It is worthy of remark, that Captain Mason’s eldest son assisted at the embarkation of her late Majesty’s remains, at Harwich, Aug. 16, 1821.
  2. Captain Bacon, of H.M. 118th regiment.
  3. Formerly l’Amerique, one of the Russel’s opponents on the glorious 1st of June.
  4. See Vol. I. note at p. 349.
  5. See Vol. II. Part II pp. 874 and 1009.
  6. See Nav. Chron. v. 16, note at p. 284.
  7. Captain Mason, like many other officers, is indebted to Sir Home Popham for the knowledge he possesses of time-pieces, lunars, &c.
  8. Rear-Admiral Payne died at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich, Nov. 17, 1803, deeply regretted by all who had the honor of his friendship or acquaintance. For a full account of his naval services, we must refer our readers to the third volume of the Naval Chronicle, and shall here only briefly observe, that he was a man of cool, steady gallantry, great judgement, and most disinterested principles: the prevailing feature in his character, was mildness and good-will to all around him; he possessed an elegant taste for literature; his wit, though brilliant, was never severe; and his benevolence, though unbounded, was never exposed to the glare of the day. He was in his 50th year; and it is only a just tribute to his memory to say, that in his death the British navy sustained the loss of one of its most brave and accomplished officers.

    The Rear-Admiral was greatly esteemed by our late monarch, and had long enjoyed the friendship and confidence of his august son, the present King, of whose household, as Prince of Wales, he was Comptroller. The following passages are extracted from the Rev. James Stainer Clarke’s preface to his valuable work, entitled “The Progress of Maritime Discovery,” published in 1803:

    “A general idea of the plan may have been formed from the prospectus already circulated. It informed the public that the outline was projected under the auspices, and with the approbation, of Earl Spencer, who presided at the Board of Admiralty; but I did not then mention another patron, by whom the arrangement of the whole was formed, that zealous mariner. Admiral John Willet Payne. * * * * * *

    “Under this eminent officer my attention was first directed to Naval Literature. His ardent mind pointed out whatever of novelty or of utility had hitherto been neglected; and whilst his genius cast new light on the desiderata thus presented, hia conversation cheered my fatigue, and his enthusiasm prolonged my industry. * * * * * *

    “The labour which friendship thus urged me to attempt, has been greatly lessened by the suggestions and remarks, among many others, of the following gentlemen; to my good friend, Mr. Nicholas Pocock; to my brother. Captain George Clarke; Captain Francis Mason; and Lieutenant Gourly, of the Royal Navy; to Captain Burgess, of the East India Service; to Mr. Buley, Master of the Royal Academy at Portsmouth; and Mr. Whidbey, for whose acquaintance, and for many valuable hints, I am indebted to Captain W. Tremenbeere, of the Royal Marines;– my first thanks are deservedly due.”

  9. A third shell fell on the Rattler’s main-deck, when one of the seamen, who was himself busily engaged at his gun, desired a boy to throw it overboard – the latter was one of Captain Mason’s servants, and we believe that that was his first cruise; he, however, very coolly took off his hat, placed the shell therein, with the fuze burning, and threw both through a port, thereby preventing the mischief that might otherwise have ensued. Captain Mason having stated this circumstance to the Patriotic Society, the boy was deservedly rewarded with a handsome donation, and an emblematical engraving.
  10. See vol. I. p. 439.
  11. See Vol. II. Part II. p. 351.
  12. Mrs. Mason’s brother, Lieutenant-Colonel Francis Wheeler Hodd. was killed at the battle of Orthes.
  13. See Commander William Holmes.