Royal Naval Biography/Noble, James

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[Post-Captain of 1802.]

This officer is the second and only surviving son of a patriotic gentleman, descended from a respectable mercantile family settled at Bristol, co. Somerset, who after sacrificing considerable property in the royal cause, was killed by a party of American rebels, when proceeding to New York on public service[1].

He entered the navy in 1788, and served his time as a Midshipman on board the Impregnable, a second rate; Termagant, and Ferret, sloops; Bedford, 74; and Britannia of 100 guns. During the occupation of Toulon by the allied forces, in 1793, he was engaged with a party of small arm men in the various services on shore: he also bore a part in the actions between the British and French fleets, March 14, and July 13, 1795[2].

In October of the same year Mr. Noble was appointed to act as a Lieutenant on board the Agamemnon of 64 guns, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Nelson, and in the following month he fell into the enemy’s hands when employed carrying despatches from that officer to the Austrian camp near Savona. A few days after his enlargement, he received a very dangerous wound in an affair with the enemy at Loäno, as will be seen by the following letter from Nelson to Sir John Jervis, dated April 25, 1796:

“This morning, having received information that a convoy laden with stores for the French army had anchored at Loäno, I lost no time in proceeding off that place with the Meleager, Diadem, and Peterell. On my approach, I was sorry to observe that instead of a convoy, only four vessels were lying finder the batteries; which opened on our nearing them, and the fire was returned as our ships got up, under cover of which our boats boarded the vessels, and brought them off: but these vessels lying very near the shore, a heavy fire of musketry was kept up on the boats, and it is with the greatest grief I have to mention, that Lieutenant James Noble, a most worthy and gallant officer, is, I fear, mortally wounded. From our ship’s keeping under the fire of their batteries, we sustained no loss; the Agamemnon was, I believe, the only ship struck by shot. The principal part of this service fell on our boats, whose conduct and gallantry could not on any occasion have been exceeded; and I wish fully to express the sense I entertain of the gallantry of every officer and man employed on this occasion[3].”

In July following, Lieutenant Noble, having recovered from fee wound which had caused such apprehensions for his life, was appointed to the temporary command of la Genie, a ketch recently taken at St. Pier d’Arena[4], armed with three 18-pounders, and employed in the blockade of Leghorn. A short time previous to this appointment he had been transferred with the Commodore’s broad pendant, and most of his brother officers, from the worn out Agamemnon to the Captain of 74 guns[5].

During the remainder of the year 1796, Mr. Noble was employed on a variety of important services as flag Lieutenant to the enterprising Nelson, in the Captain and la Minerve, particularly at the capture of Porto Ferrajo, and the island of Capraja, the evacuation of Corsica, and the capture of the Santa Sabina, a Spanish frigate of 40 guns, commanded by a descendant of King James II[6].

On the latter occasion Lieutenant Noble received several bad wounds from splinters. A repetition of Nelson’s own words will in themselves afford the praise best adapted to his general conduct. Writing an account of the action to Sir John Jervis, he says, – “You will observe, Sir, I am sure, with regret, amongst the wounded, Lieutenant James Noble, who quitted the Captain to serve with me, and whose merit, and repeated wounds received in fighting the enemies of our country, entitle him to every reward which a grateful nation can bestow.”

On the memorable 14 Feb. 1797, the subject of this memoir was one of the officers who, under the heroic Nelson, boarded and carried two Spanish ships of the line, one of which was a first rate, mounting 112 guns! The particulars of this almost incredible exploit have already been given in our memoir of Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Berry[7]. To that account we shall now add some extracts from the Captain’s logbook, which in the plainest and most unadorned, though not on that account less interesting style, sets forth not only the leading events of the action itself, but those also which immediately preceded it:

“P.M. wind variable, moderate breezes and hazy; out cutter and barge, and sent them on board the Victory; joined company H.M.S. Bonne Citoyenne. At 2 the cutter returned with Lieutenant Noble, Hoisted Commodore Nelson’s pendant. 4h 30' mustered at quarters; one division exercised great guns. 6h 30' Commodore Nelson came on board from la Minerve. * * * * * * * Midnight, tacked per signal.

“A.M. ditto weather between 2 and 3 o’clock, heard the report of several gnns to the southward. * * * At day-light made the signal for a strange sail to the northward. 5h 30' heard the report of two guns S.W.; at 10 moderate and foggy, 10h 30' saw the Spanish fleet, bearing S.S.E. 4 or 5 miles answered signal to form the line, and chase the enemy. At llh 40' the headmost of our ships began to engage the enemy as they passed us on the other tack; Cape St. Vincent bearing North 10 leagues. A few minutes before noon, we opened our fire on their leading ship, and passed nineteen sail of the line, exchanging broadsides as we passed[8].

“P.M. wind variable, at 18 minutes before one, the Captain having passed, on the starboard tack, the last of the enemy’s line of nineteen sail, which were on the larboard tack, the Spanish Admiral, in the Santissima Trinidada, bore up, evidently with a design to join a division of his fleet, of eight sail of the line, which were on the Captain’s lee-bow. Seeing this the Commodore ordered the ship to be wore; and passing between the Diadem and Excellent, she was immediately engaged by the Santissima Trinidada, a four-decked ship, two three-deckers, and several two-deckers; so that at one time we were engaged by 9 line-of-battle ships, in which we were most nobly supported by Captain Trowbridge, of the Culloden. The Spanish Admiral desisted from his attempt, and hauled to the wind on the larboard tack. About 2, the Culloden having got between us and the enemy, we ceased firing for 10 minutes, till we got a head of her, and became engaged as before. * * * 2h 30' our sails and rigging being almost cut to pieces, the Blenheim passed between us and the enemy. At 3, we engaged several of the enemy’s line, particularly the San Josef and San Nicholas. Saw a Spanish two-decker strike to the Excellent, and soon after we shot away the San Josefs mizen-mast * * * * * * * * * * *.

At 3h 30' the Excellent passed us to windward, engaged the San Josef within pistol shot, and caused her to fall on board the San Nicholas. The Captain, whose fore-top-mast was at this time shot away, immediately luffed alongside the latter ship, prepared for boarding, and, having engaged very sharply for a few minutes, in which we had 15 men killed and wounded, the Commodore ordered her to be laid on board; when himself, Lieutenants Berry, Noble, and Pearson, and Messrs. Samwell, Withers, and Williams, Midshipmen, at the head of the boarders and troops, entered the San Nicholas on the larboard quarter, and from her boarded the San Josef, whose colours they hauled down at 5 minutes before 4 o’clock; the latter mounting 112 guns, Rear-Admiral Winthuysen; and the former 84 guns, Commodore Gerraldelino[9]. Pound the San Nicholas on fire, but extinguished it. At 5, all firing ceased. While we were entangled with both ships, discovered the San Nicholas to be on fire again in the fore hold, but it was happily extinguished by our firemen. Commodore went on board the Irresistible. At six got clear of the prizes. Wore to join the fleet, having been between them and the enemy, who stood towards us with a fresh breeze, but hauled their wind again. Employed cutting away the remnant of the fore-sail, and clearing the wreck of the fore-top-mast. At 7, la Minerve took us in tow; our standing and running rigging, with all the bending sails, being cut to pieces; our wheel, fore-top-mast, and fore-top, shot away, and our masts severely wounded; the main-mast having three shot through the heart. Employed filling powder, getting up shot, knotting and splicing the rigging, and preparing to renew the battle. * * * * *

“ * * * * *. Found we had 24 men killed, and 56 wounded. In the Spaniards we took, the slaughter must have been very great, as there were people employed all night throwing the dead overboard.”

The document just given is more peculiarly valuable, inasmuch as it is a plain relation of facts, given in the most summary way, on the instant of their taking place; and serves to establish beyond controversy a point, which those who are sceptically inclined, might otherwise demur to[10].

Lieutenant Noble was promoted to the rank of Commander immediately after this brilliant action;. but his health being very much impaired, he was under the necessity of returning to England, and accepting a command in the Sea Fencible service on the coast of Sussex, where he continued from March 1798 till the conclusion of the war. His post commission bears date April 29, 1802.

Captain Noble married, in 1801, Sarah, daughter of James Lamb, of Rye, Sussex, Esq. and by that lady, who died in 1818, he had seven sons and three daughters, the whole of whom, we believe, are still living. He married, secondly, in 1820, Dorothy, daughter of the late Halliday, M.D. by whom he has no issue.

  1. During the war with the colonies, Captain Noble’s father raised an independent corps, consisting chiefly of Germans employed at the iron works on his estate in the Bergen county, East Jersey; and was nominated a Major in Colonel Buskirk’s regiment, attached to General Skinner’s brigade; but having received a bayonet wound in his right eye, and his skull being fractured in an affair with the republicans, he was thereby deprived of his reason for upwards of eighteen months, during which time the majority was bestowed on another. Having at length recovered, he obtained an appointment as Assistant Commissary from Sir Henry Clinton, in which situation he died, leaving three sons to lament his loss; viz. Richard, who was drowned in la Dorade, a French privateer, prize to the Clyde frigate†; James, the subject of this memoir; and Dejoncourt, who fell a victim to the yellow fever when serving as a Midshipman on board the Vanguard of 74 guns, in the West Indies.

    See Vol. II, Part I, note * at p. 81.

  2. See Vol. I. notes at pp. 340, and 254.
  3. The officers employed in the boats of the squadron were Lieutenants Suckling, Noble, Compton, Culverhouse, and Ryder. Not a man was killed, and only three persons wounded, including Mr. Noble. The prizes consisted of a ship, a ketch, and two galleys, laden with corn, rice, wine, powder, 8 brass guns, and 1600 stand of arms.
  4. See Vol. I. p. 519.
  5. When the Agamemnon was docked in Oct. 1796, she had not a mast, yard, or sail fit for service. Her hull had been for a long time secured and kept together by cables passed under her bottom.
  6. See Vol. I., p. 520; and Vol. II. part I. note at p. 153.
  7. See Vol. I. p. 774 et seq.
  8. Nelson in his account says 17 sail.
  9. Those officers were both mortally wounded, and died soon after the action.
  10. A Flag-Officer, to whom the author is indebted for many acts of kindness, doubts the possibility of Commodore Nelson’s ship and her prizes falling into the hands of the enemy; and speaking of the passage to that effect in Vol. I, p. 26, says, “it is a hardy assertion, and not borne out by the position of the fleets as there stated.”