Royal Naval Biography/Rathborne, Wilson

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A Companion of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath.
[Post-Captain of 1802.]

This officer is the son of a Clergyman of the established Church, and a grandson of Commodore J. Wilson, who served with great credit during Queen Anne’s wars.

He was born near Loughrea, co. Galway, Ireland, July 16, 1748; entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Niger of 32 guns, in Sept. 1763; and continued in that frigate, under the respective commands of his patron Sir Thomas Adams, Bart., and Captain Andrew Wilkinson, till the latter end of 1768, when he rejoined the former officer in the Boston, a ship of similar force, employed on the American station.

In 1769, Mr. Rathborne removed with his friend into the Romney of 50 guns, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Samuel Hood,, in which ship he returned to England under the command of Captain Robert Linzee, who had been appointed to her on the death of Sir Thomas Adams, in 1770. On her arrival in England, the Romney was ordered to the Downs with the flag of Rear-Admiral John Montagu, with whom Mr. Rathborne continued till the spring of 1771, when he was discharged into the Royal William of 80 guns, at the particular request of her Captain, the late Lord Hood.

We next find him in the Hunter sloop of war, commanded by Captain Thomas Mackenzie[1], under whom he served on shore at Quebec, with the rank of a first Lieutenant in the naval battalion, composed of the crews of the King’s ships and merchant vessels, during the siege of that important fortress by the American army, in the winter of 1775[2]. He returned to England as acting Master of the same sloop early in the ensuing year; and to his great mortification found himself obliged to remain in that situation, notwithstanding the assurance he had received from the senior officer at Quebec, that he would be superseded immediately on his arrival[3].

Steadily refusing to accept a Navy Board warrant, Mr. Rathborne continued in the Hunter as acting Master for nearly four years, during which she was almost constantly employed on the American coast, and formed part of several expeditions against the enemy in the Jerseys. At length, through the kind interference of Captain Alexander Hood, nephew of the officer with whom he had served in the Romney and Royal William, he was once more restored to the line of promotion, and allowed to take a passage home in a merchant vessel, at the commencement of 1780.

On his arrival in London he was introduced by his former commander, Captain Mackenzie, to Earl Sandwich, then first Lord of the Admiralty; who the very next day, Mar. 18, 1780, presented him with a Lieutenant’s commission for the Bedford, of 74 guns, commanded by the late Sir Edmund Affleck, to whom he had previously been recommended by the above officer.

The Bedford formed part of the squadron under Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot, in the action with M. Ternay, Mar. 16, 1781; and bore a share in the engagement between Rear-Admiral Graves and the Count de Grasse, on the 5th Sept. in the same year[4]. Subsequent to the latter event, Captain Affleck hoisted a broad pendant on board her, and proceeded to the West Indies, where he highly distinguished himself in the memorable conflicts between Rodney and de Grasse, April 9 and 12, 1782[5].

Mr. Rathborne having become first Lieutenant of the Bedford, in consequence of the promotions that followed Rodney’s victory, continued to serve as such till that ship was paid off at Portsmouth in the summer of 1783. During the Dutch and Spanish armaments in 1787 and 1790, he was appointed to the Atlas of 98 guns, and Colossus 74, the former fitting for the flag of Sir Edmund Affleck, the latter commanded successively by Captains Hugh C. Christian and Henry Harvey. In 1792 he obtained an appointment, as first Lieutenant, to the Captain, a third rate, then under the orders of Earl Howe, but subsequently attached to the Mediterranean fleet.

After the occupation of Toulon, in Aug. 1793, the Captain was sent by Lord Hood to dismantle the forts and batteries on the Hieres islands and opposite shore; the latter and most difficult part of which duty was executed in a very judicious manner by Lieutenant Rathborne, in the presence of a vastly superior republican force. He afterwards distinguished himself by his exertions in weighing the Imperieuse, a large frigate that had been scuttled by the French in Port Especia; and on her being commissioned by Captain Charles Cunningham, he was appointed to act as Commander in the Speedy of 14 guns, from which vessel he returned to the Captain, in consequence of his being superseded a few days after by one of the Admiral’s own Lieutenants, the present Sir George Cockburn.

During the ensuing siege of St. Fiorenzo, in Corsica, Lieutenant Rathborne served on shore under the orders of Captain Samuel Hood; and in Vice-Admiral Hotham’s action, Mar. 14, 1795 [6], he had the misfortune to lose the sight of his right eye, and receive so much injury in his right arm, as to render it nearly useless. His promotion to the rank of Commander took place Nov. 9th in the same year.

From this period we find no mention of Captain Rathborne till 1797, when he was appointed to the Good Design, an armed ship, employed in convoying the trade from Leith to Elsineur and the Elbe. At the close of 1799, he removed into the Racoon, a brig of 18 guns, stationed off Boulogne, and afterwards successively employed in the Channel, Mediterranean, and West Indies. His post commission bears date Oct. 18, 1802.

The Santa Margaritta, into which frigate he had been promoted at Jamaica, having returned home in 1803, and refitted at Sheerness, was subsequently sent to cruise off the French coast, and on various other services connected with the duties of the Channel fleet. Whilst thus employed, she fell in with the squadron under Sir Richard J. Strachan, whose success in capturing four French line-of-battle ships, commanded by M. Dumanoir, on the 4th Nov. 1805, may be, in a great measure, attributed to the persevering exertions and gallant conduct of Captain Rathborne; who, availing himself of his frigate’s superior sailing, closed with and harassed the enemy for three hours and a half, before any other ship could get within gun-shot; and then, in conjunction with Captain Baker of the Phoenix, who had previously been chased by them, kept their rear in play until the Commodore and his companions could arrive sufficiently near to bring on a general action[7]. The Santa Margaritta on this occasion, although repeatedly hulled by the enemy’s shot, had only her boatswain killed, and one man wounded.

Captain Rathborne was soon after appointed to the Foudroyant of 80 guns, a circumstance that gave him considerable pain, as independent of his disinclination to remove from a cruising frigate into a blockading ship, he was very unwilling to part from his officers and crew, whose conduct on every occasion had given him the greatest satisfaction, and in whom he had every confidence. Captain Loring, the officer who had been appointed to succeed him in the Santa Margaritta, observed his distress, and generously forbore to use the commission he had received from the Admiralty, until the pleasure of their lordships could be ascertained – a forbearance worthy of record. The result proved highly gratifying to both parties; Captain Rathborne being continued in the command of the Santa Margaritta, and his worthy brother-officer soon after compensated for the spontaneous sacrifice he had made, by an appointment to a frigate of superior class[8].

The Santa Margaritta was subsequently employed on the Channel, Lisbon, West India, and Irish stations; but being at length completely decayed, was put out of commission in Dec. 1807. Captain Rathborne was soon after appointed to the command of the Essex Sea Fencibles; and, in 1809, to regulate the Impress service at Shields, Sunderland, and Newcastle. He is at present charged with the superintendence of the ships in ordinary at Chatham. His nomination to be a C.B. took place on the establishment of that class of the Order, in 1815. A pension for the loss of his eye was granted to him May 19, 1810, and has since been augmented to 300l. per annum.

Captain Rathborne married, in 1805, the youngest daughter of John French, Esq., late of Loughrea, co. Galway. His sister was the mother of John Wilson Croker, Esq., Secretary to the Admiralty, and M.P. for Bodmin, in Cornwall.

Agent.– ___

  1. See Vol. I, note ‡ at p. 654.
  2. The Hunter, after cruising for some time on the Irish station, was sent with despatches to Boston, where she arrived shortly after the memorable battle of Bunker’s Hill. See Vol. I, note * at p. 166. During the ensuing winter she was hauled on shore at Quebec, and her crew attached to the naval battalion, whose important services were duly acknowledged by Sir Guy Carleton, in his despatches announcing the retreat of the enemy, after a desperate, though ineffectual attempt to carry the place by escalade, early in the morning of Dec. 31, 1775, on which occasion Mr. Rathborne, then on duty with the picquet guard, personally assisted in cutting off the retreat of the storming party, every one of whom was either killed or taken prisoner.
  3. Sir Charles Douglas arrived at Quebec with a reinforcement on the day of the Americans’ defeat; and having occasion to send the Hunter home with despatches, insisted upon Mr. Rathborne taking charge of her as Master, there being no other person in the squadron sufficiently qualified to do so.
  4. See Vol. I, p. 40, and note at p. 133.
  5. Commodore Affleck was created a Baronet for his gallant conduct, May 28, 1782; elected M.P.for Colchester in the course of the same year; and promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, Feb. 10, 1784. He died Dec. 15, 1787.
  6. See Vol I, note at p. 340.
  7. See Vol. I, p. 289. N.B. Line 12, for frigates read frigate.
  8. See p. 547.