Monday, March 16, 2009

Commander Hugh Pearson, R.N.

This is a portrait miniature (c. 1815) of another member of our not particularly exclusive club of thirty-two great-great-great-grandparents. I have lately inherited it from my mother.

Dashing Commander Hugh Pearson, R.N., was born at Kippenross, in the parish of Kilmany, Fifeshire, Scotland, in 1778, the same year in which his father, William Pearson, forfeited the freehold of the family estate to his neighbor, John Stirling of Kippendavie, an appalling consequence of losing drastically in a game of cards or dice. Hugh Pearson entered the Royal Navy in 1793, aged fourteen or fifteen.

He was first mentioned in despatches relating to Admiral Lord Bridport’s defeat of the French fleet off Port L’Orient on Tuesday, June 23, 1795. Port L’Orient is about forty miles east of Quimper on the southern coast of Brittany, and was the home base of the French East India Company, with important naval shipyards. According to William Belsham’s
Memoirs of the Reign of George III, Lord Bridport’s squadron was augmented by five ships of the line under the command of Admiral Cornwallis, who had been cruising for several weeks off Belle Île, capturing French merchant ships in-bound from the West Indies. “The engagement began early in the morning, and lasted till three in the afternoon, by which time three [French] capital ships had struck their colours [i.e. surrendered to the British, namely Le Tigre (80 guns), the Alexander, and, satisfactorily, Le Formidable]. The rest of the [French] squadron, keeping close in shore, escaped into L’Orient.”

Young Hugh Pearson was mentioned in despatches again following Admiral Sir John Jervis’s crushing victory over the Spanish fleet under Admiral José de Córdoba on Tuesday, February 14, 1797, off Cape St. Vincent in Portugal. That battle secured for Jervis a peerage (as Earl of St. Vincent—Cape Jervis and the Gulf of St. Vincent were both named after him), but it also made the reputation of Captain Horatio Nelson of H.M.S.

And it is in connection with the brilliant capture of the 74-gun
San Nicolás, that we read, in Nelson’s own account of the battle, that the nineteen-year-old Hugh Pearson was in the captain’s boarding party:
A soldier of the 69th Regiment having broken the upper quarter-gallery window, I jumped in myself, and was followed by others as fast as possible. I found the cabin doors fastened, and some Spanish officers fired their pistols: but, having broke open the doors, the [British] soldiers fired, and the Spanish Brigadier fell...I pushed immediately onwards for the quarter-deck, where I found Commander Berry in possession of the poop, and the Spanish ensign hauling down. I passed with my people, and Sub-Lieutenant Pearson, on the larboard gangway, to the forecastle, where I met two or three Spanish officers, prisoners to my seamen: they delivered me their swords. A fire of pistols, or muskets opening from the stern gallery of the San Josef, I directed the soldiers to fire into her stern; and calling to Captain Miller, ordered him to send more men into the San Nicolás; and directed my people to board the first-rate, which was done in an instant, Commander Berry assisting me into the main chains. At this moment a Spanish officers looked over the quarter deck rail, and said they surrendered. From this most welcome intelligence, it was not long before I was on the quarter deck, where the captain, with a bow, presented me his sword, and said the admiral [aboard the crippled 130-gun Santísima Trinidad] was dying of his wounds. I asked him on his honour if the ship was surrendered. He declared she was: on which I gave him my hand, and desired him to call on his officers and ship’s company and tell them of it: which he did—and on the quarter deck of a Spanish first-rate, extravagant as the story may seem, did I receive the swords of vanquished Spaniards: which as I received, I gave to William Fearney, one of my bargemen, who put them, with the greatest sang-froid, under his arm.
Soon afterwards, brave Hugh Pearson was among the twenty officers and crew who were severely wounded aboard Captain G. H. Stephens’s 98-gun H.M.S. Barfleur in Lord Nelson’s audacious amphibious attacks on Cádiz on Monday, July 3, 1797.

Presumably on the basis of these distinctions, fearless Hugh Pearson was, according to the Navy List, on Wednesday, December 11, 1799, gazetted as a full Lieutenant. He was twenty-one.

Lieutenant Hugh Pearson, R.N., served aboard H.M.S.
Elephant, and bore Nelson’s flag at the Battle of Copenhagen on Thursday, April 2, 1801. Soon afterwards, during comparatively genial ceasefire negotiations, the admiral confided to his Danish opponent, Crown Prince Frederik, that this battle was the most savage he had ever fought.

Hugh Pearson’s most conspicuous gallantry, however, came towards the end of his naval career, in 1809, by which time he was first lieutenant of the frigate H.M.S. Arethusa, which was built in 1781. From that vessel he conducted a series of commando-style raids against the French along the Cantabrian coast of northeastern Spain, on the Bay of Biscay, near Basque country.

Together with Lieutenant T. Joseph Scott of the Royal Marines (whose company was assigned to the sloop
Ariel), intrepid Hugh Pearson led a party of sailors and marines who landed at daybreak on Wednesday, March 15, at Lequito (modern Lekeitio), about twenty miles west of San Sebastián. There they destroyed more than twenty guns mounted in French batteries.
Taken completely by surprise, a French sergeant and twenty terrified soldiers flung down their arms and were taken prisoner, while the rest of their comrades ran away. A small chaloupe laden with brandy was brought out from the harbor and confiscated. Only three British sailors or marines were wounded in the attack.

The following day the same party landed about four miles up the river Andero (upstream from Lequito), discovered more brandy hidden aboard two chasse-marées, and “destroyed” that stash also. These small vessels, meanwhile, were seized from the French and thoughtfully restored to their rightful owners.

Hugh Pearson may have been unlucky in that between the previous October and December (1808), his fellow officers aboard H.M.S.
Narcissus had seized far more valuable goods from similar chasse-marées, and were paid handsome prize money through Messrs. Sykes, Hunt, and Malcolm, Agents, at Mr. Hunt’s office in Stonehouse, Plymouth.

A few days later, on Monday, March 20, a party under Lieutenant Elms Steele destroyed the guns at Baignio (Bakio), and captured a small vessel removing valuable bales of merino wool from Santander to Bayonne. Lieutenant Fennel of the marines and Mr. John Elliott, purser of the
Arethusa, destroyed the French signal posts on the mountain behind.

That same evening daring Hugh Pearson, jointly leading the same party of seamen and marines from Lequito, destroyed all the French guns in the battery at Paisance (Pasaia).

In July 1810, Admiral Lord Gambier (after whom Mount Gambier is named) placed Captain Robert Mends, master of H.M.S. Arethusa, in command of a small squadron, consisting also of the Dryad, the Amazon, the Cossack, and the Narcissus, with secret orders to co-operate with the anti-French Junta General del Principado de Asturias by making further punitive attacks against French occupying forces along the Cantabrian coast.

The purpose of these raids was actually to force the French to divert troops from the interior, thereby relieving the Duke of Wellington of dangerous pressure exerted by the advancing armies of Marshal Jean-André Masséna, Duc de Rivoli, first at the siege of Cuidad Rodrigo (at which another of our relations, General William Borthwick, was wounded and mentioned in despatches) and onwards into Portugal. The Duke badly needed some breathing space, and some morale-lifting good news to report to Whitehall, and for the time being Gambier’s scratch squadron effectively provided it.

On Sunday, June 24, 1810, the Spanish Brigadier-General Rosendo José Antonio Porlier y Asteguieta and five hundred of his soldiers embarked on board Commodore Mends’s ships. On the morning of Thursday, July 5, they were joined by a brigade of seamen and marines under the command of Captain Aylmer of the Narcissus.

These combined forces landed at Santoña, whereupon brilliant Lieutenant Hugh Pearson of the
Arethusa, leading a detachment of able seamen, in short order completely obliterated the French batteries in skirmishes at each of the four surrounding forts, namely Monte Buciero, San Martín, San Carlos, and El Mazo.

Eventually, without losing a single man, this unit of the Royal Navy systematically destroyed all French fortifications, more than one hundred heavy cannon, stretching about seventy miles from San Sebastián to Santander (except for the well-nigh impregnable Castro-Urdiales). In the process more than two hundred French troops were killed, and three hundred local volunteers deftly recruited to the burgeoning Anglo-Spanish side.

For this and other achievements aboard the
Arethusa, reliable Hugh Pearson had conferred upon him the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel in the Spanish service, which of course fell under the nominal command of the Duke of Wellington. By July, 1811, the Arethusa was nonchalantly cruising off Brest.

Doughty Hugh Pearson retired from the navy with the rank of Commander in 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic wars. He had slightly earlier inherited the property of Myrecairnie in the Parish of Kilmany in Fifeshire either from his father, William, or more probably his far less incompetent mother Jane (q.v.) (the only daughter of Sir James Campbell of Aberuchill and Kilbride, fourth baronet) but the place, which is quite elevated and exposed to North Sea gales, may not have been much chop.

Instead, or in addition, with his half-pay, pension, accumulated naval lieutenant’s income of slightly more than £100
per annum (after tax), and presumably a modest share of the proceeds of the Spanish ships of war seized at St. Vincent (payable at the Plough, Beaufort Buildings, Strand), and the £305,665 7s 1d in carefully documented booty from Copenhagen (which filled ninety-two transport vessels), plus, other than brandy, whatever else was soaked up in prizes seized from the French in northeastern Spain and elsewhere, canny Commander Hugh Pearson purchased Vellore, in Linlithgowshire, not more than about ten miles west of Edinburgh, where he settled in comfortable retirement, aged thirty-seven or thirty-eight.

The story of his career could not more closely resemble that of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower, except of course for the fact that Hornblower eventually attained the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, a peerage, and a G.C.B.

In 1817 handsome Hugh Pearson married Helen, the daughter of Thomas Littlejohn, Esq., of Stirling, and proceeded to produce an enormous family of seven sons and seven daughters, of whom four sons and five daughters survived infancy. The eldest of these was our pioneering great-great-grandfather, William Pearson of Kilmany Park, near Sale in east Gippsland.

It is not entirely clear why Commander Hugh Pearson, R.N., was so determined to dissuade his eldest son from following him into the Royal Navy or even the merchant marine, nor why young William was by all accounts so determined to proceed with this plan in spite of his father’s declared opposition.

Perhaps one senses here some residual but otherwise carefully concealed damage done to the older man by so many years of active service on the Channel, North Sea, Baltic, Spain, Portugal, and Gibraltar stations, damage that extended far beyond his wounds, or else a not particularly unusual effort on the part of a Scottish Regency parent to exert firm control over a son who had the misfortune to inherit every bit of his father’s grit and determination.

Certainly the fact that young William Pearson waited somewhat impatiently until after his father’s death in about 1838 or 1839 before carrying out his plan to emigrate to Victoria suggests that, while he was alive, Hugh Pearson did indeed exert a strong, possibly even tyrannical hold over his eldest son and heir.

No doubt at times William was genuinely frightened of him, as, it seems his own children in turn were frightened of him.

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