Coachlines - November 2023

27.11.23 Liveryman David Burgess-Wise

An Adriatic incident in 1809

My great-great-great-grandfather James Wise must have been a man of some education, for he joined the Royal Navy in 1808, three years after the Battle of Trafalgar, as the Purser of HMS BUSTARD, a 16-gun sloop-of-war that had started life in 1803 as the Revenue brig ROYAL GEORGE and been purchased and renamed by the Royal Navy in 1806. At the time of the Napoleonic Wars, a Purser was ranked as a Warrant Officer belonging to the class of non-executive officers such as Surgeons and Chaplains who were regarded as “gentlemen” and allowed to carry a sword.

The Purser’s duties included responsibility for seeing that a warship was fully provisioned both before she sailed and during the voyage and supplying the ’slops’ (clothes of an official pattern) which the crew might purchase as extra or replacement clothing drawn against their pay, as well as a range of other necessities. He could also supplement his income by selling extras and luxuries to the crew on his own behalf.

The Purser also accounted for the wages of the crew and signed off the wage lists in concert with the Captain; in an attempt to prevent corruption, the Navy required detailed paperwork returns on all sorts of matters concerning the ship’s stores and pay.

However, the role of a Purser was not necessarily a desk job, as was proved when BUSTARD, commanded by Captain John Duff Markland, formed part of a squadron operating in the Gulf of Venice and along the Calabrian coast during the summer of 1809 under the orders of Captain John West of the 74-gun HMS EXCELLENT.

When an enemy convoy consisting of six Italian gunboats and 10 trabacolas (coasting freighters) laden with brandy, flour, rice, and wheat was observed making along the northern Adriatic shore headed for Trieste on 28th July, Captain West anchored EXCELLENT as close to the shore as he dared, cutting off the enemy convoy and forcing it to take shelter in the little port of Duino, which was defended by the guns of a castle and a pier lined with musketry.

Deciding that this was an ideal opportunity to capture or destroy the convoy, West sent the sloops ACORN and BUSTARD inshore around midnight to provide covering fire for their boats and those of EXCELLENT.

BUSTARD led the way into a little-known anchorage where the boats went on shore. Purser James Wise was part of the BUSTARD boat party, who were armed with cutlasses, pistols, and pikes and almost certainly all volunteers. Their goal was the ‘cutting-out’ or capture of the enemy vessels lying under the protection of the shore batteries.

Half an hour after the boat parties, commanded by Lieutenant John Harper and preceded by a small party of Marines who “entirely prevented the enemy annoying our people from the rugged precipices surrounding the port,” had landed under a “very heavy cannonade,” reported Captain West, “I had the satisfaction of seeing a rocket go up, which announced to me a favourable issue to the enterprise.”

And indeed, the issue was extremely favourable: the boat parties had captured and brought out all six Italian gunboats, every one of which had an officer and 20 men on board, of whom three officers and 15 seamen and soldiers had been captured, plus the 10 coasters; while one coaster eventually sank, its cargo of flour had already been safely removed.

Considering the odds, casualties were remarkably light: one of BUSTARD’S seamen, Peter Curry, was mortally wounded and her master, Katty Robinson, was severely wounded. The pilot, Josh Pelosa, and Marine Robert Cullum were also wounded. Commented Captain West: “The very masterly and complete manner in which this service has been performed, excites my highest admiration; every officer, seaman, and marine, I am assured, individually distinguished himself.”

Lord Collingwood, the Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, was delighted: “This enterprise was well devised and gallantly executed.”

The gallantry of the boat crews was belatedly recognised when in 1847 the Naval General Service Medal with clasp “29th July Boat Service 1809” was awarded to all 11 remaining participants in the action, among them schoolmaster James Wise, still officially a Purser on half pay. Sadly, James’s medal was lost early in the 21st century when our house was burgled.