Charles Feilding: On His Majesty's Service

on Wednesday, 09 August 2017. Posted in Other

Charles Feilding (1780-1837) was the stepfather of William Henry Fox Talbot. He married the widowed Elisabeth Talbot, nee Strangways, at Penrice church in Wales in 1804. Charles was a serving naval captain at the time of his marriage and later became a Rear Admiral.


Charles Feilding was the youngest of three children born to Commodore Charles and Sophia Feilding. His sisters were Sophia, born in 1773 and Matilda, born 1775. His mother was the sister of the Earl of Winchelsea and a Lady of the Bedchamber to Queen Charlotte. Charles Feilding senior was the grandson of the Duke of Denbigh and his family were descendants of the Earls of Hapsburgh. Charles Feilding senior was also a naval officer who died of gangrene due to an infected minor wound in 1783. Young Charles was only three years old when his father died.

Charles followed his father’s career and joined the navy in 1793, aged 13, as a servant to Captain Finch, firstly on board the Arethusa and then the Leviathan. Finch may have been a relative as Charles’s mother’s maiden name was Finch. As a captain’s servant Charles would have had the opportunity to begin to develop the skills necessary for a naval career. In his account of life in the navy in 1803, Robert Hay describes his role as servant to a Lieutenant. Not only was he encouraged to further his general education, he was also allowed to steer the ship in calm waters and learn basic navigation. It seems that despite the naval career of his father and his privileged background Charles had to work for promotion.

Naval records show that Charles progressed from a servant to becoming a volunteer, and in 1797 he became a Midshipman, rising to the rank of lieutenant in 1799. A volunteer was still a servant, but with the rank of “first boy”, this was usually a person considered to be officer material. The ranks of second and third boy were the ranks below that. A midshipman was a junior officer and he would have had men under his command. In order to become a lieutenant Charles would have taken an exam and then further examinations until he qualified as a Captain.

The Lacock archive contains exercise books written by Charles. One contains a list of all naval vessels and includes the number of guns they carried. Another book has a comparative view of the difference between arming a 74 gun ship with cannonades in place of the guns in use at the time. A cannonade would have meant that a battle began with a swift bombardment of guns all at once, rather than firing off single shots at enemy vessels. There are also detailed descriptions of the lengths of fuse required under different circumstances, mathematical tables to measure firing ranges and the trajectories of the guns and gunpowder charges required. Charles also noted flag signals for communicating with the fleet and how to proceed when approaching another ship to ascertain whether it was friendly.


Table of gunpowder charges

Between 1793 and 1800 Charles served in the English Channel on board several different ships. The company was known as the sea fencibles or sometimes the channel fleet and they formed a defence against enemy attack. The fleet consisted of navy ships and privateers who were active in detaining enemy ships for the cargo they were allowed to impound. They also controlled trade, commandeered enemy vessels and blockaded French ports and rivers in order to prevent the country from exporting or importing goods for trade. In 1800 Charles set sail for the West Indies as Lieutenant on the navy ship Prince of Wales and he was promoted to the rank of Captain in 1801, aged 21 years. His first ship as Captain was called the Surinam. At that time the navy were tasked to prevent French territories from trading and where possible to capture French territories. It was also an area which provided a frontline defence against post-independence America.

The usual period of time as midshipman would have been three years. The record does not show why Charles became eligible for promotion after only two years, however the navy was desperately short of men and the country was at war with France. In the midst of the French Revolution France declared war on England, Austria and various other countries. British politicians also feared that the revolution in France may inspire revolution in Britain. The age of 21 years old was not unusual for a ship’s Captain and some men were younger. A summons for officers to be present for a Court Martial for the trial of Lieutenant Berry in 1807 stated that Captain Dacus would be unable to attend as he was under 21 years of age.

In November 1802, after 2 years in the Caribbean, Charles returned to British waters as the Captain of the Andromeda. The rest of his career at sea was spent defending the British coastline during the Napoleonic wars. He continued active service until 1808 when his ship, the Revolutionnaire was recalled from service and “reduced to a state of ordinary”. Although he became a Rear Admiral his record does not show him to be in command of a ship after 1808. In terms of naval seniority an Admiral would have been in charge of a battle, and would have been positioned centrally in the fleet so that he could give directions. The second in command would have been a Vice Admiral whose ship took the lead in battle in front of the Admiral’s ships. The Rear Admiral would have commanded the ships behind those of the Admiral.

Although Charles Feilding did not have an outstanding navy career in terms of winning medals or any major battles he served at a very interesting time in terms of naval history. The idea of the navy as the “senior service” dates from this period. By the time of Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 the British navy had the reputation of being the most formidable fighting force in the world. At the same time the navy itself was beginning to implement minor reforms to modernise and review the treatment of men in order to recruit and keep sailors.

Being a naval officer was a dangerous occupation, and although Charles would have had his own quarters and a servant, life on board a ship was still very basic. There was a constant danger of losing life. Rough seas were perilous on a wooden ship and many lives were lost either by being swept overboard or being shipwrecked. He was involved in active service as a naval officer. Britain was at war with France, Spain and Prussia during his navy career. Charles suffered the constant danger of being killed due to enemy fire. Charles was called upon to detain enemy ships to prevent them from attacking Britain which put his own ship in danger of capture or destruction. He was also ordered into enemy waters to protect other vessels and to blockade enemy ports and river estuaries. The monetary rewards, however, could be substantial. His navy pay was approximately £200 per annum, but for each ship impounded Charles would have had a share of 3/8ths of the cargo as prize money. Trading was a very lucrative business for a navy captain.

Charles seems to have retained an affection for his chosen career throughout his life. He left a request to be buried in “a coffin of old English oak taken from one of Her Majesty’s ships”. On 2nd September 1837 William Henry Fox Talbot wrote to the Admiralty saying “I have therefore to request the Lords of the Admiralty to be so kind as to grant their permission to his family, to receive from one of Her Majesty’s shipyards a sufficient quantity of old English oak for that purpose”. The request was granted and oak was supplied from Chatham Naval Dockyard. Charles was buried at St. Cyriac’s church in Lacock and his grave is surrounded by railings. The description given in the bill describes a design of “large acanthus”. The effect of the design resembles waves.



Charles Feilding's grave and the bill for railings

As well as providing glimpses into aspects of the life of Charles Feilding his documents in the archive also provides clues about the responsibility of a ship’s captain. It also gives an idea of the dangers faced by the sailors, the treatment of the crew and the politics of war during the early nineteenth century.

The Sinking of the Circe

After Charles returned from his posting to the West Indies he became Captain of the Circe in June 1803. The Circe had 28 guns which meant that there should have been a crew of about 350 men. He was responsible for defending the North Sea coast of England as well as being sent on forays to Ostend and Holland. In July he was given an order to “detain all boats, including fishing, belonging to the Dutch and French”. The following month Charles was sent to Elsinor, Denmark, to provide protection for a convoy of vessels. Trading vessels had little in the way of weaponry and sometimes needed protection from enemy ships and foreign privateers.

But Charles was having a problem concerning the crew during 1803. On several occasions he wrote to the Admiralty requesting more men. In July he was informed that the Admiralty could not comply but that “coming down from Chatham the inconvenience resulting from lack of sentinels will be lessened as there is little opportunity for desertion”. Desertion by crew members was a frequent occurrence as the crews on board a naval ship were so large it was possible for men to escape without being noticed. Sentinels or guards were employed to keep the sailors on board when the ship was docked. The reasons men deserted varied. Many men joined a ship as a means of avoiding problems on shore, for example to escape debt without having any notion of the harsh life on board ship. Also a large number of sailors had been pressed into service against their will because the country in a state of war.

On the 6th November Charles wrote to complain about the fact that he had made two requests for a survey of the ship’s company. He clearly believed it was necessary to have a larger crew. He pointed out that people falling sick amounted to 50 per day including 2 Lieutenants, a Master and a Boatswain. Apart from seasickness which affected some sailors any contagious illness would have swept through the ship due to the cramped conditions. The loss of officers able to give orders would have been detrimental not only in terms of knowledge but also discipline. A 28 gun frigate needed 140 men just to man the guns. It is possible that the lack of personnel added to the events of 10 days later on 16th November 1803.

On 16th November 1803, the Circe was in pursuit of a French frigate in the North Sea when they hit a sandbank called the Lemon and Ower (close to Yarmouth) at 3 in the afternoon. The ship struck the sandbank very hard and lost her rudder. In his draft account to the Admiralty Charles described the damage to Circe, there was “so much damage Circe made water – all the ships pumps and baling were not sufficient”. In the early hours of the 17th November a group of fishing smacks were seen and Charles signalled for assistance. Three boats went to the aid of the Circe. Initially two of the fishing boats attempted to pilot the Circe ashore by towing her into dock. However gale force winds and rough seas made the task impossible and imperilled the crew of all three ships. As light failed on 17th November Charles gave the order to abandon ship and they completed the process by 7pm without loss of life. Charles was the last to leave the crippled ship. Two hours later the Circe sank and the fishing vessels took the crew to Yarmouth. Charles wrote “Let Admiralty know we made every exertion and officers all did their duty until all hope vanished”. Charles admitted that in the gale it was possible that there may have been an error in navigation which led them to run aground.

The account given by Charles was corroborated by Hannibal Merchant, Master of the fishing smack Hercules and John Walker, Master of the Lydia. In a deposition given to the Mayor of Cromer, Robert Cozy, they confirmed they heard gunfire and thought it must be a ship in distress so they went to its aid. They both confirmed that the weather conditions made it difficult to board Circe. At the request of Charles they took over the piloting of the ship by securing hawsers to their own boats in order to guide Circe to shore. The weather made their task impossible. Both swore on oath that they believed that “the Captain made every exertion but the weather and leaks made it impossible to save her. The boat sank about 2 hours after she was abandoned”. Charles received a letter requesting details of the ships which had gone to his aid, “in order that an allowance may be given to those involved”.

As the loss of a Navy vessel was a serious matter Charles Feilding had to attend a court martial. The findings are not among his papers in the archive. However as he was given command of the Minerva afterwards and no blemish appears on his record the Admiralty obviously found him not guilty of any offence.

The Responsibilities of a Captain

Signals and Security




The fate of the Circe makes clear the importance of understanding signals at sea in an age when no electronic devices were available. Signalling was vitally important and underwent frequent changes depending upon the circumstances. A Captain had to have a thorough understanding of signals, including implementing frequent changes which were sometimes ordered on a daily basis. There is an 1805 signal book in the archive which is a text book dictionary of signals for ships of war. The ships in a flotilla could only communicate by hoisting flags with different markings and triangular flags called pendants (pronounced pennant). Not only was it necessary to know which flag to use it was also essential to know the sequence and positioning of the flags. Each flag had a numerical value to represent words many of which remained the same and a dictionary was provided to assist the signaller. But it was vital for security that new signals were immediately employed, so it was a highly complex system. It was necessary to change signals regularly due to enemy spies obtaining the cipher. In fog guns were fired as signals and at night a series of lanterns were used.

The ship with the most senior Captain or Admiral would send the initial signal or message which would then be sent on by the next ship until the communication had been passed through the fleet. Perhaps the most famously known signal came from Vice Admiral Horatio Nelson at the beginning of the battle of Trafalgar which simply said “England expects every man to do his duty”. If signals became compromised a written message was passed through the fleet by a series of tenders.

In June 1803 Charles was given written orders concerning signals for day and night use, at night a series of lights were to be used in a given sequence. Once the ship was within calling distance the instructions stated “When within hail the Ship which first hails shall ask: What ship is that? The other shall answer: United Kingdom”. It was highly important to protect the signals and in 1805 Charles who was Captain of the Minerva received a message to say that Captains and Commanders “must keep Private signals safe and in their own possession. With a sufficient weight affixed to insure their being sunk if it should be necessary to throw them overboard”. If a ship was captured the rest of the fleet would be compromised if the enemy knew the private signals.

Ships that were captured by the navy were put into use as Royal Navy vessels. The ship captained by Charles Feilding between 1806 and 1808 was called the Revolutionnaire. She had originally been a French ship captured by the British. It was not only the ships which could cause confusion. Sailors came from many different countries and British men served on foreign ships if they could get a higher wage. So the notion of having a spy on board was not a fanciful idea.

In his account of being a sailor Robert Hay described the wide variety of people on board the Guardship, Salvador Del Mundo, at Plymouth in 1803. This ship was the one to which Charles also had to report to as Captain. I have copied the description as given, which, though offensive now, would have been acceptable during the nineteenth century: “these latter two decks presented: complexions of every cast, from the jetty face, flat nose, thick lips and frizzled hair of the African, the rosy cheeks of the English swain and the sallow features of the sunburnt Portuguese”. An enemy spy might have easily fitted in with such a wide range of nationalities. Some of the sailors may also have been men who had been taken as a prisoners of war and put to work for the British navy.

Due to their complexity signals could also be misunderstood. In July 1806 Charles received a severe reprimand from Admiral St Vincent as the result of a complaint by Captain Keats. The admiral expressed “surprise and displeasure at your disobedience of his [Captain Keats’] signal when he had dispatches to forward of the most importance”. Captain Keats had complained that the Revolutionnaire “did not reply to my signal so I made and enforced by two guns the signal of recall which she did not obey”. Charles denied culpability saying that Keats had misrepresented facts. He claimed that he answered the initial signal without the ship’s numbers or pendant as she was showing a negative pendant. It seems that he had acknowledged Captain Keats’s presence, but did not respond to the order as the negative flag was shown to cancel the initial signal. He argued that “I did not conceive it my duty to alter my course without a certainty as to the wishes of the senior officer then on duty”. It seems that the explanation given by Charles was accepted as no further action was recorded.

The Crew

The Captain of a navy ship in the early nineteenth century, as now, came with a great deal of responsibility: for the ship, the crew and towards the Crown. However unlike today the crew was made up of a diverse population who were not necessarily members of the Royal Navy. At the age of 21 when Charles became a captain he already had 8 years of navy experience behind him and been used to giving orders and managing men in a junior capacity. The frigates of the size captained by Charles would have had a crew of between 350 and 500, mostly men, but some women were used at times to make up numbers. Officer’s wives also sometimes joined a ship, although not as crew members. Nelson’s ship HMS Victory which had 108 guns had a crew of 800 men which is a huge population in a very confined space.

In 1803 Robert Hay joined the navy as a Landsman at the age of 14. He described some of the characters he encountered on the Salvador Del Mundo at Plymouth dockyard: “people of every profession and of the most contrasted manners, from the brawny ploughman to the delicate fop; the decayed author and bankrupt merchant who had eluded their creditors; the apprentices who had run away from servitude; the improvident and impoverished father who had abandoned his family, and the smuggler who had escaped by flight…”. There were also men who had been impressed into the navy against their wishes. At times of war any man between the ages of 18 and 55 could be pressed into service, especially if they had any seafaring experience. Of course there were also men from privileged backgrounds destined to be officers, those who went to sea seeking adventure and others who wished be given the opportunity to improve their lot by learning one of the many trades required on board a ship.

A wooden frigate required carpenters, cooks, rope makers and sail makers as well as many other specialist skills which kept the vessel in good order. Although major repairs were carried out in dock all efforts had to be made to keep the ship seaworthy and safe. Five crew members were required for each gun and there were many general tasks which needed to be carried out for the smooth running of the ship. Charles would have needed to trust his officers to oversee each different area of the ship to ensure that the crew were ready to carry out orders immediately. The last ship Charles captained was Revolutionnaire which had 44 guns, so 220 men were required for that duty alone.

As well as the crew of the ship Charles received orders to collect men from other ships to deliver elsewhere. Prisoners from impounded ships were also held on board. In September 1806 Charles had 200 prisoners on board to be delivered to Plymouth. These men would be set to work under supervision and then handed over to the agent for Prisoners of War based at Plymouth.

Given the large number of men from a variety of stations in life discipline was fierce in order to maintain order on board in a confined space.

Crime and Punishment

Much of the discipline meted out on board ships was violent and cruel. On a daily basis men were pushed and struck with a stick if a boatswain decided they were not working hard enough.  As such bullying filters downwards it is probable that this almost casual violence filtered through the men in lower ranks. A punishment for younger crew members was called “kissing the gunner’s daughter”, which entailed the young man being tied down to a gun and being beaten with a cane. These punishments were carried out according to the junior officer on the spot and required no permission from the captain.

Some crimes were considered more serious and required either Court Martial or the case was brought before the ship’s Captain. The punishment delivered was meant to deter others from breaking the rules. One serious crime was stealing, not only because of the act, but because it roused suspicion and caused fights and unrest among the crew. Often the thief was made to “Run the Gauntlet”. The accused had to strip to the waist and run between two rows of men who whipped him with knotted rope or beat him with sticks. In some severe cases the man died. In all cases he was most seriously injured. A copy of the Royal Proclamation banning the practice in 1806 is among the archive records. The ban was at the instigation of Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood who worked extremely hard to try to reform the treatment of crewmen. He was opposed to any form of corporal punishment and in particular flogging. He believed that treating men with respect in the first place would improve general behaviour.

Flogging was a punishment frequently used by officers. A man was made to strip to the waist and was allocated a set number of lashes set either by an individual Captain or by a Court Martial which consisted of a group of Captains from a fleet. Court Martials required the presence of at least 13 high ranking officers. They were convened for serious offences. Charles Feilding received orders from Rear Admiral Duckworth on 12 June 1801 to “cause one of your Lieutenants to attend and see the sentences put into execution”.

As the result of a Court Martial three men were to be punished by “flogging around the fleet”. Their crimes are not mentioned in the order but the punishments were severe. John Diamond was to receive 50 lashes, John Harrison 100 lashes and George Anderson 200 lashes “on their bare backs with the cat of nine tails alongside such of his Majesty’s ships and  vessels at the port, at such times and in such proportions as I may think fit”. Charles was also ordered “to make the signal 257 and fire a gun at sunrise tomorrow the 13th instant”.

Flogging around the fleet meant that the men were tied up with limbs extended across a wooden frame. They were then ferried in an open boat and paraded from ship to ship. At each ship they stopped at they were given a set number of lashes, watched by the crew. This procedure also included a drummer and fifer playing “The Rogues March” throughout the procession. The violence and humiliation suffered were not only devised as a punishment for the guilty men, it was also meant to deter others from committing a crime. In the case of the three men mentioned orders stated that at each ship John Diamond was to receive 8 lashes, John Harrison 16 lashes and George Anderson 32 lashes. “You will receive a copy of the sentences to be publicly read”. Charles would have read out the sentences before the whipping was executed. A surgeon from each ship was to be supplied, “But as I would not have more punishment inflicted at one time than they are able to bear – supply a surgeon as well to give directions to stop the punishment”.


Cat of Nine Tails

For crimes which were punishable by fewer lashes the Captain would order the flogging on board ship without a Court Martial. The floggings were dated and recorded. A part of Charles Feilding’s punishment book dated 1806 and 1807 shows the floggings meted out on the Revolutionnaire.


2664/3/3F/17 Part of punishment log dated 1806-1807, from Revolutionairre

The offences are listed alongside date, name and number of lashes given. A lot of punishments were for drunkenness or negligence, the fewest lashes given was 12 and the most of 48 was for “hitting the Captain of the Focsle”. Some men did not seem to be deterred by their punishment: in 1807 James Egerton was flogged on 6 separate occasions for fighting. John Carter received 12 lashes for “sculking”, which presumably meant listening to officers’ conversations. At least three men were unhappy with their lot. Thomas Carpenter and Isaac Hammond were given 18 lashes each for “attempting to quit ship”, and the same punishment was given to George Bodley who was obviously so distressed he jumped overboard in order to escape. John Warner was given 12 lashes for “being dirty”. Although most of the men must have found it difficult to maintain more than a minimal level of hygiene there was a standard of sorts. Extreme dirt especially when coupled with body lice was considered to engender germs which could produce contagious illness throughout the vessel.

Health and the Admiralty

Contagious diseases were a concern not only because of the effects on board ship where such illness would spread rapidly but also because diseases could be brought to the mainland. In 1805 an order concerning infectious diseases was circulated to all vessels. A disease causing mortality throughout Spain and Gibraltar, parts of Italy and some parts of America was “equally if not more deadly than the plague”. Strict instructions were given for placing any suspect vessels in quarantine. The order was given to first hail the ship and ascertain its port of origin, then without boarding guide the ship into a quarantine area. In April 1805 this was St Helens in the Scilly Isles where a yellow flag must be shown on the masthead and they had to remain there for 15 days. If no disease was apparent they were released. If anyone was taken ill or died the ship was removed to Stangate Creek, in the River Medway near Chatham for further quarantine. The disease in question was probably typhus, which had a devastating effect in various parts of the world during 1805. Spain was affected very badly and the population of Philadelphia in America was almost halved during the outbreak.

On a day to day basis Charles was responsible for the health and safety of his men. In two letters dated in March and February of 1807 Charles requested the removal of Mr John Gray, as surgeon on the Revolutionnaire. In a letter to Dr Harness, Chief Surgeon at the Naval Hospital, Plymouth, Charles wrote “should the ship come into action many men will lose their lives through his ignorance”. In a further letter sent to the hospital board, the Admiralty and Dr Harness, Charles pointed out “The comfort and happiness of sick and wounded officers and seamen is part of the duty that you should always be most ready to perform”. He goes on to complain about the lack of competence of the surgeon, requests his suspension and the appointment of a more efficient person.

A General Order was sent to all ships by the Admiralty telling the captains and commanders they must visit crew members who were patients at the Royal Naval Hospital, Plymouth. It went on to inform them to take the ship’s surgeon with them. The Admiralty were concerned that men who could be returned to their ships may be malingering by exaggerating their ailments. The navy had to pay a pension to anyone injured during service and they also needed all the personnel they could muster. They obviously hoped that ship’s surgeons would be less sympathetic towards the men than the hospital doctors.

Orders and Proclamations

Many of the communications received by Charles came as written letters or Proclamations of the King. It seems that the most frequent orders were general to the fleet. For instance an order was given in February1807 enumerating articles which may be imported to any UK port from neutral vessels. Included in the list were rice, Spanish wine, saffron and olive oil. However in November of the same year a complete ban on all trade with France and her allies was declared in reciprocation to a ban on English manufactured goods by France. Permission was given to confiscate cargo which could then be considered lawful prize. The prize was that the captain received 3/8ths of the value of the cargo.

There are many other general Proclamations and orders in the archive and they give a flavour of the changing pattern of allies and enemies during the Napoleonic Wars. An order from the Admiralty in February 1808 to “All Captains and Commanders” highlights the complexity of understanding the rules of engagement when confiscating cargo. All enemy ships were under blockade, but neutral ships carrying out trade, travelling to neutral countries were not restricted. Countries not at war with Britain were also allowed to trade in non-blockaded ports. The countries at war with Britain were listed as: France, Italy, Holland, Spain, Tuscany, Naples, Ragusa, Denmark, Russia and Turkey. British allies were rather fewer: Sweden and Sicily, and neutral countries were America, Sardinia and Barbary. The order also gives a list of ports blockaded by the British navy.

As well as general orders Charles also received personal orders. Some were to tell him to rendezvous with British Consuls in Spain or Portugal. Others were instructions about where to patrol and which Commander was in charge of operations. On at least one occasion he collected bullocks and sheep for his own and other vessels. The sharing out of the livestock at sea must have been a very complicated procedure and probably hazardous. These animals were kept on board the ships to be slaughtered to provide fresh meat. One very detailed order came from Admiral Gardiner in September 1807 giving instructions to Charles on Revolutionnaire.

He was first to take the ship Pomone under his command and intercept enemy ships at Brest. “If you fall in with a squadron send Pomone to me. Revolutionnaire should then proceed to the squadron and appraise Richard King then continue to Finisterre to pursue ships. If you don’t meet a squadron go to Cadiz and inform of enemy at sea to Vice Admiral Collingwood, then proceed to Funchal, Madeira and inform the British Consul”. The order then goes on to advise Charles to act according to circumstances on behalf of the King. It ends “You are to remain 2 months on service then join me at Ushant for further orders”.

At the age of 27 years old Charles had 14 years of experience at sea, with more time on the sea than on land. Although he married Elisabeth in 1804 they would have actually spent little time together in the early years of their marriage. Even with permission for leave of absence a captain was often allowed only limited shore leave and sometimes required to be within sight of his ship for immediate recall. So although in his later life he was a wealthy man who enjoyed a privileged lifestyle, his early life would have been one of endurance and adversity.


Mostly 2664/3/3F – bundles 1 to 20 also 2664/3/3F/21MS, 2664/3/3B/3

Book: ‘Landsman Hay’ by Robert Hay edited by Vincent McInerney, Published by Seaforth 2010.

Jean Waltham, Lacock Unlocked volunteer

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