Admiral Sir John Balchin (1669 – 1744)

The Naval Record – by Professor William Balchin
Victorian historians have suggested that John Balchin was the fourth child and the oldest surviving son of John Balchin and Ann Edsur; the paternal grandfather was a Lawrence Balchin who married Abigail Hockley: all were of Godalming. However more recent research has suggested that he was actually born in Brook, a small hamlet on the outskirts of Godalming, and baptised at Thursley. The surname was spelt in a variety of ways in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but eventually became stabilised as ‘Balchin’. Sir John’s father and grandfather appear in the records with this spelling, as does his own name in Admiralty documents. He himself from time to time appears as Balchen and one of his sons is listed in the Admiralty files as Captain George Balchen. There is also a variant of Sir John’s birth year as a result of the Gregorian calendar reform of 1752 – Sir John’s birthday of 2nd February 1669 would have been in what we now think of as 1670.
In about 1685, as a youth of fifteen or sixteen, John Balchin left Godalming and opted for a career in the Navy. His earliest years coincided with the death of Charles II and the short reign, from 1685 – 1688, of James II followed by the ‘Glorious Revolution’ of William and Mary; but he played no part in these events as he was stationed in the West Indies. He began to attain prominence there in 1692, first as a lieutenant in the Dragon and then the Cambridge. He reached the rank of Captain on 25th July 1697, when Admiral Neville commissioned him to command the Virgin, a prize ship captured from the enemy.
By 1697, however, both France and England were showing signs of war exhaustion and the Peace of Ryswick was concluded. The strength of the Navy could therefore be reduced, and although John Balchin remained Captain of the Virgin until September 1698, he was then paid off, and had to wait eighteen months before being appointed to the Firebrand.
The lull in hostilities was only temporary. The War of the Spanish Succession broke out in 1701, and in December of that year Captain Balchin joined the fireship Vulcan, attached to the main fleet under Sir George Rooke. He was now active in battle. On 12th October 1702 he took part in a raid on French and Spanish ships in Vigo harbour in Spain, and managed to capture a large 56 gun French vessel, the Modéré, which he brought home as a prize of war.
Shortly after the accession of Queen Anne in 1702 Captain Balchin was promoted to command the 44-gun Adventure in which he patrolled home waters, mainly between Yarmouth and Portsmouth, for the next two years. On 19th March 1704 he was further promoted to the 50-gun Chester and sent to the Guinea Coast, narrowly missing Sir George Rooke’s dramatic capture of Gibraltar in July of that year. He returned from West Africa in 1705 and resumed the important work of patrolling the English Channel.
In October 1707 the Chester together with the Ruby and the Cumberland formed a small squadron to protect a convoy bound for the Spanish campaign. Off the Lizard on 10th October, however, the convoy was attacked by a superior force of 14 French ships under the command of the Comte de Forbin and Dugay-Trouin. Although the merchant ships escaped, the English squadron was overwhelmed and fell into French hands. Chester was carried off as a prize by de Forbin, and Captain Balchin became a prisoner-of-war for nearly a year. He was returned to England in 1708, acquitted for the loss of the Chester and then appointed to command the 60-gun Gloucester. His misfortunes were not yet over as on 26th October 1709 the Gloucester met another superior force under Dugay-Trouin and was captured. Another period in France was followed by a second acquittal, and Captain Balchin was then appointed to the 48-gun Colchester for Channel patrol service.
After the war Captain Balchin was assigned to the 40-gun Diamond to suppress piracy in the West Indies. On being paid off Diamond in May 1716 Captain Balchin’s next appointment was to the Orford guardship in the Medway, followed in February 1717 by a transfer to the 80-gun Shrewsbury.

He was then despatched to the Mediterranean to serve under Admiral Sir George Byng. In the summer of 1718 a strong Spanish force invaded Sicily, but their fleet was intercepted in the famous engagement off Cape Passaro when 22 Spanish ships were either taken or burnt. Captain Balchin is reported as fighting within the greatest bravery, as he always did. The Shrewsbury returned to England in December of that year.
The following May, Captain Balchin was appointed to the 70-gun Monmouth, a ship with which he was closely associated for most of the next decade, as it was included in the Baltic summer cruises under Admiral John Norris in 1719, 1720, 1721 and 1727, as well as under Sir Charles Wager in 1726. Between 1722 and 1725 Captain Balchin was in command of the Ipswich guardship at Spithead and in October 1727 went in the Monmouth as part of a reinforcement for Sir Charles Wager’s support of Gibraltar, then besieged by Spain. The dispute was temporarily settled and the supporting fleet returned home in January 1728.


The Years of Rapid Promotion

A period of rapid promotion then followed for John Balchin. He became Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1728, Rear Admiral of the White in 1729, Rear Admiral of the Red in 1732 and Vice-Admiral of the White in 1734, whereupon he commanded a squadron at Portsmouth for several months. Further advancement to Vice-Admiral of the Red occurred in 1735.
By 1739 Walpole’s peace policy had collapsed and the country was once again involved in hostilities with Spain after the episode of Jenkins’ Ear, whilst the following year there was renewed conflict with France in the War of the Austrian Succession. In 1740 Vice-Admiral Balchin commanded a squadron of six sail of the line sent to reinforce the Mediterranean Fleet, and in 1743 there came a promotion to Admiral of the White and command of a large squadron at Plymouth for several months. The following April he was appointed a Governor of the Naval Hospital at Greenwich and received the accolade of a knighthood. Admiral Sir John Balchin was then in his 75th year, and the appointment was considered to be an honourable retirement from the active list.
On 1st June 1744, however, he was restored to an active rank and summoned to deal with the relief of Sir Charles Hardy’s fleet, which was blockaded in the Tagus Estuary by the French. Sir John assembled 14 ships of the line and raised his flag on the newly-constructed Victory of 110 guns. This fleet was joined by seven Dutch naval vessels and the combined force with a large number of store ships duly freed Sir Charles Hardy from the Tagus and proceeded to Gibraltar for reinforcement of the garrison.
On 28th September Sir John decided to return home, entering the Bay of Biscay on the 30th. On 3rd October a violent storm blew up, placing all the ships in jeopardy, and much damage ensued – some were dismasted, some sprang leaks, but nevertheless all except one arrived safely in Plymouth or Spithead in the next few days. The sole exception was the flagship Victory which was last seen on the morning of 4th October 1744. Nothing is known for certain of her fate; she either foundered at sea, or struck the notorious Caskets rocks off the Channel Islands. Her guns were thought to have been heard by the people of Alderney during the night and were interpreted as distress signals, but the ferocity of the storm made it impossible for anyone to go to her aid. Her main topmast was washed ashore on the island of Guernsey, but no other part of her was ever found and her fate remains a mystery to this day. The Admiral and over 1,100 officers and men aboard her vanished without trace.
Thus, sadly, ended one of the most remarkable careers in British naval history. Sir John must surely hold an all-time record with nearly sixty years of continuous naval service and an active command at the age of 75. During his life he had been in command of 13 ships, culminating in what was at the time the world’s largest vessel, the Victory of 110 guns. The public reaction to this national disaster was swift, and it was not long before a monument was erected in the north transept of Westminster Abbey to commemorate the loss. Sir Godfrey Kneller had already painted a portrait of Sir John for the Painted Hall at Greenwich and this, together with a magnificent model of the Victory made for the subsequent enquiry, is now in the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Personality, Character and Family Life – by Professor William Balchin
As will have been obvious from Part 1 of this account of the life of Admiral Sir John Balchin he must have been an exceptional individual to have risen from the ranks to the highest post of an Admiral; and also to have served in the Navy for nearly 60 years. This was at a time when the average life expectancy was less than 40 years, and that in the Navy probably less than five years, more as a result of storm and scurvy than enemy action.
The Naval record for Sir John is well-documented, but when we come to a consideration of his personality, character and family life there is little written evidence available. There appears to be no contemporary family record, and we can only build a personality and character assessment from fragmentary comments such as the inscription on the Westminster Abbey memorial, a few official letters, a well-documented account of a brush with a Customs official, and scattered remarks in certain 18th century biographical magazines.
The closest contemporary statement is on the Westminster Abbey memorial where we read “Fifty eight years of faithful and painful service he had passed when being just retired to the Government of Greenwich Hospital to wear out the remainder of his days, he was once more and for the last time called out by his King and Country, whose interests he ever preserved to his own, and his unwearied zeal for their service ended only in his death, which weighty misfortune to his afflicted family became heightened by many aggravated circumstances attending it, yet amidst their grief had they the mournful consolation to find his Gracious and Royal Master mixing his concern with the general lamentations of the publick (sic) for the calamitous fate of so zealous, so valiant and so able a commander.”

Frances Balchin-West, daughter of Sir John Balchin, by Joseph Highmore 1742

The first magazine reference to Sir John is found in the Gentleman’s Magazine Volume XVI for 1746 where it is stated that ‘Admiral Balchin had the glory of the Nation so much at heart that when he was last out he declared to Captain Gregory that he would rather take a dozen large men of war than two or three galleons.’

A more detailed insight is found in the Biographical Magazine for 1776 which states that during his youth he was properly instructed in the several arts necessary to form a complete seaman and that ‘at this early time of life he gave many indications of a tenacious memory, sound judgement, and the most intrepid courage. He was alarmed by no dangers, intimidated by no difficulties. He pursued his purposes with great perseverance, steadiness and resolution and rarely failed of seeing them succeed according to his wishes. But though he was thus resolute and intrepid he was far from being petulant, nor ever willingly affronted any.’
In commenting on his later life the 1776 Biographical Magazine states ‘He never sacrificed the honour of his country to the designs of a party, or his own private interest, nor sought stations that might be attended with greater advantage than those where his superiors thought proper to place him. The true interest of his country and the honour of the British flag, were the grand motives that influenced his conduct and to promote these was the greatest pleasure of his life. Sir John’s standing in the Navy seems to have been assured from the time of his appointment as Captain of the Virgin in July 1697 after which he was ‘always considered as one of the most active commanders in the British Navy’ whilst ‘the merchants were highly sensible of the advantages which the commerce of the nation derived from his care and vigilance, and the privateers of the enemy felt so often the effects of his courage and intrepidity that they dreaded the name of the ship which Balchin commanded’.

The Bowen Incident
Another insight into Sir John’s personality is provided by a well documented brush with a Customs official in 1716. In May of that year while berthed at the Nore on the Diamond, awaiting orders, he was involved with a Customs officer named Bowen who boarded to search the ship. Bowen was given the courtesy of refreshments and allowed to search freely, after being told of the Captain’s own stock of ‘Jesuit bark’ (quinine) on which duty would be paid. Bowen however became resentful of being accompanied by a ship’s officer on his inspection and as this seemed suspicious he was asked to show his credentials, which he repeatedly refused to do.
Suspecting that Bowen was an impostor Captain Balchin had him put in irons, but he was released ten minutes later when the Master of the Diamond confirmed his identity. Brown subsequently accused Captain Balchin of trying to evade excise duty, slandering the Customs Commissioners, striking Bowen and drawing his sword. The complaint was made via the Treasury to the Admiralty.
The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty stood stoutly behind Captain Balchin in their reply and Bowen got no further with his complaint. The Admiralty reported that “They were Surprised when this complaint came against him, he being a Sober Man, of honest principles to the Government, and one who hath always behaved himself so as not to give any grounds for Exceptions.”
Captain Balchin’s account of what happened is contained in the Treasury Papers for November 1716, and can be seen in his own clear handwriting, at the Public Records Office.
The Graphological Evidence
The existence of the Bowen papers and additionally a number of official letters from Sir John, now in the Surrey History Centre in Woking, enable us to probe more directly into his personality and character. The Bowen papers reveal a man full of character with an easy turn of phrase, who had enjoyed a good education and who was accustomed to mix with the upper class of his day. The Guildford letters show a kindly and sympathetic side to his nature, and reveal his concern for the seaworthiness of his ships and the safety of his men.
There is further confirmation of this facet of Sir John’s character in his appointment to the ‘Corporation for the Relief of poor Sea-officers Widows’ in 1732, and the retirement appointment as Governor of the Naval Hospital at Greenwich in 1744.
As contemporary ‘copy books’ for writing are available for the late 17th century and early 18th century, it is possible to attempt a graphological analysis of Sir John’s handwriting; this approach enables us to check the earlier eulogistic accounts and to seek further insights. We therefore asked Professor Alice Coleman of King’s College London, an eminent graphologist, to attempt an independent assessment based on Sir John’s handwriting. A very detailed report by Professor Coleman has been published in The Graphologist Volume 12 No 4 (1994). Omitting the technicalities, the assessment indicates a man with enormous and sustained determination, an absence of fear traits and considerable courage, with a built-in need for change and an ability to conserve energy and avoid its dissipation in mental problems.
The writing further reveals a clarity of thought and a logical and mentally agile mind; there are signs of leadership qualities, organisational abilities and communication skills. There is a quick reaction to emergencies, a deference to higher authority, and although basically modest a certain amount of showmanship is revealed. A scrupulously honest person also emerges, with strong inner emotions but well under control. Although largely confirming contemporary eulogistic accounts, Professor Coleman concludes “The Admiral’s handwriting makes it clear that he would not have appeared externally as the hot character that he was within. His emotional expressiveness was well under control. He was capable of being cool, calm and collected when objectivity and decisions were needed, or warmly sympathetic when appropriate, and this would have won him the liking and respect of his sailors. He could show occasional flashes of forcefulness which would have aided his authority in difficult situations, but there is no evidence of half-tamed emotions waiting to erupt in testiness or bad temper.”

Family Life
Family life for Sir John seems to have followed the conventional naval pattern of the time in which he lived. He married Susannah, third daughter of Colonel Robert Apreece of the County of Huntingdon, during the 18 months after September 1698 between the Captaincy of the Virgin and the Firebrand. The first two of their six children were born during this phase. Annesloe, the first, was baptised at the Parish Church of St Paul, Covent Garden, on 3rd March
1699; she died within her father’s lifetime. The second, Robert, was baptised at St Paul’s on 20th February 1700, but died almost immediately and was buried there nine days later.
Subsequent additions to the family relate to lengthy periods of shore leave. The third child, Daniel, was baptised at St Paul’s, Covent Garden on 31st August 1707: he too died within his father’s lifetime. The fourth child, Frances, arrived in 1710 and was baptised at the Parish Church of St Clement-le-Dane in the Strand on 5th June 1710. She was to outlive all the other members of the family. The fifth child, Edmund, appears to have been stillborn as we have only a record of a burial at St Paul’s, Covent Garden, on 12th June 1714. The sixth and last child to be born was George in about 1717 between the Diamond and Orford Guardship appointments.
Of the six children, only Frances and George survived Sir John. Frances was subsequently to marry Captain Temple-West RN, afterwards Admiral of the White Squadron. Captain Temple-West commanded the ship which carried Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Warren to victory over the French on 3rd May 1747, and he was also involved as Rear-Admiral of the Second Division in the abortive engagement under Admiral Byng near Minorca on 20th May 1756.
George Balchen followed in his father’s footsteps by joining the Navy, and rose to be a Captain. He was sent to the West Indies on 26th November 1744 as Captain of the Pembroke, but he died in Barbados on 18th December 1745 only one year after Sir John’s decease. Sadly there are thus no direct male descendants from Sir John.
It is clear from the baptismal records that the family base during the early part of the marriage was in Covent Garden, but the precise address is not known and probably no longer exists. In 1717 however a move was made to a newly-constructed four storey building in Cheyne Walk, Chelsea. Originally known as Carlton House, this is now 15 Cheyne Walk. This was to be Sir John’s home until his decease in 1744, and the size of the house reflects the standing of an 18th century senior Naval Captain on his way to becoming an Admiral.
Unlike other senior naval figures of the time there is no hint anywhere in the record of any impropriety or scandal in Sir John’s private life; the evidence all points to a happy family life although doubtless with its disappointments from time to time with the early death of four of the six children. Such early deaths however would not have been unusual for the period: the exceptions are perhaps Sir John’s decease in 1744 at 75 after nearly 60 years in the Navy, together with Susannah’s death on 2nd June 1752 at the age of 77.
There is no doubt that Admiral Sir John Balchin served England well, and his record deserves to be better known in its history than is currently the case

The Portraits – by Sir Robert Balchin
By 1600, the practice of sitting for one’s portrait, which had been an innovations of the 1530s, was an accepted port of upper class life. By 1700 gentlemen, like Captain John Balchin, could find a number of well-known portraitists willing to immortalise them. We are immensely lucky that he chose someone of great repute, and that his portrait still exists at the National Maritime Museum, although not always on display.
Admiral Sir John Balchin’s portrait shows the three-quarter length image of a middle-aged man clad in a dark blue coat with gold clasps. He wears a silk scarf or ruff knotted at his neck, and his left hand rests on a heavy gold-embroidered sash worn around his waist. Under it is a sword belt, similarly gold wire decorated, and visible also is the hilt of his sword with its lion’s head pommel. His sleeve ends are slashed, showing wide silk shirtcuffs. He wears a brown full-bottomed wig. His right hand points towards a ship which is dimly discernible on that side of the picture. The ship appears to be flying the Union flag, and, according to the National Maritime Museum, has the appearance of a vessel of the mid-1600s. It may have been a real ship associated with John Balchin, on the other hand it could have been a standard ‘prop’ available for inclusion in any naval portrait by the artist.
The Admiral’s face is interesting: he definitely has what many of us recognise as the ‘Balchin nose’, his eyes are probably brown, his lips are full, and he is beginning a double chin! How old was he, however, when the portrait was painted? There are some clues.
For many years museum experts thought that John Balchin was painted by Sir Godfrey Kneller (died 1723) whose portrait of Admiral Sir Charles Wager (under whom Balchin served) is very similar. In recent years, however, Balchin’s portrait has been reattributed to Jonathan Richardson, who was almost an exact contemporary of the Admiral, living from about 1665 until 1745. Certainly the style is very similar to other important pictures by Richardson, for example that of Sir Richard Steel (1710) in the National Portrait Gallery.
Records show that Jonathan Richardson charged twenty guineas, a huge sum, for a half-length portrait around 1718 – 9 and about forty guineas by 1730, so John Balchin must have been relatively wealthy at the time.
The National Maritime Museum suggests a date of 1695 for the portrait; yet this hardly fits in with what we know of Balchin’s life, and the image is of someone older than the twenty-six years he would then have been. Alas, naval uniforms did not become formalised until years later, and it is difficult to tell Balchin’s rank His pose is a rather grand one, and could commemorate his promotion to Rear-Admiral in 1728; yet somehow he looks rather younger than 59. Another guess is the period around 1720, when he was Captain of HMS Monmouth cruising not too far from these shores, and could have had the time to sit for the artist.
The portrait may have hung in John Balchin’s London home before being inherited by his daughter, who married Admiral Temple-West. It was presented to the Greenwich Hospital collection by Sir Henry Austen in 1852.
The citizens of Godalming were very proud of their famous son, and for many years a copy of the Greenwich portrait hung in the King’s Arms Hotel in the middle of the town. It is recorded that it was given to the father of a 19th century landlord in respect of a debt by a Mr Garthwaite of Shackleford. Earlier this century it was moved to the Council Chamber, and more recently to the Borough Hall, where it hangs to this day. The painting, which is almost certainly a posthumous copy of the Richardson, is virtually identical to it, yet the brushwork is rather more crude. The ship’s flag appears to be a Red Ensign in this picture rather than the Union Jack, more noticeably, the Admiral’s face is rather more full, almost chubby, and the hands are less finely drawn.
In the 1980s I had another (and accurate) full size copy made of the Greenwich portrait by a modern artist, and this now hangs at New Place, Lingfield, Surrey.
Is the Greenwich portrait a good likeness of the man to whom most Balchins are distantly related? Almost certainly so. Sir Robert Walpole remarked (and he clearly did not like Richardson) that ‘he drew nothing well beyond the head’. This was certainly unjustified, but suggests at least that he created a good likeness of his sitters.
Admiral Sir John Balchin was rewarded at age seventy-five for an astonishingly long and active career in the service of his country by being appointed Governor of the Naval Hospital at Greenwich. He did not, as we know, live long enough to enjoy this honourable office. It is fitting at least that his portrait is now in the care of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich.

Life at Sea – by Professor William Balchin
In order to appreciate the remarkable record of Admiral Sir John Balchin in completing nearly sixty years of service in the Navy, an indication is necessary of the hazards of life at sea during the eighteenth century. Sir John’s record was achieved at a time when life in the Navy was unpopular, and the length of service was more likely to be in single figures and terminated by death. Paradoxically enemy action was the least of the perils faced by the sailors. Sir John himself has left no details of his life at sea, but we have an exact contemporary account in Admiral Lord Anion’s description of the ‘Voyage Round the World in the years 1740 – 1744’ which reveals the horrendous and appalling conditions endured by the sailors of this period.
In 1739 war with Spain was seen to be almost inevitable and the Admiralty decided, in anticipation of renewed hostilities, to place British warships in strategic positions world-wide. One such squadron, in command of George Ansonia, was allocated the Pacific Ocean, with orders to disrupt the Spanish trade routes and capture as much booty as possible. The squadron consisted of five men-of-war, a sloop-of-war and two victualing ships. The men-of-war were the Centurion of 60 guns and 400 crew, the Gloucester of 50 guns and 300 crew, the Severn of 50 guns and 300 crew, the Pearl of 40 guns and 250 crew, the Wager of 28 guns and 160 crew, with the Tryal sloop of 8 guns and 100 crew. Admiral Balchin appears in the early pages of the narrative as he assisted in the fitting-out of the squadron, and accompanied it part way with his own fleet when it sailed in August 1740 for the Pacific.
The route followed was via the Azores, St Catherine’s off the coast of Brazil, Cape Horn, the island of Juan Fernandes off the coast of Chile, Paita on the coast of Peru, Panama Bay, Acapulco on the west coast of Mexico, Tinian Island in the Ladrones (Marianas), Macao and Canton in China, Capetown in South Africa, and back to Spithead. The expedition lasted three years and nine months, and only the Centurion made it back to England with a crew largely recruited in Capetown – all the other ships, crews and military personnel embarked for engaging with the enemy having been lost at sea.

As will be clear from the description of the Victory, the men-of-war of this period carried enormous crews relative to the size of the ships. Few ships were more than 150 feet in length. Each ship had to be capable of coping with any emergency that might arise on a voyage, and a wide-ranging variety of trades had to be carried on board. Men were needed not only to sail the ship and man the guns, but in addition doctors, surgeons, carpenters, metal workers, sail makers, coopers, painters, caulkers, cooks, priests, teachers, navigators – all with appropriate officers and mates – had to be included. Soldiers and marines were also carried, in part for engagements with the enemy, but more often for the prevention of mutiny, as the greater part of the crew was frequently forced into service by the notorious press gangs.

The hundreds of men aboard these ships lived below decks between the guns in cramped conditions. They had no personal living space, and slept in hammocks slung at night from the beams, those in the lower gun decks rarely saw sunlight and had little fresh air. Here they ate and drank, entertained their ‘lady friends’ when in port (they were not allowed ashore to prevent desertion); they had no privacy, and sanitation was almost non-existent -everything on board was subsumed to the guns. It is little wonder that with these packed and confined conditions any sickness quickly spread.
There are numerous references in the narrative to the problems arising from the lack of fresh air between the decks; it was almost the first difficulty encountered after sailing as the ships were initially so overladen with stores ‘they could not open the lower ports. On this representation the commodore ordered six air scuttles to be cut in each ship in such places where they would least weaken it.’

On reaching St Catherine’s off the coast of Brazil, many were ill and approximately 80 were sent ashore from each ship to recuperate. As soon as this transfer was completed ‘we scraped our decks and gave each ship a thorough cleansing, then smoked it between decks, and after all washed every part well in vinegar. These operations were extremely necessary for correcting the noisome stench on board and destroying the vermin, for from the number of our men, and the heat of the climate, both these nuisances had increased upon us to a very loathsome degree, and besides being most intolerably offensive they were doubtless productive of the sickness.’
An even greater hazard however was the restricted diet combined with the long periods at sea. Food was limited to salted meat, dried cod, rice, bread and hard biscuits with a restricted fluid intake limited to water, rum, and brandy. Fresh provisions could only be provided for a few days after leaving a replenishment port. Food stores often rotted and were verminous, as the preservation methods were primitive. Any lengthy voyage inevitably resulted in outbreaks of scurvy with high death rates.
Owing to navigational difficulties, the squadron was scattered after rounding Cape Horn, and several weeks elapsed at sea before it could re-assemble at the agreed rendezvous of the island of Juan Fernandes off the coast of Chile. By this time, dietary problems combined with the navigational problems had had a devastating effect on the manpower. ‘We had buried on board the Centurion 292 and now had remaining on board 214. This will doubtless appear a most extraordinary mortality but on board the Gloucester it had been much greater, for out of a much smaller crew than ours they had lost the same number and had only 82 remaining alive. It might be expected that on board the Tryal the slaughter would have been the most terrible as her decks were almost constantly knee-deep in water: but it happened otherwise since she only buried 42 and had now 39 remaining alive. The havoc of this disease had fallen still severer on the invalids and marines than on the sailors: for on board the Centurion, out of 50 invalids and 79 marines there remained only 4 invalids and 11 marines: and on board the Gloucester every invalid perished and out of 48 marines only 2 escaped.’

Dietary problems were compounded by navigational difficulties: ships depended on wind power which fluctuated from calm to storm, there was a limited knowledge of the planetary system of winds and the resulting oceanic currents. Magnetic compasses were primitive and little was known about the problem of magnetic deviation. Charts were often inaccurate, as longitude could only be estimated, and large margins of error existed with latitude determinations. It was often necessary to wait for weeks, even months, for the right conditions to proceed to the desired port. This is dramatically illustrated in the narrative by the great difficulty the ships of the squadron had in reaching Juan Fernandes – ‘For the uncertainty we were in of the position (of Juan Fernandes)… cost us the lives of between 70 and 80 men by our longer continuance at sea . . . which we might have been exempted had we been furnished with such an account of its situation as we could fully have depended on.’
Bad weather was another hazard: shipwreck was common with adverse conditions as the ships were dismasted and became uncontrollable: if they did not sink at sea as a result of taking on too much water, they were often blown ashore and wrecked with a consequent loss of life. This was the fate of the Wager on one of the coastal islands off Chile. This ship also suffered a common hazard of the time – mutiny by most of the crew – ‘when the ship was wrecked there were alive on board the Wager near 130 persons: of these above 30 died during their stay (on the island) and near 80 went off in the long boat and cutter to the southward . . . (leaving the Captain and a few others behind).’ No more than 30 of the mutineers managed to round Cape Horn and reach Brazil. The Captain and Officers were rescued by Indians and eventually reached Valparaiso.

Accidents were also common in bad weather as efforts were made to trim the sails to match conditions. Rounding Cape Horn was especially hazardous: …… some of whom were killed and others greatly injured: in particular one of our best seamen was canted overboard and drowned, another dislocated his neck, a third was thrown into the main hold and broke his thigh, and one of our boatswain’s mates broke his collar bone twice, not to mention many other accidents of the same kind.’
Engaging the enemy in these circumstances was almost a minor hazard, but if it occurred it involved another major problem which could be disastrous. This was because of the necessity to ‘clear the decks’ before taking any action. Food, water, and general impediments stored on the gun decks between the guns all went overboard and were lost, so that a ‘victory’ could easily become disaster when emergency supplies were exhausted. It was the lack of medical knowledge about diseases, sanitation and dietary conditions however that produced most casualties, with scurvy the main culprit. We now know that scurvy is caused by a severe lack of Vitamin C (ascorbic acid): adults will get scurvy if their diet contains no fresh fruit and fresh vegetables. The victim feels weak and short of breath; his skin will have blue marks like bruises, caused when blood leaks through the weakened walls of tiny blood vessels. The gums become spongy and the teeth drop out. Paradoxically the recovery is rapid if the victim is fed a diet of fresh fruit and vegetables or given injections of Vitamin C.
The realisation that fresh fruit and vegetables are necessary to avoid scurvy is often attributed to Cook’s Pacific Voyages in the latter part of the 18th century, but in fact Anson’s Round the World Voyage accidentally demonstrated the solution, because after the disastrous rounding of Cape Horn the diminished squadron stayed at Juan Fernandes for three months to recuperate, and to repair the CenturionGloucester and Tryal, during which time the men all had fresh water, fresh tropical fruit and fresh ‘vegetables’. A much smaller force then cruised the coasts of Chile and Peru, taking various ‘prizes’ and even the coastal town of Paita in Peru. The plundering of the Spanish ships and ports provided a continued supply of fresh water and produce so that ‘in the whole seven months from our leaving Juan Fernandes to our anchoring in the harbour of Chequetan we buried no more in the whole squadron than two men.’ This contrasts with the loss of over six hundred men prior to reaching Juan Fernandes.

This sequence is repeated in the next phase of the voyage as the Centurion and Gloucester attempt a Pacific crossing with the objective of intercepting the ‘Manila Galleon‘ – the legendary Spanish treasure ship. Lack of navigational knowledge however resulted in months at sea, and although hogs and fowls had been taken on board at Paita in Peru and many turtles captured off the coast of Mexico, fresh outbreaks of scurvy occurred. Long periods of calm alternated with tropical storms, and a leaking and dismasted Gloucester had to be abandoned. Daily deaths again became a problem on the remaining Centurion – the narrative mentions that 8 to 10 and sometimes 12 men were being lost each day. With water supplies almost exhausted the outlook was indeed bleak, but when all was thought to be lost the Centurion sighted Tinian island in the Ladrones (Marianas) by which time the work force on the ship was down to 71, most of whom were almost incapable. Tinian however was able to provide fresh water, fruit, vegetables and meat, and the sick rapidly recovered. The island had once been inhabited, and the skeleton (in more than one sense) crew of the Centurion found cabbages, coconuts, guavoes, limes, oranges, bread fruit, water melons, dandelions, mint and sorrel together with meat from wild cattle, wild hogs, fowl, duck, teal and curlew. The men recovered rapidly, and only ten more died in the two months stay on the island. A revitalised crew with a repaired Centurion then made for the Portuguese trading post of Macao on the Chinese mainland, where a refit of the ship was undertaken before a final attempt was made to intercept the Manila Galleon. Incredibly this was successful, and an immense treasure was seized. The galleon was sold off in Canton and the Centurion returned to England via the Cape of Good Hope, extra crew being taken on at Capetown. Of the six ships and nearly 2,000 men that left England in 1740, only one ship and some 170 men returned in 1744 after three years and nine months absence.

The disasters that Anson experienced were by no means unique. Spain was apprised of the expedition before it sailed (the assembly and fitting-out of the squadron took several months) and Don Juan Pizarro was ordered to assemble a Spanish squadron of six men-of-war to seek out and destroy the British squadron. Pizarro searched for five years without making any contact with the British, during which time he lost five ships and over 3,000 men as a result of famine, scurvy, shipwreck and mutiny. He eventually returned to Spain with one ship and less than a hundred men.
That life in the 18th century was hard, brutal, dirty and often debased cannot be doubted. The ships were unhealthy, the food foul, the wages small and the treatment frequently cruel. The men were crammed together in confined spaces that were dark, and soon became obnoxious. Privacy was impossible and cleanliness but a memory. It is no wonder that the death rate from sickness and scurvy was so high – the mystery is why so many were prepared to endure these conditions. The answer probably lies in the lure of collecting a large sum of prize money from captured enemy vessels, without realising that, like the present-day lottery, the odds of winning were heavily stacked against them. It is against this background that the rise of Sir John Balchin from the ranks to a senior Admiral’s position and his survival for nearly 60 years in the Navy is so remarkable.

The Westminster Abbey Memorial – by Sir Robert Balchin
Sir John Balchin’s death by shipwreck in 1744 was looked on as a national calamity. He was a favourite of a contemporary journal, The Gentleman’s Magazine, and in October of that year the following lines were published:

Portentous Britain, were thy early fears,
The sad, sad prologue of succeeding tears,
Thy after hopes were as a cheering light,
To dying men’s expiring sense and sight,
The shattered planks confirm thy Balchin’s fate,
A wreck like Shovell’s and a loss as great.

Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell had also died when his flagship was wrecked off the Scilly Isles in 1707. His body was recovered and brought home for burial in Westminster Abbey. Unfortunately his monument there was thought to be entirely without merit by many of his friends. Horace Walpole wrote that the mere sight of it made ‘men of taste dread such honours’.
When Admiral Balchin’s death was reported, there was a determination that his memorial would be entirely in keeping with his long and distinguished career, and accordingly a subscription was started with a donation from King George II, who had personally knighted John Balchin earlier that year.
This enabled Lady Balchin to commission the famous sculptor Peter Scheemakers to make a magnificent memorial, and to erect it where it can still be seen today in the Abbey. There is a similar but smaller monument to an admiral in Beverley Minster by the same artist.

Admiral Sir John Balchen Memorial – Westminster Abbey

The memorial is carved from white marble, and stands some ten feet high. It is situated in the North Transept of the Abbey on the left-hand side. It consists of a plinth which bears a lengthy inscription (see below) and above this a fine bas-relief showing Balchin’s ship The Victory dismasted and about to capsize in a raging sea. There is a small figure in the foreground clinging to an anchor; sadly no-one survived the event itself. The detail is exceptional and repays close examination. From behind the bas-relief extend carvings of nautical artifacts. On the right-hand side, a cannon’s mouth protrudes below several navigational instruments including an astrolabe; there is a rope rove to an anchor and a flag, as well as two roundshots. On the left is the stock of the cannon, another flag, a larger, fouled, anchor, and a quadrant.

Above all is a cartouche bearing Sir John Balchin’s coat of arms: vert a crescent within eight mullets in lozenge or (eight gold stars surrounding a crescent on a green background). This impales (shares half the shield with) the coat of Lady Balchin, her father’s ancient Welsh arms of Ap-Reece or Aprice: azure three spearheads argent (three silver spear heads on a blue ground).
When I first saw this memorial in the 1960s, I was surprised to notice that, although on top of the coat of arms there was a knight’s helmet (visor open and facing front), there was no crest on top of it. One day I took advantage of a wooden stepladder, which someone had left nearby, to investigate further. It was then obvious that there had been a crest at some previous time: clearly visible was the hole in which it would have fitted, and the stone was ragged at that point. I wrote to the Dean and Chapter about it, and their records revealed that the crest had been knocked off and damaged by the erection of scaffold poles for the Coronation of William IV in 1830! It took a little research to find that, appropriately enough, John Balchin’s crest had been an anchor, and from its cross bar depended a blue banner bearing three fleurs de lis, probably symbolising three sea battles with the French fleet. In 1970 I paid for its reconstruction in memory of my father Leonard George Balchin who had died not long before, and for the repainting in the correct colours of the coat of arms below. Thus it appears in its true glory today.
Round the corner from the monument in the North Choir Aisle is another memorial which bears the arms of Admiral Sir John Balchin. This is in memory of his son-in-law Temple West, a well-known Vice-Admiral of the White, who died in 1757. Temple West had married John Balchin’s only surviving child.

The inscription reads (modern punctuation): To the Memory of Sir John Balchen (sic) Knt, Admiral of the White Squadron of his Majesty’s fleet, who in the year 1744, being sent our Commander in Chief of the combined fleets of England and Holland to cruise on the enemy, was, on his return home in his Majesty’s Ship the Victory, lost in the channel by a violent storm. From which sad circumstance of his death, we may learn that neither the greatest skill, judgement or experience, join’d to the most firm unshaken resolution, can resist the fury of the winds and waves, and we are taught from the passages of his life which were fill’d with great and gallant actions, but ever accompanied with adverse gales of fortune, that the brave, the worthy, and the good man, meets not always his reward in this world. Fifty eight years of faithful and painful services he had pass’d, when being just retired to the Government of Greenwich Hospital to wear out the remainder of his days, he was once more, and for the last time call’d out by his King and Country, whose interest he ever preferred to his own, and his unwearied zeal for their service ended only in his death, which weighty misfortune to his afflicted family became heightened by many aggravating circumstances concerning it. Yet amongst their grief, had they the mournful consolation to find his Gracious and Royal Master, mixing his concern with the general lamentations of the publick, for the calamitous fate of so zealous, so valiant, so able a Commander, and as a lasting memorial of the sincere love and esteem born by his widow to a most affectionate and worthy husband, this honorary monument was erected by her.
He was born February ye 2nd 1669, married Susannah, the daughter of Col. Aprice of Washingly in the County of Huntingdon, died October ye 7th 1744, leaving one son and one daughter, the former of whom George Balchen, survived him but a short time, for being sent to the West Indies in 1745, Commander of his Majesty’s ship the Pembroke, he died in Barbadoes in December the same year, having walked in the steps and imitated the virtues and bravery of his good but unfortunate father.

The Loss of HMS Victory

Balchin’s Victory was the fourth of the name, and was built from the remains of the Royal James which was burnt in a fire in 1721. She took eleven years to build, starting in 1726, and was finally launched on 23rd February 1737 at Portsmouth. The ship carried 100 guns as follows:

The Loss of HMS Victory’ (1874) by Peter Monomy

4 6-pounders on the forecastle12 6-pounders on the quarter-deck
28 12-pounders on the upper deck
28 24-pounders on the middle deck
28 42-pounders on the main gun deck

The gun deck was 174 ft 8in in length, the keel 141 ft 6 in, and the beam 50 ft 5 in. The tonnage was 1,921 and the draught 23 ft. The complement was officially 850, but she was carrying 1100 at the time of her loss. In 1740 HMS Victory became the Flagship of Sir J Norris, and in 1744 the Flagship of Sir John Balchin.
On 28th September 1744, Sir John Balchin decided to return home after successfully freeing Sir Charles Hardy, who had been blockaded in the Tagus Estuary. He entered the Bay of Biscay on 30th September, and on 3rd October a violent storm blew up. All the squadron returned safely to Plymouth or Spithead except the Victory. She was last seen on the morning of the 4th October, but then vanished. J M David in Guernsey Shipwrecks writes that little is known about the wreck except that masts, gilded gun carriages and personal belongings were washed ashore on Alderney. The lighthouse keeper on the Casquets thought that he heard gunfire at approximately 2 a.m. on 5th October, and this could have been an alert, but the weather was so atrocious that nothing could be done.

Download the popular Sea Shanty of the day, lamenting the ‘Loss of the Victory Man of War’

The Search for, and finding of, HMS Victory 

In August of 2008 a marine archaeological exploration of the English Channel made an astounding discovery.  The wreck of HMS Victory, the flagship of Admiral Sir John Balchin and the direct predecessor Nelson’s Victory, was found at a site nearly 100km away from the area in which it had traditionally been believed to have gone down in October 1744.

ODYSSEY MARINE EXPLORATION, a US pioneering firm under the leadership of Greg Stemm, noticed a hardly visible disturbance of the sea bed whilst carrying out a state-of-the-art under water survey and further investigation revealed the remains of a huge warship.

Although the site has been much ravaged by natural erosion over a quarter of a millennium and more recently seriously damaged by trawler nets, some 40 plus bronze cannon are to be seen visible, together with a giant anchor, possibly a sword, a large cooking vessel and the huge rudder.  Balchin’s Victory was well known to be carrying bronze guns and the most immediate clue which confirms this as his ship are the many 42 pound cannon visible amongst the other debris. Huge cannon of this kind were unique to first rate ships, of which the Victory was the only one unaccounted for.

The Royal Coat of Arms moulded on each one (e.g. that of George I was found on the 42 pound cannon raised) helps to pin down the year when they sank below the waves.

There was speculation at the time of the ship’s disappearance that she had been carrying a large amount of gold coins. Bankers used, of course, large warships to transport their money, believing them to be absolutely secure…. No one as yet knows whether any specie remains in Balchin’s Victory, or, indeed was there in the first place.

Two of the cannon, one a giant 42 pounder one a 12 pounder (see pics above and left), have been rescued from the site under strict archaeological criteria and they are now in the UK in special baths which will gradually make them, in perhaps two years, safe to face conditions out of the water without deterioration.

Sir Robert Balchin, Chairman of the Balchin Family Society which was founded on the 250th Anniversary of the disappearance of Balchin’s Victory, said when the find was announced on February 2nd 2009: ‘ This is the most astonishing news; for generations my family has wondered about the fate of Admiral Sir John Balchin and his ship. Now that the wreck has been found, we hope that as many of the artefacts on it as possible will be raised to the surface. I pay a tribute to the extremely careful work of Odyssey so far and hope that they will be enabled to carry on. Our fear is that erosion, marine thieves and deep trawler fishing will destroy what there is there within a very few years.  We would want to see these historic items on permanent display in a museum where they would give a unique insight into naval warfare in the mid 18th century.’

For more information on the exploration of Admiral Sir John Balchen’s Victory, including a ‘Virtual Dive Trail’ and links to further documentation, go to

There is a contemporary full hull model of the Victory (1737), a 100-gun three-decker first-rate ship of the line. (Scale: 1:34.3) located at the National Maritime Museum, Second floor, Nelson Navy Nation Gallery. For more information click here.