FADM Viscount St Vincent, John Jervis KGCB
Born in Meaford, Staffordshire, the son of a barrister, John Jervis was given £20 by his father when he joined the navy as an Able Seaman in the week of his 14th birthday, and not a penny of support after that. He rose to become an Admiral of the Fleet in 1821.
Six years after the new AB Jervis joined the 50-gun HMS Gloucester, he was appointed as a MIDN in the Severn, then LEUT in the Royal George in 1755. By 1858 he was in command of HMS Foudroyant, a captured French prize, taking her back to England. Promoted CMDR in 1859, he led the advanced squadron in charge of transports alongside CAPT James Cook and GENL Wolfe in the siege of Quebec.
Captain HMS Gosport
In 1760 he was the captain of HMS Gosport, a fifth rate 40-gun ship, escorting a convoy to America, when he fell in with and repelled a French squadron. After distinguished service in a number of ships sailing the Channel, Mediterranean, East Indies and elsewhere, he was given command of the old Foudroyant, now outfitted as a second rate 80-gun ship. In 1782 he gave chase to a French squadron, capturing La Pegase the 74-gun flagship, and receiving a minor wound. He was rewarded with a knighthood. Marrying his cousin, Martha, that same year, he was also elected a Whig MP for Launceston and, later, Great Yarmouth and Chipping Norton. He seldom spoke, except on naval matters, but continued his naval career and was promoted RADM in 1787.
In 1793 he was promoted to VADM and put in charge of the West Indies Station. About this time he was becoming well known as a stern disciplinarian with a grim sense of humour. By July 1795, at age 60, he was a full Admiral and C-in-C Mediterranean. He noted that the fleet was “at the lowest ebb of licentiousness and ill discipline.” With ruthless determination and free use of the hangman’s noose, he discouraged conduct ranging from sodomy to mutiny and introduced new regimes that transformed the fleet into a highly efficient fighting service, one that proved itself time and time again in the vital decade to come.
He ordered that decks were to be scrubbed each day before daylight, the guns exercised every day and hammocks regularly aired. From captains to common seamen he punished wrongdoers and rewarded those who excelled.
Years of hard work, firm discipline and brilliant subordinate leaders, like Nelson and Collingwood, paid off for Jervis at Cape St Vincent, 14 February 1797.
The battle of Cape St Vincent
Blockading the Mediterranean, Jervis was off Cape St Vincent on 14 February 1797 when lookouts sighted 40-odd Spanish ships. “A victory is very essential to England at this moment,” said Jervis. The words could not have been more appropriate. They expressed very well England’s current predicament in Europe. England was at war with France, who had forced Spain to a peace in 1795.
Assisted by the brilliant CDRE Nelson who, contrary to standing orders, dropped out of the line of battle to cut off escaping enemy and captured two ships. Jervis won a resounding victory. The Spanish had 27 ships of the line to Jervis’s 15; 2308 guns to 1232. The enemy lost four ships, 1092 killed and wounded plus 2300 prisoners for 300 British casualties. Jervis lost no British ship. He was raised to the peerage as the First Earl of St Vincent.
Resigning in ill health in June 1799, Jervis recovered and rejoined in 1801 as First Lord of the Admiralty. An inquiry instituted by him led to Lord Melville, formerly treasurer of the Navy and previously First Lord, being impeached for corruption. Jervis finally retired in 1807 and died in 1823.