James Seagrove, born and bred in Portsea, survived 16 years of French wars naval action, only to fall seven years after the resumption of peace to a grim and agonising death in a far-off land. Not only did he see close active service in the European conflict but he also served in the Anglo-American war of 1812. Following the Napoleonic war, and like many thousands of his contemporaries, James was discarded by the Royal Navy as being superfluous to requirements. Having reached a state of near poverty he eventually sought survival for himself and his family in India, but perished a victim of the first Asiatic cholera pandemic.
James was born in 1784. His father was John Seagrove, a RN Warrant Gunner, and his mother was Sarah, who hailed from Arundel in Sussex. There were five siblings in his family: the eldest, Miriam born 1777; then William born 1779; Sally, 1782; followed by James; then finally the youngest, John born 1787. Whilst James and John were destined to follow careers in Nelson’s Royal Navy, William the eldest brother was to become the founder of the well-known Seagrove naval outfitting company based at 22/23 The Hard, Portsea.
James Seagrove joined the navy on 21 June 1799, when he was 15, as a ‘Boy Volunteer first class’. He would serve as such until August of 1800 when he became a midshipman. As a boy, James went to sea as a member of the crew of HM Ship Prince, in which were mustered many other youngsters of his age, including his younger brother John Seagrove. In addition to helping the ‘jack tar’ seamen as much as small lads of his age and younger could in working a big 98-gun man-of-war, James and his peer group would attempt to absorb the rudiments of ship handling and seamanship, and the basics of navigation.
A very unwelcome aspect of James’s duties as a Boy would have been acting as ‘servant’ to the ship’s officers. All the young lads aboard the Prince were committed to errand running and carrying out menial tasks for their superiors [the commissioned officers, warrant officers and the senior midshipmen] many of whom would treat the youngsters with scant respect, continually meting out much physical and mental abuse – unimaginable now two hundred years later. During the time James served on the Prince his father, John senior, was also entered into the ship’s muster book – as a Warrant Gunner. One has to wonder if James and his younger brother John ran errands and skivvied for their 48 year-old father!
The service time-line chart associated with this mini-biography shows James Seagrove’s progress through the Royal Navy, from the day he boarded his first ship, HMS Prince, berthed at Portsmouth, to the date he died in India in 1822 aged 38 years – from boy volunteer, to midshipman, to lieutenant, to a post-conflict naval officer retired on half pay. During his sixteen years of service during the French Wars, James had witnessed much derring-do and hardship; and he’d seen dreadful wounds and carnage; and some painful dying. He had sailed in British warships – mainly brig-sloops and frigates – stationed in the English Channel approaches and the North Sea, in the Bay of Biscay, and off Spain, and in the Mediterranean. He had also served in the Anglo-American war of 1812, a conflict which took him to United States’ waters, in particular to those of the vast Chesapeake Bay. During the last four of his active service years he had served as second lieutenant to one of Britain’s ablest and boldest frigate captains aboard the famed HMS Menelaus.
When the Napoleonic and American wars came to a close in 1815, James, like thousands of his brother officers, was forced to serve in the Royal Navy as a lieutenant on half pay. This meant that for him and for many others there would be no further participation in the day-to-day operation of Britain’s navy which had been drastically reduced to suit the new peacetime conditions. Virtually unemployed, the small salary he received was woefully inadequate and soon pushed him and his peers into extreme hardship; this was especially true for those like Seagrove who had families to support. New employment as a merchant ship’s officer based in England was impossible so, like many of his navy contemporaries, James in his desperation was forced to look overseas to escape from a state of near-poverty. In his case he chose India, having first to apply to the Admiralty for leave of absence, which was granted. But for James and his family, it would be a disastrous decision.
After providing a £500 bond and covenant, and enduring frustrating delay, James Seagrove departed Portsmouth waters for Bengal in April 1818 on the Sovereign Free Trader with high hopes of finding employment in merchant shipping circles there. For him, being a ship’s officer in the powerful East India Company was only a remote possibility, but according to a letter he wrote on departure he certainly did have great hope of joining one of many other India based shipping companies. With the help of numerous letters of introduction [including one from Lady Marianne Parker, the widow of his late frigate captain] he did secure such a position and in March of 1820 was applying to the Admiralty in London for a further leave of absence of two years. Again this was granted, the £900 bond was paid, and by mid-1820 his wife Sally and their two young children were on their way to Calcutta to join him.
In 1822 a third child was born to the Seagroves who now resided in Chowringhee, a British district of Calcutta in West Bengal. By then James was settling into regular employment with a shipping company, and the future was looking brighter. But disaster was soon to intervene. First James was struck down fatally by cholera in July of 1822, then two months later his wife Sally and their eldest son James were both taken by the same torturous disease which was sweeping with devastating effect across India and Asia. They were all buried in the local British cemetery. Thus the two youngest children, one two years of age, the other six months, were left as orphans; left to be fostered by another English family living in Calcutta. It was many weeks before the Seagrove and Trigg families in Portsea and Gosport heard the dreadful news; and soon after the children’s aunt, Sally Blackmore, was on her way to Calcutta to join and support the children.
The East India Register of Deaths for 1822 shows the appalling number of deaths of British ex-pats and dependents [mostly by cholera] in the Calcutta region at this time. The list for June shows twenty-seven people deceased; and July gives twenty-five persons – James Seagrove being first on the list. Even the Lord Bishop of Calcutta wasn’t spared; he expired on 8th of the month, five days after James. August’s grim list gives thirty-two persons, while September’s shows thirty-five. For Sally the entry for 24 September reads: ‘Mrs Seagrove, relict of Lieut. Seagrove RN, whose death and the death of her eldest son [James], took place within the last ten days’.
In his farewell letter to William and John, written four years earlier, dated 22 April, and addressed: ‘Sovereign Free Trader, Off the Island, Wednesday morning’, James had included the following comment. He said, ‘… However, I have one letter which I hope will keep me from starving. It is to a Mr Lewis at Calcutta, a very particular friend of Sir George Dallas – a man of great influence & generous character who I hope will not let me beg. You see I am in good spirits. It arises from the feeling I always had about me that whatever will come it is for the best.. …’ One can’t help but think that in opting to go to Bengal, James Seagrove made a very high risk decision as he must have had some knowledge of the scourge of cholera across the sub-continent. But for him and thousands of other ex-navy officers of the time, the immense pressures of unemployment following the French wars would too easily have forced fateful choices with dire consequences.
29 September 2012
"The Loss of HMS Hero" and the part played by John Seagrove.