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Lieutenant Michael FITTON, Royal Navy

The story of Lieutenant Fitton first caught my eye a few years ago, whilst reading William James' Naval History of Great Britain, printed originally in 1827. To me it epitomises what must have happened to the vast majority of the thousands of Naval Officers who served before, during and after the Napoleonic Wars. We read of the few, who through their gallant acts, and often good connections, were promoted to greater things, and the stories of their exploits were trumpeted loud and clear in the London Gazette, which were picked up by the rags of the day, but we are rarely allowed the pleasure of being able to follow the career of an officer, equally brave and energetic, by all accounts, but who for some reason, be it through lack of patronage etc. was never able to make the break beyond a humble Lieutenant.

With the help of O'Byrne's Naval Biographical Dictionary and William James epic, I've attempted to stitch together a little of Michael's life, in the main, using the words of the writers of the day, with perhaps the odd addition here and there, either to clarify a point or to make it a little more readable.

Since collecting this information I've subsequently discovered that a fictional and perhaps more romantic story of his life, using some of the characters and incidents that took place in Lieutenant Fitton's service career, was written by Showell Styles in his book "A Sword For Mr Fitton" (1975).

Lieutenant Michael FITTON (Lieut. 1804)
(Full pay 25 years - Half Pay 32 years)

Michael FITTON was born about 1766, at Gawsworth, in Cheshire, now the seat of the Earl of Harrington, but formerly the property of his ancestor Sir Edward Fitton, a Chancellor of Ireland during the reign of James II.

Lieutenant Fitton entered the Navy in January 1780 (under the auspices of Lord Keppel), as a Captain's Servant, onboard HMS Vestal, 28, Captain George Keppel, this being the traditional means of entry into the RN, at this time, for a prospective naval officer.

Whilst serving in this frigate, besides assisting at the capture of the Phoenix, a heavy privateer, he witnessed the taking of an American packet having on board Mr. Laurens, ex-President of the Rebel Congress, who was proceeding to Holland with a secret treaty of alliance with the Dutch. This treaty, previous to the actual capture of the ship, had been thrown overboard in a bag, and would never have been discovered, but for Mr Fitton, who, being at the moment employed in furling the fore-top gallant sail, observed what he considered to be a man overboard, and instantly made a report which led to its recovery.

A declaration of war against the Dutch, and the immediate sweeping of their numerous vessels from the face of the sea, were thus the momentous results of Mr Fitton's keenness.

He continued to serve with Captain Keppel until 1784, as Midshipman of HM Ships Fairy, Eolus, Fortitude and Hebe ; and had an opportunity, in consequence, of acting a part in many of the scenes connected with the American war, and of assisting in the Fortitude, as aide-de-camp to his Captain, at the relief of Gibraltar, in 1782.

In 1793 he rejoined the same officer, as Master's Mate, on board the Defiance, 74, from which ship he removed (transferred), in 1796 to the Bristol, Lieutenant Commander Silly. He had not been long, however, in the latter vessel before he was appointed Purser of the Stork sloop, Captain Richard Harrison Pearson ; on board of which vessel, during the great mutiny at the Nore, it was his fortune to be greatly instrumental to the preservation of order.

On his arrival in the West Indies, Mr Fitton, with a single boat, destroyed a privateer which the Stork had driven ashore. He was afterwards sent as Master of a prize, with four hands to assist in the navigation of her, to Jamaica, and on his passage, although detained but a short period, was taken captive by Le Télémaque French privateer.

On resigning his appointment of Purser of the Stork, for the sake of obtaining more active employment, Mr Fitton, who had passed the examination necessary to indicate his fitness for the receipt of a commission, and had more than once had charge of a watch, was immediately nominated, 11th January 1799, Acting Lieutenant of the Abergavenny, 54, † and allowed from that period until 1802, to command her tenders, on the Jamaica station ; where, in the Ferret schooner, of 6 x 3 pounders and 45 men, he fought a gallant action of an hour with a Spanish privateers, of 14 x 6 pounders and 100 men ; and where, in September, 1800, previously to witnessing the surrender of Curaçoa, he distinguished himself by his activity and spirited conduct on many other occasions, particularly in an attack made by him, in the Active, a schooner mounting 8 x 12 pounder carronades, with a crew of about 45 men, on five or six French Piscadero, near the harbour of Amsterdam. An account of this can be read in the Gazette of 1800, page 1331.

On 11th of September, 1800, Lieutenant Fitton was also involved, with the British 12-pounder 36-gun frigate Néréide, Captain Frederick Watkins, whilst cruising off the port of Amsterdam, island of Curaçoa, as described by William James]

On 23 January 1801, being on a cruise of the Spanish main, Mr Fitton, then in command of a small worn-out feluccas, carrying 1 long 12-pounder on a traversing carriage, and 44 men, fell in with the Spanish garda-costa Santa Maria als Forano, of 6 long 6 pounders, 10 swivels and 60 men ; which vessel, having suffered herself to be driven on shore on the island of Varus, was boarded and carried through the irresistible heroism of Mr Fitton, who, with his sword in his mouth, followed by the greater part of his crew similarly armed, plunged into the sea and swam to her. Here more fully described, again, by William James:

During his command of the Active we find him on one occasion expending the sum of £80, out of his own private resources for the purpose of procuring intelligence which enabled him to capture four vessels in the gulf of Venezuela ; of all the profit resulting from which he was ousted through the machinations of a prize-agent.

Notwithstanding the valiant exploits we have recorded, Mr. Fitton was sent home at the peace without either promotion or reward.

On his return to Jamaica at the recommencement of hostilities, he was appointed, again with the rank of Acting-Lieutenant, to the command of the Gipsy schooner, of 10 guns and 45 men, tender to the flag-ship, the Hercule.

Viewing the success of Captain Watkins at Curacoa in September, 1800, * without apparently taking into consideration, or attaching the proper weight to, the circumstances out of which it arose, namely the occupation of the whole west part of the island by a French republican force of six or seven times the strength of the Dutch garrison, Rear-admiral Sir John Thomas Duckworth the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, flattered himself that he had only to send up a line-of-battle ship or two, and the inhabitants would again surrender the island to the arms of his Britannic majesty.

Nor was the rear-admiral the only British officer who had taken such an idea into his head, grounded upon the same partial view of the previous surrender. When, in the middle of the year 1803, intelligence of the declaration of war against Holland reached Port-Royal, Jamaica, the 10-gun schooner Gipsy, Acting-lieutenant Michael Fitton, was despatched to Curacoa, to warn any British cruisers that might be lying there, of what had taken place, in order that they might provide for their safety. Arriving in the harbour of St.-Ann, the Gipsy found at anchor there the 18-gun ship-sloop Surinam, Captain Robert Tucker. To this officer, in as secret a manner as he could, Lieutenant Fitton communicated the intelligence, and advised him immediately to get under way. " No," says Captain Tucker, " I'll summon the fiscal to surrender the island to me. " In vain did the lieutenant represent the folly of such a proceeding ; in vain did he point to the numerous batteries around the harbour : Captain Tucker went on shore, and made his proposal in form. The Dutch authorities had received no official account of the war ; but they took the captain's word, and not only his word, but his sword, and his ship, and all that were on board of her. Knowing well what would happen, Lieutenant Fitton, in the mean time, had weighed and stood out ; and the Gipsy was soon chased off the port by two armed vessels of superior force, which, in consequence of Captain Tucker's imprudence, had been despatched in pursuit of her.

During the operations of 1804 against Curaçoa, being the only officer in the squadron who had ever been at the island before, he was assigned a number of tasks: firstly he was required the honour of directing its movements. He also joined in the attack upon Fort Piscadero, and upon the enemy being driven out he landed with a detachment under Commodore Bligh, taking with him the Gipsy's guns, which were dragged up a hill, and mounted in battery in a position to annoy the town of Amsterdam. I'll leave William James to tell the story of what took place here.

The united testimony borne by all the Captains of the squadron to the zeal and judgment displayed by Mr. Fitton, who in the end was sent with despatches to the Commander-in-Chief, led at length to his confirmation in the rank of Lieutenant, 9 March, 1804.

Pursuing his gallant career with the same ardour and success, he attacked, on 21 June 1805, off Cape Antonio, and destroyed one of five pursuing privateers ; and on 26 October 1806, having in the mean while removed to the Pitt, ‡ of 12 guns and 54 men, he effected the capture, after an arduous chase of 67 hours, interspersed with several close and spirited actions, in the course of which the British had 8 men wounded, of La Superbe, of 14 guns and 94 men, one of the most formidable privateers that had for a long time infested the commerce of the West Indies.

Although the "zeal and perseverance, the very gallant conduct, and superior professional abilities," again displayed by Lieutenant Fitton on this occasion, were officially reported by the Commander-in-Chief, (Vide Gazetteer, 1806, page 1680.) he was nevertheless - after having further captured Le Fon Fon [aka Fou Fou] privateer, of 1 gun and 43 men, and a Spanish armed schooner, the Abija - superseded, "not," as observed by Mr James in his 'Naval History,' "to be promoted to the rank of Commander, but to be turned adrift as an unemployed Lieutenant." All he got was the thanks of the Admiralty, and a sword from the Patriotic Society valued at £50.

Unsuccessful in his exertions to procure an appointment, he remained on half-pay for nearly four years, at the expiration of which period he was at first, 15 April, 1811, and next, 16 February, 1812, invested with the command of the Archer and Cracker gun-brigs, on the Channel and Baltic stations.

In the latter vessel he was much employed in convoying ; and on one occasion he succeeded, through a train of singular manoeuvres, in alone conducting a most valuable and numerous charge safe through the Little Belt. In one instance, too, he was the means, during a violent gale, of snatching from destruction the crew of a prize belonging to the Hamadryad frigate ; and, in another, he obtained salvage for rescuing, and conducting into the Downs, an American ship that had got upon a shoal near North Yarmouth, and was in a state of great distress.

Being again put out of commission in 1815, the Lieutenant failed in his solicitations for further employment until 22 February 1831, when he was appointed to the Ordinary at Plymouth, to which he continued attached during the usual period of three years. He was admitted into Greenwich Hospital 20 April, 1834.

During the term of his servitude in the West Indies, Lieutenant Fitton had the good fortune to capture upwards of 40 sail of vessels, many of them privateers - but with little benefit to himself, from the circumstances of his having been so long in command of a tender, and only sharing in consequence with the officers on board the flag-ship.††

His only surviving son, Frederick - the eldest having died in the West Indies, while serving with his father as a passed Clerk - holds an appointment in the Merchant Seamen's office ; and his youngest daughter is married to the only son of Sir Richard Dobson, M.D., F.R.S., Inspector of Hospitals and Fleets. Agents - Messrs. Halford and Co.

The Navy List for 20 December 1848 shows Lieutenant Fitton to be a resident of Greenwich Hospital. His name has disappeared from the Navy List for 1860.

†   While on the Abergavenny's books Mr Fitton was twice severely injured ; the first time, during a violent tornado, when he fell down the hatchway upon a bundle of iron-hoops, fracturing his left knee, and dreadfully lacerating his face ; and on the second, during an action with a privateer, on which occasion a gun, having snapped its breechings, fell upon him and smashed his right ankle. Although the latter accident occurred to him in the execution of his duty, he never received the slightest compensation.

‡   In the purchase of this vessel into the service Mr Fitton appears to have himself expended the sum of £400. He had also contributed with his prize-money to the purchase of all the Abergavenny's tenders.

††   In the United Service Journal for February, 1835, our readers will find, written by Lieutenant Fitton himself, an account of the extraordinary manner in which, through the instrumentality of a shark, he effected the condemnation, in 1799, of an enemy's vessel provided with false papers, and professing to be neutral.

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