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Life and Career of Nova Scotian Provo Wallis, Admiral of the Fleet

Life and Career of Nova Scotian Provo Wallis, Admiral of the Fleet

Life and Career of Nova Scotian Provo Wallis, Admiral of the Fleet

By Nicholas James Kaizer

Lieutenant Provo Wallis, At the Time of His Victorious Entry Into Halifax Harbour, ca. 1800-1880, Davey Fitzner.

(Library and Archives Canada)

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo William Parry Wallis is perhaps the longest-ever serving officer in British naval history. His was a career as distinguished as it was long-running. By his late-nineties he was a household name, known throughout the navy and the country for his role in the War of 1812. On 1st June, Wallis was a lieutenant on HMS Shannon, which captured the American frigate USS Chesapeake in a brief but fierce action, the first such British victory at sea in the War of 1812. Wallis, whose captain had been grievously wounded in the battle, brought his ship and her prize into Halifax, which erupted into jubilant celebration at the British victory. All the more remarkable, as Wallis had been born in that same city, 22 years before, the son of a clerk at the Halifax Dockyard. This event propelled the young Nova Scotian into a naval career that spanned nearly a century. He reached the prestigious rank Admiral of the Fleet, the highest in the Royal Navy, and throughout his senior years he refused to enter into retirement, remaining officially in the British Navy until his death, just short of his 101st birthday.

Early Career

Wallis was born in a proudly British Halifax. The still-young city was then the home of the Royal Navy’s North American Squadron, which just a decade previously had escorted thousands of loyalists from the former American colonies into Nova Scotia. The new residents brought their British loyalty and patriotism to the growing Halifax community, and throughout the Napoleonic period the Navy remained the focal point of Halifax’s social, economic, and political life. As the historian Beamish Murdoch later recalled, young boys like himself in Halifax had looked to the navy with awe, and many aspired to join the service.[1] With good reason; during the French Revolutionary Wars of the 1790s, the British Royal Navy had established itself as the foremost naval power in the world. and the navy was becoming increasingly attractive as a career route.

Wallis’ father was the chief clerk under the Dockyard’s Commissioner, who used his humble influence with the Naval community in Halifax to have his son entered into the muster books of HMS Oiseau as an able seaman in 1795. There his official naval career began, despite the minor inconvenience of Wallis being just four years old.[2]

This was, in fact, a common practice in the Royal Navy at the time. Naval Captains frequently entered the sons of their friends or relatives into their ships books as a favour, even when they were too young to join (and so, they never did). This imaginary service was useful for young boys hoping to become an officer; officially they could rack-up some of the sea-service necessary to qualify as an apprentice officer, while remaining ashore with their families.[3] It wasn’t until 1804 that Wallis actually went on board a naval ship for the first time, a small frigate named Cleopatra, which was assigned to the North American Squadron to protect British and Nova Scotian shipping against French raids.[4]

Not long after joining Cleopatra, Wallis found himself in the heat of action; the small frigate engaged a much larger French frigate in a fierce cannonade, and after two and a half hours the British crew was overwhelmed and defeated. Wallis, with the rest of his shipmates, were taken prisoner, but just a week later another British ship came to their rescue.[5]

Following the young Haligonian’s seasoning in battle, Wallis moved from ship to ship, gaining experience and confidence as a sailor and as an officer, reaching the rank of lieutenant in 1808, just four years after he had first gone to sea. His early service took him throughout the western Atlantic, from the northern waters of Nova Scotia to the sunny Caribbean Sea. He survived defeat in battle, imprisonment, and shipwreck, all by the age 18. Even for the more privileged officers, life in the wartime Royal Navy was fraught with danger and uncertainty.[6]

As a profession, there were many advantages to serving as a naval officer. For those of humble birth like Wallis – who was not only the son of a clerk, but a colonial one at that – it was one of the few ways to ascend the social ladder in early 19th Century Britain. By becoming a lieutenant, Wallis became a gentleman.[7] But life as a lieutenant was costly. Messing with his fellow officers in the Wardroom necessitated contributing money to expensive food and drink, yet pay was infrequent when at sea, and even then, salaries had not kept up with inflation throughout the previous century.[8]

Promotion, too, was risky. Lieutenants in the Royal Navy aspired to command their own ships, but by 1810 it was common knowledge that there were twice as many commanders and captains as there were ships for them to command. Many ended their careers without a command, ashore on half-pay, in obscurity. With such a shortage of posts, competition for promotion and appointments was fierce.[9] Wallis, whose colonial family carried little weight in London, could not count on family influence to propel his career; advancement would only come from a great victory in the heat of battle. He had participated in several actions in the Caribbean, but as a junior officer little word of his contribution reached the navy’s leaders. It was by a stroke of luck that in 1812 he was assigned to the frigate HMS Shannon, commanded by Captain Philip Broke.

Wallis Joins Shannon and the War of 1812

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Capt. Sir P.V. Broke, Bart. R.N, London (England), Greatbach, William. (Library and Archives Canada)

 

Captain Broke was an unassuming man: he rarely wore the elaborate naval uniforms of the time, preferring a simple frock coat and top hat, indeed dressing less elaborately than his own officers. Even with his sword, the red-haired Broke did not quite look the part of a naval officer. Shannon, too, would have looked shabby and even a little dirty when compared with most ships in the fleet. As Wallis quickly discovered, however, the shabby appearance of Shannon and her captain disguised a brutal efficiency. Broke was a master at naval gunnery, and had drilled his men to perfection in the quick and accurate use of the ship’s great guns. Unusually for the time, he approached gunnery as a scientist and an innovator, but much to Broke’s dismay he had never had the chance to test his ship, crew, and training regime in battle. With the outbreak of war with the United States he, Wallis, and their fellow officers all hoped their chance would finally come.[10]

The previous year in the war had been dull, as enemy shipping had slowly been swept from the seas. There was little to fight in North America, until the United States declared war. Indeed, Broke’s desire of war with America was expressed in his prolific correspondence with his beloved wife, Louisa, back in England. In 1811, he lamented that due to America’s neutrality in the conflict her merchant ships were not fair prizes.[11] By early 1812 he was more hopeful that a war may indeed break out, and he wrote that: ‘the American government will make war if they dare, and are trying to persuade their people that the Prince Regent is a personal enemy of theirs,’[12] though admitted that in the event of such a conflict ‘‘our services will be brilliant for a short while and then there will be nothing but blockade and I may as well go home.’[13] No one, not the least Broke and his officers, expected the American navy to pose much of a long term threat.

After the outbreak of the war, Broke set out in Shannon with nearly all of the available Royal Navy ships in Halifax in search of the United States Navy, most of which was reportedly operating together under Commodore John Rodgers. They were eager for battle, hoping for a chance to engage the small enemy navy before it too was chased from the Atlantic. After weeks of searching, however, Broke never found Rodgers. By August, the squadron was broken up, and each ship went on its separate way, but still the chance at battle with the enemy eluded Broke and Wallis on board Shannon.[14] They encountered one enemy frigate, USS Essex, which fled (mistaking a captured merchant ship following Shannon as a second warship), which so frustrated Broke and his crew that they then set the captured merchant vessel on fire “out of spite.”[15]

Things went from bad to worse, however, when Shannon returned to Halifax, where they found the town in a state of shock and disbelief. The British frigate HMS Guerriere, which had sailed with Shannon before Broke’s squadron was dispersed, had been defeated and burned by the USS Constitution, a heavy American frigate. The British and Haligonians were shocked and outraged, but the situation only deteriorated as two more British frigates were defeated by Constitution and one of her sister ships, USS United States. It was a humiliating loss for the Royal Navy, and one that Broke and Wallis vowed to avenge.[16]

HMS Guerriere’s defeat at the hands of the USS Constitution shocked the British world to its core in 1812. Artist: Elizabeth Tsitrin, https://bluenautilusart.com/

Shannon-Chesapeake

In early 1813, Shannon was sent with a small squadron to blockade the important American port of Boston, one of the principal American naval bases. Inside the port were two frigates, including USS President, commanded by the same John Roberts who had eluded Broke last year. Still hoping for a chance to even the score, Broke sent his heavy ships away and challenged Rodgers to a two-on-two fight. This violated his orders to blockade the American port and to avoid battle with the heavy American frigates, which had already defeated three of Britain’s. But Rodgers did not take the bait, and took advantage of an evening of foggy weather to escape. With only two British ships on station to watch the wide opening of the bay, Rodgers easily evaded Broke, and went on to run amuck throughout the Atlantic, even daring to cruise in British waters. The British Admiralty, alarmed that President had escaped, began to ask questions as to how this failure had happened. The careers and reputations of Broke, Wallis, and their fellow officers were at stake. Remarkably, though, Broke was trying the same trick again.[17]

A month following President’s escape, another American frigate was ready to sail; USS Chesapeake. This time, Broke sent away the remaining frigate from the blockade, and challenged the Chesapeake to a one-on-one fight with his HMS Shannon. A letter inviting the American captain to fight this bizarre naval duel was sent ashore with a local fisherman to deliver, but the letter never arrived, as the Chesapeake’s captain James Lawrence had already weighed anchor to engage the lone British frigate remaining off Boston.[18]

As the ships closed, Wallis took command of the guns of the quarterdeck, from which the ship was steered and commanded. As the men prepared for battle, Wallis stopped the ship’s gunner, and gave him a pocket watch, asking him to bring it to his father in Halifax, should he fall in action.[19] There he and his gun crews waited, ready and silent, as the two ships closed. At 5:50 p.m., Wallis ordered his guns to open fire, and the two ships erupted in noise and smoke as the great guns smashed away at each other. The cannonade was quick but brutal, as the metal shot ripped apart the wooden hulls of each ship, filling the air with thick smoke, deadly iron shot, and massive flying splinters. But the American crew suffered most, as Shannon’s gun crews were brutally efficient. Just ten minutes after the start of the action Broke led a boarding party onto Chesapeake, quickly driving the American crew from her decks, and Shannon’s second in command, Lieutenant Watt, hauled down the American flag, before lifting up a British ensign to hoist above the American colour, a universal sign of a prize taken.[20] Watt, it was reported, always laid a spare ensign over the capstan before action, in case it was needed.[21]

Wallis remained in command of Shannon, ready to intervene if the tide of battle turned against them, and to his alarm one of his crewmen spotted someone on Chesapeake starting to re-hoist the American flag. In actuality, this was Watt and his men; in the confusion, they had mistook the similarly coloured cloth of the American ensign for the British, and briefly began to hoist it above. To the Shannons on the quarterdeck, this looked like American sailors had retaken the Chesapeake. Wallis himself only realized what was happening at the last moment, as one of the great guns fired, and to his horror his friend and comrade Watt was cut down by his own guns.[22]

Wallis’ rise through the ranks after the war and subsequent service

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake Into Halifax Harbour. Schletky, J.C., King, R.H., Haghe, L. (Library and Archives Canada)

 

When the smoke cleared, Wallis found himself in command of both ships, as Broke had been grievously wounded in his moment of triumph. Both frigates were badly damaged, crowded with the dead and wounded, and the surviving Shannons had to keep some two-hundred American prisoners under guard. It was a staggering degree of responsibility for a man barely-turned twenty-two. Normally, the return voyage would have only taken a day, but so damaged and short on hands were the two frigates that the voyage took nearly a week. Wallis, exhausted and so concerned about the safety of the two ships under his command, scarcely slept or even changed his clothes until he reached Halifax, the morning of June 6th.[23] It was a Sunday morning, and as the two ships entered the harbour much of the town flocked from their Church services to cheer the British frigate and her prize. The town erupted into jubilant celebrations, which quickly infected the public mood back in Britain.[24]

Wallis was promoted to commander of a small sloop of war, and continued in command through the rest of the war. When the war ended, Wallis went ashore, along with a staggering 90% of all British naval officers, all on half-pay and without a job.[25] This wave of unemployment persisted well into the Victorian era, and disproportionately impacted those officers of humble birth, like Wallis.[26] Still, Wallis was later promoted further to Captain, and in 1824 given command of a small frigate, HMS Nieman. Over the next two decades he commanded several warships in the Mediterranean, before being appointed a naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria herself, and finally, in 1851, to Rear Admiral, later serving as the commander-in-chief of the Royal Navy squadron in the South Atlantic. There the Nova Scotian took command of the effort to supress the Brazilian slave trade. It wasn’t until he reached the age of seventy that he returned to shore for good.[27]

Wallis’ “retirement”

By this time, the Royal Navy had changed beyond all recognition from the one Wallis joined in 1791. Wood and sail were quickly giving way to iron and steam. The great sea battles had halted, and another would not be fought until the twentieth century. An era had ended, yet Wallis remained for decades more in semi-retirement, watching his navy and his world change. While his sea-going service had ended, Wallis never actually retired. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the British Navy decided to allow all captains from the Napoleonic Wars to remain on the active list, and so continue to draw full salaries as long as they wished. It had been intended to help older captains in retirement, but young Wallis’ brief command of Shannon at age twenty-two meant he qualified. He continued to climb the ranks of the Navy, in 1860 receiving a knighthood and in 1875 became the most senior admiral in the navy, earning the ceremonial but prestigious rank ‘Admiral of the Fleet.’[28]

By this time, he was approaching ninety. He frequently entertained visitors at his home in England, including many young naval officers eager to speak to the bearded naval hero from the time of Nelson before Wallis, himself now a relic of a bygone era. Wallis remained in good health even by his late nineties, and his remaining in the active officer list was holding up promotion places for dozens of officers below him. The admiralty urged him to voluntarily retire, warning that he was liable to be called to service until he did so. But Wallis refused, informing the Admiralty that he would be happy to do so, stating that while he had no experience sailing the navy’s new steam-powered battleships, he was willing to learn.[29]

Wallis passed away just before his 101st birthday, the oldest individual to hold his rank in the Royal Navy. His funeral was marked by a full display of Royal Navy honours, and well-wishers on both sides of the Atlantic paid their respects, including the Queen herself. Canada remembered the Halifax-native, and today the main street of Halifax’s Naval Dockyard, home of the Royal Canadian Navy’s Atlantic Fleet, is named in his honour. A fitting tribute, as it was in that same dockyard that his father had secured a naval career for his young boy.

Author’s Biography

Nicholas Kaizer is a teacher, writer, and historian in Halifax, Nova Scotia, author of Revenge in the Name of Honour, wherein he details the single ship actions that so shocked the Anglo-Canadian world in the War of 1812. He has dedicated his career to teaching history and science, in a world that sorely needs an understanding of both. https://nicholasjkaizer.ca/

Bibliography:

ADM 196/37/1310, Provo Wallis, Officer Service Record, Great Britain, National Archives, London

Bibbins, Martin, ‘A gunnery zealot: Broke’s scientific contribution to naval warfare’, in Tim Voelcker (ed.), Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Barnsley: Seaworth Publishing, 2013.

Bibbins, Martin, ‘The battle’, in Tim Voelcker (ed.), Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Barnsley: Seaworth Publishing, 2013.

Brighton, J. G. Admiral of the Fleet: Sir Provo W.P. Wallis, C.C.B., Etc.: a Memoir. London: Hutchinson, 1892.

Blatchly, John “Broke – His Youth and Education,” in Tim Voelcker, editor, Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Seaworth Publishing, Barnsley, 2013.

Ellis, James H. A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812. United States: Algora Publishing, 2009.

Gwyn, Julian, Frigates and Foremasts: The North American squadron in Nova Scotia Waters, 1745–1815. Toronto and Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003.

Kaizer, Nicholas James. Professionalism and the Fighting Spirit of the Royal Navy: Rules, Regulations, and Traditions that made the British Royal Navy an Effective Fighting Force during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815. Honours Thesis, Acadia University, 2015.

Kaizer, Nicholas James. Revenge in the Name of Honour: The Royal Navy’s Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812. Warwick: Helion & Company, 2020.

McCranie, Kevin D., Utmost Gallantry: The US and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011.

Murdoch, Beamish, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie, Vol. 3. Halifax: J. Barnes, 1867.

Nicholson, Adam, Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero. London, New York, Toronto, and Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2005.

Suffolk Records Office (SRO), HA 93/9/81, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 27 October 1811.

Suffolk Records Office (SRO), HA 93/9/82, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 3 November 1811.

Suffolk Records Office (SRO), HA 93/9/92, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 19 January 1812.

Suffolk Records Office (SRO), HA 93/9/111, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 30 August 1812.

“To the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 1809.” In Nicholas Tracy, The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War, Vol. II. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998.

Wareham, Tom. “The Duration of Frigate Command During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic  Wars,” The Mariner’s Mirror 86, no. 4, 2000.

Wareham, Tom. The Star Captains: Frigate Command in the Napoleonic Wars. London: Chatham Publishing, 2001.

Wilson, Evan, “Social Background and Promotion Prospects in the Royal Navy, 1775-1815.” English Historical Review CXXXI, no. 550. 2016.

Wilcox, Martin, ‘“These peaceable times are the devil”: Royal Navy officers in the post-war slump, 1815–1825’, The International Journal of Maritime History, 26:3. 2014.

Voelcker, Tim, ‘Victories or distractions’, in Tim Voelcker (ed.) Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Barnsley: Seaworth Publishing, 2013.

 

References:

[1] Murdoch, Beamish, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie, Vol. 3. Halifax: J. Barnes, 1867. p. 351; Kaizer, Nicholas James. Revenge in the Name of Honour: The Royal Navy’s Quest for Vengeance in the Single Ship Actions of the War of 1812. Warwick: Helion & Company, 2020, pp. 92-93

[2] Brighton, J. G. Admiral of the Fleet: Sir Provo W.P. Wallis, C.C.B., Etc.: a Memoir. London: Hutchinson, 1892, pp. 1-5

[3] Ellis, James H. A Ruinous and Unhappy War: New England and the War of 1812. United States: Algora Publishing, 2009. pp. 127-148.

[4] Brighton, pp. 5-7

[5] Brighton, pp. 7-11

[6] Brighton, pp. 7-12;

[7] Nicholson, Adam, Men of Honour: Trafalgar and the Making of the English Hero. London, New York, Toronto, and Sydney: Harper Perennial, 2005. pp. 102-114; Wareham, Tom. “The Duration of Frigate Command During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic  Wars,” The Mariner’s Mirror 86, no. 4, 2000. pp. 420-421; Wareham, Tom. The Star Captains: Frigate Command in the Napoleonic Wars. London: Chatham Publishing, 2001. p. 35; “To the Right Honourable the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 1809.” In Nicholas Tracy, The Naval Chronicle: The Contemporary Record of the Royal Navy at War, Vol. II. London: Chatham Publishing, 1998. pp. 355-356; Blatchly, John “Broke – His Youth and Education,” in Tim Voelcker, editor, Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Seaworth Publishing, Barnsley, 2013. p. 78

[8] Kaizer, Nicholas James. Professionalism and the Fighting Spirit of the Royal Navy: Rules, Regulations, and Traditions that made the British Royal Navy an Effective Fighting Force during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, 1793-1815. Honours Thesis, Acadia University, 2015, pp. 34-36

[9] Wilson, Evan, “Social Background and Promotion Prospects in the Royal Navy, 1775-1815.” English Historical Review CXXXI, no. 550. 2016. P. 538; Wilcox, Martin, ‘“These peaceable times are the devil”: Royal Navy officers in the post-war slump, 1815–1825’, The International Journal of Maritime History, 26:3. 2014. p. 471; Voelcker, Tim, ‘Victories or distractions’, in Tim Voelcker (ed.) Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Barnsley: Seaworth Publishing, 2013, pp. 439–442.

[10] Gwyn, Julian, Frigates and Foremasts: The North American squadron in Nova Scotia Waters, 1745–1815. Toronto and Vancouver: UBC Press, 2003, p. 143; Bibbins, Martin, ‘A gunnery zealot: Broke’s scientific contribution to naval warfare’, in Tim Voelcker (ed.), Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Barnsley: Seaworth Publishing, 2013,  pp. 103–126; Bibbins, Martin, ‘The battle’, in Tim Voelcker (ed.), Broke of the Shannon and the War of 1812. Barnsley: Seaworth Publishing, 2013,  pp. 127–128; McCranie, Kevin D., Utmost Gallantry: The US and Royal Navies at Sea in the War of 1812. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2011. pp. 150–151.

[11] Suffolk Records Office (SRO), HA 93/9/82, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 3 November 1811.

[12] SRO, HA 93/9/92, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 19 January 1812.

[13] SRO, HA 93/9/81, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 27 October 1811.

[14] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, pp. 24-35

[15] SRO, HA 93/9/111, Philip Broke to Louisa Broke, 30 August 1812.

[16] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, pp 140-142

[17] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, 158-166

[18] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, 166-174

[19] Brighton, 63

[20] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, 174-178

[21] Brighton, 71

[22] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, 177-178

[23] Brighton, 96

[24] Kaizer, Revenge in the Name of Honour, 178-183; [24] Brighton, 95-100

[25] Wilcox, p. 471

[26] Voelcker, ‘Victories or Distractions,’ pp. 439-442.

[27] Brighton, 159-167; ADM 196/37/1310, Provo Wallis, Officer Service Record, Great Britain, National Archives, London

[28] Brighton, 167; ADM 196/37/1310, Provo Wallis, Officer Service Record, Great Britain, National Archives, London

[29] Ellis, pp. 127-128