A voyage in the Nonsuch: a personal journal of a voyage in 1780

In this blog we look at a personal journal written by the Reverend William Henry Vyvyan, which details a two-week voyage off the French coast in July 1780 on board His Majesty’s ship Nonsuch (RMG reference: JOD/23).

By Gareth Bellis, Senior Manager: Archive and Library

First page of the Reverend Vyvyan’s journal (JOD/23)

Although he had previously served as its chaplain, the Reverend Vyvyan had not expected to board the Nonsuch when he arrived in Plymouth on 8 July 1780.

Having been reappointed as chaplain to the Royal George in June 1780, he was attempting to gain passage to the ship but had found it had been ordered out on a cruise by the time he had arrived at Plymouth.

His back-up plan, to gain passage on board the Ramillies, also fell through when that ship was engaged in a convoy. His frustration evident in his writing, Vyvyan was recommended as a passenger to Sir James Wallace, Captain of the Nonsuch.

Reverend Vyvyan’s first impression of Sir James Wallace was not what he may have expected:

On my getting on board the Nonsuch, I enquired for the Captain and was told that a person dressed or rather undressed in a white jacket, night cap, and flannel trousers on the Quarter Desk was Sir James Wallace – I addressed him and asked for a passage to the Royal George

Sir James, however, acts as the perfect host and Reverend Vyvyan is promptly invited to dine with the Captain. Throughout the two weeks he is on board, Vyvyan notes that he was a constant guest at the Captain’s table and was afforded ‘every possible civility’.

Reverend Vyvyan could not always take up the Captain’s invitations to his table as, in his entry for Sunday 9 July, he describes the difficulties he experiences from suffering with the ‘violent pain’ of gout.

The Captain ‘prescribes’ him some Madeira wine to ease the symptoms, which Vyvyan describes as ‘no bad medicine’ although it succeeds in only driving the pain from his stomach to his hands rendering him unable to feed himself.

Vyvyan notes:

[I] was obliged to Mr Willis of the Marines for feeding me, he having been a brother sufferer in the Gout very heartfully offered his assistance to me

During the course of the voyage, the Nonsuch had several encounters with French vessels. The most significant engagement came on Friday 14 and Saturday 15 July, which saw the burning of one ship and the capture of another. Vyvyan describes the sight of the destruction of the French brig La Légère:

The fore mast fell next & then the bow sprit, when the Deck & cabin was one continued body of fire – the flames issuing out of the ports form an awful appearance & the pillars of smoke added horror to the picture which I had a fine opportunity of viewing at an advantage from the Stern Gallery

Description of the burning of La Légère (JOD/23)

The Nonsuch engages the French frigate La Belle Poule. During the course of the exchange of fire, twenty-four of the crew of La Belle Poule are killed, with forty-five wounded. Vyvyan recounts some of the horrific injuries sustained on board the French vessel. The Nonsuch also suffers casualties, which Vyvyan encounters first-hand. During the exchange Vyvyan, although a passenger, assists the ship’s surgeon:

When the surgeon had prepared his dressings & I told him tho lame in my hands I would endeavour to assist him as much as was in my power

He helps tend to a crewmember who had broken his leg the previous day when letting down the anchor, but his attention is distracted by a ‘dangerously wounded’ man who is brought below:

the manner of the body brought down was extraordinary as he appeared quite naked & covered with blood but how was I shocked upon a nearer view to see my poor friend Willis Lieutenant of Marines (who had nursed me in the Gout) to every appearance dead & covered with wounds

The sight of his injured friend is particularly shocking to Vyvyan but, fortunately, Lieutenant Willis is not dead. His injuries are serious, however, as he has suffered a number of skull fractures.

Vyvyan reports that La Belle Poule surrenders after ‘two hours brave, tho foolhardy, resistance’.

The ship is taken as a prize and the officers are captured. Vyvyan notes that the prisoners are well-treated and records Sir James’s instruction to his officers that, as their French counterparts had done their duty, their captivity should be as easy as possible. It appears the prisoners were well-fed as Vyvyan wryly states:

[I] have been told that the French are temperate & never drink yet I perceived that if they did not drink much after dinner they make up for it at dinner

La Belle Poule was added to the Royal Navy and was in service until being sold in September 1801.

The Nonsuch is becalmed in the Bay of Biscay from 18–25 July and eventually returns to England. Having taken passage on the ship with a view to joining the Royal George, Vyvyan only succeeds in ending back where he started. He states, however, that he has ‘no reason to regret my voyage’ as it afforded him sight of France and a first-hand experience of combat.

The Nonsuch itself was ordered in November 1769 and commissioned in April 1776. It was a 4-gun Third Rate, two-decker of the Intrepid class. The vessel cost in the region of £36,000 to build and fit out. The vessel was refitted as a guard ship in 1776 at the cost of £3052 15s. 3d.

The ship was further repaired and refitted at Chatham in the first months of 1780 for £10,339 12s. 7d. before the appointment of Sir James Wallace as Captain. Captain William Truscott succeeded Sir James Wallace as Captain on the Nonsuch in September 1781. The vessel became a floating battery at Hull in 1795 and was eventually broken up at Sheerness in June 1802.

This information is taken from Rif Winfield’s book British Warships in the Age of Sail, 1714–1792 published in 2007 (RMG reference: PBH0553).

This book, and others in the same series, are an extremely helpful resource for researching the construction and careers of Royal Navy vessels. The events of July 1780, including the capture of La Belle Poule and the destruction of La Légère are recorded in the vessel’s service history but the account by William Vyvyan provides a fascinating first-hand impression of the experience of the engagements.

The National Maritime Museum’s collection of Admiralty ship plans includes plans of the Nonsuch and fellow members of the Intrepid class. An example of the plans can be seen on our Collections site (RMG reference: ZAZ1472).