Chapter 2: WILLIAM BALCOMBE – Years at Sea

William Balcombe spent quite a few of his early years at sea with both the Royal Navy (RN) and the Honourable East India Company (HEIC). For much of his childhood England had been at war, first the American War of Independence which started in 1775 and three years later the French and Spanish joined the American Colonies. With the recognition of American independence peace came to the North Atlantic in 1783.

By the turn of the century British shipping numbered 20,893 registered vessels as trade expanded across the world.[1] However the reign of George III saw the French revolution break out in 1789 and there was war between Britain and France from 1793-1802. With the expansion of Napoleon Bonaparte came an end to the short months of peace as from 18 May 1803 the Napoleonic war commenced.[2]

There is no William Balcomb(e)/Baulcomb(e)/Bawcomb listed in the “Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815” started by Admiralty librarian David Bonner Smith. [3] However if he joined as a young Midshipman, and some were as young as 8 or 9 years old, he is unlikely to appear on any lists as ‘Middies’ were not thought of as officers even though in reality they were considered young gentlemen and ‘officers in training’. Their treatment was different from other ratings and they were expected to learn extra skills such as navigation. [4] The Midshipman had some status and it was not unusual for seamen, and even lesser inferior officers old enough to be their fathers, to face a court martial for striking a Midshipman. [5]

Balcombe was born in December 1777 and  appears to have joined the Royal Navy in 1789 aged about 10. He sailed on HMS Phoenix (a 36-gun, a Perseverance class fifth-rate frigate [6]) to the West Indies for 10 months under Captain Sir Richard Strachan [7] where he served 2½ years as a Midshipman.[8] He could have been in battle on HMS Phoenix: in November 1791 several RN ships were off Tellicherry, a fort south of Bangalore. Phoenix was ordered to stop and search the Resolue, a French frigate which was escorting a number of merchant ships that the British believed were carrying military supplies to support Tippu Sultan. Résolue resisted Phoenix and a brief fight followed before Résolue  “struck her colours” (surrendered). Résolue had 25 men killed and 40 wounded; Phoenix had six men killed and 11 wounded. The French ship had no contraband and was considered a British ‘prize’, was towed to Mahe and then returned to the French Commodore. Phoenix arrived back in England in August 1793.[9]

In August 1795 it seems that William Balcombe had moved to another ship as he appeared as the Clerk to Captain Sotheron at a Court Martial hearing. Frank Sotheron had only taken over command of the ship in June when Romney became the flag ship of Vice-Admiral Sir James Wallace in Newfoundland waters. [10] Several seamen were accused of desertion from HMS Romney and a Court Martial was held on 26 August 1795 on board HMS Assistance, then at anchor in the harbour of St John’s, Newfoundland. William Perkins, Henry Perkins and Thomas Rutherford were three of the prisoners. The Muster Book produced by William Balcombe showed that the prisoners had ‘run’ on the 14th or 20th July… in other words they had each missed three consecutive musters and were deemed to have become runaways or deserted from the ship. All were found guilty and sentenced to 80 lashes with the cat o’ nine tails on their bare backs.[11] One can only wonder what would have been the effect of viewing such a punishment on  young William who would have been about 17 years old.

Being stationed in St John’s, Newfoundland could also have had a major impact on the young Balcombe’s ambitions for the future. St John’s developed into the oldest city in North America,[12] but in those early days it was a colony based on trading. There was a triangular trade, with many merchant ships bringing manufactured goods, fishing equipment, clothing and food in from England and Ireland, taking the locally caught dried, salted fish to sell in Portugal and Spain, and purchasing goods there to take and sell back in Britain. Balcombe may well have picked up some ideas about trading from the ‘Newfie’ inhabitants like those of the family of George Gaden and his wife Emma Thistle.[13]

Captain George Gaden was in charge of a 70 person militia to protect St John’s from the French and was bound to entertain the visiting naval officers – without doubt the British fleet would be welcomed by the inhabitants of the town who lived with the constant worry of French invasion. It is intriguing to think a connection was made between the families of William Balcombe and George Gaden at this time. A hundred and twenty or so years later a marriage in Sydney NSW finally connected these two families forever when George’s great-great grandson married William’s great granddaughter.[14]

As well as protecting ships trading with America, HMS ships routinely escorted convoys of Indiamen to and from St Helena, India and China. [15] Maybe this is where Balcombe saw even greater opportunities for profit by switching to ships of the Honourable East India Company.

Phoenix was a name used by both the RN and the HEIC and it appears that Balcombe sailed on two ships of that name, one with the Navy and one with the HEIC. Over the years the RN has had sixteen ships and two shore establishments with the name [16] and six ships called Phoenix were listed with HEIC from 1670 to 1820, doing over twenty trips to India and China under the auspices of the Company.

When around 18 years of age William Balcombe appears to have moved from the Royal Navy to become 5th mate from 1796 on HEIC ship Phoenix (3) with a tonnage of 800.[17] When Balcombe joined the Company it had a monopoly on trade to India (until 1813) and China (until 1834).[18] No doubt young William would have been pleased to be taken on by an HEIC ship, he would have the right to a ‘privilege’ so could hope to make more money than his weekly wages. Each member of the crew was allowed some space on the ship to carry goods outwards to trade, and bring goods homewards to sell for a profit. The size of this space, this privilege, depended on rank, for example the ship’s Surgeon was allowed 6 tons outward to China and 4 tons 32 feet for the return journey. [19] It was a way of making some very good money. [20]

In the course of two or three voyages a ship’s Captain collected his pay and the right to transport 50 tons of freight free of charge outwards and bring 20 tons back. He could make a big profit if he were a good businessman, anything from £2000 to £12000. However he had earned his ‘right’, a Captain had to have plenty of experience as he worked his way up through the ranks, a First Mate had to be at least aged 23 and a Captain at least 25 years old and spent time as a Chief or Second mate. [21] For example Luke Dodds was Third Officer for HEIC ship Royal Charlotte in 1795-6 before switching to Walmer Castle as First Officer from April 1799 to April 1801 a position he retained for a second voyage from February 1802 to April 1803 and a third voyage from February 1804 to September 1805. He was then promoted to Captain for two trips in 1806-7 and 1808-9.[22] (During the second trip as Captain he caused a major problem for William Balcombe, by then settled on St Helena, when he brought out a passenger, Balcombe’s niece, Lucia Green.[23])

Careful choice of ‘dunnage’ by the Captain was also important. This is the material used to pack cargo and prevent it rolling about in the ship’s hold. Free bamboo or rattan supplied by the Eastern merchants made good prices in Europe for furniture making, and it was the Captain who collected that little bonus![24]

Every Indiamen had from four to eight officers who wore fine blue uniforms faced with black velvet, and gilt buttons with cockaded hats.[25] A handsome man, young William would have looked most smart in his uniform and now he would hope to learn how to trade and how to make his fortune, ideas germinated in the waters off Newfoundland and the Atlantic Ocean. That worthwhile trading profits could be made was indicated by the value of goods transported. For example in 1804 a fleet of sixteen East Indiamen left Canton, China, laden with eight million pounds worth of silk, tea and porcelain. A famous battle with a French squadron ensued in the Straits of Malacca, but the merchant fleet, under the expert guidance of Commander Nathaniel Dance, reached London with little loss. The company appropriated £50,000 as reward for the officers and men of the sixteen ships. [26] What value would that be in today’s money?

From 1796 William Balcombe was Fifth Mate for 1 year 2 months and Fourth Mate for 1 year 7 months with Captain Wemys Orrok on the HEIC ship Phoenix, a ship of 800 tons. They left Portsmouth 11 August 1796, and by 18 November were at the Cape. They sailed to Kedgeree by 4 March 1797 and made Diamond Harbour (Kolkata) on 4 April 1797 then to Saugor by 9 August, Penang by 24 August. They returned to Penang on 12 October, then Madras 11 Dec 1797, Kedgeree by 25 January 1798, Saugor by 5 April, the Cape 14 Sept, St Helena 3 November 1798, Downs 3 Feb 1799. This was a long trip away from England. [27]

It appears that William was promoted on this trip, he was not listed in the officers when the ship sailed, but Fourth Mate James Masson was promoted to Third, perhaps when something happened to Third Mate John Gillon allowing Balcombe to be promoted to Fourth Mate.[28] Thus he was part of the officers to receive a bonus when the Phoenix became involved with the Manila expedition, when the fleet was to sail against the Spanish colony at the Philippines. However before they left India they received word that Spain and France had become allies, Bonaparte had landed in Egypt with 30,000 Frenchmen and it was though that India may have been his target. In addition Austria and Prussia signed a peace treaty with France and a mutiny on board some Royal Navy ships added fuel to the concerns. [29]

On 9 April 1800 the Court of the East India Company were “pleased to approve the recommendation of this Committee (Committee of Private Trade) of 22nd January last in favour of several commanders employed on the expedition against Manilla and the Governor General in Council having also written in very favourable terms of the zeal and good conduct of the officers in general of the ships so employed, your committee further recommends that £300 be given to the officers of each of the ships Lord Camden, Busbridge and Minerva and £250 to the officers of each of the ships Lord Macartney, Lord Hawkesbury, Sir Stephen Lushington, Phoenix and General Goddard and that same shall be divided amongst them as follows viz [30]


Mr. James Halliburton,           Chief Mate                   £64: 2: 1.

            John Mackintosh                     2nd                                £51: 5: 8.

            James Masson                         3rd                                £44: 7: 5.

            William Balcombe                   4th                                £32: 1: 0.

            Alexander Burn                       Surgeon’s mate           £32: 1: 0.

            John Thompson                       Purser                         £25:12:10.      


William then transferred to Earl Spencer (2) a smaller ship of 644 tons. There were three different ships called Earl Spencer from 1785 – 1799 which between them did eight HEIC voyages.[31]

When William Balcombe was appointed Third Officer on the Earl Spencer, to Captain Raitt

he maketh oath and saith that he has heard from his relations and friends and which relation he believes to be true, that he was born at Rottingdean in the county of Sussex on 25th December in the year of our Lord 1777. Sworn before me this 21 April 1800 H.C. Comley, Mayor. [32]

He sailed with the ship as Third Mate just a few weeks later. [33] On the ship’s second voyage to Bengal [34] they left Portsmouth on 28 June 1800 and sailed to Kedgeree, Saugor, St Helena and returned home 1 November 1800. [35]

Balcombe was promoted to Second Officer and sailed with the ship for the 1802-1803 season. [36] They sailed from Portsmouth on 30 June 1803 to Rio de Janeiro which they left on 16 September then on to Diamond Harbour [37] in Kolkata (Calcutta) on the Hooghly River.[38]

It was here in India that Second Officer William Balcombe, now aged 27,  and Captain Charles Raitt were to have a major disagreement. On Sunday 1 January 1804, en route from England to Bengal, the Captain reported that

“At 9 PM called all hands out and suspended Mr. Balcombe, 2nd Officer, for mutinous conduct towards his commander on the quarter deck, likewise for neglect of duty and disobedience of orders. For particulars see Hon. Comp’s log book, this being too small to contain the charges specifically. At ½ past 5 AM made signal and sent Mr. Young, 4th Officer on board the Grampu and Russell, with a letter to each, acquainting them of Mr. Balcombe’s conduct and desiring an investigation of the transaction. Latitude obs 5° 46 south.” [39]

The incident took place on New Year’s Day and perhaps too much celebratory rum had been consumed the night before!

The family story was that William, quick tempered and impulsive, had a disagreement with his superior officer on Earl Spencer when he refused to order a man to be flogged because he thought the punishment unjust.

On Monday 2 January 1804 Captain Raitt reported that

At 1 PM came on board Captains Williams and Caulfield and gave notice to Mr. Balcombe through Mr. Evatt, chief mate, that he must prepare himself to be tried by a naval court martial as soon as possible, or an Admiralty one, and to have his witnesses ready.”

The next day

At 10 AM came on board a boat from HM Ship “Grampus” for the charges against Mr. Balcombe, 2nd Officer. Ditto sent them under care 1st Lieut Mr. Greaves & requesting by letter that the deposition of the witnesses may be taken as soon as possible and acted upon accordingly“.

On 24 February 1804, at Diamond Harbour, William Balcombe was “released” on Captain Raitt’s orders, probably from the cells on the ship, as it was another month before he discharged from his position. [40] On 26 March 1804 both William Balcombe, Second Officer, and Humphrey Evatt, Chief Officer, were ‘removed’ from the ship by order of the Governor General in Council as indicated in the pay book for Earl Spencer. Did Evatt, as witness to the events, support Balcombe’s story? Is that why he was also ‘removed’ from the ship?

So William Balcombe was ‘removed’ from the ship for mutinous conduct. He lost his rank, he lost his job and he could have lost his life and been hung. But supposedly under the influence of the Prince Regent (or his secretary Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt), rather than be cashiered Balcombe was allowed to resign his commission.[41] However it was most unlikely for information about the court martial to have arrived in England and a return letter received from the Royal personage in just one month. Did the officers conducting the Court Martial in fact agree with Balcombe’s actions but know he could no longer serve under Captain Raitt which was why he and Evatt had to leave the ship?

Whatever the reason, Balcombe would have lost his ‘privileges’ and would have to pay for his own ticket to return to England; he would have to drive his own bargain with the captain of another ship and it could cost him from £200 to £1000.[42] As a paying passenger he may have been able to take some baggage, the quantity dependent on the fare, so a cheaper ticket (e.g. for a subaltern) would allow 1½ tons with a more expensive ticket (for a General) allowing 3½ tons. [43] William indicated on 30 April 1805 that he had received £29:16:10d for his services on Earl Spencer’s third voyage.

There is an additional note penned by William Balcombe advising that

Mr. Humphrey Evatt, late Chief Mate, Earl Spencer died in Calcutta on 19th day of May 1804 at the house of Messrs Williams & Kohler, signed William Balcombe, London 4 July 1805.

In between his long sea journeys William Balcombe had married Jane Byng on 26 July 1799. Jane was a widow; her first husband was John Byng, whom she had married on 27 November 1790 at Saint Mary, St Mary-le-Bone in London. She was then a minor; she was born in 1772, so the marriage was with the consent of her father Francis who was witness along with James Elder. [44] Her husband died whilst serving in the Duke of York’s army. The London Chronicle of 11 April 1794 reported his death

On the 1st inst died at Tournay after a days illness, John Byng, surgeon, in the Army with HRH the Duke of York.

According to the St Marylebone Marriage register, Jane Byng remarried in the same church, to William Balcombe five years her junior, in 1799. Witnesses were her sister Elizabeth Green and William Ward. Jane was fifth child of Francis Green and his wife Isabella Williams. She had three older brothers, George (born 1766), Francis (born 1767) and William (born 1770) and two sisters, Lucia (born 1768) and a younger sister Elizabeth (born 1778) all born Westerham, Kent.[45]

Sister Lucia married Thomas Hornsby of Chipping Ongar, Essex at the same church on 23 December 1788. Also a minor, the witnesses were her father Francis Green, Catherine Cranston, John Bird and her oldest brother George Green. Thomas Hornsby remained in London and became part of the procurement team for Balcombe’s subsequent business on St Helena.

Sister Elizabeth and her husband Teavil Leason of South Cave, Yorkshire would subsequently join Jane and William in their business on St Helena. [46] It did not prove to be a happy time for them.

Before heading to the island William and Jane Balcombe had two daughters, Jane born in 1800 [47] and Lucia Elizabeth (Betsy) in 1802.

What would Jane have thought about their new overseas venture? Perhaps she was sick of Georgian London and ready for adventure with her husband. With the development of new technology in both agriculture and industry many people were moving away from country areas to live in towns and cities. Already crowded areas, they could not cope with the influx. The towns had lack of clean drinking water and poor sanitary conditions. This combination led to frequent outbreaks of diseases like typhoid and cholera in slums with filthy streets where the contents of the chamber pot were emptied into malodorous open drains.[48] St Helena could have been seen as a pleasant change from such problems.

At this time young William Balcombe would have been anxious to establish himself in society, he had Sir Thomas Tyrwhitt to guide him. There was a widening gulf between rich and poor but the ties of class were lessening and self interest and business arrangements were changing society. Inherited wealth was no longer a guarantee of success, the future demanded men who could stand on their own without relying on such legacies, [49] men who could adapt to the changes in society, men who were flexible and worked hard. The potential wealth generated by industry and new trade with the growing British Empire would have made for exciting times.

No doubt Balcombe, after his voyages on the Indiamen had seen beckoning the golden opportunities for trade. The South Atlantic Island of St Helena was a meeting place for ships going to and from England, the whalers going down to the Southern oceans, the Indiamen to trade in the East, especially India and China, and the Royal Navy escort ships. A thousand ships a year called into the island, [50] ships which all required replenishment with food and water, ships which carried sailors and passengers eager to enjoy a few days ashore with the delights the island had to offer and all carrying goods to be traded.

The lure of such prospects was too strong; William Balcombe was determined to become a merchant on St Helena.


Link to next chapter

© Caroline Gaden

[1] Duncan Haws, Merchant Fleets: Thos and Jno Brocklebank, Travel Creatours Ltd, 1994, pp. 1-2.

[2] Plantagenet Somerset Fry, Kings and Queens of England and Scotland, Dorling Kindersley, 1999, p.78.

[3] David Bonner Smith, The Commissioned sea officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815, Volume 1, A-F, Greenwich, National Maritime Museum, 1954.

[4] Samantha A Cavell, Playing at command: midshipmen and quarterdeck boys in the Royal Navy, 1793-1815, A Thesis Submitted to the Graduate Faculty of the Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Arts in The Department of History, May 2006.

[5] Douglas Hay and Nicholas Rogers, Eighteenth Century English Society, Oxford University Press, 1997, p.22.

[6] <;

[7] Lachlan and Elizabeth Macquarie Archive <;

[8] Hardy, Biography of East India Company Marine Service Officer 1600-1834 and Farrington, Anthony, A biographical index of East India Company maritime service officers 1600-1834, London, The British Library, 1999, p.37.



[11] John D Byrn, Naval Courts Martial 1793-1815, Navy Records Society, 2009, page 35, from ADM 1/5333.

[12] Newfoundland and Labrador, Travel Guide 1998, p.3.

[13] Handcock, W Gordon, So longe as there comes noe women, origins of English settlement in Newfoundland, Breakwater Books, 1989, p 43. and Gaden family tree compiled by Caroline Gaden.

[14] Caroline Gaden research showing Vera Lydia Balcombe married Edward Noel Gaden on 14 September 1916.

[15] Miller, Russell, The East Indiamen, part of The Seafarers series, Time-Life Books, Amsterdam, 1980, p. 153.


[17] Farrington, Ship’s Logs, pp. 504-506.

[18] Duncan Haws, Merchant Fleets: Thos and Jno Brocklebank, Sussex, UK, Travel Creatours Ltd, 1994, p.3

[19] Hardy, Biography of East India Company Marine Service Officer, 1600-1834, p 119.

[20] Miller, Russell, The East Indiamen, pp. 80-84.

[21] Bellasis, Margaret, Honourable Company, p. 87.

[22] Farrington, Ship’s Logs, p. 575 and Hardy, pp 181, 196, 216, 232, 252, 267.

[23] Gaden, Caroline, Balcombe family research.

[24] Miller, Russell, The East Indiamen, p. 84

[25] Bellasis, Margaret, Honourable Company, p. 87.

[26] Miller, The East Indiamen, pp. 155-158.

[27] Farrington, Anthony, Catalogue of East India Company Ship’s Journals and Logs, p. 505.

[28] Hardy, Charles, A register of ships employed in the service of the Honourable, the united East India Company, 1760-1810, p.204 and p.229.

[29]Bloy, Marjorie <; and

Total War Centre-Wellington <;

[30] The Asiatic Annual Register, Volume 7 for the year 1805, by Lawrence Dundas Campbell Esq. p. 59, Google books

[31] Farrington, Ship’s Logs, p.213. Ships of EIC listed on web site

[32] EIC Navy (L/MAR/C/699) (No 762 reverse, 1010 on front)

[33] Hardy’s Register of Ships, p. 204. .

[34] Hardy’s Register of Ships, p. 204.

[35] Farrington, Ship’s Logs, p. 213.

[36] Farrington, EIC Officers, p.37. and Hardy’s Register of Ships, p. 229.

[37] Farrington, Ship’s logs, p. 213.


[39]Bombay Navy Sources at India Office, Ships Journals and logs 1702-1834, Earl Spencer log 25 April 1803 to 16 April 1805. (L/MAR/B?227D)

[40] Bombay Navy sources, India Office Ship’s Journal (L/MAR/B/227D) Earl Spencer 25 April 1803-16 April 1805.

[41] Dame Mabel Brookes, St Helena Story, Heinemann 1960, p 5

[42] Miller, The East Indiamen, p. 122.

[43] Bellasis, Margaret, Honourable Company, p. 87.

[44] Information from the registrar of St Marylebone church in a letter to the author.

[45] International Genealogical Index and Rootsweb Genealogy mailing lists.

[46] Crowther JE and PA, The diary of Robert Sharp of South Cave, life in a Yorkshire village, pp. 581-582.

[47] IGI Batch number C035244

[48] John Guy, Georgian Life, Ticktock Publishing, London, 1997, pp. 2-23.

[49] Norton Smith and Co, Norton Smith and Co, 1818-198, Sydney, Norton Smith and Co, 1988, p. 9.

[50] St Helena Chronology at and <; and personal communication from St Helena archives