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Biography: John Bythesea VC

JOHN BYTHESEA VC

John Bythesea was born at Freshford in Somerset on 15th June 1827. He had four brothers, all of them older than him, and these brothers had served in the Army. John broke with family tradition by joining the Navy as a Volunteer First Class in 1841.

On 12 June 1849, he was promoted to Lieutenant and in the following year, was serving on HMS Arrogant. This ship was recommissioned in September 1852 and Bythesea re-joined her. The ship was part of the fleet under Admiral Charles Napier's command in the Baltic during the Crimean War. There was a problem in getting enough men to man the ships and eventually, Napier was able to recruit foreign nationals from Stockholm for the ships.

On 7th August 1854, Captain Hastings Yelverton, commanding HMS Arrogant, visited Admiral Napier and it was mentioned that important dispatches from the Russian Tsar were being dropped off at Waldo Island for delivery to Bomarsand and it would be useful for them to be intercepted if anyone had the enterprise to do so.

Bythesea asked around the crew of the Arrogant to see if anyone could speak Swedish and found that one of the stokers could. His background, however, is shrouded in mystery. Although he was gazetted as William Johnstone, there was no-one of this name on the ship's muster list at the time of these events. There was a Leading Stoker John Johnstone who was born in Hanover in Germany serving on the ship at this time. It is possible that his name was really Johanssen but had been anglicised by the ship's clerk and that this is really this man that teamed up with Bythesea.

Bythesea then approached Captain Yelverton for permission for himself and Johnstone to land and intercept the dispatches. Yelverton expressed his concern that it would be better for a larger party to undertake such an expedition but after persuasion, agreed with Bythesea that this would attract more attention than just two men.

On August 9th, the two men rowed ashore and landed in a remote bay on the island. They found a small farm nearby whose owner had recently lost horses to the Russians and was eager to help the two men in their quest against them. He told them that the Russians, considering the dispatches to be so important, had made a great effort to repair a long stretch of road to ensure their safe and speedy delivery. While they waited for the dispatches to land on the island, the two men remained at the farm, learning their way around the local area and succeeded in evading a Russian search party by dressing as local peasants, assisted by the farmer's family.

On the 12th August, they were informed that the dispatches were due to arrive shortly and the two men hid along the roadside awaiting the arrival of the dispatches. The Russians had only provided a military escort to a certain point of the route, and once they had turned back, leaving only the five couriers to carry the dispatches, Bythesea and Johnstone jumped out and challenged them with pistols. Two of the couriers instantly dropped their dispatch bags and ran into the night. The remaining three surrendered as they thought that the two men before them were part of a much larger surrounding force. They were taken back to the boat in which they had recently arrived, narrowly avoiding a Russian patrol who were looking out for the couriers, and the Russians were then forced to row the two British crew back to HMS Arrogant.

Bythesea and Johnstone were among the first published winners of the newly instituted Victoria Cross, being gazetted on 24 February 1857. Bythesea attended the ceremonial presentation by the Queen but Johnstone was serving overseas and was presented his medal abroad.

Bythesea continued in the Navy and after the exploit on Waldo Island was appointed Lieutenant in Charge of the 3 gun ship HMS Locust. He was promoted Commander in May 1856. Two years later, he was appointed as Captain of HMS Cruizer, serving on the SE American station, but joined the operations against China in 1859-60. He was promoted to Captain on 15th May 1861 and was a member of the commission looking into Canadian defences. He was later appointed to a sloop, HMS Archer, but was invalided home in 1864. After recovery, he was the Naval Attache in Washington and his next sea-going appointment was in HMS Phoebe from May 1867, serving with the Flying Squadron sailing round the world under the command of Admiral Sir Geoffrey Hornby. The ship was paid off in 1870 and Bythesea took up his next appointment in the battleship HMS Lord Clyde. Unfortunately, this was to be his last sea-going command. The ship was not easy to handle and tended to be prone to accidents. In March 1872, the ship went to aid a paddle steamer that had run aground on the island of Pantelleria, west of Malta. While doing so, the Lord Clyde also ran aground and had to be towed off by her sister ship, HMS Lord Warden. Bythesea and the Navigating Officer were court-martialled, which resulted in them both being severely reprimanded, dismissed from their ship and neither of them were to be employed at sea again.

In 1874, aged 47, he married Fanny Prior and was appointed as Consulting Naval Officer to the Indian Government. He remained in this position for six years, during which time, the Indian Navy was restructured. Following this, Bythesea retired on 5th August 1877. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral on the retirement list. In 1878, he was awarded the Companion of the Bath and Companion of the Indian Empire.

He lived in South Kensington during his retirement and died at home on 18 May 1906. He was buried in Bath Abbey cemetery on the 23rd May. A guard of honour, made up of Petty Officers from HMS Victory, was mounted at the funeral. He died childless and his widow died in August 1926. A memorial to the Bythesea brothers was erected in the church at Freshford.

© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2005
The information contained in this INFORMATION SHEET is correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for a bibliography of further reading materials, if available.

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