Royal Naval Museum




Biography: John Jervis


Born 9 January 1735 at Meaford, Staffordshire. He was educated at Burton on Trent Grammar School and subsequently at a private school in Greenwich, to which the family moved in 1747 when his father was appointed Solicitor to the Admiralty and Treasurer to Greenwich Hospital. He joined the navy on 4 January 1748 as an Able Seaman on HMS Gloucester, a 4th rate 50 gun ship going to Jamaica. He was moved to HMS Severn on June 25 1754 as a Midshipman. He returned to England after joining HMS Sphinx on 30 June 1754. He spent a month in HMS Seaford followed by a month in the yacht, Mary and completed his six years qualifying service for Lieutenant. He was promoted to this rank after passing his examination on 22 January 1755. He was appointed in this rank to HMS Royal George on 19 February 1755, but was moved in March to HMS Nottingham, with which he went out to the North American station under Admiral Edward Boscowen. In March 1756, we was appointed to HMS Devonshire, followed by HMS Prince on 22 June, which was leaving for the Mediterranean.

In October 1756, he was moved to HMS Culloden under Rear-Admiral Charles Saunders, under whose patronage he was to benefit from in the next few years. During January 1757, he briefly joined HMS Experiment while her Captain was ill. In March, he commanded the ship in a severe but indecisive engagement with a French privateer off Cape Gata. He returned to HMS Culloden, but followed Saunders when he was transferred to HMS St George. Jervis was appointed to HMS Foudroyant in May 1758, a captured French prize, and he was charged with taking her back to England. On his return to England, he joined HMS Neptune and rejoined Saunders at the North American station, where Saunders had been made Commander in Chief. Jervis was promoted to Commander on 15 May 1759 and appointed to HMS Scorpion where a vacancy had occurred. However, before be able to join his ship, he was appointed as acting Commander to HMS Porcupine, and took part in the expedition to Quebec, leading the advanced squadron in charge of the transports. On his ship, he carried General James Wolfe, who was impressed by Jervis’ command and entrusted him with what was to become his last message home. When Jervis eventually joined HMS Scorpion, he was charged with returning to England with dispatches from Quebec. His return was brief; on arrival, he was immediately ordered back to the station with important letters for General Amherst. However, before leaving British waters, HMS Scorpion sprung a leak and Jervis had to bring her into Plymouth. He was then directed to take another ship, HMS Albany and finally departed on 13 January 1760. He arrived later in February and, by May was crossing the Atlantic once more for home.

Once back in England, he joined the Channel Fleet under Rear-Admiral Rodney until the October, when he joined HMS Gosport and was promoted to the rank of Captain. The ship was employed in the North Sea until May 1762, when it was ordered to escort a convoy heading for North America. On May 11, the ship fell in with and repelled a French squadron, under de Ternay, which was on its way to capture Newfoundland. Jervis rejoined the North American station in September and the ship took part in operations that recovered the captured Newfoundland from the French. After this, HMS Gosport returned to England and was paid off in the Spring of 1763.

Jervis was not in active service again until February 1769, when he was appointed to HMS Alarm - possibly the first copper-sheathed frigate in the Navy. He sailed for the Mediterranean in May and arrived in Genoa on 7 September. On 30 March 1770, while sailing around Marseilles in a violent gale, the ship was driven on to the rocks, but after a strenuous effort, she was finally freed and repaired. The Admiralty were greatly pleased by Jervis’ actions in this matter. From 1771 to May 1772, the ship became the “home” of the Duke of Gloucester, who was spending time in the Mediterranean because of ill health. She returned to England for paying off, after which, Jervis spent some time travelling through France and studying the language. In 1774, he took passage on a merchant ship to Krondstadt, annotating and correcting the pilotage chart and studying the Russian navy. On his return, he visited Sweden and Holland, studying the methods in both their navies.

Jervis returned to active service with an appointment to HMS Kent in June 1755, but in September, he was appointed to command the ship which he brought back to England as a prize, HMS Foudroyant. She was employed mainly as a guardship in Plymouth, but was attached to Admiral Augustus Keppel’s fleet in 1778 and involved in the action off Ushant on 27 July. Jervis was a witness at the subsequent court-martial of Admiral Keppel, due to a dispute between Keppel and his second in command, Admiral Hugh Palliser. The evidence provided by Jervis was so strongly in Keppel’s favour, that it was influential in acquitting the Admiral of all charges against him. HMS Foudroyant remained with the Channel Fleet and was involved in the reliefs at Gibraltar in 1780 and 1781.

On April 17 1782, the ship gave chase to a French squadron, and captured one of the largest ship, the Pegase, during which Jervis received a minor wound. His achievement in this action was rewarded with a knighthood. One of the deciding factors in the action had been the order and discipline of the English ship’s crew, a feature that Jervis was noted for in the future. After a few more actions, including another relief of Gibraltar, this time under Lord Howe in 1782, and a skirmish off Cape Spartel, the fleet returned to England, where the Foudroyant was paid off. On his return home, Jervis married his cousin Martha, the daughter of Sir Thomas Parker.

Jervis was elected MP for Launceston in January 1883 and served until 1884, when, in the general election, he stood for and was elected MP for Great Yarmouth. He seldom spoke except on naval matters, and during this period he was promoted to Rear-Admiral on 24 September 1787, and spent a few weeks at sea on board HMS Carnatic. He spent another few weeks at sea during 1790 on board HMS Prince while the Spanish were rearming. Later in the year, he was returned to Parliament as MP for Chipping Wycombe.

In February 1793, he attained the rank of Vice-Admiral and was appointed in the autumn to Commander in Chief West Indies. He hoisted his flag in HMS Boyne and reached the station in January 1794, During the next few months, the British combined forces captured Guadaloupe and Martinique. However, Jervis was suffering from ill health and was permitted to return to England in November. On his return he was promoted to Admiral on 1 July 1795. Once he had recovered sufficiently, he was appointed Commander in Chief of the Mediterranean fleet, which he joined at Corsica in the November. He began to introduce a new system of discipline which was to have a decisive influence in future engagements. The port of Toulon was being blockaded and the French fleet were kept in port, until the forced neutrality of Naples, when Jervis found that, with the addition of the Spanish fleet, the British had greatly inferior numbers, without a friendly port. In September 1796, Jervis was ordered to evacuate Corsica, the only port the British had access to, and withdraw from the Mediterranean; this was completed by November, when the fleet took up station in the Tagus.

Jervis realised that it was vital to keep the combined fleet from leaving the Mediterranean, so took up station in his flagship HMS Victory off Cape St Vincent in early February 1797. On the 14th, 27 ships of the combined fleet were sighted - a much larger number than the British. The fleets engaged just after noon, with the British fleet passing through the Spanish line, splitting them up and cutting off a third of their number. Assisted by an independent action by Captain Nelson, which allowed the leading British ships to keep in touch with the Spanish, the battle was won with the capture of four Spanish ships, the rest escaping in disorder. On receiving the news in England, a vote of thanks was passed in the House of Commons, a pension settled on him, he was given the freedom of the City of London and was granted an earldom from the King. His earldom took the name from the battle he had just won. Following the battle, Jervis continued to blockade Cadiz, although rumblings of discontent, stirred by news of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore, were firmly suppressed. The strain of these actions were taking their toll on Jervis’ health and temper; during this period, he quarreled with his second in command, Sir John Orde, who asked for a formal court-martial charges against the Admiral for being oppressively cruel. The Admiralty refused a court-martial but wrote to Jervis in terms of strong disapproval of his conduct. Jervis’ rigid maintenance of discipline was becoming unpopular and, after Nelson’s battle at Aboukir Bay, he ordered the ships to be refitted at Gibraltar rather than return to England in order to keep the blockade strength which was not welcomed. Finally, Jervis’ health began to fail and he was forced to resign his command in June 1799.

Back in England, he spent most of his time at his home in Rochetts, Essex, where he had acquired property. When news of his return to health was known, Sir John Orde, their issued a challenge to him over quarrel in the Mediterranean. The challenge became public knowledge and both parties were bound over to keep the peace, and Jervis was formally ordered not to accept by the Admiralty.

Although his health continued to be a problem, the Admiralty were anxious for Jervis to return to active service as Commander in Chief Channel Fleet, to which he finally agreed in Spring 1800. Again, he introduced his system of discipline into the Fleet; this meant that certain privileges previously enjoyed by the officers were curtailed, which made him unpopular with the officers, but the benefits were apparent in routine, organisation, health and efficiency within the fleet itself.

In Spring 1801, Jervis accepted the appointment of First Lord of the Admiralty and went about improving the administration in the same way as he had done in the fleet. This lead to a Royal Commission of Enquiry into irregularities within the Navy Board who were responsible for maintaining the dockyards and supply. This revealed widespread corruption at the highest level and Lord Melville, formerly treasurer of the Navy and previously First Lord was impeached. This made Jervis extremely unpopular in political circles, especially those who had vested interest in the Navy Board activities. In May 1804, the current government fell and Jervis was obliged to retire from his post. However, when Prime Minister, Mr Pitt, a known political enemy of Jervis, died, Jervis was once more asked to command the fleet and became acting Admiral of the Fleet. He took up his post off Ushant in 1806. During the winter, he requested special permission to stay on shore since his health was once more failing. The government changed again in March 1807 and Jervis requested to be relieved and this was granted on 24 April 1807. This was his last active service and he went into retirement.

In the intervening years, he occasionally spoke on naval matters in the House of Lords, making his last appearance in 1810. He spent most of his retirement in Rochetts. His wife died in February 1816, leaving no children. His health continued to deteriorate despite taking up residence for the winter of 1818-19 in the south of France. On the accession of George IV (formerly Prince Regent), Jervis was confirmed in rank of Admiral of the Fleet on 19 July 1821. He died on March 14, 1823 at Rochetts. He had requested that he was buried at Stone in Staffordshire and a memorial was erected in St Paul’s Cathedral. The earldom became extinct as he died without heirs, but his sister’s son succeeded to the Viscountcy (Edward Jervis Ricketts) and changed his name to Jervis.

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© Royal Naval Museum Library, 2004
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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