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Captain Henry Duncan RN 1735  - 1814

'From the Journals of Henry Duncan'

by J.K. Laughton



Of Henry Duncan, the writer of the following journals little is known beyond the incidents of his professional career. He was born in Dundee Scotland 24th Jan. 1735  to Alexander Duncan, Town Clerk of Dundee and Isobel Crawford. His great, great, grandfather was Alexander Duncan of Seaside & Lundie 1652 - 1696, Provost of Dundee, making Henry a second cousin to Admiral Adam Duncan, Viscount Camperdown.

He began his sea life in the merchant service - possibly in that of the East India Company, with many others of his name - but entered the Navy on 10th May, 1755, as an able seaman on board the Nassau, commanded by Captain George Cokburne, in the Western Squadron. A few months later Cokburne was suspended by James Sayer, who early in the following year rated Duncan a midshipman. In the summer of 1756 the Nassau went out to the Mediterranean, one of a small squadron sent to reinforce Admiral Byng, whom it did not meet till his return to  Gibraltar after  the  action off  Minorca. In 1757  the Nassau,


Captain Henry Duncan Royal Navy


Captain Henry Duncan Royal Navy

still commanded by Sayer, was one of the fleet with Vice-Admiral Holburne at Halifax and off Louisbourg.  In the following February Duncan joined the Newark, commanded by William Holburne, the admiral's brother, which in the summer of 1758 was one of the fleet off Brest under Lord Anson. On 3rd January, 1759, he passed his examination for lieutenant; and on 23rd March, the ship being at Plymouth, Holbourne, who was senior officer there, gave him an acting order as third lieutenant of the America, then on the point of sailing for the Mediterranean. At Gibraltar she found the squadron under Vice-Admiral Brodrick, who promptly relieved Duncan by promoting one of his own midshipmen into the vacancy; and - as a small compensation - took Duncan into his flagship, the 90-gun ship Prince, as a midshipman. In the Prince, Duncan remained during the summer, and in her witnessed, rather than took part in, the celebrated action of 18th August; though on the 19th the ship rendered useful service in securing the prizes. On the 20th, Duncan was transferred to Boscawen's flagship, the Namur, where he was rated a.b.; but on her return to England he was promoted - 21st September, 1759- to be lieutenant of the Barfleur, employed during the following year as a guardship.

HMS Nassau  

HMS Nassau


In December, 1760, he was appointed to the Hampton Court, and took part, in the spring of 1761, in the reduction of Belle Isle. As winter approached he seems to have got leave, sufficient at any rate to go to Dartmouth, where, in St. Saviour's Church, on 27th November, he married Mary French (1). But, still in the Hampton Court, he went out to the West Indies in 1762, had his share in the capture of Havana, where he served, apparently, in the batteries on shore, and in October was moved to the Temeraire, one of the ships which remained at Jamaica with Keppel. At the peace the Temeraire was paid off, and Duncan spent the next six years on shore on half-pay. At this time he seems to have settled down at Dartmouth. That his married life was happy appears from numerous incidental remarks in the journal. Two children are registered as having been born at this time - Isabella, baptized 23rd August, 1764, and Arthur French, baptized 9th February, 1769,(1) Another son, Henry, whose name suggests that he was the elder, was probably born away from home. He entered the Navy as his father's servant in 1781; and in 1802 was commander of the Scout, when she was lost, with all on  board, off the coast  of  Newfoundland.

His death was not yet known on 29th April, 1802, when he was included in the large peace promotion to post rank.

On 26th May, 1768, Duncan was promoted to commander, and in September, 1769, he was appointed to the Wasp, sloop, which he commanded on the home station for the next three years. Then followed another spell of half-pay, till on 7th February, 1776, he was promoted to the rank of captain. One important influence his marriage had on his career in the service. It seems probable that Miss French had brought him an easy fortune, so as to make it unnecessary for him to be at sea in time of peace; but it may be taken as certain that she had him such interest as insured him a choice of service when the proper time arrived. From 1757 and on till 1782, Lord Howe was member of Parliament for Dartmouth, and the influence of Duncan's connections had to be recognised. When, in January, 1776, Howe was appointed to the command in North America, it had probably been long agreed that Duncan should go with him as flag captain; so he was posted, as has been said, and appointed to the Eagle. His career for the next six or seven years is fully related in the following pages, which give an account of the work of the  Navy  during the very troublesome  operations of 1776-8, with  a wealth of

detail which is not to be found elsewhere. This is the really important part of the journals, though the cruise of the Medea in 1781 is interesting; and Duncan's position as flag captain in 1782 gives a peculiar value to his account of the relief of Gibraltar and the encounter off Cape Spartel. On the 5th December, 1782, Duncan was discharged from the Victory - the note 'allowed six weeks" being added to the D. in the pay-book. It is the earliest instance that has come to my knowledge of full-pay leave granted on being discharged from a ship. On the 17th January, 1783, he was put on the half-pay list. Two months later' Howe being then first lord of the Admiralty, he was appointed commissioner at Halifax, where he went with his wife and family in the following August. On the 22nd October he wrote, notifying his arrival, and adding that, not finding any flag or senior


Relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe, 11 October 1782


Relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe, 11 October 1782

captain there, he had taken charge. This was not unusual, and was indeed very commonly ordered in set terms in the appointment as resident commissioner; though - as every one will recollect - it involved an assumption of authority which gave such great offence to Nelson at Antigua.

At Halifax Duncan remained till 1799, when he returned to England, to be appointed in the following year commissioner at Sheerness, and in January, 1801, deputy-comptroller of the Navy. This office he held till 1806, when he retired and was put on the list of superannuated captains, with a pension of 900l. a year. For the next eight years he resided at Dartmouth, where he owned a convenient residence, with stable, coach-house, &c., known as Mount Pleasant. There he died on the 7th October, 1814. His widow, who survived till the 25th September, 1823, was allowed a pension of 300l, a year; besides which she inherited, under her husband's will, Mount Pleasant and all belonging to it, together with money and an estate in Newfoundland. The will also mentions his daughter Isabella, Mrs. Troysdon, and her children; the widow of his son, the late Captain Henry Duncan; his sister, Mrs. Stevenson, and her son, Captain Stevenson, a captain of 1812. The name Arthur French Duncan does not appear in the will; it may be presumed that he died young, or, at any rate, unmarried.
The journals here printed are in five note-books (6"x4") closely filled with small and now much-faded writing in Duncan's hand. With some few exceptions, which he himself called attention to, the entries seem to have been written from day to day. The identity of the handwriting being clearly established by comparison with Duncan's official letters in the Public Record Office, the history of the little books is not of so much importance as it would otherwise be. This is fortunate, for they have no 'pedigree'. At the sale of the effects of Commander Thomas Cull, who died at Poole in 1886, they were bought by the present owner, Mr. Joseph Hall, of Hove, from whom the Society has now received permission to print them. How they came into Captain Cull's possession is not known. There may have been some family connection, or he may have bought them. But the main point is that, both by the intrinsic evidence and the identity of the handwriting, the genuineness of the journals may be considered absolutely certain. The maps are take from those in Jeffery's American Atlas, 1778.

(1) For this information, and for much trouble taken in searching the Dartmouth register, I am indebted to the kindly assistance of Mr. Hamilton Williams, of the Britannia.

The Register of Baptisms for the Parish of Dundee records Henry Duncan's baptism thus :-

1739 Jan 24 born, Jan 27 baptised Name :- Henry Parents :- Mr Alexr Duncan, clerk, Isobel Crawford Witnesses :-In commemoration of Henry Crawford late of Monorgan, grandfather, Henry Crawford of Monorgan, uncle
Alexander Duncan's baptism can be found in the Register of Baptisms for Edinburgh
10 October 1709 George Duncan, writer to the signet, and Hellen Balfour, his spouse, A.S.N. [a son named] Alexander. Witnesses John Duncan laite Baillie, James Balfour merc[han]t and Alexander Montieth chyrurgeon apothacary was born this day.
George Duncan's baptism is at Dundee, and thus establishes Alexander Duncan of Lundie as Henry Duncan's great grandfather
1683, Mar 21 Wodnsday Name :- George Parents :- Alexr Duncan of Lundie, Anna Drummond Witnesses :- George Browne, late Provost, Adam Drummond of Megginch
George Duncan's brother, Alexander Duncan, married Isobel Murray, the eldest daughter of Sir Patrick Murray of Ochtertyre. Alexander Duncan, the son of Alexander Duncan and Isobel Murray married Helen Haldane, and with Adam Duncan being issue of this marriage the relationship between Adam Duncan and Henry Duncan is confirmed as that of second cousins.

Further Articles to do with this branch of the Duncans are;
Surgeon William Duncan, Dundee 1556 - 1608
Admiral Adam Duncan, Viscount Camperdown 1731 - 1804


Copyright The Naval Miscellany, Vol. I; Journals of Henry Duncan, Captain, Royal Navy 1776-1782, J.K. Laughton some parts by John A. Duncan of Sketraw, FSA Scot. . All rights reserved.


Relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe, 11 October 1782 by Artist: Richard Paton, Crown Copyright National Maritime Museum; Ship of the line HMS NASSAU (Formerly the Danish ship HOLSTEEN). Drawing from the archives of the Royal Danish Naval Museum; image of Captain Henry Duncan, Royal Museum of Scotland.

Further information from the research of Daryl Coup BSc MSc (Physics) BA (CompSci) New Zealand


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