1 September 2009

Richard Ashmore Powell

Richard Ashmore Powell, RRA's first commander in HMS Vesuvius and clearly one of his seniors whom he most admired, was a Channel Islander like his young protegé. He was born in Guernsey on the 12th of July, 1816 (according to the Elizabeth College Register), apparently the second son of Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Walter Powell and Julia, née Lehon, of Guernsey.

The image at right comes from my own collection and shows RAP in the uniform of a Commodore, so was probably taken in British Columbia at the beginning of the Topaze commission.

RAP's father, Thomas Walter Powell (born Derynock, Breckonshire, 21 Oct 1791) had seen extensive service in the Peninsular War with the Duke of Wellington, taking part in every major action and losing an eye at Ciudad Rodrigo. Later he served with distinction in Canada, France and the West Indies. Again severely wounded, this time at Fort Erie by a bayonet and a musket ball. In 1829 he went out to serve in the East Indies, where he remained for ten years until his death from cholera at Karachi in 1839. According to John Hall (Hall, John A., A HISTORY OF THE PENINSULAR WAR, VOL VIII, THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF BRITISH OFFICERS KILLED AND WOUNDED, 1808-1814, Greenhill Books, 1998) he had married Julia Lehon in 1813 and they had five children by 1833. However, I can only find four: Richard Ashmore, plus his older brother Thomas Sidney and younger sisters Julia Catherine and Amelia.

RAP was educated at Elizabeth College, Guernsey, and the Royal Naval College, embarking from the latter 24 December, 1831. He passed his examination 8 February, 1836 and was promoted to Lieutenant 18 May, 1842, while serving in Hydra, Captain Alexander Murray, on the North America and West Indies station. When he was first in Hydra he received the Naval General Service Medal with Syria 1840 Clasp (left) for service in that campaign. On 16 March, 1843, he started his course at the Excellent Gunnery Ship at Portsmouth and on 29 June 1844 he was appointed to the Penelope, Captain William Jones, on the coast of Africa. He then suffered a year on half-pay before getting an appointment as First Lieutenant 10 April, 1847, in Styx, Captain Henry Chads, back on the coast of Africa. He returned home in 1848, just about the time RRA was starting his career in Howe in the Mediterranean.

On 12 February, 1849, he was appointed as the Lieutenant commanding Janus at Gibraltar. On 4 November, 1851, he was promoted to Commander for services against Riff pirates - an incident in which he was shot through both thighs. In February 1853 he had no ship. From 17 August of that year he was the Commander of Vesuvius until 8 March, 1855, when he was posted Captain and became an Additional Captain in Harpy, the Flagship of Rear Admiral Frederick William Grey in the Mediterranean. (By this time RRA was ashore with the Naval Brigade in the Crimea.)

Most of Richard Ashmore Powell's service in the Black Sea is naturally covered by RRA in his account, but one or two clarifications and additions are useful.

The first is a piece in Naval & Military Intelligence in The Times of 31 July, 1854:

"The following are the promotions and appointments made by Vice Admiral Dundas, consequent upon the death of Captain Hyde Parker:- Commander Stewart, of the Modeste, to be Captain of the Firebrand, vice Parker, deceased; Lieutenant Augustus Butler, second of the Britannia flagship, to be Commander of the Modeste, vice Stewart; Mate Basil S de R. Hall, of the Diamond, to be Lieutenant of the Britannia, vice Butler. Letters from the fleet complain loudly of the first of these selections. The writers very justly consider that Commander Powell, who so nobly distinguished himself in taking the stockade before which Captain Parker sacrificed his life, far more deserved the honour of promotion than Commander Stewart, whose ship (a small 18-gun sloop) has not been employed in the Black Sea fleet, but confined to movements in the peaceful waters near his father's flagship at Malta."

It will be noted that the writer of The Times piece managed to include all the relevant information to help readers correctly conclude that this was another example of Royal Naval 'interest' and cronyism - something Vice Admiral James Whitley Deans Dundas had been accused of so often it had tarnished his reputation, but actually he probably wasn't much more at fault than most of his peers.

At the Allied landings at Kalamata Bay in the Crimea, RAP was one of two beachmasters for the British under the overall control of Captain Dacres. (The other beachmaster was Leopold George Heath). RRA describes Vesuvius' work after the battle of the Alma very well, and also the early days of defending Balaklava when RAP had command of a battery manned by marines on the heights above the town and RRA was his ADC.

However there was a curious piece of reporting on page 10 of The Times on Saturday, 18 November 1854:

"Two majors of the 49th are dead - Major Dalton and Major Powell - the latter officer whose brother commands the Vesuvius, was shot through the head by a Russian rifleman."

The Times got it wrong. The unfortunate Major Powell of the 49th was actually Charles Thomas Powell, the son of John Folliot Powell (1771-1839) and Frances (née Armett), of Tempsford Hall, Bedford.

However, The Times is excused this slip because Richard Ashmore Powell's real brother, Thomas Sidney Powell, did serve through the Crimean campaign with the 57th (West Middlesex) Regiment until promoted to Lieutenant Colonel (unattached) 2 February 1855. He was killed in 1857 when in command of the 53rd (The Shropshire) Regiment near Futtehpore during an action with the Dinapore mutineers. Below is a facsimile representation of his obituary from The Times of 15 December, 1857:

RAP got his Companion of the Bath as part of the 5 July, 1855 list, and was made a Knight of the Legion of Honour and received the 4th Class of the Order of the Medjidie to go with his Crimean Medal with 'Sebastopol' Clasp and Turkish Medal entitlements.

After the Crimean War, in 1856, RAP was finally made a Knight Commander of the Order of Charles III of Spain (right) for his services against the Riff pirates five years before in Janus.

On 2 December, 1856, RAP commissioned Cornwallis at Plymouth and remained her Captain until 20 April, 1857, serving with the Coast Guard in the Humber. A little over a week later, on 1 May, 1857, he took up his next appointment as Captain of Boscowen, the Flagship of Rear Admiral Frederick William Grey on the Cape of Good Hope station. From 5 December, 1861, until 1 October, 1862, he was Captain of Defence, attached to the Channel Squadron.

From that last date RAP became the commander of Britannia, the cadet training ship, still at Portland at that time. In fact it was RAP who was responsible for the move to Dartmouth. It was during this pleasant intermission in Devon, on 11 October, 1862, that he married Mary Eveline, daughter of G. H. Skelton Esq., of Langton House, Cheltenham, at St Luke's, Cheltenham. He remained at Dartmouth until 1865 when he was relieved by an old Crimean War colleague, George Randolph. It seems RAP is remembered as one of the better of the early commanders of Britannia (see Pack, S.W.C., Captain, C.B.E., BRITANNIA AT DARTMOUTH, Alvin Redman, London, 1966.)

Hoa Hakananai'a

On 25 May, 1866, he became Captain of the steam frigate Topaze, destined for the Pacific station where on arrival he was to be confirmed as Commodore of the 2nd Class and the senior RN officer on the American coast of that ocean (see his service record, ADM/196/37). It was during this commission that he was responsible for a little bit of typical Victorian 'archaeological pilfering' when he and the crew of Topaze removed a couple of moai from Easter Island, one of them being Hoa Hakananai'a, now in the British Museum (left). The full story is on the British Museum website.

On 1 September, 1869, Topaze paid off at Plymouth at the end of her Pacific commission. RAP officially became a Retired Captain 6 July, 1871; a Retired Rear Admiral 6 April, 1873 and a Retired Vice Admiral 21 March, 1878. He became a Nautical Assessor under the terms of the "Merchant Shipping Act, 1876".

RAP and Mary Eveline had at least three daughters and one son, the latter being Major General Sidney Henry Powell (1866-1945). He served in the Royal Engineers 1884-1923, and was Colonel Commandant of Indian Signal Corps 1934-36.

Richard Ashmore Powell died at Shanklin on the Isle of Wight on Christmas Eve, 1892.

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