Shropshire History

Admiral Benbow


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Portrait of Admiral Benbow


John Benbow was born in 1653 in Shrewsbury (although Newport also claims him as one of theirs). He was the son of William and Martha Benbow and attended the free school in Shrewsbury, before becoming an apprentice waterman on the River Severn. After completing his apprenticeship, he joined the Royal Navy in 1678. Full details about his subsequent naval career are at Wikipedia. He became Master's Mate (a Master was naval warrant office or officer responsible for the navigation of a sailing vessel) aboard the 64-gun HMS Rupert and sailed with her to the Mediterranean. During this period, the English fleet was often in action against the Barbary pirates of North Africa that were actively preying upon European shipping. Benbow distinguished himself well in a number of actions against the pirates and was made Master aboard HMS Nonsuch the following year. His ship was next in action in 1681 against the Algerian warship, the Golden Horse, which surrendered. Benbow’s ship returned to England in 1681 and the men were paid off. Benbow met and married Martha and they subsequently had at least seven children. He then joined the Merchant Navy, sailing between London, Bristol, Italy and Spain.


By 1686, he was the owner and commander of a frigate named the Benbow, trading in the Levant (eastern Mediterranean). In 1687 he was in command of the Malaga Merchant when it was attacked by pirates. Benbow successfully and beat off the attack and afterwards cut off the heads of 13 pirates and then took them to Cadiz to claim a reward from the magistrates. After the Glorious Revolution in 1688, Benbow rejoined the Royal Navy and was commissioned as the Third Lieutenant of HMS Elizabeth. His first command came in 1689, when he was appointed captain of HMS York. He was later transferred to HMS Bonaventure and then to HMS Britannia. He was particularly busy in 1690, when he was appointed Master Attendant of Chatham and Deptford Dockyards, as well as being Master of HMS Sovereign. He was then appointed as Master of the Fleet and took part in the English defeat at the Battle of Beachy Head. By 1692, he was Master of the Fleet during the Battles of Barfleur and La Hogue. After the battles, Benbow returned to Deptford to resume his duties as Master Attendant, spending a brief period at Portsmouth Dockyard helping to oversee repairs to the fleet.


Benbow returned to active naval service in 1693, jointly commanding a flotilla of bomb vessels to attack Saint-Malo, Dunkirk and Calais. He then resumed to his duties at Deptford Dockyard until 1695, when he was appointed commander-in-chief of His Majesty's ships which were then off the coast of France. His squadron was highly successful, taking a number of French merchants in early April and bringing them to England as prizes. Benbow was given command of the 70-gun HMS Northumberland and was joined by his fourteen-year-old son. He took part in an unsuccessful operation against St Malo, when he was accused of excessive timidity in his actions which led to the failure of the attack. However, the Admiralty approved of Benbow's conduct and promoted him to Rear-Admiral. He was made commander-in-chief of the King's ships in the West Indies in 1698 and instructed to tackle the issue of piracy. Benbow reached Barbados in 1699 and moved against the pirates but they evaded capture. Benbow returned to England in 1700 and was appointed to the command of a fleet in the Downs (off the Kent coast). On the following year, he was promoted to Rear-Admiral of Blue and flew his flag in the 70-gun HMS Breda.


Benbow's squadron was sent to the West Indies in 1702, where he was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the White. By now, the War of the Spanish Succession had broken out and Benbow fought an unsuccessful action against the French off Hispaniola, when several of his Captains turned tail. Benbow was hit by a chain-shot that broke his leg. He ordered the English fleet to return to Jamaica and died at Kingston when his leg became infected. Benbow was very popular with the public and a monument was erected in 1843 by public subscription at St Mary's Church in Shrewsbury. A 74-gun ship of the line and two battleships were named HMS Benbow in his honour. Robert Louis Stevenson named a tavern the "Admiral Benbow", where Jim Hawkins and his mother lived, in his romantic adventure novel Treasure Island. There are a number of real life Admiral Benbow public houses around the world. In 1965, the Shrewsbury Chronicle offered a prize of 2 guineas to name the clock at the top of Shrewsbury’s market hall. The name Benbow was chosen. The incident of August 1702 also took hold on the popular imagination and was celebrated in an alehouse song :-


Come all you seamen bold
and draw near, and draw near,
Come all you seamen bold and draw near.
It's of an Admiral's fame,
O brave Benbow was his name,
How he fought all on the main,
you shall hear, you shall hear.

Brave Benbow he set sail
For to fight, for to fight
Brave Benbow he set sail for to fight.
Brave Benbow he set sail
with a fine and pleasant gale
But his captains they turn'd tail
in a fright, in a fright.

Says Kirby unto Wade:
We will run, we will run
Says Kirby unto Wade, we will run.
For I value no disgrace,
nor the losing of my place,
But the enemy I won't face,
nor his guns, nor his guns.

The Ruby and Benbow
fought the French, fought the french
The Ruby and Benbow fought the French.
They fought them up and down,
till the blood came trickling down,
Till the blood came trickling down
where they lay, where they lay.

Brave Benbow lost his legs
by chain shot, by chain shot
Brave Benbow lost his legs by chain shot.
Brave Benbow lost his legs,
And all on his stumps he begs,
Fight on my English lads,
'Tis our lot, 'tis our lot.

The surgeon dress'd his wounds,
Cries Benbow, cries Benbow
The surgeon dress'd his wounds, cries Benbow.
Let a cradle now in haste,
on the quarterdeck be placed
That the enemy I may face
'Til I die, 'Til I die.