A Naval Prize

Admiral James Young

James Young  was born in 1766 and was the son of Admiral James Young and J. Vasmer  (and the great grandson of Nathaniel Young). With family background in the Navy it is not perhaps surprising that he too entered the navy. Rising steadily, in  February 1799 he was  appointed to command of the frigate Ethalion, though it does not seem that he went in board until 24th July in that year. The Ethalion was a forty six guns frigate of 992 tons and was built in Harwich and launched in 1797. To be appointed to a purpose built modem frigate would have been the dream of any ambitious young naval officer.

 Smaller and faster than ships-of-the-line, frigates generally mounted between 28 and 44 guns on two decks, weighed anything from 500 to 850 tons and sometimes more, and carried 200-300 crewmen. Originally developed as the 'eyes' of a battle fleet on manoeuvres, they could operate as 'cruisers', patrolling trade routes, watching blockaded harbours, or functioning as long-range raiders.

 Frigates tended to get involved in a lot more fighting than bigger ships. A confrontation between battle fleets was a rarity, and often ended indecisively, but wartime actions between individual or small groups of frigates took place somewhere in the world on a weekly basis.

 Frigate commanders on all sides tended to be the boldest of the Navy's young captains and a frigate was the most highly prized first command. Often operating on his own a frigate captain with no superior officers watching over, could make his own decisions which could result in glory or equally likely death.

 At eight o'clock in the evening of the 15th October the 38 gun HMS Naiad under Captain William Pierrepoint was cruising a short distance off Cape Finnistere watching for any movement from the port of Vigo, when she encountered two small 34 gun Spanish frigates, The Santa Brigada and the Thetis,  homeward bound from Vera Cruz in Mexico, to which she at once gave chase.

 The wind was from the north-west and the two ships were running free to the south-east; when at half-past three the next morning another ship was seen to the south-west, and an exchange of night signals revealed her to be James Young  in the 38-gun Ethalion, which promptly joined in the chase. Daylight brought into sight two other British frigates, HMS Alcmene, 32, in the west and HMS Triton, 32, astern, and these too made sail after the fleeing Spaniards.

 The action was illustrative of the size and professionalism of the Royal navy. A professionalism it must be said which would have been encouraged by the prospect of prize money.

In the 16th and 17th centuries, in order to reward and encourage sailors' zeal at no cost to the Crown, it became customary to pass on all or part of the value of a captured ship and its cargo to the capturing captain for distribution to his crew. This practice was formalised by the Cruisers and Convoy Act of 1708 which was passed. 'for the better and more effectual encouragement of the Sea Service'. An Admiralty Prize Court was established to evaluate claims and condemn prizes, and the scheme of division of the money was specified.

If the prize were  a warship, and repairable, usually the Crown bought it at a fair price; additionally, the Crown added "head money" of 5 pounds per enemy sailor aboard the captured warship. Prizes were keenly sought, for the value of a captured ship was often such that a crew could make a year's pay for a few hours' fighting. Hence boarding and hand-to-hand fighting remained common long after naval cannons developed the ability to sink the enemy from afar. All ships in sight of a capture shared in the prize money, as their presence was thought to encourage the enemy to surrender without fighting until sunk. While the chances of a big payout were not high the hope must have been a major incentive for both officers and men to join the Navy.

At about seven the following morning, the Spanish divided their force to escape on diverging courses. Observing this, Pierrepoint, as Young's frigate was closest of the British ships to the Spanish, ordered James to pass the Santa Brigida and press on after the Thetis to prevent her escape. At nine o'clock Ethalion drew past the Santa Brigida, firing a few guns at her as she did so. James continued after his quarry, and by at half-past eleven Ethalion was so obviously overhauling the Thetis, that her captain Don Juan de Mendoza decided to stand and fight. He suddenly bore up and prepared to rake Ethalion from ahead. James Young promptly wore round, firing two broadsides; both ships ran on for a further hour, aiming high to cripple each others rigging, until off Cape Finistere Don Juan de Mendoza gave up and struck his colours. The Ethalion was larger and more heavily armed than the Thetis and it was an unequal fight with only one likely outcome. The Ethalion had no killed or wounded and the Thetis one killed and nine wounded.

 Meanwhile the Santa Brigida, proving the faster ship, headed for th safety of Cape Finisterre. At dawn next morning she drew near the coast and, using local knowledge, ran very close inshore. She was followed by Triton, and Alcmene. Triton struck a reef, but rode off it quickly enough not to be left behind, and with Naiad coming up astern, both the Naid and Alcmene opened fire on the Santa Brigada. Her captain Don Antonio Pillon, becalmed, outmanoeuvred and outnumbered, his ship over shallow reefs and the prospect of grounding imminent, struck his colours under the cliffs but only after  a sharp engagement.

 The Spanish then sent out four large ships from nearby Vigo to retake the prizes but on the British squadron heading to intercept them, they retreated back to port.

 Making swift passage, on the  21st and 22nd  October the four British frigates entered Plymouth with their prizes. See appendix 11 for the letter he wrote to Lord Bridport, Commander of the Channel Fleet. Neither of the Spanish frigates was considered of interest to the British navy, but their cargoes most certainly were, not least to those ships crews.  

 The Thetis was carrying a large quantity of cocoa but more importantly a huge quantity of bullion. This was made up as to 333 boxes each containing $3000, 4 boxes containing each $2385, 93 boxes each containing $4000, one box containing $4000 plus 2 doubloons and ninety half doubloons of gold. This in total came to $1,385,292, which at the Sterling equivalent came to £ 333,690

 The Santa Brigada, was carrying a similar quantity of dollars and  also indigo, cochineal, cocoa and sugar to the value of about £5,000. 

 The total value of the prize money was £652,00. This was the highest amount in the history of the Royal Navy and James share  was third largest individual ever award.

 Once in Plymouth, the vessels were unloaded on the 28th and 29th October. Sixty three artillery wagons, accompanied by horse and foot solders, seamen, marines and bands with a great concourse of cheering people, were needed to cart the booty away from the Hamaoze to the dungeons of Plymouth Citadel. Towards the end of November it was all moved to London, again under armed guard and deposited in the vaults of the Bank of England.

There was an established system of allocation of prize money. Two eighths of the prize money went to the captain, generally propelling him upwards in political and financial and social circles. One eighth of the money went to the admiral or commander and chief who signed the ship's written orders (Admiral James brother whilst Port admiral at Plymouth was accused of being particularly grasping in this regard by making sure that he personally signed all orders),  One eighth was divided among the lieutenants, sailing masters, and captains of marines. One eighth was divided among the wardroom warrant officers, standing warrant officers, and the masters mates. One eighth was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines,captains clerk, surgeons mates and midshipmen. The final two eighths were divided among the crew, with able and specialist seamen receiving larger shares than ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys.

In this case those fortunate enough to share this prize-money, received by substantial sums: seamen received £182 each, midshipmen £792, warrant officers £2,468, and lieutenants £5,091; James Young and the other captains each benefited in the sum of £40,731. A staggeringly huge amount and the richest prize of the entire war, and James and the other captains were made men. With that money an ordinary seamen  could buy a pub but for a captain  with pay of something like £170 a year, life was transformed.

This was paid out early in 1800. Prize money was handled by Prize Agents, and payment was often not prompt, sometimes taking years to be paid. This caused much frustration to captains and crews but earned the Agents large sums in interest, So James was lucky to be paid so promptly.

Excluded from this figure was anything received for the hull rigging and stores of the two ships.  For what that sum represented at the time see appendix 1.

 It would have been perfectly possible for James to have resigned his commission at that time – many officers in fact only joined the navy in the hope of winning prize money. In fact however he was to stay on and at sea for some years.

 He left the Ethalion on the 23rd November 1799. The pay book shows that he was owed £119 19 shillings (£119.90p) gross and £12 3 shillings (£12.15p ) net. It is not recorded if he bothered to collect it! He probably did for on his death he was receiving his half pay as an Admiral.

 He remained in the Mediterranean until the peace of Amiens in 1802. On his way back to England the ship stopped at Gibraltar. There, aged 36, he married Charlotte Anne Fyers, then aged only 15, the second daughter of the then Colonel, later Lieutenant General, William Fyers of the Royal Engineers, who was christened 28th May 1788 at Holy Trinity Gosport, Hants. At the time of the marriage her father was based at Gibraltar and Charlotte was known as "The Beauty of the Rock."

 His next sea appointment was on the 28th March of 1807, when he was appointed to command of the seventy four gun Valiant, which was built in 1759 as a copy of the large French seventy four, the Invincible.

 There is no evidence that he had any sea command after the Valiant. On the 3Ist March 1808 the Valiant had another commander.  This was still at the height of the Napoleonic wars and while officers could leave the service with ease it is odd that an experienced captain should leave at that time as he did not take the opportunity to  leave in 1799.

 He was appointed Rear Admiral of the Blue on June 4th 1814. This was some six weeks after the last shot was fired in the false peace that followed the defeat of the French armies in that year. A large number of rear Admiral's were appointed on that date, so clearly they were rewards at the end of a twenty years war, to officers who were not expected to be on active service again. He was promoted to Rear Admiral of the White 12th August 1814, Rear Admiral of the Red 19th July 1821 and Vice Admiral of the Blue on the 27th May 1825. This did not mean that he was still serving in the Navy. He wasn't, promotion came with age.

 Presumably he moved to his new home of Barton End, Horsley, Gloucestershire, previous homes had been rented,  which was probably bought out of his share of the prize money, when he relinquished command of the Valiant. The Horsley Land Tax Assessment for 1809 shows him living there and  from 1809 all his children were baptised at Horsley.  Barton End House is a substantial property divided into two distinct parts, a fine Georgian front half and a rambling higgledy piggledy rear half. See photograph.

 He appears to have spent the next twenty five years living as a country gentleman of leisure. In an age where domestic servants could be obtained very cheaply (see appendix 1) and tax was low, James was all set up for a very comfortable life. On tax the Assessment for Horsley for the tax year 1817-18 shows that James was by far the highest tax payer but the burden was not excessive though doubtless he complained! The records show:

 Young Admiral James

 House occupied- one with 27 windows tax £17 2s

Houses rented out -rent £30 tax £3 7s 6d

Servants -3 male tax £ II 8s

Carriages/wagons- one four wheel and one two wheel tax £19

Horses for riding tax £15 3s 6d

Other horses -none

Dogs -three tax £2 2s

Hair powder -tax £2 7s

Armorial bearings duty -£2 8s

 Anecdotally he brought up his children in luxury and in time because of his liberality and generally misplaced confidence, the money was dissipated. This was not to be unexpected for he had twelve children, all of whom lived to adulthood and of his eight daughters seven married so there must have been a considerable outlay on dowries. However an examination of his probate accounts held in the Caird Library at the NationalMaritimeMuseum shows an estate of over £90,000 and that he was still supporting his children married and unmarried and had been paying some debts of his brother William, another admiral. How much of this wealth was from the £40,000 and how much from his wife's marriage settlement or what he was left by his father is impossible to tell.  James died in 1833 and lies buried in the vault in the nearby church of Horsley.

 Appendix 1

 Estimates of the value of the money in the past vary widely for the simple reason many things that could be bought now could not be bought in the past and taxation was far lower. The National archives estimates that 340,00 in 1799 would be worth some £1,300000 now.

 A more useful indicator is what typical earnings and prices  which gives a idea of a persons relative position in society.

 Servants wages (rounded to nearest £) per annum taken from Admiral James probate account

 Butler                                                              £40

Upper Groom                                                     £20

Under Groom                                                     £12

Ladies Maid                                                       £14

Laundry Maid                                                    £12

Housemaid                                                        £8

Kitchen Maid                                                    £4

Governess                                                       £105


Taking a number of different sources and rounding the numbers  and accepting that these figures are very much averages and hide geographical and other factors we come up with the following annual incomes.

Agricultural Labourers  annual income             £30

General Labourer                                          £25

Messenger                                                   £60

Government official - high wage                     £135

Skilled shipwright                                         £52

Skilled textile worker                                   £48

Clergyman                                                   £260

Lawyer                                                       £165

Surgeon                                                      £175

Teacher                                                      £44


The main source is Liza Picard's Dr Johnson's London (Phoenix Press, 2000). The period is somewhat earlier than we are concerned with but still gives a good general indication. Note one shilling equals five pence and 240 pennies equalled £1.


Half a loaf

Supper of bread, cheese and beer

Pound of cheese

Dinner of cold meat, bread and a pint of porter

Pound of butter

Pound of fat bacon

Dozen SevilleOranges

Pound of Parmesan cheese

Whole pig

Dozen rabbits



4d - 6d

6 1/4d

8d - 10d

10d - 1s

10d - 1s


2s 6d



Quart of beer

Pound of Fry's Drinking chocolate

Bottle of Claret at Vauxhall gardens

Pound of Coffee

Pound of Tea




4s 9d - 6s

7s 6d - 16s

Cloth and Clothing

Pair of men's lace ruffles

Pair of men's silk stockings

Beaver hat

Pair of velvet breeches

Sack dress

Pair of stout silk-knit breeches

Suit of Clothes for clerk in public office

Man's suit


17s 4d

£1 1s

£1 10s

£1 10s 6d

£1 12s

£4 10s

£6 - £8


Pound of Hair Powder


Silver hilted sword

Silver watch


10s 6d - £1 15s


£5 5s


14 1/2 yards of Indian sprigged muslin

Yard of mechlin lace

Yard of brocaded silk


13s 10d

18s 6d

 "Pride and Prejudice" by Jane Austin

"A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!" - Mrs. Bennet on Mr. Bingley’s income, Pride and Prejudice, Volume One, Chapter One

 Appendix 2

 Transcript of the letter from James Young, junior reporting the capture of the treasure ship, Thetis to Lord Bridport.

His Majesty’s Ship Ethalion, Plymouth Sound Oct 21 [1799]

My Lord

 I have the pleasure to inform your Lordship that on the 16th instant, at three P.M. in latitude 44 deg 33 min longitude 9 deg 53 min West, we discovered three large sail on the weather bow, evidently men of war, steering S.E. with all sail set. I immediately tacked and stood under easy sail, with an intention to speak to the sternmost or to follow them until day light, with a view to ascertaining their force. On a nearer approach to the above ship she made the private signal: concluding from that the other two ships were enemies, I made all possible sail in chaise. At day-light I found her to be his Majesty’s ship Naiad and another frigate in company, which I took to the  Alcmene and two large frigates ahead. At seven the Naiad my signal to pass the sternmost and stand on for the headmost. At 9 A.M. being within random shot of the sternmost, I fired a few guns in passing, which made her alter course. At half past seven the headmost ship bore athwart us, at the distance of half musquest shot: by the abilities and meritorious conduct of the officers, the steady spirit and prompt obedience to my orders of the seamen and marines, with a well directed fire of two broadsides from the Ethalon, and a running fight of an hour, exchanging bow and stern chaces, the latter part within half-shot, I had the pleasure of seeing her haul down Spanish colours to his Majesty’s ship under my command. She proves to be the Thetis Spanish frigate of 36 guns, twelve and six pounders, and 250 men commanded by Don Juan de Mendoza from Vera Cruz, bound for any port in Spain she could fetch, with 1,411,526 dollars and a quantity of cocoa on board. I have the additional satisfaction to acquaint your Lord, that not  a single man is hurt on board the Ethalon. The other Spanish frigate is called the Brigada, commanded by Don Antonia Pillon, the same force and lading as the Thetis. The last time that I saw the Naiad, which was just before the action took place, was nearly within gun-shot of her, and I have no doubt of her being captured. I beg leave to recommend to your Lordship’s notice Lieutenant Pym, the senior officer; the able assistance I received from him on the quarter-deck, and his indefatigable exertions in shifting the wounded masts and yards on board the Thetis, do him the utmost credit. I can not pass over in silence the praise due to Lieutenant Jauncy and Quillam, for their great attention to the guns on the main deck, nor that of Mr. Ducker the Master, and Lieutenant Peake of the Marines, for their aid on the quarter deck; the warrant and petty officers, seamen, and marines, also merit your Lordship’s notice.

             I have the honour to be, etc etc etc                                                                                                                                                James Young

 Ethalion – None killed or wounded

Thetis – One killed and nine wounded

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