VICE ADMIRAL WILLIAM BLIGH

9th September 1754 to 7th December 1817

 

Famous or infamous? Judge for yourselves – but I think that the villagers of St. Tudy have cause to be proud of this ‘Man of St. Tudy’.

The Bligh family were resident in the parish of St. Tudy from at least 1680 and a John Bligh (or Blygh) of Bodmin was a commissioner for the suppression of monasteries in reign of Henry IV.

William Bligh was born at Tinten Manor  St. Tudy on September 9th 1754, the only son of Francis Bligh (died 27 Dec 1780) and his wife Jane Pearce, a widow whose maiden name was Balsam.  (Taken from the Dictionary of National Biography Vol 2). Jane died when William was 14 years old.   There is some confusion as to where Bligh was baptised, the baptism is registered at St Andrew’s Church, Plymouth where his parents were married in 1753 but it is possible that he was actually baptised either at St. Tudy Church,( where there is a family plaque)  or in St Nicholas Chapel which was part of Tinten Manor. 

Extract from ‘A Guide to the Ancient Parish  Church of St. Tudy’ 

‘William Bligh was born at Tinten Manor on 9th September 1754 but was baptised at St. Tudy on 13th February 1757 with his sister Mary.  There are several theories for this delay.  The most probable being that, as his father was an Excise Officer based at Plymouth, the family waited until the birth of the next child before coming back to the ancestral home for baptism.  (The baptism could have taken place at St Nicholas Chapel and later recorded in the parish church registers)  This delay in baptism has led to Plymouth, St. Kew and St. Teath, variously claiming to be the birthplace of William Bligh but without proof.  Other branches of the family who lived at these places also had off-spring named William, but the Admiral’s birthplace at St. Tudy is recorded by his own testimony. ‘ 

 

In Polwhele’s ‘Biographical Sketches’ he states “Bligh (as he himself informed me) was a native of St. Tudy”

Note – in the Parish Guide the names of William’s parents are shown as Charles and Margaret, whereas in the Dictionary of National Biography they are shown as Francis and Jane.   Further research is being undertaken to clarify.   There is a memorial plaque on the south wall of the church to the Bligh family,  it reads: ‘ In memory of Charles Bligh son of Mr John Bligh of Tinten in this Parish who departed this life ye 7th Day of July 1770 in the 74th year of his Age’  (William’s grandfather ?)

The stamp below, issued in 1992, on the 175th anniversary of his death, shows a picture of Tinten Manor.

Bligh  first went to sea in 1762 – at the tender age of 7, as a Captain’s personal servant on board HMS Monmouth.  He joined the Royal Navy in 1770 where he served on HMS Hunter and  became a Midshipman in 1771 serving on  HMS Crescent  and  HMS Ranger.  He was an intelligent man, well-versed in science and mathematics and was also a talented writer and illustrator.  He became Sailing Master on the Resolution, commanded by  Captain James Cook, quite an achievement as he was only 22 years of age.   This voyage ended with the death of Cook on February 14th 1779 in Hawaii (known at that time as the Sandwich Islands).

It is rumoured that when not at sea, Bligh was the ‘bouncer’ at the Cornish Arms public house in St. Tudy, a nice story, but not one that can be substantiated.

During a 12 month leave from active duty he met his future wife and on February l4th 1781 at the parish church of Onchan, Isle of Man,  Bligh married Elizabeth Betham, the daughter of a Collector of Customs.  He was already  a Lieutenant, and had made several important hydrographic surveys. Shortly after his marriage he saw action at the battles of Dogger Bank in August 1781 and also fought with Lord Howe at Gibraltar in 1782.

In 1787 aged 33,  he was given command of ‘The Bounty’, a three year old merchant ship,  his mission was to transport breadfruit from Tahiti to the West Indies.  Various books and films have portrayed him as a villain, a violent and unpleasant man – but is this the truth?  Commanding a ship required a man of strong character, his crew would have comprised of mostly illiterate men, probably recruited by the press-gangs and he was most likely no better or worse than any other commander of his time. 

The Bounty set sail on December 23rd  1787.

 In April 1789 the famous mutiny took place, led by Bligh’s one-time friend, Fletcher Christian.  The following is an extract taken from Bligh’s logbook.  Entry for 28th April.

It reads – ‘Just before Sunrise Mr Christian and the Master at Arms… came into my cabin while I was fast asleep, and seizing me tyed my hands with a Cord & threatened instant death if I made the least noise.  I however called sufficiently loud to alarm the Officers, who found themselves equally secured by centinels at their doors… Mr Christian had a Cutlass & the others were armed with Musquets & bayonets.  I was now carried on deck in my Shirt in torture with a severe bandage round my wrists behind my back, where I found no man to rescue me…’

 

Bligh and 18 other crew members loyal to him were set adrift  on April 28th in the Bounty’s launch, an open boat, 23-foot long by 6’9” wide.  In most cases such an act would have led to certain death for the men aboard, but Bligh was a magnificent seaman and he sailed from Tofua, one of the Friendly Islands, landing in  Timor, Java, without any loss of life on June 14th.  The journey of 3618 nautical miles took them 47 days.

The mutineers, meanwhile, continued on to the Pitcairn Islands where Fletcher Christian and eight others founded a colony which remained undiscovered until 1808.  (Descendants of the mutineers still live on  Pitcairn) 

Bligh eventually returned to England and his career in the Navy continued, seemingly unaffected by the mutiny.  In 1790 he became Captain of the sloop HMS Falcon, followed by service on HMS Medea and HMS Providence.  In 1792 he again visited Tahiti and successfully transported breadfruit  to the West Indies. 

In 1797 he commanded  HMS Director at the battle of Camperdown  and as Captain of HMS Glatton in 1801 took part in the battle of Copenhagen, after which he was commended for his bravery by Admiral Nelson. Also in 1801 Bligh was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, in consideration of his distinguished services in navigation, botany etc.

In 1805, Bligh was sent to New South Wales as Governor, but once again his oppressive manner contributed to an uprising, in Sydney in 1808 – the Rum Rebellion -  he had attempted to end the use of rum as a form of currency.  The rebellion was led by one John Macarthur, a pioneer and wool merchant originally from Stoke Damerel, Devon who became a leader of settlers in New South Wales. The British soldiers mutinied and Bligh was forcibly deposed by Major George Johnston of the 102nd foot and imprisoned for two years.   On his release he returned to England where he was cleared of all blame and Major Johnston was tried at Chelsea Hospital in 1811 and  cashiered.  Bligh was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Blue and in 1814 became a Vice Admiral of the Blue.

In the latter years of his life, Bligh lived at the Manor House, Farningham, Kent and died on 7th December 1817, aged 64, in Bond Street, London.  He is buried in the eastern part of Lambeth churchyard, by the side of his wife by whom he had six daughters. 

The inscription on the grave reads:

 

SACRED

 

TO THE MEMORY OF

WILLIAM BLIGH ESQUIRE FRS

VICE ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE

THE CELEBRATED NAVIGATOR

WHO FIRST TRANSPLANTED THEBREAD FRUIT TREE

FROM OTAHETTE TO THE WEST INDIES

BRAVELY FOUGHT THE BATTLES OF HIS COUNTRY

AND DIED BELOVED RESPECTED AND LAMENTED

ON THE 7th DAY OF DECEMBER 1817

AGED 64

Sue Dibble

May 2001

 

VICE-ADMIRAL WILLIAM BLIGH

Further to the letter from Derek Handover in October's Magazine, the Faculty granted by the Chancellor of the Diocese of Truro is based upon the advice and recommendation of the Diocesan Advisory Committee. That Committee had to be satisfied with the proposed inscription on the memorial stone before our proposed change to the "structure" of a Grade I Listed building (the placing of a memorial stone) had its approval. The committee would not agree to any wording claiming that Vice Admiral William Bligh was either born or baptised in St Tudy, as it was not persuaded that there was evidence to support such a claim. In the event a Faculty was granted for a memorial stone to be inscribed as follows:

"William Bligh, FRS, 1754-1817, vice-Admiral of the Blue – Celebrated Navigator: "He spent part of his childhood at his ancestral home, Tinten, St Tudy"

The relevant documentary evidence is confirmed by copies of entries in the Parish Registers of St Andrew's Church, Plymouth that show a marriage between Francis Bligh and Jane Pearce on 3 November 1753 and the Baptism of "Wm Son of Francis and Jane Bligh" on 4th October 1754. A copy of that baptismal record I have.

The Dictionary of National Biography revised in 2005 and accessible on the internet states "Bligh, William (1754-1817), naval officer and colonial governor was born in Plymouth on 9th September 1754, the only son of Francis Bligh" and baptised at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth on 4th October 1754. It also records that the marriage took place on 3rd November 1753 at St Andrew's church, Plymouth, where William was baptised less than a year later. Francis died on 27th December 1780. The Wikipedia Encyclopaedia states that "Bligh was born in Plymouth, Devon to Cornish parents, Francis and Jane Pierce (Pearce) (nee Balsam)". She was a widow.

Gavin Kennedy in his book "Captain Bligh the man and his mutinies" states on page 1 that "William Bligh's place of birth is variously stated as St Tudy, near Bodmin and Plymouth. For certain he was baptised at St Andrew's Church, Plymouth...."

The International Genealogical Index records "William Bligh, birth 9 Sep 1754 Plymouth, Devon, England" the parents being Francis Bligh and Jane Pierce.

There is no doubt and it has never been suggested otherwise, that William Bligh, the admiral to be, did reside for some part of his childhood at Tinten, for long the ancestral home of the Bligh family. (See Maclean "The Parochial and Family History of the Deanery of Trigg Minor", 1879, pages 337-9). The only live issue is the place of birth and the preponderance of evidence is that this was at Plymouth. It may be that local folklore tells a different story and some documentary evidence asserts that the birth took place at Tinten. In the end, however, we have no evidence to this effect.

Raymond Wood's "Guide to the Ancient Parish Church of St Tudy" states that Admiral William Bligh's father was Charles Bligh and that is incorrect. On the basis of that error, he then incorrectly assumes that the son, William Bligh, (the child of Charles Bligh who was baptised in St Tudy on 13th February 1757) was the Admiral.

There is also some confusion over registration of births, marriages and deaths. Since 1837, it has been necessary to register these events with a public officer but in 1538 (29, Hemy VIII), priests were required each week in the presence of their wardens to enter in to a book, particulars of all the baptisms, marriages and burials, they conducted that week. This is a record quite independent of the statutory record. The Order was repeated in 1547 and 1563 and old records of churches may usually be inspected at the relevant County Record Office. A record of the baptism of William Bligh can be found in the Plymouth and West Devon Record Office.

G.N.G.

From the Parish Magazine Nov 2007

 

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