To the left of the door of St Helen and St Mary’s Church on the High Street stands a tall, brightly coloured window, one of several installed at the time of the church’s rebuilding in 1874. Clues to the window’s origins are not hard to find. Each of its biblical scenes has a nautical theme and all around it are brass insets commemorating members of the Monk and Matthews families. It was purchased for the church with a donation from one of the town’s oldest and most celebrated citizens at the time, Commander John Monk R.N.. John’s path in life took him across most of the seas of Europe, fighting Napoleon with the Royal Navy and then trading with Mediterranean ports as a merchant captain and ship owner. He was away from Neston for long periods, sometimes years at a time, but always returned to the town he called home. This is his story.
Childhood in Parkgate, 1791
John’s mother Esther Matthews (1759-1829) grew up in Moorside as the daughter of a captain of a packet ship sailing between Parkgate and Dublin. The Matthews family already had a long history in the town dating back to at least the 1600s.
John’s father William Monk (1753-1831) was the son of a printer from Chester, and was one of the customs officers at Parkgate, where he worked alongside his twin brother, Benjamin. Parkgate had no jetty or sea wall at this time, so ships anchored out in the estuary, from where cargo and passengers were off-loaded into smaller boats and rowed ashore to a wooden pier. Benjamin and William worked as a team. As the “tidewaiter”, Benjamin was the first official to board a ship as it arrived, and would prepare a list of all the cargo to be discharged. William was the “landwaiter” and remained on the quayside to check everything through as it was unloaded. Together they made sure that their lists tallied and that nothing had been smuggled off the ship while their backs were turned.
William and Esther made their home in Parkgate and had eleven children, of whom all except two infant twins reached adulthood. Two of their daughters later moved to Dublin with their husbands, but the rest of the family remained in Cheshire. This article is John’s story, but interesting stories can also be told about several of his siblings.
The Industrial Revolution was gathering momentum and the Monk children grew up in a time of unprecedented change and upheaval across Europe, and the North of England was at the heart of much of it. Road and canal networks were also developing, but transport by sea was still firmly in the Age of Sail and it would be another 40 years at least before steam ships would begin to challenge the superiority of sail on the world’s oceans.
Further afield however, the world seemed to be consumed by revolution and war. The American Revolutionary War had ended in 1783 and the Irish rebellion against British rule had been crushed in 1798. Most worryingly, to the east, France had been in turmoil since the revolution in 1789 and, after the collapse of the Treaty of Amiens in 1803, Britain continued its long war against the radical French republic and its ruler, Napoleon Bonaparte.
Joining the Navy, 1806
Much later in life, as an old retired sea captain, John was known as a keen storyteller, and his life had certainly given him a lot of tales to tell. His career with the Royal Navy was broad and varied, and each year took him to a different part of Europe. The account below is a summary of his ships and postings, and notes on several of the military conflicts in which he was involved.
John entered the Royal Navy in July 1806 aged fourteen, nine months after Britain had celebrated its bittersweet victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, which had destroyed the French and Spanish fleets, but at which Admiral Horatio Nelson, Britain’s most celebrated naval hero, had been killed.
John’s first ship was HMS Dictator, a 64-gun, third rate ship of the line, captained by a formidable Irishman called James Macnamara. He had been a long-time friend of Nelson’s and was a respected Navy captain in his own right. For all his military success though, Macnamara is probably best known today for his involvement in a fatal duel following an argument about his dog.
John was now a midshipman, the most junior of the officer ranks but a common entry point for young gentlemen hoping to ascend the ranks. As such, postings as midshipmen were coveted and were often personal appointments by the captain. This may have been the case with John. Macnamara is likely to have passed through Parkgate regularly on his travels back to Dublin and may have been acquainted with the Monk and Matthews families.
John’s first year at sea was spent mostly patrolling the coast off North Holland, which had been occupied by France since 1795. Britain maintained a blockade on the continental ports of France and her allies. Under rules laid down by the Admiralty, neutral ships had to be given free passage but enemy shipping could be taken, and the value could be claimed as a reward. It was not glamourous, but John spent much of the year checking the papers of fishing boats and hoping for the windfall payout of a prize capture.
The Second Battle of Copenhagen, 1807
In 1807, John went with HMS Dictator and the British fleet to the Strait of Copenhagen on a mission which caused outrage in Parliament. Denmark had remained neutral throughout the war but maintained one of Europe’s most powerful navies to protect its merchant fleet. Now though, Napoleon’s forces were threatening its borders from the south. For the British, the threat of invasion by “Old Boney” and the French was ever present, and the idea of France gaining access to the Danish fleet was unthinkable. On arrival at Copenhagen, the British optimistically asked the Danish government to place its fleet into British hands for safekeeping until the end of the war. The offer was refused, after which the British bombed the city for five days until the Danes surrendered their ships. Britain’s action brought Denmark into the war on the side of the French but the immediate threat to Britain’s shores had been removed.
The evacuation of Nyborg, 1808
Captain Macnamara moved to HMS Edgar early in 1808, and John followed on the captain’s request shortly after. The ship sailed north to form part of the Baltic Station. The British had learned that Spanish troops garrisoned in the Danish town of Nyborg were keen to switch allegiances and return home to fight against Napoleon, who had overthrown the Spanish king, but first they had to be rescued from the French and Danish forces also in the town. A plan was devised after a spy swapped secret messages between the British admiral and Spanish general. On the date agreed, the Spanish troops overran the town and the British fleet appeared outside the port to ferry them away. The town governor agreed to the troops’ departure but, when several Danish ships resisted, John was slightly wounded in the boat attack which followed. The mission was a success though and in recognition of his efforts, John was delighted that as a young officer he was able to captain a brig carrying Spanish officers to the Swedish town of Gothenburg.
Stuck in the Baltic ice, 1808
The Baltic could be a dangerous place in the winter. While heading for home in December that year, HMS Edgar was caught in a storm which blew large chunks of thick ice south into the ship’s path. For several days, the ship was stuck fast and unable to move. All hands were employed in efforts to escape, sawing through ice blocks and even throwing an anchor and an anvil from the bow of the ship. When finally free, the leaking ship hurried back to England for urgent repairs.
On convoy duty, 1809
John returned to the Baltic with HMS Edgar and a squadron of ships later in 1809, venturing further east through the shallow Baltic sea to the coasts of Finland and Estonia, where they were employed protecting shipping routes. Denmark had built a fleet of small gunboats and positioned them along its coastline. A well-drilled gunboat could outpace a merchant ship over a short distance if the wind was low, and as British vessels passed the Danish coast carrying timber and other vital supplies, the gunboats would row out to attack them. Because of this danger, smaller ships would huddle together at friendly ports, seeking protection from the Royal Navy, who would escort them in convoy through the dangerous waters. The captain’s log shows that maintaining order among the convoy could be a frustrating exercise, with vessels under his protection lagging behind or heading off in unexpected directions.
Four years in the Mediterranean, 1811-1815
John transferred to HMS Berwick in 1810, once again following his mentor James Macnamara. The next twelve months were spent in the Channel, first patrolling the coast of the Netherlands and Belgium and then on blockade duty off Cherbourg. Blockade duty was an essential part of Britain’s strategy to dominate the seas but it was cold, windy and dull. John at this time had been promoted to Master’s Mate. The Master was responsible for the sailing of the ship, and John’s duties included inspecting the rigging and raising and lowering the anchors. The wet weather caused Captain Macnamara’s health to worsen, and in 1811 he gave up his post, separating John, now aged 19, from the man who had been his greatest champion.
HMS Berwick sailed for the Mediterranean in 1811 with a new captain, Edward Brace, who would captain John through to the end of his active seagoing career with the Navy. The Berwick spent most of 1812 and 1813 off the coasts of France, Italy and Spain. For some of this time, the Berwick was part of a force blockading the French fleet in the port of Toulon, and at other times, she was sent on patrols along the Italian coast and around Corsica and Sardinia, with orders to hunt out and capture enemy shipping.
The storming of Negaye, December 1813
The constant threat from patrolling British ships meant that French and Italian merchant vessels were often forced to seek protection in ports or to huddle inshore beneath coastal forts and land batteries. In these situations, the ship’s boats might be sent out, often under cover of darkness, to launch surprise attacks on enemy gun batteries or on “cutting out” missions to capture ships at anchor. There are many to choose from, but one of John’s most vividly described cutting out missions took place at Negaye near Frejus in December 1813. It is also one for which John has left us a personal account of events.
On the night of December 10th 1813, the Berwick launched a boat attack to capture a convoy of merchant vessels it had spotted at anchor in the port of Negaye. The men in the boats knew they would have to take out the land batteries which overlooked the bay if they were to be successful. Unfortunately, the intelligence they had been given was faulty. As the boats rowed silently towards the shore, they found themselves unexpectedly facing two large, heavily armed French navy schooners, moored alongside the merchant vessels. The schooners opened fire but the first boat reached the shore and managed to take possession of the Martello tower and fort. The other two boats attacked the schooners. One fought back but was sunk when the British seamen in the captured fort turned the guns on her. In the last boat, John led the attack on the second schooner. His party boarded and captured her after a bloody struggle.
In the chaos and confusion of battle, the British seamen manning the captured land batteries had not realised that the schooner was in Monk’s possession. John now found himself facing sudden, unexpected fire from the cannons. Thinking quickly, Monk ordered the prize’s anchor cable to be cut with an axe before he and his men sailed their prize out of the harbour. As they did so, they passed the Berwick’s two other boats, finding several officers and men dead in each of them. The captured schooner was L’Air, with a crew of 74 men and a cargo of gunpowder and muskets. The British lost 22 men in the attack, including a lieutenant and a midshipman.
1814, The Siege of Genoa and Promotion to Lieutenant
The goal of every young officer was promotion to the commissioned officer rank of Lieutenant, which brought better pay, a greater share of prize money and significantly greater prestige. The Admiralty appointed lieutenants directly and put all candidates through rigorous examinations and interviews. John had passed the exams successfully in Port Mahon, Minorca in 1812 but his actual promotion came two years later in Genoa after the deaths and departure of several other of the Berwick’s lieutenants. Through the Spring of 1814, the Berwick and other ships operated in support of British land troops as they made their way north along the Italian coast towards Genoa, which was under French control. Genoa was liberated after a short siege, after which the Berwick and other British ships spent several months anchored at the city. John developed a deep affection for Italy during this time. He built a long-lasting friendship with an Italian family after a chance encounter and, as a merchant captain, he returned frequently to the area and his friends during the 1820s and 1830s.
The Bombardment of Algiers, 1816
Peace in 1815 brought uncertainty and limited prospects for many thousands of Naval officers, but there was one last battle to come for John, one which would prove to be his greatest achievement in active service and a military victory in which he would take pride throughout his life.
The North African states bordering the Mediterranean had long had an uneasy relationship with their European neighbours, and the threat of capture by Barbary pirates was a constant danger for sailors in the Mediterranean. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy had relied on Algiers and other states for supplies for its Mediterranean fleet and had turned a blind eye to the practice. Now though, political pressure was growing to rescue the European slaves and to stop further enslavement.
The British government sent Sir Edward Pellew with six ships including the Berwick on a diplomatic mission to the region. Treaties were signed with Tunis and Tripoli but negotiations stumbled with Algiers. After reports of further attacks on Europeans, the Admiralty ordered Pellew back to demand the prisoners’ release and to punish the Algierians. Captain Brace and Lieutenant Monk transferred to HMS Impregnable, and sailed south with Pellew’s fleet to Algiers. The bombardment which followed has been largely forgotten today but was a source of great national pride at the time.
The battle on 27, August, 1816 was unlike any of the skirmishes or cutting out missions which John had seen previously. Hundreds of large guns on the city ramparts aimed their fire at the wooden ships which lined up against them outside the port. Pellew believed he had found a spot where they would be out of range of many of the guns, but Captain Brace unfortunately released the anchor too soon and the Impregnable was left particularly exposed. The ships received pounding broadside after pounding broadside. John was in charge of the lower gun deck and wrote to his father after the battle. “One cruel shot dashed me and fourteen brave fellows down; I was wounded in the knee, though not mentioned in the return; and as soon as I recovered, and cleansed my eyes from the blood, I found ten of my gallant comrades cut to atoms!”. The roar of cannon fire continued for upwards of eight hours, until almost all of the ship’s 500 barrels of gunpowder had been used up. Late in the evening, when the guns of the city had been silenced and the Algerian fleet was on fire in the harbour, the exhausted British ships slowly moved away to a safe distance. The following morning, raising a flag of truce, British boats entered the city and returned with the news which Pellew had hoped for. The Algerian leader had agreed to British demands and European slaves would be released.
The cost in lives on both sides had been a heavy one, and the Impregnable had been hit hardest among the British ships. Its masts and rigging were destroyed and the hull had been holed by 233 large shot. John and his surviving men on the lower deck gathered basket after basket of body parts to be thrown overboard, and the bodies of 48 of the crew were commended to the deep on the first day alone. Many more died of injury or infection in the days which followed. The injury to Monk’s eyes was more serious than he had revealed to his father and resulted in the permanent loss of sight in one of them.
The victory at Algiers was reported with delight by the British press and the release of slaves was a cause of national celebration. Throughout the rest of his life, each year on August 27th, his neighbours in Parkgate Road see John would raise a flag on the anniversary of the Bombardment of Algiers. A strong performance in a battle like this could be career changing for an officer, and John hoped that the Admiralty would reward him with promotion to Captain. The city of Chester petitioned the Admiralty, but to no effect. This marked the beginning of a long campaign by John for promotion, one which would involve letters, testimonials, meetings and interventions by influential friends on his behalf.
After returning from Algiers, John spent much of the next few years at home on the Wirral with his family. He attended several balls and society events in Chester, and joined the local gentry parading on Parkgate’s smart new waterfront. It was also during this time that he came closest to marrying. He courted a girl called Sally Russell, the daughter of a wealthy Wednesbury industrialist, and described her fondly in 1824 as “the finest girl in Staffordshire” and his family expected them to marry. It wasn’t to be though and Sally married a vicar several years later.
Merchant captain on the William Black, 1824
John remained on a lieutenant’s half pay and took his time deciding what to do next. In 1824, with the encouragement of friends, John became a captain in the merchant service, aged 33. His first ship was the William Black, a two-masted brig. For his first voyage in charge, John sailed from Liverpool to Livorno in north west Italy, known to the English as Leghorn. He was accompanied by a crew of eight: a first mate, six seamen and an apprentice or ship’s boy, all from the Liverpool area. By modern standards, every part of this journey was slow. The journey from Liverpool to Leghorn could take anywhere between three to six weeks depending on the weather. They arrived back in Liverpool on August 12th, a round trip of four months.
The William Black was 70 feet long, with a capacity of 115 burthen tonnes. It was barely a third of the length of HMS Impregnable, but unlike in the Royal Navy, where John had taken his orders from the captain and had been part of a large, complex cast of hundreds, on the William Black he was in charge. Whether the voyage went smoothly or badly would in large part be down to the orders he gave as captain. The cargo John carried varied from voyage to voyage. Often it was baled goods like cotton and silk, and other times it could be firkins of butter, iron bars, wine, olive oil, or anything else for which the owner was prepared to pay freight charges.
John’s second journey began badly, as John and his crew battled a fierce storm in the Irish Sea which was nearly the end of them. John took a passenger with him for this trip, who recorded anecdotes and details of his journey in a diary, which remains among a bundle of John’s papers today. John and his passenger spent the evenings in his cabin drinking, talking and playing cribbage, and during the hot Mediterranean days John regaled him with accounts of battles as they passed landmarks along the French and Italian coastline.
John sold the William Black in 1829 and spent a rare year on land. He visited his sister Elizabeth and her family in Dublin, went to Chester races and joined the organising committee for the Parkgate Regatta. He even went to a fancy dress ball in Chester, although rather disappointingly dressed in his Royal Navy uniform.
John’s second and final merchant ship was built for him in Maryport, and he named it The Monk. He once again traded between Liverpool, Dublin and Italian ports, until 1836 when he fatefully ordered his first mate to take charge on the next voyage. The first mate took John’s ship to the Caribbean and back to the Mediterranean without incident, but on the final leg of the journey, on a calm but starless night, The Monk ran aground and was wrecked on the rocky Spanish coast. John was furious and refused to pay part of the wages he owed until ordered to do so by the court in Liverpool. Years later, John’s nephew William Brown gave a speech about his uncle’s life and suggested that John had reluctantly remained behind due to an issue with his master’s licence. There doesn’t seem to be any substance to this as licences were not mandatory at this time. It is more probable that it was simply a decision by John which he came to regret.
John didn’t go to sea again after the sinking of The Monk, although he did continue to send cargo to Italy for several years. He was nearly fifty years old and was very happy to remain at home in Neston, whether spending time with family, in his garden or looking at the stars through his eyeglass. A short article in several newspapers in 1843 reported that Lieutenant Monk had a rose bush in his garden in Neston with 3,700 flowers on it. He was now a man content to appreciate the gentler things in life. Opportunities came his way to go to sea again but nothing came of them.
John continued to make repeated entreaties to the Admiralty for promotion to captain but all were rebuffed. It was only during the 1850s that he began to receive some of the recognition for his military service which he and many other officers felt they deserved. In 1850, John was belatedly awarded the Naval General Service Medal, for service in the Napoleonic Wars and for the Bombardment of Algiers. Finally, in 1857, on the occasion of his retirement from the Navy, John was promoted to Commander. It was a step below Captain but was an acknowledgement of his claim.
As John and his siblings grew older, they increasingly turned to each other for support. The eldest brother, Charles, had also had a nautical career, as the Superintendent of Quarantine at Liverpool. He was a widower and shared his home in Parkgate Road with their sister Arabella. Charles lived in the house now known as Beech House, but he also owned several other houses in Neston and seems to have made a house near to his own available for John and their youngest sister Esther, who had returned from Dublin after the death of her husband. And so the four ageing siblings lived, side by side, for the last twenty or thirty years of their long lives. Elsewhere, their sister Ann had married into the Brown family in Chester. She had been blessed with a large family, all of whom had survived into adulthood. Her children flourished and became a prominent part of Chester’s commercial and political life. One of her sons, William Brown, was especially fond of his Uncle John, and took care of his affairs towards the end of his life.
In 1874, the parish finally decided to rebuild the church of St Mary and St Helens, after a century of uncontrolled modifications had weakened it structurally. Certain parishioners were approached for assistance with the project, and John made a donation for a window. The reopening of the church in November 1875 came at a time of change for him. He was 84, still being described as “hale and hearty” in a letter that year to the Cheshire Observer, but within a year or two he would begin a slow decline into senility. His sister Esther and brother Charles had passed away the year before, and Arabella had died just two months earlier. Only John and Ann remained from the eleven siblings. With the end inevitably approaching, John may have looked up at the brass plates and the pictures in the brightly coloured glass with a shimmer of sadness and satisfaction, realising that this window would keep their memories alive.
John grew increasingly frail and mentally fragile in his final years and, on the morning of Sunday May 2nd 1880, he took his own life. The housekeeper reported that he had told her that he was going for a sleep, but several minutes she heard a worrying thud. She hurried into his room and found him hanging by a silk handkerchief from a bedpost. An inquest later concluded that he had “Committed suicide whilst in a state of unsound mind.”
John was buried in the churchyard of St Mary and St Helen’s but, given the prominence of the nk window inside the church, John’s grave is surprisingly hard to find. He is buried in the family plot just opposite the church door but time and the elements have worn the large, flat gravestones nearly smooth, and several years ago a nearby tree was toppled by a storm, knocking off the brass plaque commemorating the life of his Matthews ancestors.
Two bequests from John’s will stand out for the way they have echoed through the 140 years since his death. John and his sister Esther each left money in their wills to be used for the assistance of the poor of Neston. As executors of John’s will, his nephews William and Charles Brown combined their funds and established the Monk and Matthews Charity. Although the original gifts have long since been spent, the charity continues to operate in the Neston area, supported now through other donations.
A second bequest was for the purchase a lifeboat which John had stipulated was to be named after him. John’s executors identified Peel on the Isle of Man as a suitable location, and in 1885 “The John Monk” was delivered to the Peel lifeboat station. Four years later, as a fierce storm raged in the Irish Sea, the lifeboat was launched with a crew of twelve volunteers in an attempt to reach a stricken ship which had been spotted drifting towards the rocks. Despite the terrible conditions, the little boat reached the ship and returned to Peel carrying its Norwegian captain, his wife and child and the crew of twenty. The rescue was a source of huge local pride and in 1989 the Isle of Man postal service marked the centenary of the rescue by “The John Monk”. The wooden boat itself is long gone, but a plaque to the lifeboat and its crew can still be seen today in Peel’s lifeboat station. John would have been delighted.
John’s nephew William Brown was my great-great-grandfather, and it is thanks to him and his love for John that I have been able to research him to such an extent. After his uncle’s death, William gathered together bundles of personal documents, a painting of John’s ship The Monk, and even his old Napoleonic pistols. As a child several generations later, I grew up with the picture of John’s ship on our dining room wall.
As I looked into John’s story, a more rounded picture of the man began to emerge. What I found was a life like any other, a tale of achievements and victories, disappointments and rejections, love and family. In many ways, John’s own fortunes mirrored those of Neston and Parkgate generally. Both flourished during the Georgian era of the “Age of Sail” but then struggled to find their place as steam and industrialisation swept through the country.
There are still many parts of his life about which I would love to learn more, particularly his childhood and his life in Neston, and I hope one day to bring together the story of John and his family in a book. I would love to hear from anyone who may have any more information about him.