John Donaldson Boswall

John Donaldson Boswall

We know a great deal about John Donaldson, as he was called during his time serving under Commodore Hood. It was only in 1812 that he changed his name to Boswall as part of a family inheritance.

Opinions differ about his age, with one source giving 17901 but we prefer 1785/6 which accords with a report that he was 62 when he died in 1847. This also accords with his appointment as Lieutenant which could not happen below the age of 20.

John was born in Fife and joined the Navy in 1799 as a First Class Volunteer in the Pouncer, a gun brig.2 Later that year, he joined the Polyphemus, 64, and was present, aged 16, as a Midshipman at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801.

The following year, he joined the Centaur, 74, under Commodore Hood and Sir Murray Maxwell, thus becoming one of Hood’s Boys. Here, he would have been involved in the capture of the island of Ste Lucia in June 1803, the surrender of Demerera, Berbice and Essequibo (the latter two from the Dutch) in September 1803. He may also have been involved in taking the Sophie, privateer, which became the service vessel for Diamond Rock under the command of Lt. William Donnett.

Having assisted in creating the battery on Diamond Rock in early 1804, he was one of the team involved in cutting-out the Curieux in Fort Royal Harbour. The mention of a strong Scottish accent of one of the attackers, sounds suspiciously like the voice of John Donaldson. He served as a supernumerary Midshipman on the Curieux after her capture3 and was an active participant in the Queen Charlotte incident: perhaps not his finest hour as there is a suspicion that he was drunk and started the argument which led to the incident. He was appointed Acting Lieutenant in October 1804 by which time George Bettesworth had taken over as Captain.

A succession of captures followed and he was part of the crew which crossed the Atlantic with the Nelson’s despatch about the Combined Fleet in 1805. On 14 September 1805 he was appointed Lieutenant. was this perhaps his 20th birthday?

Having left the West Indies, his career followed more ‘normal’ pattern with time in large and small ships. In October 1805 he briefly joined HMS London, 98, before re-joining his former captain and friend George Bettesworth aboard HMS Crocodile, 22, off Guernsey. The reunion did not last long and in April 1807 he joined HMS Inflexible, 64 and found himself back bombarding Copenhagen in September.

This was followed by a posting in February 1808 to the Spitfire, sloop off Leith before joining HMS Gannet, brig, as First Lieutenant, and in July 1808 patrolling the Channel and French coast. Postings to HMS Alfred, 74, (November 1810) on the defence of Cadiz which was still under siege, and HMS Implacable, 74, (April 1811) on the Mediterranean station, followed. He was still only 26.

Having changed his name to Boswall in 1812, he joined HMS Latona, 38, in April 1814 and HMS Superb, 74, in 1818 before being sleected to command HMS Spey, 20, in the Mediterranean in August 1819.

He was appointed Post in December 1822 and retired to Fife where he involved himself in local committees and was a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Mid-Lothian.

His varied career was summed up in an obituary:

Capt. John Donaldson Boswall (1822), of the Navy, on the eighteen shilling retirement, died recently at Wardie, near Edinburgh. This Officer, under his former name, “Donaldson,” served as Midshipman of the Pouncer in the expedition to the Helder, 1799; and of the Polyphemus at Copenhagen, 1801; of the Centaur at the taking of St. Lucia, Demerara, and Essequibo, and cutting out the Curieux of 16 guns and 70 men from Martinique, 1804. He was Acting Lieutenant of Curieux at the capture of Dame Erneuf French Privateer, 1805; Lieutenant of London at the capture of Marengo and Belle Poule; of Inflexible at Copenhagen, 1807; of Alfred at defence of Cadiz, 1810, and Commanded a tender of Implacable at the capture of a convoy near Genoa, 1811. Gaz. 1805. His Commissions were thus dated – Lieutenant, 14th Sept., 1805; Commander, 15th June, 1814; Captain, 26th Dec., 1822. The deceased was Deputy Lieutenant of the county of Mid-Lothian.

Dover Telegraph & Cinque Ports General Advertiser, February 27th, 1847
  1. A Naval Biographical Dictionary, W. R. Byrne
  2. The ships and significant dates in this article come from A Naval Biographical Dictionary, W. R. Byrne
  3. National Archives ADM 36/167054