The Queen Charlotte Incident

HMS Curieux did not have a completely unblemished record. In May 1805 an unsavoury case concerning its officers came before the Court of King’s Bench. They were accused of having abused the Mate of a Merchant vessel in the West Indies, in September 1804. This inevitably had repercussions among the Lords of the Admiralty. The initial published report seemed quite detailed:



This was an action for assault and false imprisonment. – The defendant was the Captain of the Queen Charlotte West Indiaman, and the plaintiff his mate. The defendant’s ship was proceeding from Barbadoes to England, with many others, under convoy of the Curieux, a King’s ship. In the passage, the defendant one day dined on board the Curieux, and in the evening returned to the Queen Charlotte, accompanied by three Lieutenants and the Master of the Curieux, all of whom were intoxicated. After remaining with the defendant some time in his cabin, one of the Lieutenants came on deck, and said to the plaintiff, “What a rate the Queen Charlotte sails at.” The plaintiff assented to the observation, and said “the Curieux could not keep up with her.” The Lieutenant said, “that was false,” and immediately an altercation ensued, which brought the other Lieutenants upon deck. The Lieutenant engaged in the dispute then turned round, saying, “Here is a fellow, who d—ns a King’s Lieutenant,” and immediately they all fell upon the plaintiff, dragged him to the wheel, fastened his hands and legs, and then put him into the King’s boat alongside, the Captain having first assaulted him. The plaintiff cried out “Murder,” and the Lieutenant exclaimed “When we get you on board, we’ll give you a d—d good flogging.” The Captain assented, and said, “D—n the rascal, take him on board, and point him well.” The plaintiff was then taken [a]board the Curieux, kept in confinement all night, and the next morning, as Mr. Erskine expressed himself, when Reason had resumed her empire, and the effects of the previous intoxication had been slept off, the Lieutenants caused the plaintiff in cool blood, to be lashed up; and when they had inflicted a severe beating upon him, they sent him back to his own ship, where he remained in a languishing and indisposed state for a considerable length of time. It was added, that when the plaintiff returned to England, it was advised by Sir Francis Baring, that the present action should be brought, not more to obtain a recompence for the injuries the plaintiff had received, than for the sake of public example.

Lord Ellenborough, in summing up the evidence, animadverted with great severity on the misconduct of the Lieutenants. They had acted, he said, most shamefully, and had disgraced the profession to which they belonged. It was not to be endured, that a man should be forcibly carried on board a King’s ship, and punishment there inflicted upon him without a trial. He trusted, if the persons to whom he alluded were continued in the service, they would be purged from the stain cast upon their character and honour, and that they would meet with a suitable punishment in due time. With respect to the defendant, he had no hesitation in saying, that he was as much answerable for the flogging the plaintiff had received, as if he had inflicted it with his own hand; the Jury, therefore, taking the whole into their sober discretion, would say what compensation the plaintiff ought to receive for the injury he had sustained. – The Jury found a verdict for the plaintiff, damages One Hundred Pounds.

Public Ledger, May 30th, 1805

The following day there was an even fuller account with some of the key evidence. –



The Plaintiff was Mate, and the Defendant Captain of the ship, called the Queen Charlotte. This action was brought for an assault, committed during the passage of the said ship from Barbadoes to Surinam.

Mr. ERSKINE, for the Plaintiff, said, the action was brought with the concurrence and under the auspices of the first merchant in the world, who, jointly with another Gentleman, was proprietor of this vessel; he meant SIR FRANCIS BARING. The case reflected great dishonour on the character of the Defendant, and very nearly affected the commercial importance, and naval superiority of this country. The ship was consigned to SIR PHILIP GIBBS, who was much pleased with the conduct of the Plaintiff, and conferred on him a particular mark of his favour. Whether this gave great umbrage to the Defendant he did not know, but the particulars that would appear in evidence, would expose a degree of defective discipline, and of wanton cruelty, which he (the Learned Council), for the honour of the English name, would have been happy (if the purposes of public justice had permitted it) should have been for ever concealed. In consequence of this outrage, the Plaintiff, a respectable and superior officer, was inhumanly lacerated with an instrument called the Thieves Cat, which was only used on board ships on those occasions on which the halter is employed on shore, that is, for theft and capital offences. For the damages done to the Plaintiff, for the disgrace and corporal suffering he had undergone, this action was brought.

Henry Ballard, an apprentice in the Queen Charlotte, deposed, that the Defendant had threatened to put the Plaintiff on board the Curieux, the ship of war having the trade to Surinam under convoy. The Captain of the Queen Charlotte, on the 15th September, 1804, went on board the convoy, and brought back with him, in a state of intoxication (he being himself in the same condition), three Lieutenants, one of whom was the commander of the Curieux. They all increased their state of intemperance, by copious draughts from the stores of the Queen Charlotte. The Plaintiff was then on watch, and one of the Lieutenants presently forsook the cabin, and began an altercation with him. The latter, disgusted with this interruption while he was on duty, returned oath for oath, and in the sequel the Captain of the Queen Charlotte, and the two other Lieutenants, interposed. The mate was then charged with “damning his Majesty’s Lieutenant,” and after assaulting him with blows, they hurried him into the boat of the Curieux, and with the three Officers, and the boat’s crew, he put off, the Captain hallowing out. “Take the rascal on board and point (flog) him well.” It was in vain that the mate sung (called) out murder; in vain that he implored to have his clothes to protect him (he was almost naked, and in this state conveyed towards the armed brig.)

The same witness said, he afterwards saw him; he had been whipped with the thieves cat the following morning; he was dreadfully cut, and his wounds were festering, having received no surgical assistance.

The SOLICITOR GENERAL admitted the great impropriety of the Defendant’s conduct, but contended, that although he must be responsible for damages for the assault on board his own ship, yet that he was not answerable for the inhuman treatment the Plaintiff had received on board the King’s ship.

LORD ELLENBOROUGH – “It is for you, Gentlemen of the Jury, to consider, if the Captain had not put the whole of this barbarous proceeding in motion; and on your judgement as to this particular, will depend the quantum of damages you assign. The conduct of the Officers of the armed-ship has been most disgraceful, if the evidence given this day be correct; they have dishonoured the Commission they bear, and they should not be permitted to retain it, until, before the proper tribunal, they are purged of this heinous offence. It is not to be endured that the trade of the country, instead of being protected by the persons to whom that important duty is entrusted, should be thus abandoned in the excesses of inebriety; and that those who are so materially instrumental in the conduct of that trade, should be exposed to this violence of aggression.

His Lordship proceeded to comment on the various parts of the evidence, after which the Jury found a Verdict for the Plaintiff, 100l.

Evening Mail, Friday, May 31st, 1805

The Master’s Log for the Curieux1 reports that the Curieux took the Queen Charlotte, Schooner and Cyane, a mail boat, under convoy on 8th September. Its entry for 15th September records sending a boat for her Captain to come on board at 6, returning at 10 to take ‘the 2nd mate out of her to confind him for insub(ordination) & Mutiness Expressions to the 1st L(ieutenant)’.

Master’s Log, HMS Curieux 15th September 1804 (National Archves ADM 52/17054)

The entry for the 16th records the punishment: At 8 d: W Punished John Roa(ch) the Second Mate with 40 las(hes).

Master’s Log, HMS Curieux 16th September 1804 (National Archves ADM 52/17054)

Being a civil case, the Naval Officers were not named in this record, though several were castigated. Who were they? The original Captain, Robert Reynolds, had been invalided to Diamond Rock nursing injuries sustained in cutting-out the Curieux. He had been formally replaced by Lt. George Bettesworth but he had not taken up his post, having been appointed Captain of the St Lucia. The Muster Roll of the time2 shows Lt. Autridge as Captain, assisted by Lt. Ross3 and a Midshipman John Donaldson

The court record talks of ‘three Lieutenants and the Master’. Henry Ballard speaks of ‘three lieutenants, one of whom was the Captain of the Curieux‘ but does not mention the Master. Lt Autridge mentions (see below) Lt Ross and Mr Donaldson (who was formerly a Midshipman at the time, although soon to be promoted to Acting Lieutenant) who appears to have started the argument. I think we can conclude that Lt Autridge was in command, Lt Ross was his 1st Lt and Midshipman Donaldson (acting as if a Lieutenant) started the argument.

William Autridge, c/o Dinton and Clementon, 12 Clements Inn, is addressed in the Admiralty correspondence. He mounted a defence in a fairly unconvincing letter:

Capt. Autridge’s letter of defence (National Archives ADM 1/1451/212)

For William Marsden Esq

I have received your letter of the 13th January signifying that it is their Lordships directions that I should account for my conduct relative to the ill treatments of Mr Roach in September 1804 when Mate of the Queen Charlotte/Merchant Ship/& under Convoy of H.M.S. Curieux to Surinam. 

In the letter of Mr Blunt to you it says that I went on board the Queen Charlotte at 12 at night accompanied by two Officers & all in a state of intoxication.

I owe my promotion to an Officer who is a well known Character in the Navy. I speak of Sir Samuel Hood whose Command I have long had the Honor of being under, had I been accustomed to get intoxicated he would have done contrary in promoting me to him I refer their Lordships. Whatever the evidence of Mr Roach may have been, with respect to that I am conscious of its being an untruth. I did go on board the Queen Charlotte that evening but the hour I do not recall. Mr Blunts letter says that Mr Donaldson went on Deck & entered into a dispute with Mr Roach about the two vessels sailing which brought up the other two Officers & Capt Clark when they all immediately fell upon Mr Roach, & after beating him in a brutal manner, dragged him to the Gangway & ordered him into the Curieux’s Boat, such I dare say was the evidence of Mr Roach. When I went on the Queen Charlotte’s deck to return to the Curieux I perceived Mr Donaldson & a … had hold of each other & I understood from Mr Donaldson that this Man had grossly abused & had struck him, to prevent … repeated, I interfered, when I was immediately laid hold of by the same person, he continued so riotous that I thought it best with the desire of Mr Clark (then Master) of Queen Charlotte to take him on board the Curieux to prevent his doing any mischief, which I understood from the Master he was frequently inclined so to do, giving him such a character that, I thought he was fearful of him & he remained on board & not any premeditated plans between Capt Clark & myself or Mr Blunt hints in his letter – I […] our arrival at Surinam when I discharged him to the Queen Charlotte.

Mr Blunt’s letter says that whilst in Irons he was struck by Lieut Ross with great violence & left him almost choaking with blood, I cannot say that was not true but should suppose I must have known it – When on board the Curieux he was punished but not with that suggested severity as represented – As I have said before, whatever the evidence of Mr Roach may have been, this is the truth to the best of my reflection.

I am sir, your very humble servant

…. Autridge

19th January 1806

National Archives ADM 1/1451/123; folios 212-214

On the reverse of this letter,4 a hand has written:

21 Jan

… to acquaint him that their Lordships are by no means satisfied with the account he had given of the circumstances under which this man was punished on board the Curieux, and that he must be answerable for the legal consequences.

His name to be put on the Black Book, referring to these Papers.

National Archives ADM 1/1451/123; folios 212-214

This does not seem to have adversely affected the careers of any of the named officers although some re-organisation was required. The Muster Rolls show5 that Lt. Ross was transferred to HMS Centaur on 26 August; Midshipman Donaldson to HMS St Lucia on 13 September, while Captain Bettesworth came on board on 14 September, presumably replacing Lt. Autridge. Both Ross and Donaldson would be back on the Curieux by October.

A further small postscript is hinted at in a letter written by Capt. Autridge in March 1806.

St Clements Inn, London 20th March 1806

To Wm Marsden Esq

Having been lately a little indisposed it has prevented my writing to beg their Lordships for employment – I have been accustomed so to actual service and now having nothing to do that I feel myself … not of my proper element. I hope that their Lordships will give me some [un]employment. I make no [..] but there are a number of prior advocates and superior claims, yet still I hope that their Lordships will if not immediately [then] soon employ me – in […] few instances, I was not deficient in gaining a little […] to have an opportunity of repeating them is what I wish [from] their Lordships I hope will employ me that I may be some service to my Country

I am sir,
Your very humble Servant
William Autridge

National Archives ADM 1/1451/215

Was the ‘indisposition’ perhaps his court case?

  1. National Archives ADM 52/3582
  2. National Archives ADM 36/17054
  3. Also shown as ‘Boys’
  4. The standard method of annotation in the Admiralty
  5. National Archives ADM 36/17054