Lt. Robert Snell and the Duke of York Packet

Lt. Robert Snell, R.N. : 1784-1858, Falmouth Packet Commander 1825-1835:

and H.M. Packet Duke of York

Robert Snell was the second son of a Falmouth sailmaker. He is believed to have been born at Falmouth on August 26th 1784. He entered the Royal Navy at the age of 13, as a Clerk on board El Corso, on December 1st 1797. He was made up to Midshipman, and/or Master’s Mate, on March 2nd 1798 – proving that at this time you did not have to be born into the gentry to gain advancement in the Royal Navy. Although he passed for Lieutenant on April 4th 1804, it was another two years before he was finally commissioned as a Lieutenant on 7th November 1806. His service career has not been checked, but he possibly spent some time ‘on the beach’ on half-pay during this period; and again in the years immediately following the close of the Napoleonic Wars. Robert married Jane Snell Moon [possibly his cousin] at Falmouth on December 26th 1814.

Lt. Robert Snell R.N. (42) was appointed to the command of the civil packet Duke of York, on September 30th 1826. The Duke of York was the fourth packet of that name on the Falmouth station. Built at Bideford in 1817, she was a two decked brig, of 190 tons. A little over 81 feet in length, she carried a crew of 21 hands all told, and was a typical Falmouth packet of the period.

Snell’s was an unusual appointment. The Duke of York was a civil packet on contract hire to the Post Office packet service. These civil packets were usually commanded by civilian officers. However, in April 1823 the Admiralty had assumed operational control of the Falmouth Packet service from the Post Office, stating it as their intention to phase out all the hired packets and replace them with Royal Naval brigs. Not surprisingly this statement caused loud protests from the commanders and owners of the civil packets with many unexpired years still to run on their contracts. The Duke of York was one of these. In the event, the Admiralty had insufficient brigs to supplant all the civil packets from the outset. The result was a phased release of the civil packets over the next 10 years or so. During this period, because of a continuing shortage of suitable RN vessels, a number of the newer civil packets had their contracts renewed from time to time. The Duke of York was such a packet, and it was 1835 before the last of these civil packets was finally dismissed from the service – 12 years after the Admiralty took over its management.

When the Admiralty first took control of the service, the Duke of York was commanded by Captain James Price. Built to his order, he was her principal shareholder when she was completed by her Bideford builders in 1817. Over the next seven or eight years he progressively disposed of his shares. He may well have been suffering from ill health, because he relinquished command of the Duke of York in October 1825, and held no shares in her when she was re-registered at Falmouth on October 25th 1825. Price died in the following year.

When re-registered at Falmouth in October 1825 [1] her principal shareholder was Captain John Bull, celebrated commander of the Duke of Marlborough, who held 40/64th shares in her. Intriguingly he was then described as ‘Esquire’ in the register, and not a ‘Master Mariner’ as one might have expected.

As there was now no attractive share in the vessel for a prospective commander to purchase, it would appear that no civil captain was willing to work her for wages alone during the unexpired period of the contract. Lt. Snell, who had undertaken several voyages in acting command in Captain Price’s stead, was now offered the position by the Admiralty – with a number of stipulations.


H:M:S: Astrea Falmouth

28th September 1826 –

Lieu.t Robert Snell, Royal Navy


The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty having directed me to recommend a Lieutenant of the Navy properly qualified, to command the Duke of York Packet who will be willing to take the Command on the following terms. –

First, To take the late Commander’s Interest by valuation as would have been the case under the Post Office. –

Second, That the ship will be discharged at the expiration of her 18 Years from the time she was built, unless His Majesty’s Government should consider it expedient to discharge her at an earlier period.

Third, That on the discharge of the Ship from the Service at whatever period, or the loss of the Ship, you are to Consider your Command of a Packet as at an end, and not to expect the Command of any other, –

Fourth, That you are to consider yourself as Commanding the Duke of York in the Character of a Hired Commander, in the like manner Lieutenant Leslie, Turner, Cary, Figg, and Scott, Command their respective Ships. –

Fifth, That the Command of the Duke of York Packet is not to give you a claim under any circumstances whatever to a Pension as a Commander of a packet.

I acquaint you that it is my intention to recommend you to their Lordships for the Appointment to the Command of the Duke of York if you are desirous of it under the above Stipulations. –

I am, Sir, Your obed.t Servant

William King Captain [2]


Snell accepted and was duly appointed to the command by the Lords of the Admiralty, in September 1826, and with only the odd voyage missed, remained in command until April 1834. I leave the explanation of the cause of his dismissal to the appropriate passage in the ‘Journals,’ but suffice it to say that he was dismissed after incurring their Lordships displeasure.

Snell was replaced by a Lt. James, but only for three voyages. The hire contract for the Duke of York expired shortly after May 8th 1835, the date of her return to Falmouth from Halifax on her final voyage as a packet. Whatever the first condition of his terms of appointment, any financial interest Robert Snell held in the Duke of York, it was probably limited to the ‘top’ [the running rigging and comestible stores]. His name does not appear as a registered owner of any part of the Duke of York in the Falmouth Custom House register. Over a year later the ‘paid-off’ Duke of York was sold to London owners (October 1836), and for a number of years was employed as a whaling ship in Australasian waters.

Robert Snell (51) having been ‘retired’ from the packet service in 1834, his name continued amongst the active officers in the Navy Lists for many more years – as a Lieutenant without current employment. The 1841 Census records him as a Lt. RN, residing at Belmont, Penryn, with his wife Jane Snell Snell (both aged 54), their children – Elizabeth (20); Jane (15); & Charles (14); his younger brother Alfred (50) and Jane Moon (6) [niece?]; along with three aging servants. Jane Snell Snell (nee Moon) died later that year. Robert’s brother Alfred remained a bachelor, and was described as a sailmaker in the 1851 census – possibly a sleeping partner in his late father’s business. During Robert’s time in command of the Duke of York, Alfred went on several voyages with him as a passenger.

In April 1848 Robert (64) left Falmouth for Sines, in Portugal, travelling under a passport issued by George Croker Fox, the Falmouth vice Consul. There he lived out the rest of his days with his daughter (Elizabeth?). With Admiralty permission he lived in Portugal on half-pay, on the condition that he would return to England and duty if ever called upon. He did not formally retire from the RN until July 28th 1851, and in due course was made up to ‘Commander Retired’ on January 23rd 1855.

Robert Snell (74) died in 1858, and was buried in the cemetery at Sines