Captain Edward Dix, Royal Navy
(as drawn by the accomplished artist, Douglas Draper)
There is to be found a veritable host of swashbuckling heroes in the glorious annals of the Royal Navy (“The Senior Service”), many of them since forgotten in the sands of time. One of those intrepid and redoubtable men was Captain Edmund Dix, a real-life “Old Salt” who was to spend many action-packed years in the service of the Royal Navy, seeing action in various parts of the globe, including North American and West Indian waters. Like the famous Lord Nelson himself, Edward Dix was the son of a reverend, namely the Reverend Joshua Dix, Vicar of Old Romney in Kent, England, and was also to venture to sea at a tender age.
The Dix family can trace its ancestry to Norfolk in the 12th century, and if not exactly an aristocratic family, it was, however, a family of some standing. Our hero was born in the famous city of Canterbury on the 28 September 1778, and was initially educated at the King’s School in that city, the school purportedly having been founded by Saint Augustine in 597 AD, and is said to possibly be the world’s oldest extant school. Then when but 12-years of age, Dix was entered as a midshipman aboard HMS Monarch, then under the patronage of Captain Peter Rainier (later Admiral Rainier). The Monarch was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line launched on the 20 July 1765 at Deptford Dockyard, and was to have a rather active career, fighting her first action at the Battle of Ushant in 1778 (the year of Edward’s birth).
Edward remained with the Monarch until 1793 (the French Revolutionary wars having commenced), whereupon he transferred to the frigate HMS Hermione, launched in 1780. He spent three years aboard the Hermione and was to serve in West Indian waters, experiencing at first hand the horrors of the revolutionary uprising of freed slaves in Santo Domingo and was “exposed to fatigues, privations, dangers and sufferings of the most trying nature” under the “baleful influence of a tropical sun“. The result was that Dix came down with a most severe bout of Yellow Fever, the last of “these visitations” almost costing him his life, and which prompted his return to England. It seems that his infirmity may have saved his life, as HMS Hermione is famous in naval history for one of the bloodiest mutinies in the annals of the Royal Navy, in September 1797, in which the cruel and despotic Captain Hugh Pigot and many of the officers were killed.
Having recovered from his aliments, Dix was promoted to Lieutenant (August 1797) aboard HMS Pompée, a former French 74-gun ship which under the command of Captain Poulain defected to the British following the Siege of Toulon. He served as a Lieutenant for the next ten-years, principally in the Channel fleet, whereupon in 1806 he again proceeded to the West Indies (especially when considering that the possibility of advancement was slow and uncertain at home), having been strongly recommended by his former captain, Peter Rainier, to the Honourable Alexander Cochrane (later Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane). Dix spent one-and a -half-years in the West Indies before being promoted to the rank of Commander and appointed to the sloop-of-war, HMS Cygnet (at Tortola, British Virgin Islands), on the 26 September 1807. His time in the West Indies was not fraught with boredom however, for he was to command two or three ships while also destroying several privateers, as well as capturing “a very valuable West Indiaman”. It was at this time too (in 1806), while appointed to one of the afore-mentioned temporary commands that Dix was to experience the “most trying situation of his life”. He was appointed pro tempore (from Captain Keith Maxwell) to command HMS Arab, formerly the French privateer “Brave”, and ordered to proceed to Surinam (now the Republic of Suriname) in South America.
What transpired is that only he and eight others were to escape a subsequent outbreak of yellow fever, of which imprecation he knew well, and approximately thirty-three of the crew were to succumb, the Arab there-after returning to Spithead whereupon the remaining crew was paid off and the ship placed in ordinary at Woolwich and sold in September 1810. Dix, “worn as he was by incessant fatigue of body and distressing anxiety of mind, was the only officer it spared”. Years after, there were members of the crew who would often declare that it was thanks to the endeavours of Dix and his “active benevolence of character” that they were to survive, and that they were forever indebted to the “humane and tender assistance” of Edward Dix (to whom was also attributed “a strong constitution” and “a cheerful evenness of temper“) . Of interest too, and further testament to his character is the fact that the procurement of the comforts and refreshments needed by the ailing crew was done thus through the utility of the young lieutenant’s slender purse which was stretched to the “uttermost”.
It was on the 1 January 1808 that the Cygnet, after a “most tremendous passage” during which Commander Dix had the misfortune of losing five of his convoy which foundered at sea due to the severity of the weather, reached Deal in his native Kent. Dix was subsequently ordered to refit at Chatham and later on to the North Sea, where he experienced not one but two very narrow escapes.
The first of these occurred on the 8 July 1808 while engaged, at Christiansund on the Norwegian coast, with enemy batteries. So very close was the ship to the shore, that a nine-pound cannon-ball “passed completely through Captain Dix’s hat, which it shattered to pieces, without doing him any serious injury, although the ball passed so close to the head, as to take some of the hair with it, and to affect Captain Dix’s sight for some days after”. During the same voyage, Dix also captured the Danish privateers, Christiana and Giengielderen (the former a brig of 14 guns and 60 men, and the latter a sloop mounting 4 guns with a complement of 25 men).
His second dice with death came in October of that year when he was nearly shipwrecked off St Abb’s Head on the coast of Scotland, in endeavouring to enter the Firth of Forth. Exposed for two days to a most severe gale(which in turn transformed into a hurricane) from the 14-16 October, Dix and his men expected at any second to be dashed to pieces on the rocks. To assist the ship and her men during this ordeal, Cygnet’s guns were jettisoned and her masts cut away to “ease her”, but it seemed painfully clear to the officers and men that their days on mother Earth were numbered. And, when all hope was, it seemed, infinitely lost, Providence in the form of changing winds and another Royal naval vessel then came to the fore, and miraculously, Dix and his men were to survive this most awful ordeal. No sooner had they made landfall at Leith, when Captain Dix and his grateful band walked in procession to the local Episcopal Church and gave thanks to the heavens above for their survival.
The year 1809 was to see Edward Dix yet again embark for West Indian shores, this time in the Cygnet, where he again was to make several captures among the privateers. On the 18 December of that year he was also involved in the destruction of two French 40-gun frigates, “laden with warlike stores and provisions” (moored in Ance le Barque), as well as the capture of “Les Saintes” Isles at Guadalupe. He played such an influential part in proceedings that Commodore Samuel Ballard (later Admiral Ballard), who was aboard HMS Sceptre during the occasion, “wrote very strongly to the Admiralty of Captain Dix’s share” in the affair, attributing its “main success to the judicious arrangements, as well as local knowledge he displayed, by which the landing of the troops was effected without the loss of a single man”. Ballard was to add, “From Captain Dix I received every assistance the nature of the service required; who, I trust, stands high in your estimation”. It is evident that Commodore Ballard’s words had some effect because Dix was subsequently promoted to the rank of Post-Captain, effective from the day on which “his services had been so useful”, namely the 18 December 1809. In January and February 1810, during the operations against Guadalupe, Dix acted as captain of HMS Sceptre (74-guns), bearing the broad pendent of Commodore Ballard (who was then serving ashore with the army).
In 1813 came Captain Dix’s posting to HMS Royal Oak, one of a long line of Royal naval ships to bear that illustrious name. HMS Royal Oak was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line, launched on the 4 March 1809 at Dudman’s Yard, Deptford Wharf. At the time of Dix’s appointment to the Royal Oak, she bore the flag of Lord A. Beauclerk, followed by Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm, and was operating off the Texel, the biggest of the Frisian Islands, situated off the Netherlands, in the province of North Holland. The Royal Oak and Captain Dix were then involved in a possible interception, cruising between the North Cape and Iceland, of the American Commodore Rogers, but the endeavour proved futile. In 1814 the Royal oak proceeded first to Bordeaux, France, and then to America, where Captain Dix, upon again meeting his “old friend” Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane, was given command of the frigate HMS Menelaus.
The War of 1812 between Great Britain and the newly created United States of America had in the interim commenced and Captain Dix subsequently took part in “affair at Washington” and was also employed in the Chesapeake until the close of the war in 1815. Dix remained commander of the Royal Navy 38-gun fifth-rate frigate Menelaus (launched in 1810) until October 1815, when the frigate was laid up at Sheerness. Captain Dix, while still in command of the Menelaus, was involved in one of the last naval actions of the Napoleonic Wars following the Battle of Waterloo, when, on the 18 July 1815, with the 36-gun frigate HMS Havannah, and the Le Rhin, the three vessels were ordered to cruise off the Isle of Bas where they destroyed and captured a French Convoy in the harbour of “Corigeou“ , Bretagne (Brittany). His career thereafter involved superintending the ships in ordinary at Chatham, on which service he remained for the obligatory three-years.
Although Captain Dix may not have been fortunate enough to have fought in the more “notable” naval victories of the Napoleonic wars, his service was nonetheless severe and arduous, and he “bore his part in many actions; destroyed many of the privateers; was a humble instrument in the hand of Providence in preserving many very valuable lives; received the thanks of several Commanders in Chief for meritorious conduct; and sustained through life the character of a faithful servant to his King and Country, and an honourable English gentleman”.
Many men and women are often in the aftermath of death accorded fantastical attributes which so very often bear no semblance to reality, but Captain Edward Dix seems to have been well liked, indeed loved, and it is apparent in words proclaiming his virtues that he was a very tender, forgiving and affectionate man, and that he was beloved by many acquaintances. Captain Edward Dix, Royal Navy, was to pass-on on the 6 August 1837, while preparing to attend a church service in Totnes, Devon, where he was at the time visiting a friend. He was to leave a “disconsolate” widow (Charlotte Edwards Dix, who died at Falmouth, 24 December 1850) and a son and namesake, the Reverend Edward Dix, Rector of St Mary’s, Truro, Cornwall, as well as a daughter who was wed to a Colonel Wood ( 85th regiment of Foot) on the 15 July 1823 at Churston Ferrers, Devonshire. Here’s to the memory of a most swashbuckling sailor of Nelson’s era, but more importantly, to the everlasting memory and praise of a good man!
Picture: by kind permission from the artist, Douglas Draper, website: (www.douglasdraper.com)
Obituary Notice, Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle, 1837, Volume 8, page 437.
Marriages, Gentleman’s Magazine and Historical Chronicle 1823, Volume 65, page 175.
HMO Royal Navy Lists.
Battles of the British Navy, Jospeh Allen, 1853, page 475.
Royal Navy Biography (Memoirs of Flag-Officers) 1828: Section - Post Captains of 1809, page 55.
Dix Family Tree (Norfolk Dix‘s).
*The author is a distant relative of Captain Edward Dix, RN (whom it would seem was his 5th great uncle).