A very interesting
obituary from November 1821 caught my eye recently. It read -
after a lingering illness,
John Lawmont, Esq. surgeon, R.N.
He was surgeon of the Vincejo at the period of her capture,
and the confidant of the lamented
in The Tower of the Temple in Paris,
and the last friend who had
access to his dungeon."
So, who was John
Lawmont (sometimes written as Lamont)?
What was the Vincejo and why
was she captured? Who was Captain
Wright? What was the Tower of the Temple
in Paris? Why was he in a dungeon? Lots of questions which led to a fascinating
story of espionage and intrigue during the Napoleonic Wars.
The Vincejo was a Spanish navy ship (Vencejo) captured in the Mediterranean
by the British in 1799. Refitted at
Chatham, Captain John Wesley Wright took command in 1803. The ship sailed to the west coast of
France. It was reported that the ship
had carried some French Royalists to France in the hope of overthrowing
Napoleon. The Vincejo continued to keep
an eye on French coastal shipping in the west.
The ship's surgeon, John Lawmont (or Lamont) wrote to Patrick Colquhoun about the
incident which took place on 8 May 180 - this extract is from the Naval Chronicle of 1815. It is a fascinating snippet describing a short battle between the British and French navies.
|Captain John Wesley Wright|
August 14th 1804
"We have at
length arrived at our place of rest, after a fatiguing march of 800 miles. Illness, which I was seized with soon after
we came here, prevented me from writing before this: I am now quite recovered. Captain Wright was separated from us at
Vannes, and the officers were separated from the men at Verneuil, and conveyed
to Paris, where we were first taken to the Abbey prison, and when night set in,
we were taken to the Temple, and remained there seven weeks, three of which in
As perhaps you
have not heard the particulars of our being taken, I will give you a short
account. During our long cruise in
Quiberon Bay, we were continually engaged with the numerous gun-boats that
passed from one port to another with convoy; but having no pilot, and they
keeping close in shore, we were unable to do any thing decisive; we, however
took two unarmed vessels, one a schooner, laden with flour, the other a national
lugger, with 2000 oars for the gun-boats; this last, from our want of men, we
were obliged to destroy; the other arrived safe in England. The day before we were taken, we drove a
sloop and a lugger ashore near St. Geldas.
On the morning, at daylight, we discovered a number of vessels coming
out of the Morbihan, and a corvette of 18 long 18 pounders lay at anchor close
in shore. The Vincejo was at this time becalmed in a strong tide-way, which
drifted us close to a rock, which we avoided by dropping our anchor. When the tide slackened, having taken a poor
man from a fishing-boat as a pilot we attempted to take the Teigneuse passage,
but from his fears or ignorance he was of no use, and went down below. We now trusted to
chance: we were in a narrow and
intricate passage, without an air of wind; numerous gun-boats coming rapidly up
with us. Our men, who had been up all
night, and who had laboured three hours at the oars in a sultry morning, were
quite exhausted, and finding escape impossible, the captain ordered the ship's
broadside to be swept-to, and an engagement was kept up against such fearful
odds for more than two hours, when our firing almost wholly ceased, three of
the guns being dismounted, and the rest incumbered with lumber from the falling
of the booms, their supporters having been shot away; the men failing fast, the
foremost nearly shot away, and the vessel nearly sinking, Captain Wright was
forced to hail that he had struck, just in time to save the lives of the few
that could keep the deck, as the gun-boats were rowing up alongside with numerous
troops to board. He himself was wounded
in the thigh early in the action, by a grape-shot, but never left the
deck. We lament his separation from us
as we would the absence of our dearest friend:
his manners are those of a perfect gentleman, his abilities of the first
class, and his bravery only equalled by his generosity and humanity. In his department to his inferiors, he
appears in the most amiable point of view, it being that of a kind and most
benevolent father. Indeed, I have not
words to express my admiration of his character.
I have only time
to add, without the particulars of the vessels, that the enemy's force was 17
vessels, 36 heavy guns, and from 1140 to 1490 men.
The Vincejo, from having been ashore before
this was so leaky as to require pumping almost continually."
|The Tower of the Temple, Paris|
Some of the
prisoners from the Vincejo
to the Temple
prison in Paris.
Notorious, it was the place of imprisonment
of the French Royal Family before execution and had a grim reputation. Originally it was built as a monastery and
fortress by the Knights Templar in the twelfth century. The buildings were demolished in 1811. However this was not Captain Wright's first
visit to the Tower of the Temple. In April 1796 he
and Sir Sidney Smith
for whom he acted as clerk were captured by the French and
imprisoned there on charges of spying.
The pair made a daring escape in May 1798. He was involved in many of Smith's
adventures. Full details of the life and
adventures and death of Captain John Wesley Wright can be found in the Naval Chronicle
|Sir Sidney Smith|
demanded to be treated as a prisoner of war, but the French authorities were
determined to charge him with being involved in the landing of royalist agents
in France. Wright refused, despite
constant interrogation, to admit any connection with the affair. Eventually it was reported that he had been
found dead in his prison cell. He had
been found lying in bed with his throat cut - almost to the bone. It was reported that there was no blood on
the sheet that covered him up to his neck and that a razor had been found in
his hand. There were also several
reports of bloody footprints on his cell floor.
The French tried to say that he had taken his own life. The British authorities blamed Napoleon for
ordering the death of such a valiant officer.
Sir Sidney Smith later went to Paris and erected a memorial to the brave
Most of the other
prisoners taken with Wright were sent to other prisons around France. A few escaped and managed to return to
Britain. Among the prisoners were two thirteen year old boys, Wright's nephew
midshipman John Wright (who had started his naval career aged just 7) and William
Lort Mansel, the eldest son of the Bishop of Bristol. Mansel escaped in the winter of 1808 but his
health suffered as a result of the conditions he endured finding his way home,
and he died not long afterwards.
Lieutenant James Wallis managed to escape from his French prison Verdun
in 1813 and was promoted to the rank of Commander.
What about Dr
Lawmont (or Lamont) of Greenock?
As Captain Wright was injured, he attended to him in prison. Later the doctor was moved to another prison elsewhere in France.
In the book "English Prisoners in France: containing observations on their manners and
habits" by the Rev R B Wolfe (Hatchard & Son, London 1830) is written
- "Dr Lawmont, the surgeon of the ship commanded by the unfortunate Captain
Wright, and who afterwards practised as physician at Glasgow, obtained permission,
about two years after my removal to Givet, to go and reside at that depot, in
the exercise of his profession. He was
making the journey on foot, when a party of gendarmes, who were conducting some
felons, overtook him; and, in spite of his passport, which he produced, he was
strung to them by the hand and marched to the next brigade." It would appear that Lawmont did eventually get to
Givet as Wolfe later writes that the surgeon, Mr Lawmont "ordered wine for some
of the patients in his charge at the hospital in the prison".
In "Narrative of a Captivity and Adventures in
France and Flanders between the years 1803 and 1809" by Captain Edward
Boys, RN (Richard Long, London 1812) mention his friend Lawmont, a surgeon in
the navy at Givet."
Greenock link - there is an entry for him as a surgeon in Greenock in
Hutcheson's Directory for Greenock of 1820.
Who would have thought that a short obituary could contain such an amazing story.