Captain Seth Jermy

By Kenneth E Jermy ©

(Used with the permission of the author)

Captain Seth Jermy, Royal Navy (1653 - 1724), was a descendant of the Jermy family of Norfolk and Suffolk, landed gentry between the 13th and 18th centuries.

He appears to have joined the Navy at a rather later age than usual. He was a midshipman on HMS Monmouth from 2 July 1689 to 2 March 1689/90, and on HMS Edgar from 3 March 1689/90 to 26 October 1691, and later from 16 December 1690 to 2 February 1690/1. By 1 July 1691 he was Second Lieutenant on HMS Northumberland, and was with her at the battle of Barfleur in 1692. He was First Lieutenant of the Grafton in 1694, the Burford in 1695, and the Lion in 1696. In January 1696/7 he was promoted to command the brigantine Spy, and in 1702 was appointed to the frigate Nightingale, of 24 guns and 115 men.

For the next five years HMS Nightingale was on seemingly routine duties escorting colliers and corn ships between the Forth, Tyne, Humber and Thames, protecting them from French privateers. One 24 August 1707, however, she fought a gallant action against a French squadron, and Jermy was captured. His wife was able to secure an audience with Queen Anne for his exchange, and in 1708 he was returned to England. He faced a routine court-martial for the loss of his ship, and was honourably acquitted. He was immediately given command of the Swallows Prize, and in 1710 was appointed to the Antelope, on which he served until he was superannuated in 1712.

The action off the River Thames is worthy of recounting, as it shows the character of Captain Jermy. Curiously, the fullest account of the Nightingale's action against the French is given by a Frenchman who had been condemned to serve in the galleys. On the morning of the battle, a squadron of six French galleys, whose commodore, the Chevalier de Langeron, flew his flag in the La Palme, set out from Dunkirk in good weather. With the commodore was Captain Smith, a renegade Englishman, who had obtained authority to attack and pillage the town of Harwich, using de Langeron's squadron which carried the incendiary materials and a division of soldiers. Smith had served in the Royal Navy and on several merchant ships, acquiring a good knowledge of both channel coasts. But he was never a Captain in the Royal Navy. A Jacobite, he had an implacable hatred for the Protestant Queen and administration of England.

The squadron arrived in the mouth of the Thames early in the evening, but Smith commanded them to withdraw somewhat so that they could land at Harwich in the dark. Hardly had they hove-to than a lookout reported an English convoy thirty-five merchantmen and an escorting frigate to the northward, heading west. This was a merchant convoy from the Texel (at the mouth of the Zuider Zee) bound for the Thames, escorted by HMS Nightingale.

The French Commodore called a council of war, which decided to try and capture the convoy instead of attacking Harwich - much to Smith's annoyance. The plan was that four galleys should cut the merchantmen off from the Thames, and that La Palme and the Chevalier de Mauvilier's galley should overcome the frigate. All galleys set sail and rowed hard towards the approaching English ships, and Nightingale soon realised that the convoy was in danger. Captain Jermy ordered the merchantmen to crowd on all sail and make for the Thames, while he would engage the galleys.

Nightingale set full sail for the two galleys, themselves propelled by forced rowing since night was approaching. La Palme, a league ahead of her consort, fired at the frigate when within range, but without response, and at musket range the French musketeers opened fire. Nightingale suddenly went about, as if to flee. The French called the English cowards, and de Langeron ordered his galley to drive its beak, the strongest part, into Nightingale's stern, her weakest point, preparatory to boarding her.

Just as the beak was about to strike, Nightingale, by a clever stroke of the helm, evaded the galley and turned her broadside to it, so close that the galley's oars were broken. Nightingale secured La Palme with grappling irons, and fired a broadside of grapeshot; at the same time a hail of grenades came from aloft. Nightingale then sent fifty men aboard, to deal with any men still alive.

With La Palme rendered useless, de Langeron himself hoisted the distress signal to summon his squadron to his aid, even though the four galleys had already forced most of the convoy to strike sail. When the galleys turn back, the merchantmen set sail again and made for the Thames.

Nightingale was soon surrounded, and in no state to return either cannon on musket shot. Twenty-five grenadiers from each galley boarded the frigate, but were driven back by a murderous fire from the officers gathered under the poop, and by blows from the pikes and swords of the crew, who were under a grating set in the top deck. A second attack was repulsed. The French then had to force open the grating with crowbars to capture the crew, which they did, but not without considerable losses. The officers also gave a good account of themselves before being overcome.

All had now surrendered except Captain Jermy, who shut himself in his cabin under the poop, firing guns and pistols and declaring that he would not be taken alive. His officers told de Langeron that he would blow up the powder magazine, to which he had easy access, rather than surrender; this would threaten three thousand Frenchman's lives. The captain was civilly asked to surrender, but he again opened fire. A sergeant and twelve grenadiers were then sent to take him; the sergeant broke the cabin door and was immediately shot dead, whereupon the grenadiers fled.

These delays enabled Jermy to see, from their lights, that the merchantmen had all reached the protection of the River Thames. However, to gain more time, Jermy said that he would only surrender his sword to the commodore in person. A truce was arranged, and de Langeron replied that a commodore should not quit his post. Jermy, now sure that the convoy was safe, gave up his sword. When Jermy was brought to the French officers, they were surprised to see "a very little man, quite deformed and hunchbacked." The commodore complimented him on his bravery; he replied, "I have no regret for the loss of my ship, since I have succeeded in my design, which was to save the convoy entrusted to my care. As for myself, if you treat me as a man of honour, I, or some other of my nation, may some day have the opportunity of acting in the same way towards you." de Langeron was quite taken by these remarks, and returned Jermy's sword, saying "Take back this sword, sir; you well deserve to wear it, and you are my prisoner only in name." But soon Jermy had to be restrained from using his sword, for he saw the renegade Smith in the cabin and tried to attack him.

In 1692 Seth Jermy married Mary Piggott (nee Martin), widow of Jonas Piggott, with whom Jermy had served on HMS Monmouth and Edgar. The surviving son, also Seth Jermy (1694 - 1745), was for many years Secretary to the Commissioners of the Victualling Office; he married Anne, only daughter of Dr John Harwood, LLD, FRS, FSA, of Doctor's Commons, Commissary of St Paul's, etc. Captain Jermy's name was apparently held in respect by his son-in-law's family. His daughter Mary married Edmund Hayter, and their grandson was baptised George Jermy Hayter in 1769; he became a colonel in the Royal Engineers.

Framed original oil paintings of Seth Jermy, his wife Mary Jermy, and his son Seth were at Minehead Vicarage, Somerset, in 1963, the property of Mr Bennett, the vicar. By tradition Mary Jermy was painted in the gown which she wore when she had an audience of Queen Anne.

In the will of Isaac Jermy, gent. of Bury St Edmunds, dated 5 November 1735, Seth Jermy the younger is described as his kinsman. Isaac was the son of Robert Jermy of Bayfield.

Seth's escapades aboard the Nightingale were written up as part of the novel "The Blue Pavillions" by Arthur Thomas Quiller-Couch in 1891, who wrote his novels under the pseudonym "Q".

Fenwick, K. (editor) 1957. Galley Slave: The autobiography of Jean Marteilhe. Folio Society, London.
Gifford, E. 1908. Deeds of Naval Daring. Maclaren, London.
Jermy, K.E. 1987. Captain Seth Jermy R.N. Norfolk Ancestor. v4. pt 7. pp106-107.
Marteilhe, J. 1757. Memoires d'un Protestant condamne aux Galieres de France pour cause de Religion. Beman, Rotterdam.
Marteilhe, J. 1765. The Memoirs of a Protestant, condemned to the Galleys of France, for his Religion. Translated by James Willington. Watts. Dublin.
Quiller-Couch, A.T. 1891. The Blue Pavillions. Cassel & Co. London.

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