(photo located here)
We briefly mention Commander Conway Shipley in the story below, Capture of l’Egyptienne. In that story he is the 21 year old commander of HMS Hippomenes who gave chase to, and captured, the 36-gun privateer l’Egyptienne in the Windward Islands. But sometimes these marginal notes become interesting stories in their own right.
We don’t know much about Shipley. We can presume that he went to sea in his early teens and had probably been carried on the muster roll of one or more ships since age five or so because he was already a commander at age 21. Based on his encounter with l’Egyptienne he seems to have been an energetic officer and after that adventure he remained in command of Hippomenes until November when he was posted captain.
He didn’t immediately receive another ship. His first posting was to the Irish Sea Fencibles and from there he was posted to HMS Comus (22) which was under construction at Yarmouth. He commissioned Comus in November 1806 and Admiral Samuel Hood, his patron from the Caribbean, requested his attachment to Hood’s squadron operating off the Canary Islands.
In July 1807, Shipley was appointed into HMS Nymphe (36) (we earlier discussed how Nymphe as taken by HMS Flora) in preparation for the preemptive attack on Copenhagen.
When that expedition was completed, Shipley and Nymphe found themselves blockading the Tagus River as Portugal had fallen to Napoleon.
While patrolling off Lisbon with HMS Blossom (18) under Commander George Pigot, Shipley received intelligence that the 20-gun brig Garotta, manned by a French crew of 150, was lying under the guns of Belem Castle, pictured below. Shipley conducted a personal reconnaissance, rowing up the Tagus in a small boat to confirm the story was true. He then set about to cut out Garotta using a expedition composed of 150 men and eight boats detailed from Nymphe and Blossom for the task.
The expedition had two false starts for reasons that aren’t clear, perhaps the heavy rains which had an inadvertent impact on the raid, but finally on April 22 the expedition set out around 9pm. The expedition was configured into two divisions, one being the boats from the Nymphe and the other being the boats from the Blossom. The boats from the Nymphe were her gig with Shipley in charge, her large cutter was led by Lieutenant Richard Standish Haly, her launch under Lieutenant Thomas Hodgkinson, and her barge under the master’s mate Michael Raven. Accompanying Shipley in the gig was his brother, Charles Shipley, who was serving on Nymphe as a volunteer without rank.
Blossom’s division was composed of ther gig under Commander Pigot, the large cutter under Lieutenant John Undrell, the launch commanded by Lieutenant William Cecil, and the Blossom’s small cutter under the master’s mate Thomas Hill.
The general plan called for the boats to be roped together until detected, then they would cast off the ropes with Nymphe’s division making for one side of the targeted vessel and Blossom’s making for the other. As a navigation aid, the Nymphe’s master, Henry Andrews, was stationed in Nymphe’s jolly boat down river with orders to hoist a light as a navigational aid upon the approach of the captured Garotta.
The raiders approached their target on a flood tide and Shipley halted them to wait until the tide had slacked before proceeding. He intended to quickly carry Garotta and use the ebb tide to assist in bringing his prize out. He hadn’t counted on a heavy flow of fresh water down the Tagus as a result of heavy rains inland. This caused a current of about six to eight miles per hour which the boats now had to fight. Despite the difficulty, they reached their objective around 2:30am . The watch aboard Galotta challenged them and according to plan the tow ropes were cast off and the boats raced to the attack. One of the first up the side of Galotta was Shipley. Coming up the forechains he encountered boarding nets and started cutting them away when he was shot in the forehead by a musket fired by a defender. Shipley was dead before he hit the water.
At this point Shipley’s brother panicked and ordered the gig, which hadn’t emptied of its boarders, to shove off in an effort to retrieve his brother’s body. Charles Shipley had no command authority whatsoever, but one presumes that the seamen had been taught to exhibit some deference to the captain’s brother and did as they were ordered.
Now the cost of Shipley’s waiting for slack tide became readily apparent. The long row against the flow of water out of the Tagus and its tributaries had delayed the arrival of the expedition until the tide was on ebb. Now the ebb tide was accelerated by the extra flow of water down the Tagus.
As the gig was pushed off it was swept down the side of Garotta and collided with the Haly’s large cutter which was trying to board on the larboard quarter. These two boats then caromed into the launch. All three were caught in the current but managed to halt their seaward progress by coming to a halt alongside a floating platform moored astern of Garotta that was being used to re-caulk Garotta’s seams.
Haly managed to separate the cutter from the mess and tried again. He was, however, unable to bring the cutter alongside Garotta. In the attempt he did lose a midshipman and a sailor killed and a marine wounded. Pigot’s division, perhaps deterred by hearing to Shipley’s death, made no attempt to board Garotta.
Shipley’s body washed ashore and his fellow officers raised a subscription to pay for a monument in his honor, pictured at the top of this story, where his body was recovered. According to the blog which has posted the photo of the monument, the inscription reads, in part:
Sacred to the Memory of CONWAY SHIPLEY, Esq. late Captain of His Britannic Majesty’s Ship La Nymphe, who was killed in an attempt to cut an enemy’s vessel out of the Tagus, on the 22d of April, 1808, aged 25 Years.
Circumstances, which human wisdom could not foresee, nor any exertion of human courage obviate, rendered the attempt unsuccessful, and closed the short but distinguished career of the Gallant Leader of it. Etc., etc.