The Real Tarpaulins, Part 2

This week, a couple more ‘tarpaulin’ officers whose lives provided inspiration for the character of Kit Farrell in ‘the journals of Matthew Quinton’. I’ll conclude the series next week with a look at probably the most famous tarpaulins of the age – the closely interconnected Norfolk admirals Christopher Myngs, John Narbrough and Cloudesley Shovell.

The Munden brothers – The careers of Sir Richard and Sir John Munden were particularly remarkable in two respects. First, they were particularly low-born, even for ‘tarpaulin’ officers; their father was the ferryman at Chelsea, although this was actually quite a lucrative employment, given the absence of bridges on that stretch of the Thames. Secondly, they rose to prominence at a time when opportunities for promotion for their kind were becoming ever more limited because of the increasing dominance of the ‘gentlemen captains’. That they were able to achieve what they did can only be a tribute to their own abilities.

Richard was born in about 1640, which would effectively make him an exact contemporary of both Kit Farrell and Matthew Quinton. He served in merchant ships prior to the second Anglo-Dutch war, entering the navy in 1666 as captain of the Swallow Ketch. He commanded a sloop in 1668 and then became master attendant at Deptford dockyard before commanding the Fourth Rate Princess in 1672. In the following year he took command of the Assistance, tasked with escorting outward bound East Indiamen as far as St Helena. Unknown to Munden, the Dutch had captured the island before he got there. He immediately launched an attack, and in addition to recapturing the island he snapped up three homeward-bound Dutch East Indiamen. His success led to a knighthood  and later to another plum command, the large Fourth Rate St David, employed on convoy work in the Mediterranean. Munden died shortly after the ship returned to England in 1680. He was buried in Bromley church, where his monument states ‘having been (what upon public duty, and what upon merchants’ accounts) successfully engaged in fourteen sea-fights … he died in the prime of his youth and strength, in the 40th year of his age’. The post-mortem inventory of his house in Bromley (where there is still a block of flats called ‘Munden House’) revealed an estate worth almost £6000, including shares in four merchant ships, chairs and carpets from Turkey, other materials from India, and a ‘Japan cabinet’. Munden left five daughters and a son, Richard, who later became a general in the army.

Richard’s prominence in the 1670s meant that he was able to promote the career of his younger brother John, who had been born in about 1645 but whose first thirty years of life are shrouded in obscurity. From 1677-80, though, John was his brother’s lieutenant in the St David, subsequently gaining several more lieutenancies before obtaining the command of a fireship in 1688. In 1689 he became flag captain to Lord Berkeley, Rear-Admiral of the Red squadron, and held the same post under Berkeley’s successor Sir Ralph Delaval aboard the Coronation, in which he fought at the disastrous Battle of Beachy Head (1690). From 1691 to 1693 he commanded the Lenox (the subject of Restoration Warship, a superb book by my good friend Richard Endsor, the cover artist of Gentleman Captain), fighting in her at the Battle of Barfleur in May 1692. He commanded various large ships in the latter stages of the Nine Years War and was promoted Rear-Admiral in 1701, when William III knighted him.

In January 1702 Munden took command of a squadron tasked with intercepting a powerful French force expected to sail from Rochelle to Corunna, then on to the West Indies. He cruised off Corunna but the French evaded him during the night and got safely into port. He considered the harbour too well defended and narrow to contemplate an attack. He was court-martialled for negligence on 13 July but acquitted, and returned to his command. However, public opinion had been highly critical of him for not pursuing the French into Corunna harbour, and the privy council was dissatisfied with his acquittal. Queen Anne and her ministers yielded to the public pressure and dismissed him. This is an excellent example of how public opinion had become an important factor in naval policy by about 1700; it had certainly not been so to the same degree in Charles II’s reign, and its increasing importance during the eighteenth century would ultimately lead to such dramas as the execution of Admiral Byng and the Keppel-Palliser court-martial in 1778. Meanwhile Sir John Munden retired to Chelsea, where he was described in his old age as ‘a very plain man in his conversation and dress, of a fair complexion’. He died on 13 March 1719.

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