In the Royal Garrison Church in Portsmouth there is a grand marble memorial plaque to the Hon. Sir George Grey. The inscription records Sir George's 22 years as Naval Commissioner at His Majesty's Dockyard in Portsmouth, an achievement that certainly warrants a place in the history of Portsmouth. What is perhaps surprising is that no mention is made of Sir George's prior naval career, the most notable moment of which was when HMS Boyne, flagship of Admiral Peyton, captained by George Grey, caught fire in the Solent and blew up with the loss of 11 lives.
George Grey was born on 10th October 1767, at Falloden, Northumberland the third son of Charles, the first Earl Grey and his wife Eleanor Grey of Southwick. Charles Grey was a General in both the Seven Year War against France and during the American War of Independence. He was commonly known as 'no-flint Grey' for his unconventional tactics. He eventually rose to the rank of Commander in Chief of the British troops in America, and in 1793/4 to Commander in Chief of the West Indian Expedition alongside Admiral Jervis during the French Revolutionary Wars. He was enobled as Baron Grey in 1801 and as Earl Grey and Viscount Howick in 1806, dying the following year. His eldest son, Charles 2nd Earl Grey, was Prime Minister from 22nd November 1830 to 16th July 1834. He was an ancestor of Diana, Princess of Wales. Earl Grey tea was named after him. Both Charles, the first Earl, and his eldest son have entries in the National Dictionary of Biography but neither mention George.
Little is known of George's early life, the first record being from 1781 when, aged 14, he was made Lieutenant in the Royal Navy and served in the West Indies and in home waters. A year later he is found aboard HMS Resolution 74, Lord Robert Manners, in Rodney's action of 9th-12th April 1782. In July that year she was captured by the French but it is not known if George was on board. At this point George's breeding gave his career a nudge, when his father wrote to John Pitt (2nd Earl of Chatham) requesting that George should be considered for promotion. On 7 August 1793 Pitt wrote informing him that his son had been appointed Captain of the Vesuvius Bomb aged only 23. Later that same year George is found serving aboard HMS Quebec and later he is promoted to Flag Captain of HMS Boyne under Vice Admiral Jervis. The combined forces, commanded jointly by Admiral Jervis and Grey's father, General Charles Grey, captured the French colonies of Martinique, Guadeloupe and Saint Lucia. During the seige of Guadaloupe he commanded a detachment of seamen and marines landed to co-operate with the army.
On 1st May 1795 there occurred a most dramatic incident. Admiral Jervis had been taken ill the previous year and his post had been taken over by Admiral Peyton who together with Captain Grey was attending a court martial in Portsmouth Dockyard when the Boyne caught fire whilst at anchor at Spithead. The Royal Marines of the vessel were practicing firing exercises when it is supposed that the funnel of the wardroom stove, which passed through the decks, set fire to papers in the Admiral's cabin. The fire was only discovered when flames burst through the poop, by which time it was too late to do anything. The fire spread rapidly and she was aflame from one end to the other within half an hour.
As soon as the fleet noticed the fire, other vessels sent boats to render assistance. As a result, the death toll on Boyne was only eleven men. At the same time, the port Admiral, Sir William Parker, saw the danger and a signal was made to the vessels most at danger from the fire to get under way. Although the tide and winds were not favourable, most of the vessels in any danger were able to escape to St Helens (Isle of Wight).
Because the guns were always left loaded, the cannons began to 'cook off', firing shots at potential rescuers making their way to the ship, resulting in the deaths of two seamen and the injury of another aboard Queen Charlotte, anchored nearby. Later in the day, the fire burnt the cables and Boyne drifted eastward till she grounded on the east end of the Spit, opposite Southsea Castle, where she blew up with a terrible explosion. The wreckage being only a short distance under the surface the position was marked by the Boyne Buoy just off Southsea Castle.
A month after the loss of HMS Boyne George Grey married Mary Whitbread on 10 June 1795. She was the daughter of Samuel Whitbread, the brewer. Their time together would have been restricted as within another month George had been acquitted of any responsibility for the loss of the Boyne at his court martial and was posted as 2nd Captain, with Captain Calder on Admiral Jervis' flag ship HMS Victory, Jervis having returned to post on 1st July 1795. Grey was at Jervis' side during the Battle of St. Vincent on 14th February 1797 having previously been in command of HMS Ville de Paris. He returned to that ship after the battle holding the command till 1798 and again from May 1800-Feb 1801 when he was transferred to the command of the Royal Yachts (1801-1804).
In 1804 he was made Commissioner of Sheerness Dockyard and it was in that position that Captain the Hon. George Grey received the body of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson when on the 22nd December 1805, the Victory, being then at the mouth of the Thames, was boarded by the Chatham, Grey's official yacht. To this little craft was solemnly transferred the corpse, enclosed in the coffin which had been made out of part of the mainmast of the Orient, after the battle of the Nile, and which had been presented to Nelson on May 23rd 1799. As the body was lowered into the yacht, the Vice-Admiral's flag was struck in the Victory, and hoisted at half-mast in the Chatham, which presently passed up the river to Greenwich, where she anchored on the afternoon of December 24th. At 7 p.m. that evening the coffin was conveyed to Greenwich Hospital, where it afterwards lay in state.
From Sheerness, Grey was posted to Portsmouth as Dockyard Commissioner in 1806 and there he remained for 22 years. He was made a burgess in 1806. Sir George arrived in Portsmouth within a year of the Battle of Trafalgar, arguably Britain's finest victory at sea, and yet in many ways Trafalgar represented a high water mark for the Navy. Britain in 1806 ruled the waves and needed far fewer vessels to simply patrol the waterways. There was no immediate reduction in the size of the navy as Marc Brunel could testify, his block-making machines were still making 130,000 blocks a year, but between 1815 and 1820 some 550 ships were sold or scrapped. Peace with France was only one reason for this. Perhaps more pertinent was the arrival of the future in the form of steam power; the first steam powered yacht having entered Portsmouth Harbour in 1815. The end of the dockyard's role is building sailing ships was in sight, though it would take another 30 years to kill it off altogether.
Besides overseeing the changing face of the Navy and the Dockyard Sir George had an important administrative role to play. In 1807, the mayor of Portsmouth John Carter together with the aldermen, Town Clerk and Coroner, arrived at the Dockyard gates to assert the right of judicial process over the whole dockyard. Sir George refused them entry until he had assurances that they were not claiming jurisdiction over the soil of the dockyard. Other areas covered by the Commissioners role would have been to supervise the rates of pay at a time when a master ship-wright was earning £600 per annum in peace time and £720 during wars, and feeling decidedly underpaid. Sir George made a further mark on dockyard customs by banning all livestock, such as hens, rabbits and pigeons which non-residential workers had become accustomed to raise there.
The most renowned occasion that would have involved Sir George was in June 1814 when, somewhat prematurely, the combined heads of European states met at Portsmouth to celebrate the defeat of Napolean. Grey is not mentioned by name in any reports of the event, but it is known that His Imperial Majesty, Alexander, Emporer of Russia, accompanied by her Imperial Highness Catherine, Grand Duchess of Oldenburgh, and the Earl of Yarmouth, Count Lieven, his Imperial Majesty's Ambassador all stayed at the Commissioner's house (see the article on the gathering). One other lasting legacy of Sir George's time in Portsmouth was his involvement in the construction of the monument to Lord Nelson on Portsdown Hill, which is still used today as a marker for seamen coming into harbour.
Both Sir George and his wife Mary were committed Christians and in 1817 George became the President of the Portsmouth Dock Yard Bible Association whilst both of them were evangelical supporters of the Seamen's Missions. Mary took an active role in not only looking after the dockyard personnel and their families but also sick seamen and their orphans. She also circulated Scriptures and religious reading materials to officers and seamen on board ships for over 20 years. She was apparently the first women to have been recorded as actively supporting seamen's missions to try and improve their lot.
Although George seems to have had little or no interest in business he did take an active part in the preparations for the construction of the Portsmouth and Arundel Canal, overseeing experiments to determine the suitability of a steam tug to draw the barges.
Of Sir George's private life we know that he and Mary had eight children:-
Mary Grey 1796-1863 married Capt. Thomas Monck-Mason
Rt. Hon Sir George Grey 1799-1882 sometimes Home Secretary between years of 1846 and 1866
Elizabeth Grey 1800-1819 married Charles Noel, 1st. Earl Gainsborough
Harriet Grey 1802-1889 married Revd. John Jenkinson
Hannah Jean Grey 1803-1829 married Revd. Sir Henry Thompson, son of Admiral Sir Charles Thompson
Jane Grey 1804-1838 married Francis Thornhill Baring, Baron Northbrook.
Charlotte Grey 1805-1814
Charles Samuel Grey 1811-1860 married Laura Elton and Margaret Hunder, Paymaster in Civil Service in Ireland.
Mary was married on 1st December 1823 at Portsea Parish Church (St. Mary's). The other daughters were all married at St. Ann's Church in the Dockyard, the family having lived close by in the Commissioners residence, a very grand and elegant building suitable for the occasional visits by Royalty. The family were closely associated with the Bonham Carter family and in 1926 Sir George proposed John Carter for re-election to Parliament. The ties were further extended when his granddaughter Mary (a daughter of Jane Grey) married John Bonham Carter, the son of John Carter. In 1814 Sir George had been created 1st Baronet of Falloden and on 20 May 1820 he was presented K.C.B. by King George IV after he had hosted a Royal visit of the dockyard.
Grey died on 3rd October 1828 and on the 13th October, the Hampshire Telegraph reported his funeral - "The remains of the Hon. Sir Geo. Grey, Bart. were this morning deposited in the Chapel of this Garrison, the Burial Service being performed by the Rev. W.S. Dusautoy......The pall was borne by Admiral the Hon. Sir Robert Stopford, Vice-Admiral Sir Harry Neale, Rear-Admiral Giffard, Major-General Sir Colin Campbell and Captains Loring and Chetham. The principal Officers in his Majesty's Dockyard, in mourning coaches, and several hundred of the shipwrights and other artificers of the yard, on foot, followed. On the Grand Parade, a passage to prevent interruption, was formed by the military and the whole was conducted in the most solemn and impressive manner...."
"Heritage of Sea Power" by FW Lipscomb
"The Naval Heritage of Portsmouth" by John Winton
"History of Portsmouth" by Lake Allen
"Seamen's Missions, Their Origins and Early Growth" by Roald Kverndal
The National Maritime Museum
With special thanks to Julia Gange, great-great-great-granddaughter of Sir George Grey, for providing much of the research material.
Sir George Grey's fourth daughter Hannah Jean is remembered on two memorials in Holy Trinity Church, Fareham along with her husband Sir Henry Thompson who was the first incumbent. The church was endowed by Henry's father Sir Charles Thompson and built by Thomas Ellis Owen in 1835. Sir Charles had served alongside Sir George Grey on HMS Victory under Admiral John Jervis, at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent.