Would passion be too strong a word? Some might call it obsession. I discovered William Hollamby while researching a village history: a rental from the 1790s listed "Captain William Hallamby (sic) of the Royal Navy" as the tenant of one of the largest properties in the village. Scenting a good story I found his Lieutenant's Certificate in The National Archives at Kew, UK. One of the ships on which he served was Discovery. Surely not Captain Cook's Discovery? The temptation to find out more about him proved irresistible.
Searching for William got a bit out of hand. The longest piece in my first booklet of village history [Scenes of Shalford Past, by Margaret Dierden was published by her in 2002] was about his voyage with Cook and later experience of battles and shipwreck in the Indian Ocean.
An incident during Cook's voyage, on Christmas Island in December 1777, brought William into focus. He led a search party to rescue two men lost on the island and near death in the baking sun. Lieutenant Williamson of the Resolution praised his "great humanity, strength of constitution and perseverance." So William was adventurous, brave, compassionate, loyal and strong. The Perfect Man, in fact.
He was born on 25 April 1744, the eldest of eight children of William Hollamby, innkeeper of the King's Arms in Crutched Friars in the City of London. Here houses, inns, stables and synagogues crowded together with offices and warehouses of the Navy and the East India Company. Young William grew up in a cosmopolitan, mercantile environment. When it came to careers, William senior chose the East India Company for his second son Benjamin, and sent him to Bombay. For William it was to be the Navy.
William joined the 74-gun Dorsetshire in May 1758 as gunner's servant. This was a typical start to the sea training of a young man from his background. The Seven Years War was in progress and the Dorsetshire patrolled the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal. William had his baptism of fire in November 1759 in the legendary battle of Quiberon Bay. But his service was brief: he left the Dorsetshire in February 1760 and didn't serve in the Navy again until he volunteered for Cook's third expedition in February 1776.
He was by then an able seaman, so must have spent some of the intervening years in merchant ships. William's background and leadership qualities marked him as petty officer material: he served on Discovery as quartermaster, midshipman and master's mate.
Aged 31 he was older than most of the ship's company, and was married with a young family. The sea was not his only career. He spent some years ashore in the 1760s. Perhaps he was a hot-blooded but honourable young man, to be married with two sons by the age of 22. He took up the Freedom and Livery of the Innholders Company in 1764 and paid the Land Tax on the Kings Arms from 1764-1766. Perhaps he ran the inn himself for this short time. His father helped him set up home and start out in business with £500 worth of goods and chattels and advanced him another £400 in rents and other money, large sums for the day.
William senior died in 1769 and his property was sold to pay his legacies. William and his brother John bought the lease of the Kings Arms and sublet the inn. William had by then moved to Leman Street, in the parish of Whitechapel, and operated as a dealer in brandy, rum and wine. He suffered financial difficulties after his father's death. Was this why he returned to sea or had he always combined his mariner's life with business interests?
As well as curiosity and a spirit of adventure, practical considerations might have prompted him to enlist for Cook's third voyage. A return to the Navy could improve his prospects but more tempting was a share in the £20,000 prize promised by the Admiralty for the discovery of a North-West Passage. This failed to materialise, but the crews of the Resolution and Discovery found other opportunities and traded in furs they bought from natives along the coast of North America. The Discovery's books show that William Hollamby bought more tobacco - useful trading currency - than anyone else on board. Or perhaps he had developed a very bad habit.
His ancestors were Kent farmers and tradesmen, but William's generation went global. His brother Benjamin became a senior merchant for the East India Company and Mayor of Bombay. Sophia Hollamby, probably their sister, married James Watson Hull in Bombay in 1783 (he was an executor of both Benjamin's and William's wills). Her daughter Sophia Hull married Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, founder of Singapore. When the American Revolution broke out William's youngest brother James enlisted as a soldier, and died in New York in 1779.
William's reward for his part in Cook's expedition was a lieutenant's commission. The Navy in wartime promised prize money, as well as promotion if he survived. He sailed in June 1781 as fifth lieutenant aboard the 74-gun Sultan to join the British squadron stationed in India. Britain was fighting French, Dutch and Indian forces on land, and the French at sea. William had endured hardships on Cook's voyage, but nothing on the Discovery compared to conditions on the Sultan. The squadron's commander, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes, informed the Admiralty that the Sultan's crew was so weakened through sickness and scurvy that the ship was scarcely capable of defending herself. The land war caused difficulties in obtaining fresh provisions and delayed the sending of the sick on shore: hundreds of men from the squadron died as a result. The heat and the stench of the wounded after battle brought fears of an outbreak of disease.
During four fierce sea battles in 1782 several officers were killed. William rose rapidly to First Lieutenant. In action off Trincomalee on 3 September Sultan's captain fell mortally wounded, his arm shot away. William assumed command and remained in charge for ten days while the ship was patched up and the wounded were sent on shore.
A new captain took over the Sultan, with William transferred to the Superb, the Vice-Admiral's flagship. On 6 November 1783 the squadron lay at anchor in Tillicherry Roads south of Bombay. A strong gale blew up and drove the Superb onto Sultan's anchor, holing her badly. Both ships were in grave danger. The Sultan managed to escape out to sea when the wind changed, but Superb had too much weight of water in the hold and sank, despite the crew desperately pumping and bailing all night. The Vice-Admiral's "good old ship" was lost and with it William's commission. A month later Hughes promoted him to master and commander. He now had the courtesy title "Captain". But the war was over and with it the chance of further promotion. The squadron returned to England. In July 1784 under William's command the fireship Combustion arrived in Deptford.
In peacetime he was on half pay, but his rank required him to live like a gentleman. One of the lieutenants on board the Sultan was Philip Bartholomew, son of the vicar of Shalford, a village near Guildford in Surrey. Perhaps this was how William came to rent "the great house" (now Debnershe) opposite the parish church. The house was not in fact very large, but had two to three acres of grounds with a little river flowing through, and a pretty walled garden. Country society would have seemed tame compared to his former life, but he must have been welcome. The illustrated account of Cook's third voyage had recently caused a sensation. Everyone would want to hear William's memories of the South Seas and of Cook's death.
It is pleasing to note that after more than twenty years of marriage William still fancied his wife. Their daughter Elizabeth was baptised at Shalford in October 1786. But the rent of "the great house" - £30 rising to £35 a year - took a large slice of his £54 half pay. He was always behind with the rent. William needed other income and must have kept some business interests.
His story ends with his death in 1795. On the outbreak of the French Wars he was appointed "agent afloat" for the transport service. I don't yet know where and how he died - I hope it wasn't of yellow fever in the West Indies or in some stinking French gaol. Perhaps it was the tobacco after all. For all his efforts he didn't leave a fortune - no property specified in his will, no bequests other than to his wife, and no marriage portions for his daughters. Not quite the Perfect Man, then. But he brings the spirit of his times into the history of our village - exploration, enterprise, and an invigorating tang of sea air. There are still lots of loose ends to tie up. I think I will be Searching for William for some time yet.
The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery 1776-1780, ed. J.C. Beaglehole, 1967, 2 vols.
The National Archives: Logs and paybooks of Dorsetshire, ADM 51/262; Discovery ADM 34/229, ADM 5/4528; Sultan, ADM 34/758, ADM 51/896, 945; Superb ADM 34/747, ADM 7/742, ADM 52/2531; and Combustion ADM 34/211, ADM 51/207. Journals and Admiralty correspondence of Sir Edward Hughes on the East Indies campaign ADM 7/738, 739, 751 and 752.
National Maritime Museum: Captains' and Lieutenants' logs of Sultan and Superb ADM L/S 500, 502 and 503.
India Office Records at the British Library: East India Company records and Bombay ecclesiastical records.
Guildhall Library: Freedom Registers and Court Minutes of the Innholders Company MS 6651/1, 6648/5 and 6; Land Tax assessments for the City of London and Whitechapel.
Surrey History Centre: Godwin-Austen estate rent books, G111/38 and G111/5/3.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 19, volume 29, number 1 (2006).
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