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James Trevenen (1760-1790)


James Trevenen, who sailed with Cook on the Third Voyage, was born in 1760 in Camborne, Cornwall.  His father was the Reverend John Trevenen (1712-1775), Curate of Camborne from 1738 until his death.  John was the only son of Thomas Trevenen of Crowan, near Penzance.  Thomas was connected with the St. Aubyn family of Clowance, possibly as their steward.  It may have been through their patronage that John Trevenen attended Pembroke College, Cambridge in 1729.  He graduated as a Bachelor of Laws (LL.B.) in 1734.  John returned to Cornwall to live at Lower Rosewarne near Camborne and, in 1740, married Elizabeth Tellam in the Cornish village of Illogan.  

John and Elizabeth had seven children, of whom two daughters and four sons survived to adulthood.  The two daughters, Jane and Elizabeth, married brothers from another Cornish family.  Jane married John Penrose1 and Elizabeth married Christopher Charles Vinicombe Penrose.  

John Trevenen, the oldest son, became a successful businessman and local politician in western Cornwall.  He was mayor and alderman of Helston and a Justice of the Peace (JP) for Cornwall.  He married twice; his first wife was Lydia Johns and his second wife was Mary Sandys. With his two wives John Trevenen had ten children.  He died in 1825. 

Thomas Trevenen, another son of John and Elizabeth, followed his father and became a cleric.  He held the living at Mawgan-in-Meneage near Helston.  He married Cordelia Grylls in 1784 and they had one daughter, Emily,2 born in 1786.  Cordelia died in 1810 and Thomas in 1816.

Matthew Trevenen, the youngest son of John and Elizabeth, accompanied his brother James on a tour of Britain in 1783 (described below) but died in 1785 aged only 23.  

James Trevenen was baptised in Camborne on 2 February 1760.  He attended Helston Grammar School as a young boy but, showing an interest in the sea, was sent to the Naval Academy at Portsmouth from 1772 until 1775.  From his letters to his family we have some useful knowledge and descriptions of the academy.  Charles Vinicombe Penrose (who would later marry Trevenen’s sister, Elizabeth) was a fellow pupil, and he later wrote a memoir about James Trevenen.3  Also present at Portsmouth were two boys who would sail with Trevenen on Cook’s Third Voyage, William Charlton and James Ward.  Ward became a close friend and visited Trevenen in Cornwall.

In 1776 Trevenen became aware of a voyage to the Pacific to again be led by James Cook.  Trevenen began efforts to get himself chosen to be a member of the ship’s company.  He was successful and he joined Resolution on 2 April 1776 as a midshipman.  He remained that until 3 April 1778 when he became an able seaman (AB).  On 17 February 1779, after Cook’s death, he resumed as a midshipman and on 23 August, followed James King across to Discovery.  A firm and close friendship developed with King and they stayed closely involved until King’s premature death in 1785.  

After the voyage, Trevenen received his lieutenant’s commission on 28 October 1780, and joined HMS Conquestador.  In April 1781, he joined Captain James King in HMS Crocodile, as first lieutenant.4  She operated in the Bay of Biscay, the English Channel, the North Sea and off the southern Irish coast.  King left Crocodile in March 1782 to commission a new ship, HMS Resistance.  Trevenen followed him in July 1782 as first lieutenant in Resistance.  They escorted a convoy safely to the West Indies, where, in 1783, they took part in Nelson’s attempt to capture Turk’s Island.  

James King was already suffering badly from tuberculosis, and was forced to return to Britain.  Trevenen, who had gone down with fever, accompanied King before going to his family in Cornwall to recuperate.  About this time, peace was declared and Trevenen was paid off.  He and his brother Matthew decided to undertake a tour of Britain.  They left Cornwall in October 1783 and went via Bristol and Bath to London where they stayed from November until May 1784.  Heading north they spent some days in Derbyshire before continuing on through Newcastle and Alnwick to Edinburgh.  Cromarty was their northernmost point and on 25 June they were at Inverness heading south.  They passed through Glasgow and the Lake District before reaching London in mid-August. 

Meanwhile, James King had been staying with Edmund and Jane Burke at Beaconsfield in Buckinghamshire.  His health had deteriorated further, so he decided to move to France in the hope of finding a warmer and better climate.  James Trevenen determined to accompany him and farewelled Matthew, who set off for Cornwall.  Trevenen and King crossed from Dover to Calais on 15 September 1784.  They reached Nice in the south of France on 16 October.  King died shortly afterwards. 

James Trevenen decided to remain on the continent, and spent the next year travelling around France, Italy and Switzerland.  His letters home describe visits to Naples, Venice and Geneva.  In Switzerland he met and travelled with William Wilberforce, the anti-slavery campaigner.  In November, Trevenen learned of the death of his brother, Matthew, and returned immediately to Cornwall to be with his mother. 

In late 1786, Trevenen went to London to seek re-employment in the navy, but he was unsuccessful.  According to his brother-in-law, Charles Penrose, he may have been considered for commander of two historical voyages but was given neither.  Trevenen expressed interest in leading the First Fleet to Botany Bay.  Then Alexander Dalrymple supported his appointment to command a voyage to the Pacific to obtain breadfruit plants that could be shipped to the West Indies.  However, the more influential Sir Joseph Banks had already chosen William Bligh for the Bounty voyage.

Several people involved with Cook’s Third Voyage, including Trevenen, had seen the potential of sea otter pelts, and Trevenen managed to gain the backing of some Cornish businessmen.  However, his plan fell through.  Having failed to gain the interest of any other British backers, in early 1787 Trevenen suggested a plan to the Russian Ambassador in London whereby Russia could exploit the fur trade.  Catherine the Great approved and Trevenen was engaged by the Russian Navy.  On his arrival in St. Petersburg, he found that his plan had been shelved as Russia was by then at war with Turkey and all ships were required for battle. 

Trevenen had left Britain on 2 June 1787.  His journey to St. Petersburg was painfully slow and full of incident.  East of Berlin near Tadaikin, a carriage ran over his legs breaking them and leaving him seriously ill.  He was nursed for some weeks by Baron de Sass, and it was not until 7 October that he finally reached St. Petersburg and reported for duty. 

Another complication arose on reaching St Petersburg when Trevenen discovered that he was expected to join the Russian navy and fight the Turks.  He was given the rank of second captain.  He agreed to do so, subject to the consent of the British Admiralty.  Assuming that it would be given, he accepted the command of a ship intended for the Mediterranean.  In late 1787, he received the Admiralty's refusal.  Considering himself bound to the Russians, he sent a letter in late December resigning his commission.  However, his friends did not forward this letter, and it does not appear that the Admiralty ever knew officially of his disobedience. 

In 1788, Trevenen was given command of Rodislav, 64 guns, under Admiral Samuel Greig, one of several British officers in the Russian service.  The Russians were also at war with Sweden, and Trevenen took part in an engagement with the Swedes near Högland before being in command of a small squadron off Hangö Head.  In 1789 he was sent to occupy Porkala Point and to destroy the batteries in Barö Sound.  However, when he returned to Reval in October, Rodislav was wrecked on a submerged reef. 

Trevenen transferred to Netron Menya.  He took part in further actions against the Swedes before, on 3 July 1790, being present at the Battle of Viborg Bay, during which he was fatally wounded.  He died at Kronstadt on 9 July. 

Trevenen had married Elizabeth Farquharson in Kronstadt in February 1789.  They had one daughter, Elizabeth Farquharson Trevenen.  His widow returned to Britain, and later married Thomas Bowdler, the literary sanitiser, on 13 September 1806 at St. Anne, Soho, in London.  They soon separated, however, and lived apart.  There were no children.  Elizabeth Trevenen Bowdler died in 1845 at Bath. 

Elizabeth Farquharson Trevenen returned to Britain with her mother.  She went to live at Mawgan, Cornwall, with her uncle the Reverend Thomas Trevenen, and stayed there after his death in 1816.  She died, unmarried, in 1824 and her will was proven 27 September 1824.5

Trevenen left memoirs that provide insights into events and colleagues from the Third Voyage, including some observations about Cook.6  His will was proven on 4 December 1790.7  An executor was his brother Thomas. There is a brief biography of Trevenen in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  

David Samwell, the surgeon and his companion on Cook’s Third Voyage, wrote an obituary that appeared in the August 1790 edition of the Gentleman’s Magazine.  The poet Donald Davie wrote a poem entitled “Trevenen”.  

A portrait of Trevenen in the uniform of the Russian navy, exists but the name of the artist is unknown.8

John Robson


  1. Mary Penrose, daughter of John and Jane Penrose, married Thomas Arnold, the headmaster of Rugby School.  One of their daughters, Julia Francis Arnold, married Leonard Huxley and had two sons Julian and Aldous Huxley.   The latter was the famous writer who died in 1963. 
  2. Emily Trevenen, daughter of Thomas and Cordelia, became friendly with Derwent Coleridge (a grandson of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge). He was headmaster of Helston Grammar School and had a son Derwent Moultrie Coleridge.  Emily was godmother to the son, and wrote a book for him entitled Little Derwent’s Breakfast, published in 1839. 
  3. Cook’s Log, page 23, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011). 
  4. Cook’s Log, page 13, vol. 30, no. 1 (2007). 
  5. PROB 11/1690. 
  6. Lloyd, Christopher and Anderson, R. C. (editors). A Memoir of James Trevenen.  Navy Records Society.  1959. 
  7. PROB 11/1199. 
  8. Cook’s Log, page 23, vol. 34, no. 3 (2011)

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 22, volume 36, number 2 (2013).

I used to know, very vaguely, a music journalist, who, having had his work copied without his permission so many times, started to include deliberate errors.  He was, therefore, able to shame the Sunday Times newspaper when that august journal reproduced one of his pieces without permission or attribution.

I would like to pretend that I had done the same with one of the pieces that I have contributed to Cook’s Log but, alas, mine was just a sloppy mistake.  In the piece I wrote about James Trevenen I put the name of his brother-in-law as Christopher Vinicombe Penrose when, as everyone knows, the man was called Charles Vinicombe Penrose.  Many thanks to an eagle-eyed reader who spotted my mistake.  Apologies.  

In my defence, I am so used to our wonderful editor picking up and correcting errors such as this, I am surprised he missed this one.

John Robson

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 64, volume 43, number 3 (2020).

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Very interesting. I recently discovered that my 4GGA (Elizabeth TOPLIS)'s sister Dorothy married Dr Benjamin DRAWWATER, who served with Captain Cook on his 1770s voyages. Intriguing that he the two men must have known each other. Joy Hungerford
By m.hungerford@ntlworld.com on 10/6/2020 4:58:39 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Thanks for the correction. It was noted in the July 2020 issue of Cook's Log, and has been added to this online version of the original article.
By Ian Boreham (webmaster) on 7/30/2020 12:58:08 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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A small correction: the name of Elizabeth Trevenen Penrose's husband was Sir Charles Vinicombe Penrose (not Christopher). He rose to Admiral during the Napoleonic wars and distinguished himself in a long naval career. A joint biography of these two interesting men was published by a younger member of the Penrose family.
By Ann Pearson on 6/17/2020 4:56:46 PM Like:0 DisLike:0
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Fascinated by this account.The Trevenen name also crops up in relation to Matthew Arnold,poet and the Huxley family.My ancestors in Cornwall also include the Gundries of the Gundry bank.One of my ancestors is Emma Trevenen Gundry buried in the churchyard of Llanhydroch.
Michael Trevenen Bull
By michaeltrevenen@hotmail.com on 3/14/2019 11:36:18 PM Like:1 DisLike:0
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I can provide some more information about the Trevenen family - for example, the Reverend John, James father, was a partner, with other notable cornish people including theSt Aubyn family, in the Cornwall Copper Company. The partnerships continued in the family for many years.
By John Trevenen on 2/3/2016 6:58:53 PM Like:3 DisLike:0

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