Ezra Whiting c.1758-1801

Battle of Algeciras Bay, 6-12 July 1801: image from Wikipedia

Parents: Daniel Whiting and Ann Spackman (nee Wilson) (1,2)
Born: c.1758
Baptised: 31st January 1758 at the Congregational Church, Haverhill.(1,2)
Married (1): Elizabeth French, on 5th April 1780 at St Mary's Parish Church, Haverhill.(2,3)
Children: None.
Married (2): Elizabeth Andrews, spinster of Castle Camps, on 27th June 1790 at All Saint's Parish Church, Castle Camps, Cambridgeshire. Witnessed by Thomas Calton and Charles Brown.(11)
Children: Henry Whiting b.1791
Died: Drowned in Portsmouth harbour on 7th November 1801, after falling overboard from the Venerable.(4)

Bio: Ezra Whiting may have been born early in 1758 or possibly the year before and was baptised on 31st January 1758 at the Congregational Church, Haverhill, where his parents Daniel and Ann were members of the Protestant Dissenting Congregation. His elder brothers Daniel and James were also baptised there.

Ezra is a name that occurs in several previous instances amongst the Whitings earlier in the 18th Century. Burials for Ezra Whitings are recorded in the Parish Register in 1758 and 1768, but as details for individuals listed in death entries are few and far between during this era I am taking the opinion that these belong to the Ezras that preceded this one. I haven't found mention of another Ezra Whiting born in Haverhill of a suitable age who the following events could have happened to, and Parish registers of both the Conformist and Nonconformist varieties coupled with entries in Barnabas Webb's diary give a fairly reliable account of baptisms during this era.

Ezra married Elizabeth French on 5th April 1780.

On the 12th May 1780 his name appears on a Settlement Certificate for poor relief attesting to the fact that Elizabeth Wright, widow, was an inhabitant of the parish of Haverhill(15). He is listed as being one of several overseers of the poor of the parish, and is also mentioned as the person making an oath to the authenticity of the other signatures on the settlement. The other people that signed were churchwarden Geoffrey King, and overseers James Wright, Thomas Flack, Edward Scandrett and Robert Hawes. Although Ezra is the only one who signed with a mark, it seems he was a well-respected member of the community at this time.

Ezra's wife Elizabeth was to die four years later on Sunday 7th February 1784 at the age of 22 and was buried at St Mary's, Haverhill, on 11th February.(3,17)

It doesn't look like Ezra and Elizabeth had any children, and some six years later Ezra was to marry again - to another Elizabeth.

He married Elizabeth Andrews on 27th June 1790(2,11) in Castle Camps, Cambridgeshire, and the marriage register shows both he and his new wife as being 'of this parish'. Mention is also made that he is a widower. Perhaps he had moved to Castle Camps after the death of his previous wife, but not long after his second marriage he must have moved back to Haverhill. He and Elizabeth had one child that we know of, Henry, who was born in April 1791 and is listed as being baptised at St Mary's Parish Church, Haverhill, on 1st May 1791 aged one month(3). His mother's surname is confirmed as Andrews, here.

What happened to Ezra Whiting after this? My curiousity was aroused by an entry in Barnabas Webb's (the brother of Haverhill poet, John Webb) pocket book:

'Ezra Whiting was after some water on board the Venerable man-of-war at Portsmouth, by some accident he fell overboard and drowned - November 7th 1801. He had left home upwards of 7 years.'(2)

The last sentence intrigued me. When I first saw this entry, I wasn't aware of Ezra's date of birth and I assumed this meant he was a young man who had left home seven years ago and would have been in his mid twenties. I made a mental note to check out the ships muster rolls for the Venerable when I was next at the Archives in Kew, and so when the opportunity presented itself I found myself searching through the cumbersome volumes relating to the Venerable armed with my trusty mobile phone camera.

After what seemed an age, I tracked down the entry with his death. It said '7th November 1801 - drowned by accident in Portsmouth Harbour'(6), but the person it related to was known as Israel Whiting, 42, from Haverhill.

So this was not a young man starting out in the Navy, and why had he changed his name? It was definitely the same person that Barnabas Webb was referring to as the birthplace and details of his death matched exactly. Now the phrase 'left home upwards of 7 years.' took on a whole new meaning. Ezra must have been about 35 when he joined the Navy. Seems a little late to be joining up - Was he escaping from a domestic situation that had become untenable, perhaps? The change of name seemed to fit in with someone wanting to start a new life, or would looking at the historical context shed any light on matters?

It seems that taking men into the Navy by force and without notice, or 'Impressment', was definitely a feature of the 1790's as there was a huge demand for crews for ships to take part in the frequent sea wars the Royal Navy was fighting. However, the people who were taken off by 'press gangs' were mostly 'eligible men of seafaring habits between the age of 18 and 45 years.'(4) Might Ezra have fallen into this category? I have not found any evidence as yet that he had previous experience of life at sea, but judging by the fact that more Haverhill men than you'd imagine joined either the Marines or Navy it should not be discounted.

There was also the Quota system (or The Quod) introduced in 1795(5) that required each county to supply a quota of men for the Royal Navy, but this might have come just too late to be applicable to Ezra if Barnabas Webb's diary entry is to be believed.

Looking through the preceding Muster Rolls I began to build up a picture of his naval career.

Strangely, it seems he was known as Isaac, alias Israel, Whiting. His age at 42 was correct, as was his town of origin. The Rolls show he had been in the crew of the Venerable since February 1799(7) but prior to this the trail runs cold. He was not present on the previous Rolls and as the Observer of Sunday January 20th 1799 shows 'The Russian Ship, Elizabeth, of 74 guns, was taken out of dock, at Chatham, on Tuesday; as was on the following day the Venerable, of like force, having received a thorough repair.'(8) The Venerable was in for a refit, the old crew would have been paid-off and Ezra would have been part of the new crew that boarded her in February.

That leaves 5 years unaccounted for in which the likelihood is that Ezra was serving on another Royal Naval vessel. But which one? Your guess is as good as mine, as the strength of the Royal Navy at that time was around 600 ships(9)

The Venerable Pay books for 30 January 1799 to 31 January 1800(12) show that Ezra/Isaac/Israel joined the ship on 22nd January, and his entry reads 'Isaac Whiting, Ab' and below is 'Alias Israel } to ye 17th April 1799 then Ordny'. This implies he was an Able Seaman to 17th April 1799, then was an Ordinary Seaman until 23rd March 1801 when later Muster Rolls show he reverted to Able Seaman again. An Able Seaman was a higher rank, why he appears to have been demoted is unclear. The Pay books show he got £7 4d for his first year aboard the Venerable after deductions.

Without doubt Ezra saw action aboard the Venerable, which was a 74 gun third rate ship of the line that had been launched on 19th April 1784. It had already gained fame in a British victory against the Dutch at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797, where it was Admiral Duncan's flagship.

After its refit at Chatham in January 1799, The Venerable took to the seas first under the Captaincy of Rear Admiral Whitshead for Channel duties, and then later under Sir Samuel Hood, when along with the Superb and the Cambrian it captured the Spanish ship Carmen in the western ocean in April 1801. The Venerable then headed for Spain and fought at the Battle of Algeciras Bay (see picture at top of page) on 6-12th July 1801 in a fleet under the command of Sir James Saumarez. This was actually two battles, the first of which was a defeat for the British forces, and the second, also known as 'The Gut of Spain' was a triumph for the Royal Navy against the Franco-Spanish Fleet.

The Venerable was in the thick of the fighting and no doubt Ezra at the age of 42 must have been feeling the strain. It seems that moral was good however, and even after stopping at Gibraltar for a refit and to offload any wounded the sailors were more than keen to get stuck into the Spanish once more - 'The wounded sailors in the hospital at Rosia Bay, when they heard that the squadron was preparing to fight the enemy, came down to the Pier Head begging admission into the boats so that they could have a 'lick at the Dons', those that were convalescent were taken on board their respective ships.'(10)

The sailors would certainly not be disappointed with the amount of action they saw. At one point the Venerable lost its main mast in the heat of battle and was grounded on rocks off San Pedro, anxiously waiting to see if the whole French and Spanish fleet would descend upon it and finish it off. Captain Hood was given the order to destroy the ship if this happened. Luckily, the aptly named Audacious and Superb arrived in the nick of time to fight off the enemy and save the Venerable from total destruction, allowing it to be towed back into Gibraltar for repairs.

For a great timeline of the events in the life of the Venerable during this period, see 'Ships of the Old Navy' at Michael Philip's site 'The Age of Nelson' (www.ageofnelson.org).

The irony is that having survived these ferocious encounters, Ezra was to die in an accident in friendly waters in Portsmouth harbour on 7th November, falling overboard and drowning some two weeks before the ship was 'paid-off' on 24th November 1801. Of the sailors that died during service, accidental death was a not uncommon fate, it appears. In 1810 it accounted for 31.5% of deaths as opposed to 50% as a result of disease and only 8.3% as a result of action with the enemy.(13)

Ezra's widow Elizabeth married George Tash (strangely, his surname is entered alias Beavis) on 27th July 1802 at Haverhill parish church(16). Whilst looking through Haverhill parish chest papers, Lauraine McPhee (who is researching the Farrants) very kindly transcribed for me an entry that she spotted concerning the apprenticeship of Ezra's son Henry Whiting: 'Henry Whiting, son of Elizabeth, stepson of George Tash of Haverhill, aged 14, to John Furbank, of Ashdon Essex, miller and baker, apprentice fee £10 also £2 2s to be paid Michaelmas 1807, if he should still be living with his master for clothes. Apprenticed until he be 21 years. (dated 1804)'.(14) Whether Henry finished his apprenticeship and what became of him is unclear, but this information certainly provides a few pointers that may help in tracking him down.

Ezra is our first seafaring Haverhill Whiting, then. There is a bit of a mystery surrounding where he was for the five years leading up to his service aboard the Venerable, and why he joined the Navy at such a late age - but if it was adventure he was after, he certainly got his fair share of that.


(1) Haverhill Non-conformist Registers, LDS Film 825404.
(2) Barnabas Webb’s pocket-book, Suffolk Records Office, Bury St Edmunds. HA553/1
(3) Suffolk Records Office, Bury St Edmunds, Parish Registers of St Mary's Church, Haverhill. Fiche FL578/4
(4) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Impressment
(5) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quota_System_(Royal_Navy)
(6) National Archives, ADM 36/13797, Venerable Muster Rolls, dec 1800 to nov 1801
(7) National Archives, ADM 36, 13069, Venerable Muster Rolls, Feb 1799 to May 1799
(8) Observer (London, England), Sunday, January 20, 1799; Issue 370. 17th-18th Century Burney Collection Newspapers.
(9) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Royal_Navy
(10) http://www.ageofnelson.org/MichaelPhillips/info.php?ref=2330
(11) Cambridgeshire Family History Society, Transcriptions of the Parish Registers of Castle Camps.
(12) National Archives, ADM35, 1977, Venerable: Ships Pay Books, 30 Jan 1799 to 31 Jan 1800
(13) http://www.nelsonsnavy.co.uk/broadside2.html
(14) Suffolk Records Office, Bury St Edmunds, Apprenticeship Indentures, FL578/7/31.14~
(15) SEAX, Essex Record Office, Settlement Certificate, 1780, Ref: D/B 2 PAR4/188.
(16) Suffolk Marriage Index (1754-1812) for the Deaneries of Clare and Fordham, SFHS.
(17) Suffolk Burial Index (1538-1900), SFHS.