The People of Gibraltar
1801 - The Fyers Family

Saumarez, Mann and Prince Edward - Mrs Fletcher, St. Vincent and Holloway

From a British point of view the Battle of the Bay of Algeciras - which was actually two separate engagements in which the British lost the first and then won the second - should have become one of the most memorable in their long history of naval successes. Unfortunately the sheer drama of the Battle of Trafalgar a few years later in 1805 was enough to push it into the relative obscurity from which it has never really recovered. The result is that most of us know all about Nelson but not all that much about Admiral Saumarez.

Admiral James Saumarez (Samuel Lance)

On a warm summer's day in 1801 at about 8 o'clock in the morning, Major Fyers - Chief Engineer of Gibraltar at the time - burst excitedly into one of the second floor rooms of Engineer House where his large family were having breakfast. Several British men-of-war, he told them, were rounding Cabrita Point. '"What can this mean?'"he asked. "Surely they must be strangers from the West-Indies who are ignorant of our being at war with Spain."

A contemporary view titled 'Part of Moorish Castle'. According to local historian Tito Vallejo, the top left edge of the wall is the lower part of the Moorish Castle. The ladder leads down to the so called 'Road to the Lines' - also known as El Callejon del Foco. The roof in the foreground is Engineer House where Major Fyers had his residence and from where the painting was drawn (Lt. Colonel William R. E. Booth - who was also a Royal Engineer)    LINK

Mid twentieth century photo of Engineer House, the official residence of the Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers who was also often referred to as the Chief Engineer of Gibraltar. The house has since been demolished (Unknown)

Fyers was, of course, unaware of it at the time but the British men-of-war were about to attack a frigate and three French ships of the line all under the command of Admiral Linois. They were sheltering close to the harbour of the town of Algeciras

Gibraltar's neighbour across the Bay had been the best alternative Linois had come up with when he had discovered some time earlier that Cadiz was under blockade by the British. At that time Algeciras was a heavily fortified town and he considered it a safe haven despite its proximity to Gibraltar.

Contre-amiral Comte de Linois (Unknown)

Major Fyers had been posted to the Rock in 1788. Eliott still had a year to go. Among his family - which Fyers had brought with him to Gibraltar - was his daughter Sarah who was affectionately known within British circles as ‘the Beauty of the Rock’. Sarah’s claim to fame is not all that surprising. Not only was she very pretty, she also wrote a firsthand account of the Battle of the Bay of Algeciras when she was only seventeen years old.

On hearing her father's news, she and the rest of her family quickly emptied the breakfast room and moved to a better vantage point with an excellent view of the bay. There they were joined by other officers as they watched the ships moving in towards Algeciras. It was lovely day, she wrote, and 'a beautiful sight to see those magnificent ships, their white sails shining in the sun and following each other at intervals'.

Colonel William Fyers (John Hoppner)

The Fyers were not the only ones to have noticed what was going on. According to Sarah "every soul in the place" had congregated either along the Line Wall or further up the Rock in order to get a good view. The murmur of so many voices, she wrote poetically, reminded her of the '"ound of the sea waves." The Line Wall itself was so "densely crowded with spectators that nothing but human heads could be seen."

A British man-of-war entering the Bay. 'A beautiful sight' wrote Sarah (Thomas Whitecombe) LINK

The result of this first naval engagement against the French fleet was a disaster for the English in general and for Admiral James Saumarez in particular. When the smoke cleared Sarah had the 'mortification' of seeing the British ships limping back to Rosia Bay, 'defeated and much injured by enemy shot.'

HMS Hannibal aground and dismasted at the Battle of Algeciras Bay. Despite the proliferation of French flags, most of the ships surrounding the Hannibal would have been British warships (Unknown)

A French view of the Battle of Algeciras (Pierre Ozanne)    LINK

Early 19th century showing several battered British men-of-war off Gibraltar. They may well have been involved in the Battle of the Bay of Algeciras. The name of the battle is unusual in that the Bay is almost universally known - at least in English - as the Bay of Gibraltar. Perhaps the fact that the battle took place right in front of the town might have had something to do with it (Unknown)    LINK

Ironically the Spaniards used red hot shot similar to that employed against them to such good effect during the Great Siege. The British ships, on the other hand, had scarcely covered themselves in glory. Not only did they lost the battle but had also unnecessarily turned their guns of the town itself. As a Spanish report puts it; 'The English . . . having left covered in shame, directed their fire against an inoffensive town'; a rather hypocritical statement considering the damage done to the town of Gibraltar by the Franco-Hispanic forces a few years earlier during the Siege.

It was nevertheless painful to watch. As Sarah wrote in her diary, 'by the help of our glasses we could distinguish the poor peasants, women and children, climbing up the steep mountain at the back of the town of Algeciras that they might get out of the reach of shot.'

Map of the Bay of Algeciras as it was during Sarah's time in Gibraltar (Vicente Tofiño de San Miguel - Spanish naval officer, astronomer, mathematician, correspondent of the Spanish Academy of History and of the French and Portuguese Academy of Sciences. But most of all he was a renowned hydrographer. Over a period years he charted the entire coasts of Spain and North Africa)     LINK

Six days later, in the company of several Spanish ships, the French men-of-war left Algeciras. A thoroughly determined Saumarez bent on revenge followed them through the Gut. In a skilful night manoeuvre, one of his ships managed to get between the Real Carlos and the San Hermenegildo, two of the largest ships afloat at the time. They ended up firing furiously at each other and both ships were lost. From Saumarez' point of view the outcome more than made up for his previous losses.

The Real Carlos and the San Hermenegildo firing at each other (Unknown)

On the 15th of July 1801, just twenty-four hours before this second instalment of the battle, Sarah Fyers got married. Her fiancée was Cornellius Mann a young officer of the Royal Engineers. The long drawn out celebrations eventually seem to have merged with those for the final outcome of the Battle of Algeciras Bay.

According to Sarah, the wedding was performed in her ‘father’s drawing room, the candles and lamps were all lit up for the illumination, adding not a little to the heat of a July evening in Gibraltar.’ She was given away by the Governor, General O'Hara who had requested her father to be allowed to do so. The only person of note missing at the reception was Saumarez himself who perhaps understandably, "had suffered much from exertion and anxiety of mind and was not well enough to come." He had nevertheless found the time to sent her a rather unusual present: ‘a very handsome fish slice’ which was presented to her by Jahleel Brenton, friend of Saumarez and Captain in one of his ships during the original engagement.

Jahleel Brenton , Master and Commander (attributed to Smith of Barbados)

Preparations for the second instalment of the Battle of Algeciras. This picture is part of a set painted by Captain Jaheel Brenton depicting various stages of the Battle. The other ones appear elsewhere in this history    LINK

The Duke of Kent, who had been friendly with both the Fyers and the Manns over many years sent the bride a tea set of Royal Crown Derby China. According to the Sydney Morning Herald newspaper of 1934, much of this unique set of crockery was still extant at that date and in the possession of descendents living in Australia. It was, they said, worth an absolute fortune.

Sarah recalled Prince Edward as "a frequent visitor to our house" and remembered the 'bustle caused by the preparation of a splendid entertainment in honour of our guest'. The Duke who was stationed in Gibraltar with his regiment shortly before becoming Governor, was even persuaded to become Godson to Sarah's younger brother and was present at his christening. The baby was given the name of Edward in his honour.

On another occasion, Sarah recalls that her mother was rather surprised that the Prince was able to reel off a long and complete list of all the dishes which she intended giving her guests for supper. Apparently the Duke of Kent had got on so well with the then 10 year old Thomas Fyers - Sarah's elder brother - that the young lad had been unable "to keep to himself, all the good things that had been provided" for his "august friend".

Edward Fyers "august friend", the Duke of Kent (Sir Henry William Beechy)

Meanwhile, across the Bay in Algeciras the outcome of the naval encounter in the Straits was not known until several days after the actual event. According to Ms Fyers ‘the illuminations were thought to be in celebration of the marriage at Gibraltar.’ By ‘illuminations she may have meant the light given off by ships on fire and the noise of the firing of cannons.

An unrealistic view of Gibraltar from Algeciras ( Goodall)    LINK

Sarah left Gibraltar soon after the wedding but returned to the home of her childhood in 1837. Following in his father-in-laws footsteps, Saarah's husband had been promoted to major-general and had been given command of the Royal Engineers in Gibraltar. Her parents, however, remained on the Rock where the Major - other than watching important battles from the comfort of his house - spent much of his time arguing with his superiors.

By the end of the late eighteenth century, Gibraltar's capabilities as a naval depot left much to be desired. Admiral John Jervis for one was appalled at the lack of facilities in Gibraltar for supplying fresh water to the ships of the Royal Navy.

John Jervis, Earl of St Vincent (Sir Henry William Beechey)

Admiral Jervis - or St. Vincent as he was known after his victory in the Battle of the Cape of the same name - proposed that some very large tanks be built near Ragged Staff mole. The Admiralty agreed but St Vincent wanted Major Fyers to build and O'Hara found it difficult to obtain the necessary permission from London to allow him to do so.

The Battle of Cape St Vincent (Unknown)

Eventually permission was obtained and Fyers was ordered to work with the Navy to prepare estimates for the work . Unfortunately the work was delayed for over six years because of a serious lack of any proper planning. According to local historian Tito Benady, nobody had considered where the one million bricks required to build the reservoirs were going to come from and that the nearest place to get these would be as far away as Malaga. Although not mentioned directly in any of the dispatches, Fyers must have been at least partially responsible for this fiasco.

Many years later, now retired from his command of the Royal Engineers and a fully fledged general still living in Gibraltar, he partially redeemed himself. He was a member of a committee set up to approve a series of plans proposed by the current Chief engineer of Gibraltar, lieutenant General Charles Holloway. The committee members - together with his strong approval - dismissed the plan as ludicrous and chastised Holloway for having caved in to his Governor's absurd proposals.

When off duty Fyers relaxed by applying his considerable talents to the design, creation and running of the Garrison Library. The new building, a Regency style pile with pleasant surrounding gardens, was imposing by local standards. It was opened in 1804 and became a well known local institution.

Governor's Parade. The main building of the Gibraltar Garrison Library lies mostly hidden behind the balcony in the middle of this old postcard (Unknown)

As a young man, Fyers had fought in the American War of Independence during which he met and married Sarah, a member of an American family of considerable wealth. Like his daughter Sarah, the Colonel's wife seems to have enjoyed recording her experiences on the Rock.

Her reminiscing is rather more interesting that most of the social gossip written by her daughter as she has left us a record of what it was like to be in Gibraltar during the yellow fever epidemic of 1804. Major Fyer had moved his family to the south of the Rock as the doctors thought that they would be perfectly safe there because the air was ‘so perfectly pure’ in that part of the Rock. His third daughter Eliza agreed with her father’s reasoning. Heavily pregnant, she refused to go into town to have her baby. In the middle of a monumental storm she gave birth to her daughter inside a makeshift tent. The baby was later baptised Anne Europa to commemorate the event.

A map of the south end of the Rock. Although the 'tents' shown on windmill hill are described as a military camp they were also available as accommodation to the families of people like Major Fyers during the yellow fever epidemic of 1804. Windmill Hill Barracks was being used as a hospital at the time (Laurent)     LINK

Mrs Fyer agreed with her husband; she thought that they would be ‘much more liable to get the fever' if they left the south, 'than those who have been the whole time in the putrid air of Gibraltar which’ was ‘so offensive.’

She was understandably worried about the number of dead bodies that were piling up in town as there were not enough people available to remove them. ‘Mrs Fletcher, who is now a very pretty young woman’ she wrote graphically, ‘was seen throwing her dead father out of the chamber window.’ On several occasions children were found playing among the dead bodies of their parents and it was not unusual to have half a dozen bodies lying in the street. In some cases the healthy members of a family would abandon their homes leaving the dead behind. Nobody had either the time or the inclination to bury them.

The newly published Gibraltar Chronicle was of the opinion that it was caused by the levanter. The newspaper then suddenly became unavailable for several months as there was nobody left alive to publish it.

To end, the consequences of the 1804 yellow fever epidemic were and would be for many years - as Mrs Fyers was very well aware - absolutely devastating. However Major Fyers lucky decision to get his family to live in the southern area of Gibraltar -albeit for the wrong reason - ensured that not a single member of his family perished of the dreaded disease.

The Fyers family were typical members of the upper ranks of the British army who had been posted to Gibraltar. But despite the fact that many of them lived there for long periods of time they rarely considered Gibraltar as their real home. Young Sarah's return is unusual; but it was brought about not by choice but by coincidence - her husband's employment was the same as her father's

Captain Fyers ( Unknown )

As with most of these very British - not to say English - personalities, the real locals simply did not come into their everyday living equations and neither Sarah junior nor Sarah senior ever commented on the activities of anybody who was not British - not even at the height of the epidemic.

As such, and despite the obvious attractions of both their commentaries to any historian writing about Gibraltar, they really add very little to our understanding of what life might have been like for the ordinary non-British Gibraltarian during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.

Contemporary view of the Rock ( Noel Daudet and Baugean)      LINK