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Ball, William (c1773 - 1852) Sailor at time of Nelson

William Ball Abt 1773 – 1852


At the moment this is one of the biographies that is like one of those infamous cars that are really two entirely different vehicles which have been welded together. I have not yet managed to link the two parts of the story together completely. It just needs one more bit of information on either side of the story to be sure either way.


William Ball is one of the earliest of our Ringstead lives. He was born in about 1773 in Great Addington and crossed the Nene to get married and live. In his later years he was a shepherd with a family but the 1851 Census gives us the clue that his was not a life always spent in the pastures of Ringstead quietly looking after his flocks. In his old age it describes him as a “Greenwich Pensioner”. This was the naval equivalent of the more well known Chelsea Pensioner, which was a title reserved for men who had served in the army. There was a magnificent “hospital” at Greenwich where those with in-pensions lived but the great majority of the pensioners lived at home and were paid a small “out” pension based mainly on their years of service.


The records do have an entry for a William Ball giving his service so that his pension can be calculated. As there does not appear to be another of that name in the records we have to assume that he is our man. He was engaged on the 9th April 1796 as an Able Seaman co-opted (?) as a Ship’s Carpenter. His first boat was the HMS Redoubt which originally had been a civilian boat called the Rover. It had been purchased by the navy in 1793 and converted into a 20-gun floating battery and was intended to be used inshore to protect the coast. Its first task was to defend one of the east coast ports. The Napoleonic Wars had raised the fear of invasion. An alternative seat of government had been built at Weedon Bec in Northamptonshire in case London was captured. Also the coastline was fortified and the Martello towers built.


 Kingston upon Hull, usually known simply as Hull, in the East Riding of Yorkshire was a major port where a citadel had been built in the seventeenth century to defend it against attack from the sea. Now the defences were reinforced and three ships, fitted out as floating batteries were sailed to the Humber. The Nonsuch was anchored in White Booth Roads and the Redoubt and the Nautilus in the Humber


We do not know exactly when the Redoubt was fitted out but it seems likely that William was helping with the completion of the changes needed for its new role. It does not seem that the three boats saw any action.


On 23rd September 1799, still listed as a carpenter, William was transferred to HMS Ambuscade. This was originally a French ship, L'Embuscade which had been captured on 12th October 1798 by Rear Admiral Sir J. B. Warren’s squadron off the coast of Ireland. William was only on board for some five months, until 14th February 1800. He is again listed as a carpenter and it seems likely that he was repairing and refitting the French boat ready for action as part of the British navy.


The wooden ships meant that often enemy vessels could be quickly recycled to become part of the British fleet. This, together with the purchase of ships from the merchant navy, which were also sometimes sold back, meant that there were often a bewildering number of vessels with ever-changing names.

The Immortalité being captured by HMS Fisgard

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On 15th February 1800 William transferred to HMS Immortalité which, unsurprisingly, was also a former French ship. This Romaine class frigate, Immortalité, had been captured on 20th October 1798 by HMS Fisgard, shortly after the Battle of Tory Island. It was a 42-gun 5th Rate ship and saw active service on the Home Station. Once again it seems likely that William was involved in the recommissioning of the vessel but he also remained on the ship for just over five years, until 27th May 1805. A year later, in July 1806, HMS Immortalité belied her name and was broken up.


Meanwhile William had, on 29th May 1805 William joined the HMS Diomede which was a British boat launched in 1798 in Deptford. Soon after joining it appears that William was part of a secret operation far away from the main conflict in Europe. A small fleet carrying various regiments left Falmouth bound ostensibly for the East Indies. They stopped at Madeira and waited for a larger fleet which had left Cork, said to be going to the Mediterranean. It was under the protection of three ships of sixty-four guns, one ship of fifty guns and two ships of thirty-two guns. The fifty-gun ship was the Diomede. Altogether an army of six thousand six hundred and fifty four men was aboard.


The destination was not the East Indies or the Mediterranean but the Cape of Good Hope. Of course, at the time, events in Europe were distracting the French and the Battle of Trafalgar in October gave the British supremacy of the seas and stopped the threat of invasion. The Dutch were in possession of the Cape and a century later a bloody war was to be fought over the same ground between the two nations. Strong gales stopped the intended landing which was some sixteen miles from Cape Town. Then the Diomede with the transport ships of the 38th Regiment, the cavalry ships and a proportion of the artillery, preceded by HMS L’Espoir sailed to Saldanha Bay The wind abated overnight and on the afternoon of the 6th January the troops were landed with the loss of one boat which had ventured beyond the protection of the bay.


The action led to the capture of the Cape and, we read, on 9th February 1806 William was promoted to Acting Master Shipwright at the Cape of Good Hope. Was his worth recognised or did someone die or leave the ship?


Here his record becomes a little confusing. If we look at the Diomede’s progress after the Cape of Good Hope we find that she was involved in strange action in South America where, without government approval, an attack was made in the River Plate region of South America. An unsuccessful attack on Buenos Aires was followed by the capture of Monte Video. (IMPROVE THIS)


After the capture of Monte Video the Diomede returned to England and was put out of commission in June 1807. The problem is that William seems to have left the service and possibly the Diomede in February 1807. We need to check if the Diomede had docked in England by that date. He then appears to lose his rank of Acting Master Shipwright and there also seems to be a break in his service record of some seven months. This may just be a confusion in the records but more research is needed.


My very rough sketch of a ship's carpenter at about this time

William joined HMS Berwick on 5th September 1807 and again there is something of a problem. The Berwick was commissioned in 1809 There seems to be at least three possibilities: he was stationed at a shipbuilding yard in Berwick-on-Tweed not on a ship; he was involved in commissioning the San Juan Nepomuceno which was a Spanish ship captured at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 and was briefly renamed HMS Berwick but was then named San Juan (presumably when the new Berwick was launched), and acted as a supply hulk in Gibraltar harbour; he worked on the HMS Berwick, a 74-gun third rate ship of the line launched in 1809, both before and after it was launched.


More research is needed before we make too many assumptions about William’s final years in the navy. (IMPROVE). He remained in or on the Berwick until he finally left the navy on 3rd October 1816. There is one last document from the Public record office which gives us a little more information and perhaps clarifies the situation. It records that on a ship named the Berwick a William Ball “Passed for Lieutenant on 5th January 1815 and became a Lieutenant from 6th March of the same year. He seems to have remained so until 1st July 1816. There is a slight discrepancy in the discharge dates so there is the possibility that there were two William Balls on the Berwick who were discharged the same year but it seems unlikely. Underneath the main details it records 7/= [7 shillings] old rate. Was this his pay or the contribution to his pension?


Returning now to William’s civilian life, we know that William married Ann Weekley on 7th July 1814 at Ringstead Parish Church with, unusually, three witnesses, Henry Weekley, Eliza Goodwin and Hannah Park. He is described as a bachelor and she as a spinster. It also states that bride and groom are “BOTP”, (Both Of This Parish), but that did not mean that he had been resident long in Ringstead. It could have been a matter of a week or two. If we look at the most logical scenario, that William was on the HMS Berwick that was launched in 1809, she had taken part in the action that brought about the surrender of Genoa in April 1814. It had then returned to Portsmouth for a refit. It is possible, therefore, that William could have been on shore leave for his wedding day. He was about forty at the time of his marriage and his bride was around thirty-three years of age. I have not found Ann’s baptism, unless she was christened Mary on March 30th 1783, daughter of William and Susannah Weekley. Certainly their witness, Henry Weekley, was christened two year’s later of the same parents. (At the wedding it states the Banns are "with Consent of Parents" which usually implies that one of the parties are under the statutory age. Both William or Ann are well over this age so either it is a mistake or William married two Anns and we have taken them as one. I can find no evidence of this second possibility so we must taake it as a small error).


William and Ann were quite old to be starting a family but they lost no time and the children soon followed. Mary may have been the result of the same shore leave for she was christened on June 12th 1815 (worryingly William is described as a labourer in the Register). The records show that William’s naval career possibly ended in 1816 and William Weekley Ball was baptised in 1818, John in 1821 and Henry 1824. By the time of the christening of John, William is described as a shepherd.


In general the two lives of William, although they overlap, do fit together reasonably well. In the 1851 Census for Ringstead has William Ball, father of the head of the house, john Ball, aged 78 and a Greenwich Pensioner. Ann too, is still alive aged 76.


William and Ann both died within the next few years. William’s death certificate tells us that he died of “old age” on 15th June 1852 at Ringstead aged 78 years. At least he did not end up in the workhouse. Perhaps the pension helped them both enjoy a decent old age. He is recorded as a shepherd so we have no clue as to his naval past. Their youngest son, Henry had died as a young child but they had seen their other children, Mary, William and John prosper and join the Victorian middle class. However, the tragic affair of their son William and the disappearance of Lydia Attley would have soured their final years.


There are some worrying holes in the story of the, as yet, two Williams. The parish Register never records him as a sailor, even when he was still in the navy. On the other hand there has been a story within my family that one of my ancestors was a sea captain and William is one of only two possibilities for this role. (Family stories often upgrade the importance of an ancestor). We must wait to see if that elusive last piece of evidence needed emerges from the archives



Ringstead Parish Registers

Little Addington Parish Registers

1841, 1851 Ringstead Census

Naval Certificates of Service (Public Record Office ADM 29/8/5)

Naval Records ( PRO Documents Online ADM 196/3 image 213) (Michael Phillips Ships of the Old Navy) (HMS Immortalité: HMS Redoubt: Spanish Ship San Juan Nepomuceno) (Hull citadel and HMS Redoubt) (HMS Berwick)  (Gazette Extraordinary on Popham’s Capture of Cape Town) (History of South Africa 1795 – 1735)

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