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Henry Williams

The Early Years


Henry Williams was the fifth of nine children born to Thomas and Mary Williams (née Marsh). He was born in Kingston (Portsea) on 11 February, 1792, and moved with the family to Nottingham in 1794.[1]


Little is known about Henry Williams’ early schooling in Nottingham, although he probably went to a school similar to that later attended by his brother, William.[2] Henry had a long-held ambition to join the Navy[3] and a family friend, Captain (later Admiral) Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke, arranged for him to join his ship HMS Barfleur, on 17 November, 1806, when he was 14 years old.[4] By this time the Portsmouth Naval Academy had closed its doors and appointment of midshipmen was then at the discretion of captains. They were usually young men from professional or merchant families, or landed gentry who took up the post and the accompanying training in order to become commissioned officers. He served for two months as a ‘first class volunteer’ before being promoted to midshipman on 1 February, 1807.[5] England was already engaged in the Napoleonic Wars and the Navy was blockading the French coast, so it was almost inevitable he would soon be in action.


Henry joined HMS Maida (Captain Samuel Hood Linzee) in 1807. Later that year the ship took part in the Second Battle of Copenhagen, in which the city was bombarded, with great loss of life, and the Danish fleet seized. In February, 1810, he was on board the HMS Christian VII [6] (Captain Joseph Sydney Yorke) when there were several engagements with French ships in the Basque Roads. He joined the frigate HMS Galatea (Captain Woodley Losack) in September 1810 and saw action in the Battle of Tamatave (20 May, 1811), off Madagascar. This was part of a campaign to protect British trade routes to India from the French and, although the French squadron was defeated, Galatea was severely damaged, and a number of her crew killed or injured. Henry was amongst those listed as ‘slightly wounded’, an injury that was to trouble him in later years. In May, 1812 he transferred to HMS Racehorse (Captain James de Rippe) [7] and on his return to England sat his examination for Lieutenant, and on 3 November, 1813, Henry Williams of Racehorse was formally listed as having passed.[8]


Following his examinations he went to HMS Saturn (Captain James Nash). The War of 1812 with the United States of America saw him, in 1814, as part of a fleet blockading the American East Coast. However on 31 October, 1814 he and a number of others transferred to the HMS Endymion (Captain Henry Hope) to replace crew lost in a previous engagement, and joined the blockade off New York.[9] On 15 January, 1815 Endymion chased and attacked the USS President, and when joined by two more English vessels, the President finally surrendered. Both Endymion and President were damaged in the encounter, and a prize crew that included Henry Williams was placed on the latter to sail her in company with Endymion to Bermuda. A mutiny by the American prisoners and a violent storm, which further damaged the ships, nearly brought things to a premature end. After undergoing makeshift repairs the two ships returned to England, with Henry Williams still part of the prize crew on the President. They arrived on 28 March, 1815. The Treaty of Ghent, ratified by Britain in December the previous year, signalled an end to the war. But hostilities continued well into the following year, partly because the United States Senate did not ratify the Treaty until 16 February, 1815.


In 1815 his promotion to Lieutenant was gazetted at the age of 23. He joined HMS Thames (Captain Walpole) for just a few weeks when, following the Battle of Waterloo, Napoleon surrendered. With the Peace Henry Williams was discharged from the Navy on half pay on 30 August,1815, commended by his Captain for his ‘Diligence and Sobriety'.[10] The ship was broken up the following year. With no future conflict in sight, many ships were de-commissioned or placed in reserve, officers put on half-pay and crews laid off, the number remaining a fraction of that when the Navy was on a war footing.[11] Although he volunteered for service right up to the end, it is also likely that there was reflection on the violence and futility of war, of which he had had his share. This, and an episode on the USS President that put his life at risk for no good reason, may have provided a turning point.[12] As a later footnote to his naval service; in 1849 The London Gazette carried notice of the award of Naval General Service Medal (with clasp) to those who had taken part in the Battle of Tamitave, and another for the Endymion crew for their battle with the USS President. The medal with clasps was sent to Henry Williams in New Zealand[13].


After the Navy Henry went to Cheltenham in 1817 where for a short time he practised as a drawing-master – hints of his artistic ability can be seen in sketches made in England and later in New Zealand.[14] On 20 January, 1818 he married Marianne Coldham, and he fell under the influence of his brother-in-law[15] Edward Marsh, a clergyman and active member of the Church Missionary Society, and he developed a commitment to serve as a missionary. On his wedding day, Marsh persuaded him to subscribe to the journal The Missionary Register.[16] He offered his services to the CMS in 1819, and was accepted as a lay settler, and then, in 1820, as a missionary candidate.[17] Time passed as he prepared for his new role, picking up skills such as surgery, medicine, and boatbuilding.[18] He studied for Holy Orders, being ordained deacon and then priest in 1822.


Despite delays, and concerns expressed by Marsh and the CMS about life in New Zealand, he sailed on 15 September, 1822[19] on the Lord Sidmouth with Marianne and three children. To put this in context, a journey of that magnitude to such a remote destination, while daunting, was not as novel as it might appear.[20] Emigration from Britain was substantial after 1820, lengthy ocean-going voyages were commonplace (Henry himself had experienced a number while in the Navy), and New South Wales and Tasmania had thriving, if somewhat tumultuous, settlements. Nevertheless the attendant uncertainties and separation from their English family, and the nature of their mission, must have caused them considerable anxiety, which had to be overruled time and again by their trenchant faith.


At this point we can briefly explore the apparent contradiction between Henry Williams’ early life and naval service, and his becoming a CMS missionary to New Zealand. First, he was brought up in a strongly religious family, a pastor as grandfather, and a mother who instilled in him the Church’s teachings and values. The Church and military service were common career choices at the time – not uncommonly among members of the same family.


Joining the Navy did not mean that he was cast into a religious void. Captains were instructed to ensure the performance of Divine Service –if a Chaplain was present- and a sermon preached every Sunday, with all crew to attend. As well the Captain was to see to the prevention of all bad or immoral behaviour. A Chaplain was to ‘instruct in the principles of Christian Religion’ and also to appoint ‘a well disposed person to instruct…the boys of the Ship in the Catechism…’.[21] We do not know to what extent, if any, Henry Williams exercised his religious knowledge and beliefs, but the opportunity may have presented itself in an environment that was as unpredictable and dangerous as he would find later in New Zealand. Survival of naval engagements, and violent weather might be seen as Divine intervention by mariners who were by turns, superstitious and religious.


The choice of occupation once he left the Navy was limited, especially as he was one of hundreds of thousands of returning servicemen facing unemployment. The family business had vanished. A spell as a drawing master would have been a pleasant and relaxing antidote to his navy years – but only for a short time for someone used to an active and challenging life. Missions spreading the gospel to those deemed to be living in a “wretched state” had been around for some time, in the hands of several denominations. The Church Missionary Society was a relatively recent and active example, and the Reverend Edward Marsh a persuasive advocate.  Work as a missionary in New Zealand must have seemed as exciting and challenging as the Navy had been before, but with the addition of potentially beneficial outcomes, as seen in those times by those who endorsed the spread of Christianity. Apart from his faith and a sense of mission, it was a task that required a sense of service and loyalty, as well as direction, authority and leadership – qualities he was already able to draw on. Apart from a couple of voyages to Australia, he was to remain in New Zealand for the rest of his life.


[1] Portsea is the name given to part of the island (it was called Portsea Island) on which Portsmouth is located. Gosport where older Williams siblings were born, is adjacent to the island.

[2] Mrs White’s school.

[3] Carleton, H, 1874, The Life of Henry Williams, Archdeacon of Waimate, v.1, p. 12. His early enthusiasm for things naval is reflected in the meticulous construction of a model naval ship at the age of the eleven. A photo can be seen in R & A Evans, 1998, Faith and Farming, Evagean Publishing, p. 8. It flies the red ensign, which is correct for that period, it was not until later in the 19th century that the white ensign became the sole flag for the navy.

[4] Rogers, LM, 1973, Te Wiremu – A Biography of Henry Williams. Pegasus Press, Christchurch, p.31 records George Martin as Captain of Barfleur, who had been promoted to Rear Admiral and replaced by Yorke at the time Henry joined.

[5] Rogers, LM, 1973, loc. cit, p.31.

[6] One of the captured Danish fleet, commissioned in the British Navy.

[7] Also at Tamitave.

[8] The Naval Chronicle, v. 30, p 446. This was the normal period (about 7 years) allowed to elapse from becoming a midshipman to becoming a lieutenant.

[9] Known as the ‘Black Frigate’, Rogers, LM, 1973, loc. cit., p.33. Rogers gives a detailed account of Williams’ naval record, sourced from the Public Records Office, London. It was the fastest ship in the Royal Navy, and is mentioned in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park (her brother served on it).

[10] Rogers, LM, 1973, loc. cit., p.34. As noted above, he had passed his examinations earlier, but had to wait, presumably for an opening, before the promotion came through (In The Naval Chronicle v.34 1815, July-December, p.175). The terms ‘discharged’ and ‘retired’ are used interchangeably in this context. Much later, in 1846 in New Zealand, a rumour was circulated that Henry Williams was dishonourably discharged from the Navy. Official documents sought at the time from England showed this charge to be false, and Bishop Selwyn, interviewing one of those promulgating the story, drew the conclusion that it was hearsay, Carleton, H, 1874, loc. cit., v.1 Appendix, pp. ii, iii.

[11] An undated (although probably late 19th C) newspaper column written by “Tangiwai” and headed “Henry Williams R.N., How he went to the Devil” quotes the reminiscences of a merchant Capt. Frederick George Moore, who had met Henry Williams at Paihia.  Back in England, an old naval friend of Moore’s father had told him “ you may some day meet an old chum of your father and myself. In our younger days we thought Williams would make a smart good officer; but confound it, my boy, all at once he took a serious turn, bore up for the church, and went to the devil altogether”. In recounting this story to the Williams family in New Zealand, Moore said he was merely saying that “ the Service lost the makings of a good sailor, and ourselves a jolly and kind messmate”. Time and poetic licence need to be allowed for here, but there may be some truth to the account. (MS collection, Williams family)

[12] A view strongly held by his father ( Carleton, H, 1874, loc. cit., v.1, p.14, presumably obtained this information directly from Henry Williams.

[13] The medal with clasps, and a letter from the Navy is in the possession of a member of the family in New Zealand.

[14] John Marsh records meeting Henry and Marianne  at John Williams’ (Henry’s older brother) house, noting: ‘Henry the Lieuten’t who, by way of filling his time  & turning his hobby horse to some account, had been taking lessons in drawing of which he had a very good notion’. (Williams,  N H , (n.d.) The Williams Family in the 18th and 19th Centuries, unpubl. MS). We  assume that ‘taking lessons’ in this context means giving rather than receiving them.

[15] Married to his sister Lydia.

[16] Carleton, H, 1874, loc. cit., p.13.

[17] Fisher, R, 1990, Henry Williams, The Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, Allen and Unwin & Department of Internal Affairs, Wellington, p.593.

[18] Carleton, H, 1974, loc. cit., p.17. He also studied boat-building on the voyage to New Zealand.

[19] This date is from Marianne Williams’ Journal quoted in Fitzgerald, C, 2004, Letters from the Bay of Islands, Penguin, Auckland, p.27. Other dates were 11 September, in R Evans, ed., 1998, Faith and Farming, Evergean Publishing, Auckland, p. 14; Carleton, H, 1874, loc. cit., v.1, p. 19, gives 17 September; and Rogers, LM, 1973, loc. cit., p.43 gives 18 September, having boarded on the 7 September.

[20]  Storms, shipwreck, fire and infections from fellow passengers and crew were ever-present dangers.

[21] Pp. 160, 248, Regulations and Instructions relating to His Majesty’s Service at Sea, 1808,

Model ship of the line by Henry

Williams, aged 11.

With permission of the Auckland Museum Library.

HMS Barfleur at left, by Thomas


HMS Galatea by Thomas


The Battle of Tamitave.

HMS Galatea right


HMS Endymion in pursuit of

USS President, by Henry Williams.

With permission of the Auckland Museum Library.

USS President at left engaging

HMS Endymion, by Henry Williams.

With permission of the Auckland Museum Library.

Map of naval exploits.

Naval medal of the type awarded to

the crew of HMS Endymion.

The house at Nuneham Courtenay,

by Henry Williams.

With permission of the Auckland Museum Library.

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