The Memory of Captain Blake

Here is my latest offering in what is fast becoming a series of blogs about memorials!

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Photo Copyright: Nicola Samuel (2019)

 

This memorial plaque can be found inside the church of St Sulien and St Mael in Corwen, Denbighshire. It begins:

SACRED TO THE BELOVED MEMORY OF
CAPTAIN WILLIAM HANS BLAKE, ROYAL NAVY,
YOUNGEST SON OF THE LATE COMMANDER GEORGE HANS BLAKE, R.N.

Captain Blake died, age 41, on 7th January 1874 at Cape Coast Castle on the west coast of Africa as the result of “excessive exertion and exposure” and being “struck down with violent African fever”.

The memorial is unusual in that it gives a very detailed account of Captain Blake’s career but does not name his wife or children except to say “This tablet was erected to the best of husbands and fathers, by his sorrowing widow.” Also, rather oddly, an identical plaque to the one in Corwen can be found in St Matthew’s Church, Windsor in New South Wales, Australia. The sheer wordiness of the memorial and the difficulty of having an identical memorial produced and sent to Australia show that Captain Blake’s “sorrowing widow” must have spent a great deal of money and effort on having the two plaques erected.

Captain Blake came from a family with a tradition of naval service and joined the navy as a cadet at the age of about 14. He was initially assigned to HMS Hound which was, at the time, deployed off the west coast of Africa intercepting ships as part of the Royal Navy’s West Africa Squadron. The Squadron functioned from 1807 to 1867 to suppress the Atlantic slave trade by intercepting slave ships and freeing slaves.

His subsequent career in the navy, described in such detail in the memorial plaque, epitomises military service at the height of the British Empire, taking him, as it did, around the world and involving him in a number of regional conflicts. He served in the West Indies, the Mediterranean, the Baltic, China, New Zealand, South America, Australia and the Pacific. He was at the bombardment of Sveaborg, a fortress in Helsinki harbour, during the Crimean War. Then he took part in the Second Opium War in China and from there went to New Zealand and took part in the First Taranaki War. Here he was seriously wounded, as the memorial explains, “by a gun-shot wound in the breast, which up to the time of his lamented death caused him much suffering, the bullet lodged near his heart, and being only extracted at the post-mortem examination held on his remains at Cape Coast Castle.”

His career ended as it had begun, with service in West Africa. This time, though, he wasn’t freeing slaves but taking part in the Third Anglo-Ashanti War, a battle with the native Ashanti tribe over control of land in the newly established British Gold Coast colony. He was “struck down with violent African fever” while taking part in the campaign and was carried back to Cape Coast Castle, but died aboard HMS Victor Emanuel and was buried on shore on 27th January 1874, as reported in this article from South Wales Daily News.

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Nothing in the plaque gives any clue as to Captain Blake’s connections to Corwen or Windsor, New South Wales. So what made these two places significant enough for Captain Blake’s widow to go to the trouble and expense of erecting the plaques?

Blake’s wife, Henrietta, was born Henrietta Fitzgerald in Windsor, New South Wales in 1846 and was baptised in St Matthew’s Church. It is likely that this is the church Henrietta attended as a child. Henrietta met Captain Blake while he was stationed in Australia serving on HMS Falcon and they married in Australia but not in this church. They married on January 4th, 1868 in St Johns Church, Darlinghurst (in the middle of Sydney). Henrietta never returned to live in Australia after she left for England with Blake and it is not clear that the church in Windsor had any special significance to Captain Blake himself. As Henrietta is not mentioned by name in the memorial, it does seem slightly odd that Captain Blake should be commemorated in the Windsor church with a plaque that gives no clues as to how he is connected to the place.

So what about the connection to Corwen? Blake was promoted to the rank of captain in 1867 and he and his new wife left for Britain in 1868. His memorial indicates that he wasn’t posted to another ship until April 1873 so, for this 5 year period, the couple were able to lead a normal family life on shore. Their first child, George Hans Sotheby, was born in 1868 in London and their second, Henrietta Rosa, in Devon in 1870. They were living in Devon at the time of the 1871 census but, by the time their third child was born on New Years’ Day 1872, they were living in Corwen.

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Extract from Corwen parish register from microfilm copy held by Denbighshire Archives (MF191). [Original held by Gwynedd Archives in Dolgellau reference no: Z/PE/19/6]

The image above shows the record for the baptism of William Lascelles Fitzgerald Blake in Corwen in 1872. As the record shows, the family were living at Glanalwen at the time, a farm just outside Corwen. Henrietta and the children were living at Glanalwen at the time of Captain Blake’s death. The photograph below shows what remains of the farm buildings.

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Photo Copyright: C. M. Brennan (2019)

The erection of the memorial plaque in 1875 was reported in the local press as seen in the cutting below from the Wrexham Guardian of September 25th.

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It is not clear what brought the Blake family to Corwen in the first place, they don’t appear to have had any family connection to the area for instance. After Captain Blake’s death, Henrietta and the children left Corwen and moved to the Norwood area of South London. Henrietta stayed in this area for the rest of her life, dying there in 1913, having never remarried.

Elisabeth A. Parfitt

4 Responses to “The Memory of Captain Blake”

  1. Graham Williams, Llangollen Says:

    Thank you for this – really interesting and beautifully written. I enjoyed it!

  2. Kerrison Griffiths ,Wrexham. Says:

    Thank you for this very interesting article.

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