Naval historian and author, Alan Smith, brings us the story of Godalming-born Admiral Sir John Balchen (1670–1744).
Most people living in or around the Godalming area will inevitably have come across the name of John George ‘Jack’ Phillips, the Chief Marconi Wireless Operator on RMS Titanic, which sank on 15 April 1912 on her maiden voyage. Born in the nearby village of Farncombe, where he was a chorister at St John the Evangelist Parish Church, Jack Phillips worked in Godalming Post Office where he learnt telegraphy. Famed in the area as the hero who repeatedly sent out the world’s first ‘SOS’ distress signal as the ship sank, his name is remembered through Godalming’s Phillips Memorial Grounds, the Phillips Memorial Cloister by the River Wey and the memorials to him in St John’s Church, Farncombe, and the Nightingale Road Cemetery – not to mention the Jack Phillips Wetherspoons on Godalming High Street. But who has heard of Admiral Sir John Balchen?
Ironically, in a lecture delivered on 14th February 1968, the then curator of Godalming Museum, Stanley Charles Dedman, described Jack Phillips as ‘the other Godalming sailor who is honoured by his town’, whereas he considered Sir John Balchen ‘the greatest single Godalming individual to have made his mark in history’. However, all we have to show for him today in Godalming is a copy of his portrait that used to hang in the Borough Hall. In contrast, the original portrait of Balchen is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and his glorious memorial stands prominently in Westminster Abbey.
We know from the Surrey Parish Register that John Balchen was born in Godalming in 1670, into a landed yeoman farming dynasty spread across the Godalming, Bramley, Catteshall and Shalford areas. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 15 and loyally served for the next 58 years through some of the most volatile times in naval history. He fought through the Nine Years’ War (1688–97) against France, the War of the Spanish Succession (1702–13) against France and Spain, the War of Quadruple Alliance (1718–20) against Spain and the War of Austrian Succession (1739–48) against Spain and France.
His early career took him to the West Indies, where the attrition rate among officers and men alike, through disease and warfare, was immense. But Balchen was a survivor and rose to become Lieutenant in 1692 and appointed to his first command as Captain in 1697, still serving in the West Indies. In 1702 he took part in the Battle of Vigo, off the coast of Spain, capturing the 56-gun French warship Modere, which he then commanded as the renamed Moderate. After serving in the North Sea and Channel for a while, Balchen’s next commissions took him to cruise off the coast of West Africa until 1707. However, later that year he lost his ship, Chester, in the Battle of the Lizard, was captured by the French, but then fully exonerated and praised in his subsequent Court Martial. Two years later he lost another ship, Gloucester, and again captured by the French and exonerated at his Court Martial!
Between 1710 and the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, Captain Balchen commanded the 54-gun Colchester and, cruising in the English Channel and then the Mediterranean, captured several French armed merchant ships and warships, amassing a considerable wealth of prize money in the process.
In 1718 he fought at the Battle of Cape Passaro, off Sicily, with the capture and destruction of a large Spanish fleet. Serving for much of the next few years in the Baltic, Balchen was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1729 while serving in the Mediterranean. Promoted again to Vice-Admiral in 1734 and then full Admiral in 1743, Balchen retired in April 1744, was knighted by King George II in May and appointed Governor of Greenwich Naval Hospital.
But that was not the peaceful retirement you might expect for this remarkable 75 year-old sailor.
In June 1744, the Admiralty pulled Sir John Balchen out of retirement to command a mighty squadron of 17 British and Dutch warships to relieve a vital victualling fleet bound for the Mediterranean but blockaded in the River Tagus, Lisbon, by a large French squadron. He boarded the Royal Navy’s largest and finest warship, the 110-gun Victory (the predecessor of Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805) and set sail in July.
Having successfully seen off the French and taken the victualling fleet to Gibraltar, the fleet set off back to England. Tragically, in a storm in the English Channel on the night of 3rd/4th October 1744, Victory sank, carrying with her Admiral Sir John Balchen, Captain Samuel Faulknor and 1,100 crew, with no survivors.
With the wreck of his ship discovered in 2008 and one of her mighty 42-lb bronze guns put on display at the National Museum of the Royal Navy in Portsmouth in 2019, is it time for Godalming to recognise and raise the profile of this local naval hero, Sir John Balchen?
Let us know what you think! Email us your views to firstname.lastname@example.org and perhaps we can then persuade the local council to commemorate Admiral Balchen in a fitting way.
Image: Admiral Sir John Balchen (1670 -1744), by John Baptiste de Medina, circa 1705 (BHC2525, ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London)