An historical tale of true love from the Essex archives
PUBLISHED: 10:24 12 February 2019
In celebration of Valentine’s Day, Sylvia Kent shares this true story of true love from the historic archives of the county
To love and be loved! This simple message has meandered through literature, art and music for as long as historical records have existed. February may be the shortest month of the year, but its association with St Valentine certainly makes it the most romantic.
No longer do maidens expect a simple posy which would have delighted our grandmothers; the modern girl will receive sophisticated gifts through the post that would certainly have shocked our more delicately-minded forebears.
For lovers of English maritime history, Valentine’s Day has special significance, for it was just over 200 years ago that one special Essex sailor became a national hero.
In the 1750s, Rochetts, a beautiful home set in the South Weald countryside near Brentwood, was the home of Sir Thomas Parker, a wealthy Privy Councillor and Chief Baron of the English Exchequer. His daughter, Martha, had fallen in love with John Jervis, her cousin.
John had been born in 1735 at Meaford, Staffordshire and was known as young Jackey. Although acknowledged as very intelligent, his side of the family were aristocratic, but impoverished.
John joined the Royal Navy on January 4, 1748, with the rating of Able-Seaman on the vessel Gloucester bound for Jamaica. He stayed with his ship until June 25, 1752, when be joined the Severn as a midshipman.
With no money, he once bitterly remembered: ‘My equipment was what would now be called grotesque. My coat was made for me to grow up to; it reached down to my heels, and was full large in the sleeves. I had a dirk, and a gold laced hat, but my father had a large family, with limited means. He gave me twenty pounds at the start — that was all he ever gave me.
‘I had to change my mode of living; quitting my mess, living alone and took up the ship allowance which I found sufficient, but I washed and mended my own clothes, made a pair of trousers out of my bed-ticking, and having, by these means, saved as much money as would redeem my honour. From those times, I have taken care to keep within my means.’
The young sailor’s loneliness was poured into the letters sent to his sister, Mary. Poignantly, with a needle and twine, he stitched their letters together, re-reading them over the next 70 years. Hardship is cruel and humiliating memories of his poverty-stricken youth were never forgotten by the young sailor, nor was his love for Martha, still living at Rochetts in Essex.
With great determination, the young man set himself on a path that would change his future life. He worked non-stop, studying. Eventually, on passing his examination as lieutenant on January 22, 1757, John took temporary command of the Royal George, later becoming attached to the Channel Squadron in 1760 commanding the 44-gunner Gosport, under Rear-Admiral Rodney.
Martha and John managed to meet occasionally at Chelmsford balls, when the young sailor was on leave, but John wrote to his sister, Mary: ‘My clothes are all in tatters, too shabby to go among genteel people.’
Although time was passing and they desperately wanted to wed, the situation was impossible. John had very little money and was certainly not in a position to propose marriage in those class-ridden times.
As Sir Thomas’ heiress, Martha held high social rank in the Essex upper classes and her prospective wealth was considerable. John was poor, and on half-pay as England was then at peace. A miracle was needed if the lovers were ever to marry.
Fortune Favours the Brave
In 1782, England was at war with France. John was now Captain of the Foudroyant, one of the largest two-decker ships in the English Navy, and fought a brilliant sea-battle to capture the French ship, Pegase.
He returned home, triumphant. Prize money and a knighthood followed. At long last, he was now considered to be an acceptable husband for Martha, who had waited for him for over 20 years. Their wedding took place on June 5, 1783. This date, he reckoned, was his year of destiny and he often commented with mock heavy humour: ‘I committed three great faults about this time – I got knighted; I got married; I got into Parliament!’
Within a couple of years, Martha’s father died and she received her inheritance. She was now exceedingly rich and Rochetts became the couple’s home, although sadly, it was too late for the couple to have a family.
However, John’s career soared. From Vice-Admiral in 1795 he became Commander-in-Chief of the Mediterranean fleet within two years. By then, the war with Spain was raging. Always a superb judge of men, it was John who interviewed and later promoted a young unknown officer by the name of Horatio Nelson.
Facing the Spanish Fleet
Early in 1797, England received news that a large Spanish fleet had set sail to join the French to invade England. At dawn on February 14, John’s flagship Victory, along with 14 other ships, engaged the enemy in a mighty battle off Cape St Vincent, capturing four Spanish ships. England was saved!
Honours and money were heaped on John, along with a peerage. There is now a monument to him in St Paul’s Cathedral and numerous portraits of him at different periods of his life.
‘I do not say, my Lords that the French will not come. I say only that they will not come by sea,’ began his address to the House of Lords as First Lord of the Admiralty in 1801. He was now the Earl of St Vincent.
Around the turn of that century, John gave up his Mediterranean command and returned to Rochetts at Brentwood, where he lived peacefully until his death aged 88 on March 14, 1823. He had requested to be buried in his native parish, Stone in Staffordshire, and not in St Paul’s or Westminster Abbey as had been assumed.
Close to Rochetts is a sign for St Vincent’s Hamlet which still serves as a memorial to a distinguished and romantic man.
This was one sailor boy who had loved and was indeed loved!