top of page

Notes from the Collection Richard Grindall and his pocket compass, c.1770

Richard Grindall's Pocket Compass
Richard Grindall's Pocket Compass

In 2022 we purchased at auction a pocket compass which belonged to a young midshipman on Cook’s second voyage.  It had belonged to Richard Grindall (1751-1820) and had come down through the family before being sold, so it was particularly good to have a nautical instrument with direct links to the Cook voyages.  There are however two features of Grindall’s life which bear discussion.

First, he appears to have got married immediately before leaving for the voyage – at the tender age of 21, recklessly young for a naval officer who had not yet received a commission.  Second, how did the voyage assist, or otherwise, his later career in the Navy?

To deal with the marriage first.  Grindall said he got married secretly to Katharine Festing just before the voyage and left his wife immediately to join Resolution in 1772.  Cook and his shipmates were unaware of this until Grindall told them while travelling on the return journey by coach from Spithead to London in August 1775!  John Robson of the Captain Cook Society has exhaustively examined this story and the Grindall family tree but has found no marriage record for the pair.  Robson has however found a marriage record for a Richard Grindall and a Latitia London for 27 March 1772 at Old Church, St. Pancras, in London, which ties in approximately with the dates – the Resolution sailed in June – and argued that the name Latitia London sounded fabricated, suggesting someone marrying without permission and pretending to be someone else.


If it was indeed Katharine Festing, who was baptised in Wyke Regis, Dorsetshire, she would have been only 13 years old in 1772, so legal marriage appears unlikely.  It may have been a clandestine marriage of the sort that had happened quite frequently before the 1754 Hardwicke Marriage Act which required parental consent for under-age marriage.  Or perhaps the ‘Latitia’ in question did not survive till Grindall’s return?

Whatever the case may be, Grindall’s career illustrates some features of making a career in the 18th century Royal Navy.  To begin with, he came from a family of 14 children and was the second of six sons.  His father, a parson in London, was himself one of nine children and not the eldest son, so was unlikely to have inherited much.  The Navy was a sensible choice of profession for an unmoneyed young man of good family, as it did not involve the purchase of a commission or other heavy initial expenses, but rather finding a sympathetic captain who would help guide a boy’s first steps in his career. 

Grindall seems to have gone to sea in 1763 at the age of 13 as a Captain’s servant.  He spent the following years rising to Able Seaman and then midshipman, serving mostly in the North American theatre.  He then passed his lieutenant’s examination in 1769 but did not receive his commission immediately – there were always far more candidates for posts as lieutenant than there were ships to take them.  This was the point where many fell by the wayside.

This delay may well have prompted Grindall to join Resolution two years later in January 1772 as an Able Seaman. Potential officers without a commission had to fill their time somehow, let alone earn some money, and some joined voyages in merchant ships.  But the opportunity of sailing with the now well-known Captain Cook would offer both experience in unknown waters, adventure no doubt, and the chance of useful patronage.  Although only rated as an AB, he berthed with the midshipmen, as was usual for ‘young gentlemen’, and seems to have been well liked.  John Elliot, one of his fellow midshipmen, called him “a steady clever young man”.  He did not feature in any disciplinary situation, so kept his nose out of trouble.

Certainly this experience seems to have done the trick, though it took just over a year before Grindall finally received his lieutenant’s commission, and joined HMS Egmont in 1777.  Perhaps the months were filled with anxious meetings and careful letters to potential patrons who could put in a good word for him?  Thereafter his career followed a steady upward course.  He served under some notable officers (including John Elphinston, John Byron, Samuel Hood), took part in several battles, captured the odd enemy ship, and was wounded in 1795, all useful things to have on one’s naval record.  He even managed to be part of the battle at Trafalgar, though his ship, HMS Prince, did not greatly distinguish itself due to poor handling qualities, arriving late for the action. However, the ship did manage to save many sailors from ships which had been destroyed in the battle.

Trafalgar meant promotion and Grindall became a rear-admiral, eventually becoming a vice-admiral in 1815.  Jane Austen’s naval brother, Captain Francis Austen, always lamented that not being present at Trafalgar had blighted his career prospects.  So Grindall was lucky and did well, and certainly seems to have been professionally competent.  Whatever the truth about that supposed marriage, it is notable that that none of their six children were born before the mid-1780s, after he had been promoted captain in 1783.  Naval pay was not generous, and if ashore and unemployed, half-pay meant very restricted living. Any early romantic recklessness had certainly been tamed!

Grindall’s success is nicely shown by a family portrait now in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, which may be seen at   

His two daughters died in infancy and three of his sons joined the Navy, two of whom died before him.  As in Cook’s family, early death and unfinished careers were more likely than not in the Georgian navy.

SF January 2024 

55 views0 comments


bottom of page