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Henry John Phillips Towry 1729-1817


Captivity, Marriage and Influence: the entangled fortunes of the Marsh and Towry families, 1755-1808

By Roger Knight (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

(From Trafalgar Chronicle, Year Book of the 1805 Club, 20, 2010, pp.49-57)


This curious relationship between two families began with a short romance and the jilting of a young woman, Elizabeth Marsh, by Lieutenant Henry John Phillips Towry at the beginning of the Seven Years War. It ended over fifty years later, when Elizabeth's brother John, was, against his wishes, pensioned off when Chairman of the Victualling Board in late 1808. No marriage took place between the families, and despite continuous professional association there is no record of closeness between them, at least after, and perhaps because of, the brief attachment in 1755 and 1756.


The families were opposite in character. The Marsh family were competent, honest, knowledgeable administrators, useful, hardworking men who became modestly rich: but they were not leaders. The Towrys were Scottish in origin and by the second half of the eighteenth century were well-connected sea officers, although there had been a succession of naval administrators in the family. Both families, however, suffered the anxiety in having a family member captured at sea as non-combatants in very different but unusual circumstances: and the two families were working their way up the social and financial scale. It was, however, the Towrys, always in front, who drew ahead further in the race for wealth and social and political influence.


The story begins in the dockyard at Port Mahon,Minorca in 1755, in the difficult days when the French were threatening the island, in the months before Admiral Byng's unsuccessful action and his subsequent court martial and death. Elizabeth's father, Milbourne Marsh, had been appointed Naval Storekeeper at the dockyard at Mahon, of which he would be the senior officer, from his shipwright post at Portsmouth dockyard. He travelled with his family, his wife Elizabeth, his eldest son, Francis Milbourne Marsh, his daughter Elizabeth and the youngest son John . They arrived in March 1755, for Milbourne Marsh signed his first document as Naval Storekeeper on 31 March.[1] During the same month, the fifty-gun ship Deptford, commanded by Captain the Honourable George Edgecumbe , was being careened in the harbour at Port Mahon.[2] The second lieutenant of the ship was Henry John Phillips, whose family already had a connection with Port Mahon. He was the nephew of the first Resident Commissioner of the dockyard, John Towry, who had been appointed in 1747 after the battle of Toulon.[3] The young lieutenant was to take the name Towry in 1760 upon inheriting the older Towry's fortune.


A member of each family had already had a hand in the unfolding of events. George Marsh, brother of Milbourne, had started life as an apprentice to a timber measurer in Chatham Dockyard, and by hard work he advanced as a clerk and was given his first real break in October 1745 by a member of the Towry family, John Clevland , at that time Clerk of the Acts on the Navy Board.[4] Clevland himself had risen rapidly from humble clerical origins in the Navy Office. A year after he helped George Marsh he was Second Secretary at the Admiralty.[5] Clevland was soon to be the MP for Sandwich, an Admiralty-controlled borough, and in 1751 was appointed as the first Secretary of the Admiralty: he was to be a critically-important figure of the administration of the Navy during the Seven Years War.[6] It is likely that George Marsh had worked hard to get his brother appointed at Mahon.[7] He also had a direct hand in getting the Deptford to sea by assisting the captain of the ship, the well-born Captain Edgecumbe, in April 1751. George Marsh was not impressed by the aristocracy, recording in his diary: 'I accordingly attended him for about three weeks frequently at Whites in St. James Street, and by way of parade and show of business of importance, I often set down with him at a table in one corner of the room where the indolent , unhappy nobility were playing high at cards, and some sauntering about the rooms with all the hiped melancholy, sodden countenances that be imagined, for want of employment for mind and body'.[8]


Milbourne Marsh arrived at Mahon on 19 March 1755 and got down to work immediately, for there was much work to do.[9] The dockyard facilities and buildings were in great need of repair. He installed his eldest son, Francis Milbourne Marsh as his clerk.[10] The first refitting job was the Deptford which was heaved down at the side of the harbour, her topmasts stuck, her guns and stores ashore, shipwrights and crew repairing her hull. Careening was hard work and could be dangerous, with the ship's officers involved at every stage. On the same day that Milbourne Marsh started his new post, Lieutenant Phillips (as he was then) was promoted to First Lieutenant of the ship, the order most probably arriving from London on the same ship as the Marsh family. It is therefore most likely that the twenty-three year lieutenant met the twenty-one year old Elizabeth Marsh when she arrived. At some point in the coming months he proposed to her, and she accepted. We do no know exactly when this was, but over the rest of 1755 the Deptford came back to Mahon several times for minor repairs and provisions.[11]


But this romance took place against a background of increasing anxiety and activity as reports of the sighting of the French fleet came to the island, and preparations for defence were rapidly put in place, including a boom across the harbour entrance. Outside the boom two small ships were positioned, having been adapted as fireships. Lieutenant Phillips was given the command of one of them, and was promoted commander from that date.[12] What ships there were at Minorca got away before the French arrived, with Milbourne Marsh and his family aboard the old sixty-gun the Princess Louisa. On 22 April she put to sea, reaching Gibraltar on 30 April.[13] Three days later the Deptford sailed into Gibraltar Bay. Both ships stayed for a week, before Admiral Byng's fleet joined them from England. After the battle of Mahon, Lieutenant Phillips left the Deptford on 24 June, the reason in the muster book being given as 'Preferment'.[14] He went back to London, to appear at the court martial of Admiral John Byng, was promoted to captain in January 1757, did well out of prize money in the rest of the war, but died in 1762.[15]  


Perhaps Henry John Phillips and Elizabeth Marsh saw each other at Gibraltar, but they did not see each other again after 8 May when the Deptford sailed off with Byng's fleet. The daughter of a minor official was not good enough for the Towry family. It was as Elizabeth wrote later, an 'alliance . . . such as I had no reason to expect'. Elizabeth's father received a letter from Lieutenant Phillips in London informing him that his uncle, John Clevland, 'insisted upon marrying a lady he had provided for him'.[16] This was, as her uncle George Marsh recorded in his diary, a great shock and disappointment to Elizabeth. From that point her life took a dramatic and unusual path. Elizabeth then determined to go back to London by herself to her uncle, George Marsh, at that point a clerk in the Navy Office in London. However, the small merchant ship in which she took passage was captured by a Barbary pirate and she was taken before the Sultan of Morocco. With considerable presence of mind, she escaped a permanent place in his harem by pretending that she was married to a fellow passenger and merchant, but who was also an admirer, James Crisp. The Sultan eventually freed her, but her honour had been compromised by her stay in the harem, and she married Crisp, eventually travelling with him to India where she died young. In 1769 she published her adventures in The Female Captive.  Her short but eventful life has been recently well chronicled by Linda Colley in The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh, and she here passes out of our story.


In London Elizabeth's uncle, George Marsh continued his steadily upward career moving between the Navy and Victualling offices. In 1763 he was elevated to be a Commissioner of the Victualling Board, helped by the fact that for a period he had been private secretary to the Earl of Egmont , who in the same year was unexpectedly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1772, Lord Sandwich , then First Lord, promoted Marsh to the more senior Navy Board, where he could use his victualling expertise to advantage as the Board's Commissioner of Victualling Accounts.[17] In 1773 George Marsh became Clerk of the Acts, responsible for running the Navy Board, and remained in this position for twenty-three years.


It was probably due to his influence that his nephew John Marsh, Elizabeth's brother, was appointed to the Army Commissariat in Cork. John had returned to England from Malaga, where he had been a merchant and British consul, on the entry of Spain into the American Revolutionary War in 1779. He did well in Cork, rejecting substandard victuals from Irish merchants and gaining the good opinion of the Navy Board who in 1783 recommended him to the Treasury for his 'with such Integrity, Ability and Indefatigable Zeal, that we are at a Loss to say which Quality the Public has been most indebted'.[18] After the war John came back from Cork to London, and was appointed to the Commission to enquire into the losses of American loyalists, and then into the claims of settlers on the Mosquito Coast. However, George could not help him now, as John was out of the range of naval influence, and he had great difficulty in obtaining permanent employment. A fellow commissioner on the American Claims Commission, the MP for Tiverton, John Wilmot, wrote a succession of letters to William Pitt , the Prime Minister, on his behalf, but most of the job offers were for overseas posts.[19] In 1795 Marsh himself wrote to Pitt, 'Mrs Marsh's Health has long made it necessary for us to reside in London that she may have daily assistance'.[20] It seemed to do the trick, for Marsh was appointed to the newly-constituted Transport Board in the same year, finally arriving at the Victualling Board in September 1798, joining George Phillips Towry who had already been there since 1784.


The third main character in this story was George Phillips Towry, who had been a midshipman at the time when his brother John met Elizabeth Marsh in Minorca in 1755, and was commissioned lieutenant in February 1757.[21] As many young men did at the end of the war he left the Navy and then married, 'a Lady of great merit and a handsome fortune'.[22] His wife appears to have died by 1770 for he remarried in April 1770, and in November of that year he won £20,000 in the lottery with which he bought an estate near Windsor.[23] By his first wife he had two sons, George Henry and Charles George, both of whom went into the navy, and a daughter Anne, a notable beauty.

After the American Revolutionary War, the two families came into contact again when George Phillips Towry was appointed in 1784 a commissioner of the Victualling Board when Lord Howe was First Lord of the Admiralty.[24] George Marsh was still Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Board, and much common business would have been undertaken between them. From 1786 Marsh and Towry worked next to each other when the Navy Office and the Victualling Office were moved from their old quarters in the City, to the great quadrangle of Somerset House. Both Boards were trying to reform methods of business and to rid their departmental clerks of the practice of taking presents or bribes from the large number of contractors. The chief reformer in the Navy Board was Sir Charles Middleton , whom the mild George Marsh did not like. George Phillips Towry was immediately embroiled in conflict, for the Victualling Board had been recently had been censured when the main grain commission agent,  Christopher Atkinson, had been convicted of fraud by inflating the price of his purchases for the Board, and had been sent to prison for a year. Towry played a full part in improving the reputation and working methods of the Board in the 1780s.[25] His social stock rose in 1789 when his daughter Anne, after three refusals, married Edward Law (1750-1818), a young barrister from Cumberland, awkward but talented, who in 1802 was, as 1st Baron Ellenborough, made Lord Chief Justice of England. At about this time Towry had his portrait painted. It shows strong features and blue eyes; every piece of evidence demonstrates a strong personality.[26]

Towry became the Victualling Board's chief trouble shooter, travelling to the outports whenever there were difficulties which had to be solved on the spot. In early 1801, when Admiral Jervis, Lord St. Vincent was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in Addington's government, he immediately sent Towry with others from the Victualling Office on a special mission to Lisbon to sort out the accounts of the Agent Victualler there, David Heatley, who had become hopelessly behind with his accounts, a situation which could have led to political scandal. However, just before the packet boat reached Lisbon in late May 1801, it was taken by a French privateer and Towry and the Victualling Office clerks were taken prisoner. As the Peace of Amiens was about to be signed he did not stay long as a prisoner, returning to the Board in London in late July. It was, nevertheless, an unusual distinction for the Commissioner of a government board to be captured by the enemy. Within days of returning to the office in Somerset House, Towry was off to Newcastle and Edinburgh to sort out local problems with a strike of bakers. [27] It is no surprise to note that in the invasion crisis of 1803-5 Towry was the Captain of the Third Company of the Somerset Place Volunteers, with two lieutenants under him, four non-commissioned officers and forty-two privates. He reported to the Lieutenant-Colonel, the Rt. Honourable George Tierney, the Treasurer of the Navy, who commanded eight companies, with a total of 360 officers and men.[28]


For ten years John Marsh shared a place at the Victualling Board with George Phillips Towry.  Yet in November 1803 it was John Marsh who was appointed Chairman of the Victualling Board, with George Phillips Towry as his Deputy Chairman.[29] Later it was felt that a civilian ought to have been Chairman, and that idea may have been extant at that time. The timing was unfortunate for Towry, for the family was related to the Whig family of Grey, Lord Howick, later Lord Grey, who was to be First Lord of the Admiralty between 1806 and 1807. Perhaps the Marshes felt that they had had some sort of revenge for Elizabeth Marsh's disappointment nearly fifty years before.


Towry continued to have bureaucratic battles. One very long running financial dispute was with Basil Cochrane, a powerful and very rich contractor who had provisioned the Navy in India. Cochrane saw Towry as the chief culprit in the delay in passing his accounts. Towry showed adroit defensive handling of the Commission of Naval Revision's questions, particularly in the Victualling Board's relationship with contractors, in classic civil service language.[30] Cochrane also alleged that Towry's influence managed to counter the appointment of a completely new Board in at the end of 1808 after the critical findings of the Commission of Naval Revision had recommended that the Chairman of the Victualling Board should be a civilian and the deputy Chairman a naval captain.[31]


This influence saved Towry but John Marsh had to go, as did three other older members of the Board. John Marsh was shocked, for superannuation was unusual at that point, though soon to become general when very soon afterwards a Treasury-backed Act was passed which enabled anyone in the civil service who reached sixty to retire at two-thirds salary. John Marsh entered in his biographical memoir: 'So this matter ended, after my Labors during the long space of Forty Years and without having derived any other Pecuniary Benefit than the salary annexed to the several appointments I held but which however, to the end of my life, will be a reflection of the most consolatory Nature to me'.[32] Towry remained in office, though the question was brought up by William Windham in the debate in Parliamnet about Victualling Board changes. Windham asked the awkward question: 'If age were considered a ground for removal, he would wish to know how captain Towry was retained?'[33] Towry was seventy-six at the time.


Both George Marsh and George Phillips Towry pushed their sons forward and both came into contact with Nelson. George Marsh's son William went into a successful partnership with John Creed, whom George had taken on in 1760 to help with his naval agency business.[34] They became Nelson's bankers and, with Alexander Davison, handled his prize money. George Phillips Towry's son, George Henry, was captain of the Diadem (64) in the Mediterranean: in September and October 1796 he was for three weeks Commodore Nelson's flag captain when the Captain (74) was under repair in the dockyard at Ajaccio.[35] The connection between Nelson and George Henry Towry was reinforced by the interest of Captain William Locker, who had taught Nelson so much in the 1770s and was now at the end of his career as  Lieutenant-Governor of Greenwich Hospital. Fanny Nelson had written to Locker's daughter, and Locker wrote to Nelson in March 1797:  ' I shall send Mrs Nelson's letter to my daughter who is at Mr. Towry's, the Commissioner for Victualling. Mrs. Towry and Mrs. Locker were very intimate Friends, my daughter told me. They wished I would recommend Capt. Towry of the Diadem to your notice which I wish to do'.[36] George Henry had fought at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, but a promising career was cut short when he died at the age of forty-two, at his father's house, in 1809. This sadness can only have been compensated by the political rise of his son-in-law, Lord Ellenborough. Towry's grandson, Edward (1790-1871) became 1st Earl Ellenborough and Governor-General of India in the 1840s, though George Phillips Towry would not have known that. Lucky throughout his life, well-connected and wealthy, the tough old bureaucrat had died in 1817 at the age of eighty-three.



[1] National Archives [NA], ADM 42/2348, Pay and Muster Lists at Port Mahon , 31 March 1755

[2] NA, ADM 42/2348, 31 May 1755

[3] Charnock, IV, p.233. He was not there long; coincidently, in the same manner as his nephew, he was ordered home to give evidence at the trial of Captain Lestock.

[4] Marsh Diary (  pp. 17, 18. Clevland (c.1707-1763) was Second Secretary to the Admiralty, 1746 to 1751, Secretary 1751-1759 and First Secretary 1759-1763.

[5] J.M. Collinge, Navy Board Officials, 1660-1832 ( London , 1978) p.92

[6] Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons, 1754-1790, II, pp.220-221

[7] Linda Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: a Woman in World History ( London , 2007) pp.39-40

[8] Marsh Diary, p.23

[9] National Maritime Museum [NMM], Dockyard Officers' Lists, Marsh was appointed on 19 March 1755 and left in April 1756, resuming his post on 8 July 1763 when the British recovered Minorca. During the Seven Years War he was Master Shipwright at Gibraltar, 2 May 1756-7 July 1763. According to George Marsh's diary, p.6, Milbourne Marsh died as Agent Victualler at Chatham.

[10] NA, ADM 42/2348. Francis Milbourne Marsh witnessed his first document on 21 Marsh. As clerk he was paid twenty Spanish dollars a month, and his last payment was dated 20 April 1756.

[11] NMM, ADM/L/D/74, Lieutenant's Log of the Deptford. The ship was at Port Mahon until 17 June 1755, then 23-29 October, 11 December 1755, 3 January 1756. Between 24 March and 20 April 1756 she was anchored off Fort St . Phillip.

[12] David Erskine (ed.) Augustus Hervey's Journal: being the intimate account of the life of a Captain in the Royal Navy Ashore and Afloat 1746-1759 (London, 1953) p.195; David Syrett and Richard Dinardo, The Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy, 1660-1815, under 'Phillips'.

[13] NA, ADM 51/4301, Lieutenant's Log of the Princess Louisa.

[14] NA, ADM 36/5328, Muster book of the Deptford.

[15] Charnock, VI, p.275. His evidence was 'not very material'

[16] Quoted in Colley, Elizabeth Marsh, pp. 88, 89

[17] The entry in Marsh's diary in November 1772 mentioning his promotion is followed by an intriguing note: 'Mrs. Elizabeth Ray came to live in my family' (p.39). In this year Lord Sandwich's relationship with his mistress Martha Ray went through difficulties. Could Marsh's move to the Navy Board have in any way depended upon his taking in this Mrs. Ray? See N.A.M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich ( London , 1993) p. 122.

[18] Quoted in NMM, BGR/35, John Marsh's 'Autobiographical Memoir'. The letter was signed by Sir Charles Middleton, Sir John Williams and Edward Hunt, the joint Surveyors of the Navy, but bears signs, because of its fulsomeness, of being drafted by George Marsh, Clerk of the Acts.

[19] NA, PRO 30/8/190/2, Chatham Papers, Wilmot to Pitt, 18 Jan 1783; 156/1, fos. 62-63; 190/1, fos. 122-125, 15 June 1789; 190/2, 14 Mar 1790; 156/1, 19 April 1795

[20] NA, PRO 30/8/156/1, fo. 63, John Marsh to Pitt, 29 April 1795

[21] It is assumed that George Phillips Towry (b. 1729) and Henry John Phillips Towry (b.1732) were brothers, and that John Towry's estate eventually passed to G.P. Towry since he also changed his name from Phillips.

[22] London Evening Post, 7 June 1766. I am grateful to Dr. Pieter van der Merwe for a number of details concerning the career of George Phillips Towry.

[23] Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 4 December 1770

[24] Roger Knight and Martin Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and the Contractor State ( Woodbridge , 2010) p.17

[25] Roger Knight, 'Politics and Trust in Victualling the navy, 1793-1815', Mariner's Mirror, 94, 2008, p.134

[26] NMM, BHC 3058, oil painting by Philip Jean (1755-1802)

[27] Knight and Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet, pp.16-17

[28] National Archives, WO 13/4465, Volunteers Annual Pay and Musters 1804. Tierney was succeeded as Lieutenant-Colonel by Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, and then Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was briefly Treasurer of the Navy.

[29] Knight, 'Politics and Trust', pp.145-146

[30] See Janet Macdonald, The British Navy's Victualling Board: Management Competence and Incompetence ( Woodbridge , 2010) p.118. This author interprets Towry's bureaucratic circumlocution as pomposity, a judgement which is very wide of the mark.

[31] Macdonald, p. 120

[32] NMM, BGR/35, Autobiographical Memoir by Marsh

[33] Parliamentary Debates, 13, col. 755, 21 March 1809. Windham used the title 'Captain' because of his rank in the Volunteers, not because of any naval seniority.

[34] The firm was eventually ruined by the peculation of one of the firm's partners, who was hanged for fraud and forgery in 1824 (Warren R. Dawson, The Nelson Collection at Lloyds ( London , 1932) p. 289

[35] Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: the Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson ( London , 2005) p.609

[36] British Library, Add. Mss. 34905, Locker to Nelson, 17 March 1797


The author Roger Knight can be contacted This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.


(George Marsh)  (Diary George Marsh)  (William Marsh)  (Milbourne Marsh)  (Elizabeth Crisp nee Marsh)  (Francis Milbourne Marsh)  (John Marsh )