Guest Posts, Subjects for discussion

Guest Post: The Case of the ‘Mad Middie’ – August 1796.

I met Ian earlier this year when he presented a paper at the conference, Maritime Animals, held at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich in April. That paper was a fascinating insight into how an 18th century midshipman in His Majesty’s Navy supplemented their diet with rats.

In this article Ian is looking at a particular court martial held in August 1796. Like many PhD students, his research has taken him down many obscure paths and, while this story has really interested him, it isn’t pertinent to his dissertation, but he was fascinated by this story. He thought he would be unable to find the individual’s name, but dogged persistent rooting through official records finally bore fruit.

What I find amazing is the speed of communication between the various parties especially considering the king was on holiday on his yacht down at at Weymouth.

HMS Sandwich c1796. as Guardship at the Nore, moored off Sheerness. Source.


by Ian Robertson, MA.

Like many stories this is not one I set out to write. I was looking for a letter written by King George III to his son the future King William IV and turned to the wrong page. What I found was a request from the First Lord of the Admiralty regarding the findings of a court martial…….

The day is Monday 29thAugust 1796.  

At 8 am the gun fired announcing a court martial.

Two hours later at four bells in the forenoon watch the gun sounded again and the assembled Captains in full dress uniform took their places in the great cabin of HMS Glenmore to hear the cases listed for that day. 

Among the cases to be heard that day was that of John Machele a Midshipman serving on HMS Sandwich who was charged with ‘Disobedience of Orders, Contemptuous Behaviour and attempting to take the life of the First Lieutenant of HMS Sandwich by stabbing him.’

There was no disputing the facts as presented to the Court regarding the offences so it is little surprise that he was found guilty and that ‘…The Court do therefore adjudge the said John Machele to be hanged by the neck until he is dead at the yardarm of such of His Majesty’s Ships and at such time as the Right Hon, the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty shall think proper to direct….’

From the evidence it would seem the Court had little or no option but to find Machele guilty and to pass the above sentence. However, the members of the Court were not satisfied that the outcome fully justified the sentence which they were obliged to pass. They had heard in evidence statements from various crew members of HMS Sandwich which appeared to indicate that John Machele appeared to be clearly demonstrating signs of mental instability and had been prevented previously from throwing himself overboard and, following his assault on the First Lieutenant, had urged the person set to guard him to kill him.

A statement by James Empselle of HMS Sandwich recalled …’on the night of 20thAugust…..I saw Mr John Machele attempting to get out of the Stern Port’. He alerted an officer who was in his cabin  and then ‘I immediately ran back and took hold of Mr Machele by his coat as did the Centinel and pulled him back…’ Concerns over John’s future behaviour was such that a Gunroom attendant ‘…laid by Mr Machele in order to watch him during the night.’

James Herkless, a Quarter Master on the Sandwich, gave his version of events of that night when he prevented John Machele in an attempt to jump overboard having ‘…seized him by the skirts of his jacket and pulled him backwards, Mr Machele then offered me a Guinea to let him go overboard But I made Him Answer if he would give me two Hundred he should not go. He then offered me three Guineas But to no purpose…….with the help of James Ventriss, a Q’Master we prevailed on him to go to his Cot and attended him with a light in the Gunroom. He said He would go overboard and attempted two or three times to get out of one of the starboard Window…..sent word to the Commanding officer…..who ordered a Centinel over him and got him to bed.’

John Marchele proved a difficult and disturbed young man to keep a careful watch over without having him forcibly restrained or put in irons. 

William Green, a Marine on board HMS Sandwich, declared the following about the events at this time: ‘…I was Centinel over Mr Machele about the hour of 8 O Clock. He came up to me & presented a pistol to my head on which I took him by the right arm and push’d him down on his back in which struggle I cut his lip with a Cutlass.’ Green disarmed him, but Machele continued to struggle and ‘importuned me to run my cutlass through him & even endeavoured to aggravate me to it……even opened his mouth to have the cutlass run into it & on my letting him at Liberty He forced himself on the cutlass but to prevent any ill consequences thinking he certainly was not in his senses I turned it away from him & it was with great difficulty we Quieted him.’

John Machele did not speak in his defence at his trial, but submitted a written statement that was read out to the Court. In it he admits to understanding the seriousness of his offences but pleads in mitigation; ‘I hope the Court will take into consideration my being forced into a Service I was totally unacquainted with……I have conceived myself no other than a prisoner……in addition to the distresses of mind I have laboured under for some years past through disappointments in concerns of a private nature…’ In further mitigation he refers to the charges against him saying; ‘….in particular that of assassination, which was totally foreign from my Heart; activated by the Frenzy of the moment…..could only have caused me to plunge myself into the unfortunate Dilemma in which I now appear before you…’

 Dilemma indeed. John Machele had been in the Royal Navy less than two months and was now under sentence of death.

It is now that events in his favour move with surprising speed.

The presiding captains at the court martial sent a letter to Mr Nepean, the Secretary to the Admiralty, expressing their concerns regarding Machele’s stability and sanity and requesting this be brought to the attention of Earl Spencer, First Lord of the Admiralty, who could, in turn, present these concerns to King George III and plead for clemency when the case was brought to him as were all those where a sentence of death had been passed.

At the same time away from the Royal Navy statements and depositions from various people acquainted with John were being gathered also with the same destination in mind.

The evidence presented left little doubt that he had been suffering from mental instability for many years.

A statement from Mary Chandler, who was the servant of a landlady of John Machele, recorded her own experience of his attempts at taking his own life: ‘Mr Machele had by him a brace of pistols….and threatened to shoot himself and even went so far as to place the muzzle of one of the pistols in his mouth….’ She managed to take the pistols from him but then ‘Mr Machele attempted to destroy himself with his pen knife.’ Mary Chandler also wrested this from him and ‘ she herself and the rest of her mistresses’ family were kept up the whole night watching in order to prevent Mr Machele destroying himself….she was fearful of his committing some act or other that would endanger either his own life or that of some other person.’

The proprietor of a Naval Academy, one John Bettesworth, wrote; ‘….who was for three months in the year 1792 under his care as a Pupil and says that during that time the conduct and manner of him the said John Machele were such that he verily believes him to have been deranged in his mind and on that account he was obliged to expel him the Academy.’ This was four years before Machele joined the Royal Navy.

Letters and statements from officers in the army where, apparently he served for a while as a Cornet (the army equivalent of a Midshipman), including the regimental surgeon all commented on his mental instability as the reason for his leaving the service.

The finding of the court martial, the request for consideration of clemency coming from the presiding officers and the supporting statements concerning John Machele’s mental instability were all presented to King George in a covering letter from Earl Spencer dated 11thSeptember to which the King replied on 12thSeptember from Weymouth where he was having a yachting holiday.

The King wrote; ‘I have received this morning the box containing the proceedings of a court martial on a midshipman of the Sandwich for an attempt to stab the first Lieutenant of that ship; but as it appears so clearly that the unhappy man is at times afflicted with fits of insanity I approve of his being pardoned, provided his friends will properly confine him, that he may not do mischief to others.’

That the pardon had been granted was despatched to Charles Buckner, Vice Admiral of the White on 13thSeptember; ‘You are therefore hereby required and directed so caused His Majesty’s most gracious pardon to be made known to the said Mr John Machele delivering him into the Charge of his Friends who have engaged to take proper care of him…’

It would seem from this that the right outcome was achieved in that John Machele was pardoned and that the condition of his pardon was that he should have appropriate care provided for him.

There are , however, several questions hanging over this whole affair.

The person external to the Royal Navy who set about gathering the various statements and depositions from an address in Grosvenor Square has an undecipherable signature except that his first name is George. He says in his covering letter that he was responsible for John Machele’s care, but that he had sent him into the navy without his active consent. There is no indication of what his capacity as ‘carer’ either meant or how such a position had been gained. If he has been in that role for some time then it is fair to believe that he would also have been responsible for enrolling him in the army, which was an equally abysmal failure. Apart from questions about any selection processes in either the army or navy, there does appear to be emerging a picture of a very unhappy and unstable young man whom a guardian of sorts was trying to push into a career which would enable that guardian to be relieved of all responsibility.

It is also possible that the King may be wittingly expressing his sympathy and identifying with the midshipman’s mental health here. George III was already used to experiencing bouts of recurring mental illness by this time. The Regency Bill of 1789  was to have had the Royal Assent under the authority of the Great Seal but it didn’t get it because, although by mid-February it was ready to pass to the House of Lords shortly afterwards in mid-March 1789, George was deemed fit to resume his royal duties. His mental illness was ongoing and episodic and culminated in the ‘Care of the King During his Illness, etc. Act 1811’ which brought his son to the regency until the king died in 1820.

What is also notable here is the speed with which the appeal and supporting evidence came before King George especially since he was not in London, but in Weymouth. 

  • 29thAugust the court martial. 
  • 11thSeptember all evidence gathered and sent by Earl Spencer to the King.  
  • 12thSeptember King George grants a pardon. 
  • 13thSeptember Vice Admiral Buckner ordered to inform John Machele that he was pardoned into the care of his friends.

What happened to John Machele after this? That is another story which may or may not be told. Official records are easy to unearth, but tales of private care? 

Perhaps it is better that we believe he lived a more settled and secure life in the care of his friends.

©Ian Robertson 2019.


The National Archives Court Martial Records ADM Series

Later Correspondence George III Vol II 

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