We learn from the Gentleman’s Magazine, dated May 1842, that Admiral Sir John Wells, GCB after 65 years in the navy died at his home, near Cuckfield. Curiously time seems to have erased this man from the collective Cuckfield memory. But our recent research has shown that he should be honoured for the hero that he was - both local and national.
He was an incredibly brave man, who had led a colourful buccaneering and hazardous life serving both king and country. He played a key rôle in one of the most significant and decisive battles in British naval history - the Battle of Camperdown - and ended his career 'among the top five' naval top brass.
His naval career begun in 1779 when a 16 year old Wells was commissioned as a Lieutenant. Over the next 20 years he was assigned to - and saw active service with - nine British Navy fighting ships.
When he was not serving at sea he lived in Cuckfield - initially in Butlers Green, most probably Butlers Green House. Then in 1825 he moved a few hundred yards south to Bolnore House off Isaacs Lane. The Sussex Advertiser tells us that his arrival was greeted 'by a merry, peal from the bells of the Church of Cuckfield'. Ten years earlier, when 51 he had married a Rottingdean girl, Jane Dealtry, who lived at Down House close to the village pond and Church. Subsequently Elizabeth's two sisters, Ann and Frances, also moved into Bolnore House.
Served with a King
John Wells was reported to have had some royal blood in his veins, but we know for sure that he served at sea with sailor king, William lV. Both took part in 1870 in an action commanded by Admiral Lord Rodney to relieve Gibraltar from a Spanish siege. This become known as the ‘Moonlight Action’, as it went on well into the night. One Spanish ship was blown up, and half a dozen were captured.
In 1783, towards the end of the American War, Wells commanded the 14 gun Raven, near the Leeward Islands. The ship was captured by two French frigates, and records suggest that he scuttled the ship to avoid its capture.
After being appointed to the sloop ‘Wasp’ he had greater success chasing smugglers. The Customs Commissioners were so pleased by the naval intervention that the crew was financially rewarded.
The British Navy depended on tight discipline and punishments could be harsh - even execution. Sailors included rogues and ex-convicts who had been press-ganged into service. In April 1797, 16 ships-of-the-line of the Channel fleet refused to sail, and mounted a collective mutiny at Spithead.
Their demands included better pay and conditions. Some officers who were judged to have ill-treated their crews were sent ashore. But the more enlightened Wells was praised for his ‘spirited conduct’ in the difficult stand-off and in recognition of his fairness was promoted to Captain.
This led to commanding the newly built ‘Lancaster’ which initially patrolled the North Sea. It was an impressive 174 feet long and crewed by 491 men. This ship-of-the-line was constructed at Rotherhithe Dock and formidably armed with 64 guns.
Battle of Camperdown
In October 1797, Wells motivated his new crew into a well drilled and effective fighting force. Wells reported to Lord Duncan, and the ship contributed to the defeat of the Dutch fleet in the victory of Camperdown (north of Haarlem) on 11 October. This is considered one of the most significant and decisive actions in naval history. Reports show that three crew were killed and 18 wounded - clearly Wells and his crew were in the the thick of the battle.
The action was so celebrated that the navy later saw fit to name two ships ‘Camperdown’ - one an Admiral-class battleship (in 1885) and the other a battle-class destroyer (in 1945).
Wells was awarded a gold medal for meritorious conduct. And to mark the victory he marched in the procession to St Paul’s Cathedral with William lV and Adelaide - and then to the Metropolitan Church where the enemy’s captured colours were passed on. Wells commanded the Lancaster for a further two years.
The dates of his commissions were: Lieutenant in 1779, Commander 1782, Captain 1783, Rear-Admiral 1805, Vice-Admiral 1810 and Admiral in 1821.
January 1806 saw the unprecedented procession state funeral for Lord Horatio Nelson when the national hero took his final river and road journey to St Paul’s Cathedral - watched and mourned by a vast respectful admiring public. Admiral Wells would undoubtedly have been in attendance.
To now give him his full title, Admiral Sir John Wells’ active service at sea ended at the age of 36 in May 1799. We know from the Gentleman’s Magazine’s obituary that he had ’65 years in the navy’. His final appointment to Admiral was at the age of 58, 22 years after his last ship assignment. He was described in his obituary in the Canterbury Journal ‘as a gallant naval officer … with not more than four exceptions, the senior Admiral in the British service.’
High society socialising
In May 1820 he was nominated for Knight Commander of the Bath, and in October 1834 for a Knight Grand Cross. Newspapers record that he actively socialised in fashionable high society and royal court circles.
In his 70’s he was regularly invited to Kensington Palace, Windsor and the Royal Pavilion in Brighton. His arrivals and departures in London and Brighton were heralded in the national and local newspapers. Jane, whom he married 16 years after his active service, is not listed as attending these functions.
The Wells couple were childless and lived with a large supporting household at Bolnore with a footman, groom, butler, cook and maid and several other staff. The house also had a farm attached.
Even a minor injury to the Admiral attracted national media coverage, as in the Blackburn Standard when he was 73 in July 1836:
‘Admiral Sir John Wells KGC was exercising last week, at Cuckfield, on one of his riders, a fine spirited horse, it suddenly started off with him at a tremendous pace, and making a sudden stop, threw him, and cut his head and face slightly. We understand that Sir John has received no material injury by the fall, but he has not rode out since.’
Admiral John Wells died aged 78 on 19 November 1841. Jane followed within a year and so the Bolnore
estate in Cuckfield passed to her spinster sister Elizabeth (owner of Down House) who herself died in 1844. All three are buried in an impressive tomb close to the south wall of St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean.
Two unmarried Dealtry sisters Anne (who died at 68 in 1865) and Frances (who died at 88 in 1877), who also lived at Bolnore House, are buried in Cuckfield Churchyard. They had been generous patrons who funded (and personally laid the foundation stone) to build St. Wilfrid's Church and Haywards Heath’s first school. Their obituaries and the public mourning that marked these events confirms some obituary wording that 'their sole aim in life was to alleviate poverty and pain in others'. It was putting the Admiral’s former wealth and their own to very good use.
The very grand Bolnore House later became the home of Sir Alexander Kleinwort until his death in 1935. Today it’s divided into luxury apartments and much of the magnificent mansion’s former land is occupied by Bolnore Village.
The Gentleman’s Magazine May 1842 https://books.google.com/books/about/The_Gentleman_s_Magazine.html?id=QZ_kYtXn5u0C
Sir John Wells https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_crewman&id=9366
The Lancaster: https://threedecks.org/index.php?display_type=show_ship&id=7726
Bolnore House: https://historicengland.org.uk/listing/the-list/list-entry/1391435
Painting: The Battle of Camperdown, painted by Philip de Loutherbourg in 1799. [Public domain image]
Photo of the tomb at St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean for Admiral John Wells KGC, his wife Anne and her sister Elizabeth Dealtry. Originally it would have been protected by iron railings but removed in World War II. Image courtesy of the Rottingdean Preservation Society.
The elegant and stately Bolnore House was formerly a fine early seventeenth century house much modified under the direction of Lady Jane Wells and with subsequent building work in the following centuries. [Already in Blog Media library]
With special thanks to the Rottingdean Preservation Society who assisted with the Rottingdean research.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison