Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (19 & 20 July 2017)

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Date of Auction: 19th & 20th July 2017

Sold for £8,500

Estimate: £5,000 - £6,000

The N.G.S. to Ordinary Seaman John Finch, who was severely wounded on board the San Fiorenzo during her epic three-day action with and capture of the French frigate Piémontaise in March 1808

Naval General Service 1793-1840, 1 clasp, San Fiorenzo 8 March 1808 (John Finch.) good very fine £5000-6000


Provenance: Glendining’s, February 1940 (E. E. Needes Collection); Glendining’s, February 1963; Spink, November 2012; John Goddard Collection, Dix Noonan Webb, November 2015.

16 clasps issued for San Fiorenzo 8 March 1808 of which 8 medals known, including examples in the National Maritime Museum; Royal Naval Museum (2); Honeyman Collection (Huntington Library, U.S.A.); and the Patiala Collection (Sheesh Mahal Museum, India).

John Finch is confirmed on the rolls as an Ordinary Seaman in the San Fiorenzo 36, during the chase, action and capture over three days of the French 40-gun frigate Piémontaise off Cape Comorin, in the gulf of Manaar, Indian Ocean, 6-8 March 1808. One other man with this name appears on the Admiralty Claimants’ List, for the single clasp Egypt, whose medal was sold at Glendining’s in May 1937, and at Wallis & Wallis in June 1988.

John Finch, from Limehouse, London, joined the San Fiorenzo on 6 September 1803, having been paid a Bounty of two pounds 10 shillings, rated Ordinary Seaman, aged 22 years. He was severely wounded in action on 7 March 1808, the day before his Captain was killed by a broadside from the Piémontaise (London Gazette 20 December 1808).

San Fiorenzo captures the Piémontaise

On 4 March 1808, at 11.30 a.m., the British 18-pounder 36-gun frigate San Fiorenzo, Captain George Nicholas Hardinge, sailed from Pointe de Galle, Ceylon, on her return to Bombay. On the 6th, at 7 a.m., the San Fiorenzo passed, off Cape Comorin, the three East India Company's ships, Charlton, Metcalfe, and Devonshire, from Bombay bound to Columbo. Shortly afterwards she discovered on her starboard beam, in the north-east, the French 40-gun frigate Piémontaise, Captain Epron, advancing to intercept the Indiamen. The San Fiorenzo immediately hauled to the wind in-shore, under all sail, and the French frigate, finding herself pursued, changed her course and stood away. The Piémontaise had sailed from the Isle of France on the 30th of the preceding December. Her intended mode of attack upon the Indiamen is represented to have been to board the first with 150 men, and then stand on and cannonade the two others until they surrendered.

At 5 p.m., having previously made the private signal, the San Fiorenzo hoisted her colours, but the French frigate paid no attention to either. Captain Hardinge now pressed forward in pursuit, and, at 11.40 p.m., being still on the larboard-tack, the San Fiorenzo ranged alongside the Piémontaise and received her broadside. After a ten minutes' action fought within 200 yards, the Piémontaise made sail ahead out of the range of her opponent's shot. The San Fiorenzo, whose loss, owing to the high firing of the Piémontaise, amounted to only three seamen slightly wounded, made sail in chase, and by daylight on the 7th had so gained upon the French frigate, that the latter, seeing a renewal of the engagement was unavoidable, hoisted her colours and wore, in order to bring her broadside to bear.

At 6.20 a.m., being within half a mile of the San Fiorenzo, who had also wore, the Piémontaise fired her broadside, and the action recommenced, the two frigates gradually closing to a quarter of a mile. The fire was constant and well-directed on both sides, until just after 8 a.m., when that of the French frigate visibly slackened. At 8.15 a.m., having discharged her whole broadside, the Piémontaise ceased firing, and made sail before the wind, leaving the San Fiorenzo with her main-topsail yard shot through, main royal-mast shot away, both main topmast-stays, the spring-stay, and the greater part of the standing and running rigging and sails, cut to pieces, and therefore not in a condition for an immediate chase. Under these circumstances, the fire of the British frigate could only continue while her retreating opponent remained within gunshot. The San Fiorenzo’s loss, by the morning's action, amounted to eight seamen and marines killed and 14 wounded. The remainder of the day was occupied by the San Fiorenzo in repairing her damages, and in a vain pursuit of the Piémontaise, who crowded sail to the eastward, and at 9 p.m. disappeared.

At midnight the French frigate again showed herself, bearing east, and at daylight on the 8th was about four leagues distant. At 9 a.m., being perfectly refitted, the San Fiorenzo bore up under all sail. At noon the Piémontaise hoisted a Dutch jack but at 2.15 p.m. changed it to an English ensign. The San Fiorenzo was now fast approaching; nor did the Piémontaise avoid the British frigate until the latter hauled athwart her stern, in order to gain the weather gage and bring on a close action. To frustrate this manoeuvre, the French frigate, who now appeared with her proper colours, hauled up also, and made all sail. Perceiving, however, that the superior sailing of the San Fiorenzo rendered a battle unavoidable, the Piémontaise tacked, and at 4 p.m. the two frigates, when passing each other on opposite tacks, at the distance of not more than 80 yards, reopened their fire.

In the second broadside from the French frigate a grape-shot killed Captain Hardinge, whereupon the command of the San Fiorenzo devolved upon Lieutenant William Dawson. As soon as she had got abaft her opponent's beam, the Piémontaise wore; and at 5.49 p.m., after a well-fought action, one hour and 20 minutes of it close, and during which she had all her rigging and sails cut to pieces, her three masts and bowsprit badly wounded, and a great proportion of her numerous crew placed hors de combat, the French frigate hauled down her colours, some of her people at the same time waving their hats for a boat to be sent to them.

The loss sustained by the San Fiorenzo in the third day's action, although numerically less than that on the second day, was more serious, as it included among the killed her truly gallant captain. The remaining killed of that day consisted of four seamen and marines, and the wounded, of one lieutenant and seven seamen and marines. This made the total British loss, on the three days, 13 killed and 25 wounded. The Piémontaise, besides her regular crew of 366 Frenchmen, had 200 Lascars, prisoners taken out of some captured Indiamen, to work the sails. Out of these 566 in crew and supernumeraries, the French frigate lost 48 officers, seamen, marines, and Lascars killed, and 112 wounded.