Orders, Decorations, Medals and Militaria (13 January 2021)

Date of Auction: 13th January 2021

Sold for £11,000

Estimate: £6,000 - £8,000

The unique and poignant Naval trio awarded to Captain W. H. Blake, Royal Navy, who, after service with the Preventative Squadron engaged in the suppression of the slave trade, was gazetted for gallantry during the attack on Sveaborg in 1855, spent ten years protecting British interests in the Pacific, was severely wounded by Maoris at Waireka in 1860, and commanded the Naval Brigade during the 1873-74 Ashanti War until his death from ‘African Fever’ in January 1874

Baltic 1854-55 (Lieut. W. H. Blake, R.N. H.M.S. Duke of Wellington) contemporary engraved naming; New Zealand 1845-66, reverse dated 1860 (Lieut. W. H. Blake, H.M.S. Niger) officially impressed naming; Ashantee 1873-74, no clasp (Capt. W. H. Blake, R.N. H.M.S. Druid 73-74) good very fine (3) £6,000-£8,000


Provenance: Captain K. J. Douglas-Morris Collection, Dix Noonan Webb, October 1996; Dix Noonan Webb, November 2015.

Six New Zealand medals are known to the Royal Navy with the single date ‘1860’.

William Hans Blake was born in North Wales on 23 March 1832. He was the youngest son of Commander George Hans Blake, who had a distinguished career during the Napoleonic Wars. Blake entered the Navy as a 14 year-old Cadet in 1846, and went to sea on board the newly built 8-gun brig H.M.S. Hound. He was not a big man – his sword, which his daughter donated to the National Maritime Museum, is shorter than average; in 1873 he recorded in his journal that he measured 37 inches round the chest and 20 inches round the thigh.

With the Preventative Squadron, Combating the Slave Trade

Blake spent several years, as Cadet and then Midshipman, on the West Coast of Africa suppressing the slave trade. Hound was reassigned to the West Indies, where he served in the 28-gun corvette Alarm and the Jamaica receiving ship Imaum (an ex-East Indiaman presented to the British by the Imaum of Muscat). In Jamaica he was attached to the schooner Bermuda. In November 1850 the 18 year-old Blake joined his first capital ship, the relatively new 90-gun second rate H.M.S. Albion.

War in the Baltic and the China Coast

On 29 October 1852, after 6 years experience at sea, Blake achieved a ‘Very Good’ pass in his examination for Lieutenant and continued to serve as Acting Mate. In March 1854, on the outbreak of war with Russia, Blake was appointed to the largest and most powerful warship in the world, the 131-gun H.M.S. Duke of Wellington. The ultimate development of the three-deck wooden ship of the line, she had been designed as a sailing ship, and had magnificent sailing qualities, but was hastily modified during construction to accommodate steam engines driving a screw propeller. She served as Sir Charles Napier’s flagship during the 1854 Baltic campaign.

In September 1854 Blake, was promoted to Lieutenant and transferred to H.M.S. Edinburgh, a Napoleonic-era 74-gun ship which had been converted to steam-powered screw propulsion. Edinburgh was the flagship of Rear-Admiral Chads, third in command of the fleet, and took part in the bombardment and capture of the Russian fortress of Bomarsund in the Åland Islands. She returned to the Baltic in 1855, and Blake commanded a rocket boat at the bombardment of Sweaborg in August 1855. He was mentioned in despatches “as maintaining his position with steady gallantry under a smart fire of bursting shell.”

When Edinburgh paid off in June 1856, Blake spent a year at the Portsmouth gunnery school H.M.S. Excellent. In November 1857 he transferred to the 36-gun frigate H.M.S. Cambrian which was bound for the Far East. He was most actively engaged during the early period of the China War and earned the high commendation of his superiors, but did not qualify for the campaign medal; his medical record states that he suffered from fever and dysentery while serving in China.

Badly wounded while attacking a Maori Pah in New Zealand

In January 1859 Lieutenant Blake joined the old wooden 13-gun screw corvette H.M.S. Niger, bound for the Australia Station. A renewal of the disputes over land-titles led to fighting around Taranaki in the North Island of New Zealand early in 1860. Two companies of the 65th Regiment and H.M.S. Niger were ordered to the area. William King, the chief of the local Maori tribe, was attacking isolated farms and proclaiming that he would clear the land of Europeans. Niger’s Captain landed a small group of marines and seamen under the command of Blake, his Senior Lieutenant, with orders to assist the soldiers to collect and bring into town the settlers in the rural areas. On 26 March five settlers were killed. It was clear that the task was too big for the small force available, and Niger landed another 60 men.

Before these reinforcements could reach them, on 28 March 1860, the original combined force attempted to end the reign of terror by attacking William King’s Kaipopo Pah on the summit of a hill at Omata. Maori Pahs were stockaded and entrenched settlements, and usually defended by a double palisade, the outer fence of stout stakes, the inner of high solid trunks. Between them was a shallow ditch. The Maori had no effective artillery and their weapons consisted of a very few rifles but mainly old flintlock Tower muskets, single and double fowling pieces, tomahawks and knives. At the close quarters at which the engagements generally took place, their most modern double-barrelled guns were better than the British Enfield rifles, giving each man two shots, and being quicker to reload. British servicemen soon came to respect the Maori as fierce and worthy adversaries.

The force attacking Kaipopo Pah was hopelessly outnumbered by the Maoris, and out of the small naval contingent, the commander, Lieutenant Blake, was severely wounded by a bullet near the heart and a Marine was killed. The bullet could not be extracted and, on 27 July 1861, Blake was awarded a pension of 5 shillings per day for 3 years (later extended) based on the injury he received in New Zealand.

Protecting British interests in the Pacific

Niger left New Zealand in late 1860, while Blake was still convalescing. In January 1863 he was appointed to command the old wooden paddle sloop Alecto. While America was still engaged in its Civil War and thus unable to enforce the Monroe Doctrine, both France and Spain attempted colonial adventures in South America. A series of coastal and naval battles were fought between Spain and its former colonies of Peru, Bolivia and Chile from April 1864 to May 1866. In 1865 Spain raised the stakes by sending out ironclads, blockading Valparasio and bombarding it in 1866. The war caused great economic damage to British commercial interests and the government issued formal protests to Spain. The Royal Navy was put on stand-by to intervene. Blake’s work was recognised by promotion to substantive Commander on 19 April 1865.

In April 1865 Blake transferred to the screw corvette Mutine, which had just refitted, and in June 1866 to the similar Falcon, on the Australia Station, which enabled him to return to Sydney. Blake was promoted to Captain on 14 September 1867. About this time he acquired 500-600 acres of land in Viti Levu, Fiji, probably for cotton-planting (the price of cotton had risen dramatically during the American Civil War), but cotton prices soon declined and the Fiji crop was almost totally destroyed by hurricanes in 1870. In December 1867 Falcon was sent home to be scrapped, but Blake stayed on in Australia. On 4 January 1868 he married the 21 year-old Henrietta (known as Lily) Fitzgerald in St John, Sydney. The bishop of Sydney officiated. Lily was the daughter of a deceased, exceptionally wealthy landowner, the son of a convict. Blake went on half-pay and brought his young wife to England, where their first son was born in London on 19 October 1868.

The Ashanti War

In April 1873, Blake was appointed to command another wooden screw corvette, H.M.S. Druid. In June 1873, war broke out between the inland kingdom of Ashanti, and the British, who controlled the coast of modern Ghana, and had just purchased more coastal settlements from the Dutch. It was decided that Britain would invade Ashanti and seize its capital (which was 160 miles inland) in order to impose an acceptable security and commercial arrangement. The British commander, Sir Garnet Wolseley, was sent out and, from October 1873, Royal Engineers, using local labour, started to turn the road from the coast to the Ashanti capital of Kumasi into a military highway.

The River Prah was the traditional frontier of Ashanti and a major bridge (60 metres long) had to be built across it. Wolseley’s combatant forces were still assembling. The Engineers were protected by a Naval Brigade, the vanguard of which was commanded by Blake. The Naval Brigade arrived at Prahsu on 3 January 1874, completing the 73-mile march from the coast without a single man falling out.

At Prahsu, next to the bridge, a main supply depot was established, with a medical hut and a tower on a mound, stores, forge, telegraph office and post office. It was stocked with 400 tons of food and 1.1m rounds of ammunition. Blake was the first officer to push across the river into Ashanti itself, but soon after he reported sick at Prahsu on 4 January 1874. Wolseley defeated the Ashantis, occupied Kumasi, made peace and re-embarked his force in two months, but, despite daily doses of quinine, some 70% of the 2,000 British troops who invaded Ashanti fell sick. Most recovered, but 55 died from disease, including Captain Hans Blake. He was carried down to the coast, and hospitalised from 17 January until 21 January, when he was evacuated to the hospital ship H.M.S. Victor Emmanuel. He died on the 27th, and after a post-mortem examination, was buried on shore with full honours. The Maori bullet, finally extracted at his post-mortem, was passed to his wife Lily. The Petty Officers and seamen of Druid presented Lily with a bible, which she bequeathed to her son.

Obituary in the Sydney Mail, 11 April 1874: “By telegram we record the death of Captain William Hans Blake, commander of the Druid on the West African Coast, who distinguished himself during the New Zealand war. Captain Blake was a Post Captain in the Royal Navy, and was for some years on the Australia station in command of H.M.S. Falcon. In 1869 he proceeded to England on half-pay. He reapplied for the command of a vessel on the news of the Ashantee war, and was appointed to the Druid, the Admiral’s vessel; he also was in command of the Naval Brigade engaged in the attack on the enemy’s country. It is believed that his death was caused by inflammation supervening on fever, in the neighbourhood of a gun-shot wound, which, with an unextracted bullet, he had received in the last New Zealand war. Captain Blake was young for the distinguished work he held, being only 32 years old [in fact 41]. He leaves a widow and four [in fact 3] children.”

The most touching account of Blake’s career was set out by his 27 year-old wife, who erected identical elaborate marble memorials in St Matthew’s Anglican Church, Windsor, Sydney (her hometown) and in the Church of St Mael and St Sulien, Corwen, Wales (his hometown).

“Sacred to the beloved memory of CAPTAIN WILLIAM HANS BLAKE, ROYAL NAVY, Youngest son of the late Commander George Hans Blake, R.N.

Born 23 March 1832. Died 27 January 1874 at Cape Coast Castle, West Coast of Africa, from the effects of climate, brought on by excessive exertion and exposure, when in command of the Naval Brigade while on the march to Coomassie, during the Ashantee War of 1873-4.

This gallant officer entered the Royal Navy in 1846, as Naval Cadet on board H.M.S. HOUND in which vessel, both as Cadet and Midshipman he was employed on the West Coast of Africa in suppression of the slave trade, eventually proceeding in her to the West Indies, where he also served in H.M. Ships ALARM and IMAUM being attached to the BERMUDA schooner, a sailing tender of the latter - until the end of 1850, in November of which year he joined H.M.S. ALBION and was employed on the Mediterranean Station. On 29 October 1852 while in the ALBION he passed his examination for a Lieutenant with great credit and continued to serve in her as Acting Mate until March 1854, when he was appointed to H.M.S. DUKE OF WELLINGTON, flag-ship in the Baltic during the war with Russia.

In September 1854 he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant and transferred to H.M.S. EDINBURGH in which ship he commanded a rocket boat at the bombardment of Sweaborg in August 1855, and was gazetted in despatches "…as maintaining his position with steady gallantry under a smart fire of bursting shell…" On being paid off from the EDINBURGH in June 1856, he joined H.M.S. EXCELLENT whence he was in November 1857, transferred to H.M.S. CAMBRIAN and proceeded in her to China, where he was most actively engaged during the early period of the China War and earned the high commendation of his superiors.

From CAMBRIAN he joined in January 1859, H.M.S. NIGER, and proceeded in her to New Zealand where he saw much hard service at the outbreak of the Maori War, and was as Senior Lieutenant of the NIGER when on shore in command of a party of seamen. Desperately wounded at Waireka, Taranaki, by a gun shot wound in the breast which up to the time of his lamented death caused him much suffering, the bullet having lodged near the heart, and being only extracted at the post-mortem examination held on his remains at Cape Coast Castle. For his conspicuous bravery in New Zealand he received his promotion to the rank of Commander on 19 April 1865, and was awarded for his wound a pension for life.

From January 1863 to March 1865 he commanded H.M.S. ALECTO on the South American Station; from April 1865 to May 1866 H.M.S. MUTINE on the Pacific Station, where he more than once received the thanks of his countrymen for the protection he afforded to British interests. From June 1866 to December 1867 he commanded H.M.S. FALCON on the Australian Station, whence he returned to England, having been promoted to the rank of Captain on the 14th September 1867.

In April 1873, he was appointed to H.M.S. DRUID on the West Coast of Africa, where he took a most prominent and active part in the Ashantee War. The march to Coomassie being determined upon, he was for his high professional abilities selected to organise and command the Naval Brigade with which he marched from Cape Coast Castle to Prahsu without a single man falling out. So strongly had he imbued those under him with his own indomitable spirit, and leaving a few men to guard the stores at Prahsu, he, at the head of the remaining portion of his Brigade had the honour of being the first of the combined forces to cross the river Prah, beyond which he proceeded seven miles. But on his return to Prahsu after this arduous march to await reinforcements, and join the British troops, he was struck down with violent African Fever, and after heroically but vainly struggling against its mastery, he was compelled from utter prostration to resign his command. He was then carried down from Prahsu to Cape Coast Castle where he expired on the 27th January on board H.M.S. VICTOR EMMANUEL, and was buried on shore the same day with the honours due to his rank. Thus was added to the long and imperishable roll of past gallant naval officers, one, whose high professional character, equally with his noble and gentle qualities, made him so beloved in life and so deeply lamented in death. This tablet is erected to the best of husbands and fathers, by his sorrowing wife.”