General Conway

From Jerripedia
Jump to: navigation, search

Societe logo.png

General Conway


This article by William Davies was first published in the 1995 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise

In 1772, when General Henry Seymour Conway was appointed Governor and Captain of the Isle of Jersey, he was 51. His career had been the dual one of soldier and politician and he had held a number of senior government posts, often combining them with his commitments as a serving officer in the Army. Even during his Governorship he remained active in Parliament, and made important contributions to the course of Pitt the Younger's government.

Early years

Henry Seymour Conway was born at Ragley Hall, the ancestral home of the Seymours, one of whom, Sir Edward Seymour, was Governor of Jersey from 1537 to 1550. Henry's father, Francis, was the first Baron Conway and his mother, Francis's third wife, was Charlotte, daughter of Sir John Shorter, a Lord Mayor of London. Charlotte's sister Catherine was married to Sir Robert Walpole and Henry and Horace Walpole, his cousin, were to be lifelong friends.

As the second son, Henry enjoyed none of the benefits of Francis, his elder brother, who enjoyed property, title and royal favour all his life. After completing his education at Eton, Henry joined the Army. A serious and studious young man, he passed his 19th spring in Paris, learning French, and on his return spent the summer in the study of mathematics, fortification and drawing. As a young soldier with the army in Flanders during one inactive summer, he spent his mornings and evenings reading.

His 21st year was a busy one. On 19 October he was returned for Antrim with a seat in the Irish Parliament, which he retained continuously for 20 years; two months later he was elected to the English Parliament as member for Higham Ferrers. During the same year he was promoted Captain-Lieutenant of the First Regiment of Foot Guards, now the Grenadier Guards, with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. Thus began his dual career as soldier and politician.

From 1743 to 1752 Conway's career alternated between summer campaigns with the army in Europe and politics in England when the army was in winter quarters. He took part in the Battle of Dettingen and served with Cumberland, as his aide-de-camp, at the Battle of Fontenoy. He genuinely enjoyed battle and proved his personal bravery time and again.

With Cumberland he helped to suppress the Forty-five rebellion, leading the 48th Regiment of Foot at Culloden and, in 1747, was nearly killed at the battle of Lauffield. In 1748 the war ended and Conway continued his dual career with election to a safe seat in Cornwall and command of the 34th Foot in Minorca where he remained only a few weeks.


Having married the widow of the Earl of Aylesbury, Caroline, the daughter of John Campbell, later Duke of Argyll, in December 1747, Conway rented Latimers in Buckinghamshire but spent relatively little time there. Even so, it was to be his home for three years and his daughter, Ann, was born there.

On returning home in 1752, he bought Park Place near Henley-on-Thames. This was to be his home for the rest of his life and it was here that he developed his enthusiasm for landscaping and architecture. Over the years he was to develop the 900-acre estate, but for the moment he was developing his career and was soon sent to Ireland. His wife accompanied him but their daughter was left with his cousin, Horace Walpole.

Although Walpole was four years older than Conway they had a deep and lasting friendship. Perhaps this is why the Dictionary of National Biography warns that Conway "was by no means so remarkable a man as Walpole makes him out". Conway's portrait, by Thomas Gainsborough, which hangs in the Royal Court of Jersey, shows that he was a handsome man; "His voice was sweet;' we are told "and his manner though reserved, was gracious:' Although it was claimed that he lacked decision and insight and could be easily swayed by his emotions and his friends, not even his critics could deny that he could be trusted. "In a period marked by political intrigue and corruption, he was conspicuous for integrity and a delicate sense of honour:'

Rochefort expedition

Up to this point Conway's two careers were favourably aspected; he was a successful soldier and a well respected, if often absent, parliamentarian. However, a black mark was not far away. The Seven Years War began in 1756; in 1757 the government resolved to send an expedition against France to take Rochefort and destroy French shipping in the Charente. Pitt wanted Conway to be in command but, as the King thought him too young at 36, a joint command was set up with the elderly and decrepit Sir John Mordaunt. Conway was unhappy with this arrangement but, in a decision he undoubtedly regretted for the rest of his life, accepted it. To further confuse things, no fewer than four admirals commanded the naval force, with Hawke as the senior.

The force sailed on 8 September, but any chance of surprise was lost in the time spent manceuvring off Ile d'Oleron. Two attacks failed without Rochefort even being reached. Despite Conway's enthusiasm and zeal for battle, Mordaunt was negative and dispirited. He would accept Conway's plan to make a renewed effort only if Conway took full responsibility, which Conway would not do. The indecision was settled by Hawke's insistence that it was too late in the year for his fleet to remain at sea and the expedition sailed for home on 29 September. This disastrous affair led to a court of inquiry which decided that there had been no grounds for abandoning the attack. Mordaunt was court-martialled but acquitted and it was only because of his eagerness to renew the attack that Conway was spared from court martial. The stigma of the affair remained; the King removed him from the royal household and Pitt was cool and indignant.

Pitt's dynamic direction of the Seven Years War meant that by 1760 the French were effectively defeated on the North American continent and were under pressure also in India. Conway was consistently rebuffed in his efforts to gain a command in either of these theatres but this gave him more time to devote to Parliamentary affairs. It was a frustrating time and, since he was always more concerned with the rights of a matter than with regaining favour, he made something of a nuisance of himself.

Dragoons command

Despite this, in 1759, in a clear indication that he had regained favour, he was restored to the staff as a Lieutenant-General, with command of the First Dragoons. Although it was two years before he commenced his service in Europe, he served with his characteristic bravery. He was fearlessly aggressive in action, but clearly was not a born leader. His tendency to expect others instinctively to do as he did prevented his junior officers from feeling any enthusiasm for him. He saw a little military action, fighting alongside the Marquis of Granby, (after whom so many inns are named), in an engagement at the Kirch¬Denkern and was made Commander of the Army when Granby returned to England.

By now the war had lost much of its impetus and the 1762 campaign was an uneventful one for him. An armistice was declared in November that year and the Seven Years War formally ended in February 1763. Conway returned to England with the Army and walked into the midst of a parliamentary uproar.


The controversy centred on John Wilkes, who stirred the establishment on two counts, electoral rights and freedom of the press. While Conway had no particular liking for Wilkes, whose methods were neither gentlemanly nor subtle, he could not accept the measures taken by Grenville's government to crush him. Responding, as he always did, with more attention to his convictions than to the possible repercussions, Conway openly opposed the arbitrary measures adopted. Grenville at first attempted to persuade him to support his government; eventually Conway went too far and Grenville, fully supported by the King, dismissed him from the royal household and his regiment.

This was a serious blow for Conway for it deprived him of all sources of income. Even in these dire straits his pride would not allow him to accept offers of help from his friend Horace Walpole.

Conway's case aroused considerable resentment in Parliament, since it was clearly caused by royal vindictiveness. Indeed, it pre-empted a bill designed to protect army officers from such treatment. The House was clearly unsettled and Lord Rockingham attempted to persuade William Pitt to lead the opposition. Pitt declined and Conway lingered, aimlessly but uncomplaining, for 18 months, helped by a legacy from his friend the Duke of Devonshire, until Grenville's government fell to the Marquis of Rockingham.

For Conway the tide had turned. He was made Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, an appointment largely inspired by his real concern for events in the North American colonies. The Stamp Act had aroused extreme resentment among the colonists, who regarded the tax, which was used to maintain a standing Army there, as a blatant suppression. Conway's military experience made him well aware of the dangers of maintaining a military force so many miles away and his inborn sense of justice caused him, as ever, to maintain publicly that the colonists were the victims of shabby, ill-considered treatment.

New appointment

When Grenville gave way to Rockingham, Conway, as Minister, was able to exert some persuasion; the Stamp Act was accepted as unenforceable and, to his delight, was repealed. His personal triumph once again angered King George III who, in July 1766, invoked the Royal prerogative by asking Pitt to form a new government. Pitt appointed himself Lord Privy Seal with the title of Earl of Chatham and offered Conway the post of the Secretary of State for the Northern Department, thus removing him from Foreign to Home Affairs.

Though unhappy to serve under Chatham, Conway had a grudging admiration for the man. However, during this turbulent and disruptive administration Chatham, in his determination to destroy all Whig opposition, mercilessly exploited Conway's doubts. Despite a move in 1767 to place Conway at the head of a reformed government, he continued to serve under Chatham although, to all intents and purposes, any friendly association between the two ceased, a sorry state of affairs to exist between the First Minister and a Secretary of State.

Conway's extraordinary insight into the American problem, his military experience and his sense of fair play persuaded him to side with the colonists but often he stood alone in a complacently confident parliament. Although he was greatly admired in the colonies, his sense of disquiet could not be soothed and, after lengthy negotiations, he firmly resigned from office in January, 1768. For once in his political life he was obliged to be decisive and was so in a manner reminiscent of his behaviour on the field of battle.

Ordnance command

Although he retained a seat in the House, Conway now had more time to devote to military activities, a change he found most agreeable. Earlier, in September 1767, he had been appointed Lieutenant-General of the Ordnance, which admirably suited his talents, while also giving him another quality which was to benefit Jersey during his Governorship. He devoted his organisational abilities to tidying up the bureaucratic mess in the Ordnance Department and introduced many sound reforms; later, as Governor of Jersey, he may have regretted some of these; there were many occasions during the latter period when he and the Board of Ordnance did not see eye to eye.

In 1768 he was given command of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoons. Ironically, bearing in mind his political support of the rights of Parliamentary representation, he used his regiment to secure law and order during the turbulent Wilkes riots.

The Marquis of Granby, under whom Conway had served in Germany during the Seven Years War, resigned the office of Master-General of the Ordnance for political reasons in 1770. Although the King offered the post to him, Conway characteristically refused, disliking the government no less than did Granby. However, no harm was done and some months later he received command of the Royal Regiment of Horse Guards, the Blues.

The uncertainty and underhandedness of political intrigue, which Conway had endured for many years now, were beginning to influence his "delicate sense of honour". He was now becoming somewhat tetchy, influenced more by personalities than by reason. He resigned from his post in the Ordnance in 1772, refusing to serve under George Townshend, although he could ill afford it. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister, Lord North, was leading the government into further disastrous mishandling of the American problem. Conway openly regarded North with as much contempt as his good manners would allow.

Although it had taken many years to regain, if only tenuously, royal favour, Conway once again set about upsetting the King. This time it was the Royal Marriage Act of which he was deeply critical. Although the King demanded that Conway's brother, Francis, should control him, Conway's views changed not one iota. It is probable that the King had a secret admiration for his turbulent servant, for by now it was obvious that deprivation of appointment made no difference to Conway's tenets; it might though be reasoned that without the Ordnance Department to occupy him, Conway would have more time to make a nuisance of himself in Parliament.

Governor of Jersey

At all events, on 21 October, 1772, His Majesty was graciously pleased to appoint him Governor and Captain of the Isle of Jersey and Conway was sworn before the Privy Council on 6 November.

The Office of the Governor existed nearly four centuries, from 1468 to 1854. Before this the Channel Islands were in the custody of a Warden, but the Crown clearly had a say in the appointment under Letters Patent of 1202 and 1208. Sir Richard Harliston, the first Governor, made his role specific to Jersey and this included the power to appoint the Bailiff. It is to be noted that the oath of office was taken before the Privy Council and not the Royal Court of Jersey. Thus the Governor had indirect control of both civil and military matters, yet not without Royal surveillance.

Very few governors actually visited the Island, still fewer resided in it. Until 1643 the Governor had the power to appoint as a deputy a Lieut-Governor who was resident. This power later rested with the Crown. Governors thus had little understanding of Island affairs and the Bailiffs gradually strengthened their control. However the division between civil and military matters was not clearly defined. Who should pay for what was a perennial argument. One source of contention was that the Crown required the Islanders to assist in the defence of their island, while the Islanders argued that as Jersey was a Crown possession, the Crown should pay for it.

Although an Order in Council in 1619 attempted to clarify the situation by granting powers to levy a tax, the first priority in the spending of the tax was clearly defence, with the well-being of the populace very low. The ultimate authority of the King was accurately defined, but no clear responsibility for the implementation of the order was stated. The Governor was as remote and impersonal as the Monarch himself; the respective roles of the Lieut-Governor and the Bailiff, ill defined, gave great opportunity for political intrigue, which was rampant at the time of Conway's appointment.

The Lieut-Governor could make no move without the consent of his absent superior, whereas the Bailiff could rely on the support of "the Deans, Justices and Procurator", who were fellow residents. The Bailiff not unnaturally reasoned that, as he was obliged to raise the revenue, he should have a say in the manner in which it was spent. Inevitably, the Lieut-Governor, isolated by poor communications, often found himself in a quandary with things not going the way he would wish, simply because he could be outvoted by the civil administration.

Interest in Jersey aroused

Initially, it seemed that Henry Conway was to behave little differently from his predecessors. He was appointed in October 1772, but it was to be six years before he showed any particular interest in the domain for which he was personally responsible. In fairness, he was heavily involved in Parliamentary matters during those years but, once his interest was aroused, inspired in no small measure by the turn of events in the American colonies, General Conway proved to be a most energetic Governor, developing a zealous passion to make Jersey secure against all-comers.

His task was not easy. During his Governorship the ferment in the American colonies spilled over into Europe, as Conway had anticipated, while France was in the throes of a bloody revolution. In Jersey, the Prince of Nassau made his abortive invasion in 1779, to be followed less than two years later by the Baron de Rullecourt's landing, which came uncomfortably close to success.

Additionally, in their bid to escape the uprising, French refugees poured into the Island unchecked, inevitably creating enormous social and housing problems in so doing. On top of all this, local politics in themselves were turbulent and the Islanders were by no means entirely loyal to the English King.

It is a measure of Conway's character, his charm and friendly persuasion, that he contributed greatly to Jersey's stability and security in those troubled years. Furthermore, he did so in a manner that earned him countless friends among the populace who regarded him with the utmost respect. That is no small tribute from the community at that time, suspicious of everyone and everything. When he took office, General Conway was still a comparatively young man of 51 years, but despite that he was a battle-seasoned soldier and an experienced politician, too. In both spheres he attained high rank and office and, without question, the Island was fortunate to have a person of Conway's calibre at the helm during dark and troubled times.

During Conway's time, war was essentially as it had been since the invention of gunpowder; increased mobility, generated by the internal combustion engine, was yet to come, so Conway's endeavours to protect Jersey were based on tactics and weaponry that had remained essentially unchanged during the previous four centuries.


It was clear that there were three prime factors that made the Island vulnerable to whatever aggressive intentions the French might have harboured. There was, firstly, the strategic advantage, due to the Island's proximity to France. Secondly, no one could seriously question that geographically it belonged to France and, thirdly, the choice that Jerseymen made in 1204 to stay loyal to the English Crown made them outcasts and traitors in the eyes of the French.

It is evident that under any of these headings Jersey was a tantalising temptation to the French over several centuries, especially as it was sited so conveniently close as to make a surprise attack an almost certain success.

Having barely survived the stigma of the Rochefort fiasco, Conway understood only too clearly what his fate would be if Jersey fell to France during his governorship. He also knew at first hand the political situation, the alliance between the French and the American colonists and he knew, too, how stretched were Britain's military resources. In fact, he knew too much for peace of mind.

It would have been a task of no great magnitude for the French to take the Channel Islands and, since France had been greatly humiliated during the Seven Years' War, such a victory would do the French ego enormous good, while at the same time creating an unacceptable loss of face for the British. Conway's soldierly mind eventually assimilated these unpalatable possibilities and overnight he became a worried man. Almost six years after his appointment as Governor he hastened to Jersey and, from a defensive point of view, was not enamoured with what he found. There was, in fact, very little.

Prior to his first visit in May 1778, Conway's knowledge of the geography and defences of the Island and morale of the inhabitants can have been gleaned only from correspondence with his Lieut-Governor, unreliable maps and possibly conversation with one or two people in London who had visited the Island. The almost non-existent defences of the Island could be improved only with local help. Fortunately Conway spoke fluent French and this, combined with his gracious manner, led to his being accepted for his integrity by the majority of people of all stations.

Although the Islanders did not have to delve too deeply into their history to know that Jersey was vulnerable to sudden attack, most people did not fully realise their predicament. The Island was far from united politically and religiously, but Conway managed to rally the inhabitants to action without any panic, at the same time earning their adulation and respect. Conway's intimate knowledge of the reasoning (or lack of it) that motivated the King and his ministers enabled the General to appraise Jersey's role in the overall strategy calmly, which the local administration could not possibly do.

Conway was faced with one problem; there were many possible landing points on the nearly 50 miles of Jersey's coastline. Surprise attack from any quarter was possible and the invader needed only to establish a beach-head for the conquest of the Island to be assured. Adequately to guard all potential landing spots was a logistic impossibility and the poor state of the roads prevented rapid movement of troops.

Maurice de Saxe

The solution came from an unexpected source - Count Maurice de Saxe, whom Conway had faced years before at Fontenoy. Fontenoy had been the climax of the Count's spectacular military career and Saxe was elevated to Marshal of France and retired to a life of energetic pleasure. Somehow, between the countless affairs and glittering social events that he enjoyed at his Chateau at Chambord, Saxe had found the time to write Mes Reveries, or Memoirs on the Art of War.

Conway read this work of considerable military importance and was totally persuaded by one particular theory expounded by Saxe. This was that a series of towers could be used to defend inland towns against siege conditions. To bypass the towers would leave an army vulnerable to attack from behind, while to reduce each tower might cost valuable time. Conway adopted Saxe's reasoning in toto, adapting it to the conditions of Jersey and this, without doubt, was his greatest contribution to the Island during his 23 years of governorship.

Conway conceived a ring of 30 coastal towers around the Island, to be located at all the possible landing spots. He calculated that a force of 330 men would be needed to maintain a watch around the clock; this force would be able also to put up a holding defence against any landing, giving time to deploy reinforcements.

Although technically he should have contacted the Master-General of the Ordnance, Conway knew that a direct approach to the Secretary of State, Lord Weymouth, who had the King's ear, would bypass the Board of Ordnance. Thus, on 5 July the Master-General was ordered by Royal command to authorise the building of the towers. Later in July 15 towers were ordered for Guernsey "of the same form and mode as those ordered for the Isle of Jersey". Conway was not responsible for the Guernsey towers but Lord Weymouth's precise instruction has created a mystery because the Guernsey towers do not resemble the Jersey pattern.

Building problems

Conway started to build the towers as soon as he received instructions and, by January 1779, he wrote to Lord Amherst, the then Master-General, that only four had been completed. It is almost certain that these were at La Greve de Lecq, 'A' and 'B' in Saint Ouen's Bay (both since destroyed by erosion), and either Grouville No1 or Le Hocq.

In this letter Conway complained about his engineer, Captain Frederick Basset. It is evident that there was a personality clash and Conway had Basset transferred to Guernsey later that year. Captain Frederick Mulcaster, a more dynamic personality, succeeded Basset, but the initial improvement in the building programme did not last. This is not surprising because, as Conway reluctantly recognised, the shortage of essential materials was the main problem.

Following Conway's appeal to Lord Amherst the situation improved, but the other critical factor was beyond the control of the Master-General or anyone else for that matter. Basset's problem was not only a shortage of materials but also a lack of local labour. It is a simple matter to order the erection of 30 towers; another matter entirely to build them. Contrary to his usual behaviour, Conway was being unfair to his engineer.

Not only was the local labour force inadequate, there was also a positive reluctance on the part of the locals to co-operate fully. Most of the masons were farmers; for centuries they had suffered pirate raids and they could not believe that a few towers would make any difference. To them, cultivating their land was much more important than building towers. Furthermore, there were not enough masons.

French attack

Conway wrote: "The magistrates at Jersey have given orders for the masons to work at no private work ... Capt Basset represents that the number in the Island is not sufficient to finish them with any expedition" The General seems to have been more relaxed when Captain Mulcaster took over on 14 March 1779, but nevertheless he constantly dreaded a French assault before he was ready, a possibility that became only too evident on 1 May 1779.

Mulcaster was posted to Jersey expressly at the command of Lord Amherst and, barely six weeks after his arrival, the young officer was writing directly to his Lordship: "Yesterday morning at break of day a French fleet consisting of two large Frigates of about 44 guns, a lesser of 28, and another (which I imagine was a St Malo Privateer) of about 18 or 20 guns, with five cutters, two prames and a number of smaller craft amounting in the whole some 55 to 60 sail appeared off St Helier's Bay" Mulcaster was not the sort to be left out of things that promised to be so lively so, when the Prince of Nassau's armada sailed slowly around the coast, he hastened to Saint Ouen's Bay to join Moyse Corbet, the Lieut-Governor who, having been warned of the attempt, was already assembled with a defending force.

Mulcaster's report, written while the events were still fresh in the young man's mind, gives details of the way that Corbet deployed his mobile troops in the most flexible manner, showing him to be a shrewd commander. The Prince's invasion attempt was a fiasco; his ships never managed to land any troops, perhaps because the individual owners were unwilling to put their vessels at risk. The tide ebbed and the threat was over.

Battle of Jersey

Unfortunately Corbet was less well prepared for the Baron de Rullecourt who, less than two years later, put a force ashore on 6 January 1781. The whole island was taken by surprise and Mulcaster, in common with his neighbours, was not aware of the invasion until the French troops reached St Helier in the early hours. True to form he grabbed a horse and rode swiftly to Elizabeth Castle. On arrival he established his seniority to the garrison commander and assumed command. The French, cautiously crossing the causeway, halted and dispatched a demand for surrender. Mulcaster claimed he did not understand French, put the capitulation note in his pocket unread and opened fire on the invaders who showed no enthusiasm for a fight and retreated. This event marked the turning point in French fortune and the first sign of the Baron's defeat a few hours later.

It has been suggested that Corbet behaved in a cowardly manner during this raid; on the face of it events justified that assertion to some measure. Few critics, though, have given much thought to Corbet's dilemma. The whole Island had been taken unawares, largely because of the unseasonable time of the year, and de Rullecourt, in an audacious bluff, convinced Corbet that the few hundred mercenaries in the Royal Square were merely the vanguard of a force of 4,000 already in possession of much of the Island. Corbet had no means of checking this claim, but it has already been shown that two years earlier he was aware of 10,000 men ready to embark at Saint Malo, with a similar force at Granville.

Even allowing for exaggeration by his agents, Corbet had good reason to believe de Rullecourt. Further, there was the added threat that if he did not capitulate, St Helier, his birthplace, would be set ablaze. This was no idle threat; at Corbet's court martial it was stated that most of the French soldiers carried a faggot of brushwood about a foot long. Corbet's predicament was an unenviable one for, unlike Peirson, he was unable to appraise the true state of affairs in the Island, since he was under close guard from the moment de Rullecourt reached St Helier.

The verdict given at his court martial in May 1781 seems to have recognised that it was his judgement, not his courage that was at fault, for although he was removed from his post of Lieut-Governor, he was granted a pension of £250 per annum, roughly the pay of a serving major, so it could hardly be claimed that he was entirely disgraced. Corbet died, almost unnoticed and certainly unrecognised for his past achievements, in 1817.

News reaches Conway

Conway's reaction to news of the invasion attempt was hampered by poor communications; his first information, which was three days old, was that the French were ashore. This information caused him great alarm for the dread of losing the Island was almost a phobia with him. The news was as astonishing to Conway as it had been to Corbet, for a winter campaign was unheard of in northern climes. Conway set sail with reinforcements from Portsmouth within hours, suggesting that he was ready for such an event, but he was forced to take refuge in Plymouth from a storm which destroyed one ship with 50 men on board.

It was in Plymouth that he heard, to his great relief, that the attack had failed, but he caught pneumonia and was unfit for some time afterwards. While still on his sickbed he received a derisive letter from Lord Hillsborough, implying that he had shirked his duty by not being present to lead the defence. Conway was infuriated by this unwarrantable affront but his brother, Francis, Lord Hertford, intervened to calm troubled waters.

Hospital explosion

Conway continued his tower building programme but his problems were increasing. In 1783 the General Hospital was seriously damaged by an explosion and fire. This displaced several hundred soldiers and one may wonder reasonably why the soldiers should be billeted in the hospital. To discover the answer, it is necessary to look back more than 40 years, when, in 1741, Mrs Marie Bartlett, widow of a wealthy merchant in St Aubin, bequeathed a large sum to erect a poorhouse. This bequest caused problems; her relatives resented her generosity, leading to long litigation, and the States wished the building to be in the rapidly growing town of St Helier and considered the site she had chosen unsuitable.

Eventually, Philippe Bandinel, Seigneur of Meleches, donated land for the project and work on the poorhouse, euphemistically called Hospital, commenced in 1765 on the site of the present hospital. Once the work was completed the States decided that the number of people eligible for accommodation under the terms of the will was very small. It seems odd that this had not been realised before, but by all accounts the needy were cared for in houses in Seale Street, while the newly built hospital was leased to the Army as a barracks.

The States understandably looked to the British Government to repair the damage caused by the explosion, since the damage would have been less if gunpowder had not been stored on the premises. They argued that a building used as a military establishment was the responsibility of the Government, but the Master-General of the Ordnance, the Duke of Richmond, clearly thought otherwise. Though Conway felt that there was a moral obligation to the States, Richmond disagreed, stating his views clearly in a letter three years later, in 1786. He pointed out that the building was given to the Island as a hospital for certain poor people and, although it was large enough for 300 men, the number of eligible sick seldom exceeded 30. The undamaged part, he continued, was more than sufficient to accommodate those unfortunates if that was required and, therefore, if the States were seeking compensation, they had better look elsewhere, since the rent which had been paid by the Army was sufficient to pay the insurance.

Richmond suggested to Conway that if the Governor felt there was a moral obligation to the charity (and there surely was) then "it should be paid out of the extra ordinaries of the army ... I feel how naturally you must interest yourself in this business which concerns your Governorship and yourself so much," the Duke smarmed, "but I hope you will not think me too scrupulous about further(ing) my Department with expenses which belong to others". Whatever the ethics of the matter, Conway had an unsolved barrack problem on his hands and, when he later proposed alternative arrangements, he fell into deeper hot water with the Master-General.

It is ironic that the biggest thorn in Conway's side when trying to secure the Island's defence was the Master-General of the Ordnance, since it must not be forgotten that Conway had been offered, but rejected, the post. The Duke of Richmond was sometimes an ally, but more often an antagonist of Conway in Parliamentary debate. On several occasions they crossed swords fiercely on matters relating to Jersey's defence, and one of the casualties was the General's proposals for fortifying the Town Hill.

Gift of dolmen

In August 1785, militiamen were at work on Le Mont de la Ville in Saint Helier, carrying out investigations for the General's planned fortification. During their labours they uncovered "a perfect Temple of the Druids" which caused great excitement. The discovery fascinated Conway: such was his interest in the dolmen and such was his popularity among the Jersey people, that the Procureurs had no hesitation in presenting it to him. Whether or not they had the authority to do so is a moot point, but Conway was delighted and accepted the gift with alacrity. A lesser person might have made an appropriate gesture of gratitude and left the monument in situ, but not Conway. Already he had a location in mind, and the monument was transported to his beloved estate Park Place where it remains. He might have thought twice about this considerable undertaking if his estate had not bordered a navigable stretch of the River Thames.

In 1787 the Corps of the Royal Engineers was formally embodied into the British Army and Captain John Evelegh was posted as the first officer commanding the RE in Jersey. He superseded Mulcaster and was directly responsible to the Board of Ordnance, not the Governor. Conway was irked by this because he was no longer able to avoid direct dealings with the Master-General and Board of Ordnance. Conway had a close and friendly association with Mulcaster, and it is evident that Captain Evelegh had to tread a delicate path when he took up his post. This difficulty becomes more understandable when it is realised that Conway was not only the Governor and a high-ranking Army Officer but also considered the security of Jersey to be his personal prerogative.

Evelegh's position was not an easy one but, full credit to him, he seems to have judged things discreetly in the no-man's-land that existed between the Governor and the Master-General.

Conway's plan over-ruled

The Duke of Richmond, as Master-General of the Ordnance, followed Evelegh's appointment with a request for a report on the works projected for the Town Hill of Saint Helier. Evelegh must have been alarmed by the works in progress and informed the Board. He was one of three officers who carried out an investigation and presented their report on 2 August 1787. It generated a rift between Conway and Richmond that never healed. Although relations between the two had been strained before, this was the final straw and had a serious effect on the Governor's influence over the defence of Jersey, although it did not curb his desire to make the Island as secure as possible.

Notwithstanding General Conway's annoyance, Evelegh's report is a well-balanced and reasoned document. While not condemning Conway's intentions out of hand, the investigating officers seriously doubted his priorities. It was clear that there was a need for only one fortress, but it was vital that it should be located in the best spot. Mont de la Ville commanded both the lesser hill to the south and also the spot where Conway was working. It is thus not surprising that his project was halted, since it was a feasible prospect for an enemy to gain possession of the Town Hill, making the lower fortress indefensible.

A tailpiece to this episode concerns one of the officers on the investigating committee - Captain Robert Morse. When John Humfrey started to erect Fort Regent in 1806, the Master-General of the Ordnance was none other than Lieut-General Robert Morse. Humfrey almost fell into the same trap as Conway; because of the protracted litigation over the purchase of the Town Hill, he proposed a fortification on exactly the same spot as Conway's earlier work. Needless to add, the Master-General was able to advise Humfrey otherwise, with a precise knowledge of the objections to the proposal. Without wishing to denigrate John Humfrey's fine achievement, it is evident there was little scope for him to go wrong with such an experienced adviser directing him.

French refugees

Meanwhile, during the early 1790s, Conway's worries mounted. The repercussions from the French Revolution greatly affected Jersey. Priests, aristocrats and other lesser mortals flocked to Jersey during the next three years, creating overwhelming problems: they had nowhere to live as there were simply not enough houses to accommodate them. The situation was further exacerbated by the influx of troop reinforcements to counter the growing threat of war.

It is generally true to assert that the Governor looked on the daunting influx of French emigres as a civil problem to be resolved by the States as best they could: he reasoned justifiably that he had more than enough military problems on his hands. Nevertheless, there was a conflict of interests because Conway urgently required somewhere to accommodate the growing garrison. His real need was for properly designed barracks, to ensure that the troops were together in strength and under proper discipline, but there were few in existence. Consequently, he was obliged to compromise, the only choice being to lease, or if necessary to commandeer private properties. This was not always popularly received, even though the Governor insisted on proper rentals. A few examples include Saint Ouen's Manor, the "Parsonage House" in Saint Brelade's Bay, together with several stores in Saint Helier and Saint Aubin, but it was far from an ideal solution. In an emergency it would have taken hours to muster the troops from their scattered billets into a fighting unit.

Such was the state of emergency in 1793, though, that the Commander-in-Chief instructed Lieutenant-Colonel John Evelegh to "fit up the Royal Court House with every accommodation for the Troops". The 59th Regiment of Foot had been dispatched as reinforcements for the Island's defence, but nobody on the other side of the Channel appears to have given any thought to accommodating them on arrival. Even so, taking over the Royal Court House seems on the face of it to have been a drastic solution to an immediate problem. Alternatively, it may illustrate the willing co-operation between the civil and military administration when circumstances demanded. If that was so, it may be assumed that Conway's friendly persuasion had something to do with it. The final outcome of this incident vividly indicates the eternal army technique of command and countermand. Having completed his task promptly and efficiently, Evelegh was at once ordered "to remove the accommodation that had been prepared and fixed in the Royal Court House". Presumably the soldiers rested their weary heads elsewhere, while the course of justice was disrupted but little and not for long.

More than one hundred and fifty years after Conway contemplated ways and means of combating beach landings, another great Field Marshal named Erwin Rommel faced similar problems. In geographical terms they were not far apart, the Englishman being intent on holding back the French from Jersey while, ironically, the German wished to prevent the English landing on French shores. Even allowing for the progress of weaponry in the interim, their ideas were remarkably similar: Rommel introduced explosive charges on poles below water level to damage, or hopefully sink, landing craft as they approached the beaches. With a similar thought, Conway instructed Evelegh, in 1791, to make "conical fire poles" to be set up in the various bays for use in the event of an attack. The purpose was simply to create a fire hazard to the wooden invasion fleet, thus disrupting the actual landing in the same manner as Rommel proposed all those years later.

Other work

In addition to towers which, for two decades were unceasingly under construction, numerous coastal batteries were formed, while those in existence needed constant maintenance. Several batteries, and in some instances towers, were modified to receive larger guns. The guard houses as well as the castles had been neglected for many years so the OCRE was as much concerned with renovation as he was with new works.

Evelegh and his staff were employed on all manner of things, ranging from the manufacture of frames and carriages for guns, the erection of standards and cross-poles for signal stations, the fitting out of boats to transport material around the coast (since there were no worthwhile roads) and to offshore towers, the building of numerous guardhouses and batteries, the repair of others, to the making of hospital bedsteads and the construction of workshops. Another of his tasks was to build the barracks at La Collette to accommodate his craftsmen, though it is doubtful if at any time Evelegh had more than 30 military artificers under his direct command. In those circumstances local workers obviously were in great demand, whether or not they liked it.

Much of Evelegh's work was concerned with repair; in 1793 there were substantial repairs to the barracks and guardhouse at Elizabeth Castle, Saint Aubin's Fort and "sundry towers and guardhouses on the coast." The emphasis on repair is noteworthy, while it is especially significant that even the earliest towers were barely fifteen years old. Possibly Conway's relentless drive for speedy construction led to slipshod workmanship.

Richmond's concerns

Conway's problems with barracks continued for many years. In April 1792, five years after the first attempt to build a fort on Mont de la Ville, Captain Evelegh, received an estimate from the Duke of Richmond for building a barrack for 300 men in the hollow of the South Hill, on exactly the same spot as the proposed earlier fortifications. The Duke was clearly intent on thwarting this proposal of Conway's as well, since he quickly wrote a private letter to Evelegh heavily criticising the choice of site. This letter is an astonising document, and hardly the sort one would expect the Master-General of the Ordnance to send to a comparatively junior officer, because it left no doubt what Evelegh's observations on the proposals should be.

Richmond's criticisms were wholly justified. Evidently Conway was hoping to adapt works already started and did not regard barracks as fortified works. Although he was desperate to replace accommodation lost six years before when the Hospital was destroyed, the choice of a site overlooked by the north and south hills was vulnerable to attack. The Duke was not only concerned by a possible attack from the French. His letter warns "should any dispute arise in future between the inhabitants and the troops and that the Militia, armed as they are with field pieces should in imitation of their French neighbours proceed to such an extremity as to attempt to drive the troops out of the Island they might, by surprise, seize the high ground and from thence easily force the troops out of the barracks that would be so directly plunged into from the Hill above them".

It is difficult to say how well Richmond knew Jersey, although he certainly visited the Island and would have had details of the map he commissioned in 1787, known as the 'Richmond Map'. He clearly had a mistrust of Jerseymen for he left Evelegh in no doubt of his fears "I much doubt whether the inhabitants will not throw every possible obstruction in the way of such a plan (fortifying the Town Hill), for from all their proceedings of late I cannot but think that the object of the Patriotic party, as they call themselves, is to get rid of the King's Troops and of the English Government, and to introduce the French democratic system, and in this view they do not wish to have any fortification that will resist the French, or themselves ... for in no other light can I see the objections which have been made against the necessary inroads of ground wanted for the fortifications".

Perhaps there was an element of truth in Richmond's suspicions; the Magot newspaper the Gazette de L'Ile de Jersey welcomed the French revolution with eager applause. On the other hand, it is also true that as soon as the Government showed any interest in a particular site the locals started to develop it (they did not have to contend with a planning authority in those days) simply to enhance its value. Ten years later, John Humfrey was to have a long and acrimonious litigation with the Procureurs de la Vingtaine de la Ville over the purchase of the Town Hill, which was finally resolved by resort to compulsory purchase. To this day, the people of the Island show reluctance to be forced to sell their land.

In the event, Conway's proposals for the "barracks in the hollow of South Hill" were not implemented, illustrating how much the Governor's hands were now tied by the Board of Ordnance. A decade earlier he would doubtless have obtained permission to do the job directly from the Secretary of State, particularly as the estimated sum for the barracks was only £2,186 lls. The eventual construction of Fort Regent provided suitable barracks, but neither Conway nor the Duke of Richmond lived to see it.

Neither did Conway live to see his tower programme totally fulfilled. Only 22 were completed in his lifetime. La Rocco, the last of the Jersey pattern towers, was commenced shortly after his death, but as work was suspended for a year or more due to financial problems, it was not completed until 1800. All Conway's towers are situated, as might be expected, in those bays which are most suited to a landing from seaward. Conway's towers defended Saint Aubin's Bay, Le Ouaisne and Saint Brelade on the south coast, Saint Ouen in the west and La Greve de Lecq on the north coast. Grouville, La Platte Rocque and Le Hocq completed the ring of defence. Seymour Tower was completed in 1782, but it was built on the foundations of an earlier tower, which may have been named after Sir Edward Seymour, Conway's ancestor and Governor between 1537 and 1550.

'Martello' towers

Although Henry Conway did much for the defence of Jersey during his 23 years in office, there can be no doubt whatever that the provision of coastal towers was his greatest contribution. Today, all of them are loosely known as Martello Towers, but the fact is that Henry Seymour Conway saw them as an ideal and economical form of coastal defence 16 years before the incident at Pointe Mortella in Corsica. That engagement proved the ability of an isolated tower to repel heavily armed men-of-war and convinced the military authorities of their value as a protection against invasion.

Thereafter, numerous Martellos were built, mainly around the south and east coasts of England and eight were built in Jersey additional to Conway's towers. Even so, the Governor's foresight put Jersey 22 towers ahead of anywhere else. Additionally, Guernsey had 15, resulting directly from Conway's approch to Lord Weymouth in 1778. It may be arguing over a nicety, but by any reckoning it is not strictly accurate to name the majority of the Jersey Towers 'Martello'.

Field Marshal Henry Seymour Conway was plausibly the finest Governor ever to serve the Island. It would perhaps be fitting to name those towers built under his jurisdiction 'Conway Towers'. Assuredly it would be a suitable tribute, serving at the same time to remind us of his name, together with positive recognition of the unstinting service he gave not only to his country but especially to the Island of Jersey.

Conway died at his beloved Park Place in the small hours of 9 July 1795. He had never fully recovered from the severe attack of pneumonia he contracted when attempting to cross to Jersey in 1781. His daughter wrote "you know I have always thought that going out in the cold and damp walking with his feet wet, and many other things in which he practised contrary to all advice, probably hastened his end".

Perhaps Conway was a better soldier that he was a General, a better General than a statesman, but it must be acknowledged that he was "one of the most worthy of men". His was a full life, never sparing of effort, which he steered with delicacy and honour through the troubled and nefarious intrigues that were too commonplace in eighteenth-century politics and warfare. He was fearless in both, while a measure of his popularity and charm surely is conveyed by his unfailing ability to win back royal favour time and again.

He may not have been considered outstandingly great, though assuredly his achievements tend to confound that view. At all times, even in adversity, he proved to be a person of the highest integrity; a kindly and honest officer and gentleman.

Personal tools
other Channel Islands
contact and contributions

Please support Jerripedia with a donation to our hosting costs