A melancholy pleasure: Nicolas Dobree and the heroes of Cobo

The Gros Rocher, Guernsey

'But oh! what a tragic story we have to relate.' The bravery of a group of men from the Castel and their untimely deaths on the Gros Rock, March 9th, 1818; Nicolas Dobree, R.N., the two brothers Henry and George Le Tissier, Daniel Nicolle, and Captain Collenette. The photograph above shows the rock. 'Ils ont peri, meme en accomplissant un oeuvre de charite.'

C'est pourquoi vous aussi tenez-vous prêts, car le Fils de l'Homme viendra à l'heure que vous n'y penserez point. Matthew, 24.44, from the memorial sermon given by the Reverend William Guille on 15th May 1818.

Harriet Dobrée to Nancy Routh, May 29th 1818.

Did you hear, my dear Nancy, that our poor Nicholas was taken up last Friday week, he was recognised chiefly by his clothes, & laid the following evening in a vault that had been opened some time close to the Saumarez'. He was carried to the Morgue, but an hour previous to the funeral was brought to the parsonage; it was another trial and seemed for the moment a new affliction, but we now feel the comfort of having him near us, it is a great weakness but I own I look at the Câtel churchyard with a melancholy pleasure. I have not any of his hair, but Charlotte has promised to divide with me the little she has; and you shall have half my portion. [From the Mann-Dobrée letters in the Library.]

In October 1815 Nicolas Charles Dobrée was 25 years old. He commanded HMS Zenobia, and had escorted Napoleon to the island of St Helena.1 On 5.30 p.m. on 22 October 1815, Nicholas Dobrée, and Captain James White of HMS Peruvian, came ashore on Ascension Island and claimed it for Britain. Although the island had been well known for some time, St Helena was relatively nearby, and Rear Admiral George Cockburn was concerned that the French might use Ascension Island as a base from which to attempt a rescue. The Admiralty later designated the island as ‘HMS Ascension, a stone sloop of the smaller class.’

Nicolas Dobrée was the eldest son of the Reverend Nicholas Peter Dobrée (1755-1843), minister of the Castel in Guernsey, and Charlotte De Saumarez (1763-1860). He had eight siblings, and was the nephew of Admiral James Saumarez. He had served under his uncle in the Victory, and in 1813 had earned a prize of £526 for carrying to parliament, on his uncle’s behalf, the news of the famous treaties between Britain, Russia and Sweden, in the success of the negotiations for which his uncle Saumarez had played no small part. After the war ended, he and his uncle had both returned to Guernsey.

In the early hours of March 9th 1818 Nicolas was at home in Castel rectory with his parents when news came of a ship wrecked at Cobo in the storm that had been raging all night. Residents at Longport had spotted the crew stranded on the Gros Rock, a flat topped but relatively low rock not far from the beach, which their ship,the Deux Frères,2 had struck at midnight, breaking up two hours later.

James Saumarez takes up the story.

Mercure, 21st March 1818: Extract of a letter from Sir James Saumarez to his Brother, the respectable surgeon at Newington, dated Guernsey, March 11.

Gros Rocher, Guernsey, from the shore

It has fallen to me to make you acquainted with a most afflicting event that has befallen our dear nephew, Nicholas Dobrée. On Monday Morning, soon after daylight, an account was brought to this place that a vessel had been totally wrecked in the night near the Bay of Cobeau; which his father having communicated to him, he immediately made to the spot, and was the first to discover the unfortunate crew on a large rock, which is not covered in the high tides. The sea was at that time too boisterous to afford them assistance; and, as the tide was going down, his father and himself returned home to breakfast. He wrote me a short note to inform me of the circumstance, and at the same time mentioned, that the crew must remain on the rock till near low water, about two o’clock; concluding, ‘they ought to thank God for so providential an escape’. They soon after returned to the coast; and our beloved nephew, prompted by humanity, and fearing that the unfortunate crew would perish from fatigue and hunger, prevailed upon six men to accompany him in a boat and go to their assistance; they approached the rock with some difficulty, and let go an anchor, throwing a small grapnel, by which three of the men reached the boat; when a heavy sea nearly filled her, and, lamentable to relate, another soon took her under the bow, and overset her. In this manner was our beloved nephew taken from this world, with eight other men, two of the boatmen only being saved. The unhappy father beheld the sad catastrophe from the beach.

Here is the Gazette’s version of the events: Gazette de Guernesey, Saturday 14th March, 1818:

WRECK [From the French] Last Monday, at about two o’clock in the morning, the brig Le Prudent, Captain Dormoix, returning from Lisbon to its home port of Anvers, broke up on the Gros Rock between the Guet and Grandes Rocques. The crew managed to get up onto the Gros Rock, which is half-a-mile out to sea, where they spent a dreadful night. Around six o’clock in the morning residents living nearby saw the unfortunate sailors signalling from the rock. When Mr Dobrée, R.N., Captain of a Frigate, and son of the Reverend Dobrée, learnt of their plight, he immediately launched a boat, with another six men, to go to their aid, despite the obvious danger; and even though the sea was very rough, he reached the rock and took off the Captain, his son, and a crew member, reassuring the remaining sailors that they would be back for them. But oh! what a tragic story we have to relate—just when the boat was turning away from the fatal rock it was swamped and sunk by a mountainous wave; only two men reached shore, keeping themselves alive by holding on to the boat.

And so perished: Captain DOBREE; two brothers TISSIER; NICOLLE; Captain COLLENETTE; the ship’s captain, his son, and a member of the crew. At low tide, the four men remaining on the rock were brought ashore. The ship’s cargo consisted of oranges, lemons, cocoa, nankeen, etc.'

The Indépendance of the 14th March has a long editorial, expressing a reluctance to add to the distress of the victims' family and friends, but feeling that it was in the public interest to give details of the tragedy, and included a poem, lamenting Dobrée's death.

Thus he perished, at the age of 27, a victim of the most noble intentions, in front of his father and his closest friends, a young man for whom the highest hopes were held, and whose name was certain to be added to the list of heroes of which this island is so proud. Captain Dobrée began his career in 1803, aboard HMS Tribune; he was long in the service of his uncle Admiral Sir James Saumarez, who spoke of him in the most complementary terms and considered him a brave and capable officer.

It is absolutely impossible to describe the utter distress felt by those who witnessed this awful accident. A second boat was immediately launched and every effort was made to rescue the poor victims; after a short time the body of the wrecked Captain was washed up, followed soon after by that of his son, and every effort was made to resuscitate them, but to no avail. The Captain breathed his last on the beach; he was a very old man.

The Chevalier's Guernsey Almanac for 1818 in the Library tells us that low tide was at 1.33 p.m. that day; Nicolas had originally decided, as he told his uncle, that he would wait until lunchtime to mount a rescue; but the Almanac would have informed him that the tides for 1818 would be far less high than previous years. Although the tide can fall so low that it is said to be possible to walk over to the Gros Rock from the beach, there would have been no help from low water levels as there might have been in other years, and Nicolas may have judged that waiting would be of little advantage, with the wrecked men continually suffering from the rock's being dashed by the waves of the storm.

As well as Nicolas, we know from the Town Church Register that Louis and Constant Dormoy of Dunkirk were 'wrecked on Guernsey's coast,' and buried on the 12th March 1818; the Castel Register records that Daniel Nicolle son of Jean aged 20 and George [Le] Tissier son of Henri, aged 29, were buried on the 15th March, their bodies having been retrieved on the 13th; Henri son of Henri Le Tissier was buried on 15 May 1818 and Nicholas Dobrée on 16 May 1818; the body of Captain P. Collenette, who, we are told by the Indépendance, left a large family, seems never to have been found. The Indépendance records the discovery of two bodies on 15th May, one of which was Henri Le Tissier, while the other could not be identified; this would have been that of Nicolas, 'recognised chiefly from his clothes'. The Indépendance of the 25th April reported that on the 22nd of that month Lloyd's subscribers had voted £200 to be distributed amongst the father, three widows, and eight children left behind, as well as the other volunteers who saved the remaining crew.³

Nicolas was buried on the 16th May, but the previous evening, just after his body had been recovered, the Reverend William Guille preached a powerful and moving sermon at the Castel Church; William Guille was only 26 years old and thus a very close contemporary of Nicolas. This was later published, in 1821. The incumbent of the Castel Church, Nicolas Dobrée senior, who witnessed the accident from the shore, was said to have never spoken his son's name again.

From Guille's sermon published in 1821.

1 Napoleon is said on that journey to have asked if any of the British crew spoke French, and a Guernseyman—maybe Nicolas?— was pointed out to him, but Napoleon did not converse with him. Nicolas became a Lieutenant in 1810, and was appointed Commander in November 1812.

2 On the Dobrée monument in Candie cemetery, the ship is named not as Le Prudent, but as the Deux Frères, (The Two Brothers), and the crew's nationality as Dutch. The Indépendance of the 14th March calls the boat the Deux Frères of Anvers, which the survivors said left Lisbon on the 17th February with a cargo of oranges, lemons, and cocoa. There was a sloop Prudent from Antwerp, Captain Quinton, Isle of Wight origin (Whastie owners), built 1811, while the brig Deux Frères was from Ostend with a Captain called Mschaset, Dutch built 1788, belonging to Sirews. However both these vessels appear to have sailed on past 1818. Nicolas was buried at the Castel Church, but there is no memorial to him inside, despite his father's close connection, nor is there an obvious tombstone. His name is included on the Dobrée monument in Candie cemetery; his body was possibly re-interred there. The anecdote about his fathers' lifelong grief is related by Nicolas' cousin, Jane Barlow, in her diary in the Library.

3 Nicolas Dobrée and his companions seem never to have received any award or official recognition for their sacrifice. Thomas Dobrée, R.N., son of Harry Dobrée of Beau Séjour, who entered the navy in 1817, received two thanks on parchment from the Royal Humane Society, for saving people from drowning, the first only seven years later, in 1825, but for some reason the heroes of Cobo have been overlooked. The Star of August 1, 1836, reports: 'We feel much pleasure in reporting that the Royal Humane Society have voted a medal to Lieutenant T. P. Dobrée, RN, in testimony of his brave and intrepid conduct in saving the life of a seaman who had fallen overboard His Majesty's ship Larne at night, by jumping after him, and rescuing him from a watery grave. The approval of a deed so truly disinterested and heroic by an institution like the Royal Humane Society cannot be of a nature otherwise than to afford satisfaction to the individual who is the object of it; but it still must fall far short of the pleasurable feelings that cannot but be excited in the mind of Mr DOBREE in the reflection that he has already been instrumental in snatching no less than three fellow-creatures from the very jaws of death &c.'.