What Sarah Fyers saw from a window in Gibraltar
17-year old Sarah Fyers was with her father with the garrison in Gibraltar in 1801, a few days before her wedding to Cornelius Mann, when she witnessed the first part of the Battle of Algeciras from the breakfast room. A handwritten copy of her eyewitness account is in the Dobree-Mann collection held at the Library. She was a close relation by marriage of Admiral James Saumarez, who played a crucial part in the battle and eventual victory.
A description of the Battle of Algeciras on Sunday July 6, 1801, by Sarah Fyers,1 daughter of General Wm Fyers and afterwards wife of Cornelius Mann. R.E., son of Gother Mann, R.E., I.G.F. and an elder brother of our grandfather Frederick William.2
'On the 6th of July 1801 we were dining at breakfast in the room that then commanded the view of the Bay and a great part of the Straits, with the African coast, Cabrita Point, and it must have been about half past 8 (as our breakfast hour was 8 o’clock) when we were surprised by my father rising up suddenly and exclaiming 'What can this mean? See, there are English men of war rounding Cabrita Point and sailing close with the Spanish coast, surely they must be strangers from the West-Indies and are ignorant of our being at war with Spain.' By this time we had all crowded to the windows, and a beautiful sight it was to see these magnificent ships, their white sails shining in the sun and following each other in quick succession. The breakfast room was soon deserted and we hastened to an eminence near Pluviometer, where we had a perfect view of the opposite town of Algeciras and the whole of the coast, the day being beautifully fine, here we were joined by several officers of the R. Engineers and others.
We were not kept long as to the intention of the English fleet for they began firing against the French & Spanish fleets which were at anchor in Algeciras Bay. This was warmly returned both from the ships & the front on the little island opposite the town. With what intense interest was the scene watched from our side of the Bay, every soul in the garrison seemed to be congregated on the Line Wall or on the Heights & the murmur of voices ascended like the waves of the sea; by the aid of our glasses we could distinguish the poor peasants, women & children climbing up the steep mountain at the back of the town of Algeciras to get out of the reach of the shot; the smoke clearing away a little we had the mortification of perceiving that the Hannibal had got aground between the island and the shore, and was, of course hors-de-combat; the firing however re-commenced, and not long after we were grieved by seeing the Pompie [sic] towed into Gibraltar Bay, her sails full of shot holes like a sieve. The loss of the Hannibal and the Pompee was a serious affair, & it was no little grief to us to perceive our fleet returning defeated & much injured by the enemy. However Englishmen are not the beings to be dispirited by the first untoward circumstances. Sir James Saumarez, whose flag was hoisted on board the C[a]esar,³ had the ship taken into dock, she had suffered a great deal, but repairs were commenced at once & the work continued unremittingly.
The combined Fleet (French & Spanish) knowing how much disabled our ships were, took advantage of the circumstances to sail out of the Bay. A melancholy part of the affair was that many ladies, thinking they could not find a safer opportunity of returning to Cadiz profited by it & many persons and ladies of rank were on board the French & Spanish 3-deckers. Sir James Saumarez was determined not to let them escape him so easily and the English Fleet followed the enemy. We were at our old station near Pluviometer. The Line Wall was so densely crowded with spectators that nothing but human heads could be seen. The Caesar was taking in ammunition to the last moment, and as she quitted her moorings on her beam & perilous undertaking a shout arose from the assembled multitude such as I have never heard before or since, never was there so animated a scene. The English ships were watched until they got fairly into the Straits & were hidden by Cabrita Point.
Nobody settled to anything that day, our house was full of visitors from morning until night discussing the interesting circumstances that were taking place under our eyes. The Garrison continued for several days in anxious expectation, when between 9 & 10 o’clock on the 3rd or 4th night a loud explosion was heard, the Straits were illuminated by lurid flames which reflected so brilliantly on the Southern part of the Rock that we were told that the Officers on guard could see [-](?) by its light. – Now all was consternation for it was immediately said the Caesar must have blown up as she was taking in powder up to the very last moment. Some more days passed and there was no intelligence of the Fleet, at length to the joy of the garrison the Fleet was seen triumphantly entering the Bay bringing in several prizes. The crowd was again collected on the Line Wall & the cheering was almost deafening.
It was but a short space of time before the Fleet anchored in the Bay. Sir James Saumarez and Captain Brenton were soon on shore, and on their way to our house, all the little rabble boys in the place following them cheering and hurrahing. Sir James said their praise & acclamation must be genuine & come from the heart for which he felt gratified, whereas firing and salutes & that sort of thing were merely a matter of form. Sir James and Capt Brenton sat a long time with us, and it may easily be imagined with how much interest the details of the engagement were listened to. It had already commenced when Captain Keats in the 'Superb' dashed in between the French & Spanish 3-deckers & giving each a broadside, passed out & commenced an attack on some other vessel. The unfortunate three-deckers fancying, in the dark, they still had their enemy between them fired away at each other until both vessels, taking fire, burnt for some time and then blew up, then indeed was an awful scene, poor creatures swimming for their lives. The English exerted their utmost to save as many as they could of these poor souls, who afterwards spoke loudly in praise of the humane attention they had received from their enemies. The French Admiral early in the engagement had made his escape in a small vessel.—It may seem foreign to this little account to mention that the 15th of July had for some time been appointed as the day to which my marriage with Mr Cornelius Mann was to take place and on the night of that day there was to be a grand illumination in honour of the great & signal victory obtained by the English over two Fleets. Lord de Saumarez and Sir J. Brenton were both to have honoured our wedding with their presence as there was a special license for the marriage. The ceremony was performed in my Father’s drawing-room, the candles and lamps were all lit up for the illumination adding not a little to the heat of a July evening in Gibraltar; there were present General O’Hara who had requested my father to be allowed to give me away, General Weimys [sic], Sir J. Brenton. Our dear friend Lord de Saumarez who had suffered much from exertion and anxiety of mind was not well enough to come, however he sent me a present by Capt. Brenton, a very handsome fish slice. At Algeciras the encounter in the Straits was not known until several days after & the illuminations were thought to be in celebration of the marriage at Gibraltar.'
1 Sarah Fyers’ father was a general, as was Cornelius Mann’s (Lt. Col. Gother Mann, of Irish extraction). Cornelius went on to become Major-General in the Royal Engineers. Their son John Frederick Mann (1819-1907) was brought up in Gibraltar and went to Sandhurst but chose to become a surveyor. He then became a well-known explorer and surveyor in Australia. Another son, Gother Kerr Mann, was a civil engineer. Their third son William (1817-1873) became an astronomer at the Cape Observatory (1847-1872). Sarah died on September 6, 1846 at Binstead, Isle of Wight.
Her brother-in-law, Colonel Frederick Mann, married Martha Dobrée, daughter of Isaac Dobrée (1753-1792) and Ann (Nancy) de Saumarez (1752-1846), in 1782. Nancy de Saumarez was the sister of Admiral Lord de Saumarez. Frederick Mann and Martha Dobrée remained in Guernsey and had several children, including Maj.-Gen. Gother Frederick Mann, R.E., James Saumarez Mann, R.N., and Frederick William Mann, later Rector of the Forest and Câtel churches in Guernsey.
Review of the Guernsey Society, XXXIII (2), p. 56 '... in October 1813 Martha Dobree wrote ... 'Mrs Fyars and Mr Charles Le Marchant have taken ground from Mr Carey's [Choisi] to Uncle Tom's house [Sausmarez Lodge] where they intend to build.'
2 For the family see Thorold, H., and Mann, V.M., The Mann Family: Notes on some members of the Mann family and their connections with the Gother, Fyers, and Thorold families, privately published, Gloucestershire, 1950.
3 The Caesar, commissioned in 1799 by Sir James Saumarez, had a large contingent of Guernseymen on board, including Thomas Cohu, son of John Moullin of the Grands Moullins, Castel, and Marie Massy. His letter to his mother from the ship, dated 1799, is published in The Quarterly Review of the Guernsey Society, III (3), July 1947, by E.B. Moullin.