A Welsh Admiral in Catherine the Great’s Navy

For reasons totally unconnected to naval history, I was recently delving into Rebecca Wills’ very fine book, The Jacobites and Russia 1715-50, and there came across a remarkably prominent Welsh naval officer whose existence I was completely unaware of when I wrote Britannia’s Dragon. This was William Thomas Lewis, who was Admiral of the Russian fleet, no less, in 1762, when Catherine the Great ascended the throne. He was first captain of the second flagship when the Russians decisively defeated the French off Danzig in 1734; the fleet as a whole was commanded by the Scot Admiral Thomas Gordon, as this was a period when the Russian navy drew heavily on British exiles, many of them Jacobites.

Wills has the following to say about Lewis:

Lewis was a Welshman, politics unknown, who was recruited…in London in 1714 as a sub-lieutenant, by 1733 was a first captain, and in 1742 commanded a squadron. He had a long and successful career, became Admiral of the Fleet in 1762 and died in 1769…

In 1733 Lewis was sent to western Europe to recruit skilled men for the Russian navy, a mission which included a clandestine visit to London, where he managed to obtain the services of only two ship’s masters. Wills notes that Lewis’s two sons, William and John, later enjoyed preferential promotion in the Tsarist fleet. Among the other British naval officers that she lists, a couple of names stand out as being potential Welshmen: a Captain William Griffith  (whose son, another William, also served) and a Captain Arthur Trevor, recruited in 1734-5, who was however discharged in 1738 for ‘incompetence, drunkenness, and ignorance of the Russian language’.

These new leads clearly provide plenty of scope for additional research, and I hope to follow these up in the future. In the meantime, I’d be delighted to hear from anyone with further information about any of these officers.

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