Captivity, Marriage and Influence: the entangled fortunes of the Marsh and Towry families, 1755-1808
By Roger Knight (email@example.com)
(From Trafalgar Chronicle, Year Book of the 1805 Club, 20, 2010, pp.49-57)
This curious relationship between two families began with a short romance and the jilting of a young woman, Elizabeth Marsh, by Lieutenant Henry John Phillips Towry at the beginning of the Seven Years War. It ended over fifty years later, when Elizabeth's brother John, was, against his wishes, pensioned off when Chairman of the Victualling Board in late 1808. No marriage took place between the families, and despite continuous professional association there is no record of closeness between them, at least after, and perhaps because of, the brief attachment in 1755 and 1756.
The families were opposite in character. The Marsh family were competent, honest, knowledgeable administrators, useful, hardworking men who became modestly rich: but they were not leaders. The Towrys were Scottish in origin and by the second half of the eighteenth century were well-connected sea officers, although there had been a succession of naval administrators in the family. Both families, however, suffered the anxiety in having a family member captured at sea as non-combatants in very different but unusual circumstances: and the two families were working their way up the social and financial scale. It was, however, the Towrys, always in front, who drew ahead further in the race for wealth and social and political influence.
The story begins in the dockyard at Port Mahon,
A member of
each family had already had a hand in the unfolding of events. George Marsh, brother of Milbourne, had
started life as an apprentice to a timber measurer in Chatham Dockyard, and by
hard work he advanced as a clerk and was given his first real break in October
1745 by a member of the Towry family, John Clevland
, at that time Clerk of the Acts on the
Navy Board. Clevland himself had
risen rapidly from humble clerical origins in the Navy Office. A year after he
helped George Marsh he was Second Secretary at the Admiralty. Clevland was soon to be
the MP for
romance took place against a background of increasing anxiety and activity as
reports of the sighting of the French fleet came to the island, and preparations
for defence were rapidly put in place, including a boom across the harbour
entrance. Outside the boom two small ships were positioned, having been adapted
as fireships. Lieutenant Phillips was given the command of one of them, and was
promoted commander from that date. What ships there were
John Phillips and Elizabeth Marsh saw each other at
In London Elizabeth's uncle, George Marsh continued his steadily upward career moving between the Navy and Victualling offices. In 1763 he was elevated to be a Commissioner of the Victualling Board, helped by the fact that for a period he had been private secretary to the Earl of Egmont , who in the same year was unexpectedly appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. In 1772, Lord Sandwich , then First Lord, promoted Marsh to the more senior Navy Board, where he could use his victualling expertise to advantage as the Board's Commissioner of Victualling Accounts. In 1773 George Marsh became Clerk of the Acts, responsible for running the Navy Board, and remained in this position for twenty-three years.
probably due to his influence that his nephew John Marsh,
The third main
character in this story was George Phillips Towry, who had been a midshipman at
the time when his brother John met Elizabeth Marsh in
After the American Revolutionary War, the two families came into contact again when George Phillips Towry was appointed in 1784 a commissioner of the Victualling Board when Lord Howe was First Lord of the Admiralty. George Marsh was still Clerk of the Acts at the Navy Board, and much common business would have been undertaken between them. From 1786 Marsh and Towry worked next to each other when the Navy Office and the Victualling Office were moved from their old quarters in the City, to the great quadrangle of Somerset House. Both Boards were trying to reform methods of business and to rid their departmental clerks of the practice of taking presents or bribes from the large number of contractors. The chief reformer in the Navy Board was Sir Charles Middleton , whom the mild George Marsh did not like. George Phillips Towry was immediately embroiled in conflict, for the Victualling Board had been recently had been censured when the main grain commission agent, Christopher Atkinson, had been convicted of fraud by inflating the price of his purchases for the Board, and had been sent to prison for a year. Towry played a full part in improving the reputation and working methods of the Board in the 1780s. His social stock rose in 1789 when his daughter Anne, after three refusals, married Edward Law (1750-1818), a young barrister from Cumberland, awkward but talented, who in 1802 was, as 1st Baron Ellenborough, made Lord Chief Justice of England. At about this time Towry had his portrait painted. It shows strong features and blue eyes; every piece of evidence demonstrates a strong personality.
the Victualling Board's chief trouble shooter, travelling to the outports
whenever there were difficulties which had to be solved on the spot. In early
1801, when Admiral Jervis, Lord St. Vincent was appointed First Lord of the
Admiralty in Addington's government, he immediately sent Towry with others from
the Victualling Office on a special mission to Lisbon to sort out the accounts
of the Agent Victualler there, David Heatley, who had become hopelessly behind
with his accounts, a situation which could have led to political scandal.
However, just before the packet boat reached
For ten years John Marsh shared a place at the Victualling Board with George Phillips Towry. Yet in November 1803 it was John Marsh who was appointed Chairman of the Victualling Board, with George Phillips Towry as his Deputy Chairman. Later it was felt that a civilian ought to have been Chairman, and that idea may have been extant at that time. The timing was unfortunate for Towry, for the family was related to the Whig family of Grey, Lord Howick, later Lord Grey, who was to be First Lord of the Admiralty between 1806 and 1807. Perhaps the Marshes felt that they had had some sort of revenge for Elizabeth Marsh's disappointment nearly fifty years before.
continued to have bureaucratic battles. One very long running financial dispute
was with Basil Cochrane, a powerful and very rich contractor who had provisioned
the Navy in
saved Towry but John Marsh had to go, as did three other older members of the
Board. John Marsh was shocked, for superannuation was unusual at that point,
though soon to become general when very soon afterwards a Treasury-backed Act
was passed which enabled anyone in the civil service who reached sixty to retire
at two-thirds salary. John Marsh entered in his biographical memoir: 'So this
matter ended, after my Labors during the long space of Forty Years and without
having derived any other Pecuniary Benefit than the salary annexed to the
several appointments I held – but which however, to the end of my life, will be
a reflection of the most consolatory Nature to me'. Towry remained in
office, though the question was brought up by William Windham in the debate in
Parliamnet about Victualling Board changes.
Both George Marsh
and George Phillips Towry pushed their sons forward and both came into
contact with Nelson. George Marsh's son William went into a successful partnership with
John Creed, whom George had taken on in 1760 to help with his naval agency
business. They became Nelson's
bankers and, with Alexander Davison, handled his prize money. George Phillips
Towry's son, George Henry, was captain of the Diadem (64) in the Mediterranean: in
September and October 1796 he was for three weeks Commodore Nelson's flag
captain when the Captain (74) was
under repair in the dockyard at
Archives [NA], ADM 42/2348, Pay and Muster Lists at Port
 NA, ADM 42/2348, 31 May 1755
 Charnock, IV, p.233. He was not there long; coincidently, in the same manner as his nephew, he was ordered home to give evidence at the trial of Captain Lestock.
Collinge, Navy Board Officials,
 Lewis Namier and John Brooke, The House of Commons, 1754-1790, II, pp.220-221
Colley, The Ordeal of Elizabeth Marsh: a
Woman in World History (
 Marsh Diary, p.23
Maritime Museum [NMM], Dockyard Officers' Lists, Marsh was appointed on 19 March
1755 and left in April 1756, resuming his post on 8 July 1763 when the British
recovered Minorca. During the Seven Years War he was Master Shipwright at
 NA, ADM 42/2348. Francis Milbourne Marsh witnessed his first document on 21 Marsh. As clerk he was paid twenty Spanish dollars a month, and his last payment was dated 20 April 1756.
ADM/L/D/74, Lieutenant's Log of the Deptford. The ship was at Port Mahon
until 17 June 1755, then 23-29 October, 11 December 1755 – 3 January 1756.
Between 24 March and 20 April 1756 she was anchored off
 David Erskine (ed.) Augustus Hervey's Journal: being the intimate account of the life of a Captain in the Royal Navy Ashore and Afloat 1746-1759 (London, 1953) p.195; David Syrett and Richard Dinardo, The Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy, 1660-1815, under 'Phillips'.
 NA, ADM 51/4301, Lieutenant's Log of the Princess Louisa.
 NA, ADM 36/5328, Muster book of the Deptford.
 Charnock, VI, p.275. His evidence was 'not very material'
 Quoted in Colley, Elizabeth Marsh, pp. 88, 89
 The entry
in Marsh's diary in November 1772 mentioning his promotion is followed by an
intriguing note: 'Mrs. Elizabeth Ray came to live in my family' (p.39). In this
year Lord Sandwich's relationship with his mistress Martha Ray went through
difficulties. Could Marsh's move to the Navy Board have in any way depended upon
his taking in this Mrs. Ray? See N.A.M. Rodger, The Insatiable Earl: A Life of John Montagu,
4th Earl of Sandwich (
 Quoted in NMM, BGR/35, John Marsh's 'Autobiographical Memoir'. The letter was signed by Sir Charles Middleton, Sir John Williams and Edward Hunt, the joint Surveyors of the Navy, but bears signs, because of its fulsomeness, of being drafted by George Marsh, Clerk of the Acts.
 NA, PRO
 NA, PRO 30/8/156/1, fo. 63, John Marsh to Pitt, 29 April 1795
 It is assumed that George Phillips Towry (b. 1729) and Henry John Phillips Towry (b.1732) were brothers, and that John Towry’s estate eventually passed to G.P. Towry since he also changed his name from Phillips.
 Gazetteer and New Daily Advertiser, 4 December 1770
Knight and Martin Wilcox, Sustaining the
Fleet, 1793-1815: War, the British Navy and the
 Roger Knight, 'Politics and Trust in Victualling the navy, 1793-1815', Mariner's Mirror, 94, 2008, p.134
 NMM, BHC 3058, oil painting by Philip Jean (1755-1802)
 Knight and Wilcox, Sustaining the Fleet, pp.16-17
 National Archives, WO 13/4465, Volunteers Annual Pay and Musters 1804. Tierney was succeeded as Lieutenant-Colonel by Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, and then Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who was briefly Treasurer of the Navy.
 Knight, 'Politics and Trust', pp.145-146
 See Janet
Macdonald, The British Navy’s Victualling
Board: Management Competence and Incompetence (
 Macdonald, p. 120
 NMM, BGR/35, Autobiographical Memoir by Marsh
 Parliamentary Debates, 13, col. 755, 21
 The firm
was eventually ruined by the peculation of one of the firm's partners, who was
hanged for fraud and forgery in 1824 (Warren R. Dawson, The Nelson Collection at Lloyds
Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: the Life
and Achievement of Horatio Nelson (
If you have any information to add to what is listed please contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org
(Home) (George Marsh) (Diary George Marsh) (William Marsh) (Milbourne Marsh) (Elizabeth Crisp nee Marsh) (Francis Milbourne Marsh) (John Marsh )