"Thou Guernsey! bravely
crowned With rough embattled rocks: . . ."
—Drayton "Severe et douce."—Victor Hugo.
"IN that corner of the
old Norman land where live the little people of the sea, in that island
of Guernsey, stern yet mild," Isaac Brock was born.
It was a rough cradle,
yet not an unkind one. Though for countless ages its shores have been
beaten about and broken by its relentless enemy, the ocean, yet behind
that bold and serried front lie peaceful glens and valleys carpeted with
heather and gorse, and fair fields full of lovely ferns. Cruel reefs lie
around the island—the terror of sailors, and out from the sea fog that
hovers over them loom giant rocks, strange and grotesque shapes, into
which the sea has hollowed many a cavern, haunted, as old legends tell,
by the evil spirits of the deep.
Guarded by those
granite cliffs, apart from the world—for in the eighteenth century there
was but little communication with either England or France —the simple
folk of the island lived. The women were famed for their beauty,
blue-eyed and rosy-cheeked, a combination of Saxon fairness and Norman
freshness; the men were hardy, bold and daring, as became those who
gained their living in such a precarious way as sailors and fishermen
and smugglers of the Channel Islands.
In addition to the
fishermen and the sailors there were the country people who lived on and
cultivated their own estates, the largest of which did not exceed
seventy-five English acres. Wheat was the principal crop, and dairy
products the chief source of profit. Beside the country people there
lived in or near St. Peter's Port, the capital, another distinct set of
inhabitants, who may be called the upper or governing class. To this
class the family of Brock belonged.
Guernsey contains about
twenty-five square miles. Its shape is that of a right-angled triangle.
The sides face the south, the east, and the north-west, and are
respectively about six and one-half, six, and nine miles long. The only
town of importance and the seat of government is St. Peter's Port,
situated on the slope of a hill about the middle of the more sheltered
eastern coast. South of the town rise the cliffs crowned by a strong
fortress. At the entrance of the harbour is Castle Cornet, once a
detached island fort, dating from Plantaganet days, afterwards the
residence of the governors and also a prison.1 The appearance of the
town on approaching it by sea is imposing, but the streets are narrow,
steep and crooked, and the houses, although substantial, are dusky
looking and old. The harbour of St. Peter's Port was begun by order of
Edward I., and was in course of construction for two centuries. St.
Peter's Church, a fine building of the fourteenth century, was
consecrated in 1312. It was not until the sixth century that
Christianity was introduced into the island by Sampson, Archbishop of
St. David's, whose memory the small town of St. Sampson on the east
coast still keeps green. Previous to this Druidism had been the
religion, and cromlechs and relics of that old system still remain.
The Channel Islands
were once included in the "Duchy of Normandie," and are the only parts
of that duchy which remain to the English Crown. Again and again
Guernsey has been unsuccessfully attacked by the French, who, from the
days of Edward I. to those of Edward VI., strove to subdue its
Anglo-Norman inhabitants. Through the centuries they retained their
northern love of independence, and Guernsey is still governed by its own
laws and ancient institutions. It is divided into ten parishes, whose
rectors, appointed by the Crown, sit in the elective states. The chief
court of justice in the island is the royal court, whose falling, and
ruinous through default of the timber, and asks permission to take the
timber from a house called "The Priory of the Vale," to s assist in
repairing the castle, as he could procure no timber either from Normandy
or Brittany, or any other port, on account of the war power is very
extensive and rather undefined. It consists of the bailiff, appointed by
the Crown, who presides, and twelve jurats appointed by the islanders
through their delegates to the elective states. There is an appeal in
certain cases to the king in council. The French language is used in the
courts and on public occasions. The dialect of the people in the
eighteenth century was still the pure Norman of many centuries before.
Each parish had a school, but the principal one was Elizabeth College,
originally a grammar school founded by Queen Elizabeth, where Hebrew,
Greek and Latin, French, German, Spanish, Italian, drawing, music,
fencing, and drilling were taught for the modest sum of twelve pounds a
Although wealth and
luxury were almost unknown among them, the governing class in St.
Peter's Port formed an extremely aristocratic and exclusive set, vying
in dress, manners, and language with society of the same rank in
England. Their children were frequently sent there to school, and as
their sons grew up, commissions in the English army and navy were
eagerly sought, and in many a hard-fought battle on land and sea, the
men of Guernsey have won renown. It was not the gentler born alone that
were trained to arms. By the law of the island, every male inhabitant
between the age of sixteen and thirty-three was bound to render "man
service to the Crown," and in the stormy days of the latter half of the
eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth, they were often
called on to take their share in the king's wars.
For generations the
Brocks had lived in St. Peter's Port, and as Guernsey chronicles go back
to legendary times, the story that they were descended from one Sir Hugh
Brock who came there in the fourteenth century is perhaps a true one.
It seems that in the
reign of Edward III. an English knight of that name was keeper of the
castle of Derval, in Brittany. When the French overran that country this
castle was besieged by the Duke of Bourbon, the Earls of Alen9on and
Perch e, and a gallant array of the chivalry of France. Now Sir Hugh
Brock's cousin, Sir Robert Ivnolles, who was governor of the duchy of
Brittany, was also at that time besieged in Brest by the famous Bertrand
du Guesclin. He succeeded in driving off his assailants, and then
marched to the relief of his cousin, Sir Hugh, who was on the point of
surrendering when the timely succour arrived. The English were, however,
soon after driven out of France by the valiant du Guesclin, and as
Guernsey lies directly between the coast of Brittany" and England it is
not improbable that this same Sir Hugh or some of his family settled
Toward the close of the
seventeenth century, one William Brock, of St. Peter's Port, had three
sons and one daughter. The eldest son, William, married Judith de
Beauvoir, also of an ancient Guernsey family. The third son, Henry,
married Susan Saumarez, the sister of that valiant sailor, afterwards
the celebrated Admiral Lord de Saumarez. The second son, John, born on
January 24th, 1729, married in 1758 Elizabeth de Lisle,1 daughter of the
bailiff of the island, whose ancestor, Sir John de Lisle, had been
governor of Guernsey in the reign of Henry IV. By her he had fourteen
children, of whom ten lived to- maturity. Isaac was the eighth son, and
was born on October 6th, 1769,2 the year that also saw the birth of
Wellington and Napoleon Bonaparte. In 1777 the family was deprived of a
father's care, for Mr. John Brock, formerly a midshipman in His
Majesty's navy, died at Dinan in that year at the early age of
forty-eight. His two eldest sons had already entered the army, John as
an ensign in the 8th (King's), Ferdinand in the 60th, that famous
regiment once known as the Royal Americans, which was raised in the
colonies in the time of the struggle with France, and which afterwards
did such good service in the American war. These were strenuous times,
and England was fighting in all parts of the world.
In 1779, just two years
after his father's death, s The house where the family lived and in
which Isaac was probably born and certainly brought up, is a very fine
granite one, which still remains, in the centre of the town of St.
Peter's Port It was bought by his father, John Brock, on July 29th,
1769, possession to be had at the ensuing Michaelmas Day, which fell a
week before Isaac's birth.—From information given by Miss Henrietta
Ferdinand, a youth of
nineteen, was killed at the defence of Baton Rouge, on the Mississippi.
Isaac was then ten years old, a strong and lusty youth. At that age he
was sent to school, for a short time to Southampton, and afterwards
under the care of a French pastor in Rotterdam. While in Guernsey he
attended Queen Elizabeth's school, where the Rev. C. Crispin was
headmaster. But school life and academical distinction were not to be
his portion. At the early age of fifteen he followed the example of his
brothers, and on March 2nd, 1785, he obtained a commission, by purchase,
in the 8th Regiment, in which his eldest brother had just purchased a
captaincy, after ten years' service in America. Though young in years he
even then showed proofs of that indomitable will which so distinguished
him in after life. Feeling the defects of his education he determined to
devote his leisure to study, and often the young ensign would, in
despite of jeers, turn from his gay comrades to pass his time among his
books, with his door locked to prevent intrusion. Not that he was by any
means a prig, for, trained to athletic sports from his earliest years,
Isaac Brock had the reputation of being the best boxer and the boldest
swimmer among his competitors at school and on the island.
When he entered the
army it was at a time of peace, when England was recovering from her
long and disastrous American war, and the French Revolution with all its
horrors had not yet convulsed Europe. It was well for the young soldier
that peaceful garrison duty at home was his lot for a few years. There
was plenty of work in store for him abroad. In 1790 he purchased his
lieutenancy and for a time was quartered in Guernsey and the
neighbouring island of Jersey.
At the same time,
though not in the same regiment, there was quartered with him Mr.
Francis Gore, exactly of his own age, who had entered the army about the
same time, and who was destined in after years to be associated with him
In 1791, having raised
an independent company, Isaac Brock was gazetted as captain and
exchanged into the 49th, then ordered on foreign service in the West
Indies. He was now no longer a stripling but a man of twenty-two, of
commanding stature, very erect, of a strong athletic build, with a
frank, open countenance and very winning manners. Though of a very
gentle disposition, he yet possessed that quickness of decision and
firmness in peril which on many trying occasions during his military
career proved most useful qualities. From 1791 to 1793 he was quartered
in Barbadoes and Jamaica.
During those years,
though still at peace, England had spent three millions in increasing
her navy, and was, therefore, well prepared to hold her supremacy on the
In 1793 the war that
the great minister, Pitt, had vainly tried to avert, broke out, and from
that time until the peace of Amiens in 1801, England was engaged in a
desperate struggle with her hereditary foe led by the consummate genius
of Napoleon. On December 1st, 1793, the French Convention declared war
on Great Britain and Holland. Pitt thought that the war would be brief,
but he had miscalculated the power and resources of the enemy, and for
more than seven years it raged without intermission.
Service in the West
Indies had proved disastrous to Brock, for he fell ill of a fever there
which nearly cost him his life, and to which his young cousin succumbed.
Through this illness Brock was most tenderly and skilfully nursed by his
servant Dobson, who followed his fortunes and was his faithful friend
throughout his life. On his recovery, Captain Brock was ordered home on
sick leave, and the healing salt breezes of his native island soon
restored him to health. In September, 1794, it was the intention of the
royal court of Guernsey to raise a local regiment for the defence of the
island, and the majority in it was offered to Captain Brock, then on
leave. He accepted conditionally, but the appointment which would have
changed his whole career fell through, as the intention of the
government was not carried out.
He was then employed in
the recruiting service in England, and on June 24th, 1795, he purchased
a majority in his own regiment. That year his mother died. Two years
later, at the early age of twenty-eight, he became senior
lieutenant-colonel of the 49th. His predecessor had been obliged to sell
out on account of some mismanagement, and had left the regiment in a
most disorganized state, requiring a firm hand to bring it under
The year 1797 was one
of the most disastrous that England had ever experienced. Although in
1795 the Cape of Good Hope and Ceylon had been added to the English
Crown, the powers of Europe were now combining against her. Prussia,
Sweden, and Spain had come to terms with the republic of France.
Bonaparte had overrun the north of Italy, and in October, 1796, Spain
had been forced to declare war against England. The Dutch, French and
Spanish fleets formed a powerful armada for the invasion of England,
while in Ireland the Black flag of rebellion had been raised. There was
dearth and famine and discontent at home, while generals and armies were
uniformly unsuccessful abroad.
Once again, though, as
of old, the wooden walls of England proved her salvation. By a brilliant
victory off Cape St. Vincent on February 14th, 1797, Jervis and Nelson
crushed the Spanish fleet and put a stop to the meditated invasion.
Worse than attacks from the enemy abroad was the discontent that had
crept into both the army and navy of England, and which broke out into
open mutiny during this year. There were grievances, no doubt, for
soldiers and sailors at that time were treated with the greatest
severity. Recruited as the service was by means of the press gang, it
was impossible to expect a high standard of conduct from those who were
pressed from the prisons and the slums. It is rather to be wondered at
that with such material England's navy did so well.
It was in the month of
April, 1797, that the crews of the Channel fleet rose. in rebellion, and
the disaffection spread with extraordinary rapidity all over the world.
At the Cape of Good Hope the squadron stationed there rose in revolt. In
the West Indies, off Porto Rico, the crew of the Hermione, infuriated by
the cruelty of their captain, killed all their officers and delivered
the ship over to the Spaniards. At the mouth of the Texel, Admiral
Duncan, who was blockading the coast of Holland, was deserted by all of
his ships save two, and only by skilful manoeuvring succeeded in keeping
the enemy in ignorance of his perilous position.
The mutiny came at a
time when England was pressed on all sides, and had the state of affairs
been known by the French and the Dutch, irremediable disaster would
probably have resulted. Even the army was affected. At Woolwich the
artillerymen were insubordinate, and it was believed that secret agents
of the French were at work corrupting the army.
The 49th at that time
was quartered on the banks of the Thames. As the privates of the
regiment evidently sympathized with the mutineers, Brock kept a strict
watch over the regiment, seldom going to bed before daylight, and always
sleeping with loaded pistols beside him. During the day he frequently
visited the barrack rooms to tear down or erase such inscriptions as,
"The Navy Forever."
England, the blaze that threatened to break out in both services, died
out in a few weeks. The courage, good sense and intrepidity of the
officers in command soon restored order, and the glorious victory of
Camperdown in October, when Admiral Duncan destroyed the Dutch fleet
showed that the "mariners of England" had once more returned to duty.
The young colonel of
the 49th now devoted himself to getting his unruly regiment into a good
state of discipline. He proved most successful in the management of his
men. "Severe et douce" his stern yet mild rule won the commendation of
the commander-in-chief, who declared that Lieutenant-Colonel Brock, from
one of the worst, had made the 49th one of the best regiments in the