b. 15/06/1827 Freshford, Somerset. d. 18/05/1906 South Kensington, London.
John Bythesea (1827-1906) was born on the 15th June 1827, the fifth and youngest child of the Reverend George Bythesea, the Rector and Patron of Freshford, Somerset, where John was born. His mother was Francis Glossop, who hailed from Derbyshire originally. The Bytheseas were an ancient family who had resided in the counties of Wiltshire and Somerset for centuries. John had four older brothers, all of whom had military careers in the Army.
In 1841, John aged 14, broke with family tradition and joined the Royal Navy, and passed his examinations on 6th January 1848. On the 12th June 1849, he was promoted to Lieutenant and was posted to HMS Arrogant. The ship was part of the fleet under the command of Sir Charles Napier in the Baltic during the Crimean War.
On 7th August 1854, Captain Hastings Yelverton, commanding HMS Arrogant, visited Admiral Napier and the Admiral mentioned that important despatches from the Russian Tsar were being dropped off at Waldo Island for delivery to the fortress at Bomersund and it would be useful to intercept these messages and asked if anyone would like to do so.
Lieutenant Bythesea discovered one of the stokers on HMS Arrogant could speak Swedish. His name on the citation was William Johnstone but his background is a little shrouded in mystery. Bythesea approached Captain Yelverton to ask permission for himself and Johnstone to land and intercept the despatches. Yelverton initially was hesitant, thinking a larger party would be needed for the task, but Bythesea argued that two men would attract less attention.
On the 9th August, the two men rowed ashore and landed in a remote bay on the island. On the 12th August, they received information that the despatches were due to arrive and lay in wait in a roadside. The Russians provided a military escort to a certain point of the route. When the escort turned back, leaving just the five couriers, Bythesea and Johnstone jumped out and challenged them with pistols. Two of the couriers instantly dropped their despatch bags and ran. The remaining three surrendered, thinking the two men were part of a larger force. Avoiding a Russian patrol, the couriers were made to row the two men back to the Arrogant.
Bythesea and Johnstone were gazetted for the Victoria Cross on 24th February 1857, and on 26th June 1857, Bythesea was invested with his medal at Hyde Park by Queen Victoria. Johnstone was overseas at the time and received his medal abroad.
Bythesea remained in the Navy and was appointed Lieutenant in Charge of HMS Locust. He was promoted to Commander in May 1856. In 1859-60, he joined the operations against China. He was promoted to Captain in 1861 and appointed to the sloop, HMS Archer. Sadly, he was invalided home in 1864. After recovery, he was a naval attache in Washington DC until returning to sea on HMS Phoebe in 1867. His last sea-faring command was to HMS Lord Clyde in 1870. She was a notorious ship to handle and prone to accidents.
In March 1872, the Lord Clyde went to the aid of a paddle steamer that had run aground off the island of Pantellaria, west of Malta. While doing so, the Lord Clyde also ran aground and had to be towed by her sister ship, HMS Lord Warden. Bythesea and his navigating officer were both severely reprimanded and dismissed from their ship following a court martial. Neither officer was employed at sea again. In 1874, Bythesea became Consulting Naval Officer to the Indian Government, and a year later, he married Fanny Belinda Prior, daughter of Colonel George Prior, Commanding Officer of the Buckinghamshire militia. He retired from the Navy as Rear Admiral on 5th August 1877. In 1878, he was awarded the Companion of Bath (CB) and Companion of the Indian Empire.
During his retirement, he lived in South Kensington, London and died at home on 18th May 1906. He was buried on 23rd May 1906 at the Bath Abbey Cemetery. A guard of honour made up of Petty Officers from HMS Victory was mounted at the funeral. He died childless and his widow died in August 1926. A memorial to all the Bythesea brothers was erected in Freshford Church.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.
BURIAL PLACE: BATH ABBEY CEMETERY, BATH, AVON. SECTION 3, K19-20
Derek Walker – Image of Bythesea VC’s grave in Bath Abbey.