image: Godalming Town Council

Admiral Sir John Balchen(1669/70-1744) was born according to the inscription on his picture 'of very obscure parentage, February 4th 1669 at Godalming in Surrey'. His portrait now hangs in the Borough Hall in Godalming. It is said that the portrait originally hung in the Godalming King's Arms Hotel where it was recorded that it was given to the father of the 19th century landlord in respect of a debt by Mr Garthwaite of Hall Place, Shackleford. It is believed to be a copy in the style of Godfey Kneller. The original by Jonathan Richardson, the elder, hangs in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. In 1744 Balchen was knighted and appointed Governor of Greenwich Hospital for which he received a pension for life of £6,000.

He joined the navy aged 14, and gradually rose through the ranks eventually commanding at least 13 ships during a long and distinguished naval career spanning 60 years. Balchen was twice captured by the French. A letter from Balchen in 1739 referred to HMS Assistance, which had gone aground on the rocks in Virginia. He wanted the hull inspected in case of damage before she went to sea again. He wrote again in 1742 referring to the sloop The Hound, which had been overhauled, but the shrouds and some of the sails were 'bad'. He was anxious to get the work done as she was under orders to sail to Virginia.

In 1743 Balchen, aged 74, was made Admiral of the White Squadron. In 1744 he sailed in the Victory, the forerunner of Nelson's famous flagship of the same name. The ship had been built from the remains of the Royal James, which was burnt in a fire in 1721. It took eleven years to build and was launched in 1737 at Portsmouth. Initially she carried thirty 42-pounders (19 kg) on her lower deck, twenty-eight 24-pounders (11 kg) on her middle deck, and thirty 12-pounders (5 kg) on her upper deck, together with twelve 6-pounders on her quarterdeck and forecastle. In May 1778, the 42-pounders were replaced by 32-pounders (15 kg), but the 42-pounders were reinstated in April 1779; eventually, in 1803, the 42-pounders were permanently replaced by 32-pounders. In 1782, all the 6-pounders were replaced by 12-pounders. Later, she also carried two carronade guns, firing 68-lb (31 kg) round shot. The ship was recognised as the finest ship in the world at that time. Balchen was in command of a squadron ordered to relieve store ships blockaded by the French in the mouth of the River Tagus. The mission was successful. But, on the way back in October 1744 the Victory with all her 1,100 crew were lost with the Admiral off the Channel coast of Alderney in a violent storm which scattered the squadron. All other ships made it home safely. The complement of the ship was usually 850 persons but she was carrying 1,100 at the time of her loss.

There is a memorial to Admiral Sir John Balchen in Westminster Abbey. Part of the inscription reads: The VICTORY lost in the Channel by a Violent Storm, From which sad Circumstance of his Death we may learn that neither the greatest Skill, Judgment, or Experience, join'd to the most firm unshaken resolution can resist the fury of the winds and waves.

In 2009 it was announced that a US-based salvage firm is believed to have found the wreck of the Victory.

Godalming Museum © 2009