I would have loved to have met Provo Wallis!
Throughout maritime history many seamen gave a huge part of their lives to King and Country. In the course of his service at sea, John Balchen saw action in numerous battles against the French and Spanish navies across 60 years and three separate wars. Earl St.Vincent served throughout the latter half of the 18th century and into the 19th, and was an active commander during the Seven Years’ War, American War of Independence, French Revolutionary War and the Napoleonic Wars. He chalked up 73 years’ service. But Provo William Parry Wallis beats them all, 96 years in the Royal Navy. Yes, 96 years!
How was this possible? In 1795 his father managed to get Provo, then aged four, registered as an able seaman on the 36-gun frigate HMS Oiseau. In 1796, young Provo became a volunteer in the 40-gun frigate Prévoyante where he remained (on paper at least) for two years, before returning in the 64-gun Asia where he served until 1800, then was promoted as a midshipman into the 32-gun frigate Cleopatra. She was the first ship he physically served aboard, but by now he’d amassed nearly a decade of seniority.
It was in the War of 1812, during the now-famous Shannon and Chesapeake incident, 201 years ago this month, that Provo showed his real mettle. HMS Shannon captured USS Chesapeake near Boston on 1 June 1813. Shannon‘s captain, Philip Bowes Vere Broke, was badly wounded during the action and her first lieutenant was killed.
Talk about being thrown in at the deep end! Second Lieutenant Wallis found himself in command of not one but two ships crowded with dead and wounded – as well as prisoners – and close to the enemy coast. In deference to Captain Broke, lying near death in his cabin, Wallis ordered a silent ship. He then sorted out the most pressing concerns, including organising essential repairs, and set course for Halifax. Such was the burden of this command that he did not change his clothes during the six-day voyage and scarcely slept.
Provo went on to serve in various theatres and eventually became admiral of the fleet in 1877.
By having commanded a warship between 1793 and 1815 he had the right to remain on the active list as long as he wished. The Admiralty suggested he might wish to voluntarily resign so as not to have to worry about having to be sent to sea again – but Provo would have nothing of the idea and carried on as the navy’s oldest active service officer!
Provo became a much-revered figure in Portsmouth, often being visited by young officers keen to pay their respects to a man who had once set eyes on the great Nelson himself.
Provo liked to row his wife in a little boat around the pond at the back of his house. At the age of 98 he was a special guest on board HMS Monarch during the great naval review to honour the recently crowned Kaiser Wilhelm II.
He’d fought at sea under sail and continued to serve well into an era of steel battleships, torpedoes, submarines and electric power. What he thought of it all has regrettably gone unrecorded…
Provo Wallis died just before his 101st birthday – and at his request was laid to rest as a sailor in a plain wooden casket with a ship’s blanket for a shroud.