The Prance Family


THOMAS PRANCE was the fourth of twelve children born to John Prance of Appledore and Mary German of Penclawdd who married in 1762. Thomas himself married Martha Williams in 1802 and had four sons and two daughters however it is for his exploits before then that he best remembered.
In 1793 Thomas was captain of the ship Joseph of Appledore which consisted of two guns and fifteen men. In that year his ship was attacked by a French privateer, the Sans Culotte with ten guns and forty men. After three days fighting in bad weather his hands were blown off in loading a gun, and he was also wounded by a shot, his ship was boarded and taken near the coast of Norfolk, Virginia, America. On his return to England he was presented to King George the III.

This is not a picture of the 'Joseph' ! and is a Brigantine, not a Brig.

On 11th July 1879 a letter appeared in 'The Cambrian' newspaper from one of Thomas' grandsons (signed S.P.) entitled A SWANSEA HERO. It purports to be based on a letter from Thomas himself.

SIR, - I yesterday came across a letter of my grandfather's, wherein is described an incident well remembered in my early days, though now of course obliterated from the minds of all save a few survivors of a past generation, but which it may interest many of your readers - natives of Swansea - to now reproduce. Thomas Prance, member of a Swansea family, was a Captain in the mercantile service. In the Spring of 1793 whilst taking his ship to Baltimore he was sighted by a heavily armed French privateer who immediately gave chase; on approaching within gun range, on the first discharge from the Frenchman, Captain Prance's crew, consisting of two Englishmen the rest Italians, at once scaddadled under hatches, leaving their commander alone on deck; this intrepid fellow, resolving not to let the enemy have it all his own way, himself worked his two stern chasers, at the same time contriving to steer the ship until one of his arms was shattered by an enemy's shot. He nevertheless still maintained this unequal contest for three hours, until his remaining hand becoming disabled by another shot, which also penetrated his thigh, he sank down exhausted by fatigue and loss of blood, and was captured. The Frenchman shewed much humanity to their brave foe, and brought him into Baltimore, where for a long time his recovery was thought to be hopeless; he however lived and returned to England where he received a substantial testimonial from the mercantile community of Liverpool (testimonials were not so common in those days, being reserved for really great deeds.) He finally retired, and I believe ended his days at Hatherley. I send you this account of the achievement of a Swansea man, should you think it worthy to be chronicled in your columns. Yours truly S.P.

However on 20th July a further letter appeared, this time from Peter Blight Prance (Thomas' fourth son and father of Mrs.Gertrude Thompson). This was not only at odds with of some parts of the previous account but provided a far more detailed narrative. The log of Captain Ferris of the Sans Culotte has also survived and this differs again stating the encounter ended with the Joseph bringing 'all her guns' to bear on him with the intention of ramming the Sans Culotte. It is now generally accepted that the resume below is the most accurate account of events.

"Sir, Having read with some interest in your valuable Journal of 11th inst. a letter headed 'Swansea Hero' signed S.P., to whom I feel gratefully indebted for thus bringing to the knowledge of posterity a deed of daring of no ordinary find, on the part of my late revered father: yet as his account is not quite accurate, I trust you will afford me space for a true relation of particulars, as I have known them recorded in my Father's own papers, which are now in my posession. I give it as briefly as I can:- Thomas Prance commanding the ship 'Joseph' of Appledore, sailed from Norfolk Virginia (in which port he had been blockaded some time) in company with several other British ships on 21st. May 1793 laden with wheat for Barcelona in Spain. The following day, his ship being hindermost the fleet was attacked by the French privateer 'Sans Culotte'. Capt.Ferris mounting ten guns and forty men; the 'Joseph' having but two guns and nine men (three, of whom were foreigners, ran below and refused to fight) but not withsatanding this superior force, the vessels engaged within pistol shot of each other off and on for three days. The privateer on the second day had to retire to repair damage to her foremast, but on the third day recommenced the action and a ball from her, severly wounded Capt. Prance in the thigh, tearing off the flesh badly, but this did not prevent him carrying on the fight. At last unfortunately, by motion of the ship in a heavy sea, the man who was attending to the ve....of the gun, he was serving (for he was obliged to fire the gun himself, being so short manned) rolled off, the air thereby rekindling the dead fire and when the cartridge was rammed home, which in the hurry was done by using both hands they were blown off at the wrists, the shock causing him to fall on the deck, and rendering him unconscious. The chief mate was at the same time wounded by a shot from the enemy. In this state of affairs the 'Joseph' was boarded and taken prize. The Capt. and crew transferred to the Frenchman and landed three days later at Norfolk, Virginia where Capt Prance had his stumps amputated. The war between the United States and France breaking out just at this time. The American Government seized the 'Sans Culotte' and offered her as a present to my Father: but he was so ill from his woulnds and entertaining serious doubts that he should ever recover, declined the offer. I may mention that in consequence of the war all postal arrangements were so interrupted between the U.S.A. and this country that no letters reached his friends and it having been reported to his father, that his son had died, the family went into mourning for him and had a funeral sermon preached. After two years of painful interval he returned home to the great surprise of his father and family. Shortly afterwards he went to London and the Prince Regent (George 1V) desiring to see him, he had an audience through his friend the celebrated statesman Charles James Fox.
The Prince received him most cordially, warmly eulogising his bravery and presented him with a thousand guineas. I ought to mention, before my Father left America, the leading merchants of Philadelphia, among many of whom he counted personal friends and those of Washington, including the grandson of Mr. Penn, headed by the British Ambassador presented him with a handsome testimonial and substantial gift of money. In the early part of this century his ship 'The Endeavour' was comissioned and fitted out for service in the Royal Navy, as a convoy for vessels from the Bristol Channel round land and while waiting for a sufficient numbers of ships, his long pennant was flying at the masthead quietly at moorings in the mumbles Roads. My father was a very active and energetic man; he could do most things for himself, with but a little assistance, could write well, was a capital tennis player, and could jump a five bar gate with anyone. A curious incident once happened. My father and two friends, the late Capt.David Tennant RN., and Mr Roberts of Hatherley walked arm in arm together down Wind Street and there was only one hand between the three. He died at a good old age, was respected, I believe by everybody and was buried at the Old Chapel of Ease at Penclawd, not Hatherley as supposed by S.P. Signed PETER BLIGHT PRANCE, London. "

                            Endeavour 1797                                                    By William Payne                                             Capt. David Tennant RN

A portrait of Captain Thomas was painted in his cabin in the Bay of Naples by Candido which at one time was in the posession of Mrs. Gertrude Thompson ( Cambridge?) , his grand-daughter. It would be fascinating if the whereabouts of this portrait could now be traced.

Following these adventures it is quite likely that Thomas was a wealthy man. He settled in the Penclawdd area and at this time we know the family owned the Endeavour, a vessel fitted out for Royal Naval duties and commissioned to carry out convoy duties in the Bristol Channel. During the early years of the 19th century smuggling was a big problem in the area and customs officers of the port of Swansea and Penclawdd were tasked with combatting smuggling around the Gower. In 1807 the 'boat sitter' at Whiteford died and Thomas' experience made him the obvious choice to suceed him. However given his injuries the Lodon Customs Office wanted to know how he would cope with the demands of the job which involved boarding and searching vessels. The Swansea office informed them that he was not only very active but could haul himself up using hooks fastened to frames attahed to the stumps of his arms. London was convinced and he was confirmed in the post.

During the early years in this post he was involved in some controversial situations. In 1808 he detained and fined the owners of two vessels for having longer bowsprits than allowed in law. Eventually he was instructed by the Swansea Customs office to return the money. In 1809 more complaints arose when his activities infringed on the neighbouring area of Llanelli. The Llanelli Customs considered that Thomas'actions were injurious to the trade of their own port. In January 1810 the sloop Elizabeth became stranded at Whiteford and Thomas was praised for his skill in moving the vessel out of harm's way. However shortly after The customs office in Swansea received information suggesting that the Whiteford boat was involved in some dubious activities. The Elizabeth was refloated following the removal of some of it's cargo of bricks to the Whiteford boat. It was alleged that the Whiteford boat officers sold the bricks around the Burry estuary to the building trade. The Swansea office did question Thomas and the boatmen but following denials decided not to take the matter further.

A period of apparent calm followed but this was brought to a sudden end by the events of December 1815. The French brig, La Concorde, laden with wine and brandy had been dismasted in an Atlantic gale and was sighted from Penclawdd being escorted upriver by men from the Llaneeli office. Thomas gathered his men and set out to intercept La Concorde which, by the time the Penclawdd men arrived had drifted onto a sandbank. Some angry words were then exchanged with the Llanelli men but Thomas put his men aboard nevertheless as he judged that the Llanelli men were not competent to handle the situation. Thomas then left the scene and returned to Penclawdd. It then seems that all those on board indulged in heavy drinking whilst La Concorde was beached on the sands off Llanelli. During this the Llaneeli officer in charge fell overboard and was drowned. When Thomas returned later he found a fire on board below deck whihc ultimately resulted in the loss of both the vessel and it's remaining cargo. The heads of both Llanelli and Swansea offices eventually arrived and Thomas was severely reprimanded. The London office ordered an enquiry to be carried out. This resulted in all of the men based at Penclawdd being sacked apart from Thomas himself, something that must have caused much resentment in the village.

In October 1818 Thomas' wife died at the early age of 42 and around this time a report by HMC in London recognised that trade in South Burry, or Penclawdd (including Whiteford) was 'now almost entirely ceased'. As a result operations at Whiteford came to an end and Thomas was moved to Britton Ferry. He worked there for 10 years, apparently without incident, before taking up his final posting as Tide Surveyor in Mumbles. The last time he was in the public eye was in 1832 following an incident when a smack ran into difficulty in stormy weather as it approached Swansea. It was in danger of being smashed into the west pier and in order to prevent loss of life another vessel was needed to come to the rescue. It transpired the only boat that could be found was that of the Swansea customs service that was under lock and key. However the boat was forcibly released and a successful rescue ensued. This incident highlighted the need for a boat to be on permanent standby to assist vessels in distress. A public meeting was held at the Mumbles Inn in Mumbles on 2nd June with Thomas in the chair. This undoubtedly reflected the esteem in which he was held locally. A Mr John Vivian then aprroached the Lifeboat Institution and a boat was duly delivered. The first lifeboat cover for the Swansea area was established in 1835 by the Swansea Harbour Trust and crew members had amassed 10 silver medals for gallantry by the time the RNLI took over in 1863.

Thomas retired in 1835 and died only a couple of years later on 7th May 1837. He was buried in the churchyard of St Gwynour's Church in Llanyrnewydd and for many years his grave was thought lost. However in 2015 it was rediscovered by a local man, Mr Robert Evans, and although in poor condition with some of the inscription missing it is certainly Thomas' last resting place.

The grave of Capt. Thomas Prance in Llanyrnewydd churchyard

1. Much of the information on Thomas' life following his return from America is based on a talk given by Mr Rod Cooper, local historian and author. to the Gower Society in November 2015 and his subsequent article in the Journal of the Gower Society 2016 which contains a more detailed account of this period than is present on this page. I am most greatful for his help and in particular for providing a photograph of the painting of the Endeavour by William Payne
2. Thomas Prance of Penclawdd - a man 'bred to the sea' by Rod Cooper. The Journal of the Gower Society 2016 published by the Gower Society.
3. I am also indebted to Mr Robert Evans, who rediscovered Thomas' grave, for personal communications and the photographs of the grave.
4. Letters published by The Cambrian newspaper from S.P. (11th July 1879) and Peter Blight Prance (20 July 1879)

The JOSEPH is described in the Lloyds register of 1793 as being a Brig on 159 tons and en route from Exeter to Philadeplphia ( This may have been before the above incident).   At the time there was considerable hostility between  the naval forces of America, France and  Britain leading up to the American War of Independance.  Brigantines were  75 - 150  tons.   smaller ships than  Brigs,  were very manoeverable  and had only the foremast carrying square sails.  Brigs  ranged from  150 - 300 tons.  Next in size came the Barques.  Below is a diagram showing the likely rigging of the Joseph.

A Brigantine or Brig - 1790

Brigantine or Brig - 1790
    The Brigantine or Brig , was a type of ship used in large numbers , both as a Merchant vessel and as a Naval Ship . It carried 16 guns and was rigged for speed , having both Top gallant sails and royals . These ships were used by Navies of the World for scouting and reconnaissance duties . They were used to track down ships of an enemy . Many of the Brigs of the late 18th century could carry sweeps for maneuvering in still weather . In 1814 the British Navy had 71 brigs of various types carrying 10 to 16 guns .

Length 110 ft.
Beam 28 ft.
Depth 16 ft.
Crew 100 to 120