b. 13/01/1829 Grosvenor Square, London. d. 21/05/1901 Rutland Gate, London.
John Edmund Commerell (1829-1901) was born at Park Street, Grosvenor Square, London, on the 13th January 1829, the 2nd son of John William Commerell Esq, of Strood Park, Horsham, and Sophia, daughter of Jacob William Bosanquet, a banker from Harley Street, London. John was educated at naval schools and Clifton College, Bristol, and entered the Royal Navy on 8th March 1842, at the age of 12. He served on the Agincourt, Cornwallis and on the China Station before joining the crew under Captain (later Admiral) Sir James Hope of the Firebrand. The Firebrand was heavily involved in operations of the American coast and particularly at the engagement at Obbligado on 20th November 1845, when the chain was cut by the boats of the Firebrand, under Hope’s command, an act people deemed that Hope deserved a VC for after its creation in 1856.
Commerell passed his examination in seamanship on 16th May 1848, and was acting Mate on the Comus, under the command of Captain E C Tennyson D’Eyncourt), until the following autumn, when he returned to England, and on passing at Royal Naval College, he was presented with a Lieutenant’s commission. In April 1849, he was appointed to the Dragon, in home waters, and then served in the Mediterranean. On 13th October 1853, he married Matilda Bushby at St Peter’s Church, Eaton Square, London.
On 15th February 1854, he was appointed to the Vulture, and served in the Baltic until 20th February 1855, when he was promoted to Commander and given command of the Weser, a small steam vessel of 6 guns and 160hp, and in the following April, he was ordered to sail for the Black Sea. Lieutenant Commerell led the Weser into the Sea of Azoff where she formed part of a squadron under the overall command of Captain Osborn. It was here that Commerell would distinguish himself enough to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
On 11th October 1855, in the Sea of Azov, he led the Weser across the Isthmus of Arabat and destroyed large quantities of forage on the Crimean shore of the Siwash. This enterprise was performed by Commander Commerell at night, accompanied by William Rickard, Quartermaster, and George Milestone, Able Seaman. Having hauled their small boat across the Spit of Arabat, they traversed the Siwash to the Crimean shore of the Putrid Sea. To reach their target of the corn magazine, they had to ford two rivers, the Karu-su and the Salghir. The forage and the corn, amounting to over 400 tons was attacked on the banks of the Salghir, in the vicinity of a guardhouse, with 20-30 mounted Cossacks nearby, who were encamped in the neighbouring village. Commerell and his companions ignited the stacks, the rapid blazing of which alerted the guards, who pursued them back to the shore with a heavy fire of musketry, and very nearly captured them.
Commerell was awarded the VC alongside Rickard on 24th February 1857, and was also awarded the French Legion of Honour, the Baltic and Sebastopol Medals (1854) and the Crimean Medal with two clasps. Commerell resigned from the Weser shortly afterwards, and took command of the Snake, where he was in the Mediterranean until the summer of 1857. On 4th October 1858, he was in command of the Fury on the East Indies and China Stations, and on 25th June he led the attack on the Taku Forts. He was thanked in both Houses of Parliament for his actions and awarded the China Medal.
He was promoted to Captain in July 1859, and in 1866, commanding the Terrible, he assisted in laying the Atlantic Cable, for which service he was awarded the Civil Companion of Bath. In 1869, he would be awarded the Military Companion of Bath, and in 1868 and 1869 he commanded the Monarch. In February 1871, Captain Commerell was Commodore and Commander in Chief on the West Coast of Africa and at the Cape of Good Hope. Whilst he was on a reconnaissance mission on the River Prah in 1873 to discover the position of the Ashantis, he was dangerously wounded by a musket ball to the lungs. This saw him invalided back to England.
From 1872-1879, he was Aide de Camp to Queen Victoria, and from 1874 to 1879 was her Groom-in-Waiting. On 31st March 1874, he received a Knighthood, and on 12th November 1876 was promoted to Rear Admiral. From 1879-1880, he held the post of Lord of the Admiralty, and in January 1881 became a Vice Admiral. In November 1881, he was sent as Commander in Chief on the North American and West Indian Station. He returned to England in the autumn of 1885, and at the General Election he became MP for Southampton, and held the seat again at the Election of 1886. He resigned his seat in 1888 to become Commander in Chief at Portsmouth.
On the Queen’s Jubilee in 1887, he was given a GCB. In 1889, he personally met Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany at Portsmouth, and was always called upon when the Kaiser visited England. He was promoted to Admiral of the Fleet in 1892 and held the post until being placed on the retired list in 1899. He became a JP for Hampshire in retirement.
Admiral Commerell died peacefully at his home, 45 Rutland Gate, Hyde Park on 21st May 1901 and was buried in Cheriton Road Cemetery, Folkestone, Kent, where one of his three daughters had been buried. Wreaths were sent by the Kaiser and by Prince Henry of Prussia. The German Emperor, King Edward VII, the Duke of Cornwall and the Duke of Connaught would all attend a memorial service to Commerell in London. Commerell’s medals are part of the Ashcroft Collection and displayed at the Imperial War Museum.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.
BURIAL PLACE: CHERITON ROAD CEMETERY, FOLKESTONE, KENT. GRAVE 3237-4
John Commerell's medals including VC (with blue ribbon for Royal Navy) on display at the Lord Ashcroft Gallery, Imperial War Museum, London (August 2014).
Folkestone VC Memorial
Medals displayed at Spinks in 2005 (Thomas Stewart)