Having nominally entered the Royal Navy shortly after his fourth birthday and, always politely, refusing to retire, choosing to serve until the day he died, Haligonian Sir Provo William Parry Wallis, Grand Admiral of the Fleet, still holds the record for length of service in the Royal Navy: 96 years and nine months.
A mere 22 when he commanded HMS Shannon in the wake of its historic scrap with USS Chesapeake, his career began in the age of sail and ended in that of steam and steel less than a decade before the first dreadnought left the slipway.
He was born on April 12, 1791 while his father Provo Featherstone Wallis was stationed at Halifax, serving as chief clerk of the naval commissioner’s office, a civilian appointment. However, in that role he had significant influence over scheduling of repairs, provisioning, and other important logistical and administrative issues.
In a manner then common, he had his son, nary more than a toddler, added to the rolls of HMS L’Oiseau on May 1, 1795. Young Provo appears on the muster rolls of multiple ships over the next decade, although he concedes in his memoir he was being schooled in England, and, “my real career commenced from the time I joined Cleopatra, in October 1804.” On paper, in terms of seniority, he already had over nine years of service, amply more than the minimum six years at the mast required for a commission as a lieutenant.
Six months later, the 40-gun French frigate Ville de Milan Cleopatra defeated the Cleopatra. One-third of its crew was dead and 13-year-old Provo spent a week as a prisoner of the French until HMS Leander captured the Ville de Milan and freed him. Barely a teen, he had already tasted both combat and captivity.
Posted to the Curieux, a brig, his career ran aground when she did. Bearing no responsibility for the disaster Wallis was held ashore along with all of the officers, while a court martial dragged on. Grounded until December 1811, his eventual appointment was fortuitous, well worth the wait. He was ordered to the 38-gun frigate, HMS Shannon, as second lieutenant under Captain Philip Bowes Vere Broke.
Captain Broke, something of an academic, kept a library of the classics in his cabin and was devoted to studying and improving gunnery. His crews, on his dime, practised gunnery far more frequently and intensely than usual in the navy.
Broke’s plans and practice were proven true when the Shannon dispatched the USS Chesapeake in June, 1813 in mere minutes. Fighting among the boarders on the decks of the Chesapeake, Broke had his skull crushed and, although he survived (for a few days), was incapacitated.
Carronade fire from the Shannon killed first lieutenant George Thomas L. Watt while he fought on the deck of the Chesapeake. This left 22-year-old Provo Wallis, the second lieutenant, in command of the Shannon, duty bound to bring the prize home to Halifax. Praise for the city’s native son was unstinting. The Halifax Journal noted, he had “conducted himself in a very brave manner” and the Acadian Recorder opined that “in an arduous and trying situation, [his] conduct merits every praise…” Not surprisingly, the navy promoted him to commander.
With the final defeat of Napoleon the Royal Navy quickly downsized. Provo, promoted to post rank in 1819, alternated assignments at sea, with longer periods ashore at half pay. From June 1824 until November 1826, he was again stationed in Halifax. Aboard the sixth-rate frigate HMS Niemen he was in command of a squadron of experimental sloops detailed to analyze and report on their performance. As his biographer notes, his assessments, were both concise and insightful: “I do not consider the fore reaching of the Pylades to make amends for her very leewardly properties and unless she can be made a more weatherly Vessel of, Champion is very superior to her.”
In the summer of 1847 he was appointed a naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria. He left that position four years later when he was promoted to rear-admiral. His final service afloat was in HMS Cumberland as commander-in-chief, south-east coast of America, in 1857. He had been at sea for more than half a century. In 1860 he was knighted, in 1863 he was promoted to full admiral and in 1877, based on seniority, he became Admiral of the Fleet.
In 1870 a grateful Admiralty decreed that all officers of the flag during the Napoleonic wars were entitled to remain on the active service list for their lifetime. Provo’s week in command of the Shannon entitled him to this perk. He remained on the active service list on February 13, 1892, 10 weeks shy of 97 years after his name first appeared on a ship’s muster roll, when he passed away at Funtington, his estate near Portsmouth. Six admirals served as pallbearers and Queen Victoria was represented by the captain of the royal yacht.
Today few Haligonians know his name, despite a plaque to his honour in the naval dockyard, another to the Shannon’s capture of the Chesapeake in Point Pleasant Park and an eponymous thoroughfare.