Wight Life

The Eventful Life of Lord Snip

By Stanley Cotton

Picture of Sir Thomas Hopson

Photo: National Maritime Museum, London. Sir Thomas Hopson

A STERLING IF UNDERRATED SON of the Wight was Sir Thomas Hopson, who, after starting life as an apprentice to a Niton tailor, became an Admiral of the Blue, and after that a Member of Parliament. To some he has been known as 'Hobson', probably because of the old Island habit of hardening certain consonants.

It is believed that Hopson was born at Bonchurch in 1642, where he was orphaned when a boy. It was then that he was apprenticed to a tailor of Niton. He seems to have been a hardy boy so it was not surprising that he could not settle down to a humdrum life at the shopboard. Indeed, there were probably occasions when he would gladly have hurled cloth, needle and thread out of the window.

Very soon, however, Fortune began to smile upon him. One day he heard that a squadron of men-of-war was approaching St Catherine's Point from the east, and the wistful apprentice must have felt his spirits soar skyward. He left his employment without a word to anybody, and off he dashed to the cliff-edge. It is easy to trace his footsteps today. He would have crossed the field just off the village centre, traversed the path called 'Broadway, and so, by the shoulder of land queerly named 'Necke' (so spelt in his day) he would have come to the top of the Cripple steps, from where can be enjoyed a glorious expanse of Channel. From there the runaway would have obtained an unhindered view of the proud ships as they sailed west. The sight must have made all thought of seam and gusset and band vanish from his mind like a horrible dream. This was surely it! He would be an adventurer and a hero from that moment.

We can see young Hopson bounding down those steps two at a time on his way to the cove down below. Once there he doffed his jacket, pushed off in a boat and rowed for dear life towards the flotilla, which by that time was approaching the Point. The array of white sails drew even nearer. Then the reckless 'prentice was faced with the choice, which of the ships should he make for? Trust Hopson to choose to his own advantage! He headed for the admiral's own ship which, heaving to, took him on board after he had cast off the painter of the boat, which was left to the mercy of wind and tide. On being interrogated he announced his wish to join the colours there and then.

Events followed each other rapidly. The very next day, so it is said, his squadron fell in with the French off the Dorset coast. What -a thrill this must have been to the young recruit as he watched with fascinated eyes the enemy ships approaching. His fleet prepared for battle, the crew running swiftly to action stations as the crisp orders rang out. The reek and din of carnage soon began as the rival ships closed yardarm to yardarm. For some time neither side could gain the advantage until, during a lull, Hopson asked one of the crew what the object of the fighting was. The seaman pointed through the swirling smoke to the flag fluttering at the main peak of the ship grappling with his own.

'If we can strike that flag yonder the day will ours. As long as it flies the battle will go on.' 'Is that all?' cried Hopson; 'then I'll see to it!'

Without more ado he climbed into the shrouds, crawled along the yard, and taking advantage of the dense smoke he gained the yard of the French admiral's ship and tore down the colours. The English seamen cried 'Victory! victory!' The confused French then left their guns for a while, and before they could rally they were overwhelmed, and the flagship was seized. The young hero regained his deck with the enemy colours wound about his waist. The admiral heaped congratulations upon him, and having gained the patronage of the great man Hopson's future was assured.

His progress was rapid. He was promoted lieutenant in 1672, at the age of 30, captain in 1678, and vice-admiral in 1689, being then affectionately nicknamed 'Admiral Snip'. Before reaching this distinguished rank he served Admirals Blake, Fenn, Torrington and Russell. He took part in 42 engagements in all.

The last of these was at Vigo Bay, in north-west Spain, in October, 1702. Alone in his ship 'Torbay' Hopson carried out the order to break the boom which blocked the harbour. A fireship was sailed at him, but once more his luck held, for, on board the fire-ship, and quite overlooked, were a number of barrels of snuff, as well those of gunpowder. When the fireship blew up, the snuff partly smothered the flames, and so his mission was accomplished. The English then entered the harbour and destroyed the enemy completely.

At the same time a fleet of galleons newly arrived from South America was riding at anchor in the harbour. Their holds' contained treasure which had been wrested from the ancient Incas. These ships were soon sent to the bottom, together with the treasure, which was of vast worth.

For his part in this, his last action, Hopson was knighted by Queen Anne, after which a substantial pension was settled upon him, with a reversion to his wife.

After the great victory of Vigo Bay the 'Torbay' returned to Spithead, and no doubt the admiral steered his ship as close as possible to St Catherine's Point and Niton, where he had begun his extraordinary career. Arrived at Spithead he determined to waste no time in seeing his old friends, the tailor and his wife, should they be still be alive. They were, but they did not recognise him at first. No doubt they gaped at him, resplendent as he was in his admiral's uniform, but when he asked politely for some refreshment they hastened to obey. Suddenly the mysterious visitor in the parlour broke into song. It was a song they recognised as having been the favourite of their 'dear Hobby'. It was just as if he had returned from the dead, for the boy's coat and the boat he had used had soon been found after his disappearance, and his death had naturally been assumed.

After leading such an exciting life Hopson might have been expected to sit back and enjoy some years of quiet retirement. But not Sir Thomas. He must needs now turn to politics. He represented the borough of Newtown (one of the 'rotten' boroughs) from 1698 to 1705. He died at Weybridge, Surrey, on October 12th, 1717, and there his mortal remains lie.

There is just the possibility that it is Ningwood, and not Bonchurch, which can claim to be the birthplace of this talented man. It has been contended that his family was settled in Ningwood in the reign of Henry VIII, but there is little doubt that the ubiquitous 'Hobby' should be included in the list of South Wight worthies.

I can look out of my window at this moment and see the path up which the bored lad strode all those long years ago. I seem to see him disappear in a seaward direction, perhaps even then sniffing battle like an old warhorse.