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SANDOM, WILLIAMS, naval officer; b. c. 1785 in England; m. 12 March 1844 Jane Gabrielle Constables; d. 15 Aug. 1858 near Lowestoft, England.

In April 1798, “at an early age,” Williams Sandom entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman, under the patronage of Captain Charles Elphinstone Fleeming. Sandom served on various stations and was present at Sir Robert Calder’s action off Cape Finisterre, Spain, on 22 July 1805. For a long period he was in the Mediterranean, and he took part in the attack on Constantinople (Istanbul) in 1807. As a result of his endeavours during the assault on Copenhagen in 1808 he was promoted lieutenant, effective 30 May of that year. He distinguished himself in the capture by the Bonne Citoyenne in 1809 of the French frigate Furieuse and commanded the prize during an epic, 25-day tow to Halifax, N.S., with French prisoners below decks. During the War of 1812 Sandom served against the Americans in a small-boat action up the Penobscot River in Maine.

In peace-time he served on many overseas stations, mainly in small vessels of 50 guns or less. Promoted commander on 26 Dec. 1822, he acquired the reputation of being an expert at fitting out vessels in emergencies. This capacity was recognized by his promotion to captain on 23 March 1828. He went on half pay in 1829 and spent his time ashore, particularly at the shipbuilding yards of Liverpool and Glasgow, acquiring detailed knowledge of steam-engines. In three decades of service this thoroughly professional officer had been under fire 60 times and had participated in the capture or destruction of 26 ships-of-the-line, 17 corvettes or brigs, and many a privateer or gunboat.

Sandom’s career in Upper Canada began in the spring of 1838 when he arrived in Kingston as captain commanding on the lakes. The unrest caused by the rebellion of 1837–38 and the threatening posture of the many Hunters’ Lodges in the northern United States, which advocated the liberation of Canada from British rule, had led to a desire for naval protection, despite the restrictive provisions of the Rush–Bagot agreement of 1817 regarding the employment of armed vessels on the lakes.

From a purely naval viewpoint Sandom’s appointment was justified by his response to the invasion at the stone windmill near Prescott, between 11 and 16 Nov. 1838. The invading force, ultimately headed by Nils Gustaf von Schoultz*, a trained officer from Europe, consisted of 2 schooners (with intermittent support from the steamer United States), some 180 men, and 3 field pieces. Sandom, warned by a spy, had advance notice of these invasion plans, which he first attempted to frustrate by cooperation with the United States Army. From his headquarters in the Niagara at Kingston, Sandom had acquired or rented various steam vessels so that when the cross-river attack occurred he had posted at Brockville the small paddle-steamer Experiment. Under Lieutenant William Newton Fowell* it interdicted attempted landings there and at Prescott and then harrassed attempts by the invaders to enlarge the force at the windmill. On 13 November Sandom arrived on the scene with the small steamers Queen Victoria and Cobourg. A detachment of the 83rd Foot, serving as marines, and 30 Royal Marines were landed to head the two militia columns, all under Colonel Plomer Young*’s command, while Sandom positioned his steam vessels in front of the mill to create a diversion and batter it with artillery. The invaders’ position at the windmill was a strong one defensively, and the attack failed. The naval force was immediately converted into a blockade, while other vessels brought up heavier guns and reinforcements from Kingston. The combination of regular and militia forces on shore, now under Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Dundas from Kingston, and the blockade on the St Lawrence, forced von Schoultz to surrender on 16 November. As Sandom landed to accept the surrender he was struck on the chest by a spent round but it did not draw blood. Since the success of this bizarre adventure presupposed general Canadian support, which was not forthcoming, the British military operation had been, in essence, a routine mopping-up exercise. Nevertheless Sandom had anticipated and decisively isolated this alien army, and his naval forces had transported the guns which effectively terminated the affair. Dundas was made a cb but an embittered Sandom strove for years for equal recognition, without success.

Having frustrated the would-be invaders, Sandom turned to the coordination of patrol work along the border, which included in 1839 a campaign against William Johnston*, a pirate in the Thousand Islands, and to the problem of the long-term defences of lakes Ontario, Erie, and Huron. In addition to vessels hired or purchased to meet naval needs on the lakes subsequent to 1838, by 1843 he had completed or begun building the steamers Minos (406 tons) for Erie, Cherokee (750 tons) for Ontario, and Mohawk (174 tons) for Huron. Sandom’s placement of armed vessels on the lakes was done with Admiralty approval but seems to have been carried out without consultation at the political level in England, and very likely was in technical violation of the Rush–Bagot agreement.

Sandom’s seafaring and fighting capabilities were not matched by corresponding talents in the areas of diplomatic and personal relations. In 1838, when he had first contacted the local American army commander in northern New York, Colonel William Jenkins Worth, he took that soldier’s word, as of a gentlemen, in their attempt to solve the problem raised by the movement of Patriot enthusiasts across the border, which involved international rights of refuge and search. The two officers mutually agreed to do away with boundary lines when pursuing pirates such as William Johnston. Worth was soon obliged to disavow this agreement and Sandom, experiencing the difficulties of on-the-spot diplomacy, was left “much perplexed” as to whether his instructions on the matter should come from the Admiralty or from Lieutenant Governor Sir George Arthur in Toronto. The latter left him to find his own level, so that by the time Governor Charles Edward Poulett Thomson*, later Lord Sydenham, assumed office in 1839 Sandom had become accustomed to telling the colonial authorities one thing and his naval superiors another. Quite aside from his own inexperience in this field, there was a conflict of command responsibility that might have trapped even a sophisticated diplomat. The conflict was clearly demonstrated in 1839 when Sandom attempted to discipline Commander Andrew Drew*, an officer in the Royal Navy who also held a commission in the Provincial Marine. The colonial authorities, under Drew’s prodding, forced the Admiralty to hold a court martial on the matter the following year. Sandom’s sentence against Drew was reversed by that body and the formal charges on all but one count were dismissed. Sandom subsequently faced widespread criticism for his action and Sydenham bluntly demanded his recall.

Although Sandom sustained a considerable social presence in Kingston, his ungovernable temper prejudiced his relations with his officers and men. His public image was further damaged after the Drew incident when one of the non-commissioned officers of the Niagara successfully sued him in 1843 for unjust imprisonment. He left Kingston in July of that year and was succeeded by William Newton Fowell. When Sandom returned to England he was placed on half pay. He married in 1844 and resided in London. Promoted rear-admiral on 27 Oct. 1854, he died on 15 Aug. 1858 at Blundestone House near Lowestoft, Suffolk.

John W. Spurr and Donald M. Schurman

PAC, MG 11, [CO 42] Q, 273, pt.iii: 428–31; RG 5, A1: 115705, 116625–35, 117881–908, 122073–79, 134707–9. PRO, ADM 1/2565–66 (copies at PAC); PROB 11, will of Williams Sandom. Arthur papers (Sanderson). Elgin–Grey papers (Doughty), 1: 266; 4: 1604–5. Gentleman’s Magazine, July–December 1858: 318. [C. E. P. Thomson, 1st Baron] Sydenham, Letters from Lord Sydenham, governor-general of Canada, 1839–1841, to Lord John Russell, ed. Paul Knaplund (London, 1931): 148–49. Daily British Whig, 21 June 1852. Times (London), 18 Aug. 1858. “Calendar of series Q . . . ,” PAC Report, 1941: 224, 252–53, 259, 268–73. “The Durham papers,” PAC Report, 1923: 130, 136. G.B., ADM, Navy list, 1855–58. John Marshall, Royal naval biography . . . (4v. in 6 and 2v. supp., London, 1822–35), 3, pt.ii: 24–27. O’Byrne, Naval biog. dict. (1849), 1026. “State papers – U.C.,” PAC Report, 1944: 29–31, 33, 73, 75–78, 118; 1945: 34–35, 41, 45–46, 72–74, 97–98, 130, 156–57. Kenneth Bourne, Britain and the balance of power in North America, 1815–1908 (Berkeley, Calif., 1967), especially 75–90, 102–15. W. A. B. Douglas, “The blessings of the land: naval officers in Upper Canada, 1815–1841,” Swords and covenants, ed. Adrian Preston and Peter Dennis (London, 1976), 60–66. David Lee, “The battle of the windmill: November 1838,” Hist. and Archaeology (Ottawa), 8 (1976): 102–80. J. W. Spurr, “The Royal Navy’s presence in Kingston, part ii: 1837–1853,” Historic Kingston, no.26 (1978): 81–94. G. F. G. Stanley, “Invasion: 1838,” OH, 54 (1962): 237–52.

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Cite This Article

John W. Spurr and Donald M. Schurman, “SANDOM, WILLIAMS,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed June 2, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sandom_williams_8E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sandom_williams_8E.html
Author of Article:   John W. Spurr and Donald M. Schurman
Title of Article:   SANDOM, WILLIAMS
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 8
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1985
Year of revision:   1985
Access Date:   June 2, 2023