To mark the centenary of the Battle of Jutland, ProGenealogist Joanna Cicely Fennell, M.A.G.I., explores the family roots of its commander, Admiral John Rushworth Jellicoe.
John Rushworth Jellicoe was born in Southampton on 5 December 1859. He was the second son of Merchant Navy captain, John Henry Jellicoe, and his wife, Lucy Henrietta Keel.
The Jellicoe family’s naval heritage stretched back several generations. Admiral Jellicoe’s great-great grandfather, Adam Jellicoe, was Deputy Paymaster of Seamen’s Wages for the Royal Navy. He was also a financier of the firm of Cort & Jellicoe, run by his son Samuel and inventor Henry Cort. Cort, dubbed the ‘father of the iron trade’, was credited with creating an innovative method of puddling iron, which helped free Industrial Britain from its dependence on imported material, in the late 18th century.
After Adam Jellicoe’s death in 1789, it emerged that the majority of the money he had invested in Cort & Jellicoe had been withdrawn from public funds. Ultimately, it was Henry Cort who paid the price of this mismanagement. He was forced to retire from business, whereas Samuel Jellicoe went on to thrive using Cort’s patents.
Jellicoe’s naval ancestry was not confined to his paternal lineage. His maternal great-grandfather, Admiral Philip Patton, a contemporary of Lord Nelson, was just one member of the Patton family who was bred to the sea. Patton himself claimed to be the great-grandson of a naval officer, whose life was saved at the Battle of La Hogue in 1692 by a well-positioned silver tobacco box.
Whereas his brothers chose careers in education and commerce, the young John Rushworth Jellicoe enlisted in the Royal Navy at the age of 12, on 15 July 1872. He served as a Lieutenant aboard the Agincourt in the Anglo-Egyptian War of 1882, narrowly escaped with his life after the sinking of the Victoria in 1893 and found himself in Peking in 1900, when the city was in the throes of the Boxer Rebellion. Jellicoe was seriously injured during the Battle of Beicang on 21 June 1900, but astounded all when he survived a gunshot wound to the chest. Given Jellicoe’s background, it came as no surprise that, when he finally married in 1902, his bride was Florence Gwendoline Cayzer, daughter of shipping magnate, Sir Charles William Cayzer, M.P.
Jellicoe, undoubtedly the most accomplished officer in the Royal Navy at that time, was appointed Admiral of the Fleet at the outbreak of the First World War in August 1914. As the Battle of Verdun raged on the Western Front, Britain’s navy prepared to take on the German Hochseeflotte, under Scheer and Hipper, in the North Sea. Jutland, or Skagerrak, as it was known in German, was the only major naval battle of the war. Immortalised by Winston Churchill as ‘the only man on either side who could have lost the war in an afternoon,’ the weight of public expectation fell heavily on Jellicoe’s shoulders. However the dream of a British victory to rival Trafalgar was not to be realised. The British fleet sailed from Orkney toward the Danish peninsula of Jutland early on the morning of 31 May 1916. Over the course of 72 hours, more than 6,000 British lives were lost. Jellicoe’s strategy focused on neutralising the German threat and enforcing an economic blockade of German ports, but many felt that his approach was too cautious. Although Britain suffered far heavier losses than Germany, the battle was nonetheless considered a victory for Jellicoe, and his second-in-command, David Beatty, who had succeeded in forcing the German navy back to port, where it remained for the duration of the war.
Following his retirement from the Royal Navy, Jellicoe served as Governor General of New Zealand from 1920 to 1924. In a nod to his war service, he was created Earl of Scapa in 1925 and, when he died in 1935, Jellicoe was given a state funeral at Westminster Abbey. He was buried in St. Paul’s Cathedral, not far from Nelson, as a sign of the high esteem in which he was held by the British government.