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Pellew's/Exmouth's - A Compendium by Various Authors



Pellew - Career Summary



From the Oxford Companion to Ships and the Sea.

Sir Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth (1757-1833)

"British admiral, entered the Royal Navy in 1770 and in 1777, as a midshipman was present with General Burgoyne at Saratoga, where he was captured. On his return to England in 1778, his promotion was rapid, to lieutenant that year, to command in 1780, and to post captain in 1782, in each case as a reward for gallantry. When the Revolutionary War (1793-1801) in France broke out, Pellew continued to distinguish himself by his valour and example. Commanding the 36-gun frigate Nymphe, he took the French Cleopatre, the first frigate to be made a prize in the war, and in her captured the French naval signal code.

Three years later, in 1796, he was made a baronet in recognition of his exceptional bravery and resourse in saving the crew and passengers of the Dutton, a troop transport that had run ashore and was rapidly breaking up in Plymouth Sound. In the same year, while commanding a squadron of frigates, he captured several important prizes, including the more heavily armed French frigate the Virginie, 44 guns, after a 15-hour chase which began off the Lizard and ended in a running fight.

Pellew's most famous exploit was the destruction of the 74-gun French ship-of-the-line Droits de l'Homme off the coast of her own country. His frigate, the Indefatigable, was in company with another, the Amazon, Captain R. C. Reynolds, when the enemy was sighted returning from an expedition to Bantry Bay. Action began at 5:30 pm on February 13, in darkness and heavy weather, and it was continued almost throughout the night which followed, during the course of which all three ships nearly ran ashore. The Indefatigable alone escaped wreck on the Penmarch rocks, heavy loss of life from storm being added to the toll of battle.

Pellew entered Parliament as member for Barnstape in 1802, and supported the Admiralty with spirit and success against hostile criticism, some of which was justified. Two years later, he was given his flag and was sent to the East Indies as commander-in-chief. In the Far East, he destroyed a Dutch fleet which would otherwise have been used in the cause of Napoleon.

Pellew returned to England in 1809 and during the following year was appointed to be commander-in-chief in the North Sea. But Lord Collingwood, who had died on service in the Mediterranean, proved exceedingly difficult to replace and eventually it was Pellew on whom the choice fell. He retained this post, one of exceptional arduousness in view of the ever-changing European situation and involving control of an ever-increasing number of vessels, until after the conclusion of the war.

Even under peacetime conditions, there were various problems which remained unsettled, one of the most intractable being the refusal of the Dey of Algiers to abolish Christian slavery in the territory under his control. When all efforts at diplomacy had failed, Pellew in August 1816, with five ships-of-the-line and five frigates actively engaged, bombarded Algiers successfully and won his point by force. Six Dutch ships were present with his fleet.

Pellew was made a viscount for his services in the Mediterranean, taking the title of Lord Exmouth. In 1817, he was given the Plymouth command, which he held for four years. He had no further service. He had been, in his time, the beau ideal of a frigate captain, and as an admiral, officers were proud to be under his command."

Pellew's Remarkable Good Fortune

From "Edward Pellew, Lord Exmouth, Admiral of the Red," C. Northcote Parkinson, Methuen & Co., Ltd., London, 1934.

"Throughout this account of Pellew's life many instances of his good fortune will be chronicled, and some comment on this aspect of his career is inevitable. Good fortune is not the term he would have used. In later life especially, he would have called it the singular mercy shown him by Providence. But whether it be called luck, destiny, or God's blessing on his labours, the fact remains that he was, in some respects, extremely favoured by circumstances for which he was in no way responsible; above all, the circumstance of his not being killed.

Pellew spent about thirty-six years of his life in almost continuous danger of sudden death by drowning, by disease, or by battle. After he came to command a ship, his own skill averted many of these dangers, of shipwreck and the like. But from dangers of another kind he seemed equally immune. From one perilous situation after another he emerged unharmed. Bullets might pass through his coat, men might be killed by his side and wreckage might fall within a few inches of his head. But whoever else was killed, it was not Pellew. In some thirty years of warfare he was never even seriously wounded. This continued safety in the midst of danger is a separate factor in his life and must be considered as such. It was never shown more clearly than in the first action on Lake Champlain. Indeed, this, his first fight, was easily the bloodiest he ever saw. Half the crew of his ship and two of the three officers were killed or wounded. But Pellew, who was certainly more exposed than any one else, emerged unscathed. At the end of the fight he was without a scratch. He lived to run comparable risks a lifetime later, and finally died of old age. Consistent good fortune, in this respect at least, had something to do with his success. It enabled him to outlive those he did not excel."


Pellew's Incredible Seamanship

From A. T. Mahan's "Types of Naval Officers" (Little, Brown, and Co., Boston,1913):

"Pellew possessed to a very remarkable extent that delicate art of seamanship which consists in so handling a ship as to make her do just what you want, and to put her just where she should be; making her, to use a common sea expression, do everything but talk. This is a faculty probably inborn, like most others that reach any great degree of perfection, and, while a very desirable gift, it is by no means indispensable to the highest order of naval excellence."

Nelson did not at all equal Pellew in this respect, as is indicated by an amusing story transmitted by aColonel Stewart, who served on board the great admiral's flag-ship during the expedition against Copenhagen: "His lordship was rather too apt to interfere in the working of the ship, and not always with the best judgment or success. The wind, when off Dungeness, was scanty, and the ship was to be put about. Lord Nelson would give the orders, and caused her to miss stays.* Upon this he said, rather peevishly, to the officer of the watch, 'Well, now see what we have done. Well, sir, what mean you to do now?' The officer saying, with hesitation, 'I don't exactly know, my lord. I fear she won't do,' Lord Nelson turned sharply to the cabin, and replied, 'Well, I am sure if you do not know what to do with her, no more do I, either.' He went in, leaving the officer to work the ship as he liked."

*(stays--the moment when, during the operation of tacking, a sailing vessel is head to wind. If she hangs there, with her head not paying off, she is said to be "in stays". If her head fails to pay off on the opposite tack but falls back on the original tack, she is said to have 'missed stays'.)


In fact, Admiral Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent, relied on Pellew's seamanship above others' under his command, especially in the hazardous duty of blockading the French. The following excerpt comes from

"Old Oak: The Life of John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent" by Admiral Sir William, G.C.B (Longmans, Green, and Co., New York, 1950):

"Pressing the blockade closer to the French coast was a high test of seamanship and some of his senior officers of the covering force were unable to stand the strain: 'My eleve, Read-Admiral Berkeley,' he wrote to the First Lord, 'does not like the Black Rocks where I was obliged to pin him, for though when under sail with an easterly wind he was strictly enjoined to be close in with them, at daylight every morning, I generally found him without me; probably not imagining that I was upon deck at 3 o'clock a.m. He is now manoeuvring to get to Spithead, and has called his mother-in-law and my old friend Lady Louis Lennox to his aid, and who, in a cunning canting letter, describes Mrs. Berkeley in such a way that she cannot live without seeing him now and then; to this I have turned the back of my hand, by declaring that no ship shall go to Spithead unless to dock or shift lower masts.' Even that gallant man Sir James Saumarez wilted under the strain: 'He was as "thin as shotten herring," and did not stand the work at the advanced post with the firmness I expected, whence it is evident that the man who faces a Frenchman or Spaniard with intrepedity, does not always encounter rocks and shoals with the same feeling.'"

"[Jervis] was constantly entreating the First Lord to make a large promotion to flag rank so as to reach the captains who would make the best flag officers. 'Troubridge, Saumarez, Thornborough, and Pellew -- my sheet anchor** -- are still some way down the list. If the First Lord would clear off the "rust and vermin" senior to them, the fleet would greatly benefit'."

**(sheet anchor--an additional anchor carried in the largest ships for security should the bower anchors fail to hold the ship. The present practice in ships of any size is to carry the sheet anchor in its own hawsepipe abaft the starboard bower anchor, complete with its own cable and cable-holder and ready to let go at any moment. The term sheet anchor is also used as a synonym for security generally.)



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