Contents Back Chapter II Home Exmouth
Edward Pellew - By Parkinson, C. Northcote, London, 1934
CHAPTER I - Background
We have . . . to boast of splendid instances of men who went to sea at the age of twelve and thirteen, who by self-education rendered themselves ornaments to our Profession, and worthy of bearing comparison with the most distinguished statesmen and diplomatists of the age; namely, Lord St. Vincent, Lord Nelson, Lord Collingwood, Lord Exmouth, Sir Richard Keats, Sir George Cockburn - cum multis aliis. - Sir T. Byam Martin.
(1) THE name Pellew is Cornish, and like a number of Cornish names it is traditionally derived from the French. The pronunciation of the name Pellew, in which the first 'e' is short, and the accent on the second syllable, makes the derivation from some French names spelt 'Pelleu' or 'Pellieu' probable. To set against this, several early variations of the spelling seem rather to suggest a purely Cornish origin. But if the connexion of the family with St. Aubayne in France is legendary, the connexion with the village of Breage is established. Breage lies about a mile inland on the east side of Mount's Bay. It is close to Helston and on the road from there to Penzance. It is chiefly remarkable for its connexion with the Godolphin family and for the fact that practically all the inhabitants can prove royal descent. That the Pellew family originated from there is well proved by the existence, until fairly recently, of several ancient tombs in the churchyard belonging to them. There was also at one time a cottage there called Pellour, which might be a variation of the same name. Indeed, the variations shown in the parish registers are numerous. There appear, among others, Pellor, Peller, Pelor, Piller, Pellar, Poliew and Pellow - all these in the sixteenth, seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Earlier than that the registers do not go. Later than that the name disappears. The family was once numerous in the Penzance district, but to-day there is only one member of it living at Breage, and only two or three at Penzance, (2) none of them now bearing the name. The only celebrated member of the family previous to the subject of this biography was noted for having had an adventurous career in Barbary. It is interesting to note that he spelt his name indifferently Pellow or Pellew. The importance of this and the other variants of the name is that the earlier versions are further away from the French Pelleu than the later. The College of Heralds, when approached about the matter in 1816, failed to find any proof of French origin. The College preferred to concoct a curious Cornish derivation, pointing out that Pil in Cornish signifies a bulwark, and Lew, a lion; tactfully adding: 'why should we seek to dignify a name which your Lordship's achievements have so highly dignified ? ' The Pellews of Breage were yeomen. They owned land and bore, as their coat of arms, a more heraldic device than distinction was later to win for the family.
The branch of the family with which we are concerned left Breage in, or before, the seventeenth century, and took to trade and to seafaring; one seventeenth-century ancestor lived at Plymouth, others probably at Falmouth, near which town a property (a farm) called Treverry came into their possession. Edward Pellew's grandfather, Humphrey Pellew, was a merchant seaman and ship owner, the son of a naval officer, Captain George Pellew, and a man of considerable wealth. Born in 1650, he flourished during the latter part of the seventeenth century. This was the period in which the Killigrews founded and built the town of Falmouth, as an investment; and Humphrey Pellew, who had retired from the sea before the century closed, to live ashore as a ship owner and the proprietor of a tobacco plantation in Maryland, USA, was prosperous enough to engage in a similar enterprise on the other side of the creek. This was the building of the village of Flushing, in the lordship of Trefusis and the parish of Mylor. Part of the village was built by the lord of the manor, Mr. Samuel Trefusis, M.P. for Penryn; the other part was built by Humphrey Pellew, who came to live there himself. The name Flushing was given the place in deference to the views of some Dutch settlers. This dual foundation of Flushing brought the families of Trefusis and Pellew into close contact, and they naturally became connected by marriage. Humphrey's son Israel married (3) Gertrude Trefusis, at that time heiress to the estates of the Trefusis family. This connexion with one of the oldest families in Cornwall marked the peak of the Pellews' prosperity at that time, and it was at the same period that another son married a grand-daughter of Oliver Cromwell's son-in-law, Viscount Fauconberg. From that time the fortunes of the family appear to have declined. Gertrude Pellew ceased to be the heiress of the Trefusis estates, as the great-great-grandfather of the present owner of Trefusis House was born. Then, in 1721, Humphrey Pellew died; and with his death, or before it, the wealth of the family disappeared. Either through their property in America ceasing to pay, or from some other cause, their period of prosperity came to an end. Only one of Humphrey's children had issue, and that was the youngest, Samuel. Three others died unmarried while the other two who had married were childless. Consequently, any property remaining to the family would inevitably have come eventually to Samuel or to his children. That they inherited nothing but Treverry and a claim to certain estates in America, which cannot have paid and were eventually lost altogether, is the measure of the financial ruin which preceded or followed Humphrey's death.
Samuel Pellew was only eight years old when his father died. As was natural, he went to sea in the Falmouth Packet Service. This was the principal concern of the town and the reason, indeed, for its existence. It is not difficult to understand why Samuel should have chosen this as a profession, for there can have been little alternative. When he came to command a packet himself, however, it was on the Dover station. He married Constance Langford in 1752 and lived at Dover until his death in April 1765. His marriage wiped out the stain of the connexion with Cromwell, for his wife was the daughter of a Jacobite, and distantly connected with the Hydes. He lies buried there at the junction of the two aisles in St. Mary's Church. The result of his having married so late in life - when nearly forty - was that he left when he died a young widow and a number of children too young to earn their living, the eldest but eleven. His widow soon married again, and the children were brought up by relatives. There were four sons, Samuel, Edward, Israel and John, and two daughters, Catherine and Jane Constantia. Edward, the second son, the subject of this book, was eight years old, having been born at Dover on April 19th, 1757.
(4) The rest of Edward's boyhood, from this point was spent with his grandmother at Penzance. She lived, it is said, in a cottage which may still be seen. 'Near the Alverton entrance to Fox's gardens' was the contemporary description of it. It stands, or rather contrives to avoid collapse, on the outskirts of the town, on the left of the road leading to the Land's End; a very small cottage, with a chimney at either end of its steep roof, small first-floor windows half hidden in the thatch, and a low door opening on the street. The little house is uninhabited to-day. It is sadly neglected, and the level of the road has been raised, so that it has the air of sinking into the ground to hide its decay.
Edward underwent some schooling at Penzance, and later at the grammar school at Truro, under Mr. Conon. He can have learnt little beyond reading and writing, and such tales as there are of his schooldays do not suggest that he ever had any taste for books. He eventually ran away to avoid a flogging. One of his schoolfellows has left the following description of him as a schoolboy: 'Pellew was one of the most daring of Conon's boys. I confess I rather stood in awe of him; though with his high spirit he had a very kind heart. Pellew would never suffer the weak to be trampled upon, but would fight their battles totis viribus. But I think he once thrashed me.' The unfortunate biographer, comparing the meagreness of information about Pellew in the Rev. R. Polwhele's Reminiscences with the amount he was clearly in a position to give, cannot suppress a deep regret that Pellew did not go further and kill him outright. Polwhele, a contentious divine and the author of an enormous number of prolix and rambling works in verse and prose, rather boasts than imparts his knowledge of Pellew's early life. As the suitor, at one time, of Constantia, one of Edward's sisters, he must have known more about him than most of his contemporaries at Truro grammar school. But there is exasperatingly little to be gathered from his works.
Pellew, as we have seen, was brought up in a small cottage. But it is important to remember that the appearances of his boyhood are deceptive. His poverty in early life was only comparative. Without money, he and his brothers were still members of a family of some consequence - one which had always been of some consequence. They had relatives in better circumstances than their own. They were far from friendless, and only improperly can Edward Pellew's career give satisfaction to those who like to (5) contemplate romantic ascents from the gutter to the House of Lords. If he started life with fewer advantages than Nelson, he was far more fortunate than Collingwood. Without money, he was still a Pellew.
The chief factor in the young Pellews' career was their claim to the protection of Lord Falmouth, the most powerful person in the district in which Edward was brought up. What their claim was is not known. But it is probable that the Boscawens' interest provided for three out of the four boys, and may have provided for the fourth. Lord Falmouth was the brother of Admiral Boscawen:
'. . brave Boscawen, void of ill
'Save riches, pow'r and pride.'
- and, whether brave or otherwise, had even greater power and pride than the admiral. In Cornwall, at least, the protégé of Lord Falmouth was anything but friendless or unprotected.
What money there was to spend on education went in training the eldest son, Samuel, as a surgeon. It was wasted, as he spent but a short time as a surgeon in the marines at Plymouth before Lord Falmouth found him a lucrative post in the Customs Department which he retained for the rest of his life. There can have been little money to spend on either Edward or Israel while Samuel's apprenticeship lasted, and Edward was his junior by only three years. This must have been one of the chief motives in sending both boys to sea. But there were others. Family tradition, for one thing, pointed that way. There had been at least three generations of seafaring Pellews before them - even the eldest, when a surgeon, was in the marines, as we have seen. Another important consideration must have been the lack of alternative, and yet another the inclination, very probably, of the boys themselves. What decided the matter was the circumstance of Lord Falmouth's influence lying chiefly in the direction of the navy, combined with a rumour of war. But for this, they would almost certainly have entered the merchant service. This war scare arose from the Falkland Islands incident.
In 1770 the news reached England that an English garrison had been expelled by force from the fortifications recently erected there, by the Spanish, who claimed the island by virtue of an ancient grant from the Pope. Negotiations followed with the final result that Spain agreed to restore the islands, but without giving up her claim to them; while (6) the English Government secretly agreed to evacuate them as soon as they had been restored. To extort this half-apology from Spain a part of the fleet was put in commission. Or rather, perhaps, this warlike preparation was intended to satisfy a certain section of the public in England which was clamouring for war. If so, the gesture was a failure, for that part of the English public was anything but satisfied. Its dissatisfaction was voiced by 'Junius' on January 30th, 1771: 'If we recollect in what manner the "Kings Friends" have been constantly employed, we shall have no reason to be surprised at any condition of disgrace to which the once respected name of Englishman may be degraded,' he began, and went on to accuse the ministry of wasting money by preparing for war when, to their shame and the dishonour of the English Crown, they did not intend to fight. The value of the possession was not in question, and could not, in any case, be judged from 'the insinuations thrown out by men, whose interest it is to undervalue that property which they are determined to relinquish.' The Government's reply came from Dr. Johnson, in rolling periods of excellent prose. The whole affair he termed 'a contention for a few fpots of earth, which, in the deferts of the Ocean had almost efcaped human notice, and which, if they had not happened to make a fea mark, had perhaps never had a name.' He cared nothing for a 'tumultuous clamour about honour and rights, injuries and infults.' The islands, in fact were worthless, and there was an end on't. He put the arguments against war very eloquently: 'at the conclusion of a ten years war, how are we recompenfed for the death of multitudes and the expense of millions, but by contemplating the fudden glories of paymafters and agents, contractors and commifsaries, whose equipages chine like meteors, and whofe palaces rife like exhalations . . . .' By avoiding war and yet showing ourselves ready for it 'We have gained political ftrength by the increafe of our reputation; we have gained real ftrength by the reparation of our navy . . . .'
That this hasty 'reparation of our navy' was a real advantage there can be no doubt; and not the least of its good results was the bringing into the Service of Horatio Nelson and Edward Pellew. Pellew had the advantage of Nelson in that he actually reached the Falkland Islands, and was able to admire the penguins on the 'few fpots of earth' which had innocently caused all the trouble.
Under war-time conditions it was neither difficult nor expensive to enter the navy, and the Falkland Islands (7) incident created war-time conditions for a short period. Both Edward and Israel Pellew found their way into the Service at this time, but no details are known of their entering. It is clear that Lord Falmouth requested his brother's old boatswain, who had become a Captain, to take Edward as 'Captain's servant.' That is all that can be said. So it happened that the boy's education ceased when he was thirteen and a half, and he became one of the 'young gentlemen' on board H.M.S. Juno, commanded by Captain Stott. This was in December 1770. Thus began his half-century of service in the navy.
The eighteenth-century English navy was a profession open to talent, especially middle-class talent. Influence played its part, but the most important form of it was professional in character-it was the influence of admirals rather than that of politicians. For rapid promotion it was probably better to be the son of an admiral than the son of a duke. And this kind of nepotism often had excellent results. But apart from being related to a flag-officer the best way to gain the benefit of influence was to deserve it. The most prevailing forms of influence were closely connected with merit. In war time, at least, lack of influence ashore never hindered any officer's promotion. Those men who remained midshipmen until they were grey-headed, or whose dotage found them in the rank of lieutenant, were not held back by lack of influence but by incompetence or drink. Influence could assist promotion but the lack of it could not hold back a man of real ability. Pellew had practically no influence in the Service, but he was in this respect merely in the position of most of his brother officers. In so far as lack of influence could retard his rise in the Service, it did; but his career well illustrates how soon a reputation for efficiency could overcome that difficulty. It would be a mistake to suppose that he started his naval career under peculiar difficulties of any kind. His social position was rather above than below the average. He was poor but only moderately so. He had little influence, but he was not altogether without it. The interest, in short, of his life is that he was typical of his profession in social origin, in education, and in character; typical of his century in his virtues and vices; superior to most of his contemporaries not by differing from them but by carrying their peculiar qualities to an extreme. His genius was not of an original sort. It was, rather, intensive. He did not do the unexpected. But he did the obvious unexpectedly well.
(8) Many descriptions exist of a boy's first days afloat in the eighteenth-century navy. They all agree in showing those days to have been of such sort as to form a period of hopeless misery. This misery might be of various kinds, but it was always more or less intense. In large ships already manned it took the form of bullying and practical humour. In small ships it took the form of neglect and disillusionment. Pellew's must have been of the latter kind.
The ship he joined was the Juno, a sixth rate of thirty-two guns, commanded, as we have seen by Admiral Boscawen's boatswain whom the admiral had brought forward. His name was Stott and he was probably rather a rough customer, like many good seamen. He can have had no particular interest in young Pellew, whom he had taken at the request - under the circumstances we may call it the command - of his patron's brother. To him, and to the kind of officers such a captain was likely to have, a child of thirteen was simply a nuisance, a useless encumbrance on his already littered deck. So much for the neglect.
The disillusionment can be guessed from a comparison of the ship's log with the ideas about fighting ships a landsman was likely to have. In the first place, Pellew had been brought up within sight of the sea but not at a seaport. Penzance was only, is only, a large fishing village. It had nothing to do with ships, and it was inhabited by fishermen, not sailors. As for the navy, an occasional distant view of a frigate driven to shelter in Mount's Bay was probably the extent of the boy's experience. This ignorance would enable him to form his own ideas without much reference to fact. All, or nearly all, youngsters who entered the navy in those days must have formed for themselves a romantic picture of life afloat; those who knew more about it did not join. And nowhere can this picture have been so effectively destroyed as in a small ship of war preparing for sea in December.
The Juno was commissioned by Captain Stott in October 1770, Pellew found her at Spithead and was entered in her books as 'Captain's servant' on the 26th of December. The ship had just arrived from the Gun Wharf moorings that afternoon. The weather was cloudy, wet, and cold. The Juno was half unrigged, and her crew had not yet arrived. What men there were had struck the top-masts and lowered down the lower yards soon after the ship's arrival; for the next few days they were occupied shifting iron ballast and stowing beer in the fore hold. Then they warped the (9) ship to another berth, carrying away her jib-boom and spritsail yard in the process. On January 23rd they attempted to take her into Portsmouth harbour but she ran aground, and only got off with the assistance of the master attendant. This necessitated her going into dock, and all the provisions and ballast had to be taken out, and then put back again after she came out of dock. On February 5th the Juno was removed to the South jetty, and for the rest of the month this half-rigged, half-manned vessel was gradually loaded with stores. All these details are given to show how disillusioning the first introduction to the sea might be. Whatever a boy's previous ideas of the navy may have been, the stowing of bags of bread, hogsheads of suet, firkins of butter and `II jars of Oyl,' together with quantities of shingle ballast, can hardly have fitted in well with them. The greater part of the crew did not arrive until March 2nd, and there was another month of stowing bread, Pease, oatmeal, cheese and suet before the ship sailed. One can but suppose that Pellew's schoolboy vision of a life on the ocean wave received its final blow when, at Spithead, there came on board 2 cows, 1 bull, 10 sheep, 5 hogs, 12 rabbits, malt, several pickaxes, a quantity of hay, and 1 garden rake.
On the 2nd of April the Juno at last unmoored, obtained a pilot, and made sail, in company with the Hound and the Florida store-ship; she went through the Needles firing guns continually to urge the Hound to make more sail. Apart from occasional salutes this was the only firing which took place on the voyage to the Falkland Islands - for Captain Stott's mission was the peaceable one of taking possession of Port Egmont following the Spanish evacuation of it. The only broadsides exchanged over the affair were those of Dr. Johnson and Junius.
By April 20th, the Juno had reached Madeira. By the end of July she was at Rio de Janeiro, by August at the Falkland Islands. Captain Stott solemnly took possession of them and then, in September, sailed for home. On December 18th the Juno was back at Spithead, on the 23rd alongside the receiving hulk; and the next day her crew began 'hoisting out provisions and setting em on bd the Hulk.' The ship was taken into dock and Pellew was discharged on January 10th, 1772.
Thus was English honour satisfied, and thus did Pellew learn his first lessons in seamanship. He learnt them under much less eventful conditions than he expected, for the (10) clamour for war ended almost as soon as it had begun. The naval achievement he took part in was described by a naval officer for Admiral Cornwallis's benefit (who was in the West Indies) with great accuracy: 'Stott has been to Falkland Island and taken possession, has left it to take care of itself, and is returned unhurt to Plymouth.' So ended the Falkland Islands affair.
In some haphazard way Pellew must have begun to learn the mysteries of his profession, and it is unlikely that he remained for long a mere passenger. There was little system about the instruction of the young gentlemen at that time. How much they learnt depended principally upon themselves. That Pellew used his opportunities well may be assumed, but nothing is known of him at this age beyond that he was well grown for his years, and that he had suffered from the small-pox.
His next cruise was in the Alarm (32), to which ship he followed Captain Stott in August 1772. He joined on the 7th of that month, a few weeks after the ship had been put in commission, but it was not until October that the Alarm sailed for the Mediterranean. The next two or three years of Pellew's life were spent in the Mediterranean with occasional visits to England when the Alarm came home to refit. The two events of this period worth recording are, first, Pellew's promotion to the rank of master's mate in November 1772; and, second, his visit to Algiers in October; 1773. The latter event is only interesting as a coincidence: the coincidence being that Pellew should have been present so early in his life at a dispute on the scene of his chief exploit. The dispute arose from the Dey demanding a promise from Captain Stott that he would not protect any slaves who should escape on board his ship. On Stott's refusal to give any such undertaking, a quarrel took place which ended in the Dey ordering the British Consul to leave. The Consul was taken off by the Alarm and carried to Mahon, but no diplomatic action followed. There was indeed no result other than the appointment of a new Consul, who was taken to Algiers by the Alarm herself in the summer of 1794.
The Alarm remained in the Mediterranean until 1776, but Pellew's connexion with her terminated abruptly in the course of the previous year, when he and another midshipman were turned out of the ship at Marseilles. The correct, though not the only, version of how this came about seems to be as follows: Captain Stott obeyed the regulation which forbade him to carry his wife on board by carrying his (11) mistress instead. The practice was not unknown at the time. He was in this less eccentric than might be imagined. He was nevertheless slightly sensitive on the subject, and when he discovered Pellew and Frank Cole, a younger midshipman, laughing over a caricature of the lady which the latter had drawn, he promptly sent them both ashore.
This event was, for Pellew, a blessing, however complete its disguise. The casual attitude the Service adopted towards midshipmen, which allowed a captain to flog or dismiss them at will, had a more pleasant aspect in a willingness to overlook their faults. To be more exact, 'young gentlemen' were of so little importance that the Admiralty never heard of their sins or grievances. Consequently, while Pellew could hope for no redress for the absurdly excessive punishment inflicted on him, neither had he to fear any real injury to his career.
The two culprits found their way back to England without difficulty, with the aid of a loan from one of the lieutenants, and there the matter ended. But it was a turning point in Pellew's life. For this was the year in which the War of American Independence was slowly developing and taking shape. Pellew, by reaching England when he did, was enabled to see active service much sooner than he would have done had he stayed in the Alarm until her crew was paid off in the following year. Even more important, his return to England resulted in his joining a ship commanded by a man of exceptional ability. The ship was the thirty-six gun frigate Blonde, which he joined in January 1776. The captain was Philemon Pownoll.
Captain Pownoll, or Pownall - the name was spelt either way - was a very remarkable man. He was only prevented from figuring in the history of his time by an early death while still a frigate captain. He had been a lieutenant under Boscawen - that was how Pellew came to sail with him, as a protégé of Boscawen's brother - and a contemporary of John Jervis, who became Earl St. Vincent. Pownoll had begun his career well, as a captain, by becoming a rich man. In May 1762, his sloop the Favourite, in company with the Active, took a Spanish register ship. This took place off Cadiz. The prize was the Hermione, from Lima, the richest capture of the war with Spain. Her cargo, when all charges had been paid, was worth £519,705, and Pownoll's share amounted to £64,872. It is said that he still further improved his fortunes by marrying an heiress. His wealth, combined with his talents and his reputation as an officer, (12) had marked him out as a rising man. He was clearly a strong personality, a disciplinarian and a man of religion; given to experiment; a thinker. On Pellew his influence was enormous.
For coming under Pownoll's influence Pellew obviously had to thank the interest of Lord Falmouth. But for Pownoll's care to train him and bring him forward in the Service he had only to thank himself. He did not enjoy Pownoll's favour from the beginning - that is shown by the fact of his disrating from the rank of master's mate on joining his new ship. Clearly, he earned Pownoll's protection before he had it.
Up to the age of eighteen, Pellew had learnt seamanship in what was probably a good school. From his new captain he was to learn to be more than a seaman - an officer.
Pellew entered the Blonde as 'able seaman' on January 12th, 1776. The ship was then moored in the Medway, off Chatham. It was bitterly cold weather, with frost, snow, and sleet. On the 16th there was ice in the river. By the 27th it was 'frose over,' and by the 31st it was 'frose up from Side to Side,' so that stores could be brought on board across the ice. It was not until the 5th of February that the ice broke up; and on that day the ' strong ebb and the wind right down the river' nearly carried the Blonde from her moorings. Pownoll only just saved her by letting go the stream anchor, striking the topgallant-masts and making all 'as snug as pofsible.' Her fate, had she broken adrift, would have been hard, for she was without sails and only half manned. That month she finished preparing for sea, and sailed into Portsmouth on the 18th, saluting Vice-Admiral Sir James Douglas with thirteen guns. On April 4th the Blonde, with the Juno, went to St. Helen's and joined there a fleet of twenty transports filled with troops for America. This was the army which was to end its existence at Saratoga. At noon that day 'came on board the Generals Burgoyne and Phillips with several other officers going to Quebec.' On the next day the two men-of-war with the transports sailed for the St. Lawrence.