John Forbes (Royal Navy officer)
John Forbes, 1778. Oil on canvas portrait by George Romney
|Born||17 July 1714
|Died||10 March 1796|
|Allegiance||Kingdom of Great Britain|
|Years of service||1726–1796|
|Rank||Admiral of the Fleet|
|Commands held||HMS Poole
HMS Port Mahon
|Battles/wars||Battle of Toulon|
Family and early years
Forbes was born at Minorca as the second son of George Forbes, third earl of Granard and Mary, née Stewart (1672/3–1758), who was the eldest daughter of William, first Viscount Mountjoy. John followed his father into the Navy, joining the 70-gun third rate HMS Burford on 31 May 1726, at the age of 12. He served as a volunteer under the command of his maternal uncle, the Honourable Charles Stewart. He served with the Burford in the Mediterranean, before moving with his uncle to HMS Lion, and the two sailed together to the West Indies in 1729. Whilst serving here, Stewart promoted Forbes to lieutenant.
His first commission was as third lieutenant to the 60-gun HMS Kingston, which he joined on 13 January 1733. He was then appointed the following year to the post of fourth lieutenant on the larger 70-gun HMS Edinburgh. On 21 July he joined the 100-gun first rate HMS Britannia as sixth lieutenant, rising to third lieutenant by May 1735. The Britannia was at this time the flagship of Sir John Norris, and Forbes sailed with him on an expedition to Lisbon to support the Portuguese in the face of a Spanish threat.
Rising through the ranks
Impressed with his services, Norris appointed Forbes captain of the 32-gun HMS Poole on 7 March 1737. Forbes returned to England with Norris, escorting the Britannia. On 3 October Forbes received the command of the 20-gun HMS Port Mahon and was sent to serve on the Irish Station. By 10 August 1739, with the War of the Austrian Succession looming and a war with Spain considered imminent, Forbes was appointed to command HMS Severn at Plymouth, and was moved to HMS Tyger on 30 June 1740. The Tyger was an unhappy ship, the crew having outstanding grievances over their claim to prize money. Before Forbes could attempt a solution, he was moved to the recently rebuilt 50-gun HMS Guernsey on 10 August, the day before she was to be relaunched at Chatham. Forbes sailed the Guernsey to the Nore, and by 15 September was occupied recruiting seamen. He then carried out a number of short voyages to the Netherlands and Ireland, before sailing to Gibraltar with a convoy in February 1741. The voyage was plagued with sickness, but Forbes remained on convoy duty, sailing between Gibraltar and the Mediterranean squadron.
Forbes was appointed to command the 80-gun HMS Norfolk in 1742 by Admiral Thomas Mathews. Whilst commanding her, Forbes fought in the Battle of Toulon on 11 February 1744. Forbes in the Norfolk led Mathews aboard HMS Namur in the line of battle and followed Mathews' example in bearing down on the enemy. After two hours of fighting, the Norfolk drove her opposite number out of the line, but Forbes did not pursue her, instead holding the British line. Poor health was increasingly affecting him however, and in August 1744 he received permission from Mathews to resign his command and visit the spas at Montferrat. After seeking treatment he returned to England and was called upon to give evidence against Vice-Admiral Richard Lestock in the court-martial that took place between March and June 1746, following the parliamentary inquiry into the battle.
Advance to admiral and political career
Forbes was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral of the blue on 15 July 1747, and dispatched to serve as second in command to Vice-Admiral John Byng in the Mediterranean. He was made rear-admiral of the white on 12 May 1748 and took over command of the Mediterranean squadron on 8 August, after Byng had returned to England. Forbes would also later return. He was still suffering from persistent ill health and so rejected an offer to take a command in the East Indies in 1754. He would never serve at sea again, but still continued to harbour political and professional ambitions. He was made vice-admiral of the blue on 6 January 1755 and was twice elected to the Parliament of Ireland, for St Johnstown (County Longford) in 1751 and subsequently for Mullingar in 1761. Unlike his father though, he did not take up a seat in the Westminster House of Commons.
His father's political connection had been with the Duke of Argyll, who had been an important figure in the opposition to Walpole. John became associated with the Grenvilles and William Pitt. Pitt formed his first ministry in November 1756 and Forbes was appointed to the Admiralty board in December. After Pitt's dismissal in April 1757 Forbes left the board, only returning when the Newcastle/Pitt Ministry was formed in June. During this period the execution of Vice-Admiral John Byng was held. Forbes was convinced of the illegality of the judgement and refused to sign the death warrant.
On 5 February 1758 Forbes became admiral of the blue and continued to sit on the Board of Admiralty, eventually as one of the Lord Commissioners. He had wide-ranging duties and was a well-respected figure. He served on the board until April 1763. He received the sinecure of general of marines on 1 May 1758, and Commissioner of the Board of Longitude ten years later. He became admiral of the white on 18 October 1770. His final promotion was to admiral of the fleet on 24 October 1781, after the death of Lord Hawke.
Personal life and death
Forbes married Lady Mary Capell (1722–1782), the daughter of the third earl of Essex, on 2 September 1758. The marriage produced twin daughters in January 1761. One of them, Katherine, married William Wellesley-Pole, 3rd Earl of Mornington. His wife died on 9 April 1782 and was buried in the Essex family vault in the parish church of St Mary's, Watford.
By the time of his retirement, Forbes' long life had made him an expert on the Hanoverian navy, which he passed on to his friend, the naval antiquary William Locker. John Forbes died on 10 March 1796 and was buried next to his wife on 18 March.
- John Forbes' entry in the Oxford National Dictionary of Biography
- Précis of Forbes' justification for refusing to sign, a document held by Senate House Library, University of London
- Beaglehole, J.C., ed. (1968). The Journals of Captain James Cook on His Voyages of Discovery, vol. I:The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768–1771. Cambridge University Press. p. 382. OCLC 223185477.
- Account of Byng's trial and execution, and Forbe's role
- John Forbes at Biographica Hibernia
- John Forbes' mention in Collins's Peerage of England
|Parliament of Ireland|
|Member of Parliament for
St Johnstown (County Longford)
With: Thomas Newcomen
George Forbes, Viscount Forbes
George Forbes, Viscount Forbes
|Member of Parliament for Mullingar
With: George Forbes, Viscount Forbes 1761–1765
Richard Steele 1765–1768
Sir Edward Hawke
|Admiral of the Fleet