Thomas Byam Martin

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Sir Thomas Byam Martin
Portrait of Sir Thomas Byam Martin 1773-1854, Thomas Mackay, oil on canvas.jpg
Born 25 July 1773
Ashtead House, Surrey
Died 25 October 1854
Portsmouth, Hampshire
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
Years of service 1786 to 1854
Rank Admiral of the Fleet
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars
• Capture of Tamise
Capture of Immortalité
Napoleonic Wars
Capture of Sewolod
Siege of Riga
Awards Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath
Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Sword
Other work MP for Plymouth

Admiral of the Fleet Sir Thomas Byam Martin, GCB (25 July 1773 – 25 October 1854) was a highly influential British Royal Navy officer who served at sea during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and then as a naval administrator until his death in 1854. Martin also sat in Parliament for 14 years and was an outspoken critic of government attempts to reduce the Navy budget which ultimately saw him dismissed in 1831 by his old friend King William IV.

During his many years of service, Martin was credited with reforming and modernising the Royal Navy and, for over fifty years after his death, having theretofore been its most effective administrator . Despite his entrenched conservative views, Martin was open to new technologies and worked closely with administrators, shipbuilders and serving officers to convert the fleet from the huge battlefleets of the Napoleonic era to and effective force for colonial and commercial expeditions and defence. He died in 1854 during the Crimean War, still working as a staff officer at Portsmouth.

Early life[edit]

Martin was born in 1773, the third son of Henry Martin later MP for Southampton and a baronet and his wife Eliza Anne Gillman, née Parker. Martin's father, Sir Henry Martin, a younger half-brother of Samuel Martin MP, was for many years naval commissioner at Portsmouth and Comptroller of the Navy. Martin's grandfather, Samuel Martin, was a well-known Antigua, West Indies, planter.

Thomas was educated privately at Fresford, before attending Southampton Grammar School and later the Royal Grammar School in Guildford. During his education, he was also enrolled on the books of several Navy ships, a custom of the period to ensure that when he was old enough to go to sea he already would have the requisite "experience" to be considered for promotion early.[1]

In 1785, Martin joined the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth and the following year went to sea for the first time as a captain's servant aboard HMS Pegasus, captained by Prince William Henry, later King William IV. Martin remained with the Prince when he transferred to HMS Andromeda in 1788 and in 1790 was briefly aboard HMS Southampton before becoming a lieutenant on HMS Canada. In the next two years he saw brief service on both HMS Inconstant and HMS Juno before becoming commander in HMS Tisiphone in the Mediterranean at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars.[1]

War service[edit]

In November 1793, Martin moved to HMS Modeste, a frigate recently captured from the French, as a Post captain. Two year later, Martin was transferred to the Channel Fleet and stationed off Ireland in HMS Santa Margarita, in which he captured the French frigate Tamise on 8 June 1796. In the engagement, Tamise was badly damaged and suffered heavy casualties while Santa Margarita's losses were only two killed and three wounded.[1]

During most of 1797, Martin was in the West Indies as captain of HMS Tamar in which he captured nine privateers and late in the year he commanded the return journey of HMS Dictator before taking over the newly captured HMS Fisgard. In October 1798, Fisgard was among those ships deployed to prevent the planned French invasion of Ireland during the Irish Rebellion of 1798 which was defeated at the Battle of Tory Island. Fisgard was not present at the battle, being stationed off Brest to intercept returning French ships. On 20 October the Immortalité was sighted pursued and captured in a sharp action in which both ships suffered heavy casualties.[1]

In 1798, Martin married Catherine Fanshawe, daughter of Captain Robert Fanshawe, commissioner at Plymouth. The couple had six children and all three of their sons later served in the armed forces, two of whom; William and Henry, later became admirals. The third, Robert, died as a British Army Lieutenant colonel in 1846. Following his marriage, Martin returned to naval service and was actively employed under Sir John Borlase Warren off the French coast, capturing merchant vessels, privateers and warships.[1]

During the Peace of Amiens, Martin was given command of HMS Impetueux, a ship of the line, and in her was instrumental in rescuing survivors from the wreck of HMS Venerable in 1804. In 1807 he moved to command the second rate HMS Prince of Wales in the Channel Fleet and in 1808 HMS Implacable in the Baltic Sea. In Implacable, Martin was attached to the Swedish Navy and participated in the capture and destruction of the Russian ship of the line Sewolod (Vsevolod), for which he was awarded the Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Sword by the Swedish King Gustaf IV Adolf. In 1810 he briefly served in the Mediterranean as Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood's replacement but he returned to the Baltic in 1811, when as a rear-admiral he assisted in the defence of Riga against La Grande Armée during the French invasion of Russia.[1]

Later service[edit]

Between 1812 and 1814, Martin was Second-in-Command Plymouth Command,[1] and in 1813 he visited the Duke of Wellington's headquarters in Spain to co-ordinate army and navy supply requirements and operations. In 1815 at the war's end, Martin was made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath and deputy comptroller of the navy, advancing to full comptroller the following year, a position he maintained until 1831. In this role, Martin dominated naval strategy, reducing the fleet from the enormous size deployed against the French to a much more streamlined service geared toward protecting merchant trade and the British Empire. He also focused heavily on retaining well-stocked and highly trained dockyards capable of responding rapidly to any international emergency.[1]

Martin's strong pro-Tory political views eventually caused his downfall, when he used his position in the navy and his parliamentary seat for Plymouth to publicly criticise the Whig government of Earl Grey. Infuriated, Grey and Sir James Graham approached Martin's old friend King William IV for a solution, resulting in Martin's dismissal for insubordination.[1]

Martin, who in the intervening years had become a full admiral and a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath entered semi-retirement to care for his frequently ill wife. He was made Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom in 1847 and in 1849 became an Admiral of the Fleet. In the approach to the Crimean War he returned to service at Portsmouth planning the Baltic Campaign and investigating the possibilities of poison gas weapons. He died in this service at the admiral superintendent's house on 21 October 1854. His death was widely mourned and it has been said that his career as naval comptroller "forms a high point in the history of British naval administration".[1]


He married Catherine, daughter of Captain Robert Fanshawe, for many years naval commissioner at Plymouth, and had issue three daughters and three sons, the eldest of whom, Sir William Fanshawe Martin, bart., G.C.B., rear-admiral of the United Kingdom, was commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean 1860-2, and is now (1893) senior admiral on the retired list; the second, Sir Henry Byam Martin, K.C.B., died an admiral in 1865 ; and the third, Lieutenant-colonel Robert Fanshawe Martin, died in 1846.[2]

Sarah Catherine Martin[edit]

Martin's sister, Sarah Catherine (c1768-1826), who suffered the attentions of a very young Prince William Henry and never married, while a visitor at the Devonshire house of her sister Mrs Pollexfen Bastard, assembled the rhyme about her sister's housekeeper for the entertainment of fellow guests though she may not be responsible for the first few lines. It was so successful she published it in 1805 as The Comic Adventures of Old Mother Hubbard and her Dog.


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Martin, Sir Thomas Byam, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, J. K. Laughton, Retrieved 10 July 2008
  2. ^  This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domainLaughton, John Knox (1893). "Martin, Thomas Byam". In Lee, Sidney. Dictionary of National Biography 36. London: Smith, Elder & Co. 

External links[edit]

Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Thompson
Comptroller of the Navy
Succeeded by
Post Disbanded
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Sir William Congreve
Sir Charles Pole
Member of Parliament for Plymouth
With: Sir William Congreve (1818–1828)
Sir George Cockburn (1828–1832)
Succeeded by
John Collier
Thomas Beaumont Bewes
Honorary titles
Preceded by
Sir Robert Stopford
Rear-Admiral of the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Sir George Cockburn
Preceded by
Sir George Martin
Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom
Succeeded by
Sir William Hall Gage