William Brown (Royal Navy officer)

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William Brown
Born (1764-05-08)8 May 1764
Leesthorpe Hall, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
Died 20 September 1814(1814-09-20) (aged 50)
Kingston, Jamaica
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
Years of service 1770s to 1814
Rank Royal Navy Rear-Admiral
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars
Glorious First of June
Napoleonic Wars
Battle of Cape Finisterre

Rear-Admiral William Brown (8 May 1764 – 20 September 1814) was an officer of the British Royal Navy whose service during the Napoleonic Wars was lengthy. He participated with Admiral Calder in the Battle of Cape Finisterre on 22 July 1805. Calder was accused by some of failing to re-engage the enemy over the next two days and costing the British a conclusive victory. Calder later became subject to rumours of incompetence and called Brown as a witness, resulting in Brown missing the Battle of Trafalgar, where his ship served with distinction under Lieutenant John Pilfold. After the trial Brown was recalled to service and promoted to admiral after several periods in command of strategic dockyards. His final deployment was as Commander-in-chief at Jamaica, where he died of yellow fever in service in 1814. His previous service had included being in command of a signal frigate at the Glorious First of June and serving with Nelson under Lord St Vincent off Cadiz in 1797 and being in Nelson's fleet at Naples in 1799.

Early career[edit]

William Brown was born at Leesthorpe Hall, nr Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire on Friday 6 May 1764. He was the second son of John Suffield Brown, a member of the landed gentry who was a JP, an officer in the Leicestershire Militia and a Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Leicestershire. In January 1777, aged 12, he joined the navy as a captain's servant with Captain Philemon Pownoll in the frigate Apollo and spent 2 years in North American waters during the American Revolutionary War in Lord Howe's fleet. Apollo returned to the Channel fleet in December 1778. William was made midshipman in January 1779 and was wounded on Apollo in an engagement with a French frigate on 31 January 1779, in which Captain Pownoll was also wounded. He was in Apollo when it went with Admiral Rodney's fleet to relieve Gibraltar and was present at the famous Moonlight Battle in January 1780. He was moved into the Resolution(74) in April 1780 and was made an acting Lieutenant by Lord Robert Manners after he took over command of the Resolution in 1781. He was with Lord Robert when he was injured at the Battle of the Saints in April 1782. He returned to England with Lord Robert and was present when he died on the frigate Andromache 11 days later of tetanus. Having been at home for 5 years after the war ended he was appointed by Lord Howe the First Lord of the Admiralty, on the recommendation of Sir Joseph Banks, as a midshipman on the Bounty in 1787 with William Bligh but he was taken off again by Lord Howe a few days before she sailed. He then spent a year on the sloop Ariel before being moved to the frigate Leander with Vice-Admiral Peyton. He was an efficient officer and was promoted to lieutenant on 27 December 1788. He was made commander of the 18-gun sloop Zebra during the Spanish armament in 1791. He then commanded the brig Kingfisher in the Cork fleet in 1792, followed by the sloop Fly in Jamaica in 1793 in the first year of the French Revolutionary War. Brown was made a post captain in 1794 and given the frigate Venus.[1]

French Revolutionary Wars[edit]

By his promotion to captain, Brown had already seen extensive service in the Mediterranean and in the Channel Fleet, and was attached to 1st Earl Howe|Lord Howe's force during the Atlantic campaign of May 1794. At the culminating battle on the Glorious First of June, Brown acted as a repeater for Howe's signals to emphasise them to captains further away from the flagship. Late in the action he also helped tow wrecked ships out of the battleline.[1]

Late in 1794, Brown married Catherine Travers, who died in 1795 shortly after the birth of their son John William Brown. Following his wife's death, Brown took service at sea in the frigate Alcmene in 1795 and was commended by Lord St Vincent for his handling of mutinous crew members after the Spithead Mutiny. St Vincent subsequently became a strong supporter of Brown. Due to ill-health he was forced to retire to a Lisbon hospital in November 1797. He recovered by the spring of 1798 and was given command of the Defence(74) (1763) by St Vincent in March 1798 but was replaced by Captain John Peyton who had been appointed by Lord Spencer unbeknown to St Vincent. Brown returned to England but in January 1799, Brown took passage to Gibraltar to command the frigate Santa Dorothea. But on arrival he was instead made captain of the 80-gun Foudroyant. Brown took this ship to be Horatio Nelson's flagship off Naples with Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy. Brown became Captain of Vanguard(74) and served with Nelson's fleet at Palermo and Naples until August 1799 when Vanguard went with Admiral Duckworth's squadron to Minorca. He paid off in February 1800.[1]

Napoleonic Wars[edit]

In October 1800, Brown was given Robust(74) in which he served in the Blockade of Brest with St Vincent's Channel Fleet until June 1801 when he was given the frigate Hussar by St Vincent and served with the Cork Fleet under Admiral Gardner until the Peace of Amiens. During the peace Brown married Martha Vere Fothergill on 10 September 1802 and the couple eventually had four children. In June 1803 Brown was given Romney(50) and was involved in convoy escorting in the Atlantic until October 1804. In June 1805 Brown was transferred to Ajax(74) with the Ferrol squadron of the Channel Fleet under Vice Admiral Sir Robert Calder. Calder led his force against the Franco-Spanish fleet of Pierre-Charles Villeneuve on 22 July 1805 at the Battle of Cape Finisterre (1805). During the battle, which was fought in thick fog, Ajax was the second ship in line and Brown turned his ship to advise his admiral that the enemy fleet had tacked away in the fog and that the squadron should tack as they entered the fog also to keep in contact with the enemy. Calder immediately signaled this to the rest of the squadron. Calder's ships took two prizes and considered that they had won the battle. Ajax was one of the ships most heavily engaged in the battle and had more casualties and damage than the other 74s in the squadron. Because the last sentence of Calder's letter to the Admiralty was not included in the newspaper reports the public were unaware as to why Calder had been cautious in not pursuing the enemy over the next two days in order to destroy Villeneuve's fleet. Calder's fleet had done serious damage to their opponents but in Britain however there was anger that the victory was not more comprehensive. Meanwhile Calder with another squadron had now joined the fleet off Cadiz. At Nelson's request Brown had sailed in Ajax with Nelson in Victory to join the fleet at Cadiz. Calder demanded a court martial to clear his name.[1] One of the captains he brought back to England with him at his request was Brown, who left the fleet a few days before the battle of Trafalgar. Ajax was left in the hands of Lieutenant John Pilfold. Whilst Calder and Brown were in Britain, Nelson led the British fleet, including Ajax to complete victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Calder was eventually reprimanded at his trial and lost prestige for some time. However it is now recognized that it was as a result of Calder's action that Napoleon abandoned his plans to invade England and took his army to fight the Battle of Austerlitz instead. Brown was not required to give evidence at Calder's trial and after attending Nelson's funeral he was made the first commissioner of the Malta Dockyard and then the Sheerness Dockyard, duties he performed efficiently. In 1812, Brown was promoted to rear-admiral and given the command of the Channel Islands station. In 1813, Brown was transferred to Jamaica as commander-in-chief, Jamaica, and was made a Rear Admiral of the Red. It was during service there that he contracted yellow fever and died on 20 September 1814.He was given a State Funeral in Kingston.{sfn|Laughton|1886} He was buried at Kingston.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e Partridge, 2004