William Brown (Royal Navy officer)
8 May 1764|
Leesthorpe Hall, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire
|Died||20 September 1814
|Years of service||1770s to 1814|
|Battles/wars||French Revolutionary Wars
• Glorious First of June
• Battle of Cape Finisterre
William Brown (8 May 1764 – 20 September 1814) was an officer of the British Royal Navy whose service during the Napoleonic Wars was lengthy but marred by controversy for his part in the recriminations following the partial victory at the Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1805. Brown was accused by some of failing to engage the enemy and costing the British a conclusive victory, although his admiral, Robert Calder supported him. Calder himself 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.
Despite the unpleasant aftermath of this 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 flag captain to Nelson and in command of a signal frigate at the Glorious First of June.
William Brown was born in 1764, the second son of John Suffield Brown, a local landowner and Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Leicestershire. Aged 13 he joined the navy and by 1780 was a midshipman. His service, if any, during the American Revolutionary War was undistinguished and is now unclear, but he was an efficient officer who passed for lieutenant in 1788 and made commander of the 18-gun sloop HMS Zebra during the Spanish armament in 1790. In the first year of the French Revolutionary Wars, Brown was made a post captain and given the frigate HMS Venus.
French Revolutionary Wars
By his promotion to captain, Brown had already seen extensive service in the Mediterranean and in the Channel Fleet, and was attached to 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.
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 despite increasing ill-health and subsequently was forced to retire to a Lisbon hospital in 1797. He recovered by the spring of 1798 and took command of the ship of the line HMS Defence from March 1798 untile she was paid off in January 1799. In 1799, Brown took passage to Gibraltar to command the frigate HMS Santa Dorothea, but on arrival was instead made captain of the 80-gun HMS Foudroyant. Brown took this ship to serve with Nelson off Malta and was briefly his flag captain, before Nelson switched Brown with Thomas Hardy of HMS Vanguard.
In 1801, Brown left Vanguard and moved into HMS Robust, in which he served for four years in the Mediterranean. During the Peace of Amiens, Brown married Martha Vere Fothergill and the couple had four children. Early in 1805, Brown was transferred to HMS Ajax with the fleet under 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. During the battle, which was fought in thick fog, Brown turned his ship away from the enemy at a crucial juncture to confer with his admiral. Although opinion was and still is divided on where the fault lay for the failure to destroy Villeneuve at the battle, Calder's fleet did seriously damage their opponents and capture two ships. In Britain however there was anger that the victory was not more comprehensive and Calder demanded a court martial to clear his name. One of the captain he brought back to England with him was Brown, who left Ajax 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 highly criticised at his trial and lost much prestige, but Brown escaped opprobrium and continued to serve with several important staff jobs. Amongst these was command of the Malta Dockyard and 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 commanding naval officer of the island and it was during service there that he contracted yellow fever and died on 20 September 1814.
- Partridge, 2004
- Laughton 1886.