Posts Tagged ‘Roger Curtis’

Regency Personalities Series

In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Sir Charles Henry Knowles
24 August 1754 – 28 November 1831


Charles Henry Knowles

Sir Charles Henry Knowles was born at Kingston, Jamaica on 24 August 1754, the second son of the Governor of Jamaica Admiral Sir Charles Knowles and his wife Maria Magdalena Theresa de Bouget. He received his initial education at Eton College circa 1764–6, and then subsequently at Glasgow and Edinburgh. He joined in navy in 1768 as a midshipman aboard the 36-gun frigate HMS Venus, which was then serving in the English Channel under the command of Captain Samuel Barrington. He was then aboard the Spithead guard ship the 74-gun HMS Lenox under Captain Robert Roddam, before joining the 32-gun HMS Southampton under Captain John MacBride, where he served at Plymouth and in the Channel.

Knowles was appointed as acting-lieutenant without pay aboard the sloop HMS Diligence by Sir George Brydges Rodney in 1773, and Knowles went on to serve in this capacity aboard HMS Princess Amelia, HMS Portland and HMS Guadeloupe under Captain William Cornwallis at Pensacola and from Jamaica. He then moved aboard Captain Collins’s 20-gun HMS Seaford where he served off Cap Francois and Santo Domingo. His next appointment was aboard Rear-Admiral Clark Gayton’s flagship, the 50-gun HMS Antelope at Port Royal from 1774 to May 1776, from which he moved aboard the 20-gun HMS Squirrel under Captain Stair Douglas. Under Douglas Knowles served at Jamaica, the Mosquito Shore and the Bay of Honduras.

Knowles’s commission was confirmed on 28 May 1776 and he was appointed as second lieutenant of the 28-gun HMS Boreas, then under the command of Captain Charles Thompson. He served aboard the Boreas at Port Royal, and later on the North American Station at New York after the Battle of Bunker Hill. He was promoted to first lieutenant and in 1776 moved aboard the 50-gun HMS Chatham, which was at that time the flagship of Vice-Admiral Molyneux Shuldham. He went on to see service on the flat boats at New York and Rhode Island.

Knowles returned to Britain aboard HMS Asia in January 1777 to see his father, who was in declining health. Whilst at home he took the opportunity to prepare his first signal book, A Set of Signals for a Fleet on a Plan Entirely New, for publication, before returning to the Americas in summer 1777. The book, published that year, proposed innovative new ways of flying numbered signals, and the development of tactics whereby the traditional line of battle would be abandoned once the battle began. Knowles claimed to have communicated the work to Lord Howe, and that Howe’s tactics at the Glorious First of June reflected Knowles’s theories on effective naval tactics. The death of his father on 9 December that year and his succession as the second baronet caused Knowles to return to England again.

He returned to active service again during the summer of 1778, and was present with Barrington’s fleet at the Battle of St. Lucia on 15 December 1778, serving aboard Commander James Richard Dacres’s 18-gun HMS Ceres. Two days later the Ceres was chased and captured by a squadron under the comte d’Estaing. He was exchanged and appointed to serve as lieutenant aboard Vice-Admiral Barrington’s flagship, the 74-gun HMS Prince of Wales. In May 1779 he was briefly ordered to be master and commander of the storeship HMS Supply, but had returned to the Prince of Wales by 6 July, when he took part and was wounded in the Battle of Grenada. Knowles returned to England with Barrington in October 1779, and by December had joined Admiral Sir George Rodney’s flagship, the 90-gun HMS Sandwich, as a volunteer for the Relief of Gibraltar.

Rodney appointed him to command the 18-gun xebec HMS Minorca on 26 January 1780, quickly following this with a promotion to post-captain and an appointment to the 24-gun HMS Porcupine on 2 February. Knowles went on to serve in a highly active role in the defence of British trade in the Mediterranean, engaging privateers and escorting convoys. At one point he was briefly blockaded in Minorca, where he fell ill. He was eventually able to escape to sea in January 1781, and was based out of Gibraltar until his return to England in April 1782. On his arrival he was accused of piracy and murder, but was able to clear his name, returning to Gibraltar aboard HMS Britannia to resume command of the Porcupine. He became senior naval officer there on the departure of Sir Roger Curtis, until returning to England once more in command of the 74-gun Spanish prize HMS San Miguel.

The end of the war allowed Knowles to continue with his studies, and he made a tour of France in 1788. The outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793 led to Knowles returning to active service in command of the 32-gun frigate HMS Daedalus. He was ordered to Halifax, but given permission to move to the Chesapeake, where a French convoy was planning to sail from. Problems with manning his ship meant that Knowles sailed from Portsmouth with a largely inexperienced crew, but Knowles was able to have them fully trained by the time of their arrival at Hampton Roads. Shortly after his arrival, the French escort arrived, and the convoy sailed shortly afterwards, observed by Knowles on the Daedalus. Knowles passed this latest information on to Lord Howe, who moved his Channel fleet to intercept it, setting in motion the events that would lead to the Glorious First of June. Having fulfilled his objective Knowles sailed to Halifax, and from there returned to England. He was appointed to the 74-gun HMS Edgar and served in the North Sea. Once again Knowles was beset by difficulties in manning his ship, the Edgar put to sea from the Nore manned by soldiers from 23 different regiments, and commanded by officers from still other regiments. Typhus and ‘the itch’ were rampant, on the ship’s return to port she had to be scrubbed with lime water and fumigated with vinegar, while 100 men were discharged to the hospital. Knowles suffered a further mishap when the Edgar was dismasted in a storm off the Texel, and had to be towed back to the Nore.

Knowles transferred to the 74-gun HMS Goliath in late 1795, serving under Sir John Jervis at Lisbon. While serving there he ran foul of Jervis, who had him court-martialled in 1796 on a charge of disobeying a verbal order. At the trial Jervis’s captain of the fleet Robert Calder swore that no order had been given, and the lieutenant who was supposed to have transmitted it swore he had not received one. The charge was therefore dismissed, but this appears to have been the start of a personal enmity of Jervis against Knowles.

Knowles was still in Jervis’s fleet in command of Goliath when the Battle of Cape St Vincent was fought on 14 February 1797. During the engagement Jervis ordered his ships to tack in succession whilst in close action with the enemy. Knowles did so, coming under heavy fire and was forced to temporarily drop out of the action while the Goliath‘ knotted and spliced their rigging. On his return to the battle, Knowles observed an opportunity to pass to windward of the Santísima Trinidad and so becalm her. Jervis however signalled Goliath and ordered Knowles to stop the manoeuvre. The following morning both Knowles on the Goliath, and James Whitshed on HMS Namur had observed the vulnerable situation that the Santísima Trinidad was in, and attempted to signal this to Jervis. They received no reply.

The fleet anchored in Lagos Bay the following day, with Knowles placing the Goliath where she could provide flanking cover for the line. On going aboard Jervis’s flagship HMS Victory he was however told by Jervis that the Goliath was vulnerable where she lay. Knowles replied that the Spanish were hardly likely to attack given their condition. While Knowles was dining with Vice-Admiral William Waldegrave that evening, Jervis sent the Victory‘s master to move Goliath, a great insult to Knowles. Jervis also ordered him to swap ships with Thomas Foley and take over HMS Britannia. Knowles soon returned to England after this, citing poor health.

Knowles attended the service of thanksgiving at St Paul’s Cathedral on 19 December 1797 for the victories at St Vincent and Camperdown, receiving a Naval Gold Medal, and then largely retired from public life. He spent the rest of his life in study, producing seven books of professional studies and a new code of signals in 1798, based on his 1777 work and incorporating revisions he had made in 1780, 1787 and 1794. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral on 14 February 1799, two years to the day after the Battle of Cape St Vincent, a Vice-Admiral on 24 April 1804 and a full Admiral on 31 July 1810. He suggested using balloons to observe the French invasion forces at Brest in 1803, and in 1830 he published his largely autobiographical work Observations on Naval Tactics.

He had married Charlotte Johnstone on 10 September 1800, the couple eventually having three sons and four daughters. He was nominated a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath on 16 May 1820 at the accession of King George IV. Admiral Charles Henry Knowles died on 28 November 1831 at the age of 77. He was succeeded as baronet by his son Francis Charles Knowles.

Read Full Post »

Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Molyneux Shuldham 1st Baron Shuldham
1717 – 30 September 1798


Molyneux Shuldham

Molyneux Shuldham was born in Ireland circa 1717, and was the second son of the Reverend Samuel Shuldham, by his wife Elizabeth, daughter of Daniel Molyneux of Ballymulvy, of County Longford. Molyneux entered the navy in 1732 as captain’s servant on board HMS Cornwall, with Captain George Forbes (afterwards Earl of Granard and governor of County Longford). He afterwards served in HMS Solebay with Captain Charles Fanshawe, and for upwards of four years in HMS Falkland with Fitzroy Henry Lee. He passed his examination on 25 January 1739, being then described on his certificate as ‘near twenty-two.’ According to the statement in Charnock, he was not seventeen.

On 31 August 1739, he was promoted to be lieutenant of HMS Tilbury, one of the ships which went out to the West Indies with Sir Chaloner Ogle, and took part in the unsuccessful attack on Cartagena in 1741. In 1742 he was first lieutenant of her when, on 21 September, she was set on fire in a drunken squabble between a marine and the purser’s boy and burnt, with a large proportion of the ship’s company. Shuldham, with the captain and other officers, was tried by court-martial on 15 October, but was acquitted of all blame.

On 12 May 1746, he was promoted to be captain of HMS Sheerness, then employed on the coast of Scotland; in December 1748, he was appointed to HMS Queenborough, and in March 1749, to HMS Unicorn. In October 1754, he was appointed to HMS Seaford, from which, in March 1755, he was moved to the 60-gun HMS Warwick, going out to the West Indies, where, near Martinique on 11 March 1756, she fell in with a French 74-gun ship and two frigates, which overpowered and captured her.

War had not then been declared, but hostilities had been going on for several months, as Shuldham very well knew, and the story that he mistook the enemy’s ships of war for merchantmen would be but little to his credit if there was any reason to suppose it true. He, with the crew of the Warwick, was sent to France, kept a prisoner at large at Poitiers for nearly two years, and returned to England in a cartel in March 1758. A court-martial acquitted him of all blame for the loss of the ship, and in July 1758 he was appointed to HMS Panther, in which he joined Commodore Sir John Moore in the West Indies and took part in the reduction of Guadeloupe and its dependent islands, March to May 1759 under Commodore Moore.

In July, he was moved by Moore into HMS Raisonnable, which was lost on a reef of rocks at Fort Royal off Martinique as she was standing in to engage a battery in January 1762, when the island was attacked and reduced by Rear-Admiral Rodney. In April, Rodney appointed Shuldham to HMS Marlborough, from which a few days later he was moved by Sir George Pocock to HMS Rochester, and again by Rodney after a few weeks to the Foudroyant, in which he returned to England at the peace. In December 1766, he was appointed to HMS Cornwall, the guardship at Plymouth, and in November 1770, to HMS Royal Oak, then commissioned in consequence of the expected rupture with Spain.

In February 1772, he was appointed commodore and commander-in-chief on the Newfoundland station, which office he held for three years. He was responsible for the construction of Fort Townshend, which was completed in 1780. Shuldham visited Chateau Bay on the Labrador coast and sent his lieutenant, Roger Curtis, to inspect the northern coast and the Moravian missionaries.

In March 1775 he was promoted to be rear-admiral of the white. At the general election in the following autumn he was returned to the House of Commons as member for Fowey, and on 29 September, was appointed commander-in-chief on the coast of North America from the river St. Lawrence to Cape Florida. He went out with his flag in the 50-gun HMS Chatham, arriving at Boston on 30 December after a passage of sixty-one days, having been promoted, on 7 December while on the way out, to be vice-admiral of the blue. His work was limited to covering the operations of the troops, and preventing the colonial trade. In July 1776, He escorted Admiral Howe into New York Harbor. He was replaced by Lord Howe, and in July, was created a peer of Ireland by the title of Baron Shuldham. Early in 1777 he returned to England, and from 1778 to 1783 was Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1777. He was promoted in1787 to be admiral of the blue, and in 1793 to be admiral of the white.

He died at Lisbon in the autumn of 1798. His body was transported back to England aboard HMS Colossus, which was also carrying many of the antique vases collected by Sir William Hamilton. Colossus was wrecked in a gale on the Isles of Scilly, but while many of Sir William’s vases were lost, Shuldham’s body was recovered through ‘heroic efforts’. He had married Margaret Irene, widow of John Harcourt of Ankerwycke Park but left no issue, and thus the title became extinct.

Read Full Post »

Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Sir Lucius Curtis, 2nd Baronet
3 June 1786 – 1869
A senior officer of the Royal Navy during the nineteenth century. The son of Sir Roger Curtis, 1st Baronet, Lord Howe’s flag captain at the Glorious First of June, Lucius served during the Napoleonic Wars and was heavily involved in the Mauritius campaign of 1810. During this campaign, Curtis commanded the frigate HMS Magicienne with the blockade squadron under Josias Rowley and was still in command when the ship was destroyed at the Battle of Grand Port. Magicienne grounded on a coral reef early in the engagement and despite the best efforts of Curtis and his crew, the ship had to be abandoned, Curtis setting her on fire to prevent her subsequent capture.

After Curtis was freed from captivity in December 1810, he was cleared of any wrongdoing in the loss of his ship and returned to his naval career. He later rose to become an Admiral of the Fleet. As his eldest son predeceased him, the baronetcy in 1869 passed to his second son, Arthur.

Lucius Curtis was born in 1786, the second son of Captain Roger Curtis and his wife Jane Sarah Brady. At a young age Curtis joined the Royal Navy, by which time his father was an admiral and a senior but controversial figure in the Admiralty. Roger Curtis had been flag captain to Lord Howe at the Glorious First of June, and became closely associated with the perceived injustices in the distribution of awards in the aftermath of the battle. Curtis further infuriated some of his fellow officers by acting as prosecutor at the court martial in which Anthony Molloy was criticised for his conduct during the Atlantic Campaign of May 1794. Molloy was effectively forced out of the Navy and Curtis attracted a significant amount of criticism, especially from Cuthbert Collingwood, who took a personal dislike to Lucius’ father.

In 1802, Curtis’ elder brother, also named Roger, died suddenly in naval service. As the remaining son, Lucius received strong patronage due to his family links and as a result was a post captain by 1809, aged only 24. Curtis took command of the frigate HMS Magicienne, with orders to operate in the Indian Ocean as part of the squadron attempting to blockade the French held islands of Île Bonaparte and Isle de France (now Mauritius). Arriving during hurricane season in December 1809, Curtis had an immediate impact, sighting, chasing and capturing the East Indiaman Windham, previously captured by the French Commodore Jacques Hamelin at the Action of 18 November 1809.

In 1810, Magicienne remained off the islands, participating in the Invasion of Île Bonaparte in July and subsequently supporting Captain Samuel Pym off Grand Port. Pym was intending to blockade the harbour to French shipping, but when a squadron under Guy-Victor Duperré arrived off the port on 20 August, Pym sought to lure them into coastal waters and engage them. Duperré successfully broke through Pym’s ships however, and took shelter within the harbour. Pym gathered his frigates together and sailed directly into the harbour on 22 August to engage the French. Lacking harbour pilots, Pym’s HMS Sirius, Henry Lambert’s HMS Iphigenia and Magicienne were soon aground on the coral reefs that sheltered the bay, and the remaining British ship, Nesbit Willoughby’s HMS Nereide, was forced to surrender by the French frigates in the port. Of the grounded ships, only Iphigenia sailed again, captured by Hamelin five days later. Sirius and Magicienne were burnt, their crews taking shelter on the tiny Île de la Passe. Without food or fresh water, the sailors were forced to surrender to Hamelin when he arrived and were held prisoner until Isle de France was captured by a British expeditionary force four months later.

Curtis was completely exonerated at the court martial convened to investigate the loss of his ship, given command of the newly captured HMS Madagsacar and continued to rise in the navy, being made a Companion of the Order of the Bath in 1815.In 1862, Curtis became a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath. He become an Admiral of the Fleet, the highest rank in the navy, in 1864.

Curtis died in 1869. his eldest son had predeceased him, and the baronetcy he inherited from his father passed to his second son Arthur.

Curtis was an eminent freemason, serving as Provincial Grand Master for the Province of Hampshire from 1840 until his death in 1869.

Read Full Post »

Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

James Coutts Crawford
20 July 1760 – 10 May 1828

Crawford was born at Dundee on 20 July 1760, the son of James Crawford and his wife Helen, née Coutts. Helen was a cousin of the owners of the large London banking firm Coutts. He initially went to sea aboard merchant ships, making several voyages to trade with the American colonies of Virginia and North and South Carolina, before joining the navy in April 1777.

His first posting was as a midshipman aboard the sloop HMS Vigilant, then serving off the North American coast under the command of Lieutenant John Henry. Vigilant was armed with heavy cannon for supporting shore-based operations during the American War of Independence. Crawford served aboard Vigilant until late in 1777, when Henry was appointed to command the 20-gun HMS Fowey, upon which Crawford moved with his captain to the new ship. He continued as midshipman until one of the ship’s lieutenants was wounded during operations around Boston. Henry then appointed him acting lieutenant on 24 October 1778.

Crawford took part in several important battles during the remainder of the war, commanding a battery of Fowey‘s guns that had been landed to defend Savannah during its siege. The besieging forces were eventually repulsed and for his good service there, Crawford was mentioned in the despatches written by Captain Henry, and the commander of the land forces, General Augustine Prévost. Fowey then moved to support the Siege of Charleston, which ended in the capitulation of the city to the British. Following this success, Captain Henry was again transferred, taking over command of the newly captured HMS Providence, with orders to take her back to Britain carrying despatches. Crawford again accompanied Henry, still with the rank of acting-lieutenant.

Providence was placed out of commission shortly after her arrival in Britain, and Crawford reverted to his former rank of midshipman. He spent two months serving aboard the 100-gun HMS Britannia, the flagship of Vice-Admiral George Darby, until April 1781 when Darby gave him command of an armed vessel, the 5-gun Repulse. Repulse had been fitted with Spanish-made 26 pounders, and was based at Gibraltar during the great siege. The siege was intensified about this time, with the Spanish making determined efforts to oust the British. On 7 August 1781 he played an important role in the defence of the brig-rigged HMS Helena, which had been becalmed in the entrance of the Bay of Gibraltar. The Spanish sent 14 gunboats from Algeciras to attack her, against which the senior British officer, Roger Curtis, dispatched Crawford’s Repulse, and another armed vessel, the Vanguard, to defend her. Despite the superior Spanish numbers, the three British vessels were able to fight off the gunboats and Helena was towed into harbour. After thirteen months commanding Repulse, often closely engaged with Spanish gunboats, Crawford was appointed acting first lieutenant of the 32-gun HMS Brilliant.

All the previous assaults having failed to capture Gibraltar, a Franco-Spanish forced launched the biggest assault yet on the fortifications, on 13 September 1782. Anticipating the assault, and the danger to shipping, the British scuttled Brilliant, and Crawford went ashore to serve with the naval brigade encamped at Europa Point under Curtis. He served as Curtis’s brigade major during the assault, which was eventually repulsed. With the attack decisively defeated, the sunken Brilliant was re-floated within a few days and Crawford resumed his post aboard her, serving under Curtis. He remained her until October 1782, when he was moved to the recently captured Spanish ship of the line San Miguel, which had run aground off Gibraltar and forced to surrender. The Spanish made several attempts to recapture or destroy her, sending flotillas against her on 12 November and 18 December. Both attempts failed, though several days later the San Miguel was blown from her anchorage and had to be run aground. She stayed in British hands for the remainder of the war. San Miguel was eventually sailed to Britain under the command of Sir Charles Knowles, and Crawford joined Roger Curtis aboard the Brilliant in March 1783. His lieutenant’s commission was confirmed by the Admiralty on 10 August 1783, but with the conclusion of the American War of Independence and the drawdown of the navy, there was little service available. Crawford does not appear to have served at sea for some time after his commission.

Crawford’s former service with Curtis, now Sir Roger Curtis following his knighthood for his service at Gibraltar, brought dividends during the Spanish Armament. As the threat of war with Spain loomed, Curtis, by now captain of the fleet to Admiral Lord Howe recommended Crawford to Howe. Howe took Crawford aboard his flagship, the 100-gun HMS Queen Charlotte. The crisis passed without breaking into open war, and Crawford took a period of absence from the navy, going out to the East Indies where he attended to his personal affairs. He took passage back to Britain aboard a merchant ship at some point after the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, but the ship was captured by a French warship en route. He was held as a prisoner of war until being exchanged in March 1797, and allowed to return to Britain. Once there he was appointed lieutenant aboard the 98-gun HMS Prince, which was at this time the flagship of Crawford’s old patron, now Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, with the Channel Fleet. He remained with Curtis until his promotion to commander on 14 February 1799, and his subsequent appointment to command the 14-gun brig HMS Childers in March that year. He spent the rest of the war commanding her, principally off the British coast, and was promoted to post-captain on 29 April 1802.

After a long period without a ship, Crawford was assigned to the 24-gun HMS Champion in 1808. He commanded her off the Spanish coast during the Peninsular War, supporting Spanish patriots against the French forces, later moving to the 32-gun HMS Venus to carry out the same service. During operations off Vigo Crawford arranged for the capitulation of the French garrison of the fort there, which caused his senior officer to write approvingly of his “liberal attention and zealous services”. Vigo was then besieged by a French army led by Marshal Michel Ney, causing Crawford to land a party of seamen and marines, and lead them against the French in defence of the city. The French were defeated at the Battle of Puente Sanpayo and forced back towards Lugo.

Crawford commissioned the 38-gun HMS Hussar in late 1810 and sailed for the East Indies in February 1811. He served at the reduction of Java between August and September 1811. In 1813 he took command of the 36-gun HMS Modeste and on 6 February 1813 captured the 14-gun privateer Furet off Sicily. Modeste was put out of commission towards the end of the wars and Crawford went on half-pay. He does not appear to have served at sea again.

Crawford was twice married, his first wife was Anne Duncan, with whom he had a daughter, Mary. Mary married the naval officer Henry Duncan in 1823. Crawford’s second wife, Jane, was the eldest daughter of Vice-Admiral John Inglis. The couple had a son together, James Coutts Crawford, better known as Coutts Crawford. Captain James Coutts Crawford died at Liverpool on 10 May 1828, at the age of 67. He had been travelling to London, but was taken ill and died after a few days.

Read Full Post »

Regency Personalities Series
In my attempts to provide us with the details of the Regency, today I continue with one of the many period notables.

Roger Curtis
4 June 1746 – 14 November 1816


Roger Curtis

Roger Curtis was born in 1746 to a gentleman farmer of Wiltshire, also named Roger Curtis, and his wife Christabella Blachford. In 1762 at 16, Curtis travelled to Portsmouth and joined the Royal Navy, becoming a midshipman aboard HMS Royal Sovereign in the final year of the Seven Years War. Curtis did not see any action before the Treaty of Paris in 1763, and was soon transferred aboard HMS Assistance for service off West Africa. Over the next six years, Curtis moved from Assistance to the guardship HMS Augusta at Portsmouth and then to the sloop HMS Gibraltar in Newfoundland. In 1769, Curtis joined the frigate HMS Venus under Samuel Barrington before moving to the ship of the line HMS Albion in which he was promoted to lieutenant.

Shortly after his promotion, Curtis joined the small brig HMS Otter in Newfoundland and there spent several years operating off the Labrador coastline, becoming very familiar with the local geography and the Inuit peoples of the region. In a report he wrote for Lord Dartmouth, Curtis opined that although the inland regions of Labrador were barren, the coast was an ideal place for a seasonal cod fishery. He also formed a good opinion of the native people, applauding their healthy and peaceful lifestyle. Curtis made numerous exploratory voyages along the Labrador coast and formed close links with the Inuit tribes and Moravian missionaries in the region. His notes and despatches were presented to the Royal Academy by Daines Barrington in 1774, although accusations later surfaced that many of his observations were plagiarised from the notes of a local officer, Captain George Cartwright.

During his time in Canadian waters, Curtis became friends with Governor Molyneux Shuldham who became Curtis’ patron and in 1775 assisted his transfer into HMS Chatham off New York. The following year, with the American Revolutionary War underway, Curtis was promoted to commander and given the sloop HMS Senegal. Curtis performed well in his new command and a year later was again promoted after being noticed by Lord Howe. Howe made Curtis captain of his own flagship HMS Eagle, and the men became close friends.

In 1778, Curtis returned to Britain in Eagle, but refused to carry out an order to sail the ship to the Far East, a refusal which earned the enmity of Lord Sandwich. In December of the same year he was married to Jane Sarah Brady. As punishment for his disobedience Curtis was unemployed for the next two years, before he secured the new frigate HMS Brilliant for service in the Mediterranean in 1780. Ordered to Gibraltar, Brilliant was attacked by a superior Spanish squadron close to the fortress and was forced to escape to British-held Minorca. Curtis’s first lieutenant Colin Campbell complained extensively about his captain’s refusal to leave port while enemy shipping passed by the harbour, but Curtis was waiting for a 25-ship relief convoy which he met and safely convoyed into Gibraltar, bringing supplies to the defenders of the Great Siege of Gibraltar then in progress.

Although Curtis was personally opposed to British possession of Gibraltar, he took command of a marine unit during the siege, and in the attack by Spanish gunboats and floating batteries in September 1782, Curtis took his men into the harbour in small boats to engage the enemy. During this operation, Curtis witnessed the destruction of the batteries by British fireships and was able to rescue hundreds of burnt and drowning Spanish sailors from the water. This rescue effort was carried out in close proximity to the enemy force and in constant danger from the detonation of burning Spanish ships, which showered his overcrowded boats with debris and caused several casualties amongst his crews. When Lord Howe relieved the siege, he brought the much-celebrated Curtis back to Britain, where he was knighted for his service and became a society figure, featuring in many newspaper prints. He came under attack however from Lieutenant Campbell, who published a pamphlet accusing him of indecision and a lack of nerve during his time in Brilliant.

During 1783, Curtis was sent to Morocco to renew treaties with the country and then remained in Gibraltar, accepting the Spanish peace treaty delegates at the war’s end. Brilliant was paid off in 1784, although Curtis remained in employment during the peace, commanding HMS Ganges as guardship at Portsmouth. In 1787 he was placed on half-pay, although it has been speculated that during this period he conducted a secret mission to Scandinavia to ensure British supplies on naval materials from the region in the event of war. In the Spanish armament of 1790, Curtis was briefly made flag captain of HMS Queen Charlotte under Howe, but soon transferred to HMS Brunswick. As captain of Brunswick, Curtis had to deal with an outbreak of a deadly and infectious fever. He was successful in controlling the disease and later published and advisory pamphlet on techniques for other officers to follow when faced with contagion aboard their ships.

In 1793 at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, Curtis returned to Queen Charlotte and joined Lord Howe at the head of the Channel Fleet. In May 1794, Howe led the fleet to sea to search for a French grain convoy and after a month of fruitless searching, discovered that the French Atlantic Fleet under Villaret de Joyeuse had left harbour and was sailing to meet the convoy. Howe gave chase and gradually closed on Villaret’s rearguard, fighting two inconclusive actions during the Atlantic campaign of May 1794. On 1 June 1794, Howe caught the French fleet and brought them to battle in the battle of the Glorious First of June. The action was hard fought and Curtis’ ship was heavily engaged, fighting several French ships of the line simultaneously.

In the closing stages of the battle, the aged Howe retired to his cabin and Curtis was given responsibility for the flagship and consequently the fleet over the next day. Exactly how much of what transpired was Curtis’s fault has never been established, but in a series of unusual decisions the British failed to pursue the defeated French fleet, allowing many battered French ships to escape. Even more controversially, a despatch was sent to the Admiralty concerning the action which praised certain officers and excluded others. The awards presented to the captains who had served at the battle were given based on the praise each captain received in this report, and those omitted were excluded from the medal celebrating the victory and other honours. Although Howe had ultimate responsibility for the despatch, many blamed Curtis for this slight and he was rumoured to have taken the decision to abandon pursuit and subsequently penned the report himself in Howe’s name.

Curtis’s subsequent actions increased the distrust felt by his fellow officers. While Curtis was granted a baronetcy for his role in the action, another captain, Anthony Molloy, faced a court martial and national disgrace for what was considered to be his failure to engage the enemy during the battle. Curtis stood as prosecutor in the case, and Molloy was subsequently dismissed from his ship and effectively from the service as the result of Curtis’s prosecution. Cuthbert Collingwood, one of the captains overlooked by the despatch, subsequently described Curtis as “an artful, sneeking creature, whose fawning insinuating manners creeps into the confidence of whoever he attacks and whose rapacity wou’d grasp all honours and all profits that come within his view”.

During the two years following the battle, Curtis had brief periods in command of HMS Canada, HMS Powerful, HMS Invincible and HMS Formidable. In 1796, he was promoted to rear-admiral and raised his flag on HMS Prince. In Prince, Curtis led the blockade of Brest when most of the fleet was paralysed by the Spithead Mutiny. He was also in overall command of the naval operations which succeeded in destroying or driving off much of the French force sent to support the Irish Rebellion of 1798 culminating in the Battle of Tory Island, at which he was not present. Later in the year he joined Lord St Vincent off Cadiz with a squadron of eight ships of the line, and was soon afterwards made a vice-admiral. In 1799, he retired ashore.

Curtis’s remaining career was based at a series of shore stations, initially at Cape Town between 1800 and 1803, which he reportedly hated. In 1804 he was promoted to full admiral, and subsequently employed in Britain from 1805 to 1807 as part of the “Commission for revising the civil affairs of His Majesty’s navy”. This latter role was an important position and Curtis performed well, introducing many beneficial reforms to the service. In 1802 Curtis’s eldest son Roger, a post captain in the navy, died suddenly while on duty. In 1809, after 40 years of naval service, Curtis took his final command, that of Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. In 1810, he performed his last significant duty, when he presided over the highly controversial court martial examining the conduct of Lord Gambier at the Battle of Basque Roads. At the battle, Gambier had failed to support Captain Lord Cochrane and missed an opportunity to destroy the French Brest Fleet. Infuriated, Cochrane attempted to block the proposed vote of thanks awarded to Gambier for the reduced victory from Parliament. Gambier responded by demanding a court martial to pass judgement on his actions. Gambier and Curtis had fought together at the Glorious First of June and had been friends for many years, and Curtis could be counted on by those in authority to “show strong partiality in favour of the accused.” Under instructions from the Admiralty, Curtis and the other officers judging the case found in Gambier’s favour and the trial inevitably ended with the court pronouncing that Gambier’s behaviour “was marked by zeal, judgement, ability, and an anxious attention to the welfare of his majesty’s service”.

Curtis retired after the trial and died six years later after a peaceful retirement, followed a year later by his wife. In 1815, shortly before his death, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath. His surviving son, Lucius Curtis, inherited the baronetcy. Lucius was an experienced post captain who had lost his ship at the Battle of Grand Port but was exonerated at the subsequent court martial and eventually became an Admiral of the Fleet. Roger Curtis’s highly controversial career was noted for a number of prominent public disputes, that resulted in bitterness between Curtis and several of his fellow officers. He was however, brave and resourceful: his actions at Gibraltar even prompted the naming of the Curtis Group, an archipelago of small islands in the Bass Strait between Australia and Tasmania: The islands were apparently given the name because of their physical similarity to Gibraltar. Modern authors have criticised Curtis for his caution at a time when officers were applauded for bravery, but contemporary opinion was more divided: despite his many detractors, Horatio Nelson, who knew him well from their service together in the Mediterranean, described him as “an able officer and conciliating man”

Read Full Post »