John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham: ‘the Late Lord’

Today on Blogging with Labradors, I am delighted to welcome Jacqueline Reiter with a guest post on John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham: ‘the Late Lord’. Jacqueline is a historian and an expert on Chatham. She has written a biography entitled The Late Lord: the life of John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham and also a novel called Earl of Shadows which covers Chatham’s life up to the death of his brother, William Pitt, in 1806. Both are meticulously researched and very readable and I highly recommend them.

Jacqueline is currently researching the life of Sir Home Riggs Popham, the controversial navy officer who plays a key role in both An Unwilling Alliance and This Blighted Expedition, evidence that she doesn’t shy away from a challenge…

Chatham was the commander of the Walcheren campaign in 1809 and an important secondary character in This Blighted Expedition. Jacqueline has given me an enormous amount of help and advice while I have been researching this book for which I am very grateful. It’s a privilege to host her today, talking about a relatively unknown but highly complex historical figure.

‘The Late Lord Chatham’: John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham (1756-1835)

John Pitt, 2ndEarl of Chatham, studio of John Hoppner (1799, courtesy of the Commando Forces Officers’ Mess, Royal Marines Barracks, Plymouth]

John Pitt, 2nd Earl of Chatham was the eldest son of William Pitt the Elder (created 1st Earl of Chatham in 1766), one of Britain’s most famous prime ministers who had helped turn the tide in Britain’s favour during the Seven Years’ War. He was also the elder brother of William Pitt the Younger (born 1759). John’s family and political connections were thus impeccable, and he benefited from them throughout his life, although he never really managed to emerge from the shadows cast by his father and younger brother.

 

 

 

Childhood and Early Life

John was born on 9 October 1756 at Hayes Place in Kent and was educated at home. This ‘singular’ arrangement may have contributed to John’s shy, reserved nature – he ‘had a very private Education, & has some Timidity in Consequence of it’ – but his upbringing was a happy one. (1) He was a bright child but needed constant encouragement, and he suffered from the painfully obvious fact that his younger brother William was his father’s favourite: ‘Being the first-born of their illustrious father … as too often happens with persons in similar circumstances, his understanding and talents had not been as assiduously cultivated.’ (2)

In 1774 John entered the Army as an ensign in the 47th Regiment and went to Canada as aide-de-camp to the governor of Quebec, Guy Carleton. He was still in Quebec in 1775 when hostilities broke out between Britain and the American colonies. John’s father was well known as an American sympathiser; John was thus prudently sent home with dispatches and shortly after resigned his commission in protest against the war.

The death of the Earl of Chatham engraved by Francesco Bartolozzi, after John Singleton Copley (1788, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

When France and Spain declared war against Britain in 1778 John returned to military service, first as a gentleman volunteer and then as a lieutenant in the 39th Foot. He was about to go out to Gibraltar when his father had a seizure in the House of Lords and died shortly after. The new Earl of Chatham stayed a year in Gibraltar and transferred in 1780 to a captaincy in the 86th Foot. He served briefly with his new regiment in the Leeward Isles before transferring to the 3rd Foot Guards, a prestigious London-based regiment.

In 1783 Chatham married Mary Elizabeth Townshend, daughter of Lord Sydney. They were childhood sweethearts: the Pitt and Townshend children had grown up together, and Chatham’s name had been paired with Mary Townshend’s for four years before they finally wed. The marriage was happy but childless.

First Lord of the Admiralty

William Pitt the Younger, studio of Thomas Gainsborough (1787-9, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

Shortly after Chatham’s marriage, his brother William was asked by the King to form a government aged only 24 (thus becoming Britain’s youngest prime minister). Although nobody really expected William Pitt’s minority government to survive, he triumphed over the odds and romped home with a huge majority in the 1784 General Election

Chatham’s support for his brother at this time paid off. It took Pitt four years to find a suitable opening, but in 1788 Chatham joined the cabinet as First Lord of the Admiralty, responsible for the maintenance and deployment of Britain’s considerable naval power.

The First Lord of the Admiralty was one of the most powerful men in the government, and Pitt fully expected his brother to put in the work. Unfortunately Chatham had always favoured the path of least resistance, and it was soon clear he wasn’t going to change: ‘An intimate friend of Lord Chatham has spoken to him on the inconvenience attending his laying in bed till the day is advanced, as officers etc. were kept waiting. Lord Chatham said it did not signify, it was an indulgence he could not give up.’ (3) Because of his late rising and lackadaisical approach he quickly earned the nickname ‘the late Lord Chatham’.

Demotion from the Admiralty

When war broke out with France in 1793 Chatham did his best, but his reputation for laziness was by now well established and when things started to go wrong it was far too easy for his department to attract most of the blame. As tensions mounted, Chatham – whose pride and stubbornness could equal his laziness – quarrelled with colleagues over strategic priorities.

The Admiralty

As a result of these enmities, but also because of the navy’s failure to strike a decisive blow against France, Chatham was removed from the Admiralty in December 1794. Pitt kept him in the cabinet as Lord Privy Seal, but the episode destroyed what was left of Chatham’s public reputation and his relationship with Pitt never recovered. ‘The mischief done me is irreparable,’ he complained, ‘and though my brother, whenever he gives himself time to reflect, must … regret the step into which he was surprised, he can never make it right.’ (4)

In 1796 Pitt promoted Chatham to Lord President of the Privy Council, but his political career was going nowhere; nor was his military career, which resumed in 1798 after a 12-year hiatus. Although Chatham commanded a brigade during the Helder expedition in 1799 under the Duke of York, this failed, and Chatham was not allowed to serve abroad again for fear he would die and propel Pitt (who stood to inherit the title) into the Lords.

But in 1801 Chatham finally got a chance to step out of his brother’s shadow. Pitt resigned over a dispute regarding whether to extend the rights of Catholics (legally barred from voting or holding high office). Chatham stood by the King, George III – who opposed Pitt’s Catholic policy – and stayed on as Lord President of the Council under the new prime minister. This earned Chatham the King’s gratitude and underlined how far he and his brother had grown.

Mortar bearing Chatham’s cypher as Master-General of the Ordnance, Tower of London

Master-General of the Ordnance

 In autumn 1801 Chatham became Master-General of the Ordnance, responsible for overseeing the country’s firepower and fortifications while acting as military adviser in the cabinet. He remained in this post when Pitt returned to office in 1804. In January 1806, however, Pitt became seriously ill. Relations between the brothers were still not good, but when Pitt died on 23 January, Chatham was grief-stricken. For the first time since 1788 he was also out of office, although only until March 1807 when he returned as Master-General of the Ordnance in a new Pittite ministry headed by the Duke of Portland.

Over the next two years Chatham played a minor political role, even though his name came up repeatedly as a possible successor to the old and ailing Portland. He spent much of his time away from London as military commander of the Eastern District and turned down several opportunities to serve abroad. Partly this was because Chatham’s wife, Mary, was seriously ill from 1807 to 1809 with a mental disorder. In May 1809, however, the Secretary of State for War, Lord Castlereagh, offered Chatham the military command of an amphibious expedition to destroy the French fleet and dockyards in the Scheldt River.

Walcheren

Chatham clearly thought about declining the proposal: ‘I can only say that I should be very anxious to have some further conversation with you on the subject before I venture to give any decided answer to it.’ (5) He had, however, turned down too many opportunities already. His dual role as cabinet member and expedition commander became highly embarrassing over the next few months.

Map of the Walcheren campaign from France Militaire: histoire des armées Françaises de terre et de mer … by A. Hugo (1837)

The Walcheren expedition set sail at the end of July 1809 and struggled against adverse winds, lack of leadership, and phenomenally poor luck for the next six weeks. Chatham commanded 40,000 troops; his naval counterpart was Sir Richard Strachan with over 600 vessels. Chatham was especially ill-suited for a swift dash up the Scheldt to take the Dutch island of Walcheren and destroy the ships and defences at Antwerp. He had no imagination to formulate alternatives when things went wrong; he spent much of his time at headquarters rather than going out among the men, which did nothing for morale; and he was not decisive enough to take advantage of any openings that did occur. Nor did he make any change to his habits: he rose ‘between twelve and one, not receiving officers till two o’clock’, a lack of urgency that did not bode well for a swift advance. (6)

More seriously, he rapidly fell out with Strachan, and by the end of the campaign the two men were barely speaking. The army advanced far too slowly, the navy could not cooperate properly because of adverse winds, and the French managed to rush 35,000 reinforcements to Antwerp before the British could even get close. By the end of August, also, sickness was tearing through the army – ‘Walcheren fever’. With over a quarter of his army on the sick list, Chatham called off the assault on Antwerp and retreated to Walcheren.

A Reputation Ruined

Chatham was recalled to England to account for his actions. The Portland government had imploded as a result of the disaster, and the new prime minister, Spencer Perceval, was not on Chatham’s side. When the King requested a narrative explaining what had happened on Walcheren, therefore, Chatham jumped at the chance to secure a favourable hearing, blaming Strachan and the navy for everything: ‘Why the Army was not brought up sooner to the destination from whence its ulterior operations were to commence is purely a naval consideration, and … the delay did in no shape rest with me, or depend upon any arrangements in which the Army was concerned.’ (7)

Cover page for Lord Chatham’s narrative of his proceedings during the Walcheren expedition, 1809

This was a mistake. The House of Commons held an inquiry into Walcheren in 1810, and Chatham’s narrative ignited a constitutional crisis. The government disclaimed all knowledge of the document, which made it look as though Chatham had gone secretly to the King and abused his trust as a privy counsellor to slander Strachan. This was not entirely the truth, but it gave the Perceval government an excuse to get rid of Chatham without appearing to scapegoat him for Walcheren. Chatham was forced to resign as Master-General of the Ordnance in March 1810; he never held political office again.

 

‘Secret Influence, or a Peep Behind the Screen’ by Charles Williams (1810, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, Washington DC)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Walcheren

After a brief attempt to set the record straight over his narrative, Chatham seems to have decided to grit his teeth and bear the shame. He remained Commander of the Eastern District until 1815, following which he disappeared almost entirely from public life. His wife’s mental illness returned in 1818, and until her death in 1821 he was mostly concerned with nursing her.

Gibraltar in 1849 by Charles Dyce (Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection)

In 1820 he was offered the Governorship of Gibraltar by King George IV. Chatham accepted this public sign of the King’s support on the understanding that he would not actually have to go out. Unfortunately, awkward questions were immediately asked in Parliament and the government ordered Chatham to take up his governorship.

Chatham went to Gibraltar a few months after his wife’s death and remained there four years. He coped well with the crises that cropped up (mostly to do with the unsettled political situation in Spain), but he spent most of his time depressed and homesick – in his words ‘chained to the Rock instead … of being among my friends.’ He left at the first opportunity, arguing that his health had suffered considerably from the climate. As he was now nearly 70, he was not forced to return.

He spent his last 10 years as an invalid, dividing his time between London and Brighton. By the time of his death from a stroke on 24 September 1835, two weeks off his 79th birthday, he had mostly been forgotten. When he was noticed, it was as a minor celebrity who represented a last living connection with the grand politics of the mid- to late-18th century.

Laziness and Loyalty

Chatham spent his life being compared to his brilliant father and brother: as one source observed, it was his ‘ill fate … to be the son of the great Lord [Chatham] and the brother of the great Mr [Pitt], which lays him open to observations, trite but true, of all kinds and in all languages, to his disadvantage.’ (8) Chatham has slipped into obscurity despite occupying such a central political position for 22 years. His reputation for sloth was deserved, and he did not shine militarily on either of the occasions he served abroad.

He was, however, capable of inspiring profound loyalty. Thomas Carey, who served Chatham in the Eastern District for eight years and was his military secretary at Walcheren, undertook a pretty much one-man campaign to clear his superior’s name after Chatham’s disgrace in 1810. He wrote: ‘I have now lived on terms of the closest friendship with him for the last six years of my life, and the more I see of him, the more I am convinced that in understanding few equal him, and in honour or integrity he cannot be excelled.’ (9)

This, with Chatham at the nadir of his personal and political fortunes, is especially remarkable. It is a sign that Chatham is worth examining more closely, and that he was far more than a two-dimensional caricature of sloth and failure.

Notes

(1) Lord Grantham to Anne Robinson, 2 April 1779, Bedford Archives, Wrest Park (Lucas) MSS L30/17/4/245a.

(2) Horace Twiss, Life of Lord Eldon(London, 1844), vol. 2, pp. 559-60.

(3) James Greig (ed.), The Farington Diary(London, 1922), vol. 1, p. 54.

(4) Chatham to Lord Camden, 7 August 1796, Kent Archives, U840/C254/4.

(5) Chatham to Lord Castlereagh, 18 May 1809, PRONI D3030/3087.

(6) Greig, Farington Diary, vol. 5, p. 224.

(7) Chatham’s Narrative, 15 October 1809, TNA PRO 30/8/260, f. 20.

(8) ‘Thomas Brown the Elder’, Bath: A Satirical Novel(London, 1818), vol. 3, p. 51.

(9) Carey to William Huskisson, 3 May 1810, BL Add MS 38738, f. 26.

This Blighted Expedition is the second book in The Manxman series, featuring Captain Hugh Kelly and Lieutenant Alfred Durrell during the Walcheren Campaign of 1809. It is currently available for pre-order on Amazon kindle and will be released on October 31st 2019.

 

 

 

 

The first book in the series, An Unwilling Alliance, set during the Copenhagen Campaign of 1807 has recently been shortlisted for the Society for Army Historical Research fiction prize.

Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809

Private Correspondence: Walcheren 1809 is from a series of letters found in the papers of Captain Hugh Kelly RN and in the Van Daan collection. Experts on the period have often commented on how much correspondence appears to be missing from the well-known Peninsular War officer. It is known that General van Daan corresponded regularly with the Duke of Wellington over the years, but sadly few of these letters have been discovered and by a strange omission, none were included in the Duke’s edited correspondence.

In 1809,  Major van Daan was serving in Portugal and Spain with the first battalion of the 110th under Sir Arthur Wellesley while Captain Hugh Kelly RN commanded the Iris during the expedition to the Scheldt.

Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, August 1809

As if this expedition wasn’t bad enough, I seem to have lost young Durrell, who has been temporarily seconded to the flagship by the particular request of Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. I am assured by Sir Richard Strachan that this is only temporary, but I’m worried about the lad, I don’t like the company he’s keeping.

Popham, by the way, is more insufferable than ever. I’ve not the least idea what his job actually is, although I’m reliably informed he was instrumental in the planning of this expedition, which might explain why nobody is going anywhere. He behaves as though he were Captain of the Fleet, but he isn’t; we don’t seem to have one of those. Whatever he is supposed to be doing, he is all over the place as usual, you’d be hard put to know if he’s army or navy, since he’s forever on shore. From Durrell’s letters, he’s an alarmingly regular visitor to headquarters, which cannot be easy for Durrell who would rather be nowhere near the place.

I hope things are going better for you.

Yours, with esteem

Captain Hugh Kelly, RN

An Unconventional OfficerExtract of letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, August 1809

I’ll be honest, Captain, you might still be having a better time than I’ve been this past month. I am about to embark upon a painful retreat back from Spain, made worse by a hole in my chest which I acquired at a place called Talavera. I’m told we won, which I’d no way of knowing as I was carried off the field half dead. Thankfully, I’m on the mend now, thanks to the efforts of a rather unusual young female who is married to an officer of the quartermasters’ department and who is our new and wholly unofficial surgeon’s assistant.

I hope your campaign is over quickly, that it’s less miserable than Copenhagen, and that you get through it without shooting that arsehole Popham. Sorry I can’t be there to do it for you. I hope the lad’s all right, he doesn’t need to be spending his time with that smug bastard.

By the way, why is Durrell dodging army headquarters? I thought he liked Lord Chatham.

I hope your reply will find me safe in Lisbon. Or anywhere but here, it’s a hell hole, we’re short of supplies and Sir Arthur Wellesley is in the foulest temper I’ve ever seen, made worse by the fact that I’ve been too ill for him to take it out on me.

Yours affectionately, Major Paul van Daan

Extract of a letter from Captain Hugh Kelly, RN to Major Paul van Daan, September 1809

I hope you’re still recovering well. Take a tip from an older man, Major, and duck next time.

Poor Durrell is trying to avoid his brother who has taken up some nameless and pointless post at headquarters. I’ve no idea what he’s doing there and I suspect Lord Chatham has even less idea, the poor man seems permanently surrounded by a pack of hangers-on and holiday-makers. They say that he seldom emerges from his bedroom before noon; if I had that lot, on top of this campaign, to contend with, I’d stay there all day.

Don’t even talk to me about bombarding a city. Flushing was a horror, I’m not likely to forget it in a hurry.

I’ve no idea how long we’ll be here; I don’t think we’ve a cat in hell’s chance of getting anywhere near Antwerp now, and on top of that, there are reports of sickness among the troops. I hope your second battalion isn’t affected, I’ve met one or two of them. Have you friends there?

Extract of a letter from Major Paul van Daan to Captain Hugh Kelly, September 1809

I’ve received a letter from a friend in the second battalion. Captain, what the hell is going on over there? Are you and your crew all right? Is it true the expedition is pulling out?

Is Durrell back with you? It doesn’t sound as though you’d want him on shore just now.

Headquarters has moved to Viseu and Wellington is planning how to stop another invasion, but it’s fairly quiet here. I’m hoping that the stories I’m hearing are exaggerated,  but get that boy back with you, if Popham is still strutting around the army lines and gets him killed with some bloody Dutch fever, I am going to catch up with that bastard and shoot him in the head. It’s high time somebody did it, I’d be doing the world a favour.

I really don’t like what I’m hearing about what’s happening on Walcheren. For God’s sake, write to me, sir, I want to know you’re both all right…

 

Evacuating the sick from South Beveland, 1809

 

This Blighted Expedition: a novel of the Walcheren Campaign of 1809 (Book Two in the Manxman series).  Due for publication on 31st October 2019.

The Jolabokaflod or Christmas Book Flood

In the run up to Christmas, and with the latest book up and running, I’ve decided to devote this blog to sharing some of my favourite books with you. Last year, on Christmas Eve, I did a post about the Christmas Book Flood, or Jolabokaflod. The concept was new to me, but I loved it.

In Iceland there is a tradition of giving books to each other on Christmas Eve and then spending the evening reading which is known as  the Jolabokaflod, or “Christmas Book Flood,” as the majority of books in Iceland are sold between September and December in preparation for Christmas giving.At this time of year, most households in Iceland receive an annual free book catalog of new publications called the Bokatidindi.  Icelanders pore over the new releases and choose which ones they want to buy.

The small Nordic island, with a population of only 329,000 people, is extraordinarily literary and people love to read and write. According to a BBC article, “The country has more writers, more books published and more books read, per head, than anywhere else in the world.  One in ten Icelanders will publish a book.”

There is more value placed on hardback and paperback books than in other parts of the world where e-books have grown in popularity.  In Iceland most people read, and the book industry is based on many people buying several books each year rather than a few people buying a lot of books.  The vast majority of books are bought at Christmas time, and that is when most books are published.

The idea of families and friends gathering together to read before the fire on Christmas Eve is a winter tradition which appeals to me.  Like the Icelanders, I love physical books although I both read and publish e-books – sometimes they are just more convenient.  Still, the Jolabokaflod would work with any kind of book.

Last year, to celebrate this fabulous tradition, I offered some of my e-books free on Christmas Eve, and the take-up was phenomenal. I like to think I found a lot of new readers on that day and I intend to do the same thing again this year. But I also wanted to do a Christmas countdown of books that I’ve read and loved; a sort of literary advent calendar which has started late. Some of them are fiction, some are non-fiction, but all of them have a particular place on my shelves, both actual and electronic. I hope that reading about some of them will cause some of you to buy them, either for yourselves or for family and friends, as part of our own Christmas Book Flood.

Merry Christmas from all of us at Blogging with Labradors.

The Moddey Dhoo

As it is Hop tu Naa here on the Isle of Man (Halloween to the rest of you) I thought I’d share one of our local legends, the story of the Moddey Dhoo, or black hound, which according to Manx folklore haunts Peel Castle.

Peel is on the west coast of the Isle of Man, a pretty little town, with the ruins of a magnificent castle, originally built by the Vikings, standing on St Patrick’s Isle. The castle was built in the eleventh century, originally of wood, and was added to over the centuries. The cathedral was also located on the island until it was abandoned during the eighteenth century. Peel Castle is now owned by Manx National Heritage.

The original written source of the story of the Moddey Dhoo comes from English topographer and poet George Waldron, who wrote his History and Description of the Isle of Man, first published in 1713. This is his version of the legend:

“They say, that an apparition called, in their language, the Mauthe Doog, in the shape of a large black spaniel with curled shaggy hair, was used to haunt Peel Castle; and has been frequently seen in every room, but particularly in the guard-chamber, where, as soon as candles were lighted, it came and lay down before the fire in presence of all the soldiers, who at length, by being so much accustomed to the sight of it, lost great part of the terror they were seized with at its first appearance.”

There was apparently a passage which crossed the church grounds and led to the room occupied by the captain of the guard, where the Moddey Dhoo used to appear as it grew dark, returning the same way at dawn. Waldron reports that one drunken guard ignored the usual procedure of locking the gates of the castle in pairs, and did it alone. After locking up, the guard was supposed to go along the haunted passage to deliver the keys to the captain. Strange sounds were heard that night and when the man returned to the guard room he was white and terrified, unable to stop shaking. He never spoke of that he had seen that night, but three days later, he was dead. This was the last recorded sighting of the Moddey Dhoo; it was decided to seal up the haunted passage and use a different route, and the hound was seen no more.

Waldron’s Moddey Dhoo made a comeback in a different form when Sir Walter Scott wrote Peveril of the Peak, an installment of his Waverly novels, in 1823 and introduced the “Manthe Dog” which was a demon in the shape of a large, shaggy black mastiff. Scott’s fiendish dog was somewhat larger than the Manx spaniel, but he credited Waldron as the source of his creation in his author’s notes.

Local legend claims that the Moddey Dhoo has been sighted beyond the walls of Peel Castle over the years. William Walter Gill has written some of the accounts which have placed the ghostly dog near Ballamodda, Ballagilbert Glen and possibly Hango Hill. He also reports sightings in the 1920s and 1930s at Milntown corner, near Ramsey.

Moving to the island back in 2002, I had never heard of the Moddey Dhoo until my first visit to Peel Castle. When we acquired Toby, our huge black labrador, we were frequently greeted by strangers when we were walking him, comparing him to Peel’s most famous canine. With Toby gone now, we have Oscar, a younger version, to keep the old legend fresh in our minds.

I always really liked the original story of the ghostly dog coming to doze by the garrison fire until morning. He must have been irritated when the antics of a drunken guard caused his route to be blocked up. In my admittedly over-active imagination, he went elsewhere and found a warm spot in the cottage of an old man who thought he was a local stray and welcomed the company. That guard probably died of a pickled liver anyway.

For anybody who wants a historic ghost story, I wrote The Quartermaster to celebrate Hop tu Naa this year and An Exploring Officer last year, both set during the Peninsular War. They’re both free, so read, enjoy and share if you wish.

Happy Hop tu Naa (or Halloween) to everybody, from all of us at Writing with Labradors. Here on the Isle of Man, they say that the veil between the worlds is much thinner on this night, and spirits of the dead can be seen. Like the garrison of Peel Castle all those years ago, I’d be very happy if the spirit of one particular black dog wandered in and curled up by the fire just like he used to…

Toby

Toby was the result of a snap decision after spending some time with friends who had a young black labrador. It was a decision that changed our lives.

 

 

We had lost our beloved cats, Reggie and Ronnie, over a year earlier. Both lived to be more than twenty and we couldn’t imagine finding cats with their enormous personalities to replace them. We were living on the Isle of Man by then with two young children, both of whom had fallen in love with Tavey, our friends’ dog during our visit. On the way home, Richard said suddenly:

“Shall we get a dog?”

“A labrador?” I asked hopefully. I’d spent a huge amount of time many years earlier staying with the family of a university friend. They always had dogs, black labradors and a springer spaniel. I adored Worthington and Henry and had always thought that if I could have a dog, that’s what I’d like.

“Well they’re good with children,” Richard said.

The conversation might have rested there, but when we arrived home, I picked up the free paper from among the mail and flicked through it. With our conversation in mind, I glanced at the classifieds and to my surprise, there it was, a small advert.

“There’s somebody advertising labrador puppies here, in Ballaugh,” I said.

Richard looked at me. “Ring them,” he said. “We can go and have a look. We don’t need to get one. Don’t let the children know, in case we decide not to do it.”

Looking back on that piece of naivety makes me howl with laughter.

There was one puppy left when I rang, a black boy. It was a small litter, only four puppies, the mother a family pet. We arranged a time to go up when the children were at school, having told them nothing.

The house was chaos, puppies confined to a large pen but still taking over the room. Richard sat down next to the pen and someone deposited a black puppy onto his lap. “This is him. We call him Homer, he’s the biggest of the litter. Look at his paws.”

We looked. It was hard to miss those paws, they were enormous. I stroked the puppy’s ears. It had climbed up Richard’s chest and was licking his face. “What do you think?” I asked.

Richard didn’t answer. He’d obviously lost the ability to think, he was too busy falling in love.

Toby came into our lives like a small black tornado. He was lively, he was bouncy and he ate everything in sight. He ate our shoes and our clothes and our kitchen. He resisted all forms of training or discipline and made puppy training classes a nightmare. He clearly knew his name but had no idea why it mattered since he had no intention of responding to it. He was a new full time job and we adored him from day one.

My memories of Toby are a series of snapshots through the years. Toby as a puppy, failing to look guilty as some new piece of destruction came to light. Toby taking forever to learn ‘sit’, ‘down’, ‘heel’ and ‘come’, but then unexpectedly learning ‘turn’ and ‘paw’ without effort.

Stars of Blogging with Labradors
Blogging with Labradors, starring Toby and Joey

Toby first learning to swim down at Groudle Beach and then refusing to come out of the water because he loved it so much.

Toby as a young dog, taking pride of place beside Richard in our little red Mazda with the top down, ears blowing in the breeze as they headed off for the beach or the plantation.

Toby at two and a half, when we introduced Joey, the new puppy, patiently letting him jump all over him and then batting him halfway across the room when he got bored.

Toby at a barbecue, stealing a sharp kitchen knife off the worktop and racing out to greet an arriving guest to cries of “Hilary, watch out, he’s got a knife”

Toby refusing to come back to the car when it was time to go home, not once but many many times, making me late to collect the kids while I was coaxing him.

Toby at Silverdale, meeting an elderly man unexpectedly on the path and eliciting the remark: “Bloody hell, it’s the Moddey Dhoo!”

Toby taking the descent down Peel Hill too fast, rolling to the bottom and ending up with an operation and weeks of hydrotherapy to get him walking again.

Toby curled up on the beanbag with Anya when she was practicing her reading, listening to stories about dolphins and mermaids, loving the cuddles.

Toby on our “dog training for awkward dogs” intensive course, earning the nickname “Mr I will if I feel like it” after his determination not to walk to heel on the lead defeated experts in the field.

Toby getting older, his beard and eyebrows going grey, still handsome, very distinguished.

Toby sitting beside Jon and then Anya through their GCSEs and A levels, headbutting their books and laptops to get attention when they were trying to study.

Toby with arthritis, too stiff to move fast or go for long walks anymore, but loving the garden or a mooch around the beach.

Toby meeting Oscar, the new puppy. Standoffish at first, then interested, but very much in charge, very much the senior dog. All the little steps of acceptance; the first time sharing a bed, letting Oscar lick him, licking him back. Toby watching Joey and Oscar play fighting and then finally joining in, a bit stiff and awkward, but having fun, his tail wagging.

The boys enjoying the sun this afternoon

Toby sunbathing in this warm weather on the tiled front porch with his brothers, his fur warm to touch, snoring gently.

I’ve started to cry again as I write this. There is so much to say about Toby that I can’t write it all. He was my friend, my beloved dog for fourteen years, and I struggle to believe that I won’t see him again.

There was a day, a few weeks back, when we took the dogs to Groudle Beach. I’d not seen Toby go into the water properly for a long time but he clearly wanted to show Oscar how it was done. It brought tears to my eyes to see how happy he was, splashing about. He looked like a dog who was discovering some of his lost youth and seemed to be enjoying it.

A week ago we took the three of them to Derbyhaven Beach in the evening. He was less keen to swim that day but he paddled, and sniffed the rocks and walked around on the sand looking so happy, his tail wagging, a big grin on his face.

On Monday 23rd he joined in a huge playfight in my study, trashing the place and making work impossible until I kicked them out. They all fell asleep in mid-game, slept for about four hours and woke up to eat dinner, then sat outside with us watching the lights come on.

The next morning I found him apparently sleeping peacefully in the kitchen. There was no sign of illness or distress or any kind of trauma. Joey was sleeping next to him; Oscar nearby in his cage. He’d died in his sleep, almost as if he’d decided that this was as good as it was going to get. He refused the inevitable declining health and mobility; the misery of a family trying to decide when was the right time to let him go.

He went kindly and with dignity and that kind of death was a gift that many pet owners don’t get. I was in shock and then distraught and I cried when we buried him and didn’t know how I would ever stop. Our family has lost a beloved member and I hate that he’s not curled up next to me. There’s an empty bed; an empty space on the porch in the mornings and an empty space in my heart that will always be there for Toby.

There’s been an outpouring of sadness and sympathy online, not only from friends and family who knew Toby but from people who have got to know him online through following Writing with Labradors. I’ve been so touched at all the messages. It doesn’t make losing him any easier but it does help.

It’s only been a few days, and grief still catches all of us unawares. We all deal with it differently; the girls talk and cry a lot, the boys are quieter, sadder. Joey spent the first day wandering from room to room, knowing he was missing, which made me cry more. But we were so lucky to get Oscar, the perfect puppy, when we did. His company has settled Joey very quickly. It would have been much harder without him.

I’m never going to stop missing my big boy and I’m horribly aware that Joey isn’t that much younger than him. But the pain and the grief of loss when a pet dies is worth every moment for all the years of love and fun we’ve had with him. He was a fabulous dog, loving, funny and daft, and I don’t regret any of it.

Rest in peace, Toby Dawson. You were so loved.

 

 

 

 

 

Haunted Castletown

Castle Rushen
Castle Rushen, on the Isle of Man

What better way to spend a beautiful evening than to take a tour of haunted Castletown? That’s how I spent yesterday evening, courtesy of Isle of Man Ghost Tours, and I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed it.

I’ve done a few ghost walks in the UK over the years. The York one was particularly good and I also enjoyed Chester and Shrewsbury. A few years ago a friend invited me to join her work evening out which turned out to be a ghost walk around Douglas followed by a meal and drinks. It was winter, a freezing cold evening and I think the early darkness contributed to the atmosphere although by the end I suspect we were all too cold to enjoy the final few stories.

It was a different experience yesterday and we toured Castletown in the evening sun. It was a very small group; the walks have only just started up again for the summer season and it was Tynwald Day, a bank holiday on the Isle of Man, so I suspect a lot of local people were at St John’s or else at home enjoying the weather. My own family chickened out so I went alone.

The appeal of a ghost tour for me is only partly about the supernatural. I’m not really a believer in ghosts but I have always loved a good ghost story. As a child I was very susceptible to nightmares and I can remember my mother banning me from taking books of ghost stories from the library as she was fed up with being woken up in the night by an eight year old hearing imaginary bumps in the night. As an adult I still enjoy them and was a huge fan of the novels of the late, great Barbara Mertz who wrote some fantastic ghost stories under the pen name of Barbara Michaels.

But in addition to the supernatural element, I just like a good story, and that is what I got from the tour last night. The guide interspersed tales of hauntings and mysterious figures with comic anecdotes about such local characters as Gerald Gardner, the founder of the Wicca movement, who lived in Castletown and apparently had to be warned by the local constabulary for holding meetings in his home which included a collection of naked women. Gardner was obliged to get curtains put up to avoid offending the neighbours and to get rid of the horde of peeping Toms who used to hang around in the street outside.

The tour guide had clearly done his research, both in the archives and by talking to local people and visitors with stories to tell. He was a good speaker, very engaging, and the two hours passed very quickly. Some of the stories were genuinely funny; I particularly liked the one he apparently found in an old book telling of the ghost of a black headless dog in Castletown which can only be seen by another dog. A talking dog, presumably. I must take my boys down there and they can tell me if they see anything…

Other stories genuinely had a spooky feel about them. The ghostly woman in black seen around Castle Rushen is a very traditional ghost story but there’s a reason it’s a classic and the mysterious light coming on at night in one of the rooms of Compton House was also an odd one.  I also enjoyed the haunting of the Old Grammar School; ghostly children’s voices singing in an empty building is a definite chiller.

I was curious to find out if there were any ghosts from the Napoleonic War period but there were none mentioned on this tour. A lot of the Manx chapters of An Unwilling Alliance are set in and around Castletown and it would be fun to come up with a story from that period. I’m currently looking out for an idea for a nice Manx ghost story for Hop tu Naa this year, so watch this space.

All in all, I’d really recommend this as a way to spend an evening. I’d like to go back to do some of the other tours as well; I’ve a feeling there are many more spooky tales to come.

It was growing dark as I walked back to the car past the gates of Castle Rushen and the old House of Keys. I honestly don’t believe in ghosts, but passing Compton House I couldn’t stop myself from looking up at the windows. No light came on. I was laughing at myself as I got to the car because I’m aware that I didn’t look back a second time. Just in case…

The Arrival of Oscar – Guest post by Toby from Blogging with Labradors

The arrival of Oscar has changed everything at Blogging with Labradors.

I can’t believe it’s been nine months since my last guest post. High time the labradors got a say again, and a lot has happened during that time.

You’ll be glad to hear I recovered very well from my foot operation last year. In fact, despite all the humans’ very personal remarks about how old I was, I recovered a lot quicker than she did from hers. We quite enjoyed it, Joey and I, she was trapped on the sofa for weeks with not much to do apart from make a fuss of us and call for tea every now and then.

It’s been a good ten months at writing with labradors. She’s now published her ninth book, An Unwilling Alliance, which is partly set on the Isle of Man and gives very good descriptions of a lot of the places I used to go when I was a bit younger. Quite liked the bit where the heroine fell down Peel Hill, I must say, it happened to me in my youth and it’s very long way to roll…

Still, life has been good, the sun has been shining a lot which is good for my arthritis and the younger humans have been doing something called exams, which seems to involve sitting around looking at books, papers and little white cards. The important thing for me is it keeps them in the house and making a fuss of us labradors.  Things were bimbling along nicely I thought, until a few weeks ago when she goes off for one of her periodic trips on the boat.  She usually comes back with a bag of candles from Ikea and eighty-five more books about the Duke of Wellington, but not this time! No. This time, she turns up with THIS!

So there we go. Meet Oscar, my new little brother and the latest member of the Writing with Labradors staff. I must admit, when I first saw what she’d got, I was pretty unimpressed. I mean she has two perfectly good labradors already. A bit old and creaky in places, and Joey seriously needs to lose a few pounds, but we’ve still got what it takes. Why does she want another one?

Joey took to Oscar a lot quicker than I did. I mean, I didn’t dislike him, but he’s a bit noisy and a bit full of it, and like all kids, he doesn’t know when to stop. I had to tell him off a fair bit in the first week or two, and I certainly wasn’t sharing my bed with him or my sofa or having him lounging all over me like Joey does. I always knew that yellow lab was soft in the head.

All the same, I’m starting to get used to him. It’s sort of fun having a youngster around. To start with, I just watched when Joey played with him in the garden. I’ve not seen Joey move that fast for years, I didn’t know the old fatso still had it in him. But it reminded me of the old days when we used to play together like that. And after they’ve finished playing, we all have a sit down together and it feels sort of right, somehow. Like he belongs here.

Still, I wasn’t planning to get involved. But we’ve been outside a lot lately with the weather being so great. They sounded as though they were having so much fun. And one morning I just couldn’t stop myself. Silly old fool at my age, and I’ll feel it in the morning, but by gum it was good fun.

So here we are. Three of us now, not two, and life has got a bit more exciting. Theres a lot of responsibility with having a youngster to take care of. Weve had to teach him about the beach and the park and the glens. Eventually well have to teach him to swim. Ive not really been in the water for a couple of years, but I got in with Oscar down at Groudle the other day and I must say Id forgotten how much I loved it.

2018 is going to be a good year for Writing with Labradors. Welcome to the pack, Oscar. One day maybe she’ll let you do a post of your very own…

 

The Battle of the Clogs

Køge Town Hall, c. 1850

 

Sir Arthur Wellesley, later the Duke of WellingtonThe Battle of the Clogs, also known as the Battle of Koge, took place in Denmark in 1807 when British and German troops under Sir Arthur Wellesley defeated a Danish force trying to defend Copenhagen which was being besieged in an attempt to persuade the neutral Danes to hand over their fleet to the British in order to prevent it falling into the hands of the advancing French. The campaign was seen as an unpleasant necessity but was not popular in England. The following is an excerpt from An Unwilling Alliance, set during the campaign.

In the huge market square he found more of his men guarding increasing numbers of prisoners. Some of the Danish troops had taken refuge in the buildings around the square. There were a few desultory shots fired, with no accuracy, but these were dying out now. The hussars and many of the 92nd had moved on through the town, chasing the remaining defenders south towards the bridges. The 52nd was moving around the square, battering on doors and clearing out small pockets of resistance in public buildings. They seemed very controlled and very disciplined and Paul left them alone and led his men over to the town hall where Danish troops, clearly out of ammunition, were throwing missiles down on the heads of a few members of the 43rd who were trying to batter down the door.
A red-haired captain was leading them. Paul approached him, dodging a wooden stool which crashed onto the cobbles beside him, narrowly missing him. The captain saw him and saluted.
“Sir. I’ve orders to clear them out of here.”
“Might take a while, Captain. Mr Swanson!”
“Sir.”
“Translate, will you? One of the officers will understand Swedish.”
“Yes, sir.”
“Tell them to surrender. We’re taking prisoners, not slaughtering them. They can look around the square and see that.”
Carl moved back quickly, avoiding a bucket hurled from the upper storey. He raised his voice and shouted up to the men at the windows. Paul waited. After a moment there was an enormous crash and his lieutenant jumped back to avoid the splash from what was clearly a chamber pot. It shattered on the stones and the smell of urine and excrement filled the air. A voice shouted back down and Paul raised his eyebrows to Carl who shook his head.
“Didn’t get all of that, sir, but I’m translating it as ‘no’.”
Paul looked around. More and more prisoners were being escorted into the square. He could see scattered weapons, discarded by the fleeing Danes, and poignantly, a selection of wooden clogs. In their haste to escape, the irregular troops had thrown aside weapons, if they had them, and kicked off the awkward wooden clogs to speed their flight. Some of the men now under guard were barefooted.
“Where’s General Wellesley?” he asked.
“Not here yet, sir. The 43rd are mopping up the remains down by the bridge, he might be there.”
“All right, we won’t wait. Sergeant O’Reilly!”
The Irishman jogged forward, saluting. “Yes, sir.”
“Four men. Collect up everything they’ve thrown at us that will burn and pile it up against the door.”
“Yes, sir.”
O’Reilly turned, calling out orders, and Paul watched as the men began to gather the splintered and broken furniture. O’Reilly carried a bench towards the solid wooden door of the town hall.
“Not that door, Sergeant.”
O’Reilly turned, surprised. Paul was looking up at the windows of the town hall. A lone officer, hatless and fair-haired, his coat soaked in blood, stood looking down at him and Paul had a strong sense that the man had not needed Carl’s Swedish translation. Paul met the other man’s eyes for a long moment. The Dane was probably about his age, surrounded by his men, desperate and angry and determined and Paul hated himself for what he was about to do.
He had seen the flutter at the window of the neighbouring house earlier, gone almost before it was visible, but he was very sure it had been a woman’s face. There had been no sign of a woman or child in the chaos of the battle through the streets. He suspected that many of them had taken refuge in nearby churches, but not all. Still looking up at the officer in the upper window, he pointed to the house.
“That door,” he said loudly and clearly. “Burn it down. And stand well back, because that’s a wooden building and once you’ve lit it, it isn’t going to stop with the door.”
Paul suddenly wished that he had not chosen Michael O’Reilly for this particular task. His sergeant ought to know him better, but he realised, seeing the expression on the Irishman’s face, that he had seen too many cottages and churches burned out in his native Ireland by the English and should not have been asked to carry out a similar order here in a neutral country. But it was too late and Paul could not back down without alerting the Danish officer.
The colour had drained from Michael’s face and the dark eyes were fixed on Paul in mute horror. Paul looked back at him steadily.
“Get on with it, Sergeant,” he said.
O’Reilly turned away, carrying the bench over to the house and his men followed, piling the broken furniture against the door. Long minutes passed and Paul could feel his heart hammering in his breast, his nerves stretched to breaking point, waiting for the officer to crack.
The sound came, not from above, but from the prisoners in the square, a high pitched yell of horror, a plea in a language Paul did not understand. He did not need to, to grasp the man’s terror. He was shouting, running forward, calling up to the men at the window, gesticulating in the direction of the house and Carl Swanson moved to catch him, holding him back, speaking to him in Swedish.
Paul had no idea if the prisoner understood, but suddenly there was movement in the town hall and a weapon landed on the cobbles, a gun, useless with no ammunition, but a symbol. More followed. Paul looked up at the fair haired officer again and recognised sheer hatred in the man’s eyes. Slowly and very deliberately, the officer reached for his sword. He unbuckled it and held it out, dropping it to the street. It hit the cobbles with a ringing sound.
Paul did not take his eyes from the man. “All right, Sergeant. Move the bonfire away from that door, would you? Set a guard, make sure nobody bothers the women and children in there. They can come out when they’re ready but nobody goes in without permission. Captain Wheeler, get this door open and get them out, line them up with the other prisoners. Be very careful, I don’t trust this lad.”
“Yes, sir,” Wheeler said quietly.
“Captain Young, once they’re all out, take your company through this building and make sure it’s clear. Once you’ve checked, we can use it as a temporary hospital and mortuary.”
“Yes, sir.”
Paul stood watching as his men moved about their duties. They were unusually quiet and he understood why. He had shocked them and he knew it. He had shocked himself. If the fair-haired officer had held his nerve, Paul knew that he would not have given the order to light the fire that might have killed whoever was hiding in the half-timbered house but even making that threat was unlike him. He had been desperate to end the slaughter and had found, instinctively, the way to do it, but it was going to be hard to live with for a while.
The Danish prisoners filed out of the town hall under careful guard. Paul stood watching them. Most of them were looking at the ground, not raising their eyes. A few shot quick glances over at the other house, now with half a dozen of his third company stationed on guard. The Danes were calm and silent. These were regular troops in full uniform and they had held out to the bitter end. Paul watched them go past to join the other prisoners and was glad it had not ended in slaughter.
The fair-haired officer came last and he was injured, worse than Paul had realised from below. He was supporting his right arm with his left and was soaked in blood.
“Wait,” Paul said. He was sure the man understood English. “You’re injured. We have a doctor on the way over from Roskilde. My men will show you where…”
“I go with my men.”
The voice was heavily accented but very clear. Paul took a step towards the officer, intending to look more closely at the wound and the man spat, hard and accurate, directly into his face.
There was an audible gasp from several of Paul’s men. Paul looked into the other man’s eyes and thought, inconsequentially, that the colour was like his own. He wiped the spittle away on his sleeve without looking away.
“I’ll send the surgeon up to you then when he gets here,” he said evenly and turned away.
“You are worse than the French.”
Paul did not turn. He felt an irrational urge to argue, to tell the young officer what he had seen and heard of in Italy and from veterans back from Europe but he did not. On this day, in this town, the Danish officer was right.

An Unwilling Alliance is the first in a new series following the fortunes of Captain Hugh Kelly but linked to the Peninsular War Saga and is available for kindle and paperback on Amazon.

Sir Home Riggs Popham

Portrait of Sir Home Popham in the museum

Sir Home Riggs Popham, who features in my recent book, An Unwilling Alliance, is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve read about during my research and I am completely unable to make up my mind how I feel about him. As a novelist rather than a historian, I need to be able to present a historical figure in a way that is believable and fits in with the perspective of my fictional characters, but in the case of Popham I find my heroes as ambivalent as I am.

Popham had a wide and varied career and was the subject of much controversy during his lifetime. He was the subject of one court martial and several different investigations, none of which seemed to hold back his career to any great degree. He was a naval officer who seemed more comfortable with the army and was both admired and disliked by contemporaries. The Duke of York applauded his ability while Lord St Vincent seems to have loathed him. He was ambitious, talented and clearly very intelligent but seems to have had the kind of personality that made enemies as easily as friends.

Popham was born in Gibraltar in 1762 to Joseph Popham, consul at Tetuan. His mother died giving birth to him and his father later remarried. Between his two wives, Joseph Popham had a large number of children; sources seem to vary as to the number. Home Riggs Popham was educated at Brentford School and then at Westminster and may have been admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, although it is not clear how much time he actually spent there. In 1778 at the age of 16 he entered the navy as a captain’s servant on board the Hyaena.

Popham’s early career in the navy was fairly typical. He was involved in a number of skirmishes and spent a few months as a prisoner of the French in 1781. He was promoted to lieutenant in 1783. Aboard the Nautilus in 1786 he was responsible for surveying the coast of south-west Africa, building a reputation as an excellent hydrographer.

Progress in the navy was often slow. There were more officers than good commands and many excellent men were unemployed and on half-pay awaiting a ship, including Popham in 1787. Obtaining leave from the Admiralty, he bought his first ship and sailed for India as a trader. He operated to and from India for several years, marrying the daughter of an East India Company officer, Elizabeth Prince, in 1788. During these years he continued with his surveying work, later publishing A Description of Prince of Wales Island with charts. He also discovered a new channel between the island and the mainland through which, in the spring of 1792, he piloted the company’s fleet to China and he was presented with a gold cup by the governor-general in council, who also strongly commended him both to the directors and the Admiralty.

Popham’s commercial activities, however, were causing some suspicion and in 1791 his ship was seized by an English frigate as a prize of war, brought into the Thames, and condemned as a droit of Admiralty for having traded in contravention of the East India Company’s charter. The case was far from clear and Popham appealed, eventually receiving £25,000 over a period of time, which left him with considerable losses. There were rumours that he had been smuggling. He had also failed to renew his leave and was consequently temporarily struck off the lieutenants’ list although he was reinstated in 1793.

In September of that year, Popham was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the campaign in Flanders under the Duke of York. It was a job to which he was ideally suited, with his excellent organisational skills and understanding of logistics. He formed a corps of sea fencibles to defend Nieuport and distinguished himself to such a degree that on 27 July 1794 the Duke of York requested of the Admiralty that he be appointed superintendent of inland navigation and promoted to commander, an honour which earned him the nickname of ‘The Duke of York’s admiral’.

When the Allied forces retreated in 1795, Popham was in charge of the evacuation and proved himself so competent that in March of that year the Duke wrote to the First Lord requesting that Popham be promoted to the rank of post captain. It is very likely that this rapid promotion at the request of the army engendered some resentment among Popham’s naval colleagues.

During the invasion threat of 1798, Popham set up and commanded a district of sea fencibles. In May he submitted a plan for destroying the Saas lock at Ostend and was given, command of the expedition. The lock was destroyed, but because of worsening weather, the troops under Major-General Eyre Coote could not be re-embarked, and were obliged to surrender. The following year, Popham was sent to St Petersburg to attempt to persuade Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. He took the tsar and his family sailing which they apparently enjoyed so much that they presented Popham with a gold snuff-box and a diamond ring, and the tsar made him a knight of Malta. Popham secured the force needed and returned to England.

Later that year Popham was once again involved in inland navigation as an allied force under General Sir Ralph Abercromby landed on the Helder peninsula. It was poorly supported by the 10,000 Russian soldiers sent by the tsar and the campaign ended with another evacuation which Popham managed with his usual flair. He was awarded a pension of £500 a year and send back to Russia to try to mollify the tsar although Paul, furious at the failure of the campaign, refused to see him.

Back at sea, Popham began working on another project; the signalling system for which he is perhaps best known. His Telegraphic Signals, or Marine Vocabulary, provided ships with a flag system containing letters, words, and common phrases and enabled captains to communicate effectively. Popham’s code, was used by Nelson and his frigates at Trafalgar. It did not immediately supplant the official Signal Book for the Ships of War but was used to supplement it. Popham continued to improve the code over the next twelve years and it was widely used, finally being officially accepted by the Admiralty in 1812.

At the end of 1800 Popham commanded a troop ship with Abercromby’s army invading Egypt. Once there, he was commissioned by a secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley. Popham was successful only with the Sultan of Aden. In addition he continued his surveying work, later publishing an excellent chart of the Red Sea.

On his return to England in1803 Popham found himself at the centre of another controversy, accused of having incurred ‘enormous and extraordinary’ expenses on repairs to his ship, the Romney in Calcutta. A series of investigations followed, during which Popham published A concise statement of facts relative to the treatment experienced by Sir Home Popham since his return from the Red Sea to rebut the charges. It appears that the case may have been fabricated by Lord St Vincent’s secretary, Benjamin Tucker, in the hope of currying favour and trading on the First Lord’s well-known dislike of Popham. The matter finally went to a select committee of the House of Commons which reported that the figures had been grossly exaggerated and Popham was innocent.

Popham had political ambitions and hoped to become a lord of the Admiralty. He served as a Pittite MP in several different constituencies between 1804 and 1812 and some of his naval appointments were undoubtedly the result of political favour. With his wide variety of interests, Popham became interested in the invention of ‘submarine bombs’ which proved unsuccessful in practical use. He also took an interest in the idea of attacking the Spanish colonies in South America, an idea which had been debated for some years, and in 1804 submitted a paper on the subject to William Pitt, after meeting the Venezuelan patriot, Francisco Miranda.

At the end of 1804 Popham was appointed to the Diadem and in August 1805 he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird. The operation was a great success, with Popham leading his marine battalion during the attack, and the Dutch surrendered the colony. The squadron remained in Table Bay to guard against a possible French attack.

At this point, Popham conceived the idea of making an attack on the River Plate. Presumably he assumed that with the Tories, led by William Pitt, his patron, in power, he could expect tacit approval, particularly if he were successful. Reluctantly Baird allowed him to take 1200 men; the squadron sailed and at St Helena, Popham ‘borrowed’ a further 180 men. There he heard that Pitt was dead, but not who had replaced him.

 On 25 June 1806 the small force under the command of Brigadier-General William Carr Beresford landed near Buenos Aires. With the addition of the marine battalion it totalled 1635 men. The Spanish were surprised and there was very little immediate resistance. The city surrendered on 2 July and Beresford took possession. Popham sent an enthusiastic open letter to the merchants of England announcing this lucrative new market for their goods. He had spoken too soon, however. By 10 August a force of 2000 Spaniards entered the city, overran Beresford’s men and took them prisoner. Popham and his squadron could do nothing but blockade the river and wait for reinforcements.

On 3 December, with reinforcements arriving, Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling arrived to with orders for Popham to return to England. On his arrival on 20 February 1807 he was put under open arrest to await court martial on two charges: of having withdrawn his squadron from the Cape without orders; and of having launched his Argentine enterprise ‘without direction or authority’.

Typically for Popham, this incident received a mixed reception. In Argentina, Popham is often seen as the catalyst of the independence which followed the invasion. To the Admiralty he was an officer who had acted improperly; to the City of London he had made a bold attempt to open up new markets, and he was presented with a sword of honour. He was tried at Portsmouth in March 1807, was found guilty and severely reprimanded.

Surprisingly, Popham’s career does not seem to have suffered from this. In July he was appointed captain of the fleet with Admiral James Gambier in the expedition against Denmark, and this is where we meet him in An Unwilling Alliance. Several other captains, including Hood, Keats and Stopford apparently protested at this appointment although it was probably Popham’s experience in joint operations which caused Gambier to ask for his appointment. Popham was one of the three officers appointed to negotiate with Denmark at the end of the bombardment, along with Wellesley and Murray.

Popham’s next command was of the 74 gun Venerable during the disastrous Walcheren campaign. Popham’s role in this particular fiasco was interesting, since he seems to have been heavily involved in the planning of the expedition. The blame for the failure of the campaign, which should probably have been shared between the army, the navy, the planners in London and sheer bad luck landed squarely on the shoulders of the army commander Lord Chatham even though the enquiry officially exonerated him, but there may well have been some issues with the planning of the expedition from the start.  Dr Jacqueline Reiter, who has written a biography of Lord Chatham, points out in this post that although there was inevitable recrimination between the army and the navy after the campaign, Lord Chatham seemed to consider the Admiralty planning of the expedition responsible for the disaster, something with which Popham was undoubtedly involved.

Whatever the truth of the Walcheren fiasco, Lord Chatham’s active military career was over while Popham, still in command of the Venerable, was sent to northern Spain to assess possibilities for co-operating with the guerrillas and conducting a kind of naval guerrilla warfare against the French in support of Wellington. He was highly successful at this, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander.

Popham seems to have received very little recognition for this achievement much to his disappointment. There is speculation that his controversial career had finally caught up with him. At the end of the war he was promoted to rear-admiral and made KCB but he was not employed on active service again. He seems to have lost whatever political influence he had once had and had made too many enemies during his colourful career.

From 1817 to 1820 he was commander-in-chief in Jamaica. They were not good years for Popham. He suffered badly from yellow fever and lost one of his daughters to the illness. His son, Home, also died of some kind of pulmonary illness. In 1818 Popham was made KCH but his health was failing. In June 1820 he suffered a series of strokes and wrote to the Admiralty asking to be relieved of his command.

Sir Home Riggs Popham and his wife sailed for England on 15 June. They arrived at the end of July and on 11 September, at Cheltenham, Popham died of a third stroke at the age of only 58. He was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels at Sunninghill in Berkshire, close to his home, Titness Park. His wife died in Bath, aged ninety-four in 1866. They were considered to be a devoted couple.

The brief sketch I have drawn of Popham in An Unwilling Alliance is not enough to give a full picture of the man and I have a feeling I have a lot more to learn about him. Popham was clearly an intelligent and inventive officer whose achievements are quite remarkable. His work on naval communications was ahead of his time, his work at the Admiralty on the chart committee helped establish the excellent reputation of Admiralty charts. He was a scientific officer with a considerable talent for organisation and often worked better with the army than with the navy. He was a good captain, a loving husband and an affectionate father.

And yet there is always something else about Sir Home Riggs Popham. Suspicion and accusation dogged his entire career. Some of his exploits are extraordinary but I have the sense that he must always have been looking over his shoulder, waiting for his past to catch up with him. He received high praise for many of his achievements, but he does not seem to have been generally liked.

It is difficult to know whether Popham’s reputation as a “damned cunning fellow” is based on his actions or simply on a difficult personality. His achievements are remarkable but in an age when the ideal of a naval officer was Horatio Nelson, a scientist and surveyor who specialised in joint operations with the army was unlikely to become a national hero and it is ironic that some of Popham’s finest moments seem to have involved the evacuation of troops from difficult situations.

Whatever the truth of it, Sir Home Riggs Popham – elusive, enigmatic and controversial – is a gift to any historical novelist and I am looking forward to revisiting him during the Walcheren campaign.

An Unwilling Alliance is a novel of the 1807 Copenhagen campaign, available on kindle and in paperback at Amazon.  My next book, This Blighted Expedition, following the Walcheren campaign, will be published later this year.

 

 

 

 

Publication of An Unwilling Alliance

Naval Action off Cape Santa Maria, Portugal, 1804

Today heralds the publication of An Unwilling Alliance, my ninth book, set during the Copenhagen campaign of 1807, a joint operation between the army and the navy. It is linked to the Peninsular War Saga and features Major Paul van Daan, the hero of the series but it also introduces a selection of new characters.

In 1806, Captain Hugh Kelly RN returns to the Isle of Mann after fifteen years in the navy. He has a few months leave and a small fortune in prize money and intends to inspect the house he has just bought and to find himself a sensible Manx wife. His investment in a local shipping business introduces him to Josiah Crellin and his daughter, Roseen.

Hugh is quick to see the advantages of a marriage with Roseen Crellin. He also finds her very attractive. Roseen is unconvinced. She is determined to resist her father’s efforts to find her a husband and is still dreaming of the young English soldier who sailed away and broke her heart. However it proves to be difficult to dislike Captain Kelly.

Major Paul van Daan of the 110th infantry is newly promoted and just back from Ireland, sailing with his battalion to Copenhagen under the command of Sir Arthur Wellesley.  Paul’s courage and talent are unquestioned but his diplomatic skills are another matter and in a joint operation with the navy there are many ways for a man of Paul’s temperament to get things wrong.

As Britain hovers on the brink of war with neutral Denmark and the diplomats and politicians negotiate to keep the Danish fleet out of Bonaparte’s hands, a more personal drama plays out on the decks of the Royal Navy and in the lines of Lord Cathcart’s army which could change the lives of Hugh, Roseen and Paul forever.

St Michael’s ChapelI’ve really enjoyed writing this book for a number of reasons. It is the first of my books to be set partly on the Isle of Man where I live, and I loved writing that section. The island is a beautiful place and being able to share a little of that with my readers has been very special.

It is also the first book to be based around the navy and I’ve enjoyed the research. I’m thoroughly enthusiastic about it now and am looking forward to future books on the decks of an early nineteenth century warship.

The book has taken me back a little in time to an episode of Paul van Daan’s earlier years. It was strange writing this and has made me realise how much he has grown up during the ten years or more covered by the first four books of the Peninsular War saga. It was fun to revisit the younger Paul before he settled down and learned some self-control.

It was also fun developing the new characters. Hugh Kelly and Roseen Crellin are very different to some of my previous characters. Hugh was the son of a  tenant farmer who drank himself to death.  He went into the navy as a boy and worked his way up, which has given him a far more down-to-earth view of the world than some of my other heroes. Roseen is slightly better born but still an ordinary Manx girl who has only been off the island twice. She is socially very awkward and proving hard to marry off; nothing like the socially adept heroines of some of my other novels. For all that, I love the way this relationship develops, by fits and starts. It feels very real to me and I have a feeling that Hugh and Roseen are going to be one of my favourite couples.

Copenhagen on fire, 1807

I have told the story of the Copenhagen campaign in a separate post. This is not a campaign which includes lots of exciting battles and skirmishes. The battle of Koge was over very quickly and although there was an ongoing naval duels for a couple of weeks between the smaller boats of the two nations, the Danish fleet was completely unprepared for the British invasion and its army was cut off from the capital. The Danes fought bravely with what little they had but it was an uneven contest.

I have tried to show a balance in the novel between the pragmatism of the British invasion and the discomfort felt by a lot of the people involved at an unprovoked attack on a neutral country. War was not always a glorious business and was also sometimes very tedious. Much of the campaign involved both army and navy sitting around waiting for the diplomats to finish their negotiations.

The title is also one of my favourites as it has several meanings. Roseen is determined not to make an unwilling alliance with a suitor she does not know and may not like. There is also an unwilling alliance between the army and the navy who often struggled to work together in joint operations. As for poor Denmark, it was trying desperately to maintain its neutrality while being pushed inexorably into an unwilling alliance with either France or Britain.

An Unwilling Alliance is a story of love, of friendship and of war on both land and sea. I hope readers of the Peninsular War Saga will enjoy this glimpse of a different moment in the life of the 110th infantry and I look forward to further adventures with Captain Hugh Kelly RN.