Ramsgate, July 1809; an excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

JAN ANTHONIE LANGENDIJK (1780-1818) The Bombardment of Flushing, 13/14 Aug 1809. drawn 1809
Bombardment of Flushing

Ramsgate, July 1809; an excerpt from This Blighted Expedition

Book Two of the Manxman series is due out later this year and follows the fortunes of Captain Hugh Kelly of the Iris during the Walcheren campaign of 1809. The Walcheren expedition was a joint operation and explains what the second battalion of the 110th infantry was up to while Major van Daan was fighting at Talavera.

In this excerpt both the navy and the army are becoming increasingly frustrated at how long it is taking to get the expedition underway.

Book One in the series, An Unwilling Alliance, is available on kindle and in paperback on Amazon.

It was another five days before the Iris sailed from Ramsgate. The expedition had seemed on the verge of launching several times, and was delayed each time. On the 20th Hugh had said a tender farewell to Roseen, watching her fight back tears and wondering if she knew that he was doing the same. On the following day, he sent a boat with a message requesting that she join him aboard, since it was clear that the expedition, once again, was going nowhere.

Lord Chatham’s arrival to take command of the forces was quickly overshadowed by the arrival of news from Europe. Two weeks earlier, the Austrian forces had been defeated by Bonaparte at Wagram, just north of Vienna. Hugh imagined there had been a huge in-drawing of breath among the leaders of the expedition. Lord Castlereagh and Lord Chatham, presumably after some discussion, let it be known that the expedition was not to be suspended. Although the original intention had been to use the attack as a distraction to assist the Austrians in their campaign, a successful attack on Antwerp might still act as an incentive to keep Austria in the war. Hugh sat in his cabin, writing a carefully worded letter to Major van Daan, fighting somewhere in Portugal or Spain, and wondered how much that had influenced the decision to proceed or whether the two men had stood looking out over the masts of the fleet, every ship crammed with weapons, supplies, horses and men, and decided that it would be too embarrassing or simply too difficult to call a halt to such an enormous and expensive campaign.

The delay on the 21st was caused by a change of wind, which meant that the other half of the expedition, with the forces led by Chatham’s second-in-command, Sir Eyre Coote, were unable to sail from Portsmouth as planned. Hugh received the tidings in his cabin and summoned Durrell to share the news.

Durrell read the orders in silence and looked up at Hugh. Hugh raised his eyebrows, inviting comment.

“At this rate, we’ll be lucky to sail before the end of the month, sir. And the weather is only going to get worse.”

Hugh nodded soberly and rose to bring wine. “I’ve sent for my wife,” he said. “You can call me a sentimental fool, Mr Durrell, but even a short time longer with her is worth it.”

“I wouldn’t be so impertinent, sir, I’d feel the same. But another delay?”

“Aye. What do you think?”

Durrell’s clear blue-green eyes were steady on his. “I think if we’re going to go, we should get a move on, sir.”

“Personally, I think if we were going to go, we should have already gone, Mr Durrell. But we can be very sure that nobody is going to be asking for our opinion about any of it. I wonder what the army makes of it all?”

Durrell gave one of his unexpected grins which made him look much younger. “Are you missing your source in the 110th, sir?”

“I think I am. Although I’ve a feeling that if Major van Daan were here, he’d have expired from sheer frustration by now. Never mind. I shall enjoy supper with my wife and try to remain calm, and well out of the politics of it all.”

Despite Hugh’s determination, it was impossible to ignore the politics. Over the next few days he received a stream of visitors including Admiral Keats, Captain Codrington, and to his exasperation, Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham. All of them had something to say about the progress, or lack of it, made by the expedition, and all of them seemed very clear where the blame should lie.

“Bloody Chatham,” Codrington said gloomily. “We’d have been on the way if it hadn’t been for him. Did you know that the French fleet have sailed out of Antwerp and are anchored off Flushing? Sir Richard Strachan is sure we could bring them to an engagement if we caught them.”

Hugh regarded him owlishly. “If we caught them?” he enquired. “Ned, have you been over-indulging? Take that glass away from him, Mr Durrell, he’s had too much. Can you explain to me, because I’m a greenhorn here, fella, and don’t know much about the navy and suchlike, exactly why the French are going to sit sunning themselves on the quarterdeck waiting for us to sail in and cut them off? Do they do that often in your experience, because if they do, I’ve missed it.”

Codrington flushed slightly and then drained his glass and held it out to Durrell. “I’ll have another, Mr Durrell, before your captain gets stingy with it. All right, Hugh, what is it exactly you think we ought to be doing?”

“Following the orders we’re given and not going off on a spree,” Hugh said firmly. “I’m not arguing that the army are bloody slow, it’s the size of the boots they’re clumping around in, but it’s not going to help if we go without them. Even if we could bring the French to battle, what use is that when half our ships are stuffed full of redcoats? We need to offload them at the very least.”

Admiral Keats was somewhat more circumspect. “A pity so much time has been lost,” he said, settling himself into Hugh’s day cabin. “This is very good wine, Captain Kelly, where did you get it from?”

“It was a gift,” Hugh said. The wine had arrived in two crates shortly before he had embarked, having been re-routed from Chatham dockyards. “I’ve a friend serving in Portugal with Wellesley.”

“In the army?” Keats said, sounding so revolted that Hugh laughed aloud.

“In the army, sir. Although if it makes you feel better, he served in the navy first.”

“One of the better ones then. I wish I had as much faith in our commander-in-chief.”

“He’s hardly had time to do anything yet, sir.”

“He’s hardly been out of bed before noon since he’s been here, Captain. And he’s insistent on awaiting the arrival of the ships from Portsmouth. Won’t sail without Coote. Strachan is furious.”

“Strachan has been furious ever since I first met him, sir.”

“Oh, come on, Captain, don’t tell me you’re happy about this.”

“I’m not,” Hugh admitted. “Although it does mean an extra few days with my wife.”

“Is she with you?” Keats said, brightening visibly. “Bring her over to dine today, man, I’m starved of feminine company and I am devoted to your wife; I never know what she’s going to say next.”

“Nor do I, sir,” Hugh admitted. “Thank you, we’d be delighted.”

Keats settled back into Hugh’s favourite armchair reminding Hugh of Molly, the ship’s cat when she found a particularly comfortable spot in the sun. “This is very pleasant,” he said. “It hasn’t escaped my notice, Captain, that you’ve not been seen on shore much this past week.”

“Or at all,” Hugh said placidly. “To be fair, sir, I’m in the navy, this is where I’m supposed to be.”

“Popham was searching high and low for you yesterday,” Keats said, and the tone of his voice when he spoke the name made Hugh grin. “Apparently there are three stray staff members needing a passage and he thought you might have space for them.”

“More staff members? Jesus, how many are there? I’ve already got six of them wedged into the officers’ day cabin, I don’t need any more.”

“The Earl of Chatham has a large staff,” Keats said neutrally. “I have counted at least seven ADCs and I may have missed a few. At any rate, you are safe from Popham, he caught up with Codrington and has sent them over to the Blake.”

“Serves Ned right for hanging around on shore too much. I find it interesting that Popham didn’t think to look for me aboard my own ship, it clearly didn’t occur to him that’s where a captain might be. Any more news of when we’re sailing?”

“As far as I’m aware, we’ll be off the moment the Portsmouth fleet arrives, but God knows when that will be, they’re pegged in by the wind at present.”

“Captain Codrington informs me that Sir Richard Strachan is unhappy,” Hugh said, and Keats spluttered with laughter, spilling wine on his sleeve. Brian hurried forward with a napkin to mop up the mess.

“Thank you, lad. Is that the word he used to describe it? Sir Richard is pacing the quarterdeck uttering oaths I can’t even work out the meaning of and threatening to turn his guns onto Lord Chatham’s lodgings if he doesn’t get his arse moving soon. I was privileged to be present when he received the Earl’s last letter, I thought we’d need to send for the surgeon.”

Hugh was laughing; it was so easy to visualise Strachan’s fury. “Ned seems to think that Sir Richard could have taken the French by surprise if we’d moved faster,” he said.

“They’d have known we were coming the second we set sail, they’ve their own informants watching us and a small boat can get across to Flushing a lot faster than we can. Strachan gets carried away by his own rhetoric sometimes and he can’t stand waiting. Chatham won’t leave without the Portsmouth fleet, his second-in-command is with them and he probably wants Coote to be there to do all the work he doesn’t want to have to do. But I doubt these few days will make that much difference; it’s the previous month of farting around doing nothing which will have done the damage.”

Hugh studied Keats thoughtfully. “May I ask you a question, sir?”

“By all means.”

“Why do I get the odd feeling that nobody is really happy about this expedition?”

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.