Hon. Augustus Keppel 1st Viscount

1725-86. He was born on 25 April 1725, the second son of the Whig aristocrat and diplomat Willem Anne Van Keppel, the 2nd Earl of Albemarle, and of his wife Lady Anne Lennox, the daughter of the 1st Earl Richmond who was the illegitimate son of King Charles II and his mistress the Duchess of Portsmouth. Keppel’s grandfather had come to England from the Netherlands with William III. He was a distant cousin of the Whig politician Charles James Fox, and the uncle of Admiral Hon. Sir George Cranfield Berkeley and of the illegitimate Captain George Keppel.

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Captain Keppel in 1749

After two years schooling at Westminster Keppel entered the Navy in 1735 aboard the Oxford 50, Captain William Swayle, voyaging to Guinea, followed by a stint in the Gloucester 50 flying the broad pennant of Commodore George Clinton in the Mediterranean. He next served on the Prince Frederick 70, Captain Lord Aubrey Beauclerk, and from 1740-4 sailed in Commodore George Anson’s famous voyage around the world aboard the Centurion 50, becoming an acting- lieutenant in March 1742, a position which was confirmed following his return to England and examination on 25 April 1744. On 4 August 1744 he was appointed to the Dreadnought 60, Captain Hon. Edward Boscawen.

On 7 November 1744 he was promoted commander of the sloop Wolf 14, and enjoying his immense patronage he was posted captain of the Greyhound 20 for purposes of rank on 11 December. After immediately joining the Sapphire 44 and serving off Ireland from February 1744-5 he enjoyed some success against the enemy privateers during the War of the Austrian Succession, one capture being the West Indiaman Atlanta on 15 April 1745, and another the Spanish privateer Soberbio on 21 May. In 1746 he joined the relatively new Maidstone 50, serving in the Western Squadron and taking the privateers Barnabas on 17 May, Hasard two days later, and Furet on 1 June. After joining the fleet off Cape Finisterre in the autumn he took the storeship Pénélope on 1 December and the privateer Revanche off Portland on 4 June 1747. However, on 27 June, whilst in command of the Maidstone, he drove ashore off Belle Isle when chasing in an enemy. He and his crew were taken prisoner, although Keppel was returned home on parole a few weeks later, and after being exchanged he was acquitted for the loss of the Maidstone on 31 October. He was immediately appointed to the Anson 60, brand new off the stocks, commanding her in the Channel until the peace of the following year.

Political interest then helped him achieve his next appointment in August 1748 to command a small squadron in the Mediterranean with his broad pennant flying aboard the Centurion 60. One of his first tasks was to visit the Dey of Algiers and prevail upon him to stop his attacks on the trade of that region. When the Dey demanded to know why a beardless boy had been sent to treat with him Keppel replied that if a man’s wisdom was to be measured by the length of his beard then King George might as well have sent a he-goat. The remark did not amuse the Dey who threatened to terminate Keppel’s existence there and then, but was prevented from doing so when the young officer pointed out of the window to his squadron in the bay. The Centurion returned to England in July 1751 and was paid off.

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Keppel attempted unsuccessfully to use his membership of parliament to prevent the execution of Admiral Byng in 1757

At the end of 1754 Keppel was appointed commander-in-chief in North America with his broad pennant once more aboard the Centurion 60, Captain William Mantell. After sailing for North Virginia in December in company with the Norwich 50, Captain Hon. Samuel Barrington, he was superseded the following summer by the Hon. Edward Boscawen when other captains senior to him arrived on the station. He returned to Europe aboard the Seahorse 24, Captain Hugh Palliser having in January 1755 been elected M.P. for Chichester in the interest of the Treasury and his cousin, the young Duke of Richmond.

Keppel next joined the newly commissioned Swiftsure 70 for Channel service in August 1755, and he was appointed to the Torbay 74 in January 1756, serving in the Channel and off Brest. Whilst in command of a small squadron off Cape Finisterre he captured the Chariot Royal 36 and several other vessels in November, returning with his prizes to Spithead in early December. During the following January he sat on Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng’s court-martial, where the admiral was convicted of failing to do his utmost to prevent the fall of Minorca. Although Keppel was one of the signatories to the ensuing death sentence he rapidly regretted his involvement and tried manfully to gain Byng a pardon by attempting to invoke parliamentary intervention. Considering himself to be ill-equipped for speaking in the House of Commons he requested another MP, Sir Francis Dashwood, to move a bill but he was nevertheless prevailed upon to speak by William Pitt the Elder, and he did so with such eloquence that the sentence was deferred for a fortnight. Sadly however his further efforts were not supported by his contemporaries and Byng was executed.

Keppel returned to his ship, the Torbay 74, serving in the grand fleet under Admiral Lord Anson and Admiral Sir Edward Hawke in 1758, and effecting the capture of the French settlement of Gorée off the west coast of Africa on 29 December. After rejoining the grand fleet once more he led the line with Captain Lord Howe and three others at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759. Here his ship nearly sunk following a fierce engagement with the Thesée 74, which vessel did suffer this misfortune, all but twenty lives being lost from a crew of eight hundred.

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Admiral Keppel in 1765

In February 1760 Keppel was appointed to the brand new Valiant 74, and in the following year, with Captain Adam Duncan serving under his broad pennant, he commanded a fleet of ten sail of the line and sundry other vessels at the capture of Belle Isle. A prospective expedition to Mauritius and Bourbon was cancelled, but in March 1762 he sailed for the West Indies and in the summer was second-in-command to Admiral Sir George Pocock at the capture of Havana. For his efforts he received 25,000 guineas in prize-money, whilst his elder brother and the commander-in-chief of the army, the Earl of Albemarle, earned £100,000, and another brother, a general on the staff, also earned £25,000. Needless to say, the fact that the influential Keppel family had established their fortune en masse was not received with a great deal of approbation by their many political opponents. He remained as commander-in-chief of Pocock’s fleet at Havana following the admiral’s return home, and moved on to command the Jamaica station at the peace. Already a colonel of marines, he was elected MP for Windsor in 1761 in the interest of the Duke of Cumberland, and he became a rear-admiral on 21 October 1762 when the list of promoted officers was extended to include him.

After departing Jamaica for England in ill-health aboard the Valiant in May 1764, Keppel served as a lord commissioner of the admiralty from 31 July 1765 to November 1766 in the Earl of Chatham’s government, being seen as a bright element in a not very bright administration. Thereafter he remained in the thick of the political scene with his membership of the Rockingham and Richmond group, although he rarely spoke in Parliament on anything but naval matters. On 24 October 1770 he was promoted vice-admiral and appointed commander-in-chief of a small force during the threatened escalation of the dispute with Spain over the Falkland Islands. In the event a resolution was found and he did not have to raise his flag.

Thereafter he remained unemployed because of his opposition to Lord North’s government and the war with the American colonies, although in 1775 a request from the commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, to have Keppel installed as his second-in-command was refused by the first lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich. Insult was then added to injury when Keppel’s junior, Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, was appointed a lieutenant-general of marines, which was a post Keppel had long coveted. An intervention by the King failed to persuade him to serve against the Americans but the entry of France into the war brought him back to duty, and after being promoted admiral on 29 January 1778 he was officially appointed to the command of the Channel fleet on 22 March.

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Keppel’s career was defined by the fall-out following the inconclusive Battle of Ushant in 1778

Arriving at Portsmouth, Keppel was dismayed to find but six ships of the line ready for sea which was contrary to the boast of Lord Sandwich in parliament the previous November of there being thirty-five. With a similarly deplorable lack of stores being readily available he had much to do, not least prepare for a review of the fleet by the King in the first week of May. His flag was raised aboard the Prince George 90, Captain Jonathon Faulknor, and in the middle of May was transferred to the Victory 100, Captain Faulknor, with his friend Rear-Admiral John Campbell becoming his captain of the fleet. After many exertions by these and other returning officers who had refused to fight the Americans he was able to release Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker and eleven ships of the line for Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s expedition to North America. With his remaining twenty ships of the line he sailed on 12 June to cruise off Ushant, but learning that the French had a superior number he returned to Spithead for reinforcements. His arrival on 27 June was met with hostility by government supporters who broadcast the opinion that Keppel was attempting to undermine confidence in the administration, and that he already had an ample force with which to serve out the French.

On 9 July he returned to sea with twenty-four sail-of-the-line, being joined off Ushant shortly afterwards by an additional six, and eighteen days later, on 27 July, he fought a sharp but indecisive action with the French fleet off Ushant. The reluctance of his third-in-command and political opponent, Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, to obey his orders was cited as the main reason for his failure to defeat the enemy. Although Keppel was initially hurt by Palliser’s behaviour, the two men having been long-standing friends in spite of their opposing political views, Keppel was anxious to avoid a confrontation with his subordinate for fear of destroying the fragile morale of the fleet. In addition he did not trust Lord Sandwich to support any action that might censure his political stooge, so Keppel therefore officially praised Palliser for his part in the action.

In no time however Keppel’s true appraisement of Palliser’s role in the battle became widespread amongst the establishment. Upon anchoring at Spithead on 28 October after two months at sea, Palliser learned of the commander-in-chief’s disapproval and visited Keppel to demand that he sign a document condoning his conduct in the battle. Unsurprisingly Keppel refused to do so and a quarrel developed which quickly reached the House of Commons, resulting in Palliser’s demand for a court-martial on Keppel. This outcome was to the great dismay of the members of parliament, the Navy, and the public as a whole.

The court-martial began under the reluctant presidency of Admiral Sir Thomas Pye aboard the Britannia 100 at Portsmouth on 7 January 1779, removing thereafter to the governor’s house ashore out of deference to Keppel’s poor health. Palliser led for the prosecution, and among the many witnesses called were Admiral John Campbell, Admiral Sir Robert Harland, and the majority of the captains who had fought in the battle. On 11 February Keppel was honourably and unanimously acquitted, the charges against him being described as ‘malicious and ill-founded.’ Government members’ homes in London were torched in the ensuing public joy, bonfires were burned in Keppel’s honour, and pubs all over the land had their signs repainted with a representation of Keppel’s portrait.

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Viscount Keppel in his later years

Next it was Keppel’s turn to accuse Palliser of disobeying orders, but the rear-admiral was also acquitted, not least because his supporters in the government recalled their favoured officers to sit on the court-martial and despatched all the Keppel supporters they could back to sea. The general consensus remained that Keppel had been unjustly charged, and that Palliser should have been convicted. On 18 March Keppel was ordered to strike his flag after informing the King that he could no longer serve under Lord Sandwich. With him departed his chief followers and many talented officers who considered an injustice had been perpetrated, these including Admirals Harland and Campbell, and Captain Robert Kingsmill. Even so, Keppel did lose lost some support in the country for not setting political arguments aside to resume his command of the Channel fleet and meet the French threat.

Having returned to the world of politics Keppel never missed an opportunity to attack the government, and such was the enmity against him from the latter that when he stood for re-election at Windsor the King moved servants in to the royal houses to enable them to vote against him, resulting in a loss by sixteen votes. He was very quickly elected MP for Surrey, and on the fall of Lord North’s administration in 1782 he was appointed first lord of the Admiralty under Lord Rockingham on 20 March, being created Viscount Keppel and Baron Elden on 26 April. It was his orders that controversially brought the victorious Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney back from the Leeward Islands, although he personally did not acquiesce with the government in determining this ultimately unpopular recall. In unscrupulously promoting his followers, Keppel also attempted to remove Sir Hugh Palliser from his coveted position at Greenwich Hospital, an action that many found disreputable. After leaving the post in January 1783 following the death of Rockingham he resumed it from April in the administration headed by Lord Shelburne, Charles James Fox and Lord North. His was an undistinguished period in office, and it terminated when he resigned upon William Pitt assuming the role of prime minister on 30 December 1783.

Keppel’s health, already fragile from his earlier career in the Caribbean, continued to deteriorate and a winter spent at Naples during 1785 -86 did little to restore it. He died of gout of the stomach on 2 October 1786 at Elvedon Hall, Suffolk.

Keppel never married, but by 1761 had become the godfather to a black seaman. In 1768, whilst on passage to Lisbon in a packet boat, he fell and injured his back, and he remained handicapped in the use of his legs throughout the rest of his life. At that time he had already lost the majority of his teeth and his hair to scurvy, a legacy of the Anson voyage. Keppel spoke openly and candidly, was affable and amiable, prudent and diligent, courageous and active, and universally esteemed, particularly by the common seamen. Admiral Boscawen said of him that there was no better seaman, nor ‘few so good and not a better officer’. His prize money from the 1762 Havana Expedition ensured that he was able to live the life of a rich man.

From 1755-61 Keppel was M.P for Chichester, 1761-80 M.P for Windsor, and 1780-2 M.P for Surrey. He became a privy councillor in March 1782. A Whig aristocrat and darling of the Rockingham sect, his political views conflicted with his naval career. He was a friend of Admirals Duncan, Rodney, Campbell and Laforey, and of the famous artist Joshua Reynolds, who painted many portraits of him. When serving as first lord of the Admiralty he failed to establish a satisfactory relationship with the efficient comptroller of the navy, Captain Sir Charles Middleton, whom he personally despised, and this partly accounted for his failings as first lord. An exceptional officer, having immense experience and being a scholar of his trade, even his many political opponents admired his abilities and character. He was popular in public life as well as in the navy and many pubs and hostelries were happy to bear the sign of the ‘Keppel’s Head’. Some people however queried his pedigree to command a fleet, citing his caution, poor health and nervousness