Hon. George Keith Elphinstone 1st Viscount Keith

1746-1823. Born at Elphinstone Tower near Stirling on 7 January 1746, he was the fifth son of Charles, 10th Lord Elphinstone, and of his wife Lady Clementina Fleming, the daughter and heir of John, 6th Earl of Wigtown. The second son, a midshipman, was one of four hundred and eighty-five men who drowned when the Prince George 80 was destroyed by fire in the Bay of Biscay on 13 April 1758, whilst the third son, William, entered the service of the East India Company and earned himself a fortune after becoming a director. He was the uncle of Admiral Sir Charles Adam, Admiral Hon. Charles Elphinstone Fleeming, and Captain Charles Fullerton Elphinstone.

After receiving an education at Glasgow High School, Elphinstone entered the navy in 1761 aboard the Spithead-based Royal Sovereign 100, Captain Robert Hathorn, removing shortly afterwards to the Gosport 44, and serving as a midshipman under Captain John Jervis. From the spring of 1763 he was aboard the frigate Juno 32, Captain George Falconer, before moving a couple of months later to the Lively 20, Captain Hon. Keith Stewart, and in the latter months of 1766 he was employed aboard the Emerald 32, Captain Charles Douglas, before being discharged later in the year.

Joining a vessel commanded by his brother, William, Elphinstone embarked on an East India cruise in 1767 and earned a considerable sum, both from the voyage and from a gift of £2,000 from his uncle. This bounty would prove to be the foundation of what would eventually become a huge fortune.

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Viscount Keith

In December 1769 he joined the frigate Stag 32, Captain Joseph Deane, flying the broad pennant of Commodore John Lindsay in the East Indies, and he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 28 June 1770. He left for England four months later and was appointed to the Trident 64, Captain Charles Ellys, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Peter Denis in the Mediterranean. After returning home he was appointed to the command of the sloop Scorpion 14 on 18 September 1772, and he then went out with her once more to the Mediterranean, remaining there until the summer of 1774.

On 12 March 1775 Elphinstone was posted captain and appointed to the Romney 50, commissioning her at Deptford as the flagship to Rear-Admiral Robert Duff for the Newfoundland station, and departing in June. After returning with the Newfoundland trade to England in mid-November he commissioned the new frigate Perseus 24 in March 1776, and having been despatched to North America in July she was part of a squadron sent to refit at Antigua over the winter. Here, following the death of Captain Thomas Wilkinson of the Pearl 32, Elphinstone was transferred to that frigate by Vice-Admiral James Young, with Captain Hon. Charles Phipps replacing him aboard the Perseus. These appointments were reversed by Vice-Admiral Lord Howe on the vessel regaining her proper station in North America at the end of May, as he considered the appointment should only have been made by him.

Over the next few years the Perseus captured the rebel privateer Viper on 27 September 1776, assisted the Roebuck 44, Captain Andrew Snape Hamond, in taking the Defence 16 on 2 April 1777 and the Sachem three days later, captured the privateer America on 11 October 1779, and the French letter-of-marque Thérèse on 22 November. Elphinstone played a significant part in the capture of the port of Charleston on 11 May 1780 by leading a force of four hundred and fifty seamen ashore and superintending the movements of the army across water. At the end of May he took Captain Andrew Snape Hamond home with despatches, and the Perseus was paid off in June.

Elphinstone immediately recommissioned the Warwick 50 for the protection of the incoming trade in home waters, and on 5 January 1781 he captured the Dutch vessel Rotterdam 50 which had earlier seen off the similarly rated Isis on 31 December 1780. After escorting the North American trade from Cork on 27 March the Warwick remained on the North American station until the peace, with Elphinstone acting as governor to Prince William during this period. He made captures of the American privateers Elizabeth on 18 May 1781 and Greyhound on 11 August. On 14 September 1782 the Warwick in consort with the Lion 64, Vestal 28 and sloop Bonetta 14 drove the French frigate Aigle 40 ashore in the Delaware, capturing her and two other vessels whilst a third, the Gloire 32, escaped up river. Elphinstone afterwards returned to New York where on account of his poor health he was appointed to the Carysfort 28 in order to return to England in November.

From the peace of 1783 until the outbreak of the French Revolutionary War he remained unemployed ashore, frequently attending parliament as the M.P for Dunbartonshire until 1790.

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The evacuation of Toulon in 1793

On 2 February 1793, following the re-opening of hostilities with France, Elphinstone was appointed to the thirty year-old Robust 74, serving under Vice-Admiral Lord Hood at the occupation of Toulon from August and leading armed parties ashore in the defeat of the French republicans whilst Captain Benjamin Hallowell deputised for him at sea. After acting as the governor of Fort La Malgue and winning a land battle in command of six hundred men at Ollioules he then safely conducted a large number of the royalist inhabitants away from the port during its evacuation.

Returning to England in the following spring, Elphinstone was invested with the Order of the Bath on 30 May 1794, and on 12 April he was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral. He served in Admiral Lord Howe’s Channel fleet with his flag in the Glory 98 from May to August, although he was not aboard her at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, and he then removed to the Barfleur 98 with which he remained until the following spring, both vessels being commanded by Captain John Elphinstone.

Appointed commander-in-chief of Indian waters in early 1795, he sailed from Spithead on 4 April with his flag flying aboard the Monarch 74, Captain John Elphinstone, with orders to take the Cape from the Dutch and then attack their East Indian possessions. Having been promoted to vice-admiral on 1 June, he joined with Commodore John Blankett but not his promised troops, and hence he struggled to overcome the Dutch colonists until help from India allowed him to finally take the Cape on 16 September. This delay allowed Rear-Admiral Peter Rainier to raid the Dutch colonies in the Indian Ocean which had previously been Elphinstone’s target, and although the latter went out to Madras he was too ill to take any part in finalising the conquest of Ceylon. He then returned to the Cape on learning of a Dutch expedition against it, and on 17 August 1796 increased his fortune by £64,000 with the bloodless capture of a number of Dutch ships in Saldanha Bay.

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Viscount Keith

Elphinstone returned to England on 3 January 1797, having put into the French occupied Bantry Bay in a snowstorm four days earlier with only eight days provisions, and with many of his crew and Dutch prisoners suffering from scurvy. Here he learned of his ennoblement as Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal in the Irish peerage. He was subsequently sent to suppress the mutiny at the Nore following the outbreak on 12 May, replacing Vice-Admiral Charles Buckner as the commander-in-chief of that station on 2 June and bringing the insurrection to an end within a fortnight of his arrival at Sheerness. He briefly flew his flag aboard the Cumberland 74, Captain Robert Montagu, and after hoisting his flag at Plymouth aboard the Queen Charlotte 100, Captain John Elphinstone, as second in command in the Channel he then placated the mutineers at that port in July. He remained in his Channel post until the end of 1798.

In November 1798 he assumed the position of second-in-command in the Mediterranean to Admiral Earl of St. Vincent with his flag aboard the Foudroyant 98, Captain John Elphinstone. During February 1799 he returned to the Barfleur 98 with Captain Elphinstone, and until May he commanded the fleet off Cadiz whilst the ailing St. Vincent remained at Gibraltar. On 25 April the Brest fleet of twenty-five sail of the line escaped from that port and headed into the Mediterranean where they managed to elude any engagement with the British fleet. Keith was later to be blamed for the subsequent departure of the Brest fleet from the Mediterranean with Captain Cuthbert Collingwood amongst others believing that he had been slow and indecisive. In reality the failure to account for the Brest fleet was not his fault as he had been hamstrung in the first instance by St. Vincent’s continual and disruptive involvement, and then by Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson’s refusal to obey orders. In the event Keith chased the French all the way back to their home port, and after putting into Torbay he was ordered back to the Mediterranean in November, much to the annoyance of Nelson whose loyalty he never obtained, and who felt that he should have been the commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean.

With his flag flying aboard the Queen Charlotte, Captain Andrew Todd, to which he had moved in June 1799, Keith next posted himself off Malta in the hope of taking that island and intercepting a French squadron which was rumoured to be attempting the relief of General Buonaparte in Egypt. When the former mission was achieved he sailed to Leghorn, but he then despatched the Queen Charlotte on an independent cruise which ended in tragedy, the ship catching fire on 17 March 1800 through the careless stacking of some hay, resulting in her eventual destruction and the death of seven hundred of her crew. On 17 March Keith raised his flag aboard the Audacious 74, Captain Davidge Gould, moving in April to the Minotaur 74, Captain Thomas Louis. Genoa fell to his blockade and the assaults of the Austrian army on 4 June, but nine days later he was forced to evacuate the port following Napoleon’s victory at the Battle of Marengo and the prompt manning of the port’s batteries by the French.

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Lord Keith was poorly supported by Lord Nelson whilst he had the command of the Mediterranean fleet.

Having refused Nelson permission to return to England with the much needed Foudroyant, Keith lost the services of the hero of the Nile when he returned overland with the Hamiltons. There was little love lost between the two officers, as illustrated on a previous occasion, when embarking Neapolitan troops at Palermo for the siege of Malta, Keith had remarked detrimentally on Nelson’s involvement at the Neapolitan court then stationed there, claiming it to be ‘a scene of fulsome vanity and absurdity’. There was little doubt that he held his subordinate’s behaviour and relationship with Lady Hamilton in utter contempt.

Keith now turned his attentions to Egypt by annulling the Convention of El Arish which on 24 January 1800 had been negotiated by the French and Britain’s ally, Turkey, and with the complicity of the senior naval officer on the Egyptian coast, Captain Sir William Sidney Smith. The convention had allowed the French Army of the Orient a free return to their homeland, and although Keith’s decision was later reversed, it was not before battle had been re-joined with the French. He would be castigated for his initial meddling in the armistice, but as commander-in-chief he was only applying the orders passed on to him by the government.

At Minorca in August 1800 he transferred his flag to the Foudroyant, commanded in succession by Captains Philip Beaver, William Young and Thomas Stephenson, and he was ordered to assist Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby’s army in the planned capture of Cadiz. Arriving off the city with one hundred and thirty vessels on 5 October, the commanders received notification from the governor that the town was plague-ridden and that in his view any waging of hostilities would be worthy of deprecation. Keith and Abercromby chivalrously replied that they had no wish to make war under such conditions, but that they would insist upon the ships in the harbour being given up to them. Unsurprisingly they received a negative reply to this demand, and deciding that to attempt to force the issue was not worth the effort they retired, somewhat with their tails between their legs, to Gibraltar.

The two officers next received orders to proceed against Egypt, and on 1 January 1801, the day that Keith became a full admiral, the fleet anchored in Mamaris harbour before eventually disembarking the troops in Aboukir Bay on 8 March. Keith remained off the coast until the French capitulation was received on 2 September, his flag flying at various times aboard the Hector 74, Captain John Elphinstone, or the Foudroyant. Having received the freedom of the city of London and a hundred guinea sword for his efforts, as well as being awarded by the Sultan of Turkey, he was raised to the British peerage on 15 December with his Irish title. He returned to England in July 1802, where two months earlier Captain Francis John Hartwell had been knighted as Keith’s proxy at the latter’s investiture as a K.B.

Following the resumption of hostilities on 16 May 1803 Keith was briefly employed as the commander-in-chief at Plymouth with his flag aboard the Salvador del Mundo 112, Captain Charles Lane, before assuming the command of the strategically vital North Sea station. This was in effect the defence of the homeland against French invasion, and the huge station extended from Selsey Bill to Scotland. His flag flew in various ships to include the Ethalion 36, Captain Charles Stuart, at the Nore from May, then from later in the year until 1805 the Monarch 74, Captain John Clarke Searle. Briefly in 1805 his flagship was the Ardent 64, Captain Robert Winthrop, and thereafter the St. Albans 64, Captain John Temple, the Edgar 74, which was commanded by Captain Searle from August 1805, and by Robert Jackson from January 1806. His flag also flew briefly during the winter of 1805-6 aboard the Barfleur 98, Captain Philip Durham, but for the majority of this period he lived ashore in Cliff House on the North Foreland so as to cover the strategic part of his authority in the Downs. Captain John Stewart acted as his quasi-captain of the fleet from 1803 until 1805 when he was succeeded by Captain Sir Robert Barlow.

On 3 October 1804 Keith reluctantly authorised Commodore Sir Home Riggs Popham’s attack upon Boulogne which made use of the American Robert Fulton’s catamarans, a form of warfare which he did not strictly approve of. Throughout his tenure the forces at his command were active in their harrying of the French coastline, and he also reinstated the Sea Fencibles which had originally been organised in 1798. Even so, Keith yearned for a more active station, and he bitterly resented the fact that Lord Nelson had been given the Mediterranean station ahead of him. Neither did it help that he had to suffer the ego and adventurousness of another maverick subordinate, Rear-Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith, and eventually, worn out by the command, Keith retired ashore in May 1807 to remain unemployed for the next five years.

From February 1812-15 he was re-employed as the commander-in-chief in the Channel with his flag initially aboard the San Josef 110, and then the Queen Charlotte 100, and in 1814 the Ville de Paris 110 at Plymouth, all of these vessels being commanded by Captain Robert Jackson. His captains of the fleet during this period were Captain Pulteney Malcolm, who was promoted to flag rank in December 1813 and retained the position through to the following summer, and thereafter Rear-Admiral Graham Moore. The Channel Fleet operated in detached groups off the coasts of France, Spain and Portugal, but Keith regarded his as a shore-based appointment, remaining more often at his Harley Street residence, at Purbrook Park in Edinburgh, or in the country in Hampshire. On 8 March 1812 Vice-Admiral Allemand did venture out from Lorient, and when he was insufficiently challenged by a squadron under the command of Captain Sir James Athol Wood, Keith was asked to investigate the conduct of the junior officer.

Having retired ashore at the end of the war he was again the commander-in-chief in the Channel during the hundred days of Napoleon’s restoration in 1815, and it was under his command that the Emperor, who had surrendered on 15 July, was transferred from the Bellerophon to the Northumberland for his final journey to St. Helena. Despite arguing fiercely about his treatment, the great dictator was unable to divert Keith from his adherence to the government’s rigid instructions.

On 14 May 1814 he was created Viscount Keith, and he retired to cultivate and enhance his residence at Tulliallan Castle on the Forth where he died on 10 March 1823, being buried in a mausoleum in the parish church.

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Hester Thrale, pictured on the left at age 15

On 10 April 1787 Keith married Jane Mercer, an heiress, who died on 13 December 1789, and by whom he had one daughter, Margaret, who in 1817 married the French ambassador to London, the Comte de Flahault. On 12 December 1808 he married Hester “Queenie” Thrale, the daughter of Samuel Johnson’s friend Henry Thrale, who at that stage of her life was said to have ‘strengthened her mental faculties by the severe studies of perspective, fortification, Hebrew and mathematics.’ She was an heiress who had been schooled by Johnson, was a patroness of Almacks Club, and a society hostess. They had a daughter, Georgiana, born in 1809, who married firstly a son of Earl Jersey, and secondly Lord Osborne. Keith’s niece married Admiral Pulteney Malcolm.

Dour and imperious, tough and stern, ‘steady, persevering and cautious’, most contemporaries respected Keith for his organisational and administrative skills, his common sense, his capability, and his soundness. He could be cold where necessary, as at Genoa where he once returned to the French two hundred and fifty slaves who had helped him cut out a galley in order that their presence would reduce the French garrison’s stores and lead to an early surrender. Unfortunately the plan backfired when General Masséna had the slaves butchered.

He was popular with the men, and although renowned for being tough with his subordinates on a personal level he was known to praise them in their absence. Apart from labelling Lord Cochrane ‘wrong-headed, violent and proud’, Keith tended to keep his thoughts to himself, especially where Nelson was concerned, although in turn he was scorned by both Nelson and Troubridge. He was a lifelong friend of the Earl of St. Vincent, and was a patron of Captain Philip Beaver.

Keith was averse to the use of intelligence and espionage, and of technology and new weapons, and was especially wary of maverick officers such as Sir William Sidney Smith and Sir Home Riggs Popham. Nevertheless he had a thorough knowledge of military tactics which was somewhat superior to that of the average naval officer, and he was an early advocate of the carronade. Although a fine seaman, he was not outstanding on a professional level. He never fought a pitched battle.

By 1803 Keith had descended into an early old age, being fractious, suffering from gout and arthritis, his hair greying and his bristling brow furrowed, although he retained his ruddy features together with his half-lidded eyes and clamped mouth, giving a somewhat leonine impression. When crossed he tended to talk in a very loud disparaging voice, addressing his remarks to himself.

Keith, who was worth well more than a million pounds, was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1790, and he served as M.P. for Dunbartonshire from February 1781 to 1790 and Stirlingshire from 1796 until his British ennoblement on December 1801. He was a friend of the Prince of Wales and supported the opposition in Parliament. His daughter Margaret was an intimate of the young Princess Charlotte of Wales.