James Gambier 1st Baron

1756-1833. He was born on 13 October 1756 at New Providence in the Bahamas, the younger son of John Gambier, the lieutenant governor of the Bahamas, and of his wife, Deborah Stiles, a Bermudian. He was the nephew of both Vice-Admiral James Gambier and, by marriage, of Captain Charles Middleton, the future Admiral Lord Barham, and he was brought up in Kent by his aunt, Margaret Gambier, the wife of Barham.

In 1767 Gambier was entered to the books of the guard-ship Yarmouth 64 at Chatham by her commander, his uncle, and he removed with this officer two years later when he raised his broad pennant aboard the Salisbury 50, Captain Andrew Barkley, in order to assume control of the North American station. In 1772 he joined the Chatham 50, Captain Charles Thompson, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral William Parry in the Leeward Islands, from where he was appointed to the sloop Spy 10, Captain Thomas Dumaresq. Upon returning to England he found a berth on the Spithead-based guardship Royal Oak 74, Captain Joseph Deane. Rejoining Captain Dumaresq, he went out to the Leeward Islands aboard the Portland 50 with the flag of Rear-Admiral James Young in 1774. Subsequent appointments as an acting lieutenant on the same station were to the sloop Shark 16, Commander John Chapman, and the Hind 24, Captain Henry Bryne, which vessel returned home in August 1777 with Gambier having been commissioned lieutenant on 12 February.

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Lord Gambier

After a short spell aboard the Sultan 74, Captain John Wheelock, he rejoined his uncle, Rear-Admiral James Gambier, who in March 1778 was sent out as second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe in North America with his flag aboard the Ardent 64, Captain George Keppel. Benefitting from his patronage the younger Gambier was promoted commander on 9 March 1778, and he soon joined the bomb-ketch Thunder 8 in which he was present at the defence of New York in July. Unfortunately his vessel was captured off Sandy Hook by the Hector 74 and Vaillant 74 from the Comte d’Estaing’s French fleet on 14 August.

Following his exchange Gambier was posted to the Raleigh 32 by his uncle in North America on 9 October 1778, this frigate having been captured from the rebels by the Experiment 50 earlier in the year. After returning to England in 1779 he was sent to Jersey to assist in the defence of that island against the French, and in December went back out to North America with a convoy in company with the Richmond 32, Captain Charles Hudson. He participated in Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot’s capture of Charleston on 11 May 1780, and thereafter enjoyed some success cruising against the enemy, including the capture of the General Mifflin 20 in 1781. After spending a short time with the Endymion 44 in home waters he resigned on grounds of ill health when she was despatched to the West Indies at the end of 1781.

His next appointment was not until April 1793 when he commissioned the Defence 74, participating in the Channel fleet cruises and losing his topmasts during the chase of Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s squadron on 18 November 1793. In 1794 he commanded the Defence at the Battle of the Glorious First of June where he fought with great distinction, skill and dash, giving the lie to the imputation that the Defence was not a fighting ship but a ‘praying’ one. To the approbation of Admiral Lord Howe the Defence was the first to break the French line as she rushed into action from her seventh place in the British line, and she was dismasted after grappling with three opponents. At the end of the battle she was towed out of the action having suffered casualties of eighteen men killed and thirty-nine wounded. Gambier received the King’s medal, one of the few officers to be so rewarded, and was appointed a colonel of marines on 4 July, although the King’s desire to ennoble him was sensibly avoided.

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The brave HMS Defence – dismasted at the Battle of the Glorious First of June where Gambier excelled

He left the Defence on 30 September 1794 to commission the Prince George 98 at Chathan, but on 7 March 1795 became a lord of the Admiralty in William Pitt’s administration where his uncle, Sir Charles Middleton was the first naval lord. He replaced Middleton in the superior post when he resigned in November 1795 and served under the first lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, until Pitt’s resignation from office in February 1801, during which time he was promoted rear-admiral on 1 June 1795 and vice-admiral on 14 February 1799.

In February 1801 with his flag flying on the Neptune 98, Captains James Vashon, Edward Brace, and from 29 August until the peace of 1802, Captain Francis Austen, Gambier served as third in command in the Channel fleet. He next sailed for Newfoundland in July 1802 as lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief with his flag aboard the Isis 50, Captain Edward Brace. During the voyage out his flagship was damaged by a hurricane after being thrown on her beam-ends and partly dismasted. He remained in command of the Newfoundland for two years before returning to England.

Following William Pitt’s return to office Gambier found employment at the Admiralty from May 1804 in an administrative job alongside Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis. Between the two officers several blunders were made, including the ‘restoration’ of the rank of admiral of the red to the navy, a rank that had never existed, although Gambier benefited directly from this error as he was one of many promoted admiral on 9 November 1805. On the fall of the administration in February 1806 following Pitt’s death Gambier left his post, but he returned to office in April of the following year as first sea lord to Lord Mulgrave in the Duke of Portland’s administration. This was a position that gave him virtual control of the Navy.

In July 1807, with his flag in the Prince of Wales 98, Captain Adam Mackenzie, and with the enigmatic Captain Home Riggs Popham serving as his captain of the fleet, Gambier was given command of sixty-five ships including twenty-five sail of the line to act against the nations of the Armed Neutrality in the Baltic. The command had previously been rejected by Admiral William Young and Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton due to concern in Parliament over the legality and morality of the expedition, whilst another possible choice, Vice-Admiral John Duckworth, had blotted his copybook with his disastrous stewardship of the campaign in the Dardanelles. From 16-18 August eighteen thousand troops commanded by General Lord Cathcart were landed near Copenhagen, and from 2-5 September Gambier bombarded the Danes until he received the surrender of their fleet on 7 September. The foreign secretary, George Canning, wanted Gambier to parade off the Russian base of Cronstadt with fifty ships but in the event this did not happen, but at least he brought home the captured eighteen ships of the line, fifteen frigates, thirty-one brigs or smaller vessels and a large amount of confiscated naval stores, although by no means all the ships were bought into the British fleet. He was rewarded with a peerage as Baron Gambier of Iver, Buckinghamshire, and he pocketed about £150,000 in prize money which perhaps allowed him to decline the offer of a two thousand guinea pension.

Gambier was appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet in March 1808 with his flag initially aboard the Ville de Paris 110, Captain William Bedford, and then from August the newly commissioned Caledonia 120, Captain William Bedford, and with Rear-Admiral Sir Harry Neale as captain of the fleet. Accordingly on 9 May 1808 he resigned his post at the Admiralty.

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Gambier was lampooned for his weak performance at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809

On 21 February 1809 his fleet was blown off station, thereby allowing Rear-Admiral Willaumez to escape from Brest, although Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Stopford was soon able to blockade the French in the Aix Roads. Gambier joined Stopford on 7 March, but his subsequent indecision and inaction prompted the Admiralty to controversially summon Captain Lord Cochrane to direct an attack upon the enemy anchorage. These unfortunate circumstances resulted in the rumbustious Rear-Admiral Sir Eliab Harvey berating Gambier on the Caledonia’s quarterdeck for his stubborn ineffectiveness, and for his failure to allow capable officers of his own fleet to direct the attack. Worse was to follow, for in the Battle of the Basque Roads on 11 April Gambier made barely any attempt to destroy the French Fleet in the Aix Roads after Cochrane had driven it ashore. Clearly he had been unwilling to assist a man he considered headstrong in his mad plans, and instead of being within signalling distance he had kept his fleet some fourteen miles out to sea.

After the battle Gambier at least had the generosity to recommend Cochrane for a K.B., but he sent home his favourite, Neale, with the despatches which he scandalously re-wrote to the detriment of Cochrane. When, as commander-in-chief, parliament proposed Gambier a vote of thanks the furious radical Cochrane threatened to oppose it. Gambier demanded a court-martial on himself and with his old friend Admiral Sir Roger Curtis presiding, the self-serving Admiral William Young sitting on the panel, and all the prejudicial witnesses despatched on faraway duty, it was no surprise that he was most honourably acquitted. Most of the officers in the fleet felt that his conduct had been found wanting however, but with the raging Cochrane suffering the enmity of the establishment Gambier was in a secure position, and he eventually received the thanks of parliament on 29 January 1810.

In the early summer of 1811 he finally hauled down his flag from the Caledonia 120, Captain Francis Austen, after enjoying a particularly uneventful year. Bar his appointment on 30 July 1814 as the head of three commissioners sent to conclude a peace with the Americans at Ghent he was not to serve again, and indeed an attempt by Spencer Perceval to appoint him as the first lord of the Admiralty in 1810 was rejected by no less a personage than the King, who understood that it would be most unpopular with the Navy. He was nevertheless nominated a KCB on 2 January 1815 and a G.C.B. on 7 June 1815, and he received the rank of admiral of the fleet on 22 July 1830.

Gambier died on 19 April 1833 at his residence at Iver in Buckinghamshire, and was buried at St. Peter’s Churchyard in the town.

In July 1788 he married Louisa Matthew of Felix Hall, Essex, but had no issue. Her sister married Gambier’s elder brother James. He was related by marriage to the Austen family and became a patron of both Admiral of the Fleet Sir Francis Austen and Rear-Admiral Charles Austen. His uncle, Sir Charles Middleton, was a friend of Lord Wilberforce and equally an abolitionist, and Gambier was also related to William Pitt, an advantage he made good use of. In 1799 he helped Wilberforce found the evangelical Church Missionary Society, initially becoming its vice-president, and in 1812 the president.

Known as ‘Dismal Jimmy’ or ‘Preaching Jemmy’, it was said that god-fearing officers profited under Gambier. The seamen called him ‘blue-light’ which was an epithet for one of sanctimonious tendencies, and although seen as kind but strict he was detested for inflicting evangelical messages, hymns and tracts on his men and officers. As an admiral he was not respected by his officers, and by 1809 he was striving desperately to maintain his reputation, being ever more unpopular. Rear-Admiral Harvey’s tirade included a reference to him as a ‘canting and hypocritical Methodist’, and of practicing ‘methodistical and Jesuitical conduct’, the imputation being that his religious demeanour was a cover for an unworthy character. He refused to allow women to come aboard his ships unless they carried marriage certificates, and given that few did this was a harsh restraint on his men. Swearing was dealt with harshly, officers being heavily fined and seamen being obliged to parade up and down for hours with a 32lb shot harnessed in a collar on their shoulders.

Gambier was described as ‘round-faced, smooth-shaven, and earnest’. Unsurprisingly the Earl of St. Vincent disliked him for his caution and character, describing him as a ‘compound of paper and packthread.’ Even Napoleon was later to condemn him for his failure to destroy the French fleet in the Basque Roads. He was nevertheless a good administrator, and an efficient captain of a single ship, and was also calm in action as illustrated when seen happily munching on a biscuit whilst the Defence piled into action at the Battle of the Glorious First of June.

He preferred life ashore to life afloat, and his total time at sea between the ranks of lieutenant and rear-admiral amounted to a bare five and a half years. His time at the Admiralty from 1795-1801 saw him heavily involved in the improvement of ship design, signalling and discipline, and he was responsible for the design and building of the experimental frigates Triton and Ethalion, whilst having some input on the design of the Plantagenet 74.