Sir John Thomas Duckworth

1748-1817. Of Lancastrian descent, he was born on 9 February 1748 at Leatherhead, one of five sons of the Rev. Henry Duckworth, who later became Canon of Windsor, and of his wife, Sarah Johnson of Ickenham, Middlesex.

In 1759 Duckworth left his schooling at Eton upon being introduced to Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen, and he saw action as a volunteer with this officer aboard the Namur 90, Captain Matthew Buckle, at the Battle of Lagos Bay on 18 August 1759, and at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November . Further employment was found in the Western Squadron aboard the Prince of Orange 70, Captain Samuel Wallis.

Following the peace of 1763 he was employed aboard the Guernsey 50, Captain Hugh Palliser, the commander-in-chief on the Newfoundland station from the spring of 1764, and where one of his shipmates was the future Captain James Cook. On 14 November 1771 he was commissioned lieutenant, serving with Captain Charles Fielding aboard the Rainbow 44, and spending three years with the same officer aboard the Plymouth-based guard-ship Kent 74, being present when the notorious explosion of 4 July 1773 occurred with nearly fifty casualties.

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Sir John Thomas Duckworrth

He transferred with Fielding to the new frigate Diamond 32, and went out to North America on 20 July 1776 as her first lieutenant. On 18 January 1777 a shot discharged in salute from the Diamond killed five men aboard a transport at Rhode Island, and Duckworth was brought to a court martial along with the gunner for neglect of duty. Although he was acquitted, Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, the commander-in-chief, demanded a retrial on the basis that Duckworth had not been named in the charge, and the deaths of the men had not been mentioned. When the captains sitting on the case opposed this move Howe threatened to suspend them. Eventually Duckworth was retried and received the formality of a further acquittal, although Howe’s intransigence was subsequently found to be based on ensuring that the charged men should have been seen to have been tried fairly and thus not be hauled before a civil court.

The Diamond sailed for the Leeward Islands with Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s fleet at the end of 1778, and in the following March Duckworth joined the flagship Princess Royal 90, Captain William Blair. When he was detached in a schooner to reconnoitre the French anchorage he mistakenly identified the transports and vessels armed en-flute as thirteen French sail of the line, and as a result Byron was taken unawares by the number of his enemy at the Battle of Grenada on 6 July and found himself out-manoeuvred. Despite this error Duckworth was made commander of the American prize brig Rover 10 on 16 July, remaining in the Leeward Islands, and on 16 June 1780 he was posted to the Terrible 74, which he retained for a month. In July he became flag-captain to Rear-Admiral Joshua Rowley aboard the Princess Royal 90, sailing for Jamaica, and he joined the Bristol 50 in February of the following year in order to return to England with a convoy, arriving home in July and paying her off in September.

In August 1782 he recommissioned the Europe 50 for service in the Channel, and he also briefly commanded the Suffolk 74 for Captain Sir George Home. During the following spring he was appointed to carry the broad pennant of Captain Sir John Jervis aboard the Salisbury 50 with a secret expedition bound for the Spanish West Indies, but this was cancelled on the cessation of hostilities.

At the time of the Nookta Sound dispute of 1790, and through to the following year, he commanded the Bombay Castle 74, paying her off in September 1791 when he recommissioned the Orion 74 as a Plymouth guardship. In 1792 he sat on the court-martial of the Bounty mutineers.

At the outbreak of war on 2 February 1793 his command formed part of the squadron under Commodore John Colpoys which was sent to defend Guernsey, thereafter departing for the Leeward Islands on 26 March with Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner’s squadron. This force however was too weak for the task it had been given, and after a largely unsuccessful campaign it returned home in the autumn, but not before the Orion had taken the privateer Sans-Culotte off America.

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HMS Orion

Joining the Channel fleet, Duckworth was officially mentioned in despatches after the Battle of the Glorious First of June 1794 by Admiral Lord Howe, in which engagement he received a musket ball in his finger and thumb, being one of twenty-four wounded in addition to five men killed aboard the Orion. During the action his command dismasted the French Northumberland 74 but achieved little else. Even so, he subsequently received the gold medal, one of the lucky captains to be so honoured although this was mainly due to Captain Thomas Pakenham insisting on the removal of his own name from the official dispatch if it did not include Duckworth’s.

On 19 March 1795 he was appointed to the Leviathan 74, joining Rear-Admiral Sir William Parker at Jamaica. This ship was badly mauled in the attack on Léogane, San Domingo on 21 March 1796, suffering five men killed and twelve wounded. In August, after his commander-in-chief was forced home through illness, he hoisted a broad pennant as commodore aboard the Undaunted 40, Captains Henry Roberts and Robert Winthrop, returning to the Leviathan soon afterwards and taking all the cannon from the Undaunted aboard his ship when she was wrecked on the Morant Cays on 27 August. He remained on this station for the next five months, serving under the new commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, and on 19 January 1797 presiding over a court of inquiry into the conduct of Captain Hugh Pigot of the Success 32 regarding the thrashing of an American merchant captain.

He returned to England in February 1797 in company with the Success 32, Captain Phillip Wilkinson, in escort of a convoy, being employed thereafter with the Leviathan in the Channel and off the coast of Ireland in command of that station. During the mutinies of 1797 his ship was at Plymouth, having recently come into port. Despite the fact that the men had been not allowed leave or even fresh vegetables, Duckworth was himself ashore complaining about his pay when they rebelled on 26 April 1797. Although he was not allowed back on board the Leviathan by his men he did make representations to the authorities on their behalf. After the return to duty he served in the Channel for the remainder of the year, and then spent a short while on the Irish station with the rank of commodore, Captain Joseph Bingham commanding the Leviathan. He next went out with Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis’ reinforcements to Admiral Lord St. Vincent in the Mediterranean, and by August 1798 was flying a broad pennant aboard the Leviathan with Captain Henry Digby acting as his flag captain. In the meantime he had been appointed a colonel of marines on 8 June 1797.

On 15 November 1798 he captured Minorca in co-operation with General Hon. Charles Stuart after an eight day operation, but much to his chagrin he was not proposed any honour by the first lord of the Admiralty. On 14 February 1799 he was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, and he thereafter served as the senior officer at Port Mahon in command of four sail of the line, his flag remaining in the Leviathan with Captain Henry Digby being succeeded by Captains James May in February, and from early 1800 James Carpenter. During May 1800 the Leviathan joined the Earl of St. Vincent’s fruitless chase of Admiral Bruix, who had escaped from Brest on the 25 April, and at the end of the month Duckworth was detached with four sail of the line to join Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson at Palermo at Minorca. He was returned by Nelson in July when that officer refused to adhere to Vice-Admiral Lord Keith’s order to join him with his entire force, and Duckworth later commanded the blockade off Cadiz. On 7 April 1800 he earned the huge sum of £75,000 as his share in the capture of the rich Spanish frigates Carmen 32 and Florentino 34, voyaging home from Lima.

Two months later he was promoted to the command of the potentially lucrative Leeward Island station with his flag aboard the Leviathan 74, Captains James Carpenter, and after this officer was invalided home in October Acting-Captain Edward Durnford King, and Captain Christopher Cole. From 20 to 31 March 1801, in co-operation with Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Trigge, he took possession of St Bartholomew, St. Thomas and other Swedish, Batavian, and Danish Islands in the West Indies, forcing them to accept harsh terms. On 6 June he and Trigge were created KB’s.

In the meantime he had been joined on 1 April by a squadron under the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, and a dispute over the share of prize-money ensued, being eventually settled in favour of the latter. Typically Duckworth spent a great deal of time bemoaning his finances. With his flag continuing to fly aboard the Leviathan 74, Captain Richard Dunn, who had joined in late 1801, he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Jamaica station in November and took command of a fleet assembling at that island in 1802, the previous commander-in-chief of barely one month standing, Rear-Admiral Robert Montagu, being his subordinate. Even though Britain was now at peace with France he had twenty-eight sail of the line under his command, but was still an inferior force to that of the French fleet which had arrived in the Caribbean in early February.

He was re-appointed to command the Jamaican station following the resumption of hostilities in 1803 with his flag in the Bellerophon 74, Captain John Loring, the Leviathan having been sent home. In this capacity he directed the surrender of General Rochambeau and his army on San Domingo on 30 November 1803, but he failed to give sufficient force or clear orders to Captain John Bligh when he sent this officer to capture Curaçoa, and consequently the campaign was a failure with Bligh withdrawing on 25 February. Duckworth was elevated to the rank of vice-admiral on 23 April 1804 by which time he was flying his flag on the Hercule 74, Captain Dunn, and in January of the following year he was succeeded by his deputy Rear-Admiral James Richard Dacres, having made a fortune on prize-money.

On 5 April 1805 he returned to England aboard the frigate Acasta 40 but faced a court martial on 25 April where he was fully and honourably acquitted of using a frigate as a personal merchantman, following complaints from Captain James Athol Wood, whom he had superseded on that vessel. His claim that the goods carried by the frigate were presents and not for resale were contested by Woods’ brother who attempted to debate the matter in parliament, but the matter was never voted upon. There was little doubt however that the court martial had been a whitewash and Duckworth should have been found guilty of a major offence.

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The Battle of San Domingo 1806

In September he raised his flag aboard the Superb 74, Captain Sir Richard Keats, with instructions to proceed to the Mediterranean as third-in-command to Nelson, but as neither his flagship, his officers or his band of violinists were ready his departure was delayed from Plymouth until 2 November. On the voyage out to the Mediterranean he heard the news of the Battle of Trafalgar and superseded Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis in command of the blockade of the remnants of the Allied fleet in Cadiz instead on 15 November, with a squadron of six sail of the line. Fifteen days later he left to chase a squadron which he believed to be from Rochefort under Captain Allemand, and which he had heard was in the vicinity of Madeira. This desertion earned him a withering condemnation from Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood for leaving his post to chase a force from another station. Having returned to Cadiz Duckworth then sailed to the Cape Verde Islands over the Christmas period in search of the French and here fell in with Rear-Admiral Jean Baptiste Philibert Willaumez’s fleet of six sail of the line. Once more he was castigated, this time for failing to bring them to action after a three hour action whilst waiting for support for the Superb. Being short of water he retired to the Leeward Islands and at St. Kitts on 21 January his force was bolstered by Rear-Admiral Hon. Alexander Cochrane in the Northumberland 74, with the Atlas 74, Captain Samuel Pym, in company.

Duckworth’s seven ships of the line and two frigates returned to sea and completely defeated a squadron commanded by Vice-Admiral Corentin Urbain Leisségues off San Domingo on the 6 February 1806, being superior to the French five sail of the line and three frigates, albeit it that one of the former was a 120 gun ship. In a battle which saw seventy-three British men killed and two hundred and sixty-five wounded, three French sail were captured and two were driven ashore. However, whilst Duckworth was granted a pension of 1000 guineas, his second in command, Louis, was rewarded with a baronetcy and Cochrane became a KB. Suitably chastised and bristling with indignation, Duckworth returned to the wrath of Lord Collingwood in the Mediterranean, flying his flag in the Royal George 100, Captain Thomas Gill and Richard Dalling Dunn. He was perhaps a fortunate man, as but for his victory he would surely have been court-martialled for his failings during the Christmas period.

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Duckworth’s squadron enters the Dardanelles 1807

In February 1807, with his flag in the Royal George 100, Captain Richard Dalling Dunn, he was sent to dictate terms to the Turks at Constantinople but was humiliatingly forced to turn back from the city when prevarication took the place of action. On the return voyage his squadron was obliged to run the gauntlet of the Dardanelles, and by the time those waters had been exited forty-two men had lost their lives and two hundred and thirty-six been wounded. He was subject to a great deal of condemnation for this failure from both his contemporaries and the government, especially the foreign secretary, although Collingwood realistically admitted that no one else would have done better, and Duckworth had been sceptical about the success of the mission beforehand. In reality however he was not up to the task entrusted to him, and he had exceeded his orders by attempting to negotiate with the Turks.

He was subsequently given the responsibility of leading the campaign in Egyptian waters against the Turks, but arriving the day after the capture of Alexandria on 21 March by Captain Benjamin Hallowell he departed on the 29th of the same month. It had been planned for him to lead the fleet sent to dictate terms to the Danes, but in view of his failure in the Dardanelles it was deemed more sensible to despatch Admiral Lord Gambier on that mission, leaving Duckworth to return to England. On the 26 May he arrived at Spithead, whereupon the Royal George was ordered to join the Channel fleet.

From the summer of 1808-09 Duckworth served as second-in-command in the Channel as replacement for Vice-Admiral Sir James Saumarez at Admiral Lord Gardner’s request. He was soon up to his old tricks, as following the escape of Rear-Admiral Allemand from Rochefort and Vice-Admiral Ganteaume from Toulon on the 7 February, he undertook a wild goose chase in search of them to the North Atlantic, Lisbon, Madeira, the West Indies, the Chesapeake, and Newfoundland, this being a voyage of thirteen thousand miles! During 1809 he moved to the San Josef 110 with Captain Dunn, serving in the Channel and off Cadiz, and later in the year was one of the government toadies who sat on the court martial of Lord Gambier following the Battle of the Basque Roads on the 11 April 1809, during which campaign he had been despatched to search for a squadron under the command of Rear-Admiral Willaumez.

From 1810-13 he was governor and commander-in-chief at Newfoundland with his flag in the Antelope 50, commanded in turn by Acting-Captain John Forbes, Captain James Carpenter from December 1810, and Captain Thomas White from the summer of 1812, the vessel returning home in the winter of each year.

On 31 July 1810 Duckworth was promoted admiral, on 2 November 1813 was created a baronet, and from 1812-17 was M.P. for North Romney in the interest of the Duke of Northumberland and the Treasury, although he never spoke and rarely voted. In January 1815 he was appointed commander-in-chief at Plymouth with his flag in the St. George 100, Captain James Nash, until December, then the Impregnable 104, Captain Nash, moving to the Berwick 74 in 1816 before returning to the Impregnable. He died at Admiralty House, Plymouth, after a long illness on 31 August 1817, and was buried at Topsham near Exeter.

On 16 July 1776 he married Anne Wallis of Trenton, Cornwall, by whom he had a son, George, who was killed with the rank of colonel in action at the Battle of Albuera in May 1811, and a daughter, Sarah, who married Rear-Admiral Sir Richard King. His first wife died on 21 August 1797, and he then married at Crediton on 14 May 1807 Susannah Buller, 1768-1840, the daughter of the Bishop of Exeter, and had two sons, one of whom died whilst still an infant. His second wife outlived him by twenty-three years. His nephew, Thomas Buller, served as his flag-lieutenant at Plymouth after the end of the Napoleonic War. Duckworth held a large property, Weare House, at Topsham in his later life.

Tall, angular and slim with a massive long nose and tight mouth, Duckworth was a brutal disciplinarian who even hung a man on Christmas Day who had been guilty of derision following a repeated reefing exercise on the Castor. Duckworth ensured that the knot on the noose was tied in such a way as to cause agony to the dead man, and he celebrated Boxing Day by lashing the other culprits involved. On one occasion he called a lieutenant aboard to answer a charge of drunkenness, then hearing of the man’s good family connections, promoted him instead! He had little discretion, was reckless and politically naïve. There was some doubt as to whether he was a fine seaman with the qualities of bravery and skill attributed to him, and his temper was appalling. Not surprisingly greedy ‘Old Tommy’ or ‘John Tom’ was hated by the men and the officers alike and had many enemies, although similarly, and again not surprisingly, the Earl of St. Vincent admired him as the best of instructors to the young midshipmen under his care, being almost a father to them.