Sir Roger Curtis

1746-1816. He was born on 4 June 1746 at Downton, Wiltshire, the only son of a wealthy tradesman and farmer, Roger Curtis, and his wife Christabella Blachford.

In 1762 he entered the Navy upon the Royal Sovereign 100, Captain Robert Hathorn, flagship of Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne, and following the cessation of hostilities found a berth aboard the Assistance 50, Captain James Smith, serving off the coast of West Africa. He then moved to the guard-ship Augusta 64, Captain Matthew Whitwell, in the Medway, and thereafter spent three years aboard the frigate Gibraltar 20, Captains Richard Braithwaite, Lucius O’Brien and Willim Long, serving off Newfoundland and later in home waters. In 1769 he moved into the Venus 36, Captain Hon. Samuel Barrington, and transferred with him a year later to the home-based guardship Albion 74.

On 19 January 1771 Curtis was commissioned lieutenant, and he returned to Newfoundland aboard the sloop Otter 14, Captain John Morris. Here, as well as gaining a thorough understanding of the Labrador coastline, its fisheries and the local inhabitants, he had the good fortune to become a favourite of the commander-in-chief, Commodore Molyneux Shuldham, who when transferring as commander-in-chief to North America as a rear-admiral in December 1775 took Curtis with him aboard his flagship, the Chatham 50, Captain John Raynor.

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Sir Roger Curtis

On 30 April 1776 he became acting-commander of the sloop Senegal 14, and he was commended by the new commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, for his collection of a number of army transports, including that of General Sir William Howe’s, and attending to their safe conveyance to New York in spite of having been issued orders to seek out and destroy a number of enemy privateers. Immediately awarded with a commander’s commission with seniority from 11 July, he assisted in the superintendence of the boats landing the army on Staten Island during the New York campaign of July – October 1776.

On 30 April 1777 Curtis was posted captain of Lord Howe’s flagship, the Eagle 64, serving in the Philadelphia campaign from 25 August to 22 November 1777, the defence of New York in July 1778 and operations off Rhode Island in August 1778. He returned to England with the commander-in-chief in the autumn.

In 1779 he held the in command of the Terrible 74, deputising for Captain Richard Bickerton in the Channel and, having refused an East Indian posting in the Eagle and been temporarily beached as a consequence, he joined the Brilliant 28 in the following year. This vessel sailed under orders for Gibraltar at the beginning of November, but was instead chased into Minorca by two Spanish frigates and a xebec. Here Curtis allowed his command, the Porcupine 24, Captain Sir Charles Knowles, and the Minorca 18, Captain Hugh Lawson, to be blockaded by three French frigates for some five weeks, and he was later charged by his first lieutenant, Colin Campbell, with failing to attack the enemy which he claimed had a combined firepower less than was available to Curtis at Minorca. The charge was almost certainly brought about by a personal enmity, although subsequent investigations suggested that that the French were indeed inferior in firepower.

By 15 April 1781 Curtis had assembled a storeship convoy larger than he one which Admiral Sir George Rodney had brought in the year before for the temporary relief of Gibraltar, and once he had slipped it into the colony on the 27th he remained in command of the Rock’s naval forces to lead its glorious defence against the Spanish blockade. He earned particular praise for his command of the gunboats in defeating the enemy’s floating batteries on 13 September 1782, and in particular for his humanity in rescuing four hundred Spaniards from their blazing batteries, during which operation his pinnace was caught in an explosion and his coxswain killed. In September he commissioned the captured Spanish San Miguel 74, and on 18 October 1782 Admiral Lord Howe arrived to relieve Gibraltar. After going aboard the Victory 100 to greet his old commander, Curtis was unable to get back ashore and was obliged to return with the fleet to England, accepting the appointment of captain of the Victory in place of Captain Henry Duncan who had returned home with despatches.

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Allied forces lay siege to Gibraltar 1782

Upon reaching London Curtis was knighted for his defence of Gibraltar as well as being feted by society, given a 500-guinea pension, and honoured with the role of ambassador to Morocco and the Barbary States. At the request of its beleaguered governor he was then sent straight back to Gibraltar aboard the Thetis 38, Captain John Blankett, with the rank of commodore.

During the peace he commanded the guard-ship Ganges 74 at Portsmouth from May 1784 to December 1787, and undertook a two-month special mission to the Baltic in 1789 to ensure the constancy of supplies in the event of war. He became flag-captain to Admiral Lord Howe aboard the Queen Charlotte 100 in the Nookta Sound dispute of 1790, although by August he had assumed the role of captain of the fleet with Captain Hugh Cloberry Christian replacing him as the flag-captain Shortly afterwards he was appointed to the Brunswick 74 which flew Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s flag during the Russian armament of 1791, and in 1792 he sat on the court-martial of the Bounty mutineers.

He remained with the Brunswick until 1793 before joining Howe once more as captain of the Channel fleet aboard the Queen Charlotte, serving in the cruises of July-August and in chase of Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s squadron on 18 November 1793. During April of the same year he was also made a colonel of marines. Following Howe’s near collapse in the final stages of the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794, Curtis was responsible for many decisions pertaining to the re-forming of the fleet rather than the chase of the French, and for many years afterwards he attracted criticism for his caution on the day. The King however showed no such doubt, throwing a gold chain around Curtis’ neck after greeting him at Spithead, and declaring that it should remain in the captain of the fleet’s family forever as a mark of esteem from His Majesty’s family. Earlier Curtis had also been given the honour of conveying the victorious admiral’s despatches to the Admiralty, although the fact that he had apparently written the despatches, praising some officers at the detriment to others, caused a lot of disquiet.

On 4 July 1794 he was promoted rear-admiral, raising his flag aboard the Queen Charlotte during the absence of Admiral Lord Howe, and in September he was created a baronet. During 1795 he flew his flag in the Channel aboard the Canada 74, Captain George Bowen, receiving aboard members of the French Royal family, then from September the Powerful 74, Captain William O’Brien Drury, and in the winter of 1795-6 the Invincible 74, Captain William Cayley. In the absence of Admiral Lord Howe he also often flew his flag aboard the poorly disciplined and mutinous Queen Charlotte, but he was not at the Battle of Lorient on 23 June 1795 as he was prosecuting Captain Anthony Molloy at his court-martial arising out of his conduct at the Battle of the Glorious first of June. Curtis also sat on the court-martial onto the loss of the Censeur 74 on 7 October 1795.

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The famous cartoonist James Gilray’s take on the relationship between Lord Howe and Curtis

During 1796, with his flag from the end of March in the Formidable 90, Acting-Captain George Murray, he commanded one of the three divisions of the Channel fleet, in his case guarding the Western Approaches. On 20 October he raised his flag aboard the Prince 98, Captain Thomas Larcom, who remained with him on that ship for three years, and in early November he chased Rear-Admiral de Richery’s squadron away from Lorient on its return from the raids on the Newfoundland fisheries which had commenced on 28 August 1796. Following the French escape to Ireland in December he was criticised along with his contemporaries Admiral Lord Bridport and Colpoys for failing to bring them to battle.

In early 1797 he commanded nine sail of the line off Brest whilst Bridport wintered with the remainder of the Channel fleet, and during the great mutiny which erupted on 16 April his division was brought from Torbay into Spithead where the men turned their officers ashore. Curtis was briefly imprisoned aboard his flagship, and only released his old mentor, Admiral Lord Howe, and the chief delegates toured the mutinous ships by. His six sail of the line were then sent to join Admiral Adam Duncan’s blockade off the Texel as the mutinies on the North Sea station and at the Nore had deprived this officer of all but two of his sail of the line. In 1798 Curtis was initially stationed off Ireland guarding the Western Approaches, and then in April reinforced Admiral Lord St. Vincent with a detachment of the Channel Fleet after Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson had been sent into the Mediterranean to monitor the movement of the Toulon fleet.

After being promoted vice-admiral on 14 February 1799 Curtis was appointed commander-in-chief at the Cape, sailing in September 1799 with his flag in the Lancaster 64, Captain Thomas Larcom. He shifted his flag into the Jupiter 50, Captain George Losack in November 1800, then briefly to the Adamant 50, Captain William Hotham, in 1801 and with the Hon. Duncombe Pleydell Bouverie serving some time as his flag-lieutenant. During his command of the Cape station he created a precedent by refitting one of his capital ships, the Jupiter 50, at the Cape, rather than sending her to India. On 27 May 1803 he returned to Portsmouth aboard the Diomede 50, Captain William Fothergill, with a small squadron from the Cape in company, having relinquished the command on account of poor health. Upon reaching the Channel he learned that war broken out once more with France, a fact his squadron immediately celebrated by capturing a rich French East Indiaman.

On 23 April 1804 he was advanced to the rank of admiral, and in January of the following year was appointed to a commission charged with revising the civil affairs of the navy with, amongst others, Vice-Admiral James Gambier. He remained with the board until the end of 1808, and during this period the two senior naval officers made several blunders including the ‘restoration’ of the rank of admiral of the red to the navy, a rank that had never existed. In the meantime Curtis officiated at Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s funeral on 9 January 1806.

In January 1809 he became commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, flying his flag initially aboard the Royal William 84, Captain John Irwin, with whom he later moved to the Puissant 74 before returning to the former vessel with Captain Robert Hall as his flag-captain. Following the Basque Roads fiasco of 11 April 1809 Curtis was president of the court martial on Admiral Lord Gambier aboard the Gladiator 44, Captain Robert Hall. As Gambier was not only a lifelong friend but of a similar cautious disposition Curtis was bound to side with him, and the court martial proved to be a disgraceful whitewash of Gambier’s conduct. In 1812 Curtis was superseded at Portsmouth, in 1815 was created a G.C.B., and he died at Gatcombe House near Portsmouth on 14 November 1816.

On 12 December 1778 Curtis married Sarah Brady, an heiress of Gatcombe House, Portsea, which house he acquired with her. They had a daughter, Jane, and two sons, one of whom, Roger, died as a post captain in 1801 and the other, Sir Lucius Curtis, succeeded him as the second baronet and died as admiral of the fleet in 1869.

A favourite protégé of both Howe and Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington, a protégé in the early part of his career of the Duke of Cumberland, and a friend of Gambier, Curtis was also admired by Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent, and was friendly with the discredited Captain Anthony Molloy. He was unpopular within the fleet however and many attributed some of Lord Howe’s unfortunate errors to him. The normally reticent Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood described him as ‘an artful sneaking creature, whose frowning, insinuating manners creep into the confidence of whoever he attacks, and whose rapacity would grasp all honours and profits that come within his view.’ Collingwood also bore a grudge because Curtis appeared to indicate that everything worthy had been done by the Queen Charlotte at the Battle of the Glorious First of June.

He was undoubtedly pompous and arrogant, but was also shrewd and courteous where necessary, and even fancied himself attractive to the market girls with whom he frequently bantered. Many had great difficulty in reconciling the bold defender of Gibraltar with the pernickety, cautious fleet manager in Curtis. He could unjustifiably react negatively to his fellow officers and was jealous of Lord Howe’s particular favourites such as Captain Robert Barlow.