Alexander Fraser

1747-1829. An ancestor of Lord Lovat on his father’s side, and of the Marquis of Hamilton on his mother’s side, he was born in Lerwick in the Shetland Isles, the son of Hugh Fraser, a surveyor of customs, and of his wife, Jane Linning.

Fraser first went to sea in 1760 aboard the Fly 10, Commander George Gayton, being present at the reduction of Belleisle in 1761 and serving thereafter in the Basque Roads. Following the end of the Seven Years War in 1763 he returned to his education in Scotland, and in 1768 he rejoined the Navy as a midshipman aboard the Mermaid 28, Captain James Smith, serving off North America for three years. He was then appointed an acting-lieutenant of the Bonetta 16, commanded by an old shipmate from the Mermaid, Matthew Squire, which vessel returned to England to be paid off in August 1772.

After passing his lieutenant’s examination in March 1773, he joined the Royal Oak 74, Captain George Balfour, being present when the fleet was reviewed at Spithead by the King shortly afterwards. In 1774 he moved as an acting-lieutenant to the Scarborough 20, Captain Andrew Barkley, which vessel went out to North America in May and arrived at Boston in August.

As the war with the colonies took hold, Fraser removed into the Canceaux 6, Lieutenant Henry Mowatt, and in October 1775 was landed ashore at Falmouth, Massachusetts, under a flag of truce to request that the rebels lay down their arms. When this was refused, the Canceaux and three other small vessels bombarded the greater part of the town whilst Fraser landed at the head of a party of seamen and marines to torch the rest, a feat he accomplished despite the musketry of the Americans, who had retreated to the outskirts. He afterwards removed to Rear-Admiral Molyneux Shuldham’s flagship, Chatham 50, Captain John Raynor, whose boats he commanded at the occupation of Long Island and New York in July 1776.


One of Fraser’s earliest action was the reduction of Belleisle in 1761

Fraser returned to England at the end of 1776, and he was commissioned lieutenant on 18 July 1777, being appointed to the Hector 74, Captain Sir John Hamilton, which ship was attached to Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel’s Grand Fleet in the spring of 1778. On 17 June the Hector detained the French frigate Licorne 32, which Fraser took into Plymouth, and after returning to the Hector he participated in the Battle of Ushant on 27 July.

By 1780 he had become the first lieutenant of the Hector, which was now serving in the West Indies, and he was engaged in Commodore Hon. William Cornwallis’ action against Commodore De Ternay on 20 June. Shortly afterwards, he exchanged as first lieutenant into the Conqueror 74, Captain William Dickson, which ship returned to England after being badly damaged by a hurricane at the commencement of her voyage, and with the men having to pump her out constantly over three months.

After Fraser’s arrival home, his patron, Commodore George Johnstone, secured him the acting command of the store-ship San Carlos 50, armed en-flute, to which he was appointed on 20 February 1781, and in which he participated in the controversial Battle of Porto-Praya on 16 April. Shortly afterwards, he became the first lieutenant of Johnstone’s flagship Romney 50, Captain Roddam Home, in which he returned to England in November.

His active and varied service continued with employment aboard the Panther 60, Captain Robert Simonton, being present at the Channel Fleet’s relief of Gibraltar on 18 October 1782. During the subsequent action off Cape Spartel, the Panther suffered several casualties and Fraser had a speaking trumpet knocked out of his hand by a musket-ball. Seeking to enhance his career prospects, he exchanged with the third lieutenant of the Ruby 64, Captain John Collins, even though he was senior to her first lieutenant, in order that he could go out to the Leeward Islands with Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes’ squadron. During the voyage to the West Indies, he was able to participate in the capture of the French sail of the line Solitaire 64 on 6 December. Still searching for the elusive promotion to commander, he joined Admiral Hugh Pigot’s flagship Formidable 90, Captain James Samber, but with the peace following soon afterwards he returned home still holding the rank of lieutenant.

From 1783-6 Fraser served aboard the Adamant 50, Captain William Kelly, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Hughes in the Leeward Islands, and after returning to England he was appointed the first lieutenant of the Colossus 74, Captain Hugh Christian. He was finally promoted commander on 1 December 1787, being one of some forty officers advanced on this date, and he was appointed to the fireship Tisiphone 8 for purposes of rank only.

On 23 September 1790 he was appointed to the sloop Savage 14 serving at Greenock, Scotland, on which station he remained until December 1792. Continuing with the Savage, at the start of the French Revolutionary war he joined Rear-Admiral John MacBride’s squadron in the Downs, and on 24 February off Aldborough, Suffolk, he captured a French privateer, the Dunkirk-based Custine 8. In April he was commanding a squadron of small vessels off Ostend when he was invited by the commandant of the garrison to take possession of the town. Having landed five hundred marines and seamen, and being assisted by the Austrians, he remained in Ostend until the 37th Regiment relieved him later in the month.

On 1 July 1793 Fraser was posted captain of the floating battery Redoubt 20, which vessel was armed with 42-pound carronades, and he took his crew from the Savage with him to join her in the Thames, where she was fitting for service. On 18 August the Redoubt arrived in the Downs, and a week later she sailed for Ostend with a fleet of transports. She was back in the Downs on 8 January before sailing for Ostend once more a week later. During her time off Ostend, she saw action with the French at Nieuport, and such was the power of her cannon fire that it stoked alarm amongst the residents of Dunkirk, some twenty miles down the coast.

On 29 July 1794 he was appointed to the frigate Proserpine 28, which vessel was still refitting at Portsmouth in October. In January 1795 she was at Spithead, and on 9 March she sailed from the Downs for Emden with a strong squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Henry Harvey to escort home transports carrying British troops. During this mission, the Proserpine was one of several vessels that grounded on a sandbank off the Texel, and she had to cut her main-mast away and jettison her stores and provisions before getting off. She was back in the Downs in June, and at the end of the month returned to that station from Portsmouth with a convoy. A stint off Scotland followed, and on 31 July she arrived in Fraser’s home islands, the Shetlands, before departing eleven days later.

In February 1796 Fraser commissioned the newly launched 12-pounder frigate Shannon 32, which arrived at the Nore from the Thames on 28 April and joined Vice-Admiral John MacBride’s squadron in the North Sea during early May. She was back at Sheerness on 9 June having sprung her mainmast in a gale, and she went up to Scotland in the following month to visit the Shetland Isles in the first half of August. On 28 December she was detached from Captain Henry Trollope’s squadron in the North Sea to escort the Hudson Bay ships from the Orkneys to the Nore, but during this voyage her consort, the brig Curlew 16, Commander Francis Field, was sadly lost with all hands in a heavy gale.

In April 1797, the Shannon was ordered to convoy the transports carrying Colonel William Tate’s French invasion force away from Milford Haven after its surrender at Fishguard in Wales. Serving thereafter off Ireland, she took the privateers Mouche 16 on 5 December when in company with the Diana 38, Captain Jonathon Faulknor, the Duguay-Trouin 24 off Cape Clear on 2 February 1798, which she carried into Cork, and the Nantes privateer Julie 18 on 23 June after a twelve-hour chase. In July she met the incoming West India convoy at the mouth of the Channel, from where she was detached in escort of the Bristol and Liverpool trade. On 25 August, in company with two other frigates, she arrived in Lough Swilly in search of a force of French frigates, and upon being informed that they were in Sligo Bay she immediately departed for that waterway without apparently finding her quarry. The Shannon arrived at Plymouth from Ireland on 20 October, and upon returning to her station, she took the Granville privateer Grand Indien 20 on 15 January 1799 after a seven-hour chase which saw the enemy lose her main-mast and Fraser’s command spring her main-topmast. The prize was carried into Cork.

In March 1799 Fraser transferred to the 18-pounder frigate Diana 38, going out to the Leeward Islands from Portsmouth via Madeira in September with a large convoy, and enjoying a year’s successful cruising against the enemy privateers. Amongst her prizes were the privateers Medie 10 on 17 May, which was taken into St. Kitts, and the Industriel 6 on 13 July 1800. Suffering from yellow fever, Fraser was forced to invalid home shortly afterwards aboard the Invincible 74 commanded by the terminally ill Captain George Cayley, and he arrived back in England during August.

For the best part of a year he remained unemployed until appointed to the poorly regarded Dutch-built Beschermer 54 at Chatham in July 1801, sailing at the end of the month to guard the Swin Passage in the Thames. In January 1802 he was on leave in Edinburgh where he attended the Highland Society of Scotland at South-Bridge Street, but he was back in the Thames during March, and on the 15th brought a lieutenant, Thomas Gaborian Marshall, to a court-martial for drunkenness, neglect of duty, and sleeping on watch. The charges being partly proved, Marshall was dismissed the Beschermer. The lieutenant then brought his own charges against Fraser for tyranny, oppression, and assault, but these were considered to be ill-founded at a court martial on 25 March.

The Beschermer was paid off at Sheerness in early April 1802, and Fraser was immediately appointed to the frigate Amphion 32 with orders to carry the Duke of Cambridge to Cuxhaven. Before he departed on this duty, he was presented to the Queen in her drawing room, and after embarking Prince Adolphus at Yarmouth on 24 May, he delivered him to the Continent on the 30th, prior to the Amphion’s return to Sheerness on 3 June. Two weeks later she sailed for the Downs where she remained for some time whilst going out on the occasional cruise, and in July Fraser resigned the command for family reasons.

Fraser’s last active command was the Vanguard 74.

He was not re-employed until August 1804, when he joined the recently purchased Weymouth, which he commissioned as a 44-gun vessel. Shortly afterwards, he was appointed to the fourth-rate Hindostan 52, a vessel which he would soon declare as unfit for His Majesty’s Service. Even so, the Hindostan was with the fleet off the Texel in November, and on 9 December she reached Sheerness. She arrived at Portsmouth from the Downs with a convoy on 15 February 1805 and departed the Hampshire port on 7 March to convoy eleven East Indiamen out to the East Indies, being joined on her passage to the Equator by the Isis 50, Captain John Acworth Ommanney. By the time that the Hindostan arrived at Madras on 19 July, she had only five of the Honourable Company ships with her. On 21 April 1806, whilst bringing a convoy home in the company of the Tremendous 74, Captain John Osborn, Fraser had the mortification of seeing his consort fail to capture the French frigate Cannonière 40 off Natal, after that vessel had approached their convoy. The Hindostan and Tremendous left St. Helena with their convoy of eleven ships on 24 May to arrive in the Downs on 18 July, following which Fraser’s command sailed for Sheerness and he left her.

He appears to have spent a short period fitting out the Prince 98 in the Hamoaze at Plymouth from the end of December 1806 until paying her off on 23 March 1807, whereupon he recommissioned the Vanguard 74, which had just completed a refit at the Devonshire port. By July his command was at Yarmouth preparing for the expedition to the Baltic, and she joined Admiral Lord Gambier’s fleet which bombarded Copenhagen and forced the Danish surrender on 7 September. Thereafter, Fraser remained in command of a squadron which blockaded Copenhagen and ensured the safe passage of the British trade in the Belt. On 10 December he sailed for England with the last of that year’s merchantmen, being partly delayed by the Danes at Kronborg and a heavy gale which obliged him to sweep up the dispersed merchantmen, and he eventually arrived off Yarmouth on the 13th. Several merchants accused him of forsaking them in the Baltic, and condemnatory letters appeared in the newspapers; however, the Lords of the Admiralty investigated the affair and announced themselves happy with his conduct.

When the Vanguard was ordered back to Copenhagen in January 1808, Fraser obtained leave on account of his general and mental fatigue, and instead he took command of the Dundee Sea Fencibles. He remained in this post for two years, at the end of which period he was appointed to the yacht William and Mary at Deptford, being presented to the King on 8 August in recognition of this coveted position, which was one he held until his elevation to the rank of rear-admiral on 1 August 1811. In the meantime, he had attended a levee with the Prince Regent in May 1810 to commemorate his appointment as an equerry to the Duke of Cambridge.

Fraser did not enjoy any further employment, and in his retirement he attended social and charitable events in Edinburgh with occasional visits to London, including in September 1820, when he had the misfortune to be cornered by a gang of ruffians in St. James Square who shouted out their support for ‘The Queen’ as a diversion to rob him of a gold watch valued at seventy guineas. Already promoted to vice-admiral on 12 August 1819, he was a frequent attendee at Court and in 1824 took a trip to the Continent.

Vice-Admiral Fraser died at his residence of Sand Lodge in the Shetland Isles on 29 December 1829. He was buried in the New Carlton burial ground, overlooking Leith and the Firth of Forth.

He married Helen (Nellie) Bruce of Sumburgh in the Shetland Isles on 6 April 1788 and had two daughters and three sons, the second of which, John, was lost when serving as the first lieutenant of the Magnet 16, Commander Ferdinand Moore Maurice, which foundered in passage to North America during October 1812. His eldest son, Alexander, was employed in the Royal Engineers, and his youngest son, Thomas, entered the Navy in 1809, fought at the Battle of Algiers seven years later, and was posted captain in 1841.

Fraser was described as a ‘very smart officer’ which was probably a euphemism, for he was also known to be a brutal martinet, and a ‘sadist monster’. When commanding the Shannon, his men pleaded with the Admiralty that he be replaced, writing that he was ‘one of the most barbarous and one of the most unhuman officers that ever a sect of unfortunate men had the disagreeable misfortune of being with’. His name was often spelt ‘Frazer’.