Edward Thompson

c1738-86. He was the son of a Hull merchant and, officially at least, the uncle of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson, becoming his guardian following the early death of the boy s father. Some historians have suggested however that he might have been the boy s father.

After being educated at Beverley and Hampstead, Thompson undertook a voyage to Greenland in 1750, and four years later joined an East Indiaman. He later claimed to have been pressed into the navy, and after returning to England he joined the Stirling Castle 70, Captain Samuel Cornish, as a midshipman.

He was commissioned lieutenant on 16 November 1757, being appointed to the Jason 44, Captain William Paston, serving in the North Sea and then the Channel. He thereafter transferred to the Dorsetshire 70, Captain Peter Denis, in December 1758 and participated in the blockade of Brest and the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759. From March 1760 until the peace of 1763 he served aboard the Bellona 74, again commanded by Captain Denis, before going on half-pay.


The famous actor David Garrick, a patron of the playwright and sailor, Captain Thompson.

Over the next eight years Thompson dedicated his time to writing, and he was able to earn a good living from it. He was also able to use the influence of the famous actor David Garrick to obtain his promotion to the rank of commander on 10 January 1771, joining the sloop Kingfisher 14, in which vessel he served in the North Sea in the preventative service. He was next appointed to the Raven which was in the Thames towards the end of the year before going out to the Mediterranean where his old patron, Rear-Admiral Sir Peter Denis, posted him to the Niger 32, a promotion that was confirmed by the Admiralty on 2 April 1772. This was but a short commission as by the end of June he had come home and gone on half pay.

Once more Thompson took up his quill, writing several adaptations for Drury Lane and Covent Garden before he was appointed captain of the newly commissioned frigate Hyaena 24 in May 1778, going out to West Africa and then Jamaica in March of the following year before returning to England with a convoy in September. Three months later he witnessed the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent on 16 January 1780 and the relief of Gibraltar by Admiral Sir George Rodney. He had the honour of taking the admiral s duplicate despatches back to England, arriving before Captain John MacBride who had sailed previously with the originals. During August 1780 he escorted a convoy out to New York, from where he sailed on to Charlestown and Barbados.

He was afterwards employed in settling the Guinea colonies of Demerara and Essequibo, but in November, being unable to obtain orders from his absent seniors, he escorted the trade to Barbados and from thence to England, there being no other vessels available to undertake this task. During his absence Demerara and Essequibo were captured by the French, so on his arrival home in January 1782 Thompson was court-martialled for the loss of these colonies. Honourably acquitted, his ship was paid off shortly afterwards.

He was appointed to command off West Africa in July 1783 with his broad pennant aboard the Grampus 50, but having briefly returned home in 1784 suffering from yellow fever he died aboard this vessel of a tropical fever on 17 January 1786, being buried at sea. When his crew first learned of his desperate illness they slaughtered his collection of animals, having attributed his condition to their presence.

Thompson married Mary Rigden at Westminster in 1766. In his will he named her as his ‘ungrateful wife’. And whilst leaving her £100, he bequeathed double that amount to a ‘faithful friend and companion, named as Mary Powell. Mary Rigden’s sister, Sarah, was the mother of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson, who Thompson and his wife adopted.

He wrote “Meretriciad” in 1755 and “Meretricious Miscellaneous Plays” and “A Sailors Letter” in 1767, as well as poems and sea songs which his men took great pleasure in singing to him. A great friend of David Garrick and of Samuel Johnson to whom he was also a benefactor, he was known as ‘Poet Thompson’ and was well known in London society.

Thompson told many tall stories, with the result that some of his claims could never be relied upon. During 1785 he carried an artist aboard his ship. He was beloved by his men, and one of his many protégés was another maverick, the future Rear-Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham.

My thanks to David Boulding for providing Thompson’s personal detail for this biography