George Darby

c1720-1790. He was the second son of Jonathon Darby of Leap Castle, King’s County in Ireland, and of his wife Anna Marie Frend.

After being promoted lieutenant on 7 September 1742, Darby was posted captain of the Warwick 60 on 12 September 1747 at Jamaica by Rear-Admiral Charles Knowles, and on 3 November he was appointed to the Aldborough 20 by that officer, seeing service in North America as well as Jamaica before his command was paid off in July 1749.

After remaining out of employment during the peace, he was appointed to the Seahorse 24 on 18 September 1755, which vessel had recently been docked and refitted at Chatham after coming home from North America. Initially operating out of Plymouth, she delivered a tender of pressed men from Liverpool to Spithead in early April 1756 before going out to Newfoundland in May at the commencement of the Seven Years War. When returning to European waters at the end of the year with the Newfoundland convoy, she captured a French Domingo-man, which she took into Lisbon. She subsequently arrived in the Downs in February 1757 from the Tagus with what was described as ‘a considerable amount of money’ for the merchants, and Darby vacated the command on 23 March.


Admiral George Darby

On 2 May 1757 he joined the Norwich 50, taking a convoy from the Downs to Portsmouth on 29 September, departing four days later for Plymouth with the trade, and then sailing for Cork to take charge of a convoy of seventeen transports for America. After arriving at New York on 12 December, his command returned to the Downs on 30 March 1758 with eight transports. On 8 April she went around to Portsmouth with another convoy, and after some time in the harbour she came out to join Admiral Lord Anson’s Channel Fleet at Spithead in June; however, she did not remain long with this force, for on 21 June she took on board seventy thousand guineas which had been escorted to Portsmouth by a party of Horse Guards, and which was destined for Boston. Departing for North America with a thirty-strong convoy on 2 July, she returned to Portsmouth on 18 December.

For the first few months of 1759 the Norwich appears to have remained at Portsmouth, and it was here that a fire broke out aboard her on 7 January, although this was extinguished without any significant damage. On 14 April she came out of the harbour for Spithead, and in June it was reported that she was to depart for the Downs with a convoy. Days later she became attached to Rear-Admiral George Rodney’s squadron which undertook the bombardment of Le Havre on 4 July. In early August the Norwich left the Downs on a cruise with the commander-in-chief of that station, Commodore William Boys, and at the end of September she came into Portsmouth from Dunkirk. After going out on another cruise, she arrived at Portsmouth from the coast of France with Rodney’s flag and several other men of war on 6 November. A week later she was back at sea with Rodney, and on 4 January 1760 she sailed from the Hampshire port for Havre de Grace with the same officer before returning to Portsmouth on 13 February.

Darby next commanded the Devonshire 66 from March 1760, in which he took a convoy out to Virginia and Maryland in the following month. In April 1761 this vessel was at Halifax with Commodore Lord Alexander Colville’s squadron, and in September she caused some consternation for the authorities at New York when she was able to cross over the Sandy Hook bar, thereby suggesting that an enemy fleet might be able to do the same. On 19 November she sailed from New York with a squadron and transports for the Leeward Islands where she participated in Admiral Rodney’s reduction of Martinique during early 1762. On the conclusion of that campaign, Darby had the honour of being sent home with dispatches, and after arriving home in March aboard the Nightingale 22, Captain John Brisbane, he was given £500 by the King towards the purchase of a sword.

A long period of unemployment ensued, during which Darby was promoted rear-admiral on 23 January 1778 and vice-admiral on 19 March 1779, in acknowledgement of which promotion he attended court a few days later and kissed the King’s hand. On 29 March he returned to service when he hoisted his flag aboard the Britannia 100, Captain Charles Morice Pole, as the second-in-command in the Channel Fleet to Admiral Sir Charles Hardy in order that he could preside over the court martial of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser in regard to that officer’s conduct at the Battle of Ushant. His appointment was engineered to ensure a favourable verdict for the government, to whit Palliser’s acquittal, and with the followers of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel refusing to serve, he was perhaps fortunate to continue in a sea-going role.

Charged with escorting Vice-Admiral Arbuthnot’s North American bound convoy out to sea with ten sail of the line at the end of May 1779, on which duty he temporarily flew his flag aboard the Royal George 100, Captain John Colpoys, Darby returned to Portsmouth on 10 June after evading a superior French fleet that had been sent out to intercept him. Re-hoisting his flag aboard the Britannia, he joined the Channel Fleet when it put to sea on 14 June, and he participated in its celebrated ‘retreat’ during August. When Admiral Hardy attended the King at Kew in early September, Darby temporarily assumed command of the fleet, and on 9 October he was ordered to patrol off the Irish coast with twelve sail of the line. In early December he again assumed the command of the fleet at Portsmouth in Hardy’s absence, and he nominally retained it until the following spring as Hardy’s health continued to decline.

Upon Admiral Hardy’s death on 18 May 1780, Darby became the second-in-command in the Channel to the elderly Admiral Francis Geary. Re-hoisting his flag aboard the Britannia, he was with the fleet when it sailed from Spithead on 8 June. In early August he struck his flag to go ashore and recover his own health, but following Geary’s resignation and that officer’s stopgap replacement by Admiral Thomas Pye, he succeeded to the command of the fleet on 7 September. Raising his flag at Portsmouth temporarily aboard the Royal George 100 and then Victory 100, he put to sea from Spithead four days later with his flag reinstalled aboard the Britannia 100, having the brilliant Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt as his captain of the fleet, and Captain James Bradby as his flag-captain. That he was thirty-fifth on the list of flag officers and the junior but one of the vice-admirals said much for his merit, and the perception that he could unite an officer corps that had become so divided by the political fall-out from the Battle of Ushant. Concurrently, he was elected one of the two members of parliament for Plymouth, and he also took on the additional role of a lord of the admiralty in succession to Vice-Admiral Robert Man.

A view of Gibraltar in 1782, the year after its relief by Admiral Darby,

Throughout the remainder of September and most of October 1780, the Channel Fleet was wind-bound at Torbay before putting to sea again on the 26th, by which time it had been reduced to twenty-two sail of the line through the reinforcement of Admiral Sir George Rodney’s Leeward Islands fleet. Passing Falmouth two days later and the Scilly Isles shortly afterwards, Darby proceeded to cruise some hundred miles off Cape Finisterre with orders to monitor the allied fleets, ensure the safety of the homeward-bound convoys and, if possible, to intercept the Comte de Guichen’s homeward-bound West Indies squadron and convoy, although he was not to know that force had already entered Cadiz. During the next seven weeks his ships suffered a good deal of damage in winter storms, and on 30 November, by which time he had been reduced to seventeen sail of the line, a superior enemy fleet was sighted. This force was later revealed to be the Comte d’Estaing’s thirty-six strong French sail of the line which had been cruising off Cape St. Vincent; however, he made no attempt to bring it to battle, thereby thwarting expectations at home of an impending naval victory. Amidst concerns for the homeward-bound East India convoy, Darby was ordered to remain at sea until finally, on 21 December, his fleet returned to St. Helens, having been on short rations for some time, and with confirmation that d’Estaing had entered Brest. Taking leave ashore, by the evening of Christmas Day Darby was back in his house at Cavendish Square.

With the government and its opposition constantly at loggerheads, the subject of Darby’s failure to engage the enemy fleet on 30 November soon became debated in Parliament and the Press. Insinuations were made that the strangers had in fact been de Guichen’s West Indies French convoy of fifteen sail of the line and one hundred other vessels, that Darby had lost sight of them the next day, and that when they were spotted again two days later, he should have pursued them. One report credited various captains with having to read the articles of war to several ship’s companies who were outraged at the failure to engage the enemy, and that Darby had been deceived as to their number. He was also accused of failing to send out frigates to monitor the enemy and of relying on a Dutch commander for confirmation of the French strength. Rumours that he might be court-martialled or removed proved false however, and in Parliament Lord Sandwich confirmed that Darby’s frigates had only been in the presence of an allied fleet for one day, and that although he had been vastly outnumbered, he had not run from the enemy.

For the first weeks of 1781 the Channel Fleet remained in port where they were victualled to sail at short notice, and on 31 January Darby returned to Portsmouth to resume his command. Contrary winds kept him at bay until on 13 March, flying his flag aboard the Britannia 100, Captain Bradby, he sailed from England to relieve Gibraltar with twenty-nine sail of the line and one hundred and seventy store ships. Leaving the Irish coast on 28 March with several other convoys under his care, he relieved the Rock on 12 April, but he was subsequently criticised for failing to support one of his look-out vessels, the Nonsuch 64, Captain Sir James Wallace, in her engagement with the French sail of the line Actif 74 in the Bay of Biscay on 14 May. He returned with part of the fleet to Portsmouth on 21 May, whereupon he set off for his property in Cavendish Square, London, prior to holding a conference with the King and attending the House of Commons.

Speculation that Darby was to retire proved unfounded, and on 8 June 1781 he sailed from Spithead with as many ships as he could muster. During the campaign that followed, his thirty scurvy-ridden ships faced the task of defending the Channel against nearly fifty allied sail of the line. Fortunately, a council of the allied officers preferred to seek out the homecoming British convoys rather than follow the inclination of their commander, Rear-Admiral de Guichen, to attack Darby’s fleet at Torbay in August, and when Darby did set off to look for the allies on 14 September, he soon learned that they had dispersed. On 5 November the fleet arrived back at Spithead, at least intact, and so once again his prudence had paid off.

Given Darby’s cautious nature it was perhaps fortunate for the country that he was ill when the government learned of the imminent departure of a heavily protected convoy from Brest some weeks later, for his indisposition allowed Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt to sail with twelve sail of the line from the Channel Fleet and brilliantly attack the French on 12 December. Once he had recovered his health, Darby continued to command the Channel Fleet throughout the winter of 1781, although he did not take to sea. Eventually, on the change of government in March 1782, he lowered his flag and resigned his post at the Admiralty after declining the role of second-in-command in the Channel to Admiral Lord Howe.

Darby continued to serve as the M.P. in the Admiralty interest for Plymouth until he lost his seat in 1784. There followed a decline in his health, which was not helped by an accident in February 1786 when his carriage, carrying himself and his daughters, overturned in London. He died two weeks after his wife, on 26 March 1790.

His first wife, whom he married on 4 June 1767 at St. Michaels Church in Bath, was Mary St. Quintin of Scampton in Yorkshire, the daughter of the M.P for Thirsk, Sir William St. Quintin, and an heiress with a twelve thousand pound fortune. She died on 27 March 1773 having borne him three sons, including the future Major-General Matthew Chitty Darby-Griffith, and two daughters. His second wife, Ann Jackson, whom he married in 1776, was the widow of Thomas Bridges, and she died in Cavendish Square on 12 March 1790, thereby predeceasing him by two weeks. His nephew, Henry d’Esterre Darby, commanded the Bellerophon 74 at the Battle of the Nile. In addition to his property in Cavendish Square, Darby’s country residence was Newton House, Hampshire, just south of Newbury in Berkshire, which he had owned from the 1760’s. It was reported at his death that two surviving sons would inherit one hundred and twenty thousand guineas each, equivalent to an aggregated sum of about thirty million pounds in current day value.

A modest man of average abilities, Darby’s appointment to the command of the Channel Fleet was born of political expediency, as worthier officers such as Sir Robert Harland in 1779 and Hon. Samuel Barrington in 1780 had refused the post due to misgivings over the support they would receive from the government, and in particular from Lord Sandwich at the Admiralty. Darby himself was largely non-political, but despite the comments of one observer who pronounced him an ‘old woman’ he was seen as a safe pair of hands at a difficult time, and a man whose neutrality, tactfulness, and openness could unite the differing factions in the Navy and bring desperately needed stability to the home fleet.