George William Augustus Courtenay
1763-93. Born in Bath, he was a younger son of a dozen children of William Courtenay of Ireland, and of his wife, Lady Jane Stuart. Through his mother he was a nephew of the 2nd Earl of Bute, and was the first cousin to the 3rd Earl Bute who had served as the prime minister from 1762-3.
Courtenay entered the Navy in 1775 and saw service aboard the Fox 28, Captain Hon. Thomas Windsor in 1778, although it is not clear whether he was present at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July, or in the engagement with the heavier French frigate Junon 32 on 10 September that saw the Fox strike her colours and her officers and crew become prisoners of war.
He was aboard the fireship Salamander 16, Commander Hon. Seymour Finch, at the capture of St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781 and a later account stated that when the boats of the fleet were sent to attack a 30-gun letter of marque that was coming into the roads Admiral Sir George Rodney issued a signal of recall, but that Courtenay decided to attack anyway from his jolly boat, and that the other boats then rejoined him to board the enemy and carry her. During the attack it was said that Courtenay received a musket ball in his knee, and that as a reward for his gallantry he was commissioned lieutenant on 29 July.
At the tender age of eighteen Courtenay was posted captain on 19 April 1782, having reportedly been the first lieutenant of Rodney’s flagship Formidable 98, Captain John Symons, at the Battle of the Saintes seven days earlier on 12 April. His first appointment was to the temporary command of the Anson 64 to replace the late Captain William Blair, but days later he transferred to the small frigate Eurydice 24 and was sent home with duplicate despatches announcing the victory at the Battle of the Saintes. Following his arrival at the Admiralty on 25 May he was revered in the newspapers for being one of the youngest officers ever to have been posted captain, although his promotion would not be confirmed by the Admiralty until 7 March 1783.
In July 1782 the Eurydice left Portsmouth for Plymouth with money for the dockyard, and she then sailed out to the Channel where on 1 September she drove several small vessels ashore under the fort at Carteret in Normandy, and ten days later captured a small privateer cutter and her prize off Cherbourg. She then returned to the Downs where she cruised under the orders of Commodore John Elliot, and on 14 October took the French brig Samea 14 off the Ile de Batz, losing one man killed and one wounded. In November she went out on a cruise from Portsmouth once more with Elliot’s squadron which had been detailed to escorting the West India convoy to a safe latitude, and by December she was back cruising in the Channel. Less happily, the Eurydice appeared in the newspapers for unfortunate reasons in February 1783 when one of her midshipmen stabbed a fellow messmate to death on deck after a heated argument when returning to the frigate from ashore in a boat.
After being paid off in March 1783 the Eurydice was recommissioned in April, and she sailed from Portsmouth for the East Indies on 10 October with news of the Treaty of Paris, reaching the Cape in December and arriving at Madras on 8 March 1784. Whilst remaining on that station and serving with the fleet under Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes Courtenay got married, and he brought the Eurydice back to Portsmouth from the East Indies in May 1785 in the company of the Sultan74, Captain Thomas Troubridge, with Hughes’ flag, whereupon his command was docked for repairs prior to being paid off once more.
In February 1790 he commissioned the thirty-year old Pearl 32, going out to the Mediterranean in May where he temporarily commanded the station following the return home of Vice-Admiral Joseph Peyton in the spring of 1792. The Pearl came back to Spithead in August 1792 from Malaga with one hundred and ninety thousand dollars aboard, and she was paid off shortly afterwards.
Recommissioning the similarly venerable Boston 32 in December 1792, Courtenay captured the Dunkirk privateer Hirondelle 16 in the North Sea on 20 March 1793, which prize he sent into Dover. His command then entered Portsmouth at the end of March and sailed for Newfoundland in April with a huge convoy.
Captain Courtenay was killed on 31 July 1793 during an inconclusive action between the Boston and the well-crewed French frigate Embuscade 34 off New Jersey, a duel that had been triggered by Courtenay’s challenge to the Frenchman. Some historians and members of his own family later questioned whether Courtenay had merely been unconscious and not dead when his body had been thrown overboard during the action by Lieutenant John Edwards to prevent the crew from seeing his body lying on the deck.
He married Frances Ogle, the daughter of a general, in Fort St. George, Madras in September 1784, and they had a son who died young and two daughters. His widow and children received a pension from the King following Courtenay’s death. Admiral John Hayes was one of his protégés and, although young at the time, was one of his executors. At his death he left a property at Twickenham.
Courtenay was well-regarded and extremely well-connected, and in 1782 had been described as ‘an excellent officer and a gallant young man’.