Hon. Augustus Keppel 1st Viscount
1725-86. He was born on 25 April 1725, the second son of the Whig aristocrat and diplomat Willem Anne Van Keppel, the 2nd Earl of Albemarle, and of his wife Lady Anne Lennox, the daughter of the 1st Earl Richmond, who in turn was the illegitimate son of King Charles II and his mistress the Duchess of Portsmouth. Keppel’s grandfather had come to England from the Netherlands with King William III. He was a distant cousin of the Whig politician Charles James Fox, the uncle of the illegitimate Captains George Keppel and George Augustus Keppel, and a cousin of Admiral Hon. Sir George Cranfield Berkeley.
After two years schooling at Westminster, Keppel entered the Navy in 1735 aboard the Oxford 50, Captain William Swayle, voyaging to Guinea, followed by a stint in the Gloucester 50 flying the broad pennant of Commodore George Clinton in the Mediterranean. He next served on the Prince Frederick 70, Captain Lord Aubrey Beauclerk.
From 1740-4 he sailed in Commodore George Anson’s famous voyage around the world aboard the Centurion 50, during which he served under Lieutenant Piercey Brett in the burning of the town of Paita in modern-day Peru, being lucky to survive a shot that tore off the peak of a jockey’s cap that he was wearing. He was promoted an acting-lieutenant in March 1742, was present at the capture of the Spanish treasure galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga off the Philippines on 20 June 1743, and his lieutenancy was confirmed following his return to England and an examination on 25 April 1744.
On 4 August 1744 Keppel was appointed to the Dreadnought 60, Captain Hon. Edward Boscawen, serving in the Channel, and towards the end of September he returned to Dover aboard the Ostend packet in the expectation of being again advanced in rank. On 7 November he was promoted commander of the sloop Wolf 14, and his considerable patronage saw him posted captain of the Greyhound 20 for purposes of rank on 11 December. After joining the Sapphire 44 and serving off Ireland from February 1745, he enjoyed some success against the enemy privateers during the War of the Austrian Succession, one capture being the Nantes-based West Indiaman Attalante 18 on 15 April, and another the Bilbao-based Spanish privateer Superbe 16 on 21 May, both of which prizes were carried into Kinsale.
On 26 October 1745 he was appointed to the relatively new Maidstone 50, serving in the Western Squadron and taking the privateers Barnabas on 17 May 1746, Hasard two days later, and the St. Malo based Furet 4 on 1 June after chasing her away from Falmouth. Next joining the fleet off Cape Finisterre in the autumn, he took the storeship Pénélope on 1 December, sent a prize Martinique merchantman valued at 6,000 guineas into Lisbon in March 1747, although her consort of equal value taken at the same time sank, and captured the Granville-based privateer Revanche 22 off Portland on 4 June 1747, which he sent into Portsmouth. His luck ran out on 27 June when the Maidstone drove ashore off Belle Isle when in chase of an enemy privateer, and although he and his crew were taken prisoner to Nantes, Keppel returned home on parole a few weeks later. After being exchanged he was acquitted for the loss of the Maidstone on 31 October and immediately appointed to the Anson 60, brand new off the stocks at Burlesdon, commanding her in the Channel and retaining her after the end of the war in the following year.
Political interest then helped him to obtain the command of a small squadron in the Mediterranean in August 1748 with his broad pennant flying aboard the Centurion 60, which vessel remained fitting out at Sheerness during the autumn. His primary task was to visit the Dey of Algiers and prevail upon him to stop his attacks on the British trade in that region, and in particular to restore effects taken from the packet boat Prince Frederick. Sailing from England on 11 May 1749, he first appeared before Algiers on 24 June with the Centurion and three other men-of-war. When the Dey demanded to know why a beardless boy had been sent to treat with him Keppel replied that if a man’s wisdom was to be measured by the length of his beard then King George might as well have sent a he-goat. The remark did not amuse the Dey who threatened to terminate Keppel’s existence there and then, but was prevented from doing so when the young officer pointed out of the window at his squadron in the bay. Although negotiations proved fruitful, the Algerians soon perpetrated a further attack on a British vessel and so Keppel returned on 9 August with seven men-of-war to confront a more respectful Dey who vowed that no such further outrages would occur. In the summer of 1751 it was reported that after six weeks negotiation, Keppel had finally settled all the differences with the Dey, and he was also able to negotiate treaties with the rulers of Tripoli and Tunis
In the early part of 1752 Keppel’s squadron attempted to enter the Spanish port of Cartagena to take on board water but were ordered by the governor to sheer off. When he demanded an explanation for such an unwelcome peacetime reception he was answered with a volley of shot. It transpired that the governor had demanded that the British squadron should perform quarantine as it had arrived from North Africa, even though Keppel believed that such a regulation was generally not applicable to men-of war, and that he could vouch for the good health of his men. The squadron returned to Portsmouth in August 1752 carrying presents from the Dey including two ostriches and a lioness for King George, six ostriches for other members of the nobility, and a fifteen hands-high brown-bay Arabian horse, considered to be the finest ever seen in England, for Keppel himself. Shortly afterwards the Centurion was paid off.
In October 1754 Keppel was appointed the commander-in-chief in North America with his broad pennant once more aboard the Centurion 60, Captain William Mantell. Sailing for Virginia from Spithead on 23 December in company with the Norwich 50, Captain Hon. Samuel Barrington, and having Major-General Edward Braddock and other Army officers aboard, a rendezvous was made with transports conveying two thousand troops which were safely landed at Hampton on 20 February 1755, despite the ships suffering damage in a violent storm five days earlier. On 19 April Keppel and Braddock held a conference with several colonial governors at Annapolis to plan operations against the French, whose incursions against the settlers had become a major issue. He was superseded in the early summer by Vice-Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen when other captains senior to him arrived on the station, and he returned to Europe aboard the Seahorse 24, Captain Hugh Palliser, arriving at Spithead on 20 August. In the meantime, in January, he had been elected the M.P. for Chichester in the interest of the Treasury and of his cousin, the young Duke of Richmond, and in the room of his brother who had succeeded as the Earl of Albemarle.
After returning home Keppel was immediately appointed to the newly commissioned Swiftsure 70 in August 1755, leaving town for Chatham in mid-October to take command. His ship went down river at the end of the month, but by 15 November he was back in London to take his seat in the House of Commons as the M.P for Chichester. Re-hoisting his commodore’s broad pennant having left the Swiftsure, he was appointed to the Torbay 74 in January 1756, departing Portsmouth with three other men-of-war for a cruise off Brest at the beginning of March but soon returning to join his brother with the Duke of Cumberland’s party in viewing the new forts between Postbridge and Langton Harbour near Portsmouth.
At the end of March 1756 he embarked on another cruise with the Essex 70, Captain Robert Harland, and Gibraltar 20, Captain John Hollwall, and at the beginning of April received orders to sail for Minorca in command of a squadron of four other men-of-war conveying troops before having those orders countermanded when under sail. After another false start occasioned by adverse winds his squadron departed for a destination unknown, and with war having been declared against France on 18 May it was eventually revealed that he was cruising in the Bay of Biscay. On 1 August he returned to Portsmouth before putting out once more towards the end of September, and whilst in command of a small squadron off Cape Finisterre he captured the Chariot Royal 36 and several other vessels in November, returning with his prizes to Plymouth in early December.
During January 1757 Keppel sat on Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng’s court-martial, in which that officer was convicted of failing to do his utmost to prevent the fall of Minorca. Although Keppel was one of the signatories to the ensuing death sentence, he soon regretted his involvement and tried manfully to gain Byng a pardon by attempting to invoke parliamentary intervention. Considering himself to be ill-equipped for speaking in the House of Commons, he requested another M.P., Sir Francis Dashwood, to move a bill, but he was nevertheless prevailed upon to speak by William Pitt the Elder, and he did so with such eloquence that the sentence was deferred for a fortnight. Sadly however his further efforts were not supported by his contemporaries and Byng was executed.
On 9 April 1757 Keppel returned to the Torbay at Portsmouth, prior to going out of the harbour on 17 May. During August he was at Spithead with the Grand Fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, and he continued with that force for the greater part of the rest of the year, including a participation in the unsuccessful expedition against Rochefort during September. At the end of December it was reported that in company with the Isis 50, Captain Edward Wheeler, he had taken an immensely rich French ship from the South Seas in the Bay of Biscay, and had sent her into Plymouth.
On 8 February 1758 the Torbay came into Portsmouth with a captured 26-gun privateer, the Rostan from Bordeaux, which had apparently been sent out with an additional hundred volunteers to attempt the capture of the Tartar 28, Captain John Lockhart, which frigate had enjoyed much success against the French. Astonishingly the privateer endured a four and a half hour engagement with her immensely larger opponent, losing twenty-six men killed and many wounded in return for three men killed aboard the Torbay. Having putting a prize crew aboard, Keppel was then forced to bear down on the privateer once more as some ninety previously concealed Frenchmen endeavoured to re-take their ship. Thereafter he returned to cruise in command of a small squadron in the Bay of Biscay, sending four Canada-bound French supply ships into Falmouth on 23 May, and putting into Spithead days later.
In September 1758 it was announced that Keppel was to have the command of an expedition that was fitting out at Portsmouth to be sent out to take the French settlement and privateer nest of Gorée, off the present day coast of Senegal. On 6 October he attended the King at Kensington with Admiral Lord Anson, on the 19th his squadron with transports departed St. Helens for Cork, and after reaching the Irish port three days later it departed on 11 November having embarked six hundred troops under Colonel Richard Alchorne Worge. The voyage to Africa was disrupted by fogs and foul weather, and on 29 November the Litchfield 50, Captain Matthew Barton, together with a transport, was lost on the Barbary Coast with over one hundred casualties, and with Barton and his surviving crew being held hostage after being taken to Morocco. The remaining force arrived in Gorée Bay on 28 December and the next morning attacked the French batteries and forts. Initially the overwhelmed garrison demanded to be allowed to march out with the honours of war, but when Keppel rejected these terms and renewed his attack the enemy soon capitulated without the necessity of an assault by the troops in the waiting flat-bottomed boats. Departing the African coast on 27 January, Keppel reached Spithead with four sail of the line at the end of February, and he set off for London whilst the Torbay entered dock for a refit.
After rejoining the Grand Fleet once more, Keppel commanded four sail of the line in a cruise during June 1759 and then led the line of battle with Captain Lord Howe and three others at the decisive Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November. Here his ship nearly sunk following a fierce engagement with the Thesée 74, which vessel did suffer this misfortune, with all but twenty lives being lost from a crew of eight hundred men. Following the battle he was detached with a squadron of nine sail of the line to monitor the shattered remains of the French fleet in the Basque Roads, and on his approach the enemy cut their cables and either ran aground or worked their way up the River Charente towards Rochefort.
In February 1760 Keppel was appointed a colonel of marines, and at the end of April he arrived at Portsmouth to take command of the brand new Valiant 74, in which he put out for the Bay of Biscay for what proved to be an uneventful summer watching over the reduced French fleet. During October he arrived at St. Helens from Plymouth with a small squadron and a body of troops preparatory to embarking on a secret expedition, but clearly time was not of the essence for days later he appeared in Windsor to announce himself as a candidate in the interest of the Duke of Cumberland for the forthcoming election, a seat that he won. On 19 November he returned to Portsmouth, and eleven days later the expedition consisting of twelve men of war and two hundred transports conveying twelve hundred troops sailed out of the port under the overall command of Lieutenant-General William Kingsley. For some time the force remained off St. Helens before on 8 January 1761 the men-of-war, bar Keppel’s Valiant, took off to the west whilst he remained awaiting further orders. Finally, in February 1761, the Valiant was taken into Portsmouth Harbour to be fitted. It appears that what had been a prospective expedition to Mauritius and Bourbon had been cancelled as a consequence, amongst other circumstances, of the death of King George II, and a new target for the force had been decided upon, this being the island of Belle Isle off the coast of Brittany.
On 14 March 1761 Keppel arrived in Portsmouth from London, and with Captain Adam Duncan commanding the Valiant under his broad pennant he sailed out on the 29th in command of a fleet of ten sail of the line and sundry other vessels to attempt the capture of Belle Isle. Unfavourable winds prevented the expedition from reaching the coast of France until 6 April, and with the enemy resistance far superior to that which had been envisaged an initial attack was repulsed two days later with the loss of five hundred troops, leaving Keppel to pen an official letter home stating that he had little hope of success. However, further reconnaissance discovered an unlikely but possible landing spot on the rocks near Point Lomaria for which the French defences were unprepared, and the British force was bolstered when reinforcements including five sail of the line were sent to join Keppel. Once a foothold had been gained more ground was gradually occupied, and on 7 June the French citadel at Palais surrendered and the island passed into British hands. Remaining at Belleisle, Keppel stretched his men-of-war along the neighbouring islands in a blockading measure which totally strangled the French trade. A violent winter storm on 12 January 1762 eventually sent the men-of-war scuttling for home, and when the Valiant reached Dartmouth it was in a distressed condition and with five feet of water in her hold. After sailing around to Portsmouth Keppel then took off for London.
In early February 1762 Keppel arrived once more at Portsmouth, and on 5 March he sailed for the West Indies aboard the Valiant as second-in-command to Admiral Sir George Pocock, earning an unexpected bonus a week later when his ship captured a French East Indiaman, the St. Priest. Despite false newspaper reports in early July of his death, he superintended the landing of troops at the capture of Havana, which valuable Spanish possession surrendered on 13 August. He received 25,000 guineas in prize-money for his efforts, whilst his elder brother and the commander-in-chief of the army, the Earl of Albemarle, earned £100,000, and another brother, a general on the staff, also earned £25,000. That such a prominent set of Whigs as the Keppel family had been able to establish an immense fortune en masse was not received with a great deal of approval by their many political opponents, and a further sign of their standing came when Keppel was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral on 21 October after the list of promoted officers had been extended to include him.
Following Pocock’s departure for home on 3 November Keppel remained as the commander-in-chief of the Jamaican station, and shortly afterwards, having seven sail of the line, two frigates and a cutter under his command, he co-operated with half-a-dozen West Indian and New York privateers in the interception of a homeward-bound Cap François convoy of twenty-six richly laden merchantmen. Reports as to the scale of the captures were contradictory, with many claiming that the men-of-war were responsible for taking eighteen vessels in addition to the escort of three merchant frigates and a sloop of 18 guns. However, later advices stated that when Keppel and part of his squadron arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica on 3 November, they had taken just four merchant vessels in addition to the four merchant men-of-war. Whatever the haul, newspaper reports at home revelled in the likely riches earned.
Despite poor health occasioned by the Havana campaign that would dog him thereafter, Keppel continued to command the Jamaica station once hostilities with France and Spain came to an end, and in July 1763 he arrived at Havana to oversee its return to Spanish authority, prior to returning to Port Royal at the beginning of August. His tenure came to an end in May 1764 when he departed Jamaica for England in ill-health aboard the Valiant, reaching Portsmouth after a seven-week voyage in June.
Meanwhile, during 1763 Keppel had been appointed a groom of the bedchamber to the King, and he served as a lord commissioner of the Admiralty from July 1765 until August 1766, in which month he and most of the board resigned on the fall of the Marquess of Rockingham’s government. Days later he kissed the King’s hand on his reinstatement to the board in the Earl of Chatham’s government, and during the early part of October he commanded the royal yachts which conveyed the 15 year-old Princess Caroline Matilda to Holland for her passage on to Denmark where she had been betrothed to King Christian VII. Keppel left the Admiralty again in December with the first lord, Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, after the Rockingham sect had fallen out with the prime minister over the dismissal of Lord Edgcumbe from his position as Treasurer of the Household, at which point Keppel was also dismissed from his post as groom of the bedchamber. During his time at the Admiralty he had been regarded as a bright element in a not very bright administration.
Thereafter he remained in the thick of the political scene with his membership of the Rockingham and Richmond group, although he rarely spoke in Parliament on anything but naval matters. In September 1767 he sailed for Portugal with his recently widowed sister, Lady Elizabeth Keppel, the Marchioness of Tavistock, aboard the Seaford 20, Captain John Macbride, and on 24 October 1770 he was promoted vice-admiral and appointed commander-in-chief of a small force amidst the threatened escalation of the dispute with Spain over the Falkland Islands. In the event a resolution was found and he did not have to raise his flag. In the spring of 1774 he was to be found in France at Nice, and in April 1775 a request by Admiral Saunders for Keppel to be given a command under him in the Channel fleet was rejected by the first lord of the Admiralty, the Earl of Sandwich.
Despite the personal entreaty of the King, Keppel remained unemployed when the American Revolutionary War escalated because of his opposition to Lord North’s government treatment of the colonies, and largely as a result his junior, Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, was appointed a lieutenant-general of marines, this being a post that Keppel had long coveted. In November 1776 he did accept a request from the King to return to service if, as then seemed possible, the French decided to intervene in the war, but as that threat dissipated in the following spring he agreed with Sandwich, with whom he attempted to retain cordial relations despite their opposing political views, that he would visit Aix-le-Chapelle and then winter overseas. On 29 January 1778 he was promoted admiral in accordance with seniority, and with the threat of war with France re-emerging he wrote to Sandwich on 15 March summarising the predicaments he felt he might encounter in commanding the fleet of a government he did not support. Nevertheless, he felt able to accept the command of the Channel fleet on 22 March.
Arriving at Portsmouth, Keppel was dismayed to find but six ships of the line ready for sea, which was contrary to the claim Sandwich had made in parliament the previous November when he had stated there were thirty-five available capital ships. With a similarly deplorable lack of stores he was left with much to do, not least to prepare for a review of the fleet by the King in the first week of May. His flag was raised aboard the Prince George 90, Captain Jonathon Faulknor, and in the middle of May transferred to the Victory 100, Captain Faulknor, with his friend Rear-Admiral John Campbell becoming his captain of the fleet. After many exertions by these and other returning officers who had refused to fight the Americans, he was able to release Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker and eleven ships of the line to join Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s expedition to North America. With his remaining twenty ships of the line he sailed on 12 June to cruise off Ushant, but learning that the French had a superior number he returned to Spithead for reinforcements. His arrival on 27 June was met with hostility by government supporters who broadcast the opinion that Keppel was attempting to undermine confidence in the administration, and that he already had an ample enough force with which to serve out the French.
On 9 July he returned to sea with twenty-four sail-of-the-line, being joined off Ushant shortly afterwards by an additional six, and eighteen days later, on 27 July, he fought the sharp but indecisive Battle of Ushant against the French fleet. The reluctance of his third-in-command and political opponent, Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, to obey his orders was cited as the main reason for his failure to defeat the enemy. Initially Keppel was hurt by Palliser’s conduct, for the two men had been long-standing friends in spite of their opposing political views, but he was anxious to avoid a confrontation with his subordinate for fear of destroying the fragile morale of the fleet. In addition he did not trust Lord Sandwich to support any action that might censure his political stooge, so Keppel decided to take the safe option of officially praising Palliser for his part in the action.
In no time however, Keppel’s true appraisement of Palliser’s role in the battle became widespread amongst the establishment. Upon anchoring at Spithead on 28 October after two months at sea, Palliser learned of the commander-in-chief’s disapproval and visited Keppel to demand that he sign a document condoning his conduct in the battle. Unsurprisingly Keppel refused to do so and a quarrel developed which quickly reached the House of Commons, resulting in Palliser’s demand for a court-martial on Keppel. This outcome was to the great dismay of the members of parliament, the Navy, and the public as a whole.
The court-martial began under the reluctant presidency of Admiral Sir Thomas Pye aboard the Britannia 100 at Portsmouth on 7 January 1779, removing thereafter to the governor’s house out of deference to Keppel’s poor health. Palliser led for the prosecution, and among the many witnesses called were Vice-Admiral John Campbell, Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland, and the majority of the captains who had fought in the battle. On 11 February Keppel was honourably and unanimously acquitted, the charges against him being described as ‘malicious and ill-founded.’ Government members’ homes in London were torched in the ensuing public joy, bonfires were burned in Keppel’s honour, and pubs all over the land had their signs repainted with a representation of Keppel’s portrait.
Next it was Keppel’s turn to accuse Palliser of disobeying orders, but the vice-admiral was also acquitted of the charge, not least because his supporters in the government recalled their favoured officers to sit on the court-martial and despatched Keppel’s supporters to sea. The general consensus remained that Keppel had been unjustly charged, and that Palliser should have been found guilty. On 18 March Keppel was ordered to strike his flag after informing the King that he could no longer serve under Lord Sandwich. With him departed his chief followers and many talented officers who considered an injustice had been perpetrated, these including Admirals Harland and Campbell, and Captain Robert Kingsmill. Even so, Keppel did lose some support in the country for not setting political arguments aside to resume his command of the Channel fleet and meet the French threat.
Having returned to the world of politics, Keppel never missed an opportunity to attack the government, and such was the enmity against him from the latter that when he stood for re-election at Windsor the King moved servants in to the royal houses to enable them to vote against him, resulting in a loss by sixteen votes. He was very quickly elected the M.P. for Surrey, and on the fall of Lord North’s administration in 1782 he was appointed the first lord of the Admiralty under Lord Rockingham on 20 March, being created Viscount Keppel and Baron Elden on 26 April. It was his orders that controversially brought the victorious Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney back from the Leeward Islands, although he personally did not acquiesce with the government in determining this ultimately unpopular recall. In unscrupulously promoting his followers, Keppel also attempted to remove Palliser from his coveted position at Greenwich Hospital, an action that many found disreputable. After leaving the post in January 1783 following the death of Rockingham, Keppel resumed it from April in the administration headed by Lord Shelburne, Charles James Fox and Lord North. His was an undistinguished period in office, and it terminated when he resigned upon William Pitt assuming the role of prime minister on 30 December 1783.
Keppel’s health, already fragile from his time in the Caribbean, continued to deteriorate and after taking leave of the King at St. James in August 1785 he went out from Portsmouth to Gibraltar with his daughter in September aboard the Phaeton 38, Captain George Dawson, proceeding thereafter to Naples where he spent the winter convalescing. In April 1786 he visited Rome with what was described as a large retinue, and in June was at Genoa before departing for England aboard the Andromache 32, Captain William Henry King O’Hara, to arrive at Portsmouth in July. Apparently much restored in health, he set off for his residence at Bagshot where the Prince of Wales had spent the previous winter hunting, but once back on native soil he entered another decline, and he died of gout of the stomach on 2 October at his magnificent estate of Elvedon Hall, near Thetford, Suffolk.
Keppel never married, but he had an illegitimate daughter who was probably born in the mid 1760’s, and by 1761 he had become the godfather to a black seaman. In 1768, whilst on passage to Lisbon in a packet boat, he fell and injured his back, and as a consequence he remained handicapped in the use of his legs throughout the rest of his life. At that time he had already lost the majority of his teeth and his hair to scurvy, a legacy of the Anson voyage. In his early career he was often known as ‘Van Keppel’.
From 1755-61 Keppel was the M.P for Chichester, 1761-80 the M.P for Windsor, and 1780-2 the M.P for Surrey. He became a privy councillor in March 1782. A Whig aristocrat and darling of the Rockingham sect, his political views conflicted with his naval career. When serving as the first lord of the Admiralty he failed to establish a satisfactory relationship with the efficient comptroller of the navy, Captain Sir Charles Middleton, whom he personally despised, and this partly accounted for his uninspiring performance in that post. He reportedly left a large legacy to his friend, the eminent Whig politician Charles James Fox.
An exceptional officer, having immense experience and being a scholar of his trade, even his many political opponents admired his abilities and character. He was popular in public life as well as in the navy and many pubs and hostelries were happy to bear the sign of the ‘Keppel’s Head’. Some people however queried his pedigree to command a fleet, citing his caution, poor health and nervousness. He spoke openly and candidly, was affable and amiable, prudent and diligent, courageous and active, and universally esteemed, particularly by the common seamen. Admiral Boscawen said of him that there was no better seaman, nor ‘few so good and not a better officer’. His prize money from the 1762 Havana Expedition ensured that he was able to live the life of a rich man, although he still lost much of his fortune in electoral costs, his trial in 1779, and the improvement of his property at Bagshot. He was a friend of Admirals Howe, Duncan, Rodney, Campbell and Laforey, and of the famous artist Joshua Reynolds, who painted many portraits of him