Hon. Robert Digby

1732-1815. Born on 20 December 1732, he was the third son of the Hon. Edward Digby, the Tory M.P for Warwickshire from 1726-46, and of his wife Charlotte Fox, the sister to the Earl of Ilchester and Lord Holland. He was the grandson of William, 5th Baron Digby in the Irish peerage, the younger brother of Henry, first Earl Digby, and the uncle to Admiral Sir Henry Digby, Captain Charles George Digby, and Captain Stephen Thomas Digby. The prominent Whig politician, Charles James Fox, was a first cousin on his mother’s side.

Little is known of Digby’s early career, other than on 29 October 1752 he was commissioned lieutenant. On 14 February 1755 he was promoted commander on the Jamaican station of the sloop Weazle 16, and after vacating that vessel and returning home, he was posted captain on 5 August to the frigate Solebay 20 for purposes of rank only.

On 11 February 1756 he was appointed to commission the new sixth-rate Biddeford 20, which was launched at Woolwich on 2 March. Initially employed in the Downs, his command enjoyed a measure of success cruising against the enemy in the opening months of the Seven Years War. On 14 July she departed Portsmouth Harbour, but she was back in early October before resuming her cruising She sailed for Jamaica on 7 December, achieving the crossing in a remarkable three weeks, and she came home from that station in May 1757 with bullion amounting to 300,000 guineas, which had to be transported up to London in eleven wagons.

Digby succeeded Captain Lord Howe in command of the Dunkirk 60 on 13 June 1757, in which vessel he participated in the unsuccessful expedition against Rochefort during September. On 8 November, his command arrived at Portsmouth with Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel’s squadron having recently recaptured a Bristolian merchant vessel, and at the end of year she sent two outward-bound French prizes into Portsmouth. In December, Digby was elected unopposed in a by-election as the M.P. for Wells in his family interest, but he does not appear to have spoken in Parliament, and he vacated the seat in 1761 in favour of his younger brother, Henry, who served in the Whig interest.


Admiral Digby

On 23 April 1758 the Dunkirk was at Plymouth with two outward-bound Indiamen, and on 29 May she arrived at Portsmouth from a cruise in the Bay of Biscay, during which she had chased a French 74-gun man-of-war for three days without bringing her to action before losing her in a fog, with Digby even forsaking the possible capture of seventeen French merchantmen in his determination to engage the enemy vessel. In early August, the Dunkirk came into Portsmouth after another unsuccessful cruise in the Bay of Biscay, and she was ordered to join Commodore Keppel’s expedition against the French settlement and privateer nest of Gorée, off the present day coast of Senegal. Reaching Cork on 22 October, the expedition sailed from Kinsale on 12 November and was back at Spithead by 2 March 1759. Thereafter, the Dunkirk was attached to Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s Grand Fleet, and she was present at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November.

In March 1760 the Dunkirk arrived at Cork from the Bay of Biscay, receiving orders shortly afterwards to put around to Kinsale and take under convoy three homeward-bound West Indiamen, and during May she came out of Portsmouth Harbour. After sailing for the Mediterranean to serve under the orders of Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Saunders, she embarked the British ambassador to the Ottoman Porte, Henry Grenville, together his family, at Naples on 25 January 1762, prior to arriving at Constantinople on 5 March. Returning to England in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War, the Dunkirk went into Portsmouth Harbour on 28 March and was paid off on 11 April.

Although he did not enjoy another command at sea for the next fourteen years, Digby was appointed a colonel of marines on 4 April 1775.

On 18 March 1777 during the early stages of the American Revolutionary War, he was appointed to the Trident 64, but it appears that he did not take her to sea, and instead, on 29 April, he joined the Ramillies 74, in which he raised a commodore’s broad pennant in command of a small squadron which cruised to the westward from 11 November until 26 December that year. In April 1778 his squadron of five sail of the line arrived at Spithead from a cruise in the Bay of Biscay having failed to find a French fleet of transports which he had been ordered to intercept.

Joining the Grand Fleet, the Ramillies served in Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser’s division at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, where she suffered twelve deaths and sixteen men injured, and she remained employed with that force for the remainder of the year whilst political recriminations over the conduct of the battle simmered. Although the factual evidence Digby gave on behalf of Palliser at Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel’s court martial in January 1779 favoured the latter’s cause, and despite the fact that he was a cousin of the leading Whig, Charles James Fox, he was nevertheless recognised as being well disposed to the government, and so in order that he could sit on Palliser’s own forthcoming court martial, a general promotion was instigated at the King’s behest to allow his advancement to the rank of rear-admiral on 19 March.

After Digby’s flag was raised at Spithead aboard the Namur 90, Captain Philip Patton, he kissed the King’s hand on 8 April 1779 in recognition of his promotion before taking off for Portsmouth to attend Palliser’s court martial. Meanwhile in the House of Commons, concern was expressed over his sitting on the trial when he had previously given evidence on behalf of Palliser at Keppel’s court-martial, and the controversy was further inflamed when Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland resigned his command in the Grand Fleet on the basis that he could not have Digby serving under him, as he ‘could expect the same lack of obedience that Palliser had shown to Keppel’. As a sign of the King’s seal of approval however, Prince William was ordered to begin his naval career by joining Digby’s flagship, and on 22 May, following Palliser’s acquittal, the rear-admiral’s flag was raised at Portsmouth aboard the Prince George 98, Captain Patton. This ship was with the Grand Fleet when it dropped down to St. Helens on 16 June, and as third in command to Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, Digby was present in the August retreat up the Channel from the allied fleet.

On Boxing Day 1779, the Prince George sailed with Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet for the relief of Gibraltar, and following the capture of an entire Spanish convoy and its escort on 8 January 1780, she was present at the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent on 16 January, where she captured the San Julian 70. Proceeding with the fleet to relieve Gibraltar, Digby was directed to lead the fleet into the Rock in heavy weather, and upon Rodney departing for the West Indies, he returned to England in command of fifteen sail of the line, together with the emptied supply ships and the Spanish prizes. During his passage home, ships under his command captured the richly laden Protée 64, thereby adding prize money reported as about eleven thousand guineas to the twenty thousand or so which would be his share of the captures of the Spanish convoy, the whole amounting to almost £5m in today’s money. After reaching England in early March, he travelled up to London with Prince William and held an audience with the King before attending the Queen a few days later with his brothers, Lord Digby and the Dean of Durham. Shortly afterwards he set out for Bath, but he was back in London in early April to ride through the city and over Blackfriars Bridge with Prince William on their way to view the dockyard at Deptford.

At the end of May 1780 Digby rehoisted his flag at Spithead aboard the Prince George, with Captain William Fox taking the position of flag-captain in place of Captain Patton, with whom Digby had fallen out. Following the death of Admiral Hardy, Digby became the fourth-in-command to Admiral Francis Geary when the Grand Fleet sailed on 8 June, and shortly afterwards his flagship had a narrow escape when a hurricane off Cape Finisterre threw her within a ‘biscuit’s toss’ of the Duke 90, Captain Sir Charles Douglas. On 10 August he took a squadron of ten sail of the line down the Channel, and after a brief return he was back at sea again on the 28th, passing Plymouth two days later to cruise off the Scilly Isles. Following the resignations of both Geary and Vice-Admiral Hon Samuel Barrington at the end of August, he became the second in command of the Grand Fleet to Vice-Admiral George Darby. The fleet subsequently put to sea on 12 September but became wind-bound at Torbay for six weeks, and after an uneventful five weeks cruising off Cape Finisterre it returned to St. Helen’s on 21 December.

Digby had the dubious pleasure of being governor to the future King William IV during the American Revolutionary War.

On 5 February 1781 Digby was back at Spithead to raise his flag aboard the Prince George with a new flag-captain, James Williams, and on 13 March he sailed with the fleet for the second relief of Gibraltar, which was effected on 12 April. Thereafter, he was ordered to patrol the approaches to the Channel with ten sail of the line in protection of the incoming convoys, and in the hope of encountering a French force known to be at sea under Admiral La Motte-Piquet. When the latter returned to Brest, Digby cruised off that port until bringing his squadron back to Portsmouth on 4 June.

Towards the end of June 1781, he was appointed the commander-in-chief of the North American station, and after attending the King in London, he set off for Portsmouth where his departure was then delayed whilst dispatches were awaited from the West Indies and America. In the event, it was not until the end of July that his three ships of the line and a frigate in escort of a convoy sailed. Upon arriving at New York three weeks after the inconclusive Battle of the Chesapeake on 5 September, Digby did not immediately assume command of the station but instead allowed his predecessor, Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, to unsuccessfully attempt the rescue of Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis’s army at Yorktown. Shortly afterwards, he shifted his flag from the Prince George into the Lion 64, Captain William Fooks, in order that the former vessel could add weight to Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s force in the Leeward Islands. Despite this handsome gesture he fell out badly with the difficult Hood whilst the latter was temporarily on the North American station, engaging in a ferocious war of letters over the allocation of prize-money and refusing to supplement Hood’s scurvy-ridden ships with his own men.

Succeeding Graves on 9 November 1781 with a much-reduced squadron that was in poor order, Digby presided over a quiet station for the remainder of the war, with the most excitement perhaps being General George Washington’s authorisation of a kidnap attempt on Digby and Prince William. Following the change of government in April 1782 he retained the North American command, having under his orders at that time two 50-gun ships, three of 44 guns, seven frigates, and thirteen sloops. Upon the arrival of the new Army commander-in-chief, Lieutenant-General Sir Guy Carleton, he served as a joint commissioner of the peace charged with negotiating with the colonies. On 2 August they wrote to General Washington advising that peace discussions were under way in Paris, but in response the American Congress advised that they had received no such information from their own ambassadors and thus the war continued. In September Digby briefly re-hoisted his flag on the Prince George with Captain Williams when Admiral Hugh Pigot brought the Leeward Islands fleet to Sandy Hook, and by the end of the year he had his flag aboard the Chatham 50, Captain Andrew Snape Douglas, with ten or so frigates under his command.

Following the end of the American War of Independence in 1783, Digby evacuated many loyalist families from New York during the summer, having advised General Washington that should they not be allowed unhindered passage he would take up arms again. Many of the families were settled in Conway, Nova Scotia, which was renamed Digby in his honour. He eventually sailed for England on 5 December, and after reaching the Portland Roads in January 1784 aboard the Amphion 32, Captain John Bazely, he went up to London.

Digby did not go to sea again but instead entered retirement, spending much time at his residence in Minterne near Sherborne, Dorset, which he had purchased in 1768, and where he took a great interest in the development of the estate. A frequent visitor to Bath, he spent some time with his kinsman by marriage, Rear-Admiral John Elliot, in Scotland during the summer of 1789. At the time of the Spanish Armament in 1790 reports that he would hoist his flag proved erroneous, and in 1791 he became a groom of the King’s bedchamber, thus becoming a frequent attendee both at court and at Weymouth, where the monarch took his summer holidays.

Digby became a vice-admiral on 24 September 1787, and was promoted admiral on 12 April 1794. But for the preposterous and precipitate elevation of Prince William, the Duke of Clarence, he would have become admiral of the fleet in 1812, being at that time the senior admiral on the list.

Admiral Digby died on 25 February 1815.

On 19 August 1784 at a service officiated by his brother, the Dean of Durham, Digby married a widow, Mrs Eleanor Jauncy, who was the niece of Admiral John Elliot and the daughter of the lieutenant-governor of New York, Andrew Elliot. They had no issue, but at the time of their marriage Digby already had two illegitimate sons, one of whom, Robert Murray, entered the navy and rose to the rank of admiral. His country seat at Minterne Magna in Dorset passed to his wealthy nephew, Captain Sir Henry Digby, whilst in February 1809 his mansion in Upper Harley Street was put up for sale.

Digby was described as a handsome man and an easy mover in Court circles. He was seen as tough, and in spite of his family’s political connections was regarded as his own man. That he fell out with Prince William, to whom he was governor from 1778 until 1782, after refusing to advocate the young royal’s early promotion to captain, illustrated his strength of will and devotion to duty, and the fact that the parents of the future admirals Keats, Foley, Legge, Oliver, and Stopford saw fit to place their sons on the Prince George demonstrated the esteem in which he was held.