Hon. Sir William Cornwallis

1744-1819. He was born in Suffolk on 20 February 1744, the fourth son of Charles, 1st Earl and 5th Lord Cornwallis, and of his wife, Elizabeth, the daughter of Viscount Townshend. He was the younger brother of Charles, 1st Marquess Cornwallis, who surrendered a British army at Yorktown in 1781 with grave consequences for the outcome of the American War of Revolution, and who later became governor-general of India. A cousin was Captain James Cornwallis.

Having spent two years at Eton, Cornwallis entered the navy in 1755 aboard the Newark 80, Captain John Barker, serving in North American waters under Vice-Admiral the Hon. Edward Boscawen. He was present at the reduction of Louisbourg in 1758 aboard the Kingston 60, Captain William Parry, and a year later fought at the Battle of Quiberon Bay aboard the Dunkirk 60, Captain Hon. Robert Digby. In December 1760 he moved to the Neptune 90, Captain Broderick Hartwell, serving in the Mediterranean as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders, and on 5 April 1761 was commissioned a lieutenant, joining the Thunderer 74, Captain Charles Proby, which ship captured the French Achille 64 off Cadiz on 17 July.

On 12 July 1762 he was given command of the sloop Wasp 8, moving to the Swift 14 on 14 October which was ordered to be fitted out and manned at Deptford in March 1763 before going out to the Jamaican station from Spithead with dispatches in May. Over the winter she was at Pensacola, Florida where she was re-masted with pine timber, but during the following summer she grounded on Bonacre Island whilst returning from the Bay of Honduras. After jettisoning her guns and cutting away her masts she was able to ease off the reef the next morning under jury masts and get into Bonacre Harbour, and as she was no longer considered to be sea-worthy Cornwallis commandeered a brig from New York in order to return to Jamaica. On 22 November 1764 he was appointed to the Prince Edward 44, and remaining at Jamaica he was posted captain of that vessel on 20 April 1765, prior to returning home to be paid off in April 1766.

 

350px-William_Cornwallis_as_Admiral

Hon. William Cornwallis

On 27 June 1766 he was appointed to the frigate Guadeloupe 28, serving in the Mediterranean, where in the early summer of 1768 he was ordered to cruise off Morocco to monitor that kingdom’s corsairs. At the beginning of September his command arrived back at Spithead, and after being paid off in the following month she was docked at Portsmouth. Cornwallis received another commission to command the Guadeloupe on 17 January 1769, her crew started entering for service in February, and she was recommissioned in the spring. After sailing out to Newfoundland in June she came back to Spithead from Cadiz in December, and after departing for Jamaica in April 1770 she came home and was paid off in September 1773

During October 1774 Cornwallis commissioned the Pallas 36 at Gosport, going out to West Africa in December, and from thence to the West Indies prior to returning to Portsmouth from Kingston at the end of August 1775. After being paid off and docked, Cornwallis took the Pallas out to Spithead at the beginning of November before sailing once more a couple of weeks later for the Guinea Coast and the West Indies. Departing from Jamaica with one hundred and four vessels in convoy on 9 August 1776, their passage was so disrupted by bad weather and indiscipline that only eight vessels reached the Channel in the company of the Pallas, and by the time the distressed frigate arrived at Spithead on 17 November she was desperately short of water. Following a number of claims from furious merchants Cornwallis was exonerated of any blame for this catastrophe, whilst it was more happily reported that specie amounting to 300,000 dollars which the Pallas had brought home was the largest sum ever imported to the country.

At the end of December 1776 he was appointed to the three year-old Isis 50 which in February 1777 went out of Portsmouth Harbour to Spithead and in the following month sailed with the Quebec convoy of upwards of one hundred sail. On 7 June she joined the North American fleet at New York under Vice-Admiral Lord Howe, and Cornwallis distinguished himself in the Philadelphia Campaign which commenced in August. Shortly afterwards the Isis, which had a reputation as a poor sailor, sprung her main-mast, and she had to put back to New York to refit.

On 7 December 1777 he was appointed to the Bristol 50, which vessel had been designated the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Peter Parker and was to convey that officer to Jamaica, hence on Christmas Day Cornwallis exchanged into Parker’s previous flagship, the Chatham 50. Vice-Admiral Howe then sent him home with despatches, and departing Rhode Island on 9 February 1778 he arrived at Portsmouth on 18 March with three transports in company. Five days later he attended a levee with the King at St. James’ Palace where he held a long conference with the monarch to update him on affairs in America.

On 16 May 1778 Cornwallis was appointed to the new Medea 28, which frigate was reportedly the first vessel built for the Navy at Bristol, but she was still not ready for sea by the time he was appointed to the Lion 64 on 5 August in place of the terminally ill Captain Lord William Campbell. In early November Cornwallis set off express for Portsmouth upon rumours that a French squadron was off the Lizard, and in December he took his ship out to the Leeward Islands with a convoy under the orders of Commodore Joshua Rowley, arriving off St. Lucia on 12 February 1779. He subsequently fought at the Battle of Grenada on 6 July, during which action the Lion was badly mauled and had to flee before the wind to Jamaica with only her foremast standing, having suffered fifty-one casualties. Cornwallis soon established himself in a house on that island, taking a freed slave, Cuba Cornwallis, as his ‘housekeeper’.

On 20 March 1780 the Lion was sailing in the Windward Passage near the Bahamas in company with the Bristol 50, Acting-Captain Hon. Thomas Pakenham, and Janus 40, Captain Bonovier Glover, when they were intercepted off Monte Christi by two French sail of 74 guns, one of 64, one of 50, and a frigate. The enemy decided to hold over the action until the next day, when after bombarding the British for approximately three hours from distance they suddenly turned tail. Cornwallis then gave chase, being joined by the Ruby 64, Captain John Cowling, and two frigates that had arrived on the scene, but he was unable to bring the superior enemy to further action. On 20 June he encountered the French General Comte de Rochambeau in convoy with his troops off Bermuda. Suffering a disadvantage of two 74’s, two 64’s, a 50 gun ship and a frigate to the Chevalier Ternay d’Alsac’s seven sail of the line and several frigates, he skilfully withdrew under desultory enemy fire, as a consequence of which the French commander was moved to write in praise of Cornwallis’ skill in avoiding an action.

The Lion returned home towards the end of 1780 with the Jamaica convoy, and with Cornwallis spending a good deal of the voyage personally nursing the sick Captain Horatio Nelson who had been taken ill during the San Juan expedition, and who had been brought aboard the Lion as a passenger. They arrived at Portsmouth on 22 November having endured a rough crossing in which they had lost contact with many of the merchantmen, whereupon Cornwallis went up to London to report to the Admiralty.

Once the Lion had been refitted and coppered at Portsmouth she came out of harbour for Spithead at the end of January 1781 and participated in Vice-Admiral George Darby’s relief of Gibraltar on 12 April. In June Cornwallis was appointed to the Canada 74 in succession to Captain Sir George Collier. Whilst at sea his crew refused to fight as they had not received a backlog of pay, but they soon changed their tune when Cornwallis threatened to place them alongside an enemy. In August the Canada sailed to North America as part of Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby’s force, and there she transferred to Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s Leeward Islands-bound fleet which sailed for the West Indies on 11 November.

On 25/ 26 January 1782 the Canada fought at the Battle of St. Kitts, affording great support to the beleaguered rear in the approach to the anchorage, and suffering one man killed and twelve wounded. She subsequently fought in the centre at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April, where she received the surrender of the Hector 74 and brought the mighty French flagship Ville de Paris 104 to action, thereby allowing ships of Hood’s division to come up and capture her. Cornwallis’ zeal in pursuing the fleeing French ships was at variance to that of his commander-in-chief, and in consequence he was quite critical of Admiral Sir George Rodney’s conduct. During the battle the Canada lost twelve men killed and thirty-three wounded.

At the end of July 1782 the Canada left for England with the prizes from the battle under the orders of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves, and Cornwallis’ command suffered the loss of her mizzen and main-top masts when the Central Atlantic Hurricane enveloped the convoy in September to claim the Ville de Paris and many other vessels. Eventually arriving off St. Helens on 2 October, he received leave of absence from the Admiralty and hastened up to London to report to the board, following which he was introduced to the King by his brother, Lord Cornwallis. Many years later Cornwallis responded publicly to Graves’ accusation that he had ensured the safety of his own ship without thought for the flagship by stating that during the hurricane the Canada had also been at threat of sinking.

On 30 December 1782 Cornwallis was appointed to the Foudroyant 80, which he nominally commanded for two weeks but did not take to sea, and although he was appointed to the year-old Ganges on 14 January 1783 he left her in the following month. In March he joined the yacht Royal Charlotte which he retained until his appointment to the Robust 74 at Chatham during the Dutch Armament in October 1787, the month in which he also enjoyed an elevation to the honorary rank of colonel of marines. The Robust was then paid off in December at Chatham.

At the end of 1788 he was appointed commodore and commander-in-chief in India where his brother was the governor-general, and he set sail in February 1789 with his flag aboard the Crown 64, Captain James Cornwallis, and with a small squadron of two frigates and two sloops in company. Such was the anxiety amongst the junior officers of the fleet for active service that he was inundated with requests for employment, and thus he took many future admirals out with him After arriving on the sub-continent in the summer of 1789 he joined the war against Tippoo Sahib, and this led to difficulties with the French in that part of the world when the old enemy declared that his force exceeded that agreed between the great powers. Matters came to a head on 19 November 1791 when his frigates overpowered the French frigate Résolue 32 after a brief engagement. He also had to deal with several petty affairs, such as that concerning Captain Isaac Schomberg’s dispute with the Madras authorities on 13 September 1790.

In November 1791 Cornwallis shifted his broad pennant to the Minerva 38, which frigate would be commanded by the young, and at that time poorly regarded, Captain John Whitby. On 1 February 1793 he was promoted rear-admiral, and when news was received of the French declaration of war he reduced Pondicherry in a joint operation with army forces under Colonel James Braithwaite on 23 August. By now his squadron had been reduced to the Minerva and three armed Indiaman, but apart from a failed sortie by the frigate Cybéle 44 the French failed to arrive in force, and before leaving for England on 12 January 1794 Cornwallis had captured all of their ports in India.

Whilst entering the Channel on her return to European waters in the spring of 1794, the Minerva ran in with a French frigate squadron, and once he had passed information of their position on to Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren, Cornwallis had the satisfaction to hear that two French frigates and a corvette had been captured by that officer’s squadron off the coast of Brittany on 23 April.

On 4 June 1794 Cornwallis attended the King with a host of the nobility on the occasion of His Majesty’s birthday, and thirteen days later he raised his flag at Portsmouth aboard the Excellent 74, Captain John Whitby. Having succeeded Rear-Admiral George Montagu in the command of a detached squadron from the Channel Fleet, he sailed five days later with twelve sail of the line in escort of the East India convoy before taking up his cruising ground in the Bay of Biscay. After being promoted vice-admiral on 4 July he sailed from Plymouth later than month to protect the incoming East India and West Indies convoys, and for several months from August he flew his flag aboard the Caesar 80 with Captain Whitby, that ship having been vacated by Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy who was seeking a court-martial to inquire into his conduct at the Battle of the Glorious First of June. The rest of the year passed somewhat uneventfully with the Channel Fleet until 3 December, when Cornwallis was one of three admirals sent aboard the Culloden 74 in an attempt to bring her men back to duty after they had mutinied against their captain, Thomas Troubridge. In the same month Cornwallis shifted his flag into the Royal Sovereign 100, Captain Henry Nicholls.

 

Cornwallis's_Retreat,_June_17,_1795

Cornwallis’ Retreat 1795

From January 1795 he generally served as the second-in-command of the Channel Fleet to Admiral Lord Bridport whilst Admiral Lord Howe remained ashore, and in March Captain Whitby took up the duties of his flag captain aboard the Royal Sovereign. On 8 June, whilst cruising with five sail of the line, two frigates and a sloop off the French coast, he chased a small French squadron of three sail of the line and six frigates into Belleisle, and he took a Dutch ship after seeing off two more French frigates the same day before capturing eight merchantmen shortly afterwards. Nine days later, on 17 June, his five sail of the line and two frigates fell in with Vice-Admiral Villaret-Joyeuse’s twelve sail of the line, two of 50 guns, and nine frigates off the Penmarcks, and Cornwallis was obliged to conduct a brilliant withdrawal over the next twelve hours. His exceptional skill and endeavour in what popularly became known as ‘Cornwallis’ Retreat’ would be rewarded with the thanks of both Houses of Parliament.

Following the Cornwallis Retreat his squadron repaired to Plymouth Sound to effect repairs, and on 5 July 1795, with six sail of the line and three frigates, he put out of the Devonshire port to rejoin Lord Bridport in Quiberon Bay. Here he landed supplies for the French royalist forces and offered general support to the Army. After returning to Portsmouth the squadron remained at that port for much of October whilst awaiting a fair wind to go out on a cruise, and during the Christmas period his six sail of the line and a frigate arrived back at St. Helens before dropping down to Spithead.

In February 1796 Cornwallis was appointed to the position of commander-in-chief at Jamaica, and after visiting London he raised his flag aboard the Royal Sovereign at Portsmouth on the 22nd of that month. He set sail on 1 March with a small squadron, only to return to port two weeks later after the Royal Sovereign had been fouled by a Hessian transport which had then sank with the loss of one hundred and forty-two men. The Board of Admiralty took a dim view of his subsequent refusal to shift his flag into the frigate Astrea 32, Captain Richard Lane, in order to recommence his voyage to Jamaica, with Cornwallis citing reasons of ill-health and the discomfort that a move to a smaller, unknown, ship would bring. He was subsequently court-martialled on 7 April with Admiral Lord Howe acting as president of the court, and he was censured for not having shifted his flag, although the court’s admonition was tempered by the description of his action as a ‘mistake’. Feeling somewhat aggrieved, Cornwallis nevertheless struck his flag, and in seeing no further service under that administration he remained out of service and largely anonymous for the next five years.

On 14 February 1799 he was advanced to the rank of admiral in line with seniority, and at the end of February 1801 he succeeded Admiral Lord St. Vincent as the commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, hoisting his flag at Torbay aboard the Ville de Paris 110, Commander Tristram Robert Ricketts, and with Captain John Sutton as his captain of the fleet. Shortly afterwards he sailed for the blockade of Brest, and on 12 March he brought eleven sail of the line to anchor at Torbay in heavy weather whilst Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez remained off the French port. Two days later he departed the anchorage only to arrive back a week later. By April he was once more with Saumarez off Brest in command of twenty-two sail of the line including thirteen three-deckers, and later that month, whilst reconnoitring the French fleet in its anchorage aboard the Fisgard 38, Captain Thomas Byam Martin, he came under fire from the enemy batteries. In June, Captain John Whitby, who had been recalled from the command of the Severn 44 in the West Indies, resumed his old position as Cornwallis’ flag-captain. The blockade thereafter continued relentlessly, and in August Cornwallis took his own flagship into the outer roads of Brest under fire from the batteries, causing two French sail of the line to slip their cables and retire inshore.

In October 1801 Captain William Domett assumed the duties of captain of the fleet on his return from the Baltic Expedition, and when the Ville de Paris was sent into Plymouth Cornwallis removed with that officer and Captain Whitby into the Belleisle 74. Later that month Cornwallis sent news that peace was imminent into Brest under a flag of truce, and in turn he received presents and felicitations from the enemy, including a hamper of fruit from the wife of his opposite number, Admiral Louis Thomas Villaret-Joyeuse. Speculation that the blockade would be raised followed, with suggestions that the fleet would return home in early November to be paid off. Instead, with hostilities continuing, the fleet anchored at Torbay in the first days of November and it remained at the Devonshire anchorage for the majority of the winter with Captain Ricketts rejoining Cornwallis as his flag captain when the admiral removed from the Belleisle back to the Ville de Paris. During November there was much speculation that Cornwallis would be raised to the peerage and replace Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent as the first lord of the Admiralty, but these elevations did not transpire.

The_Channel_fleet_in_heavy_weather,_by_John_Wilson_Carmichael (1)

The Channel fleet in heavy weather by John Wilson Carmichael

In early February 1802 Cornwallis again briefly shifted his flag to the Belleisle whilst the Ville de Paris departed Torbay for Plymouth to be paid. At the beginning of March an Admiralty messenger arrived at Torbay amid reports that the Channel Fleet of thirty sail of the line, including fifteen three-deckers, was under orders to prepare for sea, but with peace arriving Cornwallis took passage to his home in Lymington at the end of April aboard the frigate Diamond 38, Captain Edward Griffith, and he then headed for London where he attended a levee by the King and held a long conference with Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent at the Admiralty.

Upon the renewal of hostilities on 16 May 1803 Cornwallis returned to the Channel command, taking passage from Lymington to Torbay aboard the frigate Acasta 40, Captain James Athol Wood, and hoisting his flag aboard the Dreadnought 98, Captain Edward Brace, whilst the Ville de Paris remained under a state of preparedness at Plymouth. He was joined as captain of the fleet by Rear-Admiral William Domett, and as flag-lieutenant by Francis Beauman. Putting to sea from Torbay days later with ten sail of the line to cruise off Brest, Cornwallis thereafter kept Vice-Admiral Honoré Ganteaume bottled up in the port, although unseasonal June fogs allowed four French sail of the line into Brest from Saint-Domingue. Using Ushant as his rendezvous when he was blown off station, Cawsand Bay near Plymouth for taking in stores, and Torbay in the event of really rough weather, Cornwallis soon had forty sail of the line under his overall command, many of which were detached along the French coast.

On 9 July 1803 he removed to the Ville de Paris 110, Captain Ricketts, and thereafter his fleet retained its station off Brest despite a number of winter storms until what was described as a hurricane forced them to run for the Devonshire coast at the beginning of the Christmas period, having suffered significant damage. On the last day of the year Cornwallis’ flagship arrived off Torbay with two other three-deckers, and with stores being sent overland from Plymouth he was back at sea within thirty-six hours to be rejoined over the next few days by other ships of the fleet as they were repaired. On 14 January 1804 another ‘hurricane’ swept the Channel but he remained at sea until eventually fleeing at the end of the month for Torbay.

At the beginning of February 1804 Captain Thomas Le Marchant Gosselin assumed the duties of Cornwallis’ flag-captain, and shortly afterwards, with the Ville de Paris sailing for Brest in a snow-storm, there was some excitement when it appeared that the French were making preparations to come out. Sadly this proved to be false, and thereafter the blockade continued unabated into the summer months. At the beginning of July Rear-Admiral Domett left his position as captain of the fleet, and in the last week of the month it was necessary for Cornwallis to temporarily relinquish his command to Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton to arrange some private affairs. After being landed at Lymington his flagship, the Ville de Paris, continued into Portsmouth.

Following a visit to London, Cornwallis sailed to resume his command in the second week of August 1804 with his flag aboard the Glory 98, Captain William Champain, and taking Captain Whitby out to join him aboard the Ville de Paris. In October the latter vessel was back at Torbay before returning to Brest in the company of eight sail of the line, most of which were three-deckers. Another storm sent Cornwallis back to Torbay at the end of the next day, and even Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Graves commanding the Inshore Squadron off Brest had to relinquish his station before the blockade was resumed. Another return to Torbay occurred on 12 November, but Cornwallis’ fifteen sail of the line set off again three days later only to seek shelter once more. During this period the Venerable 74, Captain John Hunter, was wrecked off Paignton on 24 November, although fortunately without great loss of life.

At the beginning of January 1805 Cornwallis sprained his foot and was confined to his cabin when a storm blew the Ville de Paris four hundred miles out into the Atlantic. Nevertheless, he was able to regain his station and prevent the Brest fleet replicating the breakout of the Rochefort squadron, which had occurred on 11 January. Days later he was forced into Torbay by the weather, and other ships of his fleet ran for Plymouth and Portsmouth. On the 20th the Ville de Paris left Torbay for Cawsand Bay for repairs to a damaged rudder, and after four days work she sailed from Plymouth to rejoin the Channel Fleet on the 26th, reaching Ushant two days later. Another return to Torbay came on 9 February before his thirteen sail of the line departed those waters for Brest after a mere twelve-hour stay in which forty-four bullocks had been taken aboard. A similar number of vessels under Cornwallis’ command entered Torbay once more on 22 February in high winds, where they remained wind-bound until weighing anchor on 7 March to sail for Brest.

On 19 March 1805 the fleet again entered Torbay, and after sailing around to Portsmouth Cornwallis struck his flag and set off for Lymington to convalesce whilst Admiral Lord Gardner temporarily replaced him at sea. On this occasion his absence was of a longer duration, but with the Trafalgar Campaign gathering pace he re-embarked at Lymington aboard the sloop Ranger 16, Commander Charles Coote, and arrived with his suite at the Fountain Hotel, Plymouth on 4 July to re-hoist his flag aboard the Ville de Paris, Captain Whitby. With Vice- Admiral Edmund Nugent joining him as his captain of the fleet, he resumed his command from Gardner two days later.

Cornwallis became a key player in the Trafalgar Campaign, when his careful dispositions did much to thwart Napoleon’s intentions, and where his blockade would become vital in enabling Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Even so, some said that the detachment of Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder after the Battle of Finisterre on 22 July 1805 was a mistake, given that Cornwallis’ weakened fleet could have been overwhelmed by Vice-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve’s arrival in the Channel and the potential release of the Brest fleet. In the event that threat did not become a reality, although on 22 August Cornwallis was superficially injured during an action with the Brest fleet when it did try to break out, necessitating a further short period of convalescence.

On 29 November the fleet anchored in the Falmouth Roads before sailing for Brest on 2 December, and on Christmas Eve, having briefly entered Plymouth, the Ville de Paris departed with twelve other sail of the line for Falmouth and thereafter Brest. During the early days of January 1806 Cornwallis was once more at Falmouth, and his ships remained there until putting to sea on the 13th. Similarly in early February he was briefly at Plymouth prior to resuming the station off Brest.

On 22 February 1806, being in poor health and somewhat frustrated with perceived political intrigues against him, Cornwallis struck his flag for good aboard the Ville de Paris at Spithead to be replaced by Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent, who had long coveted his position as commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet. Within two months of retiring to Lymington, Cornwallis’ great friend and protégé, Captain John Whitby, died at his Newlands residence, and thereafter Cornwallis appears to have lived a particularly quiet retirement at his estate in the company of Whitby’s widow, for he was rarely seen in society.

Cornwallis was nominated a G.C.B. on 2 January 1815 and he died in Hampshire on 5 July 1819, being buried at Milford-on-Sea.

Serving his family’s interest, Cornwallis was the M.P. for Eye from 1768-74 and 1782-4, and at Lord Howe’s instigation the M.P. for Portsmouth from 1784-1790, there being a concern that the government might lose that seat if he did not fill it. He was the M.P. once more for Eye from 1790-1807. His was a somewhat reluctant political career, and he showed his disdain and lack of commitment to it by getting very drunk at one election. His early career was patronised by the Duke of Newcastle, and much later he was a supporter of William Pitt, but he never spoke in Parliament and rarely attended. During the 1770’s he was an opponent of the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, and he made petulant demands upon him for the furtherance of his protégés.

A wealthy man, Cornwallis owned a splendid estate called Newlands at Milford-on-Sea near Lymington in Hampshire, which was renowned for its library and stables. His longstanding flag-captain, John Whitby, lived there with his wife until his death in 1806, and thereafter Whitby’s widow Mary, the daughter of Captain Thomas Symonds, and famous in her own right as a writer and artist, remained with her daughter to look after Cornwallis into his dotage before inheriting the estate upon his death. In addition to his relationship with the lively and influential Cuba Cornwallis, whom he had freed from slavery and who nursed the convalescent Nelson, Cornwallis had previously enjoyed a relationship at Jamaica in the 1760’s with a mulatto woman, Ann Arnot, whose sister mothered several children with Hon. Frederick Maitland.

Represented sometimes as a misogynist despite the close relationships he enjoyed with Mary Whitby, Cuba Cornwallis and Ann Arnot, the admiral was a single man of few words, was religious, reserved in manner, quiet, retiring, calm, sound, easy tempered, modest, warm-hearted and very popular with his men. At the same time he was regarded as being ‘able, tough and eccentric’, awkward, cussed, and decisive. ‘Society’ considered him to be a slightly odd old sea-dog, who for an aristocrat and nephew of an archbishop was somewhat uncouth. In turn he did not appear at ease amongst the high and mighty, being a fish out of water in the drawing room, and clearly preferring to be at sea or visiting remote lands. He had a habit of twiddling his forefinger and thumb, and was of medium height, pleasant looking, but corpulent, despite being a virtual vegetarian. During the early 1800’s his eyesight deteriorated.

Cornwallis was known to bear grudges, as was illustrated by his animosity to Captain George Hopewell Stephens some twenty years after berating this officer, then a lieutenant, over his failure to let the terminally ill Captain Bonovier Glover die on the quarterdeck of his frigate, the Janus, during the engagement on 20 March 1780. However, Nelson, who counted him as an old friend, admired him greatly, as did St. Vincent, and he was also a good friend of Admiral Sir Charles Henry Knowles.

As a commander-in-chief, Cornwallis always strove to employ the best captains, and he soon rid himself of any shirkers or those not up to the job. Some saw this as his promoting his favourites at the expense of his enemies, but he was nevertheless an excellent mentor to all his young officers and set them a great example. He had many affectionate nicknames such as ‘Billy-Go-Tight’, which was testament to his ruddy features, although being a non-drinker this could not be put down to a love of wine, ‘Billy Blue’ for his insistence in flying the Blue Peter prior to putting to sea with the Channel fleet, and ‘Coachee’ or ‘Mr Whip’, due to the wig he sported in the style of a carriage driver. His wish was to be buried at sea in common with the seamen who fought for him.