James Gambier

1723-1789. He was born in 1723, the fourth son of James Gambier, who was the son of a Huguenot refugee and became the warden of the Fleet Prison, and of his wife Mary Mead. He was the uncle of Admiral Lord Gambier and became related by the marriage of one sister to Vice-Admiral Sir Samuel Cornish, and another sister to Admiral Lord Barham.

Having entered the navy three years earlier, Gambier was commissioned lieutenant on 6 March 1744 whilst serving in the Mediterranean, and he saw duty aboard the Buckingham 70, Captain John Towry, and Marlborough 90, Captain Richard Watkins.

He was promoted commander of the sloop Speedwell 10 on 3 April 1746, seeing convoy duties off Devon and Cornwall and cruising during the following year. In June 1747 he sent a French dogger into Plymouth, and two months later he sailed out of that port with Rear-Admiral William Chambers’ squadron. On 5 December he was posted to the Flamborough 20, from which he transferred to the small frigate Squirrel 20 in April 1748, operating mostly out of Spithead until she was paid off at Deptford in May 1749. A period of six year’s unemployment then followed.

In April 1755 he recommissioned the Sphinx 24, sailing for North America in the last week of June with Captain Sir Charles Hardy, who had been appointed the governor of New York. Departing North America for Jamaica, the Sphinx arrived at Kingston on 3 December having captured a French Guineaman during the voyage south. Remaining on that station, Gambier soon became embroiled in an affair with Maria Therese de Bouget, the twenty-three-year-old wife of the fifty-two-year-old governor, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Knowles, and the mother of an infant who would become Admiral Sir Charles Henry Knowles. Gambier returned to Portsmouth on 10 July 1756 in command of the Severn 50, giving passage to his lover and her children, and with Knowles remaining unaware of the affair which was to continue after the couple’s arrival in London.

Guildhall._Engraved_by_E.Shirt_after_a_drawing_by_Prattent._c.1805. (1)

Gambier’s disreputable career was illustrated by his trial at the Guidhall in 1757.

Shortly after returning home Gambier was appointed in August 1756 both to the Namur 90 at Chatham, and to the Defiance 60, whose captain, Thomas Andrews, had been killed at the Battle of Minorca in April. It is not clear however that he took either vessel to sea. During March 1757 he was socialising at a tavern in Plymouth with Captain John Lockhart of the Tartar 28, who was on sick leave, and Captain James Webb, when a riot broke out between some sailors and soldiers. The three captains rushed outside, and in attempting to end the fracas they were all wounded. At about the same time it was reported that Gambier had been appointed to the St. Albans 60, but this post was in fact taken by Captain Webb, and instead Gambier joined the Lowestoffe 24 in April. On the 25th of that month he brought a splendid new St. Malo-based 14-gun privateer into Plymouth after a spirited ten hour chase which came to a conclusion off Rame Head; however he left the Lowestoffe shortly afterwards.

On Saturday 11 June 1757 Gambier was brought to trial before a full public gallery at the Guildhall in London for having had ‘Criminal Conversation with Admiral Knowles’ Lady’. It was alleged that Gambier had ‘corrupted and seduced’ the young mother, and following evidence from her maid and examination of his handwriting he was found guilty and ordered to pay a thousand guineas in damages.

He next commanded the Burford 70, which on 23 February 1758 sailed from Plymouth for North America with Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen’s fleet, arriving at Halifax on 9 May and being present at the capture of Louisbourg in June. The Burford in company with the Kingston 60, Captain William Parry, arrived back at Plymouth with transports under convoy, and with two thousand five hundred French prisoners on 14 September, having seen one hundred of her crew die of sickness during the campaign.

In November 1758 the Burford went out to the Leeward Islands with Commodore Robert Hughes’s squadron, and in February 1759 was present at the capture of Guadeloupe. After serving with Commodore John Moore’s fleet of a dozen sail of the line in the Leeward Islands, the Burford returned to Europe in the late summer with a large convoy under the orders of Commodore Hughes. The voyage home was a horrendous one, and by the time the Burford reached Plymouth at the end of September she was in a very poor and leaky condition. Again, she had suffered enormously in her time abroad, enjoying only three days worth of fresh provisions in eleven months, and losing many more men to disease.

The Burford was hurried back into service at Plymouth, and she joined Admiral Sir Edward Hawke three days before fighting at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759, suffering sixteen men killed and wounded. Continuing off Quiberon after the battle, Gambier flew a commodore’s broad pennant during the spring of 1760 in command of six sail of the line blockading the River Vilaine, at which point over one hundred and seventy of his crew were reported to be ill with scurvy and many men were dying every day; nevertheless, his most effective blockade closed down the coastal traffic. In June the Burford entered Plymouth before sailing out in August with several men-of-war to join Hawke’s Grand Fleet. After a fruitless six-week cruise off Bayonne and Bordeaux in the early autumn, during which the Burford again suffered in bad weather, she returned to the Vilaine for Gambier to resume his command of the blockade in mid-October.

In February 1761 the Burford came into Plymouth, and in May Gambier found himself in court at the Guildhall once more, on this occasion being ordered to pay compensation and costs for having removed a man by the name of Samuel Blackden from his freehold at Halifax, Nova Scotia, burning down his house, and detaining him on the Burford for one hundred and twenty-five days.

Towards the end of May 1761, the Burford embarked troops at Plymouth to join Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel’s expedition against Belle Isle, which island surrendered on 7 June, and in August she sent into Plymouth the richly-laden letter-of-marque Union 12 with goods from Saint-Domingue, which she had captured in the company of the Thames 32, Captain John Elliot. The Burford then cruised with the Grand Fleet during the early winter, and on 29 January 1762 came into Plymouth with Commodore Richard Spry’s squadron of half a dozen men-of-war.

In March 1762 Gambier took the Burford out to join Admiral Sir George Pocock’s fleet, which was bound for the West Indies, but by the end of the month he was back at Plymouth having brought in the St. Priest, a richly-laden French East Indiaman bound from Bourbon to Lorient, which had been captured by Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel’s pennant ship Valiant 74, Captain Adam Duncan. Remaining in European waters and thus missing out on the riches earned by Pocock’s fleet at the capture of Havana, the Burford sent two small Spanish privateers into Falmouth in June, and Gambier continued to command her until the Seven Years War drew to a close in January 1763.

In October 1766 Gambier was appointed to the guard-ship Yarmouth 66, which was initially based at Sheerness and later at Chatham, remaining with her until November 1769, and being appointed commander-in-chief in Medway and at the Nore during December 1767. In the course of this employment, he received and entertained King Christian VII of Denmark at Chatham in October 1768.

By the late 1760’s Gambier was holding some influence over a fellow rake and intimate, the Earl of Sandwich, who just happened to be the First Lord of the Admiralty. Thus, despite his manifest unsuitability Gambier was appointed the commander-in-chief of the North American station in July 1770 with his broad pennant flying aboard the Salisbury 50, Captain Andrew Barkley. With instructions to bring the rebellious Bostonians to reason, he sailed from Plymouth at the beginning of August with two frigates in company and arrived at Boston on 10 October. Fortunately for all concerned, he then became subordinate to Rear-Admiral John Montagu on that officer’s arrival at Boston on 12 August 1771, and shortly afterwards he left for home. Whilst in passage to Spithead on 15 October, the Salisbury came upon a dis-masted ship on her beam ends in the Western Approaches and she stood by her until the weather moderated and her surviving crew of a dozen men could be brought off.


Gambier’s undeserved promotions and appointments owed much to his relationship with the dissolute Earl of Sandwich.

In July 1773 Gambier was appointed the Comptroller of the Victualling Board, and shortly afterwards he became the Commissioner of the Navy at Portsmouth and Governor of the Royal Naval Academy. Again, this was a position far above his level of competence, and some newspapers wasted little time in denigrating the promotion of ‘an adulterer and betrayer of the honour of friendship’. During his employment at Portsmouth, he and his wife took a residence at nearby Purbrook Heath, but he still sought a prime appointment and in March 1776 it was reported that he was exerting all his considerable influence to succeed Commodore Sir Edward Hughes in the East Indies.

On 23 January 1778 Gambier was promoted rear-admiral in accordance with seniority, and on 13 March, having taken leave of the King a few days before, he sailed for North America with his flag aboard the Ardent 64, Captain George Keppel, as the second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe. Ostensibly the appointment was made to manoeuvre him out of his position at Portsmouth, which given the impending war with France had assumed far greater importance. Arriving in New York at the beginning of June, it said much for his abilities that the overstretched Howe barely communicated with him bar insisting that Gambier remain at that city and not venture out to sea, although to the horror of the government he took over the station when Howe returned to England in September and Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron sailed for Rhode Island and then the West Indies. There was some currency in the belief that the government had appointed Byron to command his North America-bound fleet because his second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker, would have been subordinate to Gambier.

During the seven months that followed Howe’s departure, Gambier did little to advance the war effort in North America bar the authorisation of an expedition to attack a privateer nest at Egg Harbour during October 1778; nevertheless, he reputedly earned a thousand dollars a month in prize-money through the success of his cruisers. On 6 April 1779, to the relief of all, he left New York aboard the Ardent, Captain Samuel Clayton, arriving at Spithead three weeks later, and being temporarily succeeded by the active Captain Sir George Collier. In no time the hostile newspapers were suggesting that he would be brought to a court-martial for his conduct in North America, and they proclaimed that his great pride and extravagance, which had led him into debt prior to his appointment, had been rewarded with everything but the clearance of his character, and had even left him with an excess of twenty-two thousand guineas.

In November 1779 Gambier kissed the King’s hand on being appointed to the temporary role of commander-in-chief at Plymouth in place of Vice-Admiral Lord Shuldham, and he remained as second-in-command following Shuldham’s return in the following summer. He became a vice-admiral on 26 September 1780, and in November 1781 it was announced that he would go out to Newfoundland in the following spring as the governor and commander-in-chief. On New Years’ Day 1782 he kissed hands with the King on this appointment, but in early April, following the change in government, it was announced that Vice-Admiral John Campbell would be taking up the Newfoundland position in his stead.

In August 1783 Gambier was appointed the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, and taking leave of the King at a levee he sailed from Plymouth on 10 November with several frigates and with his flag aboard the Europa 50, Captain Hon. Michael De Courcy, to arrive at Port Royal on 10 January 1784. News that his command would be cut short was reported in June, with suggestions that the Admiralty had disapproved of his purchasing sloops and putting them into commission, although his ill-health was also cited, and he returned to Portsmouth on 20 August, never to be employed again

Admiral Gambier died at Burlington Street, Bath on 28 January 1789.

He was married three times, firstly to Mary Ruck, the daughter of a banker, of Betshanger, Kent, on 23 September 1751 at Whitehall Chapel. Following her death in 1763 he was married in 1767 to Jane Mompesson, who died in the mid-1780’s, and by whom he had two sons and two daughters. He was married for the third time on 8 January 1787 at Walcot, Bath to Sarah Newcome, the eldest daughter of the Dean of Rochester. He only had issue by his second wife, his oldest son, Samuel, dying a lieutenant in the navy on 1 October 1789, and his second son, Sir James Gambier, becoming a diplomat of renown.

Gambier was a far from endearing character, being described as a ‘blockhead’, dim, unattractive, and a serial adulterer who was clearly disliked by his contemporaries. He was not averse to using flattery or blackmail to achieve his ends, but could be little adept at either, as illustrated when having failed in an adulterous advance to a young woman on behalf of the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, he nevertheless tried to bribe the would-be suitor by stating that the relevant correspondence would be passed on to the King. He was deemed incapable of commanding the North American station once rebellion became inevitable, but being well connected in political circles could not be left unemployed. General Clinton and most other senior officers in North America considered him to be worse than useless, and the Admiralty regarded him as nothing more than a moaner whose regular letters of complaint drove them to distraction. The prime minister, Lord North, said of him ‘I have seldom heard any seaman speak of Gambier as a good naval officer, or as one who deserved to be trusted with any important command’. To compound all his failings, his time in North America was also marked by accusations of corruption.

Gambier was best summed up by one commentator, who stated of him ‘I believe no person was ever more generally detested by navy, army and citizens than this ‘penurious old reptile’. Suffice to say he was the polar opposite of his nephew, the evangelical Admiral Lord Gambier.