James Gambier

1723-1789. He was born in 1723, the fourth son of James Gambier, son of a Huguenot refugee and 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 in 1743 whilst serving in the Mediterranean. After stints in the Buckingham 70, Captain John Towry, and Marlborough 90, Captain Richard Watkins, he was promoted commander of the sloop Speedwell 10 in the North Sea on 3 April 1746, being engaged in cruising in the following year. On 5 December 1747 he was posted to the Flamborough 20, remaining with her until joining the Squirrel 20 in December, in which he also cruised for the next couple of years.

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.

In April 1755 he recommissioned the Sphinx 24, going out to Jamaica, where he soon became embroiled in an affair with Maria Therese de Bouget, the young wife of the governor, Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Knowles, and the mother of an infant who would become Admiral Sir Charles Henry Knowles. At the time of the affair Maria was twenty-three years old and her husband fifty-two. Gambier returned home in command of the Severn 50 in 1756, giving passage to his lover and her children, the admiral being unaware at that time of the affair which continued after their arrival in London. On Saturday 11 June 1757 Gambier was brought to trial at the Guildhall for having Criminal Conversation with Admiral Knowles Lady , in a case that attracted a full gallery. 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 of the act and ordered to pay a thousand guineas in damages.

Gambier returned to sea and was commanding the Burford 70 from 1758, being present at the capture of Louisbourg that year after sailing out to North America in February. In November he voyaged to the Leeward Islands, and in February 1759 was present at the capture of Guadeloupe. Returning to Europe, he fought at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November. During the same year he temporarily commanded the Defiance 58. In 1761 he served under Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel at the capture of Belleisle, and he remained in the grand fleet with the Burford 70 until leaving her in the early part of 1763.

In 1766 Gambier was appointed to the guard-ship Yarmouth 66 at Sheerness, and later at Chatham, remaining with her for the next four years. By this time he 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 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the North American station in July 1770 with his broad pennant aboard the Salisbury 50, Captain Andrew Barkley, arriving at Boston on 10 October, although he then became subordinate to Rear-Admiral John Montagu on that officer’s arrival at Boston on 12 August 1771. In July 1773, with the colonies becoming ever more rebellious, he was eased out of this position and appointed comptroller of the Victualling Board, and shortly afterwards became the commissioner of the navy at Portsmouth, which again was a position far above his level of competence.

On 23 January 1778 Gambier was promoted rear-admiral in accordance with seniority and in March went out to North America as second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe with his flag aboard the Ardent 64, Captain George Keppel. Ostensibly this appointment was made to get him away from his position at Portsmouth which had assumed far greater importance given the impending war with France. It said much for his abilities that the overstretched Howe insisted Gambier remain at New York and not venture out to sea, although to the horror of the government he briefly took over the chief command when Howe returned to England in September 1778 and Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron sailed for Rhode Island and then the West Indies. The government had in fact appointed Byron to his command because his second-in-command, Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker, would have been Gambier s subordinate. On 6 April 1779, to the relief of all, Gambier left North America aboard the Ardent, Captain Samuel Clayton, arriving home at the end of the month and being temporarily succeeded by Captain Sir George Collier.


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

For a brief period from November 1779 Gambier held 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 commander-in-chief. On New Years’ Day 1782 he kissed hands with the King on his 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 1783 Gambier was appointed commander-in-chief at Jamaica with his flag aboard the Europa 50, Captain Hon. Michael De Courcy, but his tenure was cut short by illness and he returned to England a year later. He died at Burlington Street, Bath on 28 January 1789.

Gambier was married three times, firstly to Mary Ruck of Betshanger, Kent, who died in 1763, secondly to Jane Montpeson who died in the mid-1780 s, and by whom he had two sons and two daughters, and thirdly on 8 January 1787 to Sarah Newcombe, 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 far from an endearing character, being described as a ‘blockhead’, dim, unattractive, and a recognised 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 others 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 citizen than this penurious old reptile . Suffice to say he was the polar opposite of his nephew, the evangelical Admiral Lord Gambier.