James Gambier 1st Baron

1756-1833. He was born on 13 October 1756 at New Providence in the Bahamas, the younger son of John Gambier, the lieutenant governor of those islands, and of his wife, Deborah Stiles, a Bermudian. He was the nephew of both Vice-Admiral James Gambier and, by marriage, of Captain Charles Middleton, the future Admiral Lord Barham, and he was brought up in Kent by his aunt, Margaret Gambier, the wife of Barham.

In 1767 Gambier was entered to the books of the guard-ship Yarmouth 64 at Chatham by Captain James Gambier, his uncle, and he removed with his kinsman two years later when the latter raised his broad pennant aboard the Salisbury 50, Captain Andrew Barkley, in order to assume control of the North American station. In 1772 he joined the Chatham 50, Captain Charles Thompson, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral William Parry in the Leeward Islands, from where he was appointed to the sloop Spy 10, Captain Thomas Dumaresq. Upon returning to England, he found a berth on the Spithead-based guardship Royal Oak 74, Captain Joseph Deane, and after rejoining Captain Dumaresq he went out to the Leeward Islands aboard the Portland 50 with the flag of Rear-Admiral James Young in 1774. Subsequent appointments as an acting lieutenant on the same station were to the sloop Shark 16, Commander John Chapman, and the Hind 24, Captain Henry Bryne, which vessel returned home in August 1777 with Gambier having been commissioned lieutenant on 12 February.


Lord Gambier

After a short spell aboard the Sultan 74, Captain John Wheelock, he rejoined his uncle, Rear-Admiral James Gambier, who in March 1778 was sent out as second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe in North America with his flag aboard the Ardent 64, Captain George Keppel. Benefitting from this patronage, the younger Gambier was promoted commander on 9 March, and he joined the bomb-ketch Thunder 8 in which he was present at the defence of New York in July. Unfortunately, his vessel was captured off Sandy Hook by the Hector 74 and Vaillant 74 from the Comte d’Estaing’s French fleet on 14 August.

Following his exchange, Gambier was posted to the Raleigh 32 by his uncle in North America on 9 October 1778, this frigate having been captured from the rebels by the Experiment 50 earlier in the year. After reaching Portsmouth on 26 April 1779 in company with his uncle’s flagship Ardent 64, he was sent to Jersey just days later to assist in the defence of that island against a French invasion. On 4 September the Raleigh reached Portsmouth from Plymouth, and after arriving at Cork on 6 October, she sailed on 24 December for Georgia with a convoy of forty vessels in company with the Richmond 32, Captain Charles Hudson.

Continuing with the Raleigh, Gambier participated in Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot’s capture of Charleston on 11 May 1780, and thereafter enjoyed some success cruising against the enemy, including the capture of the privateer General Mifflin 20 off Charleston in December without a shot being fired. At the same time, he recaptured two of the privateer’s prizes from the Cork convoy. He was sent home with Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis’ dispatches to arrive at Portsmouth at the end of April 1781, whereupon he proceeded post haste to London. The Raleigh entered harbour to be docked on 17 May, in the command of which Gambier was succeeded by Captain Matthew Squire.

During July 1781 he was presented to the King by his uncle, but although he was appointed to the Endymion 44 on 27 October, he resigned from her on grounds of ill health when she was despatched to the West Indies at the end of the year.

Gambier was one of the few officers who did not receive any peace-time employment, his next appointment being on 6 May 1793 when he was given the Defence 74. This vessel was put into commission at Chatham at the beginning of June, but it was early August before she had completed her fitting out, whereupon she put down to Blackstakes to take on her powder. Once at sea, she participated in the Channel Fleet cruise of October – December. Later, during the chase of Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s squadron on 18 November she sprung all three topmasts, and it was not until 4 January 1794 that she arrived at Portsmouth after her repairs at Plymouth, joining the Channel Fleet and entering Torbay with elements of that force on the last day of the month.

Continuing with the Channel Fleet, the Defence was off St. Helens in early March, and she was present at the Battle of the Glorious First of June where Gambier commanded her with great distinction, skill, and dash, giving the lie to the imputation that his was not a fighting ship but a ‘praying’ one. To the approbation of Admiral Lord Howe, the Defence was the first to break the French line as she rushed into action from her seventh place in the British line, and she was eventually to be dismasted after grappling with three opponents. She was towed out of the action at the end of the battle having suffered casualties of eighteen men killed and thirty-nine wounded. In recognition of his conduct, Gambier received the King’s medal, one of the few officers to be so rewarded, and he was appointed a colonel of marines on 4 July, although the King’s wish to ennoble him was sensibly avoided.


The brave HMS Defence – dismasted at the Battle of the Glorious First of June where Gambier excelled

He left the Defence on 30 September 1794 to commission the Prince George 98 at Chatham, but it was not until the end of December that she was ready for service, and even then she was detained in the Thames until February 1795 by the lack of a fair wind and sailing orders. Weeks later, on 7 March, Gambier became a lord of the Admiralty in William Pitt’s administration where his uncle, Sir Charles Middleton was the first naval lord. He replaced Middleton in the superior post when the latter resigned in November 1795 and he continued to serve under the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, until Pitt’s resignation from office in February 1801. During this period he was promoted rear-admiral on 1 June 1795, being presented to the King shortly afterwards, and vice-admiral on 14 February 1799. He also attended numerous levees, was an official member of the party which accompanied the King to Greenwich at the end of October 1797 following the Battle of Camperdown, and in December of that year he attended the service of thanksgiving for the naval victories.

In February 1801, days after leaving the Admiralty, Gambier was ordered to join the Neptune 98, which was initially intended for the expedition against the Baltic states, with the expectation that he would be second-in-command to Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, thereby leaving Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson as his subordinate. Thankfully this arrangement never transpired, and he was instead ordered to join the Channel Fleet as the third in command. In early March Captain Edward Brace was appointed his flag-captain, and the Neptune arrived at Portsmouth on the 23rd of that month to receive his flag, whereupon he hoisted it four days later. His first duty was to preside over the court-martial of Commander Henry Duncan and his officers for the loss of the sloop Scout whilst passing through the Needles, and after their acquittal the Neptune sailed to join the Channel Fleet on 6 April.

On 7 May 1801 the Neptune entered Plymouth before going out again six days later, and from 29 August Captain Francis Austen flew Gambier’s flag. She was back at Plymouth on 12 September to be re-rigged and overhauled, and she put out again nine days later. On 31 December she entered Plymouth once more to be paid before returning to Torbay, and she continued with the Channel Fleet during the first few months of 1802.

In early April 1802, with the French Revolutionary War drawing to a close, it was announced that Gambier was to sail for Newfoundland as the lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief. On the 21st he attended the King’s levee, and hoisting his flag at Portsmouth on 13 July aboard the Isis 50, Captain Edward Brace, he set off for his new station three days later, only to remain wind-bound for several days off St. Helens. During the eventual voyage out to Newfoundland his flagship survived a hurricane, but not before she had been thrown on her beam-ends and partly dismasted with all her sails apparently blown to rags. She returned to Portsmouth on 21 November at the end of the season, as was customary.

At the commencement of 1803 Captain William Granville Lobb replaced Brace as Gambier’s flag-captain, and after attending a levee on 2 March he hoisted his flag aboard the Isis at Portsmouth on 11 June and put to sea for Newfoundland eleven days later with a convoy. Shortly after his arrival the French islands of St. Pierre and Miquelon were possessed without bloodshed by Captain Micajah Malbon of the Aurora 28. At the end of the season, Gambier departed for England with an eighty-seven-strong convoy to arrive at Portsmouth on 16 November, and shortly afterwards he struck his flag and went up to London, where he again attended another levee.

Following William Pitt’s return to office, Gambier vacated the Newfoundland station and took up residence at the Admiralty from May 1804 in an administrative job alongside Vice-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis. Between them, the two officers made several blunders including the ‘restoration’ of the rank of admiral of the red to the Navy, a rank that had never existed, although Gambier benefited directly from this error as he was one of many promoted admiral on 9 November 1805. On the fall of the administration following Pitt’s death in January 1806 Gambier left his post. Whilst in this role he had enjoyed an easier life ashore, such as visiting Bath in August 1804, and he remained a frequent attendee at Court as well as a participant in meetings of religious institutions and Downing Street dinners.

Gambier returned to office in April 1807 as the first sea lord to Lord Mulgrave in the Duke of Portland’s administration, a position that gave him virtual control of the Navy. In July, with his flag aboard the Prince of Wales 98, Captain Adam Mackenzie, and with the maverick Captain Home Riggs Popham serving as his captain of the fleet, he was given the command of sixty-five ships including twenty-five sail of the line to act against the nations of the Armed Neutrality in the Baltic. The command had previously been rejected by Admiral William Young and Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton due to concern in Parliament over the legality and morality of the expedition, whilst another possible choice, Vice-Admiral John Duckworth, had blotted his copybook with his disastrous stewardship of the campaign in the Dardanelles. From 16-18 August eighteen thousand troops commanded by General Lord Cathcart were landed near Copenhagen, and from 2-5 September Gambier bombarded the Danes until he received the surrender of their fleet on 7 September. On a personal level, he was much distressed by the loss of civilian life and the carnage caused, but in terms of co-operating with the military, the campaign could not have gone better. The foreign secretary, George Canning, wanted Gambier to parade off the Russian base of Cronstadt with fifty ships although in the event this did not happen, but at least he brought home eighteen ships of the line, fifteen frigates, thirty-one brigs or smaller vessels and a large amount of confiscated naval stores from Denmark.

The British fleet off Copenhagen in 1807

Gambier arrived back in London from Denmark on 3 November, having been rewarded with a peerage as Baron Gambier of Iver, Buckinghamshire, and he pocketed about £150,000 in prize money which perhaps allowed him to decline the offer of a two thousand guinea pension. Less than a week later he retired with his wife to his seat at Hampstead, from where he was on hand to have a conference with the chancellor of the exchequer on 20 November. Parliamentary business took up his time in the first few months of 1808, with suggestions that he would undertake a major command, possibly the Mediterranean in place of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, who wished to return home.

In early March 1808 it was reported that Gambier was to be appointed the commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet in succession to the ailing Admiral Lord Gardner, and accordingly he resigned his post at the Admiralty. Taking leave of the King, he briefly visited his residence in Iver before proceeding to Plymouth to hoist his flag on 14 May aboard the Ville de Paris 110, Captain William Bedford. On the evening of 5 June, the Ville de Paris saluted the fleet at Torbay, whereupon that force sailed down the Channel under his command. In early July it was reported that the Brest Fleet was preparing to escape whilst Gambier’s ships were becalmed, but when a breeze sprang up and he steered towards the French they withdrew under the protection of their batteries. The fleet returned to Torbay from off Ushant on 23 July, and a week later the Ville de Paris was taken into Plymouth where, on 16 September, the officers and crew transferred to the magnificent newly commissioned Caledonia 120, a ship described as a ‘floating castle’. Captain William Bedford remained as flag captain whilst Rear-Admiral Sir Harry Neale assumed the role of captain of the fleet. After dropping down to Cawsand Bay, Gambier put to sea on 27 September to re-assume command of the Channel Fleet.

Throughout the autumn and early winter of 1808 frequent visits were made to Torbay as the weather dictated, and on 21 February 1809 the fleet was blown off station, thereby allowing Rear-Admiral Willaumez to escape from Brest. Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Stopford was soon able to blockade the French in the Aix Roads where Gambier joined him on 7 March; however, his subsequent indecision and inaction prompted the Admiralty to controversially summon Captain Lord Cochrane to lead an attack upon the enemy in their anchorage. These unfortunate circumstances resulted in the rumbustious Rear-Admiral Sir Eliab Harvey berating Gambier on the Caledonia’s quarterdeck for his stubborn ineffectiveness, and for his failure to allow capable officers of his own fleet to direct the attack. Worse was to follow, for at the Battle of the Basque Roads on 11 April, Gambier made barely any attempt to destroy the French Fleet after Cochrane had driven it ashore. Clearly, he had been unwilling to assist a man he considered headstrong, and instead of being within signalling distance he had kept his fleet some fourteen miles out to sea.


Gambier was ridiculed for his weak performance at the Battle of the Basque Roads in 1809.

Following the battle, Gambier at least had the generosity to recommend Cochrane for a K.B., but he sent home his favourite, Neale, with the despatches which he had scandalously written to the detriment of Cochrane. Meanwhile, the Caledonia returned to Portsmouth from the Basque Roads in early May. When Parliament proposed Gambier a vote of thanks, the furious radical Cochrane threatened to oppose it. Gambier demanded a court-martial on himself, and with his old friend Admiral Sir Roger Curtis presiding, the self-serving Admiral William Young sitting on the panel, and all the prejudicial witnesses despatched on faraway duty, it was no surprise that he was most honourably acquitted at the conclusion of his trial upon the Gladiator 44 at Portsmouth from 26th July to 4th August. Most of the officers in the fleet felt that his conduct had been found wanting however, but with the raging Cochrane suffering the enmity of the establishment Gambier was in a secure position, and he eventually received the thanks of Parliament on 29 January 1810.

Gambier remained in England whilst retaining the position of commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet, and with no threat of a French fleet putting to sea it was not until early December that his fleet reformed. Even then he did not put to sea, for he was in Parliament during the early months of 1810, and it appears that he conducted all of his business as commander-in-chief from ashore until he finally resigned in August 1811. Within weeks he began a tour of the country which included a visit to York Cathedral and to Liverpool.

He was not to serve again, and an attempt by Spencer Perceval to install him as the first lord of the Admiralty in 1810 was rejected by the King, who understood that the appointment would be most unpopular with the Navy. Following the termination of the War of 1812, he was sent to Ghent as the head of three commissioners to conclude a peace with the Americans, his appointment being dated 30 July 1814. He returned to Dover and proceeded to Downing Street in the first days of 1815 to confer with Earl Bathurst, the secretary of War and the Colonies, and Viscount Melville, the first lord of the Admiralty, and days later he left Penson’s Hotel in Cork Street for his seat. Iver Grove, near Uxbridge.

Gambier was nominated a KCB on 2 January 1815 and a G.C.B. on 7 June, and he received the rank of admiral of the fleet on 22 July 1830. During his retirement he continued to be heavily involved with charitable and religious organisations.

Lord Gambier died on 19 April 1833 at his residence at Iver in Buckinghamshire, and he was buried at St. Peter’s Churchyard in the town after a typically unostentatious and simple funeral that was attended by the local poor.

In April 1788 he married Louisa Matthew of Felix Hall, Essex. The marriage bore no issue. Her sister married Gambier’s elder brother James. He was related by marriage to the Austen family and became a patron of both Admiral of the Fleet Sir Francis Austen and Rear-Admiral Charles Austen. His uncle, Sir Charles Middleton, was a friend of Lord Wilberforce and equally an abolitionist, and Gambier was also related to William Pitt, an advantage he made good use of. In 1799 he helped Wilberforce found the evangelical Church Missionary Society, initially becoming its vice-president, and in 1812 the president.

Known as ‘Dismal Jimmy’ or ‘Preaching Jemmy’, it was said that God-fearing officers profited under Gambier. The seamen called him ‘blue-light’ which was an epithet for one of sanctimonious tendencies, and although seen as kind but strict, he was detested for inflicting evangelical messages, hymns, and tracts on his men and officers. As an admiral he was not respected by his officers, and by 1809 he was striving desperately to maintain his reputation, becoming ever more unpopular. Rear-Admiral Harvey’s tirade included a reference to him as a ‘canting and hypocritical Methodist’, and of practicing ‘methodistical and Jesuitical conduct’, the imputation being that his religious demeanour was a cover for an unworthy character. He refused to allow women to come aboard his ships unless they carried marriage certificates, which given the few that did this was a harsh restraint on his men. Swearing was dealt with harshly, officers being heavily fined and seamen being obliged to parade up and down for hours with a 32lb shot harnessed in a collar on their shoulders.

Gambier was described as ‘round-faced, smooth-shaven, and earnest’. Unsurprisingly, the Earl of St. Vincent disliked him for his caution and character, describing him as a ‘compound of paper and packthread.’ Even Napoleon was later to condemn him for his failure to destroy the French fleet in the Basque Roads. He was nevertheless a good administrator and an efficient captain of a single ship, and was also calm in action as illustrated when seen happily munching on a biscuit whilst the Defence piled into action at the Battle of the Glorious First of June.

He preferred life ashore to life afloat, and his total time at sea between the ranks of lieutenant and rear-admiral amounted to a bare five and a half years. His time at the Admiralty from 1795-1801 saw him heavily involved in the improvement of ship design, signalling, and discipline, and he was responsible for the design and building of the experimental frigates Triton and Ethalion, whilst having some input on the design of the Plantagenet 74.