Thomas Graves 1st Baron

1725-1802. Born on 23 October 1725, he was the second son of Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves of Thanckes, Cornwall, and of his second wife, Elizabeth Budgell. He was the half-brother of Rear-Admiral David Graves, the cousin of Admiral Samuel Graves, and his cousins once removed included Admiral Sir Thomas Graves and the superannuated rear-admirals, Samuel, John, and Richard Graves. His elder brother, William Graves, served as an M.P. for both Looe constituencies over some thirty years.

Graves initially served aboard the Romney 50 with Commodore Henry Medley, the governor of Newfoundland, before joining his father aboard the Norfolk 80. He was present at the unsuccessful expedition to Cartagena on the Spanish Main in March 1741 and later saw service in the Mediterranean.

On 25 June 1743 he was commissioned lieutenant of the Romney 50, Captain Thomas Grenville, and he saw action at the Battle of Toulon on 11 February 1744 and aboard the Spanish prize Princesa 70, Captain John Cockburne, during the expedition to Lorient in 1746. He was employed aboard the Monmouth 70, Captain Henry Harrison, in Vice-Admiral George Anson’s action off Cape Finisterre with the Marquis de La Jonquière on 3 May 1747, and later in Rear-Admiral Edward Hawke’s action off the same cape with Commodore des Herbiers de l’Etenduère on 14 October.


Admiral Lord Graves

Following the peace of 1748, Graves applied himself to the theoretical study of his profession and to the French language. He also participated in two voyages to Africa as the first lieutenant of the Assistance 50 with Commodore Matthew Buckle and Commodore George Stepney, the latter officer passing away shortly before the return to England in 1753.

On 12 March 1754 Graves was appointed commander of the sloop Hazard 8, in which he sailed from Plymouth to reconnoitre Brest in March of the following year to report back that the French fleet was at sea. He undertook the same duty again in May when he returned with intelligence on the further dispositions of that force. As a reward for having taken his command in so close to the enemy port on both occasions, the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Anson, posted him captain of the recommissioned Sheerness 20 on 8 July 1755. Sailing from Portsmouth to Plymouth in October, he soon made his mark by capturing the French letter-of-marque Treize Cantons on 11 December, whilst in the spring and summer of 1756 he sent several prizes into Falmouth and Plymouth.

On Boxing Day 1756 the Sheerness fell in with a vessel which the officers assumed to be a French sail of the line, hence Graves refused an engagement. Upon learning of the incident, the Admiralty concluded that the other vessel had been a French East Indiaman, and a court martial was ordered upon Graves. The verdict against him, of having made an error of judgement, was reached at Plymouth on 27 January 1757, the very same day that Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng was sentenced to death at Portsmouth for negligence in command of a fleet. But for the friendship of Lord Anson, Graves may well have received a harsher verdict than the one that was handed down upon him of being ‘publicly reprimanded’. The incident apparently had no bar on Graves’ career, for he continued in command of the Sheerness, and in December it was reported that he had captured a French man-of-war, the Bien Acquis, on board which was discovered two hundred thousand guineas worth of fur.

In the early part of 1758, Graves succeeded Captain Mathew Moore in command of the Unicorn 28 in the Channel, in which frigate he assisted the Shrewsbury 74, Captain Hugh Palliser, and the Lizard 28, Captain Broderick Hartwell, in the destruction of the large French privateer Calypso in Audierne Bay on 12 September. He captured the Dunkirk privateer Duc d’Harcourt 8 on 28 September off the Isle de Bas after a seven-hour chase, following which he returned to Plymouth, and in co-operation with Captain Moore, now of the Adventure 32, he captured the Moras, a 22-gun St. Malo privateer, on 13 February 1759. Having spent the first half of 1759 operating out of Plymouth, he joined Rear-Admiral George Rodney’s squadron in July, taking the admiral out of Portsmouth Harbour to Spithead on 24 August, and sailing days later to undertake the bombardment of Le Havre. The Unicorn arrived back in the Downs with Rodney in mid-October, but then evidently returned to Le Havre from where she delivered dispatches to Plymouth on 17 December.

The Unicorn was at Plymouth during the early part of 1760, and on 27 June she arrived at that port with four French fishermen who had ventured aboard her off La Rochelle in the mistaken belief that she was a French frigate. In July she departed Plymouth with victuallers for Quiberon Bay before returning to the Devonshire port, and Graves appears to have left her in November.

In May 1761 he was appointed the lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland in succession to the recently deceased Captain James Webb, and he joined the Antelope 50 to sail thither with a convoy from Plymouth on 26 May 1761. Departing St. Johns with the homeward-bound trade on 25 November, he arrived at Plymouth in sixteen days, and the Antelope then delivered a twenty-ship convoy to Lisbon towards the end of December before returning with the homeward-bound convoy in March 1762.

Prior to Graves sailing out for Newfoundland with a convoy in June 1762, a French squadron under Charles Louis d’Arsac, the Chevalier de Ternay, occupied the main town, St John’s, and it was only an urgent signal from the shore that allowed the Antelope to sheer away when on the point of entering the harbour. Graves then sailed with his squadron to assume the defence of Placentia on the western coast of Newfoundland against an expected French attack, and once he had summoned assistance from Commodore Lord Colville on the North American station, a sufficient force was despatched to drive the French out of St. John’s in September.

After departing Newfoundland in November 1762 with the fish ships in convoy, the Antelope rescued the crew of the Marlborough 74, Captain Thomas Burnet, when she was on the point of foundering, and after reaching Lisbon on 27 December, she returned to Plymouth at the end of February 1763. When Graves sailed from Portsmouth on 22 April to resume his command at Newfoundland, he had instructions to ensure that the French adhered to fishing rights that had been agreed following the end of the Seven Years War. At the end of the year, the Antelope sailed for Cadiz with the fish fleet where she remained for some weeks before arriving at Portsmouth on 15 March 1764. To the disapproval of some in the Press, Graves was then replaced as the governor of Newfoundland by Captain Hugh Palliser at the commencement of the 1764 season.

A French illustration of their attack on Newfoundland – kindly provided by M. Bataillard

In November 1764 Graves was appointed to the Plymouth guard-ship Téméraire 74, and in January 1765 he was ordered to raise a broad pennant aboard the Edgar 60 after exchanging with Captain George Collier, who temporarily shifted into the Téméraire. Graves then led a small squadron to the coast of West Africa with orders to resolve a dispute between merchants and the governors of the various forts on that coast. By August he was back at Plymouth aboard the Téméraire, and he remained in command of her for the usual three years until November 1767.

During the Falkland Islands dispute of 1770, he recommissioned the Cambridge 80 at Plymouth in November before paying her off in May 1771, and from January 1773 he commanded the Raisonnable 64, serving mostly at Plymouth and in the Channel. He was nominated a colonel of marines on 31 March 1775, and after leaving the Raisonnable in September he immediately commissioned the new Plymouth-based guardship Nonsuch 64, although the command soon passed to Captain Walter Griffith in January 1776.

In the spring of 1777 Graves commissioned the new Conqueror 74, which was employed in home waters until she sailed for North America with Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byron’s reinforcements in June 1778. A series of violent storms dispersed the fleet in the Atlantic, and when the Conqueror did reach land in company with Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker on 29 August it was with over three hundred men on the sick list. Having been ordered to raise a commodore’s broad pennant with Captain Harry Harmood commanding the Conqueror, Graves sailed with Byron to the West Indies during December.

He was recalled to England following his promotion to rear-admiral on 19 March 1779, and setting out for Portsmouth with the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, he hoisted his flag at Portsmouth on 7 September aboard the Formidable 90, Captain John Stanton, in order to command a fifth division under Admiral Sir Charles Hardy in the Channel fleet. Days later he transferred to the London 90, commanded by his nephew, Captain David Graves. At this time morale was low following the Channel Fleet’s retreat in August, with officers being openly rebuked by the public in the street, and there was even some speculation, evidently false, that Graves had arrived to take command of the fleet himself.

On 9 December 1779 he departed Portsmouth for Plymouth with three sail of the line and four frigates so that the London could undergo a refit, and on 11 March 1780 he re-hoisted his flag aboard this vessel at Portsmouth with reports suggesting that he was intended for foreign service, and with expectations that he would join Commodore Hon. Robert Boyle Walsingham’s Leeward Islands-bound squadron. He eventually departed St. Helens for Plymouth on 10 May to arrive in Cawsand Bay two days later, and with intelligence indicating that a French squadron under Commodore Charles Louis d’Arsac, the Chevalier de Ternay, was sailing for North America from the West Indies, he departed on 19 May in command of six sail of the line to reinforce Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot at New York. During its passage across the Atlantic some time was wasted by his force in running down a homeward-bound French East-Indiaman from China worth a reputed hundred thousand guineas, and this vessel was captured off the Azores on 23 June.

Following Graves’ arrival at Sandy Hook on 13 July 1780, Arbuthnot came out of New York with four ships of the line four days later and the combined force sailed for Rhode Island where they unfortunately found that de Ternay was already in possession of the place. The combined fleet then cruised off the coast in the hope that the French would come out, but de Ternay preferred not to do so. Back in England, Graves would later be criticised for having taken time to capture the East Indiaman on his voyage across the Atlantic when his prompt arrival in North America might well have prevented de Ternay taking Rhode Island. There was later some expectation that Graves would take the North American fleet south to the Leeward Islands with Admiral Sir George Rodney, who had unexpectedly arrived at New York on 14 September and assumed command of the station, much to Arbuthnot’s fury, but instead he was sent to blockade de Ternay at Rhode Island.

In January 1781 Graves was despatched to bring in a convoy, but his squadron was caught in a storm off Long Island and scattered. The tempest saw the Culloden 74, Captain George Balfour, driven ashore, the Bedford 74, Captain Edmund Affleck, dis-masted, and the America 64, Captain Samuel Thompson, driven out to sea. This mayhem allowed the French at Rhode Island to slip out, and Graves was second-in-command to Arbuthnot in the commander-in-chief’s ineffectual battle with that force at the Battle of Cape Henry on 16 March, during which engagement the London was partially disabled.

Following Arbuthnot’s resignation in July 1781, Graves assumed the temporary command of the North American station, and with some circumspection over the safety of New York he sailed for Rhode Island to monitor the French once more, being aware that at any time his smaller force might be surprised by the Comte de Grasse’s fleet which was known to be sailing north from the West Indies. Only following his reinforcement from the Leeward Islands by Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood with fourteen sail of the line was Graves able to take the more proactive decision to track southwards in search of de Grasse. On 5 September his nineteen sail of the line fought twenty-four under de Grasse at the indecisive Battle of Chesapeake Bay, and his lack of tactical skill was exposed by his van being disabled whist his rear remained un-engaged. In his defence, he was clearly hampered by his adherence to the rigid Fighting Instructions, and it little helped that he had failed to engage positively with his second-in-command, the contemptuous Hood, who rightly considered Graves to be his inferior in abilities. As a result of his failure to win the battle, Graves was unable to seize de Grasse’s anchorage, and an opportunity to relieve Lieutenant-General Lord Cornwallis’ army which had become surrounded by land and sea at Yorktown was missed.


Graves failure to win the Battle of Chesapeake Bay was a major factor in the surrender of a British army and the loss of the American colonies

On 10 September 1781 Graves took his fleet back to New York, and two weeks later Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby arrived with three sail of the line to assume the command of the station. Digby also brought orders for Graves to assume the position of commander-in chief in Jamaica with his flag remaining in the London, which was now to be commanded by Captain James Kempthorne. Between them the two admirals decided that the London could not be spared whilst Cornwallis’ army remained bottled up by the French fleet and American forces at Yorktown, and accordingly Graves returned to the Chesapeake with twenty-five sail of the line to attempt a relief. The French fleet held their position of advantage however, and after learning that Cornwallis had surrendered, Graves returned to New York. Although he was held largely responsible for failing to relieve Cornwallis and thus prevent the subsequent British defeat in the war, Graves was considered somewhat unfortunate in having chosen the wrong, but equally worthy, option of protecting New York rather than racing for the Chesapeake before the French could get there.

On 10 November 1781 he sailed from New York to assume his new command in Jamaica, and whilst in passage the London captured the French frigate Impérieux 36, which was sent into Antigua. Arriving at Port Royal on 17 December, the next six months were largely uneventful, as the Leeward Islands station had by now become the main battleground with the enemy.

On 25 July 1782 Graves was despatched to England by Admiral Lord Rodney in charge of a motley collection of one hundred and eighty merchantmen and five French prizes which had been taken at the Battle of the Saintes. Once more his luck failed him, for the convoy was devastated by the Central Atlantic Hurricane in September, resulting in the loss of three of the prizes and some three thousand five hundred lives. His own flagship, the Ramillies 74, Captain Sylverius Moriarty, was taken aback, dis-masted, and eventually had to be abandoned and blown up, leaving him to embark aboard a merchantman which got into Cork on 10 October. In addition to losing his property and library to a value of 1,000 guineas, he also had to endure a great deal of acrimony with his subordinate, Captain Hon. William Cornwallis, over the latter’s perceived failings in the tragedy, a dispute that was little diluted by Graves’ part in the surrender of Cornwallis’ brother’s army the previous year. What was not in doubt however was the consummate bravery and fortitude that Graves displayed during the hurricane. On 16 December 1782 he attended the King at Court, but he did not see any further service in the American Revolutionary War.

In November 1786 he became the commander in chief at Plymouth with his flag aboard the Powerful 74, Captain Andrew Sutherland, and on 24 September 1787 he was promoted vice-admiral. During the Dutch Armament that autumn he was praised for his unremitting efforts in fitting ships out for service, and at the beginning of 1788 he hosted the Prince of Wales to a dinner at Plymouth aboard the Carnatic 74, Captain Hon. Peregrine Bertie. By March he had transferred to the Impregnable 98, Captain Thomas Byard, and he eventually struck his flag on 23 July 1789.

During the Spanish Armament of 1790 Graves re-hoisted his flag at Plymouth in June aboard the Cambridge 80, Captain William Locker, and he acted as the senior officer when the port admiral, Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Bickerton, was ordered to join the Grand Fleet at Torbay. In September he was visited by the Duke of Clarence, and he appears to have retained the command at Plymouth through to the end of January 1791 after transferring his flag at the end of the year to the Impregnable 98, Captain Sir Thomas Byard, during which period he supervised the fitting out of the fleet and then its de-commissioning.

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Graves’ career ended when he lost an arm at the Battle of the Glorious first of June in 1794

Following the commencement of the French Revolutionary War in February 1793, Graves once again assumed the duties of commander-in-chief at Plymouth with his flag aboard the Royal Sovereign 100, commanded by the opinionated Captain Henry Nicholls. At the end of May he received orders to proceed to Spithead with all dispatch, and his duties as port admiral were transferred to Rear-Admiral Rowland Cotton.

Assuming the role of second-in-command to Admiral Lord Howe in the Channel fleet, he participated in the disappointing cruises of July-August 1793, and October-December. On 10 December the Royal Sovereign entered dock at Plymouth for repairs, and she returned to Portsmouth on 14 February 1794. He was promoted admiral on 12 April, and on 23 April took the first division of the Channel fleet to sea. At the Battle of the Glorious First of June he commanded the van but was badly wounded in the right arm some thirty minutes into the action. The injury forced him to resign his command, but he received some compensation in November in the form of an Irish peerage as Baron Graves of Gravesend, County Londonderry, and later a pension of one thousand guineas.

Lord Graves died on 9 February 1802 at Cadhay, near Ottery St. Mary in Devon.

On 22 June 1771 at Ottery St. Mary, he married Elizabeth Peere Williams, heiress of William Peere Williams from Cadleigh, Devon, and the first cousin of Lady North, the wife of the prime minister. Lord North. They had issue three daughters and two sons, and his wife died in 1827. His youngest daughter, Margaret Anne, married Admiral Christopher Nesham.

Graves served briefly as the M.P. for East Looe from January- June 1775 but did not take part in any debates during his four-month tenure. He was succeeded by his brother William.

He was considered to be a skilful and diligent seaman, an experienced calm and methodical officer, and a good manager of men and of situations. He was nevertheless a somewhat cautious and unlucky commander whose captains could have served him better at the Battle of the Chesapeake. His strength of character during the hurricane of 1782 was rightly praised, and he was proficient in the skill of engineering and gunnery. Even so, Lord Robert Manners claimed that he was ‘much disliked in the navy’.

My thanks to Peter Clarke and Gerard Molyneux for providing additional details on the Graves family.