Robert Dudley Oliver
1766-1850. Born on 31 October 1766 to a prominent Limerick family, he was one of at least nine children of John Oliver and of his wife, Elizabeth Ryder, and was related to Silver Oliver of Castle Oliver, the M.P. for Limerick in the Irish Parliament. One of his brothers was Major-General Nathaniel Wilmot Oliver.
Oliver joined the Navy on 13 May 1779 aboard the Prince George 98, Captain Philip Patton, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Hon. Robert Digby, and he formed an early acquaintance with the future King William IV, who was under the admiral’s governorship. Sailing with Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet to the relief of Gibraltar, he was present at the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent on 16 January 1780, and at the capture of the French sail of the line Protée 64 on 23 February. The Prince George, with Captains William Fox and James Williams as her commanders in succession to Captain Patton, went out to North America in 1781, and after sailing for the Caribbean to join the Leeward Islands Fleet, she was present at the Battles of St Kitts on 25/26 January 1782 and the Saintes on 12 April. Oliver remained in the West Indies until the end of the war, seeing service aboard the galley Vixen, Lieutenant John White, and the sloop Albacore, Captains George Oakes and Edmund Crawley.
From June 1783 until July 1785, he was an acting lieutenant in North American waters aboard the Ariadne 20, Captain Samuel Osborn, returning home in 1786 on the Hermione 32, which was flying the broad pennant of Commodore Sir Charles Douglas. Further service as an acting lieutenant came during 1789 aboard the sloop Racehorse, Commander Thomas Foley, and on 21 September 1790 he was commissioned a lieutenant of the Berwick 74, Captain Benjamin Caldwell, a position he retained until she was paid off in November at the conclusion of the Spanish Armament. On 26 April 1791 he was appointed to the Aquilon 32, Captain Hon. Robert Stopford, which frigate was paid off in September, whereupon he immediately removed to the Squirrel 20, Captain William O’Brien Drury, seeing service off Ireland and in the Channel for the next eighteen months, with all but two months of that period as her first lieutenant.
On 24 January 1793 Oliver was appointed to the frigate Active 32, Captain Edmund Nagle, serving in home waters, and on 23 July 1794 he transferred with that officer to the Artois 44. Following this ship’s capture of the French frigate Révolutionnaire 44 on 21 October, Oliver was promoted commander of the bomb-vessel Terror with seniority from that date, and on 3 November he was appointed to the sloop Hazard 16, serving off Ireland for seventeen months.
After being posted captain on 30 April 1796, he joined the veteran guardship Nonsuch 64, which was stationed in the Grimsby Roads. From June he enjoyed a short period aboard the newly commissioned frigate Seahorse 38 in a temporary capacity for Captain George Oakes, in the course of which duty he embarked on a cruise between Cape Clear and the Scilly Isles before entering Cork on 31 July. In September he arrived back at Hull to reassume command of the Nonsuch at the mouth of the Humber, and he remained with her for another year.
At the end of September 1797 Oliver was appointed to the Daphne 24 at Portsmouth, which sixth rate appears to have been employed in home waters, and on 2 February 1798 he recommissioned the frigate Nemesis 28, which sailed from Portsmouth in April with the Quebec trade. She departed the St. Lawrence on 15 August with the return convoy, but twelve days later her charges were dispersed in a storm off St. Paul’s Island. After eventually reaching England, the Nemesis went around to enter Sheerness on 18 February 1799.
On 26 March 1799 he transferred to the twelve-pounder frigate Mermaid 32, going out to the Mediterranean in June, and on 9 July his command arrived in the Tagus after being chased near Cadiz by the Brest fleet, which was in the latter stages of the cruise that had begun in April. The Mermaid reportedly returned to Portsmouth to be placed in quarantine on 13 January 1800, but she was soon back in the Mediterranean, and on 21 March she was present when the Peterel 16, Captain Francis Austen, took the French brig Ligurienne 14 in Marseilles Bay. Thereafter, she was employed in blockading Genoa where Marshal Andre Masséna’s army was under siege, and between 2 and 6 April she took or destroyed nine vessels bound for the city with supplies, her boats cutting out six of them from fortified islands near Cape Croisette. A further success came when she took the French brig Cruelle 6 to the south of the Hyères Islands on 1 June, and in total it was reported that she took some sixty prizes during this period. Unfortunately, what followed over the second half of the year was a particularly fallow period, with barely a mention of her activities as she apparently continued to serve in the Mediterranean.
In February 1802 the Mermaid was at Malta with the Mediterranean Fleet under the command of Admiral Lord Keith, and in the following month she arrived at Naples with the sickly Major-General Lord Hutchinson, the commander-in-chief of the army in Egypt. During May she delivered the Duke of Sussex from Lisbon to Gibraltar, and she eventually arrived at Portsmouth from Gibraltar and Lisbon on 12 July, having given passage to the dowager Countess of Errol. The Mermaid was initially placed in quarantine but was released two days later, and she sailed for the Thames to be paid off at Woolwich at the end of the month.
Oliver remained unemployed for the short period of the peace, but when disputes with France resurfaced, he was appointed to the frigate Melpomene 38 on 23 March 1803. Whilst she was fitting out at Deptford, he assisted the Bow Street Runners and a relative, Charles Silver Oliver, the M.P. for Limerick, in apprehending a convicted murderer at Woolwich Warren who had earlier escaped an Irish gaol.
In June 1803, a convoy under the Melpomene’s charge arrived in the Humber, having previously sailed for the Elbe but been advised to return home due to concerns over the French threat to Hamburg. On 22 August she entered the Downs from a cruise, and she continued to serve in the North Sea before arriving at Portsmouth on 25 October with two Indiamen from the Downs. Shortly afterwards, Oliver assumed command with a commodore’s broad pennant of the squadron blockading the burgeoning invasion flotilla at Le Havre, although he was back at Portsmouth on 21 December to report the loss of the Shannon 36, Captain Edward Leveson-Gower, near Cap le Hogue.
Continuing to serve off Le Havre, the Melpomene arrived at Portsmouth in mid-February 1804 with only one day’s fuel left before going back to the French port, and when she next arrived at Portsmouth on 29 May, it was after thirteen weeks spent at anchor off the mouth of the Seine. Briefly she was taken into the harbour for repairs, and on 16 June she sailed for her station once more. Under Oliver’s command, a squadron of four bomb vessels staged two attacks on Le Havre on 23 July, with sixty shells landing in the town before he called the attack off when the wind changed. Concurrently, excitable newspapers reported erroneously that the Melpomene had captured a French 52-gun vessel off the port after an action of four hours, and despite suffering one hundred casualties. A further bombardment of Le Havre in early August did a considerable amount of damage to the town and shipping, and such was its potency that it raised some concern as to the probable level of civilian casualties. The squadron’s vigilance ensured that any attempts by the invasion flotilla to leave the port were thwarted until forty-seven vessels did eventually get away to Boulogne in early August, only to be attacked by the British squadron off that port.
On 9 September 1804 the Melpomene arrived at Portsmouth, reportedly to refit, although she was back off Le Havre in days. She returned to the Hampshire base once more in November, at which point Captain Christopher Laroche replaced Oliver on a temporary basis until the frigate re-entered Portsmouth on 4 February 1805. Conscious of the time that the frigate had spent in the tedious blockade of Le Havre, the Admiralty rewarded Oliver and his crew with a ten-week cruise in the Western Approaches in the company of the Immortalitie 36, Captain Edward Owen; however, having sailed in March, the only excitement arose from the chase off Madeira of a vessel that proved to be a Jersey privateer. When the Melpomene returned to Portsmouth on 6 June, it was to a general disappointment that she had not been able to benefit from the Admiralty’s magnanimity, although in Oliver’s case at least, this was somewhat mitigated when he got married a fortnight later.
On 15 July 1805 it was reported that the Melpomene was to be docked at Portsmouth for a refit, and following various delays she was still there in September. On the 14th, Oliver met Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson at the George Hotel in Portsmouth on the day that the was great admiral was preparing to go out to Cadiz to take on the Franco/Spanish fleet, and he bemoaned his luck at not being able to participate in the anticipated battle. Attending Nelson to his boat on Southsea Beach with others, it was suggested to Oliver by the admiral that he might arrive in time to assist in the aftermath. By now the Melpomene had been ordered to fit for foreign service, and on the same day she went out of the harbour, although it was not until 4 October that she sailed to join Nelson. Upon arriving the day after the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October, Oliver was employed in rescuing a prize, the San Juan de Nepomuceno 74, despite the apparent efforts of a Spanish 74 to re-take it, and he was officially praised in Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood’s dispatch for the assistance he had given in ‘destroying the enemy ships.’
On 5 November 1805 Oliver was appointed to the Mars 74 in order to replace Captain George Duff who had fallen in the battle, although it was her first lieutenant who brought the shattered vessel back to Portsmouth for repairs on 2 December under a jury mizzen and foretopmast, with Oliver going aboard to take command when she reached port. She was eventually taken into dock towards the end of January 1806 and Oliver would therefore have been ashore in the following month when he suffered a personal tragedy with the death of his day-old daughter. On 11 March the Mars dropped down to St. Helens from where she departed to join the Channel Fleet off France, and towards the end of April she was detached with Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling’s squadron of five sail of the line in search of a French break-out. Whilst subsequently forming part of Commodore Richard Keats’ squadron off Rochefort, Oliver’s luck changed for the better on 27 July when his command took the French frigate Rhin 40 after a chase of one hundred and fifty miles. The Rhin, which wisely struck before she could receive a full broadside from her vastly superior opponent, had previously been one of four frigates that had somewhat shamefully abandoned the brig Furet to the British frigate Hydra 38 on 27 February, and on this occasion, her remaining three compatriots did little to assist her. The prize was carried into Plymouth on the afternoon of 6 August and Oliver vacated the command of the Mars shortly afterwards.
In May 1810, after nearly four years on the beach, during which time his health had apparently not been of the best, he joined the Valiant 74. Serving initially in the North Sea and then under Rear-Admiral Sir Harry Neale in the Basque Roads, he assisted in the capture of two brigs and the destruction of a third on 28 September. His command was briefly at Plymouth in November before returning to the Basque Roads, and in February 1811 she came back to the Devonshire port. Here in early March, it was reported that a 16-year-old girl tried to join the crew in her brother’s clothes, only to be found out when she dropped a curtsy instead of a bow to the officers!
In March 1811 the Valiant was still at Plymouth preparing for sea, and on 1 April she was off St. Helens from where she sailed for the Downs, prior to employment off the Texel and Flushing for the rest of the year. She was back in the Downs in December before returning to the Texel, one of several occasions on which she came home, and on 19 February 1812 she entered Portsmouth Harbour for repairs, from where she was released on 1 April. During May she took supplies out to the fleet off the Texel, and after a number of similar returns to the Downs she arrived at Portsmouth from the Scheldt on 8 December to be refitted.
On 14 January 1813 the Valiant departed Portsmouth for Bermuda with stores, and thereafter she remained in North American waters with Oliver commanding a small squadron blockading New York and New London. On 17 June, being in company off Long Island Sound with the Acasta 40, Captain Alexander Robert Kerr, the two vessels captured the American letter-of-marque Porcupine 20 after a hundred-mile chase that had commenced off Cape Sable, and in the same month they chased the American frigate Macedonian 38 and sloop Hornet back into New York and almost intercepted the United States 44.
At the end of 1813, the Valiant departed for Jamaica, and although she sailed for home on 31 January 1814 with a convoy of sixty sail, she soon became detached from the entire fleet in two heavy storms. On 25 March she was off Falmouth, and four days later she reached Portsmouth where she was taken into harbour to be surveyed. Oliver subsequently resigned his commission in July and his naval service came to an end.
In due course he was promoted rear-admiral on 12 August 1819, and after retiring to Ireland he threw himself into the membership and chairmanship of protestant religious societies, with his underlying tenet being that people should have religious freedom before political freedom, and that political dissent should be countered by scriptural knowledge. A somewhat controversial figure given the times, on 4 November 1828 he and many other Irish notables attended the first annual meeting of the Brunswick Constitutional Club in Dublin, this being a body which had been set up to attempt to deny Catholics the right to enter the British Parliament. He became involved in many arguments with the acknowledged leader of the Roman Catholic majority, Daniel O’Connell, who wished to reinstitute the Irish parliament that had been dissolved in 1800, yet he also worked closely with the Catholics for the betterment of the people, even involving himself in the movements for temperance and against duelling.
Oliver was promoted vice-admiral on 22 July 1830, and spending more time in England, he attended a huge levee in London in the following month. During November 1833 he was granted an audience with his old shipmate, King William IV, in the summer of 1834 he visited Harrogate and York races with his family, and he had another audience with the monarch in August 1835. Back in Ireland, during January 1836 he bemoaned the fact that the Roman Catholic Church had raised only a tiny proportion of the sums raised by protestants for the alleviation of the poor, who themselves were mostly of the Catholic persuasion. By February he was at Brighton where he was granted another audience with the King, and in June he was in London, from where he journeyed to Warwickshire. Over the subsequent years he made several visits to fashionable Cheltenham with his family and other officers of rank, and whilst still attending to his numerous charitable works, he frequently undertook trips to other English spa towns. He was advanced to the rank of admiral on 23 November 1841, and in November 1845, despite his advanced years, he attended a meeting of notables in Dublin to consider alleviation for those affected by the potato famine,
Admiral Oliver died at his home in Dalkey, near Dublin, on 1 September 1850.
By special licence on 19 June 1805, he married Mary Saxton, a daughter of Captain Sir Charles Saxton, the resident commissioner of the Navy at Portsmouth, and the couple had five sons and a daughter. One son, Richard Aldworth Oliver, entered the Navy in 1825 and was promoted commander in 1844, and another son was Lieutenant-Colonel James Hewitt Oliver.
A member of numerous religious societies and dedicated to the relief of the poor, Oliver was described as one of the most charitable men in Dublin, but nevertheless he courted disapproval from those opposed to his religious and unionist beliefs. He held an apparent creed of not seeking popularity if he could do the right thing. In 1836 he was described in one article as ‘a bigoted fanatic’ who ‘excited dissension by reviling the Catholics and allowing the rancour of his sectarianism to ruffle the current of Christian charity’. Nevertheless, he no doubt would have been pleased with the following verse that was compiled in dedication to him:
‘Blest be the name of Oliver,
That star from off the sea,
That high and holy man of war,
That mast of sanctity.’