Sir Edward William Campbell Rich Owen

1771-1849. He was born on 19 Feb 1771 at Campobello, Nova Scotia, the illegitimate son of Captain William Owen, who was from a Welsh family long established in Montgomeryshire, and of his housekeeper, Sarah Haslam. His father lost his right arm serving as a midshipman at the capture of Pondicherry in 1760 and died in an accident at Madras in 1778. His younger brother was Rear-Admiral William Fitzwilliam Owen.

From the age of four, Owen’s name was borne on the books of various ships commanded by his godfather, Captain Sir Thomas Rich, but he did not go to sea until July 1786, when at the age of fifteen he joined the guardship Culloden 74 under this officer at Plymouth. Further service came from August aboard the sloop Fairy 14, Captain Isaac Manley, and from October on the Leander 50, carrying the broad pennant of Commodore Herbert Sawyer at Halifax. In January 1788 he joined the frigate Lowestoft 32, Captain Edmund Dod, seeing duty in the Channel and Mediterranean, and from April 1790 he was in North American waters with the Thisbe 28, Captain Rupert George. He returned to England in November aboard the frigate Dido 28, Captain Edward Buller, and removed in the following month to the Vengeance 74, Captain Rich, employed in home waters. In December 1791 he joined the Hannibal 74, Captain John Colpoys, in September 1792 was taken aboard the Porcupine 24, Captain Buller, and in January 1793 removed to the Culloden 74, Captain Rich.

His promotion to lieutenant came with seniority from 6 November 1793 when he joined the Fortunée 36, Captain Francis Wooldridge, serving off Cadiz. In December he returned to the Hannibal 74, Captain Colpoys, remaining with her until the following May when he rejoined the Culloden, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Rich in the Channel. Upon his patron briefly retiring ashore in October, Owen continued on the Culloden under her new commander, Captain Thomas Troubridge. On 4 December a mutiny broke out aboard this vessel at Plymouth, and although Owen attempted to bring the men back to duty with reasoned argument, being well-regarded, he had to flee when the more hardened elements began throwing objects at him.

Admiral Sir Edward Owen

In January 1795 Owen moved to the London 98, Captain Edward Griffith, the flagship in the Channel of Rear-Admiral Colpoys, and he saw action at the Battle of Groix on 23 June. In December the London drove aground on the Owers when entering Portsmouth, and it was reported that at great risk to his life, Owen, who by now had risen to become her first lieutenant, was ‘several times washed away’ in the process of securing a substitute rudder.

During the spring of 1796, he briefly served in the Channel Fleet as the acting-captain of the Impregnable 98, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Rich, and from May to July he undertook the same role for Vice-Admiral Colpoys aboard the Queen Charlotte 110. On 19 September he was officially promoted to the rank of commander, and in January 1797 he returned to serve under Colpoys aboard the London as a volunteer. At the time of the Nore mutiny which broke out on 12 May, he commanded a gunboat under the orders of Commodore Sir Erasmus Gower.

On 23 April 1798 Owen was posted captain and appointed to the Northumberland 74 at Sheerness, which vessel was intended to take the flag of Vice-Admiral Colpoys out to the East Indies. Unfortunately, the crew effectively refused to serve the admiral, and Captain George Martin assumed the command of the Northumberland in place of Owen when Colpoys resigned. Owen then commanded the Irresistible 74 in the Medway for a short period during the summer before she was paid off at Chatham in August.

He appears to have remained unemployed for the best part of the next two and a half years before he was appointed to the frigate Nemesis 28 on 1 January 1801, although it seems that he did not relieve Captain Thomas Baker in the Downs until mid-February. In the first few weeks of his command the Nemesis undertook a series of fruitless cruises out of the Downs, and on 14 April she sailed for Sheerness with prisoners of war. She was soon back in the Downs, from which station Owen operated whilst commanding a small squadron off the Schelde and later off Dunkirk. In November the Nemesis took on board the broad pennant of Commodore Sam Sutton in the Downs, and she appears to have remained off Deal for the next couple of months until the commodore departed in early March. She then sailed for Portsmouth at the beginning of April, by which time the French Revolutionary War had concluded.

Owen was one of the few lucky officers who were able to secure an appointment after peace with France had been declared, and on 11 May 1802 he joined the frigate Immortalité 36, with one of his first tasks being to escort the King’s barge from Portsmouth to Weymouth in early July. By the 18th of that month he was back off Deal where he was to hold the command of a squadron of frigates, and although in August he took up a patrol between Dungeness and Beachy Head, he mostly spent the remaining eight months of peace in the Downs.

On the resumption of hostilities in May 1803, the Immortalité was ordered to join Admiral Lord Keith’s home fleet with Owen acting as the second in command to Commodore James Nicoll Morris of the Leopard 50, whose responsibilities included the hampering of French invasion preparations. Taking advantage of his knowledge of the French coast, Owen was to establish a glowing reputation for the capture or destruction of scores of French gunboats and privateers, as well as the interruption of Army reviews, removal of buoys, and attacks on coastal installations.

His campaign of harassment began on 14 June 1803, when in company with two sloops, the Immortalité drove the brig Commode 4 and schooner Inabordable 4 ashore near Cape Blanc-Nez and he sent the boats in under heavy fire to bring them off. At the end of the month, it was reported that the Immortalité was to deliver an ambassador extraordinaire to Copenhagen before returning from Elsinore with a convoy, and she was back in the Downs by 8 July when, in company with the squadron’s bomb vessels, she proceeded off the French coast to bombard Boulogne. On 14 September Owen pounded Dieppe for two and a half hours, receiving an estimated six hundred shot in return, and he then sailed to attack St. Valery-en-Caux, where the enemy batteries were reportedly deserted by the French. On 8 November the Immortalité sailed for Sheerness to repair damage incurred off Boulogne, but typically Owen wasted little time in getting her back on duty, and a week later he embarked the local Army commander, Lieutenant-General Sir David Dundas, at Deal and carried him across the Channel to reconnoitre Boulogne.

Continuing to operate out of the Downs and to harry Boulogne, on 3 January 1804 Owen’s squadron captured five Boulogne-bound transports off Calais and sent them into the Downs. On 28 May the Immortalité arrived at Sheerness for repairs before she went out of the harbour on 4 July to resume her station off Boulogne. When two sloops boldly attacked Napoleon’s invasion fleet on 19 July, the Immortalité sailed into the channel between Boulogne and Etaples twenty-four hours later with a favourable gale in the company of four gunboats to attack the disabled French transports, resulting in the deaths of several hundred enemy troops. In mid-September Owen took a dash at some fifty gunboats and luggers off Boulogne, forcing them to run inshore under the protection of the coastal batteries, and on 23 October his squadron engaged in an hour-long fight with twenty-five enemy vessels between Caps Blanc-Nez and Gris-Nez, the cannon fire, as on so many other occasions, being clearly heard in Dover. As a result of this action, the Immortalité was obliged to sail for Sheerness for repairs, and she entered the harbour on 28 October. She was back in the Downs by 9 November, and just prior to Christmas found herself becalmed off Boulogne, but although up to thirty gunboats ventured out with the offshore wind, they did not attack her. After taking aboard the crew of a Swedish dogger which had gone aground, the Immortalité then returned to the Downs unharmed.

Continuing to command the advanced squadron under the orders of Rear-Admiral Thomas Louis in 1805, Owen largely remained at anchor off Boulogne, and only sailed for home waters when the wind veered into the south-west. On 10 January the Immortalité conveyed an envoy from Napoleon back to Boulogne after the officer had delivered peace proposals to the British government, and nine days later the squadron took a lugger out of thirty-one vessels which had arrived off Boulogne from the westward. The Immortalité then captured the Spanish privateer Entrepede Corune 14, nominally a 44-gun vessel, on 7 March.

At the end of March 1805, Owen was awoken from his bed by the delivery of sealed orders which saw his frigate sail from the Downs at dawn, having been rapidly replenished by all the other ships on the station. In a diversion from her normal duties, she was off Madeira in early May where she observed the Toulon fleet which was bound for the West Indies during the early stages of the Trafalgar campaign.

A raid on Boulogne in 1804

Owen was back off Boulogne with his squadron by June 1805 when he lost four men killed and twelve wounded in a furious action near Ambleteuse, the Immortalité being much damaged. During September it was reported that she had been becalmed off Boulogne and under fire from heated shot and shells, and at the beginning of November a 13-inch shell struck one of her carronades, only for the fuse to fortuitously fail. On another occasion, Owen was on the point of cutting off six praams, including one flying a rear-admiral’s flag, when he was recalled by his new superior, Rear-Admiral Billy Douglas. At the beginning of 1806 the Immortalité was at Harwich, and during February Owen commanded a squadron of small vessels in the Rivers Elbe and Weser in support of Lieutenant-General Lord Carthcart’s army.

On 21 March 1806, together with the officers and men of the Immortalité, he removed to the Clyde 38 at the Nore, and such had been the hard service undertaken by the former vessel that she was broken up that summer. Raising a commodore’s broad pennant, Owen continued to be based in the Downs. In July he ordered the bombardment of Calais for eight hours after his flag of truce requesting that he be allowed to investigate some vessels inshore had been rebuffed, and in the following month he landed a peace emissary, the Earl of Lauderdale, in the French town. These events aside, he otherwise remained a constant menace to Calais and Boulogne over the winter.

On 4 May 1807 he was summoned to the Admiralty by telegraph, but he was soon back at Deal and heading out for the French coast, where later that month he took Major-General William Payne on an inshore cruise southwards from Calais, all the time provoking the fire of the French coastal batteries. After sailing for the Elbe on 4 June, he embarked the Queen’s sister, the Dowager Duchess of Brunswick, and conveyed her with her suite to England, arriving on 7 July at Sheerness before proceeding up the Thames to Gravesend to land his passengers. Whilst in London he had another long conference at the Admiralty. On 25 August he sent his boats in between Yport and Fécamp to take a coasting sloop, Les Tres Soeur, and in addition to commanding the inshore squadron off Boulogne and assuming responsibility for the protection of the Channel between the South Foreland and Gravelines from the regular menace of French privateers, he increasingly undertook further patrols north of Dunkirk to Ostend, with one cruise off Flushing in search of a Dutch frigate during mid-September proving to be unsuccessful.

In January 1808 the Clyde embarked on a short cruise off Boulogne, and in early February put off for Portsmouth to undergo a refit. She returned to the Downs at the beginning of March with a convoy, prior to resuming her cruising off Boulogne, and in April Owen was summoned to London for a conference at the Admiralty. Another cruise off Boulogne followed, but towards the end of May the Clyde brought a twenty-strong convoy down the Thames, together with a subsidy for the King of Sweden, which she delivered to Gothenburg, prior to leaving the Swedish port on 31 May and returning to Yarmouth. Setting off for the Downs once more, she continued to enjoy frequent cruises off the French and Dutch coasts. In October a fishing boat under a flag of truce which had arrived at Dover was put under the Clyde’s charge whilst one of its passengers, a Russian nobleman, was escorted up to London and another, a French gentleman was initially detained on Owen’s frigate. On 28 November the Clyde arrived at Portsmouth to refit, prior to returning to the Downs on 17 December.

Throughout the early months of 1809 Owen continued to operate out of the Downs with his small squadron, and in May he assumed the command of that station upon Vice-Admiral George Campbell travelling to Portsmouth to attend the court-martial of Rear-Admiral Eliab Harvey. In July he sailed with the Walcheren Expedition, initially landing troops in the wrong location and thus allowing the French to reinforce Flushing. Thereafter he commanded the bombardment of Flushing by the bomb-vessels, and he supervised the hauling of the flagships Blake 74 and St. Domingo 74 to safety after they had grounded under heavy enemy fire. As late as 11 December, whilst operating from the cutter Favourite, his gunboats were hindering the advance of the enemy, and he subsequently evacuated the remnants of the army at the end of the month.

The evacuation of Walcheren in 1809

On 5 January 1810 the Clyde arrived at Portsmouth from the Downs to refit and Owen set off for London to attend a high-level meeting at the Admiralty and furnish information relevant to the forthcoming inquiry on the Walcheren Expedition. His prolonged absence in London saw Captain John Stuart take the Clyde out to Portugal at the beginning of February, prior to returning to Portsmouth on 6 April. Once back aboard his frigate, Owen took command of a squadron of frigates and gunboats operating inshore off the Schelde whilst the commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, remained out to sea with a fleet of eleven sail of the line. Within weeks however, he was back on his old station off Calais and Boulogne.

On 6 December 1810 he was appointed to the aged frigate Inconstant 36, again taking his crew and officers with him, and on 24 January 1811 he departed Portsmouth for South America with a cargo of quicksilver, and with orders to collect specie from Vera Cruz. Unfortunately, not only was he unable to bring home any coinage, due to problems in mining caused by the unrest in the Spanish territories, but he also lost a number of his crew to yellow fever. The Inconstant was back at Portsmouth after a passage of six weeks in early June, and she brought with her several Spanish notables.

On 17 July 1811 the Inconstant sailed for the Downs, and Owen again found himself commanding the inshore squadron off the Schelde before resuming his station off Boulogne at the end of September. His frigate was docked at Portsmouth in December, she was back off Boulogne in January 1812, and was off the Schelde from May. During November, amidst much concern back home that she may have foundered, she survived a gale off Flushing despite losing four anchors and a cable. At the start of 1813 she was off the Western Isles with a squadron otherwise consisting of the Dublin 74, Captain Richard Dalling Dunn, and two sloops in search of the USS President 44, Commodore John Rodgers, and she returned home in early March having not sighted any enemy vessel during the three-month cruise.

In the meantime, Owen had been appointed to the new Cornwall 74 on 17 February 1813, in which ship he rejoined the inshore squadron off the Dutch coast. That winter he served ashore in the defence of South Beveland by the Dutch Royalists, and on one occasion he progressed fifteen miles upriver with four hundred marines to assist in the reduction of a town named as Battz. He was still commanding on this station in the following February, and two months later the war against France ended with Napoleon’s abdication.

On 30 July 1814 he joined the yacht Dorset, based in the Thames, but he then assumed a more active role when appointed on 12 December to the command of the Canadian lakes in order to take the War of 1812 to the Americans. After departing the Spring Gardens Hotel in London for Portsmouth to hoist his broad pennant aboard the Niobe 38, Captain Henry Collins Deacon, he sailed on 22 December with Major-General Sir George Murray a passenger, to arrive at Halifax on 29 January 1815. In the meantime, he had been nominated a K.C.B. on 2 January. Proceeding with the artillery on sledges for the lakes, he had reached Fredericton in New Brunswick by 20 February and arrived at Kingston on Lake Ontario in March. Here he raised his broad pennant aboard the St. Lawrence 102, Captain Charles Frederick Payne, but unfortunately, the war ended without his having the opportunity to put his immense talents to use.

Having returned to England, Owen was presented to the Prince Regent and invested with a knighthood on 14 May 1816. Less happily, on 14 June, the Sheriff’s Court heard how his ‘beautiful, virtuous, and accomplished’ wife had been seduced by the son of the family apothecary whilst Owen had been in Canada, and that the couple had eloped shortly after his return. A judgement found in his favour, and he was awarded £1,500 in damages, whilst on 9 May 1817 the House of Lords passed his divorce bill.

On 6 February 1816 he was appointed to a royal yacht, the Royal Sovereign, which was launched at Deptford in early August, and on 13 November she sailed from Dover to Calais to collect Prince Nicholas of Russia. In April 1817 she conveyed the Duke and Duchess of Orleans to the Continent, and whilst at Calais, Owen earned the approbation of the French press for directing the rescue of two shipwrecked Frenchmen by a lieutenant and eight of his seamen, it being reported that he had been in constant threat of drowning from his position on the exposed jetty. On 26 May 1818 the Royal Sovereign arrived at Dover from Calais with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, and in July 1819 she attended the Prince Regent at Portsmouth. By September the yacht was back at Calais awaiting the Duke and Duchess of Clarence, and a further honour was bestowed on Owen when he was nominated a colonel of marines on 19 July 1821.

The yacht Royal Sovereign

In early December 1822 he left his residence at Deal to embark on what was described as a ‘special service’, and several days later he sailed from the Nore for Plymouth with his broad pennant aboard the Gloucester 74, Captain Murray Maxwell. Taking a small squadron under his orders, he departed the Devonshire port on Christmas Eve amidst newspaper speculation that he was either bound for Jamaica to supplement Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Rowley’s force and prevent a French attempt on Cuba in case that country went to war with Spain, or that he was being sent to act against the pirates operating out of Puerto Rico and Cuba. On 5 February 1823 his squadron arrived at Barbados after several of the vessels had lost spars in a storm off Lisbon, and one of his first acts was to send a frigate to Martinique to ascertain why, and to what extent, the French had augmented their force. Suggestions that the old enemy might be contemplating an attack Cuba proved to be misplaced, and other than exercising his squadron at Barbados over the next few weeks, Owen remained inactive.

On 9 April 1823 he arrived at Jamaica to relieve the sickly Rowley in the chief command, although by June he too was reported to be in ill health. Nevertheless, he saw Rowley’s term out, and he was rewarded by the island’s merchants with a piece of plate for his efforts to suppress piracy. On 8 February 1824 the Gloucester under the command of Captain James Lillicrap sailed out of Havana on her voyage home from Jamaica, and she reached Portsmouth on 13 March after a difficult passage, whereupon Owen went up to London for a long conference at the Admiralty.

He was promoted a rear-admiral on 27 May 1825, and in August he enjoyed a public dinner which had been afforded him in what was described as his ‘native Shrewsbury’. Despite the inconvenience caused by breaking his collar bone in a fall from his gig near his residence at Middle Deal in April 1826, he arrived at Dover towards the end of the following month to offer his services as the M.P for Sandwich in the Tory government interest, and he was duly elected. In May 1827 he became the Surveyor-General of the Ordnance, and in July he attended the Lord High Admiral, the Duke of Clarence, on his visit to Plymouth, and again in September on his visit to Chatham. From 12 March until 19 September 1828 he served on the Council of the Lord High Admiral, which temporarily and controversially replaced the duties of the Admiralty, an appointment which required his resignation from the post of Surveyor General of the Ordnance and his re-election for the seat of Sandwich. He thereafter remained a frequent speaker in parliament for the rest of the year whilst also mixing with the cream of society.

In the early autumn of 1828, it was announced that Owen was to become the commander-in-chief in the East Indies, but it was not until March 1829 that he put his residence at Middle Deal up for let and resigned his seat in Parliament. In the meantime, it had been learned that Edward Owen Johnes, an officer and apparent protégé who had been appointed to the role of commander upon Owen’s flagship, had committed suicide in the West Indies, just days before he would have learned of his promotion. After hoisting his flag at Chatham aboard the Southampton 60, Captain Peter Fisher, Owen proceeded for Portsmouth where his flagship was detained after carrying away her anchor whilst trying to weigh on 10 April. Eventually getting away, she then had to put back to St. Helens through contrary winds before finally departing on the 21st and reaching Trincomale in early August.

After wintering in Bombay, the Southampton with Owen’s flag arrived at Madras from Trincomale on 8 April 1830. She later departed Bengal on 21 May, and on 3 July she anchored in the Penang Roads after a rough passage, whereupon Owen with his wife and family took up residence ashore. On 17 April 1831 Captain John Milligen Laws assumed the duties of his flag captain at Bombay, and on 25 May the Southampton sailed for Trincomale. During September she departed Madras on a cruise after a brief stay, and that winter Owen visited Malacca and Singapore prior to heading for Penang and Trincomale. Suggestions that he might sail for Canton to rebuke the Chinese authorities proved to be mistaken, and by the beginning of June he was back at Madras, prior to leaving for England. The Southampton arrived at Portsmouth on 12 October, and after striking his flag he travelled up to Windsor Castle where he stayed as a guest to King William IV and was rewarded for his services by being nominated a G.C.H. on 24 October.

At the end of 1832 Owen came bottom of the poll for Sandwich in the General Election, and remaining unemployed, he attended a levee in August 1833. After embarking on a tour, he was listed as a ‘fashionable arrival’ at London in January 1834 where he took the chair at a meeting in the Raleigh Club. He was one of the leading guests alongside the Duke of Wellington at Queen Adelaide’s birthday celebrations in February, and he also attended King William’s birthday celebrations in May. During November he put himself forward in the Conservative interest for election once more at Sandwich, but again found himself bottom of the poll when the results were declared in January, although his defeat was only by a small margin. In the meantime, he had been appointed Clerk of the Ordnance in Robert Peel’s government, but when the administration fell in April 1835 he declined to run again for Sandwich on account of poor health. He was promoted vice-admiral on 10 January 1837, and he continued to attend royal family celebrations and be listed amongst the fashionable arrivals in London.

On 14 October 1841 it was announced that Owen was to be appointed the commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, at which time he again placed his residence up for let. Towards the end of February 1842, he attended a dinner at Portsmouth with Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, and other notables, and on the next day he hosted Her Majesty at Spithead aboard his flagship, the Queen 110, Captain George Rich. It was not until 22 March that he departed for his station to replace Rear-Admiral Sir Francis Mason, who had been acting in his stead, and he arrived at Malta on 2 April. Despite a general consensus that the fleet was in a high degree of order, he immediately caused discord amongst the officers by effectively censuring them for allowing their men so much time ashore, and in advocating that they show an example by remaining aboard their vessels themselves. An additional cause of friction was the presence of his wife, who many considered to be bordering on the insane. Rumours proliferated that he would be recalled, or at least subject to a letter of censure from the Admiralty, but he remained at Malta, shifting his flag to the Formidable 84 with Captain Rich on 24 April 1844. In July he visited Barcelona to be presented to Queen Isabella II, and after a largely uneventful tenure he returned to England aboard the Formidable on 29 September 1845.

On 8 May 1845 Owen was nominated a G.C.B., and on 11 December 1846 he was promoted admiral. He died on 8 October 1849 at his residence of Windlesham House in Bagshot, Surrey.

He firstly married 31-year-old Elizabeth Cannon of Deal, Kent, on 16 December 1802, and following their divorce he married secondly Selena Hay, the daughter of Captain John Hay, on 28 February 1829 at St. Martin in the Fields. He appears to have been childless, and the main beneficiaries of his will were his brother’s daughters. In 1832 he had a residence in Dover Street.

Described as an officer whose ‘vigilance, activity, zeal, and intrepidity are almost superior to praise’, he was hugely admired, especially by Lord Keith and Viscount Melville, for his sensible but dashing operations off the French coast. Tall, powerfully built, and fair of hair and complexion with blue eyes, he was renowned for his pleasant character and cheerfulness, together with his loyalty and kindness to his subordinates. The Earl of St. Vincent described him as having uncommon ‘intelligence and firmness’.

As an M.P he opposed the abolition of impressment and corporal punishment but presented a petition from Deal for the abolition of slavery.