Sir John Colpoys

1742-1821. He was born in Ireland, the elder son of a Dublin attorney by the name of John Colpoys, and of his wife, a Miss Madden. He was the uncle of Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Griffith Colpoys.

Colpoys entered the navy in 1756 after two years employment in the merchant marine, and he served at the reduction of Louisbourg in 1758. From April 1760 to April 1761, he was aboard the Dragon 60, Captain Hon. Augustus Hervey, and having been present at the reduction of Martinique, he was commissioned lieutenant on 22 October 1762. Following the end of the Seven Years War, he saw further service in the Leeward Islands.

In early 1771 he was due to go out to the East Indies as the third lieutenant of the Northumberland 70, Captain John Symons, flying the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Harland, but he was detained by investigations into the death of a man in an affray involving his press gang. He eventually sailed for the East Indies aboard an Indiaman, and he was employed as the acting commander of the Dolphin 24 from April to August 1772. On 30 July 1773 Harland promoted him commander of the sloop Swallow 14, and on 25 August he was posted captain of the flagship Northumberland, in which he sailed for home in 1774, visiting the Cape in November, prior to her being paid off in the summer of 1775 at Spithead.


Admiral Colpoys

On 9 November 1775 Colpoys was appointed to the recommissioned frigate Seaford 20, sailing for Boston from Spithead in March 1776, although she did need to shelter at Plymouth on route. In 1777 she was employed in the Leeward Islands, where in the spring she detained and sent into Dominica a French ship transporting military stores for American colonist forces, aboard of which was an American supercargo by the name of Cotton Davis. On 1 June the Seaford sent three vessels into Antigua, two of which were Dutch, including one with a very valuable cargo, and upon arriving at Jamaica from the French West Indian islands shortly afterwards, it was reported that she brought in a privateer of 16 guns along with another vessel with a cargo of military stores. Returning to the Leeward Islands, she captured the American privateers General Washington on 18 January 1778 and Hampden 12 on 1 March after running the latter vessel ashore on Martinique, allowing her men to carry a small fort, spike its guns, break up the gun carriages, and haul the privateer off.

On 20 June 1778 the Seaford left St. Kitts with the homeward-bound convoy of up to one hundred and fifty ships, and after passing Plymouth on 13 August, she continued on to the Downs to deliver the London trade. Whilst at Dover, she was dispatched with other frigates on 25 August to search, albeit unsuccessfully, for two French frigates which had chased a cutter into the Downs from Dunkirk. On 1 September she arrived at Spithead before immediately sailing for Guernsey, and by 14 November she had reached Sheerness, whereupon Colpoys left her.

Upon departing the Seaford, Colpoys was appointed the flag captain to Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland aboard the Royal George 100 in the Grand Fleet, which spent the winter of 1778-9 at Spithead. Sitting on Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser’s court martial in April 1779 to investigate that officer’s conduct at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, Colpoys proved an active interrogator. Continuing thereafter with the Royal George in the Grand Fleet, he briefly flew the flag of Vice-Admiral George Darby in the early summer, and later flew that of Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart Ross, taking part in the fleet’s retreat from the Scilly Islands up the Channel during August.

On 27 October 1779 he was appointed to the frigate Mercury 28, which had undergone a through repair and coppering at Deptford, but it does not appear that he ever took her to sea, and instead it was reported that he visited Bath in November whilst waiting for a new command.

On 1 January 1780 Colpoys was appointed to the newly launched frigate Orpheus 32, which was fitting out at Deptford, and after passing through the Downs from the River Thames on 16 August, she sailed from Spithead with a convoy for Quebec eight days later. Remaining on the North American station, she assisted the Roebuck 44, Captain Andrew Snape Douglas, in the capture of the rebel privateer Confederacy 36 off the Delaware Capes on 14 April 1781, which vessel they carried into New York. Following the Battle of Chesapeake Bay on 5 September, Colpoys briefly took command of the damaged Shrewsbury 74 whose captain, Mark Robinson, had lost a leg, and whose first lieutenant had been killed. Returning to the Orpheus after Captain John Knight had been appointed to the Shrewsbury on 21 September, Colpoys commanded the frigate in Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves’ fleet which returned to the Chesapeake to attempt the rescue of the British Army at Yorktown, only to find that it had already surrendered to the American / French alliance.

In the autumn of 1781, it appears that the Orpheus briefly visited Jamaica before returning to New York, and during this period she captured a richly laden Spanish ship, the Severino del Strangelo 20, which had been bound from Havana to Cadiz. She also reportedly captured another Spanish ship over the winter whilst visiting Jamaica, this being the Bardolano del Barletto, which was carrying a rich cargo including coin, and which had also been bound from Havana to Cadiz. On 20 April 1782 the Orpheus left New York to arrive off Charleston six days later, from where she took charge of troops under Major-General Charles O’Hara for conveyance to Jamaica. There followed the capture of a third richly laden Spanish ship bound from Havana to Cadiz, the Santillana del Salsona, which was taken into Antigua. On 1 August the Orpheus departed Tortola with a convoy, and she arrived at Portsmouth at the end of September, prior to sailing on 1 October for Plymouth with money. Reaching the Devonshire port four days later, she was taken up the Hamoaze and Colpoys left her on the 21st.

Towards the end of April 1783, it was announced that he had been appointed to the Albion 74, which vessel was preparing for sea with some urgency having been refitted at Chatham; however, with the American War of Revolution drawing to a close he did not take her to sea, and she was put out of commission. Instead, he was appointed to the frigate Phaeton 38 on 29 April for three years of service in the Mediterranean, and he sailed from Portsmouth for that station on 8 October with the broad pennant of the commander-in-chief, Commodore Sir John Lindsay. The Phaeton returned to Portsmouth on 22 July 1785 from Gibraltar via Lisbon, whereupon she was taken into dock in early August and Colpoys went on half-pay.

During the Spanish Armament he was appointed to the Hannibal 74 in May 1790, which fitted out at Plymouth and dropped down into the Sound on 11 July, prior to joining the Grand Fleet. Having sailed for Portsmouth at the end of October, she then returned to Plymouth after a buffeting in heavy gales. Visiting Bath in February 1791, Colpoys later returned to the Hannibal to command her as a guardship at Plymouth, although in July she was at Portsmouth when a party of junior royals were hosted aboard. She was back at Plymouth in August, and she remained in commission throughout the Russian Armament of 1791. Colpoys sat on the court-martial of the Bounty mutineers in 1792 and in June his command sailed for Portsmouth to join Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s squadron of observation. At the end of the year, she made a rendezvous with all the other guard-ships at Spithead in order to prepare for the expected war with France.

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Colpoys was imprisoned on his own flagship by the Spithead mutineers and in general was despised by the common seamen, although he earned their respect for his personal bravery in physically protecting Lieutenant Peter Bover who was accused of murder during the insurrection.

When hostilities with France did commence on 2 February 1793, Colpoys hoisted a broad pennant aboard the Hannibal as the commander-in-chief at Guernsey with two other sail of the line and a frigate at his disposal, and with orders to protect the Channel Islands against any possible invasion. Cruising in the Channel with the Hector 74, Captain George Montagu, the duo unsuccessfully chased two French frigates but had better luck with the capture of a French West Indiaman. The Hannibal was back at Spithead by early March, and on the 26th she sailed with Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner’s fleet to the Leeward Islands, where she participated in that unsuccessful campaign. She returned to Plymouth on 1 October from Jamaica in nine weeks with eighteen merchantmen under convoy, during which voyage she was fortunate to avoid driving onto the rocks in the Scilly Isles after keeping close inland to avoid a French fleet that had been reportedly cruising at the mouth of the Channel. She was still in Plymouth Sound in early December, prior to arriving at Portsmouth on New Year’s Eve.

In January 1794 the Hannibal was employed in the escort to a pre-determined latitude of the frigate Aquilon 32, Captain Hon. Robert Stopford, which was involved in the conveyance of one of the King’s younger sons, Prince Augustus, to Gibraltar following his unlawful marriage in the previous month. She was back at Portsmouth in early March before sailing on the 7th for Portsmouth.

His promotion to rear-admiral on 12 April 1794 saw Colpoys leave the Hannibal, and it was near the end of the year before he returned to active service when hoisting his flag aboard the London 98, Captain Edward Griffith, to be employed in the Channel Fleet. One of his first acts was to go aboard the mutinous Culloden 74, Captain Thomas Troubridge, on 4 December in a fruitless attempt to talk her men back to duty, and he later sat on the court martial of the ringleaders. Thereafter, his flagship remained with the fleet over the winter at Spithead.

On 17 March 1795 his squadron, consisting of five sail of the line and four frigates, dropped down to St. Helens with orders to cruise to the westward, and once at sea they soon captured the French corvette Jean Bart 22. At the end of the month, Colpoys raced for the French coast on hearing that a convoy of one hundred and fifty ships was about to sail from Rochefort to Brest, but this proved an unsuccessful quest; however, on 10 April his squadron gave chase to three French frigates in the Channel, one of which, the Gloire 36, struck to the Astrea 32, Captain Lord Henry Paulet, and another, the Gentille 36, surrendered on the next day to his old command, the Hannibal 74, Captain John Markham. The squadron returned to Portsmouth on 16 April, and twelve days later Colpoys sat on the court martial of Captain Anthony Molloy at the Hampshire port, which found that officer guilty of failing to bring his ship into action at the Battle of the Glorious first of June.

Colpoys was further promoted a vice-admiral on 1 June 1795, and he continued with his flag aboard the London, although it appears that he was absent when she fought at the Battle of Groix on 23 June, as he was acting as the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth for Admiral Sir Peter Parker. In early July he struck his flag and travelled up to London, but he was back a week later to hoist his flag abord the Minotaur 74, Captain Thomas Louis, and he led a squadron in the escort out to a safe latitude of a convoy of East Indiamen. Remaining at sea, he cruised off the south-west coast of Ireland where the squadron met the homeward-bound Jamaica convoy and escorted it up the Channel to arrive at Portsmouth on 12 August.

Having apparently spent the previous six months on shore leave, Colpoys arrived in London at the end of February 1796 and hours later set off for Portsmouth to form a squadron of five sail of the line, with his flag continuing in the London. Shortly afterwards, his ships were recalled from St. Helens as he had been instructed to sit on the court-martial of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis, which investigated the circumstances of that officer’s refusal to sail to the West Indies. The squadron eventually put out on 12 April with an East Indiaman convoy, and it returned to Portsmouth on 15 May after cruising in the chops of the Channel. Remaining at Spithead with the bulk of the Channel Fleet, it then spent many days in June waiting to sail with another East Indies convoy that was coming around from the Downs. Eventually putting out at the end of the month, the squadron cruised off the Scilly Isles until falling in with a homecoming East Indiaman convoy which it escorted to Plymouth. On 6 August Colpoys collected three more sail of the line and sailed for a cruise, during which he reconnoitred the French fleet at Brest on the 21st of that month. Returning to Plymouth shortly afterwards, the squadron was speedily made ready for sea, but it would seem that he took further leave ashore whilst the London sailed for Portsmouth in the last week of the month.

By the beginning of October 1796 Colpoys was in Bath for the benefit of his health, but at the end of the month he was ordered to report to Plymouth, and after taking passage aboard the Niger 32, Captain Edward James Foote, he replaced Vice-Admiral Charles Thompson in command of a squadron of thirteen sail of the line off Brest. At this time, it was the practice of the new commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet, Admiral Lord Bridport, to retain the main body of the fleet at Spithead whilst keeping smaller squadrons at sea in watch of the French.

Colpoys became the governor of Greenwich Hospital in 1816 and died there five years later.

In early December, easterly gales drove Colpoys from his station off Brest out towards Ushant and this let Rear-Admiral Joseph de Richery enter the French port unmolested with seven sail of the line, having come north from Rochefort where he had temporarily harboured following his raid on Newfoundland. The news was a bitter blow to those at home who had anticipated that the Channel Fleet would bring Richery to account, and some of the blame for the failure to intercept him was attached to Colpoys. Worse was to follow when, whilst he was still off station, a French invasion fleet put out from Brest for Ireland on 16 December, although Captain Sir Edward Pellew was at least able to cause so much confusion as to separate the commanders from the rest of the fleet. When the frigate Phoebe 36, Captain Robert Barlow, found him with Pellew’s report on 19 December, Colpoys was unable to ascertain the enemy fleet’s destination and consequently it was able to sail unchallenged to Ireland. He partially made amends for this failure to bring the French to battle when on 23 December he forced a squadron from Toulon under the command of Rear-Admiral Pierre Villeneuve into Lorient, and he eventually returned to Portsmouth in the first week of January 1797 with half of his weather-beaten squadron.

Colpoys failure to intercept Richery and then bring the French invasion fleet to account was to be the subject of much controversy. In his defence he had been handicapped by his squadron of fourteen sail of the line separating in bad weather, and it was unfortunate that Bridport had not provided him with enough ships in the first place. As he had been unaware of the destination of the invasion fleet, it could be said that it had been sensible to await their return to Brest, especially as an abortion of their mission was likely, given the parlous winter weather. Nevertheless, his reputation suffered as a result, and questions were asked in Parliament as to why the best way of saving Ireland from an invasion fleet that had sailed from Brest was for Colpoys to remain with his ships off the empty port. The common seamen in particular were outraged, and some months later, following the fleet mutiny at Spithead, they recalled his failure to intercept the French by labelling him a ‘base coward’. To the contrary however, Captain Hon Thomas Pakenham defended him in the Irish House of Commons by affirming that it was the thick weather that had prevented him from discovering the departure of the French fleet, that the continuing adverse elements had meant he could not communicate with his frigates, and that in remaining off Brest thereafter he was only following orders. In a similar vein, the Secretary of State for War, Henry Dundas, defended Colpoys in the British House of Commons.

Continuing to command a squadron in the Channel, Colpoys put out again at the end of February 1797, and he was aboard the London when the Spithead Mutiny erupted on 16 April. Initially advised not to resist by Lord Bridport, he seems to have preferred the approach of Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Gardner, who sought to confront the mutineers. When he did attempt to break the uprising on his flagship in early May through force, it resulted in the death of a seaman and the near lynching of the man’s assailant, the first lieutenant, Peter Bover. Fortunately, a leading mutineer and the ship’s surgeon managed to diffuse the situation, whilst at the same time Colpoys bravely thrust his way through the angry men to proclaim that the lieutenant had only been following his orders. Even so, he was imprisoned on his own ship for several days to the horror of the Admiralty and then put ashore on 11 May under a strong guard to prevent any outrage by those mutineers who still sought his blood. Praised by many for having the resolve to attempt the suppression of the mutiny in the first place, he was then applauded both for courageously protecting his lieutenant in the face of the outraged mutineers, and for being wise enough to back down from an escalation. Nevertheless, he was advised by the Admiralty that it would be expedient for him to strike his flag, and he did so in disgust on 14th May, even though it was made clear by the authorities that he had not been reprimanded.

On 28 June Colpoys was presented to the King at a levee, and in January 1798 he was amongst the first luminaries to bequeath a thousand guineas to the state funds in a Bank Subscription. He was partially mollified for his absence from active service by being invested as a K.C.B. on 14 February, although initial reports suggested that he had refused the honour as he had done nothing to merit it; however, when he was ordered to raise his flag aboard the Bellona 74 in March to assume command of a detached squadron, the adverse reaction of the seamen forced the Admiralty to revoke his appointment. Similarly, when it was announced that he would become the commander-in-chief of the East Indies station in August with his flag aboard the Northumberland 74, Captain George Martin, he was obliged to resign the post without leaving home waters as the men made it clear that they would be unhappy to serve under him.

In May 1798 Colpoys visited Bath, and he continued to attend court in London over the next few years whilst contributing to, and officiating over, charities. On 1 January 1801 he was promoted to the rank of admiral, and in April he was appointed a director of Greenwich Hospital, from which position he resigned in May 1802.

Following the resumption of the war with France in May 1803 he at last returned to active service upon his appointment as the commander-in-chief at Plymouth, hoisting his flag in early June aboard the Salvador del Mundo 112, commanded initially by Captain Charles Lane, and from December Captain John Dilkes. He did not remain long in this post, for in May 1804 he became a lord of the admiralty when William Pitt’s government came into office, and he was briefly considered for the Mediterranean command in the possible event of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson’s departure. Upon being appointed the treasurer at Greenwich Hospital in February 1805 following the death of Captain William Henry Jervis, he continued with Admiralty business until a successor, Captain Lord Garlies, was named in May.

In February 1816 Colpoys became the governor of Greenwich Hospital following the death of Admiral Lord Hood, and he held this position until his own death on 4 April 1821, at which time he was the third most senior officer on the list. He was buried eight days later at the hospital in what was described as a modest funeral, although the coffin’s procession through the grounds was reportedly witnessed by two thousand pensioners.

Unmarried, he had a residence in Stafford Street and then lodgings in Cleveland Court, St. James during the last years of his life. His nephew, Edward Griffith, assumed the name Colpoys in memory of Sir John after his death.

Colpoys was regarded as the most rigid disciplinarian in the navy, and in addition to his loathing by the common seamen, many senior officers held little respect for him, prominent amongst whom was the brilliant Captain Sir Edward Pellew. To the contrary, his younger officers were content under his leadership, finding him kindly, happy, and great fun. Amongst many derogatory comments levelled at him was one that he had never seen a shot fired in earnest. Despite the hostility of the seamen, he was praised in the newspapers both at the time of the mutiny and for many years afterwards for his firmness during the insurrection, often being granted the epithets of ‘gallant’, ‘indefatigable’, and ‘undaunted’.