Sir John Laforey

1729-96. The second son of Lieutenant-Colonel John Laforey, the governor of Pendennis Castle in Falmouth, and of his wife, Mary Clayton, his ancestors were Huguenot refugees who had settled in England during the reign of William III. He was the father of Admiral Sir Francis Laforey.

On 12 April 1748, Laforey was commissioned lieutenant, and on 24 May 1755 he was promoted commander of the sloop Ontario 12 in North America by Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel. Following a return to England, he was appointed to the sloop Hunter 10 in December 1756 and went out to North America via Cork in the following April with Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne’s fleet to arrive at Halifax on 9 July 1757. His vessel was then sent back to England with dispatches on 12 September, arriving at Plymouth on 12 October.

The Hunter was at Spithead towards the end of December 1757, and after briefly entering the harbour, she sailed on 25 January 1758 as part of the escort of a convoy of thirty-five light transports for New York, where it was intended those vessels would embark troops and artillery for Halifax. She was present at Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen’s capture of Louisbourg in July, and during the latter stages of that expedition Laforey commanded a division of boats under Captain George Balfour which attempted the cutting out of the French sail of the line Prudent 74 and Bienfaisant 64 from the harbour. Although he successfully boarded the former ship, Laforey was obliged to abandon and fire her when it was discovered that she was aground. As a reward for his conduct in the campaign, he was posted captain on 26 July by Boscawen to the captured frigate Echo 24, in which he returned to Portsmouth on 30 October.

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Laforey commanded a division of boats at the burning of the Prudent at Louisbourg in 1757

Whilst in Portsmouth Harbour on 5 December 1758, a fire took hold aboard the Echo in the steward’s room, but thankfully there were no guns, stores, or gunpowder aboard her, and with the assistance of the dockyard artificers and boats from the other men-of-war, she was cut loose from her mooring alongside an old ship and allowed to drift ashore near Gosport, where the fire was extinguished. In April 1759 she sailed from Portsmouth for Louisbourg with dispatches and in escort of the Breton and Virginia convoys. She was present at the capture of Quebec in September, and in January 1760 she sailed from the Piscataqua River in New Hampshire for the Leeward Islands with a convoy which unfortunately separated in a fierce gale. Continuing on the latter station, the Echo took the privateers Fier on 6 March, Superbe on 9 April, and Syen on 8 July, and she arrived at Antigua on the last day of the year with two French privateers taken off Dominica, one of which was regarded as the swiftest sailing vessel in the region. The Echo participated in the reduction of Martinique at the beginning of 1762 under Rear-Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney, and shortly afterwards Laforey removed into the frigate Levant 28 on the same station, in which he returned to England in 1763 to be paid off on 2 September.

He remained unemployed for the next seven years, spending part of the interim period on personal business in America and visiting Bath. During the Falkland Islands dispute with Spain in 1770 he commissioned the frigate Pallas 36 in October, retaining her until March of the following year before returning to the beach.

On 19 September 1776 he was appointed to the Ocean 90, which was fitting out at Portsmouth for a squadron of observation, serving thereafter in home waters and flying the flag of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser when the Grand Fleet assembled at Portsmouth in the early summer of 1778. On 27 July, by which time Palliser had removed into the Formidable 90, the Ocean fought at the Battle of Ushant, and Laforey was resolute in the defence of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel’s conduct when attending as a witness at that officer’s resulting court-martial in January 1779, and at Palliser’s court-martial two months later. He was also one of up to twenty officers who demanded Palliser’s dismissal in a memorial to the King. In the meantime, he had transferred to the Invincible 74 on 26 March, with which vessel he served for the next six months.

In September 1779, Laforey was appointed the commissioner of the navy in the Leeward Islands, being based at Antigua and enjoying the authority to act as the commander-in-chief of the station if the designated commander-in-chief was absent from those waters. Following the controversial capture of St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781, he accused Admiral Sir George Rodney of over-inflating the value of stores sequestered on the island, and subsequently he had a dispute with Admiral Hugh Pigot over the commissioning of captured vessels.

In May 1783 Laforey was appointed the commissioner of the navy at Plymouth, but it was not until February 1784 that he arrived home from Antigua aboard the Argo 44, Captain James Douglas. In February 1786 he hosted Prince William Henry on the royal’s visit to Plymouth, as he did in January 1788 with the Prince of Wales. Meanwhile, when he became due for promotion to the rank of rear-admiral on 24 September 1787 he was passed over, as was the custom with any officer holding a civil position. At the time there prevailed a great degree of contention over the method of promoting officers to flag rank, resulting in Admiral Lord Howe’s resignation as the first lord of the Admiralty on 16 July 1788. Laforey clearly felt aggrieved at being denied his flag, although the waters were somewhat muddied by the suggestion that his previous support of Admiral Keppel was the real reason for refusing him a promotion. He wrote what was reported to be a ‘very spirited memorial’ to the King, and his case and that of other overlooked officers was taken up by the opposition in the House of Commons. Remaining as the commissioner at Plymouth, Laforey participated in the Kings Naval Review at Plymouth on 18 August 1789.

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Laforey’s support of Admiral Keppel following the Battle of Ushant was held to have retarded his career, but he finished with a potentially rewarding stewardship of the Leeward Islands station.

On 3 November 1789, he was somewhat compensated for what he regarded as his poor treatment by being created a baronet, whilst a week later he was promoted rear-admiral with his seniority backdated to 1787, and concurrently was appointed the commander-in-chief in the Leeward Isles. After a short break in Bath, he sailed from Plymouth in March 1790 with his flag aboard the Trusty 50, Captain John Drew. About six weeks into his voyage, rumours that the Trusty had been captured by the Spanish and sent into Cadiz during the early stages of what would become the Spanish Armament sent the stock exchange into meltdown. Fortunately, these reports proved to be false. Once he arrived on his station, Laforey ordered a general press of seamen, and when Rear-Admiral Samuel Pitchford Cornish arrived in December with reinforcements of six sail of the line, these vessels were subsumed into his command. Shortly afterwards, the dispute with Spain was settled and Cornish’s reinforcements returned home.

Laforey was promoted a vice-admiral on 1 February 1793, and after news was received of the commencement of the French Revolutionary War he captured Tobago on 15 April in co-operation with Major-General Cornelius Cuyler, the naval force consisting of a mere sloop and a schooner in addition to his flagship. Three men were killed and twenty-five men wounded in the operation which saw Fort Scarborough carried with cold steel. On 22 July he arrived back at Portsmouth aboard the Trusty after a month-long passage from Antigua, having been succeeded by Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner, and after going up to London to be received by the King, he spent some time recuperating at Bath.

In the early part of 1795 he was re-appointed as the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands in succession to the recalled Vice-Admiral Benjamin Caldwell, and at the beginning of March he hoisted his flag at Portsmouth aboard the Saturn 74, Captain James Douglas, although in April he transferred to the frigate Aimable 32, commanded by his son, Francis, in which he sailed for the West Indies on 9 May. During the voyage out, the Aimable escaped a long chase by three French frigates, and shortly after Laforey’s arrival he transferred his flag to Majestic 74, Captain George Westcott, being mostly based at Martinique. He would also learn of his promotion to admiral on 1 June.

In the course of what transpired to be a short command, Laforey attempted, largely unsuccessfully, to put down French inspired Negro revolts in St. Lucia, Grenada, St. Vincent, and Dominica, although the Dutch possessions of Demerara, Essequibo, and Berbice were captured under his command. He was to be bitterly criticised by the West Indian merchants for his failure to prevent Victor Hugues’s cruisers swarming over his station and snapping up prize after prize, even though reports reaching home spoke of a French force that, whilst still inferior to the British, was far more significant than had been estimated. In August 1795 he sent home his second-in-command and an old adversary, Vice-Admiral Charles Thompson, to face a court martial for disrespect which had been generated by that officer’s condemnation of Laforey’s failure to sufficiently act against the enemy. Soon Laforey’s disillusionment at the criticism and his persistent poor health brought about a lethargy in the execution of his duty, but an end to his command was delayed by the bad weather which twice forced his eventual successor, Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Christian, to curtail his outward voyage to the Leeward Islands.

After finally being relieved by Rear-Admiral Christian on 24 April 1796, Laforey took passage home aboard the Majestic 74, Captain George Westcott, but he died on 14 June from the effects of yellow fever, just two days before the ship reached England. He was buried at Portsea on 21 June with full military honours, and with Admiral Sir Peter Parker attending as the chief mourner.

In 1763 he married Eleanor Farley, a daughter of Francis Farley, who was a lieutenant-colonel of artillery and an Antiguan landowner and council member from whom Laforey inherited a large estate. Of their children who survived infancy, they had one son, Admiral Sir Francis Laforey, and two daughters, one of whom married Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy.

Laforey supported Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel and the Whigs in the dispute following the Battle of Ushant in 1778, and he was an early patron of Captain James Anderson. Prince William described him as a ‘proud imperious fellow’ who was not on good terms with the people at Plymouth during his time as a commissioner there, and the future king also took the opportunity to describe Laforey’s wife as a typically disagreeable West Indian, and his daughter, Mrs Molloy, as ‘ridiculously affected’.