Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke

1768-1831. Born on 6 June 1768 at Great Berkhamstead, Hertfordshire, he was the second son of the second marriage of Charles Yorke, the Lord Chancellor in William Pitt the Elder’s administration. He was the brother of the Rt. Hon. Charles Yorke, first lord of the Admiralty from November 1809 until March 1812, and the half-brother of Philip Yorke, the 3rd Earl Hardwicke, who was the lord-lieutenant of Ireland from 1801-5. His grandfather, Philip Yorke, the 1st Earl Hardwicke, was also a lord chancellor.

Yorke was educated at Harrow from 1779, and on 15 February 1780 was entered to the books of the yacht William and Mary, Captain George Young, transferring afterwards to the Ardent 64, Captain Philip Boteler. In March 1781 he joined the Duke 98 under the patronage of her captain, Sir Charles Douglas, and in December he transferred with Douglas to the Formidable 90, the flagship of Admiral Sir George Rodney, in which he was present at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April 1782, and on which he remained until the peace of 1783 after she became the flagship of Admiral Hugh Pigot on the Leeward Islands station.

In 1784 he joined the Assistance 50, Captain William Bentinck, flying Commodore Douglas’ broad pennant at Halifax, and when the latter officer was recalled in the spring of the following year he joined the Salisbury 50 with the broad pennant of Commodore John Elliot who was going out to Newfoundland as the commander-in-chief. He later served briefly aboard the Adamant 50, Captain David Knox, the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes at Halifax, and on 16 June 1789 he was promoted lieutenant of the Thisbe 28, Captain Samuel Hood, which frigate returned to England from Nova Scotia at the end of the season.

During the Spanish Armament of 1790 Yorke served aboard the Victory 100, Captain John Knight, whilst in June of that year he was elected the M.P. for Reigate in the interest of his half-brother, the 3rd Earl Hardwicke, and in which locality he held a lot of property. On 19 November he was promoted commander of the Weazle 14 for purposes of rank only, this elevation reputedly being a reward for his support of the Pitt government following his election to Parliament.

In February 1791 he commissioned the new sloop Rattlesnake 16 for service in the Channel, arriving at Portsmouth with pressed men in May, and then venturing out on a cruise. On 29 August the Rattlesnake entered Portsmouth Harbour to be paid off, but Yorke then recommissioned her for continued service in the Channel. In February 1792 she was refitted at Portsmouth, and at the beginning of December she sailed from the Hampshire port under sealed orders with speculation rife that she had instructions to impress seamen for the forthcoming inevitable war with France, the more so that she was reported to be in the Downs at the end of the year where incoming merchant vessels could be expected to be stripped of their men.

Sir Joseph Sydney Yorke

Danloux, Henri-Pierre; Captain Joseph Sydney Yorke (1768-1831); National Maritime Museum;

Yorke was posted captain of the frigate Circe 28 on 4 February 1793 on the commencement of war with France, and he sailed from Spithead on a cruise at the end of the month. By the end of March it was reported that his frigate had captured four prizes estimated to value at least 50,000 guineas, this amount being supposedly the most earned by any English vessel at that embryonic stage of the war. He followed this up in April with the recapture of a valuable merchantman valued at 40,000 guineas which he brought into Spithead, before immediately putting to sea again on another cruise. During May, whilst returning from Coruna, it was reported that the Circe had captured the French privateers Augusta 18, Courier 10 and Dido 10, and by the time she arrived at Spithead Yorke only had seventy-five of his own crew aboard in guard over two hundred and five prisoners. On 10 June the Circe arrived in the Downs from Portsmouth in escort of some one hundred merchantmen, and in July she brought a fleet of merchantmen south from Liverpool.

At the beginning of August 1793 Yorke sailed to join the Channel fleet in Quiberon Bay, but within a couple of weeks his frigate was back at Plymouth from where she went out to cruise off Cape Finisterre. This was an unusually fallow assignment, for before returning to Portsmouth at the end of September the Circe was unable to add any captures to her haul, a disappointment that was compounded by the loss of her mizzen-mast in a squall off the Isle of Wight. On 20 October Yorke’s command was in sight but lying becalmed when the French frigate Reunion 36 struck to the Crescent 36, Captain James Saumarez, and after landing French prisoners at Guernsey he reconnoitred St. Malo before entering Portsmouth towards the end of the month. Generally the Circe was often in action close to the French coast, and on 30 November, in company with the Nymphe 36, Captain Sir Edward Pellew, she took the corvette Espiégle 14 from under the noses of a superior force in Brest, returning to Portsmouth shortly afterwards.

The year of 1794 began with the Circe once more cruising at sea until becoming attached to a squadron under Commodore Thomas Pasley that was instructed to search for six French frigates which had reportedly been sighted in the Channel. At the end of January she recaptured two prizes that had been taken by a French privateer, and she sailed from Portsmouth for the French coast in the second week of February with a strong squadron under the orders of Rear-Admiral John MacBride. On 29 March she briefly put into the Downs before departing again, and at the end of the month Yorke seized three hundred kegs of liquor which he delivered to the Customs House at Portsmouth. The Circe was subsequently with Rear-Admiral George Montagu’s squadron in the early part of the campaign that led to the Battle of the Glorious First of June, and at the end of May she delivered Montagu’s dispatches from Brixham before rejoining the rear-admiral, by which time the latter’s squadron had been forced to retreat from the remnants of the defeated French fleet off the enemy coast.

At the end of July 1794 the Circe arrived at Chatham where the entire ship’s company was transferred over to the newly-launched Stag 32, a frigate that was described as a beautiful vessel. By the beginning of September she was at Spithead, and in October she sailed with Admiralty dispatches for Admiral Lord Howe, the commander-in-chief of the Channel Fleet. She later put out of Falmouth on 13 November to cruise off the coast of France with Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren’s frigate squadron.

At the beginning of 1795 the Stag came into Portsmouth from Ireland, to which station she sailed once more shortly afterwards, and upon putting to sea from Cork with Vice-Admiral Robert Kingsmill’s squadron on 10 April she joined in the chase of four French vessels into Brest, prior to returning to Ireland in the third week of May. On 2 July she entered Plymouth from Ireland with a Danish vessel and an American vessel which she had detained on their voyage towards French ports, and for a short while she remained in the Sound prior to going around to Spithead.

On 12 August 1795 the Stag joined company with the Réunion 36, Captain James Alms, Isis 50, Captain Robert Watson, and Vestal 28, Captain Charles White, for a cruise in the North Sea, and upon falling in with two ships and a cutter on 22 August Yorke’s frigate forced the surrender of the Dutch frigate Alliantie 36 after an hour-long engagement, although her consorts were unable to run down the other two vessels. During the action the Stag lost four men killed and thirteen wounded. Her first lieutenant, Patrick Tonyn, was charged with delivering the prize to the Nore, but he was disappointed of an early promotion to the rank of master and commander and did not achieve this elevation for another two years.

During the early part of 1796 the Stag was in home waters, and in May she sailed from Portsmouth with Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis’ division of the Channel Fleet to cruise off Cape Finisterre. She was at Spithead with the Channel fleet in June, and went out again in August under the orders of Curtis prior to sailing from St. Helens with Vice-Admiral Sir Hyde Parker’s grand convoy later that month. She soon returned to Portsmouth with the advice that Parker had immediately sailed for the West Indies on the presumption that Rear-Admiral Joseph De Richery was making for Saint-Domingue following his breakout from Cadiz on 28 August.

On Christmas Day 1796 the Stag put out of Portsmouth with Admiral Lord Bridport’s Channel fleet, and in February 1797 was placed under the orders of Captain Edward Thornbrough of the Robust 74, who had instructions to proceed to Brest with a small squadron. Whilst off Ushant, Yorke recovered an American ship that had been taken by a French privateer and re-took a Dartmouth merchantman. He also captured the privateer Appocrate 14 and destroyed the cutter Hirondelle 6 on 21 February near the Scilly Isles, prior to reaching Spithead on 2 March.

The capture of the Alliante in 1795

On 3 April 1797 the Stag sailed once more from Portsmouth with Curtis’ squadron, and although she was present at the Spithead Mutiny from 16 April, Yorke’s men declared their loyalty to him whilst demanding that a tyrannical lieutenant leave the ship. This was an ultimatum Yorke found unacceptable, and as a consequence he declared his intention of going ashore. After returning to duty the Stag embarked on a cruise from which she arrived back at Portsmouth on 13 August, and in September Yorke commanded a small division of frigates in the Bay of Biscay, his being one of three squadrons that were detached to cover any breakout by the Rochefort squadron. On 26 September the Stag brought a well-laden large Dutch ship into Plymouth which she had taken from a French privateer crew off Brest, who in turn reported that their vessel had discovered the Dutchman drifting in high seas off the French coast without any crew aboard. To add to the mystery, no papers were found aboard the vessel which might have revealed her identity. Four days later the Stag destroyed the Morlaix-based privateer lugger Cocyte off Plymouth.

In January1798 Yorke arrived at Spithead from Plymouth to urge those ships that were to join Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Thompson to make themselves ready for sea without delay, and on 20 April, having recently married near Southampton, he took the flag of Rear-Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour aboard at Portsmouth in order to deliver that officer to his flagship, the Sans Pareil 80, in the Channel Fleet off France. At the beginning of April the Stag was at Lisbon, and she was back at Plymouth by the beginning of July with Vice-Admiral Sir Alan Gardner’s division of the Channel Fleet. In August it was reported that she had captured a Spanish galleon from Cadiz with £100,000 sterling aboard, and during September she provided intelligence of Commodore Jean Baptiste François Bompart’s Brest squadron which had put to sea for Ireland. She then rejoined Gardner’s division before sailing with a squadron of three frigates on a cruise, during which she assisted the Phaeton 38, Captain Hon. Robert Stopford, and Unite 32, Captain Charles Rowley, capture the privateer Découverte 18 in the Channel on 7 October, the Phaeton and Ambuscade 32, Captain Henry Jenkins, take the Hirondelle 20 in the Channel on 20 November 1798, and the Phaeton take the Ressource 10 on 6 December.

The Stag undertook a further cruise with the Phaeton in the early spring of 1799 before rejoining the Channel fleet, and she was briefly attached to Vice-Admiral Lord Keith’s Mediterranean fleet following the French breakout from Brest on 25 April. It was later reported that during the middle of the night on 8 August she was almost run foul off Cape Ortegal by a French frigate, and discovering herself to be amongst the French fleet she managed to extricate herself to arrive at Falmouth a week later with dispatches from Lord Keith for the Admiralty. On 26 September the Stag departed Torbay on a cruise, and she assisted the Cambrian 40, Captain Hon. Arthur Kaye Legge, take the letter-of-marque Heureux Premier 10 near Bordeaux on 19 October before coming into Plymouth Sound a week later.

At the beginning of February 1800 Yorke was appointed to the newly commissioned Jason 36, putting out of Portsmouth at the end of May with orders to convey the trade to Lisbon in September, although it is not clear that he undertook this duty before heavy gales drove his frigate back to St. Helens on the 24th of that month. In early October he received instructions to intercept a 50-gun ship that had reportedly come out of Cherbourg, but evidently this was either false intelligence or he was unable to find her. On 20 November the Jason sailed from Spithead as part of the escort for the Cape, Gibraltar, Lisbon and Mediterranean convoys, although the shipping had to put back due to contrary winds prior to dropping down to Cowes where they remained wind-bound for some time. Coming back into Portsmouth at the beginning of January 1801, and briefly flying the flag of the port’s second-in-command, Rear-Admiral John Holloway, the Jason subsequently captured the privateer Vénus 14 off Cherbourg on 18 January, and she re-entered Portsmouth in March with a Danish brig that she had detained. Another cruise off Le Havre followed, with Lieutenant Woodley Losack acting in command for Yorke.

From the latter part of April 1801 Yorke commanded the Canada 74, sailing from Plymouth to join the Channel fleet, and going out from the Devonshire port again in September. In March 1802 the Canada sailed from Torbay to Plymouth to be paid six months wages, and with the war coming to an end Yorke left her shortly afterwards.

Following the renewal of conflict with France in the spring of 1803 it was announced in May that Yorke had been appointed to the Queen 98, but it is not clear that he ever took her to sea. He was appointed to the Prince George 98 in August, fitting out at Portsmouth through the following month and remaining in the harbour until the middle of November whilst awaiting men to complete her crew. Throughout December and January 1804 the Prince George remained off St. Helens before finally sailing to join the Channel Fleet. On 25 April she entered Plymouth prior to sailing to rejoin the fleet on 7 May, taking with her several captains to replace those who had been promoted to flag rank, and she was back at Plymouth on 30 July, although at this time Captain Farmery Predam Epworth was temporarily acting in command for Yorke, thereby allowing him to open the ball at a social gathering attendant to the Shirley Common races near Southampton on 2 August. The Prince George had no sooner put back to sea under Captain Barrington Dacres than she came in again to Plymouth on 13 August having sprung her main-mast, and by the time she was with the fleet in Torbay during October Yorke was back in command, a position he retained until the end of the year when he was succeeded by Captain George Losack.

Yorke’s half-brother , Earl Hardwicke, the Lord-lieutenant of Ireland

Yorke remained out of employment throughout 1805, during which period he was knighted by the King on 21 April when standing proxy for his half-brother the Earl of Hardwicke, the lord-lieutenant of Ireland, at an installation of the Knights of the Garter. Further honour came on 27 June when he christened the Apollo 36 when she was launched at Burlesdon near his home in Hampshire.

By March 1806 Yorke was commanding the Barfleur 98 in the Channel Fleet, being attached to a strong squadron that was sent out to sea under Rear-Admiral Eliab Harvey in April, and serving under Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling in June. He later took the Barfleur out from Plymouth to join the Channel Fleet in July, and in November briefly came into Portsmouth before rejoining the fleet. During January 1807 he was with Vice-Admiral Sir Charles Cotton’s squadron which came into Torbay at the end of the month, and in April he arrived in Torbay with Vice-Admiral Sir James Saumarez’ division. His commission came to an inauspicious end when in May, at a court-martial held aboard the Plymouth flagship Salvador del Mundo 112, one of his men was sentenced to hang for making mutinous expressions to his captain. On 28 May the Barfleur went into Portsmouth Harbour to be paid off, and thereafter Yorke spent the following year on half-pay.

In May 1808 he commissioned the Danish prize Christian VII 80 at Portsmouth, holding a night-long ball aboard her with one hundred and fifty guests in Portsmouth Harbour that August, although at the time it appears that his ship barely boasted ten seamen. Having completed her complement with drafts from the Zealous 74 and Monmouth 64, she sailed from Portsmouth for the Downs on 19 September to join a squadron preparing for the perceived threat by a Russian fleet, a threat that did not in the event materialise. Here Yorke became the third-in-command, presiding over the court-martial of Commander Robert Catchart of the sloop Seagull 16 aboard the Princess of Orange 74 on 21 November to enquire into the capture of that vessel by the Danish brig Lougen 18 on 19 June, and delivering a verdict that exonerated Cathcart for the loss of his ship and saw him posted captain in honour of his brave defence. Over the winter the Christian VII remained in the Downs until she was relieved in January 1809 by the Saturn 74, Captain Lord Amelius Beauclerk, and during the ensuing spring Captain John Hancock acted for Yorke in command of the vessel.

In May 1809, having rejoined the Christian VII, Yorke was sent in command of a squadron of four sail of the line and a frigate to the Azores to search for the recently escaped Lorient squadron, prior to returning to Portsmouth on 13 June. She then sailed with the Warspite 74, Acting-Captain William Bowles, to cruise off Cherbourg, being blown back home both in the following month and again in September. In the course of the latter month she recaptured a brig bound from Ireland to London which had been taken by a French privateer, and whose master had been murdered by the boarding party for cutting away his foretop-mast to hamper the prize-crew’s efforts to carry his ship to France.

On 26 October 1809 Yorke sailed to assume a station off Rochefort, and on 10 January 1810 his boats under the command of Lieutenant Gardiner Henry Guion intercepted a convoy sailing from the Ile de Aix to Rochefort, destroying all but one. They then undertook a similar attack eleven days later on thirty sail attempting to get into La Rochelle, destroying another five and capturing one. Such was the effectiveness of Yorke’s blockade of the River Charente that not a single French coaster managed to escape his clutches over a six-week period. After a brief return to England in February the Christian VII sailed once more for the Basque Roads, and in April she arrived at Plymouth from Portsmouth.

Yorke temporarily left active service to become a lord of the admiralty in May 1810 under his brother Charles, with the latter, the new first lord of the Admiralty, thereby earning scorn from some newspapers for ensuring that his sibling and another half-brother received ample remunerations from the exchequer. He was promoted rear-admiral in accordance with seniority on 31 July, and was presented to the King at a levee shortly afterwards.

On 29 January 1811 he hoisted his flag at Portsmouth aboard the Vengeur 74, Captain Thomas Brown, sailing to Lisbon shortly afterwards with half a dozen sail of the line carrying reinforcements for Lieutenant-General Lord Wellington’s army, but then becoming wind-bound for several days in Torbay. Having got to sea on 13 February the wind veered once more and most of his squadron was obliged to return to the Devonshire anchorage before getting away the next day. Yorke eventually landed the troops at Lisbon on the 5th and 6th of March and was back off St. Helens by the 26th of that month, whereupon he went straight up to London to resume his work at the Admiralty.

On 1 July 1811 he arrived at Portsmouth from London to hoist his flag once more aboard the Vengeur with Captain Brown amidst speculation that he had instructions to sail for North America with the Edinburgh 74, Dannemark 74, Pyramus and sloop Rover to demand reparations for the attack on the Little Belt 18 by the U.S.S President 44. When he did sail days later it was with sealed orders, and even when questioned in Parliament his brother refused to confirm Yorke’s destination. By 8 July the squadron was off Plymouth Sound, and news later filtered through that it had been seen off Cape Ortegal on 19 July. It subsequently transpired that Yorke had been dispatched to cruise off the Azores to meet and escort home the China convoy, although when his squadron came back into Plymouth on 28 August it was some three weeks after those merchantmen had already arrived safely.

Yorke did not see any further service at sea, but he remained at the Admiralty until April 1818, earning a reputation for unpopularity amongst his naval contemporaries, having given offence to many. He served as the first naval lord from October 1813 until May 1816, undertaking a tour of Milford Haven with Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Boulden Thompson at the beginning of this period, was promoted vice-admiral on 4 June 1814, and undertook an official visit to Portsmouth dockyard two weeks later. He was nominated a K.C.B. on 2nd January 1815 and advanced to the rank of admiral on 22nd July 1830, and in the meantime his appearances in parliament became more regular and effective, whilst he frequently attended society events with his the second wife, the Marchioness Clanricarde. When not in London he resided at Sydney Lodge in Southampton, where he was also a leading member of society

On 5 May 1831, after visiting Vice-Admiral Hon. Henry Hotham’s flagship St. Vincent 120 at Spithead prior to that officer going out to the Mediterranean, Yorke drowned when the small yacht Catherine in which he was sailing with Captain Matthew Barton Bradby and Captain Thomas Young, together with another man and boy, sunk in Stokes Bay between Portsmouth and the Hamble in a thunderstorm. His body was recovered and interred at the family vault in Wimpole, Cambridgeshire

Yorke married firstly Elizabeth Rattray of Arthurstone, Perth at Hound Church near Southampton on 29 March 1798 and had issue six sons, two of whom died young, and a daughter, his eldest son Charles becoming the 4th Earl of Hardwicke in succession to Philip Yorke on 18 November 1834 and reaching the rank of admiral. After Lady Yorke’s death at the Admiralty on 29 January 1812 he later married, at St. Martins in the Fields, Westminster on 22 May 1813, the twice-widowed Hon. Urania Paulet, daughter of the 12th Marquis of Winchester, sister of Vice Admiral Lord Henry Paulet, and at that time the Dowager Marchioness Clanricarde. Yorke’s residence was given as Sydney Lodge, near Southampton.

A Tory, from 1790 to 1806 Yorke was the M.P for Reigate, from 1806-10 was the M.P for St. Germans, briefly in 1812 he represented West Looe, from 1812-18 was the M.P for Sandwich, and from 1818-31 was again M.P for Reigate. In later life he was the chairman of the Waterloo Bridge Company.

Lucid and quick to comprehend, Yorke had an off-hand ‘old sea-dog’ manner of speaking in parliament which appeared to amuse the members, and he was immensely good-humoured. Somewhat impulsive, he was nevertheless seen as a character, one who could indulge in self-mockery, was renowned for his droll sayings, and was of a handsome appearance, being tall and well built with black curly hair and a large, penetrating, ‘brilliant eye’. He was described as one of the finest young captains in the Navy, probably due to his appearance as much as his abilities. He could talk to his men in their own language and with their own slang, and his oratories were most inspiring. In return they admired his kind-heartedness, his fantastic humour, and his leadership. He enjoyed great success in bringing the Irish-manned and officered Canada back to discipline following the lax command of Sir John Borlase Warren, and the heavily-Irish influence of Michael de Courcy. On one occasion he piled into a double row of disaffected pressed Irish men on the main deck with an accompanying flow of invective, knocking two down and banging another two heads so fiercely that the men fell stupefied to the deck.

A fine seaman whose piloting skills were renowned, he would often take the wheel in an emergency, trusting nobody else but his own coxswain to relieve him. In his later life he was heavily involved in the organisation of charities and the schooling of the sons of naval officers. He encouraged his coxswain from the Jason to take a position on the quarterdeck with the result that the man died a post captain, as did the son of the master of the Stag, on whose death he had adopted the boy. Two other boys of less humble background, the son of a fisherman and the son of a carpenter, received his patronage as they advanced through the ranks. As a lord of the Admiralty, he has since been described as ‘weak’ and ‘a man noted for his humour rather than his brains’.