Sir Richard Goodwin Keats
1757-1834. He was born on 16 January 1757 at Chalton, Hampshire, the elder son of the curate, Reverend Richard Keats, sometime headmaster of Blundell’s School in Tiverton rector of Bideford, and personal chaplain to the Duke of Clarence, and of his wife Elizabeth Brookes.
Keats’ initial education was received from his father before he joined the New College School at Oxford in 1766. Two years later he moved to Winchester College, but by his confession he was not a dedicated student, and he instead declared an interest in going to sea.
The patronage of the Earl of Halifax facilitated his entry to the navy in the late autumn of 1770 aboard the Portsmouth guardship Bellona 74, Captain John Montagu, and after a brief period with her he enjoyed equally short spells on the Yarmouth 64, Captain Weston Varlo, and Plymouth guardship Cambridge 80, Captain Thomas Graves.
He next joined the Captain 70, Captain Thomas Symonds, which became Montagu’s flagship on his promotion to rear-admiral and appointment as the commander-in-chief of the Newfoundland station in June 1771. Remaining on that station for the next five years, Keats served on the schooner Halifax 6, Lieutenant Abraham Crespin, the Captain once more, the Kingfisher 14, and from the end of 1775 the Mercury 24, both the latter vessels being commanded by Montagu’s son James. Rejoining Rear-Admiral Montagu’s flagship Romney 50 in the following winter under the commander-in-chief’s other son, Captain George Montagu, Keats was later present at the burning of Norfolk and the campaign to capture New York from July 1776.
On 7 April 1777 he was commissioned lieutenant of the Ramillies 74, Captain Hon. Robert Digby, and was present at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778. Following Digby’s promotion to rear-admiral Keats followed him in May 1779 to the Prince George 98, Captain Philip Patton, where he became a messmate and good friend of Prince William. On 16 January 1780 he was present at Admiral Sir George Rodney’s defeat of a Spanish fleet in the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent, and on 12 April 1781 his ship was with the Channel fleet at the relief of Gibraltar. Remaining under Digby’s patronage, Keats went out to North America when the admiral was appointed commander-in-chief during July, and after the Prince George was detached to the Leeward Islands station with Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood’s force in the autumn Keats followed Digby to the Lion 64, Captain William Fooks.
On 18 January 1782, as a reward for leading the naval force against an American flotilla in an expedition to New Brunswick, he was placed in command of the ex-merchantman Rhinoceros 34, which was fitted out as a floating battery at New York. After transferring to the more rewarding sloop Bonetta 14 at the end of July he assisted in the capture of the French frigate Aigle 40 by a squadron under the command of Captain Hon. George Keith Elphinstone on 15 September. Keats remained on the North American station during the early years of the peace, being employed in the conveying of loyalist families down the Hudson River to New York, and from there to Nova Scotia. He eventually left the Bonetta in January 1785 when she was paid off.
Keats then spent four years in France before being posted captain on 24 June 1789 at the express wish of his friend Prince William, with whom he had briefly cruised in the prince’s command, the Andromeda 32, during 1787. In September he was appointed to recommission the aged Southampton 32 for service in the Channel, doing his utmost to visit Portsmouth where he was pursuing a young lady, and then being instructed to ferry the debt-ridden and banished Prince Edward out to Gibraltar. After leaving the Southampton in February 1791 he joined the Niger 32 at the end of August, and he remained with her for three years in home waters. During 1792 he sat on the court-martial of the Bounty mutineers who had taken that ship away from Captain William Bligh on 28 May 1789.
Following the commencement of the French Revolutionary War Keats commissioned the London 98 in May 1793 for the flag of Prince William, although he commanded her as a private ship in the Channel fleet cruises of July-August and October-December 1793, including the chase of Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s’ squadron on 18 November. Subsequently it was decided that the prince would not go to sea and so the London was paid off in March 1794.
Two months later Keats was appointed to the new Galatea 32, initially engaged in convoy duty and then serving at various times in frigate squadrons in the Channel under both Commodore Sir John Warren and Captain Sir Edward Pellew. He was present at the capture of the Révolutionnaire 44 on 21 October 1794, and after Captain Francis Cole acted for him during the early part of 1795, he was sailing with the Quiberon Bay expedition under Warren on 15 June when he fell in with the Brest fleet. Despatching a fast vessel to contact the commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, Admiral Lord Bridport, he ensured the safe arrival of the expedition and then had the good fortune to be present at the Battle of Groix on 23 June. He was later conspicuous in embarking the unfortunate French Royalists following their rout by Republican forces in the Quiberon Bay expedition.
There followed a cruise on the French coast which on 15 October resulted in his driving ashore and burning the French corvette Eveillé 18, loaded with brandy and naval stores. On 20 March 1796 his was one of four frigates in Warren’s squadron that captured part of a French convoy under the escort of four French frigates and a corvette, with the Galatea being prominent in what was largely a disappointing action by her capture of the storeship Etoile 24, although Keats’ vessel was damaged by the Frenchman and sustained losses of two men killed and six wounded. He then drove the Andromaque 36 aground near the mouth of the Garonne on 23 August after overruling the pilot who had advised him not to venture so far inshore, and the next day he sent a party in to set her afire. During the naval mutinies of 1797 his men ordered the Galatea to enter Plymouth where the mutiny had broken out on 26 April, and as his name headed the list of those officers in Warren’s squadron whom the mutineers wanted rid of, he was put ashore, never to return.
In June 1797 Keats commissioned the new Boadicea 38, and after preventing another mutiny aboard her and surviving a subsequent Admiralty inquiry he resumed his service on the French coast. Another prolific run resulted, with an initial success in company with the Anson 44, Captain Philip Durham, being the capture of the privateers Zéphyr 8 on 19 October and Railleur 20 on 17 November. One of his duties was to maintain a watch on the French fleet at Brest, in which capacity he alerted the authorities at Plymouth of the expedition to Ireland in September 1798, thereby allowing Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren to defeat the enemy squadron at the Battle of Tory Island on 12 October. There were also further privateer captures, including the Invincible Bonaparte 20 on 9 December, the Milan 14 on 20 February 1799 when he was in company with the sloop Atalante 16, Commander Anselm Griffiths, the Requin 14 on 8 March, and the Utile 16 on 1 April.
The Boadicea was present in Vice-Admiral Charles Pole’s squadron which blockaded five Spanish ships from Ferrol in the Aix Roads during the campaign that resulted from the breakout of the Brest fleet on 25 April 1799. Here Keats led an unsuccessful attack with bomb-vessels on the enemy, but their defences proved too strong, and the Spanish were able to retreat up river. When the crew of the Danaë 20, Captain Lord Proby, mutinied on 15 March 1800 Keats chased the sloop into Brest but was unable to prevent her men handing her over to the French authorities. After Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent took over the command of the Channel fleet in 1800 one of his first moves was to release Keats from the inshore squadron and to reward him with a prize-gathering cruise off Ferrol. Meanwhile an attempt by Prince William to have himself installed as the second-in-command to St. Vincent, with Keats as his flag captain, was fortunately negated
In March 1801 Keats was appointed to the Superb 74, and three months later he joined a squadron commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez off the south-west coast of Spain, where he was left on detached duty to watch Cadiz. On 1 July he was recalled to Gibraltar by Saumarez on the appearance of a French force, but in preceding a Spanish squadron which had come out of Cadiz to join the French off Gibraltar he was delayed by light winds, and when he did arrive at the Rock it was to find Saumarez’ ships refitting after their defeat at the Battle of Algeciras on 5 July. A week later he sailed with Saumarez’ remaining four sail of the line as they followed the combined allied fleet of nine out of Algeciras, and when it became clear that the allies were drawing away the Superb, being the best sailor of the British vessels, was sent after them. There followed one of the most outstanding exploits in the annals of the navy as the Superb not only accounted for two Spanish three-deckers which fired into each other and blew up after he had engaged them, but also effected the capture of the French Saint Antoine 74 some hours later. This astonishing achievement was all the more remarkable given that the Superb only sustained casualties of fifteen men wounded during the action.
Throughout the peace of 1802-3 Keats remained attached to the Mediterranean fleet commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Bickerton, and after the resumption of hostilities in May 1803 he joined Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson off Toulon, although he was ill when the new commander-in-chief arrived and was despatched to Naples to recuperate. In January 1805 he was sent to treat with the Dey of Algiers who had dismissed the British vice-consul, and he then participated in the chase of the French Toulon fleet to the West Indies following its breakout on 29 March 1805. By now the weather-beaten Superb was one of the slowest ships in the fleet, and she only remained in the chase because of Keats’ brilliant seamanship. Once she returned to Portsmouth with Nelson’s Victory she was forced to remain in port and refit, requiring Keats to sleep out of his ship for only the second occasion since March 1801. Whilst in England Keats remained very much in Nelson’s confidence, and he discussed tactics with the admiral pertaining to the expected battle with the allied fleet which was by then in Cadiz.
Having missed the Battle of Trafalgar, the Superb rejoined the Mediterranean fleet on 15 November as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth, and in the same month Keats was made a colonel of marines. On 6 February 1806 the Superb led Duckworth’s squadron into the attack at the Battle of San Domingo, and Keats was singled out for special praise by his commander for his conduct, receiving a hundred-guinea sword as a reward. During this victorious action his ship lost six men killed and fifty-six wounded.
After returning to Cadiz Duckworth was recalled to England and Keats took the Superb to join the Channel fleet. Admiral the Earl of St. Vincent immediately ordered him to hoist a broad pennant, and he was despatched as a commodore in command of half a dozen sail of the line to blockade Rochefort. Despite establishing a reputation for refusing to allow his weather-beaten ships home, the hardships endured over the winter season forced him to surrender this post in the spring of 1807 because of his own ill health.
On 1 April 1807 he was ordered to Yarmouth to take command of sixteen men of war pending the arrival of the commander-in-chief of the Baltic mission, Admiral Lord Gambier. Hoisting his broad pennant aboard the Ganges 74, Captain Peter Halkett, he was sent ahead of the main force to occupy the Great Belt prior to the surrender of Copenhagen on 7 September. Whilst still in the Baltic he raised his broad pennant during October aboard the Superb 74, Captain Donald M’Leod, and he also learned that he had been promoted rear-admiral on 2 October. He returned to Spithead on 15 November with the captured Danish ships, and when an intended secret mission in command of twelve sail of the line fell through he retired ashore once more for the benefit of his health.
The following April, with his flag on the Mars 74, Captain William Lukin, Keats conveyed Lieutenant-General Sir John Moore’s troops to Gothenburg, and after rejoining the Superb 74, Captain Samuel Jackson, he was placed in command of the Danish islands. At Nyborg on 11 August 1808 he used seized Danish ships to embark a Spanish army of over nine thousand men under the command of the Marquis de la Romana which had revolted against the French, and he was nominated a K.B.in respect of this judicious diplomacy. Remaining in command of the Great Belt, his flagship became ice-bound during January 1809 and had to cut her way through four miles of frozen water to reach Wingo Sound. Here she remained for the remainder of the harsh winter, and sadly a number of her crew succumbed to the elements. In the spring Keats and the Superb eventually returned with a convoy of four hundred sail to England.
During the expedition to the Schelde in July 1809 Keats was third-in-command and conveyed Lieutenant-General John Hope’s division before returning to England in September. Two months later the Superb was finally paid off, and after turning down the role of governor of Malta Keats spent time ashore recovering his health.
From July 1810 he commanded the squadron defending Cadiz with his flag initially aboard the Implacable74, Captain George Cockburn, and then from the autumn aboard the Milford 74, Captain Edward Kittoe. He and Kittoe then removed to the Hibernia 120 in the summer of 1811, on 1 August he was promoted vice-admiral, and he thereafter was employed under Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew as the second-in-command of the Mediterranean fleet off Toulon. Suffering from ill-health once more, he returned to England in October 1812 aboard the Centaur 74, Captain John Chambers White, and was replaced by Vice-Admiral Sir William Sidney Smith.
In early 1813 Keats was appointed the governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland, and with his flag aboard the Bellerophon 74, Captain Edward Hawker, he left England on 22 April with a huge convoy for what would prove to be an uneventful but restful posting. He finally returned home in December 1815 aboard the Salisbury 50, Captain Edward Hawker, to which vessel he had shifted his flag in March 1814, and he retired to North Devon.
He was nominated a G.C.B on 2 January 1815 and on 7 May 1818 was awarded the esteemed honorary title of major-general of marines. In 1821 he became the governor of Greenwich Hospital at the behest of the king following the death of Admiral Sir John Colpoys, and he was promoted admiral on 27 May 1825.
Keats died of a stroke on 5 April 1834, and at the express wish of his old friend. King William IV he was buried in the mausoleum at Greenwich Hospital, his funeral being attended by the lords of the Admiralty, and his pallbearers consisting of six full admirals including Sir William Hotham. The King commissioned his bust by Chantrey, and this was erected in Greenwich Hospital.
He married Mary Hurt of Alderwasley, Derbyshire on 27 June 1820 but had no children. His nephew William served with him intermittently from 1805-13 and was his flag-lieutenant in 1815 during his governorship of Newfoundland.
Modest, reserved, unassuming and placid, yet also decisive, spirited and active, Keats was reputedly the finest seaman in the navy, and he was surpassed by nobody in his genius and gallantry. Nelson stated that he alone was as good as a French 74, and he was highly regarded by his superior officers throughout his career. A strict but fair officer, he instigated the use of a book with eighty-eight instructions for the running of his ship. He demanded that seamen be addressed by their names, and he desired that any man who excelled in their duties be brought to his attention. When in port women were allowed to attend those men who had behaved well, conversely if men behaved badly, they were denied feminine attention. He was a good friend of Admirals Sir John Warren and Sir Edward Pellew and had a strong Christian faith.