Sir Richard Hughes

c1729 -1812. He was the elder son of Captain Sir Richard Hughes and the grandson of Captain Richard Hughes, both of whom served as the commissioner of Portsmouth Dockyard. His mother was Joanne Collyer, and he was a distant cousin of the future Admiral Sir Robert Calder.

After entering the Royal Academy at Portsmouth in 1739, Hughes first went to sea three years later aboard the Faversham 44, commanded by his father. On 2 April 1745 he was commissioned lieutenant whilst serving in the Mediterranean aboard the Burford 70, Captain Edward Strange, and he immediately joined the Stirling Castle 70, Captain John Fawler. Continuing in employment, on 9 January 1748 he was appointed the fourth lieutenant of the Boyne 80, Captain Cotton Dent, by Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng in the Mediterranean, and on 5 August he removed to the Superb 60, Captain Edward Leighton, remaining on the same station until returning to Spithead on 5 April 1749.

In February 1752 he was appointed the second lieutenant of the Advice 50, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Thomas Pye, and going out to the Leeward Islands in May. He evidently left this vessel in the Caribbean to return home, for in August 1755 he was appointed the first lieutenant of the Swiftsure 68, Captain Hon. Augustus Keppel, whilst she was commissioning at Chatham. The Swiftsure went down the Thames at the end of October, and from there sailed around to Portsmouth.

Hughes was promoted commander of the newly commissioned Spy 10 on 6 February 1756, and after fitting out at Deptford this vessel saw service out of the Downs. In June she was employed with a small squadron off Le Havre, and during August she was attached to the fleet at Portsmouth. Later that month she entered the harbour to be docked, and she was back at sea by October to undertake convoy duties from Guernsey, at the conclusion of which she again entered harbour for a refit.

Although he had a distinguished career, Hughes is most famous for his dispute with the young Captain Horatio Nelson in the 1780’s.

On 10 November 1756 he was posted captain of the Hind 20, in which he sailed from Portsmouth on 16 January 1757 and then again in early February with Vice-Admiral Temple West’s fleet. He was in Falmouth at the end of April when the Port Mahon 20, Captain Samuel Wallis, was chased in by two privateers, and upon putting out with that vessel to confront the enemy they were forced to re-enter port under pursuit by four privateers. Joining the Trident 64, Captain John Tinker, and Lowestoft 28, Captain Robert Haldane, the Port Mahon and Hind were sent in hunt of the French, in the course of which mission they captured the privateers Ardencourt 14 on 3 May and Difficile 8 on 5 May, both of which vessels were bound from Le Havre for Louisbourg with stores. During June the Hind and two tenders were off Dublin instituting a hot press of seamen, and later that month she carried a 16-gun French privateer into Cork.

In January 1758 Hughes commissioned the new frigate Active 36, in which he sailed from Portsmouth under the orders of Commodore Richard Howe on 1 June to raid the French Coast in co-operation with the Army. His command arrived at Spithead on 11 December with a convoy from Plymouth, and she then embarked Rear-Admiral Charles Holmes to take him out to the Bay of Biscay a week later where that officer was to replace Rear-Admiral Charles Saunders. The Active then undertook further convoy duty from Guernsey, arriving at Portsmouth on 10 February 1759.

Upon being appointed to the Falmouth 50 in late February 1759, Hughes joined Rear-Admiral Samuel Cornish’s squadron, which after waiting some time at St. Helens for a fair wind sailed for the East Indies in mid-April and arrived off Madras on 18 October. Following the death of Captain Vincent Pearce on that station in December, Hughes commanded the York 60 from January 1760, and in early 1761 he was present at the reduction of Pondicherry before returning home through illness with Rear-Admiral Charles Steevens’ dispatches to arrive at the Admiralty on 20 July.

In November 1761 he was appointed to the Portland 50, which on 1 December sailed for Lisbon with dispatches to arrive a fortnight later, and which brought home the British ambassador to Madrid, the Earl of Bristol, reaching Spithead on 31 January 1762 after disembarking the diplomat at Falmouth. On 5 March she sailed for Lisbon once more, giving passage to General Lord Tyrawley, who was to take up the role of ambassador to Portugal and commander of the British troops, and days later she rescued all the people aboard a transport after it had been ran afoul by another vessel and had sunk. Having returned home, the Portland sailed once more for Lisbon on 31 May, this time giving passage to General Lord Loudon, and after serving in home waters she conveyed the British ambassador to Russia, the Earl of Buckinghamshire, to Cronstadt from Gravesend in September, although she encountered such bad weather in the first few days of her voyage that she had to put into Orfordness for shelter. Hughes left the Portland in late 1762, and she was sold out of the service early in the following year.

No doubt enjoying the influence wielded by his father, the naval commissioner at Portsmouth, Hughes continued in employment following the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, and he was appointed to the frigate Boreas 28 on 4 April. This vessel arrived at Spithead from a cruise on 28 September, and on 13 November she entered Plymouth from the Hampshire base. She went out on another cruise from Portsmouth on 6 July 1764, and on 23 August set off express through the Needles for Plymouth to arrive a day later. Despite speculation that she might go out to the West Indies, she was back at Portsmouth in December. Here she was instructed to strike her sails having been under orders for Gibraltar, as plans for an expedition against the Barbary Coast had been cancelled due to successful diplomacy. Whilst inactive at Portsmouth, the crews of the Boreas and the frigates Niger 32, Captain Sir Thomas Adams, and Pearl 32, Captain Charles Saxton, indulged in a massive brawl on Portsmouth Point that left many men injured.

The Boreas was still at Portsmouth in March 1765, and she came back to that port from Plymouth on 11 July. During November she was in dock being refitted, and on 11 January 1766 she went out of harbour to embark the governor of Senegal, although it was not until 3 March that the official, Colonel Charles O’Hara, left London to travel down to the coast. The Boreas then sailed for the coast of Africa on 8 March, passing though the Needles with two troop transports, and after arriving back at Portsmouth with money from Lisbon in June she was paid off in August.

On 20 May 1767 Hughes was appointed to the guardship Firm 74 at Plymouth, which appears to have been a particularly uneventful employment, and one in which he was succeeded on 24 May 1770. He then commissioned the new Worcester 64 in January 1771, serving as a guardship at Portsmouth with an equal lack of activity until 28 January 1774, during which period his father was created a baronet in July 1773 upon the occasion of the King’s visit to Portsmouth Dockyard.

With the conflict over the American colonies escalating, he was appointed to the Centaur 74 on 26 October 1776, in which ship he was based with the fleet at Spithead over the following winter prior to going into Portsmouth Harbour at the end of February 1777. The Centaur made several attempts to get out of harbour towards the end of March, but was prevented from doing so by contrary winds, and after eventually rejoining the fleet she went out on a cruise on 10 May to return on 20 June. Further cruises in the Channel took place throughout the following months, during one of which she re-captured a pleasure yacht from an American privateer in July. She was back at Portsmouth by 16 August, and she appears to have remained there for some weeks before going out again at the end of September. On 12 October she took the American schooner Betsy, which had sailed from Nantes laden with guns and clothing for the rebel army, and at the beginning of the following month she was docked at Portsmouth for repairs. Departing Spithead in early December, and again at the beginning of the new year in 1778, the Centaur was with Commodore Samuel Hood’s squadron at the end of January when it sailed over several days in mutual suspicion with a French squadron. Eventually a squall off Ushant drove the fleets apart, with the Centaur springing her fore yard and having to jettison nineteen guns to remain afloat. She arrived back at Portsmouth on 21 February, whereupon she was taken into dock.

In March 1778 it was announced that Hughes was one of three post-captains who were to undertake commissioner duties in North America, and on 9 August he arrived at Halifax, Nova Scotia, with the ships Pacific and Lord Dunmore, being also sworn in as the lieutenant-governor with instructions to act as commander-in-chief in the absence of a senior officer. On 23 September 1779 he succeeded as the second baronet of East Bergholt following the death of his father at Southampton, and given his civil position he was fortunate to be advanced to the rank of rear-admiral in a promotion that was extended to bring Sir Samuel Hood and Richard Kempenfelt into the rank of flag officers on 26 September 1780.

According to newspaper reports, Hughes was present at the Battle of Cape Breton on 21 July 1781 after arriving aboard the armed ship Vernon, Lieutenant James Hall, with a small squadron at Spanish River to take on coals for the Army. Here the British fell in with the French frigates Astrée 32 and Hermione 32, commanded by the famous Captains la Pérouse, and la Touche-Tréville. Captain Henry Francis Evans of the Charleston 28 ordered the small British men-of-war into a line between the enemy and the coaling vessels with his frigate at the centre, but the disparity in force caused the Jack 14 to strike and the remaining British ships to flee. During the action Evans was one of eight men killed aboard the Charleston, with another nine men losing their lives aboard the other men-of-war including six killed with another seven wounded aboard the badly damaged Vernon. It thereafter appears that Hughes returned home to England in September, having crossed the Atlantic in the Vernon.

Halifax Dockyard, depicted in 1804.

In early October 1781 he took leave of the King upon his appointment as the acting commander-in-chief in the Downs with his flag aboard the Dromedary 26, Captain John Stone, and he was superseded from this position in the third week of January by Vice-Admiral Francis William Drake. On 28 June he attended a levee with the King at St James’ Palace, and on 11 July he raised his flag aboard the Portsmouth guardship Warspite 74, Commander John Reynolds, as the temporary commander-in-chief at that port for Admiral Sir Thomas Pye. Here he joined other members of the nobility and senior naval officers who welcomed the Comte de Grasse to Portsmouth on 3 August after the French commander-in-chief had arrived in England from his defeat at the Battle of the Saintes, and on the 14th he presided over the court martial of Commander James Frodsham of the Alligator 14, following the capture of that sloop by a French frigate off the Scilly Isles in June.

In August 1782 Hughes briefly raised his flag aboard the Princess Amelia 80, Captain Billy Douglas, when it was proposed to send a force into the North Sea under the command of Vice-Admiral Mark Milbanke which would confront the Dutch fleet. Remaining at Portsmouth when it was decided that Admiral Lord Howe’s fleet should not be dispersed, Hughes sat on the court martial into the loss of the Royal George on 29 August before commanding a division of the Grand Fleet at the Relief of Gibraltar on 18 October with his flag aboard the Princess Amelia 80, Captain John Reynolds. During this mission Howe’s lack of faith in Hughes’ abilities was a cause for concern, and it led to a reconsideration of the commander-in-chief’s battle plans.

On 28 October 1782 Hughes was detached by Howe with eight sail of the line to reinforce Admiral Hugh Pigot in the Leeward Islands, on 1 November his force reached Madeira, and after departing eleven days later he joined Pigot at Barbados on 8 December. Following the end of hostilities and Pigot’s return home in July 1783 he succeeded to the chief command, transferring his flag to the Leander 50, Captain John Reynolds, and later in the year to the Adamant 50, Captain William Hancock Kelly. Hughes mostly lived ashore on Barbados during his time in command, drawing severe criticism from the young Captain Horatio Nelson who labelled him a ‘fiddler’, and who did not believe that his behaviour constituted that of an admiral. Nelson also compelled him to inflict the Navigation Laws on American ships trading in the West Indies which was contrary to the wishes of the local merchants, and Hughes had the gall to accept the thanks of the home authorities for this enforcement, despite refusing Nelson the funds to cover his own legal costs for doing so. A further dispute with Nelson arose when the young captain refused to obey the commissioner at Antigua, Captain John Moutray, whom Hughes had appointed to act in his absence as commander-in-chief, this being an ‘appointment’ which was not in Hughes’ power to make. Returning home from Antigua in 1786, he struck his flag aboard the Adamant at Portsmouth on 1 September and left for his house at Southampton.

In June 1789, following three years on the beach, he was reappointed the commander-in-chief at Halifax, Nova Scotia, and after rendezvousing with his squadron at Plymouth he set sail with his flag aboard the Adamant 50, Captain David Knox. During May 1790 he visited New York before briefly returning to Halifax, from where he sailed for Quebec. In June Captain Knox was obliged to retire through illness and was temporarily replaced aboard the Adamant by Acting-Captain William Johnstone Hope. The squadron was back at Halifax by August, Hughes become a vice-admiral on 21 September, and following the end of his tenure he arrived at Spithead with his flag aboard the Adamant in May 1792.

Hughes was promoted admiral on 12 April 1794, and he died at East Bergholt, Suffolk, on 5 January 1812 to be interred in the family vault at Deptford.

On 16 August 1764 at Stoneham in Hampshire he married Jane Sloane, a very talkative women as Nelson discovered, and by her had three sons who pre-deceased him and two daughters, of whom Rosy was apparently as equally wearing as her mother, and who Lady Hughes attempted to press on Nelson during their voyage out to the Leeward Islands. Hughes’ baronetcy passed to his brother on his death. His wife died in April 1809, and on 21 March 1810 his only surviving son, Captain Richard Hughes, died at Fort William near Sligo where he had commanded the local sea fencibles.

Hughes was easy-going and of a friendly disposition, but too soft and talentless for Nelson who accused him of overtly ‘bowing and scraping’. Collingwood remarked of Hughes that ‘nothing but nonsense can be expected’. Whilst serving on the Advice, he lost his eye when he raised a table fork to kill a cockroach, and a companion jokingly attempted to prevent him from doing so but instead deflected the fork into Hughes’ eye. A keen violin player, his service made him a very wealthy man.