Sir Richard John Strachan

1760-1828. He was born in Devon on 27 October 1760, the eldest son of Lieutenant Patrick Strachan, and of his wife Caroline Pitman. He was the grandson of Captain John Pitman, and the nephew of Captain Sir John Strachan, 5th baronet, who died in 1777.

In 1772 Strachan entered the navy aboard the Intrepid 64, Captain James Cranston, going out to the East Indies and also seeing service with his uncle, Captain Sir John Strachan, on that station aboard the Orford 68. He was later employed in North America with Commodore William Hotham aboard the Preston 50, Captain Samuel Uppleby, and Vice-Admiral Lord Howe on the Eagle 64, Captain Henry Duncan, and upon his uncle’s death on 28 December 1777 he succeeded to his baronetcy of Thornton, County Kincardine in Aberdeenshire. From the spring of 1779 he voyaged to Africa and then Jamaica aboard the Actaeon 44, Captain Robert Keeler, and he was commissioned lieutenant in the West Indies on 5 April.

Two years later, having returned home, Strachan joined the Hero 74, Captain James Hawker, in which he fought at the Battle of Porto Praya on 16 April 1781 before sailing on to the East Indies. Here he initially served as first lieutenant of the Magnanime 64, Captain Charles Wolseley, and then upon Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hughes flagship Superb 74, and he participated in the Battles of Sadras on 17 February 1782, Providien on 12 April, Negapatam on 6 July, and Trincomale on 3 September.

The Battle of Trincomale 1782

In January 1783 Strachan was promoted commander of a captured French cutter which was commissioned as the Lizard 18 at Bombay, and on 26 April he was posted to the captured French corvette Naíade 22 on the same station. After returning home at the end of the war and paying the Naíade off in June 1784, he recommissioned her in the following month with orders to cruise against smugglers in the Channel, his corvette being regarded as one of the fastest sailing vessels in the fleet.

In November 1786 he was amongst the luminaries listed as arriving at Bath for the winter season, and returning to duty he was appointed to the Vestal 28 in the summer of 1787, in which he was ordered to take the Hon. Charles Cathcart out to China to assume the post of ambassador. Unfortunately, the commission got off to a tragic start, with five of the Vestal’s marines drowning when their launch overset at Spithead on 28 November. After sailing from Portsmouth on 29 December Mr Cathcart died in the Straits of Banca on 10 June 1788, leaving Strachan with no option but to return to England, and by the beginning of October he was back at Plymouth.

In 1789 he returned to the East Indies with the Vestal to serve under Commodore Hon. William Cornwallis, eventually arriving at Calcutta from Madras in November, and he was soon appointed to the Phoenix 36 in succession to the invalided Captain George Anson Byron. He was the senior officer in the Madras Roads on 13 September 1790 when Captain Isaac Schomberg raged at the local authorities for failing to salute his ship, and after advising that difficult officer to act as he saw fit Strachan soon received a letter from the governor condemning Schomberg’s subsequent tone in complaining of the oversight. On 19 November 1791 off Mangalore the Phoenix intercepted and overpowered the French frigate Résolue 32 which was suspected of conveying arms to Tippoo Sahib, leaving sixty-five Frenchmen killed or wounded. Following the action, the Résolue was towed to the French base at Mahé and returned to the French commander-in-chief.

At the end of June 1793 Strachan arrived back at Spithead from India with four East Indiamen in convoy, together with a captured French East-Indiaman, the Pauline, valued at 30,000 guineas, or £4.5m in today’s money. The Phoenix then joined Rear-Admiral John MacBride’s squadron off Brest and participated in the Channel fleet’s autumn cruise, including the action with Rear-Admiral Vanstabel’s squadron on 18 November, prior to sailing around to the Nore to be paid off in the following January.

Strachan was appointed to the ex-French twelve-pounder frigate Concorde 36 in March 1794 and was placed under the orders of Commodore Sir John Borlase Warren in the Channel. On 23 April the squadron fell in with three French frigates and a corvette off Guernsey, with one of the former, the Engageante 36 striking to the Concorde. During the action Strachan was wounded on the right side of his temple by a splinter and there was some concern at first that he might lose an eye, although this was to prove precipitate. On 3 June he was ordered to join Rear-Admiral George Montagu’s squadron subsequent to the Battle of the Glorious First of June, and on 23 June, having been released, he sailed out of Plymouth with MacBride’s frigate squadron.

HMS Melampus

In July 1794 Strachan joined the Melampus 36, returning to Portsmouth from a cruise on 23 August and then serving in the Channel Fleet. During September she was one of several vessels damaged when the fleet ran afoul of a homeward-bound East Indiaman convoy off the Eddystone, and having lost her foremast and bowsprit she had to be towed into Plymouth Sound by the Invincible 74, Captain Hon. Thomas Pakenham.

From the spring of 1795 Strachan commanded his own squadron of frigates with great success off Normandy and Brittany, and on 9 May, having under his orders at Jersey the Diamond 38, Captain Sir William Sidney Smith, Hebe 38, Captain Paul Minchin, Niger 32, Captain Edward Foote, and Syren 32, Captain Graham Moore, he attacked a French convoy in Carteret Bay with his boats, capturing or burning all but one of the thirteen enemy vessels. On 3 July, in company with the Hebe, he took six vessels out of a military convoy off St. Malo bound for Brehat and Brest, and he also captured one of two brigs that with a 26-gun corvette and a lugger had been the convoy’s escort. After briefly returning to Plymouth with several prizes he then rejoined his squadron off the island of St. Marcou, Normandy, and he assisted the Latona 38, Captain Hon. Arthur Kaye Legge, and others of his squadron in driving the French frigates Tortue 40 and Néréide 36 into Rochefort on 14 October.

In April 1796 the Melampus was at Yarmouth when she was visited by the hereditary Princess of Orange, and in May Strachan assumed the command of Captain Sir William Sidney Smith’s squadron of three frigates and two sloops after that officer had been captured by the French. By September he had removed his pennant to Smith’s Diamond 38, taking the Le Havre-brig Espérance off Alderney on Christmas Eve, the French corvette Amaranthe 14 off Alderney on New Year’s Eve, and the privateer cutter Esperanza from St. Malo near the mouth of the Seine on 27 April.

On 7 April 1798, in company with the Hydra 38, Captain Sir Francis Laforey, the Diamond went aground in the Caen roads whilst attacking a brig of 16 guns and twenty-seven heavy gunboats which had gathered to attack St. Marcou. Strachan was able to extricate his vessel and he returned to Spithead where the Diamond was refitted prior to putting back for St. Marcou on 11 May. Two days later on 13 May the frigate was driven by a falling wind and rising tide up the Seine towards Honfleur after a furious Strachan had sought revenge on the local French shipping following the local commandant’s reneging on a challenge of combat. An attack by eleven gunboats followed, but after sinking four of them he was able to put back to sea with his only casualties being two men wounded.

With Strachan continuing to fly his commodore’s broad pennant off Le Havre in blockade of a force of French frigates within, the French did not dare to attempt any attack on St. Marcou, although the two sides did exchange fire on several occasions. In August he launched an assault on forty-seven gunboats moored in the inner roads of Le Havre and halfway across the Seine to Honfleur on the opposite bank, sinking some, before in early November he finally undertook some different duties with the escort of a convoy of outward bound East Indiamen.

In February 1799 Strachan moved to the Captain 74, sailing for a cruise off Ireland with Rear-Admiral Hon. George Berkeley’s squadron in April, serving off the western coast of France, and occasionally commanding an independent squadron. As part of Rear-Admiral James Whitshed’s reinforcements he joined Vice-Admiral Lord Keith’s Mediterranean fleet in the chase of the Brest fleet following its breakout on 25 April, and his ship was in the advanced squadron that captured Rear-Admiral Jean-Baptiste-Emmanuel Perrée’s squadron of three frigates and two brigs on 18 June, sixty miles south of Cape Sicié, near Toulon.

After returning to the Channel Fleet the Captain joined Commodore Sir Edward Pellew’s expedition to Quiberon Bay in June 1800, prior to serving with Rear-Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren in August off Ferrol, and then at the end of September sailing from Portsmouth to rejoin the Channel Fleet. On 4 November Strachan’s boats magnificently rescued six hundred men from the Marlborough 74, Captain Thomas Sotheby, which had been wrecked off Belle-Isle. On the following 11 January however, having been damaged off Ushant, the Captain had to be helped into Plymouth by the Fisgard 38, Captain Thomas Byam Martin, and scores of other vessels coming out of the harbour which had been alerted by her signal guns. At the beginning of February she returned to Plymouth once more before going out to rejoin the Channel fleet a month later. A further refit followed at Plymouth at the end of July but she was out within the week under Captain Charles Boyles whilst Strachan took leave of absence on account of his poor health.

In September 1801 Strachan was appointed to the ex-French sail of the line Hoche 74, newly commissioned as the Donegal 74, in which he joined the Channel Fleet in November. Although she was paid off in April 1802 as a result of the peace she remained at Portsmouth under his command and on 2 November sailed out of that port having been manned and victualled for four months. On 4 February the Donegal arrived at Gibraltar from where she promptly departed to join the Mediterranean fleet under Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hussey Bickerton at Malta.

For some time, Strachan was the senior officer at Gibraltar whilst retaining the command of the Donegal, and at the beginning of 1804 he blockaded Cadiz under the orders of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson before joining the main fleet off Toulon in the early summer. In the meantime, on 23 April 1804, he had been nominated a colonel of marines. On 24 May he was with Rear-Admiral George Campbell’s flagship Canopus 80, Captain John Conn, and the Amazon 38, Captain William Parker, when they went in chase of a French sail of the line and frigate off Cape Cepet. With the rest of the British fleet being over the horizon the three vessels were in turn pursued by a number of gunboats which they engaged. Soon afterwards four French sail of the line and two frigates came out from Toulon to join their comrades, and after a brief engagement Campbell decided to retire in the face of the superior odds.

On 23 October 1804, being in company with the Medusa 38, Captain John Gore, Strachan took the mercury-laden Spanish Matilda 34 at an estimated worth of two hundred thousand guineas, which vessel was taken into the Navy as the Hamadryad. He also forced the surrender of the Spanish frigate Amphitrite 42 on 25 November off Cadiz after a two-day chase and eight-minute action that saw the death of the Spanish captain.

On 10 April 1805, having exchanged with Captain Pulteney Malcolm into the Renown 74 in order to return home to recover his health, he was beating back towards Gibraltar having seen a convoy though the Gut of Gibraltar when the French Toulon fleet appeared in sight steering for Cadiz, forcing him to withdraw. In May he returned to Plymouth, and he soon joined the Caesar 80 at that port. He next saw action in Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis’ sortie against the Brest fleet on 22 August, and he temporarily assumed command of the fleet when the injured commander-in-chief returned home.

Sir Richard’s action of 4 November 1805

In September 1805 Strachan was despatched in command of three other sail of the line and two frigates to the Bay of Biscay in search of the Rochefort squadron of five sail of the line and three frigates which had broken out on 16 July, Instead, on 4 November at the mouth of the Charente near La Rochelle, his bolstered squadron of five sail of the line and four frigates came upon a French squadron of four ships commanded by Rear-Admiral Dumanoir Le Pelley, which had escaped after the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October. During the action that followed all the French ships were captured, with the Mont Blanc 74 striking to the Caesar, although Strachan also reserved some of his fire for one of his own ships, the Namur 90, Captain Lawrence Halstead, which he considered was dilatory in joining the battle. Casualties numbered four men killed and twenty-five wounded on his ship, and twenty-nine men killed and one hundred and twenty-one wounded in his squadron.

Strachan was promoted rear-admiral on 9 November 1805 and Thomas Shortland became his flag-captain aboard the Caesar for a short while before replaced by Captain Charles Richardson in the following January. On 28 January 1806 he received the thanks of parliament and was awarded a £1,000 pension for his victory over Dumanoir, being accorded these honours at the same time that Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood was thanked for his part in the Battle of Trafalgar. A day later he was nominated a Knight of the Bath and given the freedom of the City of London.

On 27 January 1806 Strachan left Plymouth with five sail of the line and five frigates, which was soon boosted by two further sail of the line, to search for the French squadrons of Vice-Admiral Leissègues and Rear-Admiral Willaumez which had broken out of Brest. His initial orders were to look for the French in the vicinity of St. Helena, and if finding no trace of them to proceed to the Cape and join an expedition led by Commodore Sir Home Riggs Popham that had been sent to capture that Dutch colony. Having escorted the West Indies convoy down the Channel, during which difficult operation he threatened to fire into both the Montagu 74, Captain Robert Otway, and the St. George 98, Captain Albemarle Bertie, he was off Madeira from 10-14 March, but after seemingly receiving amended orders he returned to the Channel fleet at the end of April. 

As Willaumez was still at large, Strachan left Plymouth again on 19 May with seven sail of the line and headed for the Leeward Islands, eventually reaching Barbados in August. The search ended shortly afterwards with the dispersal of the French squadron in a hurricane on 18 August, with Strachan’s ships also being scattered in the same storm, having apparently been within forty miles of Willaumez when the hurricane struck. His flagship Caesar had to run for the Azores having lost her mainmast, and after removing at Fayal to the Triumph 74, Captain Henry Inman, Strachan returned to seek his squadron off North America where it was reported that at least three of his vessels were off Norfolk, Virginia at the beginning of September. He eventually returned to Portsmouth from Bermuda in February 1807 with his flag once more on the Caesar.

On 6 March 1807 Strachan was invested with the Order of the Bath by the King at St. James’ Palace, and by the following month he was back on his station off Rochefort with his flag again on the Caesar, supported by five other sail of the line. In August he was relieved by Rear-Admiral Hon. Michael de Courcy, but in October the Caesar set off from Plymouth to allow him to resume his command once more. When six sail French of the line under Rear-Admiral Allemand escaped during some very heavy weather in January 1808 Strachan at first remained off the port before he took his seven sail of the line past Gibraltar on 9 February to join Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood in the Mediterranean. Apparently, he was in a ‘proper stew’ at letting the French go, a feeling that would not have dissipated once Allemand joined the Toulon fleet and it too broke out, on 7 February. Eventually the French got safely back into Toulon having done little damage, and on 10 September the Caesar departed from the fleet off that port to return to Portsmouth at the end of the month.

The bombardment of Flushing during the Schelde Campaign of 1809

In October 1808 it was reported that Strachan would take on the command of the North Sea squadron, and in January 1809 his fleet was in the Downs with his flag initially in the Venerable 74, Captain Sir Home Riggs Popham, and later flying aboard the San Domingo 74, Captain Charles Gill. During the first half of the year, he often resided in London whilst Rear-Admiral Manley Dixon commanded at sea, but he subsequently led the huge naval force in the Walcheren Expedition from July, which had instructions to destroy the enemy ships, docks and arsenal at Antwerp. Unfortunately, the expedition ended in his bitter acrimony with the army commander, John Pitt, the Earl of Chatham, who intimated to the King that its humiliating failure was down to Strachan, although he in turn was furious with the efforts of the Army.

Strachan was promoted vice-admiral on 31 July 1810, and in the same month Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew took command of the squadron off the Scheldt. Although the newspapers reported that Strachan would lead an expedition to attack the French East Islands, he eventually declined the command in September, having apparently voiced dissatisfaction at the size of the force allowed him.

In April 1811, with Pellew assuming the command of the Mediterranean station, Strachan once more hoisted his flag in the Downs aboard the San Domingo, Captain Gill, being under the overall orders of Admiral William Young, who had been entrusted with the North Sea command as it had increased in importance. He cruised off the Scheldt until August when he took a month’s leave of absence in London, being temporarily replaced by Rear-Admiral Benjamin Hallowell, but he was soon back on station and commanded in lieu of Admiral Young when that officer took leave for the first four months of 1812. On 3 May Strachan arrived back in the Downs, and having married in the following month he resigned his command off the Scheldt.

Strachan briefly flew his flag at Plymouth aboard the San Josef 110, Captain Jeffrey Raigerfield, in June 1815 during the ‘Hundred Days’, and his last encounter with the French was a pleasant one, for when Napoleon was brought to Plymouth aboard the Bellerophon 74 at the end of the war and was advised that Strachan was in a barge alongside the emperor removed his hat and bowed to him with a smile.

During his retirement Strachan was a guest of the Prince Regent at Brighton in 1818, but in February 1822 he was thrown from his horse on Marine Parade in that town, although he soon recovered. Otherwise, he regularly appeared amongst the elite in society. He was advanced to the rank of admiral on 19 July 1821.

Strachan died at Bryanston Square in London on 3 February 1828 after a short illness.

In April 1812 he married Louisa Dillon, twenty-three years his junior, who died at Naples in 1868, and the couple had issue three daughters but no sons with the result that Strachan’s baronetcy becoming extinct. His much younger wife was a somewhat colourful character of uncertain parentage who took both a male and female lover after her marriage to Strachan, leading to persistent rumours that her daughters were not his but those of Francis Seymour-Conway the Earl of Yarmouth, the future Marquis of Hertford. Strachan appeared to either ignore or condone his wife’s behaviour and a series of satirical prints were published in the 1820’s scandalising their marriage. At his death Strachan left his daughters to the guardianship of Lord Hertford, with whom they and Lady Strachan lived until they were married. All four women were also significant beneficiaries of Hertford’s will.

An excellent seaman, Strachan was a most impatient man with a furious temper, but one who would apologise if he gave cause for offence, and one who ‘had a kind heart’. He was also somewhat irregular, very sharp, knowledgeable, and with a great degree of common sense. The seamen called him ‘Mad Dick’, and charmingly said of him that if he swore he meant no harm and that if he prayed he meant no good. He was vigorous, dashing, brave, and full of energy; a raging active seaman with character by the bucket full, as illustrated by one despatch in which he signed himself ‘the delighted Sir Dicky’. His surname was pronounced ‘Straun’, and he earned a good deal of prize money in his career.