Sir Ross Donnelly

1764-1840. He was the son of Dr Francis Donnelly of Athlone, County Roscomon, and of his wife, Anne.

Donnelly entered the navy in 1776 during the early years of the American Revolutionary War, and he served on a battery at the capture of Charleston on 11 May 1780. Shortly afterwards, whilst in command of a prize ship, he and his crew were captured by the enemy who then set them adrift in an open boat without sustenance or equipment; however, after a testing row of over two days and nights the castaways reached Trepassey in Newfoundland. On 27 September 1781 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant by Rear-Admiral Richard Edwards on the Newfoundland station, and he was immediately appointed to commission the American prize Morning Star 16. Sailing two days later for Quebec, he subsequently departed for home, and after arriving at Portsmouth he delivered letters to the Admiralty on 18 October.

Next appointed the first lieutenant of the sloop Cygnet 14, Commander Peter Baskerville, Donnelly remained in that role for but a few months before joining the Mediator 44, Captain Hon. James Luttrell. On 12 December 1782 this vessel captured three French storeships and vessels armed en-flute that were sailing for the West Indies, including the Menagère 64 and Alexandre 24. He remained with the Mediator until the peace in 1783.

Apparently unable to find employment when the country was not at war, Donnelly spent the years of 1785-93 in the East India Company service.

The Battle of the Glorious First of June.

On the outbreak of hostilities with France in 1793, Donnelly was appointed the first lieutenant to Captain James Montagu aboard the Montagu 74, and he took command of the ship after the death of his captain during the early stages of the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794. Although the Montagu was little engaged in the action, she suffered casualties of four men killed and thirteen wounded. He was superseded in command of the Montagu by Lieutenant Thomas Larcom of the flagship, but along with all the first lieutenants who fought in the battle he was promoted commander on 6 July, being appointed to the Cygnet 14 for purposes of rank only. Having later commissioned the Orion 74 for Captain Sir James Saumarez in March 1795, he was posted captain on 24 June.

Joining the Pegasus 28, Donnelly’s frigate was in the Leith Roads during the autumn of 1795 before sailing for the Nore in mid-October. At the end of November she arrived at Portsmouth from Guernsey, and she was still at Spithead at the end of January 1796 before entering Portsmouth Harbour in the following month for a refit. On 12 May she drove the 12-gun Dutch brigs Echo and De Gier ashore to the east of the Texel, although not without striking ground herself in the process. So pleased was Admiral Adam Duncan, the commander-in-chief in the North Sea, with Donnelly’s conduct that he made known his desire to install him as his flag-captain; however, this posting never transpired. Continuing with the Pegasus, Donnelly served with a small squadron under the orders of Captain Alexander Fraser of the Shannon 32 that was off the Shetland Islands in November, having earlier cruised without success in the North Sea.

In early January 1797 the Pegasus set off from Falmouth for North America with a commissioner who had been tasked with settling American claims, but the frigate was diverted from her mission when blown towards the French coast by storms. After falling in with the Channel Fleet, Donnelly was advised to return to port by the commander-in-chief, Admiral Lord Bridport, and his battered command entered Portsmouth Harbour for a refit prior to being paid off in February.

He appears to have remained unemployed for the next year before assuming command of the frigate Maidstone 32 from March 1798 in succession to Captain John Matthews, who had died of yellow fever whilst voyaging home from the West Indies. Departing for Jamaica in June with a convoy, the Maidstone reached Madeira on the 27th before proceeding to the West Indies. Whilst in the Caribbean, several members of her crew succumbed to yellow fever. After returning to Portsmouth with a convoy in January 1800, the Maidstone sailed from that port with the Quebec and Halifax trade on 3 May before returning to the Bristol Channel with another convoy in September. In company with several other men-of-war, she departed Portsmouth on 7 December with the Oporto, Lisbon and Mediterranean trade, but several days later had to put into Falmouth due to adverse winds, and it was not until 14 January 1801 that she did sail from the latter port with the convoys, returning to Portsmouth with seventy sail on 14 April. Days later, she took a large convoy from Portsmouth to the Downs, and as a reward for this service Donnelly was presented with a handsome plate by the Portuguese merchants.

The Maidstone was serving off Cape Barfleur in the summer of 1801 and on 20 June she was with a small force that attacked two dozen French gunboats off Le Havre, being fired upon by red hot shot in return and having to retire. During July she was at Spithead, and by August Donnelly was the senior officer off Cherbourg before returning to Portsmouth on 14 September. His command sailed for her station two days later before re-entering Portsmouth on 24 October.

In October 1801 Donnelly was appointed to the eighteen-pounder frigate Narcissus 32 whilst she was in dock at Sheerness, and at the end of the month his command sailed for the Great Nore before receiving orders to fit out for the reception of the Algerine ambassador and his suite. She departed Portsmouth on 23 December on this duty, arriving in Algiers in February 1802 where Donnelly was presented with a sabre by the Dey. Continuing in the Mediterranean, the Narcissus visited Leghorn and Palermo where she received a visit from the King of the Two Sicilies, and by 15 April she was at Malta.

Donnelly’s command next voyaged to Greece to make astronomical observations, but here she found herself having to defend a British merchantman off Miconi after that vessel had come under attack by pirates. When the Narcissus set off in pursuit, the pirates made haste to the Great Delphos and hid themselves behind rocks from where they unleashed a fusillade of musketry on Donnelly and his men. Nevertheless, Donnelly’ party captured thirty six men, and these he turned over to the British ambassador, Lord Elgin, who during May and June was aboard the frigate with Lady Elgin. As a reward for his capture of the pirates, Donnelly was awarded with a Damascus sabre by the Captain Pacha at Constantinople, and this weapon eventually found its way on to the field at the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, Donnelly having presented it to the Prince of Orange three days beforehand.

The Narcissus continued to serve in the Mediterranean, flying Donnelly’s broad pennant at Alexandria during the embarkation of the Army, which it escorted to Malta, and then delivering French prisoners to Toulon. After proceeding to Palermo, Donnelly held a ball for the King of the Two Sicilies, and he also gave passage from Cagliari to Naples to the Viceroy of Sardinia, Charles Felix. Whilst at Genoa in 1803, he learned that the British minister had left Paris, and surmising that hostilities were about to be renewed, he collected all of the British ships there and conveyed them out of the reach of the French. He subsequently fulfilled the same duty at Leghorn under the nose of a French squadron, one frigate of which he chased into Porto Ferrajo, and on 8 July he captured a French corvette, the Alcion 16, off Sardinia after a twenty-two hour chase. This fine new vessel, which had been returning from a special mission to Alexandria, was bought into the navy as the Halcyon.

Donnelly was to command the inshore squadron of frigates off Toulon under the orders of Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson during the early stages of the Napoleonic War, and in July 1804 he directed the destruction of a dozen enemy settees at La Vandour in Hyères Bay by ten boats from the Narcissus, the Seahorse 38, Captain Hon. Courtenay Boyle and the Maidstone 32, Captain Hon. George Elliot. Regrettably, the casualties arising from this action of four men killed and twenty-three wounded were inordinately high.

The Narcissus returned to the Downs with a convoy from Gibraltar and Malta on 13 November 1804, and upon going up to London, Donnelly spent some time in conference with the secretary of state for foreign affairs, Lord Harrowby. Shortly afterwards, his command was taken into Chatham for a thorough repair, and on 19 February 1805 she arrived in the Downs from that port before departing on 6 March for a cruise off Boulogne. Having then entered Portsmouth on 9 April, she sailed with a convoy of troops for Cork, and on 22 May she left the Irish port with a small squadron on a cruise.

On 5 June 1805 it was reported that the Narcissus was fitting out for the reception of Lieutenant-General Sir Eyre Coote at Cork in order to take that officer out to Jamaica, but instead, during August, it was announced that Lieutenant-General Sir David Baird and Major-General William Carr Beresford were to embark aboard her and would sail with a number of troop transports to attempt the capture of the Cape of Good Hope. Departing in early September and serving under the orders of the naval commander-in-chief, Commodore Home Riggs Popham, the Narcissus was sent on a secret mission to gather intelligence, during which on 29 October, she recaptured a large Guineaman, the Horatio Nelson 22, off Cape Mount in modern-day Liberia, after Donnelly had cunningly disguised his command to confuse the prize-crew. Using another Guineaman as bait, he also took the 4-gun Prudent 4 in the same action. Proceeding to Table Bay to rendezvous with Popham’s force, the Narcissus drove the privateer Napoleon 32 ashore near the Cape of Good Hope on Christmas Eve, this vessel having been armed with the ordnance from a French frigate that had been wrecked in the same bay.

Donnelly subsequently served at the reduction of the Cape on 10 January 1806, and after Popham prevailed upon the Army officers to launch an attack upon Spanish South America he was present with the Narcissus at the capture of Buenos Aires on 25 June. Here he was conspicuous in activities ashore, having accidentally found himself with the Army when it commenced its advance. Even so, General Beresford heaped praise on him for saving a division of artillery from a bog, and for re-floating the Army transports and a gun-brig, the Encounter, which had gone aground. He was sent home with Popham’s despatches and over one million dollars in specie that represented the booty from the expedition, and his command reached Spithead on 12 September, although he had earlier landed at Swanage to deliver the dispatches to the Admiralty that night.

HMS Ardent

Shortly after arriving in England, Donnelly was appointed on 13 September 1806 to the Ardent 64 and sent back to Buenos Aires, departing Portsmouth a week later to make for Plymouth Sound and take under his orders transports for South America. Eventually sailing from Falmouth with further transports on 10 October, these reinforcements under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Samuel Auchmuty arrived in the River Plate in January 1807. Donnelly then served ashore in command of eight hundred seamen and marines at the reduction of Montevideo. Once more he was sent home with dispatches, on this occasion his senior officer being Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling, and he arrived at the Admiralty on 12 April. Shortly afterwards, he was presented to the King at a levee, and in July he sued Popham for 2,000 guineas, this being the sum he had erroneously paid to the senior officer in prize money as a flag-officer’s share before discovering that Popham’s temporary rank of commodore did not allow him the authority to appoint a captain under him. The action went to the Court of Common Pleas and the jury found in Donnelly’s favour.

Meanwhile, Donnelly had given up the command of the Ardent, and in March 1808 he commissioned the new Invincible 74, which had recently been launched at Woolwich, and which, after struggling to find a sufficient crew, was eventually able to work around to the Downs at the end of June. She subsequently saw service in the North Sea under Rear-Admiral Hon. Alan Hyde Gardner, during the course of which employment she returned to the Downs on 25 September. She next sailed for Cadiz on 15 January 1809 to serve under the orders of Rear-Admiral John Child Purvis, and here Donnelly was sent to fit out the Spanish fleet to preserve them from falling into the hands of the French, a task he achieved in record time despite local hostility. In July the Invincible was with Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood’s Mediterranean Fleet off Toulon, and by March 1810 she was back with Purvis off Cadiz. Shortly afterwards, Donnelly was invalided by a cataract which kept him out of employment for the next two years.

Upon declaring himself able to return to duty, Donnelly was appointed to the new Devonshire 74, which was fitting out at Sheerness from June 1813, although she remained off that port for some time. With the war drawing to a conclusion he did not take her to sea, and shortly after paying her off in early May 1814 he attended the Prince Regent’s levee.

On 4 June 1814 he was promoted rear-admiral, and he retired to Brussels with his family before returning from the Continent and attending a levee in April 1823. He thereafter appears to have remained in London with occasional visits to Bath, whilst also attending naval and charitable events. On 27 May 1825 he was promoted vice-admiral, in November 1830 he was with a large English societal presence in Florence, and in the summer of 1831 he attended a daughter’s marriage in Leghorn. He was presented to the King on his return from the Continent in July 1832, and by 1834 was living in what was described as a ‘mansion’ in Harley Street, where he was able to host a morning concert. During October 1835 he was in Paris where he attended the King and Queen of Belgium, he was back in England for a levee in March 1836, and he visited the King at Brighton in November. On 28 February 1837 he was created a KCB, and on 28 June 1838 was advanced to the rank of admiral.

Meanwhile, in November 1837 Donnelly had been laid low with lumbago for three weeks, and thereafter his health remained poor, culminating in an epileptic fit in October 1839. With dementia setting in he was declared ‘unsound of mind’ in July 1840, and he died at 80 Harley Street, London, on 30 September, being buried in Kensal Green Cemetery.

He was married and appears to have had eight children, of whom his eldest daughter, Anne Jane, married George, the 20th Lord Audley, on 18 April 1816. At least two of his children predeceased him in the 1820’s, and his wife died at the age of 47 at their residence in Queen Ann Street, Portland Place, in October 1826. His nephew, Francis Briggs, born in 1784, served with him from 1798-1803.

Following the Battle of the Glorious First of June, Rear-Admiral George Montagu, the brother of the fallen James Montagu, Donnelly’s captain in the action, presented him with the latter’s sword. A fine seaman, he was well regarded and highly esteemed by his contemporaries, as illustrated in 1803 when he had aboard his command the sons of Admirals Lord Duncan, Sir Hyde Parker, John Holloway and Sir Thomas Troubridge, as well as William Benjamin Suckling, a close relative of Lord Nelson. He enjoyed the patronage of the influential Earl of Tankerville, and was favoured by Earl Spencer, the First Lord of the Admiralty from 1794-1801.