Sir Thomas Pye

1711?- 85. Of aristocratic stock, he was the second son of Henry Pye of Faringdon, Berkshire, from his second marriage to Anne, sister of the first Earl Bathurst. His grandfather was Robert Pye, a Civil War parliamentarian, and he was the uncle of the poet laureate, Henry James Pye.

Pye entered the navy in May 1727 as a volunteer aboard the Lark 40, Captain John Gray, serving initially in the West Indies and the Mediterranean with this vessel before seeing further duty in the Torrington 40, Captain Robert Fytche, and Rose 20, Captain Charles Cotterell. He passed for lieutenant on 12 June 1734 and was promoted to that rank aboard the Preston 50 with Captain Cotterell on 18 April 1735. Thereafter he moved with Cotterell to the Rippon 60, going out to Portugal before being paid off in May 1737. He then served successively from 1739 in the Bristol 50, Captain William Chambers, from 1740 in the Channel and Mediterranean aboard the Elizabeth 70, Captain Edward Falkingham, and then the Warwick 60, Captain John Toller, also in the Mediterranean.

On 13 April 1741 Pye was posted captain and was ordered to commission the new Seaford 20 for service in home waters and the Bay of Biscay, which vessel was captured by the French off Portugal on 16 June 1744. After being exchanged he joined the Norfolk 80 in August 1744, serving in the Mediterranean where he performed such excellent service in the Adriatic disrupting supplies to the Spanish Army in Italy that the King congratulated him. He returned home four years later on the cessation of hostilities.

Continuing in peacetime employment through the benefit of his connections, Pye joined the Norwich 50 in which he sailed for North America. He next commissioned the new Humber 44 in April 1749, going out to West Africa in 1750, and in April 1751 joined the Gosport 44, voyaging to Nova Scotia two months later with five men-of-war and orders to assist the inhabitants resist a native uprising.

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Admiral Pye was knighted by the King at Spithead during the Fleet Review of 1773

 In February 1752 he was appointed the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands with his broad pennant aboard the Advice 50, but in October 1755 he was superseded by Commodore Thomas Frankland who promptly suspended him for continuing to fly his broad pennant. Pye was sent home with charges of ‘fraud, peculation and neglect of duty’ hanging over him, but on reaching England was informed by the Admiralty that he should have remained on station to sit a court-martial, and that by implication his coming home was a sign of guilt. Having distrusted Frankland’s influence in the Leeward Islands Pye had sought a court martial in home waters, and this he eventually faced from 1-4 March 1758 under the presidency of Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne on board the Royal George 100. He was acquitted of the major charges against him but was found guilty of carelessness. His political connections may have saved him from dismissal, but it was to be a long time before he was trusted with another appointment, and tellingly he remained unemployed throughout the course of the Seven Years War.

In accordance with seniority Pye was promoted rear-admiral on 8 July 1758, and on 21 October 1762 vice-admiral. In January 1764 he assumed the role of commander-in-chief at Plymouth, flying his flag for some time aboard the Kent 74, Captain Edward Vernon. From the late spring of 1766 he was once more the commander-in-chief in the Leeward Islands, going out aboard the Lark 32, and flying his flag from 1767 on the Chatham 50, both commanded by Captain Charles Buckner. He returned to Portsmouth at the end of his tenure with both these vessels on 8 August 1769.

In May 1771 he became the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth with his flag on various vessels to include the newly commissioned Royal Oak 74, Captain George Balfour, and the Barfleur 98, Captain Edward Vernon. In November 1772 he returned to London to attend Parliamen,t leaving Captain Marriot Arbuthnot acting in his stead, but he rushed back to Portsmouth on 24 April 1773 when it was reported that sixteen sail of the line were to be fitted out to counter apparent French designs on Italy. The recommissioning went on throughout May but in the event the fleet never put to sea. On 24 June he was knighted on the quarterdeck of his flagship Barfleur by the King who dined aboard that evening, and he was also immediately advanced to the rank of admiral. He remained in command at Portsmouth until succeeded in June 1774.

At the end of May 1777 Pye was once more appointed the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth with his flag initially aboard the Sandwich 90, Captain Richard Edwards, and later the Barfleur 90, Captain Mark Milbanke, although he would subsequently fly it on whichever vessels were available. He presided over the controversial court-martial on Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel following the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, despite his attempts to avoid this unwelcome duty by pleading ill-health, during which period Commodore John Evans commanded in his place. As the political controversy raged on he was not asked to preside over the court-martial of Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser as the government, being anxious to ensure a not-guilty verdict, installed their own man. He was nevertheless required to provide evidence. At the end of the trial Pye himself became embroiled in controversy when it transpired that he had laid a bet that Palliser would not be acquitted, and when he and the gentleman with whom he had wagered failed to agree whether the verdict on Palliser constituted an acquittal they took the matter to court.

During the early part of 1780 Rear-Admiral Evans again deputised for Pye at Portsmouth, and in the autumn, despite repeated assertions in the newspapers that he would take on the governorship of Greenwich Hospital, Pye was prevailed upon by Vice-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington to take command of the Channel fleet in his stead following Admiral Francis Geary’s resignation and Barrington’s dispute with the government. In the meantime, on 26 September, Pye was nominated a lieutenant-general of marines. After further short periods ashore in March 1781 and July-August 1782, when Vice-Admiral Evans again deputised for him, Pye’s tenure finished in difficult circumstances in March 1783 when the seamen at Portsmouth reacted with mutinous behaviour to the delay in being paid off.

Admiral Pye died at his residence in Suffolk Street, London on 26 December 1785, his wife having predeceased him by twenty-three years. He had no legitimate issue.

An awkward, ungainly man, his men knew Pye as ‘Nosey’ in deference to his most outstanding facial feature. Notwithstanding his appearance he considered himself a ladies man and had a notorious reputation with regard to his private life. One notable mistress, the married novelist Anna Bennett, bore him two children, one of whom, Harriet Pye Bennett, became a renowned actress. He had little ability, was considered ‘inept’, a subject of ridicule and contempt, and rose to the rank of admiral solely on the influence of the Bathurst family. Pye was fully aware of his social limitations, blaming a life at sea from the age of 14 for his lack of a rounded education which was well illustrated by his appalling spelling and grammar.

He was the M.P for Rochester in the government interest from March 1771 until 1774 but was unseated by an electorate who clearly despised him.