Sir William Chaloner Burnaby

*During the American Revolutionary War the newspapers carried many reports of Sir William’s captures, but there are a significant number that I have been unable to substantiate. I have listed these at the bottom of the biography whilst seeking appropriate authentication.

1746- 1794. He was the son of Vice-Admiral Sir William Burnaby who commanded both West Indian stations at various times during his career, and of his first wife, Margaret Donovan of Jamaica.

Burnaby was commissioned lieutenant on 1 November 1763 and promoted commander on 7 May 1764, being appointed to the sloop Druid 10 at Jamaica by his father, Rear-Admiral Sir William Burnaby. Shortly afterwards the Druid sailed for West Florida, and in the early summer of 1765 she took dispatches to Charleston from Jamaica. Later that year the Druid was sent to take possession of Turks Island in the name of King George, prior to sailing for Cap François to apprise the French authorities of the annexation. She was also sent to Campeche on the Gulf of Mexico to demand the return of a schooner impounded by the Spanish. On 23 November 1766 the Druid arrived at Spithead from Jamaica with Rear-Admiral Burnaby’s flagship, the Dreadnought 60, and she was paid off in December.

In June 1770 Burnaby was appointed to the French-built sloop Zephyr 10, leaving London towards the end of August for Portsmouth in order to take her out once more to Jamaica. On 30 September she reached Madeira, and there followed a quiet three years in the West Indies before she returned to England to be paid off on 14 June 1773.

On 18 January 1775 he was appointed to the sloop Merlin 18, fitting out at Portsmouth for North America, and going out of the harbour on 7 March to Spithead. By early June she had arrived at Marblehead, north of Boston, where she delivered money for the payment of the Army, and she remained in North American waters and was to capture twenty vessels within just a few months. Meanwhile, at some period during the winter of 1776/7, Burnaby learned that he had succeeded to his late father’s baronetcy.

The Milford was present at the Battle of Ushant in 1778.

He was posted captain on 16 January 1777 by Vice-Admiral Lord Howe in North America, but it was not until 15 April at Halifax that he succeeded the acting captain, Andrew Barkley, aboard the crack frigate Milford 28, in which he immediately sailed for the coast of Massachusetts. On 3 June, by which time she had returned to Nova Scotia, the Milford’s crew received huge sums of prizemoney for the innumerable captures that had been made prior to Burnaby taking command, it being reported that even the foremast hands received one hundred and seventy guineas each. She sailed from Halifax five days later for her station off the New England coast, and by 14 June she was off Cape Ann, Boston, where she soon resumed her prize-gathering. On 19 July she arrived at New York from the Bay of Fundy with a convoy of fifteen forage vessels and three prizes, and on 29 July she was still at New York when Lord Howe sailed with the expedition to Philadelphia. Days later off Sandy Hook she fell in with the Syren 28, Captain Tobias Furneaux, who had aboard the recently captured American Commodore John Manley of the Hancock 34, and the latter confirmed that his vessel, together with the Boston 24, had initially been sent out of Boston in April to hunt for the Milford.

Returning to sea, the Milford sent another capture into New York on 3 August 1777, which was named in the newspapers as the Congress brig Argus 14, and which had allegedly been dispatched with a large quantity of dollars in order to purchase a vessel from the French at Martinique for service in the American cause. Four days later Burnaby’s command worked into the harbour at Halifax, but she was soon back off the coast of Maine, although later reports suggested that on 5 September she was chased into New York by three American privateers. On 4 October she was off Cape Sable where she fell in with the American privateer schooner Dolphin 10, and after a six-hour chase she brought her to and took possession. Four days later she arrived at Halifax from Bay of Fundy with another three prizes. In addition to these captures, a large number of other successes were attributed to the Milford during this period, and accordingly she enjoyed the reputation of being the most successful frigate in the fleet.

On 17 February 1778 the Milford arrived at Portsmouth from Nova Scotia after a swift nineteen-day passage, having taken a well-laden ship a fortnight earlier which was in passage from Massachusetts to Nantes. From March to May she remained in dock at Plymouth to be coppered and refitted, and in the early days of the latter month Burnaby left London at short notice to rejoin his ship for an apparent secret mission. By June his frigate was with the Grand Fleet at Portsmouth, and three days later she was dispatched to reconnoitre Brest. On 12 June she briefly entered Plymouth, and she was back at that port three days later having sprung her foremast. Rejoining the fleet, on 17 June she was sent in chase of the French frigate Licorne 32, which along with several other vessels had been shadowing the British fleet, and after bringing her to, Burnaby entered into a polite discourse with her commander before the Licorne struck her colours to the Hector 74, Captain Sir John Hamilton. The Milford was subsequently present at the controversial Battle of Ushant on 27 July.

On 4 July 1778 the Milford entered Portsmouth Harbour for brief repairs, and shortly afterwards she sent into Falmouth the French letter-of-marque Ville de Bayonne 20, laden with stores for the Americans. At about this time, a Portuguese vessel which had fallen in with the French fleet conveyed a challenge from the captain of the French frigate Belle Poule 32 to Burnaby, seeking an engagement. In early August the Milford was chased by the French fleet off Ushant but made good her escape, and in early September it was reported that she had taken a French private ship, the Flower of the Sea 42, in a heavy engagement off Brest that had seen the French captain killed, but whose vessel’s surrender had been much to the surprise of the Milford’s officers. There followed further reports that the Milford had been unsuccessfully chased for fifty-two hours by four French men-of-war, whilst towards the end of the month she outstripped a division of the Grand Fleet to take three French merchant ships, although she had to share the prizes with those of her consorts that were still in sight. On 26 October she captured a richly laden French St. Domingoman, the Charles-Auguste.

In January 1779 Burnaby was called as a witness at the court-martial of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel relative to disputes arising from the Battle of Ushant, during which proceedings he declined as a junior officer to comment on Keppel’s conduct of the battle, although he did maintain that he believed the commander-in-chief to be a brave and gallant officer. He was back at sea in command of the Milford by the end of the month on what was described as a ‘roving’ commission, and his frigate took the French privateer Tapaguer 14 on 15 March. In April he gave evidence at Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser’s court-martial relative to the Battle of Ushant, at which time a temporary captain briefly replaced him on the Milford. On 6 May the Milford with Burnaby back in command arrived at Falmouth to collect a convoy for the eastward, and she entered the Downs on the 14th in the company of the Amphitrite 24, Captain Thomas Gaborian, and Nimble cutter, Lieutenant William Jones, having in their possession eleven prizes taken out of a French convoy. From there she sailed at the end of the month for Plymouth, and on 4 June she arrived at Portsmouth from the Devonshire port.

From June 1779 the Milford was once more with the Grand Fleet, and having in the interim captured a two-gun American letter of marquee she returned to port with Admiral Sir Charles Hardy’s dispatches for the Admiralty in early July. On 30 July a Spanish ship which had been bound from Havana to Cadiz, the, Nostra Signora Castillo, arrived at Spithead as a prize to the Milford, with reports claiming that she had fifty thousand guineas worth of gold aboard and was otherwise of such value as to be the most lucrative prize of the war to date. Shortly afterwards, accounts suggested that the Milford had almost been captured by three French sail of the line after being detached from the fleet in chase of another vessel.

In the middle of August 1779 the Milford, having money aboard to pay the troops, sailed with the Quebec convoy from Portsmouth, with a suggestion that she would depart for the West Indies thereafter to undertake what was described as a year-long roving commission; however, on 17 August she entered Plymouth with her convoy from where an officer was despatched for the Admiralty in London to advise that a huge allied fleet was off Plymouth Sound. Three days later the Milford hurried out from the Devonshire port to rejoin the Grand Fleet carry urgent instructions from the Government, but she was obliged to run from a number of enemy frigates off Fowey before rejoining Admiral Hardy. She was thus present during the Grand Fleet’s celebrated ‘Retreat’ up the Channel, with reports claiming that she had sailed through the allied fleet on one night but was un-catchable because of her superior speed.

The Milford, which continued to enjoy the reputation of being the finest frigate in the service with ‘none but seamen aboard her’, was back at Portsmouth with the Grand Fleet on 5 September, and nine days later she sailed out with a strong squadron under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart Ross. In no time, accounts related that after a four-hour engagement in which she had inflicted many casualties, she had captured the Lilly of France 38, a ship commissioned by the Queen of France and manned by five hundred picked seamen. It was later reported that this vessel came to anchor off Woolwich in mid-November. Meanwhile, the Milford remained cruising when Rear-Admiral Lockhart- Ross returned to port towards the end of September, and on the 28th another prize arrived at Cowes, this being the Spanish Nuestra Signora Almendvaleio, bound from St. Malo to Cadiz, and which had been at sea for just six hours. On 3 October off the Scilly Isles, the Milford assisted at the capture of two French 14-gun privateer cutters which were sent into Plymouth, and five days later she arrived with a squadron at the Devonshire port to collect an East Indiaman convoy and escort it around to the Downs. In early November the Milford apparently once again sailed through the French fleet on reconnaissance, on which occasion she had her foretopmast shot away but managed to escape through her superior sailing qualities, and she arrived back at Plymouth on the 17th.

Burnaby’s last action was the controversial Battle of Porto Praya in 1781.

On 30 January 1780 the Milford departed Portsmouth on a secret mission with a number of troop transports that were also carrying flat-boats, but the convoy separated that night. The transports had no idea of their destination, because a cutter with a King’s Messenger carrying that information had unfortunately been delayed, and so they headed for Ireland. Meanwhile, the Milford did fall in with the messenger, but having separated from the convoy she returned to port. Consequently, Burnaby was brought to a court-martial at Portsmouth in late February for leaving the convoy without orders, but he was either acquitted or merely censured, for he soon returned to the command of the Milford

In the middle of April 1780 the Milford was sent with the Hussar 28, Captain Elliot Salter, in search of two French frigates that were cruising off Beachy Head, but having chased one of the vessels of 32 guns into Le Havre they returned empty-handed to Portsmouth on the 21st. During the early days of May she sailed for Lisbon, and she captured the Granville privateer Duc de Coigny 28 on 10 May after an hour’s engagement off Ushant, losing four men killed and six wounded in return for inflicting casualties of eighteen men killed and fourteen wounded aboard her opponent. The prize was sent into Plymouth. On 23 June the Milford arrived post-haste from Lisbon with what were initially described as urgent dispatches, causing a rise in stock prices amidst rumours that they related to peace; however, it subsequently transpired that she was merely bringing news that the Lisbon convoy had arrived safely in the Tagus. During this return voyage she was apparently chased for some time by five French sail of the line which had arrived off the Tagus with the hope of intercepting the convoy.

On 12 July 1780 Burnaby was appointed to the frigate Diana 32, which on 18 August arrived at Portsmouth with the Grand Fleet. She remained at Spithead for some weeks, and on 23 September sailed to rejoin the fleet. By 24 October she was back at Portsmouth having left the fleet in Torbay, and she entered dock on 11 November to refit.

In the first few days of January 1781, the Diana put out of Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead, where she remained for a few weeks. On 14 March she departed with a squadron that was embarking on a secret mission under the orders of the controversial Commodore George Johnstone, and which was in fact destined for the Cape. She was present but barely involved at the Battle of Porto Praya on 16 April, during which engagement she had to be ordered by signal to join the pursuit of the French squadron. Thereafter, she continued south with Johnstone’s force to enter the River Plate in the middle of June, and she was present in the attack on a Dutch East Indiaman convoy in Saldanha Bay near the Cape on 21 July. Next receiving the broad pennant of Commodore Johnstone, she sailed ahead of the rest of the squadron to deliver that officer to Lisbon where he was to marry, and during this voyage she captured a French East Indiaman which she carried into the Tagus. On 28 February she arrived at Spithead after a passage of eight days from Portugal, but shortly afterwards she put to sea to assist one of Johnstone’s prizes that was struggling under a jury rig. On 12 March the Diana reached the Downs with a convoy, and Burnaby left her in April, whereupon he saw no further active service.

In March 1783 he attended the Prince of Wales at Court, and in December he gave evidence in favour of Captain Evelyn Sutton at the court martial which investigated that officer’s conduct in command of the Isis 50 at the Battle of Porto Praya.

Sir William Burnaby died on 19 February 1794 and was buried at Chelsea.

On 28 June 1783 he married Elizabeth Molyneux of Garboldesham in Norfolk at St. Margaret’s Church, Westminster. His son, Sir William Hood Crisp Burnaby, entered the Navy and achieved the rank of commander, and he also had a daughter. His address was given as Broughton Hall, Oxfordshire, but in the early 1770’s he was living in Queen Street, Golden Square.

List of unsubstantiated captures:

On 26 June 1777 off the Virginia Capes, the American privateer Badger 32 following a three-hour engagement in which two thirds of the enemy crew of three hundred men were casualties. I can find no trace of such a vessel.

In September 1777, a French ship of 30 guns near Salem which was carried into New York.

In October 1777 a French storeship, ‘the Eveille 26’, after a three-quarter of an hour duel off Boston where that vessel was delivering military equipment to the Americans. I can find no trace of such a vessel.

At the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778 the Milford apparently ran in under the stern of the ‘Duke de Chartres’ and raked her with three broadsides – I can find no trace of such a ship or officer.

On 4 August 1778 it was reported that she had engaged two French frigates off Brest for six and a half hours, being much disabled aloft.

On 12 February 1779 reports appeared in the papers that she had engaged a 40-gun French storeship off Tenerife and had eventually captured her after being forced to sheer off three times to repair damages.