William Brown

1764 -1814. He was born on 8 May 1764 at Leesthorpe Hall, Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, the son of John Suffield Brown, a landowner and deputy lord-lieutenant of that county, and of his wife, Anna Maria Elson.

Brown joined the Navy in 1777, and was aboard the frigate Apollo 32, Captain Philemon Pownoll, at the Moonlight Battle off Cape St. Vincent on 16 January 1780. He was then accepted onto the Resolution 74, flying the broad pennant of Commodore Sir Chaloner Ogle, and commanded by Captain Lord Robert Manners, whose elder brother was an acquaintance of Brown’s father. The Resolution sailed for North America with Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves’ squadron in the summer of 1780 before departing for the Leeward Islands with Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet that autumn.

Having been appointed an acting lieutenant, Brown was present at the Battle of St. Kitts on 25/26 January 1782 but was then captured by the French whilst working inshore in a boat. He was held as a prisoner at the nearby island of St. Eustatius, but he and the boat crew were released by the French commander-in-chief, the Comte de Grasse, and he fought at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April. He then returned to England aboard the Andromache 32, Captain George Anson Byron, with the fatally wounded Lord Manners, who died during the voyage home.

Brown had been due to join the Bounty, Commander William Bligh, which sailed for the Pacific Ocean with such disastrous consequences in October 1787, but fortunately he was moved to a different post shortly before that ill-fated ship sailed. On 27 December 1788 he was commissioned lieutenant, and on 9 January 1791 was promoted commander, in which capacity he reached Portsmouth on 31 March 1792 with the sloop Zebra 16 after a twelve-day passage from Gibraltar.

From 2 May 1792 he apparently commanded the sloop Kingfisher 18, although it is not clear that he ever took her to sea. He was next appointed to the sloop Fly 16 on 25 October, in which he sailed from Plymouth for Spithead in early December to collect dispatches for the West Indies. On 14 February 1793 his command arrived at Port Royal, Jamaica, after a forty-four-day passage from Plymouth, and she returned home with the trade in the autumn. Shortly afterwards, on 29 October, he was posted captain of the Narcissus 20, which appointment was probably for purposes of rank only, as again it is not clear that he ever took this vessel to sea.

One of Brown’s early commands was the frigate Venus, here seen in action the year before he joined her.

In April 1794 Brown was appointed to the frigate Venus 32 in succession to Captain Jonathon Faulknor, and on 17 May he delivered Rear-Admiral George Montagu’s despatches to the commander-in-chief of the Channel fleet, Admiral Lord Howe, during the pursuit of the Brest fleet. After serving at the Battle of the Glorious First of June, he was the only captain not in command of a sail of the line to receive a gold medal. On 15 June the Venus arrived at Portsmouth from Plymouth, and on 22 July she left St. Helens with a convoy for the Downs, from where she departed on 3 August for Portsmouth once more to join the escort of a convoy which sailed for Lisbon and the Mediterranean five days later. She was back at Portsmouth by 23 August, and in mid-September sailed from that port for the Downs to take under convoy seven troop transports for Flushing. Brown appears to have left the Venus in mid- October.

In January 1795 he was appointed to commission the new eighteen-pounder frigate Alcmène 32 at Chatham for service in home waters, entering Portsmouth on 15 May, and delivering a troop convoy to the Humber from the Nore in early August. She was scheduled to take a convoy out to the West Indies in October, but after waiting wind-bound for some time at St. Helens was recalled to Spithead on the18th. She eventually sailed with Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian’s Leeward-Islands expedition which was driven back to Spithead by winter gales at the end of January 1796, whereupon she was taken into Portsmouth to refit. When she did leave port in March, it was to join Rear-Admiral Sir Roger Curtis’ squadron in the Channel, and in July she took a convoy out to Lisbon. Brown then suffered a spell of very poor health, and Captain John Gore acted for him until he resumed the command of his frigate in November.

On 2 December 1796, the Alcmene departed Oporto with a convoy, but having fallen in with the Lisbon convoy the united fleet was then dispersed by a violent gale. She eventually arrived in Lough Swilly, Ireland, at the beginning of January 1797 having discovered a French frigate and two ships of the line off Cape Clear, these vessels being the remnants of the French expedition to Ireland. Brown promptly dispatched a request to Dublin Castle asking where his command could best be of service, and shortly afterwards reports were received of a distressed French 74 off Donegal; however, although the Alcmene was sent out to search for her, this mission was without success. Whilst sailing for Cork, she did capture the French privateer Surveillant 16 off the Skelligs Rocks on 6 March following a seventeen-hour chase, and she also re-took a coaling vessel at the same time.

By the beginning of May 1797, the Alcmene was at Spithead where her crew conspicuously refused to join the mutiny which had broken out on 16 April. She left Weymouth on 16 June with the Lisbon convoy, but once again Brown became ill and was discharged to sick quarters in the Portuguese capital during November 1797. Having become attached to the Mediterranean Fleet under the stern discipline of Admiral Earl of St. Vincent during this period, several petitioners from the Alcmene were hung as mutineers, as were a number of men from other ships in the fleet. By March 1798, Brown was sufficiently recovered to join the Defence 74 in the Mediterranean fleet, but he was replaced within a couple of months by Captain John Peyton, presumably for reasons attached to his poor health, and he arrived at the Admiralty on 5 June with St. Vincent’s dispatches, having taken passage to Falmouth and set off for London in a post-chaise and four.

In January 1799 he went out to Gibraltar to join the Santa Dorothea 42 as her temporary captain in place of Captain Hugh Downman, and he transferred to the Foudroyant 80 in April to serve under the orders of Vice-Admiral Lord Keith during the chase of the Brest fleet which had broken out on 25 April. His command was then sent to join Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson at Palermo, and Brown exchanged into the Vanguard 74 in June when Nelson took Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy with him into the Foudroyant. By December he was serving under the orders of Rear-Admiral John Thomas Duckworth at Gibraltar, with whose squadron he sailed for Cadiz, and he retained the Vanguard until arriving at Portsmouth on 5 January 1800, whereupon she was taken into port for a refit.

Brown’s nomadic career continued when he was appointed to the Robust 74 at the end of November 1800, and on 7 December she sailed from Portsmouth to Plymouth to arrive four days later and be taken into dock. She came out on 16 February 1801, with much credit being attributed to Brown and his crew for getting her ready for sea in such good time. A week later she sailed to join the Channel Fleet, but contrary winds drove her to seek sanctuary at Falmouth several days later.

On 12 May 1801 Brown arrived at Portsmouth from Cork having transferred into the eighteen-pounder frigate Hussar 38 in succession to Captain Lord Garlies, and ten days later his command assisted in hauling the stranded Madras 56, Captain Charles Hare, off Bembridge Ledge. There immediately followed convoy duty to Ireland, to which station she again sailed on 19 July from Torbay, but her employment at this time appears to have been particularly uneventful and after returning to Plymouth, Brown left the Hussar at the end of the French Revolutionary War in May 1802.

Brown commanded the Ajax at the inconclusive Battle of Finisterre in 1805

In the late summer of 1803, following the commencement of the Napoleonic War, he was appointed to the newly copper-sheathed Romney 50, in which he sailed from Spithead for West Africa on 28 August. It was expected that his command would reach Cape Blanco by the first week of October and then tour the British settlements to gather intelligence before sailing for Barbados in the following spring. On 26 June 1804 she left Tortola flying Brown’s commodore’s broad pennant, and on 8 August arrived in the Downs with one hundred and sixty sail under convoy. She then went around to Chatham to be repaired, whereupon Brown left her.

From May 1805 he commanded the Ajax 74, serving initially in the Channel fleet under the orders of Admiral Lord Gardner before being despatched to reinforce Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder’s squadron off Ferrol. At the Battle of Finisterre on 22 July, his ship lost two men killed and sixteen wounded, and he was held partly accountable for the engagement’s indecisive result, having borne up to speak the admiral at a crucial time during the approach of the van. He returned to England to give evidence at Calder’s court martial on the admiral’s request, and consequently his first lieutenant, John Pilford commanded the Ajax at the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October.

Following Calder’s court-martial, Brown was not re-appointed to the Ajax, suggesting an indictment of his conduct at the Battle of Finisterre. He did however serve as the commissioner of the dockyard at Malta from 18 December 1805 until 22 July 1806, and having arrived back at Portsmouth aboard the storeship Serapis in January 1807, he then took up the position of commissioner at Sheerness from 24 February until 9 August 1811. The only excitement in either of these postings appears to have been when he led the tackling of a fire aboard the Old Sheerness Hulk in Sheerness Harbour in February 1810.

He was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral on 1 August 1811, and during October conducted a review of the signal stations along the coast. From the early summer of 1812 he held the chief command in the Channel Islands, arriving at Jersey on 30 May aboard the fireship Spitfire, Commander John Ellis, and flying his flag at various times on the Alonzo 16, Commander James Veitch, the gun-brig Escort 12, Lieutenant George Crosbe, and the Ulysses 44, commanded by his brother-in-law, Captain William Fothergill.

On 8 April 1813 Brown arrived at Portsmouth from the Channel Islands aboard the cutter Surly12, Lieutenant Richard Welch, and eight days later he hoisted his flag aboard the Asia 74, Captain George Scott, in order to go out to the West Indies to take up the position of commander-in-chief of the Jamaica station. Arriving at Port Royal on 13 June, he flew his flag initially aboard the hulk Shark 16, Captain Robert Gore, which had been fitted with a mizzen mast for that purpose, and then shortly afterwards the Argo 44, Captain Fothergill, who had been appointed his flag-captain at the time he was leaving Portsmouth.

Admiral Brown died on 20 September 1814 after a five-day yellow fever, and he was buried the next day with full military honours in Kingston. Reportedly, he had signed the commission of a deserving young officer, to whom he had promised promotion, on his deathbed.

In November 1794 he married Catherine Travers, the eldest daughter of an East India Company director, John Travers of Crutched Friars. London, but she died a year later after giving birth to a son. He secondly married Mary Vere Fothergill on 10 September 1802 and had a further two daughters and two sons, including Charles Foreman Brown, who entered the navy in 1819 and rose to the rank of commander.

Lord St. Vincent described Brown as ‘my inestimable friend’. He benefitted greatly from the patronage of the Duke of Rutland, the brother of the late Captain Robert Manners.