William Hotham 1st Baron in the Irish Peerage
In May 1776 he raised a broad pennant aboard the Preston 50, Captain Samuel Uppleby, going out to North America with a convoy of eighty-five sail. Arriving on 12 August, he served as second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Lord Howe during the course of the July-October New York campaign, leading the amphibious assaults on Long Island, and later assisting Commodore Sir Peter Parker in the occupation of Rhode Island on 8 December 1776. During the first three months of 1777 he cruised successfully in the Chesapeake and Delaware rivers, taking many prizes but on one occasion being driven out to sea by a storm for three weeks, and he was then was the senior officer at New York whilst Howe prosecuted the Philadelphia campaign from 25 August. In this capacity he led the unsuccessful sortie up the North River to rescue Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne. During the following year he served at the defence of Sandy Hook in July 1778 and operations off Rhode Island in August where he came upon the Tonnant 80 in a disabled condition, but after engaging her was forced to discontinue the action when French reinforcements appeared.
On 3 November he sailed in command of two 64’s three 50’s, two frigates and fifty-nine transports ferrying five thousand soldiers to join Rear-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington in the Leeward Islands, and five days after his arrival took part in the Battle of St. Lucia on 15 December, earning praise for his efficient landing of the troops prior to the action. The following summer he was at Barbados, and he was appointed a colonel of marines on 19 March 1779. In early 1780 he moved into the Vengeance 74, Captain John Holloway, in which he was present under Admiral Sir George Rodney at the Battle of Martinique on 17 April and the subsequent Leeward Islands campaign where he led the van excellently during the fleet skirmish on 19 May.. After Rodney set sail for North America Hotham became the senior officer in the Leeward Islands with five sail of the line.
During the Great Hurricanes of October 1780 the Vengeance was driven onto rocks at St. Lucia and only by discarding all her guns and cutting away her masts could she be saved. The next spring Hotham, in command of two sail of the line and three frigates, returned to Europe with a convoy containing most of the booty from Rodney’s raid on St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781. The French received intelligence of the track of this convoy, and with Vice-Admiral George Darby’s Channel fleet otherwise engaged in the relief of Gibraltar they sent eight sail-of-the-line under Admiral La Motte-Picquet to intercept it. On 2 May the convoy was discovered by the French off the Scilly Islands and although Hotham ordered a closing of ranks amongst the men-of-war most of the merchant ships scattered on his instructions but were easily caught.
During 1782 he hoisted his broad pennant on the Edgar 74, Captain William Cayley, serving under Admiral Lord Howe in the April-August cruises and sitting on the court-martial into the loss of the Royal George on 29 August. He thereafter participated in the relief of Gibraltar and the action off Cape Spartel on 18 October, and his pennant was finally struck on the peace of 1783.
On 24 September 1787 he was promoted rear-admiral, being a beneficiary of Lord Howe’s reforms at the Admiralty, and with the Dutch Armament commencing he was promptly ordered to raise his flag aboard the Prince George 98, which was commissioning under Captain Alexander Edgar at Chatham, and to assume command of a squadron in the Downs. Shortly afterwards, on 25 October, he broke his arm when a post chaise in which he was returning to London from Deal overturned near Dartford and he was replaced by Vice-Admiral Alexander Hood. During the Spanish Armament of 1790 he raised his flag aboard the Princess Royal 98, Captain John Holloway, as commander of the rear division of the Channel fleet. He was promoted vice-admiral on 21 September, and remaining with his flagship and flag captain was employed in Vice-Admiral Lord Hood’s fleet during the Russian armament of 1791.
From April 1793-4 he was second-in-command to Hood in the Mediterranean with his flag aboard the Britannia 100, Captain John Holloway, sailing from St. Helens with five sail of the line, two frigates and the East Indies convoy on 11 May, before parting from the latter on 6 June. He was present at the occupation of Toulon from 27 August, and with eight sail of the line he led the blockade of the French fleet in the Golfe Jouan during the autumn of 1794 after Hood’s failure to bring them to action on 12 June.
Following Hood’s departure in November 1794 Hotham became the commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, although with only fourteen poorly manned sail of the line he was scantily equipped to deal with the enemy. On two occasions he engaged superior French fleets under Rear-Admiral Pierre Martin, but instead of concentrating on obtaining a victory he seemed more intent on keeping his meagre fleet intact. During the first engagement, the Battle of Genoa, from 13 to 14 March 1795, his force took the Censeur 74 and Ca Ira 80, but although he received the thanks of Parliament his dispositions had been unconvincing and it was felt by many that he could have done better. On 16 April he was promoted admiral, and in June he was joined by Rear-Admiral Robert Man with nine sail of the line. During July Captain Holloway assumed the position of captain of the fleet with Commander Shuldham Peard becoming Hotham’s flag captain aboard the Britannia. The second engagement, that of the Battle of Hyères Islands on 13 July, again ended inconclusively, although the French Alcide 74 struck her colours and was then destroyed by fire. On this occasion Captain Horatio Nelson led Hotham’s critics, calling it ‘a miserable little action’.
In addition to his failings in battle Hotham was roundly condemned for allowing the men of Rear-Admiral Robert Linzee’s flagship, the Windsor Castle 98, to exclude Captain William Shield, and for also keeping a lax watch on Toulon, allowing one squadron of a sail of the line and five frigates to roam the Mediterranean. It was therefore to the relief of most of his captains that he was superseded by the more aggressive Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis in November 1795, the official reason being that he was in ill health. On 28 December he arrived at Naples where he was received by the Court, and at home it was reported in the newspapers that he planned to over-winter in Italy for the benefit of his health.
On 9 February 1797 Hotham kissed the King’s hand on being created Baron of South Dalton near Hull in the Irish peerage, and thereafter he was often present in ‘society’ during his years of retirement.
Admiral Hotham died on 2 May 1813 at his seat of South Dalton Hall in Yorkshire, and was succeeded in his titles by his brother Beaumont, who outlived him by a mere ten months. He had earlier lived at Woodley Lodge, near Reading, which property he had sold it in 1789 to Henry Addington, the speaker of the House of Commons and future prime minister.
Hotham was unmarried, although whilst commanding in the Mediterranean he enjoyed the favours of a woman known ironically as ‘the commander of the fleet’. A poor leader and even worse disciplinarian of the Mediterranean fleet, he was undoubtedly courageous and brave but he had little zeal or strength of character and disliked difficult situations. Nelson thought him to be useless, and he was certainly ultra-cautious. His great friend Sir William Hamilton, the British ambassador at Naples, said that Hotham was ‘not quite awake enough for the Mediterranean command, although he was the best creature imaginable.’ He was also accused of having a lethargic mind, and the Whig politician William Windham said of him in 1794 that his ‘soul had gone down to his belly and never mounts higher now.’ The statesman Sir Gilbert Elliot called him ‘a piece of perfectly inert formality’. As a younger man however, he had been an excellent frigate commander and a great director of amphibious landings, and he was viewed as an able deputy. He was a friendly and sociable gentleman who was well beloved by his contemporaries, including the irascible Lord Hood.