Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Broke, Philip Bowes Vere

BROKE, Sir PHILIP BOWES VERE (1776–1841), rear-admiral, of an old Suffolk family, was born at Broke Hall, near Ipswich, on 9 Sept. 1776. He early manifested an inclination for the sea, and at the age of twelve was entered at the Royal Naval Academy in Portsmouth Dockyard, from which, in June 1792, he was appointed to the Bulldog sloop under the command of Captain George Hope, whom, in August 1793, he followed to the Éclair, then in the Mediterranean, and afterwards employed during the occupation of Toulon and the siege of Bastia. In May 1794 he was discharged into the Romulus, and was present when Lord Hood chased the French fleet into Golfe Jouan 11 June 1794, and in the action off Toulon 13-14 March 1795. In June he was appointed to the Britannia, flagship of the commander-in-chief, was in her in the engagement off Toulon on 13 July 1795, and on the 18th was appointed third lieutenant of the Southampton frigate under the command of Captain Macnamara. During the next eighteen months the Southampton was actively employed on the coast of Italy, often with the squadron under Commodore Nelson, and was with the fleet in the action off Cape St. Vincent 14 Feb. 1797. In the following June she was sent home and paid off. Broke was almost immediately appointed to the Amelia frigate in the Channel fleet, and in her was present at the defeat and capture of the French squadron on the north coast of Ireland 12 Oct. 1798. On 2 Jan. 1799 he was made commander and appointed to the Falcon brig, from which a few months later he was transferred to the Shark sloop, attached to the North Sea fleet, under Lord Duncan, and employed for the most part in convoy service. On 14 Feb. 1801 he was advanced to the rank of captain, after which he remained unemployed for four years. His father died shortly after his promotion, and on 25 Nov. 1802 he married Sarah Louisa, daughter of Sir William Middleton, bart. When the war again broke out, he immediately applied for a ship, but without success, till in April 1805 he was appointed to the Druid frigate, which he commanded in the Channel and on the coast of Ireland for the next sixteen months. On 31 Aug. 1806 he was appointed to the Shannon, a fine 38-gun frigate, carrying 18-pounders on her main deck, 32-pounder carronades on quarter-deck and forecastle. During the summer of 1807 the Shannon was employed on the coast of Spitsbergen, protecting the whalers, and in December was with the squadron at the reduction of Madeira. During the greater part of 1808 she was cruising in the Bay of Biscay, and on the night of 10-11 Nov., attracted by the sound of the firing, arrived on the scene of action in time to witness the capture of the French Thétis by the Amethyst, Captain Michael Seymour a capture which this unfortunate arrival of the Shannon, as well as of the line-of-battle ship Triumph, deprived of some of its brilliance. The Shannon afterwards towed the prize to Plymouth, but Broke, as a recognition that the capture was due to the Amethyst alone, obtained the concurrence of the Shannon's officers and ship's company to forego their claim to share in the prize. As the Triumph's claim, however, was maintained, the generous offer of the Shannons was declined. The next two years were passed in similar service, cruising from Plymouth, off Brest, and in the Bay of Biscay it was not till June 1811 that she was ordered to refit for foreign service. In the beginning of August she sailed for Halifax, where she arrived 24 Sept. The relations between England and the States were even then severely strained, and on 18 June 1812 war was declared.

For the next year the Shannon was engaged in cruising, without any opportunity of important service. Broke was keenly sensible of the urgent necessity of keeping the ship at all times in perfect fighting trim, a necessity which the successes of the previous twenty years had tempted some of his contemporaries to ignore. At very considerable pecuniary loss both to himself and to the ship's company, he carried out a resolution to make no prizes which would entail sending away prize crews, and so weakening his force, and most of the ships captured were therefore burned. But, more than this, he bestowed extraordinary pains on training his men, especially in the exercise of the great guns. While the custom of our service at that time was never to cast the guns loose except for action. Broke instituted a course of systematic training, and every day in the week, except Saturday, the men, either by watches or all together, were exercised at quarters and in firing at a mark, so that in course of time they attained a degree of expertness such as had never before been approached. To this end everything was made subservient ; concentrating marks were made on the decks, and at Broke's own cost sights were fitted to the guns ; but all vain show was neglected, and the Shannon, though clean and healthy, was perhaps a little looked down on by some of her more showy companions. Her excellence in gunnery, however, began to be talked about ; and, much to Broke's annoyance, many ships arriving on the station fresh from England brought out orders to exchange a certain number of men with the Shannon, so that they too might receive the benefit of the new system. In May 1813 the Shannon was cruising off Boston, keeping watch on the American frigate Chesapeake, which had been newly recommissioned by Captain James Lawrence, lately in command of the Hornet when she sank the Peacock. On 1 June, finding his store of water running low, Broke adopted the singular plan of writing formally to Lawrence, requesting him to give him a meeting. He stated in exact detail the Shannon's force, and pledged himself to such measures as would insure the absence of all other English ships, adding, 'or I would sail with you, under a flag of truce, to any place you think safest from our cruisers, hauling it down when fair to begin hostilities.' This letter, however, was never delivered ; for before the vessel by which it was sent reached the harbour the Chesapeake was under way and standing out under a cloud of canvas. Expectation in Boston was at an intense height, and crowds of pleasure-boats and other small craft accompanied the ship in order to witness her triumph over the enemy. As she came on she shortened sail, sent down her upper yards, and so, with a flag at each masthead, rapidly drew near. Broke meanwhile called his men aft on the quarter-deck, and, after the manner of the heroes of old, addressed them in a short and telling speech, commenting on the successes which the Americans with a great superiority of force had obtained, and concluding, 'Don't cheer, go quietly to your quarters. I feel sure you will all do your duty ; remember you have the blood of hundreds of your countrymen to avenge.' 'Mayn't we have three ensigns, sir, like she has?' asked a seaman. 'No,' answered Broke ; 'we've always been an unassuming ship.' As the Chesapeake came down nearly before the wind, the Shannon, which had been waiting for her, filled and gathered steerage way ; the Chesapeake rounded to on her weather-quarter at a distance of about fifty yards, and, as she ranged alongside, received the Shannon's broadside fired with the utmost coolness and deliberation, each gun as it bore. The effect was terrible ; more than one hundred men were laid low, Lawrence himself mortally wounded. The return fire of the Chesapeake was wild in comparison, although, at the very short range, it was sufficiently deadly. But the Shannon's men were well disciplined and trained ; those of the Chesapeake were newly raised, strangers to each other and to their officers. A panic spread amongst them, and after sustaining another broadside as deliberate as the first and as effective, the Chesapeake, having her tiller ropes shot away, drifted foul of the Shannon. Broke, calling out 'Follow me who can !' sprang on board, followed by some fifty or sixty of his men. The struggle was very short. The Americans, bewildered and panic-stricken, were beaten below without much difficulty. Broke was indeed most seriously wounded on the head by a blow from the butt-end of a musket ; but within fifteen minutes from the time of the first gun being fired by the Shannon the American colours on board the Chesapeake were hauled down, and the English colours hoisted in their stead.

The apparently easy capture of the Chesapeake, a ship of the same nominal force but larger, with more men and a heavier armament than the Shannon, created a remarkable sensation both in America and in England. The true significance of the action has been pointed out by a French writer of our own time. 'Captain Broke,' he says, 'had commanded the Shannon for nearly seven years ; Captain Lawrence had commanded the Chesapeake for but a few days. The Shannon had cruised for eighteen months on the coast of America ; the Chesapeake was newly out of harbour. The Shannon had a crew long accustomed to habits of strict obedience ; the Chesapeake was manned by men who had just been engaged in mutiny. The Americans were wrong to accuse fortune on this occasion. Fortune was not fickle, she was merely logical. The Shannon captured the Chesapeake on 1 June 1813 ; but on 14 Sept. 1806, when he took command of his frigate, Captain Broke had begun to prepare the glorious termination to this bloody affair' (De la Gravière, Guerres Maritimes, ii. 272). This it is which constitutes Broke's true title to distinction ; for the easy capture of the Chesapeake, which rendered him famous, was due to his care, forethought, and skill, much more than to that exuberant courage which caught the popular fancy, and which has handed down his name in the song familiar to every schoolboy as 'brave Broke.'

Honours and congratulations were showered upon him. He was made a baronet 25 Sept. 1813, and K.C.B. 3 Jan. 1815 ; but, with the exception of taking the Shannon home in the autumn of 1813, his brilliant exploit was the end of his active service. The terrible wound on the head had left him subject to nervous pains, which were much aggravated by a severe fall from his horse on 8 Aug. 1820, and although not exactly a valetudinarian, his health was far from robust, and his sufferings were at times intense. He became in course of seniority a rear-admiral on 22 July 1830, and died in London, whither he had gone for medical advice, on 2 Jan. 1841. His remains were carried to Broke Hall, and were interred in the parish church of Nacton. He had a numerous family, many members of which died young. The eldest son, who succeeded to the baronetcy, died unmarried in 1855; the fourth son, the present baronet (who has taken from his mother's family the name of Middleton), has no children, and at his death the title will become extinct. Two daughters of a still younger son are the sole representatives in the second generation of the captor of the Chesapeake ; the younger of these is married to Sir Lambton Loraine, bart., captain R.N. ; the other to the Hon. James St. Vincent Saumarez, eldest son of Lord de Saumarez, and grandson of the first lord, Nelson's companion in arms. Both have issue.

[Brighton's Memoir of Admiral Sir P. B. V. Broke, Bart., K.C.B., compiled 'chiefly from Journals and Letters in the possession of Rear-admiral Sir George Broke-Middleton, C.B. ;' notes contributed by Sir George Broke-Middleton ; Roosevelt's Naval War of 1812.]

J. K. L.