Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Duckworth, John Thomas

DUCKWORTH, Sir JOHN THOMAS (1748–1817), admiral, descended from a family long settled in Lancashire, son of the Rev. Henry Duckworth, afterwards vicar of Stoke Poges, and canon of Windsor, was born at Leatherhead in Surrey (of which place his father was curate) on 28 Feb. 1747–8. As a mere child he was sent to Eton, but left at the age of eleven, and entered the navy, under the care of Admiral Boscawen, on board the Namur, in which he had a young volunteer's share in the destruction of M. de la Clue's squadron in Lagos Bay. On Boscawen's leaving the Namur she joined the fleet under Sir Edward Hawke, and took part in the battle of Quiberon Bay. After being an acting-lieutenant for some months, Duckworth was confirmed in the rank on 14 Nov. 1771. He afterwards served for three years in the Kent, guardship at Plymouth, with Captain Feilding, whom he followed to the Diamond frigate early in 1776 as first lieutenant. The Diamond was sent to North America; and at Rhode Island, shortly after her arrival, on 18 Jan. 1777, in firing a salute, a shot which had been carelessly left in one of the guns struck a transport, on board which it killed five men. A court-martial was ordered and immediately held to try ‘the first lieutenant, gunner, gunner's mates, and gunner's crew’ for neglect of duty. They were all acquitted, but on the minutes being submitted to Lord Howe, the commander-in-chief, he at once pointed out the gross irregularity of trying and acquitting a number of men who were not once named; and of omitting from the charge the very important clause ‘for causing the death of five men.’ He therefore ordered a new court to be assembled ‘to try by name the several persons described for the capital offence, added to the charge of neglect of duty.’ The captains summoned to sit on this second court-martial declined to do so, ‘because the persons charged had been already tried and honourably acquitted,’ on which Howe again wrote to the commodore at Rhode Island, repeating the order, and now naming the several persons; and with a further order that, in case the refusal to constitute a court-martial was persisted in, he should cause ‘every captain refusing to perform his required duty in that respect to be forthwith suspended from his command’ (Howe to Sir Peter Parker, 17 and 20 April 1777). To this order a nominal obedience was yielded; the court was constituted, but the proceedings were merely formal; the minutes of the former trial were read and ‘maturely considered;’ and the court pronounced that these men ‘having been acquitted of neglect of duty, are in consequence thereof acquitted of murder or any other crime or crimes alleged against them’ (Minutes of the Court-martial). The Diamond afterwards joined Admiral Byron's flag in the West Indies, and in March 1779 Duckworth was transferred to Byron's own ship, the Princess Royal, in which he was present in the action off Grenada on 6 July [see Byron, John 1723–1786]. Ten days later he was promoted to be commander of the Rover, and on 16 June 1780 was posted into the Terrible, from which he was moved back to the Princess Royal as flag-captain to Rear-admiral Rowley, with whom he went to Jamaica. In February 1781 he was moved into the Bristol, and returned to England with the trade (Beatson, vi. 229, 268).

On the outbreak of the war with France in 1793, Duckworth was appointed to the Orion of 74 guns, which formed part of the Channel fleet under Lord Howe, and in the action off Ushant on 1 June 1794, when Duckworth was one of the comparatively few [see Caldwell, Sir Benjamin; Collingwood, Cuthbert, Lord] whose merits Howe felt called on to mention officially, and who, consequently, received the gold medal. Early in the following year he was transferred to the Leviathan of 74 guns, in which he joined the flag of Rear-admiral Parker in the West Indies, where, in August 1796, he was ordered to wear a broad pennant. He returned to England in 1797, and during that and in the early part of the following year, still in the Leviathan, commanded on the coast of Ireland. He was then sent out to join Lord St. Vincent in the Mediterranean, and was shortly afterwards detached in command of the squadron appointed to convoy the troops to Minorca, and to cover the operations in that island (7–15 Nov. 1798), which capitulated on the eighth day. The general in command of the land forces was made a K.B., and Duckworth conceived that he was entitled to a baronetcy, a pretension on which Lord St. Vincent, in representing the matter to Lord Spencer, threw a sufficiency of cold water (Brenton, Nav. Hist. ii. 348; James, Nav. Hist. (edit. 1860), ii. 222).

On 14 Feb. 1799 Duckworth was promoted to be rear-admiral of the white; and after remaining some months as senior officer at Port Mahon, he joined Lord St. Vincent (22 May) in his unsuccessful pursuit of the French fleet under Admiral Bruix. In June he was again detached to reinforce Lord Nelson at Naples, and in August was back at Minorca. He was next ordered to take command of the blockading squadron off Cadiz; and there, on 5 April 1800, he fell in with a large and rich Spanish convoy, nearly the whole of which was captured. Duckworth's share of the prize-money is said, though possibly with some exaggeration, to have amounted to 75,000l. In the June following he went out to the West Indies as commander-in-chief on the Leeward Islands station; and in March and April 1801, during the short period of hostilities against the northern powers, he took possession of St. Bartholomew, St. Thomas, and the other islands belonging to Sweden or Denmark. They were all restored on the dissolution of ‘the armed neutrality;’ but Duckworth, in recognition of his prompt service, was made a K.B. 6 June 1801. In the end of the year he returned to England; but, on the renewal of the war in 1803, was sent out as commander-in-chief at Jamaica, in which capacity he directed the operations which led to the surrender of General Rochambeau and the French army in San Domingo. He was promoted to be a vice-admiral on 23 April 1804; and in April 1805 he returned to England in the Acasta frigate. Immediately after his arrival, on 25 April, he was tried by court-martial on charges preferred by Captain Wood, who had been superseded from the command of the Acasta, in what he alleged to be an oppressive manner, in order that, under a captain of Duckworth's own choosing, the frigate might be turned into a merchant ship. It was charged and proved and admitted that an immense quantity of merchandise was brought home in the ship; and that this was in direct contravention of one of the articles of war, was established by the opinion of several of the leading counsellors of the day; but the court-martial, accepting Duckworth's declaration that the articles brought home were for presents, not for sale, pronounced the charges ‘gross, scandalous, malicious, shameful, and highly subversive of the discipline and good government of his majesty's service,’ and ‘fully and honourably acquitted’ him of all and every part. This sentence, so contrary to the letter and strict meaning of the law, was brought before parliament by Captain Wood's brother on 7 June; but his motion, ‘that there be laid upon the table of this house the proceedings of a late naval court-martial … also a return from the customs and excise of all articles loaded on board the Acasta that had been entered and paid duty,’ was negatived without a division; the house apparently considering that Duckworth's character and the custom of the service might be held as excusing, if they did not sanction, the irregularities which he had certainly committed (Parl. Debates, 7 June 1805, vol. v. col. 193; Ralfe, Naval Chronology, i. 107).

In the September following Duckworth, with his flag in the Superb, was ordered to join the fleet before Cadiz, which he did on 15 Nov. He was then left in charge of the blockade; but on 30 Nov., having received intelligence that the French squadron, which had escaped from Rochefort, was cruising in the neighbourhood of Madeira, he hastily sent off a despatch to Collingwood, and sailed in hopes to intercept it. The enemy had, however, quitted that station before his arrival, and after looking for it as far south as the Cape Verd Islands, he was returning to Cadiz, when, on the morning of Christmas day, he sighted another French squadron of six sail of the line and a frigate, a force nominally equal to that under his command. He chased this for thirty hours; when, finding three of his ships quite out of sight, one hull down, and the other about five miles astern, the Superb being herself still seven miles from the enemy, he gave over the chase. For so doing he has been much blamed (James, iv. 92), on the ground, apparently, that the Superb might and could have held the whole French squadron at bay till her consorts came up. But as after thirty hours' chase the Superb was still seven miles astern, it must have been many hours more before she could have overtaken the enemy; nor is there any precedent to warrant the supposition that one English 74-gun ship could have contended on equal terms with six French.

Being in want of water, Duckworth now determined to run for the Leeward Islands, despatching the Powerful to the East Indies to reinforce the squadron there, in case the ships which had escaped him should be bound thither. At St. Christophers, on 21 Jan. 1806, he was joined by Rear-admiral Cochrane [see Cochrane, Sir Alexander Forrester Inglis] in the Northumberland, with the Atlas, both of 74 guns, and on 1 Feb. had intelligence of a French squadron on the coast of San Domingo. He naturally supposed this to be the squadron which he had chased on Christmas day, and immediately put to sea, with a force of seven sail of the line, two frigates, and two sloops. On 6 Feb. he sighted the French squadron abreast of the city of San Domingo. It was that which he had vainly looked for at Madeira, and consisted of five sail of the line—one of 120 guns—and three frigates, under the command of Vice-admiral Leissègues. On seeing the English squadron the French slipped their cables and made sail to the westward, forming line of battle, with the frigates in shore. In the engagement that ensued Duckworth won a complete victory, three of the enemy's ships being captured, the other two driven ashore and burnt; the frigates only made good their escape, the English frigates being occupied in taking possession of the prizes. Some English writers have blamed Duckworth for not having also secured the frigates (James, iv. 103). But in fact, the average force of the French ships was much greater than that of the English; and the best French writers, attributing their defeat principally to the wretched state of their gunnery practice, lay no stress on the alleged inferiority of force (Chevalier, Histoire de la Marine Française sous le Consulat et l'Empire, p. 255). Duckworth's force was no doubt superior both in the number of guns and in the skill with which they were worked, and he cleverly enough utilised it to achieve one of the completest victories on record. This the admiralty acknowledged by the distribution of gold medals to the flag-officers and captains, by conferring a baronetcy on Louis, the second in command, and by making Cochrane, the third in command, a K.B. A pension of 1,000l. was settled on Duckworth; the corporation of London gave him the freedom of the city and a sword of honour; and from other bodies he received valuable presents; but notwithstanding these tangible rewards, Duckworth felt that the conferring honours on his subordinates, but not on him, was a slur on his reputation, and he almost openly expressed his discontent. Duckworth had meantime rejoined Collingwood in the Mediterranean, and on the misunderstanding with the Ottoman Porte in 1807 was sent with a squadron of seven ships of the line and smaller vessels to dictate conditions under the walls of Constantinople. His orders, written at a distance, and in ignorance of the real state of things, proved perplexing. He was instructed to provide for the ambassador's safety, but the ambassador was already at Tenedos when he arrived there. He was instructed to anchor under the walls of Constantinople; but it was found that the Turks, with the assistance of French engineers, had so strengthened and added to the fortifications of the Dardanelles as to make the passage one of very great difficulty. His orders, however, seemed imperative, and he determined to proceed as soon as a leading wind rendered it possible. On 19 Feb. 1807, with a fine southerly breeze he ran through the strait, sustaining the fire of the batteries, silencing the castles of Sestos and Abydos, and destroying a squadron of Turkish frigates at anchor inside of them. On the evening of the 20th the ships anchored about eight miles from Constantinople, a head wind and lee current not permitting them to approach nearer. The Turks, advised by the French, quite understood that the squadron was, for the time, powerless. The negotiation which Duckworth opened proved inoperative; the Turks would concede nothing, and devoted themselves to still further strengthening the batteries in the Dardanelles. After a few days, understanding the peril of his situation, Duckworth decided that a timely retreat could alone save him; and accordingly, on 3 March, he again ran through the strait, receiving as he passed a heavy fire from the forts and castles, some of which mounted guns of an extreme size, throwing stone shot of twenty-six inches in diameter [see Capel, Sir Thomas Bladen]. Duckworth had many enemies, and they did not lose the opportunity of criticising his conduct in a very hostile spirit. He had not obtained a treaty, and he had not approached within eight miles of Constantinople. James, who throughout writes of Duckworth in a spirit of bitter antagonism, pronounces him to have been wanting in ‘ability and firmness’ (iv. 230), though he admits also that he was much hampered by his instructions, and by ‘a tissue of contingencies and nicely drawn distinctions … by a string of ifs and buts, puzzling to the understanding and misleading to the judgment.’ This perhaps errs on the other side; for, though the instructions were no doubt puzzling and contradictory, the chief difficulty arose out of their ordering a line of action which local circumstances rendered impossible. Had Duckworth been able to anchor his ships abreast of Constantinople, within two hundred yards of the city walls, his demands would have carried the expected weight; at the distance of eight miles they were simply laughed at. It has been said commonly enough that Duckworth ought to have demanded a court-martial on his conduct; it would almost seem that he did meditate doing so, and took Collingwood's opinion on the matter. At any rate, Collingwood, writing to the Duke of Northumberland a few months later, said: ‘I have much uneasiness on Sir John Duckworth's account, who is an able and zealous officer: that all was not performed that was expected is only to be attributed to difficulties which could not be surmounted; and if they baffled his skill, I do not know where to look for the officer to whom they would have yielded’ (Ralfe, ii. 299).

During 1808–9 Duckworth continued actively employed in the Channel and on the coast of France; on one occasion, in 1808, chasing an imaginary French squadron round the North Atlantic, to Lisbon, Madeira, the West Indies, and the Chesapeake. From 1810 to 1813 he was governor and commander-in-chief at Newfoundland, where he is said to have earned the good opinion of the inhabitants both in his naval and his civil capacity. On his return to England he was created a baronet, 2 Nov. 1813; he had become admiral on 31 July 1810, and from 1812 to death he was M.P. for Romsey. In Jan. 1817 he was appointed commander-in-chief at Plymouth, but died within a few months, on 31 Aug. He was twice married: first, to Anne, daughter of Mr. John Wallis of Trenton in Cornwall, by whom he had one son, slain at Albuera, and a daughter, who married Rear-admiral Sir Richard King; and secondly, to Susannah Catherine, daughter of Dr. William Buller, bishop of Exeter, by whom he had two sons. Of all the men who have attained distinction in the English navy, there is none whose character has been more discussed and more confusedly described. We are told that he was brave among the brave, but shy if not timid in action; daring and skilful in his conceptions, but wanting in that spirit and vigour which should actuate an English naval officer; frank and liberal in his disposition, but mean, selfish, and sensual; one of the most distinguished and worthy characters in the profession, but incapable of giving vent to one generous sentiment. The contradictions are excessive; and though, at this distance of time, it is impossible to decide with any certainty, we may believe that he was a good, energetic, and skilful officer, and that, as a man, his character would have stood higher had he been much better or much worse; had he had the sweetness of temper which everybody loves, or the crabbedness of will which everybody fears.

[Naval Chronicle, xviii. 1, with a portrait; Ralfe's Naval Biography, ii. 283; Gent. Mag. (1817), vol. lxxxvii. pt. ii. pp. 275, 372; Foster's Baronetage.]

J. K. L.