Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Key, Astley Cooper

KEY, Sir ASTLEY COOPER (1821–1888), admiral, son of Charles Aston Key [q. v.], entered the navy in 1833, passed his examination in 1840, and on 22 Dec. 1842 was awarded the lieutenant's commission, at that time competed for in a special course of study, on board the Excellent gunnery-ship and at the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth. In February 1843 he joined the Curaçoa going out to the east coast of South America, where, in February 1844, he was transferred to the Gorgon, with Captain Charles Hotham [q. v.] On 10 May the Gorgon, then at anchor off Monte Video, parted her cables in a violent gale, and was driven on shore, far above high-water mark. When the sea returned to its usual level, the ship was dry to within a few feet of her stern-post, and imbedded in the sand to a depth of thirteen feet. Key was only the junior lieutenant, but his scientific training enabled him to take a prominent share in the work of getting her afloat, and at once marked him as a rising man. He was appointed to command the Fanny tender, and after the action at Obligado (20 Nov. 1845), in which he was slightly wounded, he was promoted to the rank of commander, his commission being antedated to 18 Nov. From 1847 to 1850 he commanded the Bulldog steamer in the Mediterranean, and on 11 Oct. 1850 was advanced to post-rank. During the Russian war of 1854–5 he commanded the Amphion frigate in the Baltic, took part in the reduction of Bomarsund and in the bombardment of Sveaborg, and was repeatedly engaged with the enemy's batteries, especially in the gulf of Viborg. On 5 July 1855 he was nominated a C.B. In 1857 he went out to China in command of the screw line-of-battle ship Sanspareil, in which he was at once sent with a detachment of marines to Calcutta; and, bringing them back when the urgent need had passed, he commanded a battalion of the naval brigade at the capture of Canton (28–9 Dec. 1857), and a few days later with his own hands seized Yeh, the Chinese governor, as he was seeking to escape in the disguise of a coolie (Oliphant, Narrative of the Earl of Elgin's Mission to China, i. 141) [see Seymour, Sir Michael, 1802–1887].

From 1858 to 1860 Key was a member of the royal commission on national defence; in 1860 he was appointed captain of the steam reserve at Devonport, and in 1863 captain of the Excellent and superintendent of the Royal Naval College. On 20 Nov. 1866 he was promoted to be rear-admiral; he had already been consulted by the admiralty about the organisation of the new department of naval ordnance, and was now appointed to the office of director, which he held till the summer of 1869, when he accepted the post of superintendent of Portsmouth dockyard, from which he was shortly afterwards moved to Malta, at once as superintendent of the dockyard and second in command in the Mediterranean. In 1872, when it was determined to establish the Royal Naval College at Greenwich on a much enlarged plan, Key was called home for the purpose of organising it. The whole scheme was drawn out by him, and the college, with Key as president, was opened in February 1873. On 30 April 1873 he was advanced to be vice-admiral, and on 24 May was nominated a K.C.B. He continued at Greenwich till the beginning of 1876, when he was appointed commander-in-chief on the North American and West Indian station. On attaining the rank of admiral, 21 March 1878, he returned to England, and for a couple of months in the summer had command of an evolutionary squadron in the Channel. In June 1879 he was appointed principal naval aide-de-camp to the queen, and in August first naval lord of the admiralty, in which post he remained till the change of ministry in the summer of 1885, when he was granted a special pension of 500l. a year, in addition to his half-pay. The G.C.B. was conferred on him on 24 Nov. 1882, and on 11 Aug. 1884 he was appointed a member of the privy council. He was also F.R.S., F.R.G.S., and D.C.L.; and was author of ‘A Narrative of the Recovery of H.M.S. Gorgon, stranded in the Bay of Monte Video, 10 May 1844,’ 8vo, 1847. After his retirement he resided at Maidenhead, and there he died on 3 March 1888. He was twice married, and left issue. A portrait, presented by the subscribers in 1876, is in the library of the Royal Naval College.

[O'Byrne's Naval Biog. Dict.; obituary notices in Times, 5, 7, and 8 March, and Morning Post, 5 March 1888; information from the family; personal knowledge. The official correspondence in July 1885 relating to the special pension was published as a parliamentary paper.]

J. K. L.