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Popham, Home Riggs (DNB00)

POPHAM, Sir HOME RIGGS (1762–1820), rear-admiral, born on 12 Oct. 1762 at Tetuan, where his father, Stephen Popham, was consul, was the twenty-first child of his mother, who died in giving him birth. He was educated at Westminster, and, for a year, at Cambridge. In February 1778 he entered the navy on board the Hyæna, with Captain Edward Thompson [q. v.], attached to the Channel fleet in 1779, with Rodney in the action off Cape St. Vincent on 16 Jan. 1780, and afterwards in the West Indies. In April 1781 he was tranferred to the Sheilah-nagig (Sile na guig = Irish female sprite). On 16 June 1783 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant, and was employed in the survey of the coast of Kaffraria. In March 1787 he obtained leave from the admiralty, and went to Ostend, whence he sailed for India in command of a merchant ship under the imperial flag. At Calcutta he was favourably received by Lord Cornwallis, at whose request he made a survey of New Harbour in the Hooghley, with a view to the establishment of a dockyard. Having returned to Ostend, he made a second voyage in 1790, with a cargo belonging wholly or in great part to an English house at Ostend. At Calcutta he undertook to carry a cargo of rice to the Malabar coast for the use of the company's army, but was driven to the eastward by the strength of the monsoon, and forced to bear up for Pulo Penang. There, while the ship was refitting, he made an exact survey of the island, and discovered a new channel to the southward, through which, in the spring of 1792, he piloted the company's fleet to China. For this piece of work he was presented with a gold cup by the governor-general in council, who also wrote very strongly in his favour to the court of directors, requesting them to represent Popham's services to the admiralty ‘in the terms they merit.’ He was at this time on terms of intimacy with the deputy-governor and several members of the council; and with their knowledge in December 1791 he purchased and fitted out, at a cost of about 20,000l., an American ship, the President Washington, whose name he changed to Etrusco. In her he went to China, took on board a cargo to the value of near 50,000l., the joint property of himself and two merchants, apparently French, the freight of which, to the amount of 40,000l., was entirely his own. On arriving at Ostend in July 1793 the Etrusco was seized by the English frigate Brilliant, brought into the Thames, claimed as a prize for having French property on board, and condemned as a droit of admiralty, apparently for illegal trading in contravention of the charter of the English East India Company. Popham's contention was virtually that he had rendered important services to the company, and that his voyage was sanctioned by the governor-general in council. The case was the subject of prolonged litigation. It was not till 1805 that Popham received a grant of 25,000l. as a compensation for the loss of about 70,000l., the value of his stake in the Etrusco, not including the heavy costs of the lawsuit (Parl. Papers, 1808, vol. x.; Parl. Hist. 11 Feb. 1808; Nav. Chron. xix. 151, 312, 406; Edin. Rev. May 1820, pp. 482–3).

Meantime, and immediately on his return to England in 1793, Popham, under the immediate orders of Captain Thompson, was attached to the army in Flanders under the Duke of York, who on 27 July 1794 forwarded to the admiralty a strong commendation of the conduct and services of Popham as superintendent of the inland navigation. ‘His unremitting zeal and active talents have been successfully exerted in saving much public property on the leaving of Tournay, Ghent, and Antwerp.’ He therefore requested that Popham might ‘be promoted in the line of his profession, and still be continued in his present employment, where his service is essentially necessary’ (Nav. Chron. xix. 407). The recommendation was not attended to till after a second letter from his royal highness, when the commission as commander was dated 26 Nov. 1794. When the campaign was ended the duke wrote again, on 19 March 1795, and this time personally to the first lord of the admiralty, commending Popham's exertions, and concluding with a request that he might ‘be promoted to the rank of post captain.’ This was accordingly done on 4 April 1795.

In the years immediately following Popham drew up a plan for the establishment and organisation of the sea-fencibles, and in 1798 he was appointed to command the district from Deal to Beachy Head. In May he had command of the naval part of the expedition to Ostend to destroy the sluices of the Bruges Canal [see Coote, Sir Eyre, (1762–1824?)], and in 1799 was sent to Cronstadt in the Nile lugger to make arrangements for the embarkation of a body of Russian troops for service in Holland. The emperor, with the empress and court, visited him on board the lugger, presented him with a gold snuff-box set with diamonds, and constituted him a knight of Malta, an honour which was afterwards sanctioned by his own sovereign. The empress, too, gave him a diamond ring. After inspecting several of the Russian ports and making the necessary arrangements, Popham returned to England. In the following winter he had command of a small squadron of gunboats on the Alkmaar Canal, and was able to render efficient support to the army in its first encounter with the enemy. The expedition, however, ended in disaster, and the troops returned ingloriously. Popham's services were rewarded with a pension of 500l. a year.

In 1800 he was appointed to the Romney of 50 guns, in command of a small squadron ordered to convoy troops from the Cape of Good Hope and from India up the Red Sea, to co-operate with the army in Egypt under Sir Ralph Abercromby, and to conclude a commercial treaty with the Arabs in the neighbourhood of Jeddah. When this had been done he went to Calcutta, and, while the Romney was refitting, was up country in attendance on the governor-general, the Marquis Wellesley. He afterwards joined the commander-in-chief, Vice-admiral Rainier, at Penang, was sent to Madras, and again into the Red Sea. At Suez he had charge of the embarkation of the troops for India; at Jeddah he brought the negotiations with the Arabs to a satisfactory end; and sailed for England, where he arrived early in 1803. There had been already some objections made to the expenditure on the repairs of the Romney at Calcutta; and though the bills drawn by Popham had been paid, the amount was charged as an imprest against him. A strict investigation was now ordered, and on 20 Feb. 1804 the navy board reported, with many details, that the expenditure had been ‘enormous and extraordinary.’ The admiralty handed the papers over to the commissioners of naval inquiry, saying that they had neither power nor time to investigate an expenditure which ‘appeared to have been of the most enormous and profligate nature.’

It was not till 13 Sept. 1804 that Popham could obtain a copy of the report, and then without the papers on which it was based. In the following February they were laid on the table of the House of Commons. As early as August 1803 Popham had had printed, and circulated privately, ‘A Concise Statement of Facts relative to the Treatment experienced by Sir Home Popham since his return from the Red Sea.’ This was now published, and appeared to show that further investigation was necessary. On 7 May 1805 the House of Commons appointed a select committee to examine into the business; but the navy board had already been desired to reconsider their report, and had been obliged to admit that it was inaccurate. Their revised report, dated 1 April 1805, showed that evidence had been taken irregularly and improperly; the testimony of commissioned officers had been refused; Popham himself had not been heard. Sums of money had been counted twice over, and the whole expenditure had been exaggerated from a little over 7,000l. to something more than ten times that amount. The commissioners of the navy feebly explained that they had placed implicit reliance on the accuracy and industry of Benjamin Tucker [q. v.], and that their confidence had been misplaced. The select committee of the House of Commons reported in a sense equally conclusive; and Popham's innocence of a charge which should never have been made was established. Lord St. Vincent appears to have had a strong prejudice against Popham, and it is not improbable that Tucker believed that Popham's ruin would not be displeasing to his patron, who had no personal knowledge of the matter.

In the summer of 1804, while the charges were still pending, the lords of the admiralty had appointed Popham to the 50-gun ship Antelope, one of the squadron on the Downs station, under the command of Lord Keith. In December they moved him to the Diadem of 64 guns in the Channel, and, after the report of the select committee had been delivered, directed him to hoist a broad pennant as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition against the Cape of Good Hope, in co-operation with a land force under Sir David Baird [q. v.] On 4 Jan. 1806 the squadron, with the transports, anchored near Robben Island; but the landing was not completed till the morning of the 7th, and after a feeble resistance Cape Town and the whole colony surrendered on the 10th. In April Popham was informed by the master of an American merchantship that the inhabitants of Monte Video and Buenos Ayres were groaning under the tyranny of their government, and would welcome a British force as liberators. In consultation with Baird he resolved to take advantage of what seemed a favourable opportunity of gaining possession of these places, and with some twelve hundred soldiers, under the command of Brigadier-general William Carr Beresford (afterwards Viscount Beresford) [q. v.], sailed from Table Bay a few days afterwards. In the middle of June the expedition arrived in the Rio de la Plata; on the 25th the troops, which, including a marine battalion, numbered about sixteen hundred men, were landed near Buenos Ayres. The resistance of the Spanish troops was merely nominal, the governor fled to Cordova, and on 2 July the town surrendered and was taken possession of by Beresford. A few days later, however, the inhabitants, who had discovered the smallness of the English force, rose in their thousands and overwhelmed Beresford, who, with the garrison of about thirteen hundred men, became prisoners. Popham could do nothing beyond blockading the river, till the arrival of reinforcements in October permitted him to take the offensive and to occupy the harbour of Maldonado. On 5 Jan. 1807 he was superseded by Rear-admiral Charles Stirling, and ordered to return to England, where, on his arrival in the middle of February, he was put under arrest preparatory to being tried by court-martial on a charge of having withdrawn the squadron from the Cape of Good Hope without orders, thereby exposing the colony to great danger. On this charge he was tried at Portsmouth on 6 March and following days. He argued with much ability that, the work at Cape Town having been accomplished and the safety of the town assured, it was his duty to seize any opportunity of distressing the enemy. But he was unable to convince the court, and was accordingly ‘severely reprimanded.’ The judgment was strictly in accordance with established usage.

The city of London, on the other hand, considering Popham's action as a gallant attempt to open out new markets, presented him with a sword of honour (Nav. Chron. xix. 33). But even in the navy the reprimand had no serious consequences. In the following July, notwithstanding a remonstrance from Sir Samuel Hood [q. v.], Sir Richard Goodwin Keats [q. v.], and Robert Stopford [q. v.] (ib. pp. 68–71), Popham was appointed captain of the fleet with Admiral James Gambier (afterwards Lord Gambier) [q. v.], in the expedition against Copenhagen, and—in conjunction with Sir Arthur Wellesley, afterwards duke of Wellington, and Lieutenant-colonel George Murray—was a commissioner for settling the terms of the capitulation by which all the Danish ships of war were surrendered. In 1809 he commanded the Venerable of 74 guns in the expedition to the Scheldt under Sir Richard John Strachan [q. v.], and by his local knowledge rendered efficient service in piloting the fleet. Still in the Venerable in 1812, he had command of a small squadron on the north coast of Spain, co-operating with the guerillas. On 4 June 1814 he was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, and on the reconstitution of the order of the Bath, in 1815, was nominated a K.C.B. From 1817 to 1820 he was commander-in-chief on the Jamaica station, and, returning to England in broken health in July, died at Cheltenham on 10 Sept. 1820. He married, in 1788, Betty, daughter of Captain Prince of the East India Company's military service, and by her had a large family.

Popham's services were distinguished, but, being for the most part ancillary to military operations, they did not win for him much popular recognition. He was well versed in the more scientific branches of his profession, and was known as an excellent surveyor and astronomical observer. When in the Red Sea, in the Romney, he determined many longitudes by chronometer (Nav. Chron. x. 202), a method at that time but rarely employed. He was also the inventor, or rather the adapter, of a code of signals which was adopted by the admiralty in 1803, and continued in use for many years. He was elected F.R.S. in 1799, but contributed nothing to the Society's ‘Transactions.’

An anonymous portait, which has been engraved, is in the National Portrait Gallery.

[Sir Home Popham: a memoir privately printed in 1807, ending with the court-martial; in the account of public matters it is very inaccurate. The Memoir (with a portrait) in the Naval Chronicle, xvi. 265, 353, is based on this, adding a few more errors. Gent. Mag. 1820, ii. 274; Parliamentary Papers, 1805 vols. iv. and x., 1816 xviii. 115; Minutes of the Court-martial (printed 1807, 8vo); James's Naval History; Navy Lists; information from the family. Several pamphlets relating to the repairs of the Romney were published in 1805, among which, in addition to Popham's own ‘Concise Statement of Facts’ already referred to, may be mentioned ‘Observations on a Pamphlet which has been privately circulated, said to be “A Concise Statement of Facts …,” to which is added a copy of the Report made by the Navy Board to the Admiralty …,’ anonymous, but admitted to be by Benjamin Tucker; ‘A few brief remarks on a pamphlet published by some Indidividuals supposed to be connected with the late Board of Admiralty, entitled “Observations, &c.” (as above), in which the calumnies of those writers are examined and exposed,’ by ‘Æschines,’ who disclaims any personal acquaintance with Popham, but is overflowing with venom against Tucker and St. Vincent; and ‘Chronological arrangement of the accounts and papers printed by Order of the House of Commons in February, March, and April 1805, respecting the repairs of the Romney … with their material contents and some few cursory remarks in elucidation.’ The complete vindication of Popham is, however, to be sought rather in the Parliamentary Papers already referred to.]

J. K. L.