Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Downman, Hugh

[Post-Captain of 1798.]

This officer is descended from a respectable family in Devonshire, of which his father was a younger branch. His first cousin is a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Royal Artillery.

He was born near Plymouth, about the year 1765; and entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Thetis frigate, in Oct. 1776. He afterwards joined the Arethusa, and in that ship had the misfortune to be wrecked near Ushant, while in pursuit of an enemy.

Mr. Downman remained a prisoner in France from March 1779 till January 1780, when he was exchanged; and from that period we find him serving in the Emerald, commanded by Captain Samuel Marshall, until May 1782, when he removed into the Edgar 74, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Hotham, with whom he proceeded to the relief of Gibraltar, in company with the grand fleet, under the orders of Lord Howe. In the partial, and on the enemy’s side cautious encounter, which took place after the performance of this service, the Edgar had 6 men wounded[1].

From this period we lose sight of Mr. Downman till Feb. 1789, when he sailed for the East Indies with Commodore Cornwallis, by whom he was made a Lieutenant, on the 5th Mar. 1790. At the commencement of the French revolutionary war he was appointed to the Alcide 74, in which ship he assisted at the attack made upon the tower and redoubt of Fornelli in Sept. 1793[2].

On the 11th April, 1794, Commodore Linzee was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral; and when, in consequence of his promotion, he hoisted his flag on board the Windsor Castle of 98 guns, Mr. Downman went with him into that ship, as second Lieutenant. He returned to England with Lord Hood in the Victory, a first rate, at the latter end of the same year.

In the ensuing spring, that distinguished nobleman, as we have stated in our memoir of Admiral Sir John Knight[3], had prepared to resume his command in the Mediterranean, when most unexpectedly, on the 2d May, he was ordered to strike his flag. The Victory, however, immediately proceeded to that station, as a private ship, and in December following received the flag of Sir John Jervis, under whom Lieutenant Downman served in the battle off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14, 1797[4]; a few months after which he was promoted to the rank of Commander in the Speedy brig of 14 four-pounders and 80 men.

During the time Captain Downman commanded the Speedy, he took and destroyed several of the enemy’s privateers, and fought a very gallant action with a vessel of far superior force. The following is a copy of his official letter, addressed to Earl St. Vincent, on this occasion:

Speedy, Tagus, Feb. 16, 1798.

“My Lord.– I have the honor to acquaint you, that on the 3rd instant, at day-light, being seventeen leagues west of Vigo, we discovered a brig bearing down on us with all sail set. At three P.M. being within half a mile of us, she hauled her wind, and opened her fire; on which we made all sail to close, engaging her until half past five, when she tacked and made sail from us. I immediately tacked, continuing to engage till half-past seven, when, from her advantage of sailing, and little wind, she got out of gun-shot. Owing to the great swell, we received little damage, having only our fore-topmast shot through, with some of the running rigging cut. It falling calm, and the vesseb separating, against all our efforts with the sweeps, I had the mortification, about twelve o’clock, to see her fire several guns at our prize that we had taken the day before. Owing to the good conduct of the master, 12 men who were on board the prize battened down 26 Spaniards, and made their escape in a small boat. At day-light a breeze of wind sprung up, which enabled us to fetch her. At eight o’clock, she being within gun-shot, tacked, and made all sail from us, rowing with her sweeps at the same time. We chased her until noon, when they, finding she had the heels of us, shortened sail, wore, and stood towards us, with a red flag flying at the main-top-gallant-mast head. At half-past twelve, being within pistol-shot, we began to engage her, with the wind upon the larboard quarter. At two, observing her fire to slacken, I thought it a good opportunity to lay her on board; but at that instant she wore, and came to the wind on the starboard tack: finding us close upon her starboard quarter, and from our braces and bow-lines being shot away, our yards becoming square, she took the opportunity to put before the wind, and made all sail from us. We immediately wore after her, firing musketry at each other for 20 minutes, and so soon as the lower-masts were secured, set our studding-sails, and continued the chase until seven P.M. when we lost sight from her superior sailing. I then hauled our wind, and made short tacks all night to fall in with our prize; at day-light saw her to windward; at ten P.M. retook her, with 10 Frenchmen on board. I learn from the prizemaster, the brig is called the Papillon, 360 tons burthen, pierced for 18 guns, mounting 14, four 12 and ten 9 pounders, manned with 160 men. We had 5 men killed and 4 badly wounded. I have to regret the loss of Lieutenant Button, and Mr. Johnson, Boatswain, amongst the killed. I beg leave to recommend to your Lordship’s notice Mr. Marshall, Master, for his good conduct during the action. Every praise is due to the ship’s company for their good behaviour. As all our lower-masts, bowsprit, main-boom, both topmasts, and most of the yards were shot through, with all the standing and running rigging cut, I thought proper to put into Lisbon to repair our damage.

“I have the honor to be, &c.
Hugh Downman.”

The credit which our officer acquired on this and other occasions was such, that he received the thanks of the British Factory at Oporto, accompanied by a piece of plate, value 50l. as an acknowledgment of his services, and a token of their gratitude. In the course of the same year, we find him commanding the Santa Dorothea frigate. His post-commission bears date Dec. 26, 1798.

Amongst the captures made by Captain Downman while commanding the Santa Dorothea, we find the San Leon, a Spanish brig of 16 long six-pounders and 88 men[5]; a brig laden with wheat, and the Santa Anna of 10 guns: the two latter were cut out from under the batteries of Bordiguera and Hospitallier.

In the spring of 1800, Captain Downman was entrusted by Lord Keith with the blockade of Savona, a fortress situated about seven leagues from Genoa, which city was at that time besieged by the British and Austrian forces[6]. During 41 nights the boats of the Santa Dorothea and the vessels under her orders[7] rowed guard, with a perseverance highly creditable to their officers and men; and at length, by their vigilance and activity in cutting off all supplies, obliged the garrison, consisting of 800 troops, to capitulate. The terms proposed having been submitted to and approved of by the commander-m-chief, were signed by Captain Downman, in conjunction with the Austrian Major-General Count de St. Julian.

Notwithstanding the exertions of the allied forces, the French were destined to be successful; and, in consequence of the fatal battle of Marengo, the whole of Tuscany and Genoa again fell under their dominion. After the surrender of the latter city to the enemy, Captain Downman was sent to destroy the fortifications in the Gulf of Spezzia; a service which he executed in the most satisfactory manner. He also preserved the valuable Gallery of Florence from falling into the hands of the French, by receiving it on board the Santa Dorothea, and conveying it in safety to Sicily. On his arrival at Palermo he received a letter, of which the following is a correct translation, from one of the Grand Duke’s confidential servants, dated Nov. 18, 1800.

“I beg of you, Captain Downman, to accept 100 zechins, to distribute among your seamen, as a trifling acknowledgment of the trouble which my equipage occasioned them. In regard to yourself, it has already been my care to take advantage of an extraordinary courier sent by the Imperial Ambassador to Vienna, to inform my Sovereign of the important service you have rendered to him and to Tuscany, by placing the most valuable possessions of his royal gallery in safety: and I feel assured that H.R.H. will publicly testify his thanks. On my own account, I owe you much more. You have preserved relicks which have formed, and will continue to form, much of my happiness; and you also entertained me while on board, with unexampled politeness and urbanity. For the present, be assured of my lively and sincere acknowledgments. In more happy times, I may recompence the obligation at Florence, where, in appreciating the works of art which you have preserved, you will be sensible of the importance of your services, and the weight of my obligations. In this hope I remain, with perfect esteem, respect, and gratitude, your friend and servant,

(Signed)Tommaso Puccini.”

The following letters subsequently passed between the British representative and another of the Grand Duke’s Ministers:

“Vienna, March 3, 1801.

“The assiduous attention with which Captain Downman, of the English frigate Santa Dorothea, has conveyed from Leghorn to Palermo various valuable effects belonging to H.R.H. the Grand Duke of Tuscany, my Sovereign, which were accompanied by Signor Tommaso Puccini, has been stated to his Royal Highness.

“H.R.H., understanding that orders to this effect were given by Admiral Lord Keith, desires me to request you will convey to the same his royal thanks. It will also be gratifying to H.R.H., if you will condescend to forward to Captain Downman a diamond ring, which will be conveyed to you by Signor Brigadier Giovanr.o del Bava, as a testimony of the high sense which H.R.H. has of the delicate attention with which Captain Downman executed this commission. * * * *

Mr. Wyndham.(Signed)G. Rainoldi."

Trieste, March 20, 1801.

“Most Illustrious Signor. I have received the honor of your note, accompanied by a diamond ring, which H.R.H. the Grand Duke of Tuscany condescends to present to Captain Downman, of his Britannic Majesty’s frigate Santa Dorothea, for the care with which he conveyed various effects belonging to H.R.H. from Leghorn to Palermo; and I feel myself happy in being deputed to testify to my brave and worthy friend so honorable a testimony of H.R.H.’s approbation. I shall not fail to send it to him, with a copy of your Excellency’s letter, by the first courier that sets out for London, being very uncertain where the Santa Dorothea may be met with at sea.

“I shall do myself the honor of writing to Admiral Lord Keith, announ. cing to him those professions of acknowledgment from the Grand Duke, which cannot fail to be highly gratifying to him, and to impress him with sentiments of respect and gratitude. * * * *

Signor G. Rainoldi.(Signed)W. Wyndham.”

At the same time that Captain Downman took the Florence gallery on board his ship, he also received the Duke of Savoy, (afterwards King of Sardinia) his family, and suite, and landed them at Naples. For his very sedulous and obliging attentions during the passage, that Prince sent him the following letter, and the Duchess a diamond ring:

“Sir.– I cannot sufficiently express the extent of my gratitude, and that of my wife, for the extraordinary care and trouble which you have so willingly taken, during our passage from Leghorn to Naples. It is to your solicitude, in shortening, as much as possible, the sufferings which the bad weather might have occasioned to a woman, in the ninth month of her pregnancy, that my wife is indebted, for not having eventually suffered from those shocks, which might perhaps have occasioned an irreparable loss to our family, had she been exposed to them twenty-four hours longer. Our gratitude will consequently be proportionate to the obligation which you have conferred upon us; and it will always be with pleasure that we shall remember our acquaintance with an officer of merit and capacity, in all respects like yourself. I flatter myself that you will be convinced of the sincerity of these sentiments, as well as of the constant interest which I shall take in every thing that may concern you; and that I shall esteem myself happy in being able to distinguish you upon every occasion. It is with these sentiments that I am, Sir, &c. &c.

(Signed)Victor Emanuel de Savoie.”[8]

In July 1801, we find Captain Downman escorting three Swiss regiments land the corps of Lamenstein to Egypt, where he received the gold medal of the Turkish Order of the Crescent. He subsequently removed into the Caesar of 84 guns, bearing the flag of Sir James Saumarez, Bart., which ship was paid off at Portsmouth, July 23, 1802. In Jan. 1804, he was again selected by that excellent officer to be his Flag-Captain, in the Diomede 50, on the Guernsey station, where he continued about fourteen months. He afterwards commanded the Diadem 64, bearing the broad pendant of Sir Home Popham, at the reduction of the Cape of Good Hope[9]; from whence he returned to England with the Commodore’s despatches, announcing the conquest of that important colony, and from which we make the following extract:

“Captain Downman, of the Diadem, will have the honor of delivering this despatch to their Lordships; and from the intelligent manner in which I am satisfied lie will explain every movement, and the causes by which I have been actuated, I trust he will require no further recommendation to their Lordships’ protection.”

Having executed this mission, Captain Downman proceeded to the Rio de la Plata, where he resumed the Command of his former ship, the Diomede. After the capture of Monte Video he sailed for Europe; and in June 1807, was put out of commission. During the latter part of the war, he commanded the prison-ships stationed at Portsmouth, and the Princess Caroline of 74 guns, attached to the North Sea fleet.

Captain Downman married, June 23, 1803, a daughter of Mr. Peter Palmer, of Portsmouth.

Agent.– ___

  1. See p. 101, et seq; and Vol. I. pp. 17, 106.
  2. During the time that Toulon remained in possession of the allied forces, a very formidable insurrection existed in Corsica: and General Paoli, the leader of the insurgent party, sought the aid of the British, assuring Lord Hood, that even the appearance of a few ships of force off the island, would be of the most essential service to the popular cause. Accordingly, in the mouth of Sept. 1793, the Alcide and Courageux 74’s, Ardent 64, Lowestoffe and Nemesis frigates, commanded by Captains Woodley, Matthews, Sutton, Wolseley, and Lord Amelius Beauclerk, were sent thither, under the orders of Commodore Linzee, who entered the Gulf of St, Fiorenzo on the 21st.; and having been led to believe that the batteries near the town could not, on account of the distance, co-operate with the tower and redoubt of Fornelli, resolved to make an attack on that formidable post.

    On the 30th, before day-break, the two-deckers took their stations, and opened a heavy cannonade on the redoubt, which continued without intermission nearly four hours, without producing any visible effect on the enemy’s works. By this time the ships, particularly the Ardent, were so much cut up, by a raking fire of nine 24-pounders from the town of St. Fiorenzo, that Commodore Linzee, seeing no appearance of co-operation, as had been promised, on the part of Paoli’s adherents, deemed it prudent to retire out of gun-shot. The force opposed to the squadron on this occasion consisted of one 4, two 8, and thirteen 24-pounders, from which the enemy fired hot shot; together with six heavy mortars. The loss sustained by the British amounted to 16 men killed and 39 wounded. An account of the subsequent operations against the French in Corsica, and the final reduction of that island, will be found in our first volume, at p. 249, et seq.

  3. See Vol. I, p. 159.
  4. See id. p. 21, et seq.
  5. The Strombolo, Perseus, and Bull Dog, assisted at this capture.
  6. See Vol. I. p. 53.
  7. Cameleon sloop of war, commanded by Lieutenant Jackson; and Strombolo a Neapolitan brig, Captain Settimo.
  8. Victor Emanuel, King, of Sardinia, Duke of Savoy, Piedmont, and Genoa, abdicated his throne March 13, 1821; and was succeeded by his brother Charles Felix, son-in-law of Ferdinand IV. King of Naples and the Sicilies.
  9. See Vol. I. note †, at p. 622, et seq.