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Royal Naval Biography/Edgcumbe, John


JOHN EDGCUMBE, Esq.
[Post-Captain of 1807.]

Son of a respectable country gentleman, who is the eldest branch of the Mount Edgcumbe family.

The subject of this memoir was born on his father’s estate, Edgcumbe, Milton-Abbott, near Tavistock, in the county of Devon, Dec. 9, 1775; the house in which he drew his first breath is supposed to have been built in 1292, as these figures, and the initials R.E., are still legible on its walls. Mr. John Edgcumbe entered the naval service in Dec. 1788, under the patronage of Admiral Viscount Mount Edgcumbe; of which nobleman a memoir will be found in the Naval Chronicle, Vol. XXII, p. 177, et seq[1].

The manner in which Mr. Edgcumbe passed his time as a Midshipman, and obtained the two first steps of his professional rank, will be seen by the following handsome testimonials, which were given to him by two officers of distinguished reputation, at a period when he was urging his claims to still further advancement.

“These are to certify, that Captain John Edgcumbe served with me as Midshipman on board the Carnatic, Trusty, and Fairy sloop, between the years 1789 and 1791; then on board the Carysfort in the years 1793 and 1794; afterwards as Lieutenant on board the Aimable, Beaulieu, and Ganges, in 1795 and 1796: and that in consequence of the gallant conduct which he displayed when serving on board the Carysfort, in an action with a French frigate captured by that ship, I did strongly recommend him to the Earl of Chatham for promotion as soon as he should have served his time; and that during the above mentioned periods he conducted himself as became an able and zealous officer. Given under my hand, Feb. 2, 1807.

(Signed)Francis Laforet[2].”

Chandos Street, Cavendish Square, Feb. 4, 1807.

“Dear Sir,– I have great pleasure in complying with your request: it is indeed only an act of justice to certify, that you served with me in the Royal George, as one of the Lieutenants of that ship, from 1797 to 1800 – that you afterwards followed my fortune in the Agincourt, when I commanded at Newfoundland; – that you were embarked with me in the St. George, both whilst I commanded in the Baltic, and off Cadiz; and was at my request promoted on the peace taking place, being then first Lieutenant under my flag; and that in every situation you conducted yourself like a zealous and active officer. You have my best wishes, and I am, dear Sir, faithfully yours,

(Signed)Charles M. Polk.”

To Captain Edgcumbe, R.N."

The French frigate alluded to in Captain (now Sir Francis) Laforey’s certificate, was le Castor, formerly British, rated at 32 guns, and consequently mounting long twelves on her main-deck, with a complement of at least 200 men; whereas the Carysfort was only a 28-gun, nine-pounder, frigate, and 18 of her crew were absent, so that she had 21 men less than her opponent. Both ships had carronades on board at the time of the action, and all accounts agree in stating that each had an equal number, if not of equal calibre. The British, we know, were only 18-pounders[3]. The opinion entertained by the Admiralty of this gallant action may be inferred from the immediate promotion of the Carysfort’s first Lieutenant, and (as soon as the regulations of the service would admit) Mr. Edgcumbe, the senior Master’s Mate. Captain Laforey himself was also rewarded with an appointment to a larger frigate.

In June 1804, Captain Edgcumbe was appointed to the Heron, of 16 guns and 89 men: at the close of that year we find him employed escorting a fleet of merchantmen from England to Barbadoes. An important service which he subsequently performed, at the risk of being tried by a court-martial, for leaving his station without orders, is sufficiently described in the following address, dated in London, Feb. 7, 1807:–

“Sir,- On the part of the planters and merchants of Barbadoes, I am to request your acceptance of the plate which accompanies this letter, as a small but grateful memorial of the high sense they entertain of the service rendered them in the year 1805, at a crisis of great and general alarm, and under circumstances which required in an officer the intrepid exercise of a sound and deliberative judgment.

“A combined fleet of eighteen sail of the line being among the windward Caribbean islands, and reported to be standing to the northward in a manner that threatened Barbadoes, at the request of the Governor Lord Seaforth, and of the inhabitants of that island, you undertook to secure against the expected attempts of the enemy, a fleet of considerable value then lying in Carlisle bay, to remove them from the exposure of an open road, and to convoy them in safety to England.

Your conduct was approved by the highest naval authority; but absence from your station, deprived you of the post rank for which you stood first on promotion with the commander-in-chief.

“To the confident expectation that you will speedily attain to that rank which will accelerate your advance to the highest honors of your profession, we add our wishes to every honorable enterprise of your future life, and continued health and happiness. To these expressions of the general sentiment, permit me to join my own of personal consideration and particular respect. I remain. Sir, your obedient humble servant,

(Signed)J. W. Jordan, Agent for Barbadoes.”

To Captain Edgcumbe, R.N.

The fleet which sailed from Barbadoes under the Heron’s protection consisted of twenty-eight merchantmen and four transports; five of the former, being bound to Halifax and Newfoundland, parted company when in a proper latitude: the remainder, and the transports, arrived at their different ports in safety; those bound up St. George’s Channel being given in charge to the Argus sloop of war, off Cape Clear; and those for the Thames, &c. keeping company with Captain Edgcumbe, who anchored in the Downs, Aug. 2, 1805. A few days after his arrival he received an address which, according to chronological order, should have taken precedence of the one we have just copied:

London, Aug. 7, 1805.

“Sir,– Addresses of this nature having of late become more frequent, we should be sorry were this to be considered as one following of course, as we deem it a tribute, though small, which is justly due to your merit.

“When we reflect on the value of the convoy bound to England, committed to your charge at Barbadoes, the judicious arrangement which you made for its sailing, the unremitted attention you at all times paid to it, the inadequate force which you had for its protection, and its ultimate arrival in safety, we cannot refrain from offering you our best thanks for your conduct, which we now request you will have the goodness to accept.

“That every opportunity you can desire may be offered you of maintaining the honor of onr Sovereign, as well as protecting the interests of your fellow-subjects, is the sincere wish of, Sir, your most respectful, and very humble servants.”

This letter was signed by 19 masters of ships, and forwarded to Captain Edgcumbe through the Admiralty, whose secretary had previously acquainted him that their lordships approved of what he had done.

The sloop of war in which Captain Edgcumbe performed the above service was a merchant-built ship, of 339 tons, flat-floored, and having the very same masts and yards that were in her when she was purchased by government. She was a wretched sailer, and rolled prodigiously, as might be expected from her construction, and insufficiency of canvas, now that her hold was always comparatively empty. With such a vessel it would have been useless to go in pursuit of any enemy’s cruiser; and Captain Edgcumbe therefore could only hope to make prizes by decoying suspicious vessels under his guns. During the Heron’s first cruise, she met with what may be considered wonderful success, her lofty sides (appropriately painted), her stump top-gallant masts, and general appearance, having thrown a smuggler off his guard, and thereby enabled her commander to boast that he made one capture in the course of two years and a half. It is but justice to the memory of the late Viscount Melville to state, that he was compelled to order several vessels of the Heron’s description to be purchased in consequence of his predecessor having sold many effective sloops out of the service, and the exigency of public affairs not allowing his lordship to wait until others could be built in the King’s yards.

On one occasion, whilst passing Deseada and Guadaloupe, on his way to Antigua, Captain Edgcumbe observed a large schooner creeping out from under the land: there was then very little wind, but, as usual on that spot, a heavy swell; to hoist the boats out would have been impracticable, as the Heron’s lower yards were not square enough to carry them clear of the side under such circumstances; therefore every thing depended upon the success of deceptive measures. After hailing the vessels under his charge, and ordering them to continue their course. Captain Edgcumbe hoisted American colours and hove too; he then dressed a young Midshipman in white, so as to resemble a lady passenger, caused him to be raised on a platform, and one of the crew to hold an umbrella over his head. The deception took, for the schooner hoisted French colours and ran down close to the Heron’s lee quarter. An English ensign and pendant were now hoisted, the half-ports knocked out, and a volley of musketry was fired; but this failed of the expected effect, for the enemy, instead of surrendering to her, attempted to board the British sloop of war. In this, however, they failed; and if Captain Edgcumbe could have depressed his guns sufficiently to fire into so low a vessel whilst along-side of him, the schooner might yet have been captured. This not being the case, a grapnel and chain attached to a hawser were lowered by a whip from the cross-jack-yard, which hooked something about her bowsprit; but fortunately for the enemy that spar was carried away by the Heron’s excessive rolling, and they were thus enabled to effect their escape, after killing one man, who was shot whilst standing close to Captain Edgcumbe. During this affair, the Heron’s motion was more like that of a wash-tub, when thrown overboard, than any thing that should ever be allowed to wear a King’s pendant: but such was the manner in which the character of many a meritorious officer was placed in jeopardy during the late war, through mistaken notions of economy. The schooner was afterwards taken by the Cambrian frigate, and proved to be la Matilde, French privateer, of 18 guns and 130 men, commanded by “a very clever and notorious fellow,” who did not surrender until after that ship’s bow-guns had been playing upon him for several hours. This portion of our information is derived from a letter written by Captain J. W. Deans Dundas, who was then a Lieutenant of the Cambrian.

From Oct. 1805 until Dec. 1806, we find Captain Edgcumbe constantly employed conducting fleets of merchantmen to and from Halifax, Newfoundland, and Bermuda. Whils. on this harassing and anxious service, he rescued the crews of two water-logged American ships, and behaved with so much kindness to them, and hospitality towards their commander and the passengers, two of whom were ladies, as to call forth public acknowledgments of his humane and liberal treatment. One of those ships was abandoned to her fate after some valuable merchandise had been removed to the Heron; the other was towed safely into St. John’s harbour, Newfoundland.

At the latter period, Captain Edgcumbe’s health had become so much impaired through constant anxiety, fatigue, and exposure to bad weather, that on his return to England, he was advised to live on shore for a few weeks; and whilst doing so he succeeded in obtaining that rank which, two years before, he seemed certain of speedily enjoying. His post commission bears date May 11, 1807; at which time he was also appointed to the Blanche of 28 guns, on the East India station.

It will be seen by reference to our memoir of Sir Francis Laforey, that the subject of this memoir served in a tropical climate both as midshipman and lieutenant. On each of those occasions, as also when commanding the Heron, he suffered a severe attack of fever; but notwithstanding he had so little prospect of escaping disease in the East Indies, he immediately took up his appointment, and proceeded thither as a passenger on board the St. Albans 64.

Captain Edgcumbe joined the Blanche, at Bombay, early in 1808; and was soon afterwards appointed, by Sir Edward Pellew, to the Psyche 36, in which frigate he conveyed Brigadier-General (now Sir John) Malcolm and his suite to the Persian gulph, where he continued affording protection to the British embassy during four of the hottest months; and on his return from that service he received an official letter from Sir Edward Pellew’s Secretary, dated Oct. 15, 1808, of which the following is an extract:

“His Excellency has directed me to express his approbation of your proceedings in the gulph of Persia, especially in the co-operation you have afforded to Captain Pasley, as chargé-d’affaires at Abusheer.

(Signed)Edward Hawke Locker[4]”.

The following observations on the heat of the weather during this service, were made by Mr. G. T. Heath, surgeon of the Psyche.

“It is necessary to remark, that from the 13th May to June 29th, we were the greater part of the time at anchor in Busheer roads, making a trip occasionally to Carrack for water; the Samiel, or north-west wind, prevailed almost the whole time. This scorching blast, as it is generally termed, is not positively hot, for on exposing the thermometer to the current of the breeze, when blowing strong, the mercury fell from 82° to 76°. The effects of this wind on the human body are, an immediate dryness and parching of the skin, producing a total stop to perspiration; appetite fails; respiration is impeded; to sleep is impossible, and a general restlessness, uneasiness, and anxiety are felt, which it is impossible to describe: all these effects result from a total suppression of perspiration, which is a cooling process, and nature’s chief mean for carrying off redundant heat. Hence I am inclined to think that the burning quality usually ascribed to this wind is not to be attributed to the actual heat of the wind itself, but to our own sensations of heat, arising in a secondary way from the parchingof the skin. Hence we may also infer, that our own feelings are a very inaccurate measure of the actual heat of the atmosphere.

“On the 29th June, we left Busheer for Congoon, where we anchored on the 3d July, and found the heat still more intense; in the coolest parts of the ship, viz. the Captain’s cabin and half-deck, the mercury generally stood at 92° or 93°, and never lower than 90°; on the quarter-deck, shaded by awnings and curtains, it frequently rose to above 100°, and in one instance to 126°. A salt dew fell in considerable quantity during the night, and the quantity was always greatest when the wind blew from the southward. While we lay at Congoon, John Spillard, a landsman, aged 30, was seized with symptoms of inflammation of the brain, which in less than three hours terminated his existence by a bursting of the blood vessels (of the brain) producing apoplexy; this, and several other cases, were easily traced to exposure of the head, (probably uncovered) to the scorching rays of the sun[5]”.

After being docked at Bombay, the Psyche convoyed some vessels from thence to Point de Galle; and on her arrival there, Captain Edgcumbe received directions to embark a number of troops at Columbo, and carry them to the coast of Travancore, where he served for some time under the orders of the late Captain Charles Foote[6], who sent him to co-operate with the Hon. Colonel St. Leger in the suppression of a mutiny amongst the native troops; and whilst thus employed we find him silencing a battery, and his boats, under Lieutenant Henry Garrett, destroying several vessels which were defended by black soldiers on shore, armed both with muskets and bows and arrows. On this latter occasion the Psyche had one man wounded: she subsequently captured two vessels having elephants on board for the use of the mutinous army.

Captain Edgcumbe next accompanied Captain (now Sir Christopher) Cole on his important mission to Manilla, and also to Macao, in quest of two French frigates, which were reported to be cruising in the China seas. The sufferings of the Pysche and her consort on their return from thence to India, have been noticed in our memoir of the senior officer, and it is therefore only necessary to state that the former ship had but one day’s provision left when she arrived at Prince of Wales’s island, from whence she escorted their valuable Dutch prize to Bombay.

The Psyche afterwards conveyed Brigadier-General Malcolm and his suite once more to Persia. In the same year (1810) she assisted at the capture of the Isle of France; and in 1811, she was attached to the expedition sent against Java. Unfortunately, a severe attack of the hepatitis obliged Captain Edgcumbe to invalid immediately after the surrender of Batavia; but before the reports of survey were signed the Psyche was ordered to receive some troops intended to attack a post which had not yielded according to the capitulation, whereupon he immediately wrote to the commander-in-chief, expressing his wishes to remain in her until the island was completely subjugated; the result of his application will be seen by the Admiral’s reply:

Scipion, Batavia Roads, 30 Aug. 1811.

“Dear Sir,– I cannot consider the survey which has been taken upon the state of your health, by your own request, as in any manner affecting the character of a zealous officer, which deservedly belongs to you, and you are naturally anxious to maintain.

“The service on which the frigates are now necessarily employed is little better than that of temporary transports, and places them and officers in your situation in a very different point of view to what it would be if a squadron of the enemy’s ships was to be attacked.

“As far as you are individually concerned, your health prevents you from discharging the duties of Captain of the Psyche, and I am sorry that there is little prospect of recovery in this climate; it almost becomes a duty upon you to take the necessary means of recovery, for without health no advantages of service can be enjoyed.

“The enemy may carry on a teasing war for some time longer, but their effective strength is destroyed; no brilliant actions can therefore be expected, and none in our line.

“I recommend you, therefore, to abide by the opinion of the officers who held the survey, and to quit the Psyche, in the fullest conviction that the most scrupulous officer cannot condemn your conduct in doing so. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Robt. Stopford.”

To Captain Edgcumbe, &c. &c. &c.

On the receipt of this remonstrance and advice, Captain Edgcumbe gave up the command of the Pysche, and. was ordered a passage home in the Caroline frigate. He arrived in England at the close of 1811; and it is almost superfluous to add, that he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, in common with the other officers who were employed in the operations against the Isles of France and Java, and their dependencies.

Agents.– Messrs, Goode and Clarke.



  1. The above peer became a Baron of Great Britain, by the death of his elder brother. May 10, 1761; and the dignity of a Viscount was conferred upon him for his voluntary and gratuitous sacritice of several plantations on his beautiful manor in Devonshire, it having been given as the opinion of military men, that their destruction was absolutely necessary for the safety of Plymouth, and the defence of its important fortress, in case of any hostile attack. This patriotic nobleman obtained an earldom in Aug. 1789; and died, much regretted, Feb. 4, 1795. His successor, the present Earl, has uniformly behaved with the greatest kindness and friendship towards Captain Edgcumbe; and we cannot refrain from noticing his Lordship’s hospitality to naval officers in general, knowing, as we do, that in the years 1796, 1797, and 1798, the western squadron was called the “Mount Edgcumbe squadron,” from the circumstance of the different captains spending much of their time under the Earl’s roof whilst the ships they commanded were refitting at Plymouth. We have good authority for stating that the Earl of Mount Edgcumbe, although of the most unobtrusive habits, is considered one of the best classical scholars in England.
  2. The Carnatic was commanded by the Hon. Captain Peregrine Bertie; the Trusty bore the flag of Sir John Laforey, Bart.
  3. Errata, Vol. I. p. 447, line 3, for 34 read 32; and line 6, for 32 read 36.
    Vol. II. Part I. p. 350, line 12 from the bottom, after 6-pounders, read and 4 carronades.
  4. Brigadier-General Malcolm was sent on an embassy to the court of Persia at a critical period, Mons. Gardanne, one of Buonaparte’s Generals, having already arrived there to pave the way for his master’s intended attempt to conquer India; and so successful had he been, that the Hon. Company’s Ambassador did not proceed to the capital, but thought it necessary to leave Captain Pasley as chargé-d’affaires, at Abusheer, under Captain Edgcumbe’s protection; and to proceed himself in the Doris frigate, to Bengal for fresh instructions. During his absence. Captain Pasley proceeded in the Psyche to the mouth of the Euphrates, and from thence Captain Edgcumbe accompanied him, first in a company’s cruiser, and afterwards in boats, to Bussorah, where he remained with the embassy several days, and then returned to Bombay, his protection being no longer requisite.
  5. At Congoon, Captain Edgcumbe, in consequence of impeded respiration and want of rest, tried sleeping in a cold salt water bath, and succeeded for ten minutes or more at a time: but, on mentioning the circumstance to Mr. Heath the following morning, he was advised not to attempt it again.
  6. See Vol. II. Part II, note †, at p. 510.