Royal Naval Biography/Fanshawe, Robert

Late Commissioner of Plymouth Dock Yard.
[Retired Captain]

This officer, a son of the late Captain Fanshawe, R.N., was born in America, about the month of Jan. 1740; entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Salisbury of 50 guns, in 1753; and proceeded in that ship to the East Indies, in company with a small squadron commanded by the late Vice-Admiral Charles Watson, under whom he served at the reduction of Geriah, a strong fortress, the residence of the piratical chief Angria; the recapture of Calcutta; and the taking of Chandernagor, the principal French settlement in the province of Bengal[1]. He also bore a part in the three general actions between Vice-Admiral Pocock and the Count d’Ache, in 1758 and 1759[2]. His commission as Lieutenant bears date Sept. 11, in the latter year.

The Tiger of 60 guns, into which ship Mr. Fanshawe had been promoted, being found unserviceable, he returned to England in a merchant-vessel; and a few months after his arrival, was made a Commander, by commission dated Aug. 23, 1762. Towards the close of that war he commanded the Carcass bomb; and subsequently, the Speedwell sloop of war, in which he was employed, principally on the American station, for a period of three years. His advancement to the rank of Post-Captain took place May 26, 1768, one day previous to a grand promotion.

Early in 1769, Captain Fanshawe obtained the command of the Lively, a small frigate, in which he continued until the autumn of 1770. From that time he does not appear to have been again afloat till 1775; when, in consequence of the dispute which had then reached a most serious height between Great Britain and her trans-atlantic colonies, he was appointed to the Carysfort of 28 guns, and ordered to America, where he fully established his character as a brave, skilful, and vigilant officer.

The Carysfort formed part of the squadron commanded by Commodore Hotham at the reduction of New York, in Sept. 1776[3]; and was afterwards employed in a variety of active service under Lord Howe. From that frigate Captain Fanshawe was removed into the Monmouth 64, which ship greatly distinguished herself in the action between Byron and d’Estaing, off Grenada, July 6, 1779, and was most dreadfully cut up, in consequence of her bearing away to bring the van of the enemy to close action, and thereby prevent the capture of several British transports. Her loss on this occasion amounted to 25 men killed and 28 wounded[4].

Early in 1780, Captain Fanshawe removed into the Egmont of 74 guns; and in that ship he experienced a most dreadful hurricane, which spread desolation over the whole of the West India Islands, particularly Barbadoes, Martinique, and Jamaica; several ships of war and merchant-vessels were lost, with the greater part of their crews[5]; the Egmont, however, escaped with the loss of all her masts, and in the following year was ordered to escort a large fleet to England. On approaching the Channel, Captain Fanshawe received intelligence of the combined fleets of France and Spain, amounting to forty-nine sail of the line, being on the look-out for his valuable charge; which induced him to take them north about, and thus prevented the greater part from falling into the hands of the enemy. For his judicious conduct on this critical occasion, he received the thanks of the Admiralty, and was presented with the freedom of Edinburgh.

The Egmont having been paid off soon after her arrival, Captain Fanshawe was for a short time out of employ; but happening fortunately to be at Plymouth when Sir George B. Rodney was about to sail from that port to resume the chief command in the West Indies, and the Captain of the Namur, a 90-gun ship, having desired to be superseded, he was immediately sent for to fill up the vacancy, an appointment as sudden and unexpected as it was complimentary on the part of the Admiral. His conduct as one of Rodney’s supporters, on the glorious 12th April, 1782, is too well known and too highly appreciated to require repetition[6].

Captain Fanshawe retained the command of the Namur until the termination of the war in 1783, and was afterwards appointed to the Bombay Castle 74, stationed at Plymouth as a guard-ship. In April 1784, he was elected M.P. for that borough, which he represented till the year 1789, when he vacated his seat on receiving a patent as Resident Commissioner of Plymouth DockYard, the duties of which office he performed in the most exemplary manner upwards of twenty-six years. He died at Stonehall, Stonehouse, co. Devon, Feb. 4, 1823; at which period, had he accepted his flag, he would have been the senior Admiral of the Red.

The following is the introduction to a brief notice of Captain Fanshawe’s services, which we have met with in a small volume of naval biography, published in 1788:– “Captain Robert Fanshawe,” says the writer, “is one of the ablest officers the British fleet can boast; – cool, collected, brave, and active; ever ready for service when called upon, and rigidly attentive to the most trivial, as well as the more important duties of his station. It may with truth be observed of him, that his ship is like his mansion, – the ship’s company his family; the former in a constant state of regularity, the latter governed by a rigid but a just hand. A scrupulous observer of the relative duties he owes his country as a citizen and a soldier, Captain Fanshawe exacts a like conduct on the part of all with whom he may have any concern, whether civil or military.”

Captain Fanshawe married Christiana, daughter of John Gennys, Esq., and by that lady had issue three sons and nine daughters. His eldest son, Robert, Captain of the Carysfort frigate, died at Antigua in 1804; although a very young man, he had given repeated proofs of his skill, zeal, and gallantry, in which he was surpassed by few, if any officers, of his age and standing in the profession; of which, had he been spared, he would no doubt have been a great ornament. The second son, Edward, is a Major in the Royal Engineers; and the youngest, Arthur, a Post-Captain, R.N. The names of the daughters are as follow:– Christiana, married the Rev. Francis Haggitt, D.D. Prebendary and Sub-Dean of Durham, died in 1810. Elizabeth, married to F. Glanville, Esq. Susan, married to Vice-Admiral Bedford. Catharine, married to Sir T. Byam Martin, K.C.B., Comptroller of the Navy. Cordelia, married Captain J. C. White, R.N., died about 1809. Anne, unmarried. Mary, married Vice-Admiral the Hon. Sir Robert Stopford, K.C.B. Penelope, widow of Colonel Duckworth, who fell in the battle of Albuera, May 16, 1811; and Harriet, unmarried.

  1. Vice-Admiral Watson fell a sacrifice to the unwholesomeness of the East India climate, Aug. 15, 1757. The East India Company, as a testimony of their gratitude for the services he had rendered them, caused a beautiful monument to be erected to his memory, in Westminster Abbey; and the King was pleased to create his son a Baronet. The operations of his squadron will be found fully detailed in the first volume of Schomberg’s Naval Chronology.
  2. On the death of Vice-Admiral Watson, his friend Pocock succeeded to the command of the squadron in India, and three times defeated a superior force under M. d’Aché. When General Lally was brought prisoner to England, after the reduction of Pondicherry, immediately on his arrival he begged to be introduced to Admiral (then Sir George) Pocock; whom he no sooner saw, than he flew to embrace him, and thus addressed him; “Dear Sir George, as the first man in your profession, I cannot but esteem and respect you, though you have been the greatest enemy I ever had. But for you, I had triumphed in India, instead of being made a captive. When we first sailed out to give you battle, I had provided a number of musicians on board the Zodiac, intending to give the ladies a ball upon our victory; but you left me only three of my fiddlers alive, and treated us all so roughly, that you quite spoiled us for dancing.” Sir George Pocock, as is well known, commanded the fleet employed in the reduction of the Havannah. He died in Curzon Street, May Fair, April 3, 1792, in his 87th year.
  3. See p. 56.
  4. On the 13th April, 1778, at which period the junction of France added strength and confidence to our revolted colonies, the Count d’Estaing sailed from Toulon with ten ships of the line, one of 50 guns, five frigates, and a corvette, destined for North America Although the sailing of this armament was made known to the British Government on the 27th of the same month, no measures were taken to intercept it until the 5th June; when Vice-Admiral Byron, with twelve sail of the line and one frigate, was sent in pursuit of the enemy. In consequence of a succession of heavy gales of wind, the British ships were dispersed in their passage across the Atlantic, and it was the middle of September before they all met at New York; from whence the Vice-Admiral proceeded to cruise off Boston, where the French squadron had taken shelter.

    Soon after the British squadron reached Boston Bay, a tremendous storm arose, and so disabled the ships that they were obliged to put into Rhode Island to refit. The Count d’Estaing seized this favorable moment to slip out of port and steer for the West Indies, whither he was followed by Vice-Admiral Byron towards the latter end of the year.

    During the winter, both fleets were reinforced. The Count, however, did not choose to risk an action, although frequently tempted to do so. At length the season arriving for the departure of the trade bound to England, Vice-Admiral Byron was under the necessity of going to St. Christopher’s to collect them, and of proceeding to windward of the islands, for their protection. On his return to St. Lucia, July 1st, he received intelligence that the island of St. Vincent had been taken by a small body of French, not exceeding 450 in number, headed by a naval Lieutenant; also that the Count d’Estaing had availed himself of the absence of the British fleet, to attack Grenada. The Vice-Admiral immediately sailed to the relief of that island; but before his arrival, the garrison, after making a very able and gallant defence, were obliged to surrender at discretion.

    At day-break on the morning of the 6th, two days after the capture of Grenada, Vice-Admiral Byron discovered the French fleet getting under sail from St. George’s Bay, and . stretching out to sea. The signal was immediately made for a general chase, and for the ships to engage as they came up with the enemy. At 7h 30’ A.M., Rear-Admiral Barrington, in the Prince of Wales, supported by six other ships, commenced a partial action with almost the whole of the French line, whose advantage in point of sailing, enabled them to elude every effort of the British to bring on a general and decisive battle. In this unequal conflict, the Grafton, Cornwall, Lion, and Monmouth, sustained the fire of the whole French fleet, consisting of one ship of 96 guns, and twenty-one two-deckers, as they passed them on the opposite tack, and were very much disabled. The action ceased about noon, but was renewed at 2h P.M., and a random fire kept up until the evening, when the hostile fleets had increased their distance about three miles. The Lion and Monmouth sustained so much damage that they were little better than wrecks, and narrowly escaped being cut off by the enemy. The former bore away for Jamaica, and the latter proceeded to Antigua to refit.

    The loss sustained by the British fleet, which consisted of one 98-gun ship and sixteen two-deckers, was 183 killed and 346 wounded; among the latter was the gallant Barrington. The slaughter on board the French ships, owing to the vast number of troops embarked, was prodigious; the lowest estimate states it at 1,200 killed and 1,500 wounded.

  5. See Vol. I, pp. 68, 105, et seq.
  6. Sir George B. Rodney formed a junction with Sir Samuel Hood, off Antigua, Feb. 25, 1782; and on the 8th April following, whilst refitting his fleet at St. Lucia, received intelligence that the enemy were coming out of Port Royal Bay. Before day-light on the following morning, he came up with the French fleet near the island of Dominica. A partial action ensued; but notwithstanding the greatest exertions were used by the British, nothing decisive could be effected till the 12th; on which day a most complete victory was gained over the enemy, commanded by the Count de Grasse, who was himself captured, with the Ville de Paris, and four other ships of the line, besides one sunk in the action; for a more particular account of which we must refer our readers to Vol. I, p. 35, et seq.