Royal Naval Biography/Foley, Thomas

Vice-Admiral of the Red; and Knight Grand Cross of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath.

This officer is a native of Pembrokeshire, and, we believe, related to the noble house of Foley. He served as a Lieutenant of the Prince George of 98 guns, the flag ship of the late Admiral Digby, at the time H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence was a Midshipman in that ship; and in 1782, was made a Commander into the Britannia armed ship, at New York. He subsequently commanded the Atalanta of 14 guns, on the same station.

Captain Foley was promoted to post rank, Sept. 21, 1790; and at the commencement of the war in J793 obtained the command of the St. George, a second rate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Gell, whom he accompanied to the Mediterranean, and on his passage thither had the good fortune to assist at the recapture of the St. Iago, a Spanish register ship laden with specie. The ships in company with the St. George on this fortunate occasion were the Edgar, Egmont, and Ganges, 74’s, and Phaeton frigate[1].

Towards the conclusion of the same year, Lord Hood detached Rear-Admiral Gell with a division of his fleet to Genoa. La Modeste, a French frigate of 36 guns, was then lying in the harbour, and had broken the neutrality of the port on various occasions, in direct opposition to the remonstrances of the Senate and Government. The British Commander being made acquainted with these circumstances, on his arrival ordered the Bedford of 74 guns, to anchor alongside the enemy’s ship, and to demand her to surrender. The French Captain at first refused to comply with this requisition; but a few musket shot being fired, he thought it prudent to acquiesce. The government of Genoa very properly considered the spirited conduct of the Rear-Admiral perfectly regular, as well as strictly consonant to the law of nations; and la Modeste was added to the British navy.

Early in the ensuing year Rear-Admiral Gell was obliged, by the precarious state of his health, to return overland to England[2]; and the late Sir Hyde Parker hoisted his flag in the St. George, Captain Foley continuing to command that ship. In the first encounter which took place between the British fleet under Vice-Admiral Hotham and the remnant of the once formidable force which France had possessed in the port of Toulon, the St. George had 4 men killed and 13 wounded. The French ships captured were the Ca Ira of 80 guns, and the Censeur of 74 guns[3].

No other material occurrence took place during the remainder of the time that Captain Foley continued in the St. George, except the second skirmish, still more trivial than the first, which ended in the destruction of l’Alcide, of 74 guns[4].

In the memorable battle off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14, 1797[5], our officer bore a distinguished part, as Captain of the Britannia, a first rate, carrying the flag of the late Sir Charles Thompson. Soon after that important event he was appointed to the Goliath of 74 guns, and in the following year detached from the fleet off Cadiz to reinforce Sir Horatio Nelson’s squadron in the Mediterranean.

On the glorious 1st Aug. 1798, Captain Foley had the honour to lead the British fleet into action. At 6h 15’ P.M. the French commenced the engagement; in two minutes the Goliath returned their fire, and then doubled their line, and brought up alongside of the Conquerant, the second ship in the enemy’s van. In less than a quarter of an hour Captain Foley completely dismasted his opponent, and afterwards assisted in subduing the ships in the rear. In this tremendous conflict the Goliath had 21 killed and 41 wounded[6].

Rear-Admiral Nelson, on his departure for Naples, left Captain Foley to assist Captain Hood in guarding the coast of Egypt. On the 25th August the boats of the Goliath, commanded by Lieutenant W. Debusk, attacked and carried a French armed ketch , anchored under the guns of the castle of Aboukir; the business was ably conducted, and gallantly performed. She proved to be la Torride, mounting three long 18-pounders, four swivels, and well appointed in small arms, with a crew of 70 men, 3 of whom were killed; and her commander M. Bedar, with 10 of his men, badly wounded. In the attack, Lieutenant Debusk and 1 man were wounded. On the 30th of the same month, the Goliath sailed for the coast of Italy to rejoin Sir Horatio Nelson, and was subsequently employed at the blockade of Malta.

Towards the latter end of 1799, Captain Foley returned to England; and in the following year we find him commanding the Elephant of 74 guns, attached to the Channel fleet. On this service he continued to be employed until the spring of 1801, when he was ordered to the Cattegat, to join his old Commander Sir Hyde Parker, who had proceeded thither with a powerful armament, in order to counteract the hostile designs of the Northern powers. The Elephant joined the fleet on the 25th March, and soon after received the flag of Lord Nelson, to whom had been delegated the important task of reducing the Danes to submission. The loss she sustained in the ensuing battle off Copenhagen, amounted to 10 killed and 13 wounded[7].

Captain Foley continued on the Baltic station until the month of August, 1801, when he returned to England in company with Sir Charles M. Pole, who had succeeded Lord Nelson in the chief command of the fleet kept in that sea after the victory at Copenhagen. The Elephant was soon after put out of commission.

Towards the latter end of the year 1803, Captain Foley had the misfortune to lose his brother; an event which we are induced to mention in order to introduce the following letter, which he received on the occasion from Lord Nelson, expressive of the sincerity and warmth of his attachment:– “How little, my dear Foley, do we know who is to go first: Gracious God! I am sure to all appearance he was more likely to see us pass away, than we him. My dear Foley, I only desire that you will always charge yourself in reminding me of your nephew, in whatever station I may be; I should be most ungrateful, if I could for a moment forget your public support of me in the day of battle, or your private friendship, which I esteem most highly; therefore, as far as relates to you, your nephew, and myself, let this letter stand against me. I was glad to see that Freemantle had got his old ship again. If you are employed, I think the Mediterranean would suit you better than the Black Rocks, North Seas, or West Indies; and I shall be truly happy to have you near me, and to have frequent opportunities of personally assuring you how much I am, my dear Foley, your faithful and affectionate friend, Nelson and Bronte.”

In October 1807, our officer received the honourable appointment of a Colonelcy of Royal Marines; and on the 28th April in the following year, he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral. In the spring of 1811, he succeeded the late Sir George Campbell as Commander-in-Chief in the Downs, which office he held during the remainder of the war. He was advanced to the rank of Vice-Admiral, Aug. 12, 1812; nominated a K.C.B. Jan. 2, 1815; and received the insignia of a G.C.B., vacant by the death of the Hon. Sir W. Cornwallis, May 6, 1820.

Sir Thomas Foley received the gold medal for each of the two general actions in which he was engaged, prior to that off Copenhagen, viz. Feb. 14, 1797, and Aug. 1, 1798.

He married, July 31, 1802, Lady Lucy Anne Fitzgerald, fifth daughter of James, first Duke of Leinster, by Lady Emilia Lennox, daughter of Charles, second Duke of Richmond.

Residence.– Abermarlais Park, Landovery, Carmarthenshire.

  1. See p. 197.
  2. Admiral Gell died at his Feat near Crickhowell, in Brecknockshire, in 1806.
  3. See p. 340.
  4. See p. 254.
  5. See p. 21, et seq.
  6. It had long been a favourite idea with Captain Foley, which he had mentioned on the preceding evening to Captains Troubridge and Hood, that A considerable advantage would arise, if the enemy’s fleet were found moored in line-of-battle in with the land, to lead between them and the shore, as the French guns on that side were not likely to be manned, or to be ready for action. The original plan of attack which Sir Horatio Nelson had intended to have adopted, if Captain Foley had not judged it expedient to lead within the French line, was to have kept entirely on its outer side; and to have, stationed his ships, as far as he was able, one on the outer bow and another on the outer quarter of each of the enemy. For an account of the battle of the Nile, see p. 180, et seq.
  7. Towards the close of 1800, the scheme of an armed neutrality, or rather of a maritime confederacy, to annul the marine code maintained by Great Britain, was entered into by Russia, Denmark, Sweden, and Prussia. This coalition occupied the serious attention of the British ministry; and on the 14th Jan. 1801, an embargo was laid on all the ships in English ports, belonging to any of the confederated powers, Prussia excepted. With the latter a negotiation was for some time carried on, with the hope of prevailing on her to abandon the league; hut with so little effect, that in the month of March, the troops of that power entered Hanover, closed the navigation of the Elbe, Weser, and Ems, and laid the British shipping in those rivers under restraint. About the same time. the Danish army took possesion of Hamburgh, for the alleged purpose of stopping the English trade to that portSuch a combination, under the influence of France, would soon have become formidable; and never did the British cabinet display more decision than in instantly preparing to crush it.

    The fleet destined for this service, under the command of Sir Hyde Parker, left Yarmouth Roads on the 12th March; Mr. Vansittart sailed in it, the English government still hoping to obtain its end by negociation; but on that gentleman’s arrival at Copenhagen he found the Danes in the highest degree hostile, and their state of preparation exceeding what our ministers had supposed possible. On the 30th the armament passed the Sound, and anchored near the island of Huen.

    The British fleet had no sooner brought up, than the Commander-in-Chief, accompanied by Lord Nelson, and some other officers, proceeded in a light vessel to reconnoitre the harbour and channels. It was soon perceived that the unnecessary delay which had taken place outside the Sound had been of important advantage to the enemy, who had lined the northern edge of the shoals near the Crown batteries, and the front of the harbour and arsenal, with a formidable flotilla. The Trekroner battery appeared in particular to have been strengthened, and all the, buoys of the northern end of the King’s Channels had been removed.

    The ensuing night was employed in ascertaining the Channels round the great shoal called the Middle Ground, and in laying down fresh buoys. On the next day, Sir Hyde Parker and Lord Nelson, attended as before, proceeded to the examination of the northern channel, and of the flotilla from the eastward. The Danish line of defence was formed in a direct line eastward from the Trekroner battery, and extended at least two miles along the coast of Amak; it was ascertained to consist of the hulls of seven line-of-battle ships with jury masts, two only being fully rigged, ten floating batteries, one bomb-ship rigged, and two or three smaller craft. On the Trekroner appeared to be nearly seventy guns; on the smaller battery, in shore, six or seven guns; and on the coast of Amak several batteries which were within a long range of the King’s Channel. Off the harbour’s mouth, which was to the westward of the Trekroner, were moored four line-of-battle ships and a frigate; two of the former, and the latter, were fully rigged. Their whole line of defence, from one extremity to the other, might embrace an extent of nearly four miles. A council of war was held in the afternoon, and the mode which might he advisable for the attack was considered; that from the eastward appeared to be preferred. Sir Hyde Parker, with sound discretion, and in a handsome manner, not only left every thing to Lord Nelson for this detached service, but gave him two more line-of-battle ships than he demanded. The night of the 31st was employed as the preceding, in ascertaining the course of the Upper Channel, a service which was conducted under Nelson’s immediate directions.

    On the forenoon of the 1st April, the whole fleet removed to an anchorage within two leagues of the town, off the N.W. end of the Middle Ground. Lord Nelson, accompanied by a few chosen friends, made his last observations during that morning on board the Amazon; and about one o’clock returning to the Elephant, he threw out the wished for signal, to weigh. The shout with which it was received throughout his division, consisting of seven 74’s, three 64’s, one ship of 54, and one of 50 guns, besides frigates, sloops, &c. &c., was heard to a considerable distance. The squadron then weighed and followed the Amazon frigate in succession through the narrow channel. The wind was light, but favourable, and not one accident occurred. About dark, the whole of the ships were at their anchorage off Draco Point, the headmost of the enemy’s line not more than two miles distant. The small extent of the anchoring ground, caused the ships to be so much crowded, which the calmness of the evening increased, that had the Danes but taken due advantage of it by shells from mortar boats, or from Amak island, the greatest mischief might have ensued.

    On board the Elephant, the night of the 1st April was an important one. As soon as the fleet had anchored, the gallant Nelson sat down to table with a large party of his comrades in arms. He was in the highest spirits, and drank to a leading wind, and to the success of the ensuing day. Captains Foley, Hardy, Freemantle, Riou, Inman, his Lordship’s second in command, (Rear-Admiral Graves) and a few others to whom he was particularly attached, were of this interesting party; from which every man separated with feelings of admiration for their great leader, and with anxious impatience to follow him to the approaching battle. The remainder of the night was spent by Lord Nelson, assisted by Captains Foley and Riou, in arranging the order of battle, and drawing up those instructions that were to be issued to each ship on the succeeding day.

    About seven A.M. of the 2d April, the signal was made for all Captains; the orders were delivered to each by eight o’clock; and a special command was given to Captain Riou, to act as circumstances might require. At half past nine the signal was given to weigh in succession; this was quickly obeyed by the Edgar, Captain Murray, who proceeded in a noble manner for the Channel. The Agamemnon, Captain Fancourt, was to follow, but she could not weather the shoal, and was obliged to anchor. The Polyphemus’s signal was then made, and this change in the order of sailing most promptly executed by Captain Lawford. The Edgar was, however, unsupported for a considerable time; when within range of the Provestein of 56 guns, she was fired at, but returned not a shot until she was nearly opposite to the number which was destined to her by the instructions; she then poured in her broadsides with great effect. The Polyphemus was followed by the Isis, Bellona, and Russel, commanded by the Captains Walker, Thompson, and Cuming; the former took her station most gallantly, and had the severest birth this day, of any ship, the Monarch alone excepted; but the Bellona and Russel, in going down the channel, kept too close on the starboard shoal, and ran aground; they were, however, within range of shot, and continued to fire with much spirit upon such of the enemy’s ships as they could reach. The Elephant and the remainder of the line-of-battle ships, consisting of the Defiance, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Graves; Ganges, Captain Freemantle; Monarch, Captain Mosse; Ardent, Captain Bertie; and Glatton, Captain Nowell, got into the stations assigned to them without any accident.

    The action began at five minutes past ten. In about half an hour afterwards, the first half of the British squadron was engaged, and before half past eleven the battle became general. The Elephant’s station was in the centre, opposite to the Danish Commodore, who commanded in the Dannebrog, of 62 guns [Commodore Fischer afterwards shifted his broad pendant to the Holstein, and subsequently, about two o’clock, to the battery of the Three Crowns.]. The Glatton was placed immediately astern of the Elephant; the Ganges, Monarch, and Defiance, a-head, the distance between each not exceeding half a cable. The judgment with which each ship calculated her station in that intricate channel was admirable throughout. The failure of the three ships that were aground, and whose force was to have been opposed to the Trekroner battery, left this day, as glorious for seamanship as for courage, incomplete. The gallant Riou, perceiving the blank in the original plan for the attack of the Crown battery, proceeded down the line with his squadron of frigates, and attempted, but in vain, to fulfil the duty of the absent ships of the line; his force was unequal to it, and the general signal of recal, which was made about one P.M. by Sir Hyde Parker, had the good effect at least of saving the ships under that officer’s directions from destruction.

    This remarkable signal was only acknowledged on board of the Elephant, not repeated. Rear-Admiral Graves did the latter, not being able to distinguish Lord Nelson’s conduct on the occasion. About this time few if any of the enemy’s heavy ships and praams had ceased to fire. The Isis had greatly suffered by the superior weight of the Provestein’s fire; and if it had not been for the judicious diversion of it by the Désirée frigate, Captain Inman, who raked her, and for other assistance from the Polyphemus, the Isis would have been destroyed. Both her and the Bellona had received serious injury by the bursting of some of their guns. The Monarch was also suffering severely under the united fire of the Zealand, 74, and Holstein, 60; and only two of the English bombs could get to their station on the Middle Ground, and open their mortars on the arsenal, directing their shells over both fleets. The gun-brigs, impeded by currents, could not, with the exception of one, come into action. The division under Sir Hyde Parker could only menace the entrance of the harbour. The Elephant was warmly engaged by the Dannebrog, and by two heavy praams on her bow and quarter. Signals of distress were flying on board the Bellona and Russell, and of inability from the Agamemnon. In short, the contest in general, although from the relaxed state of the enemy’s fire, it might not have given room for much apprehension as to the result, had certainly, at this juncture, not declared itself in favour of either side.

    Either by a fortunate accident, or intentionally, the signal for close action was not displaced on board the Elephant; and at about 2 P.M. the greater part of the Danish line had ceased to fire; some of the lighter ships were adrift, and the carnage on board of the enemy, who reinforced their crews from the shore, was dreadful. The taking possession of such ships as had struck, was however attended with difficulty; partly by reason of the batteries on Amak island protecting them, and partly because an irregular fire was made on the boats, as they approached, from the ships themselves. The Dannebrog acted in this manner, and fired at the Elephant’s boat, although she had struck, and was on fire. A renewed attack on her by the Elephant and Glatton, for a quarter of an hour, not only completely silenced and disabled the Dannebrog, but by the use of grape, nearly killed every man who was in the praams, a-head and a-stern of that unfortunate ship. On the smoke clearing away, she was observed to be drifting in flames before the wind, and about half-past three she blew up.

    After the Dannebrog was adrift, and had ceased to fire, the action was found to be over, along the whole of the line a-stern of the Elephant; but not so with the ships a-head, and with the Crown batteries. Whether from ignorance of the custom of war, or from confusion on board the prizes, the English boats were, as before mentioned, repulsed from the ships themselves, or fired at from Amak island. Lord Nelson naturally lost temper at this, and observed, “That he must either send on shore and stop this irregular proceeding, or send in the fire ships and burn them.” He accordingly retired into the stern gallery and wrote, with great dispatch, the following letter to the Crown Prince, with the address, To the brothers of Englishmen, the brave Danes: and in order to shew that no hurry had ensued upon the occasion, he sent for a candle to the cockpit, and affixed a larger seal than usual. “Vice-Admiral Lord Nelson has been commanded to spare Denmark, when she no longer resists. The line of defence which covered her shores has struck to the British flag. Let the firing cease then, that he may take possession of his prizes, or he will blow them into the air along with their crews who have so nobly defended them. The brave Danes are the brothers, and should never be the enemies of the English.” This letter was conveyed on shore through the contending fleets by Captain Sir Frederick Thesiger, who acted as his Lordship’s Aide-de-Camp; and who found the Prince near the Sally Port, animating his people in a most spirited manner.

    While the boat was absent, the vigorous fire of the ships a-head of the Elephant, and the approach of three of Sir Hyde Parker’s division, the Ramillies, Defence, and Veteran, caused the remainder of the enemy’s line to the eastward of the Trekroner to strike. That formidable work continued its fire, but fortunately at too long a range to do serious damage to any one except the Monarch, whose loss in men, this day, exceeded that of any line-of-battle ship during the war. The firing from the Crown battery and from the leading ships of the British squadron did not cease until past three o’clock; when the Danish Adjutant-General, Lindholm, returning with a flag of truce, directed the fire of the battery to be suspended j and thus the action closed after five hours duration, four of which were warmly contested.

    Previous to the boat’s getting on board, Lord Nelson had taken the opinion of his valuable friends, Captains Freemantle and Foley, as to the practicability of advancing with the ships which were least damaged, upon that part of the Danish line of defence yet uninjured. Their opinions were averse from it; and, on the other hand, decidedly in favour of removing the ships, whilst the wind yet held fair, from their present critical situation.

    In pursuance of this advice, and immediately on the departure of the Adjutant-General, whom Lord Nelson had referred to the Commander-in-Chief, then at anchor about four miles off, for a conference on the important points which the message he was charged with alluded to, the signal was made for the Glatton, Elephant, Ganges, Defiance, and Monarch, to weigh. The intricacy of the channel now shewed the great utility of what had been done; the Monarch, as first ship, immediately hit on a shoal, but was pushed over it by the Ganges taking her amidships. The Glatton went clear, but the Defiance and Elephant ran aground, leaving the Crown battery at about a mile distance; and there they remained fixed, the former until ten o’clock that night, and the latter until eight, notwithstanding every exertion which their fatigued crews could make to relieve them. Had there been no cessation of hostilities, their situation would certainly have been perilous.

    The Elephant being aground, Lord Nelson followed the Danish officer to the London, where that negotiation first began, which terminated in an honourable peace. Lindholm returned to Copenhagen the same evening, when it was agreed that all prizes should be surrendered, and the whole of the Danish wounded received on shore. Lord Nelson then repaired on board his permanent flag ship, the St. George, and the night was actively passed by the boats of the division which had not been engaged, in getting afloat the ships that were ashore, and in bringing out the prizes. The Desirée, towards the close of the action, in going to the aid of the Bellona, became fast on the same shoal; but neither these ships, nor the Russel, were in any danger from the enemy’s batteries, as the world has frequently since been led to believe.

    Previous to the convention of the 9th April, the whole of the Danish prisoners were sent on shore, and receipts had for 6,000 killed, wounded, and taken, on the 2d. The prizes which amounted to twelve ships mounting 482 guns, exclusive of the Dannebrog and two others burnt and sunk during the action, were all destroyed, excepting the Holstein; she was sent to England with wounded men. The measure of destroying the prizes was much regretted, but deemed necessary by the Commander-in-Chief, with a view to the ulterior active services of his fleet. The loss sustained by the British in this conflict amounted to 943 killed and wounded.