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Royal Naval Biography/Keats, Richard Goodwin


Vice-Admiral of the Red; Knight Grand Cross of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath; Governor of Greenwich Hospital; and a Commissioner of the Board of Longitude.

This officer is a son of the late Rev. Richard Keats, Rector of Bideford and King’s Nympton, in Devonshire, a clergyman, who for many years filled the highly respectable and eminently useful station of Head Master of the Free Grammar School at Tiverton, in the same county; a seminary from which many of those gentlemen, whose learning and talents have become so conspicuous in the western part of this kingdom, derived the first principles of their education.

The subject of this memoir was a Lieutenant of the Ramillies, 74, in the action between Keppel and d’Orvilliers, July 27, 1778[1]; and subsequently of the Prince George, 98, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Digby. This latter ship formed part of the fleet under Sir George B. Rodney, at the capture of a Spanish convoy, the defeat of Don Juan de Langara, and the relief of Gibraltar, in Jan. 1780[2]. She was also particularly distinguished by being the vessel in which Prince William Henry, now Duke of Clarence, commenced his naval career as a Midshipman; and upon this occasion Lieutenant Keats had the honour of being selected as a proper officer to whom the person, and indeed in a considerable degree the professional tuition of H.R.H. might be safely entrusted[3].

Lieutenant Keats was promoted to the rank of Commander, in the Bonetta sloop, about 1782, and served with great credit on the American station during the remainder of the colonial war. He was made a Post-Captain, June 24, 1789; and in the following year we find him commanding the Southampton, of 32 guns, from which ship he removed at the period of the Russian armament, into the Niger, another frigate of the same force. Early in 1793, when the National Convention declared war against Great Britain, he was nominated to the command of the London, of 98 guns, fitting for the flag of his late royal pupil; but which, we believe, was not hoisted on that occasion.

Our officer’s next appointment was to the Galatea frigate, in which he was present at the capture of la Revolutionnaire of 44 guns, Oct. 21, 1794[4]. In the summer of the following year, he accompanied the expedition under Sir John B. Warren, to Quiberon[5]; and on the 30th March, 1796, assisted at the capture of l’Etoile, of 30 guns and 160 men, and four sail of French merchantmen. The Galatea on this latter occasion had 2 men killed and 6 wounded. The other ships in company, namely the Pomone, Artois, and Anson, sustained no loss.

Captain Keats continued to command the Galatea until the year 1797, when he was removed into the Boadicea, another frigate, in which he distinguished himself as an indefatigable cruizer, and captured several very formidable French privateers. On the 2d July, 1799, he commanded the frigates belonging to Sir Charles M. Pole’s squadron, employed in covering an attack made by some bomb-vessels upon a Spanish squadron which had taken shelter under the batteries on the isle of Aix, and a floating mortar battery moored in the passage between the Boyart shoal and the isle of Oleron[6]. We next find him in the Superb, of 74 guns, employed off Cadiz. In our memoir of Sir James Saumarez[7], we have given an account of the battle which took place off Algeziras, between that officer and M. Linois. Owing to the Superb being in the offing, at too great a distance to perceive the night signal made by Sir James on his receiving intelligence of the arrival of the enemy from the Mediterranean, Captain Keats was prevented sharing in that action; but having re-joined the Rear-Admiral at Gibraltar, he was enabled to participate in the subsequent engagement, in which, indeed, he was the principal actor.

At noon on the 12th July, 1801, six days after the event just alluded to, M. Linois broke ground from before Algeziras, for the purpose of proceeding to Cadiz with his squadron, and some Spanish ships by which he had been reinforced, amounting in the whole to nine sail of the line, two of which were 3-deckers, besides frigates, gun-boats, &c. This movement was no sooner observed than the British squadron, consisting of only five 2-decked ships, two frigates, and two smaller vessels, got under weigh; and the moment the enemy had cleared Gibraltar Bay, bore up in pursuit, Sir James Saumarez directing Captain Keats to lead on and attack the enemy’s rear.

Captain Keats performed this service in the handsomest manner; at about 11h 20’ P.M. he got within two or three cables’ length of the Real Carlos, a Spanish 3-decker, and opened a tremendous fire upon her, which had so good an effect, that the Superb’s shot passing over her, and striking two others which were in a line a-breast of her, they commenced firing on each other. In a quarter of an hour Captain Keats perceived the ship he was engaging to be on fire, upon which he quitted her, and proceeded on to the next a-head, the San Antonio, of 74 guns, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Le Roy, which ceased firing after a contest of about thirty minutes. Shortly afterwards the Caesar and Venerable came up in succession; and, deceived by the San Antonio’s broad pendant (the halliards of which had been shot away and got entangled among the rigging) being still flying, fired into her, as did also the Spencer and Thames. In a few minutes the discovery was made that the San Antonio had already struck to the Superb, and the firing at her discontinued.

A little after midnight, Captain Keats’s former opponent, the Real Carlos, blew up; but not until she had fallen on board of and set fire to the San Hermenegildo, of 112 guns; which also exploded soon after. The wind at this time blew extremely hard, and the situation of the hostile squadrons precluded all posibility of rendering the miserable people on board these vessels the least assistance; the whole of whom, with the exception of 84, were thus launched into eternity[8].

In this action the Superb had not a man killed, and but 15, including Lieutenant E. Waller, wounded. The loss of the San Antonio is not known, but was no doubt very severe. The Commodore Le Roy was among her wounded. Captain Keats remained with his prize, whilst the rest of the squadron pursued the discomfited enemy[9].

From this period we find no particular mention of Captain Keats until towards the latter end of the year 1804, when he was despatched by Lord Nelson to Algiers, with a Consul, whom he succeeded in establishing most honourably, and thus put an end to the differences that had for some time subsisted between Great Britain and that Regency. The Superb afterwards accompanied that great commander to the West Indies, in the memorable pursuit of the combined fleets of France and Spain[10].

On the 9th Nov. 1805, our officer was honored with an appointment to one of the vacant Colonelcies of Royal Marines. About the same time his ship received the flag of Sir John Thomas Duckworth, who after the glorious battle off Cape Trafalgar, had been appointed second in command of the Mediterranean fleet, under Lord Collingwood, by whom he was sent in quest of a squadron which had sailed from France, with a view of succouring the important colony of St. Domingo.

Previous to the action fought off that island, Feb. 6, 1806[11], Captain Keats suspended to the mizen-stay a portrait of his late intimate friend Lord Nelson. There it remained unhurt, but was completely covered, as was Captain Keats himself, with the blood and brains of one of the boatswain’s mates. A few minutes before the action commenced, the band played “God save the King!” then came, “Off she goes!” and next, “Nelson of the Nile!” Never was enthusiasm greater than that of the Superb’s crew, who went to it literally with hand and heart. The enemy brought their two largest ships, l’Alexandre, and l’Imperiale, together, seemingly with a view to quiet the fire of the Superb, before any of the other ships could come up; but in this they were disappointed; for three broadsides from that vessel fortunately did such execution on board l’Alexandre, that she became quite unmanageable, and lost her station. The 3-decker was by this time within pistol-shot of the Superb, and apparently reserving her fire for her; but at this critical moment Rear-Admiral Cochrane, in the Northumberland, notwithstanding the small distance betwixt the Superb and l’Imperiale, gallantly ran in between them, and received the whole broadside of the largest ship in the French navy, several of the shot passing quite through the Northumberland into the Superb. The conflict then became general, and terminated most honorably for the British; for although the enemy were a little inferior, let us bear in mind that they were entirely annihilated in less than two hours.

“To speak individually of the conduct of any one,” says Sir John T. Duckworth in his official letter, “would be injurious to all, for all were equally animated with the same zealous ardour in support of their King and Country: yet possessed of these feelings, I cannot be silent, without injustice to the firm and manly support for which I was indebted to Captain Keats, and the effect that the system of discipline and good order in which I found the Superb must ever produce; and the pre-eminence of British seamen could never be more highly conspicuous than in this contest.”

The loss sustained by the Superb amounted to 6 killed and 56 wounded. Captain Keats, together with his brother officers, received the thanks of Parliament, and the option of a sword or vase of the value of one hundred pounds, voted by the Committee of the Patriotic Fund.

We next find the subject of this memoir employed as a Commodore in the expedition against Copenhagen[12]. On the 2d October, 1807, he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, and hoisted his flag in the Superb, as Commander of a division of the fleet stationed in the Baltic, under Sir James Saumarez.

From the moment that the people of Spain began to throw off the yoke of France, it became an object of the first importance to the British government to endeavour to rescue the Spanish army quartered in the north of Europe, and which had been drawn from Spain by the French Emperor, preparatory to his designs upon that country being carried into effect. To accomplish this desirable object, orders were given to Rear-Admiral Keats, which he executed with his usual ability, and succeeded in bringing off the Marquis de la Romana and his army, from Nyborg in Denmark, Aug. 11, 1808. For this valuable service he was created a Knight of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath.

In 1809, Sir Richard G. Keats served in the expedition sent against the enemy’s ships in the Scheldt[13]. He was afterwards appointed to command the naval forces employed for the defence of Cadiz, where he remained until the summer of 1811, when he proceeded to the Mediterranean, and hoisted his flag on board the Hibernia, of 120 guns, as second in command on that station. His promotion to the rank of Vice-Admiral took place, July 31, 1810. On the 20th Feb. 1813, Sir Richard was nominated Commander-in-Chief at Newfoundland, and Governor of that colony, where his services as a Flag-Officer terminated. He succeeded the late Sir George Hope as Major-General of the Royal Marines, May 7, 1818; and Sir John Colpoys as Governor of Greenwich Hospital, early in 1821.

Our officer married, June 27, 1820, Mary, eldest daughter of the late Francis Hurt, of Alderwesley, co. Derby, Esq.

Residence.– Royal Hospital, Greenwich.

  1. See note †, at p. 195.
  2. See note †, at p. 3.
  3. See pp. 8, and 158.
  4. See p. 277.
  5. See p. 169.
  6. See p. 90.
  7. See p. 187, et seq.
  8. The destruction of the Spanish 3-deckers is supposed to have originated in the use of furnaces for the purpose of heating shot.
  9. For further particulars of this action, see p. 191. On the return of the squadron to Gibraltar, Sir James Saumarez issued the following memorandum:

    Caesar, Rosia Bay, July 15, 1801.

    “Rear-Admiral Sir James Saumarez has the happiness to offer his most heartfelt congratulations to the Captains, officers, and men of the ships he has the honour to command, on the signal success with which it has pleased Almighty God to crown their zealous exertions in the service of their country.

    “To the discipline and valour of British seamen is to be ascribed their great superiority over the enemy, who, although more than treble the force of the English squadron in number of guns and weight of metal, have been so singularly defeated.

    “The Rear-Admiral has not failed to transmit, in his late despatches, a report of the unparalleled exertions of all the officers and men in refitting his Majesty’s ships after the battle of Algeziras, (where their conduct and bravery were equally conspicuous,) which has led to the late glorious success.

    (Signed)James Saumarez,”

  10. See Vice-Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm.
  11. See p. 261.
  12. See p. 79, et seq.
  13. See p. 290.