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Royal Naval Biography/Middleton, Robert Gambier

One of the Principal Officers and Commissioners of his Majesty’s Navy.
[Retired Captain.]

The name of Middleton is derived from the lands of Middletoun, in Kincardineshire, of which this family were in possession for nearly four centuries and a half. The subject of this memoir is a son of the late George Middleton, Esq., brother of Admiral Lord Barham, and Collector of the Customs at Leith, by Elizabeth, daughter of George Wilson, of Stottencleugh, N.B. Esq.

Being destined for the navy, he went to sea at an early age, and we believe served as a Lieutenant in Lord Hood’s fleet, at the occupation and evacuation of Toulon, in 1793[1]. He obtained the rank of Post-Captain, Aug. 11, 1794; soon after which he had an opportunity of distinguishing himself as a brave officer.

In the month of June, 1795, he commanded the Lowestoffe, a 32-gun frigate, with a complement of 212 men, under the orders of the late Lord Hotham, by whom he was sent, in company with the Dido, of 28 guns and 193 men, to reconnoitre the port of Toulon and the adjacent islands. On the 24th of the same month, these ships fell in with two French frigates, la Minerve of 42 guns and 330 men, and l’Artémise of 38 guns and 275 men. After some manoeuvring, Captain George Henry Towry, of the Dido, leading down, commenced a close action with the headmost and largest of the enemy’s ships, which falling twice on board, was at an early period much disabled from the loss of her bowsprit, fore-mast, and main-top-mast; the Dido’s mizen-mast being shot away, and her fore and main-top-sails rendered useless, she no longer kept to. At this juncture Captain Middleton came up, and opened a well-directed fire. L’Artémise exchanged broadsides with the British frigates as she passed them on the opposite tack, and soon after tacked for the purpose of joining her consort; but upon the approach of the Lowestoffe sheered off, and succeeded in effecting her escape[2]. Captain Middleton, on his return from the pursuit, commenced a raking fire upon la Minerve, and soon compelled her to surrender.

This was justly considered one of the most gallant actions of that period, la Minerve alone being superior in weight of metal to both her opponents. Captain Towry, the senior officer, in his letter to the Commander-in-Chief, acknowledged the very able support he had received from Captain Middleton, and testified, that “by his good conduct, the business of the day was, in a great measure, brought to a fortunate issue[3].”

We are not aware of the exact loss sustained by the enemy, but that of the British was not so great as might have been expected; the Dido had 6 men killed, and 15, including her first Lieutenant, the late Captain Buckoll, wounded[4]. The Lowestoffe had only 3 men wounded.

In the course of the same year, Captain Middleton was appointed to the Flora of 36 guns, in which ship he served a considerable time under the orders of Commodore Nelson, in the gulf of Genoa and on the neighbouring coasts.

On the 10th July, 1796, the Flora assisted at the occupation of Porto Ferrajo, which place it was considered necessary to secure, in consequence of the French having taken possession of Leghorn, and evinced a disposition to seize upon the island of Elba, in order to facilitate their meditated invasion of Corsica.

Porto Ferrajo is by nature very strong, and the citadel nearly impregnable; notwithstanding which, it surrendered without resistance, on observing the preparations made by Commodore Nelson’s squadron, and the British troops under Major Duncan, for storming the place. It was mounted with 100 pieces of cannon, and garrisoned by 400 regulars, besides a numerous militia.

In April, 1797, soon after the battle off Cape St, Vincent, Vice-Admiral Waldegrave was appointed Governor of Newfoundland, and the Flora ordered to convey him to England. On the 3d Nov. following, she received the flag of Rear-Admiral Frederick for a passage to Lisbon; from whence she proceeded to her station in the Mediterranean[5].

On the 14th May, 1798, Captain Middleton pursued a French brig, which he compelled to seek shelter in the harbour of Cerigo, an island near the Morea; and there not being sufficient water for his frigate to follow her, he despatched the boats to cut her out; which service they effected in a most gallant manner, bringing her off in triumph, notwithstanding a heavy fire from two batteries at the entrance of the harbour, with the loss of only 1 man killed and 8 wounded. She proved to be le Mondovi, of 16 guns and 68 men, 1 of whom was slain, 5 supposed to be drowned, and 8 dangerously wounded[6].

In the course of the following month, Captain Middleton captured la Corcyre, a French corvette of 16 guns, near Sicily. During the two succeeding years he was employed on the Lisbon station, where he cruised with considerable success against the enemy’s privateers and merchantmen. Among the numerous prizes taken by him, were l’Intrepide, of 20 guns and 160 men; l’Aventure, 14 guns, 132 men; N. S. del Carmen, 2 guns, 21 men; l’Aurore, 8 guns, 33 men; la Legere, 14 guns, 60 men; the Rhuiter, 14 guns, 104 men; Comnesa, 16 guns, 90 men; St. Antonio y Animas, 10 guns, 55 men; and the Cortes of 4 guns; making a total of nine armed vessels, mounting 102 guns, and carrying upwards of 640 men. He was also fortunate enough to re-capture many of their prizes.

In the early part of 1801, the Flora accompanied the fleet under Lord Keith to Aboukir Bay, where she had several men killed and wounded, whilst assisting at the debarkation of the army under Sir Ralph Abercrombie; with whose remains she was soon after sent to Malta, where they were interred in the N.E. bastion of the fortifications of la Valette, on the 29th of April. A black marble stone, laid horizontally, adorned with a Latin epitaph, marks the place of interment. The Flora returned to England in the course of the following month.

Soon after the renewal of hostilities in 1803, we find Captain Middleton commanding the North Foreland district of Sea Fencibles. In the summer of 1805, he succeeded Commissioner Otway in the superintendance of the naval yard at Gibraltar, where he remained until Sept. 1808, at which period he obtained a seat at the Navy Board, where he still continues.

Commissioner Middleton married, Dec. 11, 1802, Susan Maria, daughter of John Martin Leake, of Thorpe Hall, co. Essex, Esq.

  1. In the list of officers employed in the service of burning the French ships and arsenal at Toulon, we find a Lieutenant Middleton of the Britannia. Unfortunately for the Compiler, in this, as in numerous other instances which he has met with, the Christian names of officers were not considered necessary to be mentioned by the writer of the official despatch; an omission greatly to be deplored, as we know that the meritorious actions of some individuals are occasionally, though unintentionally, assigned to others, in consequence thereof. Commanding officers, having a proper feeling for their subordinates, would do well to give their secretaries and clerks strict orders to insert the names of officers employed on hazardous services, at full length. The palm would then be worn by him who won it. To evince the necessity of so doing, we need only point to the Navy List for Jan., 1824, in which will be found no less than 39 Lieutenant bearing the name of Smith; and, of those, no less than 5 having the same Christian name, John; which also renders it necessary that the distinguishing italic after the name should not be neglected, as the figures 1, 2, 3, &c. formerly were. and commanded that ship in the glorious battle with the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14, 1797. At the time of his death, which took place April 9, 1809, he was Deputy Chairman of the Victualling, and junior Commissioner of the Transport Board. His father, Commissioner G. P. Towry, died in 1817, aged 84.
  2. L’Artémise was destroyed in Aboukir Bay, Aug. 1, 1798.
  3. Captain Towry was afterwards appointed to the Diadem of 64 guns.
  4. Captain Buckoll commanded the Serpent sloop, and died on the African station, April 23, 1798.
  5. On her passage from England to Lisbon, the Flora assisted at the capture of l’Incroyable, a French privateer, of 24 guns and 220 men.
  6. Lieutenant W. Russel, who commanded the boats on this occasion, died Captain of the Ceres frigate in 1801, aged 35.