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Royal Naval Biography/Penrose, Charles Vinicombe


Vice-Admiral of the White; Knight Commander of the Most Honorable Military Order of the Bath; Knight Grand Cross of the Most Distinguished Ionian Order of St. Michael and St. George; and Knight Grand Cross of the Royal Neapolitan Order of St. Ferdinand and of Merit.

The family of Penrose is of great antiquity, and has been long settled in Cornwall, where its branches are very numerous. In the 12th of Hen. IV., John Penrose was elected M.P. for Liskard; and in the 18th Hen. VIII. Richard Penrose, of Penrose, served the office of Sheriff of the county. These circumstances are sufficient to prove the antiquity and respectability of the family[1].

The subject of this memoir is the second son of the Rev. John Penrose, a most eloquent and truly Christian divine, 35 years vicar of St. Gluvias, co. Cornwall.

Mr. Charles Vinicombe Penrose was born June 20, 1759; and being intended for the naval profession, he was placed, in 1772, at the Royal Academy, Portsmouth; from whence he was discharged, early in 1775, into the Levant frigate, Captain the Hon. George Murray, under whom he completed his time as a midshipman, on the Mediterranean, Channel, and North Sea stations; where he assisted at the capture of several American and French privateers, together with many merchantmen.

In Aug. 1779, Mr. Penrose was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant; and shortly afterwards appointed to the Cleopatra 32, commanded by the same excellent officer; in which frigate he witnessed the battle between Sir Hyde Parker and Admiral Zoutman, Aug. 5, 1781[2].

About 1782, Lieutenant Penrose first saw the plan of numerary signals on board a Swedish frigate: these had been introduced by French officers into the Swedish marine, and he was much struck with their comprehensive simplicity. Being then senior Lieutenant of the Cleopatra, and Captain Murray having a small squadron under his orders, Mr. Penrose, with that officer’s approbation, made out a code sufficient for its guidance, adopting the numerary system, instead of the tabular plan of superior and inferior flags, which was at that time in general use. Two officers then commanding brigs, now old and distinguished admirals, were the first to whom Captain Murray and Mr. Penrose explained them, and both these commanders declared it as their opinion, that the difficulty of comprehending the numerary combinations was so great, that they did not think they could ever be brought into general use. Now, how many seamen, marines, and boys are masters of all our signal and telegraphic practice!

During the Spanish armament, Lieutenant Penrose again served under Captain Murray, in the Defence 74; and at the commencement of the French revolutionary war, he accompanied him to the West Indies, in the Duke 98; which ship formed part of the squadron under Rear-Admiral Gardner, at the attack of Martinique, in June, 1793[3]. After his return to England he successively followed his friend and patron into the Glory 98, and Resolution 74.

On the 12th April, 1794; Captain Murray was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral; and at the same time his protegé was promoted to the command of the Lynx, a new sloop, recently launched at Woolwich. Captain Penrose’s post commission bears date Oct. 7, 1794, at which period he was appointed to the Cleopatra frigate.

When ready for sea, Captain Penrose was sent to Bermuda, to examine the harbour and channel that had been discovered by Lieutenant Thomas Hurd[4]; and which is likely hereafter to become of great national importance. For his able report upon the nature of the anchorage, and the safety of the passage leading into it, Captain Penrose received the thanks of the Admiralty; and we have reason to believe that the improvements since made there have been in complete accordance with the recommendations given in that report. The Cleopatra being the first ship of war that had ever sailed through the channel, her captain named it after its discoverer; while to the magnificent harbour he gave the name of Murray.

Shortly after the performance of this scientific service. Captain Penrose appears to have had a very narrow escape.

The Cleopatra was crossing the Gulph Stream, under a reefed fore-sail and mizen-stay-sail, in a night rendered dark by a deep and jet black thunder cloud, which had totally obscured the moon. After very vivid lightning and a loud explosion, the wind shifted in a heavy squall, so as to bring the ship up several points, with her head to a very high and much agitated sea; giving her at the same time fresher way through the water. Her first plunge put the whole of the forecastle deep under, and the officer of the watch hardly expected to see her rise again. Captain Penrose, who was in his cot, got a severe blow by being dashed violently against the beams. The ship, however, rose, throwing a vast body of water aft, which burst open the cabin bulk-head, breaking loose every thing upon deck but the guns. In this send-aft, the taffrail and after part of the quarter-deck were far under water. Luckily, only part of the after hatchway was open, and no great body of water went below. The fore-sail was hauled up, and the damage found to be only the loss of the jib-boom, spritsail-yard, and bumpkins; the bowsprit and foreyard sprung; the spanker-boom broke in two; and the small cutter carried away from the davits[5].

We next find Captain Penrose commanding Vice-Admiral Murray’s flag-ship, the Resolution, during the absence of Captain Francis Pender, then acting as commissioner at Bermuda. Towards the latter end of 1796 he again returned to the Cleopatra; and had the melancholy satisfaction of conveying his much respected patron to England, that valuabla officer having been seized with a paralytic affection, from which he never recovered[6].

On his passage home Captain Penrose captured l’Hirondelle French privateer, of 12 guns and 70 men; many of whom were young persons of family and fortune, whose dread of being forced into the army, as conscripts, had induced them to hazard their safety on the ocean. The subject of this memoir is the author of a pamphlet, entitled “Observations on Corporal Punishment, Impressment, and other Matters relative to the present State of his Majesty’s Royal Navy[7].” In that small, but ably written book, he gives the following instances of the effect of well-timed indulgence to a ship’s company, “and seasonable advice and explanation, where at the same time there is no relaxation of discipline:”–

“I have known an opinion entertained by some very respectable officers, but which I have always deemed erroneous, that no reasoning communications should ever be made to seamen. My practice as a captain was different. When coming into port, under circumstances which would not admit of leave of absence, I always made it a rule to inform the ship’s company, before anchoring, that such must unavoidably be the case, as the necessities of the service would not allow me to grant it. On the contrary, whenever I saw that leave could be granted (and I always granted it if possible), I never waited for that leave to be asked. I called the ship’s company together, and told them I should direct the first lieutenant to give leave to a third or fourth watch, or a certain number at a time, while they continued to merit the indulgence.

“For instance, I returned to England in the Cleopatra from the American station, with about three years’ pay due. The day before the ship went from Spithead into the harbour, I informed the ship’s company that the necessary repairs would keep us long in port, and that they would have leave to go on shore in divisions, as long as they continued to conduct themselves well, or till the ship came out of dock. We were thirteen weeks in harbour; I had not one complaint: after about three weeks there was seldom a man wished to go on shore. I left the port at last with only two men absent without leave; and I should add, that during the time the ship was in dock many were employed in the disagreeable service of fitting out other ships. From a 74 and a frigate near me, under the same circumstances of long detention in harbour, no leave was granted; boats rowed guard every night to prevent desertion, and yet the loss by desertion was very great.

“More than one circumstance occurred in a short time, to shew that my indulgence had not been thrown away. My ship was the first at Portsmouth, and I believe any where, when the payment took place in the one and two pound bank-notes then first issued, and I learned that the greatest possible pains were taking, by some who sought political mischief, and others who sought emolument, to persuade the people that this paper-money was of little worth, and offered, by way of favor, to give the men a low value for their notes. I explained the case, and directed that if any one offered or accepted less than a full value, the offender should instantly be brought to me, that he might be treated as an enemy to his king and country. The pay was cordially received, which was at the moment of no small consequence, as there were many then ready to follow any bad example that might be set. To afford my ship’s company another opportunity of shewing good conduct, the payment was scarcely over, and the ship was still crowded with women, children, and slopsellers when a telegraphic signal announced an enemy’s frigate off Portland; and never were supernumeraries more quickly disposed of, or a ship more quickly unmoored and under sail. We were baulked of our expected prize, and returned to Spithead just before the mutiny. Here, by a little good management and minute attention, I kept my men from cheering with the others; and although I had daily communication in my barge with the Royal George, three days after the yard-ropes had been reeved, I punished two men, who had left their duty in the dock-yard. When I received orders for sea, not a moment’s lapse of good order occurred; but having information that letters had been received, threatening a visit from the delegates, and punishment if my people did not join in cheering, &c. I called the ship’s company together, informed them that I was ordered to proceed to sea; but that under the circumstances I was aware of, I should not do so till the night tide, when I expected they would shew their sense of the confidence I had in their good conduct by weighing with the utmost silence and despatch. The reply was by three hearty cheers (which I would then have gladly dispensed with) and careful obedience to my orders during the night; and I have reason to believe, that the good conduct of my ship’s company aided the aide management of[8] the commander of the part of the western squadron I immediately joined, in the preservation of good order at that critical period. I had the honor of letters of approbation from the Admiralty, both on account of our long stay in harbour without desertion, and preventing my ship’s company from taking part in the mutiny; and after the ship’s company had also received their lordship’s thanks, they sent me a letter full of expressions of gratitude for my having, as they termed it, ‘steered them clear of the troubles so many of their brethren had been involved in.’”

Captain Penrose’s next appointment was, early in 1799, to the Sans Pareil 80, then bearing the flag of Lord Hugh Seymour, but subsequently employed as a private ship under Rear-Admiral Pole, whom she joined off Rochefort the day previous to the bombardment of a Spanish squadron, in Aix road, of which mention has been made at p. 90, of Vol. I. Part I.

After this affair Captain Penrose was ordered to escort a fleet of merchantmen to the West Indies, where the Sans Pareil again received the flag of Lord Hugh Seymour, which she continued to bear till the lamented demise of that nobleman, Sept. 11, 1801[9].

Respecting corporal punishment and the crew of the Sans Pareil, the subject of this memoir says:

“I hope and believe that it is in all respects true, that by vigilant good management some captains have governed well, without the necessity of any corporal punishment: but it must be recollected, that they were not without the power of inflicting such punishment; and if they had been divested of that power, they would not have had well-regulated ships. I will here exemplify the benefit of this power by an instance of its use.

“I took the command of one of our largest ships, in good order and excellent effective discipline. The crew had been long together, and the only detraction from their general merit was, an inveterate habit of profane oaths and the most offensive language. The flag of a beloved friend and most gallant officer was flying on board her; but public service called him abroad, and the ship remained with my pendant only for upwards of six months.

“On the first occasion on which the whole crew were assembled before me, I spoke strongly on the subject of the debasing language my ears were constantly disgusted by. I explained the possibility that the frequent mention of the most brutal crime might render that crime itself familiar to them, and that they might repeat the dreadful execrations against their comrades, till they really wished their fulfilment. I ended my lecture by an assurance, that although I would not threaten that I would inflict punishment for every oath or vile expression I might hear; yet that whenever any man was brought before me for another fault, however inclined I might be to pardon it, I most certainly would not do so, if accompanied by the use of oaths or bad language, or if the culprit was notoriously addicted to such practice. When my worthy admiral rejoined me, after a few days, he gratified me much by saying, ‘How have you effected such a change of manners? I had no fault to find with my fine fellows but their bad language; and still I did not think it right to flog them for it.’

“I mentioned the mode I had adopted, and that the possession of the power had been alone productive of the effect, which was truly the case. My admiral assured me that he now walked the deck with tenfold satisfaction.”

Among the armed vessels taken by Captain Penrose, while commanding the Sans Pareil, was a valuable Spanish letter of marque, whose name is a little connected with the causes of the revolution in South America. She was called the Guachapin, and her figure-head was a well-dressed lad, holding out in his right hand a letter, and in his left a large empty purse. Her commander told Captain Penrose, that the name and figure meant and represented a needy Spaniard going out with a recommendation to a Viceroy, to put him in a way of filling his purse with money. The Guachapin was afterwards a British sloop of war.

Captain Penrose returned home in the Carnatic 74, many of the crew of which ship “had never set foot on land for 6 or 7 years, except in the dock-yard at Jamaica.” When paid off, at Plymouth, the ship’s company, exclusive of commissioned and warrant officers, received upwards of 22,000l. wages; but we question whether they left that town with as many shillings in their possession, for, “in a few hours some, and in a day or two many of these valuable men, were pennyless.”

At the renewal of hostilities, in 1803, Captain Penrose accepted the command of the Padstow district of sea-fencibles; the effects of a coup-de-soleil, which he received previous to his departure from the West Indies, rendering it necessary that he should continue for some time longer on shore.

In the summer of 1810, an extensive flotilla establishment was ordered to be formed at Gibraltar, principally for the defence of Cadiz; and Captain Penrose was appointed to the chief command, with the rank of Commodore. He accordingly repaired to the rock, and hoisted his broad pendant on board the San Juan sheer-hulk, lying in the New Mole.

Finding himself short of hands to man the gun-boats, and understanding that there were many men in the regiments forming the garrison who would gladly volunteer to serve afloat, the Commodore made an immediate application to Lieutenant-Governor Campbell for his permission to receive them, and had no sooner obtained it than nearly 300 prime seamen came forward, anxious once more to appear in “true blue.” Commodore Penrose found that these men had left the naval service “principally on account of long confinement afloat; but that they had by no means acquired a taste for their present employ.”

The Gibraltar flotilla proved of great utility, not only at the defence of Cadiz, but during the whole of the time that the French army under Marshal Soult continued in the south of Spain. The arduous nature of the services in which it was employed will be seen by reference to our memoirs of Captains Sir Thomas Fellowes, Frederick Jennings Thomas, Wil- Henry Smyth, &c. &c.

Commodore Penrose obtained a colonelcy of royal marines, Aug. 12, 1812; and on his return from Gibraltar, in 1813, he was appointed a joint commissioner with Rear-Admiral T. B. Martin and Captain John Wainwright, to make a revision of the establishments for the equipment of ships of war; in which he continued to be employed till his advancement to the rank of Rear-Admiral, Dec. 4, 1813. Previous to his quitting the rock, the British merchants there presented him with a handsome service of plate, as a testimony of their high respect, and as an acknowledgment of his constant attention to their interests, while commanding on that station.

In Jan. 1814, Rear-Admiral Penrose was selected to command the naval force employed at the bottom of the bay of Biscay, in co-operation with the allied armies under Wellington; a proof of the high estimation in which his abilities were then held. The exploits of his squadron, in the neighbourhoods of Bayonne and Bourdeaux, have been very fully detailed under the head of Captain John Coode, C.B.

We have likewise stated at p. 293, that Rear-Admiral Penrose returned from Passages to Plymouth, in the Porcupine of 22 guns, and struck his flag Sept. 12, 1814. Before the conclusion of that month, we find him appointed commander-in-chief on the Mediterranean station, to which he immediately proceeded in the Queen 74.

During the war with Murat, in 1815, the Sicilian navy was placed under the orders of Rear-Admiral Penrose, who afterwards had the honor of conveying Ferdinand IV. from Palermo to Melazzo, Messina, and Naples. On his arrival off the latter place, the King refused to go ashore in the royal barge, saying he would rather be landed and reinstated by his friend, the British admiral, upon whom he then conferred the Grand Cross of St. Ferdinand and of Merit, presenting him at the same time with an enamelled snuff-box, having his Majesty’s portrait, set in large diamonds, upon the lid.

On the 3d Jan. 1816, Rear-Admiral Penrose was nominated a K.C.B.; and in Mar. following, with his flag in the Bombay 74, he accompanied Lord Exmouth from Minorca, upon an expedition to Tunis and Algiers, the object and result of which have been stated at p. 253 of Vol. II. Part I. Had it been found necessary to adopt hostile measures at the latter place, for which the squadron was fully prepared, the same honorable station was assigned to Sir Charles Penrose which Lord Exmouth took up, and so nobly maintained, on the glorious 27th Aug. 1816.

Sir Charles was at Malta when his lordship re-entered the Mediterranean, for the purpose of chastising the barbarians should they refuse to make reparation for their renewed aggressions. Hearing of his lordship’s arrival, and the object of the expedition, he immediately sailed from Valette in the Ister frigate. Captain Thomas Forrest; but “arrived too late to take his share in the attack upon Algiers;” which Lord Exmouth particularly lamented, as “his services would have been desirable in every respect.”

Although Sir Charles Penrose had the mortification to find that the principal object of the expedition had been accomplished without his participation, still his services, as Lord Exmouth’s representative, during the last three days’ negociations with the Dey, were found particularly useful; and “the prudence, firmness, and ability with which he conducted himself” on that delicate occasion were highly praised by his lordship[10].

In Sept. 1816, Sir Charles Penrose once more assumed the chief command on the Mediterranean station; and shortly afterwards he was presented by Pope Pius VIL with two superb marble vases, in consideration of the expeditious and humane manner in which the emancipated subjects of his Holiness were forwarded to the Roman States: an appropriate despatch accompanied this present.

Sir Charles Penrose afterwards accompanied his friend Sir Thomas Maitland, Lord High Commissioner of the Ionian islands, to Prevesa, in Albania, where they were for several days entertained by the celebrated Ali Pacha, during which time business of much importance was transacted. In Aug. 1817, being then off Leghorn, with his flag on board the Albion 74, Sir Charles was honored with a visit by a party of distinguished individuals, amongst whom were Leopoldina Carolina, the present Empress of Brazil, who had recently been married by proxy; Maria Louisa, widow of Napoleon Buonaparte; several others of the Austrian Arch-Duchesses; Leopold II. Grand Duke of Tuscany; Leopold Count of Syracuse; Prince Metternich, the great diplomatist; General Count de Neipperg; and the Portuguese Admiral Souza.

On the 27th April, 1818, the Order of St. Michael and St. George was instituted for the Ionian Islands, and for the ancient sovereignty of Malta and its dependencies. By the rules of that Order, the naval commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean is to be first and principal Knight Grand Cross thereof, but only for the time that he holds his professional appointment. Sir Charles Penrose, however, is specially authorised to bear the title and wear the insignia for life, in consequence of his long services on that station, and his having been there at the institution of the Order. We believe that the late Lord Guildford and himself were the only persons to whom that privilege was allowed.

The merchants at Malta subsequently presented Sir Charles Penrose with a service of plate, as a token of their respect and esteem: the captains and commanders under his orders likewise requested his acceptance of a splendid silver salver, with a flattering inscription, expressive of their high respect for his public and private character. He returned home in the spring of 1819; and was advanced to the rank of Vice-Admiral, July 19, 1821.

Sir Charles V. Penrose married, in 1787, Elizabeth, daughter of the Rev. J. Trevener, and by that lady he had three daughters, the eldest of whom married Captain John Coode, C.B.; and the second, Captain William Mainwaring, of the 10th regiment of foot, brother to Sir Henry M. Mainwaring, Bart.

Residence – Ethy, St. Winnoe, near Lostwithiel, Cornwall.

Errata. – Vol. I. Part II. p. 579, last line of the text, for three brigs, read one corvette, two brigs: id. ib. note at the bottom, for Captain D. O’Reilly, &c. &c. read Suppl. Part II. pp. 276–286: and id.
p. 725, note *, for p. 579 of this volume, &c. &c. read Suppl. Part II. pp. 287–293.

[This biography above from the Addenda in Supplement Part 2 superseded the following one from Vol I. Part II.]


Vice-Admiral of the Blue; Knight Commander of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; and of the Neapolitan Order of St. Ferdinand and of Merit.

This officer was made a Commander into the Lynx sloop, on the Halifax station, where he assisted at the capture of l’Esperance, French corvette, of 12 guns and 80 men. He obtained the rank of Post-Captain, Oct. 7, 1794; and in the following year, commanded the Cleopatra frigate. On the 3d March, 1796, he took l’Aurore privateer, of 10 guns, on the coast of America.

In July, 1799, we find him commanding the Sans Pareil, of 80 guns, bearing the flag of Lord Hugh Seymour, in the West Indies; and after his Lordship’s demise, the Carnatic, 74. Whilst in the former ship he captured two privateers; la Pensée, of 4 guns and 65 men, and the Sapajon, 6 guns, 48 men.

During the summer of 1810, a flotilla establishment was formed at Gibraltar, for the defence of Cadiz, and our officer appointed to the principal command; on which occasion he hoisted a broad pendant on board the San Juan, at the former place. On the 12th Aug. 1812, he was nominated a Colonel of Royal Marines; and on the 4th Dec. in the following year, advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral; from which time, until the conclusion of the war, he commanded the naval force employed in co-operation with the British army under the orders of Lord Wellington[11].

The exploits of the Rear-Admiral’s squadron, in the Gironde, will be read with lively interest in future ages. He pursued the flying enemy up that river, as far as Fort Talmont, and was preparing to attack them at their moorings, when at midnight on the 6th April, 1814, the French vessels were discovered in flames, and before day the whole were totally consumed. They consisted of the Regulus, a 74-gun ship, one corvette, two brigs[errata 1] of war, and several smaller vessels. The batteries at Point Coubre, Point Negre, Royan, Sonsae, and Meche, were successively entered and destroyed by a detachment under Captain Harris, of the Belle Poule.

Four days previous to the above event, by which the navigation of the Gironde was completely cleared as far as Blaye, the advanced boats of the British squadron, under Lieutenant Dunlop, of the Porcupine, encountered a flotilla, consisting of two gun-brigs, eight gun-boats, one armed schooner, four ehasse-marees, and an imperial barge, the whole of which were either captured or destroyed.

In the course of the same year, Rear-Admiral Penrose was appointed Commander-in-Chief in the. Mediterranean, where he continued during the customary period. He was nominated a K.C.B. Jan. 3, 1816, and made a Vice-Admiral, July 19, 1821.

Sir Charles Penrose is married, and has several children, one of whom is the wife of Captain Coode, R.N.

Residence.– Ethy, Cornwall.

  1. Gilbert’s History of Cornwall contains many particulars of Sir Charles and his family. The principal note respecting himself is to be found under the head of Ethy, St. Winnoe, near Lostwithiel.
  2. See Vol. I. Part. I. note § at p. 175 et seq.
  3. See Vol. I. Part. I. p. 40.
  4. The late Hydrographer to the Admiralty. See Vol. II. Part II. p. 557.
  5. When compiling our first volume, we were led to believe that the Cleopatra was commanded by Captain Israel Pellew at the time the above occurrence took place.
  6. Vice-Admiral the Hon. George Murray, brother to John, third Duke of Athol, died Dec. 28, 1796. Throughout his long professional career he evinced a sound judgment, an unbending integrity, and a perseverance in the execution of his duty, that stamped him a truly valuable officer. It may be mentioned as an extraordinary, if not an unparalleled, circumstance, that Mr. Penrose never served at sea under the command of any other officer until he was himself made a commander; that he was posted by him, and that he continued to serve under his flag until the Vice-Admiral became incapable of further service. During the long period of 22 years, not a single circumstance ever occurred to interrupt, even for a moment, the most cordial esteem and friendship which existed between them: one commanded with kindness and judgment; the other obeyed with attention and respect; sentiments of the most sincere mutual regard blending the difference of rank in friendly intercourse.
  7. Published by Whitaker, London, July, 1824, at which period Sir Charles Penrose had attained the rank of Vice-Admiral.
  8. Sir Edward Pellew.
  9. Lord Hugh Seymour went out in the Tamar frigate. A sketch of his Lordship’s services will be found at pp. 157-159, of Suppl. Part I.
  10. London Gazette.
  11. See Captain D. O’Reilly, in our next volume.

    Errata: for Captain D. O’Reilly, &c. &c. read Suppl. Part II. pp. 276–286.

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