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Royal Naval Biography/Thompson, Thomas Boulden


SIR THOMAS BOULDEN THOMPSON,

Baronet; Vice-Admiral of the Red; Knight Grand Cross of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; Treasurer of Greenwich Hospital; a Director of the Chest; and a Visitor of the West India Naval School.

The subject of this memoir was born at Barham, co. Kent, Feb. 28, 1768. His father, Mr. Boulden, married the sister of the late Commodore Edward Thompson, an officer of very distinguished eminence, and a gentleman extensively known both in the polite and literary world.

In the month of June, 1778, Mr. Thomas Boulden’s uncle, by whom he had been tutored from his infancy, was appointed to the command of the Hyaena frigate; and at the same time his nephew, assuming the name of Thompson, and having previously been borne on the books of a King’s ship, entered into active service on board of the same vessel, which was mostly employed on the home station until January 1780, when she accompanied the fleet under Sir George B. Rodney to the relief of Gibraltar, from whence she returned to England with the duplicates of that officer’s despatches relative to the capture of a Spanish convoy, and the subsequent defeat of Don Juan de Langara[1].

In the following year we find Mr. Thompson serving in the West Indies, on which station he obtained a Lieutenancy; and being entrusted with the command of a small schooner, distinguished himself by capturing a French privateer of very superior force. Some time after the termination of the colonial war, our officer joined the Grampus, of 50 guns, bearing the broad pendant of his uncle, who had been nominated to the chief command on the coast of Africa; and on the death of Commodore Thompson in 1786, he was promoted by his successor to the command of the Nautilus sloop, in which he continued about twelve months, when he returned to England and was paid off. His post commission bears date Nov. 22, 1790.

From this period we find no mention of the subject of this memoir until his appointment to the Leander, rated at 50, but mounting 60 guns, at the latter end of 1796. In that vessel he joined the Mediterranean fleet, then under the orders of Earl St. Vincent; and shortly after his arrival at Gibraltar was selected to accompany Sir Horatio Nelson on an expedition against Santa Cruz, in the attempt upon which place he was among the wounded[2].

After this affair, Captain Thompson returned to Gibraltar, on which station he remained till the month of June 1798, when he was ordered to the Mediterranean to reinforce Rear-Admiral Nelson, who was at that time watching the port of Toulon, and whom he accompanied in pursuit of the armament that had been equipped there, destined to the coast of Egypt.

For a full and circumstantial account of the glorious battle of the Nile, on the 1st August following, we must refer the reader to our memoirs of Sir James Saumarez[3]], and Sir Ben. Hallowell. Instead therefore of entering into detail, we shall simply offer a few brief observations, relating more immediately to Captain Thompson.

The Leander, though but a 50-gun ship, was stationed in the line of battle. Her commander bore up to the Culloden on seeing her take the ground, that he might afford any assistance in his power to get that vessel off from her unfortunate situation; but finding that nothing could be done, and unwilling that his services should be lost where they could be more effective, he made sail for the scene of action, and took his station with great judgment athwart hawse of le Franklin, of 80 guns, raking her with great success, the shot from the Leander’s broadside, which passed that ship, all striking the l’Orient, bearing the flag of the French Commander-in-Chief. This station Captain Thompson preserved until le Franklin struck her colours to the Defence, Swiftsure, and Leander; he then went to the assistance of the British ships still engaged with the rear of the enemy.

On the 5th Aug., Captain Thompson sailed with Captain (now Sir Edward) Berry, of the Vanguard, as the bearer of Rear-Admiral Nelson’s despatches to the Commander-in-Chief. On the 18th, being off the west end of Goza, near the island of Candia, at day-break in the morning, he discovered a ship of the line in the S.E., standing towards him with a fine breeze. The Leander being above eighty men short of complement, and having had 14 wounded in the late battle, Captain Thompson did not consider himself justified in seeking an action with a ship so much his superior; he therefore took every means in his power to avoid it, but soon found that the Leander’s inferiority in sailing made it inevitable; he therefore, with all sail set, steered a course which he judged would enable him to receive his adversary to the best advantage. At 8 o’clock the stranger, being to windward, had approached within random shot of the Leander, with Neapolitan colours hoisted, which he then changed to Turkish; but this deception was of no avail, as Captain Thompson plainly made him out to be French. At nine, being within half gun-shot of the Leander’s weather quarter, Captain Thompson hauled up sufficiently to bring the broadside to bear, and immediately commenced a vigorous cannonade on him, which he instantly returned. The ships continued nearing each other until half past ten, keeping up a constant and heavy fire. At this time the enemy availed himself of the disabled condition of the Leander to lay her on board on the larboard bow; but a most spirited and well-directed fire from the small party of marines on the poop, and from the quarter-deck, supported by a furious cannonade, prevented the enemy from taking advantage of his situation, and he was repulsed with much slaughter. A light breeze giving the ships way, enabled Captain Thompson to steer clear of the enemy; and soon afterwards he had the satisfaction to luff under his stern, and passing him within ten yards, distinctly discharged every gun from the Leander into him.

The action was now continued without intermission, within pistol-shot, until 3h 30’ P.M., when the enemy, with a light breeze, for it had hitherto been almost calm, and the sea as smooth as glass, passed the Leander’s bows and brought himself on her starboard side, where the guns had been nearly all disabled from the wreck of the spars which had fallen on that side. This producing a cessation of fire on her part, the enemy hailed to know if she had surrendered. The Leander was now totally ungovernable, being a complete wreck, not having a stick standing, but the shattered remains of the fore and main-masts, and the bowsprit, her hull cut to pieces, the decks full of killed and wounded, and perceiving the enemy, who had only lost his mizen-top-mast, approaching to place himself athwart her stem, Captain Thompson in this defenceless situation, without the most distant hope of success, and himself badly wounded, asked Captain Berry if he thought he could do more? who coinciding with him that further resistance was vain and impracticable, an answer was given in the affirmative, and the Leander was soon after taken possession of by le Généreux, of 78 guns, commanded by M. Lejoille, chef de division, who had escaped from the action of the 1st Aug., having on board 900 men, 100 of whom were killed and 188 wounded in the contest with the Leander, whose loss was also considerable, she having 35 killed and 57 wounded; a full third of her gallant crew.

No sooner did Captain Thompson and his officers arrive on board le Généreux, than they were plundered of every article belonging to them, save the clothes on their backs. They expostulated in vain with the French Captain on this harsh treatment; and when they reminded him of the situation of the French officers made prisoners by Sir Horatio Nelson, in comparison with those now taken in the Leander, he coolly replied, “I am sorry for it; but the fact is, that the French are expert at plunder.” These friends to liberty and equality even carried their inhumanity to such an extreme, that at the very moment the surgeon of the Leander was performing the chirurgical operations, they robbed him of his instruments, and the wounds which Captain Thompson had received were nearly proving fatal by their forcibly withholding the attendance of that gentleman.

The court-martial which afterwards was assembled to examine the conduct of Captain Thompson, his officers and crew, declared, “that his gallant and almost unprecedented defence of the Leander against so superior a force as that of le Généreux, was deserving of every praise his country and the assembled court could give; and that his conduct, with that of the officers and men under his command, reflected not only the highest honor on himself and them, but on their country at large.” The thanks of the court were also given to Captain Berry, who was present on the occasion, for the gallant and active zeal he had manifested. Upon the return of Captain Thompson to the shore from the Alexander, in which the court-martial had been held, he was saluted with three cheers by all the ships in harbour at Sheerness.

Soon after this period, Captain Thompson received the honor of knighthood, and a pension of 200l. per annum. In the following spring, 1799, he was appointed to the Bellona, of 74 guns, and joined the fleet under the command of Lord Bridport, off Brest. From this station he was sent to the Mediterranean, where the Bellona was attached to a flying squadron, under the command of Captain Markham, of the Centaur, and assisted in the capture of three frigates and two brigs from Jaffa, bound to Toulon. She returned to England in the autumn. In the course of the same year, Corfu was taken by the Russians and Turks; and the Leander being found there, the Emperor Paul ordered her to be restored to the British navy.

The Bellona continued on the Home station until the period of the memorable Baltic expedition, which sailed from Yarmouth Roads, under the command of Sir Hyde Parker, March 12, 1801. The glorious victory off Copenhagen, which speedily followed, is already recorded in our memoir of Sir Thomas Foley, who commanded Lord Nelson’s flag-ship on that occasion.

From the intricacy of the navigation, the Bellona grounded before she could enter into action; and by this unfortunate circumstance, Sir Thomas B. Thompson was prevented from taking so distinguished a part in the engagement as he would otherwise have done. But, though not on the spot which had been assigned her, she was highly serviceable. Being stationary, and within reach of the enemy’s batteries, the loss she sustained was considerable. It amounted to 11 men killed and 63 wounded. Among the latter number was her commander, who had the misfortune to lose one of his legs in the action.

For his services on this occasion, Sir Thomas B. Thompson, in common with the rest of the officers of the fleet, received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. His pension was increased to 500l. per annum[4]; and he was shortly after appointed to the Mary yacht, the command of which he retained for several years.

About the year 1806, our officer was nominated Comptroller of the Navy, which office he held till Feb. 1816, when he succeeded the late Sir John Colpoys, as Treasurer of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich; and about the same time was chosen a Director of the Chest, vice Lord Hood, deceased. He was created K.C.B. Jan. 2, 1815, and G.C.B. Sept. 14, 1822.

Sir Thomas B. Thompson sat several years in parliament as representative for the city of Rochester, his seat for which he vacated on receiving his last appointment. He married, Feb. 25th, 1799, Anne, eldest daughter of Robert Raikes, of the city of Gloucester, Esq., by whom he had several children.

A portrait of this officer, by G. Engleheart, was some years since exhibited at the Royal Academy.

Residence.– Hartsbourne, Manor-Place, co. Herts.



  1. See note †, at p. 3.
  2. The rumoured arrival at Santa Cruz, in the island of Teneriffe, of the Viceroy of Mexico, with some treasure ships from South America bound to Cadiz, and the represented vulnerability of that town to a well-conducted attack by sea, induced Earl St. Vincent to attempt the enterprize; and he accordingly detached upon that service a squadron under the command of Rear-Admiral Nelson, consisting of the Theseus, Culloden, and Zealous, 74’s; Seahorse, Emerald, and Terpsichore, frigates; Fox, cutter; and one mortar-boat; to which was afterwards added the Leander, the local knowledge of whose Captain was chiefly relied upon by the Commander-in-Chief, as appears from the following extract of a letter written by the noble Earl to Sir Horatio Nelson;

    “My dear Admiral,

    “If I obtain a reinforcement of four ships of the line, as I have reason to believe I shall, from the strong manner I put the necessity of the measure in my public letter to Nepean, and private correspondence with Lord Spencer, I will detach you with the Theseus, Culloden, Zealous, Leander, Emerald, and Andromache, with orders to attempt the surprise of Santa Cruz, in the Grand Canary. Terpsichore Bowen shall also be of the party; but I rely chiefly on the local knowledge of Captain Thompson of the Leander. Turn this in your mind; for the moment the expected ships arrive, I will dash you off.”

    The plan of attack was, that the boats should land in the night, between the fort on the N.E. side of Santa Cruz bay and the town, make themselves masters of that fort, and then send a summons to the Governor. By midnight, on the 20th July l797, the three frigates, cutter, and mortarboat, having the party of seamen and marines on board which was intended for this debarkation, approached within three miles of the place; but owing to a gale of wind in the offing, and a strong current against them in shore, they were not able to approach within a mile of the landing place before day-break; and then being seen, their intention was discovered. It was now resolved, that an attempt should be made to get possession of the heights above the fort. The men were accordingly landed under the orders of Captain Troubridge; each Captain, under his direction, commanding the detachment of seamen from his own ship, and Captain Oldfield of the marines the entire detachment from that corps, he being the senior marine officer present; the line-of-battle ships stood in at the same time to batter the fort, for the purpose of distracting the attention of the garrison; circumstances, however, prevented them from getting within a league of the shore; and the heights were by this time so secured, and manned with such a force, as to be judged impracticable. Thus foiled in his plans by wind and tide, Sir Horatio Nelson still considered it a point of honour that some attempt should be made. This was on the 22d July; he re-embarked his men that night, got the ships, on the 24th, the day on which he was joined by the Leander, to anchor about two miles N.E. of the town, and made shew as if he intended to attack the heights. At eleven P.M. the boats of the squadron, containing about 700 seamen and marines, with 180 on board the Fox cutter, and from 70 to 80 in a boat which had been taken the day before; numbering, with a small detachment of royal artillery, under Lieutenant Baynes of that corps, about 1100 men, commanded by the Rear-Admiral in person, proceeded in six divisions towards the town. They were to land on the mole, and thence hasten as fast as possible into the Great Square; then form, and proceed as should be found expedient. They were not discovered till about 1h 30’ A.M., when, being within half gun-shot of the landing place, Sir Horatio directed the boats to cast off from each other, give a huzza, and push for the shore. But the Spaniards were excellently well prepared; the alarm-bells answered the huzza, and a tremendous fire from 30 or 40 pieces of cannon, with musketry from one end of the town to the other, opened upon the invaders. The Fox received a shot under water, and instantly sunk, by which unfortunate circumstance Lieutenant Gibson, her commander, and 96 of the brave fellows that were on board, met a watery grave. Another shot struck the Rear-Admiral on the right elbow, just as he was drawing his sword, and in the act of stepping out of his barge. Nothing, however, could check the intrepidity with which the assailants advanced.

    The night was exceedingly dark; most of the boats missed the mole, aud went on shore through a raging surf, which stove all to the left of it. The Captains Thompson, Freemantle, and Boweii, and four or five other boats, found the mole, and instantly stormed and carried it, defended as it was by about 400 men, and six 24-pounders. Having spiked these, they were about to advance, when a heavy fire of musketry and grapeshot from the citadel and the houses at the mole-head, mowed them down by scores. Here the gallant Captain Richard Bowen, of the Terpsichore, met a glorious death; and here, indeed, fell nearly the whole of the party, by death or wounds.

    Meanwhile Captain Troubridge, of the Culloden, having missed the mole in the darkness, pushed on shore under a battery, close to the south end of the citadel. Captain Waller, of the Emerald, and two or three other boats, landed at the same time. The surf was so high, that many others put back; and all that did not were instantly swamped, and most of the ammunition in the men’s pouches was wetted. Having collected a few men, they pushed on to the Great Square, hoping there to find the Rear-Admiral, and the rest of their party. The ladders were all lost, so that they could make no immediate attempt on the citadel; but they sent a Serjeant, with two of the town’s people, to summon it; this messenger never returned; and Captain Troubridge having waited about an hour in painful expectation of his friends, marched to join Captains Hood and Miller, of the Zealous and Theseus, who had effected their landing to the S.W. They then endeavoured to procure some intelligence of Sir Horatio Nelson and the rest of the officers, but without success. By day-break they had gathered together about 80 marines, 80 seamen, armed with pikes, and 180 with small-arms; all that survived of those who had made good their landing. They obtained some ammunition from the prisoners whom they had taken, and marched on, to try what could be done at the citadel without ladders. They found all the streets commanded by field-pieces, and several thousand Spaniards, with about 100 French, under arms, approaching by every avenue. Finding himself without provisions, the powder wet, and no possibility of obtaining assistance from the ships, the boats being lost, Captain Troubridge, with great presence of mind, sent Captain Hood with a flag of truce to the Governor, Don Juan Antonio Gutierrez, to say he was prepared to burn the town, and would instantly set fire to it if the Spaniards approached one inch nearer; this, however, if he were compelled, he should do with regret, for he had no wish to injure the inhabitants; and he was ready to treat upon these terms that the British should re-embark, with all their arms of every kind, and take their own boats, if they were saved, or be provided with such others as might be wanting: they, on their part, engaging that the squadron should not molest the town, nor any of the Canary Islands; all prisoners on both sides to be given up. When this proposition was made, the Governor said, that the English, situated as they were, ought to surrender as prisoners of war; but Captain Hood replied, he was instructed to declare, that if the terms were not accepted in five minutes, Captain Troubridge would set the town on fire, and attack the Spaniards at the point of the bayonet. Satisfied with his success, which was indeed sufficiently complete, and respecting like a brave and honorable man, the gallantry of his enemy, the Spaniard not only acceded to the proposal, but gave directions for the wounded British to he received into the hospitals, and the whole party to be supplied with the best provisions that could be procured; at the same time granting permission for the ships to send on shore, and purchase whatever refreshments they were in want of during the time they might be off the island.

    Sir Horatio Nelson, who had by this time undergone the amputation of his arm, on hearing the noble and generous conduct of Don Juan A. Gutierrez, wrote to thank him for the humanity which he had displayed. Presents were interchanged between them. The Rear-Admiral offered to take charge of the Spaniard’s despatches; and thus actually became the first messenger to Spain of his own defeat.

    The loss sustained by the British on this unfortunate expedition was rather considerable; besides Captain Bowen, by whose death the service lost a commander of infinite merit, many other excellent and valuable officers were to be regretted. The whole amounted to 44 killed, 97 drowned, 105 wounded, and 5 missing.

  3. See p. 180, et seq.
  4. According to the regulation of November 27, 1815, Sir Thomas’s pension was augmented to 700l per annum.