Wheler, Francis (DNB00)


WHELER, Sir FRANCIS (1656?–1694), admiral, born about 1656, was the younger son of Sir Charles Wheler (d. 1683), second baronet, by Dorothy, daughter of Sir Francis Bindloss, and great-grandson of the sister of Sir Sackvill Trevor [q. v.] and Sir Thomas Trevor [q. v.] His elder brother, Sir William, third baronet, was born in 1654.

In April 1678 Francis was appointed second lieutenant of the Rupert by Vice-admiral Arthur Herbert (Earl of Torrington) [q. v.] in the Mediterranean; he was afterwards with Sir John Narbrough [q. v.] in the same ship, and again with Herbert in the Bristol, from which he was promoted on 11 Sept. 1680 to be captain of the Nonsuch, and in her, on 8 April 1681, he captured a powerful Algerine corsair [see Benbow, John, (1653–1702)]. In August 1681 he was moved into the Kingfisher, in which in October he captured another corsair, after an obstinate defence. In August 1683 he was appointed to the Tiger, which he seems to have commanded till 1688, when he was moved into the Centurion and afterwards into the Kent. At this time, too, he was knighted by King James. If other influences were wanting, his old friendship for Herbert probably led him to accept the Revolution without difficulty. In April 1689 he was appointed to the Rupert, in which he sailed to join Herbert, whom he met coming back from the indecisive action near Bantry Bay. On the way he had made prize of a large and rich French West Indiaman. In July he was sent by Torrington with a small squadron to keep a watch on Brest, off which he captured several vessels laden with military stores for Ireland, and one with despatches. In 1690 he commanded the 90-gun ship Albemarle in the battle of Beachy Head, and in 1692 in the battle of Barfleur.

In October 1692 he was made rear-admiral of the blue and appointed to command a squadron sent to the West Indies, with an order to wear the union flag at the main as soon as he was clear of the Soundings. He sailed from Portsmouth early in January 1692–3, and on 1 March arrived at Barbados, where, in consultation with the land officers, it was resolved to attack Martinique. But nothing had been prepared beforehand; even eight hundred men of the local militia, who were to be added to the regular troops, had not been raised, nor had Colonel Codrington, the captain-general of the Leeward Islands, been called on for his co-operation. It was thus 30 March before the expedition sailed from Barbados, and 1 April when they landed in Martinique, still without Codrington and his reinforcements. Including the eight hundred Barbados militia, the land force numbered 2,300 men, to which Wheler added fifteen hundred seamen under his personal command. On the 9th they were joined by Codrington; but even then the force proved quite inadequate for the purpose, and after several desultory attacks and the loss of about a thousand men by sickness, it was resolved to abandon the attempt. The troops were re-embarked and taken to Dominica to recruit their health. Codrington then proposed an attack on Guadeloupe, but to this Wheler could not consent, as his orders were to leave the West Indies by the end of May at latest. It is probable too that, with newly raised and sickly troops, he thought good success at Guadeloupe as unlikely as at Martinique. In the end of May he sailed for Boston, where he arrived on 12 June. He proposed to Sir William Phipps [q. v.], the governor of Massachusetts, to undertake an expedition against Quebec; but as no troops were ready, and it was impossible to get them ready in time, Phipps was obliged to refuse. Leaving Boston on 3 Aug., Wheler went to Newfoundland, but found that Placentia was too well fortified and strongly garrisoned to be attacked in a casual way. A council of war decided that nothing could be done, and the squadron sailed for England, which it reached in the middle of October, ‘in so reduced a state that there were scarcely men enough in health to navigate the ships into port.’

Notwithstanding popular clamour, the ill-success which had attended the expedition was so clearly due to causes beyond naval control that Wheler's conduct could not be called in question, and within a few days after his arrival he was appointed admiral and commander-in-chief of a squadron designed for the Mediterranean, his rank at the time being only rear-admiral of the red. Contrary winds and want of necessaries detained it for several weeks, and it did not sail till 27 Dec. With Wheler were Vice-admiral (Sir Thomas) Hopsonn [q. v.], Rear-admiral John Nevell [q. v.], a Dutch squadron under Vice-admiral Callenburgh, and a large convoy of merchant ships. The recollection of the disaster sustained by Sir George Rooke, with whom Hopsonn had been only a few months before, made Wheler especially cautious; and though several French ships were seen hovering round his charge between Cape St. Vincent and Cadiz, he was careful not to allow his squadron to get separated in pursuit. By 19 Jan. 1693–4 he brought his whole squadron and convoy safely into Cadiz harbour. Here Hopsonn parted from him, returning to England with the homeward-bound trade, and Wheler, having remained a month, sailed on 17 Feb. to pass through the Straits. On the 18th it came on to blow hard; the force of the wind increased to a hurricane; the ships, which were then off Malaga, were dispersed; several running back to the westward, in the darkness of the night mistook Gibraltar Bay for the Straits, ran into it, and were driven on shore. The Cambridge was thrown on shore and broken up a few miles to the eastward. The Sussex, Wheler's flagship, foundered at five o'clock on the morning of the 19th. Of 550 people on board, two Turks only escaped. Two days later Wheler's body, much mangled, was cast on shore. Charnock says that it was embalmed and sent to England; but this seems doubtful. Wheler married Arabella, daughter and ultimately coheiress of Sir Clifford Clinton, by Frances, daughter of Sir Heneage Finch, and had issue two boys and a girl. Of these the girl, Anna Sophia, and the elder boy, Charles, are named in his will (Somerset House: Box, 89), dated 30 Oct. 1692, and proved on 28 April 1694. Wotton (Baronetage, 1741, iii. i. 144) says he left two sons only, William (d. 1738) and Francis, still living in 1741. It would appear that Charles and Anna Sophia died young, and that a third son, Francis, was born in 1693 or 1694. William's son Francis is described by Sir Samuel Romilly (Memoirs, i. 73–4); Jane, the daughter of this Francis, married Henry, second viscount Hood, and was the grandmother of the third Viscount Hood and mother of the second Lord Bridport. The trustees of Wheler's will were his old friend and messmate, Sir Clowdisley Shovell [q. v.], Christopher Packe, probably the son of Sir Christopher Packe [q. v.], and his cousin, William Binckes [q. v.], dean of Lichfield (cf. Wotton, iii. i. 144).

[Charnock's Biogr. Nav. ii. 76; Burchett's Transactions at Sea, pp. 477, 490; Lediard's Naval Hist. pp. 670, 682; Nevell to Secretary of State and to Lords of the Admiralty, 27 Feb. 1693–4, in Home Office Records, Admiralty, vol. vii.; Court-martial on the Officers of the Cambridge, 8 Sept. 1694.]

J. K. L.