"A biography that reads like an adventure novel" - Sir Edward Pellew

On 19 April 1757, the British naval hero Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, 1st Viscount Exmouth, GCB, was born in Dover.

“There were some hours yet to wait while the Indefatigable crept inshore, with the lead going steadily and Pellew himself attending to the course of the frigate. Hornblower, despite his nervousness and his miserable apprehensions, yet found time to appreciate the superb seamanship displayed as Pellew brought the big frigate in through these tricky waters on that dark night.“
(C.S. Forester, “Mr Midshipman Hornblower”)

Pellew’s finest hour: Leopold Le Guen’s imagination of “The Action of 13 January 1797“ with “Indefatigable” on the left, raking “Droits de l'Homme’s” bows in the centre, and Amazon on the right.” (1853, Brest Museum of Arts)

Actually, it was a dark and stormy night on January the 27th in the year of 1796, when the East Indiaman “Dutton” had run aground under the citadel of Plymouth. Close to the steep shore at the foot of the Hoe, with the still deep waters there whipped up by the gale, the 400 men, women and children aboard the “Dutton” became part of a drama that was familiar from poems, tales and, more often than not, experience for everyone living on the coasts of the North Sea and the Atlantic. A ship in distress off shore with the safety of dry land just beyond reach and the spectators condemned to watch. Usually, at least in the tales, a young lad breaks free from the crowd and risks his life in braving the surf, swimming out to the wreck with a life line and saves those aboard. In the case of the “Dutton”, the hero was Captain Sir Edward Pellew of the “Indefatigable” frigate, admittedly assisted by a young Irishman, Intrepid Jerry Coghlan. The “Indefatigable” lay in Plymouth for repairs and Sir Edward just came from dinner with his wife when the drama unfolded. Accounts about what happened next vary, but the one Pellew told his son on his deathbed was that parts of the “Dutton’s” rigging had been washed upon the shore, still connected with the wreck. With an additional rope tied around his midriff and still in full fig, Pellew half swam, half made his way hand over hand along a rope through the icy cold sea, battered by the waves and debris from the wreck, boarded the “Dutton” and assumed command in the chaos. Young Coghlan allegedly could follow Pellew in a boat along the line the gallant captain had carried across. Together, Pellew and Coghlan managed to save most of the 400 aboard the “Dutton”. Pellew offered Coghlan a berth aboard the “Indefatigable” as midshipman, Intrepid Jerry accepted and became one of the Royal Navy’s most prominent frigate captains while Pellew received a baronetcy for his heroics aboard the “Dutton”, for saving lives, as a fighting soldier in the middle of a global war.

The Cornish naval painter Thomas Luny’s (1759–1837) imagination of “The Wreck of the East Indiaman 'Dutton“ at Plymouth Sound on 26 January 1796“ (oil on cavas, 1821)

Pellew himself was promoted to full captain for his action against three French privateers off the coast of Brittany in the last months of the American War of Independence, received his knighthood for winning the first frigate action of French Revolutionary War in 1793 and assumed command of the “Indefatigable” two years later. She was an old ship-of-the-line with her upper gun deck removed in 1794, a so-called razee, now classified as a 44 gun 4th rate with a broadside of 24-pounders instead of the 18-, 15- or 12-pounders usually mounted on a frigate. Nonetheless, a French ship-of-the-line, like the seventy-four “Droits de l'Homme“ could fire twice the weight of “Indefatigable’s” broadside. However, it was again during a dark and stormy night in January 1797, when the "Droits de l'Homme" ran into heavy seas off the coast of Brittany, roughly 50 miles south of Brest. Returning from the hare-brained scheme known as Expédition d'Irlande, the attempt to land troops in Ireland in the middle of winter that naturally ended in a disaster and already battered from her winter voyage, laden to the freeboard deck with a regiment of soldiers and close to a rocky lee shore, her commander, Jean-Baptiste Raymond de Lacrosse, decided to make a run for it when a British frigate was sighted. It was “Indefatigable” and Pellew closed for action with the battleship despite the odds and the weather. De Lacrosse did not risk to open the “Droits’” gun ports on her lower battery deck and her 28 36-pounders were effectively out of the fight. The guns of her upper deck could still match “Indefatigable’s” firepower, though, while the seventy-four’s structure was able to sustain damage far better than Pellew’s razee. The odds were evened a bit more when another frigate, HMS “Amazon” (36), joined “Indefatigable” and during the next 15 hours, the “Droit” was disabled by accurate British gunfire along with the gales that still blew across the bay until both the "Droits de l'Homme" and "Amazon" were aground, the French man-of-war turning onto her side and sinking fast, with the total loss of 200 lives through British shot and 900 drowned. Pellew's "Indefatigable" suffered no casualties at all, the wrecked "Amazon's" crew was taken prisoner by the assembled French on the beach. It was, in the words of George Spencer, then First Lord of the Admiralty, "an exploit which has not I believe ever before graced our naval Annals."

George Hyde Chambers’ (1803 – 1840) epic depiction of “The Bombardment of Algiers, 1816“ from 1836, now at the National Maritime Museum.

When the boarding party from HMS “Conqueror” received Villeneuve’s surrender aboard the “Bucentaure” after the Battle of Trafalgar, the French admiral, obviously all at sea, asked to whom precisely he had yielded. The answer was “Conqueror’s” Captain Pellew. “It is a satisfaction to me that it is to so fortunate an officer as Sir Edward Pellew that I have surrendered", said Villeneuve and was a bit embarrassed when he learned that “Conqueror” was commanded by Sir Edward’s brother Sir Israel. "His brother? What are there two of them? Helas!" Villeneuve shouted and added, resignedly accepting his and the French navy’s fate: 'England is fortunate to have two such brothers“. In October 1805, Admiral Sir Edward Pellew served as Admiral of the East Indies Station and did not return until 1809 to become Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean Fleet, Nelson’s old command until Trafalgar. After the war, already created Viscount Exmouth, Pellew ordered his career’s last broadsides fired in anger during the bombardment of Algiers to force the Dey Omar Agha to finally put an end to piracy and slavery on the Barbary Coast and the Western Mediterranean in August 1816. In 1821, Pellew finally retired as one of Britain’s most highly decorated naval officers and ended his life at the age of 75 in 1833, at home in Teignmouth, Devon, England. With a biography that reads like an adventure novel, he acted as a model for several fictional heroes, form Dudley Pope’s Ramage and Alexander Kent’s Bolitho to the heroes of O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series and, of course, the novels of C.S. Forester with Pellew acting as mentor of Horatio Hornblower while he served as midshipman aboard “Indefatigable”.

And more about Sir Edward Pellew on:


and the excellent blog “Indefatigable 1797”: