Book Review: Commander

The Life and Exploits of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain

Captain Sir Edward Pellew, later 1st Viscount Exmouth
Thomas Lawrence, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Edward Pellew is a name which will be familiar to many who have read Giles Milton’s marvellous book, ‘White Gold’, about the Barbary white slave trade. That book recounts the life of Thomas Pellow, a distant relation of Edward’s, who was taken as a slave and rose to high office in Algiers but managed to escape years later and make his way back home to the West country. Dying just twenty years before Edward was born, Thomas Pellow’s story may have fed into Pellew’s sense of mission.

Pellew, a contemporary of Nelson (and at one time more famous than him), was as Taylor says ‘born beside the sea, he died by the sea and for all but a few months of the seventy-seven years in between he was either on it or in sight of it’. (The ‘seventy-seven’ is odd, as Taylor later tells us Pellew died aged seventy-five, but no matter). His mother, widowed early with six children, brought the family away from Dover and proceeded to park them with her father on the outskirts of Penzance while she married someone else. Pellew, then aged eight, was a large lad, quick-tempered and handy with his fists. He defended the smaller boys against bullies while demanding their loyalty – an essential  combination, Taylor points out, for a future ship’s captain. ‘Pellew would never suffer the weak to be trampled on … But I think he once thrashed me’, a schoolfellow later remembered. Frequently skipping off school to go down to the quayside, where he would cast off any available boat and go sailing or spend time with his friends the sailors who taught him to be a ‘famous’ boxer, he was bright but rebellious. Unusually for a naval man-to-be, he also became a strong swimmer. Eventually, when transferred to Truro Grammar School, he went totally off the rails and beat another boy so severely he was sentenced to  a flogging by the headmaster. Rather than undergo that humiliation, he ran away to sea at the age of thirteen, unsupported by money or patronage.

Joining the 32 gun frigate Juno at Spithead on Boxing Day 1770, just three weeks before another young lad with a rather more settled background called Horatio Nelson joined his ship on the Nore, Pellew found the security and companionship he had craved. His path would not be easy, but he had found what he was born to do.

Although he had taken a small part in the  first Falklands crisis,  his first taste of real war came on Lake Champlain during the so called Lakes War of 1776-1780 (part of the American Revolutionary campaign), aboard HMS  Blonde. The Blonde was captained by the wonderfully-named Philemon Pownoll, who would become a lifelong friend. Pellew would even go on to call his first-born son after Pownoll. Showing a theatrical side, Pellew came to the attention of General John Burgoyne (who was being transported to America on board) by doing a handstand out on a yardarm whilst being one of the hands manning the tops in salute. Within weeks Captain Pownoll had identified Pellew for advancement.

In a career marked by ups and downs, Pellew, with his gift for true friendship, made strong bonds but also bitter enemies, including Prime Minister William Pitt (once a supporter), Admiral Sir John Jervis (Lord St Vincent) and his superior officer Lord Bridport, who according to Pellew was ‘not worth drowning’. Pellew took a strong and informed interest in ship design and naval gunnery, being among the first to fit his ships with close-range carronade guns which, although powerful, were much lighter than the 12 pounders they replaced. He also at one time fought a running battle with the Admiralty over his wish to move the position of his ship’s masts, in order to balance her better.  His seamanship was widely admired: ‘He could almost make her speak’, said one deckhand of his manoeuvring capabilities on board the Indefatigable, a somewhat clumsy ship which nevertheless did everything expected of her under Pellew’s command. Most of all, his crews knew that he would never ask anything of them he was not prepared to do himself. Throughout, even at the rank of Admiral, he could be seen on deck, barefoot, darting from one position to another in the heaviest of fire. He was still clambering up and down rigging aged forty-five, while complaining he could not do it as fast as he used to. On one occasion, he dived down to inspect damage to the hull, proclaiming against the advice of accompanying Rear Admiral William Waldegrave (!) that the ship, despite having taken on five feet of water below decks,  could limp on to (in this case) Lisbon, which it did, being pumped out continuously all the way. On a later occasion, Pellew and his wife had just left home all dressed up on their way out to dinner when they became aware of a huge crowd rushing to the shore, where a passenger ship had run aground in a storm,  the captain having lost his life in the process.  Pellew dived in, with difficulty arranged a makeshift hawser system to carry the men off and then procured a small vessel to take the remaining women and children. Not one passenger was lost. His proudest moment, he said, was handing a newborn down to its mother, safe in the rescue boat.

Although tough and courageous, never suffering fools gladly, Pellew retained at his core a soft-hearted compassion which led to his once being unable to write a letter of condolence to a favourite crew mate’s family (‘I cannot do it, I really can’t’) and to treating Napoleonic prisoners of war so gallantly that he became famous for it within France itself. A ferocious defender and advancer of family, which led to later accusations of nepotism, he was a devoted father to his many children and eventually had 33 grandchildren. He made a fortune (the equivalent of tens of millions in today’s money) with the East India Company while holding the East Indies command – insinuations of corruption inevitably followed, and were hotly rebutted. Ennobled to the peerage as Lord Exmouth, it was a great sadness to him that neither his eldest son Pownoll nor his favourite son, Fleetwood, both in the navy, lived up to their father’s reputation – one lost his ship on a reef, and the other had the shame of a crew mutiny against him – although another son, George, disabled after a domestic accident as a child, did become Bishop of Norwich. The family also took in an orphan, Jane Smith, who from her surviving letters appears to have loved him and his wife dearly.

This biography is full of such moments. In addition to appearing as himself in various historical novels, Edward Pellew has also been claimed to be the inspiration for both Jack Aubrey and Horatio Hornblower. Reading this one can see why. Stephen Taylor’s writing is crisp but elegant, not flagging for a moment. He has made excellent use of existing letters, diaries and archives, including a newly-discovered chest of documents drawn to his attention by the current Lord Exmouth. One of my favourite bits is where Edward’s wife Susan writes to him in India, asking him not to bring home a repeat of ‘your Jaguar’, as, even had they room for it, ‘remember they are very expensive to keep’, adding ‘nor do I think I can live in the same house with monkeys, baboons or any of the animal act, so for pity’s sake dispose of them’.

Tl:dr – Should you read this book? Yes. Yes you should.


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