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Sir  Thomas Byam Martin (1773–1854), by Henry Robinson (after George Richmond, 1849)Sir Thomas Byam Martin (1773–1854), by Henry Robinson (after George Richmond, 1849)
Martin, Sir Thomas Byam (1773–1854), naval officer, born at Ashtead House, Surrey, on 25 July 1773, was the third surviving son of Sir Henry Martin, baronet (d. 1794), for many years naval commissioner at Portsmouth and afterwards comptroller of the navy, and his wife, Eliza Anne Gillman, née Parker, of Hilbrook, co. Cork. His father's half-brother, Samuel Martin (d. 1789), was treasurer to the dowager princess of Wales. Thomas was educated privately at Freshford, near Bath (1780), Southampton grammar school (1781), and Mr Coles's boarding-school in Guildford (1782–5). Through the influence of Henry Martin, and in accordance with the irregular custom of the day, Thomas, before he was eight, was entered on the books of the Canada (Captain William Cornwallis) in 1780–81; in 1782, of the Foudroyant (Captain Sir John Jervis); and in 1783, of the Orpheus (Captain George Campbell). He entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth in August 1785. He first went afloat in April 1786, as ‘captain's servant’ on the Pegasus, with Prince William Henry (afterwards William IV), whom in March 1788 he followed to the Andromeda. He was afterwards for a few months in the Southampton, and on 22 November 1790 he was promoted lieutenant of the Canada. Despite his powerful patronage he still served afloat for four years before receiving his commission. For the next two years (from 1790/91) he served in the Inconstant and the Juno; and on 22 May 1793 he was promoted to command the Tisiphone, fitting out for the Mediterranean, where, on 5 November 1793, he was posted to the frigate Modeste which had been seized at Genoa by Admiral Gell only the month before.

In 1795 Martin was appointed to the Santa Margarita, employed on the coast of Ireland, where he captured many privateers, and on 8 June 1796 he took the Tamise, a prize from the English two years before. She had now a heavier armament and more numerous crew; but against superior discipline, seamanship, and gun-training she was powerless and could kill only two and wound three on the Santa Margarita, while she herself lost thirty-two killed and nineteen wounded, several mortally.

In 1797 Martin commanded the Tamar in the West Indies and in five months captured nine privateers with an aggregate of 58 guns and 519 men. In 1798 he returned to England in command of the Dictator; he was then appointed to the Fisgard, a powerful frigate captured from the French only the year before. On 20 October, off Brest, he fell in with, and after a sharp action captured, the Immortalité, sailing homeward from the destruction of Bompard's squadron on the coast of Ireland. In addition to her complement, the Immortalité had on board 250 soldiers, and her loss was consequently very great. Otherwise the two frigates were nearly equal in force, and the Fisgard's victory was considered one of the most brilliant frigate actions of the war. In 1798 Martin married Catherine, daughter of Captain Robert Fanshawe, for many years naval commissioner at Plymouth. They had three daughters and three sons, the eldest of whom was . Their second son, Sir Henry Byam Martin, died an admiral in 1865; and the third, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Fanshawe Martin, died in 1846.

For the next two years the Fisgard was employed actively off the coast of France under the orders of Sir John Warren and, in company with different ships of the squadron, captured or destroyed several warships, privateers, coasting craft, and batteries. From 1803 to 1805 Martin commanded the line-of-battle ship Impétueux in the channel and on 24 November 1804 helped save many lives from the wreck of HMS Venerable in Tor Bay, Devon. In 1807 he commanded the line-of-battle ship Prince of Wales, also in the channel, and in 1808 the Implacable in the Baltic. On 26 August 1808, while attached to the Swedish fleet under the immediate orders of Sir Samuel Hood in the Centaur, he brought to action the Russian ship Sewolod and had a large share in her capture. In his official letter Hood assigned much of the credit to Martin, and Gustaf IV Adolf, the king of Sweden, conferred on him the cross of the order of the Sword. He was again in the Baltic in 1809. On 1 August 1811 he was promoted rear-admiral, and in 1812, with his flag in the Aboukir, he took part in the defence of Riga against the French army under Davoust. He was afterwards second in command at Plymouth until 1814. In September 1813 he was sent on a mission to Wellington's headquarters in Spain to resolve the difficulties then arising in the transport service. He did this to the satisfaction of all concerned.

On 2 January 1815 Martin was made a KCB and on 11 November was appointed deputy comptroller of the navy. On 24 February 1816 he became comptroller and held the office until 2 November 1831. Chosen by Lord Melville for his combination of administrative ability and sea experience, Martin dominated the post-war policy of the navy during his long term in office. On his advice the fleet was reconstructed around a nucleus of large and very powerful new ships, while maintaining a high level of skilled labour in the royal dockyards, to meet any sudden emergency. He worked closely with the naval architect and structural engineer, Sir Robert Seppings, to improve the quality and durability of British warships. Although his office was normally considered apolitical Martin was a tory, and he became closely identified with government policy at a time when naval policy became a political question. The whig reform ministry of 1830 took office committed to making large savings on defence spending in order to fund other aspects of their political programme. Bolstered by his long service and high rank Martin publicly criticized government policy in the House of Commons, though his office made him a member of the ministry. Unable to control him, or even remove him from his government seat, Sir James Graham and Earl Grey secured the consent of Martin's old shipmate, Prince William Henry (now William IV), to dismiss him on grounds of insubordination. The Navy Board was abolished the following year.

From 1818 to 1831 Martin sat in parliament as member for Plymouth. On 12 August 1819 he was made vice-admiral, a GCB on 3 March 1830, admiral on 22 July 1830, vice-admiral of the United Kingdom in 1847, and admiral of the fleet on 13 October 1849. After his dismissal as comptroller of the navy he was twice offered command of the Mediterranean Fleet, but his wife's ill health and his large pension were always against a return to active service in peacetime. Frequently called on to advise the government, he was still serving the state in 1854, outlining the strategy for naval operations in the Baltic and reporting on Lord Cochrane's plan to use poison gas. He died at the admiral-superintendent's house in Portsmouth on 21 October 1854. Sir William Hotham recorded that:
his capacities for business and thorough knowledge of the state of the navy marked him as a fit man to be at the head of its civil department. He added to a strong understanding and quick perception great personal application and activity, and transacted arduous business without any trouble to himself and satisfactorily to others; exceedingly amiable in his family and much beloved by those who knew him well. (Hotham MSS)
During his long and distinguished career Martin formed the views that directed his policy after 1815. Although a natural, and political, conservative, he never opposed the development of new technology, but merely required new technologies to demonstrate their advantages. He was the last and most able comptroller of the navy. In a period of retrenchment he reconstructed the fleet, providing a sound base for British diplomacy and deterrence, modernized the infrastructure, and provided sound guidance in the early years of naval technical development. His working relationship with Melville and Seppings forms a high point in the history of British naval administration.

J. K. Laughton, rev. Andrew Lambert


BL, Martin MSS · A. D. Lambert, The last sailing battlefleet: maintaining naval mastery, 1815–1850 (1991) · Letters and papers of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Thos. Byam Martin, GCB, ed. R. V. Hamilton, 3 vols., Navy RS, 12, 19, 24 (1898–1903) · U. Hull, Hotham MSS, DDHO · P. A. Symonds and D. R. Fisher, ‘Martin, Sir Thomas Byam’, HoP, Commons · Boase, Mod. Eng. biog.


BL, corresp. and papers, Add. MSS 41346–41475 |  Duke U., Perkins L., corresp. with Lord Melville · NA Scot., letters to Lord Melville · NL Scot., letters to Sir Thomas Cochrane · NMM, Seppings MSS


G. Richmond, oils, 1849, repro. in Hamilton, ed., Letters and papers, vol. 2, frontispiece · T. W. Mackay, oils, 1852; formerly United Service Club, London · H. Robinson, engraving (after G. Richmond, 1849), AM Oxf. [see illus.]