We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
  Edward Pellew (1757–1833), by James Northcote, 1804 Edward Pellew (1757–1833), by James Northcote, 1804
Pellew, Edward, first Viscount Exmouth (1757–1833), naval officer, was born on 19 April 1757 at Dover, the second of the six children of Samuel Pellew (1713–1765), commander of a Dover Post Office packet, and his wife, Constance (d. 1812), daughter of Edward Langford of Penzance and his wife, Catherine. His younger brother Israel Pellew [see ] also achieved prominence in the navy.

Early years

Following her husband's death Constance moved her family to Penzance, where Edward received an early education at the Revd James Parkins's school before attending Truro grammar school. In 1770 he ran away to sea to escape a flogging, securing a position aboard the Juno (Captain John Stott). Although the Pellew family had no great wealth they did have a distinguished Cornish pedigree and enjoyed the patronage and support of Lord Falmouth and the Boscawen family, the most powerful aristocrats in the area. Thanks to this influence Stott, Admiral Edward Boscawen's former boatswain, accepted the young Pellew as a captain's servant, a status frequently given to youngsters embarking on a career as a naval officer. Pellew joined the Juno in December 1770, sailing to the Falkland Islands and remaining aboard until she was paid off in January 1772. In the following August he rejoined Stott, now commanding the Alarm, and served in her in the Mediterranean until 1775. In that year, however, a disagreement with Stott resulted in Pellew and another midshipman being put ashore at Marseilles, whence the pair got a passage home in a merchant ship.

Pellew was fortunate that this escapade did no harm to his career, Boscawen influence not only securing him an immediate new position aboard the Blonde, but also the leadership and example of her captain, Philemon Pownoll, one of the most outstanding officers of the day. Pellew joined the Blonde in January 1776, she escorting a troop convoy to North America in the spring. After her arrival in the St Lawrence, Pellew joined a party of seamen sent to build and man a flotilla intended to wrest control of Lake Champlain from the American rebels. His boundless energy made Pellew a valued subordinate in the construction process, which was completed by October. In an action on the 11th he ended up commanding the schooner Carleton when both his senior officers were wounded, his gallantry helping to ensure that she was not captured at a moment of danger. Two days later the Americans were engaged again and their flotilla was destroyed. For his courage under fire Pellew was promised promotion to lieutenant, but this was to be delayed as he remained on Lake Champlain during the winter and was thereafter the commander of a group of sailors attached to General John Burgoyne's army. As such he endured the hardships of a campaign that ended with the surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, though not before he had again displayed his courage when recapturing a barge loaded with vital provisions on the Hudson River. After the capitulation Burgoyne sent him home with his dispatches, Pellew finally receiving the promised promotion in January 1778.

As part of the Saratoga surrender Pellew was unable to serve in any active capacity until exchanged, this causing him much frustration as he had to spend much of 1778 serving on the Princess Amelia, a Spithead guardship. Not until October did he escape to become second lieutenant aboard the frigate Licorne, cruising first in the channel and then taking a convoy to Newfoundland in May 1779. She returned home with another convoy in November and in the following April his career took an important step forward when Captain Pownoll invited him to join his frigate, the Apollo, as first lieutenant. Pellew jumped at the chance and was aboard her on 15 June 1780 when she engaged a French frigate off Ostend. Pownoll was killed in the action and the command fell to Pellew, the enemy vessel suffering much the worse and fleeing into Ostend, then a neutral port. Although the engagement cost him an important service patron Pellew had the compensation of being promoted commander into the sloop Hazard for his endeavours. He served in the Hazard off the north-east coast until her paying off in January 1781, not receiving another vessel until March 1782, when he commissioned the sloop Pelican at Plymouth. In May 1782, having enjoyed some successes against French privateers, Pellew received the most important advance in a naval officer's career when he was promoted to post captain. With the whigs in power, though, his tory patron, Lord Falmouth, could not secure him a permanent command. Consequently he enjoyed only the temporary captaincy of the frigate Artois before the war came to an end.

Soon after this, on 28 May 1783, Pellew married Susan (1756–1837), daughter of James Frowde of Knowle, Wiltshire; the couple had two daughters and four sons including , naval officer, and , later dean of Norwich. Initially, with Pellew unemployed, the family lived in Truro, where he was a burgess supporting the interests of Lord Falmouth, moving shortly afterwards to Flushing, near Falmouth, when Pellew's elder brother Samuel became collector of the customs. He next went to sea in April 1786 when appointed to the frigate Winchelsea destined for the Newfoundland station, remaining in her until she was paid off in January 1789. He then moved to the Salisbury, continuing to serve off Newfoundland as she was the flagship of the station's commander, Vice-Admiral Milbank. After the Salisbury was paid off in December 1791 Pellew was again unemployed, trying his hand at agriculture by running a small family farm at Treverry, near Falmouth. In this venture he was singularly unsuccessful.

The famous frigate captain, 1793–1798

In early 1793 Pellew was rescued from the toils of agriculture by the coming war with revolutionary France. Indeed, Lord Falmouth's influence was such as to secure him command of the frigate Nymphe in mid-January before war had even been declared. For the next few months the Nymphe cruised the channel as well as taking a convoy to Cuxhaven, during which time Pellew was able to complete and train his crew, some of whom were former Cornish tin miners. This preparation was just as well, for on 18 June off Start Point the Nymphe fell in with the French frigate Cléopâtre, capturing her after a brief but bloody action that cost fifty British casualties out of 240 men present, the French losing sixty-three out of 320. This made Pellew's name, he not only having gallantly taken an enemy warship of equal force, but also having had the good fortune to score the first such success of the war. In the celebrations that followed he was knighted on 29 June.

Thereafter Pellew remained in the Nymphe before being transferred to the more powerful Arethusa in December 1793. The following year this vessel was part of the western squadron of frigates based at Falmouth under Sir John Borlase Warren, a force newly formed to counter the activities of several such enemy squadrons. On 23 April they engaged one of these to the south-west of Guernsey, the stronger British force quickly overpowering their opponents in an action where Pellew's Arethusa played the primary role in fighting the Pomone, at the time the largest frigate in service. After an engagement lasting under half an hour, during which she suffered between eighty and a hundred casualties, the Pomone surrendered, the Arethusa suffering only three dead and five wounded. Successful cruises continued for Pellew during the remainder of 1794 and in 1795, squadrons in which he either served or led destroying one frigate, capturing another, driving two corvettes ashore (at least one of which was later refloated after Pellew refused to burn them as they contained wounded men), and making many captures from French coastal convoys.

One event, however, underlined Pellew's reputation for heroism. On 26 January 1796 the Dutton, an East Indiaman hired by the government to transport troops to the West Indies, was driven into Plymouth by a gale. Losing her rudder on a shoal, the ship became unmanageable, went aground on some rocks under the citadel and lay broadside on to the waves, her rolling throwing all the masts overboard. She was, however, linked to the shore by a rope by which means all of her officers and some of her crew escaped, leaving about 500 men, women, and children still aboard to their fate. While a crowd milled around aimlessly on shore Pellew suddenly appeared. Having vainly offered financial inducements to get someone to go to their aid, he opted to do it himself, getting dragged aboard by a rope and receiving an injury to his back from one of the floating masts in the process. Once on the Dutton, sword in hand, he restored order amid the panic and oversaw the running of additional hawsers to the shore from which cradles were hung and some people pulled to safety. Others were placed in boats that had, with equal bravery, been brought alongside. By such means everyone was saved, Pellew being the last to leave. For his actions he was raised to the rank of baronet, also being given the freedom of the city of Plymouth and a service of plate from the Liverpool merchant community.

Service successes continued as well. Now in the powerful frigate Indefatigable, a 64-gun ship that had been cut down, Pellew commanded a squadron that in April 1796 captured the French frigates Unité and Virginie, the latter after a fifteen-hour chase extending over 168 miles. Indefatigable then became part of the force blockading Brest, Pellew spending freezing hours at the masthead observing the enemy's preparations for what turned out to be an abortive invasion of Ireland. When the French expedition finally sailed, on 16 November 1796, it was at nightfall in the hope of avoiding the British blockaders. The attempt, though, caused confusion among the poorly trained crews and Pellew gleefully added to the mayhem by closing with the Indefatigable and making a series of false signals by means of gunshots, rockets, and lights. After this the luckless French were buffeted by severe winter gales that scattered their vessels and ultimately wrecked the whole project. The British naval response, however, was slow and badly managed, being largely unable to take any advantage from the enemy's misfortune: Pellew was to provide the one exception.

On 13 January 1797 Indefatigable, with the frigate Amazon in company, spotted a sail some 150 miles south-west of Ushant. This proved to be the French 74-gun ship of the line Droits de l'homme, a class of vessel whose heavier armament normally made it impossible for a frigate to engage safely. However, in the rough seas pertaining at the time the larger warship could not open her lower gunports for fear of flooding, a weakness Pellew perceived and set about exploiting. The action began at 5.45 p.m. and continued, with brief pauses while the British repaired their rigging, for about eleven hours. The frigates hung on to the quarters of their larger opponent, constantly pouring fire into her and causing damage that made her more difficult to control. In the dark and stormy night all three vessels ended up in Audierne Bay on the coast of Brittany, the sudden sight of distant breakers just giving Indefatigable, with her masts damaged and 4 feet of water in her hold, time to alter course and escape—a difficult manoeuvre under the circumstances and one which was a great testimony to the crew Pellew had trained. The other ships were less fortunate. Amazon ran ashore, though the discipline of her crew meant that most were saved. The fate of the Droits de l'homme was infinitely worse. Grounding on a sandbank, dismasted, and lashed for days by a gale which prevented aid from reaching her, perhaps a thousand men from the soldiers and sailors packed aboard lost their lives. For Pellew the action was a triumph, Lord Spencer at the Admiralty acknowledging that for two frigates to destroy a ship of the line was ‘an exploit which has not I believe ever before graced our naval Annals’ (Parkinson, 181).

During the remainder of 1797 and through 1798 Pellew continued in command of a squadron watching Brest and operating against enemy cruisers, some fifteen of them being captured during the latter year.

Senior captain and admiral, 1799–1810

A more difficult period in Pellew's career opened in March 1799 when he was transferred to the Impétueux, a 74-gun ship of the line. Although in theory a promotion it was a step he vigorously resisted: commanding such a vessel virtually precluded the chances of large-scale captures (that is, of prize money), and also meant serving directly under the command of Lord Bridport, the commander of the Channel Fleet and a man for whom Pellew felt complete contempt. Worst of all it meant moving into a vessel whose crew was known to be mutinous. This discontent finally broke out at the end of May when the fleet put in to Bantry Bay after a cruise. Once again he proved equal to the occasion. When a large group of the crew surged on to the quarter-deck Pellew, who was a tall, athletic, and probably quite intimidating man, faced them down and, supported by his officers, brusquely seized the ringleaders. At that point the rebellion collapsed, three of the mutineers eventually being court martialled and hanged. Although the Impétueux would never be a happy ship, her crew had at least been brought to a state of obedience.

After a brief period in the Mediterranean in the summer of 1799 Impétueux served in the channel, and in May 1800 Pellew was made the commander of a squadron convoying troops and arms to support a French royalist revolt in the region around Quiberon Bay. However, the proposed uprising fizzled out and little was achieved. Similarly fruitless was a strike at Ferrol in August, Impétueux being one of the warships assigned to provide naval support for a venture that turned into a fiasco. Thereafter Pellew returned to the channel, being regarded by Lord St Vincent as one of the few officers he could rely on to perform the exhausting duty of blockading the French naval bases efficiently.

Impétueux was finally paid off in April 1802, the brief period of peace that followed seeing Pellew reinforce his political influence by becoming MP for Barnstaple in July. With the probability of hostilities resuming he was appointed to the 80-gun Tonnant in March 1803, and was sent in June with two other ships of the line to pursue a Dutch squadron said to be at Ferrol. In the event the Dutch evaded him, but Pellew ended up blockading the port as a French squadron returning from the Caribbean had sought shelter there. In the tedious months that followed Pellew's squadron was reinforced to six and then eight ships of the line.

On 15 March 1804 Pellew made his only significant foray into politics when he returned home to speak in support of Addington's ministry, then under severe pressure from Pitt and the opposition via attacks on St Vincent's efforts at naval reform. Pellew's speech made a considerable impact and certainly helped prop up the failing government. Pitt, it was said, never forgave him. The following month Pellew received his reward, being promoted to rear-admiral of the white and given the East Indies command, though his future prospects remained uncertain as Addington's administration finally collapsed in May, allowing Pitt back into office. Pellew was able initially to resist any urge the new ministers may have had to remove him from his new command by agreeing to resign his parliamentary seat in favour of a Pittite candidate, a step he took when, and not before, he boarded his flagship for the voyage to India in July 1804.

Such a bargain did not prevent the new first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Melville, from taking a more subtle revenge by dividing the East India station. Early in 1805 Rear-Admiral Thomas Troubridge was appointed to take command of the eastern, and more lucrative, half, while Pellew was left with the western section. Politically this was very clever, punishing one admiral who had opposed Pitt by appointing another, who was also a supporter of St Vincent, to a situation where conflict between the two was inevitable. Militarily, though, it was crass stupidity, not merely because a divided station denied the western commander access to the east Indian ports when the south-west monsoon made the western coast unsafe during the summer, but also because a divided command could easily lead to paralysis in the face of any enemy assault on British interests.

The two admirals finally met in August 1805 and, given that each was renowned for a fiery temper, the furious outcome was predictable, particularly when, on a technicality, Pellew refused to accept Troubridge's instructions. Pellew offered a compromise whereby Troubridge, as the junior admiral, would command the eastern region under Pellew's orders, but this was flatly refused. Within a week of the encounter the pair were not on speaking terms and were writing letters of protest to London. The whole mess was not resolved until January 1807 when news arrived that a new government in London had ruled in Pellew's favour, transferring Troubridge to the Cape.

Pellew retained the Indian command until February 1809, little of strategic significance occurring during the period. Pellew's naval attacks directed on Batavia Roads (November 1806) and Griessie (December 1807) destroyed the moribund remains of Dutch naval power in the region, but financial stringency in India effectively prevented any occupation of those colonies or, more importantly, of the French islands of Mauritius and Bourbon. These remained the sources of constant attacks on British trade, a persistent worry for Pellew which embroiled him in a protracted feud with the merchant community of Calcutta. Their complaints respecting losses prompted an icy Admiralty demand for him to explain his seeming failure, though Pellew was able to counter that much of the trouble came not from any faulty employment of his warships, but from merchants who ignored convoys and rushed their vessels for markets. Certainly he enjoyed better relations with the Bombay business community who passed a vote of thanks for his efforts and pointed out that shipping insurance rates were lower in 1805–8 than they had been in 1798–1805.

In personal terms Pellew's time in India was more satisfactory. Two of his sons, Pownoll and Fleetwood, were naval officers and Pellew shamelessly took the opportunity to forward their careers, making both of them post captains and providing them with potentially lucrative cruising grounds. Pellew himself certainly increased his fortune: the capture of a Spanish treasure ship by one of his captains alone netted him £26,000 and doubled his personal wealth. Such riches enabled him, after he returned to Britain in July 1809, to purchase the estate of Canonteign near Teignmouth in Devon, as well as a large house, West Cliff, in Teignmouth itself.

High command, 1810–1833

Pellew, who had become a vice-admiral on 28 April 1808, was not re-employed until July 1810, when he became commander in the North Sea, his chief duty being to blockade the Scheldt. In April 1811 he was transferred to take command of the Mediterranean Fleet, a great compliment as, comprising some seventy to eighty warships, it was the largest naval force outside home waters and involved considerable responsibilities. These included the blockade of Toulon, by then the most important French naval arsenal; close co-operation with the various forces resisting Napoleon in eastern Spain; guarding the extensive British commerce in the region; patrolling the coasts of Napoleon's southern empire in Italy and the Adriatic; ensuring no further French adventures in Egypt; and maintaining the delicate diplomatic relations with the Ottoman empire and the Barbary powers. Pellew retained the command until Napoleon's abdication in 1814, being made Baron Exmouth on 14 May and promoted to admiral on 4 June. He returned the following year during the ‘hundred days’ when he provided naval support to forces assisting the royalists in southern France. On 2 January 1815 he had been made a KCB and shortly afterwards a GCB.

After Napoleon's second abdication Exmouth was directed to conclude treaties with the Barbary states for the abolition of Christian slavery, negotiations that took up the spring of 1816 and seemed to have been concluded successfully. On his return home, however, he discovered that troops of the dey of Algiers had massacred some 200 Christian fishermen, an act prompting fury in Britain and the desire for swift retribution. Exmouth was to be the instrument for this, for which purpose he immediately set about organizing and manning a squadron. This finally sailed in July 1816, reaching Gibraltar early in August, where it was joined by a squadron of Dutch frigates, the united force consisting of five ships of the line, one vessel of 50 guns, nine frigates, and various smaller warships, including four bomb ketches. Algiers was a formidable stronghold defended by approximately 450 cannon in well-protected batteries, but the attack which followed illustrated Exmouth's attention to detail. On the voyage out the British crews were subject to rigorous gunnery drills and had taken in massive stocks of ammunition. He had also ordered a reconnaissance of Algiers prior to the operation and when the ships finally reached the city on 27 August all the captains had been told what to do. At a little before 3 p.m. the action commenced and an intense bombardment was then sustained for over seven hours until the allies withdrew. By that time enormous damage had been inflicted on the defending batteries and most of their guns had been silenced. Furthermore the Algerine fleet of frigates and smaller warships in the harbour had been completely destroyed. On the next day the Algerines surrendered, agreeing to Exmouth's terms respecting their future behaviour and releasing more than 1200 Christian slaves. The battle had cost the allies 141 dead and 742 wounded, a higher proportion of those engaged than in any of Nelson's victories and indicative of its severity.

In the wake of the victory Exmouth was fêted as a hero: at home, in 1816, he was created Viscount Exmouth of Canonteign and received the thanks of parliament; decorations were also forthcoming from Spain, Naples, Sardinia, and the Netherlands. In 1817 he was given the position of port admiral at Plymouth and retained it until February 1821, then finally retiring from active service. He was made vice-admiral of the United Kingdom on 15 February 1832, but died at West Cliff House, Teignmouth, on 23 January 1833 and was buried on 6 February at Christow church. He was survived by his wife, who died on 29 October 1837.

In summing up Edward Pellew's career he may certainly be considered one of the foremost frigate captains of the age, combining qualities of seamanship, determination, and imagination that made him ideal for the sorts of responsibility that came with such a command. In action he was a fearless inspiration and was an officer who, even as an admiral, led by example. His real-life exploits were sufficiently dramatic for him to feature as Midshipman Hornblower's captain in C. S. Forester's famous novel. Yet Pellew was a short-tempered martinet who demanded the highest standards from both officers and men—in short, the type of leader who was respected rather than loved. Equally, his insistence after taking up the Indian command that all his captains submit regular monthly punishment reports to curb excesses indicate that he was no savage. His popular reputation lacks only the winning of a major naval engagement, but his leadership of the Mediterranean Fleet showed someone more than capable of shouldering the arduous burdens of an extremely important station, and was concluded by the reduction of a powerful fortress in an operation where the planning and execution were very much his own. In a time that produced a plethora of highly talented naval officers Pellew was one of the most outstanding.

Christopher D. Hall


DNB · C. N. Parkinson, Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth, admiral of the red (1934) · E. Osler, The life of Admiral Viscount Exmouth (1835) · J. Marshall, Royal naval biography, 1 (1823) · G. C. Boase, Collectanea Cornubiensia: a collection of biographical and topographical notes relating to the county of Cornwall (1890) · W. James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France in 1793, to the accession of George IV [3rd edn], 6 vols. (1837) · ‘Admiral Viscount Exmouth’, W. H. Tregellas, Cornish worthies, 1 (1884), 291–308 · L. Jewitt, A history of Plymouth (1873) · W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the present, 4–5 (1899–1900); repr. (1997) · C. N. Parkinson, War in the eastern seas, 1793–1815 (1954) · Naval Chronicle, 18 (1807), 411–66 · U. Redwood, The story of Flushing, Cornwall (1967) · R. E. Davidson, History of Truro Grammar and Cathedral School (1970) · P. A. Symonds, ‘Pellew, Edward’, HoP, Commons, 1790–1820, 4.755–7 · will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1811, fols. 236r–247v


Alnwick Castle, letter-book and corresp. · NMM, corresp. and papers · NMM, further papers · priv. coll., papers |  Alnwick Castle, letters to duke of Northumberland · BL, corresp. with Sir William A'Court, Add. MS 41528 · BL, corresp. with Sir Hudson Lowe, Add. MSS 20114–20124, 20134, 20192 · BL, letters to second Earl Spencer · BL, corresp. with Lord Wellesley, Add. MS 13755 · BL, letters to William Windham, Add. MSS 37875–37879 · BL OIOC, letters to Sir George Barlow, MS Eur. F 176 · Hunt. L., letters to Grenville family · L. Cong., manuscript division, letters to Lord Melville · NL Scot., letters to Lord Melville · NL Scot., letters to first earl of Minto · NMM, corresp. with Sir Benjamin Carew · NMM, letters to Sir Richard Keats · NMM, letters to Sir Charles Yorke · NRA, priv. coll., letters to William Adam, etc. · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Henry Duncan · U. Durham L., letters to second earl Grey · U. Nott. L., corresp. with Lord William Bentinck · Wilts. & Swindon HC, corresp. with Thomas Flindell · letters to second earl of Chatham, ADM 1 and 2, PRO 30/8


J. Northcote, oils, 1804, NPG [see illus.] · C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1815 (after T. Lawrence), BM, NPG · W. Beechey, oils, exh. RA 1817, Ironmongers' Hall, London · C. Turner, mezzotint, pubd 1818 (after W. Beechey), BM, NPG · W. Owen, oils, 1819, NMM · G. Hayter, group portrait, oils, 1820 (The trial of Queen Caroline, 1820), NPG · P. Macdowell, statue, 1846, NMM · T. Lawrence, oils, repro. in Clowes, Royal Navy, vol. 5 · B. Thorvaldsen, plaster bust, Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

Wealth at death  

£60,000; plus Canonteign estate and West Cliff House, Teignmouth: Parkinson, Edward Pellew; will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1811, fols. 236r–247v