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Pilfold, John (bap. 1769, d. 1834), naval officer and uncle of the poet Shelley, was baptized on 20 January 1769 at Horsham, Sussex, the third son of Charles Pilfold (1726–1790), yeoman, and his wife, Bathia White (1739–1779). He first went to sea about 1781 as a ‘captain's servant’ or cadet. He had a long tour of duty in the East Indies in 1788–92 as a midshipman on the Crown (64 guns) with Commodore Cornwallis. Pilfold attracted favourable notice at Lord Howe's victory of 1 June 1794 when serving as master's mate in the Brunswick (74 guns), which suffered heavy casualties. The commendation of Pilfold's dying commander, Captain John Harvey, prompted Howe to promote Pilfold lieutenant.

In 1798 Pilfold was appointed to the Impétueux (78 guns), and served as its first lieutenant until the cessation of hostilities in 1802, when the ship's company was paid off at Plymouth. He was then thirty-three and unmarried; both his parents were dead and the family farm was occupied by his married brother James. He seems to have decided to visit two of his married sisters, Charlotte Grove and Bathia Jackson, who both lived at Donhead in south Wiltshire. He was perhaps influenced by the presence in the Impétueux of Charlotte's son William Grove, aged twelve and serving as a first-class volunteer. At Donhead, Pilfold met Mary Anne Horner (d. 1832), daughter of Thomas South of Donhead, and married her on 20 June 1803; they had two daughters. His other married sister, Elizabeth, was the wife of Timothy Shelley of Field Place near Horsham, and it was in that vicinity, close to his birthplace, that he decided to make his home.

The resumption of war with France in 1803 brought him back to active service. As first lieutenant of the Ajax (third rate) in the engagement off Cape Finisterre in July 1805 he was subsequently left in command when his captain was recalled temporarily—an unexpected opportunity which brought his career to a triumphant climax in October as one of the heroes of Trafalgar. He was confirmed in the rank of post captain, presented with a gold medal, and in 1815 nominated CB.

As Pilfold settled into private life after Trafalgar, his neighbourly relationship with his brother-in-law Timothy Shelley became strained by 1810. When Shelley's son Percy Bysshe Shelley was expelled from Oxford in 1811 and eloped with a schoolfriend of his sisters to make an imprudent marriage in Scotland his father denied him entry at Field Place and he took refuge nearby with his uncle Pilfold at Cuckfield. A warning from Timothy Shelley to Pilfold not to interfere put them in open antagonism.

Assuming the role of surrogate father Pilfold gave financial support to his nephew and later played a part in negotiating the restoration of a paternal allowance. When Shelley and his young wife were striving to establish an idealistic community in Wales in 1812 Pilfold was prepared to put up a substantial sum to secure for them the tenancy of a small farmstead. The fact that Shelley was legally a minor proved to be an obstacle; even more serious was the recklessly ardent invitation to join the community that he made to Elizabeth Hitchener, an unmarried schoolteacher who taught one of Pilfold's daughters. Local gossip in Cuckfield that she was Shelley's mistress cast an added shadow; Pilfold became uncharacteristically cautious, and the Welsh scheme collapsed. Shelley's last ties with his Sussex background were loosened and he gradually lost touch with that ‘very hearty fellow’, of whom he wrote, ‘he has been an uncle to me, I owe him gratitude for his kindness’ (Letters, nos. 69, 182).

Little is known of Pilfold's later years apart from his continuing contacts with his Grove relatives at Donhead. In financial difficulties in 1824 he sold his farming interests and left Sussex with his wife and daughters to live more economically in Wales and Devon. In 1828 he was appointed to a care and maintenance command at Plymouth. A stroke in 1831 left him ‘quite childish’ (Grove Diaries, 170). His wife died in 1832 and a second stroke ended his own life on 12 July 1834 at Stonehouse, Plymouth.

Desmond Hawkins


J. Marshall, Royal naval biography, 2/2 (1825), 963–7 · The letters of Percy Bysshe Shelley, ed. F. L. Jones, 2 vols. (1964), vol. 1, nos. 69–71, 81, 129, 179–80, 182–3, 188a · The Grove diaries: the rise and fall of an English family, 1809–1925, ed. D. Hawkins (1995), 66, 77, 110–12, 147, 165, 170, 177 · Horsham Museum, Horsham, West Sussex, esp. MSS 552, 554 · D. Hawkins, Pilfold (1998) · T. Medwin, The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, new edn, ed. H. B. Forman (1913), 109–10 · R. Ingpen, Shelley in England (1917), 337 · O'Byrne, Naval biog. dict. [William Grove] · GM, 2nd ser., 3 (1835), 322 · R. H. Mackenzie, The Trafalgar roll (1913), 233 · T. J. Hogg and others, The life of Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1 (1933) [introduction by H. Wolfe] · W. Sussex RO · Surrey HC · Wilts. & Swindon HC · NMM · private information (2004)


miniature, repro. in Hawkins, Pilfold · portrait, repro. in Hawkins, Pilfold

Wealth at death  

unsuccessful venture into agricultural landowning · Horsham museum, Sussex, MSS 552, 554