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Strachan, Sir Richard John, fourth baronet (1760–1828), naval officer, eldest son of Lieutenant Patrick Strachan RN and a daughter of Captain Pitman RN, and nephew of , was born in Devon on 27 October 1760. He entered the navy in 1772 on the Intrepid, in which he went to the East Indies, where he was moved to the Orford, commanded by his uncle. He was afterwards on the North American station in the Preston with Commodore William Hotham; in the Eagle, flagship of Lord Howe; and in the Actaeon off the coast of Africa and in the West Indies. On the death of his uncle on 26 December 1777 he succeeded to the baronetcy. He was made lieutenant on 5 April 1779. Early in 1781 he was appointed to the Hero with Captain James Hawker, one of Commodore George Johnstone's squadron, which fought the abortive action against Suffren in Porto Praya. The Hero went on to the East Indies, where Strachan moved first to the Magnanime and then the Superb, in which he was present in the first four of the actions between Suffren and Sir Edward Hughes, who in January 1783 promoted him to the command of the cutter Lizard and on 26 April 1783 to be captain of the frigate Naiad.

In 1787 Strachan was appointed to the Vestal, which in the spring of 1788 sailed for China, carrying as ambassador the Hon. Charles Alan Cathcart. Cathcart died in the Strait of Banca and the Vestal returned to England. The following year she was again sent to the East Indies, to join the squadron under Commodore William Cornwallis. Strachan was moved to the Phoenix and in November 1791 was ordered to visit and search the French frigate Résolue, which, with a convoy of merchant vessels, was understood to be carrying military stores for the support of Tipu. The Résolue resisted, and a sharp action ensued before she struck her colours. As the French captain insisted on considering his ship a prize to the British, Cornwallis ordered Strachan to tow her round to Mahé, where the French commodore then was.

In 1793 Strachan returned to England and was appointed to the frigate Concorde, which in the spring of 1794 was one of the squadron off Brest under Sir John Borlase Warren. On 23 April 1794 Warren's squadron engaged a squadron of four French frigates, three of which were captured, one, L'Engageante, striking to the Concorde. In July 1794 Strachan was appointed to the Melampus (42 guns), attached during the summer to the Grand Fleet; and in the spring of 1795 he was sent in command of a squadron of five frigates, which cruised successfully off the coast of Normandy and Brittany, capturing or destroying a very large number of enemy coasting craft, many laden with military stores and convoyed by armed vessels.

In 1796 Strachan was moved into the Diamond after her captain, Sir Sidney Smith was captured, and remained on the same service until 1799, when he was appointed to the Captain (74 guns) and employed off the west coast of France, either alone or in command of a detached squadron. In 1802 he was appointed to the Donegal, in which during 1803–4 he was senior officer at Gibraltar, charged with the watch on Cadiz under the orders of Nelson. On 23 April 1804 he was made a colonel of marines. In March 1805 he returned to England in the Renown but was almost immediately appointed to the Caesar, in which he commanded a detached squadron including three other line-of-battle ships and four frigates in the Bay of Biscay. On 2 November 1805, off Cape Finisterre, he encountered the four French ships of the line that had escaped from Trafalgar under the command of Rear-Admiral Dumanoir. On the 4th he succeeded in bringing them to action, and after a short engagement captured all of them, rounding off the destruction of the French fleet. By the promotion of 9 November 1805 Strachan became a rear-admiral. On 28 January 1806, when the thanks of both houses of parliament were voted to Collingwood and those engaged at Trafalgar, Strachan and his command were specially included, and a pension of £1000 a year was settled on him. On 29 January he was nominated KCB; the City of London also voted him its freedom and a sword of honour.

Early in 1806 Strachan was dispatched in search of a French squadron reported to have sailed for America. Not finding it, he returned to watch Rochefort until January 1808 when, in thick weather, the French succeeded in escaping to the Mediterranean. Strachan followed, and joined Collingwood; but, on the enemy's retiring into Toulon, Strachan was ordered home, where he was placed in command of a squadron watching the Dutch coast. On 9 June 1809 he was appointed naval commander of the immense expedition (264 warships of all sizes and 352 transports carrying 44,000 troops) against the island of Walcheren, and for the destruction of the French arsenals in the Scheldt. Strachan was ill qualified either by experience or temperament for the joint command of such a large and complex combined operation. Attentive to the delays to his own service from bad weather, intricate channels, and a shortage of pilots, he was insufficiently appreciative of the problems of the army, and long before the expedition was abandoned his relations with the army commander, Chatham, had degenerated into acrimony [see ]. Nothing was achieved beyond the capture of Flushing, and the force's return home was the signal for an outbreak of angry recriminations. In a narrative presented to the king at the beginning of 1810 the earl of Chatham by implication blamed Strachan for the failure. Strachan replied, arguing with apparent justice that the ships had done all that they had been asked to do, all that from the nature of things they could do. Strachan became a scapegoat for the failure of the expedition and had no further employment; he became a vice-admiral on 31 July 1810, admiral on 19 July 1821, and died at his house in Bryanston Square, London, on 3 February 1828. He married in 1812 Louisa Dillon; they had at least one daughter but no son, and the baronetcy became extinct.

Strachan's ungovernable temper and violent cursing earned him the nickname of ‘Mad Dick’ among his men, but he remained a popular and sought-after commander. Captain Graham Moore, naval brother of Sir John Moore, described him on the eve of Walcheren as ‘one of those in our service whom I estimate the highest. I do not believe he has his fellow among the Admirals, unless it be Pellew, for ability, and it is not possible to have more zeal and gallantry’ (Maxwell, 1.95), and even after the failure of that expedition became apparent he declared that:
It is my wish to serve with Strachan, as I know him to be extremely brave and full of zeal and ardour, at the same time that he is an excellent seaman, and, tho' an irregular, impetuous fellow, possessing very quick parts and an uncommon share of sagacity and strong sense. (ibid.)


J. K. Laughton, rev. Michael Duffy

Sources  

J. Marshall, Royal naval biography, 1/1 (1823), 284–91 · J. Ralfe, The naval biography of Great Britain, 2 (1828), 456–78 · W. James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France, in February 1793, to the accession of George IV in January 1820, 5 vols. (1822–4) · Burke, Peerage · The Creevey papers, ed. H. Maxwell, 2nd edn, 2 vols. (1904) · W. Richardson, A mariner of England, ed. S. Childers (1908) · G. C. Bond, The grand expedition: the British invasion of Holland in 1809 (1979) · D. Syrett and R. L. DiNardo, The commissioned sea officers of the Royal Navy, 1660–1815, rev. edn, Occasional Publications of the Navy RS, 1 (1994) · GM, 1st ser., 98/1 (1828)

Archives  

BL, letters to Lord Nelson, Add. MSS 34919–34931 · NMM, letters to Sir Richard Keats; letters to Lord Nelson · TNA: PRO, letters to second earl of Chatham, PRO 30/8