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Thornbrough, Sir Edward (1754–1834), naval officer, was born at Plymouth Dock on 27 July 1754, the only son of Commander Edward Thornbrough (d. 1784) and his wife, Mary. He had two younger sisters. In June 1761 he went to sea as servant to his father, first lieutenant of Arrogant (74 guns), and spent two years in the Mediterranean. For the next five years he was on the books of the Firm (60 guns), guardship at Plymouth, and was presumably at school.

In March 1768 Thornbrough rejoined his father in Temeraire (74 guns), also guardship at Plymouth, commanded by Captain Edward Le Cras (d. 1793), two of whose daughters he was later to marry; the tedium of guardship life was broken by a short trooping visit to Gibraltar. After four months in Albion (74 guns) at Spithead he again joined his father, now first lieutenant of Captain (64 guns), flagship of Rear-Admiral John Montagu, and sailed for North America in June 1771. After nearly two years berthed in Boston harbour he was promoted lieutenant on 16 April 1773 and joined the sloop Cruizer, but he rejoined the Captain and his father in September, and returned home in August 1774. In October he joined the sloop Falcon as second in command and returned to North America; she was soon supporting the army at Bunker Hill on 17 June 1775. On 8 August Thornbrough led a gallant but unsuccessful attempt by the ship's boats to capture a well-armed American schooner which Falcon had chased into Cape Ann harbour. Twenty-four of his men were taken prisoner, and several were wounded, including Thornbrough. He was invalided home but in April 1776 joined the frigate Richmond, and served in her for three years mostly off North America. After seven months in the frigate Garland escorting a convoy to Newfoundland and back, he joined the frigate Flora (Captain William Peere Williams) and distinguished himself in a sanguinary action when the French frigate Nymphe was captured off Ushant on 10 August 1780.

For this Thornbrough was immediately promoted commander and given command of Britannia, a hired ship protecting trade in the North Sea and escorting a convoy to New York. On arrival he was promoted captain (24 September 1781) and appointed to command the frigate Blonde. In May 1782 she captured an American ship laden with naval stores; when towing her to Halifax Blonde ran aground in thick fog off Nantucket. While the prize continued to Halifax, Blonde's crew and her American prisoners landed on an uninhabited islet, and were rescued two days later by two American ships. In return for Thornbrough's humane treatment of his prisoners, he and his ship's company were released by the Americans at New York, which was in British hands. At the subsequent court martial Thornbrough was commended for his conduct and acquitted. On his return home he was appointed to the Egmont (74 guns), intended for the East Indies, but she paid off at the peace in 1783.

However, in October Thornbrough assumed command of the frigate Hebe. By now his reputation was such that Hebe was selected by Lord Howe to take the nineteen-year-old Prince William Henry (later William IV) on his promotion to lieutenant in June 1785. William served as her third lieutenant for nine months, including on a cruise round Great Britain, and told his brother that he was ‘upon the best terms with Captain Thornbrough, who is a very worthy man and does everything to make me happy’ (25 Nov 1785, Correspondence of George, Prince of Wales, 1.150). On 16 March 1784 Thornbrough had married Ann (d. 1801), elder daughter of Edward Le Cras, then a commissioner of the navy. Their elder son, born while the prince was serving in Hebe, was baptized William Henry at the prince's request; he died aged fourteen, already a lieutenant in the navy. The younger son became a rear-admiral, and there were four daughters who died young. After six years in command of Hebe in home waters, ‘a period unexampled in time of peace’ (Marshall, 165) and in which he was particularly active against smugglers, Thornbrough commissioned Scipio (64 guns) in July 1790 for six months during the Spanish armament.

On 21 December 1792, in anticipation of war with France, Thornbrough commissioned the frigate Latona, in the Channel Fleet under Howe. For the courageous way in which, on 18 November 1793, he approached a French squadron under heavy fire and endeavoured to delay it until the British line of battleships could get up, he was publicly commended in a letter from the Admiralty to be read to all the ships' companies. At the battle of 1 June 1794 Latona was stationed abreast the centre of the British line to repeat Howe's signals, but entered the thick of the fight to assist the hard-pressed Bellerophon under attack from two French 74s. Latona answered the fire of the 74s ‘with as smart a return as a frigate's battery could give’ (James, 1.155).

In July Thornbrough was rewarded with command of Robust (74 guns), and served in her in the Channel Fleet for nearly five years. She took part in the ill-fated royalist expedition to Quiberon in 1795, giving passage to ‘two French Dukes, five Field-Marshals, four Admirals and 10 ADCs etc.etc.etc., in all upwards of 50’ (26 Jan 1796, TNA: PRO, ADM 1/2597). On 12 October 1798 Thornbrough led Sir John Borlase Warren's squadron into action, suffering severe damage when a French squadron was defeated near Tory Island off Donegal, thus thwarting an invasion of Ireland. All participants received the thanks of parliament. On 14 February 1799 Thornbrough was appointed colonel of marines and in the same month transferred to Formidable (90 guns), ‘which ship Captain Thornbrough has had the merit of making the crack ship of the fleet’ (St Vincent to Lord Spencer, 14 Sept 1800, Private Papers of George, Second Earl Spencer, 4.17). Formidable sailed to the Mediterranean under Sir Charles Cotton and took part in the unsuccessful search for Bruix's fleet. Promoted rear-admiral on 1 January 1801, Thornbrough hoisted his flag in Mars (74 guns) and for six months held the arduous command of the inshore squadron off Brest. His first wife died on 20 November 1801 and on 14 December 1802 he married Elizabeth (1775–1813), daughter of Sir Edwin Jeynes (1750–1810), mercer and banker of Bristol.

With the renewal of war in 1803 Thornbrough commanded a squadron in the North Sea and off the Texel under Viscount Keith for two years, and was then captain of the fleet to Lord Gardner in the Channel Fleet for four months. In October 1805 he hoisted his flag in Kent (74 guns) and was about to sail to join Nelson off Cadiz when news of Trafalgar was received. He was promoted vice-admiral on 9 November and in Prince of Wales (90 guns) commanded a detached squadron off Rochefort and subsequently in the channel until October 1806, when ill-health obliged him to go ashore. By February, however, he was again afloat, in the Royal Sovereign (100 guns), and he joined Lord Collingwood in the Mediterranean as his second in command. He spent most of the next three years guarding Sicily or blockading Toulon until his health obliged him to return home in December 1809. He was an admirable second in command but, as St Vincent wrote of him, though he was ‘as brave as a lion in the presence of the enemy’ (16 Nov 1806, Naval Miscellany, 4.482), he lacked the nerve to take the weight of great responsibility. Collingwood perhaps felt the same when he wrote to his wife in October 1809: ‘I do not like to part with so firm a man. He would be a host to me in battle’ (Public and Private Correspondence, 2.408).

From August 1810 to November 1813 Thornbrough was commander-in-chief of the Irish station; on 4 December 1813 he was promoted admiral of the blue and on 2 January 1815 he was created KCB. His second wife died in November 1813 and on 23 August 1814 he married Frances Le Cras (1764/5–1851), younger sister of his first wife. He was commander-in-chief, Portsmouth, for three years from April 1815 with his son as his flag lieutenant. Advanced to GCB on 11 January 1825, on 30 January 1833 he was appointed vice-admiral of the United Kingdom and lieutenant of the Admiralty. He died, an admiral of the red, in Bishopsteignton Lodge, Devon, on 3 April 1834, aged seventy-nine, and was buried in Bishopsteignton on 11 April. There is a memorial to him in Exeter Cathedral.

Thornbrough's career is remarkable for the exceptional length of his sea service—forty-nine and a half years between 1761 and 1818 by his own reckoning (TNA: PRO, ADM 9/1/21). ‘As a practical seaman’, wrote Sir William Hotham, who served under him,
he had very few rivals and certainly no superior … This knowledge of the minutiae of a seaman's duty extended to the managing of a fleet … He was very good-natured and … it was not easy to leave Sir Edward's society and conversation without acquiring some increase in professional knowledge.(DNB; Hotham, 1.198–203)

C. H. H. Owen


DNB · TNA: PRO, ADM 1/2597; ADM 9/1/21; ADM 1; ADM 1/99; ADM 1/485; ADM 1/5320; ADM 36; ADM 51 · J. Ralfe, The naval biography of Great Britain, 2 (1828), 357–66 · J. Marshall, Royal naval biography, 1/1 (1823), 165–72 · Burke, Gen. GB (1838), 4.300–02 · United Service Journal, 2 (1834), 204–10 · 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), vol. 1 · Private papers of George, second Earl Spencer, ed. J. S. Corbett and H. W. Richmond, 4 vols., Navy RS, 46, 48, 58–9 (1913–24) · A selection from the public and private correspondence of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, interspersed with memoirs of his life, ed. G. L. Newnham-Collingwood, 5th edn, 2 vols. (1837) · Pages and portraits from the past: being the private papers of Sir William Hotham, ed. A. M. W. Stirling, 2 vols. (1919) · The correspondence of George, prince of Wales, 1770–1812, ed. A. Aspinall, 1: 1770–1789 (1963) · J. K. Laughton, ed., The naval miscellany, 1, Navy RS, 20 (1902) · parish register (baptism), 19 Aug 1754, Stoke Damerel · parish register (burial), 11 April 1834, Bishopsteignton · LondG


BL, corresp. with Col. H. Lane, Add. MSS 20107–20108, 20163, 20166, 20189–20190 · Hunt. L., letters to Greville family · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Melville · NMM, letters to Lord Keith


S. Lane, oils, c.1825, NMM · W. T. Fry, stipple (after A. Huey, c.1815), NMM, NPG

Wealth at death  

£60,000: TNA: PRO, death duty registers, IR 26/1367, no. 216