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Brown, William (1764–1814), naval officer, was born on 8 May 1764 at Leesthorpe Hall, near Melton Mowbray, Leicestershire, the second son of John Suffield Brown, deputy lord lieutenant of the county. He joined the navy aged thirteen as a captain's servant and had been appointed a midshipman by the late 1770s. Brown passed his examination for lieutenant in the Royal Navy on 27 December 1788 and was promoted commander on 9 January 1791 and post captain on 29 October 1793. By then he had seen service on the Mediterranean and on the home stations and in 1794 he joined the Channel Fleet under Lord Howe, in command of the frigate Venus. He was present at the battle of 1 June 1794, though he played no particularly distinguished role in the battle. In the same year he married Catherine Travers (d. 1795), daughter of John Travers, a director of the East India Company; they had one son, John William, who also entered the navy. Catherine died on 12 August 1795 and was buried at St Olave's, London.

Brown remained at sea on the home station and patrolling off the coast of Portugal, despite increasing ill health, until November 1797, when he was sent to hospital in Lisbon. On his recovery, in March 1798 he was sent to command the Defence, a line-of-battle ship that paid off in January 1799. He then went to Gibraltar to commission the Santa Dorothea, but was instead given command of the Foudroyant. In June 1799 he was moved to the Vanguard in an exchange that saw Thomas Masterman Hardy transferred to the larger Foudroyant, which became Nelson's flagship. In October 1800 he commissioned the Robust and spent the next four years initially in the Mediterranean and then with the Channel Fleet blockading Brest. In 1802 he married Martha Vere, daughter of John Fothergill, merchant and former partner of the manufacturer Matthew Boulton. The couple had four children and their eldest son, Charles Foreman, also entered the navy.

In early 1805 Brown was given the Ajax under the command of Sir Robert Calder. It was in this ship that he took part in the engagement on 22 July 1805 with the Franco-Spanish fleet of Admiral Villeneuve. Vice-Admiral Calder's squadron, cruising off Ferrol, intercepted Villeneuve's fleet, which was returning to Europe after sailing to the West Indies. The battle occurred on a foggy afternoon, when any control over the forces engaged was extremely difficult. Calder attempted to break the enemy line, but was unable to do so, mainly owing—so it was said at the time—to his timidity and to Brown's turning his ship away from the Franco-Spanish line to communicate with his admiral, which weakened the van of the British fleet at this critical moment. Calder broke off the action as darkness fell and Villeneuve's ships were able to slip into port, while Calder was summoned back to England to explain his conduct. More recently the overall outcome of the engagement has been seen as more favourable to the Royal Navy.

Whatever the case, Brown's career did not suffer as a result and he was clearly viewed as a trustworthy and reliable officer. He missed the battle of Trafalgar because he was in Britain attending Calder's court martial at the request of the admiral, but Brown continued to hold active appointments ashore. He spent some time as commissioner at Malta and Sheerness dockyards, and was promoted rear-admiral in 1812. He was later appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel Islands and, in June 1813, commander-in-chief in Jamaica. It was while holding this post that he was taken ill with yellow fever. After a five-day illness he died on 20 September 1814 and was buried at Kingston burial ground on the following day.

Michael Partridge

Sources  

DNB · GM, 1st ser., 84/2 (1814), 611 · examination for lieutenant, TNA: PRO, ADM MS 106/11 · O'Byrne, Naval biog. dict. [Charles Foreman Brown and William Cheselden Brown] · R. Gardiner, ed., The campaign of Trafalgar (1997) · N. Tracy, ‘Sir Robert Calder's action’, Mariner's Mirror, 77 (1991), 259–70 · A. Schom, Trafalgar: countdown to battle (1990) · W. James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France in 1793, to the accession of George IV [5th edn], 6 vols. (1859–60), vol. 3, p. 361 · private information (2007) [A. R. Brown]