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
Calder, Sir Robert, baronet (1744/5–1818), naval officer, was the second son of Sir James Calder, third baronet, and Alice, daughter of Admiral Robert Hughes. His father, a descendant of the Calders of Muirtown, Moray, had settled in Kent; in 1761 Sir James was appointed gentleman-usher of the privy chamber to the queen by the prime minister, Lord Bute.

In 1759 Calder entered the navy on the Chesterfield, with Captain Herbert Sawyer, whom he followed to the Active, and thus participated in the capture of the Spanish register-ship Hermione on 21 May 1762, probably the richest prize on record, even a midshipman's share amounting to £1800. His passing certificate, dated 2 June 1762, described Calder as appearing to be twenty years old, though he was then only seventeen. On 31 August of that year he was made lieutenant. In 1779 he was promoted commander and on 27 August 1780 he was advanced to the rank of post captain. In May 1779 he had married Amelia, daughter of John Michell of Bayfield, Norfolk; the couple had no children.

During the next three years Calder successively commanded the Buffalo, Diana, and Thalia, all on the home station. The Thalia was paid off at the peace, and he had no further employment until the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, when he was appointed to the Theseus (74 guns) for service in the channel. In 1796, when Sir John Jervis (later earl of St Vincent) was appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Calder was appointed captain of the fleet, and served in that capacity at the battle of Cape St Vincent, after which he carried home the admiral's dispatches, and was knighted on 3 March 1797. Calder was held in high regard by St Vincent.

On 22 August 1798 Calder was made a baronet, and on 14 February 1799 he was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral. In 1800 he hoisted his flag on the Prince of Wales (98 guns), in the Channel Fleet, then commanded by St Vincent; and in February 1801 he was detached in pursuit of a French squadron, which slipped down the coast into the Mediterranean, while Calder, with seven ships of the line and three frigates, followed an imaginary chase to the West Indies. It was only at Jamaica that he learned his mistake, and he did not rejoin the fleet until June. He was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral, on 23 April 1804, and shortly afterwards hoisted his flag, again in the Prince of Wales, in which he joined the fleet off Brest, under Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. In the following February he was detached off Ferrol, with five sail of the line, to keep watch over a Franco-Spanish squadron of ten ships ready for sea, and two more fitting. These, however, would not be tempted out, although Calder, notwithstanding occasional reinforcements, had never more than nine ships of the line under his command. It was not until 15 July 1805 that he was joined by the squadron from off Rochefort, bringing his numbers up to fifteen ships, with which he was ordered to stretch out to the westward of Cape Finisterre, in order to intercept the combined fleet of France and Spain which was making for Ferrol and reinforcements on its return from the West Indies. It was understood that this consisted of sixteen ships, but when Calder fell in with it on 22 July he found it had twenty.

Notwithstanding these disadvantages, compounded by poor weather and the fact that the British fleet was to leeward, Calder succeeded in bringing the enemies' fleet to action, and in cutting off and capturing two of the Spanish ships. This was an important victory, and Calder was rightly commended for it. The next day was clear; but though the combined fleet had still the advantage of the wind, the allied commander Villeneuve conceived that his instructions forbade him to fight except under compulsion, while Calder was anxious to secure his prizes, and to cover the Windsor Castle, which had sustained severe damage. Above all he recognized the danger of his position if the fifteen ships in Ferrol and the five in Rochefort should come out and join the fleet with Villeneuve. By holding his ground Calder denied the enemy the chance to concentrate. On 24 July the hostile fleets lost sight of each other. Villeneuve headed south and on 26 July the combined fleet put into Vigo, whence Villeneuve slipped round to Ferrol, which Calder had temporarily left open. When on 9 August Calder, with a squadron again reduced to nine ships, arrived off Ferrol, he found the French and Spanish in vastly superior force, and on the point of putting to sea. His orders authorized him to retire when in the presence of such unequal numbers, which he accordingly did, joining Cornwallis off Brest to deny the French any opportunity to combine their fleets in the western approaches.

As Calder had expected, Villeneuve, with twenty-nine ships of the line, did put to sea on the evening of 9 August with the intention of carrying out his instructions and making the English Channel. On 13 August, his fleet having finally assembled, the French commander, realizing his chance had gone, sailed for Cadiz, where he arrived on 21 August. His retreat has been generally and erroneously attributed to the result of the action of 22 July, with which, in point of fact, it had very little connection. More pertinently the constant attention of the British ensured that he was watched at every turn, and his messages captured. By this time Villeneuve was a broken man.

On 30 August Calder, with a large part of the Brest fleet, joined Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood off Cadiz, and while cruising off that port he learned that his conduct on 23 and 24 July had been severely commented on in England. He immediately wrote to apply for a court martial. The Admiralty had, independently, given Nelson orders to send Calder home for trial. Nelson arrived off Cadiz on 28 September, and sent Calder back in his own ship. Nelson wrote:
I may be thought wrong as an officer … in not insisting on Sir Robert Calder's quitting the Prince of Wales for the Dreadnought, and for parting with a gun ship, but I trust that I shall be considered to have done right as a man and to a brother officer in affliction; my heart could not stand it, and so the thing must rest. (Dispatches and Letters, 7.56)
Calder accordingly sailed a few days before the battle of Trafalgar. The court did not assemble until 23 December, and on 26 December found that Calder in his conduct on 23 and 24 July had been guilty of an error in judgement, and sentenced him to be severely reprimanded. This was the end of his seagoing career; he never served afloat again, though he rose by seniority to the rank of admiral on 31 July 1810. Between 1810 and 1812 he served as commander-in-chief at Plymouth. He was made KCB in April 1815.

Calder died on 31 August 1818 at his home, The Holt, near Bishop's Waltham, Hampshire, and was survived by his wife. Calder was a fine officer of solid merit; it was his misfortune to be judged by a new standard, set at Trafalgar by the peerless Nelson, and not that which had applied throughout his career. His title became extinct at his death.

J. K. Laughton, rev. Andrew Lambert

Sources  

J. S. Corbett, The campaign of Trafalgar (1910) · Letters and papers of Charles, Lord Barham, ed. J. K. Laughton, 1, Navy RS, 32 (1907), 38–9 · Letters of … the earl of St Vincent, whilst the first lord of the admiralty, 1801–1804, ed. D. B. Smith, 2 vols., Navy RS, 55, 61 (1922–7) · GM, 1st ser., 88/2 (1818), 380 · GM, 1st ser., 89/1 (1819), 382 · Minutes of the proceedings at a court martial assembled … for the trial of Sir Robert Calder (1806) · 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, pp. 356–79 · The dispatches and letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, ed. N. H. Nicolas, 7 vols. (1844–6)

Archives  

BL, orders and memoranda relating to Mediterranean, Add. MS 40741 |  BL, letters to Lord Nelson, Add. MSS 34904–34907 · Princeton University, letters, incl. to William Budge · Yale U., letters to Thomas Coutts · St Vincent MS


Likenesses  

L. F. Abbott, oils, c.1790, National Gallery of Art, Washington, DC · L. F. Abbott, oils, c.1798, NMM · H. R. Cook, stipple, pubd 1807, NPG · Worthington and Parker, group portrait, line engraving (Commemoration of the 14th February 1797), BM, NPG

Wealth at death  

under £30,000: GM, 89/1, 382