Colpoys, Sir John (c.17421821), naval officer, details of whose parents and upbringing are unknown, possibly entered the navy in 1756 at the beginning of the Seven Years' War. Colpoys served at the capture of Louisbourg in 1758 and Martinique in 1762 and was promoted lieutenant in October 1762. In 1770 he was sent to the East Indies in the sloop Lynx where he was promoted commander. Raised to post captain in August 1773, he was given command of the Northumberland (70 guns). Between 1776 and 1778 he commanded the frigate Seaford and then in 1779 he became flag captain to Admiral Sir John Lockhart Ross on the Royal George. In the same year Colpoys sat as a member of the court martial on Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser, who was tried after the acquittal of Admiral Augustus Keppel for an indecisive action against the French fleet off Ushant in July 1778. Palliser, a supporter of the tory government and a lord of the Admiralty, was acquitted. Subsequently Colpoys was given command of the frigate Orpheus and sent to the North American station where, in 1781, in company with the Roebuck, he captured the American ship Confederacy, which was carrying stores for Washington's army. Colpoys commanded the frigate Phaeton in the Mediterranean for a short time in 1783 but was then not employed again until 1790, when he was given the Hannibal, guardship at Portsmouth.
In 1793, upon the outbreak of war with France, Colpoys was sent with a squadron to guard the Channel Islands and subsequently to the West Indies with Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner's squadron. He was raised to the rank of rear-admiral in April 1794 and, with his flag in the London (98 guns), was present in Lord Bridport's action off Lorient in July 1795. On 11 December 1796 a division of the French fleet evaded Colpoys's blockading squadron off Ushant and joined Admiral Richery's fleet in the port of Brest. On 16 December Captain Sir Edward Pellew, commanding the inshore frigate squadron, realized that the French fleet was putting to sea and sent a lugger to warn Colpoys. Colpoys's squadron, however, had either been blown off station or had withdrawn into the channel and it was left to Pellew in the frigate Indefatigable to harass the French fleet until he lost sight of it. Colpoys and his squadron returned to Plymouth while the French sailed in an abortive attempt to land an army on the coast of Ireland at Bantry Bay.
In April 1797 the first major mutiny broke out among the Channel Fleet at Spithead. Although the seamen's grievances were partly settled, the crews of four ships maintained their strike, and these were left at Spithead under the command of Colpoys in the London, while the remainder of the fleet moored at St Helens, off the Isle of Wight. On 1 May the Admiralty issued a general order instructing the officers in its ships vigorously to suppress any attempted mutiny and bring ringleaders to punishment. The order was met with dismay and was concealed by many officers in the Channel Fleet in an effort to keep it from the seamen. By 7 May, however, news of the order was out and the fleet at St Helens mutinied again. Colpoys, at Spithead, apparently realizing that a new mutiny had broken out, summoned his crew on deck and asked them if they had any remaining grievances. The crew said they had none and Colpoys ordered them below deck. In an attempt to prevent any communication between the crew and the mutineers' delegates, Colpoys tried to seal the ship by closing the gunports and confining the men below.
The crew of the London now held a meeting and demanded to be allowed on deck. When this was refused they attempted to force their way up, and Colpoys ordered the ship's officers and marines to open fire on them. Most of the marines dropped their weapons, but several seamen were mortally wounded before Colpoys ordered the officers to cease firing. Lieutenant Peter Bover, who had been responsible for wounding one of the seamen, was immediately seized and threatened with hanging. Colpoys intervened quickly by claiming responsibility for the actions of his officers, and both Bover and Colpoys, together with the ship's captain, Edward Griffith, were confined in their cabins. The crew of the London next moved the ship to St Helens, to join the other ships under mutiny. Once there they considered holding a trial for both Colpoys and Captain Griffith. However, three days later they sent the officers on shore.
Shortly afterwards the mutineers included Colpoys's name among the list of those they wanted removed from their commands, but in fact Colpoys had already asked to be relieved. On 14 May he was ordered to strike his flag, an order which reflected expediency rather than any form of reprimand. In 1798 he was made a knight of the Bath.
In January 1801 he was advanced to the rank of admiral of the Blue squadron, but he remained without employment until June 1803 when he was appointed commander-in-chief at Plymouth. In May 1804, apparently at the request of Lord Melville, first lord of the Admiralty, Colpoys gave up his command in order to take a seat at the Admiralty. It is possible that, shortly after, he was considered for the position of commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean but this came to nothing and in 1805 he was appointed treasurer of Greenwich Hospital. In January 1815 he was awarded the grand cross of the Bath and on 27 January 1816, following the death of Lord Hood, he became the governor of Greenwich Hospital, where he died, aged about seventy-nine, on 4 April 1821. It is possible that he was buried in the mausoleum at Greenwich.
J. K. Laughton, rev. Tom Wareham
J. Ralfe, The naval biography of Great Britain, 2 (1828), 3 · Naval Chronicle, 11 (1804), 26972 · D. Syrett and R. L. DiNardo, The commissioned sea officers of the Royal Navy, 16601815, rev. edn, Occasional Publications of the Navy RS, 1 (1994) · C. N. Parkinson, Edward Pellew, Viscount Exmouth, admiral of the red (1934) · G. E. Manwaring and B. Dobrée, The floating republic: an account of the mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797 (1935); repr. (1966) · J. Dugan, The great mutiny (New York, 1965); repr. (1966)
NA Scot., corresp. with Henry Dundas, Ref. GD51
R. Earlom, mezzotint, pubd 1777 (after Pellegrini), BM, NPG · W. Ridley, stipple, pubd 1804 (after M. Brown), NPG · J. Young, mezzotint, pubd 1812, BM · M. Brown and W. Ridley, engraving, NMM · W. Savage, oils (with Bath star; after M. Brown), NMM