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Sir  John Thomas Duckworth (1748–1817), by Sir William Beechey, c.1809–10Sir John Thomas Duckworth (1748–1817), by Sir William Beechey, c.1809–10
Duckworth, Sir John Thomas, first baronet (1748–1817), naval officer, descended from a family long settled in mid-Lancashire and the second son of the Revd Henry Duckworth (1711/12–1794) and Sarah Johnson (1716/17–1780), was born on 9 February 1748 at Leatherhead in Surrey where his father (afterwards vicar of Stoke Poges and a minor canon of Windsor) was curate.

Early career

Duckworth entered Eton College in 1757 but was removed in 1759 when Admiral Edward Boscawen, a neighbour, invited him to replace a protégé who had withdrawn when due to go to sea. He entered his patron's flagship, the Namur (74 guns), as a captain's servant on 22 February 1759 and, aged eleven, fought in two major fleet actions, off Lagos and in Quiberon Bay. He went on to the Prince of Orange (70 guns), under Captain Samuel Wallis the circumnavigator, whose niece he was to marry, and then to the Guernsey (48 guns) under Captain Hugh Palliser; it was from her that he first saw Newfoundland, which he was later to govern.

Duckworth passed for lieutenant in 1766 but his acting commission was not confirmed until 1771 while he was serving in the Rainbow (44 guns) where, according to John Jervis, ‘he came under the high hand of Captain Fielding’ (Private Papers of George, second Earl Spencer, 2.487), with whom he served until they shifted to the Kent (74 guns); Fielding and Duckworth survived the explosion of her quarter deck in Plymouth Sound before they went in the Diamond (32 guns) to North America. There Duckworth, her first lieutenant, had the unusual experience of being tried twice by court martial for the same offence. The Diamond, returning from a cruise with her guns loaded, had to fire a salute. Duckworth had the shot removed, counted them and found the total correct. But one had been double shotted, and the remaining round killed five men in a nearby ship. The ensuing court martial acquitted Duckworth of neglect of duty and commended his counting the shot, but this did not satisfy Lord Howe, who reconvened the reluctant court to try Duckworth for murder, of which he was also acquitted. Howe intended the second trial to pre-empt any action in a civil court.

While serving in John Byron's flagship, the Princess Royal (90 guns) in the West Indies in June 1779, Duckworth was sent to reconnoitre a French squadron in Fort Royal, Martinique. Bamboozled by transports armed en flute and failing to approach near enough to perceive the stratagem, he misled the admiral but redeemed himself in the action off Grenada on 6 July; ten days later he was promoted master and commander into the sloop Rover and within a year (and within nine years of promotion to lieutenant) he was made post captain (16 June 1780) in the Terrible (74 guns), before returning to the Princess Royal as flag captain to Sir Joshua Rowley, with whom he went to Jamaica in 1781. This was a notable start to his career as a senior officer. He had no political interest to favour him but he had impressed his superiors; he was also fortunate to have been made post before the peace which followed the American War of Independence. He brought a convoy home in 1781, made three channel cruises, and on 7 April 1783 disappeared onto half pay.

Middle years

Duckworth had married Anne Wallis (1750/51–1797) at Stoke Damerel in July 1776, but then went to sea for five years; in June 1782 they had a son, George Henry, and in September 1784 a daughter, Sarah Anne. The family were dependent on the father's pay of 6s. a day and he was unemployed until January 1790, though he was one of the first twenty-six captains mobilized for the Spanish armament. Having been retained when the Ochakov crisis threatened a Russian war, he remained on active service until 1813, a signal achievement in itself. After nearly two years in the Bombay Castle (74 guns), he commanded the Orion of the same rate until 1795 when he took her people into the newer Leviathan, his last private ship and first flagship. He was awarded his first gold medal for his conduct during the battle of 1 June 1794; he also gained the respect of Howe and Jervis who regarded him as a captain who took particular care in the welfare, education, and training of young gentlemen entrusted to him, of whom the future admiral of the fleet Sir William Parker is the best known. This characteristic brought him the useful patronage of William Baker, MP for Hertford.

From May 1795 until February 1797 Duckworth was in the West Indies, his time dominated by the affairs of the main French colony, San Domingo. He was involved in the ill-conceived and fruitless attack on Fort Léogane in March 1796 and then suddenly found himself commanding the Leeward Islands station when Rear-Admiral William Parker, taken sick, sailed for home, pausing only to leave, with no formal turn-over, his Admiralty instructions and an order for Duckworth to hoist a commodore's pennant. Duckworth's letters to George, Earl Spencer, first lord of the Admiralty, reveal that this golden moment seemed almost too much for him. Similar misgivings appear later in his career. Spencer's replies show great understanding and forbearance, and he and others among the commodore's superiors did not allow this apparent weakness to diminish their high professional regard for him.

In April 1797 Duckworth came home to find his wife near to death. Within a month he was deprived of his ship by the spread of the naval mutinies from Portsmouth to Plymouth. His command was soon restored and his confidence reassured by a colonelcy of marines. His wife died in August. Duckworth blockaded Brest and Ushant until detached in November, as senior captain under Robert Brice Kingsmill, to watch the western approaches from Berehaven. From there he was sent in a squadron under Roger Curtis to reinforce St Vincent off Cadiz in May 1798. He did not see his daughter again until 1805, and had it not been for his son's undergraduate misadventures (which led Duckworth to obtain for him a commission in the army) father and son would not have been reunited in the West Indies in 1801.

In November 1798 Duckworth again became a commodore, commanding the naval element in General the Hon. Charles Stuart's recapture of Minorca. All went well afloat and ashore until as a reward for the victory Stuart was made KB. With a tactlessness which became characteristic, Duckworth made plain his expectation of the same red ribbon, if not a baronetcy, ‘a pretension on which St Vincent, representing the matter to Lord Spencer, threw a sufficiency of cold water’ (DNB). Nevertheless on 14 February 1799 the commodore was promoted to the flag list as a rear-admiral of the white, the only one of the sixteen new admirals ordered to hoist his flag that day—and this in his own ship, a particular and professional compliment intended by the Admiralty board. After joining the unsuccessful pursuit of Bruix, Duckworth reinforced Nelson at Naples and as his second in command covered Minorca against a Spanish relief before taking over the blockade of Cadiz. Here he had the good luck to intercept a convoy from Peru, from which he took quicksilver worth at least £70,000 and a colonial archbishop.

Later career and reputation

To his professional pride and parental regret, he was sent directly to the Leeward Islands station as commander-in-chief in 1801 where his thirst for glory was temporarily assuaged when he was made knight of the Bath after he and General Trigge snapped up the Danish and Swedish islands with great speed, good luck, and no losses in 1802. His son George came out as aide-de-camp to the general. The peace brought the admiral reinforcements rather than respite. In 1803 he assumed the chief command at Jamaica where he was again preoccupied with the affairs of San Domingo. Considerable French reinforcements there threatened the American mainland as well as British possessions. He got on well with Governor Nugent and his wife in Jamaica; the former welcomed George as an aide-de-camp. Duckworth was promoted vice-admiral in April 1804.

On learning that he was soon to be relieved Duckworth placed his protégé Captain Richard Dalling Dunn in command of the newly arrived frigate Acasta (40 guns), having removed her captain, James Athol Wood, on grounds of alleged ill health. He brought her to Plymouth with a prodigious cargo of merchandise, including logs of mahogany for his new house outside Exeter. This led to his third court martial. Several eminent counsel thought that he had contravened at least two of the articles of war, but the court accepted his assurance that everything which he had imported was for his own use or as gifts, criticized the prosecution, and acquitted him. Duckworth was once again professionally reassured by selection to relieve Lord Northesk as third in command to Nelson.

Duckworth missed Trafalgar, partly because of Admiralty procrastination about his flagship but partly through his insistence on waiting for his old officers and for his band, a quartet of fiddlers. He joined Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood off Cadiz on 15 November, relieved him of its blockade, and within two weeks lifted it in order to pursue a French force said to have quit Rochefort. He failed to find it, but while returning to his station on 24 December met a French squadron equal to his own. After thirty hours he called off the chase; only his flagship was in sight of the enemy. This decision was condemned by the naval historian William James, a persistent and often unreasonable critic of the admiral, perhaps because of a clash in the admiralty court at Jamaica where James had been a proctor when Duckworth commanded the station. Like Nelson earlier in the year, Duckworth ran for water to the West Indies. He sent a ship to warn the Cape and East Indies stations that the French were out and on 1 February 1806 he learnt that a French force was off San Domingo. It comprised five ships of the line (one of 120 guns), two frigates, and a corvette; Duckworth had seven ships of the line and two frigates. He brought the French to action on 6 February, making the interesting but seldom quoted signal ‘This is glorious’ before relying on the now traditional and in this case needless exhortation to ‘engage the enemy more closely’. Two Frenchmen ran ashore, three were taken and the frigates escaped, to the derision of James.

It was a neat and well fought little battle, and following Sir Richard Strachan's victory (4 November 1805) completed the Trafalgar campaign. It was also the last action for which the large gold medal was awarded, and the three flag officers—never were there so many in so small a squadron—each received one. Moreover Duckworth's victory pre-empted any danger of a fourth court martial; to abandon a blockade or to forbear ‘the chase of an enemy beaten or flying’ are serious matters. But Thomas Louis, his second in command, became a baronet (which gave him precedence over his commander-in-chief) and Alexander Cochrane, his third, a KB. Duckworth was infuriated by an annuity of £1000 and mourned for the Irish peerage he had expected. It is astonishing that so publicly disgruntled a senior officer was allowed to continue in a reasonably distinguished career; it suggests that despite the competition of the times, his services were still worth keeping.

Duckworth was allowed home when he rejoined Collingwood, which enabled him to congratulate his son who had survived a bad fall from his horse, attained a majority in the Yorkshire Volunteers and was about to marry Penelope Fanshawe, daughter of the commissioner at Plymouth. He also saw his daughter for the first time since 1797; she was now twenty-two years old and in 1803 had married Captain Richard King. Duckworth was then back off Cadiz for the first anniversary of Trafalgar, his flag in the Royal George (100 guns, Captain Dunn). He was notified by Thomas Grenville, the first lord, that affairs in Constantinople required the presence of a naval force and that he was instructing Collingwood to detach Duckworth with five ships. His orders for so ambiguous and difficult a mission could scarcely have been more unrealistic. He was to safeguard the British ambassador, Charles Arbuthnot, and to require Ottoman compliance with British demands, by anchoring close off the city. Collingwood augmented his force but advised him to open fire if he did not receive satisfaction within half an hour. This naïvety suggested a post-Trafalgar euphoria. Duckworth confided his professional doubts to Collingwood—‘stuffing a cushion against a fall’ (James, 4.300)—but carried out his orders as far as he was able. He forced the Dardanelles on 19 February 1807, no small feat under sail even if not under fire. But wind and tide kept him 8 miles off the city. Arbuthnot fell ill. Duckworth was no diplomatic negotiator, but realized that the Turks were stalling him while strengthening their defences. Without troops or even a full complement of Royal Marines a landing was pointless. Appreciating that the Dardanelles would be harder to re-pass and that prudence was wiser than blind valour, he sailed as soon as the wind was favourable, and fought his way out on 3 March, suffering more casualties than on his way in. In a letter to the duke of Northumberland (30 August 1807), Collingwood defended Duckworth:
that all was not performed that was expected is only to be attributed to difficulties that could not be surmounted; and if they baffled his skill, I do not know where to look for the officer to whom they would have yielded. (Private Correspondence, 220)
Others were less accommodating. The brother of the captain whom Duckworth had replaced in Jamaica suggested unsuccessfully in the Commons that he should be court martialled. William James inevitably thought him wanting in ‘ability and firmness’ though even he admitted that the board's orders were puzzling (James, 4.311). Duckworth was impenitent; ‘as the public varies of this service, I shall not offer an observation farther than that I pride myself more upon my conduct on this occasion than in any other service I have performed’ (Ralfe, 4.298–9).

Orders awaited him to command in the Baltic, but they were too late and Saumarez had been sent. He became second in command of the Channel Fleet, with little to do. He married Susannah Catharine Buller (1768–1840), daughter of the bishop of Exeter and sister of the local MP, on 14 May 1808. Their first son, named after his father, was born in the following spring. In 1810 Duckworth accepted the appointment of governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland, a three-year post for an ageing but seemingly deserving admiral, to which rank he was promoted that June. He was expected to reside in his colony for only a few weeks each summer; that September he was still there when his wife had their second child, William, who died within days. Duckworth seems to have done well in both his civilian and military roles, though the island was, oddly, little involved in the American war. In 1811 his son George, now a lieutenant-colonel and commanding the 2nd battalion 48th foot, was killed leading the battalion at Albuera; in the same week George's only son died in Devon.

Duckworth was elected to the Admiralty seat of New Romney in 1812 and on his final return home in 1813 was created a baronet. He was an infrequent attender at Westminster; his main claim to fame as an MP seems to have been making Robert Peel laugh at his pigtail, the last (so far) to have been worn in the Commons. In January 1815, after a period of unemployment, he became port admiral at Plymouth and, on the reconstitution of the Order of the Bath, a knight grand cross. He declined to receive the exiled Napoleon, but attended to the mobilization and victualling of Sir Israel Pellew's Algerian expedition in 1816, after which he died in his bed at Admiralty House, signing papers until ‘Discharged, dead’ on 31 August 1817. There were three military bands in his funeral procession, and 2500 silver gilt nails in his coffin when he was buried at Topsham, near Exeter, on 9 September.

A century ago Laughton said that of all the distinguished British naval officers ‘there was none whose character has been more discussed and more confusedly described’, and that is still true. Brave and reliable, eager for glory because ambitious for recognition, Duckworth also remained curiously uncertain of himself. With less influence than many of his contemporaries, he was prone to scent criticism and to exaggerate it if it was confirmed. In some ways his own worst enemy, he was nevertheless unfairly criticized.

A. B. Sainsbury


DNB · NMM, Duckworth MSS · TNA: PRO, ADM 1, 12, 35–7, 50 · BL, Add. MS 35138 · BL, Add. MS 34913, fol. 104 · BL, Add. MS 34914, fol. 361 · BL, Add. MS 23207, fol. 285 · 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) · Letters and papers of Charles, Lord Barham, ed. J. K. Laughton, 3 vols., Navy RS, 32, 38–9 (1907–11) · The private correspondence of Admiral Lord Collingwood, ed. E. Hughes, Navy RS, 98 (1957) · J. Ralfe, The naval biography of Great Britain, 4 vols. (1828) · ‘Biographical memoir of Sir John Thomas Duckworth’, Naval Chronicle, 18 (1807), 1–27 · E. P. Brenton, The naval history of Great Britain, from the year 1783 to 1822, 5 vols. (1823–5) · W. James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France in 1793, to the accession of George IV [4th edn], 6 vols. (1847) · P. Mackesy, The war in the Mediterranean, 1803–1810 (1957) · Lady Nugent's journal of her residence in Jamaica from 1801 to 1805, ed. P. Wright, new edn (1966) · J. M. Collinge, ‘Duckworth, John’, HoP, Commons, 1790–1820


Hispanic Society of America Library, New York, corresp. · Hispanic Society of America Library, New York, letters and papers · NMM, corresp. and papers · NMM, letter-book · NMM, official and private corresp. and papers · Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario, corresp. and papers · University of Florida Libraries, Gainsville, corresp. mainly relating to Jamaica · University of the West Indies, Mona, Jamaica, corresp. relating to the Caribbean · Yale U., Beinecke L., corresp. and papers |  Alnwick Castle, corresp. with duke of Northumberland · BL, letters to Lord Collingwood, etc., Add. MS 40098 · BL, letters to Lord Nelson, Add. MSS 34913–34931 · Bodl. RH, corresp. with Sir George Nugent · Herts. ALS, Baker MSS · Hunt. L., letters to Grenville family · NA Canada, corresp. and papers relating to Newfoundland · NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Melville · NL Scot., letters to Sir Alexander Cochrane · NL Scot., letters to Sir Charles Stuart · NMM, corresp. with Lord Barham · NMM, corresp. with Lord Mulgrave · NMM, corresp. with Lord Nelson · NRA, priv. coll., letters to Lord Lansdowne · Provincial Archives of Newfoundland and Labrador, St John's, Newfoundland, corresp. and papers relating to Newfoundland · Rice University, Houston, Texas, Woodson Research Center, corresp. with Sir Charles Stirling · U. Durham, Gray MSS · University of Chicago Library, corresp. and papers relating to Newfoundland


H. R. Cook, stipple, 1807 (after R. Bowyer), BM, NPG; repro. in Naval Chronicle (1807) · W. Beechey, oils, c.1809–1810; Christies, New York, 4 Oct 1996, lot 53 [see illus.] · W. Beechey, oils, second version, NMM · G. Mills, medal, NMM