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Hotham, William, first Baron Hothamlocked

  • J. K. Laughton
  • , revised by Andrew Lambert

Hotham, William, first Baron Hotham (1736–1813), naval officer, was born on 8 April 1736, the third son of Sir Beaumont Hotham, seventh baronet (1698–1771), a descendant of Sir John Hotham, first baronet (d. 1645), and his wife, Frances, daughter of the Revd William Thompson of Welton. He received his early education at Westminster School, entered the Royal Naval Academy at Portsmouth in 1748, and in 1751 was appointed to the Gosport on the North American station. He afterwards served in the Advice in the West Indies, and the sloop Swan in North America, and passed his examination on 7 August 1754. On 28 January 1755 he was promoted lieutenant of the St George, flagship of his patron, Sir Edward Hawke, with whom he moved into the Namur, the Antelope, and the Ramillies, and by whom he was promoted to the command of a 10-gun polacca. From her he was appointed to the sloop Fortune, and pending her return to port he was placed in temporary command of the Syren (20 guns), in which he fought a sharp but indecisive action with the frigate Télémaque (26 guns). After joining the Fortune he fell in with a large French privateer which he carried by boarding. For this service he was made captain in the frigate Gibraltar on 17 August 1757; in November he was appointed to the Squirrel, and on 17 April 1758 to the Melampe (36 guns), employed during the next twelve months in the North Sea. On 28 March 1759, while in company with the Southampton, the Melampe fell in with two French frigates of superior force, one of which, the Danaë, was captured after an action lasting through the night. The Melampe was afterwards attached to the Grand Fleet under Hawke, but was principally employed in independent cruising, though forming part, in April 1761, of the squadron engaged under Augustus Keppel in the capture of Belle Île. On 20 May 1761 Hotham was moved into the frigate Aeolus, and, continuing until the end of the Seven Years' War on the same service, was very successful in the capture or destruction of the enemy's privateers and merchant ships.

From 1766 to 1769 Hotham commanded the guardship Hero at Plymouth, and in her, in the spring of 1769, went out to the Mediterranean, with the relief for the garrison of Minorca. From 1770 to 1773 he commanded the Resolution at Portsmouth. In 1776 he was appointed to the Preston (50 guns) and, with a commodore's broad pennant, escorted a large troop convoy to North America where he played a major role in Lord Howe's capture of New York. In 1777, when Howe was absent on the expedition against Philadelphia, Hotham was left senior officer at New York, and, in co-operation with Sir Henry Clinton the elder, was endeavouring to secure a passage up the Hudson River when news arrived that Lieutenant-General John Burgoyne had surrendered at Saratoga. Continuing at New York, in the following July Hotham took part under Howe in the preparations for the defence of Sandy Hook against the expected attack of d'Estaing and in the subsequent operations off Rhode Island. After the scattering of the fleets by the storm of 12 August, the Preston fell in with the Tonnant (80 guns) alone and disabled, and boldly engaged her until the arrival of some of the Tonnant's consorts compelled Hotham to retire. He was then sent to the West Indies in command of a reinforcement for Samuel Barrington, and took part in the brilliant action in the Cul-de-Sac of St Lucia on 15 December 1778.

During the summer of 1779 Hotham was stationed at Barbados, and early in 1780 he moved his broad pennant to the Vengeance (74 guns), in which he assisted in the several engagements with the French fleet on 17 April, and 15 and 19 May. When Rodney afterwards proceeded to the coast of North America Hotham was left senior officer at the Leeward Islands, and was in Port Castries of St Lucia during the hurricane of 10–12 October. The Vengeance was blown from her anchors and tailed on to the rocks, but by cutting away her masts and throwing her after guns overboard, she got off, and, the wind veering, escaped without further damage. It was, however, found necessary for her to go to England, and in the following spring Hotham was sent home in charge of the convoy from St Eustatius. Of the departure and the wealth of this convoy the French had fairly accurate intelligence, and dispatched a squadron of eight ships of the line besides frigates, under the command of M. de la Motte Picquet, to waylay it on its approach to the channel. In this they fully succeeded. Every available English ship had gone with Vice-Admiral George Darby to the relief of Gibraltar, and on 2 May Motte Picquet intercepted the convoy some 60 miles to the west of the Isles of Scilly. Hotham, whose force consisted of two ships of the line and three frigates, was powerless. He signalled the merchant ships to disperse and make the best of their way independently, and for the men-of-war to close with the Vengeance. The French, however, avoided the battleships and gave chase to the richly laden merchant ships, many of which they captured. The remainder got into the Irish port of Berehaven, where they were joined by the commodore.

In 1782 Hotham, again as commodore, commanded the Edgar in the Grand Fleet under Howe at the relief of Gibraltar and the skirmish with the allies off Cape Spartel. On 24 September 1787 he was promoted rear-admiral of the red, and during the Spanish armament of 1790 he hoisted his flag on board the Princess Royal. On 21 September 1790 he became vice-admiral of the blue, and in February 1793, with his flag in the Britannia, he went out to the Mediterranean as second in command under Lord Hood, with whom he co-operated during the campaigns of 1793 and 1794, more especially in taking charge of the blockade of the French fleet in Golfe Jouan in the autumn of 1794. When Hood went to England for his health, Hotham was left in temporary command. His exhausted fleet lacked a base, stones, men, and even firewood. He had no reliable allies, and no more than perfunctory instructions from home. Despite being personally ill-equipped for the complex political and diplomatic tasks of this large station, Hotham carried the burden of the war for twelve months under the most adverse circumstances. In March 1795 the fleet was at Leghorn, when Hotham learnt that the French were again at sea. In terms of numbers the French fleet was equal to that of the British, but of the crews more than three-quarters of the French were at sea for the first time, and were ignorant of their duties. On 12 March the two fleets were in sight of each other, and the French commander, who understood the inferiority of his ships, resolved to avoid an action. But the wind and various accidents during the night retarded his retreat. A partial and very straggling encounter followed, in which Captain Horatio Nelson of the Agamemnon secured the honours of the day. It was renewed again on 14 March, when two of the French ships, the Ça-Ira and Censeur, were cut off and captured. The rest escaped, for the British fleet was scattered and of inferior speed, and Hotham refused to risk the command of the Mediterranean by undertaking a pursuit in the light, variable breezes that came and went without warning. So slowly was the fleet moving that Nelson came on board the flagship, to press for a pursuit—but as Hotham could see, the clean-hulled French ships were out of reach. It appeared, however, from the admiral's dispatch that the French fleet was numerically equal or superior, and its real inferiority was not known at home; two ships had been captured, and the victory won for Hotham and his comrades the thanks of both houses of parliament. On 16 April Hotham was advanced to the rank of admiral. However, the sacking of Hood on the eve of his return caused the already exhausted Hotham to suffer a nervous breakdown. On 13 July 1795 he again fell in with the French fleet, under somewhat similar circumstances, in nearly the same locality, and with nearly the same result. After a long, and very slow chase the Alcide (74 guns) struck her flag, but before she was taken possession of she caught fire and was totally destroyed, the greater part of her crew perishing with her; some 200 were taken up by the British boats. With a numerical superiority of twenty-three ships against seventeen, Hotham would have brought on a decisive action, had the wind lasted.

Hotham had been left to exercise the responsibility of the chief command by Hood's dismissal. He had done a solid professional job, leaving the station in better shape than he found it, having twice beaten a flighty enemy. A good officer and a man of undaunted courage, he had on several occasions done admirably in a subordinate rank and though some found him wanting in the energy, force of character, and decisiveness requisite in a commander-in-chief he was only ever the stand-in. In November 1795 he was relieved by Sir John Jervis, and returned to England. He saw no further service. On 7 March 1797 the king raised him to the peerage of Ireland as Baron Hotham of South Dalton, near Hull; and on the death of his nephew, the son of his second brother, he also succeeded as the eleventh baronet (18 July 1811). He died, unmarried, at his home, South Dalton Hall, on 2 May 1813, and was buried at South Dalton church; the titles passed to his younger brother, Beaumont Hotham (1737–1814).

Hotham had been commended by lords Hawke, Howe, Rodney, and Hood. There was no finer captain or junior admiral in the navy of his day, but he was not equipped for the wide-ranging, complex demands of the Mediterranean command. Very few men were.


  • U. Hull, Hotham MSS, DDHO
  • NMM, Hamilton MSS
  • TNA: PRO, Admiralty records
  • A. M. W. Stirling, The Hothams, 2 vols. (1918)
  • The dispatches and letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Viscount Nelson, ed. N. H. Nicolas, 7 vols. (1844–6)
  • A. T. Mahan, Life of Nelson (1897)
  • W. James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France, in February 1793, to the accession of George IV, in January 1820 [2nd edn], 6 vols. (1826)
  • BL, Spencer MSS
  • memorial, South Dalton church, Yorkshire


  • U. Hull, Brynmor Jones L., corresp. and papers
  • BL, Spencer MSS
  • Glos. RO, letters to Francis Reynolds
  • NMM, corresp. with Sir Willliam Hamilton
  • corresp. with F. J. Jackson, FO 353
  • corresp. with Rodney and letters to admiralty, PRO 30/20


  • portrait, priv. coll.
National Maritime Museum, London
University of Hull, Brynmor Jones Library
National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London