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Milne, Sir Davidlocked

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

Milne, Sir David (1763–1845), naval officer, was born at Musselburgh, near Edinburgh, on 25 May 1763, the eldest son of David Milne (1734–1818), a silk merchant of Edinburgh, and his wife, Susan, the daughter of Robert Vernor of Musselburgh. He entered the navy in May 1779 on board the Canada, with Captain Hugh Dalrymple, and, continuing in the same ship with Sir George Collier and Captain William Cornwallis, was present at the second relief of Gibraltar, at the capture of the Spanish frigate Leocadia, at the operations at St Kitts in January 1782, in the actions off Dominica on 9 and 12 April 1782, and in the disastrous hurricane of 16–17 September 1782. On arriving back in England he was appointed to the Elizabeth (74 guns), but she was paid off at the peace. Having no prospect of further employment, Milne entered the merchant service of the East India Company, and continued in it for a decade until the outbreak of the war in 1793, when he joined the Boyne, going out to the West Indies with the flag of Sir John Jervis. On 13 January 1794 Jervis promoted him lieutenant of the Blanche, in which, under the command of Captain Robert Faulknor, he repeatedly distinguished himself, and more especially in the celebrated capture of the Pique (5 January 1795). When, after a very severe action, the Pique surrendered, neither ship had a boat that could float, and the prize was taken possession of by Milne and ten seamen swimming to her. For his gallantry he was promoted commander of the sloop Inspector (26 April 1795). On 2 October 1795 he was made captain of the frigate Matilda in reward for his service as superintendent of transports, an office he continued to hold while the Matilda cruised under the command of her first lieutenant.

In January 1796 Milne was appointed, at his own request, to the Pique and was stationed at Demerara for the protection of trade. The governor forwarded to him on 16 July a memorial from the resident merchants saying that the admiral had promised them a convoy to St Kitts by 15 July; that, if their ships waited longer, they would miss the convoy to England; and that if they sailed without convoy they would forfeit their insurance. Milne consented to take them to St Kitts. As he arrived there too late for the convoy to England, on the further representation of the masters of the vessels he took charge of them for the voyage home, and anchored at Spithead on 10 October. On the 11th he wrote to the Admiralty explaining his reasons and enclosing copies of the correspondence with the governor and merchants of Demerara. His conduct, under the exceptional circumstances, was approved, and the Pique was attached to the Channel Fleet. She was thus involved in the mutinies at Spithead in 1797, and when these were suppressed was actively employed on the coast of France. On 29 June 1798, in company with the frigates Jason and Mermaid she fell in, near the Penmarks, on the south coast of Brittany, with the French frigate Seine (40 guns) and brought her to action, suffering severely before the Jason could come up. The three all went aground, and after an obstinate fight the Seine surrendered as the Mermaid also drew near. The Jason and Seine were afterwards floated off, but the Pique, being bilged, was abandoned and burnt. Milne, with her other officers and men, brought the Seine to England, and on her being bought into the British navy was appointed to command her.

In October 1799 Milne went on the west coast of Africa, whence, some months later, he convoyed the trade to the West Indies. In August 1800 he was cruising in the Mona passage, and on the morning of the 20th sighted the French frigate Vengeance, the same size and strength as the Seine. The Vengeance endeavoured to avoid her enemy, so it was nearly midnight before Milne succeeded in bringing her to action. Twice the combatants separated to repair damage; twice the fight was renewed; and it was not until nearly eleven o'clock the next morning (21 August) that the Vengeance—dismasted and sinking—surrendered. It was one of the very few frigate actions fought fairly to an end without any interruption from outside. But Milne received no reward. He continued to command the Seine in the West Indies and Gulf of Mexico until the peace, when he took her to England and paid her off (April 1802). He was reappointed to her in April 1803. However, three months later, on 21 July, she was wrecked on a sandbank near the Texel owing to the ignorance of the pilots, who were cashiered and sent to prison for two years by sentence of the court martial, which honourably acquitted Milne. However, for his conduct in attempting to protect the pilots, and for his offensive behaviour to the board, he was relegated to the command of the Forth district of sea fencibles. In 1804 Milne married Grace (d. 1814), the daughter of Sir Alexander Purves bt.; they had two sons. In 1811–12 he commanded the Impétueux off Cherbourg and on the Lisbon station. He was then appointed to the Dublin, from which he was moved into the Venerable. This ship was reported to be one of the dullest sailers in the service, but by a readjustment of her stowage she became, under his command, one of the fastest. Milne afterwards commanded the Bulwark on the coast of North America, but returned to England as a passenger on board the Loire frigate in November 1814 on the news of his promotion to flag rank on 4 June.

In May 1816 Milne was appointed commander-in-chief on the North American station, with his flag in the Leander, but his sailing was delayed to permit of his going as second in command under Lord Exmouth in the expedition against Algiers. For this purpose he hoisted his flag in the Impregnable (98 guns), in which he took a very prominent part in the action of 27 August 1816. As a result of his failing to follow the plan of action, and mooring too far out from the Algerian batteries, the Impregnable received 233 shot in her hull, many of them between wind and water, and sustained a loss in men of fifty killed and 160 wounded, by far the heaviest of any ship in the fleet. These losses reflected badly on Milne and his flag captain. For his services on this occasion Milne was nominated a KCB (19 September 1816) and was permitted to accept and wear the orders of Wilhelm of the Netherlands and St Januarius of Naples. The City of London presented him with its freedom and a sword; and as a personal acknowledgement Lord Exmouth gave him a gold snuff-box.

In the following year Milne went out to his command in North American waters, but returned to England in the summer of 1819. Shortly before ending his commission he married, on 28 November 1819, Agnes (d. 1862), the daughter of George Stephen of the island of Grenada. In 1827 he stood for parliament at Berwick as a tory, but was defeated. He was made vice-admiral on 27 May 1825, GCB on 4 July 1840, and admiral on 23 November 1841. From April 1842 to April 1845 he was commander-in-chief at Plymouth, with his flag in the Caledonia. He accepted this service only in order to further his son Alexander's career. Within a year he was anxious to resign, finding his health unequal to the task, as his eyesight and hearing were failing fast. His last service was to raise seamen without any official sanction during the 1844 Morocco crisis. On his way to Scotland after completing this service he died, on 5 May 1845, on board the packet-steamer Clarence, which was on its way from London to Granton. He was buried in the kirkyard at Inveresk. In 1804 Lord Keith said of Milne, 'Lord St Vincent made him; he is a handy seaman' (Markham, 174): it will serve as an epitaph.

Milne's younger son was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Alexander Milne, bt; his elder son, David Milne-Home (1805–1890), was a founder of the Scottish Meteorological Society.


  • NMM, Milne MSS
  • private information (1894)
  • C. N. Parkinson, Lord Exmouth (1934)
  • C. Markham, ed., Letters of Admiral Markham (1904)


  • NA Scot., corresp.
  • NL Scot., corresp. and papers
  • NMM, corresp. and papers
  • NRA, priv. coll., family corresp. and papers


  • G. F. Clarke, oils, 1818 (after H. Raeburn), NMM
  • H. Raeburn, portrait, 1819, NMM
  • stipple, BM, NPG; repro. in Brenton, Naval history (1837)
National Maritime Museum, London
W. R. O'Byrne, (1849); repr. (1990); [2nd edn], 2 vols. (1861)