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Popham, Sir Home Riggsfree

  • Hugh Popham

Sir Home Riggs Popham (1762–1820)

by unknown artist, c. 1783

Popham, Sir Home Riggs (1762–1820), naval officer, was born on 12 October 1762 at Gibraltar. His father, Joseph, was consul at Tetuan. Home was the fifteenth child of his mother, who died giving him birth. Joseph remarried, and with his second wife, Catherine (née Lamb), had six more children, making a total of twenty-one. Popham was educated at Brentford School and Westminster School, and he was admitted to Trinity College, Cambridge, as a pensioner in January 1776.

Early naval career

In February 1778 he entered the navy as a captain's servant on board the Hyaena (Captain Edward Thompson); she was in the Channel Fleet in 1799, in the ‘moonlight battle’ off Cape St Vincent in January 1780, and in the West Indies. In April 1781 he was transferred to the Sheilah-nagig (14 guns). She was captured in May, and Popham was taken prisoner, but released on parole three months later. In June 1783 he was promoted lieutenant, and later rejoined Thompson in the Grampus. In January 1786 Thompson died; Popham transferred to the Nautilus and surveyed the coast of south-west Africa. His charts from this founded his reputation as a hydrographer.

Early in 1787, unemployed and on half pay, he obtained leave from the Admiralty and went to Ostend, where he bought his first ship, the Madona. In her he sailed for India under the Tuscan flag and went into trade. At Calcutta he was well received by Lord Cornwallis, at whose behest he surveyed in the Hooghly. In 1788 in Bengal he married Elizabeth Moffat Prince (1772–1866), daughter of Captain Prince of the East India Company's military service; they had five sons and four daughters. In late 1788, with a larger ship which he renamed L'Etrusco, he returned to Ostend. In 1790 he returned to India with a cargo from Robert Charnock, an English company at Ostend. At Calcutta, commissioned to supply the company's army on the Malabar coast, he was driven eastwards by the monsoon to Prince of Wales Island (Penang). There, while the ship was refitting, he made a survey of the island which he later published as A Description of Prince of Wales Island (1791; with charts, 1799). He also discovered a new channel between the island and the mainland through which, in the spring of 1792, he piloted the company's fleet to China. For this he was presented with a gold cup by the governor-general in council, who also strongly commended him both to the directors and the Admiralty. Nevertheless his commercial activities were coming increasingly under suspicion. In December 1791 he sold L'Etrusco, bought a larger ship—to which he gave the same name—and took her to Canton (Guangzhou) where, with two partners, one Swiss and one French, they took on a cargo worth £50,000. At Ostend the ship was seized by an English frigate as a prize of war, brought into the Thames, and condemned as a droit of Admiralty for having traded in contravention of the East India Company's charter. The case was unclear and Popham continued to appeal, eventually receiving £25,000 between 1805 and 1808, which left him seriously out of pocket. There was also a suggestion that he might have been smuggling. Moreover he had failed to renew his leave and been struck off the lieutenants' list. In September 1793, reinstated, he was appointed agent for transports at Ostend for the campaign in Flanders under the duke of York. Popham quickly distinguished himself, among much else forming a corps of sea fencibles to defend Nieuport; and on 27 July 1794 the duke requested the Admiralty that he be appointed superintendent of inland navigation, and promoted commander. This was done on 26 November, and he acquired the sobriquet 'The duke of York's admiral'. During the retreat in 1795 Popham was in charge of the evacuation of the allied forces; and in March of that year the duke wrote to the first lord requesting that Popham be promoted to the rank of post captain, and this was gazetted on 4 April: his rapid promotion coming through the army did not endear him to his naval colleagues.

The navy and telegraphy, 1798–1803

During the invasion threat of 1798 Popham drew up a plan for, and then commanded a district of, sea fencibles. In May he submitted a plan for destroying the Saas lock at Ostend and was given, rather reluctantly, command of the expedition. The lock was destroyed, but because of worsening weather, the troops under Major-General Eyre Coote could not be re-embarked, and surrendered. In May 1799 Popham was sent to St Petersburg in the lugger Nile to persuade Tsar Paul to provide troops for a proposed landing in the Netherlands. He took the tsar and his family for a sail, and they enjoyed it so much that they gave him a gold snuff-box and a diamond ring, and the tsar dubbed him a knight of Malta. Popham secured the force needed and returned to England. In the late summer he was once again involved in inland navigation as an allied expedition under General Sir Ralph Abercromby landed on the Helder peninsula—ill-supported by the 10,000 Russian soldiers sent by the tsar. Once again an attempted continental campaign ended in ignominy, and Popham had to supervise another evacuation. This he managed brilliantly and was rewarded with a pension of £500 a year. That winter he was sent back to Russia to try to mollify the tsar. After an arduous overland journey of eighty-eight days he reached St Petersburg—where Paul refused to see him.

In 1800 he was appointed to the Romney (50 guns), and while at Copenhagen in August first conceived the signalling system for which he became renowned. His Telegraphic Signals, or, Marine Vocabulary, by providing ships with a flag system containing letters, words, and common phrases, enabled captains to communicate effectively. Popham's code, used notably by Nelson and his frigates at Trafalgar, supplemented but did not supplant the official Signal Book for the Ships of War. He improved it in successive editions—at his own expense—over the next twelve years, and it was widely used; but it was not accepted officially by the Admiralty until 1812. The definitive edition appeared in 1816 and the system continued in use for as long as communication by flag.

Before Christmas 1800 the Romney sailed with a troop convoy to co-operate with Abercromby's army invading Egypt. This done, Popham was commissioned by the secret committee of the East India Company to negotiate trade treaties with the sheriff of Mecca and other Arabian states as ambassador directly responsible to the governor-general of Bengal, Lord Wellesley; but he was successful only with the Sultan of Aden.

Victim of a fabrication, 1803

On his return to England in the spring of 1803 Popham found himself accused of having incurred 'enormous and extraordinary' expenses on repairs to the Romney in Calcutta. After a series of investigations, initially of dubious impartiality, during which Popham published a robust, if prolix, rebuttal entitled A concise statement of facts relative to the treatment experienced by Sir Home Popham since his return from the Red Sea, it emerged that the case was a fabrication by Lord St Vincent's secretary, Benjamin Tucker, to ingratiate himself with his master, first lord of the Admiralty, who loathed Popham. The matter finally went to a select committee of the House of Commons which, in July 1805, reported that the figures had been grossly exaggerated and Popham was innocent. His enemies, however, preferred to remember the accusations. It was during this troubled period that he published in 1804 the superb chart of the Red Sea which he had undertaken—on his own initiative—while he was there.

Politics and the navy

Popham's political career was significant in itself and explains much in his naval career. He was ambitious and hoped to become a lord of the Admiralty. He was a Pittite MP for the Isle of Wight (1804–6), Shaftesbury (1806–7) and Ipswich (1807–12), and his naval appointments were in part the result of ministerial favour. In the summer of 1804 Popham became involved with the American inventor Robert Fulton, who was trying to interest the government in his ‘submarine bombs’ (moored mines). Under Popham's supervision several were manufactured, but in the few operations in which they were launched the results were nugatory. During this period also Popham met the Venezuelan patriot Francisco Miranda. Schemes for attacking the Spanish colonies in South America had been discussed within the British government for a decade and expeditions had been planned, then cancelled; Popham himself had submitted a paper on the subject to William Pitt in 1804.

At the end of 1804 Popham was appointed to the Diadem (64 guns), and in August 1805 he sailed as commodore and commander-in-chief of an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope with a force under General Sir David Baird. They reached Table Bay on 4 January 1806, were ashore by 7 January, and had occupied Cape Town by 10 January. Popham himself led his marine battalion during the operation. The Dutch surrendered the colony. The squadron remained in Table Bay, alert to a possible French attack, until April; meanwhile Popham decided to attack the River Plate. With the tories and Pitt, his patron, in power, he could expect tacit approval, particularly if he were successful. Reluctantly Baird let him have 1200 men; the squadron sailed on 14 April and at St Helena, Popham ‘borrowed’ a further 180 men. There he heard that Pitt was dead, but not who had replaced him.

Invasion of Argentina and subsequent court martial

On 25 June 1806 the small force under the command of Brigadier-General William Carr Beresford landed near Buenos Aires. With the addition of the marine battalion it totalled 1635 men; the Spanish were taken by surprise, the governor fled, resistance was slight, and on 2 July the city surrendered, and Beresford took possession. Rashly Popham sent an ebullient open letter to the merchants of England announcing this lucrative new market for their goods. Very soon, however, under the leadership of Santiago Liniers, a French officer in Spanish service, a force of about 2000 Spaniards was assembled. They entered the city on 10 August, overwhelmed Beresford's men, and forced their surrender. The honourable terms Popham had arranged with Liniers were rejected by the Spanish authorities; Beresford and his troops were marched off into the country; and Popham and his squadron could do nothing but blockade the river and wait for reinforcements. When they arrived he was able to capture Maldonado and Goretti at the mouth of the river; but on 3 December Rear-Admiral Charles Stirling arrived to supersede him and with orders for him to return to England. Popham was shattered but could only obey, and on his arrival on 20 February 1807 was put under open arrest to await court martial on two charges: of having withdrawn his squadron from the Cape without orders; and of having launched his Argentine enterprise 'without direction or authority'. Oddly enough Popham is regarded in Argentina not as a foreign aggressor but as the catalyst of the independence which followed los invasiones ingleses. This paradox was matched by his reception at home: to the Admiralty he was an officer who had acted improperly; to the City of London he had made a bold attempt to open up new markets, and he was presented with a sword of honour.

Popham's trial took place at Portsmouth between 6 and 11 March 1807. He defended himself vigorously, but was found guilty and severely reprimanded. This had no visible effect on his career, though when in July he was appointed captain of the fleet with Admiral James Gambier in the expedition against Denmark, captains Hood, Keats, and Stopford protested. After the capitulation of the Danes, Popham was one of the commissioners—with Sir Arthur Wellesley and Colonel George Murray—for settling the terms by which all the Danish warships were handed over.

Final years in the navy, death, and reputation

In 1809 Popham was given command of the Venerable (74 guns), in yet another ill-managed assault on the continent—the expedition to the Scheldt under Sir R. J. Strachan—and again emerged with credit from a military fiasco. In 1810 he was sent to northern Spain to assess possibilities for co-operating with the guerrillas and 'carrying on a desultory and distracting kind of warfare' against the French in support of Wellington. This, two years later and still in Venerable, he achieved most successfully, keeping an entire French army ‘distracted’, and capturing Santander. To his chagrin he received no recognition for it. He was too controversial and had made too many enemies; he had lost what influence he once had, and he was not employed on active service again. In June 1814, none the less, he was promoted rear-admiral, and in the following year he was made KCB. From 1817 to 1820 he was commander-in-chief of Jamaica, three years darkened by a severe outbreak of yellow fever, the death of his son Home and one of his daughters, and by his own failing health. In 1818 he was made KCH. In June 1820 he suffered another of a series of strokes and wrote to the Admiralty asking to be relieved of his command. On 15 June he sailed for England with his wife; they arrived at the end of July; and on 11 September, at Cheltenham, he suffered a third and final stroke. He was buried on 16 September in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels at Sunninghill in Berkshire, close to his home, Titness Park. His wife died in Bath, aged ninety-four in 1866.

Home Popham's career was not that of the traditional naval officer. Nevertheless his achievements were considerable and varied. His Telegraphic Signals alone have been enough to ensure his lasting fame. But he also designed the semaphore which replaced the old shutter system of the Admiralty. He was a member of the chart committee which founded the reputation of Admiralty charts. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1799. In navigation, combined operations, and hydrography, as in his more spectacular exploits, his intelligence, curiosity, and enthusiasm—always at the service of the navy and his country—shine throughout his life. He was perhaps ‘plausible’, and certainly unconventional and controversial, yet he was a brilliant empiricist, a fine seaman, and a just and enlightened captain.


  • H. Popham, A damned cunning fellow: the eventful life of Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham (1991) [incl. bibliography]
  • F. W. Popham, A west country family: the Pophams since 1100 (1976)
  • TNA: PRO, admiralty records [especially ADM 1]
  • ‘Biographical memoir of Sir Home Riggs Popham’, Naval Chronicle, 16 (1806), 265–306, 353–79
  • The manuscripts of J. B. Fortescue, 10 vols., HMC, 30 (1892–1927)
  • ‘Papers respecting the ship L'Etrusco’, Parl. papers (1808), 10.441, no. 71; 10.467, no. 73 [see also vol. 10, nos. 185–6, 198, 222]
  • ‘Select committee on papers relating to the repair of Romney and Sensible’, Parl. papers, 4 (1805), 4.513, no. 156; 4.519, no. 188
  • R. Fernyhough, Military memoirs of four brothers, by the survivor (1829)
  • report of Popham's trial, BL, BLG 19449
  • report of Popham's trial, BL, 1132.d.31
  • A. Gillespie, Gleanings and remarks collected during many months resident in Buenos Ayres (1818)
  • T. B. Thompson, Narrative of a voyage performed in HMS Nautilus (1786)
  • H. R. Popham, Voyage to South Africa (1786)
  • R. G. Thorne, HoP, Commons


  • NL Scot., corresp.
  • NMM, letter-book
  • RGS, notes relating to naval signals
  • BL, letters to Lieutenant-Colonel G. Don, Add. MSS 46702–46705
  • BL, letters to Lord Melville, Add. MS 41080
  • BL, letters to second Earl Spencer
  • BL, letters to Lord Wellesley, Viscount Wellington, Add. MSS 13756–13758
  • Hunt. L., letters to the Grenville family
  • NA Scot., corresp. with Lord Melville
  • National War Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh, corresp. with Sir David Baird
  • NMM, letters to Lord Keith
  • NMM, letters to Charles Yorke
  • TNA: PRO, letters to second earl of Chatham, PRO 30/8
  • U. Durham L., letters to first Earl Grey and papers relating to Ostend expedition


  • oils, 1783, NPG [see illus.]
  • Hastings, engraving, 1795, BM
  • M. Brown, oils, 1803, priv. coll.
  • engraving, 1806, BM
  • M. Brown, oils, NPG
  • J. Hopwood, stipple (after Hastings), BM, NPG

Wealth at Death

under £18,000: Popham, West country family

National Archives of the United Kingdom, Public Record Office, London
Historical Manuscripts Commission