Admiral Keith


When in August 1815, the French Emperor, Napoleon Bonaparte, defeated at Waterloo, surrendered to the British he found himself negotiating the terms of his surrender and his eventual imprisonment on St Helena with the Commander in Chief of the Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet, Admiral Viscount Keith.  Keith’s involvement with the surrender of the man who had dominated Europe for almost twenty years was the culminating experience of a lifetime at sea for one of Scotland’s greatest naval figures. 

George Keith Elphinstone was born on 7th January 1746 at the family home of Elphinstone Tower, Airth, near Stirling.  His father would in 1757 become the 10th Lord Elphinstone, and his mother, Clementina Fleming, was the heir to the estates of the Earl of Wigton and the niece of George Keith, the last Earl Marischal of Scotland, who had gone into exile following the failure of the 1715 Jacobite rising.  The Elphinstones were a well-connected and an old-established landed family but one that was burdened with debt and had many children to provide for.  The estate could not provide livings for all the sons and the two eldest sons joined the army; the third son, William, went into the marine service of the East India Company and George, the fourth surviving son, entered the Royal Navy at the age of 14 in November 1761.  In later years the Admiral often remarked that “he was sent to sea with only a five pound note in his pocket and was told by his parents to push his fortune in the world.” 

In the following year he saw active service as a midshipman on board HMS Gosport under the future Admiral Lord St Vincent, then Captain Jervis, when the French were driven out of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland.  Jervis was apparently impressed by the potential of the young Elphinstone. Many years later he wrote to Elphinstone to say  “I have esteemed you from the hour you embarked with me in the Gosport.”

After service in various ships he took temporary leave of absence from the Navy in 1766 and went on a voyage to China as 3rd Mate on his brother William’s ship.  The two brothers were each loaned £2000 – a huge sum of money at that time – by their uncle the Earl Marischal to allow them to trade on this voyage, and the profits made this way provided financial security to them for the future. 

Back in Scotland by 1769 Elphinstone joined the frigate Emerald at Leith and served on it for a time before transferring to the Stag – bound for Madras, India.   On the passage there he was promoted to Lieutenant and after service in various ships was promoted to Commander in September 1772 and given command of the 14-gun sloop HMS Scorpion in the Mediterranean. His diplomatic skills were tested by being sent by his Admiral to negotiate with the Algerian ruler about his treatment of the British Consul in Algiers.   

Up to this time Elphinstone had mainly served under Scottish officers.  There had been a considerable intake of Scots into the Royal Navy over the previous thirty years and many of them had reached command level at the time Elphinstone was working his way up the ranks to Commander. There was a definite tendency in the Navy of that period for local and family ties to be very significant in appointments and manning and there was nothing unusual in a particular ship’s officers and crew being predominantly Cornish or Northumbrian or Scottish, and the young Elphinstone undoubtedly benefited from his family connections and influence, and would in his turn sponsor deserving Scottish officers. 

In 1776, with the war with the American colonists underway, Elphinstone was promoted Captain and given command of the 20-gun ship Perseus and sent to the American station.  In 1779 he was supporting army landings in the area around Charleston, South Carolina, and after commanding the transports he then led the naval brigade which fought ashore under General Clinton, winning praise in both fields of activity.  This type of combined operation was to form a significant part of Elphinstone’s future career. 

In 1780 he returned to Britain with dispatches announcing the capture of Charleston.  To be selected to take home the despatches announcing a successful operation was a significant professional compliment and generally marked the chosen officer out as a rising star. So it proved with Elphinstone – he was appointed to command the 50-gun ship Warwick and returned to the American war.  Also in 1780 he was elected as a Member of Parliament for Dumbartonshire – an area where his mother had inherited considerable estates.  There was at the time no bar on serving officers being politicians and many army and navy officers combined both roles, often with advantage to their career prospects.

When peace was concluded between Britain and the United States Keith went on half-pay, he remained on the list of naval officers but did not actively seek employment.  During this time he married Jane Mercer of Aldie, Perthshire, in 1787, saw a daughter, Margaret, born in 1788 and lost his wife in 1789. 

In 1793 Britain went to war with Revolutionary France and two days before war began Keith, now a senior captain on the Navy List, returned to service and was given command of the 74-gun line of battle ship Robust ­and sent to join the Mediterranean Fleet.  Here he found himself again serving ashore in command of a mixed force of soldiers, sailors and marines defending the port of Toulon, which had been surrendered by French royalists opposed to the revolution.  When Toulon eventually fell to French government forces, including artillery commanded by the young Napoleon Bonaparte, Elphinstone was made responsible for the evacuation of the troops and royalist refugees.  His Commander in Chief, Admiral  Hood, wrote to the Government commending Captain Elphinstone for “his unremitting zeal and exertions, who saw the last man off.” His work there was rewarded by his being appointed a Knight of the Bath and, as Sir George Keith Elphinstone, and having reached the top of the seniority list of Captains, in April 1794 he was promoted to Rear Admiral and flew his flag in the 90-gun Barfleur as part of the Channel Fleet. 

Sir George’s professional reputation must have been high because, as a relatively junior admiral, in 1795 he was selected to command the naval force sent to capture the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope.  His area of command extended beyond the Cape into the Indian Ocean and the Dutch East Indies colonies.  The Dutch government had been an ally of Britain at the outbreak of war but now the French had invaded the Netherlands and would take control of its armed forces and colonies. Britain wished to avoid any danger of this strategic base at the Cape, which commanded the sea route to India, falling into French hands. 

In April Elphinstone sailed for Africa, while on the way his promotion to Vice Admiral took effect.  After some diplomatic preliminaries and negotiations with the Dutch Governor hostilities broke out and Elphinstone’s forces took the surrender of the Dutch colony on 16th September 1795.   Elphinstone then sailed for India but received news of a Dutch squadron being sent to recapture the Cape of Good Hope – he returned to Africa, confronted the Dutch Admiral and convinced him that his position was hopeless and accepted the surrender of the Dutch squadron.   

Admiral Elphinstone returned to Britain a hero and a rich man – prize money from captured ships and his share of the takings from the capture of Dutch colonies in the East meant that he earned around £64,000 from this expedition – a sum approximately equivalent to around £4,000,000 in current values.  As a further reward for his services he was given an Irish peerage and became known as Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal – the choice of title being his gesture of respect to his great uncle the Earl Marischal.  An Irish peerage did not give Lord Keith, as he would now be known, a seat in the British House of Lords but it was a high honour and a recognition of his considerable success at the Cape – a success all the more welcome because it came at a difficult period in the war. 

Keith’s next task was to help deal with naval mutinies at two of the main bases – the Nore and Plymouth; this he did with an effective mixture of tact and firmness and a good understanding of the mutineers’ genuine grievances. One of these was that they had not yet had their prize money from the Cape expedition – he was able to explain to them that he was in exactly the same situation!   

This awkward task completed he took a year’s leave but December 1798 saw him in HMS Foudroyant as second in command of the Mediterranean Fleet to Lord St Vincent, the former Captain Jervis who had spotted the talent of the young Elphinstone on HMS Gosport back in 1762.  Interestingly enough Lord Keith’s progression to high command had been considerably faster than Lord St Vincent’s. Lord Keith’s duties chiefly consisted in maintaining the blockade of the powerful Spanish fleet in Cadiz. At this stage Keith promoted one of his officers, the Scot, Thomas Cochrane, later the 10th Earl of Dundonald, to command of the sloop Speedy ­and in so doing set the stage for one of the classic single-ship actions of that or any other war, when the Speedy captured a Spanish ship of four times her size.     

In 1799 Keith, now flying his flag on HMS Barfleur, was unable to bring to action a large French squadron under Admiral Bruix which escaped from Brest and entered the Mediterranean, although his spirit in opposing Bruix’s squadron of 25 battleships with a far weaker force of 15 British battleships was unquestioned. Keith’s lack of success against Bruix was not held against him – bad weather, divided command and the ill health of the Commander in Chief, St Vincent, had all played their part – and in December 1799 he took over one of the Royal Navy’s key commands, the Mediterranean Fleet, flying his flag in perhaps the finest ship in the Navy, the 100-gun Queen Charlotte. Tragedy however overtook the Queen Charlotte – in March 1800 Keith had taken her to Livorno, Italy and had gone ashore. While he was ashore fire broke out on board and after raging for some time the great battleship exploded and over 700 of her crew of 937 were killed.  Many of the dead were Scottish officers whom Keith had appointed and promoted and the loss of the Queen Charlotte must have been a personal as well as an official disaster. 

Keith’s next assignment, in 1800, was the rather dubious plan to land a force of 22,000 men and seize the Spanish port of Cadiz.  The military commander for this operation was another Scot, Lieutenant General Sir Ralph Abercromby. Sadly the two men did not work well together, probably because Keith had severe doubts about the wisdom of the operation, and the landing was eventually cancelled. However the force that had been assembled was put to better use at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean. 

After Nelson’s defeat of the French at the Battle of the Nile in 1798 a strong French army had remained in Egypt and Keith and Abercomby were sent to deal with this threat.  After careful preparation and rehearsal Keith, now a full Admiral, succeeded in putting the army ashore at Abu Qir Bay, near Alexandria in March 1801 and after some months of fighting the French surrendered and Keith was faced with the huge task of returning over 20,000 French prisoners and their baggage to France.  The Navy and Army had worked well together and as Keith wrote of Abercromby: “We meet on terms of intimacy and the duty has gone on uninterruptedly well…” 

While Keith was engaged in Egypt, what proved to be only a temporary pause in the war was negotiated in the Treaty of Amiens.  The terms of this must have caused Keith to ponder – the important Mediterranean bases of Malta and Minorca that the British had captured and which Keith had used were to be given up, and perhaps bitterest of all, the Cape of Good Hope would be restored to Dutch rule.   

Keith returned to Britain in 1802 and found that with the abolition of the Irish Parliament his Irish Peerage had been converted into a British one and he now had a seat in the House of Lords.   The Peace of Amiens proved not to be a long-lasting one and when war became inevitable in 1803 Keith was appointed to command the North Sea Fleet.  He had hoped for the Mediterranean command but this was given to the charismatic, but less senior, Admiral Horatio Nelson.  Keith’s duties in his new command were simple but challenging.  He had to defend Britain from invasion.  Napoleon mustered large numbers of troops and ships all along the French and Dutch coasts and the threat of invasion was only lifted when Nelson defeated the Combined French and Spanish fleets at Trafalgar in 1805. 

In 1807 Keith, now in his sixties, resigned his command and had five years ashore. In January 1808 he married Hester Maria Thrale, a 43-year-old intellectual and heiress.  Their marriage was blessed with the birth of a daughter Georgiana, born in December 1809. Keith had used his very considerable wealth – years of command in the Mediterranean had added to the prize money from his command at the Cape of Good Hope – to buy an estate at Tulliallan, near Kincardine-on-Forth and he built a large and imposing mansion house on this site – his Scottish roots always being a matter of importance to him.  He was an active landlord and did much to develop the shipping trade of the town by planning piers and reclaiming land from the Forth that would improve the navigation of the river and the harbour of Kincardine. 


Tulliallan Castle

In February 1812 Keith returned to active service as Commander in Chief of the Channel Fleet – a huge command which involved responsibility for the blockade of the French ports of Brest & Rochefort, and the coast down to Spain and ensuring that shipping for the war in the Iberian Peninsula was conveyed safely from Britain to Spanish and Portuguese ports.  Keith remained in this post until the war ended in April 1814.  He was created Viscount Keith in May of that year and returned to private life and the enjoyment of his Tulliallan estate.

However in April 1815 when it became known that Napoleon had escaped from Elba Keith was recalled to service and ordered to blockade the French Channel and Atlantic ports and assist the royalist forces opposed to Napoleon.  When Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo he made his way to Rochefort and surrendered to HMS Bellerophon – a battleship forming part of Keith’s command.  Bellerophon brought the defeated Emperor to Plymouth where Keith had the task of informing him of the British Government’s terms and conditions for his surrender and future state and advising Napoleon that he was to be exiled to St Helena in the South Atlantic.  These sensitive duties seem to have been undertaken in such a way as to win both the approval of the Government and the respect of Napoleon.This task completed and Napoleon safely sent off to permanent exile Admiral George Keith Elphinstone, Viscount Keith hauled down his flag for the last time on 19th August 1815 and retired to private life. 

Unlike his more famous contemporaries such as Hood, St Vincent, Duncan & Nelson it never fell to Keith to fight a major fleet action but he did have a considerable reputation as a commander of combined operations from Charleston and Toulon to the Cape and Alexandria and clearly had the confidence of the Admiralty as a consummate seaman, effective administrator and reliable commander.

Keith enjoyed seven and a half years of retirement at Tulliallan and his Hampshire home of Purbrook Park.  He died, aged seventy-seven on 10 March 1823 at Tulliallan, and is buried in a mausoleum at Overtown Churchyard near his home. The Royal Navy of Nelson’s era is often thought of as a predominantly English-officered force but many of its ablest captains and admirals were Scots – such as Admiral Duncan, the victor of the Battle of Camperdown – and George Keith Elphinstone deserves to be remembered for his contribution to British maritime supremacy.

This article first appeared in The Highlander November/December 2006.

(C) Brian D Osborne

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