The British Empire and its effect on Plymouth

Admiral Edward Pellew
1st Viscount Exmouth

This 1816 painting by Samuel Drummond shows Admiral Pellew with the backdrop of a contemporary ship of the line firing behind him. The painting was commissioned to celebrate his elevation to the Viscount of Exmouth and thanks received from Parliament for his role in helping to destroy the Barbary Corsairs in North Africa and in recognition for his service during the Napoleonic Wars. He rose to become one of the most outstanding Naval Commanders of the Royal Navy at a time when there was a great deal of competition for this distinction.

Born in Dover the son of a Cornish mother and a Packet Captain for a father, tragedy was to strike when his father died when Edward was only 8. He moved to Cornwall where his mother had some family and some well-connected friends. These may have helped him to join the Navy at the tender age of just 13. He joined as a Captain's servant and embarked on his formidable first voyage to the Falkland Islands on the Juno at a time when war seemed likely to break out at any moment between Britain and Spain.

Pellew's naval career took him to the American Revolution where his bravery and competence got him noticed and promoted. However, Britain's lamentable campaign saw him return to Britain where he managed to get into a few scrapes with French privateers before the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars broke out in earnest. From 1793 he distinguished himself as a commander of a frigate operating off the South West Coast of England engaging French shipping and raiding French supply convoys. It was during this period that one event tied his name to the city of Plymouth and earned him the freedom of the city.

On 26 January 1796 the Dutton, an East Indiaman hired by the government to transport troops to the West Indies, was driven into Plymouth by a gale. Losing her rudder on a shoal, the ship became unmanageable, went aground on some rocks under the citadel and lay broadside on to the waves, her rolling throwing all the masts overboard. She was, however, linked to the shore by a rope by which means all of her officers and some of her crew escaped, leaving about 500 men, women, and children still aboard to their fate. While a crowd milled around aimlessly on shore Pellew suddenly appeared. Having vainly offered financial inducements to get someone to go to their aid, he opted to do it himself, getting dragged aboard by a rope and receiving an injury to his back from one of the floating masts in the process. Once on the Dutton, sword in hand, he restored order amid the panic and oversaw the running of additional hawsers to the shore from which cradles were hung and some people pulled to safety. Others were placed in boats that had, with equal bravery, been brought alongside. By such means everyone was saved, Pellew being the last to leave. For his actions he was raised to the rank of baronet, also being given the freedom of the city of Plymouth and a service of plate from the Liverpool merchant community. Work would start on a breakwater in Plymouth Sound 16 years later to prevent just such an event from being able to occur again.

Pellew's rising profile and reputation eventually gave him command of the East Indies station when the Napoleonic Wars re-erupted after the Peace of Amiens broke down. This meant that he missed the Battle of Trafalgar that defined British naval supremacy for the 19th Century, although his young brother took part and even managed to capture the flagship of Admiral Villeneuve. Edward though was basically having to keep the peace in the Far East with severely depleted resources to allow the Home Fleets to operate at the strength they did. Once again, his skill and marshalling of resources were noticed and even when the war finished in 1815, he was given command of a remarkable campaign to stamp out piracy and slavery in North Africa against the Barbary Corsairs.

British Empire in Plymouth
Dutton's Cafe
In 1817 he was given the position of port admiral at Plymouth much to the delight of the local population who were delighted to see one of their heroes return. He kept the post until 1821 when he finally retired from active service once and for all. He died at West Cliff House in Teignmouth, on 23 January 1833 and was buried on 6 February at Christow church.

Pellew's name and exploits live on in Plymouth there is Pellew place in Stoke just beneath the blockhouse that long guarded the Dockyard. There is also Dutton's Cafe just below the Citadel that was named in honour of the ship that he helped to rescue just below on the rocks. Originally

Empire in Your Backyard: Plymouth Article | Significant Individuals

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by Stephen Luscombe