HOLBURNE, Francis (1704-71).
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Family and Education
b. 1704, 3rd s. of Sir James Holburne, 1st Bt., of Menstrie, Clackmannan by Jean, da. of Alexander Spittal of Leuchat. educ. Inverkeithing. m. c.1750, Frances, da. of Guy Ball, member of Barbados council, wid. of Edward Lascelles, collector of customs, Barbados, 1s. 2da.; stepfa. of Edward Lascelles.
Entered R.N. 1720; lt. 1727; capt. 1740; r.-adm. 1755; v.-adm. 1757; c.-in-c. Portsmouth Dec. 1757-1767; adm. Jan. 1768; r.-adm. of Great Britain 1770; ld. of Admiralty Feb. 1770-Jan. 1771; gov. Greenwich Hospital Jan. 1771- d.
Burgess of Edinburgh 1740.
Holburne owed his advancement in the navy to Lord Morton, an intimate family friend, and to Archibald, Duke of Argyll, who ‘took him by the hand in his younger days and made him a captain’.1 He made his name in 1742 by the capture of a Spanish ship; held a number of commands, serving in the West Indies, the Channel and the Bay of Biscay, until the peace of 1748; and in 1749 was sent to Barbados to help secure the execution of the treaty terms. There he married a rich widow, and returned home in 1752.
I believe you never heard of this Admiral Holburne before ... He is a Scot, you know I don’t think well of that nation for upper leather, nor was he ever thought much of in our service; he is rich and has contrived to insinuate himself into the good graces of Lord Anson, made an admiral and sent here to my assistance. You see by this I don’t like him, nor ever did, having known him from my first entering into the service ... As soon as he joined me, [he] was laying schemes for making a job immediately. I cut him short and told him I sent him to Halifax to fill his water, and join me here as soon as possible. I don’t expect to see him again very soon, but I shall soon be after him.
For most of 1756 Holburne served with his squadron off Brest, and in December was appointed a member of the court martial which tried Byng; strongly attached through Morton to Newcastle and Hardwicke, he took no part in the moves to mitigate the sentence, though he signed the court’s original recommendation to mercy. When, on 2 Mar. 1757, the members of the tribunal were examined before the House of Lords, ‘all the court martial seemed terrified ... except old Admiral Holburne, who cursed and swore at the bar of that House, because Byng was not shot out of the way, without giving him the trouble of coming from Portsmouth’.4 In February 1757 he was appointed to command the fleet sent to support Loudoun in his attack on Louisburg. When Loudoun, in consequence of a report on the strength of the French forces, decided to abandon the attempt, Holburne concurred in his view.5 Walpole commented: ‘Admiral Holburne, one of the sternest condemners of Byng, wrote ... that he having but seventeen ships and the French nineteen, he dared not attack them’; and Hardwicke to Newcastle, 5 Sept. 1757: ‘They all proceed upon the Byng principle’.6
Shortly after Holburne’s return in December he was appointed port admiral at Portsmouth, and never held a sea command again. While he apparently lost favour with Anson, who considered him a mischief maker,7 he remained closely attached to Loudoun and his patron Argyll, who suggested in 1758 that he should contest Stirling Burghs at the general election.8
Holburne immediately began his campaign in the burghs against Robert Haldane but, hampered by his duties at Portsmouth, besought Loudoun to make interest for him with Lord Cathcart.9 Cathcart wrote to Loudoun, 14 Sept. 1760:10‘The Admiral ... is a very worthy and serviceable man, and his station in the navy together with his good disposition ought to make him an agreeable representative and a useful one to those burghs, who are so much connected with seafaring people.’ At the crucial burgh council elections of Michaelmas 1760, Holburne made unscrupulous use of his position, especially at Inverkeithing, which ‘he looked upon as his natale solium’ and where he stood for provost. He brought in armed press gangs, entered a trades meeting with drawn sword, and by intimidation and bribery secured the return of his party. When Haldane successfully brought an action before the court of session for reduction of the Inverkeithing election, Holburne appealed to the House of Lords.11 He urged Loudoun to attend the hearing and ‘to let the Duke of Argyll know his situation’. ‘It is a cursed thing to be brought to this and such an expense, and your Lordship knows well that had it not been for the encouragement I met with from the Duke I had never undertaken this.’12
Although his appeal was rejected, 11 Feb. 1761, Holburne was returned in April against Alexander Wedderburn, who had replaced Haldane as candidate. Deprived by Argyll’s death of a powerful friend, he now sought the patronage of Bute13 who, although committed to support Wedderburn, was prepared to compromise. Newcastle wrote to Rockingham, 24 Nov. 1761:14
Lord Bute was in very good humour ... He complained but very modestly that the Duke of Devonshire and I were against him in the only two elections where he concerned himself ... that it would have a very unpleasant appearance if we two and he should differ; and for that reason he had made up the first, Admiral Holburne’s, and that Holburne was to continue this Parliament.
As a result Wedderburn’s petition was withdrawn. Although Newcastle and his friends ‘rejoiced that Holburne sits this Parliament’,15 the Admiral, having won Bute’s favour and retained his post at Portsmouth, showed no inclination to join them in opposition and was listed by Fox among those favourable to the peace preliminaries. On the formation of the Grenville Administration, Holburne wrote to Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, 28 Apr. 1763:16
Permit me to mention my desire of continuing in this command, it having been intended so, as I have been confined here most of the war very contrary to my inclinations, having frequently requested to serve at sea, but here have I been confined, fitting most of the navy for younger officers to go and command them and make fortunes in. I hope your Lordship will think of continuing me.
His request was granted, and he remained a supporter of the Grenville Administration.
Listed ‘pro’ by Rockingham in July 1765, he retained his Portsmouth appointment, but voted against the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. During the Chatham Administration he was listed by Rockingham as attached to Bute, and by Townshend and Newcastle as pro Administration; he voted with Government on the land tax, 27 Feb. 1767. Having lost or relinquished his Portsmouth post, he unsuccessfully tried, through Sandwich, to obtain an appointment at Trinity House in July 1767.17
In 1768 he stood for Plymouth on the Admiralty interest. A friend wrote to Lord Barrington, 16 Jan. 1768:18
We were almost unanimous for your Lordship and Admiral Holburne ... My friend, the Admiral, would at least have had some witticisms on him if he had not been named with your Lordship, such is the advantage of good company.
In the new Parliament he supported Grafton on Wilkes and the Middlesex election. He was made a lord of the Admiralty in the North Administration, holding office until appointed governor of Greenwich Hospital in January 1771. Ten years a Member, he is not known to have spoken in the House.
He died 15 July 1771, remembered for protecting his seamen from brutality, but otherwise having a reputation ‘variously represented by his friends and enemies’.19
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Edith Lady Haden-Guest
- 1. Holburne to Bute, Apr. 1761, Bute mss.
- 2. Newcastle to Hartington, 17 May 1755, Devonshire mss.
- 3. Naval Misc. iv. (Navy Recs. Soc.), 194.
- 4. Edw. Owen to Edw. Weston, 5 Mar. 1757, HMC 8th Rep. pt. 1 (1881), 313.
- 5. Add. 29589B, ff. 19, 20, 22; Charnock, Biographia Navalis, v. 37-39.
- 6. Mems. Geo. II, iii. 40; P.C. Yorke, Hardwicke, iii. 171.
- 7. Ibid. 215.
- 8. Holburne to Loudoun, 10 May 1759, Loudoun mss.
- 9. Holburne to Loudoun, 18 Jan., 10 May 1759, ibid.
- 10. Ibid.
- 11. Add. 36166, f. 308; W. Stephens, Hist. Inverkeithing, 224.
- 12. Holburne to Loudoun, 5 Feb. 1761, Loudoun mss.
- 13. Holburne to Bute, Apr. 1761, Bute mss.
- 14. Add. 32932, ff. 258-9.
- 15. Add. 32931, ff. 317-20; Rockingham to Devonshire, 28 Nov. 1761, Devonshire, 28 Nov. 1761, Devonshire mss.
- 16. Sandwich mss.
- 17. Bedford to Sandwich, 31 July 1767, Bedford mss.
- 18. Barrington mss.
- 19. Charnock, v. 41-42.