PALLISER, Sir Hugh, 1st Bt. (1723-96), of Chalfont St. Giles, Bucks.
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Family and Education
b. 26 Feb. 1723, o.s. of Capt. Hugh Palliser, army officer, of North Deighton, Yorks. by Mary, da. of Humphrey Robinson of Thicket Priory, Cottingworth, Yorks. unm. cr. Bt. 6 Aug. 1773.
Lt. R.N. 1741; capt. 1746; r.-adm. 1775; v.-adm. 1778; adm. 1787.
Gov. Newfoundland 1765-9; comptroller of the navy 1770-5; ld. of the Admiralty 1775-9; gov. Greenwich Hospital 1780- d.
Palliser, who came of a modest Yorkshire family, went to sea in 1734 at the age of eleven, and served almost continuously for the next thirty years. During the seven years’ war he fought under Anson, and according to Walpole, was ‘so much esteemed’ by him that Admiral Saunders, ‘desiring to have the assistance of Palliser, had offered to relinquish the use of a 74-gun ship if the Admiralty would send Palliser with him’.1 Under Saunders he distinguished himself at Quebec in 1759, and subsequently in the Mediterranean. He was a successful governor of Newfoundland, and when on 4 Apr. 1765 he was examined by the House of Commons about complaints of French encroachments in Newfoundland, Bamber Gascoyne commented to John Strutt:
In the whole of this examination I do not know which I admire most, the wisdom of the Governor or the fortitude of the officer; this last six hours, when the House was so thoroughly satisfied with the Governor’s conduct, and he being very lame by a wound in his thigh, it was determined to trouble him no more ... The examination did honour to the Admiralty in the choice of a commander.2
Appointed comptroller of the navy on his return to England, Palliser was instrumental in promoting scientific and exploratory schemes, sponsoring in particular his own protégé, Captain Cook.
In 1774 he was returned unopposed for Scarborough as an Administration candidate. After his appointment as a lord of the Admiralty the following year he became Sandwich’s right-hand man, playing an important part in organizing the naval side of the American war. He was also largely responsible for preparing the navy for a conflict with Spain and France. In Parliament his speeches were all on naval affairs. The navy, he assured the House, 1 Mar. 1776, was in ‘a most flourishing state’; and on 11 Mar. 1777: ‘the whole fleet now fitting out ... would be completely manned in a very short time’. On 26 Nov. 1777 he ‘affirmed as an officer and an official man that we had thirty-five ships of the line; were an overmatch both for the present and in point of preparation for the House of Bourbon’.3
Early in 1778 Palliser was appointed third in command of the western squadron under Keppel, and while maintaining an intimate contact with Sandwich was apparently on excellent terms with his commander, also an old friend. On 3 June 1778, when the fleet was on the point of sailing, he wrote to Sandwich: ‘I am now with Admiral Keppel, who expresses much satisfaction at your Lordship’s explicitness and attention to him: this makes me happy who am so much attached to you both.’ And when Keppel was criticized for his decision to return for reinforcements on receiving information that he was greatly outnumbered by the French fleet, Palliser wrote to Sandwich: ‘I think I can safely assure your Lordship of his disposition being of the fairest and most honourable kind ... when a proper opportunity offers he will acquit himself to the King and his country as becomes a man of honour.’ After the British fleet had taken part in the inconclusive engagement with the French off Ushant on 27 July, in which Palliser’s ship the Formidable was badly damaged, both Palliser and Keppel sent summary accounts to Sandwich. Keppel’s report commended both his vice-admirals, but gave no details, and Palliser’s was equally general.4 When, after some weeks of refitting, the fleet sailed again Keppel and Palliser appeared to be on good terms. But there were already rumours of discord, and on 15 Oct., while the fleet was still at sea, an Opposition paper, the General Advertiser, published an article which threw the blame on Palliser for the inconclusive nature of the engagement off Ushant. Palliser, it claimed, had refused to obey Keppel’s signal to bring his squadron into line after the first attack, thus preventing Keppel going into action again that day, and enabling the French to escape during the night. On his return to London, Palliser immediately demanded that Keppel should sign a statement affirming that his conduct had been entirely ‘proper and becoming a good officer’, and that Keppel’s signal calling him into line was in the evening and ‘was not for the purpose of renewing the battle at that time, but to be in readiness for it in the morning; that in obedience to the said signals such of Sir Hugh Palliser’s division as were in condition for it did immediately bear down’. Keppel refused to sign, maintaining that his signal to Palliser had flown from three o’clock in the afternoon till eight at night without being obeyed. An angry scene ensued in which, Keppel reported to Captain Jervis, Palliser ‘was very high upon his own merits, and threw out that in justifying himself he must lay the blame where it belonged’.5 Palliser now inserted an account in the Morning Post rather different from the one submitted to Keppel:
Between two and three o’clock, I had passed the sternmost ship of the enemy’s line; at this time Admiral Keppel was at a distance, coming up, and a number of ships about him, and I think, with the signal to battle flying. I concluded he was advancing to renew the battle ... At this time it was apparent to the rest of the fleet (if it was not to those in the Victory [Keppel’s flagship]) that the Formidable was not in a manageable condition.6
Keppel, incensed at Palliser’s publicizing the matter in this way, openly declared that he would no longer serve with him. An inquiry was now demanded by both Houses of Parliament, and in the ensuing debate in the Commons on 2 Dec. Keppel spoke first. In a very moderate speech he stated that he ‘laid no blame anywhere’, nor could he question Palliser’s courage. The only complaint he would make was against Palliser’s action in publishing an account in a newspaper. Palliser replied that ‘he was so conscious of not having been any hindrance to a re-action with the Brest fleet on the 27th of July’ that he hoped for an early inquiry.
It was to his interest to urge one because he was certain that it would then come out that he had done his duty in every respect ... With regard to the report of not obeying signals it was a false report; but even were it true, the public service could not have been affected by it, considering the circumstance of the day.
In reply Keppel repeated that the only thing he would censure was Palliser’s action in publishing the affair in a newspaper, but since Palliser had denied any responsibility for the failure to re-attack ‘he would inform the House and the public that the signal for coming into the Victory’s wake was flying from three o’clock in the afternoon till eight in the evening unobeyed; at the same time he did not charge the vice-admiral with disobedience’.7 Palliser did not reply to this in the House, nor ask for a court martial on himself, but instead preferred a capital charge against Keppel for his conduct during the engagement. This rash behaviour, wrote Horace Walpole, evoked ‘the astonishment of mankind’.8 But it seems to have been Palliser’s personal act, not concerted with Sandwich. Severely criticized in the Commons on 11 Dec., Palliser retorted that Keppel had acted ‘in a very unbecoming manner; for without making any direct accusation of a criminal nature, he substantially charged him with disobedience, and seemed to lay the want of success on the 27th of July at his door ... These were insinuations he had determined he would not lie under ... the truth was the Admiral endeavoured to load him with the public odium of the miscarriage of that day and compel him to submit to bear the blame of his own mistakes and incapacity’.9
At the trial Palliser, acting as prosecutor, failed to substantiate his charges against Keppel, the majority of witnesses testifying strongly in the Admiral’s favour. Walpole, admitting that the court was biassed towards Keppel, considered that ‘as soon as Palliser perceived how little he could hurt Keppel, and how much glory would accrue to the latter from the concurrent testimony of the navy, the best thing Sir Hugh could have done would have been complain of the court martial being biassed by prejudice, and to have refused to have proceeded in his crimination before such partial judges’.10
On 11 Feb. Keppel was ‘unanimously and honourably acquitted’, and the charges against him were described as ‘malicious and ill-founded’. Popular rejoicing was unrestrained, and Palliser, in fear of his life, was forced to go into hiding. Before the court martial had ended he had accepted Sandwich’s decision that he himself would have to undergo a court martial.11 In the meantime the Opposition, pursuing the attack in the House, demanded Palliser’s immediate dismissal from all his offices. The King wrote to North, 13 Feb. 1779:
I am clear it will end in his losing his offices and therefore strongly recommend his being instantly removed from the lieutenant general of marines and the nominal government of Scarborough ... I believe you will find no one but Lord Sandwich against this step; as it seems inevitable I own I think it wiser to do it spontaneously than to be drove to it.
Sandwich himself now came to the same conclusion, and put pressure to bear on Palliser who, bitterly resentful, resigned his offices and vacated his seat in Parliament. The King commented to North, 19 Feb.:
Perhaps there never was a more general run than against poor Sir Hugh Palliser, and that not only from a faction, but moderate men are shocked and with reason at his bringing a capital charge and yet not having proved the smallest appearance of ground for such a grievous charge ... though Palliser’s conduct is alone to be accounted for by the passion that attended the very unguarded attack he met with, yet that his services to the public make him deserve a little indulgence.12
Palliser’s trial began at Portsmouth on 12 Apr., and on 5 May he was acquitted by the court, which found that his ‘conduct and behaviour were in many respects highly exemplary though at the same time they cannot help thinking it was incumbent on him to have made known to his commander-in-chief the disabled state of the Formidable’. ‘A censoriously acquitting sentence’, Sir Charles Douglas commented to Charles Middleton.13
Palliser immediately applied to Sandwich to be restored to his lieutenant-generalship of marines, but without success. Opposition attacks on him continued, but Fox’s motion of 13 May to have the court martial proceedings laid before the House was rejected. Early the following year, in face of strong criticism, Sandwich succeeded in obtaining for Palliser the appointment of governor of Greenwich Hospital. At the general election of 1780, at Sandwich’s request, he did not stand again at Scarborough, but when in October a vacancy occurred for Huntingdon, he was returned there unopposed on Sandwich’s interest. On his return to Parliament he was immediately set upon by the Opposition. Describing himself as ‘the most injured character in the kingdom’, he again, at considerable length, went over the ground of his quarrel with Keppel and his reasons for bringing the accusation.14
After the fall of North Palliser’s only recorded vote was with Administration on Fox’s East India bill, 27 Nov. 1783. He himself wrote to Sandwich on 7 Mar. 1784:15
I most earnestly intreat your Lordship not to consider my having voted for the mutiny bill or any other step I may take whilst I live, to be intended unfriendly to you ... Your Lordship knows my rule of conduct is not to oppose the King and his Government ... And as to myself I do not mean to embarrass a minister with any thing about myself. I feel my mind and spirits too much impaired and broken down by ill usage and injustice; if I am to be driven down deeper into obscurity than I am I can’t help it.
Palliser did not stand again in 1784. He died 19 Mar. 1796.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
- 1. Mems. Geo. III, ii. 63.
- 2. 7 Apr. 1765, Strutt mss.
- 3. Almon, iii. 391; vii. 18; viii. 48.
- 4. Sandwich Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. lxxi), 88, 110, 128, 129.
- 5. Keppel, Life of Keppel, ii. 78, 81.
- 6. Morning Post, 6 Nov. 1778.
- 7. Almon, xi. 89-94.
- 8. Last Jnls. ii. 223.
- 9. Almon, xi. 133.
- 10. Last Jnls. ii. 247.
- 11. Sandwich Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. lxxi), 221-2.
- 12. Fortescue, iv. 277, 284.
- 13. Barham Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. xxxii), 267.
- 14. Debrett, i. 216-26.
- 15. Sandwich mss.