KEPPEL, Hon. Augustus (1725-86), of Elveden Hall, Suff.
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Family and Education
b. 25 Apr. 1725, 2nd s. of William Anne, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, by Lady Anne Lennox, da. of Charles, 1st Duke of Richmond; bro. of George, Visct. Bury and Hon. William Keppel. educ. Westminster 1733-5. unm. cr. Visct. Keppel 22 Apr. 1782.
Groom of the bedchamber 1761-Dec. 1766; ld. of Admiralty July 1765-Dec. 1766; P.C. 27 Mar. 1782; first ld. of Admiralty Mar. 1782-Jan. 1783, Apr.-Dec. 1783.
Entered R.N. 1735; capt. 1744; r.-adm. 1762; v.-adm. 1770; adm. 1778.
As a boy of fifteen Keppel sailed with Anson on his voyage round the world. Helped by the connexion then established with Anson and Sir Charles Saunders and by his own powerful family, he achieved rapid promotion. In January 1749 he undertook a diplomatic mission to the Barbary states with the chief command in the Mediterranean and the rank of commodore; and at the end of 1754 he took temporary command of all the ships on the North American station.
In January 1755, while still in America, Keppel was returned unopposed for Chichester on the interest of his cousin the Duke of Richmond, backed by the Treasury. During the next few years the navy rather than Parliament absorbed his attention. But in 1757 as a member of the court martial which condemned Byng, he was for a short while caught up in politics. According to Horace Walpole, as Byng’s execution drew near, Keppel ‘grew restless with remorse’, and on 23 Feb., with two other members of the court martial, ‘waited on Lord Temple [first lord of the Admiralty], and besought him to renew their application to the throne for mercy’.1 Anxious to bring the matter before Parliament, Keppel now tried to find a sponsor for a bill to absolve him from his oath of secrecy. He did not wish to move it himself, he told Walpole, because ‘he was unused to speak in public, but would willingly authorize anybody to make application for him’. This was finally undertaken by Sir Francis Dashwood, but when in the ensuing debate Pitt ‘wished he would break through his bashfulness and rise’,
[Keppel] spoke with great sense and seriousness; declared he did desire to be absolved from his oath; he had something on his mind that he wished to say. Many others of the court-martial ... had been with him that morning and exhorted him to make the demand.
As a result the execution was postponed for a fortnight and the bill passed through the first stage in the Commons. Keppel now found some of his supporters wavering, but still persisted. He told the Commons on 28 Feb.:
For himself he thought his honour clear: when he had first spoken it was from the uneasiness of his mind. He was told his oath did not bind him: he thought it did. If the House would think fit to relieve him he should be glad. When he signed the sentence, he thought he did right—he had since been startled at what he had done.
And later in the debate: ‘I do think my desire of being at liberty does imply something great, and what his Majesty should know.’ Yet when, still bound by his oath, he was examined by the Lords he would commit himself no further. Asked whether he knew of anything unjust,
after long silence and consideration he replied ‘No’. Whether the sentence was obtained through undue practices? ‘No’. Whether desirous of the bill? ‘Yes, undoubtedly’. Whether he knew anything necessary for the knowledge of the King and conducive to mercy? Keppel: ‘I cannot answer that, without particularizing my vote and opinion’. Lord Halifax asked him whether he thought his particular reasons had been asked now? He replied, ‘No’. He retired.
Twelve days later Byng was executed. And here is Walpole’s comment on Keppel’s part in the affair:
If Keppel had had no more to tell, than that he had been drawn into the harsher measure by the probability of the gentler preponderating at last, he had in truth been much misunderstood: his regret had worn all the appearance of remorse. How he came to appear so calm and so indifferent at the last moment in which either regret or remorse could hope to have any effect, I pretend not to decide.
During the years that followed Keppel distinguished himself in a number of the important actions of the war. He was in command at the taking of Goree in 1758, and the following year served under Hawke in the action of Quiberon Bay. His command at the capture of Belle Isle brought him renown, and his part in the taking of Havana increased his stature, though his health, undermined during the operation, never fully recovered.
Through his brother, Lord Albemarle, Keppel was connected with the Duke of Cumberland, and in 1761 he was returned unopposed for Windsor on Cumberland’s interest. After his return from the West Indies in June 1764 Keppel’s reputation and his connexion with Cumberland and Rockingham, gave him standing with the Opposition, but he made little impact in the House of Commons, speaking seldom, and invariably on naval matters.
On the formation of the Rockingham Administration Keppel was appointed a lord of the Admiralty and he remained in office under Chatham till December 1766, when, provoked by the dismissal of Lord Edgcumbe, he, like other Rockinghamites, resigned, and was in consequence removed from his place at court. In February 1767 he seems to have held himself rather aloof from the Rockinghams’ campaign for the reduction of the land tax, and told Newcastle that ‘if Mr. Dowdeswell moved it he believed he should be for it, but if Mr. Grenville moved it he should certainly be against’. In the end he did vote with the Opposition on 27 Feb. In a list in the Newcastle papers of 31 Mar. 1767 Keppel is included among ‘persons named by my Lord Rockingham to be the friends without whom he would take no step’.2 In October he was reported by Grenville’s manager, Thomas Whately, to be ‘very hostile’ to Administration,3and anxious for an agreement with the Duke of Bedford (whose son Lord Tavistock had married Keppel’s sister). When this proved impossible, and Newcastle, at Rockingham’s request, had informed Bedford that negotiations were at an end, Keppel wrote to Newcastle:4
I must decline meddling or appearing in anything that may be disagreeable to the Duke of Bedford ... and I could have wished your Grace had not thought it necessary to mention my name as one assembled in your room, when it was wished some questions might be put to the Duke of Bedford.
In 1768 Keppel was again returned unopposed for Windsor. During this Parliament his infrequent speeches were on naval matters, and generally critical of naval administration. In April 1775 a request by Sir Charles Saunders, then commanding in the Channel, that Keppel should be given a command under him was refused by Sandwich. ‘I felt more hurt for Sir Charles than myself’, Keppel wrote to Rockingham on 29 Apr.,5
had I been at my friend’s elbow, I should have said it was making me too cheap, mentioning my name for employment to such a man. I know the public would think ill of any officer that declined improperly his services; but if petitioning for employment is expected, I must meet and prefer the censure that may belong to my pride.
Yet bitterly resentful at being passed over in the appointment to the lieutenant-generalship of marines, which in December 1775 was given to Sir Hugh Palliser, he wrote to Sandwich protesting vigorously.6
After the outbreak of the American war, Keppel, deploring the feebleness of Opposition, could suggest no remedy: ‘I don’t know what ought to be done’, he wrote to Rockingham on 5 Jan. 1776, ‘Opposition is weak for want of union, in this all agree, without knowing how to cement it.’ He had no more effective suggestion when he wrote again on 14 Sept.:7
I do most sincerely wish some solid junction could be brought about. The situation of this once most flourishing country and now most deplorable one requires it. We all think so, and yet have been battling in the way that has never promised the least success for many years together. I think the day is now come that makes it absolutely necessary to try, and ardently, what the whole force of Opposition joined warmly and honestly can do. I know what I wish is not so easy; it has at times met insurmountable rubs, but at this time, everybody should be employed to remove obstacles, and get together and not fish for difficulties. I know you are never angry with me for speaking my mind.
As a bitter opponent of the war, Keppel declared that he would never serve against the colonists, though ready to serve elsewhere. At that time he was half way down the list of vice-admirals, but he was outstandingly popular with the navy, and in November 1776 the Administration, ignoring his politics, offered him command of the Channel fleet in the event of a European war. Keppel’s friends immediately suspected a plot, and on 19 Nov. Richmond wrote to him:8
I cannot wish you joy of having a fleet to command prepared by the Earl of Sandwich, with new men and officers unacquainted with each other to risk your reputation and the fate of your country upon ... At the same time I do not see how you could refuse your service. Let me, however, advise you to insist upon your own terms. No one can be surprised that you should suspect a minister, whom you have constantly opposed, of not giving you all the help he might do to a friend, without suspecting him of treachery. If he has but a bad fleet to send out, ’tis doing Lord Sandwich no injustice to suppose he would be glad to put it under the command of a man whom he does not love, and yet whose name will justify it to the nation. If we meet with a misfortune he hopes to get off:—he was not to blame for having given the command to a relation or friend.
But, while Keppel was anxious that his position should be clearly defined, his relations with Sandwich were amicable. In the summer of 1777, with Sandwich’s approbation,9 he went abroad for health reasons, and appears to have been absent for several months, having no part in the preparation of the fleet. On his return he did not endorse the Opposition’s criticisms of naval administration, merely declaring in the House on 11 Mar. 1778 that ‘he rather wished to have a small fleet well fitted and completely manned than a large number of ships badly equipped’.10 Yet this was construed by the King as an attack: ‘Admiral Keppel took a part that will disappoint Lord Sandwich’, he wrote to North, 12 Mar., ‘he having uniformly pretended that the Admiral, though very adverse on all political points, is much of his opinion on marine affairs.’11 On 15 Mar. Keppel wrote to Sandwich, setting out his views about the scope of his command. His tone was accommodating, but he concluded:12
I must ... desire that my orders and instructions may on all points be explicit and clear. Your Lordship will, I am sure, excuse my entering into this explanation when you consider the very delicate situation in which I stand, called upon to take upon me the defence of the kingdom at sea under an Administration upon which I have not any claim for indulgence of friendship.
When Keppel took over his command he found that the fleet was in no condition to sail, and soon afterwards he complained to the King: ‘I never allow myself to form plans in my imagination for exertion and enterprise upon the enemy, without continually meeting a complete check or stop, from the want of the force both of land and sea, that is employed in North America.’13 Nevertheless Sandwich and Keppel took pains to work together and during the ensuing months their correspondence was cordial.
When the fleet eventually sailed at the beginning of June it was still short of ships, but Keppel’s instructions authorized him to return to port rather than engage a larger force, and soon afterwards on obtaining intelligence of a superior enemy fleet he immediately returned for reinforcements. Public reaction was unfavourable, and the King wrote to Sandwich, 25 June: ‘I am much hurt at the resolution taken by Admiral Keppel of instantly returning to St. Helens. I fear this step will greatly discourage the ardour of this country.’ Sandwich himself seems now to have had doubts about Keppel. An attempt to reassure him was made by Sir Hugh Palliser, a lord of the Admiralty and close associate of Sandwich, who was serving as Keppel’s third in command. Keppel’s disposition, Palliser wrote on 6 July, was of ‘the fairest and most honourable kind ... he is perfectly satisfied as far as relates to your Lordship’s conduct towards him ... when a proper opportunity offers he will acquit himself to the King and his country as becomes a man of honour’.14 But when the hastily assembled fleet, its officers professionally rusty and unused to manoeuvring in large number, at last encountered the French off Ushant on 27 July, the action, though it involved considerable damage on both sides, was entirely inconclusive. The French fleet made its escape, and Keppel returned to Portsmouth to refit. In a summary report of the engagement he commended all the officers and men, naming specifically both his vice-admirals, Palliser and Harland. At the same time he sent a verbal message to Sandwich that ‘he had more to say to his Lordship than he chose to commit to writing’.15 Sandwich did not respond, and Keppel himself, intent on refitting the fleet and returning to sea as soon as possible, made no further reference to the matter.
When the fleet sailed again at the end of August, Keppel and Palliser were apparently on good terms. But rumours had already started, and on 15 Oct., while the fleet was still absent, an Opposition newspaper, the General Advertiser, printed an account of the action of 27 July which accused Palliser of failing to obey a signal from Keppel to rejoin the main body of the fleet with his squadron, thus making it impossible for Keppel to re-attack the French fleet the same day. Back in London, Palliser immediately demanded that Keppel should sign a paper which denied the allegations and stated that Keppel’s signals had been made in the evening for Palliser’s ships to form in his wake, with the intention of renewing the attack the following morning. Keppel refused to sign and an angry scene ensued: ‘I told him I had done with him’, Keppel wrote to Captain Jervis, ‘and would never have the least to do with him again. I have told the King without aspersing his character one way or the other, that I would not serve where he should be.’16 Palliser’s reaction was to publish his version of the encounter in the Morning Post. Keppel, objecting strongly to Palliser’s publicizing the affair in a newspaper, announced that he would no longer serve with him. Popular interest was now intense, and inquiries were demanded by both Houses of Parliament. On 2 Dec. Keppel made a statement in the Commons:17
If he was to go over the business of the 27th of July again, he would have conducted himself in the same manner ... He impeached no man of neglect of duty, because he was satisfied that the officer alluded to [Sir Hugh Palliser] had manifested no want of what was most essential in a British seaman—courage.
He then read a very general account of events since he assumed command of the fleet,
[but] hoped it would not be expected that he should answer particular questions relative to what passed in action, or respecting individuals, it was not his duty, nor would it be proper to do it either in regard to himself or others; but he was nevertheless ready, whenever properly called upon, to enter into the fullest explanations relative to his own conduct, either there or elsewhere.
He repeated that he ‘laid no blame anywhere’—
He had been much surprised when an officer under his command had made an appeal to the public in a newspaper signed with his name, before any accusation had been made against him ... he was so shocked that he resolved never to set his foot aboard ship again, because he thought there was an end of all obedience and command. However, upon reflection, and when his first emotions had subsided, he hoped matters might be properly explained, but till that event took place, he informed the noble Lord who presides at the Admiralty board, that he never could sail with the gentleman alluded to.
Palliser, speaking next, denied ‘having been any hindrance to a re-action with the Brest fleet’; he ‘heartily wished’ that Keppel would make specific charges. But Keppel merely repeated that he made no charges, ‘nor did he know any part of the vice-admiral’s conduct deserving of censure but seeing the name of “Hugh Palliser” signed to a letter in the Morning Post’. He was ready to repeat his previous commendation of all the officers present on the 27th, but:
The Vice-Admiral had alluded to signals, and said that it was no fault of his, that the fleet of France was not re-attacked. As to that ... he presumed every inferior officer was to obey the signals of his commander; and now, when called upon to speak out, 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 actual disobedience. He doubted not, but if an inquiry should be thought necessary, that he would be able to justify himself, because he was fully persuaded of his personal bravery.
Palliser's reply was to submit to the Admiralty a charge of misconduct and neglect of duty against Keppel and to demand that he should be court martialled. This was immediately agreed to, but there is no evidence to support the Opposition's contention that this attack was provoked by Sandwich, and it appears most unlikely. Nevertheless the suggestion provided the Opposition with a cause: Keppel now became their hero and martyr. ‘The Rockingham faction’, wrote Walpole,18 ‘took up the trial with very different spirit from what they had ever exerted ... in truth the Rockingham squadron treated the trial of Keppel as an affair of party rather than as a national one.’ Public sympathy for Keppel was considerable; a petition on his behalf was signed by twelve leading admirals, and a special bill passed through Parliament to allow the court martial to be held on shore, since Keppel's health was considered too precarious to stand the rigours of confinement on board ship (but not apparently to take command of the fleet). As a result Opposition leaders flocked to Portsmouth, their presence serving to give the trial a political flavour. During the trial a majority of the captains who had taken part in the action gave evidence on Keppel's behalf; and while the court was certainly prejudiced in Keppel's favour Palliser undoubtedly failed to support his charges against Keppel, who was ‘unanimously and honourably acquitted’, the charges against him being described as ‘malicious and unfounded’. Lady Pembroke wrote to Lord Herbert, 18 Feb. 1779:19
Keppel's trial is over with great honour to him and the contrary to his accuser, but the Opposition have behaved very foolishly, a great many of the head ones attending at Portsmouth, and after the trial they walked with him in procession through through the streets, and before him was played ‘See the conquering hero comes’; all which if he is a sensible man, must have distressed him terribly.
In London, too, there were scenes of enthusiastic rejoicing, culminating in riots and disorder. On 12 Feb. Col. Barré moved the House to thank Keppel for ‘his distinguished courage, conduct, and ability in defending the kingdom last summer ... and more particularly for his having gloriously upheld the honour of the British flag on the 27th and 28th of July last’,20 and the motion passed with only one dissenting voice—John Strutt. Lady Pembroke very sensibly summed up the affair in a letter to Lord Herbert, 30 Dec. 1779: ‘I verily think from all I can pick up, that it was the opinion of all and seamen too, that Keppel might have made more for us of the 27th than he did, but the moment there was a court martial there was an end of knowing any true opinion, for it became a party affair.’21
After the trial Keppel, asked by the Admiralty whether he intended to continue in command of the fleet, replied on 15 Mar. that no officer could do so ‘unless he is confident that his reputation and upright endeavours will be well supported by his Majesty's ministers’; and concluded: ‘It is next to impossible for me to render creditable and beneficial service to the King ... under the direction and authority of those [whom] ... experience has taught me, I cannot depend upon.’22 The Admiralty accepted this as a formal resignation, and immediately order Keppel to strike his flag.
At the general election of 1780 considerable efforts were made by the King to oust Keppel from Windsor, and he was defeated, though only by 16 votes in a poll of over 300. He was immediately asked to stand for Surrey, and was returned there with a considerable majority over his Administration opponent. In the new Parliament he spoke fairly frequently on naval affairs; was highly critical of Sandwich; and particularly condemned his part in the appointment of Palliser to the governorship of Greenwich Hospital in 1780. Appointed first lord of the Admiralty, with a peerage, on the formation of the Rockingham Administration, Keppel remained in office when the rest of the Rockinghams resigned in July 1782, but resigned himself in January 1783 in protest against Shelburne's peace preliminaries. He held the office again under the Coalition. His brief tenure of high office had demonstrated his political incapacity; he had failed to attach himself either to Shelburne or to Fox, and henceforth ceased to count.
Keppel died on 2 Oct. 1786. Just over ten years later Charnock wrote of him in his Biographia Navalis (v. 345):
It will be almost impossible to attempt any delineation of his ... character without incurring censure ... His friends by their imprudent attempt to raise him into something more than a hero caused [his opponents] to counterbalance extravagant panegyric by ill-founded censure. Prior to [the court martial] ... he was the idol of all parties and ranks, whether in or out of service; his bravery, his prudence, his activity, his diligence, he had happily afforded reitereated proofs of: a frankness of disposition, an affability, that trait of character usually distinguished by the appellation of good humour, had acquired him, among seamen, a degree of love bordering almost on adoration.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
- 1. Mems. Geo. II, ii. 318-64. Other references to Byng’s trial are from the same source.
- 2. Add. 32980, ff. 144-6, 450.
- 3. Grenville Pprs. iv. 186.
- 4. Add. 32987, ff. 135-6.
- 5. T. Keppel, Life of Keppel, i. 378, misdated 1765.
- 6. 17 Dec., Rockingham mss.
- 7. Keppel, Life, i. 421, 426.
- 8. Ibid. ii. 3.
- 9. Sandwich Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. lxxi), ii. 16-17.
- 10. Stockdale, vii. 123.
- 11. Fortescue, iv. 51.
- 12. Sandwich Pprs. 17.
- 13. Fortescue, iv. 119.
- 14. Sandwich Pprs. ii. 98-99, 110.
- 15. Life, ii. 48, 50.
- 16. Life, ii. 81.
- 17. Almon, xi. 89-94.
- 18. Last Jnls. ii. 236.
- 19. Pembroke Pprs. i. 148.
- 20. Almon, xi. 235.
- 21. Pembroke Pprs. i. 367.
- 22. Life, ii. 227.