Admiral Sir Philip Durham (1763–1845) was one of the most distinguished and colourful officers of the late Georgian Navy. His lucky and sometimes controversial career included surviving the sinking of HMS Royal George in 1782, making the first conquest of the tricolour flag in 1793 and the last in 1815, and having two enemy ships surrender to him at Trafalgar.
A Scot distantly related to Lord Barham, Durham entered the Navy in 1777, serving initially on the American and West Indies stations. He was Kempenfelt's signal officer on HMS Victory during the second battle of Ushant in 1781 and on the Royal George. Making his reputation initially as the daring young master and commander of HMS Spitfire early in the French Revolutionary War, he became a crack frigate captain with a fortune in prize money, and commanded HMS Defiance at Trafalgar, where he was wounded. He ended his war service as Commander-in-Chief, Leeward Islands. En voyage he artfully captured two brand-new French frigates which were subsequently taken into the service of Britain, and during his tenure he won the heartfelt gratitude of local merchants by ridding the surrounding seas of American privateers preying on British trading vessels. True to form, he clashed with the judge of the Vice-Admiralty Court on Antigua and with the general with whom he led a combined naval and military assault on Martinique and Guadeloupe following Napoleon's escape from Elba. He later served as Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth having resigned his parliamentary seat to do so.
Married first to the sister of the Earl of Elgin, of 'Marbles' fame, and secondly to a cousin of 'sea wolf' Lord Cochrane, he was well-known to George III, who as a result of Durham's amusing yet improbable anecdotes, dubbed any tall tale he heard 'a Durham'. This collection of his papers consists mainly of letters and despatches relating to his service in the Channel Fleet, the Mediterranean, and the Leeward Islands. Correspondence with his parents during 1789–1790 reflects his anxieties relating to employment and prospects for promotion when he was a young lieutenant with an illegitimate child to support. The collection, featuring items from and to him, comprises a fascinating and informative set of documents.
Table of Contents
Part I: From Acting Lieutenant to Master and Commander, 1781–1790
Part II: Sloop Commander, 1793
Part III: Frigate Captain, 1793–1802
Part IV: Ship-of-the-Line Captain, 1803–1810
Part V: Flag-Officer, 1810–1813
Part VI: Commander-in-Chief, Leeward Islands, 1813–1816
Part VII: Lowland Laird, and Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth, 1836–1839
Part VIII: Epilogue
Sources and Documents
Hilary L. Rubinstein is a Former Research Fellow in History at the University of Melbourne.