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Rags to riches, but talented hero was thwarted in career

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: November 17, 2012

  • The troopship Dutton being brought ashore below Plymouth's Citadel in 1796 after Sir Edward Pellew swam out to the dismasted vessel and took command, saving hundreds

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Death must have seemed inevitable to the 500 men, women and children crowded on to the deck of the troopship Dutton.

A winter gale in January 1796 had driven their dismasted ship on to rocks below Plymouth's Citadel, and they seemed certain to perish in the maelstrom.

But the city crowds who had gathered to witness a tragedy were instead given a hero when Sir Edward Pellew, captain of the frigate Indefatigable, plunged from the rocks and fearlessly swam through the waves.

A cheer went up from ship and shore when Pellew clambered on board the Dutton and assumed command, whipping terrified and sometimes drunken soldiers into line. By that night everyone who had been alive when he reached the ship was safely ashore.

In this exciting new biography of "Britain's greatest frigate captain", Stephen Taylor describes Pellew as "tall, broad, keen-eyed, animated and beaming, master of the quarterdeck and athlete of the tops, welcoming a gallant foe into his cabin, diving to the rescue of a man overboard".

Yet for all his remarkable qualities, much of Pellew's career was doomed to be eclipsed by fate and his own failings.

Born to a relatively humble Cornish family, he went to sea at the age of 13 and, despite lacking the social graces, rose from "penniless youth to fleet command and a viscountcy". The early death of his father, a captain in the maritime postal service, left him driven by loyalty to his family and a desire to rebuild the Pellew fortunes.

Given command of the frigate Nymphe in 1793 – the year France declared war – Pellew recruited a crew of Cornish tinners who "struck terror where ever they went, and seemed like an irruption of barbarians" in "mud-stained smock-frocks and trowsers". Through a combination of charisma and discipline, he fashioned this unlikely band into one of the ablest crews of the age.

Sir Edward already has a place in fiction, in the Hornblower books, but Taylor believes he was also the model for Jack Aubrey in the Patrick O'Brian novels. In the film adaptation, Master and Commander, the character was played by Russell Crowe.

Like the fictional Aubrey, Pellew was ruthless in action, kind to his crew, and magnanimous to those defeated in battle. Like Aubrey, Pellew's gunnery crews became renowned for ferocious accuracy.

It was an age when the spoils went to the victor, and capturing an enemy ship meant handsome reward to captain and crew. Nothing much changes among matelots. After Pellew captured the French ship Pomone, it is recounted that "on receiving their bounty, five tars hired a coach and horses in Plymouth, loaded it with harlots, grog, a fiddler and an organ-grinder, and careered in triumph around the town for days until the money ran out".

Horatio Nelson and Pellew were contemporaries, and are known to have met in the Fountain Inn in Plymouth.

But while Nelson achieved death and immortality at the Battle of Trafalgar, a frustrated Pellew was sent to command the Royal Navy's Indian Ocean fleet, denying him the memory of an iconic victory or a noble fate.

With the end of war in 1814, Pellew was made Lord Exmouth of Canonteign. He settled down with his wife Susan in their new home in Teignmouth, West Cliffe House (now the offices of Teignmouth Town Council).

But there was to be one last hurrah. Recalled to service, he finally commanded a great fleet action, freeing more than a thousand European slaves in Algiers.

Stephen Taylor describes Pellew's battles at sea and on land with the eye of an historian and the ear of a consummate storyteller.

Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain's Greatest Frigate Captain, by Stephen Taylor is published by Faber and Faber priced £20. ISBN: 9780571277117

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