POPHAM, Sir Home Riggs (1762-1820), of Titness Park, Berks.
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Family and Education
b. 12 Oct. 1762 at Gibraltar, yst. s. of Joseph Popham of Cork, consul at Tetuan, Morocco by 1st w. Mary née Riggs of Waterford; bro. of William Popham†. educ. Brentford sch.; Westminster 1774; Trinity Coll. Camb. 1776. m. 19 Dec. 1788 at Calcutta, Elizabeth Moffat, da. of John Prince, E.I. Co. marines, 5s. 4 da. cr. kt. of Malta 1799; KCB 2 Jan. 1815; KCH 1818.
Groom of bedchamber to Duke of Gloucester 1806-d.
Entered RN 1778, lt. 1783, leave of absence 1787; removed from navy list 1791, reinstated 1793; attached to Duke of York’s army in Flanders 1793-5; cdr. 1794, capt. 1795; mission to Cronstadt 1799; r.-adm. 1814; c.-in-c. W.I. station 1817-20.
Home Popham was a colourful and controversial figure throughout his career: ‘a pleasant man but a dasher’, as Mrs Nicholson Calvert put it. One of an exceptionally numerous family, he joined the navy when his education was cut short by the financial troubles of his elder brother Stephen. Lieutenant Popham’s survey of the African coast earned him a reputation as a scientist and navigator. In 1788, with leave of absence from the navy, he offered his services as an oceanographer to the East India Company and subsequently became involved in a private trading venture in the Far East. Reinstated at the outbreak of war he was attached as naval agent to the army in the Netherlands where his services gained him promotion and the nickname of ‘the Duke of York’s admiral’. He proposed a form of naval militia, the ‘sea fencibles’, and was given command of them along the coast from Deal to Beachy Head in 1798. The same year his experience of combined operations gained him command of the Ostend expedition under Eyre Coote* and aroused the jealousy of his contemporaries. After a brilliantly successful mission to Russia in 1799, he was made a knight of Malta by the Czar and on 26 Dec. granted a pension of £500 p.a. by the government. In 1800 at Dundas’s suggestion he was given command of an expedition to the Red Sea in co-operation with the army in Egypt. This mission completed he placed himself in the service of Lord Wellesley, governor-general of India, to negotiate a commercial treaty with the Arab states. He was already contemplating a political career and wrote to Henry Dundas, 1 Nov. 1801, that Lord Moira had tried to get him into Parliament:
My brother offered me a seat and his lordship tried every channel to accomplish it and when he conceived he had succeeded with Lord Radnor for Downton he very handsomely said; ‘I desire I may not be any tie on you, I know your connection and I respect him;’ my brother continues the same disposition and a negotiation is again on foot though I cannot yet have its source, but he wishes also a second borough for himself merely to serve me; in that case should I obtain them I trust you have too high an opinion of my sincerity in anything that is independent to conceive I should do otherwise than ask your protection in directing me through the rugged path of politics.1
On his return home in 1803 Popham, who hoped, with Lord Melville’s goodwill, to become a lord of the Admiralty, renewed his quest for a seat in the House. He was again disappointed at Downton, where he had offered Radnor whatever he asked for a vacant seat, and nothing came of negotiations conducted by his brother on his behalf for a seat for Okehampton. When he came in for a close borough on the Worsley Holmes interest in March 1804, the Speaker commented, ‘Sir Home Popham is coming into Parliament to maintain his ground against the Admiralty who have quarrelled with his accounts’.2 He had to answer allegations of exorbitant repair charges during the expedition. His financial probity was frequently questioned, but this time the proceedings against him were ill-conceived. Incensed by Lord St. Vincent’s hostility, which he believed had previously been directed against his finding a seat in the House, he published a vindication of his conduct, which on 5 and 27 Feb. and 8 May 1805 he ably defended in the House. He was cleared by a select committee before the end of the session. He had previously spoken in support of Lord Hood’s claims, 28 Mar. 1804, and questioned the accuracy of the naval figures in the debate of 23 Apr., on which day, as well as two days later, he voted against Addington’s tottering ministry. He was listed a supporter of Pitt’s second ministry in September 1804 and, after voting against the censure of Melville on 8 Apr., in July 1805. His attitude towards the Grenville ministry was uncertain, as he vacated his seat, being on active service just before their advent to office. He was dismayed to learn of Pitt’s death as he looked to him for a situation at the navy board; and his wife begged Lord Grenville not to let him be banished to India. Grenville had been informed by his eldest brother in 1804 that Popham was ‘higher in your good books than in mine; for I think ill of him’. He was a fluent and lively speaker, but there is little in the published debates to justify the claim that he ‘exhibited considerable talents for business and spoke frequently on political subjects’.3
Opinion was still divided on his worth when in 1805 Popham was given joint command of the expedition directed against the Cape, whereupon he arranged for David Scott II* to have his seat in Parliament. He had written to Huskisson in 1801 about the possibility of supplying the Cape with grain from Buenos Aires, and in 1804 he produced a detailed memorandum advising support for the independence of the Spanish American colonies as a commercial proposition. His ideas had a considerable following both in government and commercial circles and the news in September 1806 that he had, without authorization, proceeded from the conquest of the Cape to that of Buenos Aires was greeted with great enthusiasm. He wrote to the manufacturing towns inviting them to trade with his conquests and sent home treasure worth more than a million dollars. Parliamentary opinion was divided: Howick considered that ‘having performed one of the most brilliant and useful achievements during the war he must be rewarded, but ... if it was suffered to give a precedent would make it impossible for government to be answerable for any expedition’. Brougham thought Popham ought to be shot. Canning thought he was ‘in a scrape’. The government’s chief anxiety was that the opposition might make capital of any neglect of Popham’s achievement, but their dilemma was resolved by the Spanish recapture of Buenos Aires. Popham, whose friends had procured him a seat on Sir Mark Wood’s interest, was recalled and court-martialled in March 1807, but public opinion considered the behaviour of government towards him was ‘unhandsome’ and, although found guilty, he was only reprimanded severely. In the ensuing election his popularity brought him a comfortable victory in a contest at Ipswich, and a few months later he was given command of the Copenhagen expedition under Gambier. This injudicious appointment aroused great resentment among the other eligible officers who attributed his preferment to ‘party zeal’ and ‘ministerial favour’, but the success of the expedition quelled the outcry and Popham received and acknowledged a parliamentary vote of thanks (1 Feb. 1808) and a sword from the city of London for his services.4
The respite was short. On 11 Feb. 1808 in a debate on droits of Admiralty Stephen Lushington raised the matter of Popham’s trading activities in 1787-93 and the sum of £18,000 he had received in compensation for the loss of his ship. In his own defence, on 31 May, Popham complained: ‘the follies of my youth ... have been held out to the public as the most enormous crimes’, and produced documentary evidence that if his trading had been illegal, it had been entirely condoned by the East India Company. He was vindicated by 126 votes to 57.
When the Duke of York was charged with misconduct over army patronage in 1809, Popham was credited by Lady Hester Stanhope with ‘a paper upon the licentiousness of the press ... not to be published, only given away. It cuts up the Duke of Kent in a very artful manner and fights the Duke of York’s battles without seeming to do so. ...’ Despite this, she reported, he ‘behaved so shabbily in not coming down to the House to vote for the Duke of York. Illness was no excuse, he should have come down in his bed gown and night cap.’ She alleged that he was ‘anxious’ to ‘join opposition when he thought that ministers could never stand the Spanish question’ and added that it was as well that they had retained ‘the advantages of his knowledge and experience’, as she knew that he would be ‘a dangerous weapon in the hands of enemies, having seen all the rejected plans he has formed for government, which if they had followed, they would have stood rather higher in the public estimation than they do at this moment’. Despite the failure of earlier expeditions, Popham had repeatedly urged another attack on the Netherlands. With his knowledge of the coast and experience of combined operations he was therefore an obvious choice for a command in the disastrous Scheldt expedition in the summer of 1809. He was disappointed not to have the naval command of it and went ‘only as a sort of hanger on to the commander-in-chief [the Earl of Chatham], as he says, to prevent the army being cut to pieces’. He nevertheless made his will, 18 July. Lady Hester commented:
One of the great faults in the education of modern statesmen is a want of practical knowledge, which makes it necessary for them when in office to constantly call for the assistance of an underling who has knowledge and experience; these low men take advantage of the confidence placed in them and make public men in high stations pay dear for the information they receive.
Popham fell out with Chatham before they left the Downs. On his return he pestered Lord Melville to resume office.5
Subsequently, according to Lord Holland, ‘Sir Home Popham who had instigated the expedition and devised many of the plans, was not sorry to shift the whole blame on the execution rather than the design’. In the debate of 26 Jan. 1810, when General Grosvenor supported inquiry into the fiasco to vindicate the army, Popham, voicing his own feelings, did the same for the honour of the navy. Ministers labelled him a deserter.6 He gave his evidence to the select committee on 8 and 12 Feb. and again on 15 Mar. On 19 and 23 Feb. he defended Strachan, the naval commander of the expedition, against Chatham and voted for investigation of the latter’s apologia to the King; it was not a party question, but ‘a question of justice to the navy’. Not surprisingly the Whigs listed him ‘hopeful’ in March, but he was on the government side on 30 Mar., when the failure of the expedition was glossed over, though the House would not listen to the ‘two or three points’ he ‘wished to clear up’.
Popham obtained the command of expeditions to assist the Spanish guerillas in 1810 and 1812, but his reputation in government circles was falling. His attempts to secure a favourable press involved him ‘not in libel, but in most glaring indiscretion’.7 In the House he faded out, apart from pompous approval of the Plymouth breakwater, 17 Mar. 1812. He was credited with a vote against the barracks estimates, 13 Apr. He was certainly in the House that day on a naval question. He did not seek re-election in 1812.
In 1814, after he had conveyed the new governor-general to India, his financial probity was again questioned in the discussion of the cost of entertainment for Lord Moira and his suite during the voyage. Moira wrote to McMahon: ‘With all those injudicious tricks by which he has entailed a host of enemies on himself, there is essential good in him. He has great professional skill, much readiness of resource and indefatigable activity in working on any subject which attracts his fancy.’ A less friendly observer remarked: ‘He has unquestionably some resource but his acquirements are superficial and his judgement is far from solid’. His subsequent appointment to the West India station was considered equivalent to a second acquittal ‘in regard to the vast sums which he was accused of having embezzled under charges for repairs and stores; that command having been generally bestowed for the purpose of repairing the indigence which enterprising commanders might have incurred in the course of long services’.8
Popham returned to England in 1819 with his health irremediably impaired by the tropical climate and mourning the death of two of his children who had accompanied him to Jamaica. He died in Cheltenham, 11 Sept. 1820. He was one of a growing number of naval officers who brought scientific knowledge to their profession. Elected to the Royal Society in 1799, he was an excellent oceanographer and navigator; his code of signals was adopted by the Admiralty in 1803. He was one of the first combined operations experts and readily lent his services in experimental operations such as the Catamaran expedition of 1804.
Ref Volumes: 1790-1820
Author: Winifred Stokes
- 1. Annual Biog. (1822), 288; Hickey Mems. ed. Spencer, ii. 95; Martin Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. xxiv), 217; Warrenne Blake, Irish Beauty, 71; Parl. Deb. xi. 734-52; Dillon Narrative (Navy Recs. Soc. xcvii), 130; Spencer Pprs. (same ser. xlviii), 333; (lix), 127; HMC Fortescue, v. 105, 131, 138, 140, 465; Egerton 19291; Add. 38735, f. 18; 41080, ff. 8-9.
- 2. SRO GD51/1/68/2; Wilts. RO, Radnor mss 490/1373, Bouverie to Radnor, 9 July ; Glos. RO, Redesdale mss C7, Abbot to Redesdale, 28 Feb. 1804.
- 3. SRO GD51/1/94, 51/1/565; Fortescue mss, Lady Popham to Grenville, Fri. [7 Feb. 1806]; HMC Fortescue, vii. 235; J. Wilson, Biog. Index (1808), 306.
- 4. PRO 30/8/176, f. 111; Castlereagh Corresp. vii. 288; J. Fortescue, Hist. British Army, v. 311; Add. 34457, f. 40; 37887, f. 198; 38736, ff. 283-4; 38833, f. 226; Prince of Wales Corresp. v. 2195; Holland, Mems. Whig Party, ii. 111-12; Fortescue mss, Buckingham to Grenville, 28 Oct. ; SRO GD51/1/198/28/6; Leveson Gower, ii. 231; Brougham, Life and Times, i. 358; Farington, iv. 25; Martin Letters (xxiv), 330-4.
- 5. Bucks. RO, Grenville mss D55, Lady H. Stanhope to Grenville, Sunday night ; PRO 30/8/368, ff. 171, 173; Castlereagh Corresp. vi. 273; SRO GD51/1/151, 2; Grey mss, Tierney to Grey, 11 Aug. 1809.
- 6. Holland, Further Mems. Whig Party, 33; NLI, Richmond mss 73/1745.
- 7. Phipps, Plumer Ward Mems. i. 396; Keith Pprs. (Navy Recs. Soc. xcvi), 259.
- 8. Geo. IV Letters, i. 405; 505; Gent. Mag. (1820), ii. 274.