COCKBURN, Sir George (1772-1853), of High Beech, Waltham Abbey, Essex.

Published in The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1820-1832, ed. D.R. Fisher, 2009
Available from Cambridge University Press



1818 - 1820
1820 - 2 June 1828
7 June 1828 - 1832
27 Sept. 1841 - 1847

Family and Education

b. 22 Apr. 1772, 2nd s. of Sir James Cockburn†, 8th bt. (d. 1804), of Langton, Berwick and 2nd w. Augusta Anne, da. of Very Rev. Francis Ayscough, dean of Bristol. educ. Marylebone, Mdx.; by Rev. Wells, Margate, Kent; Roy’s navigation sch., Old Burlington Street, Mdx. m. 23 Nov. 1809, his cos. Mary, da. and event. coh. of Thomas Cockburn of Jamaica, 1 da. KCB 2 Jan. 1815; GCB 20 Feb. 1818; suc. bro. Sir James Cockburn as 10th bt. 26 Feb. 1852. d. 19 Aug. 1853.

Offices Held

On navy books 1781, entered service 1786, lt. 1792, cdr. 1793, capt. 1794; capt. Port of St. Pierre 1809; col. marines 1811-12; commr. to Spanish America 1811-12; c.-in-c. St. Helena 1815-16; ld. of admiralty Apr. 1818-May 1827, Sept. 1828-Nov. 1830; v.-adm. 1819; maj.-gen. marines 1821-d.; member, admiralty council May 1827-Sept. 1828; PC 30 Apr. 1827; c.-in-c. N. America and W.I. 1832; first naval ld. Dec. 1834-Apr. 1835, Sept. 1841-July 1846; adm. 1837; adm. of fleet 1851-d.


Cockburn was a man ‘of pleasing affable deportment’ and enterprising disposition, ‘perfectly free from duplicity’, who, like his brothers Alexander (1776-1852), Francis (1778-1868), James (1771-1852) and William (1773-1858), a brother-in-law of Robert Peel*, overcame a decline in family fortunes through professional advancement.1 His early career in the navy, where he was a strict disciplinarian, credited with the successful attack on Washington in 1814 and renowned for escorting Buonaparte to St. Helena, owed much to the patronage of Sir Joshua Reynolds and Lord Hood, and had led in 1818 to his appointment to the admiralty board at £1,000 a year and election for Portsmouth on their interest.2 He had established himself in the Commons as the Liverpool ministry’s second spokesman on navy matters, and remained silent on other issues.3 He had warned the duke of Wellington and his colleagues in August 1819 to expect defeat at Portsmouth unless land purchased by the ordnance at £1,000 an acre was granted to the burgesses ‘without payment’, and he came bottom of the poll there in a tumultuous three-man contest in 1820.4 His return to Parliament was not in jeopardy, as ministers had negotiated to have him brought in in absentia for the 2nd marquess of Bath’s borough of Weobley.5 His petition against the Whig John Markham’s return for Portsmouth failed, 5 June 1820, and his appeal, for which he secured government backing, was allowed to lapse.6

Cockburn attended the admiralty and the House assiduously throughout the 1820 Parliament and divided unstintingly with his colleagues in government, frequently as a teller. Although no orator, he was lucid and articulate, and the professional expertise he demonstrated served ministers well in debates on naval spending, when he could generally outsmart his critics and win over backbenchers with prompt replies and authoritative deflections and diversions.7 He was against disqualifying civil officers of the ordnance from voting at parliamentary elections, 12 Apr. 1821, and confirmed his hostility to reform in the divisions on 9 May 1821, 24 Apr. 1823 (as teller), 13 Apr. 1826. He refrained from voting on Catholic relief, which Lord Bath opposed, until Bath’s son Lord Henry Frederick Thynne* declared for it in 1825, when, like his close friend and political ally, the admiralty secretary John Croker, he divided (or paired) for it, 1 Mar., 21 Apr., 10 May. He voted against mitigation of the death penalty for forgery, 23 May 1821, and against condemning the indictment in Demerara of the Methodist missionary John Smith, 11 June 1824. He was a teller for the minority against reviving the Southwark court of requests bill, 11 June 1823.

As an admiralty spokesman, Cockburn defended the navy estimates, 9 June, and chaired the select committee on the contentious Rochester bridge scheme, 30 June 1820.8 From the Isle of Wight in September, he alerted the governor, Viscount Fitzharris†, to the surge of radical support there, especially in Newport, for Queen Caroline’s cause.9 His brother Sir James was paymaster to the marines and, endorsing the navy estimates, 2 Feb. 1821, Cockburn, expressed regret at the absence from the House of ‘professional men’ to back his claim that the retention of 8,000 marines in peacetime was not excessive; and he also voiced what became his customary defence of the necessary evil of impressment. He defended the preventive service whose conduct was questioned by Warre, 14 Feb., 16 Apr., when, to divert attention from allegations that its officers acted brutally and precipitately, he described the smugglers’ practice of sinking booty in hermetically sealed tins, for retrieval when the danger of capture had passed. On 4 May he opposed any reduction in the number of admiralty lords and stressed the benefits of combining the operational expertise of the sea lords with the legal and accounting skills of their civilian colleagues. He was a majority teller when ministers were forced to a division on the referral of the estimates to committee, 7 May, having previously been hard pressed in debate to justify the proposed expenditure on the receiving ship Ceres, clerks’ salaries, the Dover yard, the naval college, the royal yacht, pensions, timber, and the Plymouth breakwater. Accounting for the high cost of the dockyards, he freely admitted that many ships hurriedly built in wartime were substandard. He brought his experience of the colonies and their problems to the discussion on the comparative failure of the commissioners in Cuba, Havanna, Surinam and Sierra Leone to apprehend slave ships and prevent privateers capturing British vessels, 13 June. He deployed his insider’s knowledge of practices and procedures effectively to procure the withdrawal of a petition complaining of deductions in a sick sailor’s pension to defray medical costs, 2 July; and of a motion criticizing the treatment of lunatic officers, 3 July 1821, when, despite their political differences, Sir Joseph Yorke and Sir Francis Ommanney endorsed his denial of any wrongdoing by the admiralty.10 He ensured that Fowell Buxton’s attempt to revive the issue failed, 18 July 1822.

Defending the estimates, 22 Feb. 1822, he strongly opposed the 2,000-man reduction in the navy proposed by Hume and spoke of the increasing demands placed on the South American and Mediterranean squadrons and the need for a full complement of marines, versatile on land and sea, for rapid mobilization. Stressing their large volume of business and the operational difficulties it would impose, he reiterated his objections to cutting the number of admiralty lords from six to four, but the amendment which brought it about was carried (by 182-128), 1 Mar. In practice the change brought Cockburn additional work and increased his importance.11 He had been instrumental in persuading the first lord, Viscount Melville, to route the queen’s funeral procession inland through Essex to Harwich in August 1821, to avoid the risk of a confrontation on the Thames, and he dismissed her partisan Henry Grey Bennet’s complaints that the navy had made too few ships available and acted improperly when her body was embarked, 6 Mar. 1822.12 Called upon repeatedly to justify individual items in the navy estimates, he offered a robust defence of the promotion and pension systems generally, and of Sir John Clarke Searle’s appointment as an admiral of the white, despite his poor management of the victualling office, 18 Mar. Pressed again by Hume, 21 Mar., he praised the marines and insisted ‘from my own experience’ that the office of post-admiral was no sinecure. He contributed to discussions on supplying arms to the Turks and the likely impact of the new London Bridge on Thames navigation, 26 Apr., and countered petitioners’ complaints that the Plymouth breakwater increased local flooding, 2 May. He justified government spending to put down the slave trade, 22 July, and was a majority teller against producing papers on Colombia, where his brother Alexander was governor, and which opposition had requested as a prelude to recommending granting it diplomatic recognition independently of Spain, 23 July. Earlier that day, backed by the foreign secretary Lord Londonderry, he had spoken of the danger of piracy and privateers in the West Indies and south Atlantic referred to in the Liverpool ship owners’ petition. To forestall discussion on the deployment of preventive convoys, hinted at by the petition’s presenter Canning, he described how precipitate retaliation could cause unnecessary wars and endanger economic recovery. He spoke similarly when Joseph Marryatt introduced the London ship owners’ petition, 30 July. On 9 Nov. 1822 he asked Croker to ‘apprise the friendly deputation of West India merchants that a small sloop of war will be at Barbados ... by the end of December’.13 Piracy and its potential for embarrassing ministers persisted, and when Marryat (whose motion was later withdrawn) sought copies of Croker’s correspondence with Captain Walcott, admiralty board minutes, and the logs of the Carnation and Dotterel, Cockburn defended the board and attributed any discrepancies to poor communications with their insurers Lloyds, 4 Mar. 1823. On 26 Mar. he was able to announce the capture of the Jamaican pirates. The main purpose of his speech that day was to curry support for the navy treasurer and president of the board of trade Huskisson’s merchant vessels apprentice bill, which affected the registration of shipping, impressment and wages, and which had been strongly opposed by David Ricardo* and his fellow political economists. In committee, 24 Mar., Cockburn had claimed that research conducted by the admiralty had shown that the principal merchants and ship owners welcomed the measure because it enabled apprentices to progress to second and first mate without being liable to impressment. He assisted with the London Bridge bill, which received royal assent, 4 July, after he had clauses added compelling its underwriters to make good damage to barge walks and bridges upstream to Teddington, and the City to offer similar protection for private property.14 Questioned by Brougham, 21 May, he admitted that the admiralty had had to have the houses taken for its secretary and the paymaster of the marines demolished and rebuilt at a cost of £5,000, whereupon Ellice quipped that the new houses constituted a nuisance by projecting beyond others in the street. Cockburn’s timely reply, ‘that the houses ... happened to be built in a perpendicular; and all the others in the street had given way and fallen back’, was loudly cheered.15 Hume’s attack on deference to rank and political connection in the navy’s promotion system, 19 June 1823, drew on Lord Bath’s preferment and the career of Lord Henry Thynne (Cockburn’s colleague at Weobley, 1824-6), whose recent ill-fated posting to captain the Termagant had been authorized by Cockburn. Responding, he accused Hume of advocating principles ‘destructive to the service which he affected to uphold’, stressed the importance of recruiting high-born personnel and defended the performance and promotion of Thynne and of the Whig Lord Althorp’s* brother Frederick Spencer, which was also criticized. He agreed that promotion by seniority was successful in the marines, but said it was inappropriate to the navy, where a youthful force was required and all ships needed commanders. He exonerated the admiralty from responsibility for the delay in processing the India contractor Basil Cochrane’s accounts, 24 June. A ‘leak’ of information was suspected when details of Lieutenant Hervey’s mission appeared in the Courier in August 1823, and Cockburn and Melville were asked to ‘abstain from making any confidential communications in that quarter’.16 During the recess, a ‘grand quarrel ... erupted between some of the members of the board ... and Canning’ over Canning’s interference in and evidence to the court martial that tried Captain Harris of the Superb for engaging in a duel.17 William Fremantle* later commented:

Cockburn is so highly offended that when he received Canning’s invitation to the usual dinner meeting of members of government previous to the opening of Parliament, to read the speech, he sent immediately a refusal ... Nothing can be more absurd than Cockburn’s conduct, whom I take to be an ungovernable man, and his head turned by the dominion he holds at the admiralty.18

Departmental difficulties and political in-fighting did not impede his defence of the navy estimates and promotions, 16, 17 Feb. 1824;19 but he had to acknowledge, when payments to foreign yards were disclosed, that ministers were keeping a ‘watchful eye’ on the activities of the United States in the Bahamas and Florida, 20 Feb. He had taken pains that day to correct Hume’s interpretation of his remarks on half-pay and promotions, and ensured that his proposals to abolish naval flogging, 5 Mar., and impressment, 10 June, were defeated. His observations on the case of Henry Dundas Perrott, indicted for extortion on an impressment matter, prompted the withdrawal of Perrott’s petition of complaint against the admiralty, 17 Mar. 1824. He intervened frequently and successfully on the navy estimates, 14, 21, 25 Feb., and, countering criticism of the government’s navy pay bill, he dismissed suggestions that the army and navy should ‘be put on the same footing regarding wages’, 24 Mar. 1825. He voiced his approval of the colliers’ dock bill, 23 Mar., and he voted in the minority for the ‘jobbing’ Leith Docks bill at its report stage, 20 May. On 9 June Hume accused him of habitually ordering flogging for minor offences as commander of the Howe, 25 years previously, but he retracted the allegation on the 13th, and Cockburn vainly hoped that the House would let the matter rest. At Peel’s request, he ordered the detention of Captain Hunn to testify against Cochrane, 13 Sept. 1825.20 Cockburn attributed the increases allocated for timber and personnel in the 1826 estimates to the effects of dry rot and demands for better protection for commerce in the Mediterranean, West Indies and Africa, 18, 21 Feb., and courted controversy ‘within and without doors’ by defending hereditary preferment, 21 Feb.21 His attempt to justify the admiralty’s decision to end half-pay payments to two officers in holy orders could not be heard, and The Times reporter judged the mood of the House to be against him, 3 Mar.22 He voted against condemning the Jamaican slave trials, 2 Mar. 1826. Peel had recently turned down his patronage applications, which included one for the governorship of the Isle of Man for his brother Francis,23 and Cockburn was not put forward for an admiralty borough in 1826, but came in for Weobley with another of Bath’s sons.

When the navy estimates were introduced, 12 Feb. 1827, he defended the expenditure proposed, flogging, impressment, promotions and pensions, and stressed the need for an efficient, well paid force ready for swift dispatch, like that recently sent to Portugal.24 During the period of uncertainty created by Lord Liverpool’s stroke, he ensured that he was added to the select committee on communications with Ireland via Milford Haven, 23 Feb., and voted for Catholic relief, 6 Mar., and the award to the king’s brother the duke of Clarence, 16 Mar. 1827. The king revived the office of lord high admiral for Clarence when Canning became prime minister, and the admiralty board went into abeyance. Cockburn was included on Clarence’s council and became their sole representative on the privy council, notwithstanding the president of the India board Charles Williams Wynn’s* advice to Canning that ‘one of the civil lords of the admiralty should be replaced by some person of more consequence and weight as a counterpoint to Cockburn, holding also the rank of privy councillor’.25 At his brother William the dean of York’s request, on 23 Apr. Cockburn met Canning to discuss how Peel as an opponent of Catholic relief could be accommodated in the new administration, but Peel resented such interference and nothing came of it.26 At Canning’s funeral in August Cockurn was to claim that if

arrangements had been made immediately on Lord Liverpool’s seizure all would have acquiesced in Mr. Canning’s supremacy [but] during the long interval Peel and ... Wellington got together ... Peel miscalculated; for he wished in going out to become a master of the Protestant cause, but in fact he has become one of a knot.27

In May he informed Croker that Canning’s administration appeared to be ‘as strong in the ... Commons as the former government ever was’.28 He intervened only twice in debate under Canning: to refute criticism of the omission of Captains Alexander, Chad and Marryat from the motion of thanks for the conduct of the army in India, 8 May; and to scotch an attempt by Hume to revive the issue of navy promotions, 21 June. He divided with his colleagues in government against disfranchising Penryn, 28 May, and for the Canadian waterways grant, 12 June 1827. In January 1828, Clarence compounded his gaffe of congratulating Admiral Codrington on his embarrassing victory against the Turks at Navarino by asking the new premier Wellington to appoint another member of his council, Sir William Johnstone Hope*, to the privy council. Refusing, Wellington stated that Cockburn already filled that place.29

Cockburn divided with administration against repealing the Test Acts, 26 Feb. 1828. He had carried the division on supply on the 11th by 48-15, after announcing, to strong opposition protests, that, as when a finance committee had been appointed in 1817, grants would be for six months only. He acceded to a request for detailed returns of the 1827 expenditure, 11 Mar., but reminded the House that the information was not, as Hume implied, available ‘as of right’. With Peel, as home secretary and leader of the House, pressing ever harder for economies in the navy, Cockburn turned increasingly to the beleaguered colonial secretary Huskisson for support, as he tried to refute and avoid potentially embarrassing disclosures of expenditure he had himself authorized on jackets and victualling, 11, 25 Feb.30 Trapped by a question from Sir Robert Wilson about the force at Navarino, he was forced to admit that he had yet to receive Codrington’s official report, 7 Mar. He made light work of the Deal petitioners’ allegations that the navy had compensated them inadequately for properties acquired for the dockyards, 1 May; but, as first councillor following Johnstone Hope’s appointment as treasurer of Greenwich Hospital in March, he struggled to bluff his way through verbal attacks on naval management and policy when supplies were voted, 16, 19, 30 May. He divided as hitherto for Catholic relief, 12 May 1828. He had been mooted as Sir William Congreve’s likely successor at Plymouth since September 1827, when it became clear to Lord Goderich’s ministry that Congreve had no intention of returning from the continent to face his creditors; but, partly to accommodate Lord Bath, he delayed taking the Chiltern Hundreds until 2 June 1828, after news had been received of Congreve’s death, and Lord Henry Thynne and his ship ordered back from South America. Despite some resentment of his pro-Catholic votes, Plymouth returned him unopposed and awarded him its freedom, 7 June 1828.31

Plans for military retrenchment had been ‘badly scarred’ by information that Cockburn gave Wellington to present to the public accounts committee in April 1828, ‘which showed how much smaller was the difference between the British and foreign navies than most of its Members had fondly imagined’. Called to testify personally before them, 16 June, he acknowledged the weaknesses of the current superannuation system whereby funds were controlled by flag officers and augmented through levies and fictitious salaries, recommended giving the admiralty complete control over naval pensions and rashly stated that he was willing to see retrenchment furthered by dispensing with awards to warrant officers’ widows ‘in future’, provided current obligations were honoured and the army made similar economies.32 He countered Phillimore’s criticism of the Portuguese campaign with a detailed account of the procedures involved in mounting a blockade, calculated to expose gaps in Phillimore’s knowledge, 30 June, and divided with his colleagues against ordnance reductions, 4 July 1828. His long-standing differences with Clarence, who considered him an upstart and had intrigued against him, now came to a head.33 Finding on his return from Plymouth that Clarence had taken it upon himself to issue commissions and to raise his flag on the Royal Sovereign without his council’s consent, Cockburn informed him by letter that he had acted irregularly, 10 July.34 Clarence would have no truck with such criticism, and on the 11th asked Wellington and the king to dismiss Cockburn and appoint Captain Sir Charles Paget*, whom he had already summoned from Ireland, in his place.35 A meeting between Wellington and the king was arranged for the 13th and, asking Clarence to reconsider, the duke reminded him that he had no authority to act on financial matters.36 By the 14th it was clear that if Cockburn was dismissed, Lord Brecknock*, Sir George Clerk* and probably others would resign from the council, and the cabinet was consulted.37 At a meeting arranged and attended by Wellington, 17 July, Cockburn apologized to Clarence for the annoyance he had caused by raising the matter officially by letter instead of informally in person, and agreed that Sir Edward Owen* should be present at all their future meetings; but hopes of a reconciliation proved short lived.38 George IV warned Clarence that day by letter:

You are in error from the beginning to the end. ... Sir G.C. is the king’s privy councillor and so made by the king to advise the lord high admiral ... Am I to be then called upon to dismiss the most useful and perhaps the most important naval officer in my service for conscientiously acting up to the letter and the spirit of his oath and his duty?39

Clarence, who was to persist in treating Cockburn ‘like A DOG’, replied, 17 July, that ‘Cockburn cannot be the most useful and the most important officer in Your Majesty’s service, who never had the ships he commanded in proper fighting order’; and on the 18th he sent Owen to inform Cockburn that all would be well, provided he retracted.40 Cockburn privately feared that Wellington ‘would do nothing’ and replied that ‘he would repeat as often as was desired his respect for ... [and] personal regret at having displeased’ Clarence; ‘but that as to that principle involved in the discussion, that he must abide by, and could retract nothing of the kind’.41 It proved impossible to find a replacement for or to remove Cockburn for ‘doing his duty’, and Clarence, ‘Poor Billy’, announced his resignation at a meeting of his council, 14 Aug.42 Matters were settled in September 1828, when the re-establishment of the admiralty commission, with Melville as first lord, brought Clarence’s promotions to an end.43 It left Cockburn, as senior commissioner, free to oversee the management of the dockyards, stores and vessels, and to advise (with Croker) on personnel.44 Mrs. Arbuthnot suggested that Wellington, who ‘did everything to keep Clarence save give up Cockburn’, should have made Clarence submit and promised to ‘remove Cockburn as soon as a naval command could be found for him ... for Sir George had as much to do with the folly of putting him [Clarence] there as Mr. Croker had’.45 Socially, Cockburn and Clarence posed as ‘the greatest friends’.46

With Sir Henry Hotham as intermediary, Cockburn held constructive talks with Codrington in October 1828 and his re-election (necessitated by the commission’s reappointment) was straightforward, 12 Feb. 1829, although the fate of Portuguese exiles had become an emotive issue in Plymouth.47 Opposition intended using his evidence to the finance committee to substantiate their case for retrenchment, and in committee of supply, 27 Feb., he tried to qualify it and to justify current expenditure by claiming that in calculating the peacetime size of the navy, he had made no allowance for piracy, the emergence of new powers and the need for a large Mediterranean fleet. He presented a petition for Catholic emancipation from Plymouth’s Protestant Dissenters, 2 Mar., and divided for it, 6, 30 Mar. He dismissed Sir Joseph Yorke’s bill for the better management of Greenwich Hospital as a matter for the admiralty, not a private Member, 9 Apr., and promised a government measure, which he introduced the following day, and carried, 14, 16 Apr., when a rider was added to prevent Catholic commissioners from interfering in the disposal of the hospital’s vast church patronage. Moving an ancillary measure to regulate Greenwich out-pensions, 4 May, he was made to admit instances of mismanagement. Peel and Cockburn co-operated to promote patronage applications from Alexander and William Cockburn early in 1830, and Peel endorsed Cockburn’s account of the duties of the navy board when these were questioned in committee of supply, 26 Feb.48 Justifying the navy’s expenditure proposals, 1 Mar., Cockburn drew on his testimony to the finance committee, praised the marines and easily carried the division. However, he was sorely tested in committee, 12, 16, 26, 29 Mar., when, despite prior consultation with Melville and Wellington, his defence of the appointment of the former Canningite Thomas Frankland Lewis* as treasurer of the navy (12 Mar.), pensions, and the grants for the dockyards, Malta hospital and Canadian waterways was less than convincing.49 Scrutiny of events leading to the battle of Navarino had implicated him as the official responsible for recommending Codrington for the ill-fated Mediterranean enterprise, and he was embarrassed by questions on the skirmish at Patros (which had been reported in the Foreign Quarterly Review, but omitted from the Gazette), 8 Mar., and the fleet’s use of the Malta hospital, 2 Apr.50 Though named, 5 Mar., to bring in the marine mutiny bill, which received royal assent, 25 Mar., he played little part in its passage.51 He claimed when opposition sought an inquiry into privy councillors’ emoluments, 14 May, that his annual earnings of £1,500 as an admiralty commissioner and £1,000 as a major-general of marines left him ‘poor’ because of the high cost of the attendant lifestyle. He insisted that the crew of the brig Rosanna were to blame for her loss following a collision with a frigate in 1828, but failed to prevent their petition for damages being accepted, 22 May. He delivered a robust defence of the navy’s role in carrying bullion when Huskisson, in opposition, queried the post office’s increased charges, 4 June, and called for retention of the sixpenny monthly levy, which qualified merchant seamen for admission to Greenwich Hospital, 17 June. He was appointed to the investigative committee on the relative salubrity of Sierra Leone and Fernando Po, 15 June, and took issue with Bernal on the 21st over the number of deaths recorded aboard the North Star and the Eden when in that region. He presented Plymouth’s petitions against the parish vestries bill, 3 June, and took charge of the Rye harbour improvement bill, rushed through following George IV’s death.52 He resisted calls for an investigation into the death by flogging of a seaman, 13 July, but verified Burdett’s account of events and conceded that the admiralty had no fixed limit to the number of lashes given, ‘though it rarely rose above 48’. He added that in this particular case erysipelas had set in, and the coroner’s jury and the admiralty were satisfied that further inquiry was unnecessary. He voted against transferring East Retford’s seats to Birmingham, 11 Feb., Lord Blandford’s reform proposals, 18 Feb., enfranchising Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester, 23 Feb., and the Galway franchise bill, 25 May. He voted for the award to the South American missions, 7 May, and divided against Jewish emancipation, 17 May, against making forgery a non-capital offence, 7 June, and against reducing judges’ salaries, 7 July. Clarence occasionally vented his spleen against ‘Cockburn and other self-conceited assistants in the navy who may ridicule attention to gunnery’, and boasted that ‘Cockburn and Croker were two of the d-dest rascals he knew’, adding that, as king, he would remove them to bring in the duke of Buckingham; but Cockburn had made himself too useful to Melville and Wellington personally to be easily ousted, and he came in unopposed for Plymouth at the general election precipitated by Clarence’s accession.53 When the deposed French king Charles X was expected at Portsmouth in August 1830, Wellington and the foreign secretary Lord Aberdeen sought Cockburn’s advice on protocol and the correct salutes for French vessels.54 In October, an anonymous pamphlet, An Inquiry into the Nature and Effect of Flogging, sought to discredit him by publishing evidence of abuse on board the Howe under his command.55

Cockburn was in the government’s minority on the civil list when they were brought down, 15 Nov. 1830, and resigned with them. He became a regular guest at Tory dinners where opposition policy and tactics were discussed, and he knew before he responded to the estimates on their behalf, 25 Feb. 1831, that his colleagues intended to capitalize on the Grey ministry’s decision to create the office of inspector-general of marines for his brother Sir James, which Lord Ellenborough, president of the India board under Wellington, privately described as ‘a job, but a disagreeable case, as he is brother to a good friend’.56 Cockburn defended his record at the admiralty, reminded the House that unforeseen accidents were unavoidable, and said that in practice the navy treated the several sums voted separately as one and deployed funds where they considered them ‘most wanted’. He approved the government’s decision to appoint commissioners for Jamaica and Bermuda, but insisted that such postings should be stepping stones to promotion and of short duration, and stressed the damage caused to the health of Sir James and his family by residence in Bermuda when he was governor, 1811-19. He also praised his brother’s professional skills and had the new first lord of the admiralty, Sir James Graham, confirm that he had made no application on his behalf. Cockburn’s interventions on the estimates, 28 Feb., 28 Mar., were unusually brief. He voted against the ministry’s reform bill at its second reading, 22 Mar., and for Gascoyne’s wrecking amendment, 19 Apr. Reports of his likely defeat at Plymouth at the ensuing general election and that he would make way there for Thomas Bewes proved premature.57 His endorsement of the chamber of trade’s petition against the colonial timber duties, 7 Mar., and local resentment at the government’s proposal to add Devonport to the Plymouth constituency, rather than award it separate representation, assisted him; and after a riotous contest, during which he was burnt in effigy on the Hoe, and troops were needed to protect him, he split the Whig vote and came in with the comptroller of the navy Sir Thomas Byam Martin.58 Ministers attributed his success, which annoyed ‘the admiralty and even a higher quarter’, to their own mismanagement.59 Reviewing the political situation in a letter to Croker, 26 May 1831, drafted following a sojourn with his sister and other relatives in the west country, Cockburn declined to ‘share fully’, in his friend’s pessimism, as he was

still endeavouring to cherish a kind of latent forlorn hope that through some reaction amongst those possessing property the country may yet give a check to this mad career of the ministers in their wicked union with the rabble and the press for the destruction of every prop and safeguard that has hitherto preserved us from anarchy and decadency. I own, however, my reasoning will not allow me to fan this hope into any strength, and I can only at last make up my mind to do my duty steadily to the last, and to meet the evils as they arise in the best way I may, and come what will, I fear we are a good knot of firm ones for those who choose to rally round to the last.60

He voted silently against the reintroduced reform bill at its second reading, 6 July, for an adjournment, 12 July, to make the 1831 census the criterion for English borough disfranchisements, 19 July, and against taking a seat from Chippenham, 27 July, and divided against its passage, 21 Sept. 1831. He voted against the second reading of the revised bill, 17 Dec. 1831, and against considering it in committee, 20 Jan. 1832. On 7 Feb. he spoke of the ‘particular hardship’ the bill would inflict on seamen in towns like Plymouth, where many gained their freedom through service on ships, and added that should the attorney-general fail to do so, he would bring in an amendment to protect their elective rights, but no action seems to have been taken. He voted against enfranchising Tower Hamlets, 28 Feb., and the third reading, 22 Mar., and for the anti-reformer Waldo Sibthorp’s amendment to enfranchise Lincoln freeholders, 23 Mar. He divided with opposition on the Russian-Dutch loan, 26 Jan., 12 July 1832.

Cockburn was appointed to the select committee on steam navigation, 6 Sept., and made his main parliamentary contribution on navy matters. When additions to the estimates were voted, 30 Sept. 1831, he briefly endorsed the ministry’s decision to commission the manufacture of certain supplies directly instead of acting through contractors, and said that the sale of premises at Portsmouth, under his management, had failed to meet the cost of the Deal dockyard improvements. He parried Hume’s attack on promotions when the half-pay grant was voted, 13 Feb. 1832. When the government’s navy civil departments bill was introduced, 14 Feb., he used his speech, as Graham had warned the king he would, to express support for his colleague Martin, following the latter’s dismissal.61 At its second reading, 27 Feb., he cautioned that the cure the bill proposed for inefficiency - abolition of the navy and victualling boards - was ‘worse than the disease’, but he delayed presenting his case against it until the reform bill had been consigned to the Lords. He defended the Greenwich Hospital levies when an attempt was made to end them, 8 Mar. On the estimates, 16 Mar., he used his testimony to the 1828 finance committee to justify the employment of half-pay officers in civilian posts, reiterated his case against making reductions in the marines, stressed the importance of garrison duty and a coastal blockade, but insisted that government alone could judge when the use of force was necessary. Intervening frequently and ably in committee, 26 Mar., he opposed the proposed closure of the Pembroke yard, highlighted the inconvenient position of Woolwich, welcomed the decision to build transport ships for the fleet instead of relying on merchantmen, and confirmed the need for vigilance against fraudulent claims for Greenwich out-pensions. He helped to defeat the controversial Sunderland harbour bill in select committee, 2 Apr., and his subsequent comments, 16 Apr., 7 May, persuaded Lord Stormont to withdraw a breach of privilege motion against the bill’s solicitors.62 Opposing the navy bill, 6 Apr., he criticized its failures to provide checks on incompetent admiralty lords and an efficient audit, and, describing the problems involved in working between Westminster and Somerset House, he moved an amendment to permit the admiralty ‘from time to time’ to appoint a separate board, accountable to them, to take over the combined duties of the navy and victualling boards, as had been done in the reign of Edward VI. Martin (with whom he also co-operated in opposing the Gravesend pier bill, 10 Apr.) seconded, and Sir George Clerk was won over, but they were strongly opposed by Graham, who cited Cockburn’s 1827 arguments against consolidation against him and carried the division (by 118-50). Cockburn’s misgivings about the Dundas family’s covert support for the measure, which received royal assent, 1 June, dominated his correspondence with Croker during the ministerial uncertainty in May generated by Lord Grey’s resignation and the king’s abortive overture to Wellington. He hoped to see Wellington ‘form such a government as will manage to keep out the Whigs’ and waited for news at the Carlton Club, but he claimed that he had ‘no inclination’ to return to the admiralty, only to recommend an ‘efficient board’.63 On 29 June 1832, following Grey’s reinstatement and the reform bill’s enactment, Cockburn raised no opposition to the admiralty and navy office grants, and affirmed his support for the naval school; but he declared that he would object in the strongest terms to the removal from the pensions list of ‘persons in every way practically qualified to discharge their duties, in order to make room for the appointment of others who have never had the advantage of any practical instruction in ship-building’.

The reformed electorate of Plymouth were not expected to return both Cockburn and Martin in December 1832; and by November, Cockburn was contemplating a return to active service. On 3 Dec., shortly after Martin (who later withdrew) announced his candidature, Cockburn accepted the command of the North American and West Indian stations, proffered by Graham ‘in a particularly flattering manner as well on the part of the king as of the government’. Croker had anticipated and Wellington concurred in his decision.64 Informing Peel, he wrote:

It is clearly understood that in taking this naval duty upon me I do not swerve one iota in my political sentiments and feelings. I shall of course zealously endeavour to carry into successful execution every wish and intention of the government so long as I act under them, however much I individually differ from them as to the propriety of their measures, and should events in this country take such a turn (which I fervently pray they may, although I almost despair of it) that my return to England can in any manner be useful towards effecting or maintaining a total change of men or measures, I shall most willingly resign the command I have taken, to resume my political position under your banner, convinced as I sincerely am, that if this country can still be saved from anarchy and misery it will be only be the return of yourself and the duke of Wellington to the helm, supported by the great majority of possessors of property in the nation.65

He dined with his elderly mother for the last time at Shepherd’s Bush on Christmas Day; and, as befitted a regular attender, a farewell dinner and small party was held for him at the Carlton Club, 29 Dec. 1832. He and his family took up residence in Bermuda, 16 Mar. 1833.66 He returned somewhat reluctantly to serve at the admiralty under Peel in 1835, but by the time he arrived the ministry had fallen.67 He failed to come in for Plymouth as a Conservative in 1835 and 1837, and Portsmouth in 1837, and considered giving up politics and becoming commander of the Mediterranean fleet. However, after losing at Greenwich in 1841, a safe seat was found for him at Ripon. As first naval lord in Peel’s ministry, he was responsible for the erection of Nelson’s Column and a controversial 1845 memorandum on steam navigation.68 He died at Leamington Spa in August 1853, an admiral of the fleet, 18 months after succeeding James in the family baronetcy, which, as he had no sons, now passed to William.69 Former colleagues and obituarists recalled his skills as a sailor and naval administrator, especially his ‘partnership in ideas’ with Croker at the admiralty and in the Commons.70 By his will, dated 9 Oct. 1852, all real estate passed to his wife (d. 1859) and daughter Augusta (d. 1869), for their joint lives, with reversion (as Augusta’s late marriage to the naval commander James Hoseason proved childless) to his nephew the Rev. George Alexander Cockburn of Roscrowther, Pembrokeshire. Nelson memorabilia, among them a sword, dominated the small family bequests.71 Cockburn’s early biographer Sir John Briggs discredited his regime at the admiralty as reactionary, but twentieth century historians praised him for ensuring that the navy adopted the latest steam and screw technology, and as a professional sailor and manager.72

Ref Volumes: 1820-1832

Author: Margaret Escott


For a comprehensive survey of Cockburn’s life and work see R. Morriss, Cockburn and the British Navy in Transition: Admiral Sir George Cockburn, 1772-1853 (1993).

  • 1. J. Ralfe, Naval Biog. iii. 307.
  • 2. Morriss, 122-41; Add. 38041, ff. 276-8; A Peep at the Commons, (1820).
  • 3. HP Commons, 1790-1820, iii. 468-9.
  • 4. Wellington mss WP1/630/12; Keele Univ. Lib. Sneyd mss SC17/17; Hants Telegraph and Suss. Chron. 21, 28 Feb., 13 Mar.; Arundel Castle mss, bdle. Pc16, W. Holmes to C. Few, 10 Mar. 1820.
  • 5. Add. 38283, ff. 217, 292; 38458, ff. 285, 293, 316.
  • 6. Morriss, 149-50. See PORTSMOUTH.
  • 7. Morriss, 151-3.
  • 8. Reports and Docs. Relating to Rochester Bridge (1832), 53-69. See ROCHESTER.
  • 9. Hants RO, Malmesbury mss 9M73/415, Fitzharris to Cockburn, 2 Oct. 1820.
  • 10. The Times, 3, 4 July 1821.
  • 11. Morriss, 157.
  • 12. Geo IV Letters, ii. 454-64; Morriss, 156-7.
  • 13. NMM mss 83/071/1/1.
  • 14. The Times, 15 May, 6, 17, 21 June 1823; CJ, lxxviii. 453; Add. 38296, f. 278.
  • 15. The Times, 22 May 1823.
  • 16. Harewood mss WYL 250/8/87, Liverpool to Canning, 18 Aug. 1823.
  • 17. Morriss, 160.
  • 18. Buckingham, Mems. George IV, ii. 43.
  • 19. The Times, 18 Feb. 1824.
  • 20. Add. 40342, f. 263.
  • 21. The Times, 3 Mar. 1826.
  • 22. Ibid. 4 Mar. 1826.
  • 23. Add. 40353, ff. 197-200; 40385, ff. 313-15.
  • 24. The Times, 13 Feb. 1827.
  • 25. Canning’s Ministry, 97, 122.
  • 26. Ibid. 223-5; Add. 40394, f. 30.
  • 27. Nottingham Univ. Lib. Denison diary, 16 Aug. 1827.
  • 28. Morriss, 153.
  • 29. Add. 38751, f. 200; Wellington mss WP1/915/63.
  • 30. Ellenborough Diary, i. 31-32.
  • 31. Lansdowne mss, Rice to Lansdowne, 17 Sept. 1827; TNA E197/1, p. 328; Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 31 May, 7, 14 June; Exeter Weekly Times, 14 June 1828.
  • 32. Wellington mss WP1/927/16; 930/17b; B. Hilton, Corn, Cash, Commerce, 249; PP (1828), v. 498-504.
  • 33. Morriss, 167.
  • 34. Ibid. 168-9; Wellington mss WP1/944/13/1-3.
  • 35. Wellington mss WP1/944/13/3-5; 944/14; Ellenborough Diary, i. 159-60.
  • 36. Wellington mss WP1/941/11; 944/15.
  • 37. Ibid. WP1/941/14; 942/1; 944/17, 18.
  • 38. Ibid. WP1/945/1, 3; Ellenborough Diary, i. 164-8, 171.
  • 39. Wellington mss WP1/979/8.
  • 40. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 197; Ellenborough Diary, i. 192, 196; Wellington mss WP1/942/12; 977/7, 11; 981/9; 986/3.
  • 41. Denison diary, 17 July 1828; Wellington mss WP1/942/12.
  • 42. Wellington mss WP1/947/34, 37; 948/17, 31, 34; 951/4/2, 5; M.D. George, Cat. of Pol. and Personal Satires, x. 15547; Ellenborough Diary, i. 196.
  • 43. Wellington mss WP1/949/1, 23; 950/29, 35, 39; 951/40; 952/4; 954/12; 956/2, 13; 958/36; NLS mss 2270, f. 213; Sneyd mss SC17/190; Greville Mems. i. 219-20; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1529; M. Fry, Dundas Despotism, 376-7.
  • 44. Morriss, 158; C.I. Hamilton, ‘John Wilson Croker: Patronage and Clientage at the Admiralty, 1809-1857’, HJ, xliii (2000), 47-79.
  • 45. Arbuthnot Jnl. ii. 203.
  • 46. Wellington mss WP1/947/37; Geo. IV Letters, iii. 1530.
  • 47. Morriss, 181-3; Wellington mss WP1/971/18; The Times, 14 Feb. 1829.
  • 48. Add. 43234, ff. 194-6; Wellington mss WP1/1096/6.
  • 49. Wellington mss WP1/1092/20; 1101/2; Grey mss, Howick jnl. 12 Mar. 1830.
  • 50. Wellington mss WP1/901/13.
  • 51. CJ, lxxxv. 142, 174, 216.
  • 52. Ibid. 534, 553, 572, 601, 605, 646.
  • 53. St. Deiniol’s Lib. Glynne-Gladstone mss 195, T. to J. Gladstone, 28 June 1830; Wellington mss WP1/1125/28; Bucks. RO, Fremantle mss D/FR/139/14/29; NLS mss 24726, f. 6.
  • 54. Wellington mss WP1/1133/39; 1135/10; 1138/17.
  • 55. The Times, 2, 14 Oct. 1830.
  • 56. Three Diaries, 45, 46, 60, 63; Sir James Graham mss (IHR microfilm XR 80), 2, Graham to Grey, 25 Jan. 1831.
  • 57. Woolmer’s Exeter and Plymouth Gazette, 9 Apr.; Glynne-Gladstone mss 198, J. to Anne Gladstone, 3 May 1831.
  • 58. Western Times, 7 May 1831; Add. 41368, f. 54; NMM mss 83/071/CKE/2/1.
  • 59. Add. 51680, Lord J. Russell to Lady Holland [May 1831]; NMM mss 83/071/CKE/2/2.
  • 60. NMM mss 83/071/CKE/2/3.
  • 61. Sir James Graham mss, Graham to the king, 9 Feb. 1832.
  • 62. Durham Chron. 6 Apr. 1832. See DURHAM COUNTY.
  • 63. NMM mss 83/071/CKE/2/4, 5; CJ, lxxxvii. 362; Three Diaries, 257.
  • 64. Western Times, 6 Oct., 17 Nov., 1, 8 Dec. 1832; NMM mss 83/071/CKE/3/1.
  • 65. Add. 40403, f. 138.
  • 66. Three Diaries, 257; NMM mss 83/071/CKE/3/2-5.
  • 67. Add. 40413, f. 312; NMM mss 83/071/CKE/3/6.
  • 68. Salisbury and Winchester Jnl. 3 July 1837; NMM mss 83/071/CKE/4/1-5; 5/1-3; Add. 40428, f. 471; N. Gash, Sir Robert Peel, 279, 520-21.
  • 69. The Times, 23 Aug. 1853.
  • 70. Ibid. (W.R. O’Byrne’s account); Sir J. Barrow, Autobiog. Mem. 337-8; Ann. Reg. Chron. pp. 243-6; Gent. Mag. (1853), ii. 406-10.
  • 71. PROB 11/2179/718; IR26/1961/768.
  • 72. J.H. Briggs, Naval Administrations, 1827-1892, pp. 14-15; Morris, passim; Oxford DNB.