Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor – A Review


I’m in the early stages of planning a book whose hero is a naval captain, so I was happy to come across this biography of Edward Pellew, later Viscount Exmouth, the greatest seaman of his age. By a happy coincidence he was, like my prospective hero, a Cornishman.

A contemporary of Nelson (they joined the navy within three weeks of one another, although in very different circumstances), Pellew was born in 1757 and died in 1833. During the forty-six years he was in the navy he spent over thirty-six years at sea.

With no one to promote his interests, Pellew joined his first ship in the lowest position possible. His ability impressed those above him, but still he rose through the ranks slowly, finding less able men with more influential friends or family promoted ahead of him.  His talents were eventually recognised, however, and he ended his career as an admiral, commanding a fleet in the Mediterranean.

He was one of those men who never ask anyone else to do what they’re not prepared to do themselves. An athletic man, even in middle age he could climb the masts faster than most in his crew. He was always concerned for the welfare of his men, ensuring that they had sufficient exercise to keep them fit and out of mischief and lemon juice to keep scurvy at bay.

In his thirties, when he was a successful captain of frigates fighting and capturing French ships in the Channel, Pellew was for a while more famous than Nelson. He won the first engagement in the war with revolutionary France in 1793 and was knighted as a result. A superb sailor and a good leader of men, his ship was one of the few unaffected by the mutiny of 1797.

Pellew was in the unfortunate position of inspiring enmity and love in equal measure. Whilst at least two captains of French ships he captured became lifelong friends, he made enemies at the Admiralty and in Parliament. During the course of his career he had the frequent misfortune of impressing a man able to advance his cause just as that man was about be replaced, or to make an enemy of a man at the moment he rose to prominence. Apart from his ability to make enemies, other negatives about his character are brought out in the biography. One of these was nepotism. In an age of when this was so common that it was rarely worth mentioned, Pellew took it to extremes by advancing his sons beyond their ability and seems to have been slow to recognise that they weren’t very able. This drew a fair amount of criticism.

During his long career Pellew fought in Canada, where his talents were first recognised, and later had commands in the Channel, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. Despite his ability in battle, Pellew missed the defining battle for the British navy. In 1805, while Nelson was commanding the fleet at Trafalgar, Pellew was patrolling the Indian Ocean. Although he was an excellent all round seaman, his particular talent was to train his crews so that they were accurate in their gunfire. He made them practise so that they could take on an enemy with superior firepower and win.

Pellew was like Wellington, in that he never stayed in one place while he was fighting. He would move all over the ship directing and encouraging, even in his last battle at the age of 59. Unusually, for he was known for his snobbery, Wellington esteemed the low-born Pellew highly. Pellew had provided naval support to Wellington’s army during the Peninsular War.

The illustrations in the book are not of good quality. They are printed in black and white at the top or bottom of pages of text. There are no colour (or even black and white) plates in their own section as would be more usual in a biography. Since they are interspersed with text it would be reasonable to expect them to relate closely to the text, but they do not. Often they illustrate events in the past, and don’t relate to the events being described around them.

Taylor’s biography is easy to read and I found it difficult to put it down. This is partly because Pellew lead such an interesting life and partly because the incidents chosen to illustrate that life are well-chosen and nicely supported by contemporary documentation.

I enjoyed this book very much. It could have been a very dry account of the life of a great man, but it’s a lively story about a man who seems to have been very much larger than life.



Filed under Book Review, Regency

5 responses to “Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain by Stephen Taylor – A Review

  1. Edward Pellew sounds like a real-life Captain Hornblower – can’t wait for more – I am trying to find out more about Admiral Lucius Curtis – A pub has been named after him recently in Southampton due to a plaque on the site. I know he was a freemason and brave – but lacking time for the research.
    Good luck with your novel.

    Liked by 2 people

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