Sir Home Popham and the 2nd Viscount Melville: BL Loan MS 57/108

It’s no secret that Sir Home Popham much owed almost his entire career to Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville. As Secretary of State for War and then First Lord of the Admiralty, Melville gave Popham nearly all his early employment (official AND unofficial) and helped him into politics. As useful as Popham undoubtedly was, however, I wonder if Melville occasionally wilted under the weight of the masses of correspondence involved in being Popham’s patron.

Raeburn, Henry; The 1st Viscount Melville; Tate; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-1st-viscount-melville-201350

This was a hereditary attachment, as is clear from Popham’s correspondence (BL Loan MS 57/108) with Robert Dundas, 2nd Viscount Melville, also First Lord of the Admiralty. Like his father, Melville Mark 2 clearly knew the versatile naval captain could be of use. Also like his father, Melville must have grown to hate the sight of Popham’s handwriting on the vast number of (probably very, very fat) letters that came in, sometimes on a thrice-daily basis.

(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Most of BL Loan MS 57/108 dates from 1812, when Popham was off the north coast of Spain, tasked with liaising with the local guerrillas and trying to tie down as many French troops as possible to take the heat off Lord Wellington and his British army. It was all business, of course, but that never stopped Popham being Popham. Some of the correspondence, indeed, is absolutely tip-top Peak Popham. I summarise it here.

No. 17: 17 May

Popham: HelloooooOOOOOOooooo.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Thank you SO much for this appointment to the north coast of Spain, after nearly a year of kicking my heels. I promise I will NOT disappoint you.

Melville: You’re welcome. My father said you were a useful man.

Popham: May I take this occasion to report that the flour used by the Mediterranean fleet is REALLY bad? I have some ideas for how to improve your supply from Tangiers, based on an idea I had while in South America. I’ve worked it up into a slim pamphlet for you. Here it is. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

Melville: ….. ah yes. My father also said you were a man of … ideas.

Popham [proudly]: Damn straight.

No. 20: 22 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: We’re here!

Melville: Excellent news.

Popham: We could do with two or three cutters for dispatches.

Melville: Righto.

Popham: We could also do with some troop frigates. The Diadem‘s kind of heavy.

Melville: Erm. We don’t have —

Popham: Here’s a brief diary of my movements to date, which I have also sent to Mr Croker and Lord Keith. [loud WHOOMP] [the walls shake]

No. 21: 30 June, North Coast of Spain

Popham: I’ve opened communication with the brigands.

Melville: [chokes] The what?

Popham: I’ve worked out there are about 3,000 French troops in the area. The brigands can muster about 1,000.

Melville: These brigands are the guerrillas, yes? The allies you’re meant to be working with?

Popham: We need a brigade of regulars. Maybe a couple of companies of rriflemen, too. And a couple of engineers. Are you sending that troopship I asked for?

Melville: I really don’t —

Popham: Sorry, French are attacking. Laters.

No. 23: 14 July, off Castro

Popham: I’m sending you volume 2 of my diary.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: … and also volumes 3, 4, and 5.

Melville: I —

Popham: Is my troopship here yet?

Melville: You see, here’s the thing —

Popham: We’d like two troopships now.

Melville: *wilts*

Popham: Oh, and a bomb vessel. And some Congreve rockets, shrapnel shells, hand grenades, 20,000 muskets, a gun brig (a big one — actually, MAKE IT SIX BIG ONES), some brass mortars, and some 24 pounders. You can send them in the three cutters I asked for. Oh, and — Hang on a tick. Enemy spotted. BRB.

No. 24: Same day, a little later

Popham: Sorry about that. Where were we? Oh yes. We also need $2,000 Spanish dollars, a commissary, and lots of gunpowder.

Melville: THERE’S A BLOODY WAR ON, POPHAM

No. 26: 15 July

Popham: … and some light field pieces (6 and 4 pounders), yet ANOTHER troopship, and a pony.

Melville: We can probably manage the pony.

Popham: I was just joking. I don’t actually want a pony. Hahahaha.

No. 27: 15 July

Popham: Those marines you sent us instead of the riflemen.

Melville: Oh, I’m so glad they arrived safely.

Popham: They bloody SUCK. I’ve tried drilling them, but all the drilling on Earth will never do for Major Graham is quite an imbecile and Major Williams has no great a share either of energy or enterprise.

Melville: You really don’t play well with others, do you?

No. 29: 19 July, Castro

Popham: I’m HURT.

Melville: What happened? Are you OK?

Popham: Your Secretary of the Admiralty has given me a public dressing down.

Melville: … Ah. Is this about moving the arms depot from Corunna to Machechico?

Popham: I can assure you that when I was arrested to be tried by court martial on going to South America, I did not feel half so much as I did when I read Mr Croker’s letter. We really need weapons and Machechico is closer than Corunna.

Melville: But Popham, Lord Wellington needs arms too, and Corunna is —

Popham: I feel so BETRAYED. No squadron ever exerted itself more to obtain the approbation of its country than mine. *sobs*

Melville: … there, there…

No. 36: 16 August

Popham: I’ve just got back from Bilbao, which we re-took from the enemy.

Melville: Brilliant.

Popham: I think the severe lecture which I gave the Spanish generals on the subject of military precaution will have a very good effect.

Melville: ….. you didn’t call them brigands, did you?

Popham [proudly]: YES

No. 42: 25 August, off Bilbao

Popham: I’ll make sure the Belle Poule is at Corunna to carry Lord March to England with dispatches.

Melville: Thank you.

Popham: ……… Although if he had come to Santander he would have been in England long ago.

Melville: NO, Popham. We are NOT moving the depot from Corunna.

No. 48: 1 September, Santander

Popham: BLASTED BRIGANDS — IF THEY POSSESSED ONE GRAIN OF MILITARY TALENT WE WOULD HAVE CAPTURED GUETARIA. Why can’t they just LISTEN to me?!

Melville: Maybe because you keep calling them brigands?

No. 50: 15 September, Santander

Popham: I sent Lieutenant MacFarlane to Lord Wellington with dispatches. I hope you realise a messenger from Corunna took 12 days longer than he did, even though he is just a sea officer on horseback.

Melville: Popham. Can we talk about this? Again?

No. 59: 6 October, Santander

Popham: I’ve decided I need to take Santona.

Melville: OK, fine.

Popham: But the French will probably resist us strongly.

Melville: Bear it in mind.

Popham: It is wonderfully strong, too.

Melville: I get it.

Popham: And will require a great deal of battering.

Melville: Do you want to attack Santona or not?!

No. 64: 15 October, Santander

Popham: OMG OMG OMG did you see what Lord Wellington said about me?! ‘If you were not known to be on the coast, the enemy and the Spaniards will be convinced nothing is intended to be done and I shall have upon my hands more of the enemy than I can well manage. O M actual G *SQUEEEEEEEEEE*

Melville: Yes, well done.

Popham: WELLINGTON LOVES ME

Melville: Good boy, Popham.

Popham: I AM INDISPENSABLE TO THE WAR EFFORT

Melville [to secretary]: He’s going to be insufferable now, isn’t he?

No. 65: Later, same day

Popham: ………….. so can I have several thousand greatcoats and pairs of shoes and 10,000 muskets?

Melville: No.

No. 67: 18 October, Santander

Popham: Since I’m so indispensable now, Wellington’s right-hand man and all that, could you make me a commodore? I mean, officially like? With, you know … the salary?

Melville: No.

Popham:

Melville:

Popham: Also, Lieutenant MacFarlane says that Corunna is much too diff —

Melville: DROP IT.

No. 68: Later, same day

Popham: Did I mention Lord Wellington thinks my presence is VITAL TO THE WAR EFFORT?

Melville [glumly]: Not recently.

No. 71: 19 October, Santander

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said —

Melville: I KNOW

No. 72: 21 October, Santander

Popham: I wanted to apologise for the fact the Diadem has been delayed by the weather. Since she’s carrying several hundred letters I wrote since [checks notes] the day before yesterday, this will occasion Your Lordship a trial of patience to get through them all.

Melville: I’m glad you have finally realised it.

Popham: But I feel I have to acquaint you with every occurrence here.

Melville: You really don’t.

Popham: ANYWAY. Have I got news for you.

Melville [runs hand down face]: What now.

Popham: I had an idea.

Melville: An idea.

Popham: You know Lord Wellington said he could take the fortress of Burgos if only he had more guns, but it was impossible to get them to him in time?

Melville: You … haven’t mucked about with the depot again, have you?

Popham: Oh no. I should be sorry to repeat the errors of my early service on this coast by invading the forms of office in asking in an irregular manner for that which I consider necessary.

Melville: [collapses in silent relief]

Popham: SO I DECIDED TO SEND TWO OF MY OWN SHIP’S GUNS UP TO LORD WELLINGTON.

Melville: ………… and what did Lord Wellington say about this, erm … unusual course of action?

Popham: Oh, I didn’t ask him. But I did send him a letter.

Melville [tensely, through gritted teeth]: …. and what did you say?

Popham: ‘Dear Lord Wellington, you know you told me it was impossible to get my ship’s guns to you? Well, Tah-dah!!! Surprise!!!! IT’S NOT!!! Honestly, I had nothing better to do. If you want more, I can send you ten. No, forty. In THIRTY-SIX HOURS. Beat that, messengers from Corunna. Yours, Popham the Indispensable’

No. 73: 23 October

Melville: OK. So, assuming Lord Wellington doesn’t actually kill you, have you decided to attack Santona yet?

Popham: I think I probably will. [short pause] Or maybe I won’t.

Melville: So you haven’t decided, in fact.

Popham: No, not in so many words.

Melville: I have only to repeat my confidence in your judgement and exertions, and my full persuasion that you will not heedlessly hazard the squadron and marines, right? In other words, you won’t do anything rash?

Popham: Rash? Me?! I WOULD NEVER

Melville: Of course not.

Popham: I’M INDISPENSABLE, REMEMBER?

Off the record

Melville: Dad? I know you can’t hear me, being dead and all. But I want to have a word about this Popham chap. I know we didn’t always get on. But honestly, WHAT THE HECK DID I DO TO YOU FOR YOU TO FOIST HIM ON ME?!

Sir Home Popham off Boulogne, 1804: or, correspondence with Lord Melville, BL Add MS 41080

20 June 1804 (f. 10)

Sir Home Popham: My dear Lord.

Lord Melville: Sir Home.

Popham: You remember that letter Lord Hutchinson sent you?

Melville: Yes, of course I –

Popham: THERE WAS NO LETTER. THERE WAS NEVER ANY LETTER. AND IF THERE WAS, LORD HUTCHINSON DIDN’T SEND IT.

Melville:

Popham: Oh, and tell Mr Pitt he didn’t receive one, either. Have a great day.

 

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Sir Home Popham, from here

 

11 July 1804 (f. 18)

Popham: My Lord. May I visit you on Friday?

Melville: Yes, of course. Why not?

Popham: I’ve had my chart of the Red Sea printed for you. I’ll bring it with me.

Melville: Jolly good. I look forward to it.

Popham: Along with a memorandum on a subject to which I understand you and Mr Pitt jointly directed my examination. Which obviously I cannot talk about. Obviously.

Melville: Ouch! Please stop nudging me so hard. I GET IT.

Popham: Sorry.

29 July 1804 (f. 19)

Popham: Sorry I haven’t been in touch for [checks notes] 24 hours. One of my kids was ill.

Melville: That’s quite all right.

Popham: To make up for my silence, here’s an enormously long memorandum about all the bad things the Admiralty under Lord St Vincent has been doing to me.

Melville: I hope you haven’t shown this to anybody else? It’s very … strident.

Popham: Nope. Just you.

Melville: Thank God.

Popham: And Mr Addington.

Melville: … Oh?

Popham: But he told me not to show it to anybody else.

Melville: I’m  not surprised. I –

Popham: I may have left a copy with Lord Chatham, Mr Yorke, Lord Hobart, and Sir Andrew Snape Hamond.

Melville: I think you should maybe –

Popham: And most of the other members of the Cabinet. And maybe one or two influential MPs. Oh, and several people I met at the last levee who expressed an interest. But nobody else, I promise.

 

800px-Henry_Dundas,_1st_Viscount_Melville_by_Sir_Thomas_Lawrence

Henry Dundas, 1st Viscount Melville, from here

Undated, but after the previous one (f. 21)

Popham: I tried to call on you at Putney this morning but I couldn’t find you.

Melville: Ah, erm. I had to leave in a hurry.

Popham: So they told me. I brought you the books I promised.

Melville: Thanks.

Popham: While we’re here, I take this occasion of troubling you with a recital of another act of official duplicity against me.

Melville: *** eats his wig in frustration ***

1 August 1804 (f. 23)

Popham: You know those … things you asked me to examine?

Melville: What things?

Popham: You know. Those … things. Mr … Francis’s … things.

Melville: You’re nudging me again. I told you to stop that. And stop waggling your eyebrows, it’s off-putting.

Popham: Sorry.

Melville: You mean Mr Fulton’s torpedoes?

Popham: OH MY GOD BE QUIET this is supposed to be top secret

 

10 August 1804 (f. 27)

Popham: At last, I’m ready to start my experiments with Mr … Francis’s … things.

Melville: It’s OK. This is a confidential line. Just say ‘torpedoes’.

Popham: NEW IDEAS HAVE SUGGESTED THEMSELVES TO ME WHICH MAY BE CONSIDERED A GREAT AID TO AN OPERATION SO UTTERLY VITAL TO THE SURVIVAL OF THE COUNTRY

Melville: Right, yes, I figured, or you wouldn’t be writing.

Popham: But I’ll wait until the next post to write about it in detail, because I was only writing to let you know I was still alive and making progress.

Melville: *** groans ***

12 August 1804 (f. 29)

Popham: Coo-ee! It’s me.

Melville: Hi.

Popham: Right well, the … things … well – they, erm. Need work.

Melville: Fine. Take all the time you need.

Popham: But time and season have passed away so fast I have no time for further experiments. I’m going off to Portsmouth tomorrow and will leave some instructions behind about improving the … things.

Melville: All right, but –

Popham: Then I’ll be in town on Wednesday to talk to you.

Melville: Looking forward to it. (to his secretary) Lock the doors and bar the windows, I’m not in, OK?

8 September 1804 (f. 40)

Popham: I came to see you yesterday, but you weren’t in.

Melville: Oh yes, something came up at the last moment. I’m so, so sorry.

Popham: The … things are ready.

Melville: Excellent.

Popham: I spent all of this morning using my telegraphic signals – did I ever tell you about those? They’re brilliant, aren’t they? – to make it look like my primary object in coming ashore was to try the system out on Admiral Lewis’s squadron.

Melville: I suppose you might be expected to be working on them, yes.

Popham: Admiral Lewis signalled back ‘PULL THE OTHER ONE, IT’S GOT BELLS ON’, and I didn’t even know it was possible to signal that.

 

Fulton

Robert Fulton (“Mr Francis”), from here

12 September 1804 (f. 44)

Popham: So! We’re meeting on Friday at 11 am?

Melville: If we must.

Popham: I’ll bring Mr … Francis with me.

Melville: Fulton. I know who he is.

Popham: But I can’t say any more here, because there’s no point setting anything down in writing by letter.

MELVILLE: WHY ARE YOU WRITING TO ME THEN?! *** throws chair across room ***

21 September 1804 (f. 53)

Popham: The … things are STILL ready.

Melville: Why haven’t you used them yet, then?

Popham: Too busy writing letters.

Melville: I see.

24 September 1804 (f. 56)

Popham: It’s all ready.

Melville: You said.

25 September 1804 (f. 57)

Popham: Did I mention we were ready?

Melville: YES

27 September 1804 (f. 62)

Popham: Just wanted to tell you it was Thursday.

Later, same day (f. 64)

Popham: … and to assure your Lordship that my attention is most seriously and sincerely directed to this object, and to be ready to act under any circumstances that may arise.

Melville: *** beats head against table ***

 

Raid_on_Boulogne_1804_colour

Raid at Boulogne, 2-3 October 1804, from here

28 September 1804 (f. 68)

Popham: We’re ready to attack the French tomorrow! So long as the weather holds, your Lordship may depend on it, something will be effected.

Melville: And then you’ll shut up, yes?

Popham: I’d just like it to go down on record that the reason we haven’t done anything yet is because Admiral Lord Keith, who’s nominally in command here, only rocked up yesterday in his flagship. Bastard.

Melville: Noted.

Popham: Just to say if the wind changes, we’re buggered.

Melville: Fine, fine. You’re off the hook. Go away.

 

[No letters cover the raid on Boulogne on the night of 2/3 October.]

 

28 October 1804 (f. 71)

Popham: Me again!

Melville: What now.

Popham: I’ve been all over the place. I got your letter at Dover, then went to Ramsgate via Deal, then back to Dover via Sandwich.

Melville: Why?

Popham: No idea. But I just want to tell you that I handed Lord Keith a copy of my instructions.

Melville: OK, that’s – wait. You handed him a copy of your instructions?

Popham: Yep.

Melville: The ones he was supposed to hand to you as your commanding officer?

Popham: Yep.

Melville: *** blinks ***

Popham: He seemed a bit hurt not to get them directly from you.

Melville: I have no idea why.

Popham: Anyway. WANT TO TRY SOME MORE … THINGS AT BOULOGNE?

 

***

I may have interpreted some of this correspondence rather liberally, but not as much as you’d think, and some of the lines are verbatim. If you don’t believe me, you can call up the volume yourself in the British Library and check.