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?!

Sheepgate 1809, or how a surfeit of sheep nearly led to a diplomatic incident

In the summer of 1809, Britain and Spain had been allies against France for just over a year. Sir Arthur Wellesley was currently in the Iberian Peninsula with an army of about 30,000 men. Diplomatic relations with Spain, however, remained a little fraught – the two countries had been at war for much of the last decade, memories of Trafalgar were still fresh, and there was the little outstanding matter of Gibraltar, which made the prospect of any large body of British troops on Spanish soil a bit difficult.

George III

King George III

Understandably, therefore, the Spanish decided it was time to offer an olive branch in the form of a gift to His Majesty King George III. Their ambassador, Don Pedro de Cevallos, arrived in London in February 1809, bringing the King the Collar of the Order of the Golden Fleece. [1]

This the King refused, as it was his policy not to accept Orders from foreign governments (he felt it was improper for him to do so as the head of the Orders of his own kingdom). The Spanish, however, still wanted to make a statement of their gratitude for the way the Brits were helping them eject the French invaders from their country. They decided to think laterally, although they still kept to the fleecy theme.

merino sheep

Their thoughtful gift was an unspecified number of very valuable Merino sheep, much prized (then as now) for the quality of their wool, and this George III did accept.

Delighted by the success of their diplomatic coup, the Spanish decided to send him another gift. What do you get the King who’s got everything? Apparently, you get him more sheep, as a letter to the King from the Foreign Secretary, George Canning, dated 2 June 1809, makes clear:

“Mr Canning most humbly requests Your Majesty’s gracious Commands as to the answer to be returned to the Offer, by the Supreme Junta, of 4,000 Merino Sheep as a Present to Your Majesty.”[2]

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The King was very grateful, but the problem was he didn’t want any more sheep:

“The King desires Mr Canning will assure Don Pedro Cevallos that he is very sensible of the Attention of the Supreme Junta in offering a present of 4,000 Sheep, but that His Majesty has already so large a Stock as not to require further Supply for the Accommodation of which He has not indeed the Means of providing.”[3]

It seems the Spanish were so keen to send the sheep that they hadn’t thought about how to transport them. The transports they had sent last time had been “improperly crowded”. When the Spanish suggested the world’s foremost maritime power could just send more ships, the King pointed out that such “Ships must be sent which are required for other pressing Services.”[3]

“Other services” referred to the expedition to Walcheren, currently taking up all the spare time, ships, and transports belonging to the Admiralty, which was having a hard enough time making up the full complement of over 650 vessels for the campaign.

The Spanish were undeterred. Would the King like some lovely Spanish horses instead?

Erm, no:

“Upon the same Grounds the King thinks it would be advisable to decline equally the Offer of the Horses, at this moment.”[3]

George Canning

George Canning

Canning duly passed on the King’s message to Cevallos; and there the matter rested.

For ten days.

On 13 June 1809, as Canning reported to the King, Cevallos — who had clearly been instructed not to take no for an answer — tried again. Maybe not 4,000 sheep then: how about a smaller number?

“Mr Canning  … humbly requests to receive Your Majesty’s gracious Commands, whether he may encourage Don Pedro Cevallos to hope that Your Majesty at some future time might be graciously pleased to accept a limited number of Merino Sheep; and also a few of the Horses, when the means of transport can be conveniently afforded.”[4]

Apparently the Spanish insisted (“No, really, please — take our sheep”).

mrsdoyle

Maybe they thought George III was just being coy. The King, however, was adamant:

“The King desires Mr Canning will persist in declining the Offer of the Merino Sheep conveyed in Don Pedro Cevallos’s note, His Majesty really not having Room for them & being actually under the Necessity of hiring Ground for those last received.”

One imagines the corridors and State Rooms at the Queen’s House full of roaming sheep, chewing on the furniture and making a tremendous mess.

newspaper

The horses, however, were not positively declined:

“In regard to the horses, Don Pedro Cevallos may be told that, at a future more convenient Opportunity His Majesty will accept a few.”[5]

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This was a mistake, as the Spanish seem to have interpreted it rather more broadly than the King presumably intended. It’s possible they genuinely couldn’t believe George didn’t actually want any more sheep.

So they decided he was just being polite, and sent them anyway.

thousands-sheep-merino-huddled-together-96748051

On 18 July 1809, as the preparations for Walcheren were really hotting up, a large, smelly, and very noisy package arrived in Portsmouth.

Canning was horrified:

“Mr Canning humbly reports to Your Majesty the intelligence received this day from the Admiralty of the arrival at Portsmouth of 1,500 Merino Sheep part of the present destined for Your Majesty by the Supreme Junta; which had been embarked before Your Majesty’s desire to decline that present was made known in Spain.”

Who was responsible for the mix-up? Canning didn’t know, but he did haste to assure the King he had given instructions, probably at a very high volume, to make sure such a mistake did not happen again:

“Mr Canning trusts that the notification has arrived there  in time to prevent any further embarkation.”[6]

The King’s reaction can best be summarised as “WHAT THE HELL ARE THESE QUADRUPEDS DOING HERE”:

“His Majesty is much embarrassed by the arrival of the Sheep from Cadiz, as He has not any Ground at present for them, and cannot make any Arrangements for bringing them up by Hand. The King therefore desires that Mr Canning will communicate to the Admiralty His wish that the Sheep should be sent from Portsmouth by Sea, up the River to Deptford, as the Transports will not be immediately required, the Embarkations being completed, and in the mean time His Majesty will endeavour to provide for their Disposal in those.”[7]

(Soooo … who knew the embarkation of the Walcheren expedition was in fact delayed by the need to move 1,500 unwanted merino sheep from Portsmouth to Deptford?)

The King’s secretary, Colonel Taylor, wrote to Canning to confirm final arrangements:

“My Dear Canning, The King having ordered the Bearer Mr Smart to make arrangements for landing the Sheep at Deptford &c I trouble you with this Letter at his Desire to request You will have the goodness to furnish him with the necessary authority if he should have occasion to apply to you.”[8]

Canning must have been extremely relieved to be able to make the sheep Someone Else’s Problem. The King’s letter is endorsed:

“Relative to Mr Smart & His Majesty’s Merino Sheep. July 20. Letter to Ld Mulgrave given to Mr Smart.”[8]

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I can just imagine Lord Mulgrave, up to his ears in Walcheren business, with the army yelling at him to provide more transports and the Transport Board yelling at him to provide more tonnage and the ships’ captains yelling at him to find out when they were supposed to be sailing, getting a visit from a gentleman smelling strongly of farmyard — said gentleman bearing a letter from the Foreign Secretary that probably said something along the lines of: “There are 1,500 sheep outside. Deal with it.”

I don’t suppose he found it very funny.

Postscript: what happened to the sheep?

I can’t be sure, although there was a letter from September 1809 referring to Spanish shepherds being placed under the control of a page in the Royal Household at the Queen’s House, so presumably some of them ended up in Green Park.

Aspinall suggests the rest of the sheep were distributed among the King’s courtiers. Canning himself didn’t get away without some (after initially declining them, but apparently his wife liked fluffy woolly ceatures more than he did, so he asked for a small flock of 50).[9]

References

[1] Arthur Aspinall (ed.), The Later Correspondence of George III, vol. 5 (Cambridge: University Press, 1970), pp. 214-5.

[2] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 2 June 1809. The correspondence is also printed in Aspinall.

[3] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 3 June 1809.

[4] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 13 June 1809.

[5] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 14 June 1809.

[6] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 18 July 1809.

[7] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, 19 July 1809.

[8] British Library Canning MSS, Add MS 89143/1/6/6, Colonel Taylor to Canning, 19 July 1809.

[9] Aspinall, Later Correspondence, vol. 5, p. 315 n. 1.