A couple of days ago, while I was taking an hour or so out after my working day to transcribe some notes on Sir Home Popham (whom I am beginning to enjoy researching — how could I not, when he was so unexpected in every way?), I made a chance discovery.
In May 1798, Popham helped plan and carry out an amphibious attack on Ostend harbour, where the French were making naval preparations for a possible invasion of the British Isles. Popham commanded the naval side of the expedition; the military side was commanded by Sir Eyre Coote. The expedition was partially successful: the targets were destroyed, but due to unfavourable winds Popham was unable to rescue Coote and his men from being taken prisoner.One of the men taken with Coote was the mysterious Ensign Charles Pratt of the 49th Foot. His story at and after Ostend could probably form the basis of a novel (are you listening, my author friends?). According to Popham, he ‘had been with me on the Continent, & was acting as General Coote’s Aid[e] de Camp at Ostend; he [Pratt] was put in close prison on being taken & has remained there ever since’. [Popham to Lord Spencer, 1 April 1799, TNA ADM 1/2319]
On 16 March 1799, however, Pratt managed to escape. In his own words, he ‘sett [sic] off immediately for Flushing [on the island of Walcheren, Zeeland], in hopes of getting over [to England] from thence, but the risk being too great I sett out for Rotterdam next morning, but no Vessel being ready I went to Amsterdam which I reached the 22d. On the 28th I sail’d from the Texel & landed this evening [30 March] at Whitsable.’ [Pratt to Popham, 30 March 1799, TNA ADM 1/2319]
On his way home, Pratt managed to make himself useful by counting every single ship fitting out in Flushing, Rotterdam, and the Texel, which Popham forwarded on to the First Lord of the Admiralty, Lord Spencer.
I have called Pratt ‘mysterious’ because, well … I can’t find out much about him. I am fairly sure there will be more in the archives lurking somewhere, but I need some pointers to narrow my search. So this is a bit of a call for help: does anyone know any more of Ensign Pratt?
The little I have managed to find is quickly told. He entered the army as an ensign in the 49th (Hertfordshire) Foot on 30 April 1798. [TNA WO 65/48, Army List 1798] I have a feeling his background was not strictly military — Popham says in his letter that Pratt had been with him on the continent, probably referring to 1794-5 when Popham was in Flanders, and there is a letter in the Grey MSS at Durham dated 2 May 1798 in which a ‘Mr Pratt’ is mentioned as being a ‘guide’. From this I deduce that Pratt was one of Popham’s ‘useful friends’ from his Ostend days in the 1790s — I may be wrong though.
When he was taken at Ostend, moreover, Pratt’s status seems to have been dubious. There is plenty of correspondence in the Coote papers at Michigan (which I cannot access yet … but I will) between Coote and French General Championnet respecting Ensign (or ‘Lieutenant’) Pratt’s role as ADC and as an officer in the 49th Foot, which makes me wonder — along with the fact that he was kept ‘in close prison ‘ — whether his role was as above-board as it seems.
Either way, following Pratt’s escape, he seems not to have done very much. He was with Popham in Russia in the summer of 1799, when Popham went to arrange the passage of Russian troops for the joint Anglo-Russian expedition to the Helder, and along with Popham received presents from Tsar Paul (the Chester Courant of 3 September 1799 described him as ‘Captain Popham’s assistant in this business’). But although referred to several times in 1798 and 1799 as a lieutenant, he was not commissioned as such until 8 November 1799, when he transferred into the 9th Regiment of Foot.
He subsequently disappears from any records I can find. He went onto the half-pay list on 25 November 1802 (TNA WO 65/52), where he remained until 25 January 1805 when he exchanged into the 92nd Highlanders, still as a lieutenant (TNA WO 65/55). Later that year, according to the London Gazette of 3 September 1805, he ‘retired’ from the Army altogether.
I can’t find any record of him after that.
I am fairly sure I will find out more about this chap, but so far I am drawing a blank. I want to find out more about his connection with Popham, and what he was doing at Ostend (and Russia), and obviously I want to read all about his escape. But he seems, like a lot of people who surrounded and interacted with Popham, to be a fairly shadowy figure who only interacted with official sources because of his brief séjour in the Army.
So … anyone know anything else about him?
Help? Please? And thank you in advance.