Ensign Charles Pratt, Ostend 1798

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.

Sir_Home_Riggs_Popham

Captain Home Popham

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.

Illustrated Battles of the Nineteenth Century. [By Archibald Forbes, Major Arthur Griffiths, and others.]

Sir Eyre Coote, from Wikipedia

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.

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.