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.
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.
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: 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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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?
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?!