“When we put on this uniform, Mr. Hornblower, we entered into a life of adventure and adversity, but above all, a life of duty. A duty to our people, our king, our country, but also, a duty to our men. We must always be a source of inspiration to them, Mr. Hornblower, and whatever may befall us, whatever, we must never forget we are officers in his majesty’s navy.”
As a boy he would do handstands out on the yardarm, and even as a captain he could still climb to the tops faster than any of his men. On at least four occasions he is known to have leapt into the water to save men who had fallen overboard, and he became a local hero in Plymouth when he dived into stormy seas in order to supervise the evacuation of a ship that had run aground. According to Taylor, Pellew was the likely model for Jack Aubrey in Patrick O’Brian’s novels: a captain who was ruthless in action, affectionate with his crew, and magnanimous to those he defeated in battle.
Excerpt from a Telegraph review of Commander: The Life and Exploits of Britain’s Greatest Frigate Captain, by Stephen Taylor
The Wreck of the East Indiaman Dutton in Plymouth Sound, 26 January 1796
The painting interprets an event from the life of Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833), 1st Viscount Exmouth.
The Dutton was built on the Thames in 1781 and chartered by the East India Company. It was bound for the West Indies with troops on board when it was wrecked in Plymouth Sound during a gale on 26 January 1796.
At the time Pellew was stationed at Falmouth, commanding a squadron of frigates. He was in Plymouth when this incident occurred and, being a powerful man, himself swam out with a line to the grounded ship. This allowed breeches buoys to be rigged by which all but four of the 600 on board were saved under his oversight.
The ship is depicted with its masts gone, close to the shore to which it is connected by the rescue lines being held in tension by a well-organized crowd, with figures in transit from ship to shore along them. The carved figurehead at the bow of the ship appears ghostly, while the waves crash over the deck.
Figures are still on deck awaiting rescue, with the officer prominent in the blue uniform coat on the ship’s poop probably intended as Pellew. There are figures still in the water holding onto bits of wreckage as they try to reach land and others are depicted lying exhausted on the rocks.
More debris from the ship floats in the water to the right. The outline of a fort rises on the left and the coastline of Devon is silhouetted in the distance, through the driving rain.
The painting creates an atmosphere of high drama, with dark clouds, the wind, heavy waves and people gesticulating from the shore.
In the same year he three times risked his life to save others. But his most famous act of this kind was in the following January, while his was lying in Hamoaze. A large transport, the Dutton, with part of the 2nd regiment (The Queens) on board, bound for the West Indies, was driven into Plymouth by bad weather and ran aground under the citadel. There she lay broadside on to the heavy sea, and at the second roll she threw all her masts overboard at once.
Sir Edward was driving out to dinner when he heard the news; he ran to the shore and found that the principal officers of the transport had just gone on shore, leaving the other five or six hundred men on board to their fate. Neither they nor any of the local pilots would attempt to board the ship for any reward that could be offered. “Then I will go myself,” said Sir Edward. He was hauled on board the Dutton by a single rope, and badly hurt by being dragged under the fallen main-mast, but he reached the deck and took command. He promised at once that he would be the last to quit the deck, also that he would save everyone who obeyed him and run through anyone who disobeyed him; at which the men gave him three cheers.
The women and children were sent first, and Sir Edward stood guard with drawn sword-a very necessary precaution, for many of the soldiers were drunk. In the end everyone was saved, Edward last, and immediately afterwards the ship went to pieces.
This was a great public service, and it gained for Sir Edward a popularity which astonished him. The Corporation presented him with the freedom of Plymouth; the merchants of Liverpool gave him a valuable service of plate; the King made him a baronet and added a stranded ship for his crest. But as usual, he had his own way of taking these things; the reward he gave himself was to obtain a commission in the navy for Mr. Coghlan, the young mate who had brought the first boat alongside the wreck, and to offer him a place in the Indefatigable, where he became a distinguished officer.
The Book of the Blue Sea by Sir Henry John Newbolt