Hughes, Edward (DNB00)

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Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 28
Hughes, Edward

by John Knox Laughton
Contains subarticle Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (d. 1863).

HUGHES, Sir EDWARD (1720?–1794), admiral, was born at Hertford about 1720. His father is said by his biographers to have been alderman and several times mayor of Hertford, but the local histories fail to corroborate the statement. He entered the navy on 4Jan. 1734-5 on board the 60-gun ship Dunkirk,with Captain DigbyDent (d. 1737), commodore on the Jamaica station. From the Dunkirk he was moved in September 1736 to the Kinsale on the same station, and again, in July 1738, to the Diamond with Captain Knowles, and in her was present at the reduction of Porto Bello in November 1739 [see Knowles, Sir Charles; Vernon, Edward]. In the following February he was moved into the Burford, Vernon's flagship, and on 25 Aug. was promoted to be lieutenant of the Cumberland fireship. On 6 March 1740-1 he was transferred to the Suffolk with Captain Davers, and in her took part in the unsuccessful operations against Cartagena in March and April 1741. In June he was appointed to the Dunkirk, and in her witnessed the action off Toulon on 11 Feb. 1743-4, but without taking any part in it, the Dunkirk being in the rear of the fleet under the immediate command of Lestock [see Lestock, Richard]. In the following July Hughes was moved into the Stirling Castle, and in October 1745 into the Marlborough, in which in 1746 he returned to England. In June 1747 he joined the Warwick as a supernumerary for a passage to North America and the West Indies. On the way the Warwick, with the Lark in company, met the Spanish 70-gun ship Glorioso. After a sharp engagement, the Warwick, being unsupported by the Lark, was disabled, and the Glorioso escaped. John Crookshanks [q. v.], captain of the Lark, was condemned by court-martial for his conduct on the occasion. Hughes was promoted to the vacancy, 6 Feb. 1747-8.

Hughes continued in command of the Lark till July 1750, when, on her paying off, he was placed on half-pay. In January 1756 he commissioned the Deal Castle. In July 1757 he was appointed to the Somerset of 64 guns, in which he joined Vice-admiral Holburne at Halifax. In 1758 the Somerset formed part of the fleet under Boscawen at the reduction of Louisbourg, and in 1759 under Saunders at the reduction of Quebec. Saunders afterwards hoisted his flag on board her and sailed for England with part of the fleet, but hearing of the French being at sea, hastened to reinforce Hawke off Brest, too late, however, to share in the glories of Quiberon Bay [see Saunders, Sir Charles]. In the following year the Somerset went to the Mediterranean with Saunders, who in September 1762 moved Hughes into his own ship, the Blenheim, in which he returned to England in April 1763. After another spell of half-pay, Hughes recommissioned the Somerset in January 1771, and commanded her as a guardship at Portsmouth till, in September 1773, he was appointed commander-in-chief in the East Indies, with a broad pennant in the 50-gun ship Salisbury. He returned home in 1777, and on 23 Jan. 1778 was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral of the blue.

In July he was again appointed commander-in-chief in the East Indies, though he did not sail till the following spring, being detained, partly by the difficulty of fitting out in the depleted condition of the dockyards, and partly to do the duty of commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, while Sir Thomas Pye was presiding over the court-martial on Admiral Keppel. He was meantime created a knight of the Bath. When finally he put to sea, he had under his command a squadron of six ships of the line, including his own flagship, the Superb of 74 guns, and with these on the way out he had no difficulty in dispossessing the French, who had lately seized on the English settlement of Goree. In India his force was far in excess of anything the enemy could muster in eastern waters, and for the next two years he had little to do. In December 1780 he destroyed at Mangalore a number of armed vessels fitted out by Hyder Ali to prey on English commerce. On 26 Sept. 1780 he was advanced to be vice-admiral of the blue. In November 1781, after receiving intelligence of the war with Holland, he co-operated with the troops under Sir Hector Munro in reducing Negapatnam. He then, taking some five hundred soldiers on board his ships, went to Trincomalee, where he arrived on the evening of 4 Jan. 1782. The place was not in condition to offer effective resistance. The town and the lower fort were occupied on the night of 5 Jan. 1782, the Dutch retreating to Fort Osnaburg on a commanding eminence. Preparations were immediately made for reducing this fort, and on the 9th Hughes sent in a formal summons as well as a private letter to the governor, with whom he had formerly been on terms of friendly acquaintance. The summons was refused, and the place was taken by storm on the morning of the 11th, the loss on each side being small. Hughes provided for its defence as well as the means at his disposal permitted, and returned to Madras, where he anchored on 8 Feb. Here he was joined a few days later by three ships newly arrived from England, and having intelligence of the French being on the coast in superior force, he took up a defensive position under the batteries.

On the 16th the French squadron under M. de Suffren came in sight, but though superior in force in the ratio of twelve ships to nine of a smaller average strength, Suffren considered that the position of the English was unassailable, and made sail to the southward. He was immediately followed by Hughes, who during the night slipped past him, and on the morning of the 17th captured a number of the merchantmen in convoy and a transport laden with military stores. Suffren hastened to the rescue, while Hughes, having secured his prizes, prepared to defend them. But the fitful and gusty wind made his line very irregular, and about four o'clock in the afternoon the French, favoured by a passing squall, were able to attack his rear division, which, by the accidents of the weather, was separated from the van. Theoretically, the English rear was completely overpowered; but practically it held its own in a very severe struggle, centring round the Superb and Exeter [see King, Sir Richard, 1730-1806], till another gust permitted the four ships of the van to come to its relief. On this Suffren drew off to reform his line, and the fight was not renewed. During the night the fleets separated; both had sustained considerable damage; the French drew back to Pondicherry and Hughes went to Trincomalee to refit. He then returned to Madras, and was carrying back to Trincomalee a strong reinforcement for the garrison and a quantity of stores, when, on 9 April, as he was approaching his port, he again fell in with the French fleet. He had the advantage of the wind, but being anxious to land his cargo before engaging, and conceiving, probably, that the French with only a trifling superiority of force would not venture to attack him, he pursued his way, thus allowing the enemy to take the weather gage; so that on the 12th he found himself on a lee shore, with Suffren outside preparing to engage. This he did about two o'clock, in a manner contrary to all experience, and concentrating his attack on the English centre, placed it for a time in a position of great danger. The battle raged with exceptional severity round the Superb and Monmouth [see Alms, James], the latter of which was reduced to a wreck, and in both the loss of men was very great; on board the Superb there were fifty-nine killed and ninety-six wounded. About four o'clock Hughes made the signal to wear, and in reforming his line succeeded in placing the little Monmouth in comparative safety to leeward. The fight then continued on more equal terms till about half-past five, when, in a violent rain-squall, the fleets separated, and anchored for the night off the islet of Providien. The next day Hughes got his fleet into better order, but, lumbered up as his ships were, he refused to accept the battle which Suffren offered, and remained at anchor till the French withdrew. It was during this time that Suffren proposed an arrangement for the exchange of prisoners, which Hughes declined, alleging that he had not the requisite authority. As, however, the commander-in-chief on a distant station has necessarily a great deal of discretionary power, it is not improbable that he judged the exchange would be more to the advantage of the French, whose resources, at such a distance from their base at Mauritius, were very limited. Suffren seems to have regarded this as the real reason, and forthwith handed all his prisoners over to Hyder Ali.

Hughes had meantime refitted his fleet at Trincomalee, and by the end of June took up a position before Negapatnam, which he understood the French were preparing to attack by land and sea. He was still there when the French fleet came in sight on 5 July, and Suffren proposed to attack him at anchor. As he was standing in, however, one of his ships was partially dismasted in a squall, and in the delay that this occasioned, Hughes weighed, but would not be tempted to seaward lest he should give an opportunity to the French to get between him and the shore, and so land the troops which they had on board. The next morning, 6 July, on Suffren again standing in, Hughes, having the advantage of the wind, made the signal to engage van to van, line to line, in the manner prescribed by the ‘Fighting Instructions;’ he thus, notwith-standing his enemy's teaching, wasted his strength in a dispersed attack along the whole line, and the result was, as always, indecisive. After a bloody but useless struggle of rather over two hours' duration, a sudden shift of wind threw both lines into confusion; and so they separated, the damage on each side being fairly equal. The English took up their former position off Negapatnam, and the French, being unable to effect their purposed landing, carried their troops back to Cuddalore. On 1 Aug. they sailed for Ceylon, while Hughes lay at Madras refitting. The governor sent him word that the French had left Cuddalore and gone to the southward; Hughes answered that he was not responsible to the governor for the management of the fleet. It was not till the 19th that one of his own frigates, the Coventry, confirmed the news. Then, indeed, he realised that Trincomalee might be in danger, and put to sea the next day, 20 Aug.; but the winds were unfavourable, and it was not till the evening of 2 Sept. that he was off the port. It had fallen to the French two days before, and the next morning, when Hughes was standing in towards the mouth of the harbour, he was disagreeably surprised to see the French flag suddenly hoisted. He necessarily drew back, and Suffren, who now had fifteen ships against the twelve with Hughes, at once followed, hoping to complete his victory by the destruction of the English fleet. His orders, as he gave them out, formulated the tactics which had proved so dangerous on 17 Feb. and on 12 April; the whole of his superiority was to be thrown on the English rear, leaving a barely equal force to hold the van in check. Fortunately, however, many of the French captains were averse to the task put before them; and the ill-will of some, the unseamanlike conduct of others, completely frustrated Suffren's admirable plan. The ships engaged in an isolated manner, and after a desultory action of three hours, the fleets separated, the French making their way back to Trincomalee, and the English to Madras. On 1 Nov. a hurricane, which swept over the roadstead, forced them to sea. The Superb and Exeter were dismasted, and all were more or less damaged; Hughes shifted his flag to the Sultan, and by slow degrees the fleet gathered together at Bombay. Here it was reinforced by a strong squadron brought out from England by Sir Richard Bickerton [q.v.], and when, some months later, Hughes returned to the east coast, he had, for the first time, a numerical superiority to the French, and was able, in June 1783, to cooperate with the army in the siege of Cuddalore. On the 14th the French fleet appeared in the offing, and on the 17th succeeded in passing inside of the English, and in establishing a free communication with the shore.The French ships were very short-handed, and took on board some twelve hundred men from the garrison, previous to engaging the English fleet outside. It was on the 20th that the two enemies again met; but though Suffren had the position to windward, and though he had, before leaving Trincomalee, given out a detailed order for concentrating his attack on the English rear, he made no attempt to carry out the scheme, and permitted a dispersed attack along the whole line. The result was the useless slaughter of a hundred men on each side, but the strategic advantage remained with the French. Hughes raised the blockade and withdrew to Madras, where he soon received news of the peace.

There is no other instance in naval history of two fleets thus fighting five battles within little more than a year (four of them within seven months) with no very clear advantage on either side. French writers speak of the five battles as five 'glorious victories,' but in reality they were very evenly balanced in point of fighting, while, as to strategic results, the English had a slight advantage from the first three, the French from the last two. The tactical advantage, however, commonly lay with the French, and they were prevented from reaping the benefit of it solely by the mutinous or cowardly conduct of the French captains on the one hand, and, on the other, by the seamanlike skill and courage of Hughes and his comrades.

On the peace Hughes returned to England and had no further command, though advanced in due course on 1 Feb. 1793 to be admiral of the blue. He acquired in India ‘a most princely fortune,’ estimated at over 40,000l. a year, which, it is said, he largely distributed in unostentatious acts of benevolence (Charnock). He died at his seat at Luxborough in Essex on 17 Feb. 1794. A portrait of Sir Edward Hughes, by Reynolds, the bequest of the admiral himself, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.

Hughes married Ruth, widow of Captain Ball, R.N.; she died 30 Sept. 1800 (Gent. Mag. 1800, pt. ii. p. 1008). Hughes left no issue, and his wealth descended to a son of Captain Ball, R.N., his wife's son by her first marriage, Edward Hughes Ball Hughes (d. 1863), a social celebrity of the early part of the present century, when he was familiarly known as the ‘Golden Ball.’ In 1819 Ball took the additional name of Hughes, married Mdlle. Mercandotti, a celebrated Spanish dancer, in 1823, and, having by gambling and reckless expenditure dissipated great part of his fortune, removed to St. Germains, near Paris, where he died in 1863 Gronow,Reminiscences and Recollections, 1889, ii. 89; Grantley Berkeley, Reminiscences; B. Blackmantle (i.e. C. M. Westmacott), English Spy, 1825, passim, with plate of ‘The English Opera House,’ by R. Cruikshank, containing portraits of Ball-Hughes and his wife; Lysons, Suppl. p. 345; Gent. Mag. 1863, pt. i. pp. 533-4).

[Official documents in the Public Record Office; Charnock's Biog. Nav. vi. 65; Ralfe's Nav. Biog. i. 137; Naval Chronicle, ix. 85;Beatson's Nav. and Mil. Memoirs, v. 561-615; Ekins's Naval Battles of Great Britain, pp. 180-98; Laughton's Studies in Naval History, pp. 110-45; Chevalier's Histoire de la Marine française pendant la Guerre de l'Indépendance américaine, pp. 388-494; Cunat's Histoire du Bailli de Suffren, passim; Trublet's Hist. de la Campagne de l'Inde par l'escadre française sous les ordres de M. le Bailli de Suffren.]

J. K. L.