Pearson, Richard (1731-1806) (DNB00)

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PEARSON, Sir RICHARD (1731–1806), captain in the navy, was born at Lanton Hall, near Appleby in Westmoreland, in March 1731. Entering the navy in 1745 on board the Dover, he joined in the Mediterranean the Seaford, commanded by his kinsman, Captain Wilson. In her he remained for three years, and in 1749 joined the Amazon, with Captain Arthur Gardiner [q. v.] In 1750, seeing little prospect of advancement in the navy, he took service under the East India Company; but returned to the navy when war was imminent in 1755, passed his examination on 5 Nov., and on 16 Dec. was promoted to be fourth lieutenant of the Elizabeth, which during 1756 was commanded by Captain John Montagu, and attached to the fleet employed on the coast of France and in the Bay of Biscay. In 1757 Montagu was superseded by Charles Steevens [q. v.], who took the Elizabeth out to the East Indies; and in her Pearson was present in the actions of 29 April and 3 Aug. 1758 and of 10 Sept. 1759. In one of these he was severely wounded. He was afterwards first lieutenant of the Norfolk with Steevens and Kempenfelt, and was actually in command during a violent hurricane on 1 Jan. 1761, owing to Kempenfelt's being disabled by an accident. It is said that Steevens was so well satisfied with his conduct on this occasion that he promised him the first vacancy, and that his commission to command the Tiger, a 60-gun ship, was actually made out; but that it never took effect, as Steevens died before it was signed. At the reduction of Manila in 1762 Pearson was first lieutenant of the Lennox, and afterwards returned to England in the Seahorse.

In 1769 he went out to Jamaica as first lieutenant of the Dunkirk with Commodore Arthur Forrest [q. v.], who had promised him the first vacancy. Forrest, however, died before a vacancy occurred; and, though Captain Stirling, who was left senior officer at Jamaica, gave him in August 1770 an acting order to command the Phœnix, it was disallowed by Captain Robert Carkett [q. v.], on whom the command properly devolved. The admiralty, however, took a favourable view of Pearson's claims, and promoted him on 29 Oct. 1770 to command the Druid sloop. In January 1773 he was appointed to the Speedwell; and on 25 June, being at Spithead when the king reviewed the fleet, was specially advanced to post rank. In 1776 he was appointed to the Garland, in which he went out to Quebec in charge of convoy, and for the next two years was detained for service in the St. Lawrence.

In March 1778 he was appointed to command the 44-gun ship Serapis; and in the autumn of 1779, having been sent to the Baltic with convoy, was returning in company with the Countess of Scarborough, a hired ship, and the trade from the Baltic, when, off Flamborough Head, on the evening of 23 Sept., he met the little squadron commanded by John Paul Jones [q. v.] The Pallas, one of Jones's squadron, engaged and captured the Countess of Scarborough, while Jones's own ship, the Bon-homme Richard, grappled with the Serapis, and between the two one of the most obstinate fights on record took place; it was ended in favour of the Richard by the latter's consort the Alliance, a 36-gun frigate, coming under the stern of the Serapis and raking her, though the fire was not effective, and the officers of the Richard alleged that much of it struck their ship. But Pearson felt unable to withstand a second enemy, and struck his colours. The Richard was on the point of sinking, and did sink a few hours after the Serapis was taken possession of. Meantime the convoy had made good its escape; Jones's cruise was necessarily brought to an end; and the defence of the Serapis against a nominally superior force won for Pearson a very general approval. When able to return to England he was honourably acquitted by a court-martial held on 10 March 1780; he was afterwards presented with the freedom of the towns by Hull, Scarborough, Lancaster, and Appleby, and by the Russia Company and the Royal Exchange Assurance Company with handsome pieces of plate. He was also knighted. Pearson was an honest, brave officer, and no blame was attributable to him for his ill-success; but, though the merchants were satisfied, the defeat was not one which should have been officially rewarded. Jones's remark on hearing of the honour conferred on him was: ‘Should I have the good fortune to fall in with him again, I'll make a lord of him.’ In April 1780 Pearson was appointed to the Alarm. He afterwards commanded the Arethusa; but in 1790 was retired to Greenwich Hospital, where, in 1800, he succeeded Captain Locker as lieutenant-governor. He died there in January 1806. He married Margaret, daughter of Francis Harrison of Appleby, by whom he left issue four sons and two daughters. Two engraved portraits of Pearson are mentioned by Bromley.

[Naval Chronicle (with a portrait), xxiv. 353; List-books and other official documents in the Public Record Office; Laughton's Studies in Naval History, p. 396.]

J. K. L.