Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Anson, George (1697-1762)
ANSON, GEORGE, Lord Anson (1697–1762), admiral of the fleet, was the second son of William Anson, of Shugborough, in the parish of Colwich, in Staffordshire, and was born there on 23 April 1697; his mother Isabella, daughter of Charles Carrier, of Wirkworth, in Derbyshire, was sister of Janet, the wife of Thomas Parker, afterwards Lord Parker and Earl of Macclesfield, and in 1718 created lord chancellor. On 2 Feb. 1711-12, Anson entered on board the Ruby, commanded by Captain Peter Chamberlen, as a volunteer, and on 27 March followed Captain Chamberlen to the Monmouth, where he remained till 27 June 1713, when he was discharged, as the ship was about to pay off. All attempts to trace his service during the next three years have been unsuccessful: but in May 1716 he was serving as midshipman or supernumerary in the fleet bound for the Baltic under Sir John Norris, who wrote from the Nore on 17 May that a lieutenant of the Hampshire had requested to be put on half-pay, and that he intended 'to commission Mr. George Anson, who is cousin to my Lord Parker.' In 1716 the most brilliant merit conceivable was all the more brilliant in the nephew of the lord chief justice.
He continued in the Hampshire till she paid off in December 1717, and in March 1718 was appointed second lieutenant of the Montagu, and was in her in the action off Cape Passaro on 31 July 1718. On 2 Oct. 1719, he was transferred to the Barfleur, Sir George Byug's flagship; and in June 1722 was made a commander, and appointed to the Weasel sloop, which was employed in the North Sea against the Dutch smugglers. In February 1723-4, he was advanced to the rank of captain, appointed to the Scarborough frigate, and sent out to South Carolina, with instructions to protect the coast and the commerce against pirates and Spanish cruisers, which were already practising the system of annoyance which ultimately led to the war of 1739. They did not at that time, however, menace the Carolina coast; and the general nature of Anson's service was to cruise to and from the Bahamas. On one occasion he had intelligence of a Spanish boat which had been molesting some of the English traders, but proceeding to look for her, he touched at Providence, where he learned that she had been already taken 'by a sloop bound for Jamaica, who carried her there, where the people were condemned for pirating and hanged' (Anson to Burchett, 16 Jan. 1724-5). A few months later he received orders to act against the Spaniards wherever he met them, but the little war of 1726 passed over without any incident in Anson's career. In July 1728, on the death of Captain Morris of the Garland, he moved into that ship, and sent home the Scarborough, which was badly in want of refitting: but he himself was kept out two years longer, and did not return to England till July 1730. His long service on the coast of Carolina, however useful, was in no way brilliant; but he would seem to have been popular with the colonists, who still preserve his memory embalmed in the name of Anson county; and a Carolina lady, writing to her sister in London, could say nothing worse of him than that it was 'averred' he loved his bottle, and was far from being a woman-hater; whilst, on the other hand, he was handsome, good-natured, polite, well bred, generous, and humane; passionately fond of music, and 'so old-fashioned as to make some profession of religion' (Barrow's Life, 14).
In 1731 he commanded the Diamond frigate in the Channel; and in February 1731-2, being appointed to the Squirrel, was sent out to his old station on the coast of Carolina, whence he returned in June 1735; the Squirrel was paid off, and Anson, for the first time, was on shore for two years and a half.
In December 1737 he was appointed to the Centurion, of 60 guns, and sent to the west coast of Africa for the protection of the English trade against the encroachments of the French, after which he crossed over to the West Indies, and was recalled thence in the autumn of 1739, It had been determined to give him the command of one of two squadrons that were to be sent to the Pacific; and when it was found necessary to curtail the plan and send only one, that one was put under the orders of Anson with the nominal rank of commodore. The establishment of the navy, after many years of peace and decay, was at a very low ebb, and the expense of fitting out the fleet for the West Indies and the coast of Spain swallowed up all the resources of the admiralty. There was thus great difficulty in equipping and manning the ships intended for the Pacific; whilst instead of the regiment of soldiers which had been told off for this service, a number of pensioners, old, worn-out, and crippled, were put on board, together with a number of newly enlisted and wholly undrilled marines. All this caused great delay, and it was not till 18 Sept. 1740, after eight months' preparation, that the little squadron of six ships put to sea from St. Helens. Arriving in the neighbourhood of Cape Horn in the stormy season, the ships were severely buffeted; two were driven back, and never got round at all; one, the Wager, was driven ashore and totally lost [see Byron, John]; the Centurion narrowly escaped a similar fate; and it was not till 11 June 1741 that she arrived at Juan Fernandez, with not more than thirty men, officers included, fit for duty. The Gloucester, of 50 guns, arrived some time after in still worse plight, as also the Trial brig; and after refitting and resting till September, it was found that out of the 961 men who had left England in these three ships, 626 had died, leaving 335 men and boys, a number quite insufficient for even the Centurion alone, Anson, however, determined to do what he could to effect the purpose of his voyage, and, with a hollow pretence of strength, he managed to destroy the Spanish commerce, blockade the ports, and sack and burn the town of Paita. He then hoped to intercept the yearly ship from Manila for Acapulco; but finding that he had missed her, and that there was no chance of her sailing on the return voyage while he was on the coast, he made sail for China. The Trial had long since been condemned: the Gloucester now proved to be unseaworthy, and was cleared out and set on fire; the Centurion alone remained, and again, as off Cape Horn, was visited by scurvy in its worst forms. It was only after refreshing and resting for two months at Tinian, that her men, sorely diminished in numbers, were able to take the ship on to Macao; and, after refitting there, they sailed to cruise off Manila in quest of the Acapulco ship. The Centurion had now less than 200 men left of the original 961; but some Spanish negroes and Indians, as well as some Dutchmen and Lascars, had been picked up at Macao, and she had actually on board, of all creeds and colours, 227, With this reduced crew, however, she met the great galeon on 20 June 1743, and captured her. In size and number of men the Spaniard was vastly superior to the Centurion; but she was lumbered with merchandise, and of her 600 men few were trained to arms or to act together, whilst during the last cruise Anson had taken very great pains in exercising his men. The amount of treasure was enormous; and Anson, deciding that nothing more was to be done, resolved to return to England round the Cape of Good Hope. Good fortune favoured him at the last, and as he came into the Channel a thick fog hid him from the French fleet which was cruising in the Soundings; he passed safely through it, and anchored at Spithead on 15 June 1744. The treasure which he had brought home amounted to about 500,000l. This was landed at Portsmouth, sent up to London, and paraded in triumph through the city in a procession of thirty-two wagons, the ship's company marching with colours flying and band playing.
In ready acknowledgment of Anson's good service and good fortune, the admiralty at once promoted him to the rank of rear-admiral, but they refused to confirm an acting commission as captain of the Centurion, which Anson, claiming to act as commodore, had given to his first lieutenant, Mr. Peircy Brett, whilst in China. They did indeed specially promote Mr. Brett, but Anson rejected the compromise, returned his own commission—which was accordingly cancelled—and went on half pay as a captain. As his share of the prize money had rendered him a wealthy man, quite independent of the service, he would certainly not have accepted any further appointment from the Earl of Winchilsea, but the change of ministry a few months later brought in a new admiralty, with the Duke of Bedford at its head, and Anson as one of its members. Its very first act was to reverse the decision of the former board, and to confirm the commission which Anson had given to Captain Brett (the patent of the board is dated 28 Dec. 1744; the minute confirming Brett's commission is dated 29 Dec), and on 20 April 1745, Anson was re-promoted to flag rank, this time as rear-admiral of the white.
For a year and a half Anson continued in London, taking a leading share in the work of the admiralty, and, though a very junior member of the board, acting directly as the Duke of Bedford's representative in all matters of executive administration. Beyond the old friendship existing between Lord Chancellor Hardwicke and the Macclesfield family (Campbell's Lives of the Chancellors, V, 15) it is now impossible to trace the particular interest which Anson could have had; that he had some may be considered certain. In July 1746 Vice-Admiral Martin resigned the command of the Channel fleet; and Anson, now vice-admiral of the blue, undertook the duty and hoisted his flag on board the Yarmouth on 9 Aug. The fleet was very short-handed, for in Martin's last cruise bad provisions and bad beer, scurvy, fever, and small-pox, had caused the death or sickness of an enormous number of me (Martin to Corbett, 3 July 1746; Joannis Huxhami Observationes de Aere et Morbis epidemicis (1773), p. 341); and now Admiral Lestock, fitting out for the expedition to Lorient, had carried off every seaman that he could find (Anson to Bedford, 11 Aug. 1746, in Bedford Correspondence, i. 137). It was thus the end of the month before Anson could get the fleet to sea; and he then cruised to the westward, off Ushant, hoping to intercept on its return the French fleet, which had gone to Chebucto (the present Halifax) under the Duke d'Enville. The terrible fate of that expedition was not yet fully known; and, though Anson put into Plymouth at the end of October, it was only for a supply of water. 'My men,' he wrote to the Duke of Bedford (28 Oct.), 'begin to be very sickly, and most of the ships very foul, but the hope of destroying some of the enemy's fleet will make me risk health and everything else.' On 4 Nov. he wrote that he hoped to be complete and at sea in two or three days, and to have better fortune in his next cruise. 'I am surprised,' he added, 'that Mr. Lestock, who had such certain intelligence, from the French ships burnt in the bay, of the shattered condition of D'Enville's ships, should not cruise off Ushant for them, as his squadron was not in want of anything' (Bedford Corr. i. 174).
Notwithstanding Anson's haste to get to sea, the French hospital ship and a sloop were all that he fell in with. It was by this time certainly known that the French squadron was in an almost helpless condition, and that if it could be met with, it must be captured. It received, however, warning from a Dutch merchant ship of the neighbourhood of the English fleet, and by keeping to the southward got in-shore of it, and so safely to Brest. The next spring Anson was more fortunate. The French were preparing to send out another expedition to America, and at the same time a squadron to the East Indies. On 29 April the two sailed together from the roadstead of Aix, under the command of M. de la Jonquière, whose energetic behaviour and clever escape in bringing home the shattered remains of the fleet the year before had pointed him out as a capable and a lucky officer. But Anson had early and fairly exact knowledge of the projected expedition, and, in his double capacity of lord of the admiralty and commander-in-chief of the fleet, took care to have with him an overpowering force and such a number of cruisers that it was well nigh impossible for the enemy to escape him. With his own flag on board the Prince George, of 90 guns, and having with him Rear-Admiral Warren in the Devonshire, Captain Boscawen in the Namur, and others, numbering altogether fourteen ships of the line, he stationed himself off Cape Finisterre, and continued there during the greater part of April, exercising his fleet in forming line and in manoeuvres of battle till then absolutely unknown. On the morning of 3 May the French fleet was sighted, and was successfully pursued. Anson at first made the signal for line of battle, but presently, perceiving that the French were of very inferior force, he made the signal for a general chase and fell on them pell-mell. La Jonquière placed his convoy to leeward, in charge of two frigates, and drew up his squadron in line to meet the enemy; but including two 40-gun ships, a 50-gun ship with only half her guns on board, and four Indiamen, he numbered only ten ships in all. The ships of war fought well, but were speedily Over-powered; the Indiamen, with valuable cargoes on board, endeavoured to make off, but were captured afterwards. The defence, however, was sufficient to permit the greater part of the convoy to escape during the night. Amongst the captured ships were the Gloire, of 40 guns, and the Invincible, of 74. When M. de Saint-George, the captain of the latter, went on board the Prince George to surrender his sword to Anson, he addressed him with, 'Monsieur, vous avez vaincu l'Invincible, et la Gloire vous suit.' Saint-George returned to England with Anson, and between the two there sprang up a friendship and correspondence which continued till death ended it.
Anson's great superiority of force was mainly due to his own care and forethought; and he made such good use of it as utterly to overwhelm the enemy. A French fleet had been utterly defeated, and some 300,000l. in specie had been captured and carried through London in triumph. 'I ought to be satisfied,' wrote Anson to the Duke of Bedford, 'but wish he (La Jonquière) had had a little more strength, though this is the best stroke that has been made upon the French since La Hogue.' It was not only a national but a political success, and the ministry, accepting it as such, heaped rewards on the victors. Anson was raised to the peerage as Baron Anson of Soberton, in Hampshire; Warren, the second in command, was made a knight of the Bath; and Boscawen, the senior captain, though of only ten years' standing, was specially included in the next promotion of admirals.
In February 1747-8 the Duke of Bedford was appointed secretary of state, and Lord Sandwich became first lord of the admiralty. The duke had virtually assigned the executive administration of the navy to Anson, but now, in the absence of Sandwich in Germany, Lord Vere Beauclerk took the direction of affairs. As captain, as admiral, and in the admiralty patent, Beauclerk was the senior of the two, and may naturally have felt some annoyance at the preference previously given to his junior. It was now Anson's turn to feel aggrieved; he wrote to Lord Sandwich on 15 Feb.: 'In your absence Lord Vere may make as much a cipher of me as he pleases, which you will easily imagine must be very disagreeable to me after the share the Duke of Bedford has allowed me in the direction of affairs afloat and the success which has attended his grace's administration of naval affairs in every branch of the department. Besides, I think the world will see me in a very disadvantageous light. … He has been in my way ever since I came into the world. Two years ago I endeavoured to shove him before me, but there was no moving him from the earth to his proper element, and to continue now in his rear, both at land and sea, I own I cannot well endure' (Barrow, p. 201). To this, on 19 March, Lord Sandwich replied: 'I think that so far from Lord Vere being able to make a cipher of you, that you must put him absolutely in that situation himself. I always told you that whenever I got to the head of the admiralty it should, except in the name and show of it, be the same thing as if you were there yourself. … If Lord Vere's purposes are disagreeable to you, it is very easy to prevent them, by desiring first to know my opinion. … You may be assured I will do no act whatever but directly through your hands, which will plainly show people where the power centres, and I think indisputably fix you in the entire management of affairs' (ibid. p. 204).
It was shortly afterwards, 25 April 1748, that Anson was married to Lady Elizabeth Yorke, daughter of the lord chancellor. The marriage brought wealth as well as influence. 'The whole portion,' wrote Lord Hardwicke to his intended son-in-law, a few days before the marriage, 'shall be paid either in banknotes, or in my draft upon the bank, as you like best.' Notwithstanding the frequent indelicate jokes of Horace Walpole, there is no reason to suppose that the marriage was other than a happy one. No children followed, although a letter from Lord Hardwicke, dated 30 Aug. 1748 (Barrow, p. 208), seems to imply that some such result was expected. If so, however, it ended in disappointment.
Anson's public life was meantime devoted to reorganising certain weak points in the navy which the war had brought to light. The marine regiments were to be broken, a new corps of marines under the jurisdiction of the admiralty was to be formed, the administration of the dockyards was to be improved, and, most important of all, a new code of articles of war was to be drawn up and passed through parliament. Within the next few years all these things were done, and done effectually. Dockyard administration no doubt remained for very many years exceedingly corrupt, though not, we may believe, so atrociously bad as in former years. The building of ships, too, was improved, and the establishment of guns and all stores put on a more satisfactory footing. The articles of war, as passed in 1749, remained the law of the service till 1865; and the corps of marines, as then planned, and definitely formed in 1755, is the same as at the present day. Of these several measures the chief part of the credit must attach to Anson, who, as we have seen, was placed by Lord Sandwich at the head of the executive, and who in June 1751 became actually, as well as virtually, first lord of the admiralty. This post he filled until the change of ministry in November 1756, and it was thus during his administration that the fleet under Admiral John Byng sailed for the Mediterranean in March, and was defeated off Cape Mola on 20 May 1756. Anson's whole life and career are utterly opposed to the idea of his having, in this matter, erred through carelessness. We are forced, therefore, to the conclusion that in not ordering a larger fleet to the Mediterranean, he was honestly mistaken, and that in appointing Admiral Byng to the command he was under some undiscoverable influence. We know now that the French, in the spring of 1756, had no idea of invading England or Ireland; but the ministry certainly thought it necessary to keep an overwhelming force at home or in the Bay of Biscay. But the main cause of the failure was the misconduct of Byng, and Anson is directly concerned in the appointment, as commander-in-chief, of a man whom events proved to be utterly unfit for the office. It can only be said now, that this had not been proved in March 1756, that Byng was a man of high-service rank who might almost claim the highest command, and that there was nothing whatever known against him. That afterwards, on Byng's failure, Anson should not be inclined to show him any undue consideration, or to err on the side of lenity, was natural enough. He very probably regarded Byng with feelings akin to personal hatred, as the incarnation of the one great mistake he had made in a prosperous career, and was quite willing that the offender should feel the full weight of the law; but, as a matter of fact, Anson had nothing whatever to do with Byng's trial and execution, which took place under a ministry with which he had no connection.
Having gone out of office in November 1756, he did not re-enter till the end of June 1757, when he was again appointed first lord of the admiralty in the Newcastle-Pitt administration. He was thus the chief of the navy when the bootless expedition against Rochefort was sent out in the autumn of that year; and in 1758, when the petty incursions on the coast of France, as at St. Malo or Cherbourg, ended disastrously at St. Cas. In these matters Anson took no part, except in providing the covering force of men-of-war, and in taking command personally of the main fleet, which meantime blockaded Brest, in order to allay some irritation felt by Sir Edward Hawke. It was his last service at sea. During the next year, 1759, this fleet was commanded by Hawke, and put an end to the necessity of blockading Brest by demolishing the French fleet in Quiberon Bay. Anson's share in this brilliant victory was merely that of the home administrator by whose care the fleet was fitted out and supported; he had also the same share in the conquest of Canada and in many other of the events which rendered the year 1759 'wonderful,' not only in Garrick's celebrated song but in the current language of the day (Walpole's Letters, iii. 269, ed. Cunningham, 1861), and the years immediately succeeding memorable in English annals.
In June 1761 Anson was advanced to the high rank of admiral of the fleet; but, except to bring over the new queen, Princess Charlotte of Mecklenburg-Strelitz, he never hoisted the distinguishing flag of union at the main. He died quite suddenly on 6 June 1762 at his country seat of Moor Park in Hertfordshire, and was buried in the family vault at Colwich. The title died with him. His wife had died two years before, on 1 June 1760, and his very large property went to his sister Janetta, wife of Mr. Sambrooke Adams, whose son George afterwards inherited also the family estate of Shugborough, and took the name of Anson. The son of George Adams was in 1806 created Viscount Anson and Baron Soberton, and his grandson in 1831 was made Earl of Lichfield.
Anson is undoubtedly best known to posterity by his voyage round the world, the history of which, as written, or rather edited, by his chaplain, Mr. Walters, or in different abridgments, has always been a popular book even among schoolboys. It is to that voyage, and the temper, the tact, and the judgment which he displayed under very trying circumstances, that his further advancement was mainly due. Anson may have been cold in his affections, studious of his own interest, and even selfish; calm, placid, possibly—as his enemies might say—fish-like in his temperament; but he was a careful, painstaking, thoughtful man, of singularly accurate judgment: and much of the more important work which fell to him was work in which a warmer-hearted, warmer-tempered, more loveable man might well have broken down. And one point which tells enormously in Anson's favour is the fact that so many young officers, trained under him in the Centurion, were afterwards honourably known. In the whole history of our navy there is not another instance of so many juniors from one ship rising to distinction, men like Saunders, Saumarez, Peircy Brett, Denis, Keppel, Hyde Parker, John Campbell.
Sir John Barrow has expressed surprise 'that neither private affection nor public gratitude has ever raised a monument to one who shed such lustre on the name.' This is not strictly correct, for there is in Shugborough Park a sort of triumphal arch which was erected to his memory by his elder brother Thomas. The colossal lion, once the figure-head of the Centurion, after standing for many years in the Anson ward of Greenwich Hospital (Barrow, p. 419), was in 1870 transferred to the playground of the hospital school, and fell to pieces from decay in 1873. Copies of a portrait of Anson, by Sir Joshua Reynolds, are in the National Portrait Gallery, and in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. The original, belonging to Lord Lichfield, was exhibited at the Grosvenor Gallery, 1884.
[The Life of Anson by Sir John Barrow is by no means free from serious faults both of omission and commission, and is absolutely crowded with mistakes of sheer carelessness, e.g. the misspellings of names. The well-known 'Voyage round the World' bears on the title-page of the 1st edition (1748) 'compiled from papers and other materials of the Right Honourable George Anson, and published imder his direction by Richard Walter, M.A., chaplain of his Majesty's ship Centurion in that expedition.' Many years afterwards a claim was made that the work was written, not by Mr. Walter, but by Mr. Benjamin Robins (Robins's Mathematical Tract(1761), i., xxxvi, xli); this has never been substantiated except by mere assertion; and though Robins was certainly employed as sub-editor and assistant (Peircy Brett to Cleveland, 3 Jan. 1747-8), there is no reason to doubt the plain statement on the title-page, which was always believed by Walter's children and grandchildren (Notes and Queries, 5th series, iv. 78, 100) and was directly sanctioned by Anson. But in any case, whether edited by Walter or Robins, the book was virtually written by Anson himself, as stated on the title-page, and as affirmed by Anson's friends (Barrow, p. 408). The Journal of a Voyage to the South Seas, by Pascoe Thomas, teacher of the mathematicks on board the Centurion (1745), is an independent account, not always so favourable to Anson. Correspondence of the fourth Duke of Bedford, edited by Lord John Russell (1842), vol. i.; Brit. Mus. MSS. Add. 15955-6-7; and Official Letters and Documents in the Public Record Office.]