Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Curtis, Roger

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CURTIS, Sir ROGER (1746–1816), admiral, was the son of Mr. Roger Curtis of Downton in Wiltshire, and presumably descended from that Roger Curtis who served with Sir John Lawson on board the Swiftsure, and was slain at Algiers in 1662 (Cal. of State Papers, Dom. 7 Feb. 1663). He entered the navy in 1762, on board the Royal Sovereign, with Vice-admiral Holburne; and after the peace served in the Assistance on the coast of Africa, in the Augusta guardship at Portsmouth, and for three years in the Gibraltar frigate in Newfoundland. In 1769 he joined the Venus with Captain Barrington, whom he followed to the Albion. He was made lieutenant in 1771, and was again sent to Newfoundland in the Otter sloop. There he had the good fortune to attract the notice of the governor, Captain (afterwards Lord) Shuldham, who, having attained his flag, was in 1775 appointed commander-in-chief on the North American station, took Curtis with him as a lieutenant of the flagship, and the following year promoted him to the command of the Senegal sloop. On 30 April 1777 he was posted by Lord Howe to the command of the flagship, in which he returned to England with Howe in the autumn of 1778. In 1779 he had temporary command of the Terrible in the Channel, and in 1780 commissioned the Brilliant for service in the Mediterranean. He had intended going at once to Gibraltar, then besieged and blockaded by the Spaniards, but being chased through the Straits by three of the enemy's ships, from which he escaped with difficulty, he went on to Minorca, where he arrived on 31 Dec. He was afterwards charged by the first lieutenant of the Brilliant with permitting himself to be blockaded there by three French frigates of a force inferior to that which he had under his command (A New Edition of the Appeal of a neglected Naval Officer: to which are now added the Reply of Sir Roger Curtis, intersected with remarks by Lieutenant Campbell, and important and curious letters on the blockade of Mahon, 1785). The statement that the French force was inferior is borne out, not only by the letters quoted by Mr. Campbell, the genuineness of which there seems no reason to doubt, but by other independent French testimony (Brun, Guerres Maritimes de la France, ii. 41); but the accusation unquestionably sprang out of personal ill-feeling; the exaggerated estimate which Curtis formed of the French force would seem to have been perfectly honest, and no blame was officially imputed to him. On 15 April he convoyed a number of storeships, mostly private adventurers, which he had got together for the relief of Gibraltar, and brought them in safely on the 27th; and for the next eighteen months he co-operated with the governor, and had a very important share in the defence of the beleaguered fortress, and especially in the repulse and destruction of the formidable floating batteries on 13 Sept. 1782. On 18 Oct. the place was relieved by the grand fleet under Lord Howe, and Curtis being charged with some letters from the general went on board the Victory. The allied fleet prevented his return, and he was carried to England, when he was knighted, and at General Eliott's request immediately sent out again, with the established rank of commodore.

After the peace he was appointed to command the Ganges guardship at Portsmouth, and in 1789 was employed on a special mission to the Baltic powers. During the Spanish armament in 1790 he was appointed Howe's flag-captain, and was afterwards captain of the Brunswick, which he commanded till 1793. He then joined the Queen Charlotte as first captain, or captain of the fleet, and continued in that capacity as long as Howe's flag was flying. His name was thus much mixed up with the questions that were raised as to the battle of 1 June 1794; and it was roundly asserted that the not following up the pursuit of the defeated enemy was due to his cautious counsels and his influence with the commander-in-chief (Bourchier, Life of Sir Edward Codrington, i. 28) [see Howe, Richard, Earl]. He was sent home with Howe's despatches; and the king on visiting the Queen Charlotte at Spithead threw over his neck a massive gold chain, desiring him to keep it in his family as a lasting proof of the royal regard and friendship. On 4 July Curtis was raised to the rank of rear-admiral, and in September was created a baronet.

In 1796–7 he had command of a detached squadron on the coast of Ireland; and in 1798 joined the fleet off Cadiz under Lord St. Vincent. On 14 Feb. 1799 he was made vice-admiral, and was shortly after appointed commander-in-chief at the Cape of Good Hope. On 23 April 1804 he attained the rank of admiral, and in January 1805 was appointed on the commission for revising the civil affairs of the navy [see Briggs, Sir John Thomas]. It was in his connection with this office that he was consulted as to the new edition of the ‘Admiralty Instructions,’ issued in January 1806; and it was to a great extent on his advice, in correspondence with Lord Gambier, that the long-established order for ships of war to compel all foreign ships to salute the king's flag within the narrow seas was omitted. In January 1809 he was appointed commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, and was thus president of the court-martial which tried and acquitted Lord Gambier in August 1809 [see Cochrane, Thomas, Earl of Dundonald; Gambier, James, Lord]. He had long been Gambier's intimate friend; but independently of that, his whole career shows that his personal courage was so tempered by prudence as to lead to sympathy with that excess of caution with which Gambier was charged. In 1815 he was made a G.C.B., and died on 14 Nov. 1816.

He married Sarah, daughter and coheiress of Mr. Brady of Gatcombe House, Portsea, Hampshire, and had by her a daughter and two sons, of whom Roger, the eldest, died, a post-captain, before his father; the other, Lucius, the second baronet, died, admiral of the fleet, in 1869.

[Naval Chronicle (with a fancy portrait), vi. 261; Annual Biog. and Obit. i. 380; Ralfe's Nav. Biog. ii. 32.]

J. K. L.