Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Forbes, John (1714-1796)

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FORBES, JOHN (1714–1796), admiral of the fleet, second son of George, third earl of Granard [q. v.], was born in Minorca on 17 July 1714, and first went to sea in May 1726, on board the Burford, commanded by his uncle, the Hon. Charles Stewart, in the Mediterranean. In 1729 he followed Stewart to the Lion, went out with him to the West Indies, and was made a lieutenant by him in 1731. He afterwards served in that rank on board the Britannia, with Sir John Norris, at Lisbon, and in 1737 was promoted by him to be captain of the Poole. In 1738 he commanded the Port Mahon on the Irish station; in 1739 commanded the Severn of 50 guns in the Channel; in 1740 was moved into the Tiger; and in 1741 into the Guernsey, in which he went out to the Mediterranean. In 1742 he was appointed by Admiral Mathews to the Norfolk of 80 guns, in which ship he took an honourable part in the ill-managed action off Toulon on 11 Feb. 1743–4. In September 1745, ‘there being no appearance of service in the Mediterranean, he quitted the fleet and returned by land to England to take care of his health that was very much impaired’ (Memoirs of the Earls of Granard, p. 173). In the following year he was a witness at the court-martial on Vice-admiral Lestock, against whom his testimony bore heavily; and in 1747, being promoted to be rear-admiral of the blue, he went out overland ‘through Germany and Italy to serve in the fleet in the Mediterranean under Vice-admiral Byng.’ In 1749 he was left commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean; and in 1754, ‘being then at the German Spa, he was offered the command of the squadron preparing for the East Indies; but his health being very imperfect he thought it his duty to decline the service’ (ib. p. 174); and for the same reason he refused the government of New York. He was still in feeble health in 1755 when war with France again broke out; and, being unable to serve at sea, he accepted, in December 1756, a seat at the admiralty, which, with the exception of two months in 1757, he occupied till April 1763. His name is, perhaps, now best known for his honest and sturdy, though curiously illogical, refusal to sign the warrant for the execution of Admiral Byng. In consequence of this disagreement with his colleagues Forbes retired from the board on 6 April, but was reappointed on 29 June 1757. In 1755 he had been promoted to the rank of vice-admiral, and in January 1758 to be admiral of the blue. On quitting the admiralty in 1763 he was appointed general of marines. In 1751 he had been returned to the Irish parliament as member for the borough of St. Johnstown; he was now in 1761 returned for Mullingar. ‘He consented to these returns, the first time to preserve peace in the county, and the second, to support family interest; for he was ever disinclined to be in parliament, and therefore made it a condition when he accepted a place at the admiralty board that he should not be brought into the British parliament’ (ib. p. 175). From this time he took no active part in public business, though he is said to have been frequently consulted on naval affairs. He describes himself as spending much time in reading, his wretched health permitting him little other solace; he, however, wrote a ‘Memoir of the Earls of Granard,’ the manuscript of which, dated in 1770, was published by the Earl of Granard in 1868. In 1770 he was made admiral of the white; and on the death of Lord Hawke in 1781 was advanced to the high rank of admiral of the fleet, which he held till his death on 10 March 1796. A story is told—but with a suspicious want of detail—that the government (at some unfixed date), being desirous of conferring the generalship of marines on ‘a noble lord, very high in the naval profession, and very deservedly a favourite of his sovereign and his country,’ offered Forbes a pension of 3,000l. a year and a peerage to descend to his daughter, in compensation for the resignation which they requested; but that Forbes refused, saying that the generalship of marines was a military employment, and that he would not accept of a pension nor bargain for a peerage; but would lay the generalship of marines and his rank in the navy at the king's feet, ‘entreating him to take both away, if they could forward his service’ (Gent. Mag. vol. lxvi. pt. i. p. 260). It is difficult to see the peculiar nobility of refusing to accept a pension in lieu of a sinecure. And if this had been a military employment the case would have been even worse; since, as we are told, ‘for the last twenty years of his life he was never able to stand; nor could he scarce turn himself in bed without assistance, being lame in both hands and feet. He was a singular instance of longevity accompanied by so much infirmity’ (ib.) His portrait by Romney, now in the Painted Hall at Greenwich (to which it was given by his daughters), corroborates this miserable account. It shows the face of a man not yet old, but worn and pinched.

Forbes married, in 1758, Lady Mary Capel, daughter of William, third earl of Essex, and by her had two daughters, twins; one of whom, Catherine Elizabeth, married the Hon. William Wellesley-Pole, afterwards third Earl of Mornington; the other, Maria Elinor, married the Hon. John Charles Villiers, afterwards third Earl of Clarendon.

[Memoirs of the Earls of Granard; Charnock's Biog. Nav. iv. 338; Naval Chronicle, xxv. 265, with an engraving of Romney's portrait; Gent. Mag. 1796, vol. lxvi. pt. i. p. 260.]

J. K. L.