Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Kempenfelt, Richard
KEMPENFELT, RICHARD (1718–1782), rear-admiral, was born at Westminster in 1718. His father, Magnus Kempenfelt, a native of Sweden, is said to have been in the service of James II, to have followed him to France, but to have afterwards returned to England, entered the English army, and attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel. In December 1703 he married Anne Hunt, described as a spinster, aged 24; his own age is given as 38 (Chester, Marriage Licenses). In 1725 and 1726 he was lieutenant-governor of Jersey, and seems to have died about 1727, leaving two sons and two daughters. One of the sons, Gustavus Adolphus, was a captain in the 57th regiment.
The other son, Richard, entered the navy, served in the West Indies at the celebrated taking of Portobello, and on 14 Jan. 1740–1741 was promoted by Vernon to be lieutenant of the Strafford, then carrying his flag. After the failure at Cartagena, Kempenfelt was moved into the Superbe, and again into the Seahorse frigate. He returned to England towards the end of 1746. In September 1748 he was appointed to the Anson with Captain Nutt, and afterwards with Captain Charles Holmes [q. v.] In January 1755 he joined the Lichfield under the command of Captain Charles Steevens [q. v.], whom in April he followed to the Orford as first lieutenant. On 5 May 1756 he was promoted to command the Lightning fireship, and on 17 Jan. 1757 to be captain of the Elizabeth, bearing the broad pennant of Steevens, going out to the East Indies as commodore and second in command. In the Elizabeth he took part in the actions of 29 April and 3 Aug. 1758 [see Pocock, Sir George]; after which he was appointed to the Queenborough frigate, but in a few months rejoined Steevens, now a rear-admiral, on board the Grafton, which he commanded in the action of 10 Sept. 1759. On Steevens becoming commander-in-chief, Kempenfelt accompanied him to the Norfolk, and took part in the reduction of Pondicherry. He gave an account of this expedition in a letter to Pocock which was printed in the ‘Gentleman's Magazine’ for 1846 (i. 482). When Steevens died, Rear-admiral Samuel Cornish [q. v.] hoisted his flag on board the Norfolk, retaining Kempenfelt as his flag-captain, in which capacity he was present at the reduction of Manila; and being detached to take possession of Cavite, was specially requested by Sir William Draper [q. v.] to act as governor of that place. He was then sent home with despatches; and, returning to the East Indies, resumed the command of the Norfolk, and brought her to England in 1764. He is said to have spent a considerable part of the following years travelling in France and elsewhere on the continent; some also in travelling by sea, for one of his short poems is noted ‘written at sea near the island of Sicily, 20 May 1769,’ at which date he was on half-pay. During the dispute with Spain about the Falkland Islands in 1770, he commanded the Buckingham, which was paid off in the next year. In October 1778 he was appointed to the Alexander, and sat as a member of the court-martial on Sir Hugh Palliser [q. v.] in the following April. He was afterwards appointed captain of the fleet to Sir Charles Hardy the younger [q. v.], as also in 1780 to Sir Francis Geary [q. v.] and Vice-admiral George Darby [q. v.]
On 26 Sept. 1780 he was advanced to be rear-admiral of the blue, but continued with Darby till towards the end of 1781, when, with his flag in the Victory, he was directed to put to sea in command of twelve ships of the line and some frigates, and intercept a French squadron and convoy, reported as bound for the West Indies. He was instructed that this squadron would consist of not more than seven ships; but when he sighted it, on 12 Dec., some fifty leagues to the south-west of Ushant, he found it consisting of nineteen. Every available ship had been sent, under the command of De Guichen, who had the reputation of one of the most skilful tacticians in the French navy. Kempenfelt at once saw that it was impossible for him to attack such a superior force; but he noticed that De Guichen, forming his line of battle between the English squadron and the convoy, had placed himself to leeward of the convoy. Kempenfelt immediately took advantage of the blunder. Under a press of sail he passed astern of the French line, and dashed in among the convoy; captured fifteen of them, sank two or three more, and dispersed the rest, five of which were afterwards picked up. De Guichen, with a fleet of nearly double the force of the English, was powerless. Two only of the French ships, with a few of the transports, pursued the voyage; the rest, with the scattered remnants of the convoy, returned to Brest, while Kempenfelt carried his twenty prizes into Plymouth or Spithead, as the trophies of what was perhaps the most dashing and brilliant feat of the whole war (Beatson, Nav. and Mil. Memoirs, vi. 319; Chevalier, Histoire de la Marine française pendant la Guerre de l'Indépendance Américaine, p. 279).
On Lord Howe's taking the command of the fleet in April 1782, Kempenfelt hoisted his flag on board the Royal George as one of the junior admirals, and continued with the fleet during the summer cruise. On 15 Aug. the fleet anchored at Spithead, and was ordered to refit with all possible haste and proceed to the relief of Gibraltar. While so refitting, it was necessary to give the Royal George a slight heel to get at a leak a few inches below the water-line. This was done on 29 Aug. by running her guns over to the other side. The ship was old and rotten, and the disturbance of her weights brought on her crazy structure a strain which it could not stand. With a loud crack it gave way; a great piece of her bottom fell out; and the ship sank almost instantly (Minutes of the Court-Martial) [see Durham, Sir Philip]. Besides the crew, a very large number of people, tradesmen, women and children were on board; the exact number lost was not known, but it was estimated at not less than eight hundred. The admiral was at the time in his cabin, and perished with the others. The disaster is commemorated in Cowper's ‘Loss of the Royal George.’
It will have been noticed that almost the whole of Kempenfelt's service as a captain was in immediate connection with a flag officer. His attention had thus been directed towards the very imperfect and clumsy system of signalling which had been in vogue from the time of Charles II; and during his later years, as captain of the grand fleet, he had introduced a radical alteration, which was afterwards adopted and improved on by Lord Howe. A manuscript copy of Kempenfelt's signals is preserved in the library of the Royal United Service Institution. Kempenfelt also wrote a few ‘Original Hymns and Poems,’ which were published in 1777, under the pseudonym of ‘Philotheorus.’ His portrait, the bequest of his brother, is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich.[Charnock's Biog. Nav. vi. 246; Ralfe's Naval Biog. i. 215; Gent. Mag. 1846, ii. 39–41; Thicknesse's Autobiography; Commission and Warrant Books P. R. O.]