Page:Dictionary of National Biography volume 29.djvu/366

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admiralty conveyed to St. Vincent the king's express commands that the challenge was not to be accepted. A copy of their letter was also sent to Orde, as explaining St. Vincent's refusal to meet him, and there, so far as the principals were concerned, the affair terminated. St. Vincent was still very feeble. His disorder, of a dropsical character, was aggravated by the bitter cold of the winter. But with a spell of milder weather the symptoms took a favourable turn, and, as the admiralty had repeatedly expressed a wish that he should take command of the Channel fleet, in which a dangerous spirit of mutiny still existed, he suddenly announced his intention of going afloat. ‘The king and the government require it,’ he said, ‘and the discipline of the British navy demands it. It is of no consequence to me whether I die afloat or ashore.’

His assumption of the command was anything but pleasing to the majority of the captains in the fleet. The severity of his rule in the Mediterranean was well known by repute, and it is said that on the mere rumour of his appointment one captain gave as a toast at the table of Lord Bridport, the then commander-in-chief, ‘May the discipline of the Mediterranean never be introduced into the Channel fleet.’ The story was perfectly well known to St. Vincent (Tucker, ii. 70); but no sooner had he hoisted his flag than he not only issued the same orders which had caused this very strong feeling, but in many instances strengthened them to suit the existing circumstances. There is no doubt that some of these orders were extremely irksome; but they were so well adapted to the emergency and were at the time so necessary that it seems strange that men who were deservedly held to be good officers should have been so bitterly hostile to them. The one which excited the strongest feeling was the revival of a partially disused order that the captain of the ship which had the guard should be present on shore night and day when the fleet was watering. Others, which were curtailments of customary privileges, were that no boat should be away after sunset, that no officer on ordinary day-leave was to go more than three miles from the landing-place, and that no officer should sleep on shore. Against these, and this last more especially, the officers' families revolted, and one angry lady is described as giving ‘in full coterie, as a bumper toast, “May his next glass of wine choke the wretch”’ (ib. ii. 37 n.). For all this, however, St. Vincent cared nothing, and any manifestation of ill-will on the part of the officers themselves was summarily repressed by a strong hint, most commonly conveyed through the captain of the fleet, Sir Thomas Troubridge [q. v.] Whether a milder and more sympathetic rule might not have answered equally well may be doubted. Nelson, whose own very different system, under very different circumstances, has been often referred to as a proof, thought not (Tucker, ii. 51; Nicolas, iv. 184), and at any rate St. Vincent's end was gained. His discipline, combined with many improvements in routine and organisation, led to the most beneficial results in the conduct, health, and efficiency of the ships' companies; in evidence of which it is stated that the fleet kept its station off Brest, without a break, for 121 days, from May to September 1800, and that when it returned to Torbay in November there were only sixteen cases for hospital.

On the formation of the Addington ministry in the spring of 1801 St. Vincent accepted the post of first lord of the admiralty, Troubridge and Captain John Markham [q. v.] joining him as the junior sea-lords, while the other members of the board were civilians. He brought to the admiralty the same close attention to detail which had distinguished him in his commands afloat; and, with his exact and comprehensive knowledge, he was able to point out and prevent many of the gross abuses which were eating into the strength of the navy. In the trial of The King v. Owen and Mardle on 10 July 1801 it was stated by the attorney-general, for the prosecution, that ‘it was a fact capable of the strictest proof that the depredations upon the king's naval stores did not annually amount to less than 500,000l.’ (Naval Chronicle, vi. 242). This referred only to actual stealing; the loss from waste, from carelessness, from extravagance, and from malversation was very much greater.

Of all this St. Vincent had long had a general knowledge. Nearly a year before he came into office he had written: ‘Nothing but a radical sweep of our dockyards can do any good, and that can only be accomplished in a peace’ (Tucker, ii. 142). But the war was still raging, and his first care had to be given to the equipment of the fleet for the Baltic, rendered more difficult by a threatened strike among the shipwrights, who took advantage of the emergency to demand that their pay should be permanently doubled. St. Vincent's reply was to order the delegates into the street, to send down a committee of investigation to each dockyard, and, on their report, to dismiss every man who had taken a prominent part in the ‘combination.’ When the victory at Copenhagen and the