Captain Philip Browne – a real-life Jack Aubrey

Though I write about naval adventure the latter part of the 19th Century I remain fascinated by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars era – the Great Age of Fighting Sail. Like so many, my interest was first aroused by reading Hornblower when I was a boy and several fine authors, including Patrick O’Brian, have followed splendidly the precedent originally set by C.S. Forester. On occasion however one does wonder if heroes of series fiction have a succession of exploits that are just a little too unlikely, given just how much action they see in their careers. But the truth, when investigated, is often more extraordinary than the fiction.

Captain Edward Pelham Brenton (1774 – 1839)
Author of The Naval History of Great Britain from the Year 1783 to 1822 

Below is a record of what a single Royal Navy officer could achieve in the course of his career. This extract from Brenton’s “Naval History of Britain” (1837) deals with the career of Captain Philip Browne in the Napoleonic period. Jack Aubrey’s pale by comparison and indeed Patrick O’Brian might have made is hero less successful that his real-life counterparts!

“The history of the exertions of this officer in the cause of his country, from the first moment of his entering the naval service, would fill a volume. His watchfulness and activity were never surpassed: his promotion to the rank of post-captain he owes to himself. During the time that he commanded the Swan, hired cutter, the Vixen, gun brig, the Plover, sloop of war and the Hermes, 20-gun ship, he captured:

  • French Privateers…………………………….11
  • Detained Danish vessels ………………….18
  • Re-captured English and others…………14
  • French and Dutch merchant vessels…….5
  • Americans……………………………………….3
  • Smugglers……………………………………..20


Besides the performance of these duties, he produced a clear profit to the revenue of £47,215. He had taken 886 French prisoners and sent 217 able seamen to the fleet. If we add to these the number of vessels recaptured, and the number save from capture by the destruction of the enemy’s privateers, we shall find that his officer proved himself a very valuable servant of the crown.”

Note that:

HMS Vixen was a 14-gun gun-brig launched in 1801 and sold in 1815 (Probably generally similar to teh vessel shown below).

HMS Plover was an 18-gun sloop launched in 1796 and sold in 1819

HMS Hermes was a 20-gun sixth-rate launched in 1811 and burned in 1814 during a highly unsuccessful attack on Fort Bowyer at Mobile Point, Alabama

Brenton’s account above does not however mention the fact that Browne was court-martialled in 1814 for seven charges of “abusive and fraudulent conduct” brought against him by Charles Letch, his lieutenant on the Hermes. Details emerging from depositions made by Browne in his subsequent attempts to clear his name give an interesting insight to how claustrophobic life could be for officers on board ship in this period and how personal relations could deteriorate. In a deposition in which he refers to himself throughout as “your memorialist”, Browne claimed that that Letch, and another lieutenant, John Kent, “had lived in the utmost harmony with your memorialist  until a few weeks before the arrival (in port) of the Hermes, when these officers, especially the first, presuming on the friendship and protection with which your memorialist had long distinguished them, fell into such relaxation of discipline, and into such habits of oppression towards the inferior officers, as made it absolutely necessary at last (however painful) for your memorialist to interfere”. Browne claimed that these aggrieved officers were thereafter motivated by “private pique and malice.”

The popular image of the Press Gang. In practice the most effective method of pressing may have been taking seamen off merchant ships – a measure undertaken by Captain Browne against the master of the Recompense

One of the incidents in which Letch and Kent accused Browne of behaving tyrannically was described by Browne himself in terms that show he was an often-violent man. A merchant-brig, the Recompense, in a convoy escorted by Hermes, almost collided with her. Lieutenant Kent suggested that the Recompense’s master be brought on board Hermes, essentially for a dressing down. The master, very unwisely “on coming on board, behaved even then with great insolence and effrontery; and that your memorialist (i.e. Browne), excessively irritated by his demeanour, and by the insolent threat of personal chastisement, by which the ship-master had so recently outraged his feelings, asked him what he meant by such abuse, and if he could now make good his threat, and face him as a man, and that he, the memorialist, would take no advantage, although in his own ship”. Browne was prepared to settle the matter with his fists “and then threw off his coat for the purpose.” The Recompense’s master was in no mood to risk this and “to avoid fighting, lay down on the deck of his own accord; and your memorialist declaring he would not strike him when down, ordered some marines who stood by to raise him up: but his clothes were not torn; he received no abuse except being called a damned Irishman, nor was the smallest violence offered to him; neither did the memorialist ever attempt to strike him.” Browne then asked the master “if he would meet him on shore singly to execute his threat” – i.e. meet him in a duel – which the wretched master refused.  Browne then “put on his coat and left him, desiring Lieutenant Kent to see him on board (the Recompense) and to press any man that he might find liable.” This latter was especially hard on the master, since he lost seaman through “pressing” – i.e. forcible enlistment in the Navy – and would have found it difficult to complete this voyage with a reduced crew.

The Admiral’s cabin on HMS Victory – the sort of imposing, and intimidating, location in which an officer’s court martial would be held

It is unlikely that members of the Court Martial were particularly shocked by these sorts of incidents – some might have been guilty of the like themselves – and would have merited only a reproof. Two of the seven charges that Letch laid against Browne were however very serious: “fraud on the government, and false muster” – the last implying that the crew list was inflated by “ghosts”, for whom payment would be claimed.

In the event Browne was convicted and dismissed the service, something that reflected heavily on his honour in view of the fraud charge. He fought back, sought legal opinion – which was that the court martial had been ill conducted – and he even had the case raised in parliament. The matter dragged on for two years, to 1816. The law officers of the Crown, declared unhesitatingly that “the proceedings of the court were informal and irregular”, and that there was nothing in the evidence which could warrant the sentence passed against Captain Browne. The outcome was that his name was cleared and he was reinstated in his rank.

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