Royal Navy obituary in the Times newspaper
Royal Navy obituary in the Times newspaper

Royal NavyObituaries

The following obituary for Henry Keppel appeared in the Times newspaper.

Obituary in the Times newspaper
18 January 1904


We regret to announce the death, of the Hon. Sir Henry Keppel, Admiral of the Fleet, at his London residence, Albany-chambers, yesterday afternoon, in his 95th. year. The distinguished Admiral had been ill about a fortnight. Captain Colin Keppel, R.N., was summoned to his father’s bedside a week ago, and was joined by the Admiral’s daughter, Mrs. Hamilton, and other relatives, who were present when the Admiral passed away. As recently as December 14 Sir Henry was received by the King at Buckingham Palace and remained to luncheon with his Majesty.

Admiral of the Fleet the Hon. Sir Henry Keppel, G.C.B., O.M., was born on June 14,1809. He was fourth son of the fourth Earl of Albemarle, brother of the fifth and sixth Earls, and grandnephew of that Viscount Keppel whose story fills so large a part of our naval annals in 1778 and following years, and whose head, in effigy, decorated the sign boards of so many public houses. With this one exception, the aspirations of the family were towards the Army rather than the Navy. The second of the brothers was a soldier, and at the age of 16 was present in the battle of Waterloo; the third was preparing for holy orders; and the high spirit and rollicking disposition of the fourth, Henry, sent him afloat about six months before he was 13. In those times family or political interest had still its value in the Navy; the son of the Earl of Albemarle, the brother of the playmate of the lamented Princess Charlotte, was not likely to linger in the squalor of the midshipmen's berth, and within a few months after attaining the regulation age of 19 young Keppel was promoted to be lieutenant. Four years later, after having served in the Galatea with "Charley" Napier and in the Magicienne, in the East Indies, with Plumridge, he was promoted to the rank of commander, and in 1834-35, in command of the Childers brig, was employed on the south coast of Spain, co-operating with the forces of the Queen-Regent against the Carlists. In December, 1837, he was made captain, and in 1841 took the Dido frigate to China, where he served with distinction during the latter part of the war under the command of Sir William Parker, a peculiarly-crabbed reminiscence of his uncle, the great Earl St. Vincent. After the peace Keppel was sent to Singapore as senior officer on that part of the station. Here he formed an acquaintance, which quickly ripened into a friendship, with "Rajah" Brooke, whom, in the Dido, he carried back to Sarawak, and with whom, for the next 18 months, he acted in suppressing and rooting out the ingrained piracy of the Borneo tribes, or at least in persuading them that in presence of an English frigate it was safer to put a check on their inclinations. But in the process many brilliant little boat actions were fought, in which the pirates won the regard of their opponents by their unflinching bravery and their warlike genius, in which respects Keppel aptly compared them to the Vikings of 900 or 1,000 years ago. They had not, however, the Vikings' luck, and, instead of founding kingdoms or dynasties, they were nearly exterminated by the superior force of the Dido, which, in August, 1844, in conjunction with the East India Company's steamer Phlegethon, destroyed their chief town and with it their fleet, to the number of some 300 prahus. The Dido was paid off in the summer of 1845; but two years later Keppel was again on the same station in command of the Mæander, in which he afterwards traversed the Pacific, visited Australia, then scarcely even rising into importance, and in 1851 returned to England round Cape Horn, a circumnavigation which was then still considered noteworthy, but which he lived to see become an every-day experience.

In 1853, when war with Russia appeared imminent, Keppel was appointed to the St. Jean d’Acre, carrying 100 guns on two decks, perhaps the finest of the early screw line of battleships, which in the following year divided with the Duke of Wellington the honour of being "the show ship" of the Baltic fleet. Without having had any exceptional opportunities, Keppel had won a reputation as a dashing officer, careless alike of danger or responsibility; and in 1854 or 1855 younger officers used to amuse themselves in speculating what "Harry" Keppel would do in the Acre if he had only a free hand. The speculation was, of course, idle, for neither in the Baltic nor yet in the Black Sea, where she went in the winter of 1854, was there any work which the Acre could possibly do. In July, 1855, he was moved to the Rodney, an old sailing ship, in order to take command of the Naval Brigade on shore before Sevastopol, with which he continued till the fall of the fortress. His service was reworded by the Cross of the Legion of Honour, the Medjidieh of the Third Class, and, on February 4, 1856, the C.B. In the autumn of the same year he commissioned the Raleigh as commodore and second in command on the China Station. His reputation, combined with his family interest, gave the ship a certain aristocratic character somewhat unusual in the service. Both among the commissioned and junior officers there were many who were of social, and who have since become of professional, distinction. Goodenough, who was afterwards killed in the South Sea by a treacherous islander’s arrow, was her first lieutenant; Prince Victor of Hohenlohe and Lord Gilford (now Admiral of the Fleet the Earl of Clanwilliam) were also lieutenants; Vice-Admiral Lord Charles Scott, Vice-Admiral Sir Henry Stephenson, commanding the Channel Fleet, Rear-Admiral Arthur Wilson, V.C., Controller of the Navy, and Rear-Admiral the Hon. Victor Montagu, who has lately published his "Recollections," were amongst her midshipmen.

On his way to China Keppel received news of the war which had broken out and of the pressing need which the Admiral was in for reinforcements. Every exertion was made to hurry the ship to Hong-kong, and she had arrived within some 50 miles of her destination when, with a fair wind and under a press of sail, she struck on a sharp-pointed, conical, and till then unknown, rock. So steep-to was this rock that less than 20ft. to right or left would have carried the ship clear. As it was, her bow was stove in, and as she was backed off her perch it was at once clear that she was sinking. With difficulty she got to Macao, where the Portuguese sent boats to her assistance. But nothing could be done to save the ship, which bedded herself in the mud, and was gradually filled by it. Keppel bewailed his hard fate in being thus made the means of improving our charts. It had been his luck, he said, during his service to discover 17 rocks, unknown till he ran his ship on them, though till now without serious damage. A Court-martial acquitted him of all blame, and is, from the naval point of view, principally remarkable for the legal decision, that it had to be accepted as the official announcement that the Raleigh was no longer in existence and that Keppel was, therefore, ipso facto, put on the half-pay list.

Before that, however, he had taken a very active part in the operations in the Canton river, with his broad pennant flying on board the Hong Kong, a small river steamer chartered by the Admiralty. On June 1, 1857, the attack on the grand fleet of Chinese war junks in the upper reaches of Fatshan Creek was entrusted to him; and under his personal command the whole, some 70 in number, with the exception of two or three, were set on fire and burnt. The junks were well placed, the position had been carefully prepared, the stream obstructed, distances measured, and guns laid; the Chinese, too, fought stoutly, and inflicted considerable loss on our boats. Keppel's galley was sunk, and five out of the six men who manned her were killed or wounded. His gallant and judicious conduct on this occasion brought him a highly complimentary letter from the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Michael Seymour; and from the Crown, on Seymour's warm recommendation, the K.C.B. Some six weeks after the action Keppel became a Rear-Admiral, in course of seniority. He would gladly have stayed out in China, at any rate till the war was ended, and the Admiralty might easily have sent him his commission, with an order to hoist his flag; but they decided to stick to the letter of the rule which had been laid down, and Keppel returned to England on half-pay.

Through 1859-60 he held the post of Groom-in-Waiting to the Queen, but resigned it in May, 1860, on being appointed Commander-in-Chief at the Cape of Good Hope, with his flag in the Forte frigate. It was understood that some friction or unpleasant feeling between him and the Governor of Cape Colony led to his being some little time after transferred to the Brazilian command. On June 11, 1864, he became a Vice-Admiral, and from 1867 to 1869 was Commander-in-Chief in China. He became full Admiral on July 3, 1869, was made a G.C.B. on May 20, 1871, and was Commander-in-Chief at Devonport from 1872 to 1875. On August 6, 1876, he was promoted to the rank of Admiral of the Fleet, and on March 9, 1878, was appointed first and principal Naval Aide-de-Camp to Queen Victoria. On June 15,1879, having attained the regulation ago of 70, he was put on the retired list. Since then he has been a familiar figure in society and at his club, and has been recognized as, in a special degree, a favourite and friend of the King, and naturally also of his fellow-sailor, Vice-Admiral the Prince of Wales, to whom he has always been "Uncle Harry."

His jovial temperament and hearty manner everywhere won him friends, in the Service or out of it; officers and men who had served with him once were anxious to be with him again; those who had not been with him were anxious for the experience. His ships were always in good effective order, though his liberal ideas were often said by outsiders to savour more of the privateer than the man-of-war. Amongst other innovations tending to the comfort of both officers and men was his relaxation of the stringent orders against smoking. He even permitted it in the night watches. He would rather - he used to say - that the officer of the middle watch should smoke a pipe than go to sleep - a notion which in the "fifties," with the memories of "Billy" Parker still dominant, seemed flat blasphemy.

In 1846 he published an interesting account of the Dido's work among the Borneo pirates, enriched, too, with copious extracts from Brooke's journal. More recently, in 1898, he published "The Voyage of the Mæander" and "Reminiscences." His memoirs, published in 1899 under the title of "A Sailor’s Life under Four Sovereigns," attracted more than ordinary attention, for it was felt that in them, in the evening of his life, he took into his confidence the public which had loved his name, and which came to understand that many of the myths that were put abroad about him had at any rate some foundation in fact. The Admiral of the Fleet was a capital raconteur, and the book was packed with good yarns which lost nothing in the dry way in which they were told. But it was no mere collection of reminiscences; the volumes were almost entirely filled from the text of journals written at the time; they presented a clear and truthful picture of life in the Navy from 1822 to 1870, and the anecdotes were interspersed with more serious criticisms of men and things to which the character of the writer gave an especial interest and a particular value.

Sir Henry Keppel was appointed a member of the Order of Merit upon its institution in the summer of 1902, and, notwithstanding his great age, he attended the banquet which was given by the Athenaeum to the members of the Order in July of that year. He was twice married - first, in 1839, to Katherine Louisa, daughter of General Sir John Crosbie, who died in 1859; and, secondly, in 1861, to Jane Elizabeth, daughter of Mr. Martin J. West, who died in 1895. By his second wife he had a son, Captain Colin R. Keppel, R.N., C.B., D.S.O., now flag captain on the Pacific Station, and a daughter, Maria Walpole, the wife of Captain F.T. Hamilton, R.N.

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