By Haydn Brown.
Although the story of Royal Navy Captain Sir William Hoste is not so well known as that of Lord Nelson, he is yet another Norfolk hero from the age of the sail and of the Napoleonic Wars of which the County can be proud of. Hoste was to be best known as one of Lord Nelson’s protégés, he was one of the great frigate captains of the Napoleonic wars, taking part in six major actions including the capture of a heavily fortified port. He was however absent from the Battle of Trafalgar having been sent with gifts to the Dey of Algiers. This blog relates to both Hoste’s early relationship with Nelson and also of how Nelson nurtured him and laid the foundation for Hoste’s own fame.
William Hoste was the second of eight children of the Reverend Dixon Hoste (1750–1805) and Margaret Stanforth. At the time of his birth on the 26 August 1780 at Ingoldisthorpe, a village which lay approximately 9 miles north-east of the town King’s Lynn, William’s father was Rector of Godwick and Tittleshall some 20 miles south-east. Later, the family moved there to lease Godwick Manor from Thomas Coke, the eventual 1st Earl of Leicester of Holkham Hall. Hoste was educated for a time at King’s Lynn and later at the Paston School in North Walsham, where Horatio Nelson himself had been schooled some years previously.
As early as 1785, Revd. Dixon Hoste arranged for William’s name to be entered in the books of HMS ‘Europa’ as a Captain’s servant; he was just 5 years old; although he would not actually go to sea until he reached the age of 12 or 13 by which time war with France broke out, that was in February 1793. Lacking any influence or naval contacts himself, the Revd Dixon Hoste asked his landlord, Thomas Coke, for assistance and was introduced to Horatio Nelson, then living nearby in Burnham Thorpe and who had recently been appointed as Captain of HMS Agamemnon a 64-gun third-rate, which was being fitted out at Chatham Dockyard. Nelson accepted William Hoste as a captain’s servant on the Agamemnon which he boarded at Portsmouth at the end of April 1793, just before the ship joined the Mediterranean Fleet under Lord Hood. It was in the Mediterranean and Adriatic that Hoste was to see most of his naval service. Extracts from Nelson’s letters to his wife frequently mention Hoste:
‘without exception one of the finest boys I ever met with’ and ‘his gallantry never can be exceeded, and each day rivets him stronger to my heart’.
These letters suggest that Hoste quickly became a favourite of Nelson, at the expense of another captain’s servant on the Agamemnon who was Josiah Nisbet, Nelson’s own stepson. Even at this stage of the youngsters’ careers Josiah compared unfavourably with that of Hoste in many respects. We do not know what these differences may have been but a brief outline of Josiah Nisbet’s naval career would provide some answers. Hoste became a naval hero, Nisbet ultimately failed miserably.
Josiah Nisbet was five years old when Nelson, his future stepfather, first met his mother in Nevis. After Nelson married Frances ‘Fanny’ Woolward, Josiah spent five years at school in Norfolk. Then at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars in 1793 he joined his stepfather on the 64-gun HMS ‘Agamemnon’ as a midshipman. At first, Nelson was able to write favourably that Josiah’s ‘understanding is excellent, and his disposition is good…… He is a seaman, every inch of him.’ Then, early in 1797, Josiah served as a junior lieutenant on the 74-gun HMS ‘Captain’ at the Battle of St. Vincent, followed by a disastrous night landing and attack at Santa Cruz later that year. It was Josiah who was instrumental in saving Nelson’s life at the battle of Santa Cruz, after the latter’s arm was nearly severed by grape-shot. Having seen him fall, Josiah carried Nelson, bleeding and unconscious, to a waiting boat, where a sailor formed a tourniquet that stopped Nelson from bleeding to death. He then helped to paddle the boat to the safety of a waiting ship, where Nelson’s arm was later amputated.
Regrettably, Nelson’s early ‘good opinion’ of his stepson was not to last – and who’s to say that the thought that Josiah also fell in love with the bewitching Emma Hamilton later in Naples, was not one more factor in Nelson’s change of heart towards his stepson. Certainly, Josiah Nisbet was beginning to display bouts of ill-temper and drunkenness, personality failings that were to blight his career in the Navy. Nelson’s early patronage had Josiah promoted lieutenant and then post-captain within a remarkably short time, and through Nelson’s efforts Josiah had secured command of the 36-gun frigate HMS ‘Thalia’ in the Mediterranean. The Thalia was not to be a happy ship. Captain Nisbet took to messing in the gunroom and discipline and morale plummeted. In 1799 Nelson wrote, when sending HMS Thalia to Admiral Duckworth at Gibraltar that: ‘he could say nothing in her praise, inside or out’, and added – ‘Perhaps you may be able to make something of Captain Nisbet; he has, by his conduct, almost broke my heart.’
It quickly followed that Hoste was promoted to midshipman by Nelson on 1 February 1794 and served with him during the blockade of and subsequent assault on Corsica on 7 February of that year.
HMS Captain and the Battle of Cape St Vincent:
Hoste moved with Nelson to HMS ‘Captain’ in 1796 and was with him at the Battle of Cape St Vincent, when a British fleet under Admiral Sir John Jervis defeated a Spanish fleet almost twice its size. HMS Captain was heavily involved in the fighting and captured the larger ‘San Josef’ and ‘San Nicolas’ of 112 and 80 guns, respectively.
HMS Captain started the battle towards the rear of the British line. Instead of continuing to follow the line, Nelson disobeyed orders and made for the Spanish van, which consisted of the 112-gun San Josef, the 80-gun San Nicolas and the 130-gun Santissima Trinidad. Captain engaged all three, assisted by HMS Culloden which had come to her aid. After an hour of exchanging broadsides which left both Captain and Culloden heavily damaged, Nelson found himself alongside the San Nicolas which he boarded and forced her surrender. San Josef attempted to come to the San Nicolas’s aid, but became entangled with her compatriot and was left immobile. Nelson led his party from the deck of the San Nicolas on to the San Josef and captured her as well.
In June 1797, he transferred to HMS Theseus a 74-gun third-rate. Theseus was a ‘troubled’ ship, and Nelson and a few handpicked officers, including Hoste, Captain Ralph Willett Miller and Lieutenant John Weatherhead, were sent aboard to restore order. The tactic was successful and Nelson received a letter from the would-be mutineers which stated,
“We thank the Admiral (Nelson) for the Officers he has placed over us”.
In July, Theseus was present at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife, although Hoste remained aboard and took no part in the assault. Following the death of a Lieutenant Weatherhead in the battle, Nelson promoted Hoste to lieutenant to fill the vacancy, his position being confirmed, thanks to his ‘book time’ in Europa, in February 1798.
Later that year, Hoste, still aboard HMS Theseus, was at the Battle of the Nile. The Royal Navy fleet was outnumbered, at least in firepower, by the French fleet, which boasted the 118-gun ship-of-the-line L’Orient, three 80-gun warships and nine of the popular 74-gun ships. The Royal Navy fleet in comparison had just thirteen 74-gun ships and one 50-gun fourth-rate. Nevertheless, the battle was a decisive victory for the British.
Following the battle, Nelson sent his report to London, taking the precaution of sending a duplicate in the brig HMS Mutine, commanded by Lieutenant Thomas Capel. At Naples, Capel was to carry on with the dispatch, handing command of Mutine to Hoste. Upon taking command, Hoste became an acting-captain at the age of 18. Hoste, carrying news of the victory, first sailed to Gibraltar, before re-joining the fleet, under St Vincent, off Cadiz. His promotion was confirmed in December 1798.
Hoste continued in command of the HMS Mutine for the next three years, campaigning in Italy under Nelson, where in the autumn of 1799, he took part in the capture of Rome. He later served under Lord Keith, who knew little of him and his career appeared to have stalled until, possibly at Nelson’s prompting, he was promoted post-captain by Lord St Vincent, First Lord of the Admiralty, in January 1802.
At this time, Hoste was in Alexandria, where he contracted malaria and then a lung infection, which were to have a lasting effect on his health. He convalesced with Lord and Lady Elgin in Athens, where he began an education in classical antiquity, completed following his appointment to the frigate HMS Greyhound in Florence, when his ship was cruising on the Italian coast. Hoste served almost continuously throughout the Peace of Amiens, returning to England briefly in April 1803 before being given command of HMS Eurydice in October.
Nelson summoned Hoste to Cadiz in September 1805 and gave him command of the 32-gun frigate HMS Amphion. Sent on a diplomatic mission to Algiers, he missed the Battle of Trafalgar by a matter of days, and only learned of Nelson’s death on his return in November. He wrote to his father –
“Not to have been in it is enough to make one mad, but to have lost such a friend besides is really sufficient to almost overwhelm me” (Hoste’s letters).
A number of successes while engaged on active service in the Mediterranean over the following 18 months brought Hoste to the attention of Lord Collingwood, who sent him into the Adriatic Sea. Here he single-handedly conducted an aggressive campaign against enemy shipping and coastal installations, bringing coastal trade with the enemy more or less to a halt. It was said that by the end of 1809, Hoste and his crew had captured or sunk over 200 enemy ships.
His endeavours were rewarded with command, as commodore, of a small detachment of frigates, comprising HMS Amphion, HMS Active (36 guns), HMS Volage (22 guns) and HMS Cerberus (32 guns), operations continued and by establishing a base at Lissa, now known as Vis, Hoste was able to dominate the Adriatic with just four ships. In March and April 1810 alone, they took or destroyed 46 vessels.
The French and their allies became so frustrated by the disruption to their shipping that a Franco-Venetian squadron, under the command of an aggressive frigate commander named Bernard Dubourdieu, was dispatched to attack Hoste’s small force in what became known as the Battle of Lissa.
The Battle of Lissa was a naval action fought on 13 March 1811. It was between a British frigate squadron, led by William Hoste, and a larger squadron of French and Italian frigates and smaller ships led by Bernard Dubourdieu during the Adriatic campaign of the Napoleonic Wars. Dubourdieu’s squadron of seven frigates and four smaller warships possessed a total of 276 guns and nearly 2,000 men which significantly outnumbered Hoste with his 4 frigates and mounting only 124 guns and manned by less than 900 men. The engagement was fought in the Adriatic Sea for possession of the strategically important island of Lissa (also known as Vis), from which the British squadron had been disrupting French shipping in the Adriatic. The French needed to control the Adriatic to supply a growing army in the Illyrian Provinces, and consequently dispatched an invasion force in March 1811 consisting of six frigates, numerous smaller craft and a battalion of Italian soldiers.
In the subsequent battle, Hoste sank the French flagship, captured two others, and scattered the remainder of the Franco-Venetian squadron. The battle has been hailed as an important British victory, due to both the disparity between the forces and the signal raised by Hoste, a former subordinate of Horatio Nelson. Hoste had raised the message “Remember Nelson” as the French bore down, and had then manoeuvred to drive Dubourdieu’s flagship ashore and scatter his squadron in what has been described as “one of the most brilliant naval achievements of the war”. Dubourdieu was killed and apart from the French frigate that was driven on shore, another was captured and two of the Venetian frigates were taken. Hoste’s signal had a profound effect on his men. It was universally greeted with loud cheers and Captain Hornby of the Volage wrote of it later:
“Never again so long as I live shall I see so interesting or so glorious moment”.
Cattaro, Spalato and Ragusa:
The Siege of Cattaro was fought between a British Royal Naval detachment and Montenegrin forces under Captain William Hoste, John Harper and Petar I Petrović-Njegoš respectively and the French garrison under command of Jean-Joseph Gauthier of the mountain fortress of Cattaro (now Kotor, Montenegro). The siege lasted from 14 October 1813 to 3 January 1814 during the Adriatic campaign of the Napoleonic Wars when the French surrendered; the engagement was fought in the Adriatic Sea for possession of the important fortress of Cattaro.
HMS Amphion was so badly damaged that she was obliged to return to England, where Hoste was given the command of HMS Bacchante (38 guns), although he did not return to the Adriatic in her until 1812. Hoste continued to demonstrate the same kind of initiative and aggression as before. He helped capture Spalato (Split) in November 1813 with the assistance from the 35th regiment of foot. Then working with Montenegran forces, he attacked the mountain fortress of Cattaro, hauling ships’ cannon and mortars to positions above the fort using block and tackle. The French garrison had no alternative but to surrender, which it did on 5 January 1814. Hoste immediately repeated these tactics at Ragusa (now Dubrovnik), which also surrendered later on the 27th.
Hoste’s health, compromised by his malaria and earlier lung infection, worsened and he was forced to return to England. In 1814, he was made a baronet, and in 1815 he was knighted KCB. In 1825, he was appointed to the royal yacht Royal Sovereign. Then in January 1828, he developed a cold which affected his already weakened lungs, and he died of tuberculosis in London on 6 December 1828. He was buried in St John’s Chapel, London.
William Hoste married Lady Harriet Walpole (1 March 1792 – 18 April 1875) on 17 April 1817. She was the daughter of Horatio Walpole, 2nd Earl of Orford and Sophia Churchill. They had the following children:
Caroline Harriet Clementina Hoste.
Priscilla Anne Hoste (Unknown – 21 October 1854).
Admiral Sir William Legge George Hoste (19 March 1818 – 10 Sept 1868).
Theodore Oxford Raphael Hoste (31 July 1819 – 1835).
Psyche Rose Elizabeth Hoste (4 April 1822 – 8 July 1904).
Wyndham Horatio Nelson Hoste (2 Feb 1825 –).
Hoste’s actions at Cattaro and Ragusa were later immortalised in fiction, where they are attributed to Captain Jack Aubrey, the principal character in Patrick O’Brian’s 20 novels of the Aubrey–Maturin series. A small island in the entrance to the bay of Vis town is named Hoste Island after him, while the Sir William Hoste Cricket Club in Vis was founded by the Croatian islanders after learning that he had organised the game there during the British occupation of the island.
Once, while in conversation with Hoste’s father, Nelson remarked:
“His worth as a man and an officer exceeds all which the sincerest friend can say of him. I pray God to bless my dear William.”
Lord Radstock once wrote:
“I look at you [Hoste] as the truly worthy eleve [Noun. élève – masculine, referring to a boy] of my incomparable and ever to be lamented friend the late Lord Nelson.”
The following clip is mainly about Nelson but does briefly mention Hoste: https://youtu.be/rMqm0cUXUas
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