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Philip Charles Durham

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Philip Charles Durham

Sir Philip Durham
Portrait as a Vice Admiral (about 1820)
Artist - Sir Henry Raeburn
Born (1763-07-29)29 July 1763
Largo, Fife, Scotland
Died 2 April 1845(1845-04-02) (aged 81)
Naples, Italy
Place of burial Largo church, Largo, Fife, Scotland
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch Royal Navy
Rank Admiral
Commands held Portsmouth Command
Battles/wars American War of Independence
French Revolutionary War
Napoleonic Wars
Awards Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath

Admiral Sir Philip Charles Calderwood Henderson Durham, GCB (29 July 1763 – 2 April 1845) was a Royal Navy officer whose service in the American War of Independence, French Revolutionary War and Napoleonic Wars was lengthy, distinguished and at times controversial.


Destined to be one of the luckiest men in the Georgian Navy, Philip Charles Durham was born in Spithead. Being on deck, Durham was able to jump overboard and swim to safety, but the Admiral [5] and over 800 persons lost their lives.

Durham was transferred to HMS Union in which he saw further service at the siege of Gibraltar before making a cruise to the West Indies and then another one down the African coast in HMS Raisonnable as a junior lieutenant.[6] With failing health and the end to the war that year however, Durham was temporarily retired from the navy and spent the next two years living in France before returning to the sea. In 1786 he served in HMS Barfleur.

The emergency in 1790 brought him promotion to Commander on 2 November 1790 and command of HMS Daphne. From there he moved in 1791 to HMS Cygnet.

On 12 February 1793 Durham took command of the small brig HMS Spitfire. Spitfire was pierced for 14 guns but only carried ten.[7]

The next day he captured the French privateer Afrique. The capture of Afrique was the first capture of the war of a vessel flying La tricolore. For this feat Lloyd's of London gave him a piece of plate worth 100 guineas,[7] or £300,[8] their first such award of the war.[7]

Durham received promotion to post captain on 24 June 1793 and command of the frigate HMS Narcissus. From her, on 22 October, he moved to HMS Hind.

In Hind he brought in a convoy of 157 merchant ships from the Mediterranean in the face of enemy opposition. This feat provoked accolades and rewards, and he took over the frigate HMS Anson in 1796. Anson was the biggest frigate in the Navy, cut down (razeed) from a ship of the line to oppose large French frigates, and in her fought numerous actions, especially at the Battle of Donegal in October 1798.[9]

Signature of Captain Durham on a document after Trafalgar

On 28 March 1799 he married Lady Charlotte Matilda Bruce,[10] daughter of royal governess Lady Elgin and sister of the Lord Elgin of Elgin Marbles fame, and continued his service in home waters [11] until the Peace of Amiens. Following the resumption of hostilities, Durham was given HMS Defiance, which he took to join Admiral Sir Robert Calder's fleet in 1804 and participated in the battle of Cape Finisterre[12] after which he was informally reprimanded by Calder for being "over zealous" in pursuit of the enemy. Following the battle Admiral Calder requested a court martial to acquit his own conduct and called Captain Durham to appear in his defence along with two other captains. Unlike his two comrades, Durham flatly refused to leave his ship which had been repaired at Portsmouth and specially requested by Lord Nelson and so was still in command at the Battle of Trafalgar a few months later. The other two captains, William Brown and William Lechmere commanding HMS Ajax and HMS Thunderer missed the battle whilst in England.

Philip Charles Durham in the dress uniform of a post-captain of over three years seniority (not a good likeness).
Artist James Northcote

At the Battle of Trafalgar, Defiance headed straight for the Spanish flagship Principe de Asturias but was blocked by the Berwick. Deliberately ramming her opponent, Defiance tore off most of the French ship's bow and devastatingly raked her before fighting a long gun duel with the battered Aigle as the Berwick wallowed in her wake (she sank after the battle). The Defiance was unable to gain the upper hand against the Aigle, and so a young midshipman named Jack Spratt swam between the ships and leaped on board, fighting alone against the entire French crew until support could be given from his ship. The British crew then swarmed across the Frenchman and captured her. Durham was twice wounded in the hand-to-hand combat, but was highly praised by both Admiral Collingwood and Thomas Masterman Hardy for his actions. Retiring with his battered ship (which had suffered 17 men killed 53 wounded, and heavy damage), Durham arrived in England in time to take part in Calder's court-martial anyway, as well as be a banner bearer at Nelson's funeral.

Following his recovery and receipt of the usual awards for a Trafalgar captain, Durham was transferred to raconteur.

His semi-retirement was punctuated in 1830 with a promotion to full admiral [19] and conferment as a Knight Grand Cross of the Order of the Bath on 1 December. He was later a Member of Parliament for Queenborough in 1830 and Devizes in 1834 and naval Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth [20] and was the second president of the Army and Navy Club in London.

He came to add the names Henderson [21] and Calderwood [22] to his own as part of a deal in order to gain inheritances from elderly relatives. Following his second wife's death in 1844, Durham journeyed to Italy on private business, making it to Rome and Naples before he was struck down at age 81 by bronchitis. He died a short while later, on 2 April 1845, his remains being returned to Largo for burial in the family vault. He had an illegitimate daughter, Ann Bower (1789/90 - 1858), but left no further descendants.

Memorial at Largo church, East Fife

"In memory of Sir Philip Charles Henderson Calderwood Durham of Fordell, Polton and Largo, Admiral of the Red, Knight Grand Cross of Bath and of military merit in France. He was born on 29 July 1763 entered the R.N at 14 and was made Post Captain in 1793, his activity, gallantry, judgement and zeal were excelled by none in his profession and his numerous captures and successes were acknowledged by many public testimonials. He became Rear Admiral in 1810 with Commander in Chief for he West Indies from 1813 till peace in 1815 and held the command at Portsmouth from 1837-1839, he represented Queensburgh and Devises in several Parliaments, but passed his later years chiefly at Fordel. Courted in society and generously spending an ample fortune, in 1799 he married Lady Charlotte Matilda Bruce, daughter of Charles, 5th Earl of Elgin who died in 1816 and secondly in 1817 Ann Elizabeth, daughter and heiress of Sir John Henderson of Fordell, Baronet, whom he survived only 3 months, he died at Naples on the 2.4.1845 and was interred beneath the West Isle of this Church. Erected by his Great Nephew James Wolfe Murray of Cringletie 1849."

Further reading

  • Trafalgar Captain: Durham of the Defiance, Hilary Rubinstein, Tempus Publishing Ltd, 2005, ISBN 0-7524-3435-7
  • The Trafalgar Captains, Colin White and the 1805 Club, Chatham Publishing, London, 2005, ISBN 1-86176-247-X


  1. ^ Siblings were:-
    • (1754 - 1840) James Durham (later General)
    • (1756 - 1815) Thomas Durham
    • (1760 - 1791) Margaret Strange (née Durham)
    • (1764 - 1786) William Durham
  2. ^ (1732 - 1808)
  3. ^ Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy, subsequently court-martialed as a result of his actions in the Battle 1 June 1794.
  4. ^ Was selected to assist with signals
  5. ^ Richard Kempenfelt
  6. ^ Lieutenant 26 December 1782.
  7. ^ a b c O'Byrne (1849), Vol. 1, p.319.
  8. ^ Long (1895), p.432.
  9. ^ 12 October 1798
  10. ^ (28 March 1771 – 21 February 1816)
  11. ^ 1800 1803 in HMS Endymion (1797)
  12. ^ 22 July 1805
  13. ^ Rear Admiral of the Blue 31 July 1810, of the White 12 August 1812, of the Red 4 June 1814
  14. ^ Flew his flag on:-
  15. ^ 2 January 1815
  16. ^ 15 October 1817
  17. ^ (28 January 1782 – 18 December 1844)
  18. ^ Vice Admiral of the Blue 12 August 1819, of the White 19 July 1821, of the Red 27 May 1825
  19. ^ Admiral of the Blue 1 December 1830, of the White 10 January 1837, of the Red 23 November 1841
  20. ^ (1836–1839)
  21. ^ 1817
  22. ^ 1840


  • O’Byrne, William R. (1849) A naval biographical dictionary: comprising the life and services of every living officer in Her Majesty's navy, from the rank of admiral of the fleet to that of lieutenant, inclusive. (London: J. Murray).
  • Long, William H. (1895) Medals of the British navy and how they were won: with a list of those officers, who for their gallant conduct were granted honorary swords and plate by the Committee of the Patriotic Fund. (London: Norie & Wilson).

External links

  • Admiral Durham bio
  • Hansard 1803–2005: contributions in Parliament by Philip Charles Durham
  • Army & Navy Club
  • Animation of the Battle of Trafalgar
Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
Ulysses de Burgh, Baron Downes
John Capel
Member of Parliament for Queenborough
With: William Holmes
Succeeded by
John Capel
Thomas Gladstone
Preceded by
Wadham Locke
Montague Gore
Member of Parliament for Devizes
With: Wadham Locke 1834–1835
Thomas Estcourt 1835–1836
Succeeded by
Thomas Estcourt
James Whitley Deans Dundas
Military offices
Preceded by
Sir Thomas Williams
Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth
Succeeded by
Charles Elphinstone Fleeming
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