In these image conscious times Admiral Augustus Keppel (1725-86), with few teeth and a cripplingly bad back, probably would not qualify as a media hero. However early in 1779, during his court martial in nearby Portsmouth, the newspapers could not get enough of him. His acquittal on 11 February of charges that many saw as politically motivated produced a popular song ( …Tho’ he’s been false-accused, his character abused, still he’s the thing…) also a crop of souvenirs, including this plate, purporting to carry his likeness.
At sea from the age of ten, Keppel was made Acting Lieutenant at sixteen whilst with Commodore Anson on a protracted voyage to attack the Spanish off the coast of South America. Scurvy was rife, leading to the loss of his teeth (the bad back resulted from a fall onboard ship many years later). He went on to serve with distinction in the Seven Years’ War (1756-63) and numerous minor conflicts, rising to Rear Admiral by 1762.
In tandem with his naval career Keppel was an active politician. Unfortunately his allegiance was to the Whig party, opposed by King George III and by the First Lord of the Admiralty. This caused difficulty during the American War of Independence, which the Whigs were against. When put in charge of the Channel Fleet in order to fight America’s ally, France, he foresaw political danger. Sure enough, in 1778 a row with Admiral Hugh Palliser after an action at sea where Keppel performed indifferently grew into accusations of misconduct and neglect of duty and led to his court martial the following year.
The charges did not stick, of course, and by 1783, in a new political climate, he was himself First Lord of the Admiralty and had been created 1st Viscount Keppel. He lived not far away at Bagshot Park Lodge and was elected Knight of the Shire of Surrey in 1780. The house was demolished in 1878 after its last occupant (the physician to Queen Victoria) vacated it in the 1860s.
As an aside, the present house in Bagshot Park was built between 1875-99 for the Duke of Connaught (seventh child and third son of Queen Victoria). It is now the home of HRH Prince Edward Earl of Wessex and the Countess of Wessex.
Whilst Admiral Keppel’s fame was relatively short-lived, his flagship at the Battle of Ushant, the sea action mentioned above, achieved longer lasting recognition, for it marked the first use in war of HMS Victory. As Nelson’s flagship at Trafalgar twenty-seven years later she was to fight a more famous battle under a far greater Admiral.