Home Riggs Popham

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Sir Home Riggs Popham
File:Sir Home Riggs Popham from NPG.jpg
1783 portrait in the uniform of a lieutenant, by an unknown artist
Born (1762-10-12)12 October 1762
Died 20 September 1820(1820-09-20) (aged 57)
Allegiance United Kingdom United Kingdom
Service/branch Naval Ensign of the United Kingdom.svg Royal Navy
Rank Rear Admiral
Commands held Jamaica Station
Battles/wars French Revolutionary Wars
Napoleonic Wars
Awards Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath

Rear Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham, KCB, KCH (12 October 1762 – 2 September 1820), was a Royal Navy commander who saw service against the French during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He is remembered for his scientific accomplishments, particularly the development of a signal code that was adopted by the Royal Navy in 1803.

Early life


Home Popham was born in Gibraltar on 12 October 1762, the fifteenth child of Joseph Popham, British consul at Tétouan in Morocco, and his first wife Mary. It is likely that the child's first name was chosen to honour Gibraltar's former Governor William Home.[1] Mary Popham died an hour after Home was born, from complications associated with the birth.[1] Nine months later Joseph married Catherine Lamb, who became responsible for raising Home and his siblings. The couple also had six more children.[1]

In 1769 Joseph Popham was forced to resign as consul after a personal dispute with the Moroccan Emperor regarding piracy against English merchantmen. The British Government subsequently blamed Joseph Popham for the disagreement, with Gibraltar Governor Edward Cornwallis describing him as an "honest well meaning man" who had met with "little success" and was henceforth "an improper person to serve His Majesty [as consul]."[1] The Popham family returned to England, settling first in Chichester and then Guernsey. Joseph sought further diplomatic postings but was successful only in securing an annual government pension of £200 which was insufficient to cover debts incurred during his Moroccan consulship. The family was forced to rely on income earned by Home's brothers, particularly Stephen Popham who was then a successful barrister. In 1772 Home was sent to Westminster School in London, where he remained for three years. His father Joseph died in Guernsey in 1774.[1]

On 3 January 1776 Home was admitted to further study at Trinity College, Cambridge.[2] His education may have been paid for by his brother Stephen or by Captain Edward Thompson, a family friend.[1] There is no record of Home actually residing in Cambridge or attending lectures. In April 1778 he abandoned his studies and enlisted in the Royal Navy as an able seaman aboard Thompson's newly built frigate HMS Hyaena.[1]

Early voyages

Popham served with the flag of Admiral George Rodney till the end of the American War of Independence. In 1781 he was aboard HMS Shelanagig when the French under the Comte de Grasse captured her near Saint Lucia. Popham was exchanged and returned to service.

In 1783 he was promoted to lieutenant, and was for a time engaged on survey service on the coast of Africa.[3]

Between 1787 and 1793 he was engaged in a series of commercial ventures in the Eastern Sea, sailing, first for the Imperial Ostem Company, and then in a vessel which he purchased and in part loaded himself.[3]

During this time he took several surveys and rendered some services to the British East India Company, which were officially acknowledged. In 1793, however, his ship was seized, partly on the grounds that he was carrying contraband, and partly because he was infringing the East India Company's monopoly. This loss was put at £70,000, and he was entangled in litigation. In 1805 he obtained compensation to the amount of £25,000. The case was a hard one, for he was undoubtedly sailing with the knowledge of officials in India.[3]

Service in the wars with France

While this dispute was going on Popham had resumed his career as a naval officer. He served with the army under the Duke of York in Flanders as "superintendent of Inland Navigation" and won his confidence. The protection of the duke was exercised with so much effect that Popham was promoted commander in 1794 and post captain in 1795. He was then engaged for several years in co-operating in a naval capacity with the troops of Great Britain and her allies.[3]

His bills for the repair of his ship at Calcutta were the excuse for an attack on him and for charging him with the amount. It was just the time of the general reform of the dockyards, and there was much suspicion in the air. It was also the case that Lord St. Vincent did not like Popham, and that Benjamin Tucker (1762–1829), secretary to the admiralty, who had been the admiral's secretary, was his creature and sycophant. However, Popham was not the man to be snuffed out without an effort. He brought his case before Parliament, and was able to prove that there had been, if not deliberate dishonesty, at least the very grossest carelessness on the part of his assailants.[3]

In the spring of 1798 the Admiralty created the Sea Fencibles, a force of coastal militia, following a plan by Popham.[4] On 8 May 1798 Home Popham led an expedition to Ostend to destroy the sluice gates of the Bruge canal. The expedition landed a contingent of 1,300 British Army soldiers under the command of Major General Coote. The contingent burnt the ships in the harbour and blew up the locks and gates on the Canal, but was then forced to surrender as adverse winds prevented their re-embarkation.[5]

In 1801 he was in the Red Sea to support General Baird's expedition to Egypt to help General Ralph Abercromby expel the French there. (On 23 May 1801, he drew 6,000 Spanish dollars for His Majesty's ships on the expedition from the treasury on Cuvera while she was in the Judda road.[6])

Commissioned in 1805 to study the military plans being proposed by Venezuelan revolutionary Francisco de Miranda to the British Government, Popham then persuaded the authorities that, as the Spanish Colonies were discontented, it would be easy to promote a rising in Buenos Aires.[4] After co-operating with Sir David Baird in the occupation of the Cape of Good Hope in 1806, he led the attempt on Buenos Aires with his squadron and 1400 soldiers; but the Spanish colonists, though discontented, were not disposed to accept British rule. They rose against the soldiers who landed, and took them prisoners.[3]

Popham was recalled, and censured by a court martial for leaving his station; but the City of London presented him with a sword of honour for his endeavours to "open new markets",[3] and the sentence did him limited harm.[3] In 1806 he was appointed groom of the bedchamber to the Duke of Gloucester, and in 1807 Lord Gambier appointed him captain of the fleet for the Second Copenhagen Expedition.[4] In 1809 he went on to command HMS Venerable, which he continued to command with success against the French in Spain.[7]

In 1812 and 1813 he was stationed on the northern coast of Spain where he worked with the Spanish guerrillas to successfully harry the French troops and assault French fortresses on the Basque coast while Wellington was advancing through Spain.[4] He was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1814, appointed Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1815 and Knight Commander of the Royal Guelphic Order in 1818.[4] He served as Commander-in-Chief, Jamaica Station from 1817 to 1820.[8]


Popham was Member of Parliament (MP) for Yarmouth from 1804 to 1806, for Shaftesbury from 1806 to 1807, and for Ipswich from 1807 to 1812.

Death and legacy

He died in Cheltenham on 20 September 1820 aged 57, leaving a large family.[3]

Popham was one of the most scientific seamen of his time. He did much useful survey work, and was the author of the code using signal flags adopted by the admiralty in 1803 and used for many years.[3] These were most famously used for the signal "England expects that every man will do his duty". (See that article for a brief description of the code.)


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Popham 1991, pp. 1-6. Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEPopham19911-6" defined multiple times with different content Cite error: Invalid <ref> tag; name "FOOTNOTEPopham19911-6" defined multiple times with different content
  2. "Popham, Home Riggs (PFN776HR)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 3.6 3.7 3.8 3.9 Chisholm 1911, p. 88.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 "Home Riggs Popham". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Retrieved 11 October 2015.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  5. The London Gazette: no. 15017. pp. 421–425. 19 May 1798.
  6. The Asiatic Annual Register Or a View of the History of Hindustan and of the Politics, Commerce and Literature of Asia. (London, D Brett) 1801-12, p.153.
  7. Tracy 2006, pp. 299-300.
  8. Cundall, p. xx


  • Cundall, Frank (1915). Historic Jamaica. West India Committee.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Popham, H. (1991). A damned cunning fellow : the eventful life of Rear-Admiral Sir Home Popham KCB, KCH, KM, FRS 1762-1820. Tywardreath: Old Ferry Press. ISBN 0-9516758-0-X.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Tracy, Nicholas (2006). Who's Who in Nelson's Navy: 200 Heroes. Chatham. pp. 299–300.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>

Further reading

Parliament of the United Kingdom
Preceded by
John Delgano
Jervoise Clarke Jervoise
Member of Parliament for Yarmouth
1804 – 1806
With: Jervoise Clarke Jervoise
Succeeded by
Sir David Scott
Jervoise Clarke Jervoise
Preceded by
Edward Loveden
Robert Hurst
Member of Parliament for Shaftesbury
1806 – 1807
With: Edward Loveden
Succeeded by
Edward Loveden
Thomas Wallace
Preceded by
Richard Wilson
Robert Stopford
Member of Parliament for Ipswich
1807 – 1812
With: Robert Alexander Crickett
Succeeded by
John Round
Robert Alexander Crickett
Military offices
Preceded by
John Erskine Douglas
Commander-in-Chief, Jamaica Station
Succeeded by
Sir Charles Rowley