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A forgotten local hero: The life of Vice Admiral James Richard Dacres

Throughout the course of Gibraltar’s long and storied relationship with the Royal Navy, we have produced a number of Naval Officers who have served with distinction. This includes but is not limited to the following who have risen through the ranks in recent times: Commodore Bob Sanguinetti, Commanders Cecil Ladislaus and Adrian Darlington, Lieutenant Commander Clive Harrison, Lieutenant Stuart Cornelio and many other locals such as Cecil’s brother Lieutenant Commander Paul Ladislaus, who served in the Royal Naval Reserve.

It is surprising however that the Gibraltar-born officer to achieve the highest rank in the Senior Service so far is so little known locally. His name is Vice Admiral James Richard Dacres and this is his story.

It is illustrative of Vice Admiral Dacres’ relative obscurity in Gibraltar that I encountered his name somewhat tangentially. Whilst reading Stephen Taylor’s excellent work on the iconic Edward Pellew (Lord Exmouth) I came across a name whose familiarity rang an instant bell. My inkling was confirmed when I consulted our own Richard Garcia’s first-class work on life in the shadow of the British Fortress in Gibraltar.

James Richard Dacres was born in Gibraltar in February of 1749, the son of Richard Dacres who was appointed by Governor Humphrey Bland to be the Collector and Receiver of Duties, later also being made Civil Secretary.

James joined the Royal Navy in February of 1762 at the age of about 13 reporting for duty quite possibly as a midshipman aboard the frigate HMS Active. It was not long till he saw action close to his place of birth, on the 21st of May in company with HMS Favourite she helped capture the Spanish frigate Hermione off Cadiz. She was laden with gold coin as well as gold and silver ingots bound for Lima in Peru. The value of the cargo made Hermione one of the most lucrative prizes captured by the Royal Navy at the time.

This experience must have stood young James in good stead as he was commissioned Lieutenant aboard the 32-gun frigate HMS Montreal on the 17th of March of 1769. Further promotion saw him appointed the 2nd Lieutenant of HMS Blonde, under the command of none other than the frigate captain extraordinaire Philemon Pownoll.

It was during his time aboard Blonde that the American Revolution broke out. Finding himself stationed in the Great Lakes he once again saw action during the battle of Valcour Island on the 10th of October 1776. During this engagement a British flotilla aimed to sail south down Lake Champlain to confront a fleet of small craft led by the future turncoat Benedict Arnold. This fleet was commanded by Captain Thomas Pringle with Dacres in command of the schooner Carleton in which the future Admiral Edward Pellew served. These vessels, comprising 25 in total encountered Arnold’s fleet the next morning in line abreast between the western shore of the lake and Valcour Island in a crescent moon formation. Having to work against the wind however, the British ships struggled into position and despite carrying 24 pound guns against the American vessels lighter 18-pound armament, the British gunboats suffered heavily until their bigger consorts could manoeuvre into position. It is then that Dacres stationed Carleton broadside-to with the Americans, trading deadly broadsides and suffering 70 percent casualties including her commander himself wounded before being recalled, having silenced the American vessels.

Upon recovery he was named commander of the 14-gun HMS Sylph which forced the surrender of the American warship USS Alfred on the 9th of March 1778 in the Caribbean. Sadly, whilst serving on HMS Ceres he was captured by the French vessel Iphigenie and exchanged, being promoted to Post Captain on the 13th of September the following year.

Having been given command of the large 90-gun HMS Barfleur, his biggest command yet, he was present at the Battle of Groix in June 1795 but not engaged. Action was not long in coming however as Barfleur joined Admiral John Jervis’ Mediterranean fleet and he was present at his monumental victory against the Spanish navy at the Battle of Cape Saint Vincent on St Valentine’s Day 1797.

Following this he was given yet another weighty command, that of HMS Foudroyant of 80 guns before being appointed Rear Admiral two years to the day after his action at Saint Vincent. This was followed up by promotion to Rear Admiral of the White on New Year’s Day 1801 commanding both the Plymouth Approaches and later the Jamaica Station. By now wealthy due to the prize money he had accrued he was finally made Vice Admiral on the 9th of November 1805, a post which he kept until his retirement from active naval service in 1809.

James Dacres was married to Eleanor Blandford Pearce of Cambridge, the wedding taking place at Totnes, Devon on the 1st of August 1777 whilst in command of HMS Ceres. The marriage produced two sons, one becoming a Post Captain and the other, named after him also retiring as a Vice Admiral. Sadly, his heroic life came to an end far from the ravages of the sea and the guns of the nations enemies when he was killed having fallen from his horse on the 6th of January 1810 at the age of just 60.

As mentioned earlier, it is surprising when one investigates the life of James Dacres that he is not better known or celebrated. Having risked life and limb fighting the nations enemies, be they rebel Americans, French or Spanish from the Great Lakes to Cadiz, St Vincent to the Caribbean I think it is entirely fitting to pay tribute to this most courageous son of our beloved Gibraltar who gave so much in the service of Great Britain. It is hoped this article goes some way to redressing that omission.

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