Born 1746 Died 1823
George Keith Elphinstone, fifth son of the 10th Lord Elphinstone, was born in Elphinstone Tower, near Stirling, on the 7th of January 1746. Two of his brothers went to sea, and he followed their example by entering the navy in 1761, in the Gosport, then commanded by Captain Jervis, afterwards Earl St Vincent. In 1767 he made a voyage to the East Indies in the Company's service, and put £2,000 lent him by an uncle to such good purpose in a private trading venture that he laid the foundation of a handsome fortune. He became lieutenant in 1770, commander in 1772, and post captain in 1775. During the war in America he was employed against the privateers, and with a naval brigade at the occupation of Charleston, S.C. In January 1781, when in command of the Warwick (50), he captured a Dutch 50-gun ship which had beaten off an English vessel of equal strength a few days before.
After peace was signed he remained on shore for ten years, serving in Parliament as member first for Dumbartonshire, and then for Stirlingshire. When war broke out again in 1793 he was appointed to the Robust(74), in which he took part in the occupation of Toulon by Lord Hood. He particularly distinguished himself by beating a body of the French ashore at the head of a naval brigade of English and Spaniards. He was entrusted with the duty of embarking the fugitives when the town was evacuated. In 1794 he was promoted rear-admiral, and in 1795 he was sent to occupy the Dutch colonies at the Cape of Good Hope and in India. He had a large share in the capture of the Cape in 1795, and in August 1796 captured a whole Dutch squadron in Saldanha Bay. In the interval he had gone on to India, where his health suffered, and the capture at Saldanha was effected on his way home.
When the Mutiny at the Nore broke out in 1797 he was appointed to the command, and was soon able to restore order. He was equally successful at Plymouth, where the squadron was also in a state of effervescence. At the close of 1798 he was sent as second in command to St Vincent. It was for a long time a thankless post, for St Vincent was at once half incapacitated by ill-health and very arbitrary, while Nelson, who considered that Keith's appointment was a personal slight to himself, was peevish and insubordinate. The escape of a French squadron which entered the Mediterranean from Brest in May 1799 was mainly due to jarrings among the British naval commanders. Keith followed the enemy to Brest on their retreat, but was unable to bring them to action. He returned to the Mediterranean in November as commander-in-chief.
He co-operated with the Austrians in the siege of Genoa, which surrendered on the 4th of June 1800. It was however immediately afterwards lost in consequence of the battle of Marengo, and the French made their re-entry so rapidly that the admiral had considerable difficulty in getting his ships out of the harbour. The close of 1801 and the beginning of the following year were spent in transporting the army sent to recover Egypt from the French. As the naval force of the enemy was completely driven into port, the British admiral had no opportunity of an action at sea, but his management of the convoy carrying the troops, and of the landing at Aboukir, was greatly admired. He was made a baron of the United Kingdoman Irish barony having been conferred on him in 1797.
On the renewal of the war in 1803 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the North Sea, which post he held till 1807. In February 1812 he was appointed commander-in-chief in the Channel, and in 1814 he was raised to a viscounty. During his last two commands he was engaged first in overlooking the measures taken to meet a threatened invasion, and then in directing the movements of the numerous small squadrons and private ships employed on the coasts of Spain and Portugal, and in protecting trade. He was at Plymouth when Napoleon surrendered and was brought to England in the Bellerophon by Captain Maitland (1777-1839). The decisions of the British government were expressed through him to the fallen Emperor. Lord Keith refused to be led into disputes, and confined himself to declaring steadily that he had his orders to obey. He was not much impressed by the appearance of his illustrious charge and thought that the airs of Napoleon and his suite were ridiculous.
Lord Keith died on the 10th of March 1823 at Tullyallan, his property in Scotland, and was buried in the parish church. A portrait of him by Owen is in the Painted Hall in Greenwich. He was twice married: in 1787 to Jane Mercer, daughter of Colonel William Mercer of Aldie; and in 1808 to Hester Maria Thrale, who is spoken of as 'Queenie' in Boswell's Life of Johnson and Mme. D'Arblay's Diary. He had a daughter by each marriage, but no son. Thus the viscounty became extinct on his death, but the English and Irish baronies descended to his elder daughter Margaret (1788-1867), who married the Comte de Flahault de la Billarderie, only to become extinct on her death.
There is a panegyrical Life of Lord Keith by Alexander Allardyce (Edinburgh, 1882); and biographical notices will be found in John Marshall's Royal Naval Biography, i. 43 (1823-1835), and the Naval Chronicle, x. I. (D. H.)
Being the entry for KEITH, GEORGE KEITH ELPHINSTONE, VISCOUNT in the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica, the text of which lies within the public domain.