John Leigh Douglas (1741-1810)
Cuckfield in the late 18th and early 19th centuries attracted several senior navy personnel to live here. Admiral Sir John Wells, Captain John Pilford, Charles Sergison who was commissioner of the Royal Navy with the Admiralty - all of whom we have featured in Cuckfield Connections. Cuckfield was probably chosen because it is strategically placed to get to and from London, Chatham and Portsmouth - and that their peers lived there.
But there has been one important naval man who has eluded us until now - Admiral John Douglas … well until now that is.
Douglas lived a mile and a half north of Slough Green, and half a mile south of Staplefield. Although well on the outskirts, Douglas’s home, Bridge House, was considered part of ‘Cuckfield’. Previously (until 1797?) he had lived at Butler's Green House (near Haywards Heath today) where Admiral John Wells had lived for a time, and it's very likely that they knew each other as Wells moved only a short distance away to Bolnore House. We’ll feature Bridge House in a future article.
A career naval man, Douglas was commissioned as a lieutenant a 17 June 1760 at the age of 19. He rose through the ranks and saw a number of notable naval battles.
He married his cousin Charlotte Douglas on 4 December 1782 , the only daughter of John St. Leger Douglas of Chelmsford, Essex, who served as an M.P from 1768-83, and had property in the West Indies. They had no childen.
In the Naval Chronicle in 1810 he was described as: … a respectable gentleman and correct officer but had not had any opportunities in service for rendering himself professionally conspicuous.
And yet he achieved the third highest ranking job in the Royal Navy.
His earlier career progression
You can read a comprehensive list of Douglas's commissions in The Three Decks link below, but as a result of the re-organisation of Rodney’s captains Douglas, at the age of 39, joined the Venus 36, participating in the remainder of the Leeward Islands campaign from May to July 1780, and briefly flying the flag of Admiral Rodney. During the Great Hurricanes of October the Venus lost all her masts except the mizzen, finding sanctuary in Antigua. Following the capture of St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781 the Venus returned home with despatches.
In January 1782 Douglas recommissioned the Vigilant 64 to serve in the Channel Fleet, being employed under the orders of Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt during the April-August campaign. He served at the relief of Gibraltar on 18 October and in a small cruising squadron commanded by Captain John Harvey immediately afterwards.
In the Autumn of 1794 he commanded the Irresistible 74 in succession to Rear-Admiral John Henry, this ship being paid off in the latter month.
Douglas was advanced to flag rank on 1 June 1795, and was promoted vice-admiral on 1 January 1801.
A late but rapid rise through the ranks
Somewhat surprisingly, Douglas finished his career as second-in-command under Admiral Cornwallis in the Channel Fleet having barely been employed for the previous twenty years.
He was promoted to Admiral of the Blue on 28 April 1808, then Admiral of the White 31 July 1810. He died four months later in Montague Square, London, on 13 November 1810 at the age of 69. The next promotion would have been Admiral of the Red and, finally, the highest rank - Admiral of the Fleet. But this was not to be, Douglas died in Montague Square, London, on 13 November 1810.
Sadly we have not found any record of his interaction and life in Cuckfield while he was living here. But this was at a time when he was making rapid progression through several grades of Admiral. So this was at a very busy time in his life when he had considerable responsibilities and also at crucial period in our naval history. It is very likely that he had a London home, and which may have been at Montague Square where he died.
Charlotte who was John's cousin and daughter of John Douglas, MP for Orford and Minehead. She died in Cumberland St, London on 8 December 1840 in her 90th year.
The Naval Chronicle: Containing a General and Biographical History of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom with a Variety of Original Papers on Nautical Subjects. Volume 24, July-December 1810. Google Books https://tinyurl.com/yjtaoqwm
More than Nelson https://morethannelson.com/officer/john-leigh-douglas
Portraits John and (we presume) Charlotte (his wife who was also his cousin) by Willem Karl Frederik Travers (Dutch, 1826–1869): https://tinyurl.com/2eejrzfy
The Channel Fleet in heavy weather, painted by John Wilson Carmichael Wikimedia public domain image.
Contributed by Malcolm Davison.