When Heather and I started researching the lives and careers of the men of HMS Indefatigable who lived through the ferocious engagement with the Droits de L’Homme on the night of January 13th 1797, one of the first young gentlemen to come to our attention was the Honourable George Cadogan. George captured our imagination when we discovered a rather angelic unattributed portrait that may have been painted around the time he served as midshipman aboard the Indefatigable. Initially we knew little of Cadogan other than that he had been highly praised by Pellew for his conduct during the Droit de L’Homme action. We later learned that he had accompanied Pellew when he was “promoted” to the mutinous ship of the line Impetueux in 1799 and that he lived to the ripe old age of 81, making him the oldest surviving veteran of the Droit de L’Homme engagement.
On the face of it, George Cadogan lived up to Sir Edward Pellew’s early commendation and had a successful and distinguished naval career. Entering the Royal Navy in 1795 at just 12, George made lieutenant at the age of 19, commander at 21 and post captain at 24. He retired from active service in 1814 having served with distinction at Zara in the Adriatic and in 1847 received the Naval General Service Medal with three clasps.
Cadogan outlived seven elder brothers to inherit the title of 3rd Earl Cadogan and was created Baron Oakley of Cavesham in 1830. He achieved the rank of Admiral of the Red in retirement, and served as Naval aide-de-camp to the young Queen Victoria. In 1810 Cadogan married Honoria Blake, the sister of an Irish peer, and the couple had two daughters and four sons.
A respectable career by any measure. However when we investigated further, the picture that emerged from the archives was not at all what we expected. On delving deeper into Cadogan’s history a troubling picture emerged of a turbulent naval career and an unsettled family life. By the time he retired from active service George Cadogan had survived three mutinies, lost one ship, served time as a French prisoner of war, been investigated by two courts of inquiry following accusations of cruelty and brutality and court martialed on charges relating to the death of a 17 year old midshipman. Though honourably acquitted of all charges, accusations of tyranny and brutality dogged George Cadogan throughout his career.
Cadogan’s personal life was also marred by a series of scandals. His parents separated publicly and acrimoniously and his sister Charlotte followed suit when she abandoned her husband Henry Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington, and eloped with Lord Paget, the gallant cavalry commander of Sir John Moore’s Peninsular campaign. Cadogan became embroiled in this very public scandal and fought an aborted duel with Paget in an attempt to restore the family’s honour. In later life, much to Cadogan’s consternation and disapproval, his eldest son Henry fell in love with his first cousin and married her against his father’s express wishes. Henry went on to inherit title and entail to become the 4th Earl Cadogan but it is not clear if he was ever fully reconciled with his father.
We have also recently discovered an extraordinary exchange of letters between Cadogan and Fleetwood Pellew, Sir Edward Pellew’s second son, which suggests that a rift had developed between Cadogan and his former mentor. As yet, the cause of this estrangement eludes us, but it appears to have weighed heavily on Lord Exmouth’s conscience and he sought a reconciliation with Cadogan only days before his death in 1833.
The more we have dug into the archives the more complicated the picture that has emerged. George Cadogan appears to have had a highly developed sense of honour but he clearly struggled with command; he may not have been a natural leader but neither was he a brutal martinet as some authors have claimed. Details of Cadogan’s later naval career appear in all the standard naval biographies, however little has been written of his early service. In order to shed light on this difficult period of his life we have examined a wide range of contemporary documents including private letters in the Pellew archive at the Caird Library, the Grenville Archive at the Huntingdon Library, the Cadogan family archive and parliamentary archives, in addition to admiralty records including captains’ and masters’ logs, musters and pay books, captains’ letters and courts martial transcripts.