Admiral Sir Henry D’Esterre Darby of Leap Castle, County Offaly: the naval adventures of an Offaly man and hero at the Battle of the Nile, by Noel Guerin

Henry D’Esterre Darby born 9 April 1749 was the third son of Jonathan and Susannah Darby of Leap castle. The D’Esterre name he inherited from his great grandmother, Anna-Maria D’Esterre.

The Darby family was first recorded at Leap Castle in 1659 and his father Jonathan was the third Jonathan to own Leap Castle and a large estate.  Susannah Lovett was the daughter of Robert Lovett of Dromoyle and Liscombe House, Buckingham. She was the niece of the architect, who was dead before the marriage, but this Jonathan was one who did neo-Gothic alterations to Leap Castle in 1753. He was known as Counselor Darby. Jonathan Darby died 16 Mar 1776 in Great Ship Street Dublin and was buried at Leap.

Suzanna Lovett born 28 November 1724, died 17 Nov 1805 and is buried at Leap. They had nine children.

Jonathan Lovette Darby b. 1746 married Eleanor Lovett, daughter of Jonathan and Eleanor Lovett (Mansergh) of Liscombe House, Buckinghamshire, England and Kingswell, Co.  Tipperary.

Robert Lovette Darby b. 1747, he died young in 1764.

Henry D’Esterre Darby (Admiral Sir), b. 1749

John Darby b. 1751 married Anne Vaughan

Sarah Darby, b. 1750 married her cousin Sir Jonathan Lovett son of Jonathan Lovett son of Robert Lovett of Liscomb Hse, Buckinghamshire, England and Kingswell, Co. Tipperary.

William Lovette, b. 1753

Verney Lovette (MP), b. 1754 married his cousin Anna Maria Maquay.

Christopher Darby (LT General) b. 30 Dec 1758

Edward Hawke Darby, b. 1760


Henry D,Esterre Darby Esqr by Sir William Beechey
Admiral Henry D’Esterre Darby by Sir William Beechey

Henry D’Esterre Darby joined the navy as a midshipman at the age of thirteen. As a midshipman he was a young gentleman where he received training and an education to become a naval officer. Darby’s career brought him to the West Indies in 1766 on board the Preston 50 the flag-ship of Rear-Admiral Perry under Captain Gardner.

In the early 1770s William Perry Esq. Vice Admiral of the Blue and Commander in chief of the British fleet of ships and vessels employed to protect their trade routes to Barbados, the Leeward Islands and the seas adjacent known as the West Indies.

Henry’s progress through the ranks was slow, he was given his first break while he was serving on board the British ship the Chatham as a midshipman in 1772 when he was given an order by William Perry to take over command of the Sloop Spy as acting Lieutenant. This was a three-masted full-rigged warship, with rating of up to 20-guns.

A month later Henry was given another command by William Perry Esq., he was appointed commander of the Brigantine Sandwitch.  A two-masted vessel which was used for the transportation of goods and supplies for the large fleet of warships based around the Islands. For the next two years Henry was commander of this vessel. He remained in constant contact with William Perry running errands for him and the other large British vessels throughout the West Indies. Henry was also responsible for the recruitment of sailors for the fleet from the Islands.

In 1772 Mr. Perry wrote an order to Henry

I likewise devise you will procure as many good physically stout seamen as you can. Be careful not inter Boys but men in full strength, not poor wretches.  We have enough of them on board already.

Sent to St Johns to get as many able seamen as he could, Henry would most likely have got his new recruits from the press gangs. On 23 July 1774 Henry was appointed commander of the battle ship the Sloop Lynx for a period of 6 months. The Sloop Lynx like the Sloop Spy was a three-masted full-rigged warship, smaller than a frigate and rating of up to 20 guns.

Henry was appointed lieutenant on 13 November 1776 at the age of twenty-seven. As a lieutenant,  Henry spent two years on board his uncle Vice Admiral George Darby’s flag ship the Britannia a one-hundred-gun ship.

On 1 January 1781 Henry was appointed Commander. The move to captain was the hardest promotion to achieve. Darby was promoted to the command of the Infernal fire-vessel and accompanied Commander Johnstone on an expedition destined to take the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch. The squadron consisted of a seventy-four, a sixty-four, and three fifty-gun ships, with three frigates and eight smaller vessels, they were assigned the task of protecting ten outward-bound East India ships with 3,000 troops onboard. The fleet sailed from Spit-head on 14 March 1781. The British convoy and its escorting squadron had anchored at Porto Praya in the Cape Verde Islands to take on water on 16 April 1781, when a French squadron arrived and attacked them at anchor, the French also on their way to the Cape of Good Hope to help defend it against the British. Due to the unexpected nature of the encounter, neither fleet was prepared to do battle, and an indecisive battle was fought in which the French fleet sustained more damage than the British, the Infernal unfortunately fell into the hands of the enemy, who abandoned her, having first taken out Capt. Darby and several of his crew, one of whom was killed, and two wounded. The French gained a strategic victory, because the French beat Johnstone to the Cape and reinforced the Dutch garrison. After having regained his liberty Darby was tried under a court Marshall and found innocent.  In 1782 he was appointed commander of the HMS Pylades a Sloop ship.

Leap Castle Freeman-Attwood 2001 jacket

On 15 Jan.1783 at the age of thirty-four Darby was appointed to Post Captain in his Majesties service. He quickly gained a reputation as a smart frigate captain. About the commencement of the war with the French republic in 1783, Capt. Darby was appointed to command the Amphitrite frigate 28 and soon after to the Pomona frigate. In June 1794 Captain Darby was appointed to the Adamant 50 and employed for the next two years to escort the trade ships to and from the Mediterranean and the West Indies.

In Oct.1796 Henry was given the command of the ship Bellerophon a seventy-four-gun ship and had a full complement of 590 men, he was the fourth captain of the Bellerophon and the first to complete a report on the ship’s performance, which was generally superior to other ships at that time.

The HMS Bellerophon was an Arrogant-class third rate ship of the line, built in 1786. Her first fleet action was with Lord Howe at the Glorious first of June in 1794. She subsequently distinguished herself in several other actions during the blockade of France including the Battle of the Nile 1798 and the Battle of Trafalgar 1805, subsequently becoming one of the most famous British ships of the Napoleonic wars.

Armed with seventy-four-guns, 28 guns capable of firing cannon balls of 32 pounds weight, capable of penetrating four feet of oak planks and the splinters were equal to modern day shrapnel, the Bellerophon also had 28 eighteen-pounders and 18 nine-pounders, 168-foot-long fully laden she had a top speed of 12 knots. The ship was known to her crew as Billy Ruffian. In January to March 1797 the Bellerophon and three other ships of the line sailed the seas between Bantry Bay and Cork looking for the French fleet.

In March Henry set sail with the Channel fleet in the Mediterranean under Earl St. Vincent. The new enemy was the Spanish fleet based around Cadiz. It was while Darby was at Cadiz that Nelson visited him on the Bellerophon.

The mutinies of 1797 did not affect the ship; her captain being Irish born knew how to handle the quirks of his crew, a fifth of his crew were Irish. Admiral Jervis appreciated this and as a reward the Bellerophon was one of the ships detached from Earl St. Vincent’s fleet to reinforce Sir Horatio Nelson in pursuit of the French fleet then off Toulon, the result of which led to the Battle of the Nile 1 Aug 1798.

In a squadron of thirteen seventy-four-gun ships and one of fifty guns through the Mediterranean in search of Napoleon’s fleet of ships.

The Naval officers that Nelson had sailing in his fleet were more educated and better trained than officers in the past. The navy had suffered in the past from constant strife between captains of humble origins who knew the sea.

The Naval officers were now the sons of gentlemen of modest means sent to sea as boys and combining what is best in experience and training in the manner and thought of an educated man.  Unlike most admirals of his time he freely discussed his plans with his captains. He had his reward in their devotion and perfect comprenchion in what he wanted them to do, they were known as his band of brothers. Henry’s experience of many years at sea stood to him on this expedition,

Nelson is known to have called Henry on board and asked his opinion on matters of importance. Darby like all other captains would have known Nelson’s plan of action.

Thomas Whitcombe The Battle of the Nile 1798
The Battle of the Nile 1798, by Thomas Whitcombe

The Battle of the Nile

On the 1st August 1798 after nearly three months at sea, the enemies were sighted approximately nine miles away.  Napoleon’s fleet were anchored in Aboukir bay at the mouth of the Nile, thirteen ships all in a line, they included the L’Orient Napoleon’s flagship of one hundred and twenty guns and 1500 men captained by Admiral Bruey also three large ships of eighty guns protected L’Orient.

It was unusual for a battle to be fought at night but Nelson had no intention of allowing the French ten hours to prepare for battle. He decided to attack. The plan was that the enemy would be attacked on two sides and was crushed before any support could be rallied. The attack started at 6.30pm 1st August 1798 four of the ships including the Bellerophon went into a hazardous maneuvre and took position against targets in the French line to cut Admirals Bruey’s squadron in two.

Unintentionally due to the shallow waters the crew of the Bellerophon found they were anchored on the starboard bow of the L’Orient, they began firing but the Bellerophon of seventy-four-guns was no match for this giant of a ship of one hundred and twenty guns. Within an hour the Bellerophon was overpowered by the L’Orient and her mizzen mast and cables shot away shortly after she lost her main mast and sixteen of her guns had been put out of action the crew suffered grievously in the effort. Darby was the first officer to be hit, suffered a severe head wound and was knocked unconscious was taken below to the surgeons. He later returned to the action, shortly after another two lieutenants were killed, and his only remaining mast tailing soon after, killed another lieutenant and several of the people. By the end of the battle Bellerophon had lost three lieutenants, one master’s mate, thirty-two seamen and thirteen marines. Capt. Darby was wounded as well as the Master, Captain of marines, boatswain, and one midshipman in all nearly two hundred casualties, forty-nine of her crew killed and one hundred and forty-eight wounded.

The Bellerophon cut her cable and drifted away dismasted, and with casualties amounting to near a quarter of the British Fleet. At about 9 o’clock in the evening the L’Orient was seen to be on fire, largely as a result of the bravery and skill of the Bellerophon and her crew. Two other British ships positioned themselves around the L’Orient and prevented the crew from extinguishing the fire as a result the fire on the L’Orient got out of hand. While French sailors were ashore the opportunity had been taken for routine maintenance on the L’Orient and paint, tar and barrels of pitch left on deck accelerated the demise of the one hundred and twenty-gun flagship. The captains on the ships close to the L’Orient saw the danger and began to move away at whatever means at their disposal. The Bellerophon with her main and mizzen masts down and the foremost mast caught up in the wreckage this meant that she had to cut all the cables including the anchor cable and setting minimum sail to get as far away as she could before the fire reached the powder on board the L’Orient.

At about 10 pm the L’Orient blew up with a detonation heard thirteen miles away in Alexandria by French troops.  Most of her company was killed. Also believed lost was treasure looted by Napoleon from Malta.

Firing continued until about 2 o’clock in the afternoon.

All but four of the thirteen French ships of the line and the four frigates, which had opposed them, were either smoking hulks, sunk, held as prizes or helplessly grounded. Of the four ships that escaped, two were frigates and the other were two of the line.

The Battle of the Nile was over, but it would be two months before news of this victory would reach England.

Henry describes the events in his diary:

August, 1798-A quarter before sunset the action began. About twenty minutes before six we came to an anchor and began firing abreast of L’Orient. About nine, cut the cables. About 10 L’Orient  blew up, 49 killed, l48 wounded. August 2nd, about 10a.m., came to au anchor again with stream cable bent to the small bow anchor, both the sheet and the small bower cables being cut away in the action-found we had taken, burnt and destroyed 11 sail of the line and two frigates.

After the battle temporary repairs had to be done to the Bellerophon before she could be sailed to Gibraltar for major repairs.

Nelson was also injured during the battle and later he sent a dispatch to Henry:

My Dear Darby,

I grieve for your heavy loss of brave fellows, but look at our glorious Victory.

We will give you every assistance as soon as you join us, till then God Bless you, Ever yours faithfully, Horatio Nelson. Aug: 3rd 1798.

Early in 1800 the fleet returned to England and with the other captains. Darby received a hero’s welcome and was presented with a gold medal.

Darby was appointed to the Spencer a new seventy-four-gun ship. In 1801 the Spencer was detached from the Channel fleet, to accompany Sir Robert Calder in pursuit of a French squadron, under Real-Adm. Ganthaume, that had escaped from Brest and was heading to the West Indies, after they arrived in the West Indies they learned that the enemy had entered the Mediterranean, Darby returned and resumed his station in the Channel fleet.

In July 1801 Capt. Darby sailed with a fleet under Sir James Saumarez, at the blockade of Cadiz, the Spencer attacked a French squadron in Algesiras Bay, July 6, 1801, resulting in heavy casualties thirty men killed and wounded. Darby was also in the battle with the combined French and Spanish squadrons in the Strait of Gibraltar on the 12th July 1801, the following December Capt. Darby and others were sent to Jamaica to
watch the motions of a French armament.

In September 1802 he returned to England with a broad pendant as commodore of a

051830 Leap Castle 01
Leap Castle

His older brother Jonathan died 19 Jan 1802 and he had no male heir according to his father’s instructions the Leap castle estates went to the next oldest son, so Henry D’Esterre Darby inherited.

While he lived at Leap castle it was rumored that he transformed his own room into an exact replica of his quarters on board his ship.

He was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral on April 23, 1804,

1805 Rear Admiral of the White.

1808 Rear Admiral of the Red.

1810 Vise Admiral of the Blue.

1811 Vice Admiral of the White.

1814 Vice Admiral of the Red.

1819 Admiral of the Blue.

Admiral Henry received a knighthood for his part in the battle of the Nile at in a ceremony at Carlton house on 19 July 1820 by his Royal Highness the Duke of York.

Darby never married. He lived at Leap Castle with his niece Miss Harriet Darby the daughter of his brother Jonathan and his grandniece Miss Harriet Head.

He worked to improve relationship with Catholic neighbours and contributed generously towards the erection of a new Roman Catholic church at St. Kieran’s

In his 74th year on March 31st 1823 Admiral Sir Henry D’Esterre Darby died at Leap Castle and his remains were interred in the family tomb at Aghancon cemetery in the same burial place as his father and mother.

It was most likely that the admiral’s knighthood permitted the knight’s helmet to be added to the family tomb in Aghancon.

John Darby the Admiral’s younger brother then inherited the Leap Castle estates.

051835 Leap Castle 08
Batty Langley doorway at Leap Castle