Admiral Sir Thomas Foley
By Thomas Lloyd
, M. A.
Passed without notice was the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of the death of one of the most distinguished of Welsh naval officers and one who had long connections with this our own county. Though the details of his career are fully set down in the Dictionary of National Biography and elsewhere1
, a short note of his life seems particularly appropriate now that Abermarlais, the fine house he built in the heart of the Towy Valley has within the last few years been razed utterly from the earth.
Thomas Foley was born in 1757 the second son of John Foley of Ridgeway, Pembrokeshire, a family long settled there. His mother, however, was Sarah daughter of John Herbert of Court Henry, Llangathen and so Foley would have known the vale of Towy from his childhood. In his choice of career he followed his uncle, also Thomas Foley, who was to sail with Lord Anson when he circumnavigated the world in 1784.
Young Thomas entered the Navy in 1770 aged just thirteen as a midshipman on the Otter,
then employed protecting British interests in Newfoundland and Labrador. From there he saw duty on the West Indies trade routes keeping down the pirates. In 1780 he took part at the battle of Cape Finisterre and was given command of one of the captured Spanish frigates to be taken back to England. In 1790 he was promoted captain and given his own ship. Over the following decade he gained steadily in experience and in the estimation of his seniors.
Though present at the notable victory off Cape St. Vincent in 1797, it was Horatio Nelson, his contemporary and friend, whose star rose in ascendancy that day. Foley's glory was however, to come in the next year on his ship the Goliath
at the Battle of the Nile. Here Napoleon's fleet was anchored in a broad curve just off the treacherous shoals of Aboukir Bay, waiting for the British line to bear down on their seaward side. To Foley, now a senior and highly experienced officer, fell the exacting honour of leading the British line. Apparently, at the last minute, he conceived the daring idea of sailing in on the landward side of the French at great risk from running aground but catching the French completely unawares, without even their gunports open on that side. The resulting victory was one of the most complete in British naval history - in Nelson's words, "Victory is a name not strong enough for such a scene" - the French losing two thirds of their ships.
It has been suggested that Foley could not have effected quite such a radical change of planned tactics without first consulting Nelson, his commander, but contemporary evidence does not apparently support this; indeed it was reported that, had Nelson spotted in time Foley's manoeuvre, he would have signalled him not to go behind the French line. Foley's wife, writing to her cousin the famous general Sir Charles Napier2
some years later, remarked that Nelson has "acknowledged the truth in the fullest manner that Foley had without instruction performed the manoeuvre".
In 1801 Foley was again serving under Nelson in the campaign led by Admiral Sir Hyde Parker culminating in the battle of Copenhagen. In the battle itself Nelson made Foley's own vessel, the Elephant,
his flagship and Foley was at his side at the memorable moment, when upon Admiral Parker raising the signal for discontinuance - the battle appearing stalemated - Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye, disregarded the signal and went on to ultimate victory. "You know, Foley," he is reported to have said, "I have only one eye and I have a right to be blind sometimes: I really do not see the signal". In his despatch to Parliament afterwards, Nelson wrote: "To Captain Foley, who permitted me the honour of hoisting my flag on the Elephant,
I feel under the greatest obligation. His advice was necessary on many important occasions throughout the campaign".
The firm friendship between the two is recalled both in Nelson's visit to Ridgeway to dine with Foley and his elder brother, John Herbert Foley, in 1802 on, his way back from a visit to Pembroke Dock in the company of Lady Hamilton and in surviving letters, Nelson, writing in 1803 stated, "I should be most ungrateful if I could for a moment forget your public support for me in the day of battle or your private friendship which I esteem so highly" and looking to future campaigns: "I shall be truly happy to have you near me and to have frequent opportunities of personally assuring you how much I am, my dear Foley, your faithful and affectionate friend".
Sadly, however, this was not to be, for come the fateful year of 1805, Foley's health broke. When the renewed threat from France became apparent, Nelson was called upon to command the fleet and bidden to choose his own officers. His first call was to Foley at his London house in Manchester Square. The offer was for Captain of the Fleet - the highest Nelson could bestow on an officer of Foley's rank - but Foley was forced to decline. His wife Lady Lucy Fitzgerald, daughter of the Duke of Leinster, whom Foley married in 1802, later recalled the visit: "Lord Nelson expressed his regret in a manner so strong and affecting as to have made a great impression on my memory". Foley was not to go to sea again.
In 1795 he had purchased (it is said with the proceeds of Spanish booty) from Sir Cornwallis Maude, Viscount Harwarden, the Abermarlais estate with its ancient house, once the home of Sir Rhys ap Thomas. His own description of his purchase is as follows: "I purchased this place called Abermarlais Park with its Manor, Royalties of the River Towy and Presentation to the Vicarage of Llansadwrn, in which parish it is situated in the year 1795".3
Foley rebuilt the house entirely in the pleasant plain classical manner of the day, the whole being raised on a platform extending slightly on the eastward side which appeared to be the vaulted basement of a much earlier house.4
Unfortunately, this was recently demolished before proper investigation could be made. That part of the platform extending beyond the house was formed into a raised terrace onto which the dining room opened directly. Traditionally it is said to have matched the dimensions of the quarter deck of one of Foley's ships and that he paced methodically around it to recall his seagoing days, viewing the surrounding countryside through his telescope. Those who remember the house still refer to "Foley's quarter deck".5
While the new house was under construction, Foley lived temporarily at Brownhill, a farm just east of the park, which he had also purchased and rebuilt. It is said that Foley had wanted to call this property Copenhagen in memory of the battle, but his Scottish wife insisted on its present name, being apparently the name of a house once owned by Robert Burns.6
Captain and Lady Foley resided mainly at the new Abermarlais from their marriage in 1802 until 1812 (one visitor in this period being Richard Fenton the antiquary)[ when Foley, having been promoted to Rear Admiral in 1811, was that year made Vice Admiral and appointed Commander in Chief in the Downs, based at Deal, his duty being to guard the Channel coast. Despite the overwhelming victory of Trafalgar this was no empty task; in his three years there more than thirty enemy ships were captured or sunk. Upon retirement in 1814 he was knighted and he returned to Abermarlais, where he devoted himself to the improvement of his estate and the lot of his tenants, assisted by his agent Mr. John Lewis of Bryneithin. One particularly happy incident in these years occurred when the Duke of Clarence, later King William IV, passed by Abermarlais on his way back from Pembroke Dockyards. Foley and the Prince had served together many years previously and there was a warm reunion beneath a triumphal arch erected at the Abermarlais gate. In 1820 he received the G.C.B. and five years later became a full Admiral.
In 1830 he was honoured with the prestigious appointment of Commander in Chief at Portsmouth, where his duties required him to live; and there on 9th January 1833 a few months before his term expired, which would have brought him back to Abermarlais, he died aged seventy-five. He was buried with great ceremony in the Garrison Chapel there, his coffin made from planks of his old ship the Elephant,
since broken up. He left no issue and Abermarlais descended through the marriage of his neice to the Thursby Pelhams, until the present century. Lady Foley never returned after her husband's death, dying in France in 1851.
Sir Thomas' portrait was painted by Sir William Beechey and a copy of this may be still seen at Hanbury Hall in Worcestershire, the home of his cousins the Foley-Vernons. The original cannot presently be traced. Descriptions of him talk of a tall handsome man with blue eyes and a ready humour. His obituary described him as "this venerable and distinguished officer....esteemed for the most unbounded generosity and hospitality....; a most entertaining and delightful companion...." No memorial however, may be found to him in this, the county in which he made his home.