Collingwood Society: Lt William Landless

This month’s talk to the Collingwood Society was given by Tony Barrow, who has managed to give up being secretary of the society, but has not been allowed to give up doing talks. He was speaking about William Landless, who came from Northumberland and was a lieutenant in several of Collingwood’s ships, following him about in the years before Trafalgar.

The talk started with a quote from NAM Rodger:

The Navy was the only profession for a gentleman which did not require – indeed did not admit – the application of money or influence.

‘Did not require’ might be true, and money could not be as directly applied as in e.g. the purchase of an army commission, but influence, particularly from senior naval figures, was still very important, and Tony wanted to look at four different aspects which might lead to a sucessful naval career – influence, timing, skill and temperament, and plain luck.

The Landless family – some of whom were spelt Landles – had appeared in Northumberland in the late 17th century, and were rumoured to have been formerly MacGregors (now landless after proscription!), but there doesn’t seem to be any certain evidence of this.

William Landless was born at Easington near Belford in 1762, and in 1777 became an apprentice in the coal trade, before joining the navy at Leith, where George Younghusband, part of a neighbouring Northumberland family, was the impress officer. He was then sent to Chatham, where Roddam was port admiral, becoming straight away part of a Northumbrian network, and was sent to North America on the frigate Richmond where he was present as a prisoner at the fall of Yorktown. After being exchanged and sent home he was sent to the West indies in Royal Oak, where he took part in the battle of the Saintes.

Landless passed for lieutenant in 1786, but with little chance of promotion in peacetime he then joined the East India company, where he spent the next 10 years, rising to Chief Mate, with a brief return to the Royal Navy on Roddam’s flagship around the time of the Nootka Sound crisis in 1790.

In 1796 Landless returned to the navy for good, probably because he did not have the money required to purchase an East India Company captaincy, but possibly also because the country was again at war. He was at the Nore at the time of the mutiny, and was one of the officers appointed to replace unpopular officers who had been removed, and then spent time in the North Sea, where he met and dined with Nelson.

During the Peace of Amiens he was at home in Northumberland, helping to sort out his father’s tangled affairs, and then joined Collingwood’s flagship Venerable, before moving with him to Dreadnought. He then declined a transfer to Royal Sovereign which would have made him second lieutenant, ‘pretending a complaint in his eyes’, according to Collingwood, because he believed that Dreadnought, which was badly in need of a refit, was about to be sent home – but instead she stayed, and so Landless fought on Dreadnought at Trafalgar.

This failure to move probably got in the way of his later promotion, despite Roddam’s strong interest in it, and although he was given command of an armed merchant ship in early 1806, letters from Collingwood to the Admiralty urging his promotion (and grumbling generally about lack of promotion for his protégès) came to nothing until that August when Lord Barham was replaced as First Lord of the Admiralty by Lord Howick, another Northumbrian.

At that point Landless was promoted to commander and appointed to the sloop Morgiana, where he took a prize with a valuable cargo. Combined with the money he had made in the East India Company, which allowed private trade, this made him well enough off that when he was offered another commission in 1808 he refused, preferring to stay and build up his estate at Easington, which he had now bought.

So all four influences were at work in Landless’s career – the personal patronage of Roddam and later Collingwood, the timing issues which meant he had little chance of promotion in the peacetime navy and the skill which saw him rise through first the EIC and then the navy in spite of this, and finally the plain luck which saw him take a valuable prize.

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