George Anson is best known for leading a squadron of Royal Navy ships into the largely unexplored Pacific Ocean in 1740, but his achievements were so much more. He was a talented fleet commander and a brilliant First Lord of the Admiralty during the Seven Years War. His time in office saw the rebuilding of the Royal Navy into a modern force that would project British power across the globe during the Seven Years War.
He was born into an aristocratic family in Staffordshire in 1697 and joined the navy as a 15 year-old volunteer in February 1712, during the War of Spanish Succession. A combination of his obvious talent and the influence of his family (his uncle was Lord Chancellor), saw him quickly promoted. He fought at the battle of the Battle of Cape Passaro as a lieutenant, served under Admiral Byng in the Mediterranean, and was promoted to post captain in 1723, when he was still only in his mid twenties. For several years he served in North America, protecting colonial shipping from attack, and the Ansonborough district of Charleston, South Carolina was named after him in recognition of his efforts.
The exploit that made George Anson a household name came in 1740, when he was given command of a small squadron of ships to attack Spanish possessions in the Pacific. The expedition was much delayed, leaving late in the season. Two of his ships were unable to make it around Cape Horn, and had to turn back, while a third, the Wager, was wrecked on the coast of Chile. Undeterred, Anson pressed on, sacking towns and capturing shipping, including the fabulously wealthy Acapulco Galleon with a cargo of Chinese silk, spices and over thirty-four tonnes of silver bullion. Four years after leaving home, Anson returned to a hero’s reception having circumnavigated the globe.
But his triumph was also tinged with tragedy. Only 188 of the 1,854 men who had left Britain with Anson survived the voyage. The vast majority of fatalities came from scurvy. Anson was one of the lucky ones, although his health never fully recovered from the ordeal. Another to make it home was the future Admiral Augustus Keppel, then a teenager, who lost all his teeth and hair. The horrific human cost of the expedition was to have one beneficial effect, however. James Lind, a young Scottish naval surgeon, having read details of the voyage, decided to dedicate his life to finding a cure for scurvy. Thanks largely to his efforts the introduction of first lemon and then lime juice into seamen’s diets eradicated the disease from the Royal Navy, as well as gaining British sailors their American nickname of “Limeys.”
Three years later Britain was at war again. Anson, now promoted to admiral, was in command of the Western Squadron, and decisively defeated a French fleet in May of that year at the First Battle of Finisterre. During the action Anson encountered the first of a new breed of vessel that French shipyards were starting to produce, called the Invincible. She was a long, broad two-decked warship armed with 74 large guns. Anson reported that his prize was fast, manoeuvrable, weatherly and yet still able to pack a bigger punch than his own 90-gun flagship. He decided that he had seen the future, and that the Royal Navy needed to build such ships for its own battle fleet.
A few years later, in 1751, his chance came to make this a reality, when he was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty. With one short break, he would hold this office until his death in June 1762 at the age of 65. During that time, Anson would oversee more changes to the Royal Navy than any holder of the office before Jackie Fisher in 1904.
The Admiralty that Anson took over had barely changed since the time of Samuel Pepys half a century earlier. His many reforms touched every aspect of the service. He sacked the large number of corrupt defence contractors that had been supplying the navy, improved medical care and revised the Articles of War to fit modern warfare. He enlarged Plymouth into a major naval base for the navy, recognising that its windward position was essential for protecting the Channel. Some of his changes were far reaching in their impact. It was Anson who gave naval officers their dark blue uniforms, and who insured that the Royal Marines became a separate establishment from the army. He reequipped the navy with modern ships to match those of the French. In the first instance he achieved this by ordering his notoriously conservative shipwrights to simply copy captured vessels, like the Invincible.
But his biggest impact was in the way that he used the new, reorganised Royal Navy. It was Anson’s navy, with its modern ships, new uniforms, and fresh naval doctrine that came of age in the Seven Years War. They were able to project British sea-power across the world. During that war, they defeated the French fleet at Quiberon Bay, delivered General Wolfe’s red-coats into the heart of Canada and halted the growth of French influence in India; all whilst keeping the country safe from invasion. The Royal Navy’s glory years in the late 18th and 19th centuries were built on the foundations that Anson laid.