This small painting, donated by the Market Harborough Historical Society, was painted around 1790, 2 years before George Brydges Rodney’s death. The painter is currently unknown, but Lord Rodney would have been a popular figure in his day and remains a popular figure in naval history to this day.
In January 1718, George Brydges Rodney was born in Walton-on-Thames to Henry Rodney and his wife, Mary. Henry was a war veteran, having served during the War of the Spanish Succession under the Earl of Peterborough just a few years prior to the birth of his son. He was also the reason why the family suffered such a dramatic decline in their financial status. Henry made a huge investment in the South Sea Company, which supplied African slaves to islands around South America and the Pacific. Once war broke out again in 1718, the company lost around £300,000 in assets and most investors, including Henry, lost vast amounts of their wealth. The family, though destitute, remained strongly connected due to marriage ties.
By 1732, 14-year-old George had joined the Royal Navy. He first served upon the HMS Sunderland, and subsequently the HMS Dreadnought, where he served as a midshipman. Within his first few years as a seafarer, he was posted to various places upon various ships including to Canada where he assisted in the protection of a British fleet of fishermen. In 1739, 21-year-old George had been promoted to lieutenant. He served under Admiral Sir Thomas Matthews but, a year later, the War of the Austrian Succession began, and George was sent to fight in Ventimiglia, northern Italy. He was shortly after promoted to post-captain and began serving upon the HMS Plymouth.
George’s naval career went from strength to strength relatively quickly. Upon the HMS Ludlow Castle, George was stationed around the Scottish coast during the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. The following year, he captured a Spanish 16-gunner, and was later ordered to join Admiral George Anson around the French coast where he assisted in capturing 16 French ships. After the war, George returned to England where he received around £15,000 for his services. He also became elected as MP for Saltash, and married Jane Compton, the Earl of Northampton’s sister. Before her untimely death in 1757, they had 3 children together.
The year before Jane’s death, England entered the Seven Years War after a French attack on Menorca. In 1757, George sailed aboard the HMS Dublin as part of Admiral Edward Hawke’s raid on Rochefort. He was subsequently directed to sail Major General Jeffery Amherst across the Atlantic to oversee the Siege of Louisbourg, an attempt to capture the French fortress. Capturing a sailing ship en-route, George was later criticized for putting prize money ahead of his orders. Despite this, he was promoted to rear admiral in May 1759, and shortly after he took part in operations against French invasion forces at Le Havre. Employing bomb vessels, he attacked the French port in early July, which inflicted significant damage. George struck again in August, but the invasion plans were cancelled later that year after major naval defeats elsewhere.
By the 1760s, George was stationed in the Caribbean. He had been tasked with the command of a British expedition to capture the island of Martinique, and also managed to capture St Lucia and Grenada as well. He returned to England in 1763, where he was promoted to vice admiral. He remarried to Henrietta Clies, and began serving as the governor of Greenwich Hospital, also running again for parliament in 1768. In the early 1770s, George took up a commander-in-chief post to Jamaica. He arrived on the island, and worked to significantly improve naval facilities. Due to his bid for parliament back in 1768, which although he had won, had left him struggling for funds, he was beginning to feel the pinch. Fortunately, a friend lent him the money to clear his debts, which George was able to repay shortly after being promoted to admiral during the American Revolution.
By 1780, George had returned to the Caribbean. He captured at least 7 Spanish ships on the way, but during conflict with a French fleet, his signals were misinterpreted and his plans were unsuccessful. In 1781, George and General John Vaughan were captured on the island of St Eustatius. Once again, George was accused of putting wealth before orders as he shouldn’t have been on the island long enough to be captured. He returned to England where he staunchly defended his actions, and parliament sided with him. He returned to the Caribbean one last time in 1782, where he captured another 7 ships. His actions were revered, and were described as providing a boost to the British morale which had taken a knock due to several defeats over previous years. Upon returning to England once more, he was rewarded with the title Baron Rodney of Rodney Stoke. He retired from both service and public life soon after, and died on the 23rd of May 1792, aged 74.