Life in the time of
Philip Melvill, Esq, Lt Governor of Pendennis Castle
By Penny Hampson
I came across Philip Melvill whilst researching the next story in my Gentlemen series. Set in Falmouth, Cornwall, my story features Pendennis Castle, and I needed to know who was stationed there in 1810. I discovered someone who survived against great odds, accepted stoically what life threw at him, and overcame his physical limitations to improve the lives of others.
Born in Dunbar in April 1762*, Philip Melvill was the fourth and youngest son of John Melvill, a Collector of the Customs, and a deeply religious man.
|Portrait of captain Philip Melvill.
At the age of sixteen Philip’s father purchased him a commission in the 73rd regiment, commanded by Lord Macleod. According to Philip’s memoirs, this choice of profession was based on his youthful desires for respect, to command others, and the appeal of ‘the noisy pomp and desultory habits of a military life.’ Described at this point in his life as ‘below the middle size’ but ‘regular and well proportioned’, he had ‘a remarkable sweetness of expression, and his manners were frank and courteous’. He sounds to be a very attractive young man.
His first task as an officer was to recruit a certain number of men to his regiment, which meant travelling round remote parts of Scotland for this purpose. Although he achieved his objective, this period exposed him alas, a mere youth of sixteen, to the temptations of drink. ‘It was usual to begin the morning with a dram, and the close of day seldom left the guest in possession of his reason and his senses.’ In other words, it seems he was on an extended pub crawl. Fortunately, this did not totally ruin him, but he admits that alcohol did leave its mark on both his health and morals.
After a brief return home, he rejoined his regiment at Elgin, and his moral principles were again put under strain. He found himself in ‘a society consisting chiefly of youths… unawed by the eye of authority, eager to assert their right to all the privileges of manhood… in such a society the most licentious spirit, even without the aid of a ready wit and an engaging address, will commonly have more influence to lead the weaker part astray, than the example of better conduct, in the well principled few, will have to preserve them.’
Melvill ignored his parents’ strictures about leading a moral life, and took up a life of idleness and dissipation.
After some time spent in training, Melvill was appointed to the light infantry, and in May 1778 he sailed with his regiment from Fort George to Portsmouth. The journey took fifteen days, causing them to miss the last of the season’s ships to the East Indies. They were ordered instead to Guernsey and Jersey, remaining there until the following December.
By March 1779, and now in Petersfield, Melvill and his company were again ready to depart for the East Indies, but this process was not without incident. Ordered to march to Portsmouth, one of the companies mutinied, almost resulting in a bloodbath, with the soldiers of one company ready to fire on their comrades in the mutinying troop. Fortunately, this was avoided and soon all returned to their duties. On 7th March the fleet finally set sail for the East Indies.
The long journey was not without problems — ill-discipline, and all the discomforts of living in very close quarters did not make for an easy passage. Arriving in warmer climates, an infectious disease known as jail-fever broke out, and Melvill was one of its victims. He was so ill that it was thought he would die. Fortunately, he recovered, and ten months after setting off from Portsmouth, he arrived in Madras, India.
At this time Madras was seething with resentment to colonial rule, but the British military rulers there ignored all warnings of impending trouble. ‘The Company’s treasury was exhausted; the army ill-paid, and ill-equipped; an extensive frontier unprovided with the means of defence, and our allies and dependent states depressed and disaffected’.
The expected uprising occurred in July 1780, with Hyder Ally, the ruler of Mysore, invading the Carnatic region, burning villages, and laying siege to British forts. On the morning of September 10th, Lieutenant Melvill and his company, under the command of Colonel Baillie, became engaged in an action against Hyder Ally… and this is when the course of Melvill’s life changed.
At the battle of Peranbancum, Hyder Ally’s forces broke through the British troops, inflicting many casualties, and forcing them to surrender. Melvill was one of those severely wounded. The first of his wounds caused the bone of his left arm to be shattered. A second ball passed through the same arm and part of his left breast. His company now overrun by the enemy, he received slashes to his right arm, severing the muscles, and was thrown to the ground. Stripped of his clothes, he was stabbed in the back with a spear, and left for dead.
‘Wounded and maimed I was left on the field of battle.… At this dreadful period of pain and destitution, I was lying naked on a bank of scorching sand, fainting from time to time with loss of blood, and from the severity of my wounds unable to move.’
For two days he lay in the searing heat until he was picked up by enemy soldiers, hoping to claim the ten rupee reward for bringing in a European alive to Hyder Ally’s camp. Held with one hundred and twenty-six fellow soldiers in a crowded tent, with no medical assistance, and under appalling conditions, the ordeal continued.
‘The wounded were crowded together in one tent, and mutually incommoded each other, so as to prevent a moment’s ease or rest.’
At this point Melvill attempted to take his own life, but did not have the physical strength to do so. After several days, he, and those prisoners who still survived, were conveyed to the fort of Bangalore. Here they were treated no better, but placed in chains, subjected to threats of torture and violent death, and denied any medical treatment.
‘Some were maimed and helpless. All medicine was denied, and it was very difficult to procure it clandestinely, under the strict prohibitions of introducing it which prevailed, and the danger of punishment if detected.’
This horrendous situation continued for four years, until March 1784, when, with the signing of the Treaty of Mangalore, Melvill and his fellow prisoners were at last released. Of their original number, only thirty survived.
Because of his poor health and the condition of his wounds, Melvill, although promoted to Captain, was unfit for active military duty. Instead, he went to stay with his elder brother who was living in Bengal, where he remained until 1786.
At last Melvill returned to England, and although still eager to serve his country, he was in no physical shape for active service, being unable to eat or dress unassisted, and often in great pain. But luck was on his side, and he was given the command of an invalid company stationed in Guernsey.
His good fortune didn’t end there. It was in Guernsey that he met the love of his life, Miss Elizabeth Dobree, and it wasn’t long before the pair were married. The couple remained on the island for five years, and it was there that Melvill started the good works that he became renowned for. Not only instilling military discipline amongst the soldiers in his charge, he also set up a school for their children, supplied it with books, and even taught them religious instruction.
|Portrait of Elizabeth Melvill.
After further spells of ill-health, and a return to the mainland as a retired captain on full pay, Melvill was offered the command of another invalid company stationed at Pendennis Castle. He was appointed Lieutenant Governor of Pendennis Castle and eventually formed the Pendennis Volunteer Artillery.
His new position was initially not an easy one. The troops under his command were ill-disciplined ‘habitual drunkenness, swearing, profanation of the Sabbath’ were commonplace. But Melvill, through his good works, changed all that. He got his men to build cottages for themselves and their families, laid out gardens on the slopes of the castle, ensured their religious instruction, and established schools both for the children of the garrison and in Falmouth. In 1807 he founded the Falmouth Misericordia Society ‘for the relief of poor strangers and distressed persons of the town,’ an organisation in operation until at least 1887.
His personal life was also not without its trials; he and Elizabeth had nine children, two of his sons pre-deceasing him at the young ages of nineteen and twelve years. Of his remaining sons, two joined the East India Company, one became a Church of England clergyman, and another followed his father into the army, becoming a Major General and awarded the KCB (Most Honourable Order of the Bath).
Philip Melvill, after a relatively short life of misfortune and atrocious ill-health, but unselfish and dedicated public service, died on 27 October 1811 at Pendennis Castle.The streets of Falmouth were lined with mourners at his funeral procession, keen to pay their respects to someone who had done so much for the life of their community.
* I have discovered that there is a discrepancy in the published secondary sources for Melvill’s date of birth. In The Melvill Family, a Roll of Honour of the Descendants of Captain Philip Melvill, Lieutenant Governor of Pendennis Castle, by Joubert de la Ferte, 1920, his birth year is given as 1760, while Susan E. Gay, gives his year of birth as 1762. The memorial to Philip Melvill in Falmouth Church states that he died in 1811 aged forty-nine years.
Old Falmouth, Susan E. Gay, London, 1903
Memoirs of the Late Philip Melvill, Esq. Lieut. Gov. Of Pendennis Castle, Cornwall, London, 1812
The Melvill Family, a Roll of Honour of the Descendants of Captain Philip Melvill, Lieutenant Governor of Pendennis Castle, by E. J. Joubert de la Ferté, 1920
The Melvill Family and India, by David Williams, 2014 ( )
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Having worked in various sectors before becoming a full time mum, Penny Hampson decided to follow her passion for history by studying with the Open University. She graduated with honours and went on to complete a post-graduate degree.
Penny then landed her dream role, working in an environment where she was surrounded by rare books and historical manuscripts. Flash forward nineteen years, and the opportunity came along to indulge her other main passion – writing historical fiction. Encouraged by friends and family, three years later Penny published her debut novel A Gentleman’s Promise.
Penny lives with her family in Oxfordshire, and when she is not writing, she enjoys reading, walking, swimming, and the odd gin and tonic (not all at the same time).