LYON, 64 GUNS LAUNCH’D AT PORTSMOUTH 3RD SEPTEMBER 1781.
Typical of the last generation of 64s, Lion (as it was usually spelt) was one of many of these small two-deckers built to make up battlefleet numbers during the dangerous days of the American Revolutionary War when Britain faced all the major maritime powers alone. After active service during the American War, mostly in the West Indies, the ship was chosen to carry Lord Macartney’s embassy to China in 1792. During the following wars the ship’s career was typical of many 64s, serving in secondary theatres like the North Sea in the 1790s and for much of the period after 1801 in the East Indies. Lion was decommissioned in 1814 but survived as a hulk until 1837.
Capture of the Dorothea, 15 July 1798 (HMS Lion is at centre right) Thomas Whitcombe, 1816
The 64 was an ‘economy’ battleship and by the mid-eighteenth century for major navies it was the smallest acceptable unit of the line of battle. The principal weakness of the type was the main battery of 24pdrs, whereas the rest of the line from the largest three-decker to the standard 74 were equipped with 32pdrs in the British fleet and 3 6pdrs in the French. This meant that any 64 would always be a weak link in the battle line and a source of concern to the admiral commanding. This had become recognised during the American Revolutionary War and neither Britain nor France built such ships thereafter. The type remained popular with second-rank navies, like those of the Baltic states and, especially, the Netherlands, and although France built no more of the type for her own navy she acquired others through the shipbuilding activities of her satellite states like Venice and the Netherlands. Therefore British 64s were often concentrated in the squadrons opposing those powers.
Because of a large building programme put in hand during the American War, there were still thirty 64s available in 1793. Natural attrition reduced the numbers gradually during the war, but many were captured – mainly from the Dutch, but three from Denmark and two originally built for the Knights of St John at Malta. But very few of these were acceptable cruisers, and those not hulked were usually reduced to duty as troopships or store vessels. However, such was the rapidly escalating commitments of British fleets that in 1796 five of the largest East Indiamen building on the Thames were purchased and converted into 64-gun ships. They had their ports rearranged to take twenty-six 24pdrs instead of the twenty-eight 18pdrs they were designed for, and unlike the 54/56-gun ships acquired in the previous year, they had a proper quarterdeck and forecastle. They were longer in proportion than purpose-designed 64s, but nevertheless were deemed inadequate warships, being slow and unwieldy, thanks to their capacious mercantile hull form. They were derisively dubbed ‘tea and sugar ships’ in the fleet, and when blockading Toulon in 1803 Nelson complained that as ships of the line, ‘Monmouth and Agincourt … were hardly to be reckoned’.
Because of the weak broadside of the 64 there was a tendency to keep them out of the principal battlefleets if at all possible. Even in 1794 when all manner of battleships were in short supply, Lord Howe’s Channel Fleet did not contain any 64s, and in the period of close blockade 64s were only very rarely assigned to such duties. As the country’s front line of defence against invasion, the Channel Fleet clearly had first call on the best ships, but the 64 also disappeared from other strategically important squadrons. By the middle of 1797, for example, the Earl of St Vincent’s Mediterranean Fleet had only one, and even when assigned to a particular command the 64 was often detached on convoy and other duties outside the battle line. At that time the greatest concentration of 64s was with Admiral Duncan’s North Sea fleet – ten ships, or exactly half his nominal line of battle – followed by Rear-Admiral Rainier’s East Indies command of six, with four 74s and four 50s. Both were expected to face Dutch rather than French opponents, Duncan off the coast of Holland itself, and Rainier concentrating on Dutch colonies at the Cape, in the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. The Dutch navy’s ships tended to be smaller, since it was essentially a trade protection force, and at the battle of Camperdown in October 1797 there were seven 64s on each side.
Probably the last campaign in which 64s took part in large numbers was Copenhagen in 1801: nine were originally allotted to Hyde Parker’s command, although only three went into action with Nelson’s division. Once again the choice of ship type was determined by the numbers of similar vessels in opposing fleets; both Russia – the planned next target after the Danish fleet had been dealt with – and Denmark herself favoured smaller ships, and the inshore emphasis of Baltic operations suggested that shallow-draught and handy ships would be at a premium. Three went back to Copenhagen with Gambier in 1807, and Saumarez was assigned two 64s when a permanent fleet was sent to the Baltic in the following year.
Although 64s were considered too weak for Channel service, where the enemy battle line was composed of 74s and larger, in other areas the 64-gun ship had its uses. They were often handier and more weatherly than larger battleships, and could be employed on detached duties where more powerful opposition was unlikely. From a distance they looked like any other two-decker so could be used to maintain a presence off lesser ports, to lead small colonial expeditions, and to provide cover for the more important convoys. Agamemnon, Nelson’s professed ‘favourite ship’, was very active under his command, and in the Mediterranean demonstrated some of the variety of roles performed by 64s outside the battle line. That the 64 was superior to any frigate was proved beyond doubt by Agamemnon’s routing four of them (plus a brig) in October 1793; the 64’s handiness was well illustrated by her hounding of the 80-gun Ça Ira in March 1795; and in the spring of 1796 under Nelson’s broad pendant the ship led a detached squadron of one other 64, two frigates and two brigs to harass the coast around Genoa and blockade the port. Even after Nelson’s promotion to larger ships, the Agamemnon remained a popular ship and, despite general reluctance to include 64s in the line of battle, contrived to fight at Copenhagen, Calder’s Action in 1805, Trafalgar and Duckworth’s action off San Domingo in 1806.