Thomas Francis Fremantle (1765-1819) was born in 1765 in Hampstead. His grandfather, John, came from a family of Lisbon merchants and had been a diplomat at Madrid, then Secretary to the Customs Board, and had married into the Spanish aristocracy. His father, also John, a colonel in the Coldstream Guards and a merchant, died in debt in 1784. His mother Frances (née Edwards) came from a wealthy Bristol family. His family patron was Lord Buckingham of Stowe, one of the Grenvilles. His elder brothers were colonels in the Army, and they and his aunts had all married into minor aristocracy while a younger brother was a prominent Whig MP. His sisters married men of influence. His nephew, John, was ADC to Wellington, and his second son, Charles, fought in the War of 1812. Fremantle spoke French, Italian and some Spanish.
Fremantle’s first ships were Tartar (28) and Hussar (28), under Captain Elliot Salter on the Lisbon station. Hussar was impounded in the Tagus after colliding with the Portuguese ship Sao Bonaventure which she was trying to search, and she was only released after the personal intervention of the Portuguese Queen. He served in Victor (14) in the West Indies with Captain Sylverius Moriarty, and in Jupiter (50) with Lord Ducie. He was a midshipman in Phoenix (44) in 1780 with Captain Sir Hyde Parker, when she was wrecked in a hurricane on the coast of hostile Cuba but the crew entrenched themselves until rescued. Fremantle became one of Hyde Parker’s `boys’, and was promoted lieutenant at the age of sixteen by Sir Peter Parker (commander-in-chief in Jamaica), no relation to Sir Hyde. It was Lady Parker who `had been a mother to Fremantle’, and had nursed Nelson after his illfated Nicaragua expedition. He served in Ramillies (74) for a year as midshipman and master’s mate, the sloop Vaughan (14) and, when captured by the French Triton (64) in Tickler (14), was taken to Havana, where he was exchanged before returning to England from Jamaica in Childers (14).
From 1784 to December 1787 Fremantle served in Camilla (20) as first lieutenant under Captain John Hutt, on the Jamaica station. Hutt later achieved glory, a fatal wound, and a place in the nave of Westminster Abbey on the Glorious First of June. Fremantle also served in the sloop Port Antonio (12). A period ashore in London followed, when he met royalty through his elder brother, John, who was equerry to the Duke of York, and he confided in a letter to his brother William on 4 July 1788 from 31 Titchfield Street, London, that he had `lived with the handsomest woman in England for five months’, but doesn’t name her.
During the Nootka Crisis of 1790 he joined Sir Hyde Parker in Brunswick (74) as third lieutenant. At the end of the year he was promoted commander but early 1791 found him living hectically in Bath until he was given command of the fireship Spitfire with James Brisbane, the third son of Admiral Brisbane, as one of his lieutenants and there followed an enjoyable, and amorous, spell based at Yarmouth, Isle of Wight, in command of a small squadron of guard boats. On half pay from September 1791 until early 1793, he visited France (`in a mess, best families fleeing’) in August 1792, getting the clap that winter, and curing it with mercury. He had a brief command of the fire-ship Conflagration before being made post-captain in May 1793 when he was given command of his old ship, Tartar: his first prize-money in command was shared with John Trigge of Mermaid (32) when they took the French privateer General Washington (22).
Fremantle and Nelson both knew the Parkers in the West Indies and may have met there, but their first recorded encounter came after the capture of Toulon. Tartar, with Lord Hugh Seymour embarked, met Agamemnon on 31 August 1793 when Fremantle told Nelson of the burning of the French fleet. Nelson was on the way to obtain Neapolitan reinforcements for Hood.
The conversation in Tartar might have been interesting. In 1783 Seymour and `Jacko’ Willett Payne, both bachelor naval officers, had shared a house in Conduit Street, Mayfair, where the Prince of Wales was a visitor, and the friends led `an irregular and convivial life’. There Payne seduced a penniless teenager called Amy Lyon. When in June 1794 Fremantle reached Naples he was entertained by Amy Lyon, now Lady Emma Hamilton, whom he found `large and masculine’.
Meanwhile, Tartar joined Nelson on the blockade of Bastia, and his first known letter from Nelson is dated 25 January 1794: `Sir You will proceed in His Majesty’s Ship under your Command off Bastia in the Isle of Corsica, and in every means in your power prevent the Enemy’s Privateers from leaving or getting into the Port .’ By the time Bastia surrendered on 21 May 1794 Fremantle had earned the respect of Nelson by his fearless use of Tartar’s guns, though a walk ashore in April to inspect a new battery almost ended the lives of both as a shot from the defenders missed by inches: Nelson was bowled over.
Fremantle was making his name as a successful frigate captain, and in January 1795 was given Inconstant (36). His command started awkwardly when his commander-in-chief received a letter of complaint from his crew alleging cruelty. Fremantle, who had experience of mutiny in Camilla, faced his men down, saying any punishment he gave would be less than a courtmartial would have ordered and arrested the five ringleaders. Before the matter came to trial, Fremantle took part in one of the more famous frigate actions of the war. On 14 March the French battleship Ça Ira (80) had fallen behind a fleeing French fleet and Fremantle ranged up astern of the larger ship and repeatedly raked her, leading to her capture, and the capture of Censeur (80) when the British fleet caught up. Fremantle did not forget to obtain a pardon for the mutineers in view of their shipmates’ `sober, quiet and proper’ action.