Today’s virtual lecture was presented by Owen Ryles, Chief Executive of the Plymouth Athenaeum. It concerned the time that the Duke of Clarence (later King William IV) visited the naval yards at Plymouth.
The lecture began with a preamble establishing the titular character: William was his father’s third son, long expected to lead a relatively quiet life. Even his creation as Duke of Clarence & St Andrews was not guaranteed, being granted only because he threatened otherwise to stand as MP for Totnes. He was sent into the navy at age 13 to keep him away from the perceived negative influence of his elder brother George IV. In his active career he was the first British royal to set foot in the American colonies, took command of HMS Pegasus in 1786 and gave away Frances Nisbet in her wedding to Horatio Nelson in 1787. He was commissioned as an honorary admiral in 1798, and then appointed to the office of Lord High Admiral in 1827 during the brief ministry of George Canning. In his private life, he scandalised Georgian society by cohabiting with his mistress Dorothea Bland and siring ten illegitimate children with her. He gave her a stipend on the condition that she would not return to acting, and later took legal action against her when she did anyway. When his niece Princess Charlotte of Wales unexpectedly died in childbirth William moved up in the line of succession and was forced into a royal marriage, but his wife’s children all died young.
For the grand occasion the duke arrived on HMS Lightning to a deafening chorus from onlookers. He did not disembark until 7pm. He visited the original Admiralty House, later renamed Hamoaze House, and met the Superintendent of Works Jay Whitby. On 12th July he inspected the Plymouth Division of the Royal Marines and said that Plymouth was his favourite naval resort (it was also the first borough in which he had been made a freeman). On 13th he received a loyal address by the mayor and municipal corporation at the Royal Hotel. Among the military men with whom he dined was his own son, Colonel Frederick Fitzclarence.
Also during the visit he laid the top stone of the sea wall at the Royal William Victualling Yard and donated ten guineas to each of the workmen. He also witnessed a demonstration by William S. Harris of the application of fixed lightning conductors to ships.
William’s tenure as Lord High Admiral did not last long – the next year he was dismissed after taking HMS Britannia to sea for ten days without government permission. In 1830 he acceded to the throne, the eldest until Charles III last autumn. He was reluctant to have a coronation at all, eventually spending just £30k on it compared with his elder brother’s £420k. His reign was short, and he clung to life just long enough to see his niece Victoria come of age. He was regarded as the “least obnoxious Hanoverian”, which some might consider high praise.