Captain William Cathcart (RN), Master of Cathcart

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William Cathcart

Birthdate: (22)
Death: 1804 (22)
Immediate Family:

Son of William Schaw Cathcart, 1st Earl Cathcart and Elizabeth, Countess Cathcart
Brother of Charles Murray Cathcart, 2nd Earl Cathcart and Lt-Gen Hon Sir George Cathcart, GCB

Managed by: Private User
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About Captain William Cathcart (RN), Master of Cathcart

The Honourable William Cathcart, Master of Cathcart (30 June 1782 – 4 June 1804) was an officer in the Royal Navy during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. He was the eldest son of Scottish peer William Cathcart, 10th Lord Cathcart (1755 -1843), later Earl Cathcart and of Elizabeth Elliott (1760 - 1847), the daughter of Andrew Elliot, the governor of New York. His younger brother was General, the Honourable Sir George Cathcart KCB DL (1794 - 1854). Born in London, his birthdate is alternatively recorded as 13 June, 1782, according to other sources. Cathcart was educated in the paternal tradition at Eton College, Winsdor, Berkshire, United Kingdom. Cathcart joined the Royal Navy in August 1795 as a volunteer aboard HMS Melpomene, a thirty eight gun, fifth rate vessel originally captured from the French navy in 1794, being finally decommissioned in 1815. Subsequently, he served on HMS Pallas as Supernumerary (May 6, 1796 August 6, 1796), Able Seaman on HMS Romulus (August 21 1796 - January 13, 1797), Midshipman (January 14, 1797 - November 12, 1797), Midshipman and Master's Mate on HMS Alcmene (November 13, 1797 - March 7, 1799), and Midshipman on HMS Majestic (March 8, 1799 - December 2, 1799).[7] He was made lieutenant on 2 September 1801. He served on HMS Medusa and was made master and commander on 14 April 1802. This ship was highly active during in various theatres of operations and had a prolific service life, the log of which is preserved and is accessible online through the University of Glasgow. However, Cathcart's presence on board is, at present, only considered presumptive. He then took charge of the sloop HMS Renard, another addition from the French Navy in October 1802. Having subsequently being appointed post captain, Cathcart took command of the frigate HMS Clorinde, captured in 1803 at Santo Domingo. He died in the West Indies of yellow fever while commanding her, on 4 June 1804 at the age of 21. He is reported to have served with distinction at the raids on Boulogne, a naval action of August, 1801 in which the Royal Navy attempted to destroy components of the French fleet in that port.

Background Events During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

At the time Cathcart joined the Royal Navy, Britain was engaged in the Revolutionary Wars and Napoleonic Wars with France. By 1801, Bonaparte dominated a substantial area of the European continent, Britain being one of the few major opponents yet to be defeated. Therefore, Bonaparte laid plans to invade the British mainland which caused widespread panic within the population. By April, 1801, he had assembled a substantial force of both naval and military assets in the French port of Boulogne on the Channel coast. By August, it was possible to spy the large French military encampments from Kent British newspapers were quick to publish stories about an imminent French invasion. The Times newspaper on August 1 and 3, 1801, reported that,“ the greatest activity prevails in the different French ports. The gunboats and flat bottomed boats are numerous.” The British government responded to the threat by mobilising 500,000 men (around 33% of all adult males in England and Scotland of military age) into militia units which were arranged around the country at strategic points. Patriotic cartoons and ballads proclaimed that the defenders would decimate the French invaders, probably a hubristic claim given that the British forces were poorly trained against seasoned French veterans. Aware of the morale situation on the home front, the British government appointed Vice Admiral Lord Horatio Nelson to command the defences which had a positive effect on the mood of the population, the victor of the decisive Battle of the Nile and of the Battle of Copenhagen now in charge. He ordered a naval blockade at the mouths of the rivers Thames and Medway in order to prevent French invasion forces from penetrating inland towards London, which was a predicted strategy. In addition, he heavily reinforced the Channel Islands with naval assets which would disrupt any attempt at invasion. All along the English south coast, preparations were made to entrap any French ships and forces that made sight of the multitude of harbours or beach head locations. Nelson was uncompromising in his anti French rhetoric which he memorably quoted to the appreciation of his nervous audience. For example, he states that to Englishmen, "you must consider every man your enemy who speaks ill of the king, you must hate a Frenchman as you hate the devil."

Deciding that the best form of defence was attack, Nelson took the war to the French by attacking the port of Boulogne on August 4, 1801 by launching a mortar bombardment from bomb ships, which had a minimal effect. On August 15, 1801,Nelson embarked on an ambitious plan to launch a boat borne raid against French shipping in the port. However, the French had anticipated such an assault and were well prepared for it, bloodily repulsing the British who suffered the losses of forty four killed and 126 wounded. Ironically, it appears that both sides can claim victory in the action. The French version can reasonably argue that the British failed in their attempt to destroy the flotilla in Boulogne. The British version might indicate that the French fleet was unable to leave port, thus thwarting Bonaparte’s aspirations for invasion. In the larger scheme of things, the raids proved inconclusively to be of any strategic use to either side. Having reached an impasse, the British and French were effectively forced into signing a peace which occurred at the Treaty of Amiens of March,1802.

Cathcart’s Role in the Raids on Boulogne

During the second raid on Boulogne, Cathcart is reported to have served with great distinction as part of a boat crew tasked with the destruction of a French naval target. At the time of this action, Cathcart is reported to have already served time in the Mediterranean and was presently serving with the inshore squadron off Brest as acting lieutenant on board the frigate, Medusa, to which Nelson had recently transferred his flag. For the attack on the enemy flotilla, Cathcart was placed in command of the ships’ cutter. In recognition of Cathcart's conspicuous conduct during the attack, Captain Edward T. Parker sent the following despatch to Nelson on August 16, 1801, having being mortally wounded himself in the action and succumbing to his injuries a short time later,

“It is at this moment that I feel myself at a loss for words to do justice to the officers and crew of the Medusa who were in the boat with me, and to Lieut. Langford, the officers and crew of the same ship, who nobly seconded us in the barge, until all her crew were killed or wounded; and to the Hon. Mr. Cathcart, who commanded the Medusa’s cutter, and sustained the attack with the greatest intrepidity, until the desperate situation I was left in obliged me to call him to the assistance of the sufferers in my boat. The boats were no sooner alongside than we attempted to board; but a very strong netting, traced up to her lower yards, baffled all our endeavours, and an instantaneous discharge of her guns and small arms, from about 200 soldiers on her gunwale, knocked myself, Mr. Kirby, the Master of the Medusa, and Mr. Gore, a midshipman, with two thirds of the crew, upon our backs into the boat, all either killed or wounded desperately. The barge and cutter being on the outside, sheered off with the tide, but the flat boat, in which I was, hung alongside, and as there was not an officer or man left to govern her, must have fallen into the hands of the enemy, had not Mr. Cathcart taken her in tow, and carried her off”

Having been rescued by Cathcart, worthy of note is the obituary for Parker which indicates the sacrifice of the failed attack in which Cathcart had heroically acquitted himself,.

“The 26th instant at Deal, the gallant E. T. Parker, of the wounds he received in the second attack on the French flotilla off Boulogne. Every attention was paid to this meritorious Officer that his lamentable situation demanded. Earl St. Vincent, with that humanity which has ever marked his conduct, sent down his own surgeon to attend him; and great hopes were entertained for a time that not only his valuable life, but his limb would be saved; the flattering expectations of his friends were, however, disappointed; he suffered amputation very high in the thigh on the 16th instant, one of the arteries burst, and the great effusion of blood reduced him to so low a state, that he only languished till the morning of the 27th, when “His noble spirit sought the shades, to the great regret of every Briton, and particularly of his gallant Commander Lord Nelson. His memory will ever be dear to a grateful Nation in the defence of whose liberties he so bravely distinguished himself.”


Cathcart was appointed as post-captain on HMS Clorinde, captured along with the Surveillante, after foundering on rocks while attempting escape from a joint British and Haitian siege of Santo Domingo, under the command of Emmanuel Halgan, in 1803.The ship was recovered and was then transferred to Jamaica during which time Cathcart assumed charge of the ship. However, before he could ascend fully to his new command, Cathcart contracted yellow fever, a viral infection carried by mosquitoes, which proved fatal. The Cathcart genealogical entry for him states that,“This gallant young officer fell a victim to the yellow fever, at Jamaica, when in command of the Clorinde frigate, with the rank of post-captain, 5th June 1804, in his 22d year, unmarried.”

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Captain William Cathcart (RN), Master of Cathcart's Timeline

Age 22