Sir Evan Nepean

The Early Years: 1751-1782

Sir Evan Nepean was born on July 19th, 1753 (usually given as 1751), at St. Stephens, near Saltash in Cornwall, England, as the second of three sons of "Nicholas Nepean, Gent." Both of Evan’s brothers became soldiers, eventually rising to the rank of lieutenant-general. Their father was Cornish, the name of Nepean being thought to be derived from a village near St. Austell called “Nanpean”, meaning “the head of the valley”. Their mother was from South Wales, and the name Evan, which continued in the family, reflects this Welsh ancestry.

Nothing is known of Evan’s education, but naval records show that at the age of 20 (December 28, 1773) he entered the Royal Navy as a clerk to Capt. Hartwell of the 70 gun ship of the line, H.M.S. “Boyne”, then in the Hamooze, Devonport. Promoted to Purser in 1775, he saw service in various ships and ports during the period of the American Revolutionary and Maritime Wars {1775-83} when Britian was confronted with the combined naval powers of France, Spain and Holland as well as the forces of the American Navy.

In these early years of his career, Nepean’s administrative ability and pleasing personality evidently attracted attention, for he was twice appointed Secretary to Admiral Molyneux Shuldham, once when the latter was serving in Boston in 1776 and again when he became Port Admiral at Plymouth (1777-1778). Moreover, from 1780-1782 he was Purser on the “Foudroyant” under Capt. John Jervis, the future Lord St. Vincent, with whom he would work again later in his career.

 
Under-Secretary at the Home Office: 1782-1794 & at the War Office: 1794-1795

On March 3, 1782, before the age of 30 and even before he was officially discharged from the Navy on June 24, Nepean was appointed an Under-Secretary at the Home Office in London. There his responsibilities were always heavy, for a reorganization of government was taking place by which the old “Southern Department” became the Home Office, which was then also responsible for both War and the Colonies – all this through a Secretary, two Under-Secretaries and twelve clerks. As the office developed, Nepean’s colleague acted almost as a private secretary to the Principal Secretary, whose appointment was political, while Nepean became more of a permanent head of a department and in practice, a “sub-minister”.

Nepean did not wait to prove himself in the public service before becoming a family man. On June 6, 1782, he married Margaret Skinner, the only daughter of Capt. William Skinner, at the Garrison Church at Greenwich. Nepean’s daughter and two sons were born while he was in the service of the Home Office. Until 1794 his official salary was the equivalent of $2000.00 a year ($1,800.00 after taxes), but this was normally increased by some additional allowances and occasional windfalls. Thus, in 1794, an exceptional year for Nepean, he was a commissioner of the Privy Seal, for which as one of three commissioners he received a stipend of $1,200.00. He also received a commission for acting in the interest of the government in arranging the purchase of presents for the Canadian Indians. Since Nepean held only one sinecure – that of Naval Officer of Grenada from 1783-92, and that of Chief Clerk to the Supreme Court of Jamaica from 1791 onwards – his total annual income before 1794 averaged about $6000.00, from which he had to maintain the dignity of his position in a succession of modest but well-furnished homes close to the Home Office in Whitehall.

The twelve years during which Nepean was Under-Secretary {1782-94} began and ended in difficult and demanding times. The fall of Lord North in 1782 after a long and disastrous premiership was followed by three short-lived ministries in 1782-83. In the second of these, that of the Earl of Shelburne (previously the first of the new Home Secretaries, and the one to whom Nepean had probably been recommended by his last Captain, now Sir John Jervis), the American War had to be ended as well as was possible by the Treaty of Versailles. After December 1793 William Pitt the Younger slowly re-established stability; but the beginning of the French Revolution in 1789 disrupted his work of reform and heralded the outbreak of a new and greater war with Revolutionary France in 1793.

Until 1794, when his seventh successive senior, Henry Dundas, took a new office as Secretary for War (and in practice, for colonial business), Nepean seems to have been responsible for the management of the varied and ill-defined work of the original Home Office. In this he quickly acquired a reputation for hard work, being described as “intelligent, attentive and obliging.” In 1791 when a valuable sinecure in Jamaica fell vacant, his senior, William Grenville, felt bound to offer it “to Nepean, who is killing himself by his labour here,” and in 1792 a friend (Alexander Davidson, a Government contractor with many ties to Canada) wrote of the “insurmountable weight of business”, which Nepean bore. For a time this pressure affected Nepean’s health: in the fall of 1789 he was unable to attend the office regularly; in 1791-92 he had to spent the winter in the West Indies; and in 1793 he had to have leave again to take the waters at Tunbridge Wells to ease his rheumatism. In general however, he was reluctant to leave his responsibilities to others ("London forever! I am never easy when I am out of it") and his capacity for work seems to have been endless. William Huskisson, whose own remarkable career began when he was quite casually appointed in 1793 to assist the Under-Secretary in dealing with emigres from the Revolution in France (since Nepean himself could not speak French), soon came to love and admire him as one "no less remarkable for his indefatigable attention to business than for his upright and honorable conduct."

 
Nepean and Canada: 1782-1794

Since the Home office was generally responsible for colonial business between 1782 and 1801, one part of Nepean’s work was concerned with Canadian affairs. Here again the time was one of great difficulty. Although the American war concluded in 1783, the frontier between Canada and the United States remained indeterminate, so those British garrisons on the southern side of the St. Lawrence were not withdrawn until 1796. In Quebec, the English-speaking minority resented its lack of representation in a land where the preservation of French law, French institutions and the Catholic faith were held by both the successive Governors, Haldimand and Carleton (Lord Dorchester) to be imperative if revolt was to be avoided. By 1785, too, English law and adequate representation were being demanded by the Loyalists, who had also to be provided first with the necessities of life and then with some regular settlement of land in Canada, including the area between the St. Lawrence and the Ottawa rivers as far to the west as today’s Belleville and Britannia, which was “purchased” from the Indians in 1783.

The history of the part that Nepean played in resolving these great problems, and more particularly in promoting the Canada Act of 1792, by which the Province of Canada became the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada (Ontario and Quebec), each with a Legislative Assembly as well as a council, has not yet been written. Probably most of the regular business involved after December 1783 was dealt with by a third Under-Secretary, Mr. Elliott of a new Plantation Department. Yet men on the spot, like Haldimand and Sir John Simcoe, the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, could certainly write to Nepean as to a friend about matters ranging from the supply of axes to the siting of townships, from the composition of a council to the possibility of attracting Vermont into Canada, and they could do this knowing that their business would be given attention and their letters answered.

When war with Revolutionary France began in 1793 Nepean’s responsibilities were multiplied by the necessity of maintaining security in Britain and of preparing a force to fight in the Low Countries; and in mid-July of 1794 he went with Dundas from the Home Office to the War Office, so becoming Under-Secretary for War (1794-1795). In these circumstances his Canadian friends could only regret that Nepean was now too busy to devote as much attention as he might have liked to his Canadian concerns. In April 1793 Davidson told Sir John Simcoe that “our friend Nepean” was “so occupied that it is melancholy at times to see him…almost the whole official business is now thrown upon his shoulders.”

The reason why the Township, now our City, of Nepean is so named is also apparent in the following extract from another letter written by Davidson to Simcoe on August 1, 1793:
“...to our friend Nepean, who is ever anxious to promote your view to the utmost of his power: but the cursed multiplicity of public business incessantly day after day thrown upon his shoulders renders it totally impossible in the present critical situation [for him] to be of [the] use to your Government which his disposition dictates.”

 

Naval Affairs: 1782-1795

Since Nepean had served in the Navy, it is not surprising that one of his chief interests at the Home Office was in “intelligence”, which meant the acquisition and assessment of news from abroad, particularly about the strength and disposition of French naval vessels. Once the Revolution had begun in France, it was soon the general belief among the French that the conspiracies of counter-revolutionaries were financed by endless quantities of “British Gold”. Secret service expenditure in Britain was in reality divided between the Home and the Foreign Office, by far the greater part going to the latter; and expert examination of the Home Office accounts has shown that Britain only began seriously to support French royalists in 1793, when it was far too late, and that very little of what was sent went through the Home Office. There was indeed a flow of reports from Nepean to his superiors, but these papers seem to have been wholly concerned with French and Spanish naval movements. The sort of information sought by Nepean at this time is reflected by a question posed to one of his informants in January, 1793: “What”, he asked, “is going on in Cherbourg?”

 
Secretary of the Admiralty: 1795-1804

In 1795 Nepean left the War Office to become Secretary of the Admiralty, a position which he held until 1804. At the same time he became a Member of Parliament, sitting for Queensborough (1796-18020. Much then depended upon the efficiency of his office, for these years during the French Revolutionary Wars were years of great national danger for England – and such great naval victories as Cape St. Vincent in 1797, the Nile in 1798 and Copenhagen in 1801. It seems likely that Nepean was again recommended as Secretary by his old commander, Sir John Jervis, and it is also possible that he in turn helped to secure the appointment of Sir John as Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean, the control of which by the British was re-gained by Jervis’s decisive defeat of the Spanish fleet in 1797. Nepean and Jervis, now Earl of St. Vincent, were very close. In 1799, Jervis wrote to Nepean deploring Nelson’s infatuation with Lady Hamilton. It was probably on the advice of Jervis that a Miss Knight, a young lady who returned to England with Nelson’s party at this time, took refuge with the Nepean family lest her reputation be imperiled by any association with Lady Hamilton. Other letters show what is equally important, that Nepean remained on good terms personally and professionally with Nelson as well.

Although Nepean had served at sea as a Purser on several different ships and was therefore intimate with the stringent discipline of the British Navy, he was apparently as surprised as anybody by the outbreak of the mutiny which occurred at Spithead in 1797. Although he was certainly kept well informed, and even on one occasion consulted at midnight about the situation, Nepean does not seem to have been notably active in the negotiations through which the men of the Channel Fleet were brought back to duty by a full pardon for their mutiny and a firm agreement for the improvement of their wretched conditions of life. Certainly he was much more opposed to the more dangerous mutiny which soon followed at the Nore. Admiral Pasley, who presided over the court which eventually condemned its ringleader, Richard Parker, to death, wrote reproachfully to Nepean: “… the conviction of the villain Parker must have been so dear to you at the Admiralty that the place and time of his execution might have been previously settled.” We should, however, remember that both these mutinies occurred at a critical time and that books about them are seldom sympathetic to those in authority.

 

Sir Evan Nepean, Baronet: 1802-1822

On July 16, 1802, Nepean became a baronet, and since the Peace of Amiens had been made with France in March 1802 it is probable that the honour was in particular recognition of his services during the years of war. He had also personally served King George III; a series of brief notes written by the King and now in possession of the Nepean family show that Nepean had been in service at Court since 1788. In 1802, he also became a Member of Parliament for Bridport (1802-1812), a borough in Dorset, close to which he had in 1799 purchased Loders, an estate that long remained as the family’s home.

He remained as Secretary at the Admiralty for two more years (1802-04), during which war with France began again and Napoleon prepared The Grand Army at Boulonge for the invasion of England. Once again Nepean was associated with Earl St. Vincent, who was First Lord of the Admiralty from 1801-04; and this may well have contributed a great deal more that is credited to the defence of England, as well as to the Admiral's relentless attack against those abusing the system in the vessels and dockyards of the fleet.

The Government at this time was unsettled. Prime Minister William Pitt had resigned in 1801 when he found that he could not, as he had promised, accompany the Union with Ireland by Catholic Emancipation; and his successor, Addington, had difficulty in holding a loose group of ministers together until May 1804. It was in these circumstances that Sir Evan Nepean became a Privy Councillor and, for a few months from February 1804, Chief Secretary for Ireland, where he was granted the freedom of the City of Dublin.

The re-appointment of Pitt in May 1804 was soon followed by Sir Evan’s return to naval affairs. From September of 1804 he was a Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty and as such, with a seat on the Board of Admiralty, he saw the climax of the war at sea when Nelson’s pursuit of Villeneuve ended in the decisive defeat of the fleets of France and Spain at Trafalgar in 1805.

The sudden death of Pitt in 1806 effectively ended Sir Evan’s active career at the centre of British public life. From that year until 1812, when more stable government was restored by Lord Liverpool, he held no office in national affairs. Yet in 1812, when he was about 60 years old, he became Governor of the State of Bombay, a position he held until 1819. While in India, he took a great interest in the flora and fauna of the country; copies of letters written in 1814 – still in the possession of the Nepean family – give detailed descriptions of the specimens he had collected or sent to his friends in England. If, as is believed, a statue of Sir Evan Nepean still stands in Bombay, he presumably continues to be as honoured as ever.*

After a short retirement the Right Honourable Sir Evan Nepean, Baronet, died at his home in Dorset on October 2nd, 1822, being the High Sheriff of the County as well as a Fellow of the Royal Society. According to a brief obituary notice which appeared in that year, he was “a man of business”, and in that day the description was no mean tribute. Sir Evan was essentially a practical man, wearing his own hair rather than a powdered wig, and at a critical period in the history of the world he held highly responsible offices in the public service unobtrusively but with outstanding competence. Although his connection with Canada was brief, it is appropriate that the former City of Nepean should preserve his memory and recall the motto he chose in 1802 to accompany his coat of arms – “Respice”. (“Look back”; “Remember your beginnings.”)
-- Written by Michael J. and Jean A. Sydenham, 1990.

* A letter written to the Nepean Museum in 1990 by the Mayor of Bombay confirmed that there is no such statue standing today.

Sir Evan Nepean