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TOWNSEND, ISAAC, naval officer; b. c. 1685; m. Elizabeth Larcum, by whom he had a son and a daughter; d. 21 Nov. 1765 at Greenwich, England.

Isaac Townsend joined the navy in 1696 under the patronage of his uncle Sir Isaac Townsend, longtime Navy Board commissioner resident at Portsmouth, England. He passed his lieutenant’s examination on 15 Jan. 1705/6, and was promoted post captain in February 1720. His early service was almost entirely on the Irish station and in home waters. Following the outbreak of war with Spain in 1739, he went to the West Indies as flag captain in the squadron sent to reinforce Admiral Edward Vernon, and he took part in the abortive siege of Cartagena (Colombia) in 1741. He was promoted rear-admiral 23 June 1744.

In reply to pleas from the West Indies for naval protection after Commodore Peter Warren sailed for Île Royale (Cape Breton Island) in the spring of 1745, the admiralty sent Townsend with a squadron of eight vessels to the Leeward Islands. When he reached Barbados he discovered that the French squadron which had caused such anxiety there had already sailed home. Though he had instructions to organize an attack on the island of St Lucia, he confined his activities to cruising off Martinique, where at the end of October 1745 he intercepted a convoy and took or destroyed more than 30 vessels.

Townsend’s association with North America was confined to 1746. In view of the general belief expressed by William Shirley, governor of Massachusetts, and Warren, that the French would attempt the recovery of Louisbourg, the admiralty ordered Townsend to Cape Breton with his squadron. Leaving Antigua in January 1746 he reached Louisbourg harbour only on 9 May; and being senior to Warren he immediately assumed command. His squadron was shortly reinforced by the arrival of Commodore Charles Knowles (sent as governor of Cape Breton) with two men of war.

Early in June fresh orders reached Townsend to prepare an assault on Quebec that summer. He presided over a council of war which decided that Warren should sail to Boston to help coordinate the preparations among the colonial troops, while Knowles bent his efforts to putting the Louisbourg garrison in a state of readiness. Townsend sent the Pembroke to cruise off Newfoundland, the Kinsale and the Albany to sail up the St Lawrence as far as Anticosti Island, and the Dover to warn the garrison at Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia. In addition the Shirley (Capt. Rous) was sent to Île Saint-Jean (Prince Edward Island) to deliver the terms for its evacuation, and the sloop Hinchingbroke was sent to cruise eastward along the coast of Cape Breton for early intelligence about the arrival of the anticipated French and English squadrons. When neither squadron appeared in July and August, ships were sent to the St Lawrence, to Newfoundland, and to Annapolis Royal to replace those already there on station. In mid-September, however, news of the appearance of the French in great strength reached Townsend. Seriously outnumbered, he made no attack upon them in their anchorage at Chebucto (Halifax), and La Jonquière [Taffanel] was able to lead them back to France unharmed, after supplying the Acadians with arms and vessels and sending a convoy of merchant ships to Quebec. In November Townsend sailed with the bulk of his squadron to Spithead, and never again served at sea.

In 1754 he was named governor of Greenwich Hospital, the refuge for aged and infirm seamen, at £1,000 per annum; and in this capacity became in 1757 the jailer of the unfortunate Admiral John Byng, whom he treated, in the opinion of some contemporaries and historians alike, with undue severity.

Townsend was twice elected to parliament and represented the borough of Portsmouth from December 1744 to 1754; upon Byng’s death he was elected for Rochester, Byng’s constituency, and represented it from March 1757 till his own death in 1765. Though listed as a supporter of succeeding ministries, he seems never to have spoken in the house, nor played any sort of active political role.

His prize money earned in 1745 together with his handsome income made Townsend a man of some wealth. He bought an estate at Thorpe in Surrey, and by 1756 had invested some £19,000 in the funds.

Julian Gwyn

[There is a portrait of Townsend as a young officer by an unidentified artist at Greenwich Hospital. Information on Townsend’s life can be found in: PRO, Adm. 1/305; 1/480, ff.139–40, 142, 149–50, 152–53, 164; 2/65; 6/4, f.54; 6/9, f.85; 6/12, ff.103, 173; 6/15, f.325; 6/16, f.325; 50/25; 107/2, f.74.  j.g.]

Charnock, Biographia navalis, IV, 85. DNB. The history of parliament: the House of Commons 1754–1790, ed. Lewis Namier and John Brooke (3v., London, 1964), III, 537. Dudley Pope, At 12 Mr Byng was shot . . . (London, 1962). H. W. Richmond, The navy in the War of 1739–48 (3v., Cambridge, Eng., 1920), II, 224–29.

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Cite This Article

Julian Gwyn, “TOWNSEND, ISAAC,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/townsend_isaac_3E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/townsend_isaac_3E.html
Author of Article:   Julian Gwyn
Title of Article:   TOWNSEND, ISAAC
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 3
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1974
Year of revision:   1974
Access Date:   March 25, 2023