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A Melchester hero

Category: Spotlight
A Melchester hero

Lord Nelson may be the UK's most illustrious naval commander. But there's another seafaring supremo whose exploits and achievements are almost as legendary as the famous hero of Trafalgar: Melchester's own Admiral Standfast.

Picture the scene. It's 1783. On the deck of HMS Resilient, a first rate ship of the line, stands the tall, imposing figure of Admiral Sir Hugo Standfast, one of the Royal Navy's most maverick commanders, but a brilliantly successful naval warfare strategist, highly respected by his men and feared by all his enemies.

As he stands on the deck of his beloved ship on that bright September day, Standfast is basking in the glory of one of his most famous victories, the Battle of Dunsmouth Sound, one of the key engagements of the Anglo-French War of 1778-83. It's the pinnacle of a glittering thirty-six-year naval career, during which he has miraculously survived a musket wound to the shoulder, three bouts of malaria and a duel with a Spanish nobleman called Don Pedro de Alcazar.

Born in Melchester in 1733, the son of local clergyman Josiah Standfast, former Rector of St Peter's Church, Admiral Standfast has always been closely associated with the town he loved and called his home, despite spending the majority of his life at sea. Having retired in 1763, widowed Josiah Standfast bought a beautiful three-storey townhouse in Gainsborough Terrace, a property which Hugo Standfast inherited on his father's death five years later. Unfortunately, the house, along with two other neighbouring ones, burned down in 1963, but a small blue plaque marks the site, which is now home to a convenience store.

"Standfast was a true British hero who, sadly, is now largely forgotten outside Melchester and the annals of naval heritage," says local historian Jack Bloomfield. "This is even more surprising when you take into account the fact that he commanded forces which were victorious in no less than six major sea battles, against both French and Spanish fleets. He also had a very colourful life and was known for his eccentricities, which included drinking rum from the hollowed out horn of an American bison, wearing a pink flamingo feather in his bicorn hat and taking his pet goat with him on all sea voyages as a mascot."

Standfast was also a notorious womanizer who had several mistresses during his 25-year marriage to Elizabeth Billington, the daughter of a leading Melchester cloth merchant. In fact, it was his penchant for extra-marital affairs, rather than his hazardous career, that led to his untimely death at the age of 58. He was shot twice in the chest by the jealous husband of his lover, Lady Davina Cartwright. Despite valiant attempts to save him, he succumbed to his wounds at Melchester Infirmary on 17 October 1791.

You can visit Admiral Standfast's grave at St Peter's Church, Melchester. See our History & Culture section.

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