George Farmer

the Captain who commanded HMS Quebec on October 6th, 1779

Biographical Notice

Two English poems on the combat between HMS Quebec and the Surveillante

Captain George Farmer, engraving after the portrait by Charles Grignion (Portsmouth Nelson Museum) The Internet makes astonishing and thrilling encounters possible:
On 27th January 2009, M.Francis Farmar sent the following e-mail:
"I have just been looking at your website concerning the battle between Surveillante and HMS Quebec on 6th October 1779.
Captain George Farmer was a kinsman of my family (I don't know why our names are spelt differently) and has always been a family 'hero'. Several of us have engravings of the portrait of Captain Farmer and the engraving of the painting of the action by Robert Todd. My brother has an oil copy of this painting.I believe that my father, Hugh Farmar, was still in touch with descendants of the Du Couedic family...
[George Farmer] was Nelson's first commanding officer and was also involved in the first 'Battle of the Falkland Islands' in 1770. He lost his ship, HMS Swift which went aground on the banks of Puerto Deseado (Port Desire) in Argentina. Amazingly, Argentine maritime archaeologists found it in 1982 and the artifacts that were recovered are in a museum down there."

Puzzling is the fact that both HMS Swift and the Surveillante should prolong their existences as submarine monuments. Attached to a further e-mail were the biographic notice and the first of the two poems below as well as the engraving illustrating this page. The second poem, by Lewis Spence was found on the site:
M. Farmar added:
"The contest between the two Captains, their ships and crews must be one of the most extraordinary naval events of all time in terms of the chivalry and cooperation shown by both sides after the fighting had subsided. M. de Couedic was obviously an exceptional commander! The battle was celebrated as a victory on both sides of the channel although in reality it was a 'draw', the two frigates having smashed each other to bits before fire took hold of HMS Quebec and I do not suppose that in the greater scheme of things, much was achieved other than demonstrating how combatants ought to behave in war. The British Admiralty certainly thought so."
M.Francis Farmer is a painter in oil and water colours. Here is his web site: Francis Farmar

George Farmer (1732 - 1779)


Farmer, George (1732 - 1779), naval officer, born at Youghal, co York. In 1732, was the son of John Farmer, of a Northamptonshire family settled at Youghal, a collateral branch of the Fermors. the earls of Pomfret, extinct in 1867.
He went to sea at an early age in the merchant service, and later, after entering the navy, served as a midshipman of the Dreadnought with Captain Maurice Suckling in the West Indies, and in the Achilles on the home station with the Hon. Samuel Barrington.
On 23 May 1759 he was promoted lieutenant of the frigate Aurora, in which he served until January 1761 on the home station.
He was then placed on half pay, and settled for a time in Norwich, where he had been previously employed on the impress service. Here he married Rebecca, daughter of Captain William Fleming, another naval officer: the couple had nine children. In 1766 he is said to have given valuable assistance in suppressing a riot there and to have been promoted commander on 26 May 1768, in consequence of the representations of the local magistrates.

The first battle of the Falkland Islands
Farmer had, however, no further active employment until September 1769, when he was appointed to the sloop Swift. In her he went out to the Falkland Islands, where, on his arrival in the following March, he found that the Spaniards, having established themselves at Puerto Soledad, had sent to Port Egmont, peremptorily ordering the British to quit the settlement. As there was no British force to resist any aggression, the senior officer, Commander Anthony Hunt, determined to go to England with the news, leaving Farmer in command.
A few days later the Swift sailed for a cruise round the islands. In a violent gale she was blown over to the coast of Patagonia, and in attempting to go into Port Desire she struck a rock and was utterly lost.
The crew escaped to the shore, but as they were entirely destitute, Farmer dispatched the cutter to Port Egmont with orders to the only remaining ship, the Favourite, to come to their relief.On 16 April they arrived safely at Port Egmont.
On 4 June a Spanish frigate anchored in the harbour: she was presently followed by four others, and the commandant, Don Juan Ignacio Madariaga, wrote to Farmer that, having with him 1600 troops and a train of artillery, he was in a position to compel the British to quit, if they hesitated any longer. Farmer replied that he should defend himself to the best of his power: but resistance against such an overwhelming force could be nothing more than complimentary, and accordingly when the Spaniards landed, Farmer, after firing his guns, capitulated on terms, an inventory of the stores being taken, and the British permitted to return to their own country in the Favourite.
After arriving in September 1770 Farmer, on being acquitted of all blame for the loss of the Swift, was appointed to the sloop Tamar and on 10 January 1771 he was promoted to post rank.(*)

Nelson's first commanding officer
In August 1773 Farmer was appointed to the frigate Seahorse, and sailed for the East Indies, having among his petty officers Thomas Troubridge, a master's mate, and Horatio Nelson, a midshipman. On returning to England after an uneventful commission.
Farmer was appointed in March 1778 to the frigate Quebec (32 guns), in which he was employed during the year to convoy service in the North Sea.
In 1779 he was stationed chiefly at Guernsey as a guard for the Channel Islands, and to gain intelligence. As early as 18 June he sent news that the French fleet had sailed from Brest, that the Spanish fleet had sailed from Cadiz, and that there were at Le Havre great preparations for an invading force.
On 6 July he wrote that he had driven on shore and destroyed a convoy of forty-nine small vessels, with a 20-gun frigate and several armed vessels, but that the Quebec herself had struck heavily on the rocks, and he had been obliged to throw his guns overboard. This necessitated his going to Portsmouth for repair and when these were finished, as there were no 12-pounders to replace the lost guns, he had to be supplied with 9-pounders, which were taken from another frigate not ready for sea.

The engagement with the Surveillante
With this reduced armament, off Ushant, on 6 October, the Quebec met the French 18-pounder frigate Surveillante (40 guns) (**) and nearly double the number of men. A sharp action ensued. After about three and a half hours both ships were dismasted. As the Quebec's sails fell, the guns caught fire, and the frigate was speedily in a blaze. There was little wind and a great swell; the Surveillante, completely disabled, was at some little distance: the cutter Rambler was to leeward, and also dismasted, and the French cutter Expédition, which had been engaged with the Rambler, had sought safety in flight. It was thus impossible to help the burning frigate, which after some four or five hours blew up. Only sixty-six out of about 195 men on board were picked up by the boats of the Surveillante, the Rambler, and a Russian vessel that came on the scene; the rest, including Captain Farmer, perished.

Aftermath of the battle
Farmer had been previously wounded, and his conduct both in the action and during the fire was so highly spoken of that, at the special request of the Board of Admiralty, a baronetcy was conferred (19 January 1780) on his eldest son, George William Farmer (d. 1814), an annual pension of £200 to his widow, and £25 a year to each of his eight children. and a ninth not yet born.
In so doing the Admiralty board hoped to encourage others to emulate Farmer's stubborn gallantry by signalling that their actions would be commemorated were they to die in action. Farmer's death also gave the Admiralty reason to use the loss of the Quebec for political purposes in the service. As Lord Sandwich, first lord of the Admiralty, was advised, "officers must be taught to lose the idea of danger in that of glory .Great actions must dazzle as well as burn.” Moreover, “if this action is properly set forth, it will do more credit to our Arms in Europe and give more Spirit and Enthusiasm to our young officers than a great victory attended with no shocking Circumstance”.
Another consideration was doing honour to Sandwich himself, 'no trifling object' given the current temper of the fleet.

J. K. Laughton, rev. Barry M. Gough

The Two Captains

By William Johnson CORY (1823 - 1892)

1. When George the Third was reigning a hundred years ago,
He ordered Captain Farmer to chase the foreign foe.
“You’re not afraid of shot”, said he, “You’re not afraid of wreck,
So cruise about the west of France in the frigate called Quebec.

2. Quebec was once a Frenchman’s town, but twenty years ago
King George the Second sent a man called General Wolfe, you know,
To clamber up a precipice and look into Quebec,
And you’d look down a hatchway when standing on the deck.

3. If Wolfe could beat the Frenchmen then so you can beat them now.
Before he got inside the town, he died, I must allow.
But since the town was won for us it is a lucky name,
And you’ll remember Wolfe’s good work, and you shall do the same.”

4. Then Farmer said, “I’ll try, sir,” and Farmer bowed so low
That George could see his pigtail tied in a velvet bow.
George gave him his commission, and that it might be safer,
Signed “King of Britain, King of France,” and sealed it with a wafer.

5. Then proud was Captain Farmer in a frigate of his own,
And grander on his quarter-deck than George upon the throne.
He’d two guns in his cabin, and on the spar-deck ten,
And twenty on the gun-deck and more than ten score men.

6. And as a huntsman scouts the brakes with sixteen brace of dogs,
With two-and-thirty cannon the ship explored the fogs.
From Cape la Hogue to Ushant, from Rochefort to Belle-Isle
They hunted game till reef and mud were rubbing on her keel.

7. The fogs are dried; the frigate’s side is bright with melting tar,
The lad up in the foretop sees square white sails afar;
The east wind drives three square-sailed masts from out the Breton bay
And “Clear for action!” Farmer shouts, and reefers yell “Hooray!”

8. The Frenchmen’s captain had a name I wish I could pronounce;
A Breton gentleman was he, and wholly free from bounce,
One like those famous fellows who died by guillotine
For honour and the fleur-de-lys Antoinette the Queen.

9. The Catholic for Louis, the Protestant for George,
Each captain drew as bright a sword as saintly smiths could forge;
And both were simple seamen, but both could understand
How each was bound to win or die for flag and native land.

10. The French ship was la Surveillante, which means the watchful maid;
She folded up her head dress and began to cannonade
Her hull was clean, and ours was foul; we had to spread more sail.
On canvas, stays, and top sail yards her bullets came like hail.

11. Sore smitten were both captains, and many lads beside,
And still to cut our rigging the foreign gunners tried.
A sail-clad spar came flapping down athwart a blazing gun;
We could not quench the rushing flames, and so the Frenchman won.

12. Our quarter-deck was crowded, the waist was aglow;
Men hung upon the taffrail, half scorched but loth to go;
Our captain sat where once he stood, and would not quit his chair.
He bade his comrades leap for life, and leave him bleeding there.

13. The guns were hushed on either side, the Frenchmen lowered boats,
They flung us planks and hencoops, and everything that floats.
They risked their lives, good fellows!, to bring their rivals aid.
‘Twas by the conflagration the peace was strangely made.

14. La Surveillante was like a sieve; the victors had no rest.
They had to dodge the east wind to reach the port of Brest,
And where the waves leapt lower and the riddled ship went slower,
In triumph, yet in funeral guise came fisher-boats to tow her.

15. They dealt with us as brethren, they mourned for Farmer dead;
And as the wounded captives passed each Breton bowed the head.
Then spoke the French lieutenant; “’Twas fire that won, not we,
You never struck your flag to us; you’ll go to England free”.

16.‘Twas the sixth day of October, seven hundred seventy-nine,
A year when nations ventured against us to combine.
Quebec was burnt and Farmer slain, by us remembered not;
But thanks be to the French book wherein they’re not forgot.

17.Now you, if you’ve to fight the French, my youngster, bear in mind
Those seamen of King Louis so chivalrous and kind;
Think of the Breton gentlemen who took our lads to Brest,
And treat some rescued Breton as a comrade and a guest.

The Song of the Pilot

By Lewis Spence (1874 - 1955)

The renowned Scottish folklorist introduces his poem with this remark:
"I have here attempted a very free translation of the stirring ballad
which relates this noteworthy incident, which cannot but be of interest at
such a time as the present."
(The poem was written in 1917.
In fact, it is a genuine original work and by no means a mere
translation of the Breton ballad by Le Mang)


Yo ho, ye men of Sulniac!
We ship to-day at Vannes,
We sail upon a glorious track
To seek an Englishman.
Our saucy sloop the Surveillante
Must keep the seaways clear
From Ushant in the north to Nantes:
Aboard her, timoneer!

See, yonder is the British craft
That seeks to break blockade;
St George's banner floats abaft
Her lowering cannonade.
A flash! and lo, her thunder speaks,
Her iron tempest flies
Beneath her bows, and seaward breaks,
And hissing sinks and dies.

Thunder replied to thunder; then
The ships rasped side by side,
The battle-hungry Breton men
A boarding sally tried,
But the stern steel of Britain flashed,
And spite of Breton vaunt
The lads of Morbihan were dashed
Back on the Surveillante.

Then was a grim encounter seen
Upon the seas that day.
Who yields when there is strife between
Britain and Brittany ?
Shall Lesser Britain rule the waves
And check Britannia's pride?
Not while her frigate's oaken staves
Still cleave unto her side!

But hold! hold! see, devouring fire
Has seized the stout Quebec.
The seething sea runs high and higher,
The Surveillante's a wreck.
Their cannon-shot has breached our side,
Our bolts have fired the foe.
Quick, to the pumps! No longer bide!
Below, my lads! below!

The yawning leak is filled, the sea
Is cheated of its prey.
Now Bretons, let the Britons see
The heart of Brittany !
Brothers, we come to save, our swords
Are sheathed, our hands are free.
There is a fiercer fight toward,
A fiercer foe than we!

A long sea-day, till sank the sun,
Briton and Breton wrought,
And Great and Little Britain won
The noblest fight ere fought.
It was a sailors' victory
O'er pride and sordid gain.
God grant for ever peace at sea
Between the Britains twain!

  • Version française de la présente page

  • More about the Surveillante (in English)

  • "Son al Levier" e brezhonek - The Song of the Pilot (in Breton)

  • The Song of the Pilot (in English + French)