This year, 2017, is the 300th anniversary of the birth of George Augustus Eliott, who was governor of Gibraltar throughout the Great Siege (1779 to 1783). Lieutenant-General Eliott had a long military career and was eventually honoured with the title of Lord Heathfield. During the Great Siege, he had overall control of Gibraltar, both the military garrison and the civilian inhabitants, and his strategic skill is credited with the successful defence of the Rock. He is still commemorated on Gibraltar today, but elsewhere he is a largely forgotten hero.
Eliott commemorated on Gibraltar stamps, issued in 1967
on the 250th anniversary of his birth
Gibraltar is famed for its philately, issuing beautiful postage stamps to celebrate aspects of life on the Rock. In 1967, on the 250th anniversary of the birth of Eliott, commemorative stamps were issued. One shows him holding the Gibraltar key; one has his portrait on a map of Europe; another depicts two monuments dedicated to him (at Heathfield in Sussex and Gibraltar); and one shows the scene on the Copley painting that is used on our book jacket.
It is always pleasing to receive a package or letter from Gibraltar, adorned with lovely stamps. By contrast, the Royal Mail’s philately is lacklustre. There is virtually no advertising, and their special-issue stamps are now aimed at existing collectors, because of a decision years ago to stop second-class special stamps (except for small and nasty ones at Christmas). Their website shows that stamps have been issued in 2017 depicting ancient Britain, Windsor Castle, songbirds and windmills – wonderful, but we never saw any of them, yet would have bought them. From mid-September, there are stamps to celebrate Ladybird books, and two designs are actually second-class. One includes the Ladybird book of Nelson – when Nelson should obviously be first-class.
The Drake connection
On 25 December 1717, Eliott was born at Stobs, just south of Hawick in the Scottish Borders, the youngest son of Sir Gilbert Eliott and his wife Eleanora. He was educated at Leiden University in Holland and at a French military college, followed by service in the Prussian army and further training at Woolwich. He was fluent in several languages and skilled as a cavalryman and as a military engineer. He took part in several notable battles, including Dettingen, Fontenoy and Minden. In London in 1748, Eliott married Anne Pollexfen Drake, sister of several Francis Drakes (who had different middle names to distinguish one from another). Eliott and Anne had two children – a son Francis Augustus and a daughter Anne. In 1762, Eliott was second-in-command in an expedition to Cuba and was awarded substantial prize-money on the capture of Havana, with which he purchased the Bailey (or Bayley) Park estate in the village of Heathfield in Sussex.
George Augustus Eliott with the Key to Gibraltar
Governor of Gibraltar
To Eliott’s immense grief, his wife Anne died in 1772. Not long after, he became commander-in-chief in Ireland, but immediately resigned, and instead, in 1776, he was appointed governor of Gibraltar, arriving there in May 1777. He had a reputation as a strict commander, and so Captain Horsbrugh was relieved to find him very pleasant. Once Spain closed the border with Gibraltar in June 1779 and established a blockade, Eliott took firm control of the Rock and was at the very centre of all information filtering through to Gibraltar. A fit man of frugal habits, he was very active and energetic, known to rise early each day, regularly riding round the walls, inspecting the guards and defences, and impressing everyone with his vigilance and attention to detail. Even so, he had his detractors, but for Gibraltar as a whole, he was probably the best person to be in charge.
After the siege
When the siege ended in 1783, Eliott stayed on Gibraltar to carry out his duties. If he had returned to England straightaway, he would have had a hero’s welcome. Finally, in 1787, he travelled to London to receive a peerage, becoming Lord Heathfield, Baron Gibraltar. In London, he suffered a stroke, and during his gradual recovery he bought another large house, with 12 acres of land, at the rural village of Turnham Green, now part of Chiswick in London. The house is no longer there, though the name Heathfield survives in street names. When Eliott suffered another stroke in 1790, he travelled to Aix-la-Chapelle to take the waters, from where he intended to travel to Gibraltar to live out his days. Instead, he suddenly died, and his body was brought home and buried in the church at Heathfield. It was later moved to the Drake chapel of Buckland Monachorum church in Devon, where his son erected an imposing monument celebrating both his father and the siege of Gibraltar. The story of Eliott and the Great Siege is told in our new book called Gibraltar: The Greatest Siege in British History.
Eliott (spelled Elliot here) was commemorated on this halfpenny token,
issued in Birmingham in 1792