Ralph Abercromby

Sir Ralph Abercromby KB (sometimes spelt Abercrombie) (7 October 1734  28 March 1801) was a Scottish soldier and politician. He twice served as MP for Clackmannanshire, rose to the rank of lieutenant-general in the British Army, was appointed Governor of Trinidad, served as Commander-in-Chief, Ireland, and was noted for his services during the French Revolutionary Wars.

Sir Ralph Abercromby
Sir Ralph Abercromby, by John Hoppner
Born(1734-10-07)7 October 1734
Menstrie, Clackmannanshire, Scotland
Died28 March 1801(1801-03-28) (aged 66)
Alexandria, Egypt
Buried (35.902722°N 14.519889°E / 35.902722; 14.519889)
Allegiance Great Britain
Service/branch British Army
Years of service1756–1801
Battles/warsSeven Years' War

French Revolutionary Wars

Irish Rebellion of 1798
French campaign in Egypt and Syria

RelationsBrother: Alexander Abercromby, Lord Abercromby and General Sir Robert Abercromby
Other workMember of Parliament
Governor of Trinidad
Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire

Early life

Abercromby was the eldest son of Mary Dundas (d. 1767), daughter of Ralph Dundas of Manour, Perthshire and George Abercromby of Tullibody House, Clackmannanshire. He was brother of the advocate Alexander Abercromby, Lord Abercromby and General Robert Abercromby. He was born at Menstrie Castle in Clackmannanshire.[1]

Abercromby's education was begun by a private tutor, then continued at the school of Mr Moir in Alloa, then considered one of the best in Scotland despite its Jacobite leanings. After passing some time there, Ralph was sent to Rugby School, where he remained until he was 18. He then became a student at the University of Edinburgh. There he studied moral and natural philosophy and civil law, and was regarded by his professors as sound rather than brilliant.[2] He completed his studies at Leipzig University in Germany, from 1754, taking more detailed studies in civil law with a view to a career as an advocate.[3]


Abercromby was a Freemason. He was Initiated into Scottish Freemasonry in Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2, (Edinburgh, Scotland) on 25 May 1753.[4]


On returning from the continent, Abercromby expressed a strong preference for the military profession, and a cornet's commission was accordingly obtained for him (March 1756) in the 3rd Dragoon Guards. He served with his regiment in the Seven Years' War, and thus, the opportunity afforded him of studying the methods of Frederick the Great, which moulded his military character and formed his tactical ideas.[5]

Abercromby rose through the intermediate grades to the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the regiment (1773) and brevet colonel in 1780, and in 1781, he became colonel of the newly raised King's Irish infantry. When that regiment was disbanded in 1783, he retired on half pay.[5] He also entered Parliament as MP for Clackmannanshire (1774–1780).[6]

Abercromby was a strong supporter of the American cause in the American Revolutionary War, and remained in Ireland to avoid having to fight against the colonists.[7]

When France declared war against Great Britain in 1793, Abercromby resumed his duties. He was appointed command of a brigade under the Duke of York for service in the Netherlands, where he commanded the advanced guard in the action at Le Cateau. During the 1794 withdrawal to Holland, he commanded the allied forces in the action at Boxtel and was wounded directing operations at Fort St Andries on the Waal. In 1795, he was appointed a Knight of the Bath for his services.[5]

That same year, he was appointed to succeed Sir Charles Grey as commander-in-chief of the British forces in the West Indies. In 1796, Grenada was suddenly attacked and taken by a detachment of the army under his orders. Afterwards, Abercromby secured possession of the settlements of Demerara and Essequibo in South America, the islands of Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and Trinidad.[5] A major assault on the port of San Juan, Puerto Rico, in April 1797 failed[8] after fierce fighting where both sides suffered heavy losses.

Abercromby returned to Europe and, in reward for his services, was appointed colonel of the 2nd (Royal North British) Regiment of Dragoons. He was also made Lieutenant-Governor of the Isle of Wight, Governor of Fort George and Fort Augustus in the Scottish Highlands, and promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-general. He again entered Parliament as member for Clackmannanshire from 1796 to 1798. From 1797 to 1798, he was Commander-in-Chief of the forces in Ireland.[5]

To quote the biographic entry in the 1888 Encyclopædia Britannica,

"There he laboured to maintain the discipline of the army, to suppress the rising rebellion, and to protect the people from military oppression, with the care worthy of a great general and an enlightened and beneficent statesman. When he was appointed to the command in Ireland, an invasion of that country by the French was confidently anticipated by the British government. He used his utmost efforts to restore the discipline of an army that was utterly disorganized; and, as a first step, he anxiously endeavoured to protect the people by re-establishing the supremacy of the civil power, and not allowing the military to be called out, except when it was indispensably necessary for the enforcement of the law and the maintenance of order.[5]

Finding that (he) received no adequate support from the head of the Irish government, and that all his efforts were opposed and thwarted by those who presided in the councils of Ireland, he resigned the command. His departure from Ireland was deeply lamented by the reflecting portion of the people, and was speedily followed by those disastrous results which he had anticipated, and which he so ardently desired and had so wisely endeavoured to prevent."[5]

After holding for a short period the office of commander-in-chief in Scotland, Abercromby, when the enterprise against the Dutch Batavian Republic was resolved upon in 1799, was again called to command under the Duke of York. The Anglo-Russian invasion of Holland in 1799 ended in disaster, but friend and foe alike confessed that the most decisive victory could not have more conspicuously proved the talents of this distinguished officer.[5]

In 1801, Abercromby was sent with an army to recover Egypt from France. His experience in the Netherlands and the West Indies particularly fitted him for this new command, as was proved when he carried his army in health, in spirits, and with the requisite supplies to the destined scene of action despite great difficulties. The debarkation of the troops at Abukir, in the face of strenuous opposition, is justly ranked among the most daring and brilliant exploits of the British army.[5]


In 1800 Abercromby commanded the expedition to the Mediterranean, and after some brilliant operations defeated the French in the Battle of Alexandria, 21 March 1801. During the action he was struck by a musket-ball in the thigh; but not until the battle was won and he saw the enemy retreating did he show any sign of pain. He was borne from the field in a hammock, cheered by the blessings of the soldiers as he passed, and conveyed on board the flag-ship HMS Foudroyant which was moored in the harbour. The ball could not be extracted; mortification ensued, and seven days later, on 28 March 1801, he died.[9]

Abercromby's old friend and commander, the Duke of York, paid tribute to Abercromby's memory in general orders: "His steady observance of discipline, his ever-watchful attention to the health and wants of his troops, the persevering and unconquerable spirit which marked his military career, the splendour of his actions in the field and the heroism of his death, are worthy the imitation of all who desire, like him, a life of heroism and a death of glory."[5] He was buried on St John's Bastion within Fort Saint Elmo in Valletta, Malta. The British military renamed it Abercrombie's Bastion in his honour.[10] The adjacent curtain wall linking this bastion to the fortifications of Valletta, originally called Santa Ubaldesca Curtain, was also renamed Abercrombie's Curtain.[11]


By a vote of the House of Commons, a monument was erected in Abercromby's honour in St Paul's Cathedral in London. His widow was created Baroness Abercromby of Tullibody and Aboukir Bay,[1] and a pension of £2,000 a year was settled on her and her two successors in the title.[5]

Abercromby Place in Edinburgh's New Town is named in his honour.


On 17 November 1767, Abercromby married Mary Anne, daughter of John Menzies and Ann, daughter of Patrick Campbell.[12][13] They had seven children. Of four sons, all four entered Parliament, and two saw military service.

Coat of arms of Ralph Abercromby
Supporters granted 30th January 1798 [16]
A bee volant proper
Argent a chevron indented Gules between three boars’ heads erased Azure armed Or and langued Sable in the middle chief point a crescent Vert.
On either side a greyhound per fess Argent and Or collar and line Gules charged on the shoulder with a thistle proper.
Vive Ut Vivas

A public house in central Manchester, the 'Sir Ralph Abercromby', is named after him. There is also a 'General Abercrombie' pub with his portrait by John Hoppner as the sign off of the Blackfriars Bridge Road in London.[17]

Three ships have been named HMS Abercrombie after the general but using the variant spelling of his name.[18]

Abercrombie Street in Port of Spain, Trinidad honours his name.

Abercromby Primary School in Tullibody is named after him.

Abercromby Place in Edinburgh's New Town is named after him.

Further reading



    1. Chambers Biographical Dictionary, ISBN 0-550-18022-2, page 4
    2. Abercromby, James (1861). Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby, K. B., 1793–1801. Edinburgh: Edmonston and Douglas. p. 16. Retrieved 24 July 2017.
    3. Wilkinson, Spenser (1899). From Cromwell to Wellington: twelve soldiers. London: Lawrence and Bullen, ltd. pp. 288–325. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
    4. History of Lodge Canongate Kilwinning, No. 2. Compiled from the Records, 1677-1888. P.237. By Allan MacKenzie. Edinburgh. Published 1888.
    5.  One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Chisholm, Hugh, ed. (1911). "Abercromby, Sir Ralph". Encyclopædia Britannica. 1 (11th ed.). Cambridge University Press. p. 44.
    6. "Abercromby, Ralph (1734–1801), of Tullibody, Clackmannan". History of Parliament Online. Retrieved 14 May 2016.
    7. David Andress, The Savage Storm: Britain on me Brink in the Age of Napoleon (2012) p 61
    8. "Abercromby, Sir Ralph, of Tullibody (1734–1801), army officer". www.oxforddnb.com. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/45. Retrieved 2 February 2019.
    9. The new international encyclopædia. New York: Dodd, Mead and company. 1909. pp. 26–27. Retrieved 11 July 2017.
    10. "St John Bastion Caraffa – Valletta" (PDF). National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands. 28 June 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 July 2015.
    11. "Sta Ubaldesca Curtain – Valletta" (PDF). National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands. 28 June 2013. Archived from the original (PDF) on 13 July 2015.
    12. Lundy 2011, p. 3 § 28 cites Pine 1972, p. 1
    13. Lundy 2011, p. 3 § 28 cites Cokayne 2000, p. 12
    14. Logie: A Parish History by Menzies Fergusson
    15. Gazetteer for Scotland
    16. "Grant of Supporters: Lt Gen Sir Ralph Abercromby 1798".
    17. Sir Ralph Abercrombie Inn, retrieved 31 January 2013
    18. Thomas, David (1988). A Companion to the Royal Navy. London: Harrap. p. 55. ISBN 0 245-54572-7.

    Primary sources

    • Abercromby, James (1861), Lieutenant-General Sir Ralph Abercromby, KB, 1793–1801
    • Lundy, Darryl (9 February 2011), "Mary Anne Menzies, Baroness Abercromby of Aboukir and Tullibody", Mary Anne Menzies, The Peerage, p. 3 § 28
    • Cokayne, G.E.; et al. (2000), The Complete Peerage of England, Scotland, Ireland, Great Britain and the United Kingdom, Extant, Extinct or Dormant, I (reprint in 6 volumes ed.), Gloucester, U.K.: Alan Sutton Publishing, p. 12
    • Pine, L.G. (1972), The New Extinct Peerage 1884–1971: Containing Extinct, Abeyant, Dormant and Suspended Peerages With Genealogies and Arms, London: Heraldry Today, p. 1

    Secondary sources

    Parliament of Great Britain
    Preceded by
    James Abercromby
    (until 1768)
    Member of Parliament for Clackmannanshire
    Succeeded by
    Charles Allan Cathcart
    (from 1784)
    Preceded by
    Burnet Abercromby
    (until 1790)
    Member of Parliament for Clackmannanshire
    Succeeded by
    Sir Robert Abercromby
    Political offices
    Preceded by
    José Maria Chacón
    Governor of Trinidad
    February 1797
    Succeeded by
    Sir Thomas Picton
    Military offices
    New regiment Colonel of the 103rd Regiment of Foot (King's Irish Infantry)
    Preceded by
    Hon. Philip Sherard
    Colonel of the 69th (South Lincolnshire) Regiment of Foot
    Succeeded by
    Henry Watson Powell
    Preceded by
    Lancelot Baugh
    Colonel of the 6th (1st Warwickshire) Regiment of Foot
    Succeeded by
    The Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh
    Preceded by
    Charles Grey
    Colonel of the 7th (The Princess Royal's) Dragoon Guards
    Succeeded by
    Sir William Medows
    Preceded by
    The Earl of Eglinton
    Colonel of the 2nd (Royal North British) Regiment of Dragoons
    Succeeded by
    David Dundas
    Preceded by
    The Earl of Carhampton
    Commander-in-Chief, Ireland
    Succeeded by
    Viscount Lake
    Preceded by
    Studholme Hodgson
    Governor of Carlisle
    Succeeded by
    David Dundas
    Honorary titles
    Preceded by
    The Lord Cathcart
    Lord Lieutenant of Clackmannanshire
    Succeeded by
    The Lord Cathcart

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