Gibraltar Governor George Eliott (George Augustus), first Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar (1717-1790), army officer, the seventh son of Sir Gilbert Eliott, third baronet, and his wife, Eleanor Eliott, was born in Stobs, Roxburghshire, on 25 December 1717. Educated at Leiden University, he also attended the French military college at La Fere. In 1735 and 1736 Eliott saw active service as a volunteer with the Prussian army in order to develop his military knowledge, and on his return to Britain he attended the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich. He received a commission as officer of engineers in 1739. As there was no regular corps of sappers and miners at this time Eliott also held a commission in the 2nd Horse Grenadier Guards, commanded at this time by his uncle, Colonel James Eliott. George Eliott served with his regiment as lieutenant and adjutant between 1742 and 1748, during the War of the Austrian Succession, and was wounded at the battle of Dettingen (1743). He also fought at the battle of Fontenoy (1745), and purchased a captaincy in the same year. He purchased the rank of major in 1749, and a lieutenant-colonelcy in 1754. Eliott resigned his commission as field engineer at this time, and in 1756 became aide-de-camp to George II, who greatly approved his personal conduct on campaign.
On 8 June 1748, at St Sepulchre, London, Eliott married Anne Pollexfen, only child of Sir Francis Henry Drake, fourth baronet, of Buckland Abbey in Devon. There were two children, a daughter, Anne, and a son, Francis Augustus.
George Eliott was selected to raise a regiment of light cavalry after the Prussian and Austrian hussars model, and was made colonel of the 1st light dragoons on 10 March 1759. He was known to take considerable care in the administration and training of his regiment, and for the unusually simple and spartan manner in which he lived when in the field. Eliott led his regiment with distinction throughout the campaigns in Germany during the Seven Years’ War between 1759 and 1761. In June 1759 he became major-general and fought at the battle of Minden (1 August 1759) in command of a brigade of cavalry. He took a prominent part in the bold cavalry charge at the battle of Emsdorf (16 July 1760) and received the thanks of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick for his services at this time.
In 1761 Eliott was appointed to command a brigade of cavalry intended for amphibious operations against the French coast. He was subsequently second in command to the earl of Albemarle during the arduous expedition against Cuba where his conduct attracted wide commendation. On his return to Britain in 1763 he received over £25,000 in prize money from the Havana operations, and used this money to purchase the estate of Heathfield in Sussex. At the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War in 1763 George III reviewed Eliott’s regiment of cavalry in Hyde Park and granted his request that they should be titled the King’s Own Royal light dragoons; they subsequently became the 15th hussars. Eliott was made lieutenant-general in 1765. His wife, Anne, died on 13 February 1772.
Late in 1774 Eliott became commander-in-chief in Ireland but in 1775 he was appointed as governor of Gibraltar. He arrived on the rock on 25 May 1777. The entry of France into the American War of Independence in 1778 made Gibraltar more vulnerable to an attack by Spain. Eliott oversaw the improvements to the fortifications in the period to 1779, executed by Gibraltar’s chief engineer, William Green. In September that year Eliott pre-empted his opponents’ preparations with a heavy bombardment of their lines, and the blockade of Gibraltar became an active campaign. Eliott’s small garrison of less than 6000 men was subjected to continuous bombardment, to bravely conducted attacks by land and sea, and to a close and debilitating blockade designed to induce starvation. Vital supplies were first forced through to the rock by a naval squadron under Rear-Admiral Richard, fourth Viscount Howe, in January 1780, but conditions for the soldiers were often desperate. On 12 April 1781 another supply convoy reached the garrison but, among other expedients to eke out supplies, Eliott ordered his men to cease powdering their hair, as required by standing orders, in order to conserve flour. The turning point in the operations came on 13 September 1782, when the French and Spanish floating batteries off the king’s bastion were ruthlessly and systematically destroyed in a tremendous counter-bombardment by Eliott’s batteries, which fired more than 40,000 rounds of heated round shot in an afternoon and evening. On 11 October 1782 a third supply convoy under Howe got through to the garrison, and, following a successful conclusion to peace negotiations with Spain, the siege was lifted on 5 February 1783. Eliott’s calm, competent, and firm leadership throughout the three year and seven months’ siege was fundamental to the extraordinary fortitude of the hard-pressed soldiers under his command. A monument to Eliott’s leadership during the siege was later erected in what became the Alameda Botanical Gardens.
George Eliott was made a knight of the Bath in 1783. He returned to Britain in May 1787 and received great popular acclaim. He was granted a pension of £1500 per annum and was created Baron Heathfield of Gibraltar on 14 June 1787.
Heathfield died at Aachen in northern Germany ‘of a second stroke of the palsy’ (GM, 1st ser., 60/2, 1790, 671) shortly before a planned return to his post in Gibraltar, on 6 July 1790, and was buried in Heathfield church, Sussex. It was rumoured that he had married shortly before his death, or was about to marry, his mistress, but her name is unknown. His son, Francis Augustus, second Baron Heathfield (d. 1813), also followed a military career and was colonel of the 29th light dragoons (1795-7), the 20th light dragoons (1797-1810), and 1st King’s dragoon guards (1810-13). Eliott’s daughter, Anne, married John Trayton Fuller of Ashdown Park, Sussex, and their third son, Thomas, assumed the name Fuller-Eliott-Drake in 1813 on succeeding to the estates of the Eliotts and Drakes. He was created a baronet in 1821.
Heathfield was a bluff and dour man, with an impressive air of quiet authority. A dedicated and ambitious professional soldier, he took pains throughout his career to improve both his own military knowledge and expertise and that of the men he commanded. Having acquired a considerable reputation as a leader of light cavalry when young, he proved equally adept at the technical intricacies of positional siege warfare. His ingenuity and resourcefulness in adversity attracted wide attention and praise, most notably at the siege of Gibraltar, which is justly regarded as one of the epic episodes in eighteenth-century military history.
Sources Army List (1739-90) + DNB + J. Drinkwater, A history of the late siege of Gibraltar (1785) + N. B. Leslie, The succession of colonels of the British army from 1660 to the present day (1974) + R. A. Savory, His Britannic majesty’s army in Germany during the Seven Years’ War (1966) + P. Young, The British army (1642-1970) (1967) + interactive map of Gibraltar,www.gibnet.gi/dparody/gibmap/home.htm + GEC, Peerage + GM, 1st ser., 60 (1790), 671 + will, TNA: PRO, PROB 11/1194, sig. 330
Archives BL, day book of siege of Gibraltar, Add. MS 45188 + CKS, MSS relating to Gibraltar + Devon RO, corresp. and MSS + NMM, corresp. and MSS relating to Gibraltar | BL, letters to Lord Grantham, Add. MSS 24163-24166, 24173
Likenesses G. Carter, group portrait, gouache, 1782-7 (The siege of Gibraltar, 1782), NPG · C. de Mechel, line engraving, pubd 1784 (after G. F. Koehler), BM · J. S. Copley, oils, c.1787, NPG · J. Reynolds, oils, 1787, National Gallery, London [see illus.] · F. Bartolozzi, stipple, pubd 1788 (after A. Poggi), BM · J. C. Rossi, marble statue on monument, c.1825, St Paul’s Cathedral, London · M. Brown, oils, East Sussex county council, Lewes · J. S. Copley, group portrait, oils (The siege and relief of Gibraltar, 13 September 1782), Tate collection [possibly a replica] · A. Poggi, chalk drawing, Scot. NPG · prints, BM, NPG