HALL, Sir ROBERT, naval officer; baptized 2 Jan. 1778 in County Tipperary (Republic of Ireland); his father remains unidentified, while his mother is known only through the probate of his will, where she appears as “Mary Roche, heretofore Hall”; d. unmarried 7 Feb. 1818 in Kingston, Upper Canada.
Robert Hall’s early years have not attracted the attention of naval biographers. It is known, however, that he was gazetted a lieutenant in the Royal Navy on 14 June 1800, a commander on 27 June 1808, and a captain on 4 March 1811. He attracted attention for sterling service in the defence of a fort on the Gulf of Rosas, Spain, in November 1808 while in command of the bomb-ketch Lucifer. On 28 Sept. 1810 he enhanced his reputation when, as commander of the 14-gun Rambler, he captured a large French privateer lying in the Barbate River, Spain.
In September 1811 Hall was appointed to command a flotilla entrusted with the defence of Sicily against naval forces operating from French-occupied Naples. He achieved a major success at Pietrenere (Italy) on 15 Feb. 1813 in a raid on a convoy of about 50 armed vessels, French supply ships escorted by many Neapolitan gunboats. With only two divisions of gunboats carrying four companies of the 75th Foot he neutralized the enemy’s shore batteries and captured or destroyed all 50 ships. In recognition of this feat he was made a knight commander in the Sicilian order of St Ferdinand and of Merit. Permission to accept this honour was granted by the Prince Regent on 11 March, at which time Hall was described as a post-captain and a brigadier-general in the service of Ferdinand IV of Naples.
On 27 May 1814 Hall was designated acting commissioner on the lakes of Canada, to reside at Quebec; his actual headquarters would be the naval dockyard at Kingston. He was not immediately available and did not report for duty in Kingston until mid October. His new assignment involved a dual responsibility: to the commander-in-chief on the lakes, Sir James Lucas Yeo, for the building, outfitting, supply, and maintenance of naval vessels, and to the Navy Board in London for the administration of the navy yard at Kingston and its dependencies on the Upper Lakes and Lake Champlain, and all naval victualling and stores depots in the two provinces.
The new commissioner’s immediate concern was the implementation of Yeo’s plans for a decisive campaign against the Americans in 1815. These involved the completion of a 56-gun frigate, the construction of two 74-gun ships of the line (their proposed armament was later increased to 110 guns) and a number of gunboats in the Kingston yard, the building of a 36-gun frigate on Lake Huron, and the completion of two brigs, three 36-gun frigates, and eleven gunboats on Lake Champlain. To this ambitious program Hall made an important addition: a scheme to rid the naval units of transport duties, which had impaired their fighting efficiency, by building two 500-ton armed transports, 20 gunboats and 4 mortar boats, and 50 bateaux for the army. He dispatched this proposal to the Navy Board late in December 1814, but all plans for a campaign in 1815 became redundant when on 1 March of that year Governor Prevost was notified of the ratification of an Anglo-American peace signed at Ghent (Belgium) on Christmas Eve 1814.
The peace posed immediate and serious problems for Hall and his staff. The yard and its dependencies had incurred expenses of some £40,000 in wages alone in 1814, the building of the Lake Ontario squadron’s flagship, the St Lawrence (launched on 10 Sept. 1814), had been immensely costly, and a huge outlay was required to pay for the ships under construction. Immediate retrenchment seemed an obvious necessity to Hall and Yeo, but, in the absence of orders from England and without any official assessment of even the short-term future of Anglo-American relations, prudence dictated the maintenance of a strong fleet in being. Their reaction was therefore to halt construction, save on one of the 74-gun ships, to cancel contracts, and to pay off labour hired against the requirements of the 1815 program. During the spring the largest ships were placed in reserve, and late in July Commodore Sir Edward Campbell Rich Owen, who had succeeded Yeo on 20 March, dispatched Hall to England for consultations with the Admiralty about the future naval establishment in the Canadas.
Hall remained in England for more than a year, during which time the British government was engaged in negotiations with the United States which eventually led to the Rush–Bagot agreement of April 1817 to demilitarize the lakes. On 29 Sept. 1815 Hall was named commander on the lakes and resident commissioner at Quebec, thus combining the two senior naval appointments in the Canadas. The first authorized him to style himself commodore; the second confirmed him in the post of commissioner. He was knighted on 15 July 1816 and, distinguished with the additional honour of a companionship in the Order of the Bath, returned to Kingston on 9 September.
Apart from useful discussions concerning a peace establishment for his command, the one important result of Hall’s mission was a general agreement that the dilapidated wooden buildings of the Kingston yard would gradually be replaced by permanent stone structures. This project was one which Hall had long advocated, and he made a start towards its implementation on 4 Dec. 1816 when he invited tenders for the construction of a huge stone warehouse. No tenders were submitted, however, since the size of the building placed it completely beyond the resources of any local contractor, and there the matter rested. But in the late spring of 1817 Hall was confronted with a vastly more serious problem. On 29 May he acknowledged orders dated 26 February which stated that the whole of the fleet on the lakes should be placed in reserve and its crews paid off. It is assumed that at the same time he also received a letter of 21 February which ordered him to strike his broad pennant. It is not known whether Hall was privy to his government’s intentions, but these communications clearly foreshadowed the imminent proclamation of the Rush-Bagot agreement. He promptly assured the board that its orders would be put into effect on 30 June, and he proved as good as his word. Henceforth he was to preside over naval affairs in the Canadas solely as commissioner.
The last seven months of Hall’s life were devoted to the administration of the peace establishment devised for his command, to the unending task of keeping the fleet in repair, to plans for improvements to the yard, and to arrangements for strengthening subsidiary bases on the Upper Lakes. He was seriously ill with a lung infection in October, recovered sufficiently to return to duty for a few weeks at the end of the year, but died of this disease at his quarters at Point Frederick on 7 Feb. 1818. An affable, gallant, and cultivated officer, Hall in his Canadian posting had proved himself a conspicuously fair-minded, innovative, and efficient administrator. His heirs were a natural son, Robert Hall, born in 1817 to a Miss Mary Ann Edwards, and his mother Mary Roche, who was his residuary legatee. The son, baptized on 2 Nov. 1818 by George Okill Stuart*, rector of St George’s Church in Kingston, became a vice-admiral in the Royal Navy and died in London on 11 June 1882 after having served for ten years as naval secretary to the Admiralty.
Anglican Church of Canada, Diocese of Ont. Arch. (Kingston), St George’s Cathedral (Kingston), Reg. of baptisms, 1818. PAC, RG 8, I (C ser.), 1–3, 8, 18. PRO, ADM 1/1953; ADM 42/2167–70, 42/2174–75, 42/2177; ADM 106/1997–98 (mfm. at PAC); ADM 107, passing certificates, index; PROB 11/160/7/371. Annual reg. (London), 1814: 436. Gentleman’s Magazine, January–June 1818: 260. William James, The naval history of Great Britain, from the declaration of war by France in 1793 to the accession of George IV (new ed., 6v., London, 1860), 5–6. Naval Chronicle, 24 (July–December 1810); 25 (January–June 1811); 29 (January–June 1813); 34 (July–December 1815); 36 (July–December 1816). Kingston Gazette, 1814–18. Montreal Gazette, 1814. Frederic Boase, Modern English biography . . . (6v., Truro, Eng., 1892–1921; repr. London, 1965), 1: 1289. G.B., Adm., The commissioned sea officers of the Royal Navy, 1660–1815, [ed. D. B. Smith et al.] (3v., n.p., [1954?]), 2: 334. W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy; a history from the earliest times to the present (7v., London, 1897–1903), 5: 522. J. M. Hitsman, Safeguarding Canada, 1763–1871 (Toronto, 1968), 115.