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Admiral Sir Charles Knowles - © Nash Ford PublishingSir Charles Knowles (1697-1777)
Born: 1697
Admiral of the White
Governor of Jamaica
Died: 9th December 1777 at Marylebone, Middlesex

Sir Charles Knowles was apparently the son of Charles Knollys, the titular 4th Earl of Banbury, by a lady named Elizabeth Price. He is traditionally said to have been born about 1697 and his education was overseen by his half-brother, the titular Lord Wallingford.

Knowles entered the Navy in March 1718, on board the ‘Buckingham' with Captain Charles Strickland. In April, he followed Strickland to the ‘Lennox,’ with the rating of Captain's Servant and continued as such until December 1720. During the greater part of this time, the ‘Lennox’ was in the Mediterranean under the orders of Sir George Byng (afterwards Viscount Torrington). It appears, from Knowles' own papers, that in the battle off Cape Passaro, he was actually serving on board the ‘Barfleur,’ Byng's flagship, but, of this, there is no note in the Lennox's pay book. He was afterwards, from June 1721 to June 1726, in the ‘Lyme’ frigate with Lord Vere Beauclerk. During the first eighteen months of this period he continued with the rating of Captain's Servant. For the rest of the time, he was rated an 'Able Seaman.' During the five years of the Lyme's commission she, was stationed in the Medi­terranean, and it has been supposed that Knowles spent much of this time in being educated on shore. In his riper years, he certainly spoke French like a native, as well as being much more advanced in both mathematics and mechanics than was was then usual in the Navy. After paying off from the ‘Lyme,’ Knowles served on the ‘Winchester’ guardship in Ports­mouth. Then on the ‘Torbay,’ carrying the flag of Sir Charles Wager. This was followed by the ‘Kinsale,’ again with Lord Vere Beauclerk, the ‘Feversham’ and the ‘Lion’ until 30th May 1730 when he was promoted to be Lieutenant aboard the ‘Trial’. In the following March, he was moved to the ‘Lion,’ flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Stewart in the West Indies.

In 1732, Knowles was promoted to Commander of the ‘Southampton,’ a 40-gun ship, but ap­parently for the rank only, as he did not take up the post until 4th February 1737, when he was appointed to the ‘Diamond’. In her, he went out to the West Indies, in 1739, and joined Vice-Admiral Ed­ward Vernon (1684-1757) at Porto Bello. The place had already been taken by the British but he was ordered to take charge of the destruc­tion of the forts. This proved to be a work of some difficulty. Still in command of the ‘Diamond,’ Knowles was sent, in the following March, to examine the approach to Chagres. He had immediate command of the bombs and fireships in the attack on the town, on 22nd March. Upon its surrender, he was appointed Governor of the castle, pending the destruction of the defences. The work was completed by the 28th, when the squadron withdrew. To­wards the end of the year, Knowles returned to Eng­land and was appointed to the 60-gun ‘Weymouth,’ one of the fleet that went out to the West Indies with Sir Chaloner Ogle. Aboard the ‘Weymouth,’ Knowles took part in the expedition against Cartagena in March and April 1741. He acted throughout as the Sur­veyor and Engineer of the Fleet, examining the approaches to the several points of at­tack, cutting the boom across the Boca Chica, taking possession of the Castillo Grande and destroying the captured works before the Fleet left.

The harsh anti-army pamphlet 'An Account of the Ex­pedition to Carthagena, with Explanatory Notes and Observations' (1743) was generally attributed to Knowles. It was much spoken of at the time and ran to several editions. The preface to the 'Original Papers relating to the Expedition to Carthagena' (1744), published with Vernon's sanction, describes the author of the pamphlet as “an officer of approved abilities and resolution, who did not depend on hearsay and uncertain reports, but was himself an eye-witness of most of the trans­actions that he has given an account of.”

After the failure at Cartagena, Knowles was moved onto the ‘Lichfield’ and, in the course of 1742, onto the 70-gun ‘Suffolk’. In her, he commanded a squadron sent by Sir Chaloner Ogle, in the beginning of 1743, to act against the Spanish settlements on the Caracas Coast. No pains were taken to keep the expedition a secret. The Spaniards had two months' warning for their preparations and the Dutch, though allies of the English, supplied them with powder. The result was that, when the squadron attacked La Guayra on 18th February 1743, it was beaten off with very heavy loss. Later, having refitted at Curacoa, it attacked Porto Cabello on 15th April and, again, on the 24th, with no better success. On 28th April, a council of war de­cided 'the squadron was no longer in a condition to attempt any enterprise against the enemy,' and, sending the ships and troops to their respective stations, Knowles re­turned to Jamaica.

He was then appointed an 'established' (or first-class) commodore, with his broad pennant aboard the ‘Superbe’ and, afterwards, the ‘Severn’. He continued, during 1743-5, as second-in-command on the ‘Jamaica’ and at the West Indian Station under Ogle. Towards the end of 1745, he returned to England and, after a short time as second-in-com­mand under Vice-Admiral William Martin aboard the ‘Downs,’ he was, early in 1746, sent as Governor of Louisbourg, which had been cap­tured from the French a few months before. There he re­mained for upwards of two years, repairing and renewing the defences of the fortress. In the large promotion of 15th July 1747, he was made Rear-Admiral of the White and, at the same time, was appointed commander-in-chief of Jamaica.

In February 1748, with his flag on board the ‘Cornwall,’ he took the squadron along the south coast of Cuba and, after capturing Port Louis on 8th March, arrived off Santiago on 5th April. An attack was immediately at­tempted but Captain Dent, who led aboard the ‘Plymouth,’ found the passage blocked by a boom, which he judged too strong to be forced. He turned back and the ships fol­lowing did the same. A second attempt was considered unadvisable. Knowles was much annoyed by the failure. Dent, as senior officer, had been commander-in-chief for a short time before Knowles' arrival. He was not, therefore, much inclined to undertake any extraordinary steps, the credit for which, if successful, would go to the newly arrived admiral. Knowles, no doubt, believed this to be the case and sent Dent home to be tried on a charge of not having done his utmost. Nearly a year later, the court-martial took place and relieved Dent of any blame.

Meanwhile, Knowles, having refitted the ships in Jamaica, took them for a cruise off Havana in the hope of intercepting the Spanish plate fleet. On 30th September, he was joined by Captain Charles Holmes, in the ‘Lennox,’ with the news that he had been chased, the day before, by a squadron of seven Spanish ships. These came in sight, the next morning, in the southern quarter. When first seen, the Spaniards were strag­gling in two divisions. If he closed on them at once, before they could get into com­pact order, Knowles thought he would risk losing the weather-gage, without which - according to the fighting protocol - no attack would be possible. He accord­ingly spent some time in working to wind­ward and, when at last he steered towards the enemy, the unequal sailing of his ships dis­ordered his line and rendered the attack ineffective. The leading ships, too, misunder­stood or disobeyed the signal to engage more closely and took little part in the action. The brunt of the battle fell on the ‘Stafford,’ commanded by Captain David Brodie, and on Knowles' flagship, the ‘Cornwall’. Owing to the disordered state of the line, this latter ship was singly op­posed by three of the enemy's ships and sus­tained severe damage. She did, however, beat the ‘Africa,’ the enemy's flagship, out of the line. The ‘Conquistador’ struck at the ‘Strafford’, but when the ‘Canterbury’ came up, after having been delayed by the bad sailing of the ‘War­wick,’ the Spaniards fled. It was then just dark. Knowles made the signal for a general chase but the ‘Cornwall’ had lost her main topmast and was disabled. As the ‘Conquistador’ rehoisted her flag and endeavoured to escape, Knowles contented himself with taking possession of her. In the pursuit, the ‘Africa’ was driven ashore, by the ‘Strafford’ and the ‘Canterbury’, and was afterwards burnt. The other Spanish ships escaped.

In writing of the engagement to Anson, Knowles spoke of the “bashfulness - to give it no harsher term,” of some of the captains and he publicly remarked on the conduct of Captain Powlett of the ‘Tilbury,’ the leading ship. Powlett applied for a court-martial, which was granted, but he was afterwards allowed to withdraw his application. It was, however, openly said, on board the ‘Cornwall,’ the ‘Strafford’ and the ‘Canterbury,’ that the captains of the other four ships had been 'shy'. So they retaliated by officially accus­ing the Admiral of having given great advan­tage to the enemy by engaging in a straggling line and late in the day, when he might have attacked much earlier,” of having “kept his Majesty's flag out of action” and of having “transmitted a false and injurious account” to the Admiralty. A court-martial of Knowles was accordingly ordered and sat at Deptford in December 1749. Captain Innes of the ‘War­wick' acted as prosecutor in the name of the four captains. The trial, based exclusively on points of seamanship and tactics, was neces­sarily extremely technical. The court decided that Knowles was in fault, in taking his fleet into action in such a straggling line, and also in not going on board another ship and lead­ing the chase in person. He was sentenced to be reprimanded. The four captains who had acted as prosecutors were then put on their trial. Holmes of the ‘Lennox’ was honourably acquitted but Powlett and Toll, who had commanded the two leading ships, were re­primanded and Innes was suspended for three months. Many duels followed. After the trials, Knowles, who received four chal­lenges, exchanged shots with Holmes on 24th February. Another meeting took place, on 12th March 1750, between Innes and Clarke, the Captain of the ‘Canterbury’ and the principal witness against him, and Innes was mortally wounded. Several more duels were pending when the King not only forbade them, but ordered the challengers into custody.

In 1752, Knowles was appointed Governor of Jamaica and held the office for nearly four years. He offended the residents by in­sisting on the supreme jurisdiction of the English Parliament and by moving the seat of government to Kingston, thus causing a depreciation of property in Spanish Town. A petition for his removal, signed by nine­teen members of the Assembly, was presented to the King, and charges of “illegal, cruel and arbitrary acts” were laid before the House of Commons. After examination by a committee of the whole house, the action of the Assembly of Jamaica was condemned as “derogatory to the rights of the Crown and people of Great Britain,” and Knowles' con­duct, by implication, fully justified. However, Knowles had already returned to England and resigned the Governorship in January 1756.

On 4th February 1755, he had been promoted to be Vice-Admiral and, in 1757, with his flag on board the ‘Neptune,’ was second-in-command under Sir Edward (afterwards Lord) Hawke in the abortive expedition against Rochefort. Upon the return of the Fleet, public indig­nation ran very high and though, for the most part, it was levelled against the government and Sir John Mordaunt, Knowles was also bitterly reproached. He published a pamphlet entitled 'The Conduct of Admiral Knowles on the late Expedition set in a true light'. Unfortunately, this met with scant favour and a notice of it in the 'Critical Review' (May 1758) so far exceeded what was then considered decent that the editor, Tobias Smollett, was tried for libel. He was sentenced to a fine of £100 and to three months' imprisonment in the King's Bench. Nevertheless, Knowles' share in the miscarriage, and still more his champion­ship of Mordaunt, offended the Government. He was superseded in his command in the Grand Fleet and, though he had his flag flying for some time longer aboard the ‘Royal Anne,’ a guard-ship at Portsmouth, he had no further active service in the English Navy.

On 3rd December 1760, he was promoted to the rank of Admiral. On 31st October 1765, he was created a baronet. On 5th November 1765, he was nominated Rear-Admiral of Great Britain. This office he resigned in October 1770 upon accepting a command in the Russian Navy. Russia was, at that time, at war with Turkey, but Knowles' ser­vice seems to have been entirely administra­tive and to have kept him at in the neighbourhood of St. Petersburg. On the conclusion of peace in 1774, he returned to England. The following year, Knowles published a translation of 'Abstract on the Mechanism of the Motions of Floating Bodies' by M. de la Croix. In the preface, he said that he had verified the author's principles, by a number of experi­ments, and had also found them “answer perfectly well when put into practice in several line-of-battle ships and frigates that I built whilst I was in Russia”. Although his country estate was at Lovel Hill in Cranbourne (Berkshire), he died in Bulstrode Street, Marylebone on 9th December 1777 and was buried at Guildford in Surrey.

Few naval officers of high rank have been the subject of more contention or of more contradictory estimations than Knowles. He was beyond question a man that made many and bitter enemies and, when in command, was neither loved nor feared, though he may have been hated. On the one hand, he has been described as vain, foolish, grasping - even dishonest - tyrannical, a man of spirit­less and inactive mind, cautious of incurring censure, but incapable of acquiring fame”. On the other, Charnock, who in this may be supposed to represent the traditions he had received from Captain Locker, “believes him to have been a man of spirit, ability and in­tegrity; but to have thought too highly of his own merit in regard to the two first, and to have wanted those conciliating and com­placent manners which are absolutely necessary to render even the last agreeable and acceptable”.

Knowles was twice married. Firstly in December 1740, he wed Mary, eldest daughter of John Alleyne and sister of John Gay Alleyne, created a baronet in 1769. She died in March 1742, leaving one son, Edward, who was lost in command of the ‘Peregrine’ sloop in 1762. Secondly, he married, at Aix-la-Chapelle in July 1750, Maria Magdalena Theresa, daughter of the Comte de Bouget, by whom he had, besides a daughter, a son, Charles Henry, who inherited the baronetcy.

Edited from Sidney Lee's 'Dictionary of National Biography' (1892).

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