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Sir Charles Knowles, 1st Baronet (c.1704 – 9 December 1777) was an officer of the Royal Navy, who saw service during the War of Jenkins' Ear, the wider War of the Austrian Succession, and the Seven Years War. He also briefly served with the Imperial Russian Navy during the Russo-Turkish War. He rose to the rank of Admiral in a long and varied career, crowned with both success, and at times, controversy. He was highly educated, and particularly skilled in building and destroying fortifications. His career was mainly centred around the West Indiesmarker, where he commanded ships and squadrons in actions against both Spanish and French ships and settlements. Despite an active naval career that saw him rise to be Rear-Admiral of Great Britain, Knowles found time to devote to his studies, working on translations of foreign scientific studies, and developing his own inventions. His career at sea was blighted however by several failures, which may have been a cause of his move to Russia during the later part of his life to oversee the development of the Russian fleet.

Family and early life

Knowles was probably born c. 1704, though some sources date his birth to as early as 1697. He was reputed to be an illegitimate son of Charles Knollys, the titular fourth Earl of Banbury. His education was overseen by his half-brother, Lord Wallingford, and Knowles entered the navy in March 1718, having been recommended to Admiral Sir George Byng by Wallingford. Knowles went aboard one of the ships of Byng's fleet, the 70-gun HMS Buckingham, under Captain Charles Strickland, though he moved in April aboard as a captain's servant. He remained aboard the Lenox until December 1720, serving with Byng's fleet in the Mediterranean. He was present at the Battle of Cape Passaro on 11 August 1718, where he may have temporarily been aboard Byng's flagship .

Knowles then moved aboard in June 1721, initially serving as a servant to Captain Vere Beauclerk, and after the first eighteen months as an able seaman. Knowles remained on the Lyme s books throughout her commission in the Mediterranean, discharging in June 1726. This appears to have been a titular posting only, and he probably spent most of his time ashore in studies. On his return to Britain Knowles was appointed to serve aboard the guard ship at Portsmouthmarker, and then Sir Charles Wager's flagship at Kinsalemarker, under the command of Vere Beauclerk. He went on to serve aboard and until his promotion to be lieutenant of the sloop on 30 May 1730. He returned to serve aboard the Lion in March the following year, when she went to the West Indiesmarker as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Stewart.

West Indies

Having by now established a reputation as an engineer it appears that after his return to Britain he was given an advisory and supervisory role in the drawing up of plans for Westminster Bridgemarker, for which he travelled to France to study the Pont Neufmarker. He had been promoted to commander of the 40-gun in 1732, but the position appears to have been for rank only, as he did not become post-captain until 4 February 1737, when he was appointed to command . He was ordered to reinforce Admiral Edward Vernon's West Indies fleet in 1739, as the War of Jenkins' Ear developed. Knowles rendezvoused with the admiral at Port Royalmarker, having captured two Spanish ships en route, one of which was a register ship carrying 120,000 pieces of eight, and clothing for 6,000 men. Knowles was unable to sail with Vernon when he sailed the fleet to Portobelomarker, but arrived there on 27 November, five days after Vernon's victory there. Vernon gave Knowles the task of destroying the Spanish forts, which owing to their solid construction eventually took three weeks and 122 barrels of gunpowder. When the task was completed the British withdrew, Knowles having impressed Vernon with his competent command of land operations.

Vernon next appointed Knowles to cruise off Cartagenamarker, watching the Spanish forces and interdicting any enemy supply ships. Knowles was then moved into the fireship and ordered to examine the approaches to the port of Chagres. Having completed the mission and formulated a plan of attack, Knowles was given command of the bomb vessels, fireships and other small boats, and duly bombarded the fortress of San Lorenzo, at the mouth of the Chagres Rivermarker. The town and castle surrendered on 24 March 1740 and Knowles was appointed Governor of the castle. Vernon ordered the removal of the goods gathered at the port for shipping to Spain, and the sinking of several privateer vessels. Knowles was given the task of demolishing the castle, which he achieved by detonating several mines under the bastions, and burning the apartments. Having completed the task, Vernon's fleet withdrew at the end of March, returning to Port Royal by way of Portobelo.

Vernon and the Battle of Cartagena de Indias

Knowles spent the next few months cruising, before returning to England in company with HMS Torrington as an escort for a 25 ship strong fleet of merchantmen. Knowles and the Diamond arrived at Spitheadmarker on 4 August 1740, shortly after which Knowles took command of the 50-gun . He soon moved to command the 60-gun , and sailed with her from St Helens Roadsmarker on 24 October 1740 as part of Sir Chaloner Ogle's fleet to reinforce Vernon in the West Indies. Knowles formed part of Vernon's council of war on 16 February 1741, which resolved to make a naval and land assault on Cartagena. Vernon placed Knowles in command of the operations to reconnoitre the Spanish defences, and subsequently draw up a plan of attack. Having done this Knowles formed a key part of the early stages of the attack, he stormed and captured one of the forts, captured the Spanish flagship and broke the boom across the entrance to the harbour, allowing the British fleet access.

Several British ships entered the harbour the next day, including Knowles aboard the Weymouth. Under Vernon's orders Knowles destroyed several enemy batteries, captured the Castillo Grande and navigated further into the harbour to cut off enemy supplies. Vernon appointed him governor of Castillo Grande, and ordered him to demolish the fort as the British prepared to evacuate. Knowles duly carried the task out, rendering 59 pieces of ordnance unusable, and carrying off a large amount of lime and limestone. The failure of the British to take Cartagena led to considerable bitterness between the army and naval forces, and Knowles appears to have been the author of a pamphlet published in 1743 entitled An Account of the Expedition to Carthegena, with Explanatory Notes and Observations, a work that criticised the actions of the army. The fleet returned to Jamaica, whereupon Knowles returned to his previous command, the Lichfield. He remained based in the West Indies, and was engaged primarily in strengthening the fortifications and improving the facilities for ships at Port Antoniomarker, Port Royal, and subsequently at Antiguamarker.


Knowles took command of the 70-gun in 1742, and in 1743 received orders from Ogle to command a squadron to carry out attacks on the Spanish settlements at Puerto Cabellomarker and La Guairamarker. The Spanish were well informed of the plans, and were able to recruit extra defenders, and were supplied with gunpowder by the Dutch. Consequently an attack on La Guaira on 18 February 1743 was beaten off by the defenders. Knowles withdrew his force and refitted at Curacoa before attempting an assault on Porto Cabello on 15 April, and again on 24 April, but both assaults were again beaten back. Knowles called off the expedition and returned to Jamaica.

He became a commodore after this, flying his flag aboard and then . He served as the second in command on the Jamaica station, under Sir Chaloner Ogle, between 1743 and 1745. During this period he captured a large number of prizes, with his success leading to a letter addressed to him and signed by 63 of the principle figures in Jamaica;
Sir, Though we are certain that the public services you have done, and are continually doing, proceed, as they always will, from the noblest principle, and without the least expectation of popular applause; yet, being fully sensible, and having indeed been immediate partakers of them, we should think it an unpardonable neglect at least, if it did not deserve a worse appellation, should we omit to make our joint acknowledgement thereof, &c.
Knowles was later appointed as captain of the newly built in 1745. He returned to Britain later that year, and in January 1746 he was aboard as commander of a squadron in the Downsmarker, under Vice-Admiral William Martin. He was briefly detached to examine French invasion preparations, and on his return in February he captured two French ships. He shifted his pennant to HMS Edinburgh on 21 March, and escorted a convoy from St Helens into the English Channelmarker, after which he moved aboard the 50-gun .

In spring 1746 he was appointed to take over as governor of Louisbourgmarker from Peter Warren. He sailed for his new post on 31 March 1746, in company with HMS Canterbury and . He spent nearly two years as governor, and having initially complained to the Duke of Newcastle about the "confused, dirty, beastly condition" of the fortress, was largely engaged in repairing and improving the defences. He was promoted to rear-admiral of the white on 15 July 1747, and appointed as commander in chief on the Jamaica station. On taking up his new post he raised his flag aboard HMS Canterbury, but soon shifted it to . He had initially intended to take his squadron and attack Santiago de Cubamarker, but contrary winds led to him deciding instead to attack Fort Saint Louis de Sud. He arrived on 8 March 1748, and after subjecting the fort to a heavy bombardment forced its surrender. Knowles was promoted to rear-admiral of the red on 12 May 1748. He returned to Santiago de Cuba on 5 April and carried out another attack, but was unable to capture the port, and duly returned to Jamaica.

Battle of Havana

Knowles in armour, one hand gestures to fortifications and a burning ship.
After having his ships refitted Knowles sailed on a cruise, hoping to intercept the Spanish treasure fleet off Cubamarker. On 30 September he fell in with HMS Lenox, under Captain Charles Holmes, who reported that he had encountered a Spanish fleet some days earlier. The fleet was sighted the next morning but confusion over signals and a struggle to keep the weather gauge meant that the British fleet failed to attack in an organised manner. Though the Battle of Havana ended with the capture of one Spanish ship and another being badly damaged, it was not the major British victory hoped for. Knowles was accused of badly mismanaging the action and faced a court martial in December 1749. The result was a reprimand for the poor tactics he employed, while several of the other captains involved were also reprimanded. There was considerable bad feeling between Knowles and his subordinates, and several challenges to duel were issued. In once instance Knowles exchanged shots with Holmes, and in another two of his captains, Innes and Clarke, duelled, which resulted in Innes being mortally wounded. King George II eventually intervened to forbid any more duels over the matter.


Knowles was briefly Member of Parliament for Gatton between 1749 and 1752, and in 1752 he was appointed Governor of Jamaica. Over his four year period as governor he took steps to reform the legal system, and also moved the administrative capital from Spanish Townmarker to Kingstonmarker, arguing that the latter was more defensible. His attempts to ensure the subordination of the Jamaican assembly to the British government led to calls for his removal as governor, but his policies were subsequently upheld by the British government. Knowles resigned the governorship in January 1756 and returned to England. He had been promoted to vice-admiral of the red on 4 February 1755.

Later service and Russia

Knowles was second in command under Admiral Edward Hawke (1705-81) in the Rochefort Expedition in 1757, during the Seven Years War, with Knowles flying his flag aboard . Knowles oversaw a bombardment, but the expedition was judged a failure, and Knowles was one of the figures subsequently criticised for his actions. He defended himself with the publication of a pamphlet entitled The Conduct of Admiral Knowles on the late Expedition set in a true light. The pamphlet was unfavourably reviewed by Tobias Smollett in The Critical Review, in terms that led to Knowles successfully suing Smollett for libel. Knowles briefly flew his flag aboard HMS Royal Anne in the winter of 1757, but the debacle at Rochefort meant he was soon removed from active service. He was promoted to full admiral on 3 December 1760, and was created a baronet on 31 October 1765. He became Rear-Admiral of Great Britain on 5 November 1765. He resigned from the navy in 1770 and accepted an appointment from Catherine of Russia to advise on the development of the Imperial Russian Navy during the war against Turkey. He served in a mainly administrative role, being based at St Petersburgmarker until 1774, when he returned to England. He died at Bulstrode Street, Londonmarker on 9 December 1777, and was buried at Guildfordmarker, Surreymarker.

Family and personal life

Knowles married the sister of John Alleyne, later a Speaker of the Barbados House of Assembly, on 23 December 1740. The marriage produced a son, Edward Knowles, who followed his father into the navy, but was lost when his vessel, the sloop HMS Peregrine foundered in 1762. He married for the second time, to Maria Magdalena Therese de Bouget (* 1733; † 1796) in 1750. The couple produced one son, Charles Knowles, and two daughters.

He translated M. de la Croix's Abstract of the Mechanisms of the Motions of Floating Bodies in 1775, noting in his preface that he had carried out experiments that validated de la Croix's findings. He also invented a device for measuring the pressure and velocity of wind, a fact acknowledged by Leonhard Euler.



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