Burchett, Josiah (DNB00)

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BURCHETT, JOSIAH (1666?–1746), secretary of the admiralty, of humble origin, was at the age of fourteen taken by Pepys, the then secretary of the admiralty, about 1680, into his service as body servant and clerk. After remaining with Pepys for more than seven years, he incurred his master's displeasure, apparently by insolence, and was discharged in August 1687. He was for some time in great straits for a livelihood, and wrote at least three most abject letters to Pepys, the last dated 2 Feb. 1687–8, in the hope of softening his master's wrath. Whether he succeeded or not is uncertain; it is more probable that at the time of the revolution, when Pepys was thrown out of office and imprisoned, he passed himself off on Russell as a martyr for his political creed, and so obtained some appointment in the navy. A little while after he was certainly serving as Russell's secretary, whether through the campaign of 1692 seems doubtful, but at any rate during the years of Russell's command in the Mediterranean, 1694–5. He was appointed at first joint-secretary of the admiralty (February 1693–4), and in 1698 sole secretary. Russell was then first lord. Burchett continued in that office till 1742. He also represented Sandwich as a whig in parliament, 1705–13, and again 1722–41. He died 2 Oct. 1746.

The even tenour of his official life was unbroken and undisturbed, but the fact that it included the whole French war during the reigns of William III and Anne, during which every document of importance passed through his hands, shows that his knowledge of naval events must have been both extensive and accurate. In 1703 he published in 8vo ‘Memoirs of Transactions at Sea during the War with France, 1688–1697,’ which he afterwards incorporated in a larger work, ‘A Complete History of the most remarkable Transactions at Sea, from the earliest accounts of time to the conclusion of the last war with France, wherein is given an Account of the most considerable Naval Expeditions, Sea Fights, Stratagems, Discoveries, and other Maritime Occurrences that have happened among all nations which have flourished at sea; and in a more particular manner of Great Britain from the time of the Revolution in the year 1688 to the aforesaid period’ (1720, fol.) For this very extended undertaking Burchett's studies and opportunities had in no way fitted him; and the pages in which he has attempted the ancient and foreign history have no value whatever; his chapters on earlier English history, and even on the Dutch wars, are but little better, and of his volume of 800 pages rather more than half is thus almost worthless. The last half has, however, an exceptional value. Writing of events concerning which he had very full and accurate information, his statements of facts are of the highest authority, and his expressions of opinion carry great weight. Unfortunately, he has committed many and grave sins of omission, and whether from a reticence cultivated till it had become an instinct, out of respect for his friends, or from a dread of making enemies, he has neglected numerous details, and occasionally events of considerable importance, the result being that while a student may fairly accept his positive evidence on any disputed question, his negative evidence is very far from conclusive.

He married Thomasine, daughter of Sir William Honywood, but nothing is known of his family, though it has been conjectured that a Mr. Burchett who in 1739 was elected chaplain of the House of Commons may have been a son (Notes and Queries, 4th ser. xii. 288; 5th. ser. vi. 463).

[Life, Journals, and Correspondence of Samuel Pepys, edited by the Rev. John Smith, ii. 105; Diary, &c. of Samuel Pepys (Mynors Bright), vi. 156; Report of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty on the petition of Josiah Burchett, 10 May 1717, in Home Office Records (admiralty), No. 46. Both in the Public Record Office, and to some extent in the British Museum, there is an enormous mass of Burchett's official correspondence, which, however, has no biographical importance.]

J. K. L.