Clerk, John (1728-1812) (DNB00)

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CLERK, JOHN (1728–1812), of Eldin, author of an essay on naval tactics, seventh son of Sir John Clerk of Penicuik [q. v.], was born at Penicuik on 10 Dec. 1728, and was educated at the grammar school of Dalkeith. He early entered into business as a merchant in Edinburgh, and continued so engaged till about 1773, with such success that, finding himself then in easy circumstances, he purchased the small property of Eldin in the parish of Lasswade, about six miles from Edinburgh, where he settled down, devoting much of his time to artistic and scientific pursuits. He had always been an accomplished draughtsman, and about 1770 began the practice of etching on copper, in which he attained considerable skill. A collection of his etchings, printed from his private plates in 1786, was presented to the king by the Earl of Buchan, and is now in the British Museum. A more extended series was published by the Bannatyne Club in 1855. A business interest in some collieries seems to have directed his attention to the then infant science of geology; in this pursuit he was encouraged by Dr. James Hutton, whom he frequently accompanied in his excursions and surveys, and assisted with his ready pencil in portraying the features of the country.

But his name is best known in connection with the 'Essay on Naval Tactics' and the controversy which arose out of it. He had always, he tells us in the preface, taken a great interest in naval affairs, an interest strengthened by the fact of his having many near kinsmen in the navy; and, meditating on the unsatisfactory results of several battles at sea, he was led to the conception of certain manoeuvres which would, he believed, lead to breaking the enemy's line, to overwhelming part of it, and compelling the rest either to close action or ignominious flight. These proposals were handed about in manuscript, and fifty copies of some of them were privately printed. Clerk was under the impression that they had been brought to the notice of Sir George Rodney which an exact comparison of dates shows to have been impossible and of Sir Charles Douglas, who categorically denied having ever heard of either Clerk or his proposals till after his return from the West Indies (Sir Howard Douglas, Naval Evolutions, 1832, p. 51). Clerk persuaded himself that Rodney's success at Dominica, 12 April 1782, was obtained by carrying out his suggestions, though the details of the battle, closely examined, are widely different from anything described by Clerk, to which, on the other hand, the tactics attempted by Suffren in the East Indies bear considerable resemblance [see Rodney, George Brydges].

A copy of the 'Essay,' privately printed in 1782, was afterwards in the possession of Lord Rodney, and, having been freely annotated by him in the margin, was re-presented to the author in 1789. It is understood to be still in the library at Penicuik. In 1790 the 'Essay' was published for the first time. It then contained only the first part, suggesting a mode of attack from the position to windward. This is all that Rodney seems ever to have known of, and his remarks on the notice of his own action off Martinique, 17 April 1780, ought to have been accepted as quite conclusive of his ignorance, at that time, of anything that had been proposed by Clerk. His greater action of 12 April 1782 did not come within the scope of the 'Essay' as then printed, and no suggestion of his owing anything to Clerk appears ever to have reached him. The second and third parts of the 'Essay,' including the attack from the position to leeward, were first published in 1797, five years after Rodney's death; and in 1804 a collective edition was published, in the preface to which Clerk, for the first time in public, claimed to have some share in the glories of Dominica. The claim passed then without much notice, but when repeated and enlarged upon by Professor Playfair before the Royal Society of Edinburgh in 1821 (Collected Works, iii. 441), and afterwards in 1827 by an anonymous 'naval officer,' who contributed a preface to a third edition of the 'Essay,' an angry controversy was roused, which is now principally remarkable for the curious ignorance of the subject displayed by most of the disputants. That Professor Playfair, in attempting to exalt his friend's reputation, should show himself utterly ignorant of the details of naval battles was not to be wondered at; but that the anonymous 'naval officer ' on the one side, or Sir Charles Knowles (Observations on Naval Tactics, 1830) on the other, should betray an equal ignorance of the history, and a still grosser ignorance of the theory, of tactics is indeed extraordinary. So far as related to Rodney and the battle of Dominica, the negation of the claim was clearly settled by the distinct evidence of Sir Howard Douglas, and was loyally accepted by Clerk's son, Lord Eldin. But notwithstanding this, and though the details of Clerk's suggestions have never been put into actual practice, least of all in the battles of First of June, St. Vincent, or Camperdown, we may still believe that, directly or indirectly, Clerk's theorising did contribute largely to our successes during the wars of the French revolution. Nelson himself is said to have been a careful student of Clerk's book; his celebrated memorandum of 9 Oct. 1805, in directing the attack from the position to windward, adhered closely to Clerk's proposal, and though he afterwards saw fit to modify the details, the principle was left unchanged. This must be considered Clerk's grand achievement. The lessons he taught were in reality not new, but they had become so overlaid by the pedantry of routine that they had been virtually lost sight of, and, notwithstanding the great victories of Hawke and Rodney, might not have been recognised by the naval service at large, had not this civilian, from an outsider's point of view, given one more proof that a looker-on often sees most of the game.

Clerk died on 10 May 1812. He is described by Lord Cockburn (Memorials of his Time, p. 272) as being, in his later years, 'an interesting and delightful old man; full of the peculiarities that distinguished the whole family—talent, caprice, obstinacy, worth, kindness, and oddity; a striking-looking old gentleman, with grizzly hair, vigorous features, and Scotch speech,' equally fond of a joke and an argument. He married in 1753 Susannah, a younger sister of the brothers Adam the architects [see Adam, Robert], by whom he had one son, John, Lord Eldin [q. v.], and four daughters. His portrait, by Raeburn, was lithographed for the series of his etchings published by the Bannatyne Club, to which is also prefixed a memoir from materials furnished by Lord Eldin. Other portraits are also there noted.

[The principal authority for Clerk's life is the Memoir just spoken of. The prefaces of the 2nd and 3rd editions of the Essay on Naval Tactics (1804, 1827) may also be referred to; and as bearing on the controversy about the battle of Dominica (on which many pamphlets were written, mostly quite valueless) Edinburgh Review, li. 1, and Quarterly Review, xlii. 71. This last article was by Sir John Barrow.]

J. K. L.