Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Knowles, Charles (d.1777)
KNOWLES, Sir CHARLES (d. 1777), admiral, reputed son of Charles Knollys, titular fourth earl of Banbury [see under Knollys, William, Earl of Banbury], is said to have been born about 1697, but the course of his service in the navy points rather to a date not earlier than 1704. He entered the navy in March 1718 on board the Buckingham with Captain Charles Strickland, whom in April he followed to the Lennox, with the rating of captain's servant, and so continued till 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 [q. v.], and it appears from Knowles's own papers that in the battle off Cape Passaro he was serving actually on board the Barfleur, Byng's flagship, but of this there is no note in the Lennox's pay-book, on which he was borne for the whole time. He was afterwards, from June 1721 to June 1726, in the Lyme frigate with Lord Vere Beauclerk, and during the first eighteen months of this period with the rating of captain's servant. For the rest of the time he was rated ‘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. It is certain that in his riper years he not only spoke French as a Frenchman, but that his attainments in mathematics and mechanics were very far in advance of what was then usual in the navy. After paying off from the Lyme, Knowles served in the Winchester guardship at Portsmouth; in the Torbay, carrying the flag of Sir Charles Wager; in the Kinsale, again with Lord Vere Beauclerk; in the Feversham and in the Lion, till on 30 May 1730 he was promoted to be lieutenant of the Trial. In the following March he was moved to the Lion, flagship of Rear-admiral Charles Stewart [q. v.] in the West Indies.
In 1732 he was promoted to be commander of the Southampton, a 40-gun ship, but apparently for rank only, as he did not take post till 4 Feb. 1736–7, 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) [q. v.] at Porto Bello. The place had already been taken, but he was ordered to take charge of the destruction of the forts, which 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, and had the immediate command of the bombs and fireships in the attack on the town, 22 March; on 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 he returned to England and was appointed to the Weymouth of 60 guns, one of the fleet which went out to the West Indies with Sir Chaloner Ogle [q. v.] In the Weymouth, Knowles took part in the expedition against Cartagena in March–April 1741, and 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 pamphlet ‘An Account of the Expedition to Carthagena, with Explanatory Notes and Observations’ (8vo, 1743), which, written in a very bitter tone against the army, was much spoken of at the time and ran through several editions, was generally attributed to Knowles. The preface to the ‘Original Papers relating to the Expedition to Carthagena’ (8vo, 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 into the Lichfield, and in the course of 1742 into the Suffolk of 70 guns. 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 18 Feb. 1742–3 it was beaten off with very heavy loss, and when, having refitted at Curaçoa, it attacked Porto Cabello on 15 April and again on the 24th, it had no better success. On 28 April a council of war decided that ‘the squadron was no longer in a condition to attempt any enterprise against the enemy,’ and Knowles, sending the ships and troops to their respective stations, returned to Jamaica.
He was then appointed an ‘established’ commodore, or as it is now called a first-class commodore, with his broad pennant in the Superbe and afterwards in the Severn, and continued during 1743–4–5 as second in command on the Jamaica and West Indian station under Ogle. Towards the end of 1745 he returned to England, and after a short time in the Downs, as second in command under Vice-admiral William Martin [q. v.], he was, early in 1746, sent out as governor of Louisbourg, which had been captured from the French a few months before [see Warren, Sir Peter]. There he remained for upwards of two years, repairing and renewing the defences of the fortress. In the large promotion of 15 July 1747 he was made rear-admiral of the white, and at the same time was appointed commander-in-chief at Jamaica.
In February 1747–8, with his flag on board the Cornwall, he took the squadron along the south coast of Cuba, and after capturing Port Louis on 8 March arrived off Santiago on 5 April. An attack was immediately attempted, but Captain Dent in the Plymouth, who led in, 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, who as senior officer had been for a short time commander-in-chief before Knowles's arrival, was not, perhaps, inclined to undertake any extraordinary service, the credit of which, if successful, would be placed to the account of the newly arrived admiral. Knowles doubtless 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 all blame.
Meanwhile Knowles, having refitted the ships at Jamaica, took them for a cruise off Havana in hopes of intercepting the Spanish plate fleet. On 30 Sept. he was joined by Captain Charles Holmes [q. v.] 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 (1 Oct.) in the southern quarter. When first seen, the Spaniards were straggling in two divisions. By closing with them at once, and before they could get into compact order, Knowles thought that he would risk losing the weather-gage, without which—according to the Fighting Instructions—no attack would be possible. He accordingly spent some time in working to windward, and when at last he steered for 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 it fell on the Strafford, commanded by Captain David Brodie [q. v.], and on Knowles's flagship, the Cornwall, which, owing to the disordered state of the line, was singly opposed to 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 to the Strafford, and the Canterbury, which had been delayed by the bad sailing of the Warwick, coming up, the Spaniards took to flight. It was then just dark. Knowles made the signal for a general chase; but the Cornwall had lost her main topmast and was disabled, and as the Conquistador just then rehoisted her flag and endeavoured to escape, Knowles contented himself with compelling her to strike again and with taking possession of her. In the pursuit the Africa was driven on shore 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 animadverted 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. When, however, it was openly said on board the Cornwall, the Strafford, and the Canterbury that the captains of the other four ships had been ‘shy,’ 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 on 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, interchanged shots with Holmes on 24 Feb. A meeting took place between Innes and Clarke, the captain of the Canterbury, the principal witness against him, on 12 March 1749–50, and Innes was mortally wounded. Several more duels were pending, when the king not only forbade them, but ordered the challengers into custody (Gent. Mag. xx. 22, 137).
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's conduct, by implication, fully justified. But Knowles had already returned to England and resigned the governorship, January 1756.
On 4 Feb. 1755 he had been promoted to be vice-admiral, and in 1757, with his flag in the Neptune, was second in command under Sir Edward (afterwards Lord) Hawke [q. v.] in the abortive expedition against Rochefort. On the return of the fleet public indignation ran very high, and though for the most part levelled against the government and Sir John Mordaunt (1697–1780) [q. v.], Knowles was also bitterly reproached. He published a pamphlet entitled ‘The Conduct of Admiral Knowles on the late Expedition set in a true light;’ but this met with scant favour, and a notice of it in the ‘Critical Review’ (May 1758, v. 438) so far exceeded what was then considered decent, that the editor, Tobias Smollett [q. v.], was tried for libel, sentenced to a fine of 100l., and to three months' imprisonment in the King's Bench. Nevertheless, Knowles's share in the miscarriage, and still more his championship of Mordaunt, offended the government. He was superseded from his command in the grand fleet, and though he had his flag flying for some time longer in the Royal Anne, guardship at Portsmouth, he had no further active service in the English navy.
On 3 Dec. 1760 he was promoted to the rank of admiral; on 31 Oct. 1765 he was created a baronet; and on 5 Nov. 1765 was nominated rear-admiral of Great Britain. This office he resigned in October 1770 on accepting a command in the Russian navy. Russia was at that time at war with Turkey [see Elphinston, John], but Knowles's service seems to have been entirely administrative, and to have kept him at St. Petersburg or the neighbourhood. On the conclusion of peace in 1774 he returned to England, and in 1775 published a translation of ‘Abstract on the Mechanism of the Motions of Floating Bodies,’ by M. de la Croix; in the prefatory notice 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.’ He died in Bulstrode Street, London, on 9 Dec. 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 estimates 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: first, in 1740, to Mary, eldest daughter of John Alleyne, and sister of John Gay Alleyne, created a baronet in 1769; she died in March 1741–2, leaving one son, Edward, who was lost in command of the Peregrine sloop in 1762. Secondly, at Aix-la-Chapelle in July 1750, to Maria Magdalena Theresa, daughter of Comte de Bouget, by whom he had, besides a daughter, a son, Charles Henry [q. v.], who is separately noticed. A portrait by T. Hudson has been engraved.[Charnock's Biog. Nav. iv. 345; Naval Chronicle, i. 89, ii. 256, xvi. 415; commission and warrant books, official letters, minutes of courts-martial and other documents in the Public Record Office; information from Rear-admiral Sir Charles G. F. Knowles. The minutes of the court-martial on Knowles, December 1749, were printed; so also was the defence of Captain Dent at his trial in March 1749. Knowles's correspondence with Anson is in Add. MS. 15956, ff. 119–74. Besides the pamphlets noted in the text, there are many others relating to different passages in Knowles's career. Among these may be noted: Journal of the Expedition to La Guira and Porto Cavallos in the West Indies, under the command of Commodore Knowles … 1744, 8vo; Relacion de la gloriosa y singular victoria que han conseguido las armas de S. M. Catolica contra una escuadra Britanica que invadió el dia 2 de Marzo de 1743 la plaza de la Guaira, comandada … por Don Carlos Wnoles (reprinted Caracas, 1858, 8vo. A manuscript note in the copy in the British Museum says that the original, which bears neither place nor date, but probably Cadiz, is extremely rare); Authentick Papers concerning a late Remarkable Transaction, 1746, a curious correspondence between Knowles and the Bank of England respecting a large quantity of silver he brought home in the Diamond; The Jamaica Association Develop'd, 1755. There are also some pamphlets about the case of Captain John Crookshanks [q. v.], and many relating to the Rochefort expedition. See also Beatson's Naval and Military Memoirs, vols. i. and ii.]