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Charnock, John (1756–1807), naval biographer, was born on 28 November 1756, and baptized at Stanford-on-Soar, Nottinghamshire, on 21 March 1757, the son of John Charnock, barrister, of Stanford-on-Soar, and his wife, Frances, daughter of Thomas Boothby of Chingford, Essex. He was educated at Winchester School and matriculated at Trinity College, Oxford, on 15 December 1774. While at university he wrote political essays for periodicals, but afterwards he devoted himself entirely to the study of naval affairs, and served in the navy for some time as a volunteer. Details of his career at this time are unknown. However, it appears that his eccentric mode of life, and possibly also his marriage to Mary (1752/3–1836), daughter of Peregrine Jones of Philadelphia, occasioned a serious breach between Charnock and his father. The breakdown of relations threw him on his own resources, so that the studies which he had formerly undertaken as a pastime became his principal livelihood. His experience evidently exposed him to the opinions of sea officers, and these dominated his life's work.

At this time Charnock lived in Blackheath, and struck up a friendship with Captain William Locker, the early captain and friend of Horatio Nelson and subsequently lieutenant-governor of Greenwich Hospital. This association gave a definite direction to his work, and led to the publication of his Biographia navalis, or, Impartial memoirs of the lives and characters of officers of the navy of Great Britain from the year 1660 (6 vols., 1794–8), a compilation covering all post captains and admirals, in which he was largely aided by the material Locker had himself assembled for a revisionist naval history, which was not completed. Charnock's acquaintance with many of the officers whose lives are related, and his knowledge of naval tradition, gave his book a peculiar value. At the same time, Charnock had little access to original documentation and, though painstaking to a degree, he had very hazy ideas as to the credibility of evidence and a tendency to confuse officers of the same surname. Sir John Laughton, who checked his work extensively for the Dictionary of National Biography, observed: ‘The book is useful, but it should be used with caution’. Charnock also produced a large collection of unpublished architectural and related topographical drawings (over 300 items, NMM PAF 2721, 2766, 2843), though for what purpose is unclear other than that they appear to have been acquired by the politician Henry Hanbury Beaufoy. Despite their strange perspective and the fact that many of the buildings are not now readily identifiable (and some possibly imaginary), they form a substantial and sometimes useful record for the period.

On the completion of the Biographia navalis Charnock devoted himself to the compilation of a History of Marine Architecture (3 vols., 1801–2), a work which, especially in its more modern part, has a deservedly high reputation, being the first serious study of British naval architecture. However, it followed the opinions of sea officers in over-praising French ships and designs at the expense of their British equivalents establishing a tradition that has only recently been reassessed. In 1806 he published a Life of Lord Nelson, which, he says in the preface, was suggested, ‘almost in the form of a request’, by Captain Locker, ‘even during the life of his lordship’. The information and the letters communicated by Locker gave the book, at the time, a value far above that of the numerous instant memoirs which were produced after Trafalgar. Nelson's letters, which Charnock robbed of their personal interest by translating them into more genteel language, were subsequently correctly printed in Sir Harris Nicolas's great collection The Dispatches and Letters of Vice Admiral Nelson (1844–6). Other works by Charnock include The Rights of a Free People (1792) and A Letter on Finance and National Defence (1798). He died on 16 May 1807, in great poverty, and not impossibly in a debtors' gaol or an insane asylum. He was buried in the old churchyard at Lee. He was survived by his wife, with whom Charnock had no children, who died aged eighty-three on 26 May 1836.

Charnock's career may be seen as a warning of the perils of professional naval authorship—and linked to William James, William O'Byrne, and other disappointed men.

J. K. Laughton, rev. Andrew Lambert


J. K. Laughton, ‘Historians and naval history’, Naval and military essays: being papers read in the Naval and Military section at the International Congress of Historical Studies [London 1913], ed. J. S. Corbett and H. J. Edwards (1914), 3–22 · N. A. M. Rodger, The wooden world: an anatomy of the Georgian navy (1986) · B. Lavery, The ships of the line, 2 vols. (1983–4) · private information (2015) [P. van der Merwe]


E. Shirt, stipple, pubd 1810 (after M. Singleton), NPG