Sir Charles Thompson

c1740-1799. He was the natural son of the courtier and M.P. Norborne Berkeley, Baron Botetourt of Stoke Gifford, Gloucestershire, who served as governor of Virginia from 1768 until his death two years later, having never married. His mother was Margaret Thompson.

Thompson entered the navy in 1755 aboard the Nassau 70, Captain George Cockburne, having previously served in the merchant service. Thereafter he served until 3 December 1760 aboard the Prince Frederick 64, Captain Robert Man, and the Achilles 60, Captain Hon. Samuel Barrington. Upon being commissioned lieutenant on 16 January 1761 he joined the Arrogant 74, Captain John Amherst, serving in the Channel and the Mediterranean until being paid off at the peace of 1763.

In August 1763 he joined the sloop Cygnet, Commander Charles Leslie, which after five years on the North American station was sold out of the navy in South Carolina, leaving the officers and men to find their own passage back to England, Thompson’s reimbursement being thirty-nine guineas.

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Sir Charles Thompson

In May 1770 he joined the Salisbury 50, Commodore James Gambier, serving once more on the North American station, and on 14 February 1771 he was promoted to command the sloop Senegal 14 by Gambier, being based at Boston. Three months later Gambier posted him to the acting command of the Mermaid 28, in which ship he returned to England in December. Initially the Admiralty refused to ratify his appointment, but he was eventually promoted on 7 April 1772 and took the Chatham 50, flagship of Vice-Admiral William Parry, out to the Leeward Islands in June. He transferred to the frigate Crescent 32 following the death of Captain John Corner during November, and she returned to England to be paid off in 1774.

In August 1775 Thompson was appointed to the newly commissioned frigate Boreas 28, which he took to Jamaica in the early part of the following year. He returned to England with a convoy in October 1777, but went out again to the Leeward Islands in 1778. On 3 December he captured the French snow Memi with two hundred and eighty soldiers bound for Martinique, on the following 18 June took the American privateer Richard, and in August captured a large vessel, the Compas 16, which was en route for France from Martinique, losing four men killed in the process. On 18 December 1779 the Boreas played a prominent part in the attack by elements of the Leeward Islands fleet on a convoy off Martinique, although the presence of three French sail of the line and the shore batteries prevented her bringing an escorting frigate to action.

Shortly afterwards Thompson earned the everlasting enmity of the newly appointed commissioner at Antigua, the difficult Captain John Laforey, after refusing to recognise that officer’s authority to issue him with orders. Laforey had been given authority to act as the commander-in-chief of the station in the absence of any flag officer, which given his civil position was against the precedence of the navy. Captain Horatio Nelson would have the same problem with a different commissioner at Antigua several years afterwards.

Later in 1780 Thompson was appointed to the Alcide 74 in Admiral Sir George Rodney’s fleet, sailing north to America in the autumn although he was in poor health at this time. After returning with the fleet to the Leeward Islands he was present at the capture of St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781, and commanded this ship in the action off Martinique on 29 April and at the Battle of the Chesapeake on 5 September, suffering casualties of two men killed and eighteen wounded. He briefly flew Rear-Admiral Francis Drake’s flag after that officer’s ship had been damaged in the latter action.

Returning with the fleet to the Leeward Islands, he fought at the Battles of St. Kitts on 25/26 January 1782 and of the Saintes on 12 April, in which he received the surrender of the Hector 74. He remained with the fleet when Admiral Hugh Pigot took it to North America in the autumn, returned with it to the Leeward Islands, and came home in April 1783 prior to being paid off in July.

Following the peace Thompson remained unemployed until 1787 when he assumed command of the guardship Edgar 74 at Portsmouth. He was flag-captain to Rear-Admiral Hon. John Leveson-Gower during 1787-8, serving for two months in his squadron of observation, and he paid this ship off in January 1790. He then commissioned the new Elephant 74 in June during the Nookta Sound dispute of 1790. The ship’s main-mast was destroyed by a lightning strike on 21 November but fortunately nobody was hurt in the incident.

At the outset of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 Thompson was appointed to the Vengeance 74, and he flew his broad pennant aboard her with Captain Lord Henry Paulet commanding the ship when he took part in Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis’ Leeward Islands campaign of January-December 1794. On 20 March he directed the attack on Fort Louis, although he was somewhat of a spectator to Captain Robert Faulknor’s brilliant conduct on that day. Remaining in command at Martinique whilst Jervis assaulted Guadeloupe, he was promoted rear-admiral on 12 April 1794 and raised his flag aboard the Vanguard 74, commanded initially by Captain Charles Sawyer, and thereafter Captain Simon Miller from November. He came home with the August convoy in 1795 flying his flag aboard the Montagu 74, Captain William Fooks.

Thompson had been promoted vice-admiral on 1 June 1795, and with his flag in the London 98, Captain Edward Griffith, he commanded one of the two detached squadrons off Brest during 1796, being relieved by Vice-Admiral Sir John Colpoys on 29 October.

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Thompson was second in command at the Battle of St. Vincent in 1797, but had little impact in the victory

He was sent to reinforce Jervis’ fleet in the Mediterranean in late 1796 with his flag in the Britannia 100, Captain Thomas Foley, and he was second-in command to Jervis at the Battle of St. Vincent on 14 February 1797, being created a baronet on 23 June for his part in the engagement, although he failed to act on Jervis’ signal to assist the Culloden and the van, his flagship was barely engaged, and she only suffered one man wounded. In March Captain Sir Charles Knowles assumed the role of his flag-captain having been turned out of the Goliath by a vindictive Earl of St. Vincent, but this officer only lasted a couple of days, being eventually succeeded in June by Captain Edward Marsh. Having condemned the execution of four mutineers on a Sunday following their court-martial on 7 July, Thompson was recalled by the Admiralty at St. Vincent’s request.

He was once more sent to join the Channel fleet off Brest as third in command with his flag in the Prince George 98, Captain William Bowen from October, then the Formidable 90, Captain Robert Williams, and from January 1798 Captain John Irwin. He next joined the Queen Charlotte 100 with Irwin as his flag captain, commanding a detached squadron sent in to the Bay of Biscay on 25 January.

Early in 1799 Thompson commanded another squadron off Brest consisting of eight sail of the line, but he was taken ill in and after retiring ashore he died at Fareham on 17 March.

On 4 November 1783 he married Jane Selby, an heiress of Bonington near Edinburgh, by whom he had issue three sons and two daughters including his eldest son, Lieutenant Sir Norborne Charles Thompson, 1785-1826, whose career was retarded by a court-martial for insubordination. Another son, Charles Robert, 1788-1801, died at sea aged 13. He was the M.P for Monmouth from 1796 until his death in 1799 in the interest of the Duke of Beaufort who was the maternal nephew of Thompson’s alleged father.

Thompson was described as punctilious and unimaginative, being as ‘gruff as the devil’ with a rasping growl of a voice. Lord St. Vincent said that he was a gallant man, but the most timid officer. At sea he apparently dressed as a common seaman in a straw hat and smock but he expected his officers to meet a high standard of dress when going ashore.