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 was employed until 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 of travel costs being thirty-nine guineas.

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 with information regarding the Spanish activities in their southern settlements in North America. Initially the Admiralty refused to ratify his appointment, but he was eventually promoted commander on 7 March 1772 and took the Chatham 50, flagship of Vice-Admiral William Parry, out from St. Helens to the Leeward Islands in June. He transferred to the frigate Crescent 32 following the death of Captain John Corner during early November, and he brought this vessel back to Portsmouth at the end of July 1774 to be paid off in the following month.


Sir Charles Thompson

In the last week of August 1775 Thompson was appointed to the newly commissioned frigate Boreas 28, which received orders to be sheathed and fitted out at Chatham for foreign service, and in September he received aboard the crews of the Carcass 8, Commander James Reid, and Racehorse 18, Commander James Orrok, which had recently arrived at Woolwich from the coast of Africa. In October the Boreas put down the Thames to take on her ordnance at Blackstakes, and she then proceeded to Spithead via the Downs. Whilst at Portsmouth in November an amount of eight thousand guineas in foreign specie was seized aboard the Boreas by customs officers, the money having apparently been consigned to a gentleman at Boston. When she eventually put out of Spithead for Ireland on 21 December she missed her stays in a gale off St. Helens, went aground on the Horse Shoal, and had to put back to Portsmouth Harbour, having lost part of her keel and her rudder. On 13 January 1776 the Boreas’ sailing master was brought to a court-martial but acquitted of blame for this accident. The frigate’s orders were then amended to prepare for her sailing to Jamaica rather than North America, and she finally put out of Spithead at the beginning of March.

During the early days of April 1776, the Boreas was at Madeira where a protest was levied against Thompson by the captain and passengers of a brig which he had seized whilst in passage from London to St. Augustine in Florida laden with one hundred barrels of gunpowder. The frigate arrived at Port Royal in Jamaica at the end of May, having in company three troop transports, with which she then proceeded to New York, although one of the transports parted company off Havana. On 12 August the Boreas departed Sandy Hook to return to the West Indies, during which passage it was reported that she took several American prizes, and she eventually returned to Portsmouth with a small convoy in early October 1777, being sent around to Plymouth to be docked.

In February 1778 the Boreas put out from Portsmouth for the Leeward Islands with several other men of war in escort of a convoy of some forty merchantmen. Remaining on that station, she captured the Rochefort snow Memi with two hundred and eighty soldiers bound for Martinique on 3 December, took the American privateer Richard on 18 June 1779, and in August captured the large letter-of-marque Compas 20 en-route for France from Martinique after a seventy-five minute action, losing four men killed in the process in return for twenty men slain aboard the enemy. On 18 December 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 provoked 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 instruction to act as the commander-in-chief of the station in the absence of any flag officer, which given his civil position was against naval precedence. Captain Horatio Nelson would famously have the same problem with another commissioner at Antigua several years later.

In October 1780 Thompson was appointed to the Alcide 74 in Admiral Sir George Rodney’s Leeward Islands fleet, succeeding Captain John Brisbane who had been sent home with dispatches, and he sailed north to America with this force in the autumn despite being in poor health. After returning with the fleet to the Leeward Islands he was present at the invasion of St. Eustatius on 3 February 1781, and was detached in command of a small squadron to enforce the capture of the nearby island of St. Martin. He commanded the Alcide at the Battle of Fort Royal on 29 April and at the Battle of Chesapeake Bay on 5 September, suffering casualties of two men killed and eighteen wounded in the latter action, and he briefly flew Rear-Admiral Francis Drake’s flag after that officer’s ship had been damaged in the same battle.

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 led it to North America in the autumn, returned with it to the Leeward Islands, and then sailed for Britain in April 1783 to arrive at Portsmouth in the company of several other sail of the line on 26 June, prior to being paid off in July.

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


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

At the beginning of February 1793, and upon the commencement of hostilities with France, Thompson joined the Vengeance 74 at Portsmouth after she had been delivered to that port by Commander Sir Harry Burrard. Ordered to raise a commodore’s broad pennant, he sailed for Cork in March to take under convoy transports carrying the 69th Regiment out to the West Indies. Here he joined Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner, whose Leeward Islands campaign had begun in March, but having enjoyed little success this force returned home in the early autumn to arrive at Spithead on 1 October.

On 26 November Thompson, flying his broad pennant aboard the Vengeance with Captain Lord Henry Paulet commanding the ship, sailed from Portsmouth with Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis for the Leeward Islands to participate in the campaign of January-December 1794. On 20 March he directed the attack on Fort Louis, Martinique, 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 in May aboard the Vanguard 74, commanded initially by Captain Charles Sawyer, and from November Captain Simon Miller.

Thompson remained in the Leeward Islands after Jervis returned home at the end of 1794, becoming subordinate to the ineffectual Vice-Admiral Benjamin Caldwell. During April 1795 he escorted the outward-bound Portsmouth convoy from Martinique to Antigua, and after conducting the homeward-bound convoy into the Atlantic his flagship captured the French corvette Perdrix 20 off Bermuda in June. Weeks later he fell out with his old adversary, Admiral Sir John Laforey, who had replaced Caldwell as the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands in June, with a dispute over Thompson having failed to strictly adhere to orders pertaining to a cruising ground. As an exchange of letters escalated, he denigrated Laforey’s tactics in a disrespectful manner and eventually his senior was left with little option but to order him home with the next convoy.

Thompson, who had been promoted vice-admiral on 1 June 1795, duly departed the Leeward Islands with the August convoy, flying his flag aboard the Montagu 74, Captain William Fooks, and he arrived at Spithead at the beginning of October, prior to going round to the Downs with the convoy. Shortly afterwards he received a gold-hilted sword from the masters of ships in the port of London for his safe conduct of the convoy, whilst concurrently it was reported that he had raised his flag aboard the Adventure 44, Captain Edmund Crawley, and that he was to take up a position in the Channel Fleet. However, by now Laforey had forwarded his account of their disagreement to the Admiralty and Thompson was ordered to strike his flag on 6 November and come ashore to face a court-martial. For months afterwards he refused the opportunity of any further employment until Laforey returned to England for the court-martial, but matters took a different course when his antagonist, having been recalled for operational reasons, died at sea on 11 June 1796 whilst still two days from home. Although Thompson continued to demand a court martial he was advised that Laforey had failed to lay any further charges against him, and with the matter eventually being dropped he was able to resume his active career.

In October 1796 he raised his flag at Portsmouth aboard the London 90, Captain Edward Griffith, and took command of the division of the Channel Fleet off Ushant with ten sail of the line and two frigates until relieved by Vice-Admiral Sir John Colpoys on 29 October. He then set sail for the Mediterranean aboard the Niger 32, Captain Edward James Foote, to take up the position of second-in-command to Admiral Sir John Jervis with his flag aboard the Britannia 100, Captain Thomas Foley. He subsequently fought at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent on 14 February 1797, being created a baronet on 23 June for his part in the victory, although during the action 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 1797 Captain Sir Charles Knowles assumed the role of Thompson’s flag-captain aboard the Britannia after having been turned out of the Goliath by a vindictive Earl of St. Vincent, but this officer only lasted a couple of days before claiming retirement on the grounds of ill-health, being eventually succeeded in June by Captain Edward Marsh. Thompson himself then incurred the wrath of the unforgiving commander-in-chief, for having condemned the execution of four mutineers on a Sunday following their court-martial on 7 July he was recalled by the Admiralty at St. Vincent’s request. With his flag aboard the Barfleur 98, Captain James Richard Dacres, he left the fleet at the end of September to reach Portsmouth weeks later.

Almost immediately resuming his position in the Channel fleet, Thompson served off Brest as the third in command with his flag flying from October aboard the Prince George 98, Captain William Bowen, and then the Formidable 90, Captain Robert Williams, who was succeeded in January 1798 by Captain John Irwin. During the latter month Thompson sailed from St. Helens with his squadron of ten sail of the line and two frigates, but he was at anchor in Torbay during the following month when sheltering from the south-west gales. The squadron then sailed for Ireland, and in the process of returning to Spithead encountered heavy winds in the Channel at the end of February.

By June 1798 Thompson was flying his flag aboard the Queen Charlotte 100 with Irwin continuing as his flag captain, and he commanded a detached squadron that delivered troops to Ballyhack in Ireland where they confronted the Irish rebels, and in which waters his force took several enemy vessels. He then joined Admiral Lord Bridport off Ushant, prior to entering Plymouth at the end of August to re-victual and refit. On 6 September Thompson put out of Plymouth to cruise to the westward with four sail of the line and a frigate.

In the early part of 1799 his squadron consisting of eight sail of the line was sent to cruise off Brest, prior to returning to Torbay several weeks later. It then went out again on 4 March, but within days Thompson was taken ill and returned to Portsmouth, being replaced by Vice-Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour. 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 May 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, argumentative and plain-speaking, 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 timidest of officers. 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. He suffered greatly from ill-health in his later years.