Captain Charles Barker

Persona Naval Press is pleased to welcome the first two articles from a new contributor, Marjorie Rear, MA (Oxon) who has edited the letters of her husband's ancestor, Captain Charles Barker RN, 1811-1860. Watch this space for the concluding two articles.

The Fortunate Fellow - Captain Charles Barker RN (1811 - 1860)

A number of letters written home by Captain Charles Barker, RN (1811-1860) are preserved in Sheffield Archives with other family papers.[1] There are frustratingly long gaps in the sequence as they were obviously handed around the extended family and not all returned to the care of his mother, Sarah. They do, of course, contain a great deal of personal material, but there is, however, enough to make interesting reading for students of naval - and imperial - history during this period when the Royal Navy has been described as “in transition”.

This first article is an attempt to summarise, using the evidence of his own words, the life of a young man in the Royal Navy before that most important first achievement – a lieutenant’s commission.

Charles Barker was the fourth son of Thomas Barker of Bakewell in Derbyshire. His elder brothers were in the process of becoming respectively a physician, a barrister-at-law and competent in the running of the family’s land and lead-mining interests. The family had been settled in Bakewell and its immediate vicinity for generations, their fortunes arising originally from a near-hereditary position as stewards to the Dukes of Rutland. Apart from an ancestor, Commander Thomas Barker, who had joined the Royal Navy roughly a century previously (sent to sea by his parents in an attempt to impose some discipline after ill-behaviour at Eton) there was no family naval connection. It transpired, however, that there was at least one local connection which could be called into play on behalf of young Charles, aged 15 and recently finished with his traditional schooling. Unless the young hopeful had attended the Royal Naval College, the established system of patronage which had always provided officers for the Navy was still (however increasingly the Admiralty now disliked it) essential in persuading a ship’s captain to offer him a berth as a First Class Volunteer, the bottom rung of the ladder leading to commissioned rank.

I had a letter from Lord Gambier announcing his [Charles’s] appointment in the Britannia and desiring him to proceed as ever as convenient. A letter of introduction was enclosed to Sir James Saumarez. Has not the dear fellow been fortunate? We think of his going tomorrow or next day so that he may appear this week – promptness being much esteemed.

So wrote Sarah Barker, Charles’s mother, to his brother, Frank, in December 1826. She continued:

Mr. Hardy has written me the kindest and most useful letter giving such full directions for Charles’s proceedings on receiving a summons that we feel quite at home in the business. He has sent him a letter of introduction to his most particular friend Captain Pasco, who resides in Devonport, requesting him to accompany Charles to the Admiral, & give him every assistance in equipping, etc. he has also sent him another to the officer who is Caterer of the Britannia’s Mess. These are very important, and will relieve his new situation, when he enters upon it, of half its difficulties . . .

Admiral Sir James Saumarez was the Commander-in-Chief at Devonport and Rear-Admiral Thomas Hardy and John Pasco, colleagues on HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar, would seem to be a most distinguished set of connections. Captain Pasco was at that time unemployed and would remain so until 1846, illustrating the necessity of having influential patrons at every stage of a naval career. If Nelson had lived, Pasco would have received speedy promotion; as it was he had to wait until 1846 for further employment and a further year to be raised to the rank of Rear-Admiral. He would, therefore, have been in no position to offer any concrete advantage to Charles Barker’s career, but he appears to have been an affable man, well-liked by his fellow officers and certainly had the time and experience to offer some excellent advice. It seems it reasonably safe to assume that the line from Bakewell to these distinguished patrons led from Thomas, later Lord, Denman, shortly to be appointed Lord Chief Justice, whose father was a Bakewell physician and who kept a frequently-visited house in the vicinity. Thomas Denman’s own son, Joseph, of an age with Charles Barker, had himself entered the navy in three years previously at the more usual age of 13. It cannot be pure coincidence that the forenames of Captain John Pasco’s youngest son included “Denman”. All things considered, it does seem fair to say that fortune, at least at this point, was indeed favouring our young man.

From the heights of influence to practicalities: the reference to an introduction to the Mess “caterer”.[2] Imagination suggests that a newcomer to the Mess would be the more welcome if he were accompanied with some delicacies to be added to the ship’s normal fare – rather like a schoolboy with the contents of a tuck box to share out.

Even without hindsight it was not a bad time to be embarking on a naval career. The over-manning and indecision about the future which had characterised the service in the early post-war years were gradually being overcome. And HMS Britannia was a good ship in which to commence a career. A first-rate ship of the line, launched in 1820, Britannia became in June 1828 the flagship of the Admiral on the Mediterranean station, Sir Pulteney Malcolm (“the good old man”, as Charles Barker wrote of him later). It seems to have been a happy ship. No letters remain from this period, but Charles Barker later looked back upon it with fondness and made a number of life-long friends in the Gun Room Mess. One of them, almost certainly, was the Crawford Atchison Denman Pasco, referred to previously, who mentioned in his memoirs that the two had met in Singapore in 1851, commenting that “Barker had not seen me since he was a boy more than twenty years before.”[3]

Life in Britannia seems to have been busy and his mess mates congenial, since Barker commented later that “she has the character of being the most comfortable ship afloat, and sorry I am that I ever left her.” Even the seasickness which he regularly suffered from at the start of any voyage seems not to have dampened his good spirits. However, in 1829 the crew was paid off and the Britannia had a thorough refit in Malta. Charles Barker’s first extant letter is dated August 1831 from HMS Ganges, a second-rate, but also post-war built and also on the Mediterranean station. Her Captain, at that time, was the amiable Irishman, George Burdett.

Captain Burdett and I agree as well as ever and I shall be very sorry to lose him which I fear we shall on the King’s coronation, for as there is soon to be a Flag promotion, he must certainly get his flag or be put on the shelf.

Unfortunately any thought of attaching himself to this new patron was doomed. Burdett got no further promotion and died (according to the Sydney Gazette) in Portsmouth in 1832.

By the time he reached Ganges Barker seems to have at least done sufficiently well in learning his trade to have earned the rank of Midshipman – at least he speaks of himself as a midshipman, but perhaps that was just a term of convenience for volunteers and midshipmen both. In any case, his sights were then set on the passing of the lieutenant’s examinations which would entitle him to the rank of Mate. This rank seems to have emerged as something definitive from the muddle of pre-commission designations still hanging over from the war years. It was not until 1840 that “Mate” actually became a commissioned rank, but obviously well before that date it was an important stage to have reached and had its own established hierarchy. As he wrote home to explain

You may be sure it was no small disappointment to me not to be able to see you all at home, but I know that I should not be doing my duty either to myself or my friends if I did not take advantage of that opportunity to remain out on this station, & if I can only remain till I pass I shall be able to stay 6 months at home with less injury to my own prospects than I could at present 6 days, for after I pass, my seniority as a mate goes on whether I am employed or not.

Unfortunately this seniority by date of successful examination was obviously not set in stone, however, when it came to further promotion:

Lord Minto’s [First Lord of the Admiralty] answer was I think as favourable as I had any reason to expect for he seldom makes Mates of less standing than myself unless they have the very first rate interest . . .

At this stage Barker appears to have found himself attached to the Lieutenant with particular expertise in signalling. Gunnery had already become a recognised specialisation and signalling seems to have followed it. It seems as if there was an element of choice in the matter since he states

I continue to like the Ganges as well as ever and have not found any inconvenience from the signals. Should I, you may rely on my leaving them.

By December 1832, however, his circumstances seem to have taken a change for the worse. HMS Donegal, third-rate, was originally a French ship captured in 1798 and possibly its foreign design and greater age made it physically a less comfortable ship to serve on. But, in any case, Barker declared that he

never was so tired of a ship in my life as I am of this, even in the short time I have belonged to her. I knew she had the character of being the most uncomfortable ship in the service, owing to the Commander, [John] Shepherd being so disagreeable a character. . . I like the Captain [John Dick] & all the rest of the officers very well except the third Lieut., & if ever there was a man who deserved the elegant name of a son of a bitch, he is the man . . .

The unpleasantness from above reached down to the Gun Room Mess:

With the exception of four who were with me in the Britannia & three others there is not a gentleman in the mess . . . the Gun room more resembles a den of wild beasts than any thing else.

The discomforts of Donegal were at least mitigated by his choice of specialisation (“the signal midshipmen are the only people in the ship who have at all tolerable times of it”).

According to Michael Lewis,[4] up until 1827 the rank of Commander was that of the Captain of a small ship not at all that of Second-in Command of a large one. Then it became a promotion for First Lieutenants in such ships, without change of responsibilities. It might well be that Commander Shepherd’s soured temper resulted from his long wait for what he probably regarded as “real” promotion. He had held the rank of Commander for four years by the time Barker crossed his path and he was to wait until 1837 for his own command and a further nine to achieve his promotion to Captain. Barker would also have a long wait to achieve his first promotion. In order to qualify as a lieutenant a young man had to have served at least six years in the navy, at least two of them as a midshipman or mate. By 1833 when, with the help of a loan of his quiet cabin by one of the marine officers, he did pass his lieutenant’s examination he had served seven and there was much longer to go.

He appears to have hoped for a return to Britannia when the Donegal was paid off, but the next we hear he was writing to his mother from Pembroke (a third-rate) in January 1838 that

I shall not give up hope of promotion till after the general promotion in March next, but if I do not get it then, I shall have no expectation of ever getting my commission & I should not wonder if you see me at home soon afterwards as I am heartily tired of being a Mate, indeed I almost repent ever having come to sea again.

Pembroke was captained by Fairfax Moresby, who at least seems to have taken a personal interest in Barker - he was married to one of the Williams sisters from Bakewell who were regular visitors to Sarah Barker and he had obviously met her himself. Everyone who could be importuned to act on Charles Barker’s behalf in the matter of promotion had been approached. One of the MPs for Derbyshire, William Evans, had written to the Admiralty (which the Captain thought would help), but it had obviously been easier to find the necessary interests willing to act for him at the very commencement of his career than later when so many (and those with far more influential friends) were after so few posts. It was not easy to remain positive:

Whether or not I shall succeed time will show and must say that I do not despair, though I am not very sanguine.

Meanwhile it would not be true to say that Barker’s life was completely lacking in interest and adventure.

The role that a naval officer has to fulfil is a varied one; professional requirements are of great importance, but many other qualities are essential. In distant parts of the globe he has to represent his nation, and is often called upon to exhibit considerable diplomatic and social qualities . . . In the Navy the first object in view is to give an officer a good general education, so as to enable him to fulfil his station in life; next to supply him with the knowledge of the theory and use of the ship in which he lives, and the whole of its equipment; and during the acquisition of this learning, to develop his aptness to command, and his initiative to its full extent.[5]

That was Admiral Sir John Fisher writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, when he was worrying about the increase of specialisation, but he was merely reiterating the basic naval ethos of the nineteenth. Good captains did not merely oversee the training of competent seamen, they looked to encourage their general education (Barker mentions taking Italian lessons) and, most particularly, their understanding of the history and current politics of other countries as well as of their own. Barker comments, for example, on the plight of the Poles and their defeat by the Russians at the Battle of Ostroleka and the near “Aroostock” War involving disputed territory between Maine & New Brunswick which caused shiploads of troops to be sent to North America.

Letters from Pembroke recount visits ashore, particularly in Greece, and contain not only details of the classical sites they visited but also some considered-sounding comments on the politics of the country. King Otto, second son of King Ludwig 1st of Bavaria had been put on the new throne by the European powers and this, together with suspicions regarding Russian ambition in the area gave rise to concern for the continuation of peace.

I fear the government is not a very popular one. There has been a change of ministry lately [January 1838] and I hope they may get on better than they did. The present prime minister is a Greek, the others have all been Bavarian, indeed I think the Bavarians have filled all the places of trust, honour or emolument and this has naturally disgusted the Greeks very much. The Russian interest seems to be all predominant which I do not consider is a good sign.

The British navy had found itself a new role. It had become not just an instrument of war, but of the wider-reaching English foreign policy which, in essence, was to keep the peace in Europe by a careful balance of power among the greatest nations, and to safeguard the interests and trade of Englishmen abroad by ensuring free trading conditions on the seas. This sometimes, of course, included military action, even on the Mediterranean station. In the period we are considering there was repeated action against pirates in the area of the Levant and the Battle of Navarino in 1827 against the Turko-Egyptian Fleet, but in none of these did any of Barker’s ships take part. Instead there were the constant cruises from port to port with some game shooting for the Mess when it could be managed. He appears to have acted as steward at the Malta Races (“generally very stupid” and of course beneath the notice of a naval man).

Barker was also one of that select group who had sight of the volcanic “island” named by the British after Sir James Graham of the Admiralty. It appeared from the sea about 27 miles from Sciacca in July 1831. Within eighteen months it disappeared below the surface again and is now known as the Graham Bank. He sent home two sketches of the sight “drawn by one of our Mids.”

HMS Swinger
Sketch of "Graham Island" with an example of one of the Barker letters, crossed to save paper and postage

By the age of 27 Barker no doubt had a better appreciation of the wider implications of the Navy’s role and the importance of keeping the peace, but he probably still had the same secret hope of seeing some real action in which he might distinguish himself as he had six years earlier when he had had little compunction in expressing his disgust at being cheated of it when Donegal, joined other ships (many from the 1832 Experimental Squadron) in the blockade of Holland.

The King of France with 20,000 men went up a hill & then came down again & something resembling that wise expedition has been our late trip to the Dutch coast. We sailed from the Downs along with the Talavera, two steamers & two French frigates . . . we were to anchor off the Dutch coast just within sight of the land, about a week, during which time we did nothing.

Clearly it was even worse to be doing nothing in the company of French ships. He reported that Talavera, commanded by Captain Thomas Brown, had collided with the French ship Calypso.

The French Admiral dare not send either his line of battle ship or largest frigate to sea at all & I do not know what would become of the rest if they were caught in a gale of wind off a lee shore. From this specimen I do not doubt but that in the event of another French war we should give a very satisfactory account of their vessels.

Trying to console himself, Barker mentioned “reports of the Russian fleet being about to act against us, & I wish they would for I should like nothing better than to give them a drubbing for I do detest them most cordially.” However, it would take another twenty years or more for such an opportunity to arise and by the time of the Crimean War Charles Barker would find himself on the other side of the world.

Finally, in 1838, his lieutenant’s commission, dated 28 June, had arrived and the next stage of his career was about to begin. So was he, on the whole, the “fortunate fellow” described by his mother when he received news of his place on Britannia? One would, of course, have to decide whether avoiding dangerous sea action was a matter of good luck (no death or serious injury) or bad (no chance for heroism), but mostly his advancement seems to have come from his own diligence at his studies and, perhaps also, from a pleasant personality. He states, for example that “The First Lt. [of Britannia] I find has been trying to get me with him ever since I was paid off in the Ganges.” However, more than diligence and likeableness would be needed as a Lieutenant and Commander in the fourteen years which follow.

The most important periods of the next stage of Charles Barker’s career were spent on the coast of South America (he was involved in the Parana River operations and the Battle of Obligado) and service as Senior Officer in the Straits of Malacca. They were also significant years in that they saw his move out of sailing ships into steam.


  1. The letters and papers of Charles Barker, Sheffield Archives, Bar D 801/69-110. The quotations in this article come from 801/ 67 & 801/69-73.
  2. Michael Lewis, The Navy in Transition: a Social History 1814-1864, Hodder & Stoughton, 1965.
  3. A Roving Commission, Commander Crawford Pasco, R.N., George Robertson & Co., Melbourne, 1897.
  4. Michael Lewis, England’s Sea Officers, George Allen & Unwin Ltd., London, 1948, p. 202.
  5. Quoted in Christopher Lloyd, The Nation and the Navy, Cresset Press, 1961 revd. ed., p. 208.

Marjorie Rear MA (Oxon) April 2008