Royal Naval Biography/Cunningham, Charles

Commissioner of His Majesty’s Dock-Yard at Chatham.
[Retired Captain.]

This officer was born in 1755, and entered the royal navy as a Midshipman on board the AEolus frigate in 1775; previous to which he had, (owing to the want of employment for young men in the King’s service,) made several mercantile voyages with a friend in America, from whence he returned to England at the commencement of the colonial war.

Early in 1776, the AEolus sailed for the West Indies, on which station Mr. Cunningham joined the Bristol of 50 guns, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker, by whom he was made an acting Lieutenant, and appointed to the Port Royal sloop of war June 12, 1779. At the latter end of the same year, we find him serving as first Lieutenant of the Hinchinbroke, commanded by the late Lord Nelson, from which ship he removed into the Pallas frigate Jan. 14, 1780.

The Pallas being ordered to England in July 1782, Mr. Cunningham was then appointed second Lieutenant of the Ajax 74. On the 4th Sept. following, he obtained the command of the Admiral Barrington, a brig of 14 guns; and was soon after sent by Sir Joshua Rowley, with the Racehorse schooner under his orders, to stop the American salt trade, and prevent any communication between the people of the United States and those of Turk’s Island, lying to the northward of St. Domingo. During his temporary absence, for the purpose of obtaining supplies at Jamaica, the French effected a landing and took possession of the island; which circumstance being communicated to Captain Nelson, who had arrived off there with a small squadron the day after Lieutenant Cunningham’s return to his station, an attempt was made to dislodge them on the following morning, by landing a detachment of seamen and marines under Captain C. Dixon, of the Drake brig, whilst that vessel and the Admiral Barrington attacked a battery of three 24-pounders; but finding the enemy entrenched, and far superior in numbers, the enterprise was abandoned, and the party re-embarked. In this affair the brigs had several men wounded[1].

The Admiral Barrington was paid off at Jamaica, May 11, 1783; and, we believe, Lieutenant Cunningham was subsequently appointed to the Tremendous of 74 guns. In 1788, he joined the Crown 64, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Cornwallis, by whom he was made a Commander into the Ariel sloop of war on the East India station in 1790.

At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, Captain Cunningham, then commanding the Speedy of 14 guns, sailed from England with despatches for the Mediterranean; and on the arrival of the fleet under Lord Hood at Gibraltar, he was ordered to remain there with two small vessels under his orders, for the purpose of preparing the hospital, fitting up ships for the reception of prisoners, forming a well, and forwarding any intelligence that might arrive, to his Lordship.

In June 1793, the Speedy conveyed M. Calonne, ex-Minister of France, from Gibraltar to Naples, on a political visit; and after performing that service joined Lord Hood at Toulon. She was subsequently employed in keeping up a communication between the Admiral and our Envoy at Genoa, the tenders hitherto sent on that service having been forcibly detained in that port, notwithstanding its neutrality, by the French vessels lying there.

On the 5th Oct. in the same year, the Speedy accompanied the Bedford and Captain, 74’s, into the harbour of Genoa, and assisted in seizing the Modeste frigate, and two armed tartans. From thence she proceeded in company with the Captain to Port Especia, in quest of another French frigate, the Imperieuse of 40 guns, which on the approach of the British was scuttled and abandoned by her crew. To this fine ship, the name of which on being weighed and taken into our service, was changed to the Unite, Captain Cunningham was appointed by a post commission, dated on the day of her capture[2], and afterwards confirmed by the Admiralty.

In April 1794, Captain Cunningham exchanged ships with Captain Wolseley of the Lowestoffe, in which frigate he assisted at the reduction of Calvi[3], from whence he was sent home overland with Lord Hood’s despatches announcing the total subjugation of Corsica, from which we make the following extract:

“Captain Cunningham, who has cruised with infinite diligence, zeal, and perseverance, under many difficulties, for three months past, off Calvi, is charged with my despatches, and is competent to give any information their lordships may wish to have. I beg to recommend him as an officer of great merit, and highly deserving any favor that can be shewn him.”

Captain Cunningham’s journey across the continent appears to have been a very rapid one, he having left Calvi on the 11th Aug., and notwithstanding his being obliged to make a circuitous route to avoid the French army, and a detention of three or four days at Helvoetsluys, occasioned by a heavy gale of wind, arrived in London on the 1st of the ensuing month.

His next appointment was in April, 1796, to the Clyde of 46 guns (rated at 38) and 261 men. During the remainder of that year we find him actively employed in the North Sea, and on the coast of France, having occasionally a small squadron of frigates under his orders.

In May, 1797, when a most dangerous mutiny broke out among the crews of the ships composing the North Sea fleet, the Clyde happened to be refitting at the Little Nore, notwithstanding which, and the circumstance of his being nominally under the influence of the mutineers, he had the good fortune never to be entirely dispossessed of his command, or to receive the least insult from his men, but on the contrary, at length succeeded by his conduct in detaching them from the contagion, which he effected in the following manner:–

On the 29th May, seventeen days after the first symptoms of mutiny had appeared on board the Sandwich and other ships at the Great Nore, Captain Cunningham gave orders that the signal from Parker, the rebel chief, for all delegates to repair to him, should not be answered by the Clyde, as was done on board the other ships. Her fore-sail being unbent at the time, and it being known that she was unprovided with a pilot, the rest of the fleet did not suspect that this was the prelude to her secession from their cause. At 9 P.M., Captain Cunningham assembled his crew, and made known to them his intention of working the ship into Sheerness harbour in the course of that night; intimating likewise that the St. Fiorenzo frigate would make her escape at the same tune. Soon after mid-night the cables were slipped, and by sun-rise on the morning of the 30th, the Clyde was safely anchored in the harbour, thus giving the first blow to a most diabolical conspiracy, which, while it lasted, was terrifying to the whole country, and, but for the promptitude and activity displayed by Captain Cunningham, his officers, and loyal crew, might have spread into a serious extent of mischief to the state[4].

On the return of the other ships to their duty, Captain Cunningham was ordered to Elsincur, for the purpose of convoying home a rich fleet of merchantmen, which, owing to the late unhappy events, had been detained in the Sound. Previous to his sailing he received the following letter of thanks from the merchants, &c., &c., of London:–

London Marine Society’s Office, June 8, 1779.

“Sir.– I have the honour to convey the unanimous thanks of a very numerous and respectable meeting of merchants, ship-owners, insurers, and others, held on the Royal Exchange of London, to you, as commander, and to the officers and crew of H.M.S. the Clyde, for their spirited conduct in carrying your ship through the mutinous fleet.

“I beg you will accept of these thanks, and that you will also convey the same in such manner as may be most acceptable.

“It is with great satisfaction that, as chairman of so respectable a meeting, I have been directed to transmit the above resolution. I have the honour to be, &c. &c. &c.

(Signed)Hugh Inglis, Chairman.

To Captain Cunningham,
H.M.S. Clyde, Sheerness.

During the ensuing season, Captain Cunningham had the honor of being placed in attendance upon his late Majesty at Weymouth, from whence he was sent to join the Channel fleet; but with the exception of his being for a length of time employed in the fatiguing duty of watching Brest harbour, we find nothing particularly worthy of record until Aug. 20, 1799; on which day, being off the Cordovan lighthouse, our officer discovered two sail in the S.W., to which he immediately gave chase, and soon perceived that they were standing towards him, which they continued to do till the Clyde had approached within two miles of them, when they bore up and made sail, going large on different tacks. Captain Cunningham pursued the largest, and soon brought her to close action, which was maintained on both sides with great spirit for nearly two hours; when the enemy’s ship being totally unmanageable, with several shot[errata 1] between wind and water, was obliged to strike, and proved to be La Vestale of 36 guns and 235 men, of whom 10 were killed and 22 wounded. Her consort, the Sagesse, of 28 guns and 175 men, availing herself of the vicinity of the Garonne, and the start she had obtained of the Clyde, succeeded in effecting her escape. The British frigate had only 2 men slain and 3 wounded.

The following is a copy of Lord Keith’s letter to the Admiralty on this occasion, but which was not published, in consequence of Captain Cunningham’s duplicate account of the action having reached the Board before that forwarded by his Lordship:–

Queen Charlotte, Torbay, Aug. 29, 1799.

“Sir.– I have the honor to enclose for their Lordships’ information, a letter from Captain Cunningham, of H.M.S. Clyde, containing an account of one of the most brilliant transactions which have occurred during the course of the war; he having with great gallantry pursued two French frigates; one of which he has captured, and driven the other into port. I have the honor to be, &c. &c. &c.


To Evan Nepean, Esq.

His late Majesty was at the Weymouth theatre[errata 2] when an account of the above event was brought to him. He immediately stood up in his box, and commanded the news to be communicated to the audience; when “Rule Britannia” was loudly called for from every part of the house, and performed with reiterated applause.

During the summer of 1800, the Clyde was employed conveying a Mr. Serres along the French and Spanish coasts, to take drawings of all the headlands, harbours, &c. between Brest and Corunna. That service being performed, she again joined the Channel fleet, then under the orders of Earl St. Vincent.

In May, 1801, Captain Cunningham received secret orders from the Admiralty to assume the command of a strong squadron of frigates, sloops, gun-brigs, cutters, &c. stationed from Havre de Grace to the Isle of Bas, for the protection of Guernsey, Jersey, and the adjacent islands, which were at that time threatened with invasion.

Shortly after this appointment, the Jason frigate, forming part of his squadron, was wrecked off St. Maloes; upon learning which Captain Cunningham sent in a flag of truce, and succeeded in obtaining the governor’s permission for her commander, the Hon. I. Murray, his officers and crew, to be exchanged; which was granted on condition that they should be sent to Portsmouth in French cartels. Finding that the enemy were preparing to raise the Jason, he directed Lieutenant Mounsey to proceed with the boats of the squadron and attempt her destruction by fire; which was effectually performed in the presence of two large frigates, a corvette, and several gun-boats, apparently ready for sea. Upon his return to port, Captain Cunningham had the satisfaction of receiving the approbation of the Admiralty for his judicious conduct. Peace soon after taking place, he paid off the Clyde at the Great Nore, June 24, 1802, after commanding her with great credit and good fortune for a period of six years and two months[5].

In May 1803, hostilities having re-commenced, Captain Cunningham commissioned the Prince of Orange, a third rate, and soon after assumed the command of a squadron sent to watch the Dutch fleet in the Texel, on which service he continued until relieved by Sir W. Sidney Smith, in the Antelope. He was subsequently appointed to the Leopard of 50 guns, intended for a particular service; but we believe he did not go to sea in that ship.

The Hon. Captain Rodney having resigned his seat as a Commissioner of the Victualling Board, in Sept. 1803, our officer, without any solicitation on his part, was appointed thereto by the Earl of St. Vincent, at whose recommendation he was removed, in 1806, to be Resident Commissioner of his Majesty’s Dock-yards at Deptford and Woolwich. Previous to this latter appointment, he was sent to Falmouth for the purpose of forming a watering-place for the shipping at that port. He remained on the spot until the present reservoir at Milor was excavated and completed.

The establishments at Deptford and Woolwich having been reduced about April, 1823, Commissioner Cunningham was at that period appointed to the superintendance of Chatham Dock-yard.

He has been twice married; 1st, to the daughter of a clergyman in Norfolk, where he possesses some paternal property; and, 2d, to a daughter of Commissioner Charles Proby[6]. His eldest son, a Midshipman in the royal navy, died Nor. 11, 1822, aged 20 years.

  1. Mr. Cunningham’s commission as a Lieutenant was not confirmed till his appointment to the Admiral Barrington.
  2. Oct. 12, 1793.
  3. See Vol. I. p. 252.
  4. Captains Cunningham and Neale were the only officers of their rank who remained on board, and had any influence over their ships’ companies. See Vol. I. p. 434. The notorious Parker once went on board the Clyde, and endeavoured to prevail on her crew to take her up against Tilbury fort; but this Captain Cunningham had the address to prevent.
  5. Among the numerous privateers captured by Captain Cunningham, was la Dorade of 12 guns, pierced for 18, and 93 men. This vessel, after taking out the prisoners, was entrusted to the care of the Master, who, as is supposed, being emulous to outsail the Clyde, carried too great a press of sail, by which she was upset, and all on board, with the exception of four men, perished. The unhappy sufferers, including the Master, were 24 in number.
  6. Commissioner Proby was descended from Sir Peter Proby, Knt., Lord Mayor of London in 1622, ancestor of the present Earl of Carysfort. He was a Midshipman on board the Centurion, and the first person who discovered the rich Acapulco ship, captured by Commodore Anson in the Southern Ocean. In 1757. he commanded the Medway of 60 guns, under the orders of Sir Edward Hawke, in the expedition against Rochefort. On the 17th Jnly, 1761, when Captain of the Thunderer 74, he captured, after a severe and gallant action, l’Achille of 64 guns and 600 men. The Thunderer on this occasion had 17 men killed, and 114, including her commander, wounded. So great a carnage was occasioned by one of the maindeck guns bursting, which blew up a part of the quarter-deck, and set the ship on fire. The enemy’s loss was also very considerable. In 1769, we find him with his broad pendant on board the Pembroke, as Commander-in-Chief on the Mediterranean station. In 1771, he was made Comptroller of the Victualling Board; and, before the year elapsed, appointed Commissioner at Chatham, where he died in 1799, aged 74 years. He was remarkable for his charitable disposition; and among other donations, he allowed 50l. per annum to the poor of Chatham.


  1. Original: shots was amended to shot
  2. Original: at one of the theatres was amended to at the Weymouth theatre