John Laughton was born in Liverpool on 23 April 1830, son of a Master Mariner. He was educated at the Royal Institution School, Liverpool and Caius College, Cambridge, where he read mathematics and graduated as a wrangler in 1852. He entered the Royal Navy as an instructor, joining his first ship, Royal George, in 1853, serving in the Baltic during the Crimean War. In 1866 he went ashore to teach at the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth, moving with the College to Greenwich in 1873, becoming Head of the Department of Meteorology and Marine Surveying.
In the 1870s he turned more to teaching history, delivering a famous lecture to the R.U.S.I. in 1874 on the importance of actually analysing historical events, rather than merely reporting them chronologically. This new approach meant that he “acted as a catalyst for the entire intellectual development of naval history as an independent discipline” (Andrew Lambert). He was an undoubted influence on naval thinkers of the time: Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett and Herbert Richmond. In 1885 he left the Royal Navy to accept the position of Professor of Modern History at King’s College, London, and succeeded in convincing the Admiralty to allow limited public access to their archives. With Admiral Cyprian Bridge he founded the Navy Records Society in 1893. He wrote more than 900 entries on naval personalities for the Dictionary of National Biography. He was knighted for his work in 1907, awarded the Chesney Gold Medal in 1910 and died on 14 September 1915.
His publications include
• Physical Geography in its Relation to the Prevailing Winds and Currents (Potter, 1873).
• Nelson (Macmillan, 1889).
• Studies in Naval History (Longmans, 1896).
• State Papers relating to the Spanish Armada, Volume I (Navy Records Society, 1894).
• State Papers relating to the Spanish Armada, Volume II (Navy Records Society, 1894).
• The Nelson Memorial: Nelson and his Companions in Arms (G Allen, 1896).
• The Journals of Rear Admiral Bartholomew James, 1752-1828 (Navy Records Society, 1896).
• From Howard to Nelson: Twelve Sailors (Heinemann, 1899).
• The Naval Miscellany, Volume I (Navy Records Society, 1902).
• Recollections of James Anthony Gardner, Commander R.N. 1775 – 1814 (Navy Records Society, 1906).
• Letters and Papers of Lord Barham, 3 volumes (navy Records Society, 1907, 1910, 1912).
• The Naval Miscellany, Volume II (Navy Records Society, 1912).
• Andrew Lambert The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession (Chatham Publishing, 1998).
• Andrew Lambert Laughton’s Legacy: Naval History at King’s College London (KCL 2002).
• Andrew Lambert Letters and Papers of Professor John Knox Laughton, 1830-1915 (Navy Records Society, 2002).
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