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Sir John Knox Laughton Kt (23 April 1830 – 14 September 1915) was a British naval historian and arguably the first to argue for the importance of the subject as an independent field of study. Beginning his working life as a mathematically-trained civilian instructor for the Royal Navy, he later became Professor of Modern History at King's College London and a co-founder of the Navy Records Society. A prolific writer of lives, he penned the biographies of more than 900 naval personalities for the Dictionary of National Biography.[1]


Laughton was born in Liverpool on 23 April 1830, son of a former Master Mariner. He married twice and had 10 children including Vera Laughton Mathews.

Academic career[]

Laughton was educated at Caius College, Cambridge, graduating BA (34th wrangler) in 1852.[2] He served with the Royal Navy as a civilian shipboard instructor teaching mathematics, science and navigation, and saw combat in the Baltic and Far East campaigns.[3] In 1866 he finished his sea days by going ashore to teach at the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth. When the College moved to the new Royal Naval College, Greenwich, in 1873, Laughton moved with it to become Head of the Department of Meteorology and Marine Surveying.

In the 1870s he turned more and more to teaching and lecturing on history, delivering a now famous lecture to the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in 1874 on the importance of actually analysing historical events, rather than merely reporting events chronologically. This was a new idea at the time and would not have been seen then as stating the obvious, as perhaps it would today.[4] With this new approach, Laughton ‘acted as a catalyst for [the] entire intellectual development’ of naval history as an independent discipline.[5]

During his time as a lecturer in naval history, Laughton was undoubtedly an influence on the more famous naval historian-strategists of his age – Alfred Thayer Mahan, Julian Corbett and Herbert Richmond. Mahan, who has been described as ‘one of Laughton’s disciples’, wrote of him that 'He probably knows more naval history than any English speaking man living’.[6] In 1885 he left the Royal Navy to accept the position of Professor of Modern History at King's College, London. He succeeded in convincing the Admiralty to allow limited public access to their archives. Together with Admiral Cyprian Bridge Laughton co-founded the Navy Records Society in 1893. He was the Society’s first Secretary, and was knighted for his work in 1907.[6][7]

Laughton died at the age of 85 on 14 September 1915 and was buried at sea in the Thames Estuary from the decks of HMS Conqueror.

Legacy and Influence[]

Laughton's contributions to naval history were largely forgotten until the pioneering work by Professor D. M. Schurman, The Education of a Navy: the Development of British Naval Strategic Thought, 1867-1914 (1965) first brought them out. Professor Andrew Lambert has since added to this with a work, The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession.

The obvious question arising from any study of Laughton is, if he was so influential and important, why is he not as well known as his ‘disciples’? Unlike Mahan and Corbett, Laughton never wrote a major work, and the body of work that he did leave behind is now very difficult to come by. The measure of his significance comes by looking at the people he influenced and the institutions which he left behind after his death. Through 'long-term influence and personal contact' with other thinkers in the field and British admirals, he managed to sow the seeds in influential people’s minds that naval history was a subject worth studying, something which had relevance and bearing on modern naval affairs.[8] The Naval Records Society remains a key part of the discipline of naval history.

In recognition of his importance, King’s College Department of War Studies has named its naval history chair as the Laughton Professor, and naval historians in the department belong to the Laughton Naval History Research Unit.[9]


See also[]


  1. G. A. R. Callender (2004) 'Laughton, Sir John Knox (1830–1915)', rev. Andrew Lambert, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford: Oxford University Press), doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/34420
  2. "Laughton, John Knox (LTN848JK)". A Cambridge Alumni Database. University of Cambridge. 
  3. Adamiak, Stanley J. 'The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession', Review of book by Professor Andrew Lambert, Journal of Military History Vol. 64, No. 4 (October 2000) pp. 1169-1170
  4. John Hattendorf, The Caird Lecture, 2000: The Anglo-French Naval Wars (1689-1815) in twentieth century naval thought Journal for Maritime Research. - URL last accessed 3 April 2007
  5. Andrew Lambert (1998) The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession (London: Chatham House), p. 11
  6. 6.0 6.1 R.J.B. Knight (2000) The Foundations of Naval History: John Knox Laughton, the Royal Navy and the Historical Profession, Review of book by Professor Andrew Lambert in the Institute for Historical Research's Reviews in History series. (London: Institute for Historical Research) - URL last accessed 3 April 2007
  7. "No. 28044". 26 July 1907. 
  8. Lambert (1998), p. 193

External links[]

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