Charles Middleton, the twelfth child and second son of Robert Middleton, a collector of customs, was born at Leith on 14th October 1726. Middleton entered the Royal Navy in April 1741 as captain's servant to Samuel Mead. He was later transferred to the frigate Flamborough, where for four years he served successively as servant, midshipman, and master's mate.
In October 1745 Lieutenant Middleton was appointed to the frigate Chesterfield, in which he served on the west coast of Africa. In 1749 the ship travelled to the West Indies. Based in Portsmouth he spent time in the Leeward Islands in 1756.
In 1757 Middleton was given command of The Arundel . Soon afterwards James Ramsay became the ship's surgeon. Middleton's ship intercepted the British slave ship Swift on 27th November 1759. According to Middleton's biographer, James Watt: "On boarding her, Ramsay found over 100 slaves wallowing in blood and excreta, a scene of human degradation which remained for ever in his memory and so distracted his attention that, on returning to his ship, he fell and fractured his thigh bone. It was the more serious of two such accidents and he remained lame for life. With an end to his naval service in prospect, Ramsay sought ordination in the Anglican church to enable him to work among slaves."
In December 1761 Middleton married Margaret Gambier. The couple moved to Barham Court, Teston, Kent. In 1763 Middleton declined another seagoing appointment and for the next twelve years lived the life of a country gentleman. However, on the outbreak of the American War of Independence in 1775 he obtained command of a guardship.
In August 1778, Middleton was appointed Comptroller of the Navy. His biographer, Roger Morriss, has pointed out: "Why the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, should have raised him from relative obscurity to a key post in naval administration has been a source of speculation. However, Middleton enjoyed useful political connections: he was linked by his mother to the Dundas clan, and his wife brought him an association with the Pitts."
During this period he was often visited by his long-term friend, James Ramsay, who had been working as surgeon to several sugar plantations on St Kitts. His stories about life on a slave plantation helped Middleton and his wife to become opponents of the slave trade. In January 1782, Middleton arranged for Ramsay to become vicar of Teston and rector of Nettlestead. He also acted as Middleton's confidential secretary. Ramsay's Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies appeared in 1784. This book inspired a generation of anti-slavery campaigners. Thomas Clarkson argued that as a result of Ramsay book the "first controversy ever entered into on the subject, during which, as is the case in most controversies, the cause of truth was spread."
In 1784 Middleton was elected to the House of Commons for Rochester and served as a loyal supporter of William Pitt and Henry Dundas. In six years he spoke only seven times. However, on 12th June 1788 he spoke out against the conditions on slave-ships. Lady Middleton suggested that her husband should become the leader of the campaign against the slave-trade. He rejected the idea and instead suggested the name of William Wilberforce who "not only displayed very superior talents of great eloquence, but was a decided and powerful advocate of the cause of truth and virtue." Lady Middleton wrote to Wilberforce who replied: "I feel the great importance of the subject and I think myself unequal to the task allotted to me, but yet I will not positively decline it."
Slavery in the United States (£1.29)
Middleton continued as Comptroller of the Navy. Robert Gregson, a clerk in the Navy Office, reported in a letter to Lord Shelburne, on 20th December 1789, that Middleton was the "most indefatigable and able" comptroller he had known. He added: "The load of business he goes through at the Board, at the Treasury, Admiralty and his own house, is astonishing, and what I am confident no other man will be able to execute… Upon the whole the weight of business falls upon a few, and of those few, chiefly upon the Comptroller and Secretary, who have piles of papers before them a foot high, to digest and minute, while two or three at the board are looking on or reading newspapers, who if they were to assist, the business would go on smoother and easier."
According to Roger Morriss: "The commission on fees, gratuities, perquisites, and emoluments in the public offices, appointed in 1785, gave Middleton a vehicle by which to advance his proposals, the most important of which was an extension of the comptroller's official superintending power, the appointment of a sea officer to preside at the Navy Board as deputy comptroller, and for the clerk of the acts to become secretary of the board, which, he argued, for some work should be divided into committees." Richard Howe, First Lord at the Admiralty, was unsympathetic to his proposals and in March 1790 Middleton decided to resign.
Middleton became a vice-admiral on 1st February 1793 and admiral on 1st June 1795 and was appointed naval commissioner at the Board of Admiralty. Henry Dundas argued that Middleton had "great official talents and merits", but added that he was "a little difficult to act with from an anxiety, I had almost said an irritability of temper, and he requires to have a great deal of his own way of doing business in order to do it well". After he failed to become First Lord of the Admiralty in 1796 he returned to farming in Teston.
In May 1804 William Pitt appointed Viscount Melville as his First Lord at the Admiralty. He was forced to resign in April 1805, for failing to prevent the paymaster of the navy mixing public funds with his own money in a private account. Although now aged seventy-nine, Middleton agreed to replace Melville. He was rewarded with a peerage and became Baron Barham of Teston.
Roger Morriss has argued: "His appetite for work was unabated and he became immersed in strategic details. Already by 1805 extensive instructions, covering every eventuality, had been compiled to direct squadrons blockading the ports of France and Spain. But Middleton's annotations on letters received indicate a grasp of the logistics at individual ship level. Justly, he has been credited with orchestrating the campaign of Trafalgar. The painstaking thoroughness he brought to administration, and the discipline he demanded in the dispatch and execution of orders, was complemented by the seaman's appreciation of the demands of ship management." Middleton resigned his post on 10th February 1806.
Charles Middleton, Baron Barham of Teston, died aged eighty-six on 17th June 1813.