Admiral Sir John Lawson by Sir Peter Lely.
Admiral Sir John Lawson by Sir Peter Lely.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the birth of Admiral Sir John Lawson and the 350th of his death. But who was this John Lawson? And why should Scarborians commemorate his life?

Of all the multitudes of men who have gone to sea out of Scarborough, none from such humble origins rose so high in the land and played such a decisive and courageous role in its history. Without doubt John Lawson was a hero. Yet the dismal, depressing truth is that his native town has all but forgotten him and his deeds.

We have blue plaques to Anne Bronte who is buried here and to such worthies as Thomas Hinderwell, George Cayley, Lord Leighton, two of the Sitwells and Charles Laughton who were all both in Scarborough. We have an uncleaned statue of Queen Victoria who never set foot in the borough and warned her family against doing so. We have streets, roads, terraces and avenues named after past prime minsters, explorers, geologists and novelists, few of whom were ever seen here. Even less appropriately, three Roundhead generals, all Lawson’s comrades-in-arms, Oliver Cromwell, Fairfax and Ireton, none of whom ever visited either the town or castle, are remembered as residential addresses, but of John Lawson there is not a trace.

And yet the great, brave admiral who loved the place of his birth and upbringing, spent most of his life in Scarborough, kept a house and land here, and left a large sum of £100 for its poor in his will, has neither plaque, portrait or place-name to record even his existence let alone his extraordinary career and achievements.

To add insult to injury, some past, so-called authorities have even questioned that he was a Scarborian. Lord Clarendon, the royalist historian, wrote that he came from “near Scarborough”; John Campbell, biographer of admirals, asserted that he was born in Hull and this mistake has been frequently repeated in lesser sources, such as an edition of Pepys’s Diary and the catalogue of a Ferens Art Galley exhibition.

It was left to the authors of Lawson’s entry in both versions of the Dictionary of National Biography to authenticate his place of birth. Anyone with remaining doubts on this matter will find reference in his last will to “Scarborough in Yorkshire, the place of my Nativity”.

Another inaccuracy, long and widely accepted, was also planted by Lord Clarendon when he described the future admiral as “formerly a kind of fisherman (or little better)” and wrote that his father was no more than “a common sailor”.

Though there is little surviving evidence of Lawson’s early life and family origins, there is quite enough to disprove Clarendon’s disdainful description. John’s name first appears in the records of Scarborough’s mercantile trade union, the Society of Owners, Masters and Mariners, for the year 1639. For one successful voyage in the Adventure he paid the Society a shilling. During the next three years he made many more contributions to the Society’s seaman’s fund for completed voyages, all in the Adventure, no fewer than 26 in 1641 and five in 1642.

In all, or nearly all, of these commercial ventures, John Lawson was probably carrying coals from Newcastle or Sunderland, either down the English east coast or across the German Ocean (North Sea) to ports such as Antwerp or Rotterdam. On the return voyage from the continent the Adventure would have brought goods such as Baltic timber and tar, Swedish iron ore or Newfoundland train (whale) oil.

Written immediately above the name of John Lawson, master mariner, is that of master mariner William Lawson, who had made 10 voyages in 1639 in his ship the Hopewell. But whereas John sailed only in the Adventure, William had next the John and thirdly the Isabel. Could it have been merely a remarkable coincidence that John had recently married Isabel and had called his eldest daughter by the same name?

Though we have no documentary proof of John’s baptism which was probably a casualty in St Mary’s patchy parish register, his marriage licence of December 1639 states that he was then a “nautam” (seaman) of Scarborough aged 24. His bride-to-be was 23 year-old Isabel Jefferson of Lythe near Whitby. The Jeffersons were also a seafaring family and the wedding took place in the bride’s parish church at Lythe in January 1640. Afterwards the couple settled at Scarborough.

At this early date we know more about William than John Lawson. He was certainly not a mere seaman or fisherman. St Mary’s records show that in 1635 he had bought one of the new expensive family pews in the body of the church and soon afterwards the Society of Owners, Masters and Mariners, Scarborough’s richest and most powerful guild, had elected him to be one of their four wardens. So far from being born “in the lowest circumstances of life”, as Hinderwell wrote, John Lawson was therefore privileged and wealthy enough to master one of Scarborough’s colliers before he was 25.

Wars change people’s lives, for good or ill, but civil wars offer no escape, particularly for men in positions of responsibility. Had England not been plunged into civil war in October 1642, John Lawson would perhaps have remained at Scarborough as no more than a prosperous merchant ship’s owner and master, content to carry coals and live when at home with his wife and daughter for the rest of his life. He could never have imagined what an altogether different future God’s providence had in store for him.

After 1642, William Lawson, probably John’s father, continued to trade abroad in the Isabel, but John’s name disappears from all Scarborough’s records as he enters the stage of national history.