Dictionary of National Biography, 1901 supplement/Ballantyne, Robert Michael

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BALLANTYNE, ROBERT MICHAEL (1825–1894), writer of boys' books, born at Edinburgh on 24 April 1825, was the son of Alexander Ballantyne, a younger brother of James Ballantyne [q. v.], the printer of Scott's works. He used himself to tell how his father was employed to copy for the press the early novels of the Waverley series, because his handwriting was least known to the compositors. His eldest brother was James Robert Ballantyne [q. v.], the distinguished orientalist.

When a boy of sixteen Robert Michael was apprenticed by his father as a clerk in the service of the Hudson's Bay Fur Company, at a salary commencing at 20l. He went out to Rupert Land in 1841, and spent six years for the most part in trading with the Indians. He kept a rough diary of his doings, and on his return to Scotland in 1848 this was published by Blackwood as 'Hudson's Bay; or Life in the Wilds of North America.' For the next seven years he occupied a post in the printing and publishing firm of Thomas Constable of Edinburgh. In November 1855 the Edinburgh publisher, William Nelson, suggested to Ballantyne that he should write a book for boys, embodying some of his experiences in the 'great lone land.' This was rapidly composed, and successfully issued in 1856 as 'Snowflakes and Sunbeams; or, the Young Fur Traders,' the first part of the title being dropped in subsequent editions. 'From that day to this,' wrote Ballantyne in 1893, 'I have lived by making story books for young folks.' In his second book, 'Ungava: a Tale of Eskimo Land ' (1857), he again drew upon the great north-west. In his third, the 'Coral Island' (1857), in describing what he had not seen, he made a somewhat humorous blunder in regard to the cocoanut, which he described as growing in the form familiar to the English market. Thenceforth he determined 'to obtain information from the fountain-head.' Thus, in writing 'The Life Boat' (1864), he went down to Ramsgate and made the acquaintance of Jarman, the coxswain of the lifeboat there; in preparing 'The Lighthouse' (1865) he obtained permission from the Northern Lights Commission to visit the Bell Rock, and studied Stevenson's account of the building; to obtain local colour for 'Fighting the Flames ' (1867) he served with the London salvage corps as an amateur fireman; and 'Deep Down' (1868) took him among the Cornish miners. He visited Norway, Canada, Algiers, and the Cape Colony for materials respectively for 'Erling the Bold,' 'The Norsemen of the West,' 'The Pirate City,' and 'The Settler and the Savage.' He got Captain Shaw to read the proofs of 'Fighting the Flames,' and Sir Arthur Blackwood those of 'Post Haste.'

In such stories as the above, to which may be added 'The World of Ice' (1859), 'The Dog Crusoe' (1860), 'The Gorilla Hunters' (1862), 'The Iron Horse' (1871), and 'Black Ivory' (1873), Ballantyne continued the successes of Mayne Reid. But his success is the more remarkable inasmuch as, though his books are nearly always instructive, and his youthful heroes embody all the virtues inculcated by Dr. Smiles, his tales remained genuinely popular among boys (despite the rivalry of Jules Verne, Henty, and Kingston) for a period of nearly forty years, during which Ballantyne produced a series of over eighty volumes. He was a thoroughly religious man, an active supporter of the volunteer movement in its early days, and no mean draughtsman, exhibiting water-colours for many years at the Royal Scottish Academy, Edinburgh. From about 1880 he resided at Harrow, where he had many friends, but in October 1893 he went to Rome for his health, and he died there on 8 Feb. 1894. He was buried in the English protestant cemetery at Rome.

A portrait was prefixed to his rambling volume entitled 'Personal Reminiscences of Book-making,' published in 1893; another appeared in the 'Illustrated London News,' 17 Feb. 1894.

[Ballantyne's Personal Reminiscences; Academy, 17 Feb. 1894; Guardian, 14 Feb. 1894; Times, 9 and 10 Feb. 1894; Standard, 10 Feb. 1894; Boase's Modern English Biography, i. 147; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

T. S.