Dictionary of National Biography, 1912 supplement/Russell, William Clark

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RUSSELL, WILLIAM CLARK (1844–1911), novelist, born at New York on 24 Feb. 1844, was son of Henry Russell [q. v. Suppl. I], vocalist and song composer, by his wife Isabella daughter of Charles Lloyd of Bingley Hall, Birmingham. From his mother, who was a relative of the poet William Wordsworth [q. v.], and herself a writer of verse, Clark Russell mainly inherited his taste for literature. After education at private schools at Winchester and Boulogne he joined the British merchant service in 1858, and served as an apprentice on board the sailing vessel Duncan Dunbar. He made several voyages to India and Australia, and while off the coast of China in 1860 he witnessed the capture of the Taku forts by the combined British and Trench forces. His life on shipboard was marked by privations which seriously undermined his health. Nevertheless from these early experiences Clark Russell gathered the material which was to be his literary stock-in-trade.

In 1866 he retired from the merchant service, and after a few months in a commercial calling he adopted a literary career. He began by writing a tragedy in verse, which was produced at the Haymarket Theatre in 1866, but proved a failure. Subsequently he took up journalism. In 1868 he served as editor of 'The Leader,' and in 1871 he wrote for the 'Kent County News.' But he soon settled down to writing nautical tales of adventure, which was henceforth his main occupation. His first novel, 'John Holdsworth, Chief Mate' (1875), at once attracted attention, and the still more popular 'Wreck of the Grosvenor' (1877 ; new edit. 1900) established his reputation as a graphic writer of sea stories. While these early works brought him little profit owing to the sale of the copyright to the publishers, they served as useful advertisement. For thirty years a constant stream of more or less successful novels flowed from his fertile pen ; in all he produced fifty-seven volumes.

Meanwhile Clark Russell continued to contribute articles on sea topics to the leading journals. In 1880 he received an invitation from Joseph Cowen [q. v. Suppl. I] to join the staff of the 'Newcastle Chronicle,' and later for a brief period he was editor of 'May fair.' In 1882 he accepted the offer of a post on the 'Daily Telegraph,' and for seven years he was a regular contributor to that paper under the pseudonym of ' A Seafarer.' The tragedies and comedies of the sea were his principal theme, and his masterly account of the wreck of the Indian Chief on the Long Sand (5 Jan. 1881) enhanced his growing reputation as a descriptive writer. Many of his fugitive articles in the 'Daily Telegraph' were reprinted in volume form under such titles as 'My Watch Below' (1882) and 'Round the Galley Fire' (1883).

A zealous champion in the press of the grievances of the merchant seamen, Clark Russell urged that the hardships of their life were practically unchanged since the repeal of the Navigation Acts in 1854, and that despite the Merchant Shipping Act of 1876 [see Plimsoll, Samuel, Suppl. I] ships were still sent to sea undermanned and overladen. In response to this agitation further acts of parliament to prevent unseaworthy vessels putting to sea were passed in 1880, 1883, 1889, and 1892. In 1885 Clark Russell protested against the seamen and firemen not being represented on the shipping commission, which was appointed by Mr. Chamberlain (Contemporary Review, March 1885). In 1896 the Duke of York (afterwards King George V) expressed his opinion that the great improvement in the conditions of the merchant service was due in no small degree to Clark Russell's writings (cf. preface to Clark Russell's What Cheer I 3rd edit. 1910).

Latterly severe attacks of rheumatoid arthritis considerably reduced his literary activity, and compelled him to retire first to Ramsgate and subsequently to Deal. His last years were spent at Bath. Although crippled by disease, he continued working up to the last. He died at Bath on 8 Nov. J911. He married in 1868 Alexandrina, daughter of D. J. Henry of the Institute of Civil Engineers, younger brother of Sir Thomas Henry [q. v.], pohce magistrate. She survived him with one son, Mr. Herbert Russell, writer on naval subjects, and three daughters.

Sir Edwin Arnold [q. v. Suppl. II] wrote of Clark Russell as ' the prose Homer of the great ocean,' while Algernon Charles Swinburne [q. v. Suppl. II], with characteristic exaggeration, called him 'the greatest master of the sea, living or dead.' Clark Russell's novels rendered the same benefit to the merchant service that those of Captain Marryat [q. v.] did to the royal navy. They stimulated pubhc interest in the conditions under which sailors lived, and thereby paved the way for the reform of many abuses. His descriptions of storms at sea and atmospheric effects were brilliant pieces of word painting, but his characterisation was often indifferent, and his plots were apt to become monotonous.

In addition to the works already mentioned the following are a few of his best-known novels : 1. 'The Frozen Pirate,' 1877. 2. 'A Sailor's Sweetheart,' 1880; 4th edit. 1881. 3. 'An Ocean Tragedy,' 1881. 4. 'The Death Ship,' 1888; new edit. 190L 6. 'List, ye Landsmen,' 1894 ; 2nd edit. 1899. 6. 'Overdue,' 1903. He also published popular lives of 'Dampier' ('Men of Action' series, 1889), 'Nelson’ ('Heroes of the Nations' series, 1890 ; new edit. 1905). and 'Collingwood' (1891), which was illustrated by Frank Brangwyn, A.R.A. His poems and naval ballads were collected into a volume entitled ' The Turnpike Sailor, or Rhymes on the Road' (1907), of which a third edition appeared in 1911 under the title of 'The Father of the Sea.'

[The Times and Daily Telegraph, 9 Nov. 1911; Athenæum, 11 Nov. 1911; Harper's Mag., June 1888; Idler, Aug. 1892; A National Asset, by Capt. W. J. Ward, prefixed to Clark Russell's Father of the Sea (portrait), 1911; private information.]

G. S. W.