Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Walker, George (d.1777)

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WALKER, GEORGE (d. 1777), privateer, as a lad and a young man served in the Dutch navy, and was employed in the Levant apparently for the protection of trade against Turkish or Greek pirates. Later on he became the owner of a merchant ship and commanded her for some years. In 1739, he was principal owner and commander of the ship Duke William, trading from London to South Carolina, and, the better to prepare for defence, took out letters of marque. His ship mounted 20 guns, but had only thirty-two men. The coast of the Carolinas was infested by some Spanish privateers, and, in the absence of any English man-of-war, Walker put the Duke William at the service of the colonial government. His offer was accepted; he increased the number of his men to 130, and presently succeeded in driving the Spaniards off the coast. Towards the end of 1742 he sailed for England with three merchantmen in convoy. But in a December gale, as they drew near the Channel, the ship's seams opened, planks started, and with the greatest difficulty she was kept afloat till Walker, with her crew, managed to get on board one of the merchantmen. This was in very little better state, and was only kept afloat by the additional hands at the pumps. When finally Walker arrived in town, he learned that his agents had allowed the insurance to lapse, and that he was a ruined man.

For the next year he was master of a vessel trading to the Baltic; but in 1744, when war broke out with France, he was offered the command of the Mars, a private ship of war of 26 guns, to cruise in company with another, the Boscawen, somewhat larger and belonging to the same owner. They sailed from Dartmouth in November, and on one of the first days of January 1744–5 fell in with two homeward-bound French ships of the line, which captured the Mars after the Boscawen had hurriedly deserted her. Walker was sent as a prisoner on board the Fleuron. On 6 Jan. the two ships and their prize were sighted by an English squadron of four ships of the line, which separated and drew off without bringing them to action [see Brett, John; Griffin, Thomas; Mostyn, Savage]. The Frenchmen, who were sickly, undermanned, and had a large amount of treasure on board, were jubilant and boastful; but they treated Walker with civility, and he was landed at Brest as a prisoner at large. Only the very next day the Fleuron accidentally, or rather by gross carelessness, was blown up, and a letter of credit which Walker had was lost. He was, however, able to get this arranged, and within a month was exchanged. On returning to England he was put in command of the Boscawen, and sent out in company with the Mars, which had been recaptured and bought by her former owners. The two cruised with but little success during the year, and, coming into the Channel in December, the Boscawen, a weakly built ship, iron-fastened, almost fell to pieces; and only by great exertions on the part of Walker was preserved to be run ashore on the coast of Cornwall. It was known in London that but for Walker's determined conduct the ship would have gone down in the open sea with all hands; and he was almost immediately offered a much more important command.

This was a squadron of four ships—King George, Prince Frederick, Duke, and Princess Amelia—known collectively as the ‘Royal Family,’ which carried in the aggregate 121 guns and 970 men. The prestige of this squadron was very high, for in the summer of 1745, off Louisbourg [see Warren, Sir Peter], it had made an enormously rich prize, which, after the owners' share of 700,000l. was deducted, had yielded 850l. to each seaman, and to the officers in proportion. The result was that far more men than were wanted now offered themselves, and the ships were consequently better manned than usual. After cruising for nearly a year, and having made prizes considerably exceeding 200,000l., the Royal Family put into Lisbon; and, sailing again in July 1747, had been watering in Lagos Bay, when on 6 Oct. a large ship was sighted standing in towards Cape St. Vincent. This was the Spanish 70-gun ship Glorioso, lately come from the Spanish Main with an enormous amount of treasure on board. The treasure, however, had been landed at Ferrol, and she was now on her way to Cadiz. Walker took for granted that she had treasure, and boldly attacked her in the King George, a frigate-built ship of 32 guns. Had the other members of the Royal Family been up, they might among them have managed the huge Spaniard; as it was, it spoke volumes for Spanish incompetence that in an action of several hours' duration, in smooth water and fine weather, the King George was not destroyed. She was, however, nearly beaten; but on the Prince Frederick's coming up, the Glorioso, catching the same breeze, fled to the westward, where she was met and engaged by the Dartmouth, a king's ship of 50 guns. The Dartmouth accidentally blew up, with the loss of every soul on board except one lieutenant; but some hours later the 80-gun ship Russell brought the Glorioso to action and succeeded in taking her. The Russell was only half manned, and was largely dependent on the privateers to take the prize into the Tagus. One of his owners, who had come to Lisbon, gave Walker ‘a very uncouth welcome for venturing their ship against a man-of-war.’ ‘Had the treasure,’ answered Walker, ‘been aboard, as I expected, your compliment had been otherways; or had we let her escape from us with that treasure on board, what had you then have said?’ The Royal Family continued cruising, with but moderate success—for the enemy's ships had been wiped off the sea—till the end of the war. Altogether, the prizes taken by the Royal Family under Walker's command were valued at about 400,000l.

After the peace Walker commanded a ship in the North Sea trade, but either lost or squandered the money he had made in the Royal Family. He got involved, too, in some dispute with the owners about the accounts, and was by them imprisoned for debt shortly after the outbreak of the seven years' war. How long he was kept a prisoner does not appear, but he had no active employment during the war. He died on 20 Sept. 1777.

[Voyages and Cruises of Commodore Walker during the late Spanish and French Wars (Dublin, 1762); Laughton's Studies in Naval History, p. 225.]

J. K. L.