William Clark Russell

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William Clark Russell from Who-When-What Book, 1900.

William Clark Russell (24 February 1844 – 8 November 1911) was an English writer best known for his nautical novels.

At the age of 13 Russell joined the United Kingdom's Merchant Navy, serving for eight years. The hardships of life at sea damaged his health permanently, but provided him with material for a career as a writer. He wrote short stories, press articles, historical essays, biographies and a book of verse, but was known best for his novels, most of which were about life at sea. He maintained a simultaneous career as a journalist, principally as a columnist on nautical subjects for The Daily Telegraph.

Russell campaigned for better conditions for merchant seamen, and his work influenced reforms approved by Parliament to prevent unscrupulous ship-owners from exploiting their crews. His influence in this respect was acknowledged by the future King George V. Among Russell's contemporary admirers were Herman Melville, Algernon Swinburne and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

Life and career[edit]

Early years[edit]

William Clark Russell was born in New York in the Carlton House Hotel, Broadway,[1] one of four sons of the English composer Henry Russell and his first wife, Isabella Lloyd (1811?–1887).[2] He was the half-brother of the impresario Henry Russell and the conductor Sir Landon Ronald.[3] He was educated at private schools in Britain (Winchester) and France (Boulogne). At the latter, together with a school friend, a son of Charles Dickens, he planned to quit school to travel in Africa. A letter from Dickens dissuaded the boys, but Russell continued to crave a life of adventure.[4]

At the age of 13 Russell left school and joined the United Kingdom's Merchant Navy.[4] During 1894 he recollected:

Russell as a midshipman.

My first ship was a well-known Australian liner, the Duncan Dunbar. ... I went to sea as a midshipman, as it is termed, though I never could persuade myself that a lad in the Merchant Service, no matter how heavy might be the premium his friends paid for him, has a right to a title of grade or rating that belongs essentially and peculiarly to the Royal Navy. I signed for a shilling a month, and with the rest of us (there were ten) was called young gentleman; but we were put to work which an able seaman would have been within his rights in refusing, as being what is called boys' duty. I need not be particular.

Enough that the discipline was as rough as though we had been lads in the forecastle, with a huge boatswain and brutal boatswain's mates to look after us. We paid ten guineas each as a contribution to some imagination of a stock of eatables for the midshipmen's berth; but my memory carries no more than a few tins of preserved potatoes, a great number of bottles of pickles, and a cask of exceedingly moist sugar. Therefore, we were thrown upon the ship's provisions, and I very soon became intimately acquainted with the quality and nature of the stores served out to forecastle hands.[5]

Russell travelled to Asia and Australia. Off the coast of China during 1860 he witnessed the capture of the Taku Forts by combined British and French forces.[1] Later, while he was serving on the ship Hougomont, the third mate went mad, and attacked him with a table-knife.[6] Russell began to write of some of his experiences when he was confined to his quarters for a breach of discipline.[4]

At the age of 21 Russell quit the Merchant Service.[n 1] The privations of his eight years as a sailor had gravely damaged his health, and he was never completely healthy again for the rest of his life. The positive legacy from his service was a wealth of material on which he based a successful career as a novelist.[4]


Russell had an office job with a commercial company for a few months, after which he decided to attempt a literary career. His first attempt was a five-act tragedy, Fra Angelico, which was staged unsuccessfully in London during 1866.[1] He began work as a journalist, and during the next two decades wrote for a variety of newspapers including The Newcastle Daily Chronicle, The Kent County News, and most importantly for him, The Daily Telegraph, for which he wrote articles using the pseudonym "Seafarer".[1][8] During 1868 he married Alexandrina Henry, with whom he had a son and three daughters.[1] From the early 1870s Russell published novels using pseudonyms (Sydney Mostyn and Eliza Rhyl Davies) with modest success.[1] The stories of an old seaman at Ramsgate gave him the idea of writing about life at sea, using on his own experience. An obituarist of Russell wrote that since the heyday of such writers as Captain Marryat, Michael Scott and Frederick Chamier some thirty or forty years before, "no one in this country had written of the sea from actual knowledge".[6]

Russell during 1894.

Russell was at first doubtful if stories of merchant navy life could compete with tales of the Royal Navy: "Only two writers had dealt with the mercantile side of the ocean life – Dana, the author of Two Years before the Mast and Herman Melville, both of them, it is needless to say, Americans. I could not recollect [such] a book written by an Englishman."[9] His first attempt at a novel of merchant navy life was "John Holdsworth, Chief Mate" during 1875, which Russell later thought of as "reluctant and timid in dealing with sea topics".[10] It received kindly reviews, but Russell regarded his next attempt, The Wreck of the Grosvenor (1877), as his first real sea book.[10]

Russell sold the copyright of The Wreck of the Grosvenor to the publisher Sampson Low for £50 (about £21,000 in 2011 terms).[11] During the next four years it sold nearly 35,000 copies.[12] Excellent reviews and good sales helped establish Russell's writing pattern.[13] The scholar John Sutherland wrote during 1989 that The Wreck of the Grosvenor was "the most popular mid-Victorian melodrama of adventure and heroism at sea."[14] It remained popular and widely read in illustrated editions well into the first half of the 20th century.[7] It was Russell's best-selling and best-known novel.[7] Russell noted in a preface, the novel "found its first and best welcome in the United States,"[14] and commented elsewhere that his work was greeted with more enthusiasm in the United States than in Britain.[15]

The biographer G S Woods lists among Russell's best sea novels "The Frozen Pirate" (1877), "A Sailor's Sweetheart" (1880), "An Ocean Tragedy" (1881), "The Death Ship" (1888), "List, ye Landsmen" (1894) and "Overdue" (1903). According to Woods, Russell wrote a total of 57 novels. Additionally, he published collections of short stories and newspaper articles; a volume of historical essays; popular biographies (William Dampier and Admirals Nelson and Collingwood); and a collection of verses.

Algernon Swinburne described Russell as "the greatest master of the sea, living or dead."[1] Herman Melville admired Russell's work, and dedicated his book John Marr and Other Sailors (1888) to him.[13] Russell reciprocated, dedicating An Ocean Tragedy to Melville during 1890.[16] Despite their mutual regard, neither writer influenced the other's style, and it is Melville's works that have proved the more enduring.[17] Arthur Conan Doyle made Dr. Watson an admirer in The Five Orange Pips in which he was "deep in one of Clark Russell's fine sea stories" while temporarily back in 221B Baker Street.

Particularly during later years, when arthritis made it difficult for him to hold a pen, Russell dictated his work to a secretary. According to The Manchester Guardian, "like most dictated work, these books have a rather inflated, rhetorical, literary manner." Despite this criticism, the paper concluded:

His books are well-proportioned. They are well thought out. His characters have all been 'seen'. Even his ships have character. No other sea writer, except perhaps Melville … has given such patient, inventive care to the setting in which his characters move. … He saw things so clearly that he could make them real in description. … In his best books and in his wonderful short stories he has set down the semblance of sea life and of the changing beauty of the waters as faithfully as such things can be done.[6]

According to Woods, "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."[13]

Russell's books are a favorite of Dr. John Watson, the fictional chronicler of Sherlock Holmes' cases, as mentioned in the short story "The Five Orange Pips" by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.


Woods writes that Russell's sea novels "stimulated public interest in the conditions under which sailors lived, and thereby paved the way for the reform of many abuses."[13] The year after Russell's death, Woods wrote:

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 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. 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.[13]

Later, Russell turned his attention to the deplorable provisions that unscrupulous ship-owners provided for merchant seamen on their vessels. "Nothing more atrociously nasty could be found amongst the neglected putrid sweepings of a butcher's back premises".[18]

Later years[edit]

During his last two decades Russell became progressively more disabled by arthritis, generally regarded as a legacy of his years at sea as a youth – "the sailor's enemy", as The Manchester Guardian stated.[6] He did not allow this to stop him writing; The Times commented, "He worked harder than many haler men."[4] He went to health resorts including Bath, Droitwich and Madeira,[4] and after living in Ramsgate and Deal on the south coast of England, he settled in Bath. He was bed-ridden for the last six months of his life.[4]

Russell died at his home in Bath at the age of 67,[4] and his remains are buried in Smallcombe Cemetery in Bath.[19]


Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ According to The New York Times he deserted,[7] but other sources including the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography say that he retired.[1]
  1. ^ a b c d e f g h Woods, G S, rev. Sayoni Basu "Russell, William Clark (1844–1911)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, October 2007, accessed 7 February 2013 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  2. ^ Lamb, Andrew, "Russell, Henry (1812?–1900)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, May 2011, accessed 7 February 2013] (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  3. ^ Holden, Raymond. "Ronald, Sir Landon (1873–1938)", Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edition, October 2008, accessed 6 February 2013 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Obituary – Mr. William Clark Russell", The Times, 9 November 1911, p. 11
  5. ^ Russell, pp. 31–32
  6. ^ a b c d "William Clark Russell", The Manchester Guardian, 9 November 1911, p. 5
  7. ^ a b c "Wm. Clark Russell, Sea Novelist, Author of Wreck of the Grosvenor and The Lady Maud Dies in London, Aged 67", The New York Times, 9 November 1911
  8. ^ "Russell, W. Clark", The Oxford Companion to Edwardian Fiction. Eds. Kemp, Sandra, Charlotte Mitchell and David Trotter. Oxford University Press, 1997, Oxford Reference, 2005, accessed 7 February 2013 (subscription required)
  9. ^ Russell, p. 33
  10. ^ a b Russell, p. 29
  11. ^ Officer, Lawrence H, and Samuel H Wilkinson. "Commodity – Labour Value" MeasuringWorth, accessed 8 February 2013
  12. ^ Russell, p. 39
  13. ^ a b c d e Woods, G S. "Russell, William Clark (1844–1911)", Dictionary of National Biography archive, 1912, online edition, October 2007, accessed 7 February 2013 (subscription or UK public library membership required)
  14. ^ a b Sutherland, p. 681
  15. ^ Russell, p. 38
  16. ^ Gale, p. 397
  17. ^ Madison, p. 290
  18. ^ Russell, p. 34
  19. ^ http://media.wix.com/ugd/835853_fd13a8178bb942e2a64eb64f3e0fb537.pdf Accessed 10 July 2014.


  • Gale, Robert L (1995). A Herman Melville Encyclopedia. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press. ISBN 0313290113. 
  • Madison, R D (2006). "Literature of Exploration and the Sea". In Wyn Kelley. A Companion to Herman Melville. Oxford: Blackwell. ISBN 1405122315. 
  • Russell, William Clarke (1894). "The Wreck of the Grosvenor". In Jerome K. Jerome; et al. My First Book. London: Chatto and Windus. OCLC 5238745. 
  • Sutherland, John (1989). The Stanford Companion to Victorian Literature. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press. ISBN 0804715289. 

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