The main sources for this article are an Introduction, written by David Hannay, to the 1895 Macmillan edition of “Japhet, in Search of a Father”, and an article on the Internet by a Naval Historian, Mike Phillips, in which you can find much more detail of the Naval career of Marryat than I have put here.
Frederick Marryat was born in Great George Street, Westminster, London on 10th July 1792. His father, Joseph Marryat, was descended from Huguenots who had taken refuge in England following the St. Bartholemew’s Day massacres in 1572, two centuries previously, and his mother was an American from Boston, with the maiden name of Geyer. Frederick’s grandfather was Dr. Thomas Marryat, an extremely eccentric physician, who had died, impoverished, in Bristol just before Frederick’s birth.
Frederick’s father Joseph, however, was very wealthy, partly by inheritance and marriage, and partly by his own endeavours. He was a Member of Parliament for Sandwich, the Chairman of Lloyd’s, and Agent for Grenada in the West Indies. They lived in Wimbledon, and sent their second son – Frederick – to Mr. Freeman’s private school at Ponders End, now a district of North London.
Frederick was very interested in the sea, and tried several times to run away to it. He relates in “The King’s Own” how impresssed he was with Nelson’s State funeral in 1806. In September of that year he joined the frigate Impérieuse, 38 guns, as a midshipman, where Lord Cochrane, later Earl of Dundonald, was Captain. During his time in Impérieuse the young Marryat saw a great deal of action, which is told more fully in the article by Mike Phillips. This period ended with an attack led by Lord Chatham on Antwerp which failed; Marryat caught a malarial fever from the marsh air, which affected his lungs, and which subsequently was to make him seriously ill on a number of occasions.
After three years with Lord Cochrane he served for a year in Centaur, 74 guns, the flagship of Sir Samuel Hood. After that he served in Aeolus, 32 guns, Captain Lord James Townsend, in the West Indies. On 30th Sept 1811 a severe gale from the S.E., when she was 300 miles out in the Atlantic, blew her on her beam ends, and carried away her topmasts and mizenmast. It was necessary to cut away the mainyard in order to save the mainmast. A volunteer was needed for this dangerous task: Marryat put himself forward and managed to complete this extremely dangerous work: he was mentioned in the subsequent correspondence with the Admiralty.
During the early part of his naval career, Marryat distinguished himself five times by jumping into the sea to save the lives of seamen who had fallen overboard. Only one of these was not successful.
On 17th November 1811 he was posted to the Spartan, a frigate commanded by Captain Edward Brenton, where he took part in several successful actions against the Americans, during which time nine enemy vessels were captured. He was sent back to England with the captured sloop Indian, and was promoted to Lieutenant on 26th December 1812.
Appointed to the Espiègle sloop, captain John Taylor, they sailed on 22nd January 1813 for the West Indies. Taylor was court martialled a year later for oppressive behaviour towards his officers and men, and also brought to account for failure to support a British ship which had been attacked and destroyed by the American sloop Hornet on 24th February 1813.
In January 1814 he joined Newcastle, under Captain Lord George Stuart, and had several further successful actions against the Americans. He left the ship in February 1815 and returned to England on sick leave. He was promoted Commander on 13th June 1815.
The American war having ended, Marryat worked on Sir Home Popham’s recently devised system of flag signals for Merchant Vessels, and greatly expanded and improved it. His system, known as the International Code of Signals, is in use to the present day. A set of flags consists of 26 alphabetic flags, 10 numeric flags, 3 “substitute” flags and a special flag called the Code Flag. Urgent messages consist of one alphabetic flag only, such as P, the Blue Peter, meaning “I am about to leave harbour, all hands to repair on board immediately.” There are also two-letter signals, not quite so urgent as the one-letter ones: there will be 26x26 or 676 of these. Much more nuance can be conveyed by the three-letter signals, and the difficulty which Marryat solved is to know which signal is appropriate. Decoding is merely a matter of looking up the signal the other vessel is showing. The Code Book tells you what signal is appropriate for the message you wish to send, and it is the clever devising of the Code Book that was the big step forward. On account of this work Marryat was given membership of the Royal Society in 1817 and made a member of the French Legion d’Honneur in 1833.
In 1818 he invented a Lifeboat, for which he received the Gold Medal of the Royal Humane Society.
About this time he wrote articles suggesting that the Navy could find a better way than impressment for recruiting its men, but these were badly received.
In January 1819 he married Catharine, second daughter of Sir Stephen Shairp, for many years Consul-General in Russia. They had four sons and seven daughters, but three of the sons died before Frederick did, and the last one died young in 1855.
In June 1820 he as appointed to command the Beaver sloop, and had the duty of patrolling off St. Helena, where Napoleon was imprisoned. When the ex-Emperor died, Marryat swapped commands with another captain and transferred to Rosario, bringing the despatch home. He then spent a successful year in Rosario combatting smugglers in the English Channel.
On 23rd March 1823 he was appointed to Larne, 20 guns, 6th rate, and sailed for Port Cornwallis in the Andamans for a punitive war against the Burmese, who had attacked the Hon. East India Company. Proceeding 28 miles up the River Irrawaddy, he reached Rangoon, silencing the gun batteries they encountered on the way. Astutely the Burmese realised there was no need for them to counter-attack, and simply waited until disease had decimated the British crews. Larne had only 27 men left when they retreated to Penang to recuperate, and in total 750 men of the original European force of 2250 had died.
In April 1824 he was appointed Captain of Tees, 28 guns, and was confirmed in the post rank of Captain by the Admiralty in July. Soon after he was awarded the Companion of the Bath, a very curiously named, but very highly regarded, British Honour.
He returned to England early in 1826 and was appointed to command the frigate Ariadne, undertaking “particular” duties in the Atlantic. This included looking extensively for an imaginary island that had been reported by the captain of a merchant vessel. Marryat was rather annoyed at the waste of effort in this task, which may have had something to do with his decision to leave the Navy.
He resigned from the Navy on the grounds of “private affairs” in 1830. He had already completed the manuscript of “The King’s Own,” and he now wrote and published “The Naval Officer, or Scenes and Adventures in the Life of Frank Mildmay,” for which he was well paid, and which launched his literary career.
In 1830 he exchanged Sussex House, Hammersmith, for a property of a thousand acres at Langham near Blakeney in North Norfolk. This property was an expensive one to maintain, but he retained it till his death, and was buried just near the west door of Langham church.
Marryat enjoyed an expensive style of life, travelling between London, Brighton – the centre of Regency Buck Society – and Langham. He also stayed for a year or so in Brussels, and travelled extensively in America during 1837-38. He finally settled at Langham in 1843, where he died on 8th August 1848.
His books with their publication dates were:—
- 1829: The Naval Officer, or Scenes and Adventures in the Life of Frank Mildmay;
- 1830: The King’s Own;
- 1832: Newton Forster;
- 1834: Peter Simple;
- 1834: Jacob Faithful;
- 1835: The Pacha of Many Tales;
- 1836: Mr. Midshipman Easy;
- 1836: Japhet, in Search of a Father;
- 1836: The Pirate;
- 1836: The Three Cutters;
- 1837: Snarley-yow;
- 1838: Rattlin the Reefer (originally draft by Edward Howard, and edited by Marryat);
- 1839: The Phantom Ship;
- 1839: Diary in America, Series I;
- 1839: Diary in America, Series II;
- 1840: Olla Podrida (short stories and articles);
- 1840: Poor Jack;
- 1841: Masterman Ready;
- 1841: The Poacher;
- 1842: Percival Keene;
- 1843: Monsieur Violet;
- 1844: The Settlers in Canada;
- 1845: The Mission;
- 1846: The Privateersman;
- 1847: The Children of the New Forest;
- 1848: The Little Savage (completed and published after his death);
- 1848: Valerie (completed and published after his death).