THE materials from which the greater part of the following Memoir has been drawn, were first presented to the public in the Royal and Imperial Octavo edition of The Shipwreck, 1804 edited by J.S. Clarke, F.R.S. Vicar of Preston; Chaplain of the Household to the Prince; and author of "The Progress of Maritime Discoverey, &c." "I had long sought in vain," says Mr. Clarke, "to procure any authentic materials, however scanty, for a Biographical Memoir of poor Falconer, when I fortunately met a shipmate of his, Governor Hunter, at the house of John M'Arthur, Esq. of York-Place, a literary and naval character of considerable eminence. With the natural cordiality of a seaman, the Governor communicated to me all the information he could remember, and this was also increased by frequent conversations which I enjoyed with that gallant veteran his brother, Lieutenant Hunter of Greenwich Hospital: but for these gentlemen, the little that has survived respecting Falconer, would have perished; and even this, owing to the years that have elapsed since the loss of the Aurora frigate, in which he perished, must necessarily be scanty."

Mr. William Falconer was born about the year 1730, and was the son of a poor but industrious barber at Edinburgh; who like Fielding's celebrated Partridge, possessed considerable talents and humour, and maintained a large family by his industry. It is remarkable that all his children, with the sole exception of William, were either deaf or dumb: Falconer himself mentioned this singular circumstance to Captain Hunter, when they were shipmates together; and, "I had afterwards," adds that officer, "an opportunity of being convinced of its truth; when, long after the commencement of my acquaintance with him, I met two of his family labouring under their infirmities in the Poor-house at Edinburgh, where they continued until their death."

Poverty in Scotland is never depressed by ignorance, or a want of religious principles: Falconer, therefore, though poor, had a proper bias given to his mind, from the first dawn of its intellectual powers; and it was this bias, impelled by the energy of his genius, which enabled him, without any further education, than what is acquired at the public schooles established in every parish in that country, to reach the goal of literary fame.

At an early age, he entered on board a merchant vessel at Leith, and therein served his apprenticeship; we soon afterwards find him on board a man of war in the situation of a servant to Campbell, the well-known author of Lexiphanes, and a purser in the navy. This officer, according to Dr. Currie, the ingenious Editor of Burns' works, delighted in improving the mind of our young seamen; and afterwards, when he had attained celebrity, this early patron felt a pride in boasting of his scholar. Under such a kind master, and able critic, he, no doubt, profited considerably; and probably acquired that turn for satire, which he afterwards displayed in some of his poetical pieces. He began to exercise his genious at an early age, and published, at Edinburgh, "A Poem, sacred to the memory of Frederick Prince of Wales," 8vo. 1751; and although the confined nature of this loyal effusion offered him but little opportunity of displaying his descriptive and imaginary powers, yet there was that harmonious versification in it, which gave sufficient demonstration of a rising genious. But it is justly remarked, that the complimentary efforts of inexperienced and obscure bards are seldom noticed; and such, we believe, was the fate of this poem: however, at the recommendation of some kind friend, probably his old master, Campbell, he was promoted to the quarter-deck about 1757, yet still continued to struggle with the hardships of his profession; and it appears his difficulties were likewise attended with misfortunes; as it is recorded in the 5th volume of the Naval Chronicle, under the biographical memoir of Commodore Locker, that Falconer, while serving as midshipman on board the Ramillies, with Captain Taylor, was wrecked in that ship on the 15th of February, 1760. On the 5th of February, Admiral Boscawen, in the Royal William, sailed from Plymouth Sound with six sail of the line, to take the command of the leet in Quiberon-Bay. The wind soon after shifted to the westward, and increased to a violent gale, which dispersed the squadron. The Ramillies was so much shattered, that Captain Taylor bore away for Plymouth; on the 15th, it being extremely thick and hazy, in coming up the Channel, he discovered the Bolt-head, but mistaking it for the Ram-head, stood on until the ship was so entangeled with the shore, that it was impossible to weather it. Captain Taylor ordered the masts to be cut away, and came to an anchor; but the storm raged with such fury, that the cables parted; the ship was in consequence driven among the breakers, and dashed to pieces. Out of 734 men, twenty-five only of the crew and Falconer the midshipman were saved, by jumping from the stern to the rocks. In some lines, afterwards addressed to his patron the Duke of York, he styles himself, "a hapless youth, whose vital page was one sad lengthened tale of woe." It appears he occasionally relieved and strengthened his mind by literary occupation, and contributed several fugitive pieces to the Gentleman's Magazine; among others, lines On the uncommon Scarcity of Poetry in that Publication, signed J.W. A Sailor, March, 1756; The Chaplain's Petition to the Lieutenants of the Ward-Room, 1758; and Verses addressed to a Lady, dated, Ramillies, in the Bay of Biscay, Nov. 25th, 1758. The Description of a Ninety-gun Ship, 1759; and The Loss of the Ramillies, 1760. He also wrote The Midshipman, an excellent little Poem, descriptive of the abode and sentiments of that class of officers; which name it has since lost in the more technical one of Orlop, or the deck immediately over the hold, where, far removed from the light of day, and at a considerable distance below the surface of the water, the cabin or births of the midshipmen are placed.

"In canvassed birth, profoundly deep in thought,
His busy mind with Sines and Tangents fraught,
A Mid reclines! — in calculation lost!
His efforts still by some intruder crost:
"But think not meanly of this humble seat,
Whence sprung the Guardians of The British Fleet:
Revere the sacred spot, however low,
Which formed to martial acts — an Hawke! an Howe!*

The well-known song of Cease, Rude Boreas; and several other old sea-songs, written about that time, are with great probability also ascribed to his pen.

Soon after being wrecked in the Ramillies, it appears Falconer left the Royal Navy, and again entered the merchant-service, as mate on board the Britannia, a ship employed in the Levant trade, in which he also was wrecked, near Cape Colonna; from this melancholy event our poet afterwards drew the outline and characters of one of the finest poems in our language, entitled, "The Shipwreck, in three Cantos by a Sailor," 4to. published by Millar, in 1762, in which he feelingly described the dangers he actually experienced. This work he inscribed tp Edward Duke of York, brother to his present Majesty; who then had hoisted his flag as Rear-admiral of the Blue, on board the Princess Amelia, of 80 guns, attached to the fleet under Sir Edward Hawke. For the illustration of several passages in it, Falconer very judiciously prefixed a chart of the ship's way, and a section of the ship itself. To arrest the attention of his reader, and to render his poem doubly interesting, his well-chosen motto,

"........ Quæ ipse miserrima vidi,
Et quorum pars magna fui."

declares it to be a tale of facts, not fiction, for that he himself had not only witnessed, but had been a chief sharer in those misfortunes. "The main subject of the poem is the loss of the ship Britannia, a merchantman, bound from Alexandria to Venice, which touched at the Island of Candia; whence, proceeding on her voyage, she met with a violent storm that drove her on the coast of Greece, where she suffered shipwreck near Cape Colonna; and three only of the crew, were saved.

"The ship putting to sea from the port of Candia, the poet takes an opportunity of making several beautiful marine descriptions; such as the prospect of the shore; a shoal of dolphins; a water-spout; the method of taking an azimuth; and of working the ship.

"In the second Canto, the ship having cleared the land, the storm begins; and with it the consultation of the pilots, and operation of the seamen; all which the poet has described with an amazing minuteness, and has found means to reduce the several technical terms of the marine into smooth and harmonious numbers: so that if Homer has been admired by some for reducing a catalogue of ships into tolerable flowing verse, what praise must be due to Falconer, who has versified his own sea-language with equal skill and propriety?

"Nor is the poet's talents confined to the description of inanimate scenes: he relates, and bewails, the untimely fate of his companions in the most animated and pathetic strains. The close of the master's address to the seamen, in the time of their greatest danger, is noble and philosophical. It is impossible to read the circumstantial account of the unfortunate end of the ship's crew, without being deeply affected by the tale, and charmed with the manner of the relation."* The novelty and interest of this poem not only procured a favourable reception from the public, but established the author's fame as a poet. Its versification is varied and melodious; its description, being drawn from reality, strong, glowing, and often original; and the characters so well chosen and pourtrayed, that, though remote the scene, it is pregnant with domestic sorrow.

The poem of The Shipwreck is of inestimable value to this country, since it contains within itself the rudiments of navigation: if not sufficient to form a complete seaman, it may certainly be considered as the grammar of his professional science. Many experienced officers have declared, that the rules and maxims delivered in this poem, for the conduct of a ship in the most perilous emergency, form the best, indeed the only, opinions which a skilful mariner should adopt. We possess, therefore, a poem, not only eminent for its sublimity and pathos, but for an harmonious poetic assemblage of technical terms and maxims used in navigation, which a young sailor may easily commit to memory; and also, with these, such scientific principles as will enable him to lay a solid foundation for his future professional skill and judgment.

The Royal Duke, anxious to honour Falconer with some mark if his favour, recommended him to quit the merchant service again for the royal navy, where he might be able to serve him: accordingly, before the summer had elapsed, he was rated a midshipman on board Sir Edward Hawke's ship, the Royal George. In this ship Governor Hunter, then a midshipman, commenced an acquaintance with Falconer, which continued until his death: being both of them from the same part of Scotland, their friendship and intimacy soon increased. At the peace of 1763, the Royal George was paid off, when Falconer was introduced to the gallant brother of his friend, Mr. William Hunter, then midshipman on board the Sutherland. Previous to the peace, the Duke of York had embarked on board the Centurion, with Commodore Harrison, for the Mediterranean; on which occasion Falconer published an ode, entitled, On the Duke of York's Second Departure from England as Rear-Admiral. As Falconer had not completed that time of service which is necessary to qualify a midshipman for a lieutenant's commission, his friends advised him to exchange the military, for the civil line in the royal navy; and, accordingly, in the course of the said year 1763, he, through the interest of his parton, was appointed purser of the Glory frigate, 32 guns, afterwards called the Apollo. About this time it is supposed he wrote The Fond Lover, a ballad, inserted in the edition of the "British Poets," 1790; and an Address to Miranda, a ballad, first published in Dr. Stuart's "Edinburgh Magazine and Review," for 1773. He soon after this married a young lady of the name of Hicks, daughter of the surgeon of Sheerness yard. Mrs. Falconer is said to have displayed keen abilities; and that it was the lustre of her mind, rather than of her person, which attracted and confirmed the affection of her husband. In 1764 he published a new edition of The Shipwreck, in 8vo. with considerable additions, comprehending several new descriptions, characters, and episodes, amounting in the whole to upwards of a thousand lines.

The the following year he enlisted in the field of political controversy; and bing by gratitude, as well as principle, attached to the party of the King's friends, he wrote a satyrical poem, entitled "The Demagogue," in which Mr. Pitt, afterwards Earl of Chatham, Wilkes, Churchill, and the opposition in general, were treated with great severity. The sentiments are, for the most part noble and manly, the satire poignantly severe, the expression strong and nervous; but the tendency of the poem cannot be commended, and the obloquy thrown on Mr. Pitt is totally inexcusable.

Falconer's principal amusement seems always to have consisted in literary pursuits; and when the Glory was laid up in ordinary at Chatham, Commissioner Hanway, brother of the celebrated John Hanway, became delighted with the genius of her purser. The captain's cabin was ordered to be fitted up with a stove, and with every addition of comfort that could be procured; in order that Falconer might thus be enabled to enjoy his favourite propensity, without either molestation or expense. In his retirement he finished his celebrated Universal Dictionary of the Marine, 4to; a work that had engaged his utmost application for some years, and to which most of our modern Cyclopædias have been indebted. This alone would have immortalized his name had not his poetical reputation stood foremost. The undertaking was first suggested to him by George Lewis Scott, Esq. and its great utility was acknowledged by Sir Edward Hawke, and other professional men in the navy. In a letter which Falconer received from the celebrated Du Hamel, his opinion of it was thus decidedly given: Ce livre manquoit absolument; celui qui a été imprimé en Hollande, et qui a eu un débit considérable, est très-imparfait; celui de M. Saverien est encore plus mauvais. The death of the gallant Duke of York at Monacoa, on the 17th of September, 1767, though felt by all the nation, was more particularly a severe loss to Falconer, whose welfare, owing to the melancholy event, became again precarious. His literary fame, however, was now established; some few friends, among whom the Hunters took the lead, still remained; and he accordingly endeavoured to dry the tear, which the memory of his royal patron frequently called forth, by indulging in the vision of hope that was still prolonged: nor did Providence in this emergency forsake him. From the Glory, Falconer was appointed to the Swiftsure,* at the close of that year.

Soon after this he was involved in difficulties, which obliged him to take up his residence in the metropolis, where he is supposed to have stuggled for a short time against the res angustæ domus. Among other resourses he is said to have derived some small emolument from writing in the Critical Review and other periodical publications; and in October, 1768, he receibed proposals from the late Mr. John Murray, of Fleet-street, to admit him as a partner in the line of business which that respectable bookseller afterwards established. This, however, does not appear to have been accepted by Falconer, who, most probably, had then some prospect of being again employed on his own element.

The Marine Dictionary was not finally printed till the beginning of 1769; although it appears to have been compiled during his naval retreat at Chatham. Immediately after it was published, he was appointed purser to the Aurora, Captain Lee, when a third edition of The Shipwreck was loudly called for: considerable improvements and additions had been made to it by Falconer; but Mr. Clarke is induced to think, that amidst the agitation of his mind on being appointed purser to that frigate, which was then ordered to carry out to India Henry Vansittart, Esq. Luke Scrofton, Esq. and Colonel F. Forde, officers in the Honourable East India Company's services; that Falconer, who also had the promise of being their private secretary, from the joy of obtaining so lucrative a situation, neglected this edition, and left the last alterations to some friend, as the inferiority of many passages is strikingly evident. Mr. Clarke, however, has endeavoured, with the assistance of the first and second editions, to make the author correct himself, and has thus restored the purity of the original text, which had become strangely impaired. The joy which this appointment gave to the friends of Falconer may easily be imagined; but this, alas! was of short duration: the Aurora sailed from England on the 30th of September, 1769: after touching at the Cape of Good Hope, which she left on the 27th of December following, was lost during the course of the voyage. Thus perished poor Falconer in the bosom of the waves, the occasional fury of which, and consequent disasters, he has so forcibly and elegantly described: thus leaving behind him a work to perpetuate his name, more durable, and far more honourable, than any monument which the artist's hand could erect: a work which affords ample proof of nautical ability, as well a poetical talents. In an interesting little work, entitled, "The Journal of Penrose, a Seaman;" written in 1755, and published by Murray, in 1815, is the following tribute to Falconer's early poetical abilities:— "How often," says hem "have I wished to have the associate of my youth, Bill Falconer, with me, to explore these beauties, and to record them in his sweet poetry; but, alas! I parted with him in Old England, never, perhaps, to meet more in this world. His may be a happier lot. Led by a gentler star, he may pass through this busy scene with more ease and tranquillity than has been the portion of his humble friend Penrose."*

It appears Captain Lee, though a stranger to the navigation of the Mosambique Channel, would not be dissuaded from attempting it; which so much displeased Mr. Vansittart, that if an outward-bound East Indiaman had been at the Cape, it is said he would have quitted the Aurora.†

To this may be added, that, on the 19th of November, 1773, a Black was examined before the East India Directors, who affirmed, "that he was one of five persons who had been saved from the wreck of the Aurora; that the said frigate had been cast away on a reef of rocks off Mocoa; and that he was two years upon an island after he had escaped; and was at length miraculously preserved by a country ship happening to touch at that island."

Such are the principal events respecting Falconer, which the Editor has been able to collect. In his person he was about five feet seven inches in height; of a thin light make, with a dark weather-beaten complexion, and rather what is termed hard-featured, being considerably marked with the small-pox: his hair was of a brownish hue. In point of address, his manner was blunt, awkward, and forbidding; but he spoke with great fluency. Though Falconer possessed a warm and friendly disposition, he was fond of controversy, and inclined to satire. In his natural temper he was cheerful, and frequently used to amuse his messmates by composing acrostics on their favourites; in which he particularly excelled. As a professional man, he was a thorough seaman; and like most of that profession, was kind, generous and benevolent. He often assured Governor Hunter, that his education had been confined merely to reading English, writing, arithmetic, and a little Latin; but notwithstanding, he had by industry and perseverance acquired a tolerable knowledge of most of the modern languages.

* Captain Howe commanded the Alcide, in 1755, in a memorable action with the Lys. he also led the van in the Magnanime, 1757, under Admiral Knowles, in the attack on Aix; was afterwards created Earl Howe, and made First Lord of the Admiralty.

Montly Review, vol. XXVII. p. 197.

* Governor Hunter was doubtful whether it was the Swiftsure, or the Warspight; but from MSS. which Mr. Clarke had seen, he prefers the former ship.

* Penrose's Journal, vol. ii. p. 94.

† Gentleman's Magazine, vol. XLI, p. 237.

Burney, William: A New Universal Dictionary of the Marine, being, a copious Explanation of the Technical terms and Phrases usually Employed in the Construction, Equipment, Machinery, Movements, and Military as well as Naval, Operations of Ships: with such parts of Astronomy, and Navigation, as will be Useful to Practical Navigators. Illustrated with a Variety of Modern Designs of Shipping, etc. together with separate views of the Masts, Yards, Sails, and Rigging. To which is annexed, A Vocabulary of French Sea-phrases and Terms of Art, Collected from the Best Authorities. Originally Compiled by William Falconer, Author of the Shipwreck, &c. Now Modernized and much Enlarged, by William Burney, LL.D. Master of the Naval Academy, Gosport.
T. Caldell & W. Davies, London, 1815. p xi-xv.

Updated 2002-06-08 by Lars Bruzelius.

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