Marryat entered the Navy in September 1806, in the Imperieuse commanded by Captain Lord Cochrane. His service as a midshipman in this vessel was to be exciting, cutting out coasting vessels and privateers, storming batteries and taking part in the controversial attack on the French fleet in the Basque Roads, near Rochefort in 1809.
Marryat’s experiences were later the basis of his sea novels – a form he largely invented – and the dashing Cochrane was model for Captain Savage of the Diomede in Peter Simple.
On 30 September 1811 Cochrane commended Marryat for his extreme daring, leading the way aloft during a terrible gale, and during his service Marryat saved an extraordinary number of men from drowning by jumping into the sea to rescue them. As a result, in 1821, he was awarded the gold medal of the Royal Humane Society for his gallantry in saving life at sea.
Find out more about Lord Cochrane, whose naval career was one of the most extraordinary and controversial of the 19th century.
Continuing naval career: lieutenant to captain
Marryat became a lieutenant on 26 December 1812. He served in the West Indies and North America in the brief Anglo-American war of 1812–14, first in the sloop Espiègle and later in the Newcastle, sharing in the capture of several enemy merchant ships and privateers.
Promoted commander on 13 June 1815, he was captain of the sloop Beaver at St. Helena in 1820–21 at the time of Napoleon’s death in exile there, and drew the Emperor’s body on his deathbed. (His sketch is in the Museum.).
In 1819, Marryat was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society for his work on adapting Sir Home Popham’s flag signalling system for use by merchant shipping. Known as the ‘Marryat code’, it was used for many years. (An earlier signalling book of a different system was a previous item of the month.)
In March 1823 Marryat took command of the Larne, serving in the First Burma War. In 1824 he was senior naval officer at Rangoon and in 1825 was naval commander of a river expedition that captured Bassein. Promoted captain that year he returned to England in 1826 in command of the Tees, and was made a Companion of the Bath for his Burma service. His last command was of the Ariadne until 1830.
Literary career and later life
Marryat then left the Navy to pursue a literary career, already well begun with his highly successful naval novel Frank Mildmay in 1829. Thereafter he produced a stream of these and was also a journalist and editor of the Metropolitan Magazine, 1832–35.
While in London his private life was extravagant. On one after-dinner occasion, he swapped his own home, Sussex House, Hampstead, for a much more modest country property at Langham in Norfolk, which, remarkably, he had never seen. Marryat’s lavish lifestyle and entertaining eventually ran through the fortune he earned.
In the early 1840s the breakdown of his marriage and the rise to fame of his friend Charles Dickens coincided with the exhaustion of his resources of naval fiction. Always fond of children, including his own, he changed to writing for them and his Children of the New Forest (1847) is the only one of his novels still very well known and regularly reprinted. Like all his later work it was written at Langham, where he lived and farmed in more modest circumstances, from 1843 to his death.
Marryat’s biography was written by his daughter Florence Marryat (1872), after which she followed his instructions to destroy his papers. The group in the Museum are among few that survive.
We also have portraits of him; in oil of about 1830 by E. Dixon (BHC2851), an anonymous drawing (PAD3579) and one of 1841 from the ‘Drawings of Men about Town’ series by his friend, Count Alfred D’Orsay (PAG6839).
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