John McArthur Seaman & Author (1755 – 1840)

Family Background

The details of John McArthur’s family background are somewhat sketchy, but a good deal is known about his career. He is thought to have been born in 1755, son of Alexander McArthur, merchant, of Greenock and his wife Mary McDonald of Skye. His paternal grandparents were John McArthur of Inverglen in Strachur, Argyll and Mary McNeil (1). If "Burke's Colonial Gentry" can be believed, his grandfather, a son of John McArthur of Strachur, fought at the Battle of Culloden in 1746. Our subject was described in this work as "Macarthur of Hinton(2)." There certainly were several John McArthurs in the Jacobite army, but none listed as being from Strachur(3).

Although John’s baptism has not been traced, the baptisms of five brothers and one sister appear in the Parish Registers of the Middle or New Parish of Greenock, as follows:

Mary, 29 November 1759; Alexander, 4 September 1761; Alexander, 13 June 1763; Andrew Donald, 24 December 1765; James, 26 August 1767; Archibald, 30 October 1768(4). Probably the first Alexander died as an infant.

A new church building in the classical style, which became known as the Mid Kirk, opened its doors in 1761, with a fine portico and, eventually, a steeple, although this was not completed until 1787. The seating plan was designed by the father of James Watt, the famous engineer(5). John, since he was supposedly born in 1755, may well have been the eldest of the family, perhaps having been born elsewhere, before the family moved to Greenock. Judging by his later career, John had received a good education and so may have attended Greenock Grammar School, which had a good reputation and was where James Watt had been educated.


He enlisted in the Navy in 1778, during the American War of Independence, and served firstly as an assistant clerk on HMS Eagle, the 64 gun flagship of Admiral Howe (1726-1799), who was Commander-in-Chief in North America. He soon moved to the "Rattlesnake," a cutter of 12 guns, and on 14 March 1779 he showed great gallantry in an encounter off Le Havre, when be boarded a French privateer. For this, he received promotion to Purser on 22 March. The Purser was, at that period, an officer responsible for the supply and distribution of food and clothes to the ship’s crew. Another engagement in November saw the capture of a Spanish frigate "Santa Margarita" by the "Tartar" and the "Rattlesnake." This resulted in McArthur's appointment as Purser of the captured ship when it was commissioned in the Royal Navy.

McArthur was often responsible for observing signals during the American War of Independence and was struck by the inadequacies of the system in use. This led him to produce a revised signal book which was issued in 1782 and tested out for a three month period by a small cruiser squadron. Eventually, in 1790, he submitted a new code of signals to the Admiralty and Lord Hood (1762-1814), a member of the Admiralty board, appointed McArthur as his Secretary in the Russian armament of 1791. Lord Hood, as Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, was accompanied by McArthur as Secretary in 1793, in which year he was also appointed Purser of HMS Victory. At this time, McArthur delegated the duties of the latter post to a deputy. This was due to the fact that he was taken up with administrative duties resulting from the occupation of Toulon, requiring correspondence in English, Spanish and Italian, acting as interpreter for Hood and undertaking duties of a commissary-general. McArthur also operated as a prize agent, profiting from ships captured from the enemy and one of his critics claimed that through excessive charges he had made £13,000 following the occupation of Toulon.

After Hood's return to England in 1794, McArthur returned to the Mediterranean purely as Purser of the Victory. About 1795 he became secretary to Sir Hyde Parker (1739-1807) and returned to England in 1796.

He was again Purser of the Victory from 1803-1804 and Lord Nelson (1758-1805), whom he had first met in 1782, offered him the post of Secretary with him in the Mediterranean in 1803. McArthur did not accept, being too concerned at that time with the submission of Lord Hood’s accounts to the auditors. By this point in his career he was becoming more involved in his activities as an author.


His literary career had begun at a fairly early age and his important work on signals was produced in 1782. The other two major works were firstly "A treatise of the principles and practice of naval courts-martial" published in 1792, which reappeared as "Principles and practice of naval and military courts-martial" in 1805 and established itself as a standard work. Secondly, there was his "The life of Admiral Lord Nelson" written jointly with James Stanier Clarke and published in 1809. This two volume work was one of the major early biographies of Nelson, but contained many inaccuracies and always tended to present its subject in a very favourable light.

Before this, on 22 July 1806, the degree of LLD had been conferred on McArthur by the University of Edinburgh and in the following year, as a member of a committee of the Highland Society of London, he was involved in overseeing the publication of the poems of Ossian in Gaelic.

John had the following arms registered at the Court of the Lord Lyon on 14 January 1797:
Arms: Azure a cross anchoree argent, between three antique crowns or.
Crest: Two branches of laurel placed in orle proper.
Motto: Fide et opera.(1)

In later years he lived at Hayfield, Hampshire, dying there on 29 July 1840, his remaining family being his widow and a daughter, Mrs. Conway. There is a memorial to him in the Church of St Thomas a Becket, Warblington, Hampshire(7).


Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, except as otherwise referenced.
(1) Public Register of Arms - The Court of the Lord Lyon.
(2)A Genealogical and Heraldic History of the Colonial Gentry - Sir Bernard Burke. London: Heraldry Today, 1970. Originally published 1891-1895. Page 224.
(3)No Quarter Given: The Muster Roll of Prince Charles Edward Stuart’s Army, 1745-46 - Editors Alastair Livingstone, Christian W.H. Aikman, and Betty Stuart Hart. [3rd ed.] Glasgow: Neil Wilson, 2001.
(4)Parish register entries in International Genealogical Index.
(5)Monteith, Joy and Anderson, Matt. Greenock from old photographs. Greenock : Inverclyde District Libraries, 1980. p. 24.
(6) Knight, Roger. The pursuit of victory : the life and achievement of Horatio Nelson. London : Allen Lane, 2005. p. 652.
(7)Country churches ; 74. St Thomas a Becket, Warblington. St George’s news, Christmas & New Year 2003/4. Retrieved August 10, 2005, from

Article courtesy of: Graham S. Holton

Trafalgar Ancestors

Further information on who served with Nelson is available online from
The web site pages list details of several Arthur, Carter and McArthur, sailors including which ships they served on.