William Clark Russell, though of English parentage, was born in New York City on February 24, 1844. His father, Henry Russell, a well-known singer and composer of popular songs, was playing in the United States at the time. Russell’s mother, Isabella Lloyd Russell, was a distant relative of William Wordsworth and herself an amateur poet.
Russell spent adolescence and early adulthood, until 1865, under the hardship and privation of the British merchant marine, which undermined his health in later life but gave him an immense quantity of material about which to write. Prior to his sea service, he was educated at Winchester School, in England, and abroad. Upon retiring from the sea at twenty-two, he worked for several British newspapers, including the Newcastle Daily Chronicle and the London Daily Telegraph, contributing to the latter until 1889 under the pseudonym Seafarer.
When Russell began writing in 1874, he intended to pursue a career as a popular novelist, and during the remainder of his life he produced the remarkable total of fifty-seven volumes. His output included novels of life at sea, biographies, several collections of short stories, and a volume of light, entertaining poetry. Also intriguing is his dictionary, Sailors’ Language. A younger contemporary, admirer, and sometime correspondent of Herman Melville, Russell also claimed company with a small but earnest group of marines who whiled away long hours at sea by compiling lexicons. (In addition to Russell’s dictionary, the two most noteworthy of this genre are W. H. Smyth’s The Sailor’s Word-Book: An Alphabetical Digest of Nautical Terms, 1867, and Richard Henry Dana’s The Seaman’s Friend, 1857.)
Although his fiction never had serious scholarly consideration and his dictionary has long been out of print, his works were read and admired by a whole generation of British readers. His best-known work, and the only one with a lasting body of readers, is The Wreck of the Grosvenor, one of his earliest novels. During the late nineteenth century many reforms came about in the British merchant marine, and part of the credit for this has usually been given to Russell and his books, which brought public attention to the need for improving what were admittedly deplorable conditions. Russell, whose only son was Sir Herbert Russell, a well-known writer on naval subjects, died in Bath, November 8, 1911.