Captain James Hepburn McFarland RN: A Royal Naval Officer With a Long Career Through the Napoleonic Wars

by John M. MacFarlane 2017

Signature Captain James Hepburn McFarland

Signature of Captain James Hepburn McFarland (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

James Hepburn MacFarlane was born in Ireland on May 30, 1769. James was named for James Hepburn, Lord High Admiral of Scotland so it may have been predestined that he serve in the navy. The MacFarlanes were a Scottish family, descendants of a nephew of Colonel John MacFarlane of that Ilk (19th Baron and Chief of the Clan MacFarlane). They settled near Dublin where some of their descendants reside today.

He entered the Royal Navy as a First Class Volunteer on December 2, 1781 serving under Captain John Dalrymple RN in HMS Union (98 guns) in the Channel Fleet. In August 1782 he was promoted to Midshipman RN while serving in the fireship HMS Harpie, under Captain Sir James Barclay RN.

On August 29, 1782 he saved three or four of the few survivors that escaped from the sudden sinking of HMS Royal George. HMS Royal George was a 100–gun first–rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, built at Woolwich Dockyard and launched on 18 February 1756. At the time of launching she was the largest warship in the world. She sank while undergoing routine maintenance work anchored off Portsmouth on 29 August 1782 with the loss of more than 900 lives.

At the end of 1782 he was serving in HMS Diligent, the flagship of Admiral Sir Thomas Pye RN. In August 1783 he was transferred to HMS Salisbury (50 guns), under Admiral John Campbell RN, serving on the Newfoundland Station. In December 1785 he served the remainder of the peace on the Home Station in HMS Druid (36 guns) under Captain Joseph Ellison RN. He served in HMS Powerful (74 guns), HMS Orion (74 guns), both under Captain Andrew Sutherland RN. He served in HMS Windsor Castle (98 guns), under Rear-Admiral Herbert Sawyer RN, HMS London (98 guns) under Rear-Admiral Sam Cranston Goodall RN, and in HMS Alcide (74 guns) under Captain Sir Andrew Snape Douglas RN. He then served in HMS Hector (74 guns) under Captain George Montagu RN.

The Glorious First of June

By March 1793 he was serving in HMS Queen Charlotte (100 guns), flag ship of Admiral the Earl Howe in the Channel Fleet, on Earl Howe’s staff for signalling duties. After twelve years service he was still rated as a Midshipman, but was appointed as an Acting Lieutenant on June 23, 1793 as a reward for his conduct in action during Earl Howe’s action against the French navy known as "The Glorious First of June". Afterwards he was presented to King George III by Earl Howe as part of his recognition. His commissioning as a Lieutenant was a sudden breakthrough in his career.

Lieutenant McFarland continued serving in HMS Queen Charlotte, and was present for the "The Battle of Groix" which was a large naval engagement that took place off the island of Groix on the Biscay coast of Brittany, France on 23 June 1795 during the French Revolutionary Wars. The British fleet, commanded by Admiral Lord Bridport was covering an invasion convoy carrying a French Royalist army to invade Quiberon. The Queen Charlotte was much in action, passing the Alexandre and firing on the Formidable reducing her to a wreck, with the rigging torn and more than 320 men killed or wounded. Queen Charlotte lost 35 casualties. Inexplicably the Queen Charlotte, with Rear–Admiral Sir Roger Curtis RN serving ashore on a court–martial, the ship received no official recognition after the battle despite being the most heavily engaged of any in the British fleet.


Folded envelope found in McFarland’ wallet two hundred years later by the author, found to contain locks of hair from his wife Mary MacFarlane. (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

Hair Curls

Locks of hair as a keepsake of his wife Mary MacFarlane. (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

Afterwards he served in HMS Monarch (74 guns), HMS Prince (98 guns), and HMS Lancaster (64 guns) all flag ships of Admiral Sir Roger Curtis RN at Home and on the Cape of Good Hope Stations.


Letter written while the Senior Lieutenant in HMS Lancaster. (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

War in the Indian Ocean

On September 12, 1800 while serving in HMS Lancaster he received an Official Commendation for a Small Boat Action at Isle de France (Mauritius) in the Indian Ocean. The official account in the ship’s log of HMS Lancaster reads:

"Port Louis 8 or 9 miles. Quarter past six our boats, viz. The Green Cutter, 1st and 2nd Yawls, under command of Lieutenants McFarland and Walker (armed with pistols, cutlasses, musquets [muskets] and pikes, 2 marines and a petty officer in each boat) were sent into harbour of Port Louis to cut out the ship we chased in on the morning under Hambrough [Hamburg] colours. About half past seven they got alongside. A heavy musquetry began to fire upon them from the ship. Notwithstanding which they jumped on board her and after killing a number of their men, took possession of her and cut away her cables and began towing her out, which they had effected under a very heavy fire from all the forts. Lieutenant McFarland had his arm broke ... ."

and there follows a list of the other casualties including: "Henry Easton shot through the arm (since amputated), Peter Smith wounded in his back, James Musgrave killed on the spot". At half past 9 the ship joined the squadron and was found to have a rich cargo of French wines and other goods on board.

James Hepburn McFarland

Last Will and Testament of James Hepburn McFarland (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

In 1802 he participated in the capture of the Cape of Good Hope. On April 11, 1802 he was appointed in command of HMS Penguin. She was formerly the Dutch national ship Komet taken on the Irish Station in 1795 by HMS Unicorn (32 guns). McFarland was promoted to Acting Commander in command and he commanded the ship on patrols at the Cape. He was given orders to return her as an independent ship to England and on April 13th they made sail out of Table Bay and entered Simon’s Bay, Cape of Good Hope on April 14th. The ship arrived at Spithead almost a year later, April 23rd, 1803. At that time the ship was turned over to his relief, Captain J. Morris RN on October 11, 1803.

HMS Penguin

HMS Penguin (a watercolour sketch by James Hepburn McFarland 1803) (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

Captain James Hepburn McFarland

Calling Card of Captain James Hepburn McFarland (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

In his obituary in The London Times he was reported to have saved the lives of several British Officers for which he received public thanks. Unfortunately there are no records surviving to shed light on this event. However he entered the Sea Fencible Service in July 1804. The Sea Fencibles were a naval militia established to provide a close-in line of defence and obstruct the operation of enemy shipping, principally during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Sea Fencibles also acted as a coastguard or lifeboat service. In February 1810, when it became clear that the threat of invasion by Bonaparte had passed, the Sea Fencibles were disbanded.

Obituary James Hepburn McFarland

His Obituary from the London Times (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)


McFarland was retired on September 10, 1810 and moved to Ipswich. He was promoted to Captain (Retired) RN under an Order–in–Council dated 10 August 1840. (These promotions under this scheme were for "a list consisting of 50 of the Senior Commanders, who have the option of receiving the Retired Rank of Captain, with the Half–pay of 10s. 6d. per diem, being the lowest rate of Half–pay allowed to a Captain. Their widows are allowed pensions of £75 per annum if otherwise entitled thereto.") He died at Stutton, Suffolk on January 27, 1852.

His son, Francis James McFarland was born in 1806 at Felixstowe Suffolk. He followed in his father’s footsteps and joined the Royal Navy. He was passed for seamanship on June 19, 1834 at Bermuda while serving in HMS Vestal (28 guns). (There is some evidence that he served in a Naval College to do his training.) HMS Vestal was commissioned at Sheerness on May 7, 1833 with a complement of 180 men under Captain William Jones RN. McFarland was listed as one of the Quarter Deck Petty Officers with an Admiralty appointment. In later entries he is listed as a College Midshipman and as a College Mate (both schemes for gaining a commission in the Royal Navy at that time). With McFarland as Mate, HMS Vestal sailed to Port Royal Jamaica in the West Indies Station. While the ship sat at the fairway buoy off Port Royal for two weeks there was fever on board. The log is filled with entries of crew members sent to hospital and entries for repeated fumigations and cleansing of the ship. McFarland was sent to hospital on April 5, 1835 and sadly died there on April 9, 1835.

Name Stamp

Captain McFarland stamped his name on several of the charts. Apparently even then there was a worry about book thieves! (Photo from MacFarlane collection.)

Sword Belt

Captain McFarland’s sword belt. (Photo from the MacFarlane collection.)


  • Marshall, John (1832) Royal Naval Biography. (Longman, Rees, Orme Brown and Green) Volume III – Part II
  • Obituary Concerning James Hepburne MacFarlane January 31, 1852 (The English Times)
  • Obituary Concerning James Hepburne MacFarlane January 31, 1852 (The London Times)
  • O’Byrne, William R. (1849) A Naval Biographical Dictionary. (John Murray, Publisher to the Admiralty Pages 696–697)
  • Steel’s Naval Chronologist of the Last War From February 1793 to Its Conclusion in 1804. Page xii.

To quote from this article please cite:

MacFarlane, John M. (2015) Captain James Hepburn McFarland RN: A Royal Naval Officer With a Long Career Through the Napoleonic Wars. 2015.

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