Charles Mackay

Birth: 1814


Charles MacKay, LL.D. (1814–1889), poet and journalist, was born at Perth in Scotland on 27 March 1814. His father, George Mackay, was the second son of Captain Hugh Mackay of the Strathnaver branch of the clan, whose chief is Lord Reay. George, as a boy, on H.M. sloop the Scout, witnessed the evacuation of Toulon by the British in 1793, and subsequently the capture, with the aid of Paoli and his volunteers, of the island of Corsica. The Scout later on was seized by the frigates Alceste and Vestale, and George was detained during four years in France as a prisoner of war. He there eked out existence among the peasantry by playing the flageolet.

On escaping from France he was again afloat on board H.M.S. Hydra, under the command of Captain (afterwards Admiral) Francis Laforey. After serving six more years at sea he quitted the royal navy and joined the army. As an ensign in the 47th foot he in 1809 served under the Duke of York in the ill-starred Walcheren expedition. Prostrated by malaria, he returned to England on sick leave. There, on his restoration to health, he married, and as a half-pay lieutenant settled for a while in Scotland.

The son Charles, having lost his mother during his infancy, lived until his eighth year under the care of a nurse, Grace Stuart, at a lonely house near the village of Newhaven, on the Firth of Forth. The nurse married Thomas Threlkeld, a tailor, formerly a soldier in George Mackay's regiment, and Charles in 1822 was sent to reside with them at Woolwich. After attending a dame's school, he was entered in 1825 as a student at the Caledonian Asylum, then situated at Hatton Garden, and twice every Sunday for three years listened to Edward Irving in Cross Street Chapel, Hatton Garden. In 1828 he was placed by his father at a school in Brussels, on the Boulevard de Namur, and became proficient in French and German, and later on in Spanish and Italian.

In 1830 Mackay was engaged, at a salary of twelve hundred francs, as a private secretary to William Cockerill, the ironmaster of Seraing, near Liege, and began writing in French in the 'Courrier Belge,' and sent English poems to a local newspaper called 'The Telegraph.' Thenceforth he spent nearly all his leisure in writing verse. In the summer of 1830 he visited Paris, and he spent 1831 with Cockerill at Aix-la-Chapelle. In May 1832 his father brought him back to London, where he first found employment in teaching Italian to Benjamin Lumley, then a young solicitor. In 1834 he secured an engagement as an occasional contributor to 'The Sun,' and brought out his maiden work, 'Songs and Poems,' which he inscribed to his former instructors at the Caledonian Asylum.

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From the spring of 1835 till 1844 he was assistant sub-editor of the 'Morning Chronicle,' then in its palmiest days. In the autumn of 1839 he spent a month's holiday in Scotland, witnessing the Eglintoun Tournament, which he described in the 'Chronicle,' and making many literary acquaintances in Edinburgh. On severing his connection with the 'Morning Chronicle' in the autumn of 1844, he removed to Scotland, and became editor of the 'Glasgow Argus.' In 1846 he collected verses which had appeared in the 'Daily News' under Dickens's editorship as 'Voices from the Crowd.' Henry Russell, to whom Lumley had introduced him, set some of the poems to music, and in that form they became popular all over the world. Of one of them, 'The Good Time Coming,' four hundred thousand copies were circulated.

In 1846 Mackay was made an LL.D. of Glasgow University, and in July 1847 he resigned his editorship of the 'Argus.' In 1848 Mackay entered the editorial office of the 'Illustrated London News,' and became editor of the paper in 1852. At the suggestion of Herbert Ingram, the proprietor, Mackay began in December 1851 the issue of a series of musical supplements, each containing an original song by Mackay, adapted to an ancient English melody which was specially arranged by Sir Henry Bishop. Bishop's death, on 30 April 1855, interrupted the scheme; but eighty lyrics of a projected hundred were thereupon published under the title of 'Songs by Charles Mackay.' Reissued in a popular form in 1856 as 'Songs for Music,' the publisher could say with perfect truth: 'Many of the songs included in this collection have been said and sung in every part of the world where the English language is spoken.' The pieces included 'Cheer, Boys! Cheer!' 'To the West! To the West!' 'Tubal Cain,' 'There's a Land, a dear Land,' and 'England over all.'

On 3 Oct. 1857 Mackay left Liverpool on an eight months' lecturing tour through the United States and Canada. By 2 June 1858 he had returned home, and in the following year brought to an end his association with the 'Illustrated London News.' In 1860 he established the 'London Review,' and his editorship was inaugurated on 2 July by a banquet at the Reform Club. Another new periodical, 'Robin Goodfellow,' was started by him in 1861. Neither proved successful. From February 1862 to December 1865 Mackay was the special correspondent of the 'Times' at New York during the civil war, and in the autumn of 1862 he revealed in the 'Times' the existence of the Fenian conspiracy in America.

Although recognizing that his real vocation was that of a song-writer, he devoted much time in his later years to wayward and eccentric excursions into Celtic philology. He died at Longridge Road, Earl's Court, London, on 24 Dec. 1889, and was buried on 2 Jan. 1890 in Kensal Green cemetery. Mackay was twice married—first, during his Glasgow editorship, to Rosa Henrietta Vale, by whom he had three sons and a daughter; and secondly to Ellen Mills, a widow, whose maiden name was Kirtland. His first wife died on 28 Dec. 1859, and his second wife in 1875.


His principal poetical works were:

[1] 'Songs and Poems,' 1834, 8vo. [2] 'The Hope of the World,' 1840, 12mo. [3] 'The Salamandrine, or Love and Immortality,' 1842, 12mo; 2nd edit. 1853; 3rd edit. 1856. [4] 'Legends of the Isles,' 1845, 12mo. [5] 'Voices from the Crowd,' 1846, 16mo; 4th edit. 1851; 5th and revised edit. 1857, 8vo. [6] 'Voices from the Mountain,' 1847, 16mo; 2nd edit. 1857, 8vo. [7] 'Town Lyrics,' 1848, 16mo. [8] 'Egeria, or the Spirit of Nature,' 1850, 8vo. [9] 'The Lump of Gold,' 1856, 8vo. [10] 'Under Green Leaves,' 1857, 8vo. [11] 'A Man's Heart,' 1860, 8vo. [12] 'Studies from the Antique, and Sketches from Nature,' 1864, 8vo. [13] 'Interludes and Undertones, or Music at Twilight,' 1884, 8vo. [14] 'Gossamer and Snowdrift,' 1890 (posthumous), 8vo.

A volume of 'Collected Songs,' with illustrations by John Gilbert, was published in 1859, and in 1868 Mackay's poems appeared in the 'Chandos Classics.' He also edited 'Jacobite Songs and Ballads,' 1861; 'Cavalier Songs and Ballads of England,' 1863; 'A Thousand and One Gems of English Poetry,' 1867; and 'A Thousand and One Gems of English Prose,' 1872.


His principal prose works were:

[1] 'History of London from its Foundation by the Romans to the Accession of Queen Victoria,' 1838, 8vo. [2] 'The Thames and its Tributaries, or Rambles among Rivers,' 2 vols. 1840, 8vo. [3] 'Longbeard, Lord of London, a Romance,' 3 vols. 1841, 12mo; 2nd edit. 2 vols. 1851; 3rd edit. 2 vols. 1869. [4] 'Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions,' 3 vols. 1841, 8vo. [5] 'The Scenery and Poetry of the English Lakes, a Summer Ramble,' 1846, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1852. [6] 'History of the Mormons,' 1851, 8vo; 3rd edit. 1852, 8vo; 4th edit. 1853, 12mo; 5th edit. 1857, 8vo. [7] 'Life and Liberty in America,' 2 vols. 1859, 8vo. [8] 'The Gouty Philosopher, or the Opinions, Whims, and Eccentricities of John Wagstaffe, Esq.,' 1862, 8vo. [9] 'Under the Blue Sky,' 1871, 8vo. [10] 'Lost Beauties of the English Language, an Appeal to Authors,' &c., 1874, 8vo. [11] 'The Gaelic and Celtic Etymology of the Languages of Western Europe,' 1877, 8vo. [12] 'Forty Years' Recollections of Life, Literature, and Public Affairs (1830–1870),' 2 vols. 1877, 8vo. [13] 'Luck, and what came of it: a Tale of our Times,' 3 vols. 1881, 8vo. [14] 'The Poetry and Humour of the Scotch Language,' 1882, 8vo. [15] 'The Founders of the American Republic,' 1885, 8vo. [16] 'Through the Long Day, or Memorials of a Literary Life during Half a Century,' 2 vols. 1887, 8vo. [17] 'A Dictionary of Lowland Scotch,' 1888.

[Personal recollections of the writer; Mackay's Forty Years' Recollections and Through the Long Day; Pall Mall Gazette, 2 Jan. 1890; Evening Standard, same date; Daily News, 3 Jan. 1890; Standard, same date.]


William Charles Mark Kent, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 35. pgs. 120-121.

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