Dictionary of National Biography: Volume 12

Smith, Elder & Company

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Smith, Elder & Company
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Dec 31, 1909
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During the first half of the eighteenth century a James Stephen, the first of the family of whom I have any knowledge, was tenant of a small farm in Aberdeenshire, on the borders of Buchan. He was also engaged in trade, and, though it is stated that smuggler would be too harsh a name to apply to him, he had no insuperable objection to dealing in contraband articles. He was considered to belong to the respectable class, and gave his sons a good education. He had nine children by his wife, Mary Brown. Seven of these were sons, and were said to be the finest young men in the country. Alexander, the eldest, was in business at Glasgow; he died when nearly seventy, after falling into distress. William, the second son, studied medicine, and ultimately settled at St. Christopher's, in the West Indies, where he was both a physician and a planter. He probably began life as a 'surgeon to a Guineaman,' and he afterwards made money by buying 'refuse' (that is, sickly) negroes from slave ships, and, after curing them of their diseases, selling them at an advanced price. He engaged in various speculations, and had made money when he died in 1781, in his fiftieth year. His career, as will be seen, was of great importance to his relations. The other sons all took to trade, but all died before William. The two sisters, Mrs. Nuccoll and Mrs. Calder, married respectably, and lived to a great age. They were able to be of some service to nephews and nieces.

My story is chiefly concerned with the third son, James, born about 1733. After studying law for a short time at Aberdeen, he was sent abroad, when eighteen years old, to Holland, and afterwards to France, with a view to some mercantile business. He was six feet three inches in height, and a man of great muscular power. Family traditions tell of his being attacked by two footpads, and knocking their heads together till they cried for mercy. Another legend asserts that when a friend offered him a pony to carry him home after dinner, he made and won a bet that he would carry the pony. In the year 1752 this young giant was sailing as supercargo of a ship bound from Bordeaux to Scotland, with wine destined, no doubt, to replenish the 'blessed bear of Bradwardine,' and its like. The ship had neared the race of Portland, when a storm arose, and she was driven upon the cliffs of Purbeck Island. James Stephen, with four of the crew, escaped to the rocks, the rest being drowned. Stephen roped his companions to himself, and scaled the rocks in the dark, as Lovel, in the 'Antiquary,' leads the Wardours and Edie Ochiltree up the crags of the Halket Head. Next day, the outcasts were hospitably received by Mr. Milner, Collector of Customs at Poole. Stephen had to remain for some time on the spot to look after the salvage of the cargo. The drowned captain had left some valuable papers in a chest. He appeared in a dream to Stephen, and gave information which led to their recovery. The news that his ghost was on the look-out had, it is said, a wholesome effect in deterring wreckers from interference with the cargo.

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