I have written previously about Thomas Bisset,1 and included a piece about him in my book about James Cook in Newfoundland.2 In the book I made the point that Bisset was a crucial, albeit unrecognised, influence in Cook’s development and career. Recent research has provided further evidence for that claim. This research is continuing, but I feel it is interesting enough to share what has emerged so far.
If Bisset is mentioned at all in books about Cook (and he is frequently passed over), he is usually portrayed as a competent Royal Navy seaman who was master in Eagle while Cook served in her from 1755 to 1757. Beaglehole in his biography of Cook says, “The master was the very capable Thomas Bisset.” Apart from a couple of other footnotes about logs and musters, that is all. Most authors have done little to discover his background or much else about him.
I had a suspicion that Bisset came from Perthshire in Scotland. It was partly confirmed when a record from The National Archives (TNA) showed that the Duke of Atholl was taking a direct interest in Bisset’s naval career in 1752:
Chatham Dock 3 October 1752
Gentlemen [The Board of Admiralty],
The bearer, Mr. Thomas Bisset, present Master of the Surprize, has brought me a letter from his Grace the Duke of Atholl, desiring me to recommend him to your Board and to pray that he may be removed into the Speedwell sloop, when she shall [be] launched, he being apprehensive that the Surprize will be paid off. He is reported to me as a good Officer and as such I recommend him
Commissioner Charles Brown.3
A further connection with Perth came when I located information about booksellers in that city in 1538-1864.4 It states that a John Bisset had been apprenticed to Alexander Beck, a Perth bookseller on 13 August 1746. John Bisset, glazier and bookbinder, or stationer, a son of Patrick Bisset from Logierait, was admitted freeman on 16 May 1752. He then employed Thomas Bisset, “son to the deceased Thomas Bisset, master of the Stirling Castle, man of war”, on 20 January 1767.
Information about Bisset’s early naval career remains very sketchy. From records at TNA it is known that he was appointed master of HMS Surprise in November 1751. The request for transfer to HMS Speedwell (above) was successful, and he worked in the North and Baltic Seas before crossing the Atlantic and spending the winter of 1753-54 at Hampton Roads in Virginia. Earlier ships and his reasons for joining the Navy remain unknown.
Cook first encountered Bisset in July 1755 in HMS Eagle. Cook joined on 15 June, so had been on the ship for only a month when Bisset appeared on 21 July as the ship’s master. Three days later, Cook was promoted to master’s mate and the two men worked closely together for the next two years. Bisset left in early 1757 to help with the fitting out of HMS Pembroke.
In October 1757, James Cook, having recently qualified as a ship’s master, replaced Bisset as master of Pembroke, and Bisset moved to HMS Stirling Castle, the ship mentioned in the information about booksellers. Bisset was master of this ship under Captain Michael Everitt during the 1759 campaign attacking Quebec. In that campaign, Admiral Charles Saunders, in command of the British fleet, transferred his flag to Stirling Castle. Bisset recorded in his log, “27 June. At 10 Admiral Saunders hoisted his flag on board of us”. Bisset remained at the heart of things throughout the siege. Logs from the two ships show that they often worked together.
For example, in early July 1759, they quickly surveyed the Beauport Bank, a wide expanse of shallows in front of the French position. From this information they determined that it was impossible for the fleet to get close to shore to provide cover for possible landings. They were also involved in setting lines of buoys to mark channels and passages in the Bason, and to protect against fireships.
While out reconnoitring near the Montmorency Falls, Bisset was nearly captured when his boat was attacked. Bisset was dragged out of the boat before being rescued. Some writers have mistakenly ascribed this story to Cook. Bisset recorded:
7 July. at 1pm the barge in sounding between Orleans and Falls was cut off by the French and Indians and taken; lost with dd [dead departed] one man, a leads and lines, a brass compass, sails, oars, etc.
After Quebec, Bisset remained in Stirling Castle until he died on 4 May 1761 at Barbados, probably from a tropical disease contracted in the Caribbean. In his will, proven on 9 August 1762,5 Thomas Bisset left everything to his wife Jannet. She was living at the time in the parish of New Church, Plymouth. Unfortunately, no other family members are mentioned in the will. Details of their marriage and the birth details of children are still to be found.
More investigation of birth, marriages and deaths was called for. Unfortunately, the genealogical database “Scotland’s people” provided few, if any, clues. There were no entries for Bissets at Blair Atholl or Logierait, the expected places. Another search on the internet, though, produced the information that a James Bisset was Clerk of the Regality Court of Atholl, about 1720. He had married a Margaret Young about 1685 and together they had several children. One son, Thomas Bisset (1689-1774) of Glenalbert, near Dunkeld, Perthshire was later the first (“old”) commissary of Dunkeld and Baron Baillie to the Duke of Atholl. In fact, this Thomas Bisset did much to keep the Atholl family alive and in favour during the mid-1700s. The Jacobite uprising for Charles Stuart in 1745 split the Murray family (Murray being the family name for the dukes of Atholl) and the Bissets. Several Murrays rallied to Charles Stuart while others sided with King George. Similarly, Thomas Bisset’s oldest son James seems to have been a Jacobite. Meantime, Thomas Bisset kept juggling affairs and managed to keep the Murrays and his own family in favour after the uprising had been vanquished. It was probably gratitude for such service that prompted the Duke to write letters supporting a member of the Bisset family in the navy.6
By searching again on the internet I found an interesting pamphlet written in the 1890s. It is by an unknown author about a Scot called Adam Thom,7 and includes a family tree for the descendants of a James Bisset. The tree shows that several distinct branches of Bisset soon emerged from James Bisset’s five sons. Deciphering the lines is complicated as the same first names were used repeatedly, e.g. Thomas, James and Robert. Adam Thom’s mother was Elizabeth Bisset, who came from one of these branches. Thom emigrated to Canada in the nineteenth century, where he had an eventful career, before returning to Britain in 1865.
For Cook researchers the family tree has this most interesting section:
Thomas Bisset, of Glenalbert, near Dunkeld, Perthshire, first ("old") Commisiary of Dunkeld, and Baron Baillie to the Duke of Athol.; He married, the 31st of May, 1713, Margaret, daughter of Alexander Stewart, second son of Patrick Stewart, of Ballechin, in the parish of Logierait, Perthshire (grandson of Sir James Stewart, of Ballechin, by Marie, sister of the "admirable" Chrichton), and died in Feb. 1774, leaving: -
1. James Bisset, the "young" Commissary.
2. Charles Bisset, M.D., born at Glenalbert, 1717, author of a "Narrative of Experiments on a Chalybeate Spring at Knayton." Died at Knayton, near Thirsk, Yorkshire, in 1791, leaving two daughters, Penelope, married to Rev. Dr. Addison, Thirsk; and ? married to William Walker, Thirsk.
3. Thomas Bisset, born June 1722. left (1) Thomas; (2) Charles; (3) Rear Admiral James Bisset, R.N., born 1760, died at Edinburgh, 1824.
4. Robert Bisset, born July, 1729. Captain 518th Foot: Commissary-general in the army; aide-de-camp to (General Lord George Sackville at the battle of Minden. He died on May 27, 1811, at (Great Pulteney street, London, leaving a son Robert, Major 42nd Regt.; killed in Egypt; d.s.p.8
5. David Bisset, d.s.p.
6. Margaret Bisset, married 1st, Mr. Dick, and had a daughter married to the Hon. Mr. Maitland. 2ndly, Duncan, of Tippermalloch, and had a daughter Bessie, married to Fleming, of Moness.
7. Bisset, married to Robert Stewart, in Strath Tay.
The Thomas Bisset listed as person 3 “born June 1722” is, I believe, Cook’s Bisset. This made him about 30 when he joined Speedwell, 33 when he joined Eagle, and means he was six years older than Cook. He was the father of James Bisset who would eventually become an admiral in the Royal Navy. Thomas died when James was only three years old, and I speculate that, given Bisset’s reputation, his naval friends and contacts would have looked after his widow and children thus allowing young James a naval career.
That career began when young James Bisset joined the navy in 1771 as captain’s servant in Centaur, then a guard ship at Portsmouth. He remained there for three years under Captain John Bentinck so would have been present in Portsmouth Harbour in 1773 when Benjamin Franklin demonstrated his idea of pouring oil on the sea to help calm waters. Franklin was the guest of Bentinck, also an inventor James then spent three years in HMS Wasp, a sloop, under Commander Richard Bligh. James sat and passed his lieutenant’s examination on 10 February 1778. He received his commission a week later and was appointed to HMS Elizabeth as fifth lieutenant under Captain Frederick Maitland, who had married Bisset’s first cousin, Margaret Louisa Dick, in 1767. Bisset’s naval career was full if not exceptional. He made captain in 1794 and rear-admiral in 1813, about the time his active service finished. He died in 1824, never having married. Regrettably, his will mentions no siblings and provides no direct clues to his parentage. A first cousin “on his mother’s side” called Neil McArthur is mentioned, suggesting that Thomas Bisset’s wife was born Jannet McArthur. The will confirms a close relationship with the Maitland family. It also provides a link to the Charles Bisset, listed as person 2 above, Thomas Bisset’s immediate older brother. Several of Charles’s offspring are mentioned as cousins.
Charles Bisset was a most interesting person in his own right. He studied medicine at Edinburgh and then went to Jamaica as second surgeon at the Military Hospital, where he observed first-hand the effects of tropical diseases and of scurvy on seamen. He succumbed to disease himself and returned to Britain where he purchased an ensigncy in the 42nd Highlanders Regiment. He served in Brittany and then, in 1748, in Flanders as part of the War of Austrian Succession. Bisset made sketches of the action at Sandberg and at Bergen-op-Zoom, which were presented by his Colonel, Lord John Murray, to the Duke of Cumberland, the British commander. Later, his illustrated journal was also forwarded to the duke with the result that Bisset was appointed engineer extraordinary to the brigade of Engineers. Two books on military fortifications resulted from his army experience. Bisset received his commission as lieutenant but was unable to secure employment at the end of the war.
Instead, in 1750, Charles Bisset resumed his medical career, moving to Skelton in Cleveland where he set up in practice as a doctor. He attended patients in Stokesley, close to Great Ayton where James Cook had grown up. One of his daughters married in Hinderwell church, close to Staithes where Cook worked in Sanderson’s shop.
In May 1756, Charles Bisset wrote to another brother, David Bisset, who had moved to live in Baltimore, Maryland. David replied on 26 October 1756. He refers to brother Robert being promoted in the army and also to brother James’s misfortune and misconduct. He also, crucially for us, wrote:
Thomas being promoted to master of a 60 gunn ship is also a good step & I hope will make up for his bad luck hitherto.9
The 60 gun ship was Eagle, the ship on which Thomas Bisset first met and worked with James Cook. I have been unable to determine what constituted his “bad luck”. Charles Bisset’s time in the Caribbean and possibly the naval experience of his brother led him to write a book on scurvy.10 I expect that Thomas Bisset, Eagle’s master, would have had a copy of his brother’s book and James Cook would have had access to it. The book contained several medical recommendations for combatting scurvy but few by themselves would have had any positive effect. However, he recommended various actions such as airing the sleeping quarters, having changes of dry clothes for the seamen, and making seamen clean themselves, all of which were embraced by Cook. I believe, therefore, that it was the Bisset brothers who were instrumental in instilling in Cook an awareness of health at sea and the need to take actions to prevent disease and sickness. Given that Cook was later celebrated for his actions in fighting scurvy it seems appropriate to highlight this probable influence.
Of Thomas Bisset’s other brothers, James (number 1 in the list above) married in Edinburgh in 1753 before emigrating to Baltimore in Maryland to join David (number 5), who had moved there already. James worked there as a lawyer and died in 1760. Robert Bisset (number 4) joined the army, becoming a captain in the 518th Foot. He was injured at Culloden and was later aide-de-camp to General Lord George Sackville at the battle of Minden in 1759. William Pitt appointed him Commissary General of England. Robert Bisset died in 1811 in London. Thomas’s sister Margaret (number 6), married James Dick and their daughter, Margaret Dick, married Frederick Maitland, a captain in the Royal Navy.
My thanks to CCS members David Peat and Ruth Boreham, who have been doing the leg work at Kew, London, and in Scotland, while I sit in New Zealand.
- Cook’s Log, page 45, vol. 29, no. 1 (2006).
- Robson, John. Captain Cook’s War and Peace: The Royal Navy Years 1755-1768. Seaforth Publishing. 2009. Reviewed in Cook’s Log, page 9, vol. 32, no. 4 (2009).
- ADM 106/1097/229. 3 October 1752. The National Archives (TNA).
- Carnie, R. H. “Perth booksellers and book-binders in the records of the Wright calling, 1538-1864” in Bibliotheck: A Scottish Journal of Bibliography and Allied Topics. 1958. Vol. 1, no. 4.
- Bisset, Thomas. Will. PROB 11/878. TNA.
- Leneman, Leah. Living In Atholl, 1685-1785. Edinburgh University Press, 1986. There are many references to the Bissets in this book.
- Anon. Adam Thom, LL.D. 1802-1890. The copy I found on the internet had been incorrectly described, so I do not know when or where it was published.
- d.s.p. is the abbreviation for decessitt sine prole, meaning died without any children.
- Bisset, David. Letter. HCA 30/258. TNA.
- Bisset, Charles. A Treatise on the Scurvy, design’d chiefly for the use of the British navy. Dodsley, London. 1755.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 27, volume 35, number 4 (2012).