Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hannay, James

HANNAY, JAMES (1827–1873), man of letters, was born at Dumfries on 17 Feb. 1827. His father, David Hannay (1794-1864), a member of the Speculative Society at Edinburgh University, 1813-14, and author of 'Ned Allen, or the Past Age,' 1849 (a novel which attracted no notice), was engaged in business in Dumfries. The family had some reason for believing that they were descended from the Hannays of Sorble [see Hannay, Patrick]. In James Hannay the belief was sufficiently strong to influence his studies, inclining him to study heraldry and family history. He entered the navy on 2 March 1840, on board the Cambridge, 78, and served in her during the tedious blockade of Alexandria in the Syrian war, and had therefore no share in the operations of Sir Charles Napier's squadron at Acre. From the Cambridge he passed in succession to the sloop Snake in 1842, the corvette Orestes in 1843, and the Formidable, 84, in 1844. His tastes and his impatience both of routine work and control unfitted him for the life of a naval officer. Very soon after entering the service he began to devote himself to general reading, and even studied Latin with a priest at Malta. With the instinct of a born journalist he started a manuscript comic paper to ridicule the admiral and captains on the Mediterranean station. At a later period he was wont to confess that he had been a somewhat insubordinate midshipman. In 1845 he and two brother-officers were tried by court-martial and dismissed the service. The finding of the court was generally thought to have been vindictive, and it was subsequently quashed on the ground of informality. Hannay was not, however, employed again, nor did he seriously seek for employment. From 1846 onwards till his appointment as consul in 1868 he worked on the press and at literature. His first engagement was as a reporter on the 'Morning Chronicle,' in which capacity he relied more on his remarkable memory than on his knowledge of shorthand. In the meantime he was reading zealously in the British Museum. At the end of 1847 he worked with Mr. H. S. Edwards on 'Pasquin,' a very short-lived comic paper, and the forerunner of the somewhat happier 'Puppet Show,' which lasted from 1848 to 1849 . In 1848 he began using his naval experiences, and wrote the first of the stories which were afterwards collected in his 'Sketches in Ultramarine,' published in 1853. In 1848 he first made the acquaintance of Thackeray and Carlyle, to whom he was proud to acknowledge his obligations. He soon improved his literary connection, and worked for papers of good position, for the quarterlies and magazines, till he became editor of the 'Edinburgh Evening Courant' in 1860. During these years he published his best work, his two naval novels, 'Singleton Fontenoy' (1850) and 'Eustace Conyers' (1855), and the volume of lectures on 'Satire and Satirist,' delivered at the Literary Institution, Edward Street, Portman Square, in 1853, and collected in book form in 1854. It was during these years also that he began to write the essays to the 'Quarterly,' afterwards collected into a volume, and that he taught himself to read Greek. In 1857 he contested without success the representation of the Dumfries boroughs in parliament. He stood as a tory, and was defeated by William Ewart [q. v.] From 1860 to 1864 he edited the 'Edinburgh Evening Courant.' The zeal with which he attacked conduct and persons he disliked caused his management of the paper to be somewhat conspicuous. In 1864 he returned to London, and remained there till he was appointed consul at Brest by Lord Stanley, 1868. During these years he published his 'Studies on Thackeray ' (1869), his 'Three Hundred Years of a Norman House ' (1866), a portion of a history of the Gurney family, and his 'Course of English Literature' (1866), a reprint of articles contributed years before to the 'Welcome Guest.' Hannay did not proceed to Brest, but exchanged this post for that of Barcelona in Spain. Although he continued to write for papers and magazines, chiefly for the 'Pall Mall Gazette' and the 'Cornhill,' he published no more books. His death occurred very suddenly on 9 Jan. 1873 at Putchet, a suburb of Barcelona. Hannay was twice married, first, in 1853, to Margaret Thompson, who died in 1865; and then, in 1868, to Jean Hannay, a lady of the same name, but of no traceable relationship, who died in Spain in 1870. He had by the first marriage six, and by the second one child, who survived him.

[Personal knowledge.]

D. H.