In 1745 an attempt was made by Charles Edward Stuart, also known as ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’ to regain the British throne for the exiled house of Stuart of Scotland.
At this time most of the British Army was on the European Continent involved in what was termed the ‘Austrian Succession’.
Making the most of this opportunity, Bonnie Prince Charlie sailed from France for Scotland where he was supported by several highland clans. They were known as the ‘Jacobites’. Under the Stuart banner, they marched south claiming victory at Preston near Edinburgh. Now bold with success, they continued marching southwards over the border into England. They were stopped at Derby when some of the British Army was hurriedly recalled from Europe to defend the realm.
The Jacobites retreated north to Inverness where the British Army caught up with them on the moors of Culloden. Here the Jacobites were defeated with Bonnie Prince Charlie fleeing back to France.
It has been claimed that members of the McArthur family were part of the Jacobite army. Several family members were killed including five out of a family of six brothers. The sixth brother, reportedly one Alexander McArthur returned home to the highlands. Fearing retribution he and his young wife, Catherine, along with several other family members sailed for the Americas.
After a few years, Alexander and Catherine McArthur returned to England. We believe they were involved in the cloth trade in Kent, and there a son was born on 12 January 1752. He was named James, possibly for his Paternal Grandfather, and was baptized 20 January in the Independent Chapel in Canterbury.
We lose sight of the McArthur family for some years but believe they had a large family of both sons and daughters. They possibly remained in the cloth trade and moved around England as the industrial revolution brought big changes in this trade in particular. Their children are believed to have been baptized in some of the many dissenting Presbyterian Churches scattered throughout England.
In the mid-1760’s we know the McArthur family settled in Stoke Dameral a parish of the Plymouth area in Devon. Here they opened a drapery business. Another son was born in August 1767. There were no Presbyterian Chapels in Stoke Dameral and this son was baptized on 3 September in the parish church of St Andrews. He was named John.
Two years later another son was born and was baptized in the same church on 27 August 1770. He was given the name William. Sadly he died as an infant and was buried on 24 November 1772.
John was now the youngest surviving son in the family.
John was only ten years of age when his mother Catherine died and was buried in the churchyard on 31 August 1777.
John had a good education, and keeping in mind subsequent events, it would appear he may have attended Plympton Grammar School. This now very famous school was founded from the bequest of Elize Hele, a local landowner and attorney who had been Treasurer to King James I. In his Will, he left all his estate and money for pious uses. His executors built three schools. One at Plympton and two in Exeter. Although it began as a ‘charity’ school the Plympton school had an excellent reputation for scholarship, and many wealthy Devon and Cornwall landed families sent their sons there.
Plympton is not far from Stoke Dameral, and it is highly likely that John spent his early years of education here as he later ‘toyed with the idea of studying law’, which would have necessitated a good grounding in Latin and the Classics. John’s older brother James, and Evan and Nicholas Nepean sons of Nicholas Nepean of Saltash, Cornwall, are also believed to have attended this reputable school.
John would have left school at about aged 14 years. He could have joined his father as an apprentice in the cloth trade, but it is believed John would have none of that. Then his father suggested he should join the Navy or the Marines as a career serviceman. It is believed some of his brothers had already joined the Navy and Marines.
In the Navy, you needed to begin at the bottom and spend many years at sea to earn your way up the promotion ladder and to sit for an extensive examination before you could become a commissioned officer.
However, in the Marines, you could purchase officer positions for a sum of money. John’s father was able to purchase him an Ensign’s commission in the Marines in 1782. He was mustered into Fish’s Corps destined for the American Colonies. They were housed at the newly built Stonehouse Barracks. However, the War of Independence came to an end soon afterward and the newly founded Corps were not needed and disbanded. The officers were put on half-pay and the lower ranks turned out to find their own employment. Several senior officers of this Corps were also from Devon and Cornwall landed gentry and returned to their estates when the corps was disbanded.
John was at a loose end. A few weeks later an incident happened in the streets of Plymouth that set the town’s people against the Marines. A riot erupted between the Town’s Guard (Town Constable and his men), and a party of the 36th Regiment who were stationed at the Stonehouse barracks. It was quelled with the assistance of other marines, but the town’s folk were concerned.
Although not mentioned by name, oral family history suggests that one of John’s senior officers was a landowner at Holsworthy and when the Corps was disbanded he returned to his estates at Holsworthy and took young John with him. John was there several years and learned about running an estate. He is said to have been an excellent horseman and rode with the hounds frequently.
There is little doubt the family hoped John would make a good match with the daughter of landed-gentry to improve his social position and financial prospects, as his older brother, James had done. One of the landed families in Holsworthy was the Kingdon family who was to play a part in John’s life. There were also a number of Linen Drapers who would have been known to John’s family, and two landed attorney’s in the parish who may also have been interested in John clerking for them.
In 1787 John McArthur was employed as a tutor in the Grammar School where Thomas Hockin, the son of the Rev John Kingdon, Vicar of Bridgerule, was being educated. John was invited to visit the Kingdon family at Bridgerule. It was there he met Elizabeth Veale.
To improve his career prospects John applied to be reinstated as an Ensign in the Marines in a regiment on deployment. The problem was that this was difficult as Britain was at peace and officer positions in the Marines were more difficult to find a placement. He was finally granted an Ensign’s position in the 68th Regiment in April 1788 and returned to Full Pay. At the time this regiment was stationed at Gibraltar and John McArthur was expected to join his regiment immediately. However, he took personal leave and remained in Devon to pay court to Elizabeth Veale.