This notorious character was born in Scotland, of a respectable family, in 1769. In 1775 he entered the army, and went to America, being then only sixteen years old. The following year he was taken prisoner, but was soon released, and shortly afterwards sent home, in consequence of being wounded.
Being afterwards on the Continent, he entered the army of Frederic the Great, at the time when that monarch was marching against the Empress Queen Maria Theresa. In 1779, however, he quitted the Prussian army, and returned to England, but immediately repaired to the Continent again. At Harwich he became acquainted with an English lady of great respectability, whom he soon married. Being a short time after in France, his wife introduced him to the Duchess of Kingston, who persuaded him to accompany her to Russia, where he was soon appointed by Prince Potemkin a captain in the Russian army. His conduct was such as gained him various honours from Potemkin; but, being dissatisfied with the service, he quitted it in 1784, and retired to Copenhagen, from whence, after visiting the King of Prussia, he returned to England.
We wish the after-occurrences of Major Semple's life were as free from censure as those we have already enumerated; but our narrative is unfortunately interrupted by a circumstance, which appears to justify various assertions derogatory to his character that were afloat previous to this period.
On the 1st of September, 1785, the major was indicted at the Old Bailey, on a charge of feloniously stealing a post-chaise, value fifty pounds, the property of John Lycett, a coachmaker in Whitechapel. The indictment charged him with hiring a post-chaise for a limited period, which he never returned; the defendant, however, protested that the chaise was regularly ordered and sent home, and therefore the transaction could be only looked upon as a debt. The judge, however, thought otherwise, and the prisoner was found Guilty.
Semple, in his own Memoirs, speaking of this occurrence, says: 'The case stood thus with me: I had bespoke a travelling post-chaise of a coachmaker, Mr. Lycett. It was ordered to be finished on a particular day, and on that day he sent it home. My then situation rendered such a carriage necessary for me, and I was at that time able to pay for it; but my fatal turn for extravagance soon put that out of my power. After remaining some time in town, I went again to the Continent, and, during twelve months, passed and repassed very frequently; on which occasions several attempts were made to arrest me for the debt: nor was there any idea of calling it a fraud till a year after the carriage was delivered to me at my lodgings at Knightsbridge. I am far from vindicating the non-payment of a just debt, but I solemnly declare that I had not the smallest idea of defrauding the coachmaker.'
After sentence Semple was of course committed to the charge of the keeper of Newgate, by whom he was lodged in the state apartments, where he remained a considerable time, until he was sent to Woolwich, where, by the intercession of his friends, he received his majesty's pardon, on condition of going abroad.
While in Newgate he invented a new saddle and accoutrement for cavalry, a model of which he sent to the King of Prussia.
From Woolwich Semple went to France, where he became acquainted with Bernyer, Pethion, Roland, and several of the then leaders. He was present at the trial of Louis XVI. and shortly after resolved on returning to England, in consequence of the irruption with this country, which he then saw was inevitable. He therefore obtained a passport, which he had scarcely done when he was denounced to the Committee of Public Safety, as a spy, and going to join the enemy. Being, however, secretly apprized of what was going forward, he was able to effect his escape, although with some difficulty, before the arrest was issued.
On his escape Semple joined the allied army against France, and distinguished himself on various occasions, particularly in the battle of St. Fronde, which lasted three days. On the retirement of the King of Prussia from this campaign, Semple lost his best friend, and, being shortly after wounded, he found himself incapacitated from service, and almost destitute of the means of existence. After a short retirement, however, he recovered sufficiently to remove to Augsburgh; on his arrival at which place he was suddenly arrested by order of the Baron d'Ompteda, in the name of his Britannic Majesty; no reason, however, was assigned for the arrest, and he was liberated in a short time.
Considering he had been ill used on the Continent, Semple again returned to England; and in 1795 we again find him at the bar of the Old Bailey, on a charge of stealing in the shop of Mr. Wattleworth, in Wigmore Street, one yard of muslin, two yards of calico, and one linen shirt.
It was proved that the prisoner came into the shop of Mr. Wattle-worth, about noon, on the 10th of November, 1794, and, showing two patterns, one of muslin, and the other of calico, said he wanted them matched for Mrs. Coningham, of Egham Green. They could not find an exact match in the shop to the muslin; but he chose one; and a yard being cut off and two yards of calico, he said he would give them to the lady's servant, then at the door, and, calling in a man, gave them to him. He then said that he had just arrived from the Continent, and should want a quantity of shirts, and wished to take one with him to consult his sister, who, he thought, would be a better judge of the linen than he was; that he would bring it back in the morning, and then give his order. This sister he called Coningham; and, as the witness had a customer of that name, he made no hesitation, but gave him the shirt under those conditions. This happened in November; but the prosecutor never saw the prisoner again until January, when he was in custody in Bow Street.
The counsel for the prisoner contended that they had not made out the charge of the felony, the evidence, if true, amounting only to that of obtaining money under false pretences. Mr. Justice Buller, who tried the cause, admitted the counsel was perfectly right as to the calico and muslin; but he did not agree with him in respect to the shirt, and therefore should leave it to the jury.
Semple, being called upon for his defence, begged permission to read a few words which he had put to paper, fearful his embarrassed situation might otherwise prevent him from saying what be wished. This paper stated that he did not mean to deny he had unfortunately been in that place before; but some of the public prints had so misrepresented facts, that he had reason to fear the minds of the public might be so far prejudiced against him as to suppose he had spent his whole life in committing depredations: to prove that this was not true, he begged to show bow his latter time had passed.
On going abroad, he found the French engaged in a war, fighting, as he thought, for freedom; he entered their service, and was soon honoured with rank in their army.
This, however, at much hazard, he quitted, on their declaring war against this country. and went over to the Austrians, with whom he for some time served as a volunteer.
The commander, noticing his exertions, gave him a commission of so small rank, in which he continued until he was recognised by some British officers, and it was instantly circulated through the army that he was the convicted Semple, he having taken upon himself the name of Lisle.
On this he was obliged to quit that service; but, still willing and, desirous to serve, he went toward the Rhine, and obtained a commission under the hereditary prince.
He had not, however, been long here, when a British officer sent to the commandant that he had been condemned to transportation, without stating that the time had expired.
Being thus suspected of being a runaway felon, he was taken into custody by the police, and confined in a prison for more than five weeks, without even the permission of pen and ink.
The fact being cleared up, he was set at liberty, but not without losing his situation; he again, however, went into the field, and was twice wounded.
This induced him to return home, and he sent a letter to Mr. Dundas, a copy of which he desired might be read; but the Court thinking it irrelevant, it was not admitted.
He then concluded, that he had been thus persecuted because he was Major Semple, and which had also brought him to that bar on that day, upon a charge of which he was totally innocent.
The jury, however, found him Guilty of stealing the shirt, but Not Guilty upon the charge of the muslin and calico; and he was accordingly transported.
Had this action failed, several other indictments were out against him, on various charges of swindling; notwithstanding which, such was the mixture of Semple's character, that various persons of the greatest respectability interested themselves in his behalf, among whom were Burke and Boswell, who both wrote to the under secretary of state, interceding for the royal mercy.
After remaining in Newgate, on the state side, for two years, in a state of uncertainty as to his future destiny, he was at length removed to Portsmouth, and from thence proceeded to New South Wales. On his passage a mutiny took place on board the vessel, and twenty-nine persons were sent adrift in an open boat, among whom was Semple, who had contrived to conceal a quantity of gold in some soap, by which stratagem he succeeded in taking it with him. After a dangerous passage they landed in safety at Fort St. Pedro, in the province of Rio Grande.
The governor of the fort received them with great hospitality, and Semple was introduced as a Dutch officer and passenger. In consequence of a quarrel, however, with an ensign, the latter exposed Semple's character, which so irritated him that he would have murdered him with his sword, if he had not been prevented. After remaining some time in the Brazils, he left it in 1796, and arrived at Lisbon, where he was arrested in consequence of his Brazilian quarrels. By an order, however, from the British minister at Lisbon, he was sent on board an English vessel, and conveyed to Gibraltar. While here he was arrested on account of the discovery of a conspiracy; nothing, however, appearing against him, he was conveyed to Tangier, where he remained some time.
In December, 1798, an order arrived from England, ordering him home in custody; and he was accordingly sent on board a ship, and arrived at Portsmouth the following April. He was immediately conveyed to Tothillfields' Bridewell, where he remained till he was again sent out of the country.
From this period nothing particular occurred in the major's life until his return from Botany Bay in 1810, when he resorted to his former evil practices; but as he became more notorious he became less successful, until at length he was reduced to the utmost distress, and had recourse to the basest means of supporting a miserable existence.
In 1814 he went into a cheese-monger's shop in Devonshire Street, Queen Square, and ordered a small quantity of bacon and butter to be sent to No.42, Cross Street. He met the messenger at the door, and, taking the articles from him, seat him back for six pennyworth of eggs. When the boy returned he knocked at the door, and was informed that the person he inquired for did not live there, and that they knew nothing about him. This was true, for the major had only made a feint of going in to deceive the boy, and had made off when the lad was out of sight.
For this offence he was apprehended, and brought to trial at the Middlesex sessions, December the 3d, 1814, and found Guilty, when, for the third time, sentence of transportation for seven years was passed on him.
It must be lamented that a man possessing the courage and ability which Semple certainly did would not pursue the path of honour, which he might have done so profitably to himself and so serviceably to others. As an additional proof of his talent, we insert the following lines, which were written by him to a young lady at Richmond, in Yorkshire, to whom he was to have been married, but fortunately his character was timely discovered:--
For ever, O merciless fair!
Will that cruel indifference endure?
Can those eyes look me into despair,
And that heart be unwilling to cure?
How oft what I felt to disguise
Has my reason imperiously strove,
Till my soul almost felt from my eyes,
In the tears of the tenderest love!
Then, Delia, determine my fate,
Nor let me to madness be drove;
But, oh! do not tell me you hate,
If you even resolve not to love.'