Voyage of Discovery – part 1

May 29th 1875, the official birthday of Queen Victoria, was a day of huge national importance. Excitement had increased over many months and now, the anticipation of spectacular success even more assured with the realisation that departure was coinciding with Oak Apple Day, the traditional day of celebrating the Restoration of King Charles II [see footnote i] to the throne.  It seemed that the world had descended on Portsmouth, Britain’s premier Naval town to witness the sailing of Her Majesty’s Ships, the HMS Alert and HMS Discovery for the Arctic, and indeed it had.

The ships making their way through a narrow channel in the ice – the Discovery leading. [Source: BNA]

The interest of the Monarchy in the ships preparation for travel had culminated with a visit from the Ex-Empress Eugenie [Bonaparte] and her son, the Prince Regent on the 22nd.  There they had greeted the men who would be sailing the following Saturday.  Once the Royal party had left, the sailors marched through the town led by bandsmen to Portland Hall, Southsea, where the Mayor entertained them to dinner. The hall, which had hosted the Officers two days earlier had been decorated with models of the ships complete with icebergs and banners.  After dinner, Captain Nares of the Alert, and leader of the expedition, made an appearance to “thunderous applause”, followed by many of the men’s wives who were entertained at a separate table.

The dinner for the Officers given by the Mayor of Portsmouth the week before departure [Source: BNA]

Amongst the diners that day was John Langston Saggers, who for the past few months had been serving on Queen Victoria’s Royal Yacht, the HMY Osborne.  He had joined the Navy five years earlier and his record had been exemplary from the start.  Perhaps of greater importance, he was well within the criteria to be aboard the Arctic Expedition ships: at 5’ 4” (163cm) tall he was five inches below the maximum height and he had the fair complexion common to almost all those on board, a feature noted by newspapers eager to report on every facet of the trip.  Single and aged just 22 years old, he was about to embark on an adventure unlike any other – the quest to reach the North Pole before other competing nations.

Extract from the naval Register for John Langston Saggers [Source: Ancestry UK]

Attempts to reach the Pole in the past had always ended in failure with ships and crew either being lost at sea or unable to find a passage through the ice.  A belief held by many was that, if a way through could be found, the Pole may be the centre of a land with a benign climate where plants and animals flourished and potential minerals could be mined.  After all, they argued, had this not happened before with the discovery of the Americas?  This seems such an extraordinary thought in our now enlightened times that the full text can be read in footnote ii.

Map showing the route taken by the two ships through the northern waters [Source: BNA]

By Friday 28th, the men were on duty and only essential non-crew allowed aboard.  Of particular concern were the “Welch and Boucher’s Portable Lifebouys” – life rafts that had a central sealed food reservoir, the rations being sucked up through flexible feeding tubes.  They were also fitted with lanterns so that, at night, any man overboard could (as they assumed) swim to safety. These and hundreds of other items were carefully checked and tested.  Ex-Empress Eugenie had been especially concerned about the men having adequate warm clothing and had made, for each man, “comfortable, woollen-knitted wigs” for which the Expedition was “indebted.”

Newspapers reported every detail: “Implements and apparatus for the Arctic Expedition” [Source: BNA]

On the 29th, the departure ceremonies started early in the day.  The Royal Standard was raised and the men and officers all wore sprays of oak leaves in their button-holes as an expression of their loyalty.  Every ship in the dockyard was dressed from stern to stern with their signal flags, all fluttering in the gentle north-westerly breeze.  The Alert and the Discovery, ready to depart, differed from the other ships by only hoisting the St George ensign.  Piped aboard, the Lord Admirals of the Fleet carried out their final inspection before shaking hands with each of the Officers.  As they left, Mr George Ward Hunt, First Lord of the Admiralty, turned to acknowledge the crew before saying quite simply, “Good-bye, men” to which they responded with loud and excited cheering.

Plans had been made to keep the crew amused during the long hours of Arctic winter darkness Here they are shown putting on a play aboard the Alert [Source: BNA]

On Southsea Common a long line of field guns and troops from the Royal Engineers, the Royal Artillery and other regiments stood facing seawards.   The massed bands became silent at 11.30 and soon after, the first deafening volley of gun salutes echoed across the water to be answered by volleys from the ships and three other places along the coast.  The ceremony concluded with a march past of the massed troops reported with patriotic zeal, “…the perfection of precision for which British troops are so remarkable.”

[Source: BNA]

On the beach and pier, thousands of well-wishers gathered to see the boats depart.  They had travelled from all over Britain with special trains being laid on for the occasion.  Wives and “sweethearts” of the crew were allowed into the dockyard and crowded onto the piers.  Amongst them, and consoling them, were the wives of Scottish trawlermen who fished close to the Arctic ice; their reassurances belying the dangers and losses that they sometimes endured.  On board, Captain Nares read out a telegram from the Queen: “I earnestly wish you and your gallant companions every success, and I trust that you may safely accomplish the important duty you have so bravely undertaken.”  The Queen also sent aboard two large parcels, one for each ship, with the order that they were only to be opened at sea.  I have yet to discover what they may have held.

The time had come to depart, the Alert being the first to leave, followed by the Discovery. Escorting them were flotillas of ships and smaller craft as well as excursion steamers carrying passengers, all bedecked with flags.  From the thousands of spectators onshore and from those on the small boats came cheer after cheer and shouts of “God speed” to be answered with cheering from the crew of both ships.  The newspapers noted that “…four hundred miles – as far as from London to Edinburgh only – is all that stands between him [Captain Nares] and Arctic immortality.  Every Englishman will devoutly pray that he may secure it, and return safe and sound.”

 I discovered the intriguing story of the Arctic Expedition when researching the life of John Langston Saggers, my ancestral 1st cousin. The outcome of the Arctic Expedition, the fate of the Alert and Discovery, and that of John Langston Saggers will follow shortly in my next post.

The Queen’s yacht, HMY Osborne; the ship where John Langston Saggers had served prior to the Arctic Expedition [Source: Wikipedia]

Footnote i.  Oak Apple Day, also known as Restoration Day or Royal Oak Day, commemorates the day in 1660 when King Charles II returned from Exile to be restored to the British throne.  He had fled to Europe following the execution of his father, Charles I during the English Civil War.  Why an oak to commemorate the day?  It was said that he alluded capture by hiding in an oak tree. The tradition of wearing oak leaves has mostly died out but there are several villages in England where local ceremonies still take place.

Footnote ii.  “…the flora of Greenland has three hundred flowering plants.  What may not that of the North Pole number?”  “ …within 400 miles of the Pole man, Esquimaux [sic], has been found.  [May not} a race be found uncontaminated by the vices of the known world, and yet with some of its ingenuity?  …May we not find some ‘Arcadian Retreats,’ some ‘Happy Valleys,’ or perhaps the ‘Lost Ten Tribes?…’

Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Morpeth Herald, The Derby Mercury, The Standard, The Nuneaton Advertiser, The Illustrated London News

Wikipedia

A Sudden Escape

Sometimes it is good to plan and sometimes it is good to be spontaneous. I certainly have proved the latter in the past few days by surprising my family when announcing that I thought I would spend a couple of days away in Sidmouth. “When are you thinking of coming down?” my sister had asked. “Now,” was my response, “can you provide a bed?” I arrived a few hours later.

Sidmouth, a small, Regency resort on the south coast of Devon lies about 170 miles to the south-west of the Cotswolds. Devon, along with Somerset and Cornwall, are three English counties collectively known as “The West Country” and a prime tourist destination. A long peninsula reaching out into the Atlantic Ocean, it has many spectacular cliffs and sandy beaches and these, combined with a benign climate, make it the place where many Brits go for their summer holidays. Inland, it is a country of traditional farming, fast-flowing streams and open moorland and remains one of the few areas where it is possible to roam freely without too many restrictions. It is also home to several National Parks and long-distance footpaths.

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Sidmouth came to prominence during the 1800s when in 1819 the Duke of Kent came to stay with his young child, Victoria. During this stay he died yet despite this inauspicious start the small fishing village became a fashionable place to visit. Later, after Victoria ascended the throne, she gifted to the church a memorial window which in recent times has been restored, partly funded by a further gift by our present Queen. Much of old Sidmouth is now a conservation area and buildings along the Esplanade, the seafront road, are classic examples of those built during this time.

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The Esplanade

Like many coastal towns, Sidmouth is at the mercy of winter storms and with no natural sheltered harbour to protect it, when the sea batters the town it suffers, although not as badly as might be expected. However, it is the exposed sandstone cliffs that bare the brunt of these storms. Erosion is a real and constant threat and the red cliffs of Salcombe Hill are constantly crumbling. A number of houses are at serious risk of collapse in the forthcoming years. The cliffs form part of the Jurassic Coast, a World Heritage Site, renowned for its rock formations and fossils.

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Not there for much longer…

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Modern fossils!

Away from the crumbling cliff, there are two beaches. The Town Beach is of pebbles, reinstated after a 1990s storm washed it away. It is now protected by manmade rocky outcrops. At the far end of town is Jacob’s Ladder beach, so-named after the series of zig-zag wooden steps that lead down to it from the clifftop. This beach is a combination of sand and shingle. Both beaches are popular in the summer when the water is warmer; now, in February, the sea looks less inviting.

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Jacob’s Ladder Beach in midsummer

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The Town Beach in February

The mild, coastal climate protects many semi-tender plants which further inland would suffer damage from frosts. Connaught Gardens, a public space that date from the 1820s, are a riot of colour during the summer months and each year a number of private gardens also open to the public under the National Gardens Scheme.  Although these can be lovely, for me the jewel in Sidmouth’s crown is the area of natural parkland known as The Byes. A 2km green corridor that follows the course of the Sid river, it has a good path network, some outstanding trees as well as wildflower meadows. It is a good place to spot wild birds such as kingfishers and dippers. Popular with residents, it seems less well-known to visitors.

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The Connaught Gardens in midsummer

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The Byes

During the first week of August, at the height of the tourist season, the Sidmouth Folk Festival takes place. First held in 1955, it attracts some of the top names in the country. Apart from the listed acts, others sit around the seafront playing and busking, greatly adding to the atmosphere. When it all proves too much, there is always the opportunity to sit on a deckchair and take a nap in the summer sun.

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Fiddling on the beach

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A Great Game?

A series of faded, sepia photographs have always been a mystery to me, just something else put into a cupboard and forgotten.  Handed down through the generations they recently came to light once more and looked at with renewed interest.  Who were these people and what connection might they have to my family? Two of the images were signed and with this name as my starting point the tale of their origin began to emerge.  The story that is unfolding only deepens the mystery for they were part of the ‘Great Game’, a term I hadn’t come across before.  Now, for me, it has two meanings: warmongering and my struggle to seek out the truth behind them.

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Rudyard Kipling brought the ‘Great Game’ into everyday circles by using it in his novel Kim, published in 1901, although the term had been in use for many years before that.  It described the cat and mouse rivalry between the British and Russian Empires that lasted throughout the nineteenth century.

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Britain, alarmed at Russia’s expansion southwards, feared that Afghanistan would be used as the gateway to an invasion of India.  To avoid this, troops were sent to install a puppet government in Kabul but within four years order was breaking down and the garrison was forced to retreat.  Caught in a series of ambushes, Afghan warriors slaughtered all but one of the 4500 troops and 12000 followers. By 1878 the British invaded again following the Afghani’s refusal to allow a diplomatic mission to visit. A treaty was signed and the army withdrew leaving a small staff in Kabul: in the autumn of the following year they were killed leading to full-scale war – the Second Anglo-Afghan War.  Travelling with the British army was a freelance photographer, John Burke, and it is his signature that appears on my photos.

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History, as we all know, has a habit of repeating itself and sadly the rivalry between Russia and the West over Afghanistan has continued.  Inspired by John Burke, the war photographer Simon Norfolk has carried out a new series of images.  Intriguingly, he lists all of Burke’s plate numbers – the two of mine that are numbered are left blank so perhaps this is the first time they have been seen; rather an amazing thought.

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All that is left now – and no mean feat – is to identify the places and the regiments and to find out where (and if) my family fit into all of this. I have been helped along the way by enthusiasts from a Facebook group.  One of them, Arnie Manifold, has an ancestor that fought there and it is his medals that are shown in the image below.  Wouldn’t it be extraordinary if we discovered his face on one of these old photos?

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copyright   Second Afghan War Medals copyright Arnie Manifold

To view Simon Norfolk’s website and more information on John Burke, click here

To find out how a series of colourful postcards, brought back by my father from WWII, led to the discovery of a German fairy-tale castle, a love affair and an epic poem, click here.