Voyage of Discovery – part 2

The Ex-Empress Eugenie (Bonaparte) was so concerned about the men keeping their heads warm that she had made for the sailors of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875 “special woollen wigs” to wear.  Nellie, the ship’s Labrador Retriever, would have preferred the same concern for her welfare.  It was only when Captain Nares, the leader of the Expedition, enquired further that he realised that the “Esquimaux” [sic] chief wanted her as a gift.  Nellie’s black coat had grown thick and luxurious in the freezing temperatures –a jacket made from it would be the most perfect present for his wife.  He assured the captain that the meat wouldn’t go to waste either.  The image below, shows Nellie rescued and safely returned to England the following year. 

Her Majesty’s Ships, HMS Alert and Discovery had left England to rapturous applause.  The Expedition to reach the North Pole had captured the imagination, not just of Queen Victoria and the British people but was causing a sensation world-wide.  The newspapers had explored every detail of the ships from their build to the foodstuffs they would be carrying, their planned route, the sailors, and the most exciting prospect of all: finding a sub-tropical paradise hidden beyond the ice packs.  (To read the story about the ships departure and the build-up leading to it can be read by clicking this link here). The journey would, of course, discover little else other than ice.  Sailing away from port in May 1875 to the sound of cheering and gun salutes the men were in high spirits.  These must have given way to deep trepidation when the two ships parted company from one another to sit out the Arctic winter separately amongst the ice floes.

Sitting out the Arctic winter

The ships had followed the coastline of Greenland northwards before crossing the sea in fine weather to Cape Isabella.  Here the weather changed and they picked their way through floating ice in thick fog.  Reaching Lady Franklin Bay, in the northernmost tip of Arctic Canada on 27th August, the Discovery set anchor for the winter, the Alert continuing its journey for another five days before being unable to progress further.  When the sun finally disappeared below the horizon on October 12th they would be in total darkness for 142 days.  For the sailors, hearing only the sounds of wind and creaking ice, the sense of isolation must have felt all-encompassing.  To make matters worse, the sledging crew that had been dispatched to reach the Discovery to give word of the Alert’s position had returned defeated by the weather.  They had been out on the ice for twenty days, the last two of which they had travelled in total darkness.  Riven with scurvy and affected by frostbite, several of the men needed amputations.  To make matters worse, they reported they had seen no land whatsoever.

Camping overnight on the ice

It would be interesting to know the feelings of sailor John Langston Saggers during this time and whether he was selected to be one of the sledging party.  Saggers – who is my ancestral first cousin – was aged 18 when he joined the Royal Navy and his conduct had been exemplary.  Five years later he would be aboard the Discovery sailing for the Arctic, perhaps chosen for both his military record and because he had served on Victoria’s royal yacht, HMY Osborne, the ship he would return to in later years.  One can only imagine the tales he must have told in his later years of his Arctic adventure.

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

Great care had been taken prior to departure over the welfare of the men.  Apart from warm clothing and adequate food provisions, the sailors were given facilities and equipment to keep them amused during the long winter months.  The ships both had theatres for the men to stage plays and they also had equipment to enable them to venture outdoors.  The men of the Discovery built a theatre on the ice with a 60ft x 27ft stage which they named after Alexandra, the Princess of Wales. They opened it on her birthday, 1st December with a farce, ‘My Turn Next.’  They also created a skating rink by pouring melted water over the ice which refroze to form a smooth surface.  The image below shows the skating rink with HMS Discovery locked in the ice in the background.

The sun reappeared on February 29th and plans were immediately put in place for further sledging expeditions.  With over one hundred degrees of frost recorded, one officer was badly affected by the cold.  He was returned to the Alert, his comrades taking turns to lie alongside him in an attempt to maintain his body temperature.  Although he survived the journey, he died soon after his two badly frostbitten feet had been amputated.  A week later, a small party of men led by Lieutenant Rawson reached the Discovery to tell them all was well.  The newspapers on hearing of it, reported with special pride that as the men’s frostbitten noses, cheeks and fingers were being treated Rawson jovially said, “at least the cheers from Southsea beach [on their departure from England] have now been fairly earned.”

Inevitably, there were a number of deaths amongst the sledging parties

In April the sledging parties started in earnest with small groups of men travelling in every direction.  On board the ships only the chaplains, medical officers and the sick remained alongside half a dozen essential crew members.  Exploring further north than any previous expedition, yet separated from one another, the groups remained unaware of the suffering and deaths of one another.  Although unsuccessful in reaching the North Pole they brought home with them detail of the birds and animals that they found along their way.  Of greater importance for future expeditions, they confirmed for the first time that there was “no open sea” or “an ocean teeming with life” or any “Elysian Fields”, only “an icy desert where all life ends.”  Finally, at the end of July 1876, the Alert broke free of the ice to rejoin the Discovery and together they began their battle through the slowly thawing sea on the start of their long journey home.

The sledging parties prepare to leave

The return of HMS Alert and HMS Discovery to England on Thursday 9th November 1876 was greeted with as much excitement as their departure.  Sailing into Portsmouth they were greeted by the Commander-in-Chief of the Fleet, the Lord Mayor, cheering crowds and massed bands.  The crew were allowed on shore that evening; the papers reporting proudly that “their behaviour has been excellent.”  The following day, back aboard ship, the men received three weeks’ leave and a month’s advance of pay. Over the following weeks the public continued to arrive in the town to visit the ships and an exhibition of the trip. 

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HMS Alert icebound as well as homeward bound

For the sailors of the Expedition there was still more celebration to come.  In early December the Lord Mayor of London entertained the officers and crews to a banquet at the Mansion House.  The newspapers noted that “all kinds of wines, and pheasants and plover were served, just as if Her Majesty’s Ministers were present.”  The wives and children watched the proceedings from the galleries of the ‘sumptuous” surroundings of the Egyptian Room.  At the end of the evening, the men were presented with gifts of pipes and tobacco.  Queen Victoria also relayed her gratitude to the men, thanking them for their dedication to service, their heroism and commiserating for the loss of life.  She also commanded that “… a medal be granted to all persons of every rank and class who were serving on the Alert and Discovery during the Arctic Expedition of 1875-76…”  For the ordinary seaman and his family, it must have been a sight so beyond their usual experience and one that would never be forgotten.   Records show that Cousin John Langston Saggers received his medal, albeit with an error engraved into the spelling.  Whether it is now in a private collection or still held by a member of his family or has been lost is unknown.

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Mid-day, Thursday, 9th November 1876: HMS Alert & HMS Discovery enter Portsmouth Harbour

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Of special interest to my American readers

Captain Nares of the Alert stopped at Polaris Bay, Canada to hoist the American ensign and fire a gun salute.  He also erected a brass tablet the expedition had brought with them which read, “Sacred to the memory of Captain F C Hall of the U.S. ship Polaris, who sacrificed his life in the advancement of science on Nov, 8th 1871.  This tablet has been erected by the British Arctic Expedition of 1875, who, following in his footsteps, have profited by his experience.”

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Over the years there would be many more attempts to reach the North Pole.  It would not be until 12th  May 1926 that Roald Amundsen scientifically proved that he had succeeded.

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Sources

Ancestry UK

Royal Navy Registers of Seamen’s Services 1848-1939

British Newspaper Archive: The Norwich Mercury, The South London Chronicle, Shetland Times, Fife Herald, The Illustrated London News, Luton Times & Advertiser, The Graphic

British Polar Exploration and Research: A Historical and Medallic Record with Biographies 1818-1999

Wikipedia

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. Edit: This is now published and can be found by clicking this link.

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.