Assistant Surgeon, Alexander McDonald (1817-1848) by a member of the British School, c.1838
It is rarely that an opportunity arises to put a face to one of Franklin’s missing officers. A portrait of Alexander McDonald (1817-48), Assistant Surgeon of HMS Terror, was recently presented to the NMM by a descendant, together with his prize medal from the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh. Leopold McClintock found the medal in the possession of the Inuit during his search expedition of 1857-9 and, on his return, gave it back to the McDonald family. The various other items of silverware engraved with the McDonald crest, which were also retrieved from the Polar Regions, were retained in public ownership.
The portrait gives a good account of the features of the youthful Scottish medic at about the time that he graduated in 1838. Although it appears to be a sketch finished off in a less expert hand. The sitter is dressed in civilian clothing consistent with this date so the identification as McDonald seems very plausible. The NMM has few images of naval surgeons before the mid-nineteenth century with the notable exception of Sir William Beatty, senior surgeon on board the Victory at Trafalgar.
The status of the profession was rising during this period and, like McDonald, many naval surgeons took an active and potentially hazardous part in exploration and other types of scientific endeavour.
One of the newest additions to the Museum‘s fine collection of navigational instruments is this sextant from the turn of the twentieth century. For those who don’t know, a sextant is an instrument used to measure angles at sea (or on land) for the purposes of finding one’s position. In many ways this example is unexceptional for the period – a standard design with all the normal fittings in its wooden box.
But the reason we acquired it is because we know who owned it – a young man named John Duncan Campbell, who won it as an astronomy prize while on HMS Conway, a training ship for the merchant navy.
Campbell seems to have been a good student and won several other prizes, including the special summer prize (a pair of binoculars), a telescope for proficiency in seamanship and a bible as a King’s Gold Medal candidate. After qualifying as a midshipman in July 1904, just a few weeks before his eighteenth birthday, Campbell joined the sailing vessel Invernneil, owned by G. Milne & Co.
We’ve joined The Commons on Flickr, where we’re enjoying sharing some of the content from PortCities. PortCities was a NOF funded digitisation project, which ran between 2003 and 2005, so we’d like to wish everyone season’s greetings and share this PortCities animation that relays a Christmas message…
It’s derived from a print (see below) in the Museum‘s collection. It shows the last great frost fair, which took place during the winter of 1813-14, on the Thames.
The fair on the Thames, February 4th 1814 by Luke Clenell
During particularly cold winters, the Thames would freeze over and spontaneous frost fairs would follow. Frost fairs were popular events and Londoners took to the ice for entertainment. Revelers can be seen dancing and playing games including skittles, while musicians are performing for the crowd behind. The event was captured by typographers who erected printing-presses at the fair to commemorate the festivities.
We hope that you’ll enjoy this short animation and we wish you all the best for the season.
Detail from Englands Famous Discoverers (PAD3722)
Earlier this year the Museum hosted a conference on Richard Hakluyt, the Elizabethan writer who published The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques and Discoveries of the English Nation between 1598 and 1600. Hakluyt was an unashamed propagandist for England’s maritime expansion and the huge number of stories that he brought together and published make terrific reading to this day: shipwrecks, privations, discoveries, encounters with different peoples across the globe, imprisonments, escapes – these are the staples that drive the stories along. In many ways, Hakluyt was the founder of the popular travel writing genre, the heirs of which today are travellers and writers like Michael Palin, Bruce Chatwin and Jonathan Raban. What’s firmly missing from Hakluyt is the ‘here there be dragons’ school of writing, which many people today expect to see in such early maritime adventures, for the Elizabethan mariners were largely practical people engaged on commercial ventures and recording as honestly as they could (with due allowance for exaggeration and wonder) extraordinary sights and experiences. Hakluyt left a unique record of a hugely important period in the history of England and later of Britain. His accounts are still regarded as important scholarly sources.
One of the things that became clear at the conference was that while there had been a lot of work on Hakluyt, there had never been a scholarly edition of The Principal Navigations – in fact, the last complete publication was over eighty years ago, although Penguin published edited highlights in the 1990s. Therefore it was decided that the time was ripe for a new, complete edition and the National Maritime Museum was delighted to be invited to help take the project forward, together with the Hakluyt Society, Dr Daniel Carey (National University of Ireland), Professor Andrew Hadfield (University of Sussex) and Professor Claire Jowitt (Nottingham Trent University). As Head of Research and Curatorial Group, I am representing the NMM on the project. A project of this size will take some years to complete, probably as many as ten years, but the British Academy and Nottingham Trent University have already generously sponsored the appointment of a research assistant and we’re all very confident that this important edition will be produced.
We’ve launched a new series of ‘Gallery Favourites‘ online! ‘Gallery Favourites‘ is a popular series of talks, presented by the Museum’s Gallery Assistants, discussing objects from the Museum’s collection that intrigue them.
In this new series Bill Allan tells the chilling story of the Barbary pirates and their captives. Maria-Antonietta Sorrentino describes Sir John Franklin’s terrible search for the North-West Passage. While Tony Dobson narrates the history of the Royal Observatory’s famous time ball.
You can listen to and download the gallery talks online or visit the Museum to attend one of the popular tours hosted by our Gallery Assistants. ‘Gallery Favourites (talks and tours) ‘ take place daily. Talks and tours are free and there’s no need to book. Visit ‘Gallery Favourites (talks and tours)‘ to find out more and arrange your visit.