The Institute of Marine Engineering Science and Technology has recently made a very generous loan. Royal Museums, Greenwich now provides a home for an important memorial to the engineers of Titanic.
None of the twenty five engineer officers survived, and many of the firemen and coal trimmers also died in the disaster. They delayed the final sinking by keeping the pumps running preventing the boilers from exploding. The lights remained on and the wireless working until the vessel went down.
The loss of Titanic began a change of attitude towards ship’s engineers. During the Royal Naval Exhibition of 1891, Punch published a cartoon about the event, showing a notice which said: “ENGINEER SNUBBING THROUGHOUT THE DAY.”
The three memorials to Titanic’s engineers show them in a newly heroic light. The bronze wall memorial set up at the then Institute of Marine Engineers, was paid for by part of a relief fund set up by the Institute and the Daily Chronicle. By sculptor George Alexander (1881-1942), it shows two engineers, a relief of the sinking vessel and Neptune’s head flanked by polar bears.
The main engineers’ memorial by Whitehead and Sons, stands in East Park, Southampton. It has reliefs of two engineering officers, crowned by a winged Victory standing on a ship’s prow. The memorial, also erected by public subscription and contributions from fellow engineers, was unveiled in 1914 by Sir Archibald Denny. The remainder of the crew, including the coal trimmers and firemen were commemorated by a drinking fountain set up on Southampton Common the following year. It now stands in the bombed ruins of Holy Rood Church.
The engineers’ memorial on the Pier Head at Liverpool, by William Goscombe John was not finished until 1916. By that time unrestricted submarine warfare had placed all merchant seafarers in the front line, the casualties overwhelming those lost in the Titanic. An obelisk terminating in flames and surrounded by the burley figures of engineers and stokers now celebrates all: “Heroes of the engine room”.
In my job as Curator of Antiquities I have the great pleasure of looking after the Museum’s fascinating collection of flags. The museum’s collection includes part of an early US ensign, 1600.2 x 1676.4 mm in size. The fifteen star canton survives with two stripes still attached to it. Its construction would appear to be improvised, the bunting being a silk and cotton mixture, the stars linen and the hoist silk. It is all that survives of a flag believed to have been captured by the British in the famous action between Shannon and USS ‘Chesapeake’ on 1 June 1813. The ensign was sold by Debenham, Storr & Sons in 1900 and was said to have been handed down through the family of Lieutenant Samuel Grandy RN who died in 1856. Although Grandy was actively employed in the Navy in 1813, he was not on board ‘Chesapeake’ at the time of the action. After a period in a private museum run by T.G. Middleton at the Edinburgh Castle public house, Regent’s Park, the ensign appeared on the market again in 1908 when it was bought by anglophile American millionaire, William Waldorf Astor for 850 guineas and presented to the Royal United Services Institute Museum. It remained there until the museum closed in 1963 and was then transferred to the National Maritime Museum.
USS ‘Chesapeake’ ensign flag
The capture of ‘Chesapeake’, which took place during the War of 1812, ended a series of actions in which larger and more heavily armed American frigates had captured British opponents.
Fired on by the British in 1807 and scarcely able to retaliate on that occasion, ‘Chesapeake’ already had a reputation as an unlucky ship. At Boston in May 1813, she had just been refitted and had a new commander, James Lawrence. Philip Broke, who saw his chances of promotion dwindling as the war progressed, detached his sister ship to even the contest and issued a challenge to Lawrence. In the event, Lawrence came out of port before he received it. He had been ordered to proceed to the mouth of the St Lawrence and intended to deal with that enemy frigate on the horizon en route.
Boarding and Taking the American ship ‘Chesapeake’ by the Officers & crew of HMS ‘Shannon’
‘Chesapeake’ was wearing three American ensigns in case one or more was shot away and a white flag with the words: “Free trade and sailor’s rights” – a reference to the grievances that had provoked the war.
A seaman asked Broke: “Mayn’t we have three ensigns sir, like she has?”
Broke replied: “No we’ve always been an unassuming ship”.
The 11-minute action ended with the capture of ‘Chesapeake’, not because of Broke’s enthusiasm for long range gunnery, but because of ‘Shannon’s’ superior rate of fire at close quarters and the successful boarding of the US ship by the British. The fact that ‘Chesapeake’ had an inexperienced crew may have decided the issue. Casualties were very heavy on both sides – both Lawrence and his second in command Augustus Ludlow were mortally wounded. Broke, left literally with a hole in the head, and surprisingly survived until 1841. Lawrence’s injunction: “Don’t give up the ship” was widely reported in the press and reproduced on a flag flown at the battle of Lake Erie a few months later.
The museum also holds ‘Chesapeake’s’ signal book, bound with a bar of lead in the spine so it could be thrown overboard and prevented from falling into enemy hands.
On 1 June there was no time to do this.
Signal book of USS ‘Chesapeake’.
Nasty, brutal and short (to misquote Hobbes), this dramatic confrontation between two ambitious commanders ended in personal tragedy. However it became a great focus of patriotism on both sides of the Atlantic during a war in which the United States Navy emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
A pair of painted pearl oyster shells (ZBA4546 and ZBA4547)
Many craftwork items involve an appropriate combination of sailors with seashells. The nautilus shells engraved by C.H. Wood turn up quite frequently in the salerooms. Boxed shell valentines made in Jamaica are also well known to collectors. However, when the family of Able Seamen Wright offered us a pair of painted pearl oyster shells, we realised that they were something new to our collections. The shells are quite big and are likely to belong to the largest type of pearl oyster (Pinctada Maxima). These are found in the Eastern Indian Ocean and Western Pacific and historically were harvested not only as a source of pearls but as the basis of a shell button industry.
The shells commemorate a cruise by HMS Juno in the Indian Ocean during World War I and fit in with the NMM’s current research interests in this part of the world. Although his family believe that Henry Wright painted the shells himself, it is possible that he may have bought them in Sri Lanka as a souvenir of his visit. Displays of national flags featured on many items of popular decorative art at this time, notably on the silk embroideries produced in the Far East for sale to western seamen.
A bonus of these attractive items is that we know a good deal about their owner. Able Seaman Henry Wright was born in Plymouth in 1876 and joined the Navy as a boy 2nd class at the age of twelve. He served on the China Station in HMS Victorious during 1897-1900 and in Amphitrite 1902-1905. His service record describes him as a short, dark man with ‘HW’ within a heart transfixed by an arrow, tattooed on his right forearm and an anchor tattooed on his left forearm. He was serving on armoured cruiser HMS Aboukir when she was sunk by U-9 in the North Sea on 22 September 1914. During 1917, he joined Juno and remained in her until the end of the war in 1919. He married Mabel Ada Toms and they had 10 children.
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.
I was very pleased to have the opportunity recently, in one of the NMM‘s staff seminars, to share some of my researches into the way that lifesaving is commemorated as a meritorious act – particularly on memorials. The lifesaving movement took off in the late 18th century, having originated amongst medical men who were interested in reviving the apparently drowned. The aim was to save anyone from premature accidental death, regardless of their importance, and to devise suitable inventions – such as the lifeboat – to achieve this end. By the 19th century, naval officers were doing it and clergymen were promoting it, but it took longer for ordinary lifeboat-men to gain public recognition.
The Wreck of the East Indiaman ‘Dutton’ at Plymouth Sound, 26 January 1796 by Thomas Luny
The movement led to the production of all sorts of interesting associated commemoratives, from sculpture and stained glass windows to medals, prints and ceramics. Thomas Luny’s painting of the wreck of the Dutton was commissioned by Admiral Sir Edward Pellew (1757-1833), 1st Viscount Exmouth. If you peer very closely at the stern of the stranded vessel you can see Pellew himself, organising the rescue of the passengers who are being hauled ashore on a line.
Statuette of Grace Darling, c. 1900
At NMM, our lifesaving medals are each small works of art and we hope sometime in the future to research the stories behind them and make this information available online. We have also recently acquired a small wood and ivory statuette of Grace Darling, who rowed out to sea to rescue survivors of the wrecked SS Forfarshire. This statuette, which was made in about 1900, is quite unlike anything already in our collections.
Tomb of Grace Darling, which overlooks the sea at Bamburgh
During a holiday in Northumberland I was able to see the heroine’s tomb, built in the gothic-revival style, overlooking the sea at Bamburgh. I was fortunate to be there on one of the few sunny days this year. I would like to thank friendly people in South Shields, particularly at St Hilda’s Church and the Local Studies Library, for their help during my visit.