Tuesday, 25 April 2017


I recently came across a book – undated, but clearly late 19th Century – entitled “Thrilling Narratives of Mutiny, Murder and Piracy”. It was published in New York, though the author is not named. It is however a treasure house of accounts of obscure maritime events. One of the most remarkable describes the loss of the schooner Betsey in 1805. I’ve found no other references to the case, other than a very brief mention in Wikipedia. The privations of the Betsey’s crew would make a good movie, rather like The Heart of the Sea.

The classic perception of a schooner - trim, elegant and practical
The Betsey may have looked more mundane than in this painting:
The topsail schooner Amy Stockdale off Dover – by William John Huggins (1781-1845)
The Betsey, was a small British schooner of about 75 tons and in November 1805 she departed from the Portuguese colony of Macao, on the Chinese coast, bound for the settlement of New South Wales. Other than her captain, William Brooks, and the mate, Edward Luttrell, none of the other eight crew members were British – one was Portuguese, three Filipino and four Chinese. By November 21st the Betsey had reached a point in the South China Sea about 270 miles West of Palawan, and about the same from the Northern tip of Borneo. Here, in the early hours of the morning, she ran on to a reef. An attempt was made to drag her off by sending a boat astern to drop an anchor. When hauling, the cable parted, resulting in both cable and anchor being lost, but no lives. With destruction of the ship now a distinct possibility the crew worked on through the hours of darkness on construction of raft from water casks – the boat appears to have been too small to accommodate the entire crew.  According to the book’s account “the swell proved so great that they found it impossible to accomplish their purpose.” All the time the weather was driving the damaged vessel onward across the reef – as far, as was estimated, as some five miles. At last lodged at a point where the water was only two feet deep, further attempts over the next three days and nights to free her proved futile.
The horror of shipwreck
There was no option now but to take to the boat and to the raft that had at last been completed. The intention was to head for the island of Balambangan, off the northern tip of Borneo. Captain Brooks, Luttrell the mate and three others were in the boat – with a bag of biscuits between them – while the remainder of the crew were on the raft. Soon after leaving the Betsey a gale arose from the north-west and the boat lost sight of the raft, which was never seen again. The gale continued for another three days “accompanied by a mountainous sea.” By this time the boat had run out of fresh water and the remaining biscuit was saturated with seawater. This forced Brooks and his group to resort to the measure which was often essential in such cases to drink their own urine. The storm had one advantage – it had blown the boat south eastwards so that on November 29th the cost of Borneo was sighted but it was not until dawn the following day that they managed to land.

The first objective was fresh water – luckily soon found – and while hunting for food they encountered two “Malays”. (One assumes that these were people of one of the indigenous tribes – nineteenth century accounts are seldom specific on such points). These two returned in the afternoon with two coconuts and a few sweet potatoes, which they exchanged for a silver spoon. Brooks and his group remained with their boat on the beach through the night but the next morning five more Malays appeared with more food to exchange for spoons. (One is impressed by Captain Brooks’ foresight in bringing the schooner’s cutlery with him).

The next group of Malays to appear – eleven in total – were less friendly and mounted an attack. Captain Brooks received a spear thrust in his stomach – the weapon lodged there – but the mate Luttrell manage to hold off his own assailant with his cutlass and ran to the boat. Captain Brooks managed to drag out the spear and also tried to run but he was overwhelmed and both his legs were cut off by the attackers. Another crew member – identified as “the gunner” was also badly wounded but managed to reach the boat. The survivors pushed her out and saw Brooks’ body being stripped. A sail was raised but shortly afterwards the gunner also died.
"A Piratical Proa in Full Chase": 19th C illustration by Charles Ellms.
Luttrell may have been attacked by something similar.

Course was now set for the Straits of Malacca where friendly shipping might be encountered – this was still some thousand miles away and the provisions consisted of ten corncobs, three pumpkins, and two bottles of water. Progress for the next ten days was good and showers provided fresh water. The survivors were however badly weakened by exposure and hunger. By December 15th they had reached islands off the coast of Sumatra and were immediately attacked by two proas – fast Malays outrigger sailing craft. (The general area was to remain a hotbed of piracy for decades to come.) One of the Betsey’s seamen was run through with a spear and died instantly, while another was wounded. Luttrell, the mate, had a very narrow escape from a spear piercing his hat.  Now prisoners, Luttrell and one other survivor were taken in three days to “an island called Sube” (which I have been unable to identity – names having changed so much over the years). They were handed over to the local rajah, who kept them prisoners, fed only on sago, for the next four and a half months. In late April 180s the Rajah decided to release them and had a proa take them to the Riau Islands (just south of modern Singapore, which would not be founded for another thirteen years). Here they were handed over to a “Mr. Koek of Malacca”, who could have been a Dutch trader – no further details are given in the book. The rajah’s motivation for releasing the two men is not clear – he did perhaps fear retaliation by Royal Navy vessels if the continued detention got heard of.

Mr. Koek treated Luttrell and the other survivor “in the kindest manner” and they were then carried on to the trading centre of Malacca by a British ship, the Kandree. Thereafter they disappear from history. 

If any reader can fill in some of the blanks in this remarkable story – a small epic – I would be glad to hear from them. Brooks, Luttrel and their companions were indeed iron men and worth remembering.

Britannia's Reach 

Ironclads and gunboats clash on a South American river system while government forces, funded by strong commercial interests, wage a savage war with rebels onshore. Click here or on the image below to plunge yourself into a world of danger, betrayal and merciless conflict in which neither side has clean hands and one man battles to maintain his integrity. One click on the image gives you access to the opening chapters...

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

Tuesday, 18 April 2017

The horrific loss of the liner La Bourgogne, 1898

The sinking of the Titanic in 1912 remains locked in the public imagination as the supreme tragedy of North Atlantic passenger travel, all the more so since elementary safety precautions could have saved many more lives, even if they could not save the ship. What is however quite horrifying is that this disaster was preceded by so many others, with lesser but still substantial death tolls. The mantra so common today in the aftermaths of disasters – “Lessons must be learned” – was equally common in those years, but the lessons were not learned and preventive measure were not implemented. Provision of an adequate number of lifeboats was one obvious requirement, but so too was training and discipline of ships’ crews in the event of emergencies. The loss of the French liner La Bourgogne in 1898 was one of the most disgraceful of such disasters, the final death-toll being in no small measure due to the behaviour of a crew whose motto appears to have been “Women and Children Last”.

La Bourgogne, as seen on a postcard circa 1895
Launched in 1885, and entering service the following year on the Le Havre- New York route, the 7395-ton, 490-ft La Bourgogne set a new standard of speed, crossing in just over seven days. Her maximum passenger capacity was just over 1000, of whom some 390 were accommodated in first-class.  Other than her enviable reputation for speed – 17 knots was considered high at this time – her career seems to have been uneventful until 1896 when she collided with a British steamer, the Ailsa, in New York Harbour. The 2000-ton Ailsa was at anchor in fog at the time and she sank in situ. On this occasion, it was the crew of the Ailsa that appears to have behaved deplorably, as evidenced by a question asked by an MP in the British Parliament in March 1896, in the aftermath of the accident. The following quote is verbatim:

MR. HAVELOCK WILSON MP: I beg to ask the President of the Board of Trade, whether his attention has been directed to the reports of a collision between the British steamship Ailsa and the French Transatlantic liner Bourgogne whether he is aware that the major portion of the crew of the Ailsa were foreigners, who immediately after the collision made a rush for the lifeboats, one of them striking a lady passenger and another kicking a lady in the side, and that they drew their knives and threatened the passengers; and afterwards took away the only available lifeboat, in spite of the protests of the captain; whether he will cause an immediate and full Inquiry to be held into the whole of the circumstances attending this collision; whether he can state if the crew of the Ailsa were competent seamen, able to speak and understand the English language; and, whether they were shipped in the United Kingdom or before Her Britannic Majesty's Consul at New York?

Even allowing for the general distrust of “foreigners” – i.e. non-British citizens – was rampant at the time in Britain, the case seems egregious and indicates just how poor the safety standards and procedures on ocean-going shipping still were. It was the crew of La Bourgogne herself however that was to feature in an equally disgraceful manner two years later. The liner had been refitted in 1897-98, with a quadruple-expansion engine – then the gold standard – being installed.

Contemporary artist's impressions left little to the imagination
Shortly after re-entering service, on July 4th 1898, La Bourgogne ran into thick fog some hundred miles south of Nova Scotia at five in the morning. Also enveloped in the fog was the 1550-ton, 245-ft iron-hulled sailing vessel Cromartyshire. She was sounding her fog horn when a ship’s whistle announced the presence of another vessel close by – La Bourgogne. The Cromartyshire’s captain was unable to determine the location of the other ship until La Bourgogne’s starboard side loomed before him. There was no time for evasive action and the sailing vessel gouged into the liner’s side amidships, where many of the passengers were accommodated. 

La Bourgogne began to list immediately to starboard. Many of the lifeboats on that side had been wrecked in the collision and the boats on the port side proved impossible to launch due to the list. Even in this situation a disciplined response might have saved lives but La Bourgogne’s crew panicked and behaved as badly as that of the Ailsa had done two years before. Showing little concern for the passengers, they rushed for the undamaged boats and launched them. In the middle of this chaos, the Cromartyshire, damaged but not fatally, mistook alarm whistles and rockets from the again unseen La Bourgogne as an offer for assistance. Only as the fog thinned, and as the liner sank a half-hour later, was the actual nature of the disaster understood and the Cromartyshire began to pick up survivors from boats and improvised rafts.

The death toll told its own story. Of 506 passengers on board La Bourgogne only 70 were rescued, as compared with 103 members of the crew out of a total of 220. Only three of the La Bourgogne’s eighteen officers survived, indicating that they at least had remained faithful to their responsibilities. Most telling of all is that only one woman survived and none of the children on board. Later reports, which may or may not have been true, indicated that crew members had stabbed passengers in the water, or had beaten them away with oars, to avoid the lifeboats being swamped. Public indignation was so high that La Bourgogne’s surviving crew members needed police protection when they landed at New York to save them from being lynched.

Terrible as the Titanic’s loss may have been, her crew had nothing to reproach itself with in her final agony. The same cannot be said of La Bourgogne’s and their name will live in infamy. 

 Britannia’s Amazon

I’m rather flattered by a review today by author Meghan Holloway on her blog. In it she writes that  “Antoine Vanner's Britannia’s Amazon is a gripping read and features one of the most realistic heroines in historical fiction.”  Click here to read her blog. I’m all the more pleased in that I had set myself a challenge, for the first time, of telling a story wholly from a female viewpoint. It's a dark tale, strongly linked to actual historical events and a particular concern was to reflect the constraints that late-Victorian society placed on intelligent, resourceful women. Click on the image below to read the opening chapters.

Friday, 14 April 2017

1759 – “The Wonderful Year”

A Little Bookworm - Eduard Swoboda (1814-1902)
When I was twelve I found in our local library a leather-bound “Children’s History of the World” in two volumes, each about two and a half inches thick. They dated from the 1890s (the summit of human progress might have been assumed to be Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee in 1887) and by being unashamedly British in outlook would probably arouse the indignation of any politically-correct educationalist today. But I loved them! I spent my school summer-holidays of 1958 reading them cover-to-cover and starting all over again when I got to the end. Several episodes still linger in the memory for the vividness of the writing, notably the Roman tactic of boarding in the naval battles of the First Punic War, the Diet of Worms and the Dutch Revolt (the “Sea Beggars” received especially sympathetic treatment). Knowing that the books dated from the 1890s I was however surprised by the chapter entitled “The First World War.”

A 22-year old Militia officer...
The description was indeed an accurate one, for the Seven Years War of 1756 – 1763, was the first to be fought on a global scale. It was longer indeed that seven years, for hostilities had opened between Britain and Britain in North America in 1754, triggered by an incident in Pennsylvania involving a 22-year old militia officer called George Washington. Two years later the conflict took on an even wider European dimension. The British-led alliance included Prussia, Portugal and the smaller German states, including Hanover, and was opposed by a French alliance with the Austrian Empire, Spain, Sweden and Saxony. Russia was initially allied with Austria but changed sides halfway through. Vast in geographical scope, it was a war in which, in Thomas Babington Macaulay’s phrase, European enmities ensured that “black men fought on the coast of Coromandel and red men scalped each other by the great lakes of North America.” 

David Garrick - 18th Century superstar
The consequences of this war are still with us today – not least as regards the status of Canada – and it confirmed Britain as a world power. A constant reminder of this today is "Heart of Oak, the official march of Britain’s Royal Navy, of the Royal Canadian Navy and of the Royal New Zealand Navy. "Heart of Oak" started however as the most successful popular song of its time, not only because of its memorable tune but for the robust and confident humour of the lyrics. The title refers to the strongest wood at the centre of the oak, from which Britain’s sailing navy was constructed. The words were written by the greatest actor of his time, David Garrick, and the music was composed by a Doctor William Boyce. Its first public performance was on New Year’s Day 1760, in the Theatre Royal in London’s Drury Lane. It was sung by Samuel Thomas Champnes, one of Handel's soloists, and was part of a pantomime written by Garrick entitled "Harlequin's Invasion".

Giving “Johnny Foreigner” a bloody nose has always been popular in Britain – especially if he happens to be French – and “Heart of Oak” commemorated a quick sequence of unprecedented triumphs which satisfied this liking to the limit. The opening stanza is an uncompromising statement of pride:

Come, cheer up, my lads, 'tis to glory we steer,
To add something more to this wonderful year;
To honour we call you, as freemen not slaves,
For who are so free as the sons of the waves?

And the chorus kicks in:

Heart of Oak are our ships,
Jolly Tars are our men,
We always are ready: Steady, boys, Steady!
We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again!

The song was a sensational popular success and it must have been splendid fun to join in with a whole audience belting it out in a packed theatre. But what did the “Wonderful Year” mentioned refer to? The clue is in the date of the song’s premiere, January 1st 1760, for it looks back on the events of the preceding months. 1759 had been the “Year of Victories”, or to the more classically inclined, the Annus Mirabilis, the Wonderful Year. The sequence of these victories by land and by sea ran as follows:

1st August 1759: At Minden, in Central Germany, an Anglo-German army smashes a French army, leading the French Chief Minister, the Duc de Choiseul, to say afterwards "I blush when I speak of our army. I simply cannot get it into my head, much less into my heart…
The Battle of Minden  - a French army destroyed
18th and 19th August 1759:  In the Battle of Lagos, off the Portuguese coast, the Royal Navy decisively defeats a French fleet attempting to pass from the Mediterranean to the French Atlantic coast to join naval units gathering there to support an invasion force intended for Britain.
Victory at Lagos, off the coast of Portugal - by Thomas Luny
13th September 1759: British attempts to capture Quebec, the centre of French power in North America, culminate in a 15-minute battle on “The Plains of Abraham” outside the city following a stealthy amphibious landing and a surprise approach via an “impossible” route up a cliff. The French evacuate the city and never regain the initiative. French Canada is effectively lost forever.
Victory at Quebec, but at the cost of the life of Britain's star general, James Wolfe

20th November 1759:  In the Battle of Quiberon Bay the French naval forces gathered to cover the intended invasion of Britain are smashed by a Royal Navy fleet commanded by Sir Edward Hawke. The locale is on the French Atlantic coast, near St. Nazaire, where rocks and shoals are as great a hazard as the enemy. Hawke nevertheless took his force close inshore in appalling weather and inflicted a crushing defeat that ended all French hopes of invasion.

Victory at Quiberon Bay - perhaps no sea battle was ever fought in worse weather conditions
 The last verse of “Heart of Oak” reflects not just pride in these victories but confidence in the future:

We still make them feel and we still make them flee,
And drub them ashore as we drub them at sea,
Then cheer up me lads with one heart let us sing,
Our soldiers and sailors, our statesmen and king!

The confidence was not misplaced. Another triumph followed three weeks after the song’s premiere:

22nd January 1760: At Wandiwash (today known as Vandavasi, in Tamil Nadu) in the main French army in India was comprehensively beaten by a British force. French ambitions in India were dealt a blow from which they never recovered and the battle confirmed Britain as the new power on the sub-continent.

Nor was this the end of major British victories. On 14th August 1762 Havana in Cuba was captured from the Spanish, who also lost Manila in the Philippines on 10th October 1762.
The captured Spanish fleet at Havana - by Dominic Serres the Elder
The war was ended by the Treaties of Paris and of Hubertusburg in early 1763.  Both Britain and France returned much of the territory they had captured. (A great “What If?” of history is what the consequences would have been of Britain retaining Havana and Manila). There was a major exception however: France was so keen to regain the sugar islands of the Caribbean which it has lost to Britain during the war that it was willing to cede all of its territory in mainland North America in return for getting them back. These tiny sugar-producing islands were regarded of immeasurably greater economic value than Canada, described memorably by Voltaire as "Quelques arpents de neige - Some acres of snow". The decision was as short-sighted as the later Russian sale of Alaska.

Today, at any major national occasion at which the Royal Navy is represented, “Heart of Oak” still inspires pride. And one of the middle verses sums up a sentiment not dead even today:

We ne'er see our foes but we wish them to stay,
They never see us but they wish us away;
If they run, why we follow, and run them ashore,
For if they won't fight us, what can we do more?

 Thank you, David Garrick and William Boyce!

Britannia’s Spartan

1882: Captain Nicholas Dawlish RN has just taken command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. but he has no Dawlish has no forewarning of the nightmare of riot, treachery, massacre and battle he and his crew will encounter. Naval battles in the Yellow Sea are just part of it he must take account of a weak Korean king and his shrewd queen, of murderous palace intrigue, of a powerbroker who seems more American than Chinese and a Japanese naval captain whom he will come to despise and admire in equal measure. And he will have no one to turn to for guidance…

 Click on the image below to read the opening chapters:

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

If you have not already subscribed to the mailing list, you can do so by clicking here or on the banner image above

Tuesday, 11 April 2017

Memorable Quotes about Sea Power

Ever since the Athenian victory over the Persians at Salamis in 480 BC the possession of sea power has been of supreme strategic importance.

Here are a few memorable quotes and examples that summarise this fact so well:

“Without a decisive Naval force we can do nothing definitive, and with it everything honourable and glorious.”
                                                        - General George Washington, December 1780.

Events proved Washington correct. The French strategic victory at the Virginia Capes in 1781 made surrender of British forces at Yorktown an inevitability, thereby securing American Independence. Interestingly, this was the only significant victory in French naval history, but its consequences were momentous.
The battle that made the United States possible - the Virginia Capes 1781
(painting by V.Zweg 1962)
“I do not say the Frenchman will not come. I only say he will not come by sea.”
                                                               - Admiral Lord St.Vincent 1803
 Napoleon’s Grand Armeé was camped at Boulogne, in telescope view from the English coast, and was threatening invasion. St.Vincent had every confidence that The Royal Navy would deter any such step. Not only did it do so but it smashed French and Spanish naval power at Trafalgar two years later.
Napoleon's review of the Grand Armeé at Boulogne 15 August 1804
It never left France for the threatened invasion of Britain
“There is no way of dealing with the Frenchman but to knock him down – to be civil to them is to be laughed at!”
- Admiral Lord Nelson, 1798 at the surrender of the French garrison at Capua
A rather robust view of the enemy and one that served Britain very well in the long years of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars.

Napoleon - a Frenchman needing to be knocked down
“Had we taken ten sail and allowed the eleventh to escape, being able to get at her, I could never have Called it well done.”

- Nelson again, this time summarising his views on the necessity of making every fleet action into a battle of annihilation.
Trafalgar - the definitive battle of the era
“Wherever wood can swim, there I am sure to find the flag of England.”
                                            - Napoleon, July 1815, on his surrender to the Royal Navy

And recognition of the Royal Navy’s worldwide role in 22 years of continuous warfare 1793-1815  it came from its greatest enemy, a fact that made it especially valuable.

“My arm was strong enough, it is true, to stop with a single shock all the horses of the continent. But I could not bridle the English fleet and there lay all the mischief. Had not people the sense enough to see this?”
                         -  Napoleon at St.Helena in 1816

It seems that it was only when he was in his final exile that Napoleon realised that the single most important factor in his downfall was his loss of seaward-control of his shores – whether French or French conquests -  no matter how he controlled the land he held.
Napoleon's Nemesis - a prisoner on HMS  Bellerophon 1815
“The world has never seen a more impressive demonstration of the influence of sea power upon history. Those far-distant, storm-beaten ships, upon which the Grand Army never looked, stood between it and dominion of the world”

- Captain, later Rear-Admiral, Alfred Mahan summing up the role of the Royal Navy in defeating Napoleon. The phrasing is elegant, the quote unforgettable.


Britannia's Reach 

Ironclads and gunboats clash on a South American river system while government forces, funded by strong commercial interests, wage a savage war with rebels onshore. Click here or on the image below to plunge yourself into a world of danger, betrayal and merciless conflict in which neither side has clean hands and one man battles to maintain his integrity. One click on the image gives you access to the opening chapters...

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Adam Worth: the real-life “Napoleon of Crime”

“He’s a thief,” Topcliffe said. “A most accomplished and successful one. That’s why he’s useful to us.”
“But he seemed…”
“Exactly what he is. A clever, cultured, agreeable American gentleman, whose profession just happens to be larceny.”

Adam Worth in 1892
And this is how Adam Worth, alias Henry Judson Raymond, is described as he makes his appearance in Britannia’s Shark, in which he plays a key role. He is similarly prominent as a character in Britannia's Amazon.  Important though this involvement in the affairs of Empire proved to be however, it was only one episode – unknown to the general public until now – in the career of a real-life professional criminal who was to be described by a senior Scotland Yard official as “The Napoleon of the Criminal World.”  This historical figure was as remarkable for the global span of his activities as for the ease with which he found acceptance at the highest levels of British society, despite very humble beginnings.

Worth was born in Germany in 1844 and was taken by his parents to the United States when he was five years old. The family settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where his father worked as a tailor. Worth left home early and by 1860 was in New York City, employed there as a clerk in a  department store – what he apparently described later as “my first and only honest job".  This could have been the start of a life of respectable drudgery but for Worth – as for many others – the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861 was to provide an opportunity if only he could survive it. 

Second Bull Run - where Worth died officially
Worth, now seventeen, enlisted, attracted probably as much by the generous bounty paid to volunteers as by the prospect of adventure.  Showing obvious leadership talents, he was quickly promoted to sergeant in the 34th New York Light Artillery Regiment. When serving at the Second Battle of Bull Run in August 1862 – yet another in a long string of Union defeats – Worth was seriously wounded and shipped back to hospital in Washington D.C. On recovering he found that he had in error been listed as killed in action.

This was Worth’s big opportunity. Officially dead, he was now free to enlist once more and to claim another bounty. Like many others he got a taste for it, taking the money, deserting, re-enlisting again in another unit under another name. (It might be commented in passing that such “bounty- jumpers”, though reprehensible, were no worse than the rich young men who took advantage of their right to pay poor men to serve as substitutes on their behalf once the draft was introduced. The bounty-jumpers at least risked death by firing squad if apprehended. Those who typically paid $300 to a substitute included the banker J.P.Morgan, future president Grover Cleveland and Theodore Roosevelt's father, as well as many other wealthy people. There is much truth in the saying that this was "A Rich Man's War and a Poor Man's Fight").

Worth evaded retribution for his bounty-jumping and at the end of the Civil War saw opportunities in the New York criminal underworld, that merciless society so memorably depicted in the Martin Scorcese movie “Gangs of New York”. Working in his favour was the fact that he was abstemious by nature and that he had a marked talent for planning and financing criminal enterprises. His luck did however run out, landing him in Sing Sing prison. He escaped within weeks. 

Marm Maddelbaum
- not to be underestimated!
With his appearance now altered by magnificent mutton-chop whiskers, he established a profitable relationship with a fence and criminal financier called Frederika Mandelbaum, known to her friends as "Marm" - obviously a lady to be approached with caution. By 1869 Worth had masterminded a serious of big robberies and was sufficiently respected to be contracted to spring a robber called Charley Bullard from prison. This successful operation involved bribing of guards and digging of a tunnel. Worth and Bullard now formed a partnership – one of their most notable coups was robbery of a bank in Boston by the same method featured in the Sherlock Holmes story “The Red Headed League”. For this a shop was set up near the bank and from it a tunnel was excavated to gain entrance. Worth and Bullard were now so successful that the Pinkerton Detective Agency was set on their trail. Judging the United States to be too hot for them they set sail for Europe.

A typical dinner party hosted by “Marm” Mandelbaum (R) and her "inner circle".
 From "Recollections of a New York Chief of Police" (1887) by George W. Walling,

Paris in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and the Commune that followed in 1871 was the corrupt and hedonistic sink immortalised in the work of Zola, de Maupassant and Toulouse-Lautrec. Worth had now re-invented himself as “"Henry Judson Raymond", an American financier, and had acquired the grace and polish to carry it off. With Bullard he operated a major gambling operation in Paris as well as initiating a series of high-value robberies. In the mid-1870s they moved to Britain and here “Raymond” established himself as a popular member of smart society, an acquaintance of the Prince of Wales and a free spender. He bought a magnificent villa in the London suburb of Clapham and maintained in parallel an apartment in a fashionable area off Piccadilly. 

Worth's Clapham villa today
(with acknowledgements to Wikipedia)
Worth formed a criminal network and organised major robberies and burglaries through intermediaries such that his name was unknown to those who were involved directly.  The focus was on high-value proceeds and Worth established the principle that those working for him did not use violence. William Pinkerton, who was later to have direct dealings with him, wrote that:

In all his criminal career, and all the various crimes he committed, ... he was always proud of the fact that he never committed a robbery where the use of firearms had to be resorted to, nor had he ever escaped, or attempted to escape from custody by force or jeopardizing the life of an official, claiming that a man with brains had no right to carry firearms, that there was always a way, and a better way, by the quick exercise of the brain.

Gainsborough's Duchess of Devonshire
Scotland Yard was aware of Worth’s network but was unable to prove anything. From his London  base the Worth operation now functioned on an international scale, including an ambitious swindle involving forged letters of credit in Turkey and a theft of $500,000 worth (in 1870s money!) of uncut diamonds. To oversee the latter operation Worth travelled to South Africa. It was in this period also the Worth pulled off his most spectacular coup. The Thomas Ganisborough painting of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, had recently been rediscovered and was on display in 1876 at an art dealer’s gallery in London. Worth became fascinated by it – obsessed might be the better word. He organised its successful theft with two associates, thereby triggering an international hue-and-cry in the coming years about its whereabouts.  The expectation was that the unknown thieves would attempt to sell it or ransom it but it was in fact to remain in Worth/Raymond’s London apartment within a mile of the gallery. He appears to have immense pleasure in possessing it.

Worth’s criminal enterprises – and his double life – continued through the 1880s. By the early 1890s however he was losing his touch and was arrested in the course of a botched robbery of a money-transport in Belgium in 1892. Worth refused to talk but the net drew in on him when his photograph and details were circulated to Scotland Yard and the United States’ Pinkertons and NYPD. He was now betrayed by several of his associates and following trial was sentenced to seven years in a Belgian gaol. It appears to have broken him, possibly more for the fall from social respectability and prestige than from the physical conditions – he must have endured worse in the Civil War.

He was released early, for good behaviour, in 1897. He determined to return to the United States, where his two children were living (Worth’s affairs with women would need an article to themselves!) but to do so he needed funds. He got them by robbing £4000 (1897 money!) worth of diamonds from a London dealer.

Karl Marx - Worth's neighbour
in Highgate Cemetery
Worth was at risk of prosecution in the United States for his earlier offences there. He had one card still up his sleeve – the Duchess of Devonshire, whom he had managed to keep hidden for some twenty years. He approached the Pinkertons and agreed to return the painting to the dealers he has stolen it from in return for $25,000 and a guarantee of non-prosecution. The exchange of portrait and payment took place in Chicago.  In funds again, Worth returned to London – again as Henry Judson Raymond – with his children. His son appears at a later stage to have become a career Pinkerton detective. The Duchess of Devonshire’s ransom seems to have slipped as easily through Worth’s fingers as all the other money he had come by over four decades. He died in London in 1902 and was buried, under the name of Raymond, in a pauper’s grave in Highgate Cemetery, close to Karl Marx.

The appellation of “The Napoleon of the Criminal World” was awarded Worth by Sir Robert Anderson, Assistant Commissioner (Crime) of the London Metropolitan Police, from 1888 to 1901. The phrase seems to have inspired Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, with the idea of a criminal mastermind, Professor James Moriarity. Holmes described him as follows:

Moriarty - he looks
less fun than Worth!
'He sits motionless, like a spider in the centre of its web, but that web has a thousand radiations, and he knows well every quiver of each of them. He does little himself. He only plans. But his agents are numerous and splendidly organised… the agent may be caught. In that case money is found for his bail or his defence. But the central power which uses the agent is never caught - never so much as suspected”

And Holmes summed him up as:

“…the Napoleon of crime. He is the organizer of half that is evil and nearly all that is undetected in this great city.  He is a genius, a philosopher, an abstract thinker.  He has a brain of the first order.'

Adam Worth would have been flattered!

Adam Worth's role in the Dawlish Chronicles...

1881: It is in Britannia's Shark that Nicholas Dawlish encounters Adam Worth, a.k.a. Henry Judson Raymond for the first time. To all appearances a rich and cultured Americn who had chosen to live in Britain and move in the highest levels of society, Raymond also has the contacts that Dawlish needs across the Atlantic if a threat to British naval supremacy is to be overcome. Urbane, ruthless and very, very effective, Raymond is an ally worth having...

Click here to read the opening chapters of Britannia's Shark

1882: In Britannia's Amazon, Florence Dawlish is facing months of separation when her husband Nicholas sails with his cruiser to the Far East ( as told in Britannia's Shark). Florence expects them to be quiet months which she plans to fill with welfare work for seamen's families in Portsmouth. But her witnessing of a brutal abduction on the street plunges her into a maelstrom of corruption, violence, blackmail and intrigue. The enemies she faces are merciless an vicious, their identities protected by guile, power and influence.  Henry Judson Raymond might jut be the person to assist her... but can she trust him?

Click here to read the opening chapters of Britannia's Amazon

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

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Tuesday, 4 April 2017

Disaster off Punta Arenas 1881

Chile’s Punta Arenas, on the Brunswick Peninsula, to the northern side of the Strait of Magellan, is probably the most southerly city in the world. It was originally established as a penal colony by the Chilean government in 1848 to assert sovereignty over the Strait – at the expense of Argentina, which had similar ambitions. The Chilean claim was finally accepted in a treaty between the two countries in 1881. Through the nineteenth century, and up to the opening of the Panama Canal in 1914, this waterway was of the highest importance as it allowed passage from the South Atlantic to the Pacific while bypassing Cape Horn. Developments on the Pacific coasts of both North America and South America led to very high levels of traffic through the strait and as such the area assumed greater geopolitical importance than it possesses today.
Punta Arenas today (courtesy of Wikipedia)
It was at Punta Arenas that one of the Royal Navy’s most significant peace-time disasters occurred in 1881 when the steam sloop, HMS Dotterel, was destroyed there by internal explosion. The significance of this event was that it was possibly the first in a long series of internal explosions that were to destroy warships in many navies in the next forty years.  Many of the ships involved were very large units. France was to lose two battleships – Iena and Liberté – in the years before World War 1 and during this conflict Britain was to lose several major units – including a modern battleship, HMS Vanguard. Japan was also to lose two capital ships to explosions during the war, as did Italy, which lost the modern battleship Leonardo di Vinci. One explosion – that which destroyed the USS Maine in Havana harbour in 1898 – was to have a major influence on world history. Wrongly blamed on a mine laid by the Spanish authorities, this accident was a trigger for the Spanish-American War, which was decisive in setting the United States on the path to global superpower status.
HMS Doterel, as completed
Though the exact causes of the explosions remained uncertain in many cases – not least because the massive loss of life usually incurred meant there were few surviving witnesses – the majority were due a low perception of the risks involved in handling and storing modern ammunition. The victims were almost invariably moored in harbour when the accident happened and in many cases ammunition loading and stowage was in progress. Unstable explosives were not the only cause –a dust explosion during coal loading was a possibility in at least one case. Careless handling of flammable substances also led to accidents. Many of these explosions were regarded as mysteries for many years – in the case of the Maine for decades. In its immediate aftermath the loss of HMS Doterel was also seen as unexplained.

HMS Doterel was one of fourteen sloops of the Osprey/Doterel-class sloops launched by the Royal Navy from 1876 to 1880. They were of “composite construction”, which meant wooden planking over an iron frame. Cheap, slow and well-armed, they were not intended for fleet employment but rather for support and power projection, often on a single ship basis, on distant stations. Of 1130 tons and 170 ft length they carried a barque rig to supplement their 1100 hp single-screw engines. Under power they struggled to make much over 11 knots but the provision of sails reduced their dependency on coal supplies – a major concern on remote stations – as well as increasing their operational range. They were heavily armed for their size – two 7 in on pivoting mounts and four 64-pounders, all muzzle loaders. Though obsolescent, these weapons were simple to operate and more than adequate for the type of shore bombardment needed for dealing with local emergencies or petty uprisings.
HMS Miranda, a sister of HMS Doterel
HMS Doterel was a new ship, launched the previous year, when she was sent in early 1881 to join the Pacific Station, which included the western coasts of North and South America as well as China and Japan. Under her captain, Commander Richard Evans, she arrived at Punta Arenas at 09:00 on 26 April 1881. Less than an hour later an explosion occurred in her forward magazine. Eyewitnesses described wreckage being thrown into the air, followed by a huge column of smoke. Broken into two sections, the ship sank instantly. Boats from several vessels in the immediate vicinity, and from shore, rushed to find survivors but out of a crew of 155 only twelve were found, one of them Commander Evans. The force of the explosion had stripped all his clothing away and was indeed so violent that only three complete bodies were subsequently recovered, as well as some body parts. The horror of the situation is illustrated by the fact that these remains were loaded into boxes and buried at sea in the same afternoon. An Anglican missionary working in the area, a Reverend Thomas Bridges, subsequently presided over the mass memorial service.
Funeral service held above the site of Doterel's wreck
In the immediate aftermath several theories were advanced as causes. A boiler explosion, triggering a magazine detonation,  was perhaps the most obvious possibility. Another involved sabotage by Fenians – Irish Republicans – an idea not as bizarre as it might sound since a successful mission had been mounted five years previously to rescue six Fenian prisoners from a penal colony in Western Australia. The key role in this rescue was played by a chartered American whaler, the Catalpa. Another theory considered that the explosion had been caused by a Whitehead torpedo lost by HMS Shah when she has been in the area three years before.
Salvage operations - note the diver being lowered from the boat on the right
Two Royal Navy cruisers, HMS Garnet and HMS Turquoise, were sent to Punta Arenas to conduct salvage and investigation operations. Extensive use was made of divers and this received much coverage in illustrated papers since the “Standard Diving Dress” then represented cutting edge technology. The possibility of a boiler explosion was definitively proven to be false when the boilers were found in perfect condition. The investigations showed that Doterel’s hull had been blown apart, leaving two separate sections, fore and aft. The ship's guns, screw and other valuable fittings were salvaged. Insights gained provided evidence for formal enquiry at Portsmouth by a scientific committee. This decided in September 1881 that the disaster had been caused by detonation of coal gas in Doterel’s bunkers, and that no crew members were at fault.
Another view of salvage operations
 Shortly afterwards, in November 1881, another explosion occurred on a Royal Navy warship, once again in Chilean waters. This was on board HMS Triumph, a broadside ironclad en route to the Pacific Station, as had been the Doterel. Though three men were killed and seven were wounded the ship herself survived. It was determined that the explosion had been caused by a volatile substance called xerotine siccative which was mixed in paint to accelerate drying.

HMS Gannet
It was not until 1883 that the cause of the Doterel explosion was settled. A surviving crew member, upon later smelling xerotine siccative while on another ship, stated that he had smelled it before the 1881 explosion. He explained that a jar of the liquid had cracked while being moved below deck. Two men were ordered to throw the jar overboard. While cleaning the leaking explosive liquid from beneath the forward magazine, the men may have broken the rule of not having an open flame below decks. The xerotine siccative exploded first, letting off the huge explosion in the forward magazine.

A lesson had been learned the hard way. The Admiralty ordered the compound to be withdrawn from use and demanded better ventilation below decks. One source of disaster had been eliminated, but more remained and numerous other ship losses lay in the future. But that’s another story…

Though the Doterel's career was a short one, a sister of hers, HMS Gannet, is still in existence. She has been restored beautifully and is now on view at Chatham Historic Dockyard in England. She is well worth a visit and provides as splendid insight to life in the Victorian Royal Navy.

The photograph on the left shows Gannet in 2005 and is reproduced with all thanks to Paul Englefield and Wikipedia.

If you want to read about adventure in the age of transition from sail to steam,  then try The Dawlish Chronicles, which so far stretch to five volumes. Start the adventure with "Britannia's Wolf" which features ironclads in combat, desperate land action in the depths of a savage winter, and murderous political intrigue. You can get it in Kindle or paperback format. Click on the image below for details.

Download a free copy of Britannia’s Eventide 

To thank subscribers to the Dawlish Chronicles mailing list, a free, downloadable, copy of a new short story, Britannia's Eventide has been sent to them as an e-mail attachment.

If you have not already subscribed to the mailing list, you can do so by clicking here or on the banner image above