The Challenger expedition and the life of a crewman, Charlie Collins

The book, A Challenger’s Song, tells the story of the Challenger expedition (1872-1876), the greatest scientific voyage of the Victorian era, and the life of its crewman, my ancestor Charlie Collins.

Charlie and the Challenger Crew

Photo: Challenger Collection, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

‘Old Grandad Collins ran away to sea without his family’s sanction,’ so his granddaughter, my mother Stella, once told me. On New Year’s Day 1863, aged fourteen, he set off for Portsmouth to join the Royal Navy. In 1872, she said that Charlie sailed to the South Pole on HMS Challenger, ‘with the Nares-Thomson expedition.’ Challenger’s four-year voyage laid the foundations of the scientific study of the sea. She was powered by sail and steam and Charlie Collins was the leading stoker.

This year, the Challenger Society and the Natural History Museum celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Challenger expedition.

Share Your Stories

If you have an ancestor among the 240-strong Challenger crew, or a story to tell about the expedition, please share it with us.

About the book

A Challenger’s Song is about the extraordinary Challenger expedition and the life of a crewman, Charlie Collins. The book is in three parts:

We reimagine Charlie’s restless life on ship and ashore, drawing on our family’s oral history, fellow sailors’ diaries and archive materials. Charlie left the Navy on Challenger’s triumphant return home in 1876. But, with his frequent ‘disappearances,’ on a ship or on the drink, it seems the ways of the seas never left him.

We tell afresh the extraordinary story of the Challenger expedition, through the eyes of the crew and scientists, drawing on their letters and accounts. As they dredged and surveyed ‘the great ocean basins,’ they opened a book that was, so far, closed to mankind.  The expedition’s Report founded the science of oceanography.

A narrative of the life and times of Charlie and his wife Mary, drawing on family history, Navy, census, other archives; for the life of this kind but contradictory man has long endured in the memories of his descendants.

The book also includes traditional sea shanties and original songs, inspired by the mariners’ stories.

Cover design by Nick Grant