Remembered Lives 1: Meet the Challenger Crew
For all its scientific achievements, accounts of the Challenger expedition (1872-76) still speak of the ‘anonymity’ and ‘unheard voices’ of the 200-odd crew who drove the ship along. Controversially, even the Report of the ship’s Surgeon (1885) says ‘the medical history of the Expedition is of little interest.’
So who were the Challenger crew? What was their experience and contribution to Challenger’s epic 68,890-mile voyage? And why did only 140 of the original crew complete the three-and-a-half year circumnavigation?
Meet the Challenger Crew
The men were all volunteers. Leading Stoker, Adam Smith, responded to a Royal Navy calling notice posted his barracks in Sheerness. In his memoir, he reckons that of 600 volunteers, 250 men attended medicals.
In December ’72, Challenger set sail with a complement of 242 men, including officers and scientists: let’s say about 200 working seaman and Boys. They were carpenters and sail and rope makers, blacksmiths, coopers, stokers like my great grandfather, engineers, Boy Sailors, and the topmen with ‘hold fast’ tattooed across their knuckles, men who could furl a frozen sail in an ice storm, high above the deck.
They were trained to operate a man-o-war, but would face very different demands on a ship of science.
The Admiralty’s service records reveal much about the men’s personal history and conduct: their rank, trade, personal description (height, eye colour, and distinguishing marks such as scars, tattoos, and bracelets). And for each man we learn whether they were promoted during the voyage, as many were, or invalided, hospitalised, deserted (ran) from the ship, imprisoned, transferred, or discharged as ‘unsuitable.’
The officers and scientists were lionised by Victorian society. We can put a face to a name of many of them in learned publications.
So, for the first time, let’s meet some of the sailors.
Charlie Collins, Stoker
Charlie Collins 1847-1932
My great grandfather, Charlie Collins, was one of the ship’s 14 stokers. He was born in Brighton in 1847. He settled back there with his wife, Mary, after he returned from the expedition. She had nine children. His grandchildren, including my Mum, Stella Collins, her siblings and cousins, knew him well as children, for he lived long enough to be remembered as their elderly sailor grandfather in the 1920s and 30’s. Mum said ‘Old grandad Collins ran away to sea without his father’s permission, and sailed on the Nares-Thomson expedition to the South Pole.’
Our family has two of his possessions: an original small passport-size photo and some buttons from his pea jacket.
From this family photo I found the original in the Challenger photographic archive at the National Maritime Museum.
Inaccessible Island, October 1873: National Maritime Museum
The photograph taken in October 1873 is of a party of crewmen who rescued the Stoltenhoff brothers who had been marooned for two years on Inaccessible Island, deep in South Atlantic. Charlie stands in the back row third from left. The only other sailor we can perhaps name is the Master At Arms, 37-year-old James Snook, holding a rifle, to Charlie’s left.
Charlie was the oldest surviving Challenger crewman, passing away in 1932, aged 85.
My mother remembers a Union Jack was draped over his coffin and carried through the town on a hearse drawn by four plumed horses. As for an unknown number of the crew, his was a remembered life.
Four sailors provide accounts of the voyage:
- The letters of Steward’s Boy Joe Matkin.
- The memoir of Leading stoker Abraham Smith.
- The sketchbook of Ship’s Cooper Benjamin Shephard.
- The watercolours of Ship’s Painter John Arthur.
Joe Matkin, Steward’s Boy
Joe Matkin, a 19-year-old Steward’s Boy, kept a journal of the entire voyage, on which he based his many letters home. 69 letters survive, but sadly not the journal. As a steward, he was a member of the Chief Petty officers’ mess, and so in that company would have been well informed of the expedition’s progress.
His letters were published in 1992, a unique below-decks account of the voyage. He not only describes the dredging and sounding operations and their findings, but the experience of the men undertaking this work. He reveals much about the men’s morale, and the two cultures on board that developed between the crew and the ‘Scientifics,’ exacerbated by very long periods at sea.
Food was an early bone of contention, as one of his first letters reveals. It’s Christmas 1872, when they were a few days out from Portsmouth:
Joe Matkin’s letter reproduced with kind permission of the Natural History Museum, London
….The Officers had a grand dinner about 6 o’clock & a Turkey very mysteriously disappeared just as it was ready to go on the table & it has never been heard of since. Again last night a Roast Goose and two loaves of bread were taken off cook’s table before the cook could turn round. Some fragments of goose & some salt were found this morning up in the main to rigging where the goose had been taken and devoured. The officers made a kick up about it but cant find who takes them.
I should have liked to have helped to pick a bit for myself for I have never been so hungry as the last few days, for we are now on a regular man-o-war diet & it’s bringing some of us down a good deal.
Abraham Smith, Leading Stoker
Source: Abraham Smith’s memoir, National maritime Museum
Abraham Smith’s ‘reminiscences of our cruise’ reflect both the highs and lows of life aboard HMS Challenger:
Perhaps you will think that we sometimes got very dull and despondent, but such was not the case for just before leaving England we had invested in a lot of musical instruments, so one of the crew who had previously been in a band was elected bandmaster, and by the time we have been at sea twelve months we could play very well. We used to amuse ourselves by getting up and playing and having dances nearly every night, so you see Jack was not dull.
Yet, unlike the Navy’s normal routine, with ships sailing quickly from port to port, Challenger sounded as she went, with prolonged spells on the open sea. Smith also recalls those days:
The longest time we were at sea without sighting any land, with only the sea and sky to look at, was three months. Five months was the longest time were ever stayed on board without once going on shore.
Joe also regretted the prolonged spells at sea. He wrote to his mother from Honolulu:
Not a single letter for me. It is nearly 12 months since I heard from you or the boys…If you have any bad news to tell, it is better to tell it at once, than leave people to think and fear. I suppose I shall get a heavy mail in Valparaiso, but we shan’t be there for three months.
Reading a letter from home: John Wild
Benjamin Shephard, Ship’s Cooper
Benjamin Shephard’s ‘Sketches Of A Voyage Around the World 1872-1874,’ including 33 pen and watercolour images, was discovered in 1968 by a museum archivist in a bookshop in Boston, Massachusetts. Shephard’s paintings, covering the first third of the voyage, from Gibraltar to the Antarctic (February 1874), provide an ordinary seaman’s perspective, through his choice of topic and seascapes.
Benjamin Shephard, Challenger Sketchbook
This sketch is perhaps the only contemporary image of the ship dredging within the Antarctic ice barrier. After Challenger’s return in June 1876, Shephard shipped on board seven other vessels as their ships’ cooper. Admiralty records show he died of ‘Phthisis’ (now known as TB) in Albany, Western Australia, in June 1887.
John Arthur, Painter 1st Class
On 24 February 1874, with Challenger sounding among any number of bergs, the wind rose to gale force, it was snowing hard and the temperature fell to more than 10 degrees below freezing. The wind and some undercurrent bore the ship down onto a berg. John Arthur captures the full drama of Challenger’s collision.
State Library of Victoria
The enlargement below depicts the storm blowing a black cloud belching from the smokestack as it drives the ship onto the berg. Aloft, the tiny figures of twenty topmen or more can be seen high up in the rigging, furling in the frozen sails. Men hurry about on deck. We can imagine, down in the in smoky, dark and sweltering stokehold, the stokers throwing coals into the boilers as the Captain orders full steam astern.
In his diary, Sub-Lieutenant Swire recalls that day. The dredge line was hauled in as the wind increased to gale force. The ship was steamed towards a berg for shelter against the wind whilst the men were sent aloft to haul in the topsails. Without that shelter, ‘the full force of the icy gale would have been something terrible for the men on the yards, with fine snow which drove into your face, eyes and ears.’ The Captain ordered full speed astern, but the ship was driven hard against the berg, carrying away the foremost jib boom and much of the gear. The men didn’t need a word of command to come sliding down the ropes and rigging to the deck.
William Stokes, Boy Sailor 1st Class
Sixteen year old Boy Sailor, William Stokes, was fatally injured in one of the first dredging operations in the Atlantic. In the early sea trials, miles of line and dredging equipment were lost overboard. On 25 March 1873, while sounding off Bermuda, the line had touched bottom at an unprecedented 4 ½ miles.
Joe writes that the strain on the line was so great that it tore away a restraining block bolted to the deck. Joe writes: ‘The block as it flew struck a sailor boy names Stokes on the head and dashed him to the deck with such a terrible force that his spine was dreadfully injured.’
The Surgeon reports that ‘He sustained a fracture of the skull and severe injury of the brain, and lived only a few hours afterwards.’
The following evening, all were assembled on deck, where the Captain read prayers. Joe writes, ‘The body was lowered into the sea by the lad’s messmates…The boy came from Deal where his father is a Channel Pilot.’ His clothes and effects were sold, and his money other possessions and the proceeds of a collection returned to his family.
Dredging and sounding equipment. Source: Challenger Report
Edwin Winton, Able Seaman, Leadsman and Diver
In June 1874, Able Seaman Edwin Winton, was swept overboard as Challenger was crossing the treacherous Cook’s Straits between North and South Island, New Zealand.
The main purpose of the passage between Sydney and Wellington was to take depth soundings along the line of a proposed telegraph cable linking Australia and New Zealand.
Illustration of leadsmen sounding the depths by lead line (Pacini, 1844)
Under steam and sail, Challenger approached Wellington in a fierce storm. All hands bar the men at the wheel were sent below for dinner. But the leadsman, Edwin Winton, was standing out on a narrow platform, the ‘fore-chain,’ swinging the sounding led into the sea. In an account by the ship’s artist John Wild, ‘the ship canted over and he was swept away by a furious sea.’ His absence was only noticed a few minutes later. The Captain ordered the ship to turn about, as all hands raced back on deck to look out for him, but Winton was dressed in his heavy gear and drowned.
Joe says he was ‘one of the finest and steadiest of men, 25 years old and only just married.’ A collection of £50 was raised from officers and crew. Joe’s letter also provides a 650-word tribute to the lost seaman.
William Pembre, Servant, and Frederick Pearcey, Acting Writer, 3rd Class
Natural History Museum
Seamen William Pembre (right) and Frederick Pearcey (left) stand at the back of this group photograph. Those seated include Commander Tizard (left), artist John Wild (centre, white suit); scientists H Moseley (right), J Buchanan and R Von Willemoes-Sohn.
William Pembre joined the ship in Bermuda in 1873 as Professor Thomson’s private servant, according to Joe Maktin in a letter from Simons Town (December 1874). Little more is known about Pembre’s work. However, he was to die of ‘decline’ in Hong Kong in 1875. Matkin’s letter also says that at Simons Town,Thomson had employed an un-named young Black man ‘for a servant in the Analyzing room,’ but again he is a recruit about whom we know nothing more.
Frederick Pearcey joined Challenger, aged 15, a Boy Sailor. In May 1875, he was re-rated to ‘Acting Writer 3rd Class,’ for his work as assistant in the chemical laboratory, as a taxidermist and general scientific assistant. His evident skills at species identification are reflected in his appointment to work at the Challenger Office in Edinburgh. In 1905 he was appointed curator at Bristol Museum. His contribution to the museum has recently been acknowledged, to the delight of his descendants, by the discovery of two crates of Challenger specimens he brought with him. His family also has his notebook and spy glass. Pearcey died in 1927, apparently the oldest surviving member of the scientific staff.
Richard Allen, Petty Officer, and William Browne, Captain of the Hold
The Royal Navy’s increasing demand for manpower led it to draw its personnel from across the globe as well as the British Isles. Admiralty records identify two ‘Men of Colour’ among the original Challenger crew. Both men were Caribbean-born, experienced First Class Working Petty Officers of about 40 years of age:
- Richard Allen, from Antigua, Petty Officer, First Class
- William Browne, from ‘Demerara, West Indies’, Captain of the Hol
In one sense there was nothing remarkable about the presence of at least four men of colour on the expedition, including two ranking Petty Officers. But it’s difficult to reconcile this fact, not only with the prevalent Victorian conviction of the relative superiority of Europeans among the so-called ‘races of men.’ But particularly with one of the ‘objects of the expedition’ ordered by the Royal Society: to study the ‘native races… making such observations as are practicable with regard to their physical characteristics, language, habits, implements and antiquities.’
The notion of cultural imperialism underpins this line of pseudo-scientific enquiry. The belief pervades the diaries and Notebooks of the Challenger’s scientists and officers, and led, for example, to the now unthinkable collection for later ‘study’ of 143 human skulls, some dug up from graves. The belief appears to have influenced the writings of such an observant crewman as Joe Matkin. In Polynesia, he records in one letter that he met, ‘some of the ugliest humans I ever saw…[but] in a physical point of view they are superior to the aboriginals.’
But elsewhere Joe Matkin recoils at the ‘thrashing’ he witnessed of enslaved seamen on ships of the Brazilian navy in Bahia Bay. Or at the plight of men on Emigrant ships anchored well offshore at Simons Bay, observing through his telescope 500 men from Calcutta, wrapped in blankets. Their ship is bound for Jamaica and Demerara. ‘They are supposed to be voluntarily emigrating, but it really is a quiet way of importing slaves, for they are treated like those in the West Indies and very few ever live to go back again.’
And, as naturalist Herbert Moseley was exploring recently abandoned, extensive Aboriginal settlements inland from Sydney, he comes to realise that he is witnessing the remains of a race ‘ousted and destroyed’ by British colonialists.
Adam Ebbels, Naval Schoolmaster
Naval Schoolmaster, Adam Ebbels, taught the Boy Sailors, including the Captain’s son, reading, writing and arithmetic. By regulations, while all boys were required to be instructed by the schoolmaster, education for petty officers, sailors and marines was voluntary. Unfortunately, Ebbels died in his sleep April 4 1873, on his 37th birthday. Joe writes touchingly of the honourable and intelligent man he sailed with. The cause of death was given as apoplexy. He was buried in Bermuda in the same cemetary as young William Stokes.
In July 1873, the schoolmaster’s replacement, Mr Briant (full name unknown), arrived at Sao Vicente to await the ship’s arrival. But, with few funds, he was left to fend for himself. When Challenger arrived, the schoolmaster was reported missing. Despite extensive searches, it was eventually presumed he was murdered.
Out of the shadows
As time goes by, doubtless other brave and hardy crewmen will move out of the shadows into the light. Only two sailors who completed the voyage were awarded the Challenger medal, Frederick Pearcey and Richard Wyatt, another of the ship’s Writers. It might be time to consider righting this wrong.
- ‘Most of the seamen and Boys are unknown’: Full fathom 5000, Graham Bell, 2022, page 37.
- On Benjamin Shephard: A recently discovered Challenger Sketchbook, J W Henderson and H B Stewart, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Section B: Biological Sciences, Volume 72 – Issue 1 – 1972.
- Leadsmen, standing in the chains, sounding the depths by lead line (1) Eugene Pacini, La Marine: Arsenaux, Navires, Equipage, 1844. (2) Account of Edwin Winton’s loss overboard: Full fathom 5000, Graham Bell, Chapter 12, pages 185-189.
- On the lives of William Pembre and Frederick Pearcey: (1) The Challenger Expedition: Exploring the ocean’s depths, Erika Jones, Royal Museums Greenwich, (2022), pages 114 and 115. My thanks also to Erika for further information on Pearcey’s work at the Bristol Museum. (2) At Sea with the Scientifics, Philip Rehbok, page 128.
- On Frederick Pearcey: High Seas and Deep Waters: The HMS Challenger collection, Deborah Hutchinson, Curator, Geology, Bristol Museum, April 2016. https://www.bristolmuseums.org.uk/blog/collections/high-seas-and-deep-waters-the-hms-challenger-collection/. See also his Obituary: https://www.nature.com/articles/119245c0
- ‘To study the native races’: see (1) the discussion in The Challenger Expedition: Exploring the ocean’s depths, chapter 5. ‘The knowledge that Indigenous peoples have must be respected and its inclusion in the history of oceanography and the Challenger’s story is long overdue.’ (2) Doug MacDougall, 2019. Chapter 8 examines notion of cultural imperialism underpinning the observation of indigenous peoples, ‘the conventional wisdom at the time…that European civilisation was superior to others.’
- https://www.academia.edu/87230090/Able_Seaman_George_Winstone_Three_Historic_Journeys Able Seaman George Winstone: Three Historic Journeys, G M Stein, The Polar Times, 2007.
- Challenger Report: biodiversitylibrary.org
- Photographs: The Challenger Expedition, A Visual Index, Eileen Brunton, Natural History Museum.