Challenger Crew Group Photo

Remembered Lives 2: The Brave and Hardy Challenger Crew

Nearly half (45%) of the seamen who set out from Portsmouth on 21 December 1872 did not complete the voyage: they deserted, were hospitalised or invalided, while others died, were transferred or discharged for misconduct. This estimate is from available service records of 181 of the original crewmen, not including officers and scientists (see table below). Other accounts suggest that only 144 (60%) of the full original complement of 242 men of all ranks, including the scientists, did return with the ship.  

Kerguelen Island, Southern Ocean. John Arthur’s watercolours- State Library of Victoria

Kerguelen Island, Southern Ocean. John Arthur’s watercolours: State Library of Victoria

There’s no one explanation for the high turnover among the crew. The route chosen for the expedition’s work involved long periods at sea and at times rapid and debilitating changes in latitude. The sounding and dredging work was trying and unlike the routines on a standard port-to-port runs of a man-o-war. Men worked the decks and were sent aloft to trim the sails in the most extreme conditions during the 7,600 mile, 91-day stretch from the Cape to Melbourne. They were navigating the harsh seas and sea ice while making more than 30 dredgings and soundings among the frozen, barren and uninhabitable islands of the Southern Ocean.

Admiralty service records of Challenger crew

Source: original research of Admiralty service records of Challenger crew.

Some 400 men were apparently signed on the ship’s books during the expedition. As only 140 original crew returned, that implies an additional 260 new recruits. But at most ports of call the Navy had not only supplies to refit the ship, but men ready to hand. In December 1874, Joe Matkin writes from Hong Kong: ‘We have taken in over 60 hands from England to fill the vacancies,’ including 40 boys from Plymouth. But three men had deserted, two were invalided and several exchanged to other ships. He adds, ‘I don’t think we shall have 60 of our original 240 hands left when we pay off.’

In addition, 10 men were imprisoned, of whom five were recaptured after deserting.

The Health of the crew

The Chief Surgeon’s Report on the Health of the Crew says, ‘The medical history of the expedition is of little interest,’ notably due to the absence of scurvy. It’s hard to square this narrow conclusion with the evidence from the men’s service records and other sources, notably Joe Matkin’s letters.

The official Report shows that 26 men were hospitalised (15) or invalided (11). The Report explains some of these cases, including heart disease and TB. Joe Matkin makes frequent mention of falls from the rigging, fractures and Boys knocked unconscious, and of widespread dysentery, but it’s not clear how many of these incidents feature in the Report.

Our data shows that turnover was especially high among stokers – half of the original complement of 14 men were either hospitalised or deserted. Workers in the stokehole faced physical dangers including accidents, occupational diseases, heat stroke and heat exhaustion. And Joe’s letters also confirm the effects of the rapid changes in latitude, with men invalided home ‘as they were not able to stand the many sudden changes in climate.’

The Report claims that the crew’s health was ‘exceptionally good,’ despite the stressors of ‘rapid variations in climate, the long sea time and the trying nature of the men’s work.’

But all this is a consequence of the expedition’s design. It explains much about why men left the ship, and the tensions between the crew and its leaders.


The Chief Surgeon did not enquire into the desertions, merely suggesting that ‘the attractions of Australian ports were chiefly responsible.’

But our data shows that men were jumping ship at every port of call:

  • The first men deserted at Halifax in May 1873, including three Boy Sailors.
  • As Joe’s letters reveal, men ran at Halifax (5) Bahia, Simons Town/Cape (5), Melbourne and Sydney (23), Wellington (3), Japan, Honolulu, Valparaiso.
  • More than half jumped ship in Australia
  • At least half of all the runners were Boy Sailors

The demands on the crew seem to be a key reason for the desertions. One of Joe’s letter from Simons Town comments: ‘the work is too hard and the sea time too long compared to other men-o-war…many will desert in Australia and New Zealand as men are dissatisfied at not getting extra pay for this cold weather trip.’

Men deserted to the burgeoning diamond mining town of Kimberley, inland from Simons Town. In Melbourne, after the city authorities generously handed out free rail passes to the crew, six men ran off to Ballarat, the great gold mining metropolis up country from the city. Desertions were so heavy in Sydney, including three from the ship’s orchestra, that Joe says ‘the Captain was in a great way about it.’

Sounding and dredging the great ocean basins was fundamental to the expedition’s aims. Success would depend on the ‘harmonious working and hearty co-operation of all.’

But the tedious and arduous nature of deep sea work was probably the biggest single driver of desertions. Challenger would stop every 200 miles, sounding for seven or eight hours, trawling many hours more, and with the steam-powered screw holding her head to wind. There were over 600 successful deep sea soundings, dredgings and trawlings. ‘The bluejackets called the operation by no other name than ‘drudging.’

Considerable manual effort was required handling miles of rope and its detachable weights. The donkey engine could hove up the line at hundreds of fathoms an hour. But whatever condition it was in, maybe iced up, it then had to be cleaned and stowed manually. ‘The blue jackets called the operation by no other name than ‘drudging,’ despite the reward of a third of a pint of sherry for the men making a successful haul.

Darling Harbour, Sydney, 1870- City Archives

Darling Harbour, Sydney, 1870: City Archives

In Sydney, after a flood of desertions, Joe says ‘they are treating the men better now, in hopes of deterring others, but the men only laugh. We have some great bullies and snobs among the officers and the work is much harder than in an ordinary man-o-war, whilst the pay is the same.’ The most popular was Lord Campbell. But Sub-Lieutenant Swire’s posthumous diary, published in 1938, says of the men:

‘The bluejackets are said to be willing and hearty fellows…Let us examine the popular delusions…on board ship they are only to be driven to their work by inflicting summary punishment upon skulkers, they are constantly murmuring against those in authority, cannot be trusted in any capacity without an officer to superintend…

 Boy Sailor deserters

Boy Sailors John Heritage and Francis Colley were among the many who attempted to desert. Both were age 17 when they joined the expedition as ‘Boy 1st Class.’ Heritage, born in Chatham in 1855, was a gardener, Colley a glassblower.  Their ratings were automatically raised to Ordinary Seaman at age 18. But when the ship docked at Sydney in April 1874, both seamen deserted. Yet they were soon captured and court martialled and were still in goal when Challenger set off for Hong Kong. After serving time, the men were transferred to Challenger’s sister ship, HMS Pearl. And few months later, on 23 December 1874, Pearl also arrived in Hong Kong, where the two seamen were put back on the Challenger! Despite their best efforts, both men were to complete the Challenger’s circumnavigation.

John Heritage later served out his time as Stoker on nine other ships before retiring in 1883. Likewise, Francis Colley, re-rated Able Seaman, served on nine more ships (with various spells in the cells) until June 1883.

Dredging Part, Sydney Harbour_ Natural History Museum

Dredging Part, Sydney Harbour: Natural History Museum

Two cultures: scientists and the crew

Early on, Professor Wyville Thomson recognised the value for morale of engaging the men in the aims of the expedition. Joe took extensive notes of the Professor’s first lecture to the assembled crew in March 1873. To understand the oceans, he said, ‘it was decided by scientific men that no country but England, and none but British seamen, could solve the problem.’

But that initiative and its appeal to British exceptionalism petered out. As time passed, Thomson’s frequent, idealised letters to the popular London weekly, Good Words, irritated the crew for ignoring their own hard work. As we have noted, the route chosen for the expedition’s work involved long stop-start periods at sea and at times rapid changes in latitude. For a sailor, the principal aim was to finish the job and return to port. For the scientists, it was designed to gather ever more data. In their accounts, crewmen Joe Matkin and Abraham Smith touched on the effects of long sea time on morale. And Joe comments on men invalided home ‘as they were not able to stand the many sudden changes in climate.’ They would, ‘Prefer a month in goal and a fresh ship.’

Yet there were times of co-operation between the scientists and crew. Naturalist Herbert Moseley describes one such moment on Kerguelen island, where he ‘superintended parties of stokers who volunteered to dig up birds eggs for our collection.’

Food: a bone of contention

Officers and scientists enjoyed a distinctly different diet from the ordinary seamen. Meagre rations for the crew caused problems from the outset. In one of Joe’s first letters, Christmas 1872, he writes:

‘The crew were on man-o-war rations, despite the ship’s near full disarmament. The officers and scientifics were set to have a grand dinner on Christmas Day. But first a turkey, and on Boxing Day a goose very mysteriously disappeared before they could reach the Captain’s table. Some fragments of goose and some salt were found in the main to rigging. The officers made a kick up about them. I should have liked to have helped pick a bit, myself, for I have never been so hungry as the last few days and it’s bringing some of us down a good deal.’

The crew would often bring their own food back on board. At Madeira (July 1873), returning from a day’s shore leave, Joe writes: ‘Very few could walk straight, several were rolling; and being a Saturday night, a great many had brought off the materials for a Sunday dinner, some had half a sheep on their backs, some had pigs heads or large cheeses…a great many had lost their shoes and hats.’

But for Sub-Lieutenant Swire. Two months’ out from Cape Town, with Challenger sounding among the sea ice of the Southern Ocean, he writes: ‘We continue to enjoy the good things of life on board, though, not yet having been reduced to salt provisions…The men, of course, have to live on salt grub, but we have sheep left still, besides any quantity of preserved meat and vegetables and wine etc’. And they officers could still have their warm baths, even with the barometer well below freezing.

Seining net (Columbia River, Oregon, 1914)- Wikipedia:public domain

Seining net (Columbia River, Oregon, 1914): Wikipedia/public domain

The seining party

Yet at times harmony prevailed on board, say with the ship’s band in fine form greeting some foreign dignity or, for instance, the ‘seining’ (fishing) party organised one afternoon off the Cape Verde islands. Challenger has dropped anchor out in the bay. In his Notes by a Naturalist, Herbert Moseley writes: ‘A seining party is described as a lark by the blue jackets, there are always plenty of volunteers, and a good many officers are ready to join.’ Mr Cox the Boatswain leads off by casting the seine net from his boat into the water to entrap fish of all varieties. The men wade out to their necks to haul in their catch. ‘A fire has been lighted on the shore and we had a ship’s cooking stove with us. We fried some of the fish, and with bread and preserved meats and plenty of beer, made a good supper.’ There’s another haul of fish, and ‘hot tea and grog’ late into the night.

It’s fascinating picture of shared recreation.

But, for all their contribution to the enduring success of the expedition, only two of the 140 original Challengerseamen who completed the circumnavigation received the Challenger medal.

Challenger medal

Challenger Medal, National Maritime Museum

  1. Sounding the Southern Ocean: Full fathom 5000, Graham Bell, 2022, Chapter 11.
  2. ‘400 men on the ship’s books during the commission’: At Sea with the Scientifics, Philip Rehbok, page 372.
  3. ‘All told, less than 60% of the original complement stayed with the ship for the entire cruise’: Challenges of Neptune: the ‘Philosophers’, Daniel Merriman, Proceedings of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, Section B, 72, (1972) pages 15-45.
  4. John Arthur’s watercolours, State Library of Victoria:
  5. Report on the Health of the Crew:
  6. Stokers working conditions: Stokers-the lowest of the low?’ A Social History of Royal Navy Stokers 1850–1950, Tony Chamberlain.

  1. ‘The bluejackets called the operation by no other name than ‘drudging.’ Log letters from the Challenger, Sub-Lieutenant, Lord George G. Campbell, (1881), page 490.
  2. Sydney 1870:
  3. The seining party: Herbert Moseley, Notes by a Naturalist made during the voyage of HMS Challenger, 1879, page 50.
  4. Challenger Report: