The Challenger photographic collections

The Challenger’s photographic collection at the Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich, holds the group photograph of Challenger crewmen, scientists and the two German sailors they rescued on Inaccessible Island (A Challenger’s Song, pages 146-147). 

Eileen Brunton’s catalogue of Challenger photographs is held at the Natural History Museum. The expedition’s two photographers took more than a thousand images of remote seascapes, harbours of tall ships, notables and ‘native’ populations, and a few of the crew and their brass band.

Challenger’s orchestra

Crew and scientists’ letters and dairies

The book draws extensively on the letters of crewman Joe Matkin, archived by his family and unpublished published until 1992, and the accounts of the voyage published by officers and scientists:  

At Sea with the Scientific: The Challenger Letters of Joseph Matkin, ed. Philip F Rehbock (1992)

Log Letters from ‘The Challenger’, Lord George Granville Campbell (1881)

Notes by a Naturalist Made during the Voyage of HMS ‘Challenger’, H.N.Moseley (1879)

The Cruise of HMS Challenger: Voyages over many seas, scenes on many lands, W.J.Spry RN (1878)

The Voyage of the Challenger, a personal narrative of the historic circumnavigation of the globe in the years, 1872-1876, Herbert Swire, 1938

Joe often wrote vertically and horizontally across each side of the page to save on postage. Source: At Sea with the Scientifics

Morai (wooden deities) of Tamehaemeha: Source: Notes by a Naturalist

More Challenger Stories

‘A comfortable old tub’

HMS Challenger was launched at Woolwich Dockyard on 13 February 1858, one of a group of ten ‘Pearl class’ corvettes built for the Royal Navy. Although she had a small steam engine, she was primarily a sailing vessel, carrying over 16,000 square feet of sails. So what was her life story, and what was she like to sail in?

Before she was re-commissioned to undertake the great ocean voyage, HMS Challenger served time as the lead ship of the Royal Navy’s Australian station, from 1866 to 1870. John Bastock’s image of the ship in Sydney harbour shows her full complement of 22 gun ports.

HMS Challenger Painting by John Bastock (1908-1966). Painting by John Bastock (1908-1966)

Farm Cove, where naval ships moored in Sydney harbour (Port Jackson), is located in the heart of the city, near the old Governor’s house. In the oil painting, the structure resembling a small castle near the harbour is where the ‘time ball’ and cannon signal is/was located, in order to give ships the correct time for their chronometers.

Challenger, Sydney harbour, c 1868.

Challenger, Sydney harbour, c 1868

When the full cannons are on display, as in these two images, that’s HMS Challenger before her return to Chatham Docks to be fitted out for the expedition ahead. All but two of the guns were removed to make ready for the scientists’ laboratories and accommodation, leaving just a pair of 68-pounders, which were never used during the voyage.

On 7 April 1874, two and a half years after she began to explore the oceans, Challenger returned to Sydney harbour where she was taken into dry dock for a full refit, including masts and spars, halyards, sails and much more. And while this work was underway, and the officers preparing to attend a grand ball hosted by the city’s high society, the ever inquisitive naturalist, Herbert Moseley, went outback to explore the rivers and creeks that fed into the harbour. He found numerous shelters and low roofed caves cut into the limestone landscape, covered all over with drawings in charcoal on the rock. It began to dawn on him that here was a civilisation which the colonialists had but recently displaced, for he bore witness to ‘a race ousted and destroyed.’

Challenger, departing Sydney harbour, June 1874

On 8 June 1874, Challenger bid farewell to Australia: Joe Matkin writes: ‘We left Sydney harbour still 25 hands short, although eight new hands were recruited as stokers, cooks, etc, and the imprisoned deserters were released back to the ship…Two or three of our bandsmen are among the deserters, so the band is rather demoralised at present…several of our men wish to leave the ship here as they don’t like her, the work is too hard and the sea time so long, compared to other men-o-war in foreign stations…several men are to be invalided home as they are not able to stand the many sudden changes of climate experienced in this ship.’

 ‘We have lost nearly 30 men since we came to Australia, & I am certain that if this had been any other ship then the Challenger, I should have gone too.’

Ahead lay an 1,180-mile eastbound voyage across the Tasman Sea to Wellington, surveying as she went the route for a telegraph cable to be laid between the two cities. ‘We were to take a careful line of soundings across the shallow water,’ Joe writes, ‘for the cable is to be laid next year.’

Man overboard: Edward Winton

The Pacific and Indian Oceans meet in the turbulent waters of the Tasman Sea, where heavy, rolling seas collide, making conditions rough and unpredictable. On Sunday 14 June, Joe writes, ‘It blew very hard and was too rough for Church, but not for sounding, the Captain thought; so he sounded at 2,275 fathoms (about 2 3/4 miles).’ The sea had deepened rapidly, and in hauling in the line, 1,500 fathoms were carried away, which the men attributed to ‘sounding on the Sabbath and not having any surveying wine lately.’ Campbell believed that there is ‘no more abominable stretch of ocean as between Sydney and New Zealand. For the first few days we had nothing but gales and bad weather.’

On 28 June, as Challenger was approaching Wellington in seas too rough for the crew to muster for midday prayers, Edward Winton, the leadsman sounding the depths, was swept overboard. ‘The sea had come and gone again,’ writes Joe Matkin, ‘taking with it the poor leadsman in all his thick winter clothing, sea boots and oilskins.’

A Challenger’s Song, pages 166/7.

 ‘The work is exceedingly wearisome’

Of the ship’s routine sounding and dredging operations, Lord Campbell writes:

‘Our work in that way, to us naval men, is practically, exceedingly wearisome; so wearisome that we become unreasonably chafe at the inevitable delays and look longingly forward to our release. On average we sound something like every 200 miles, and as this comfortable old tub does not average more than 100 miles a day, so we stop every other day…’

‘Albatross were our daily and nightly companions,’ his Log Letters recall. During the cruise from Japan to Honolulu, ‘Their tameness was extraordinary, and only accountable in the fact that the same birds followed us for many thousands of miles. We educated them, as it were, to be tame. They are a small and handsome species, brown plumage and whitish heads, a different species to those in the southern hemisphere. During meal times, they would fly and keep on flying, with wings almost touching the ship’s side, pouncing on the debris as it dropped down the scuppers. And when we were stationary, sounding, they swam in flocks of twenty under our stern and around the ship, utterly indifferent to our presence.’

 Source: Challenger Report, chapter 21.

Source: Challenger Report, chapter 21.

But, on her return to Chatham Docks in 1876, as Tony Rice records, her ‘brief foray into the oceanographic limelight’ was over, her active career almost at an end. In July 1987, she was commissioned as coast guard and training ship based at Harwich, and was finally paid off at Chatham in 1878. She lay as a storage hulk on the Thames for many years, and was finally broken up and sold for her copper bottom in 1921.

 British Oceanographic Vessels, 1800-1950, Tony Rice, 1986.

 With thanks to John Vaughan and Dr Erika Jones.

Books and web links

The Voyage of the Challenger, Eric Linklater (1972)

The Silent Landscape: The Scientific Voyage of HMS Challenger, James Corfield (2004)

The seabirds cry, Adam Nicholson, (2017)

Before the mast: Naval ratings of the Nineteenth Century, Henry Baynham (1971)

Superior: The return of race science, Angela Saini (2019)

Man Made the City But God Made the Bush: A Detailed History of Early Berowra, Nathan Tilbury, 


Silvertown: The Lost Story of a Strike That Shook London and Helped Launch the Modern Labor Movement, John Tully (2014)

Life Writing

A Challenger’s Song tells the story of the life and times of my great grandfather and his wife, Mary. As the reviewer, Andrea Watts, wrote, it is a ‘mixture of fact, fiction, letters, journals, song and oral history.’

The book is in three parts:

The first part comprises twenty-five episodes reimagining moments in Charlie’s restless life on ship and ashore. The stories draw on our family’s oral history, particularly those stories my Mum and aunts told me about him and his wife, Mary. For almost four years (1872-1876) he was away on the Challenger expedition. The extraordinary letters of his fellow sailor, Joe Matkin, only published in 1992, revealed much about a sailor’s life ‘below decks.’

In 1876, on Challenger’s triumphant return to Chatham Docks, Charlie left the Navy. For as much as he seems to have been a kindly grandfather, a seaman’s habits would never let him go. His legendary ‘disappearances,’ perhaps on the drink or back on a ship, leaving his hardworking, intelligent wife, Mary, to fend for their growing family, also have their place in their story.

So this is where the book began, with stories that are essentially ‘creative non-fiction,’ part fact, part fiction. But there’s a kernel of ‘truth’ in each of them: a remembered conversation between my mother, her brother, George, and Charlie when playing in the street outside his pub; Matkin’s recounting of Challenger’s near-fatal collision with an iceberg; and the crew (Charlie among them) sent to rescue two marooned sailors on Inaccessible Island.

Challenger Report: ship rope anchored at St Paul’s Rocks 

The second part of the book focuses on Challenger’s four-year expedition, but rather than relating again the immense scientific discoveries, although they are readily acknowledged, the voyage is retold through the eyes and written accounts of the crew and scientists who sailed with her. Doubtless, this was the most memorable period in Charlie’s life. The four-masted ship had an auxiliary steam engine, and Charlie was the leading stoker. In all weathers, the crew sounded and dredged across all ‘the great ocean basins’ to retrieve thousands of unknown species. They charted new telegraph routes and wherever they landed, were instructed to study the flora and fauna and observe the ’native races’ they might encounter.

The expedition attracted huge public interest at the time. Its final 30,000-word scientific Report, laying the foundations of the new science of oceanography, provided a wealth of material for the book.

Mollusc, Southern ocean: ‘It is large; the shell is singularly beautiful and it comes from a great depth.’ Source: Challenger Report, page 896.

But the Report also tells something of the sailor’s wellbeing – and diet – during the voyage:


Challenger Report: Surgeon’s report on the health of the crew

The book concludes with a biography of Charlie’s life, piecing together all that could be gleaned from Navy archives, national and local museums, the census, scraps of newspaper cuttings and more. It follows a more traditional arc of birth to childhood to old age. Neither Charlie’s letters nor other written account of his voyage remain, just a few buttons from a sailor’s pea jacket and two photos.

Charlie’s contrariness and kindness endured in the memories of his grandchildren. They, Stella Dorothy, George, Edith and Stella Phyllis, are listed as attending his funeral, as the press cutting below shows. His remembered phrase or gesture, or an event he took part in, can uniquely reveal aspects of a person beyond the reach of any records.

‘A union flag draped over his coffin. ’Sussex Daily News, 5 October 1932. The mourners at Charlie’s funeral. Sussex Daily News, 5 October 1932

A bridge to ‘life writing’

My bridge to life writing began in a creative writing class at the Mary Ward Centre, tutored by Claire Collison. Whether a first timer or an old hand, the Write Here! Write Now! course encourages students to ‘carve yourself a couple of hours writing time each week – no homework, no assignments, just supportive workshops which are designed to crack open the brand new writing in you.

Life is any writer’s raw material, so to what extent you will choose to use your own life experiences is obviously going to be very important. Some writers draw heavily on their own lives, so much so that it can be difficult to separate their art from information in the public domain about them. The poet Sylvia Plath’s mental issues, her estrangement from her husband Ted Hughes and her eventual suicide are well documented. Accordingly, it can be tempting to read her novel The Bell Jar, which tells of a young woman Esther Greenwood’s descent into mental illness, and assume that Greenwood is Plath.

Writers often use settings with which they are familiar – Dickens used London, Emily Bronte the Yorkshire Moors and the American poet Fred Voss uses the Californian aircraft factory where for many years he worked on the shop floor.

Sue Wilsea, Writer, Tutor and Workshop Leader

Once I had decided to focus more on my ancestor’s life story, I joined Andrea Watt’s inspirational Life Writing course. According to its prospectus, the course aims, ‘to help you to tap into your memories and family stories, and to discover your true voice. Each class will inspire you with extended writing exercises, strategies, tips and motivation to help you practice and refine your life stories. This course is for everyone, from beginners up for a challenge to seasoned writers looking to energise their work.’

The Mary Ward course covers:

  • Developing skills and motivation to write from real-life.
  • Editing your work with more confidence.
  • Giving and receiving supportive feedback.
  • Appreciating the art of memoir, family memoir and biography.
  • Knowing some outlets for publication.


This is someone’s life written by someone else. Authorised biographies have the permission and co-operation of the subject, unauthorised ones do not.  What is interesting here is the relationship between the writer and the person whose life they are writing about. Some biographies are marketed on the basis of their revelations: the book will disclose previously unknown love affairs, mention other famous names and so on. Others will be in effect a ‘whitewash’, skimming over or sometimes completely missing out anything that would show their subject in a bad light. 

It might be the case that you are interested in writing a biographical piece on someone you know. Having got their permission, you will need to invest much time in interviewing them (recording is much easier than trying to take notes) and doing further research of your own. This type of writing demands factual accuracy and for your individual writer’s voice to take a back seat. 

Having said that, biography will require you to deploy the same skills as are needed for any successful piece of creative writing in terms of composition. It can be a great way of preserving memories of an old person, perhaps a grandparent, that can then be kept and passed down within the family.

Sue Wilsea, Writer, Tutor and Workshop Leader

A Challenger’s Song is, it seems, a mixture of biography and creative writing: ‘creative non-fiction.’

Mary Ward Centre: 


The Footfalls of Memory

Footfalls echo in the memory,

Down the passage which we did not take,

Towards the door we never opened,

Into the rose-garden.

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

T.S. Eliot (1935).




Official reports and sources

The official report of the expedition is referred to in the book as ‘Challenger Report’. The scientific results of the voyage were published in a 50-volume, 29,500-page report taking 23 years to compile. The official title: Report on the scientific results of the voyage of H.M.S. Challenger during the years 1873-76, under the command of Captain George S. Nares and the late Captain Frank Tourle Thomson. It was prepared under the superintendence of the late Sir C. Wyville Thomson and then of John Murray. Available at:

Challenger Expedition: Narrative Report (32 chapters on each stage of the voyage)

Index of the reports of the scientific results of the voyage of HMS Challenger (83 chapters)

Log books and muster books of HMS Challenger and HMS Penelope: Admiralty records at the National Archives, Kew.  

Challenger’s Muster book: ADM 117/196. 


Charles Collings Certificate of Service: ADM 88/46/64774 and ADM 139/649/24820./

Census records (1851-1921)

Fact and fiction

Official sources such as the National Census and local Street Directories can help to ‘fact-check’ at least some elements of those oft-told stories and anecdotes that make up a family’s oral history. The setting for the imagined conversation in the book between Charlie and his young granddaughter, Stella (in Pearls before swine) is the house they shared, at 47 Springfield Road.

In 1921, aged 74, Charlie was still working on his ’own account,’ as an engine smith, according to the newly released 1921 Census. The returns confirm that he was living at 47 Springfield Road, Brighton, with his son, George, a mechanical engineer, his daughter-in-law, Edith, and other household members, including his five-year-old granddaughter (my mother) Stella Collins. 

1921 Census, 47 Springfield Road, Brighton

Name Relationship Born Age Occupation
George Collins Head of household 1879 41 Mechanical Engineer
Edith Collins Wife 1881 40 ‘Home duties’
Edith R F Daughter 1907 13
George Trayton Son 1912 9
Stella Dorothy Daughter 1915 5
Charles Collins Father 1846 74 ‘Own account’, Engine Smith
Edward Worger Nephew 1908
Edith Worger Niece 1911 10

George describes himself as a ‘mechanical engineer and employer, undertaking repairs and light machine tool manufacture.’

Charlie was based at a ‘Workshop, St George Mews, central Brighton, a few minutes’ walk away. According to the Ministry Of Labour (1921), Engine Smith was, ‘A smith and sometimes an angle iron smith employed in forging by hand or machine, and welding, when necessary, parts of locomotive or stationary engines; work which is of heaviest kind is usually done by a forge hammerman or in case of repetitive forging of small parts may be done by drop forger.’

Other sources

Understanding the Oceans, Edited by Margaret Deacon, Tony Rice and Colin Summerhayes, (2001).

Scientists and the Sea (1650-1900), Margaret Deacon (1971).

Oceanographic fame and fortune: The pay of scientists and sailors on the Challenger, Tony Rice (1990), Ocean Challenge, Vol.1 (3), pp. 45-50. 

An Anchor in the Unknown: The Exploration and Encounter of HMS Challenger

Erin Yu,

Challenger online collection,

Money, mistakes and the birth of science,

William Jefford, Boy sailor

Stokers – the lowest of the low? A Social History of Royal Navy Stokers 1850–1950, Dr Tony Chamberlain,

The Abolition Project,

Emancipation – Black and White, T.H.Huxley (1865)

Submarine cable to Wellington 1876:

Brighton local history archives are held at The Keep, in Brighton, including street directories from the 1860s onwards, local and Sussex county newspaper archives, coroners’ reports and other material. 

National census from 1851 onwards.



Charlie and Mary’s grandchildren thankfully shared for their childhood memories and stories: my mother, Stella Pearson nee Collins, her siblings Edith and George and their adopted cousin Stella Phyllis Hale. 

I am also grateful to a distant relative, Emma Collins, for her blog about Charlie on My Brighton and Hove, a local history website:

George’s son (my cousin Tony), and his wife Diana generously shared their family researches. I retraced their steps through newspaper and other archives, finding contemporary accounts of Charlie’s life and times, and a photo of Charlie’s funeral in the Sussex Daily News. 

Angela Collings, editor of the Challenger Society’s magazine, Ocean Challenge, and Louisa Watts, John Phillips and Tony Rice of the Challenger Society offered invaluable advice and insights about the Challenger Expedition. However, any errors or omissions in this account are entirely my own. 

Ocean Challenge published my note about Charlie in A song for the Challenger’s crew in the organisation’s journal, Vol. 23, No.2, (2019):