Forgotten tales

stories of my family

Tom’s ships

Tom Needham joins the Navy

Tom was 13 when he joined the navy in 1864, a young Irish boy who had grown up beside the sea on the coast of County Kerry. His father George Needham had at one time been a captain in the Kerry coastguard, and may well have been in the navy himself, since many coastguard officers were recruited from the navy (see the Ballinskelligs website).

I have copies of three letters that Tom wrote home, in 1865, 1866 and 1869 respectively. In the first two he mentions the names of some of the ships on which he served: they were the Egmont, the Narcissus and the Linnet.

But it would seem none of these was the ship he initially joined when he left home in 1864. The only information about his first year at sea comes not from his letters, but from the book he wrote many years later (1900) about his early life: From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land. There he paints a vivid picture of his earliest experiences in the navy, around the British coast:

the bristling guns; the crowds of nimble sailors; the mysteries of swinging, splicing and knotting of ropes; the fine uniforms; the cursing, the activity… I made great progress in all naval studies and gunnery practice; so that when from overcrowding of the ship transfers were to be made, I was among the selected ones. These changes widened my boyish experiences in the hardship of life at sea. First, I passed through the trials of hazing*… Then came the public floggings for slight misdemeanors… For my nimbleness I acquired the name of Deerfoot, and was often drafted to run races with sailors of other school ships… After several short trips around the British coast a selection came to send me, with several others, to a foreign port… (Needham, T. 1900. From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, Chapter 2, “On Shipboard,”). *hazing: to harass with unnecessary or disagreeable tasks, to subject to abusive or humiliating tricks or ridicule.

The foreign port he was sent to appears to have been Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, and the first letter I have suggests that it was there that he had spent time aboard the Egmont. He wrote from the Narcissus, a short time later (1865):

I am not aboard of the Egmont, I am aboard of the HMS Narcissus. Did you not get a few letters from me when I was aboard of the Egmont? I wrote two to you and I am wondering why don’t you write to me? Did you get a letter from America yet? I hope the Lord spares me for the next letter. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

So what do we know of the Egmont, his first ship after leaving the British Isles?

HMS Egmont, receiving ship, Rio de Janeiro

According to Wikipedia the HMS Egmont was a 74-gun third rate ship of the line which had been launched in 1810 during the Napoleonic wars. It had been the flagship of Rear-Admiral Charles Vinnicombe Penrose in 1814, but once the war with France was over it was apparently laid off, though where, and in what it was engaged, is uncertain; then from 1848 to 1862, according to a website maintained by P Benyon on naval social history, it appears to have been mothballed in Portsmouth. Finally in 1862 the aging Egmont was called back into service, commissioned in Portsmouth at the end of that year as the “Receiving Ship” for Rio de Janeiro.

Receiving ships were usually obsolete or unseaworthy vessels moored at a navy yard and used as accommodation for new recruits or men in transit between stations. Tom, as he said in his book, was “sent to a foreign port,” and it would seem that Egmont was the ship that “received” him, in Rio. How long he spent on the old ship is not mentioned anywhere, but it was long enough to be missing home, and to write to his dear sister Belinda “a few letters” (though those letters have disappeared).

I have not been able to find any pictures online of the Egmont, but another old ship of the line which met a similar fate was the HMS Implacable, of which there are many surviving images. Those pictures give a sense of what the Egmont, Tom’s temporary home in Rio, looked like. The Implacable, also a 74-gun third rate, was built before the Egmont, but lasted into the 1940s, by which time it was the second oldest ship in the Royal Navy, after the Victory. Wikipedia has an account of her history. Here is a picture of her latter days:

So Tom, the young Irish boy, who had “learnt the ropes” sailing around the coastal waters of Ireland and England, found himself, at the age of 14, suddenly on the other side of the Atlantic in the strange and wonderful world of Brazil. He lived aboard a retired veteran of the Napoleonic wars, and would have had daily reminders of those glorious days of sail, as he walked the decks of the old 74. How often, I wonder, did he get ashore, to the streets of Rio? What was it like in the 1860s I wonder? As fascinating as it might have been, Tom was surely thankful when he left the old hulk and moved to the Narcissus, a ship only 5 years old, which headed to sea again to patrol the shores of North America.

The Royal Navy of Victorian Britain

But what, exactly, was the Royal Navy doing in South America? Although between the end of the Crimean War (1856) and the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 it was involved in no major conflicts, the British Navy was the largest in the world. Why did Britain need such a massive maritime military presence when there were no wars to fight? And why in South America, so far from its home shores?

The American Civil War (1861-1865) saw naval battles between the north and south, and in Europe the Danish, the Prussians and the Austrians, amongst others, were involved in conflicts at sea. Meanwhile the British were just sailing around patrolling the sea lanes of the world, building a bigger and stronger navy while doing little more than just “show themselves.” Why the need for this massive navy of which our Tom was a young tar?

Ben Wilson, in his recent history of the British Navy, “Empire of the Deep,” describes the years between 1860 and 1899 as an arms race for the major European powers. The British Empire reached to the farthest corners of the globe, and the navy was the force that ensured its peace and security. In the mind of the British, it had to remain that way. Wilson explains:

With power came fear. Britain was dependent as never before on the Navy. In 1846 parliament had abolished protective tariffs on corn, which meant that British farmers had to compete on the world market and labour moved from the countryside to the booming industrial towns. Without imports of food the country would starve. Without control of the seas she would become poor. It was an uncomfortable position to be in – and people were awaking to the fact that Britain and her empire were vulnerable, perhaps more vulnerable than any country on earth…

Unless Britain had a crushing superiority of ships over France, Russia and Germany in northern waters she would lose the security at home that had allowed her to construct a massive empire. But she also needed to be the dominant naval power in the Mediterranean, South Africa, the Indian Ocean, the China Seas and off American waters. Lose any of these and the whole system would unravel. Britain, it was felt, had to be the dominant naval power everywhere or she would lose everything.
(Wilson B, Empire of the Deep, p.503)

So Rio de Janeiro was just one of the many ports around the world that maintained a British Navy presence; in South America and the South Atlantic the British, as elsewhere, were determined to maintain their global dominance.

For Tom the time in Rio marked a transition from the old world to the new. Until then he had been only on sailing ships. But when he left Rio it was aboard the Narcissus, a wooden hulled steam driven screw frigate that in 1864 was just 5 years old. The old sailing ships were gradually being replaced by steamships, even if almost all vessels still carried sails to propel them when there was no ready supply of coal to feed their engines. When Tom joined the Narcissus he left behind the world of sail and entered the world of steam. Ben Wilson writes:

The Royal Navy was in a state of fast evolution. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the fleet contained ships of a variety of ages, performance and speeds. Co-ordinating such a motley fleet was becoming exceptionally hard for the service’s flag officers, many of who were bred to the age of sail. (Wilson B, p.498)

Naval technology was changing rapidly around the world. Some old sailing ships were being modified by the addition of steam engines and the cladding of their wooden hulls with iron – creating the so called ironclads – to improve their speed and armour. Newer steamships started to be built with all-iron hulls, and such vessels saw service in the American Civil War. Wood and sail were gradually being replaced by iron and steam. Traditional broadsides of cannon were being replaced by turrets in which the cannons were placed in rotating towers. The great Age of Sail is said to have officially come to an end in 1862 when at the Battle of Hampton Roads (American Civil War) the steam-powered ironclad CSS Virginia destroyed the sailing ships USS Cumberland and USS Congress (Wikipedia).

HMS Narcissus

The Narcissus was a wooden hulled screw frigate in service from 1859 to 1883. These early screw frigates carried a full sail plan, like the older sailing frigates, but had a steam powered screw propellor for propulsion. The screw propellor was the invention of a Swedish naval captain, John Ericsson, and replaced the older and more vulnerable paddle wheels which were used for a short time on naval ships, but are much better known as the propulsion of the steamers that plied the Mississippi in the nineteenth century. Steamships had a number of advantages over the old sailing ships, including speed, but most significantly the ability to sail against the wind, making them much more manoeuvrable.

A number of pictures of the HMS Narcissus can be found on the Internet, and the following is from the Royal Museums Greenwich website.

HMS Narcissus, PW8141

Tom’s Narcissus was the third ship by this name in the Royal Navy. Records indicate that from April 1865 to May 1866 she was under the command of Captain Colin Andrew Campbell and was the flagship of Rear Admiral Charles Elliot, in service off the south east coast of America. This agrees with Tom’s letter:

I am in the South Coast of America, it’s a fine place in winter, but in summer it is scorching, plenty of every sort of fruit and vegetables there. (Letter from Thomas Needham, November 1865)

Perhaps the ship was patrolling the coast of Florida, Georgia or the Carolinas.

How long he remained on the Narcissus is difficult to fathom from Tom’s writings. However, his next letter home, written in August 1866 states that he had moved on to another ship, the Linnet. The Narcissus was based in South America for the three years from May 1866. Perhaps it was again in Rio, the main British naval base in Brazil, in June or July of 1866, that Tom was transferred to his next ship.

HM Gunboat Linnet

August 26, 1866
My dear sister, I hope you are quite well and in good health. I have written two letters to you and have not heard from you yet my dear sister. I should like to hear from you. I am quite well thank God and in good health. I have left the flagship the Narcissus, I am in a gunboat which came out from England lately, her name is the Linnet she is a very nice little ship, I like her very well…

My dear sister, I have seen a good many places since I left the flagship, I have been up the river Plata. I have been close up where they are at war. There is sick and wounded coming into the town every day. There was a steamer came in yesterday full of wounded soldiers and they had on board a dead general which was shot through the heart, did not they kick up a row about him.

According to Wikipedia, HMS Linnet was a Britomart-class steam powered gunboat launched in 1860 and broken up in 1872. It was one of 16 Britomart-class gunboats, which are described in an article which includes a photo of one of these 16 gunboats, the Cherub.

The River Plata is better known as the Rio de la Plata and is a large bay on the eastern coast of South America between Uruguay to the north and Argentina to the south. It lies over 1000km south of Rio de Janeiro, where Tom had probably transferred from the Narcissus to the Linnet. Two major ports lie on the coastline of the Rio de la Plata – Montevideo in Uruguay and Buenos Aires in Argentina.

The war that Tom writes of was the Paraguayan War that was waged from 1864 to 1870 between Paraguay and the so called Triple Alliance of Uruguay, Brazil and Argentina. What role Britain played in the war is uncertain and controversial – see the theories on this in the Wikipedia article on the war. Tom was around 15 years old when his ship, the Linnet, was at Rio de la Plata, and it is clear from his letter that the thing that made the deepest impression on him was the steamers full of wounded soldiers daily coming down the river from up country. It was indeed a bloody and humanly costly war for Paraguay, whose population was reduced by almost 60% during the 6 years of war – from some 525,000 to only 221,000. It is said that some 70% of Paraguay’s adult male population died during the conflict, leaving only around 28,000 men in the country when the final shots were fired. Another tragic waste of life.

1866-1869

I have seen a transcript of a third letter written by 18 year old Tom in 1869, apparently just prior to his discharge from the navy. It mentions no ships by name, and indicates that he was thinking about a passage from England to America after his discharge. This is in keeping with the fact that his family, in the years that Tom had been away, had all migrated to America. This third letter is also addressed to his sister Belinda, who must have died around this time, unknown to Tom, as indicated in his book.

The question, of course, arises as to what Tom was doing in the three intervening years between his second and third letters. The answer to that is found in his book, From Cannibal Land to the Glory Land, in which he describes how he was inexplicably and bizarrely set ashore and abandoned far south on the coast of Patagonia by a “wicked captain and his more merciless chief mate.” The background to this is not explained in the book. There is a picture in the book of “the merchant vessel in which I sailed to South America, the captain of which was afterward converted.” Although there is no explanation in the book, the suggestion is therefore that Tom left the navy at some stage after 1866 and joined a merchant vessel.

Tom's ship

The story of what ensued after this extraordinary incident is related in the book, and will be the subject of another blog. Tom, of course, eventually returned to England, and there is no suggestion in his book that he rejoined the navy to do so. However, his 1869 letter casts doubt on this assumption, because it seems to be written from somewhere in Europe, and the way he writes seems to suggest that he is still in the navy – he speaks of his Admiral, and of “paying off.” Furthermore the letter is written to Belinda, but according to the book he had a letter while he was still in South America in which he was informed of Belinda’s passing. Could it be that after this last letter he returned to South America, before eventually finding his way to his family in the USA?

It may be that further letters will come to light which will clarify the events a bit better. But what remains is that for five or six years, from the age of 13 to 19, Tom Needham had some extraordinary experiences at sea and in distant, wild lands, experiences that he would later recall in writing his book, which is the story of a journey from unbelief to faith in a sovereign God. In later life, as a travelling evangelist, he became known as the “sailor preacher.”

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