Thursday, 29 October 2015

From slavery to sponges: imagining conversations in Victorian Budleigh Part 2

It seems that John Campbell, the wealthy Budleigh resident and benefactor of Henry John Carter, the future FRS, took a keen interest in the voyages undertaken by adventurers of his time. 

Admiral Sir John Ross
By an artist of the British school, 19th century 

He would probably have read the 740-page volume written by a fellow-Scot who had made his name as an explorer. This was Captain, later Admiral, Sir John Ross (1777-1856), pictured above;  the account of his adventures was entitled Narrative of a second voyage in search of a North-West passage, and of a residence in the Arctic Regions during the years 1829, 1830, 1831, 1832, 1833. The book was published by the London firm of A.W. Webster in 1835, and John Campbell’s name is on the List of Subscribers to the companion Appendix which appeared later in the year.  

It is likely that such expeditions would have been a talking-point in 1830s Budleigh, close as it is to the ship-building port of Topsham.  One famous vessel associated with this ancient town on the River Exe because it was built by a local firm was HMS Terror. Constructed in 1813 by Topsham shipbuilders Robert Davy it belonged to a class of ships known as bomb vessels because their strength made them able to withstand the enormous recoil of their three-ton mortars.  This made them suited to Arctic service.

HMS Terror thrown up by the ice. Engraving after a drawing by Captain George Back  (1796–1878) 
Image credit: National Archives of Canada / C-029929
In 1836, command of Terror was given to Captain George Back for an expedition to the northern part of Hudson Bay in Canada, with a view to entering Repulse Bay, where landing parties were to be sent out to determine whether the Boothia Peninsula was an island or a peninsula. 

However, Terror failed to reach Repulse Bay and barely survived the winter off Southampton Island, at one point being forced 40 feet (12 m) up the side of a cliff by the ice. In the spring of 1837, an encounter with an iceberg further damaged the ship, which was in a sinking condition by the time Back was able to beach the ship on the coast of Ireland at Lough Swilly.

Portrait of Sir James Clark Ross by John R. Wildman. The object in the bottom righthand corner is a dip circle, designed by Robert Were Fox and used by Ross to discover the magnetic north pole.

Sir John Ross’ nephew, Captain Sir James Clark Ross FRS (1800-62), was one of the heroes of the Victorian age, honoured by learned societies and institutions both in Britain and Europe. He had been elected a Fellow of the Linnaean Society of London in 1823 and a fellow of the Royal Society in 1828. He accompanied his uncle on their voyages of discovery and co-authored the 1835 Narrative already mentioned.     

Erebus' and the 'Terror' in New Zealand, August 1841, by John Wilson Carmichael

Having explored the Arctic regions he went on between 1839 and 1843 to command an Antarctic expedition comprising the vessels HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, with the aim of charting much of the coastline of the continent. He discovered Victoria Land and the Ross Sea, named after him, as well as the volcanoes Mount Erebus and Mount Terror, named after the ships.

Carter pays tribute in an 1872 article in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History to Sir James Clark Ross. That year, having settled at The Cottage on Fore Street Hill where he would begin his immense work of cataloguing sponges from all over the world, he received some fragments of sponge which had been preserved in spirit in two jars at the British Museum. 

Superficially, as he notes, they did not seem particularly special; indeed, but for the presence of spicules — the tiny spike-like structures characteristic of sponges — they might very well have passed "for so much wet brown paper torn into pieces and soaked in sandy mud."  But his friend Dr Gray at the Museum had asked Carter to examine the specimens "with reference to any thing that might remain untold about them, as well as to their future arrangement there."

Yes, there are sponges in Antarctica. 
Green and yellow sea sponges in McMurdo Sound.  
Image credit: Steve Rupp, National Science Foundation

What fascinated Carter were the labels with their faded writing,  proving that the jars' contents had been dredged up and collected by a team led by Ross during the latter’s Antarctic Expedition of 1839-43. Clearly, Carter shared Campbell’s admiration for the great Victorian naval hero, naming the sponge Rossella antarctica after him. 

"No doubt it was on this occasion that the fragments of sponge still preserved in the British Museum were obtained," Carter concluded after reading Ross's 1847 book A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions during the years 1839-43.  "Rolled over and over by the dredge, probably in a rough sea, and mixed up with the sandy mud of the bottom, it is not extraordinary that they should have passed into the state mentioned."

And in a relatively rare insight into Carter's feelings about the character of such brave explorers and scientists he writes: "The only part extraordinary is, that at such a time and under such circumstances as those recorded in the book to which I have alluded, the dredge should have been put overboard at all. No one but a cool and intrepid scientific investigator of the highest type could achieve such results as were obtained in this Antarctic Expedition." 

With a reflection which surely looks forward to the courage of Robert Falcon Scott and his companions of the 1910-13 ill-fated Terra Nova Expedition half a century later he concludes: "Well might England be proud of such men!"

It’s fun to speculate, where no hard evidence exists apart from that one sentence in in John Campbell’s will. £300 in 1841 was a considerable amount, worth approximately £26,000 in today’s money. 

As Campbell’s protégé, it does seem highly likely that Henry Carter might have been inspired to travel abroad rather than follow a career as a doctor in Devon. And he would probably have benefited from earlier funds made available by Campbell for his schooling. 

But where? Exeter School? Its archivist told me that they would have loved to be able to boast of his attendance there. But sadly they were unable to help. So yet another search continues! 

To be continued

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