Sunday, August 1, 2010

Shipwrecked on Île Saint-Paul

Where does one start in examining the youth of Lady Dorothy Mills? There is so much in her family's history that you could rewind the tape [uh… DVD… uh Blu-Ray™?] all the way back to the First Earl of Orford in the Earldom's initial creation back in 1697. Still, we could go back to the Domesday Book for that matter. What we want to examine are predecessors whose lives, actions, and legacies directly influenced our Lady Dorothy [left].

Now, you could make the case that bloodlines run deep and anyone in a family is an accumulation of all of their ancestors. If you remove any relatives from the past—à la It's a Wonderful Life—you fundamentally change the present. That may be so, but I think our story really begins with the birth of Robert Horace Walpole, heir to the 4th Earl of Orford, at Wolterton Hall in Norfolk on 10 July 1854. It's unlikely that there was a much greater influence on our Lady D. than her father, and, hence, some of the distinct and powerful events that reverberated through his life.

We'll click fast-forward and speed ahead from his infancy along to about to 1870. Walpole, called "Robin" by his family and friends, served as a midshipman in the Royal Navy aboard the HMS Megæra [and later the HMS Blanche and HMS Pearl]. What strikes one first is that, having served as a midshipman, he would look down upon Captain Arthur Mills, D.C.L.I., as a son-in-law in the fairly near future.

Moving, however, into 1871, Robert Horace "Robin" Walpole first sailed aboard the Megæra, an iron screw troop-ship, carrying six guns, and of 350-horse power [right]. However, it turns out the seaworthiness of the Megæra had been very much in question, and the ship should not have been at sea at all. That's where our story begins...

"Robin" Walpole was 16 at the time the Megæra was shipwrecked on the uninhabited Île Saint-Paul [St. Paul Island] in the Indian Ocean on 17 June 1871. He turned 17 while marooned there.

The London Times, in an article entitled "Her Majesty's Ship Megæra" on 7 August 1871 reported:

The following telegram [regarding the Megæra] was received at 9 42 a.m., August 5, from Hongkong, dated August 5, 7 a.m.: —"The Peninsular and Oriental Company's steamer Malacca, 1,680 tons, embarks provisions here. Should reach about the 29th. Can bring whole crew home.
The Rinaldo leaves Singapore immediately for Batavia with provisions; will communicate with Lieutenant Jones, of the Megæra, and proceed to St. Paul's, if urgently required.

The Admiralty have also received the following telegram, in reply to a telegram sent to Batavia, asking the cause of the disaster, and whether provisions were landed from the Megæra at St. Paul's. In addition to her own provisions, the Megæra carried a considerable quantity of naval provisions destined for Sydney:—

From the Fraser Consul, Batavia, at 2 51 pm on Aug. 5: "Leak reported [on HMS Megæra] about June 8. Kept under for several days by hand pumps. Leak increased; steam then used; water kept under. Insufficient coal to reach Australia; steered for St. Paul's [Island]. June 17 anchored. Survey held; diver employed; reported unsafe to proceed; hole through bottom; landed provisions; weather stormy; lost three anchors. June 19 ship was run on the bar full speed and filled. Lieutenant Jones left July 16, all well; men under canvas; 80 tons cargo saved. Steamship Rinaldo left Singapore yesterday for St. Paul's, viâ Batavia."

The latter part of that article explains the exact circumstances of the ship being stranded at St. Paul's. Here are some descriptions of the island that ran in the Times for the benefit of readers trying to visualize the plight of the crew:


Sir,—I have just read in your journal the telegram announcing the stranding of the above vessel on the Island of St. Paul, in the Indian Ocean.

As this singular volcanic isle is not often visited, a description of it may not be out of place at the moment, particularly to the friends and relations of the crew and passengers of the ill-fated ship.

I visited the island on an outward-bound voyage some years since, and although it was then uninhabited and barren, it still offers the means of sustaining life by means of the abundance of fish to be found in the Crater Basin. This remarkable basin is about two miles in circuit, and has 30 fathoms water in the middle, which depth is maintained until within 50 feet of the shore. The rocks round the crater rise to 600 or 700 feet high, and the view from the summit is very impressive. All round the edges of the basin smoke was rising, amid the stones lining the shore, indicating that smouldering fires still lurked below. On landing we found the water on the shore of the crater in some places too hot to permit our hands remaining in it for any length of time. The temperature by thermometer in the hottest part was 204 deg. Great fun was created by catching fish at one end of our boat, and, without taking them off the hook, letting them drop into the hot water, and cooking them. Should any of your readers doubt this statement, I refer them to Horsburg's Sailing Directions to the East, and to Vlemming, the Dutch navigator who discovered the island in 1697.

Should the Megæra have been so unfortunate as to lose her stores in attempting to land them in the heavy surf that beats upon the shore, considerable sustenance may be obtained in the Crater Basin, for the fish are plentiful and good eating, and a natural fish-kettle is always at hand and boiling. Seals, also, are plentiful.

The entrance to the Crater Basin is about pistol-shot wide, but across the throat there is a bar composed of pebbles, over which nothing larger than a boat can pass, and I believe this is the only practicable landing-place to be found. A strong current sets over the bar, and at half ebb it if difficult to get boats over, but once passed smooth water if found in the basin.

It is to be hoped, therefore, that the sufferings of the crew and passengers of the Megæra may have been considerably alleviated by the natural resources of the place, and it is with a desire of quieting apprehensions upon this point that I trouble you with these remarks.

I am, Sir, yours obediently.

Harp Hotel, Dover, Aug. 4.

The following also appeared:


Sir,—Observing in The Times the reported stranding of Her Majesty's ship
Megæra on the island of St. Paul, in the Indian Ocean, and the fortunate landing of the passengers and crew, though upon so utterly destitute and barren a rock, I hasten to communicate to you, in the hope of mitigating painful anxieties of the relatives of the ship-wrecked, in case it should be assumed that no provisions, &c., could be landed with the crew, as to the local resources for obtaining food and water, that some few years since I visited St. Paul's Island, on my way to China, being anxious to determine its longitude, which differed in various records to the extent of 20 miles. This small island, only a few miles in circumference, is evidently the remains of an extinct volcanic crater, the edge of which has on one side broken down, leaving a water passage from the sea into the crater, which forms, as it were, a harbour for small ships.

Although destitute of springs of water, cattle, trees, or useful vegetation, yet the astonishing resources of its surrounding waters in large fish and Crustacea enabled us, when fishing inside the crater, to procure a vast supply in a few hours, the catch being so great as, indeed, almost to endanger the large boats.

As to the supply of water, assuming that none could be landed from the ship and none could be caught by awnings, &c., I would observe that no doubt advantage would be taken of the following remarkable circumstance:—the soil and the beach on the level of the sea in the crater is so hot that, when bathing and standing in the water upon the sand, the feet could not be allowed to sink into it beyond an inch or two without pain. The high temperature in the soil on the beach would enable a supply of fresh water to be obtained from the sea by distillation, by sinking some of the ship's iron tanks or condensers into the intensely-heated ground.

For supply of fuel for culinary purposes, there is a considerable quantity of driftwood upon the inland, although thousands of miles distant from the mainland; but, should this fail, food could be cooked by the great heat of the soil thus so wonderfully provided in mid-ocean. I would only add that the island has high, abrupt sides, and a central plateau which is not acted upon by the heat apparent in the lower strata, and as many vessels sight the island, and others pass at some distance from it, I doubt not that our countrymen have long since been rescued.

I remain, your obedient servant,

And there was, indeed, good news to be found regarding a rescue in the Illustrated London News, dated 7 October 1871, about the fate of the crew: "At last we have the best of news respecting the crew of the Megæra. They are all saved. The Malacca, one of the ships sent to the rescue, had, it would appear, reached St. Paul's before any of the shipwrecked men had perished either from hunger or cold; the other ship, the Rinaldo, it would seem, had been blown off the island, so that her services were of no avail. The Malacca took the crew to Sidney [sic]. The mail steamer, having been met on the way, Captain Trupp, Commander of the Megæra, took passage home, reached the south point of Ceylon on Sunday night, and is expected in England about the 4th of next month."

Although it has nothing to do with Midshipman Robin Walpole himself, the heir to the Earldom of Orford was, indeed, aboard the ship. Considering the political power of his family, as well as the economic loss suffered when the ship and its cargo were lost, there was bound to be an investigation about exactly why the Megæra was at sea at all, and some resulting accusations. Here's a taste of them in a letter from the London Times on 5 August 1872, entitled "Loss of the Megæra":


Sir,—With reference to your remark, in a leading article of The Times of to-day, upon an alleged survey of the Megæra by me - a remark based upon a question put in the House of Commons in March last by the Hon. Mr. Walpole, M.P. for North Norfolk - permit me to say that I certainly examined the Megæra in Woolwich Dockyard several years ago, and reported her fit only for a very brief period of further service, in consequence of the extreme thinness to which her plates had become worn by many years of almost continual use at sea. That period has long been exceeded.

The state of this ship is one of the many subjects respecting which I was anxious on leaving office to communicate with my successors, but upon which the late First Lord of the Admiralty preferred that I should be silent—nay, insisted that I should be.

When the seaworthiness of the Megæra was called in question in March last, Mr.
Goschen publicly assured Mr. Walpole that I had apparently made no survey of, or report upon, the ship; but if he had done me the honour to ask me the question, instead of trusting to those who knew nothing about it, he would at once have ascertained that I had examined her, and that the ship was not fit for sea service, I wrote privately to Mr. Walpole [Note: Robin's father, Frederick, pictured, right] to that effect, but in these days a county member of Parliament seems to be as little able to secure attention as a subordinate officer of the Admiralty, such as I once was. And yet it would seem reasonable that questions involving the life or death of some hundreds of Her Majesty's subjects and servants should secure a little thoughtful consideration occasionally.

I have said before, Sir, and I beg leave to repeat now, that the present administration of the Admiralty is utterly inconsistent with the safety of Her Majesty's naval officers and seaman, and, if it is continued, can have before long but one result—that of the refusal of both officers and men to embark in Her Majesty's ships.

I have been precluded for a whole year from making known to the professional advisers of the Admiralty the nature and grounds of my apprehensions touching certain vessels, but the time is coming when the safety of the Navy will claim at least equal consideration with the economy of the Navy, and when I shall not only be allowed to speak, but requested to do so, on matters lying within my own knowledge. It is amazing to me that men of intelligence, to say nothing of men who assume to manage the affairs of a nation, should fail to see that, in thrusting the great Navy of England into the hands of one man after another who knows nothing whatever about it, Parliament is both inviting and insuring a long course of disaster.

I have the honour to be, Sir, your obedient servant,

August 4.

Just a final note from Wikipedia: "Captain Thrupp and his crew subsequently faced a
court martial in November 1871 at Plymouth and a Royal Commission was appointed to inquire into the loss of the ship. Thrupp was subsequently honourably acquitted when the court decided that the beaching of the ship was perfectly justifiable."

In the retelling, many had come to believe that Walpole was marooned alone, with no resource to food or water, and was near death when he was rescued at last. To say that none of that is true doesn't diminish the difficulty and harshness of the situation in which the ship's crew found itself, or belie the fear that the crew must have felt when the ship was finally given up for lost at St. Paul.

One wonders why the teenaged Walpole wasn't shaping his future at Oxford or Eton in 1871, but to think that enduring a three-month-long shipwreck in the Southern Indian Ocean at the age of 16 wouldn't also have profoundly affected the future life of young Robin would be foolish.

The shipwreck of the Megæra would have to have been a life-altering experience for young Walpole, and his experiences would undoubtedly have influenced his child, Dorothy. However, to think that his adventures in the Royal Navy were at an end would not be true in the least.

Having endured a rigors of having been a castaway, Robin would next enter the world of alleged piracy, kidnapping, and the illegal slave trade, but we'll look at all of that next time.

One thing we will soon find, however, is that there's a ceratin irony to Walpole having sailed aboard a ship called the Megæra. According to Wikipedia: Megaera (
Ancient Greek: Μέγαιρα, English translation: "the jealous one") is one of the Erinyes in Greek mythology. She is the cause of jealousy and envy, and punishes people who commit crimes, especially marital infidelity. Like her sisters Alecto and Tisiphone, she was born of the blood of Uranus when Cronus castrated him. In modern French (mégère) and Portuguese (megera), derivatives of this name are used to designate a jealous or spiteful woman. In Italian and Russian, the word megera indicates an evil and/or ugly woman.

But that's also a story for another day as well…

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