Midshipman’s Log of Robert Horace Walpole 1870-1: The Start of a Life of Adventure

Robert Horace Walpole was born in 1854 and joined the Royal Navy in 1867.  This blog is an account of Walpole’s Midshipman’s log on HMS Bristol from February 1870 to January 1871.  No great adventures are recorded here; the predominant theme is officer training and the ship’s routine duties protecting British interests on the seas.

HMS Bristol was the name ship of the Bristol class of wooden screw frigates, ships that had both steam propulsion and sail.  It was also a training ship for officer cadets such as Walpole.  Captain Wilson was its commanding officer.

Map showing the overall routes taken by the Bristol. NRO, WLP 17/9/1, 1047X5

February 1870

HMS Bristol had orders to sail to Lisbon and join the Channel Squadron, the naval fleet protecting the English Channel.  Before sailing about 100 supernumary boys from the Cambridge came on board to be taken to Lisbon to be distributed among the ships of the Channel Squadron.

It was not a calm voyage.  Walpole noted we had seamanship in the morning but no study in the afternoon as so many of us were ill. 

March 1870

Arriving in Lisbon we heard that we were only going to stay in Lisbon for a few hours . . Mr Ridley (the ship’s Chaplain and tutor) read us a very interesting account of Lisbon in study this morning . . . No sooner had we entered the Tagus than the quarantine officer came on board. 

The ‘supernumary boys’ were dispatched to the Channel Squadron which set sail.  The Bristol had to wait for it to return before it could leave for Gibraltar on the 24th.

April 1870

Time at sea was used for keeping the ship well maintained and ensuring a constant state of readiness for the crew.  Walpole records in detail the types of sails, wind directions and bearings; all essential skills for an officer.

He also recorded the death of Joseph Robinson, a stoker on the ship and when the Bristol arrived in Gibraltar the body of Joseph Robinson was committed to the deep.

The Bristol returned to Lisbon wherethey took on board cadets who had been in Lisbon hospital.  A newspaper report explains:  We learn that measles had broken out amongst the cadets and the ship (the Bristol) was detained there.   (Southern Times & Dorset County Herald 2nd April 1870).  Then they returned to Gibraltar and enjoyed a few days shore leave.

Gibraltar. NRO, WLP 17/9/1, 1047X5

May 1870

The Bristol left Gibraltar on the 4th and the following twelve days were at sea before anchoring in Ferrol, at the northern tip of Spain.

We all had leave to go ashore.  Some went to Coruna, I went for a walk into the country.  It was very hot but I did not think much of “Ferrol”.  A few days later the Captain kindly gave us another whole holiday and we went ashore.  I went right out a long way into the country with some officers.  We caught some trout and bathed in a beautifully clean and deep river.  The scenery was very pretty.  We walked home again in the cool of the evening.

The Bristol left Ferrol on the 21stOur band played the National Anthem.  A Spanish gunboat which had been anchored near us gave us three cheers.

Back in Gibraltar on the 27th, Walpole did not go ashore as he was on the sick list but was able to go the following day.

Gibraltar. NRO, WLP 17/9/1, 1047X5

June 1870

June began with a visit from the American Rear Admiral Radford from the USS Franklin, flagship of their European Squadron.  The American Admiral came on board attended by his Captain.  He seemed to admire the ship extremely.

The next few days were spent socially and diplomatically, for the two were often combined.

We have had an invitation to go to the Governor’s ball.  I shall take advantage of it if I can.   We went to the governor’s house there was rather a scarcity of ladies but I think every lady was very happy.

On the 3rd the Bristol set sail for Palma arriving there on the 14th.   It seemed very pretty what we could see of it, there is a cathedral and several castles.  Walpole went ashore the next day and was very impressed with the city. 

Routes taken in the Mediterranean. NRO, WLP 17/9/1, 1047X5

After two days the Bristol left for Algiers arriving on the 19thWe saw a Religious Procession go by.  I noticed that all the Moorish women are veiled so that you can only see their eyes.  We saw some “Bedouin Arabs” they are much darker than the Moors they are a very dirty people I think.  There are a lot of Zouaves or Moorish soldiers about.  They are under the French government and they say that they make very good soldiers.  The French Superior Body Guard is composed of them . . . All the French ships were dressed it being the anniversary of the Taking of Algiers by the French.

Walpole continues to write about Algiers but this part of the log is damaged and difficult to read.

On the 24th they left for Barcelona.

July 1870

Arriving on the 1st Walpole had exams but the next day we had leave to go ashore the whole day the examination being finished . . . It is a very fine town the second largest in Spain. 

The Bristol left Barcelona on the 7th and arrived back in Gibraltar on the 21stTwo French gun boats were in the Bay one of them the “Renard” was at Algiers with us.  We heard that war had broken out between France and Prussia. 

August 1870

In August the Bristol joined the Mediterranean fleet; the largest fleet of the Royal Navy.  It was under the command of Admiral Milne.  The ships were the Lord Warden (flagship), Bellerophon, Royal Oak, Prince Consort, Caledonian, Columbine, Psyche.  Milne’s orders were to carry out joint manoeuvres with the Channel Squadron off the coast of Portugal.  Two days later the Channel Squadron under the command of Sir Hastings Yelverton arrived. 

Milne came to inspect the Bristol.  He came on board and inspected all the men, all the officers were introduced to him.  We had rifle and cutlass drill . . . he seemed very much pleased and complimented the Captain on his crew.

On the 19th we weighed anchor and the whole fleet steamed out in two lines, the Mediterranean fleet “Captain” and Bristol in one line and the rest of the channel fleet in the other.  We left the Psyche (a naval dispatch boat) behind to bring on the mails.

On the 20th the Columbine went on ahead of us to Lisbon taking with her our letters and the body of Lieutenant Paul of the Agincourt who died yesterday.  The Bristol waited off Cape Roca for the Columbine to return with dispatches.  The weather had been foggy and when it cleared we found ourselves a long way astern of all the other ships, we caught them up and took up our position again.  The Agincourt was sent to a wreck that we saw she turned out to be a waterlogged brig with a cargo of wine.  There was nobody on board. 

On the 30th the “Helicon” came in bringing the news that we were to sail for England on Friday all the fleet except the “Prince Consort”, “Royal Oak”, “Psyche” and “Columbine”.  We were to be in England by the 15th September.

September 1870

The fleet left on the 2nd.  As we went out the Prince Consort and Royal Oak manned yards and cheered.  The fleet hoisted the signal “Farewell Success attend you.  When clear of the land we formed in two lines ahead.

The fleet met stormy weather and on the 7th came the tragic news of the loss of HMS Captain, a new ship completed only in April that year, which later proved to have had many design and construction faults.

There was a strong gale blowing last night . . . In the morning we saw the Fleet, all except the Captain, we joined them.  They had seen nothing of the Captain . . . all the ships distributed to look for her.  The admiral signaled to us to look out for wreck, we furled sail and steamed soon after we lowered a boat to pick up a white hat we saw floating by they failed to pick it up.

The following day more debris from the loss of the Captain was found and Admiral Milne ordered the Bristol to Corcubion with dispatches to send back to England.  Captain Wilson sent a telegram to say that one warrant officer and seventeen seamen had landed ashore at Corcubion.  They were the only survivors out of a crew of over 500 men.  The loss of the Captain was widely reported in the press. 

Loss of HMS Captain. NRO, WLP 17/9/1a PH 23

From Corcubion the Bristol sailed into Coruna Bay where HMS Monarch had been left there to bury the dead of the Captain.  A Spaniard came aboard and gave us a description of how the Captain sunk and also told us that her captain had been washed ashore and was buried there. 

The Bristol then resumed its voyage back to England arriving on the 16thAdmiral Milne struck his flag and the “Lord Warden” discharged her powder and went into harbour.

Walpole went on leave.

October 1870

Walpole rejoined the Bristol on the 23rd.  The rest of the month was spent in Portsmouth. 

November 1870

The Bristol left for Lisbon on the 4th and arrived on the 22nd

December 1870

While at sea off Lisbon Walpole records sighting HMS Urgent carrying astronomers going to see the solar eclipse on the 22nd.   The dispatch ship Psyche also carried astronomers heading to see the eclipse but it was wrecked when it hit a submerged rock at Catania, Sicily on the 15th.  Fortunately no lives were lost.

The Bristol left for England on the 26th.

January 1871

The Bristol arrived in England on the 13th and Walpole went on leave on the 20th.  This ended his time on the Bristol. 

Walpole joined HMS Megaera the following month.  His time on the Magaera and on his next ship HMS Blanche is recorded in Walpole’s log of that time and is also held at the NRO, WLP 17/9/2 1047×5.

Walpole progressed to the rank of Lieutenant in the Navy and spent his later life travelling. He died in New Zealand in 1931 and newspapers of the time wrote of his life of travel and adventure. To be buried at Wickmere.

Daryl Long NRO Blogger

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1 Response to Midshipman’s Log of Robert Horace Walpole 1870-1: The Start of a Life of Adventure

  1. Alan says:

    Very striking how mature master Walpole comes across as for someone so young.


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