- Letter Writer
- History - pre-Federation
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- March 2000 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
Drake and his game of bowls and Nelson recalling a boat for a sailor’s letter are loved legends from long past wars. But legends also flow from the Golden Age of British Hydrography in the nineteenth century, and the Navy’s long war to disarm the sea by revealing its dangers to shipping.
Like Nelson, Captain Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer of the Navy, was a father-figure to his men in the field, encouraging, admonishing and sustaining them, and taking pains to understand their problems.
A bride bewailing a separation of years from her young husband implores Beaufort for news of him. A letter goes off to his captain half a world away instructing the man to write to her. In 1839, when Beaufort received Commander Wickham’s report on HMS Beagle’s survey of Australia’s northwest coast, he noticed that the accompanying mail did not contain a letter to the father of L.R. Fitzmaurice, one of the ship’s mates. Anticipating the father’s disappointment Beaufort wrote:
I have just received a packet of letters from the Beagle, and as I do not see among them one for you I think an extract of one of Captain Wickham’s will be satisfactory.
`This river was discovered and examined by Mr Fitzmaurice, Mate, and has been named after him in consequence of the zealous and attentive manner in which he has performed every duty connected with the survey’.
The ‘Beaufort touch’ at work.
Beaufort’s official letters to his surveying captains were often warm and close. In 1844, Captain Francis Price Blackwood, son of Nelson’s senior frigate captain at Trafalgar, while charting our northern waters in HMS Fly, discovered the channel through the Great Barrier Reef which now bears his name. It led close by Raine Island in 11’36’ south latitude and Beaufort, unaware that Blackwood hoped to build an enduring stone tower there, planned to erect an iron beacon on the island. But when Beaufort heard of Blackwood’s plans he wrote to him on 31 July 1844, sending the original letter by sea and in case it never arrived, a copy by the overland Indian mail via Southampton.
I have had the pleasure last week of receiving two letters of Feb.25 and March 18, the latter having informed me that Sir George Gipps had given you a party of 50 convicts in order to erect the Raine Island beacon. I immediately stopped our negotiation with the Colonial Office and Mr Gordon for one of iron, and I hope you will be able to complete to your entire satisfaction this useful edifice, which will be a more honourable monument to you than 50 obelisks and marble trophies erected at home. I beg you will procure some cunning workman to cut a short inscription on it, (if of metal it will be broken or stolen), giving your name and the date, and stating it to be for a sea mark.
I approve of the dimensions, and beg you will carry out your plan of painting it in two broad stripes vertically or in very broad bands horizontally.
Sir George was distinguished while here for a clear head and vigorous mind and his conduct in the decisive assistance he has given to the erection of this useful beacon and his kindness in lending you the cutter would call for my best thanks to him, if I had a single moment that I could write to him.