The field trip of the HMS Volage

This was originally posted over at radiojamming.tumblr.com in response to the question: “Can you tell us anything more about John Hartnell’s time on the [Volage]?” Post has been edited for clarity with some information being added after further research.

For those not familiar right away, John Hartnell was a sailor aboard the HMS Erebus during the disastrous Franklin Expedition into the Canadian Arctic in 1845. John (and earlier, his younger brother Thomas) served aboard the HMS Volage, a sixth-rate sailing frigate originally launched in 1825.

Most of the Volage‘s logs were lists of chores, punishments, notes on the weather, and any major events. John’s time on the Volage can be divided pretty neatly in half, between the ship’s North American tour, and its Irish Sea patrol, all between 1841-45. 

The North American part was probably pretty exciting for him, considering that he’d been a shoemaker since he was thirteen years old. Compared to what his brother had been up to on the Volage (the Aden Expedition, Battle of Chuenpi, etc.), it focused less on military ventures and more on transportation and patrol. The first major thing it did was in December of 1841, when it accompanied the HMS Warspite and HMS Thalia in taking the King of Prussia, Frederick William IV to England to attend the christening of the Prince of Wales. After that, it scurried over to Plymouth to get new fittings, and then took off for the Caribbean. 

A lot happened in the Caribbean, and reading through the log books (always written in very non-emotional language, but still entertaining) paints a very eclectic picture of their activities. The Volage went to Jamaica first, awaiting orders until they were ordered to go to Saint Martha to pick up… $800,000 in gold ($30,672,000 in 2022). Legit, that sat on the Volage for two months until they dropped it off in Port Royal. By then, half the crew was incredibly ill with a mix of diseases including what might have been dysentery. Amazingly, for all of John’s terrible luck, he doesn’t appear on the sick list, even as one of the lieutenant’s eventually died as well as the clerk. 

They scurried back and forth across the Caribbean from January of 1842 until they departed for Halifax, Nova Scotia later that summer. (Land of @theiceandbones!) In all honesty, the Volage didn’t get up to much during it’s time in Halifax. They didn’t necessarily have a mission, but it does make for some really entertaining reading! There was a lot of shore leave, for instance. Here are some of the notes I wrote on my read-through between the Caribbean and Halifax (which is from ADM 54/312):

  • Mondays and Fridays are mandatory clothes-washing days.
  • 8th of July 1842 – “Punished Michael Logan with 48 [!] lashes for Disobedience of Orders and Insolence”
  • 12th of July 1842, 6pm – “Committed to the deep the Body of Samuel Marvin (AB) Deceased.” / “Departed this life William Baillie (boy) – Buried at sea on the 13th.”
  • 18th of July 1842, 10:50 pm – “Heard the report of several Guns from the North” [in Halifax]
  • 20th of July 1842 – Halifax Citadel visit and the burial of Robert Webb (boy), Samuel Gibbon, John Barnes, and Samuel Brummage (carpenter’s mate) on shore
  • Godden reports that several warm nights, sailors were permitted to use their hammocks and sleep on the beach! (I put a smiley face next to my note here!)
  • Most of their Halifax mooring was spent cleaning. Lots of repainting, holystoning, repairing, etc.
  • Multiple discharges for “uselessness” and “disgrace”. 

The latter note is really interesting, considering that none other than Charles Dickens visited Halifax that same year, and made note of sailors making total idiots out of themselves on oysters and champagne. Indeed, there are plenty of punishments recorded for that summer for drunkenness, insubordination, and desertion, again sometimes up to 48 lashes. On a high note, John Hartnell wasn’t punished once! And believe me, I looked!

That’s 47 lashes too many

They did have to have some repair work done to fix a leak in October before scurrying back down south with the “Squadron”. Godden makes some pretty boring notes about looking at the United States coast (as in essentially saying, “Yep, there it is!”) before they hang tight to the coast of Mexico. 

The Volage appears to have been outfitted for doing survey work, which is part of what they did for the next few months. Between that, mooring for absolutely nothing, and hanging out with slave ship hunters (I like to think they high-fived the HMS Racer at some point) their zig-zag order of ports of call are:

Barbados > Puerto Rico > Grenada > St. Vincent > Jamaica > St. Lucie > Antigua > Jamaica (long-term Port Royal mooring) > Haiti 

By early 1843, the Volage was headed back home. They docked in Plymouth for a time before getting their next orders for the Admiralty for the apparently much-maligned Irish Sea duty. At this point, Captain William Dickson had a temporary replacement for the deceased Lt. Davey, but eventually, that lieutenant had to leave as well. Captain Dickson did get a note from the Admiralty that he was to get his replacement at the Cove of Cork, and according to the sudden burst of tiny handwriting at the bottom of the page on Tuesday, August 29th, 1843, Captain Dickson totally forgot about that. Literally, the note for the day is kind of falling off the page from squeezing it in, but reads: “Read the Commission of Lieut J Irving”.

Because Lieutenant John Irving hopped on board as a new replacement, thus using those sweet, sweet letters of his to describe the next few months. He was absolutely meticulous about dating his letters, and having them on hand in his memoir made it easy to line up with Godden’s notes in the master’s log, confirming everything between the two of them. This time, Irish patrol got kind of exciting.

First, here’s Irving talking about joining the Volage, saying much nicer things about Capt. Dickson considering the captain was probably going, “Oh shit right I forgot we were doing this.”

“To my great joy I found the ‘Volage’ at anchor here. I was afraid she might have gone somewhere else. I went on board direct from the steamer, and was introduced to Sir William Dickson, the Captain; rigged myself in a blue coat and a pair of epaulettes; the hands were turned up, and the Captain read my commission appointing me lieutenant of the ship to the ship’s company. There are three of us. I am the second in seniority. Our mess consists of seven–viz., three lieutenants, one master, surgeon, a lieutenant of marines. They are all very good fellows. I was three years messmate of one of them in a former ship, so am comfortable in that respect.”

Irving noted that the officers were frequently invited to parties in Cork (”I could be at parties every day if I liked;”), and Godden does say that the rest of the crew were given shore leave fairly frequently, even though they didn’t have enough officers to allow them to leave as often. 

For the next four months, the Volage remained at Cork, doing patrol with several other man-of-war’s. On land, there were frequent clashes between the Protestants and the Catholics, but more importantly, there were the Repealers following Daniel O’Connell’s urging to repeal the Acts of the Union and re-establish the independent Kingdom of Ireland. Between Irving and Godden, the image of this time from the perspective of the Volage is one of a lot of bloody rumors and high tension (a Protestant curate was killed, houses were being burned down). However, O’Connell’s followers were very civil to the sailors and actually invited some of the Volage officers to visit their homes. Irving called their hospitality “quite Highland”. 

The Volage was temporarily relieved of its patrol in December, and returned to Plymouth by January of 1844 for refitting and repair work after shearing off part of her keel. Godden and Irving both noted that sailors and officers were boarded on a hulk, or a non-sailing ship. Godden also noted that several sailors were permitted leave to go visiting nearby. (John Hartnell did have family in Plymouth, and Thomas Hartnell may have been visiting the area at the same time, if a pet theory of mine holds up.) 

They were back in the Cove of Cork by February, with the Volage now as the flagship. During a period between February and June, the Volage frequently made trips between Cork and the town of Bantry, after further pro-Repealer agitation began to raise tensions once more. Godden’s log doesn’t say much on the subject aside from weather reports and notes on officers leaving the ship to attend parties, major gatherings in town (there’s a really interesting bit from Irving on scaring the bejeezus out of a group of paraders and stealing the Waterford city flag), and switching out officers. However, the tensions once again didn’t amount to much more than far-off reports of violence and a few observations of pissed-off “pisantry”. The Volage did return to Plymouth for Christmas before returning for a short turn in Cork, and then being paid off completely. The log for that topic shows that John Hartnell was paid off on February 1st, 1845.

As far as what life would have been like for John Hartnell on the Volage, it’s hard to say for sure since, once again, Godden’s logs are impersonal. However, he was responsible for recording all punishments, injuries, illnesses, and deaths, of which there was no lack. He also kept meticulous note of what chores were to be done on particular days, as well as drills. I noticed there was a lot of repetition in the chore schedule, and there was a slight uptick in sailors suddenly taking ill with “unknown” illnesses about two and a half years in, especially on days that had chores requiring a little more elbow grease.

But I think, as I said, this would have been very exciting for someone like John. After all, he voluntarily signed up for the Erebus four months after signing off on the Volage. Unfortunately, we don’t have any letters to or from him that might hint to how he felt during this time, so we have to take it from his actions rather than his words. I like to think he enjoyed himself.