Death of an Unknown Naval Officer, 1874

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The Commissioner’s House (photograph possibly reversed). Photo: Nova Scotia Archives.

Whilst idly reading the Statistical Report on the Health of the Navy for 1874 today I stumbled across this rather grotesque report and accompanying commentary on a case from Halifax, northern headquarters of the Royal Navy’s North American and West Indies Station. The identity of the poor patient is unknown (according to my database he does not appear to have been a member of the Military Branch). The suggestion ‘that he had long been living freely’, carrying with it a hint of alcoholism or even sexual promiscuity, does not strike one as a satisfactory reason for what seems to be a very painful death. The account reads as follows:

 

‘From its history, its appearance, its severe and intractable form, the peculiar parts implicated, and the hard unyielding swelling of the tissues affected, its true nature and, character was rather that of “malignant facial carbuncle,” or the “malignant pustule,” than mere phlegmonous erysipelas, so called. The case was that of an officer who had lately come out from England to join the Royal Alfred on her arrival at Halifax from Bermuda, and it was while he was waiting at Halifax for the arrival of that ship that the disease began. The ship arrived on the 20th of June; he was attacked on the 17th, therefore as he did not come under my care till the 21st, I did not see him in the early stages of the attack. It began with an irritable pustule of the lower lip, which he ascribed to smoking a short pipe. There had also been a slight fissure on the lip, which he thought had imbibed some of the oil or the tobacco. The lip rapidly swelled, and the inflammation extended on the following day to the upper lip and left cheek. These symptoms were accompanied by great nervous depression and anxiety, and with considerable constitutional disturbance. He then came under the care of the surgeon of the Niobe, who admitted him into the sick quarters. The swelling and inflammation of the lips and face steadily increased, and the inflammatory action assumed an erysipelatous appearance. On the 20th, the whole left side of the head and face was enormously swollen, of a hard diffuse brawny structure, and of a dark dusky red colour, which when cut into by the bistoury gave the sensation of incising a hard fibrous tumour. The disease steadily advanced, nothing seemed to check its progress, till the whole face, head and neck were enveloped in one huge brawny dark-red swelling. Delirium with fitful intervals of consciousness set in on the 22nd, and became confirmed on the 23rd. Coma supervened on the 24th, and he died early on the 25th.’

It was reported that he was apparently in robust health previous to the attack, but that he had long been living freely, He was residing in the Commissioner’s house in the dockyard while waiting the arrival of the Royal Alfred, and as the drainage of that house was very defective, and its proximity to a mast-pond containing almost stagnant water which at times gave out the most offensive putrid-like odours, was most unwholesome, a depraved condition of health may have been induced, or even blood poisoning caused, the result of which was this malignant disease.

Thank you to Halifax Shipping News (@HfxShippingNews) for linking to the Nova Scotia Archives.

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‘The Thing is too Absurd’

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The Admiralty in the mid-19th Century.

It is an article of faith that the non-Naval officers recruited to ‘Room 40’ were sometimes poorly acquainted with Naval terminology. It has been claimed by one who was there that ‘messages were sent to O.D. [Operations Division] talking about ships running in and out sometimes “athwartwise”’. This, claimed William F. Clarke, ‘lessened our reputation with the authorities’.

Compare and contrast then to this anecdote from the Royal Navy of the mid-1870s. Admiral Sir Geoffrey Phipps Hornby, Second Naval Lord from 1875 to 1877, told a commission in 1887:

On one occasion in the absence of the First Sea Lord I had to do his business, and a firm in the city wrote to say that one of their ships, the Great Queensborough, I think she was called, or the Great Queenstown, had sailed on a certain day from England for Australia, that six or eight months had elapsed, and they had no account of her, and would the Admiralty allow some ship to call at the Crozet Islands to see if there were any signs of her being ashore there, and so forth. Tho Crozet Islands are about 100° to tho westward of Sydney, Australia, and about 40 degrees to the east of the Cape. I thought that I had heard something said at the Board about ships going out. That was not my branch, and therefore I sent this matter down to the proper branch to ask for information, and for tho branch to report. Up came the paper to me, and on the back of it there was this recommendation: ‘Wolverine had orders to sight the Crozet Islands on the outward voyage; submitted whether telegraphic orders be sent to the Pearl to do tho same on her way home.’ Now that submission was made by one of the most experienced clerks of the Admiralty, and I suppose anything so silly, from a naval point of view, can hardly be believed. What he suggested was that I should tell that ship that she was to beat up nearly 3,500 miles dead to windward against the heaviest gales that blow in the southern oceans to look at the Crozet Islands. His mistake was perfectly reasonable from his point of view. How was the poor man to know that the road out to Australia was not the road home? But to a sailor’s mind the thing is too absurd.

In his evidence Hornby proposed an influx of Naval Officers at all levels of the Secretariat of the Admiralty to prevent this kind of mistake from occurring. Calling for a division between Naval work done by Naval Officers and pure administration done by the Civil Service, the former under a Naval Officer as Permanent Secretary, with Naval Officers as heads of Secretariat branches, one may see, quite clearly, a precursor to the Naval Staff.