Daily Archives: 16 October, 2009

Charles Darwin’s instrument maker?

Charles Darwin: a Portsmouth connection?

Charles Darwin: a Portsmouth connection?

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin, perhaps the most famous naturalist of all time and the first man to pioneer the groundbreaking theory of evolution. Whilst his importance is well known, how he came to formulate his ideas is much less well known. In amongst these momentous events, we also find a Portsmouth connection that has been largely overlooked.

In 1831 Captain Robert Fitzroy was looking for a scientifically minded person to join him onboard HMS Beagle for what was planned to be a lengthy surveying voyage around South America and the South Pacific. After a few enquiries he was put in contact with Charles Darwin, a young scientific gentleman. Also onboard was George James Stebbing, the son of a Portsmouth nautical instrument maker who was onboard to maintain the ships instruments. George was also the elder brother of Joseph Stebbing, who would later become the Mayor of Southampton.

The voyage eventually lasted for 6 years, with HMS Beagle returning to England in 1837. During that time Darwin had observed much that would shape his later theories, especially around the Galapagos Islands. The voyage of the Beagle is, perhaps fittingly, known as Darwin’s voyage of discovery.

Among a very small crew, Fitzroy, Darwin and Stebbing would have been the only ‘gentleman’ on board, and it is not difficult to imagine them spending the long hours, days and weeks at sea discussing science and nature. Maybe Stebbing contributed towards Darwin’s ideas?

When he returned to England George James Stebbing went on to be a leading figure in Portsmouth, before he became the first Instrument Maker to the new Meteorological Office. The head of the Met? none other than Robert Fitzroy.

And Charles Darwin? The rest, as they say, is history…

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Filed under Local History, maritime history

70th Anniversary of Royal Oak sinking remembered

HMS Royal Oak

HMS Royal Oak

The 70th anniversary of one of the Royal Navy’s blackest days, which saw the loss of 833 lives, was marked at a ceremony on HMS Penzance this week by The Princess Royal.

Shortly after 0100hrs on 14 October 1939, HMS Royal Oak, in the Home Fleet’s wartime anchorage of Scapa Flow, in the Orkney Islands, suffered four torpedo hits, one at the bow and three amidships, from German submarine U-47. Captained by Gunther Prien, the submarine had infiltrated the natural harbour that was thought to be impregnable.

Of the ship’s complement of 1,234 men and boys, 833 were killed that night or died later of their wounds. Over a hundred were Boy seamen, under the age of 18. The loss of the Royal Oak had little effect on the war at sea, given the Royal Navy’s overwhelming superiority over the German fleet, but had a considerable effect on morale.

The Royal Oak, a designated war grave, now lies in 30 metres of water at the bottom of Scapa Flow where, from HMS Penzance on Wednesday 14 October 2009, The Princess Royal laid a wreath to remember those lost.

HMS Royal Oak was a Revenge class battleship launched in 1914 and commissioned in 1916. She fought at the Battle of Jutland soon after joining the fleet, and between the wars saw service in the Home, Atlantic and Mediterannean fleets. By the time she was sunk she was largely obsolete. She was one of four Royal Navy Battleships sunk in the Second World War, along with Barham, Repulse and Prince of Wales.

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Filed under Navy, News, Remembrance, World War Two