‘No one’s interested so I gave it to Pete the Gardener’. As my grandmother aged, Pete the gardener gained the contents of what would have been a not insubstantial antiques shop. Occasionally we rescued things from going to Pete or the dustbin. On one such occasion, as she tore pages from an album, my mother was able to step in and rescue the contents. This chance saving of a group of watercolours led to a trail of research, revealing an extraordinary career that spanned both the world and the years of naval transformation from sail to steam.
It transpired that my great-great-grandfather, Edward Wolfe Brooker, who served in the Navy as a hydrographer in the mid-nineteenth-century, had painted the pictures in question. Some had labels saying where or what they were; others were clearly identifiable sights, such as Table Mountain and the peak in Hong Kong; others were more obscure. My mother had them framed and they hung on the walls of my family homes over the years.
Then one day I was in Waterstones on London Wall and on the table was a book entitled Rattlesnake by Jordan Goodman. On the front was a picture of HMS Rattlesnake, which I recognized as the same ship that featured in one of my ancestor’s pictures on my wall at home. What was so significant about this ship that a new book was being written about her today? I had to look into it further.
Brooker had entered the Navy, aged fifteen, in 1842 and he served as Master’s Assistant on ships commanded by John Washington on surveys of the North Sea. This must have been cold hard work but Captain Washington went on to be a founder of the Royal Geographical Society and to be Hydrographer of the Navy. Perhaps he saw some talent in the young Brooker and encouraged his career, supporting his move to the Rattlesnake.
HMS Rattlesnake was responsible for exploring the entrances to the Great Barrier Reef in 1847. She went on to chart the seas around New Guinea and is considered important in the history of exploration of Australia. The assistant surgeon of the ship was Thomas Huxley. It was Huxley’s voyage on the Rattlesnake that led him to his first publications as a naturalist and to support Charles Darwin by encouraging the publication of On The Origin of Species. So what was my great-great-grandfather’s position?
He was a lowly Master’s Assistant (the Master was a non-commissioned officer with navigational and sailing responsibilities). Amongst other things, the young man was responsible for producing strip pictures of the coastline for navigational purposes. Nineteenth century charts often had a long thin picture of the coastline along the bottom to help identify landmarks. The official artist on the voyage was Sir Oswald Brierly R.A. who may have provided helpful instruction. Family legend had Brooker as commanding his own ship, so how had he progressed to earn a commission from such humble beginnings? My researches now had to delve further into his life.
After the Rattlesnake returned to England, Brooker was promoted to Master and posted to HMS Spitfire under Captain Thomas Spratt on survey work in the work in the Mediterranean. This work was interrupted by the start of the Crimean War.
I have a dark picture of the bombardment of Sebastopol in 1854, painted by my relative. This is timed, dated and inscribed with the ships’ names and their commanding officers along the bottom. He was obviously acknowledged as becoming something of an artist at this time, as the Greenwich Maritime Museum has several prints of Brooker’s pictures from this period. Amongst them is a print from Sebastopol attributed to him. The Museum refers to him holding the Legion d’Honneur and the Turkish order of Medjidie. Looking into naval records, it was also around this juncture that he was commissioned. He clearly had done more than just paint pictures.
In 1855 he was serving as part of the fleet dispatched to attack Kinburn Fort in the Crimea. Under cover of darkness, Brooker was sent to explore the entrance to the Dnieper River. He was accompanied by Lieutenant Marryat who was the nephew of Captain Marryat, author of Midshipman Easy and The Children of The New Forest. They placed buoys to mark the safe passage, going to and fro under very heavy fire before reporting back to the commander Sir Houston Stewart, then piloting the ships up the channel. In Sir Stewart’s report to the Commander-in-Chief Sir Edmund Lyons, he praised Marryat and Brooker for the anxious, difficult and dangerous work which they had executed admirably. Sir Edmund duly commended them to the Admiralty and, within a few weeks, they were both promoted, Marryat to Commander and Brooker to a commissioned officer. This was followed by decoration by both the Turkish and French governments.
After the Crimean War was over, Brooker returned to work with Captain Spratt on surveys of the Eastern Mediterranean. Lt E.W. Brooker’s name now appears on charts on the coast of Asia Minor, Egypt, Cyprus and Crete. Spratt had an interest in antiquities and explored not just the coast of Crete but also the interior, for which he produced the first detailed map, and which was published along with his description of his time there. He discovered many of the sites that are familiar to visitors today. On a recent holiday to Crete, I visited the Minoan palace at Phaestos, where I was pleased to see his role acknowledged on one of the explanatory boards. While on Crete, I also found the ancient bridge near the village of Vrises that was described by Spratt and was painted by my ancestor 150 years ago. His picture shows a man on a donkey crossing the bridge; now traffic is carried by a modern road over a flyover a few yards away. I was able to stand and gaze at a sight that was otherwise unchanged from when my great-great-grandfather painted the scene.
Brooker returned to domestic waters and continued his charting work on the south coast of England before another overseas posting. His next destination was Tasmania, to chart the island coast and Hobart harbour in particular. For a time he became part of the local community in Hobart. He exhibited a watercolour of a Cairo street scene in a local art exhibition. When the local government refused further funds for surveying, he sold his tents and packed up. The Hobart Mercury of 16th March 1863 paid tribute to him in the following words:
We were foremost to hail the prospect of engaging the services of an officer, who had won such distinguished honour in various parts of the world, as Director of Marine Surveys. We knew that there was hardly any district of the globe in which he had not merited the high enconiums of the Lords of the Admiralty… that gallant officer will leave many friends behind him in the colony.
Despite his time being cut short in Tasmania, his measurements were still used for an Admiralty chart published in 1913 with his strip picture along the bottom.
Returning once more to England, he found time to marry Alice Part and to have two children. On what turned out to be his final voyage to the Far East he was given command of HMS Sylvia. Once again he was to touch on global events and it is from this voyage that we get some idea of what he was like as a man. Writing his memoir in 1906, the then Admiral J.W. Gambier gives an account of life as a Lieutenant on the Sylvia under the command of Brooker. This is how he described his commanding officer:
The Skipper was an amiable little person who gave himself no trouble about anything under the sun – not even his “h’s,” which he left entirely to look after themselves, popping in and out of his mouth like rabbits in a warren.
Gambier came from a family of career naval officers and so was surprised to have a Skipper who came from a rather different background. He was apparently unaware of the actions that led to Brooker’s decoration and promotion. He goes on to say:
He was extraordinarily fortunate in his career: beginning as Master’s Assistant and being transferred to our line and being made commander very young. The same thing occurred to a brother of his. They had a powerful patron in a high Admiral of high social position, and anything was possible in those days.
From this, it would seem that Gambier was a bit of a snob who looked down on those who had risen from the ranks. If Brooker did have high connections (and, as we have seen, he had served with many influential Admirals) he had certainly earned their respect and support.
Gambier does acknowledge that he was rescued on one occasion by the swift thinking of his little Skipper. One night on his way back to the boat, Gambier climbed onto a balcony to try and join a party. When his stick came into contact with the eye of someone who came to the window to see what was going on, there was a frightful row and he was arrested by a passing French patrol. The French officer announced that there would be an enquiry the next day on board his ship. On hearing the facts, Brooker slipped anchor immediately, getting out of reach of any signals by morning, thus saving Gambier from a severe fine or even several months in prison.
From this period we also have a letter written home to his young daughter. He takes care to write in big letters and to make it interesting to a small girl. He drew a picture of the ship in the margin and went on to describe the misbehaviour of the ship’s monkey. He comes across as a caring father and husband, asking the little girl to look after her baby brother and their mother. On his travels, he carried a miniature picture of his smiling wife, who is wearing one of his uniform jackets whilst carrying his baby daughter.
HMS Sylvia was a steamship designed for surveying but still armoured as a naval vessel. She was sent to Asia, principally to survey the waters around Japan. On the way out Brooker continued to paint: there is a fine picture of Table Mountain from this period. His other officers joined him on painting expeditions. The Maritime Museum has an album of pictures by Lieutenant James Butt, who served on the Sylvia and painted Table Mountain at what must have been exactly the same time. The view is identical, with both paintings including a small rowing boat with a blue coated man in the foreground and the sails partially set on a ship in the distance. We can picture the Commander and his junior painting side by side on the wharf, looking up at the familiar flat-topped mountain in the distance.
Japan had been closed to foreign trade for many centuries but in the 1860s had begun to open up. The Sylvia was attached to Admiral Keppel for the opening of trade ports of Osaka and Kobe in 1869. Having visited the Daymio in Osaka, they proceeded to survey the Inland Sea of Japan, before going on to refuel in Shanghai and to over-winter in Hong Kong. Brooker painted the Sylvia in Japan and a view of Hong Kong where a semaphore station is just visible on the peak. The strip of development along the coast is quite a contrast to the tower blocks of today.
Sadly, Brooker fell ill in Japan and was invalided out. He returned home but died in the following year, 1870, aged just 43. His career had started in the age of sail in the North Sea and ended under steam in Japan. He had sailed with Huxley, become a hero in the Crimea, and seen firsthand the opening of Japan to trade. He was an example of the often-anonymous professional seaman who made possible the growth of British influence across the globe during the nineteenth century.
Jonathan Marriott studied History and Philosophy of Science at Cambridge before a career in financial services. He is Chief Investment Officer of LGT Vestra LLP. and has written many articles for financial magazines.