Jul 12th, 2009 by Andy Funnell
Robert Funnell, the second of eight children born to Robert and Elizabeth, was christened at the Church of Saint Peter in West Firle on the 5th of April 1822. His parents had settled in the village before the birth of their first son, Benjamin, in 1820. They were not Sussex born, his father originating from another county and his mother from Ireland. Jane Funnell, possibly his grandmother, born in 1757, lived with the family (1).
West Firle was and is a (small) village and parish, half a mile south from the Lewes and Eastbourne turnpike road, 5 miles south-east from Lewes (2). In the 1830s, roads and railways were not what they are today. Materials and merchandise were largely transported by water. The river Ouse was navigable for sea going vessels from Newhaven to Lewes which comprised a network of cuts, canals and wharfs for loading and unloading ships and barges. Smaller vessels would then transport these goods further upriver or around Lewes. The tide of the Ouse could be felt along the Cockshut to a point in Southover near Anne of Cleves and the waterway continued to Kingston. Today, few traces are left of this network. In West Firle, one of the 4 roads is named “The Dock” and there is a suspiciously oblong pond just near. The 1830s were hard times for agricultural labourers and transport was a promising alternative.
At 16, Robert finds employment on the “Jane” a Newhaven registered vessel which seems to have been a “stone barge” ferrying granite for kerbstones from the Isle of Wight along the South Coast. He held this job for nearly two years until January 1840.
In February, he takes up a new job aboard a new 61 ton sea going brig “Lewes Castle” built at the yards of Rickman and Godlee in Lewes and launched less than a year before in March 1839 under the eyes of hundreds of spectators. At a party afterwards at the Star Inn – according to the Sussex County Magazine – the toast was proposed: “May she make prosperous voyages and profitable freights” (3).
It was certainly during his two years and one month working on this vessel that Robert got “the taste of the high seas”. He decided to join the Royal Navy.
His service record shows that he was aboard HMS Victory from the 14th of September 1844 to the 1st of September 1845. From Able Bodied Seaman he became Paymaster’s Purser. Helas, the days of glory of the HMS Victory were over and she was in retirement as Flagship since 1825, scarcely ever leaving Portsmouth harbour.
However, Robert was there on that special anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar, the 21st of October 1844, when Queen Victoria, touring the harbour, noticed the decorations and the wreaths of laurel atop the mastheads and decided to come aboard. Her Majesty evinced much emotion, when shown the almost sacred spots where Nelson fell and died; and plucking some leaves from the wreath that enshrined the words on the poop, “England expects that every man will do his duty”, kept them as a memento.
It was also in the third quarter of 1845 that Robert married a local girl, Ann Nash, born in 1824 in Portsea Island, a part of Portsmouth adjacent to the Naval Base.
The 2nd of September 1845, just one day after leaving the Victory, Robert embarked aboard HMS President. Launched in 1819, she was twice modified and at this time was sporting thirty-two 32-pounder guns on the upper deck, and twenty 32-pounder carronades on the quarterdeck and forecastle. She was at Portsmouth for several years from 1839. When Robert embarked in 1845, it was to fit her out as a flagship sent to the Cape of Good Hope for a two year commission. Returning from South Africa in 1847 to Chatham, she was again docked and later refitted (1853).
Robert was allowed 13 days leave from the 6th to the 19th of March 1849 when he rejoined HMS Arrogant, a 46-gun frigate, with an auxiliary screw-propeller, driven by engines of 330-horse power. The ship had hardly been launched and was employed between Portsmouth and Lisbon until Robert left it on the 25th of September 1852.
Robert receives three weeks leave, probably for the birth of his first son, Robert Thomas.
On the 12th of October 1852, he rejoins HMS Bittern as an Able Bodied Seaman and on the 28th of October 1853, signs on for 10 years active service aboard the windsloop. The document is marked by him and signed by Commander E.W. Van Sittart, George Gordon, Acting Surgeon and George Bruce Newton. Robert gives his date of birth as 1823 in Lewes, Sussex. He is described as 5ft 51/2 inches, complexion “flored”, light brown hair, grey eyes, no marks.
Robert is probably at sea when his second son, James George, is born in the first quarter of 1853 for the 12 gun HMS Bittern is dispatched along with the 44 gun frigate HMS Sybille and a 17 gun auxiliary steam corvette, HMS Hornet, to the China Seas under the Command of Commodore Honorary Charles Elliot – the Crimean War is raging.
Since the 1840s, the Royal Navy and the Hong Kong Government were faced with a difficult and complex situation combating piracy on the trade routes. The Navy could attack pirates anywhere on the high seas, and commit them for trial to any British or Chinese court; but Hong Kong (a small scarcely inhabited island) could only free its own waters of pirates. Piracy on the coast and rivers came within the jurisdiction of the Chinese Government, and neither the Navy nor Hong Kong could operate there without permission from the Canton authorities.
The pirates on the coast in the 1840’s, 50’s, and 60’s, included British, American, French, and other foreign renegades, who often worked in league with Chinese merchants in Hong Kong and the treaty ports. The system of ship registry then in force in Hong Kong was even more liable to abuse than the present system, and allowed Chinese ship-owners an easy means of claiming the protection of certain foreign flags. This increased the difficulties of the Navy, already hard pressed to distinguish between convoy and pirate, and between pirate, trader, and fisherman.
In March, Commander Van Sittart, on the River Min, reports villagers’ reactions as pitiful in the event of attack by pirates… “miserably poor boats followed the Brig begging assistance; one Village sent me a well drawn up petition; another a present of waste paper and Joss-stick; fishermen, and passage boats, small Traders, all telling the same pitiable story; landing on Hootow, I was quickly surrounded by Peasantry; desiring the Interpreter to ask them why so many fine looking fellows per-mitted strangers to molest them; they declared it was useless to resist Pirates, and so whenever Pirates came the villagers hid themselves and cried”.
On the 25th of April, Elliot reports discovering in the sea of Japan, an island about a mile in extent, “running in a NW by W and SE by E direction, formed together by a reef of rock at lat 37 ° 17 ‘ 23 ” N, long 1331 ° 54 ‘ 23 ” E”. “We could discern no dangers lying off them and the waters appear to be deep close to the shore. They are barren, without exception of a few patches of grass on their sides and landing would be difficult except in very calm weather”. Charles C Forsyth, Commander of HMS Hornet confirmed “The height of the NW island was ascertained to be 410 ft above sea level”.
On the 20th of May 1855, Commodore Elliott’s 3-ship squadron is sent to help in the Russian War by blockading De Castries Bay. Finding the Russians warships solidly at anchor and expecting an attack, he avoids confrontation, no doubt to the great relief of the seamen aboard his three ships. However, nearly a year later, his choice is severely questioned by the press and members of Parliament (4). The government stands by Commodore Elliott but his squadron has long since returned south to Hong Kong.
From then on, the Bittern is constantly engaged in the suppression of piracy and the escort of merchant ships. Commander Van Sittart is several times mentioned in despatches for his actions. However, the pirates would flee into shallow waters and when pursued by the Bitterns longboats abandon them and take refuge in the villages where they terrorized the inhabitants.
In September 1855, HMS Bittern was called upon to attack the pirate stronghold of Sheipoo where they were regrouping. On the 18th battle raged from the waters and on the 19th a party was sent ashore to chase off the survivors. Robert Funnell was amongst these sailors and was injured in the fighting, sustaining a “lacerated wound of the left cheek and face” which was considered “slight” (5).
The villagers, seeing the situation changing in their favour, brutally slaughtered the pirates attempting to escape. The result was the destruction of the pirate fleet of 23 junks, 1.200 pirates killed and Van Sittart rescued a party of English ladies from the hands of the pirates. He was thanked by the Chinese authorities and received a testimonial and presentation from the English and foreign merchants. The Bittern’s crew was allowed ashore to celebrate.
In January 1856, Van Sittart is promoted to Captain. Robert Funnell becomes Ship’s Cook on the 10th of May 1856 until October when he is transferred in this same capacity to HMS Winchester where he feeds the crew from the 18th of October 1856 to the 14th of May 1857. Commanded by Captain Thomas Wilson, this 52 gun 1487 ton fourth rate wooden sailing ship (launched 21 June 1822) was the flagship of Rear-Admiral James Stirling.
The China Medal was awarded to soldiers and sailors involved in the various actions of the Second War against China, the “Opium War”, in which this ship was engaged from 1856 to 1860. The Marines and the crew aboard the Winchester were called upon for actions on shore in the Canton, Hong Kong, Macao triangle (6). A memorial at Happy Valley Cemetery, Hong Kong “Erected by Officers and crew of HMS Winchester to the memory of their deceased shipmates” bears witness to the losses. However, none are recorded after 1857 and no accounts of the Winchesters participation in the fighting are recorded after this date. The Winchester no doubt left the theatre of war to return to Portsmouth where she was refitted and renamed in 1861 to serve as a training ship.
Robert’s service record shows that he was again affected to service on HMS Victory in Portsmouth harbour from the 15th of May to the 17th of June 1857 as Ship’s Cook and then worked in Portsmouth Yard from the 18th of June 1857 to the 15th of July 1858 as Seaman’s Rigger.
He rejoins the wood screw sloop, HMS Archer, on the 16th July 1858. Launched in 1849, she was commissioned on the 21st of May 1858 at Woolwich. Commanded by Captain John Sanderson, she was sent to the West Coast of Africa. The captain died on the 17th of August 1859. Replaced, on the 4th of April 1860 by Commander Richard William Courtenay, in turn invalided and replaced by Captain Frederick Augustus Buchanan Craufurd, on the 5th of October 1861. Robert Funnell is promoted on the 9th of October 1860 from CFJ (7) to Quartermaster.
The 1861 census confirms this finding Robert Funnell, 40, married, in the Royal Navy as Quarter Master aboard the “Archer” at Point Padron, River Congo, West Coast of Africa.
At home, the same census shows his two sons and their mother at Spring Gardens, Portsea, living under the roof of Elizabeth Nash, his mother in law. Both women’s occupations are stated as “Laundress”.
The Royal Navy’s presence in these waters was mainly for policing duties. Slave trading, long since abolished in the UK (1807) and Europe was still a major activity until the end of the American Civil War in 1865. The British were also trying to curtail the spread of Islam (already), the power of local tyrants pushing to establish trade federations between themselves and prevent pirate attacks on British ships headed for Australia. Tensions with the French were lessened by an Anglo-French agreement in 1860 whereby France established a closed circuit economy requiring it’s colonies to export their raw materials exclusively to France and to import solely French manufactured products (9).
Robert Funnell is awarded his first badge on the 14th of November 1860 and on the 4th of October 1861, signs on to complete 20 years service on the Archer. He gives his date of birth as July 1820 in Lewes, Sussex. He is described as 5ft 10½ inches, complexion fair, light hair, grey eyes, no marks.
Just two days later, he is transferred to HMS Vincent, a 120-gun first-rate ship of the line launched in 1815, on harbour service from 1841 and used as a training ship from 1862. On this ship, Robert passes from Quartermaster to Bosun’s Mate (1st of December 1861) to Cap. M. top on the 1st of January 1862 and finally to Cap. F. top on the 1st of January 1864 (8). He also obtains his Second and Third Badges respectively on the 1st of November 1862 and the 1st of November 1864.
He leaves the Royal Navy on the 29th of November 1865 after 21 years and 26 weeks of service. His character was always described as fair, in the first years, to very good.
The death of Robert is recorded at Brighton in the first quarter 1871, just before the census. We can suppose he had wished to rejoin his family, most of whom were living in Brighton at this time and his elder brother, Benjamin, running a successful pub called “The Globe” in Edward Street (Pier ward). At 50, the cause of his death is unknown but one can imagine either an accident or sequels of yellow fever or malaria contracted in West Africa.
His son, Robert Thomas, joined the Navy just a year after Robert’s return on the 24th of November 1866, engaging for 10 years. He declared his date of birth as the 24th of November 1848 instead of 1849. It seems that this small distortion of one’s age could better wages as “in the 1860s a Boy 2nd class (on initial entry) was paid 15 shillings and sixpence a month; after one year he would be made 1st class and pay would be 18 shillings. At 18 he would be entered as an Ordinary Seaman, and pay would be £1 18s. 9d per month”.
The 1871 census shows Ann Funnell, 45, Widow, supported by son, and James Funnell, 18, French polisher, born Portsea living at 26 George Street, Brighton. This is probably a boarding house as there are several families residing there. James dies in Brighton at the early age of 23 at the beginning of the year 1876. What became of Ann, we do not know.
Robert Thomas Funnell’s service record bears witness to a less glorious career in the Navy than that of his father. For the last two years, his missions are short and mostly on ships confined to harbour. He is often discharged to serve terms in gaol and this is so even one of his rare missions overseas. He is directed to shore as objectionable on the 15th of December 1875 from the Duke of Wellington.
This event may have been the last of his ten year service. On the other hand, his record may be incomplete for the 1881 census finds him lodging at a Portsea pub, “The Old Free House” at 6 Wickham Street. He states his occupation as “Seaman Royal Navy”.
His trace is lost after this.
Robert Funnell’s service record
|Jane (of Newhaven)||Mar 1838||Jan 1840||AB|
|Lewes Castle (of Newhaven)||Feb 1840||Mar 1842||AB|
|Victory||14 Sep 1844||01 Sep 1845||AB > Paymaster’s Purser|
|President||2 Sep 1845||6 Feb 1849||Ord|
|Arrogant||19 Mar 1849||25 Sep 1852||AB|
|Bittern||12 Oct 1852||27 Oct 1853||AB|
|28 Oct 1853||9 Apr 1854||AB|
|10 Apr 1854||8 May 1855||CFJ|
|9 May 1855||9 May 1856||AB|
|10 May 1856||17 Oct 1856||Ships Cook|
|Winchester||18 Oct 1856||14 May 1857||Ships Cook|
|Victory||15 May 1857||17 Jun 1857||Ships Cook|
|Portsmouth Yard||18 Jun 1857||15 Jul 1858||Seamans rigger|
|Archer||16 Jul 1858||8 Oct 1860||CFJ|
|9 Oct 1860||5 Oct 1861||Quartermaster|
|St. Vincent||6 Oct 1861||30 Nov 1861||Quartermaster|
|1 Dec 1861||31 Dec 1861||Bosuns Mate|
|1 Jan 1862||31 Dec 1863||Cap. M. top|
|1 Jan 1864||29 Nov 1865||Cap. F. top|
Robert Thomas Funnell’s service record (partial)
|Ships served in||From||To||Character.||If Discharged. Whither and for what cause.|
|Orontes||1 Jan 1873||24 Apr 1873||Fair||Lewes Gaol|
|Duke of Wellington||22 May 1873||20 Nov 1873||Fair||Lewes Gaol 28 days HL NDA 66|
|Victor Emmanuel||21 Nov 1873||9 May 1874||Winchester Gaol 28 days B.L.|
|Duke of Wellington||10 June 1874||10 July 1874||Indifferent|
|Duke of Wellington||5 Aug 1874||3 Oct 1874||Indifferent|
|Malabar||4 Oct 1874||26 Jan 1875||Fair||Malta Gaol 42 days|
|Hibernia||8 Mar 1875||25 Mar 1875||V. Good|
|Malabar||26 Mar 1875||17 Apr 1875||Fair|
|Duke of Wellington||18 Apr 1875||27 Aug 1875||Fair|
|Minotaur||28 Aug 1875||4 Nov 1875||Fair||
Winchester Gaol 42 days and to be D. shore on release.
D. to shore as objectionable 15 Dec 1875 from Duke of Wellington
Daily News cutting
(1) 1841 census
(2) Kelly’s Directory 1867
(3) Sussex Express
(4) The Daily News, Feb. 9, 1856. (553) Questions in parliament about Commodore Elliott’s comportement in De Castries Bay.
(5) See Daily News cutting
(6) More on the “Opium War”
(7) Maybe CFS, not sure what this means.
(8) Anyone know the meaning of these abbreviations?
(9) More on the political situation in West Africa in the 1860s.
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