Henry Arthur Sewell
By Diana Kennedy
This article was originally published in the December 2001 edition of Soul Search, the journal of The Sole Society.
Henry Arthur Sewell was the brother of my Great Grandfather Thomas William Sewell. Henry was the fourth of the five surviving children born to Jonathan William Sewell and Pamela, nee Jones. He was born 30th March 1861 in the Isle of Dogs, Poplar, Middlesex, the family moving to Greenwich, Kent, before Henry was two. His older brothers John, Alfred and Thomas and younger brother Edward all worked as labourers at the Woolwich Royal Arsenal, remaining in the Plumstead and Woolwich area in Kent. Unable to find a marriage or death or census entry for Henry Arthur in the area, I finally did a blanket search of the 1881 census. I found he was serving in the Royal Navy as an Ordinary Seaman onboard the ship HMS Inconstant.
The following account of his service in the Royal Navy is pieced together from his service records, the 1881 census and ship log books. These give a little indication as to life on board ship and to the events of the time as well as a little about Henry Arthur Sewell. Henry Arthur, service number 92842, joined the Royal Navy as a ‘Boy Second Class’ in September 1875. His service records state that he was a labourer, and his date and place of birth is given as 27th March 1860, Greenwich, making him a year older than his fourteen years. According to his records he was only 5’ 2’’ in height, had dark hair, grey eyes, a pale complexion and no scars, wounds or marks.
He joined first HMS Fisgard for a week and then was transferred to HMS St Vincent where he stayed until June 1877. Then he served two weeks on HMS Duke of Wellington where his conduct is described as very good. On 5th July 1877 he joined HMS Active at Spithead. By then he was a ‘Boy First Class’. According to the Active’s log books they set sail with 317 crew on board for the Cape of Good Hope via Madeira, St Vincent, Accra and Lagos.
The ship arrived in October 1877 at Simons Bay on the Cape. Then Active remained sailing around the coast line to Port Elizabeth, East London and Table Bay. Henry Arthur Sewell was made up to Ordinary Seaman on 27th March 1878 when he signed on for a further 10 years, by which time his records show that he had grown another 3 ½ inches.
On Thursday 5th August the Active set sail for Spithead via St Helena, Ascension and Sierra Leone arriving at Spithead on Friday 3rd October 1879. The ship’s company was finally paid off on Saturday 25th October 1879. The log book shows that most of the voyage was routine, apart from a few incidents. On 30th August 1878 while Active was anchored off St Johns River, Lt General Thesiger and staff were landed to take possession of new territories. On Monday 16th September Private George King of the Company RMLI ‘departed this life from injuries received’. He had been struck on the head by a mast the previous day. On Friday 17th January 1879 HMS Tenodos ran aground and collided with Active which was attempting to pull her off. Active sustained minor damage but was able to tow Tenodos back to port.
Having left Active Henry Arthur Sewell then seems to have spent the next nine months at North Barracks. His service records show that his conduct moved from good to fair and in July 1880 he spent seven days in cells, for an unstated ‘crime’. On the 28th August 1880 Henry Arthur joined HMS Inconstant.
The 1881 census shows that also on board the Inconstant, were Rear Admiral the Right Hon. Earl of Clanwilliam and Lieutenant Louis Prince of Battenberg, born in Gritz, Styria, Austria, and later to become the First Sea Lord. Other members of the 613 crew came from around the globe, from India, Italy, France, Australia, Jamaica as well as Scotland, Ireland, the Channel Islands and the Isle of Wight. Her Captain was Charles C.P. Fitzgerald from Cork in Ireland.
The Inconstant remained in Portsmouth with the crew painting, scraping and making good defects. On the 11th October 1880 Rear Admiral Earl of Clanwilliam came aboard and Inconstant cast off from the jetty and proceeded out of the harbour for full speed trials of the engines. Five days later with the speed trials finished she was anchored off Spithead, ready to set sail on Sunday 17th October 1880 for a voyage which was to take two years. The Inconstant sailed in convoy with the Cleopatra, Bacchante, Carysfort and Tourmaline, for Vigo in Spain, then onto Madeira, to St Vincent and down to Monte Video. The convoy arrived at Monte Video on 22nd December 1880 and sailed to Stanley in the Falkland Islands and then to the Cape of Good Hope arriving Thursday 17th February 1881. She stayed in the Cape for two months replenishing coal stocks and exchanging official visits with the British Governor.
Inconstant and the convoy set sail on 10th April 1881 for Australia. Her first stop in Australia was at Melbourne, where on 23rd May 1881 the ship was ‘dressed’ and a Royal salute was fired to celebrate the birthday of HM Queen Victoria, this was repeated on Monday 20th June to celebrate her accession. From Melbourne they went to Sydney. Arthur Henry Sewell’s service records end on 20th July 1881, with the phrase ‘run Sydney’, which I assume to mean he had deserted. No mention is made in the ship’s log book of his desertion except on Thursday 11th August 1881 is written ‘sold dead and run men’s effects’.
From Sydney Inconstant sailed to Brisbane, to Fiji, Yokohama, Kobe, Simorio, Wusury, Chausan Islands and to Hong Kong and the Cape of Good Hope. After a month at the Cape she sailed for St Helena then to St Vincent, onto Gibraltar, to Malta, Limosal in Cyprus and then to Alexandria, Egypt arriving 20th July 1882. Here the Egyptians were rebelling over the Suez Canal and on the 2nd August a detachment of Marines were landed from Inconstant. Inconstant remained in Alexandria until Wednesday 27th September finally setting sail for Portsmouth via another stop at Gibraltar. The Inconstant arrived back at Spithead on Tuesday 17th October 1882 and into Portsmouth harbour on the 19th October. The Ships company were finally paid off on Thursday 16th November 1882, over two years after they had joined.
The voyage appeared to be largely uneventful, a good-will exercise, with the Rear Admiral exchanging visits with foreign Admirals and British Governors, and firing gun salutes at destinations on route. On board ship there were many training exercises, from target practice to cutlass drill, washing clothes and cleaning decks, which no doubt kept the crew busy. Sadly two men drowned, the first, on route to Monte Video. On Wednesday 1st December 1880, Ordinary Seamen James Green fell overboard and was drowned. Then on 30th April 1881, 18 year old Ordinary Seaman Alfred Gatell also fell overboard and drowned. While no mention is made of Henry Arthur’s desertion, mention is made of Band Boy, Josiah Holwell aged 17years being administered 24 cuts of the birch as ‘per warrant’, although the log book does not state his offence.
What happened to Henry Arthur Sewell after 1881 I have not yet discovered. I assume that he evaded capture and started a new life in Australia, an area for further research.
Register of Seaman’s services ADM 188/262 1853-1891 SA-SLY vol 18
Index of certificates of service ADM 188/101 92601-93200 1875
Log books of the ship Active ADM 53/11120 and ADM 53/11119
Log books of the ship Inconstant ADM 53/11664 and ADM 53/11665
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