Richard Wall: Proof from Greenwich

Before I begin, a quick note to say this posting schedule is not going to be kept up long term!  I started the blog to put up what I had learned about Richard Wall, and although I may make occasional other posts about the Franklin Expedition and related things, and intend to put up anything else I find out about Wall, this is the last in my initial posting marathon. 

My poking around in Richard Wall’s history was done from lockdown, and therefore entirely online.  The National Archives copying service finally reopening gave me a chance to access some material which had not yet been digitised. 

I therefore decided to splash out on ordering a copy of the Greenwich Hospital School records of Richard Wall the younger.  I hoped to see whether I was right in my hunch that the 1849 service record for his father, which was one of my first online finds, had been drawn up in connection with Richard the younger’s application for entry, and also whether Richard the younger had indeed joined the coastguard after leaving school. 

As it turned out the records didn’t help with the second question, as almost all the surviving records were about the application for entry, made by Hannah Wall on behalf of her son.  There was, however, further confirmation that the Richard Wall who sailed and died with Franklin was identical with the Richard Wall who had been on the 1829 Ross Expedition.  There was a scan of Hannah Wall’s application on behalf of her son, with a column to list the Royal Naval ships her boy’s father had served on.  Victory was listed at the top, with an explanatory note ‘Captain Ross Arctic Expedition’, then the two entries for Erebus followed.  The papers also included another copy of the same service check results I had seen before, with the same  ‘Victory | not found’ note, confirming that the check had been made due to Hannah Wall’s application for her son to be entered into the Greenwich Hospital School. 

Richard Wall’s service history. Copyright: The National Archives. ADM 73/370/52

That was all good to have, but the best part was something I had never expected to find, a letter supporting the application written to the Governor of Greenwich Hospital by none other than Wall’s old captain, Sir John Ross.  In the letter Ross stated outright that ‘Mr Richard Wall’ had been ‘a Petty Officer in my late voyage of discovery’ and went on to describe Wall as ‘one of the very best and most trustworthy men I had with me’.

Here then was clear cut proof.  I’d been building an elaborate case the two Richard Walls were the same man, and here was a letter from John Ross just stating it outright! The same statement also confirms that Steward Light had been right when he called Wall a Petty Officer, despite this not being stated in John Ross’ own official account.

Unlike his nephew James Ross (who was in the Arctic looking for the Franklin Expedition when Hannah Wall made her application to Greenwich Hospital School), John Ross lived in Scotland, and the letter was written from his home at Stranraer.  Hannah Wall, or someone acting on her behalf, must therefore have contacted Ross to ask for the recommendation.  In the letter Ross described Richard Wall jr as ‘a most promising youth’ .  How did he know?  Perhaps he did not really know anything about the younger Richard and simply wanted to do the Wall family a good turn. 

On the other hand, perhaps he had kept in touch.  In November 1849 John Ross wrote to the Admiralty about the ongoing Franklin Expedition search, and included a statement about ice conditions in Barrow Strait in 1832 which he said could be supported by ‘Serjeant Park of the E division of police, Robert Shreeve, of Lower Seymour-street and Thomas Abernethy’.   These were all veterans of the 1829 expedition.  Abernethy, the former second mate, had just got back from serving as ice master to James Ross on HMS Enterprise and would soon fill the same role for John Ross on his final, privately funded, Arctic voyage in the Felix so it is not surprising that Ross was apparently in contact with him.  However the other two men do not seem to have continued in the discovery service, nonetheless John Ross evidently had up to date information about them.  The 1851 census confirms that John Park, who had been a seaman on the Victory, was indeed a police sergeant, and though the address of former carpenter’s mate Robert Shreeve is given as Seymour Place rather than Lower Seymour Street in 1851 he could have moved the short distance between the two addresses. 

(Out of curiosity I followed Park and Shreeve up a little further.  Both men claimed their Arctic medals in 1857 and were still alive on the 1861 census.  Park retired from the police with a pension in 1858.  I haven’t found his death, but Shreeve died in 1864, and appears to have been buried in All Souls Cemetery, Kensal Green.)  

Regardless of whether John Ross had stayed in touch with the Wall family, Hannah Wall’s obtaining a letter of support from him suggests a determined woman, who knew what her family might be entitled to, and how to go about getting it. Greenwich Hospital School was a charity school, but it was also intended to train boys for the Navy, or if they were not admitted to the Navy, the Merchant Service. Boys admitted were supposed to be sons of navy sailors who had died while on naval service, or become incapable of serving due to wounds or long service, or whose fathers were actively in service on shipboard and whose mothers were dead, or whose fathers were actively in service on shipboard and the families were ‘numerous and in need’.  Richard Wall jr did not fall into any of these categories – three children was not a large family by Victorian standards and Hannah Wall would still have been collecting a regular allotment from her husband’s pay.  However the rules did allow the Governor to use discretion with boys who did not strictly qualify, perhaps John Ross’ letter, the public concern for the fate of the Franklin Expedition, or both, tipped the balance in young Richard’s favour.  The Principal of the school at this time was the Reverend George Fisher, who had himself been on two Arctic expeditions and would certainly have known Franklin. 

In 1849 there were in fact two schools at Greenwich, a Lower School and an Upper School, sharing a single site.  Boys admitted to the Upper School needed to be able to read, and a note in the papers records that as of August 1849 Richard Wall jr could not read.  He was therefore admitted into the Lower School, and another note records that by March 1850 he had learned to read, which allowed him to be admitted to the Upper School just before his twelfth birthday.  Unfortunately there seem to be no surviving records of his time in the Upper School.

Greenwich Hospital School Site, now the National Maritime Museum:

As the school was intended to prepare boys for the Navy conditions were Spartan and discipline strict, although the same was true for most boarding schools of the time.  In addition to general education the boys were taught swimming, music and some basic astronomy; they could also be instructed in trades such as sailmaking and carpentry.  Some were later selected for transfer to the attached Nautical School where they learned navigation, which could allow them to become naval Second Masters, and later ship’s Masters; the two Second Masters on the Franklin Expedition, Henry Collins and Gillies Macbean, had both been educated at Greenwich.  By 1849 some boys might also be selected as engineer apprentices.  As we have seen, Richard Wall jr did not become either a navigator or an engineer, but it is likely he learned his trade of sailmaking at the school. 

Richard Wall jr would have left the school by the time the carved memorial to the Franklin Expedition was dedicated in the Painted Hall at the Royal Hospital, Greenwich in 1858, but he was probably still living nearby, as were his brother William and mother Hannah.  Perhaps they went to see it, although Richard Wall’s name does not appear as only the commissioned officers were individually named.* Today the memorial has been moved to the nearby chapel and was recently restored.  The remains of one of the expedition members, perhaps Assistant Surgeon Henry Goodsir of the Erebus, lie beneath it.

Franklin Expedition Memorial: from Wikimedia Commons

*Update: Peter Carney has correctly pointed out that the memorial does include the names of four of the six warrant officers, namely the two boatswains and the two carpenters. The two engineers, also warrant officers, are not individually named.


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