Journals Given To Record Office Tell Tales Of Pirates And Adventure

By David Prudames | 27 October 2004
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Shows a photograph of a page from a journal, which contains a drawing of a ship's cannon on wheels, above some hand-written text.

Captain Tonge's Journal and notebooks provide an extraordinary insight into the Victorian navy. Courtesy Wiltshire County Council.

A stirring tale of swashbuckling adventure battling pirates on the high seas might sound like the stuff of boy’s own fiction, but in reality its the story of a naval officer from Wiltshire.

The tale is told in three 19th century volumes acquired by Wiltshire and Swindon Record Office that provide a fascinating insight into life in Queen Victoria’s navy.

Written by Captain Louis Charles Henry Tonge, the two notebooks and a journal trace his career from trainee gunnery officer, to battling pirates and Burmese insurgents rebelling against the British Empire.

"These archives shed light on the life of a naval gunnery officer during the Victorian era, when the British Empire was at the height of its power," explained Principal Archivist for Wiltshire County Council, John d'Arcy.

Shows a photograph of a man holding up an open book, in which is a cross-section of a ship.

John D'Arcy shows off his latest acquisition. Courtesy Wiltshire County Council.

"The earliest book gives a fascinating account of how naval recruits and gunners were trained at the time," he added.

"The final book is a thrilling journal recording the adventures of a ship on active service at the heart of the British Empire and its trade routes, and describing encounters with pirates and Burmese rebels."

A Wiltshire native, Captain Tonge’s family came from Highway near Calne and he begins his story in 1839.

Under the title The Young Artillerest, Tonge describes his time in training as a gunnery officer on board HMS Excellent. He includes drawings of various ships of the time, cross-sections of the 'great gun' on board HMS Excellent and details of gunnery lessons and naval cutlass exercises.

Shows a photograph of a page from a journal, which depicts a drawing of a ship in full sail.

Tonge's books are full of diagrams and detailed drawings. Courtesy Wiltshire County Council.

Tonge’s second notebook, dating from around 1850, contains further details of crews and drills on board one of the ships he served on. But it is the final volume that contains the real drama.

A naval journal or logbook from 1853-1854, it tells a ripping yarn of clashes with pirates in the Far East at the height of British imperial power.

Working as a gunnery officer on board HMS Winchester, Captain Tonge travelled all over the Far East, from Rangoon to Madras, Singapore, Borneo and Hong Kong.

During this period he spent several months pursuing pirate junks, which were preying on other shipping. The chase took HMS Winchester along the south coast of China and up the Pearl River towards Canton.

Shows a photograph of a page from a journal, which depicts a diagram of a ship's cannon.

Courtesy Wiltshire County Council.

In 1853, came an encounter in the Irrawaady River area of Burma. Tonge writes in great detail about a major skirmish with insurgents rebelling against British power in the region.

On this occasion it appears the British force was defeated and a number of men were killed or wounded by the rebels.

The books provide a fascinating insight into a period of great change, when Britain was establishing itself as one of the world’s most powerful nations.

Donated to the record office by a descendant of Captain Tonge who lives in Canada, the volumes can be viewed by members of the public at the record office in Trowbridge.

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