Friday, July 4, 2008

A Victorian Adventure - A Yelf and the Second Burmese War

You would think that as most Yelfs were to be found in Hampshire and the Isle of Wight (not much more than a cannon-shot from the important naval centres of Southampton and Portsmouth) that there would be a strong nautical tradition running through the family. Not really, so it seems. There was certainly James Yelf, who served and died on a ship later to become one of Nelson's early commands , but he seems to be an exception rather than the rule. So I was intrigued then to come across a reference to a 'Midshipman Yelf' serving during the Second Anglo-Burmese War. I must admit that this wasn't a conflict that I was particularly aware of (which puts it on a par with the First and Third Anglo-Burmese Wars if I'm being honest) but with my curiosity pricked, I set about trying to identify the Yelf concerned.

The original 'tip-off' came from an account that mentioned the Midshipman Yelf serving aboard a ship called the Sesostris - a very Egyptian name for an ship and even more interesting because it turned out that the Sesostris wasn't actually part of the Royal Navy! She was, in fact, part of a unit that was the precursor to the current Indian Navy, a force originally called The Bombay Marine, and whose origins were to be found in the 17th century as a local nautical force set up to guard English trading ships around the coast of India. Their main role was to protect ships from privateers, local pirates and enemy (French and Dutch) frigates. Quite an exotic posting for a Hampshire boy...

I set about doing some passive research (in other words just at the computer) and came across some extracts from a very useful publication called Allen's Indian Mail which detailed all the comings and going's between Britain and India. One entry was particularly interesting
Bombay Estab- Mr Alfred Cresswell Crawley,
appointed volunteer for the Indian Navy
Mr William Tyner Tayleor, do. do.
Mr Alfred Yelf do. do.
Mr Alexander John Clarke do. do.
So now we know we are looking for an Alfred Yelf, which narrows it down a bit. Later on we can then see that the East India Register of 1850 gives the starting date of Alfred's commission as being the 24th of February 1849, which is confirmed later on in Allen's Indian Mail as it provides the following information about embarkations to the sub-continent
To rank from the date of the sailing from Gravesend of the ships by which they proceeded and in the following order viz. ---
Joseph Timpson, per Swithamley sailed 24th February 1849
Robert George Hurlock ditto ditto
Morgan Price Smith Tozer ditto ditto
Alfred Yelf ditto ditto
There's really only one Yelf that I'm aware of that this could be although I seem to have two possible dates of birth for him! I believe he was the son of Robert YELF and Sarah MEW of Yelf's Hotel fame. The two dates I have for him are 15th December 1833 and 7th December 1835 but both of them agree he was born in Ryde on the Isle of Wight and was the brother of Leonard Keatley Yelf and Frederick Steane Yelf amongst others. My records have very little information other than his appearance on the 1841 Ryde census - no later marriage and no death details, so I am wondering if it was possible that Alfred never returned from his adventure?

As Allen's Indian Mail was an annual publication it very conveniently also records the date of arrival in India as being the 13th June 1849, nearly four months later. It wasn't long before Alfred found himself assigned to the steam frigate Sesostris, a new, modern type of ship that had both steam powered paddle wheels as well as sails. I haven't been able to find a picture of the Sesostris herself but I imagine she must have looked something like HMS Valorous, a steam-frigate of of the Royal Navy, below
Sesostris and several other ships like her had been chosen as the best types upon which to base what was in essence an Indian navy, officered by Britons but crewed by Indians. With a combination of steam-powered paddles as well as sails she would be able to work her way up many of the large river deltas to be found in the region and was also to be used for troop transport, as a military tug and , in times of peace, even to carry despatches, supplies and passengers. In fact she was eventually to serve as far from Bombay as New Zealand and proved her value in many actions such as the First Anglo-Chinese War before being decommissioned in 1859.

An idea of her armament and size can be seen in a report to the the London Gazette of July 20th 1852 under the heading
A list of the naval force commanded by Commodore G.R. Lambert in the action and capture at the city of Bassein on the 19th May 1852 [the list of ships includes the Sesostris]
East India Company's Steam Frigate Sesostris, Commander C.D. Campbell I.N., - two 8-inch, two 32-pounders, two 12-pounders; total 6 guns. Officers and crew 168
I found an excellent website dedicated to the history and the various sources of information available about the Bombay Marine and the Indian Navy, compiled by Len Barnet, a naval historian. This is a real treasure trove and a fascinating read for anyone interested in colonial naval development.

Alfred's arrival was also recorded in Allen's Indian Mail with a premptory note that 'Yelf, Volunt. Ar. June 13'. Soon after he would have joined the Sesostris as Midshipman and had a couple of years to become an established member of the crew before the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852 broke out.

For the role that the Sesostris played in the conflict - and by extention Alfred - you have to look at The Second Burmese War: An Narrative of the Operations at Rangoon in 1852 by William F. B. Laurie Lieut., Madras Artillery

She started being kitted kitted out as a troop carrier with her sister steamers
21st of February orders were received in Bombay from the Governor General for all the war steamers that could be spared to be sent to Rangoon without a moment

Following some hard fighting the campaign reached a successful conclusion and the appendix records the crew of the steam frigate.
Sesostris Commander CD Campbell I N Lieutenants Lewis Davis and Windus Surgeon Wright Assistant Surgeon Crawford Purser Gibbon Pro Mate Lamb Messrs Dawson Turner Yelf and Capel Midshipmen ARMAMENT Two 8 inch guns two 32 pr mediums and three boats guns
The real question though, is what became of Alfred? Did he stay abroad and marry? Did he die of disease or illness? Why did he decide on a career in the Indian Navy in the first place? It looks as though there may be some information available on various returns held at the Public Record Office so with luck and a following wind it may be possible to find out a little more about this particular colonial adventurer!

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