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My biography of James Fitzjames - 12 August 2009

I am now getting very close to finalising my biography of James Fitzjames, Sir John Franklin's second in command on the doomed HMS Erebus of the Franklin Expedition.

One of the most rewarding things about this book for me has been peeling back the decades of neglect and uncovering the truth about the life of this remarkable man James Fitzjames. One thing that has never entirely been forgotten was his bravery in rescuing a man from drowning in the Mersey in 1834. Even in Dan Simmons' 'The Terror' this is mentioned, although Simmons has him being presented with 'a plate' as a reward for this.

Here is an extract from my book which tells what really happened and gives us a remarkably fresh connection with James Fitzjames:

'By February 1835 the 'George Canning' was ready to sail from Liverpool Docks. Fitzjames was optimistic, writing that ‘we are all in good health and spirits at the prospect of embarking in an undertaking which, if it succeeds according to our expectations, will be the most useful as well as the most delightful and interesting expedition ever sent from the shores of England.’ The last material to be taken on board was the substantial stock of gunpowder. While the dockyard workers and the ship’s company were loading this dangerous cargo on 1st February, 1835, Fitzjames distinguished himself with almost wanton bravery.

'The gunpowder was brought to the George Canning on a steamer tied up next to the ship. A Tidewaiter, or Customs official called James Dickinson slipped on the wooden gangplank between the two ships and fell into the fast moving and filthy waters of the Mersey. The tidal waters of the Mersey are very fast – Charlewood claimed the tide was running at six knots – and in a few seconds the man would be swept out of sight. Given that Dickinson could not swim his fate seemed sealed, especially as the weather was cold and there was a strong wind blowing. Without pausing for a second Fitzjames dived overboard into the Mersey after the man, not even stopping to take off his heavy greatcoat. Despite being encumbered by his clothing and boots, he was able to swim after the floundering man and reach him before he drowned. He seized him by the hair and trod water, holding the man’s head above water and preventing him from drowning. Fitzjames’ life and that of the man he had committed himself to now depended on the steamer tied up to the ‘George Canning’ casting off and steaming quickly enough to reach the two men in the water before exposure overcame Fitzjames. The crew of the steamer reacted fast, but it did not reach them until the tide had swept them at least half a mile along the Mersey estuary. Charlewood said that ‘never have I seen anything done so nobly’ and he ‘never felt so happy as when we saw him, once more safe on board.’

'Fitzjames’ clothing was ruined as was the very expensive pocket-watch which he had been carrying. In recognition of his bravery he was granted the Freedom of the City of Liverpool at a dinner in his honour and presented with a silver cup by the Corporation of Liverpool.

'Fitzjames seem to have been genuinely taken aback by the overwhelming response to his bravery. He wrote ‘it was quite extraordinary to see the kindly feelings that everybody entertained towards me after the affair in the Mersey. I was on shore all day afterwards and was stared at most tremendously; everybody I heard wanted to see me'. Modestly he added, 'the feat is I think said rather too much about it in the papers’.

'After the dinner, he brought the cup back to the ‘George Canning’ where ‘we filled it with mulled Port on board and the chaps drank my health’. Fitzjames cannot have been entirely sober as he had already been toasted at the dinner. The drinking of his health on board the ‘George Canning’ was a high-spirited affair and ‘by the by it [the cup] got a slight (sic) knock at the bottom in drowning and leaks a little there’. He asked Robert Coningham to look after the cup while he was away, and he arranged for Mr. Laird to send it to Rose Hill. He suggested Coningham might be able to mend the damage as ‘a little bit of solder would fill it up’.

'One hundred and seventy four years later, the cup is in the collection of the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. I wrote to the Museum to recount this story, and Barbara Tomlinson, Curator, wrote back to say ‘This is most interesting. The cup is on display, I had a look inside (with a mirror) and there is indeed a small soldered patch in the bottom’.

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