>General John Francis Birch, Royal Engineers


In this brief biographical piece on Admiral Henry Charles Otter (who was a hero of the first successful laying of a Transatlantic Cable and also the Hydrographic Surveyor in charge of charting the West Coast of Scotland) we met the General at his home in Portsea, Hampshire in 1851. He was laid to rest in Crondall, Hampshire in 1856 and, although he was a Royal Engineer, I was unable to link him to the Ordnance Survey.
However, there are five references from 1834 of the work of Colonel John Francis Birch in The National Archives in Kew. One of the five relates to a ‘Copy of a Plan of part of the Ordnance land at Berry Head purchased in 1794′. Scale: 3.7 inches to 10 chains. Compass indicator. Signed by John Francis Birch, Colonel, Commanding Royal Engineers’ which led me to an article on ‘The History of the Berry Head Fortifications’ by D Evans . Birch appears to have been involved with matters surrounding the site for several years in the early 1830. The article provides evidence of his role within the Board of Ordnance but suggests that he was probably not involved with the specific branch of the Board, formed in 1791 , that is the Ordnance Survey. More ‘concrete’ confirmation comes in the form of an ‘Oblong section block of Devonian limestone with rounded top, built up against stone rubble wall. Incised with letters BO and figure 3. Arrow at the top ‘ erected at Berry Head in 1830 by Colonel Birch. 
The main reason for this little excursion into the work of General John Francis Birch was because he was Admiral Henry Charles Otter’s father-in-law but clearly they were two men who shared a passion for, and were each exemplary exponents of, 19th Century cartography.

>’The Living Voice’


This is the title of Michael Robson’s brilliant essay in ‘Togail Tir ‘, the 1989 book that is a treasure for those of us with an interest in the mapping of the isles and matters arising from such mapping.
On page 102 of the book and with regard to the recording of placenames by the Ordnance Survey, he writes, ‘The islanders who helped were recorded by name, and it would be an interesting and worthwhile task to identify them all.’ which is precisely what I intend to do for one such individual.
Robson records ‘Angus Shaw, at Strond’ as the man who helped so what can we learn of Angus?
There are a few possible candidates for this man but the one who appears to be the best fit appears in the censuses as shown below (People in bold are those who appear more than once over time)
1841 – Strond
Angus Shaw, 25
Mary Shaw, 25
Christian Shaw, 1
1851 – Geocrab
Angus Shaw, 42, Gamekeeper
Una Shaw, 36
Christy Shaw, 10
Duncan Shaw, 8
Alexander W Shaw, 6
Donald Shaw, 4
John Shaw, 1
1857 – Charts of the Sound of HarrisSound of Harris (Otter) & East Loch Tarbert (Thomas)
1861 – Ardslave
Angus Shaw, 50, Gamekeeper
Winford Shaw, 40
Christina Shaw, 20
Duncan Shaw, 17
Donald Shaw, 13
John Shaw, 11
Anne Shaw, 7
1871 – Strond
Angus Shaw, 64, Gamekeeper
Una Shaw, 58
Duncan Shaw, 25
Alex Shaw, 25
Donald Shaw, 21
John Shaw, 19
Anne Shaw, 17
1875-77 Ordnance Survey surveying Harris
1881 – Strond
Angus Shaw, 70, Crofter
Ann Shaw, 60
Alexander Shaw, 34
Anna Shaw, 24
Donald Shaw, 32
Rachel Shaw, 12, Granddaughter
Angus Mackay, 10, Grandson
John McDermid, 80, Brother-in-law
1891 – Strond
Una Shaw, 79, Crofter
Alexr Shaw, 40
Anne Shaw, 32
Rachel Shaw, 22
1901 – Strond
Alexander Shaw, 45, Crofter
Anne Shaw, 36, Sister
Rachel Morrison, 30
Angus Mackay, 25, Nephew
Peggy Mcsween, 12, Granddaughter
I am sure that this is the same family, followed from 1841 onwards, and am reasonably sure that this is indeed the Angus Shaw who assisted the Ordnance Survey.
Whether his wife, ‘Mary’, died and he remarried Una/Winford(?)/Ann could be discerned from an examination of their Death Certificates, plus those of the daughter Christian and one of the later children, should one wish to do so.
However, I am happy to present Angus Shaw, born circa 1810, a Gamekeeper in South Harris and father of six, as my first contribution to this ‘…interesting and worthwhile task…’ !
Notes: Robson also discusses the roles of Alexander Carmichael and FWL Thomas and I remind readers of the gem that is Bald’s 1804/5 Map of Harris & of my less-shiny attempt at a prose-poem on landscape.

>Taking Hydrographic Surveyors Names In Vain

>I was alerted to an article in The Guardian about the controversy regarding a new Loch Lomond Chart  via a comment made on this piece from the Across the Minch blog.
The media coverage; such as this from the BBC, this from STV, this from the Stirling Observer and this from the Scotsman; focus mainly upon the inappropriateness of the names that have been used.

What none of them addresses, however, is the fact that the Hydrographic Surveyors of 150 years ago took great pride in ensuring the accuracy of their charts and especially with regard to using the correct names of the features that they recorded.

Admiral Otter (as he became) would be horrified to learn of such a neocolonial attitude to cartography taking his name in vain in this way and, as the man who ensured the safe arrival of the first successful transatlantic cable in Newfoundland, I suspect that he would also object to being portrayed as in any way unsophisticated merely because the plumb-line was the main tool at his disposal.

Note: Previous pieces regarding the work of ‘Captain Otter’, ‘Captain FWL Thomas’ and ‘Mapping’ may easily be accessed via the Labels at the left of this page.

Stornoway Harbour – Surveyed 1846 by Commander HC Otter

This chart was published in 1849, by which time my great, great grandfather had remarried and moved to ply his seafaring trade in Stornoway, and is the earliest of Admiral Henry Charles Otter ‘s charts of the Western Isles. He would have been in command of HMS Porcupine, one of several survey ships that he and Captain FWL Thomas used when creating these cartographic masterpieces.

Several features are worth remarking upon: Stornoway Meal Mill and the other Mill , the Ropewalk with its Ropemakers , the Jail with its occupants , Sandwick Widow’s Row , and the Gas Works with its Plumbers .

The one that is most useful, though, is seeing the location of the ‘other mill’ with the associated Castle Stables for this suggests that the Carding/Sawing Mill was indeed located in the Castle Grounds and thus my conjecture that the address of the Miller, John Munro, being termed the ‘Nursery, Bayhead’ might suggest a link to the later ‘Nursery cottage’ seems to be given additional weight?

The chart is very beautiful and I’d like to think that a certain shipmaster in his late-twenties was able to purchase a copy in 1849 to assist him in the harbour, or just to have with him as a reminder of his wife who was pregnant with their first child back in Stornoway!


I am thinking about what a great film could be made taking the maritime charting of the Western Isles in the middle of the 19thC as the core around which it would be based. As well as the potential for recreating life aboard survey vessels of that time in spectacular scenery, it would also bring us ashore (they surveyed for up to 3 miles inland!) where we would witness the changes taking place, particularly those on Harris under the 6th Earl’s ownership, and Captain Thomas’s work on the archaeology etc of Lewis.

He was a pioneer of photography, was accompanied by his wife on the surveys and she played an important (vital, perhaps?) role in the development of textile industries on Harris. They even had a wooden house erected on Harris such was the depth of their commitment to their roles. We also have the interesting, at times tragic, story of their private lives (not least Frances’s second Baptism and subsequent marriage to her step-brother Fred) ending with the widowed Frances marrying the son of a veteran from the Battle of Trafalgar whose ship’s ensign is the only remaining one from that event.

Captain Otter’s part in the laying of the first Transatlantic Telegraph Cable, Fred’s father’s pioneering work in the Shetlands and Orkneys (apparently including the 10 year-old Fred!) could be woven into a piece centred on, say, the period from 1857-1867 and ending with the sale of the North Harris Estate to the Scott family.

Oh well, one can but dream…

Commander Henry Charles Otter’s Host in 1851

I mentioned that Captain Otter and his wife were in Portsea visiting a General in the Royal Engineers.
The Roll of Honour site provides a photograph of the General’s memorial at All Saint’s Church, Crondall, Hampshire (http://www.roll-of-honour.com/Hampshire/Crondall.html) and the inscription reads:

IN 1793, 94 & 95
BORN 1776 DIED 1856
BORN 1815 DIED 1841
A remarkable career from the age of 17 to 35. The General’s 35 year-old son, Captain Thomas Francis Birch RN, was also present so there are plenty of reasons to speculate as to why the Otter’s were paying them a visit at this time. I cannot find any reference to Captain Birch’s involvement in the surveys of Scotland but he appears to have spent several years prior to 1851 serving in China and I have seen one mention of him regarding a chart of Shanghai.

Survey Ships of George & FWL Thomas

Here are some notes on four vessels intimately connected to the lives of George and FWL Thomas and their part in the surveying of the coasts of Scotland.:

HMS INVESTIGATOR 1811-1857 Survey Brig Armament 16 121 tons
1811 Commander George Thomas
1815 Frith of Forth Chart published
1821 In commission and employed on voyages of discovery and survey duties.
1825 10th November Whilst employed surveying the coast has been severely damaged in the gales which have swept the North Sea in recent days, her bulwarks being stove in, and her boats washed away, and it is feared that her tender has foundered with all hands.
1827 FWL Joins at the age of 10 or 11
1830 Shetlands as a Surveying Vessel
1835 January FWL passes Mate exam
1836 George Thomas and FWL Leave after 25 and 9 years service, respectively

HMS MASTIFF 1813-1851 Gun-Brig Armament 12 184 tons
1837 Commander George Thomas and Mate FWL Thomas join
1840 29th March Woolwich the Mastiff and the Fairy surveying vessels, and the Violet and Woodlark tenders, are to leave for their summer survey on the 7th of next month
1840 20th of November arrived Woolwich from survey duties at the Orkney Islands
1841 9th April Woolwich, will he paid to-morrow, and sail for the North Sea, to resume her surveying duties during the season.
1841 3rd July Mate J. A. St. Leger, Mastiff, promoted to Lieutenant
1841 August Mate & Assistant Surveyor FWL Thomas promoted to Lieutenant. It is not clear at what point he joined the accompanying tender Woodlark.
1841 4th September Mate E. J. B. Clarke (1834), of the Mastiff, promoted to Lieutenant.
1841 13th November Woolwich, arrived from the Orkney Islands, and remains here during the winter.
1841 27th November Acting Master Wells, of the Mastiff, promoted to Master.
1841 11th December Second Master —– Wells acting Master of the Mastiff, promoted to Master.
1841 17th December Assistant-Surgeon J. Macbean promoted to be Surgeon, and reappointed to Mastiff. James McBain was to later marry Ellen Sarah Thomas, George’s daughter and FWL’s sister.
1846 George Thomas dies aboard returning from Orkney Isles

WOODLARK 1821-1863 Survey Vessel’s Tender
1840 29th March Woolwich The Mastiff and the Fairy surveying vessels, and the Violet and Woodlark tenders, are to leave for their summer survey on the 7th of next month
1841 13th November Woolwich, arrived from the Orkney Islands, and remains here during the winter.
1845 Lieutenant FWL Thomas appointed as Master
1848 20th December Tender to Mastiff, survey vessel
1850 In Alloa, according to letters from FWL to Petrie regarding archaeology of Orkney Isles
1857 East Loch Tarbert Chart Lieutenant FWL Thomas
1860 January FWL promoted to Commander
1860 Tender to Fisgard, Guardship at Woolwich
1861 In Harris – Master James Sutherland from Orkney (Porcupine in Portree)

HMS PORCUPINE 1844-1883 Armament 3 382 tons Displacement 556 tons Paddle 285 hpi 132 hp
1845 Captain Otter Surveying West Coast of Scotland
1857 Sound of Harris Chart (FWL surveying for East Loch Tarbert Chart)
1858 Transatlantic Telegraph Cable (Otter’s piloting saved the cable from foundering off Newfoundland)
1860 Surveying Western Isles Captain Otter
1861 Portree (Captain Otter in Dagenham visiting his brother, Woodlark in Harris)
1864 FWL Thomas retires aged 48. I don’t think he served ON the Porcupine, but he certainly served in accompaniment WITH her.

I have combined several snippets of information in compiling these notes in order to give as full a picture as possible of who was doing what, where and when. Discovering James McBain aboard the Mastiff on the 17th of December 1841 was an unexpected bonus!

Source: http://www.pbenyon.plus.com/Naval.html
I happenstanced upon this wonderful online resource whilst searching for information on HMS Investigator and have yet to explore it in detail.

Charting the Coast of Scotland

These charts cover the 50 years of Marine Surveying from the careers of George Thomas and his son FWL Thomas. I have included a few of those from Henry Otter as evidence of his continuing presence in the area and made some comments:

Frith of Forth 1815 – George Thomas
George served from 1810 until his death in 1846 aboard the Mastiff. I believe he was buried at sea. Oh, and ‘Frith’ is what appears on the chart!
(Stornoway Harbour 1846 – Otter)
(Lochs Erisort,etc 1848 – Otter)
(West Loch Tarbert 1849 – Captain C G Robinson)
(North Minch 1849 – Otter)
Orkney Islands 1850 – G Thomas & FWL Thomas
Showing what work was being done in the Western Isles during the 1840s, the period when father and son were completing their work in the Orkneys.
East Loch Tabert 1857 – FWL Thomas
(Sound of Harris 1857 – Otter)
I made reference previously to the fact that these two areas were being surveyed simultaneously.
Sound of Harris to Aird Bhreidhnis, including Lochs Tarbert & Resort 1860 – FWL Thomas
This chart is especially interesting as it shows the Shop, School, Mill and Inn in An-t-Obb, putting the Inn at foot of road to Rodel which contradicts with the position shown on an earlier map. I recommend comparing the chart with Google Street view to spot which buildings remain, and those built during the intervening 150 years!
Monachs etc 1860 – Otter
Hebrides or Western Isles 1865 – Otter, FWL Thomas
The last chart in the collection that is attributed to FWL Thomas and the 1871 census shows that he had retired six years after this chart’s publication.

I hope that this brief summary gives an impression of the extent of the work that was being performed around the Western Isles by these men but the best way of appreciating their dedication and craftsmanship is to look at the charts online, which can be done by clicking the link provided.

Porcupine and Woodlark

I was hoping that following these two Royal Navy Survey vessels might assist with my research into the work of Lieutenant FWL Thomas who in 1845 was appointed as Master of the Woodlark.
This was the ship that he was using to survey the Western Isles whilst Captain Henry Otter had HMS Porcupine engaged on the same task. Prior to this, Fred Thomas had been surveying the Orkney Isles with his father, George Thomas.

Unfortunately the key records, those of 1851 are non-existent, but I think the two may have been in the Atlantic on work associated with preparations for the first Transatlantic Telegraph Cable. It has been pointed-out to me by my kind correspondent that there are letters from Captain FWL Thomas confirming the Woodlark’s presence in Alloa (a mere 10 miles upstream from Culross) in the late 1840s and 1850. Once again, I am most grateful to her for bringing the significance of this to my attention. Captain Otter was in Portsea visiting a Royal Engineer and as this was the branch of the Army that dealt with surveying we can assume that they were discussing matters relating to their work.

However, by 1861 an Orkneyman, James Sutherland, 44, was Master of the Woodlark and he, together with his wife and three children, were aboard her in Harris. This reveals not only a new Master but also her continued presence in Harris. Even better, he has his family with him showing us that Lieutenant Thomas having his wife Frances in tow was not unique. The Porcupine was in Portree with her two Second Masters aboard. Captain Otter was in England with his wife visiting his brother in Dagenham..

By 1871 the Porcupine is in Sunderland (the Woodlark elsewhere) and in 1881 both vessels are at Minster on the Isle of Sheppey in Kent. In this year and in 1891 the Woodlark’s Master, Mark Aaron, has his wife and children with him continuing the trend that at least two earlier Masters had set.

Overall I think that these little snippets of information are helpful in giving us just a little more insight into the role of these vessels and the lives of those who were in charge of them – not forgetting the children who must have had a wonderful, if somewhat unusual, education!

NOTE: I have new information regarding these two vessels: This Woodlark was disposed-of in 1863 and the Porcupine in 1883. Clearly the Woodlark of 1881 and 1891 cannot be FWL’s ship, but I’ve left this piece as written not least as a reminder that there are still plenty of red herrings in the sea!

Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of London 24 May 1858

In the Hebrides Captain Otter in H. M. S. Porcupine, with lier tender the Seagull, assisted by a good working staff, composed of Messrs. Dent, Stanton, Stanley, and Cramer, has examined the shores and islets of the Sound of Harris, comprising, with all their indentations, 155 miles of coast line, in addition to sounding over an area of 435 square miles.

It is remarkable to consider that, in surveying the Sound of Harris, they recorded a massive 155 miles of coast.

This is an important service rendered to hydrography, as with this chart and the accompanying sailing directions before him, the mariner may safely run for the passage between Harris and North Uist, which has hitherto been avoided by all who could possibly escape from it. The chart is in the engraver’s hands, and will be issued to the public in the course of the summer. At the same time Lieut. Thomas and Mr. Clifton have surveyed the rocky estuary of East Loch Tarbert, in Harris, and completed a chart of that remarkable inlet of the sea.

Unfortunately a relative ran into a Force 8 storm in the sound some 32 years later and lost a ship there. Liet. Thomas is, of course, the later Captain FWL Thomas, and husband of ‘Mrs Captain Thomas’.

In alluding to these and other charts of the coasts of Scotland, I have real pleasure, as one acquainted with the value of detailed land surveys, in expressing my admiration of the maps on the six-inch scale, exhibiting all the physical features, which Captain Otter, Commander Wood, and their associates have laid down for three miles inland. Such terrestrial coast surveys may enable geologists to come to accurate conclusions respecting the general structure of Scotland before the geographical details can be worked out on Ordnance maps representing the interior of the country, and which will probably not be published for many years to come, even under the vigilant superintendence of Colonel James.

The fact that they surveyed three miles inland tells us both how thorough they were and also why their task took several years to complete. As the author suggests, it was to be many years to come before the OS produced the first complete maps of the Isle of Harris. I haven’t found Captain James…yet.

You can view the 1857 chart online.

Note: A modern piece on hydrography that mentions this ‘pioneering work’ and has an interesting map of the Sound of Harris can be seen here and the original from which I took the extract is here.