Commander Walter Estcourt R.N. Of HMS Eclair
"To the memory of WALTER GRIMSTON BUCKNALL ESTCOURT,
Commander in the Royal Navy. Fourth son of Thomas G. B. Estcourt of Estcourt in this parish, aged 38 years, 25 of which he had passed in the active service of his country. He died 16th September 1845. In command of H.M. Steam Sloop '"Eclair' - while on passage home from the coast of Africa and who was buried at sea. Deeply lamented by the survivors of his crew who witnessed' his devoted·though unavailing-efforts ·to relieve the suffering of their comrades of who 65 officers and men perished with their Commander, victims of the African fever"
Commander Walter Estcourt's Family
Thomas Grimston Bucknall Estcourt 1775-1853 (M.P. for Devizes) married Eleanor Sutton and had:
- Eleanor Ann B.E. Died 1877
- Georgina Charlotte B.E.
- Mary Ann Harriet B.E. died 1885
- Rt. Hon. Thomas Henry Sutton Sotheron Estcourt 1801-1876 m. Lucy Sarah Sotheron
- Major General James B.B.E. 1802-1854 m. Caroline Pole-Crew
- Rev. Edmund Hillary B.E. 1803-1894
- Commander Walter Grimston B.E. 1807-1845
- Rev. William John B.E. 1812-1884
- Edward Dugdale B.E. 1818-1864
What Type of Ship Was H.M.S. Eclair?
What Led To This Very Sad Story?
The Commission which lead to this disastrous patrol in 1845, commenced when she sailed from Plymouth the year before in November. After spending five months patrolling the West African coast against 'slavers' and during a period on the coast and creeks of Sierre Leone, she must have taken on board the Yellow Fever Mosquito, either on boat service up the rivers or from coal taken on in Freetown, because the first case occurred on the 23rd of April. Unlike the Africans, Europeans had no resistance to the disease.
By the 23rd of July eleven men had died, so the ship had been ordered to proceed to the cooler climate of the Cape Verde Islands. By the time they arrived at Boa Vista, on the 20th of August, a further eleven men had died. During their stay, there was no let up in the disease amongst the ship's company, so they were advised to head·for the even cooler climate of Madeira. By the time the ship had arrived at Funchal on the 19th of September a further thirty-five men had died including Commander Estcourt. Not surprisingly, the authorities refused Pratique, so they had no choice but to proceed to Portsmouth. As all the Medical staff had died, the Assistant Surgeon Sidney Bernard from HMS "Rolla" was appointed surgeon of "Eclair" before she left Madeira.
The ship arrived off Portsmouth on the 29th of September 1845 by which time a further eight men had died. You would be forgiven for thinking that this dreadful story would have ended here but alas it was not to be. The Principal Medical Officer of Haslar Naval Hospital was willing to take the sick men ashore, but the Surgeon General of Quarantine ordered the ship to the Quarantine Station on the River Medway. "Eclair" arrived on the 2nd of October and by the 12th October a further nine more men had died including the Channel Pilot and poor Sidney Bernard aged 27 years.
The final toll was 74 deaths about half the ship's company.
Yellow Fever is not contagious, this was not known at the time, but had the crew been allowed ashore at Haslar, subsequent deaths could have been prevented. Mosquitos had not been identified as a vector for the disease until the 1890s. They would not normally survive in a cool climate but obviously thrived in a warm damp wooden steamship. A vaccination for yellow fever was not developed for another 100 years. Quinine was discovered in the mid-1850s as a preventative medicine, but it was probably the provision of clean water that had more effect.
Abolition of Slavery
Royal Navy Suppression of Slavery
The campaign lasted about 60 years, and on average, about 20 ships at a time were employed between 1808 and 1875 covering an African coastline 2,000 miles long. Despite the humanitarian nature of the work, it was not a popular duty, not least because of West Africa's reputation of being the white man's grave with service on 'coffin ships'.
Between 1837 and 1875, 80,000 cases of yellow fever were recorded of which 2,739 men were invalided and 1,487 had died.
Returning to the trials and tribulations aboard "Eclair" there is a wealth of information in the "Estcourt Papers" lodged in the Gloucestershire Archives.
In his report to Commodore Jones RN dated 8th of September 1845, Commander Estcourt says;
"The rest of the crew are so reduced in number and physical strength and disease, that I know not where to find twenty working men ......
So rapid has been the progress of this fever, that men who appeared in good health and spirits have died in 3-4 days in agonies with Black Vomit and all the other symptoms of the most malignant kind of that fever, caught in the Rivers of Africa."
Estcourt's private journal tells a very sad tale in hard-to-decipher handwriting, indicating hopelessness of his situation.
He writes; "My heart has almost sunk within me. Men sick, dying, dead" and finally; "Therefore wiU I always trust in the Lord that He will in His own good time and in His own way save us out of trouble."
His journal regularly records in better times that he held Sunday Services aboard the ship, so clearly this was a man of deep religious conviction.
Lieutenant Harston who was with him at the end recounted to Walter's brother Edward the following; "From about midnight of the 15th Walter became speechless and his features were much distorted, apparently from pain. In about two hours his eyes were closed and continued so for about two hours more, when suddenly his countenance brightened up in a most surprising and glorious manner, seeming as though he had just woke and was smiling over the past as a dream and his expression settled into one of perfect bliss, and thus he died, at half past four a.m. on the 16th September." Lieutenant Isaacson who was also with him reported "It was like the setting sun looking for a glorious rising again."
It is hoped that these tender words from brother officers offered some comfort to the Estcourt family. Lieutenant Harston was one of the few officers to survive, but sadly, Third Lieutenant Isaacson was the last of the ship's company to die of this fever on the 12th of October at the Quarantine Station on the River Medway.