27 November 2010

"My Little Friend"

Gilbert Lennox King was Assistant Surgeon in Vesuvius throughout the time Richard Ramsay Armstrong served in her. It is clear from Armstrong's account that he and King were inseperable and got up to much mischief, as well as experiencing the horrors of war together. (Armstrong's description of the work of the surgeons after the battle of the Alma is not for the squeamish or faint-hearted.)

The dead and wounded after the battle of the Alma

King was born in Ireland in 1833 or 34, at the naval base at Haulbowline Island in Cork harbour. His father Gilbert, born in Glasgow in 1791, was also a naval medical man: he had been promoted Surgeon in 1813. In his long career he served in over 25 different ships and shore establishments. He was employed as surgeon in numerous convict and emigrant ships to Australia during the 1820s and 30s. He was promoted Deputy Inspector of Hospitals & Fleets on the 12th of August, 1841. From that date he was at the Bermuda hospital until June, 1844. Then at the Royal Hospital, Haslar, until the end of that year, and in the East Indies until April of 1845. He was promoted to Inspector of Hospitals & Fleets on the 9th of November, 1846, and put on the retired list. In 1854, when his son was about to go to war in Vesuvius, King Snr. was one of only ten Inspectors of Hospitals & Fleets in the Navy Medical Department, directly below Sir William Burnett, the Director General.

Haulbowline Island in Cork harbour

King's father had married Jane Sophia Townshend, on the 14th of December, 1830, at Stoke Damerel, Plymouth (ie Devonport), according to a parish record of marriage in the IGI online. Jane is almost a complete mystery. If the less common spelling of her name is correct, all that can be said is that there were others of that variant at Stoke Damerel. And the King's eldest child, Jane Sophia, was born there in about 1832. Furthermore, there were Royal Naval officers called Townshend; naturally many RN officers lived in Stoke Damerel/Devonport; RN surgeons, like all officers, regularly married the daughters of other officers. But that is all that can be said because King's mother Jane resists every attempt to identify her. However, she did die before 1851 because Gilbert Snr. is described as a widower in that census. But she does not appear in the General Register of Deaths for England & Wales, so either died before that became law in 1837, or died abroad.

By the 12th of July, 1832, King's family had moved to Cork. Gilbert King Snr's service record [in ADM 196/8 at The National Archives] states that he served at the Haulbowline hospital from that date until the 22nd of March, 1834. And Haulbowline is where Gilbert Lennox King was born. I had thought it possible that King's mother Jane had died in childbirth at Haulbowline, but she had a third child, Elizabeth Barbary King, born on the 13th of May, 1835, at Portsmouth, when King Snr. was a surgeon in Victory. This younger sister was baptised on the 18th of June that year at St. John, Portsea. Then she too disappears from the records, and it must be assumed that she died in infancy. And it is quite likely that mother Jane may have died in childbirth or in the two years before compulsory registration.

King's older sister Jane Sophia married Benjamin Clarke in London in 1860. Benjamin was a clerk at the Inland Revenue and like Jane had been born at Devonport, three years after his future wife. By 1871 they had three sons and a daughter and Benjamin is described in the census as a Clerk 3rd Class at the Inland Revenue at Somerset House. By the 1891 census the family had moved to Hornsey and Benjamin was recorded as a "Secretary, Editor and Occassional Preacher." He had become the secretary of the Homes for Little Boys at Farningham and editor of the Sunday School Chronicle. There were now five sons and one daughter listed. The eldest son was a chartered accountant, the others clerks, or still at school. The daughter was a high school teacher. The household had one live-in servant, a cook/domestic. Benjamin died at home on the 30th of January 1893 and in 1901 five of the children are all living at home with their widowed mother Jane - all still single.

Gilbert King Snr.'s published work

Nothing is known about King's childhood and teenage years and he makes his first appearance in the records in the 1851 census for England and Wales. He was living with his widowed father and his surviving sister Jane in Belgravia at 24, Belgrave Place. There was no live-in servant and it appears the Kings shared the house with a music teacher called Wagstaff, his wife, niece and one domestic. King was 17 years old and had no occupation recorded, but presumably he was a medical student because he passed his examination for Naval Assistant Surgeon at the Royal College of Surgeons in 1853 and was immediately appointed to the Vesuvius on the 30th of June that year. On the 18th of September Richard Ramsay Armstrong joined ship as a midshipman. King and Armstrong were almost exactly the same age and of course messed together.

It is easy to conjure up the characters of the two young men: Armstrong the young 'old hand' with much experience on the West Coast of Africa chasing slavers. In some respects mature beyond his years, popular, gregarious, and perhaps a little bumptious with his less experienced peers. King the 'new boy', trying to be serious and conscientious, with a responsible job to do, but perhaps a little wide-eyed and unsure, eagerly following in his father's footsteps. Whatever their characters, they became firm friends.

After all their adventures in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov, on the 26th of November, 1855, King was appointed to Royal Albert as the ship's company of Vesuvius began to break up. (Armstrong joined Stromboli the next day.) On the 13th of May, 1857, King was appointed to the screw steam vessel Arrow, Commander Samuel H. Henderson, still on the Mediterranean station. On the 28th of August that year he was appointed to Impregnable, the Flag Ship at Devonport, for service at the Plymouth hospital. On the 29th of March, 1858, King left the hospital for a spell in the brig Nautilus, the tender to Impregnable, and on the 24th of April his promotion to surgeon was confirmed.

King's Service Records

After that it appears that King had some months without a ship, but on the 23rd of September, 1858, he was appointed surgeon to Sphinx, Commander George Fiott Day VC, for the East Indies and China Station - to bolster the naval presence in the 2nd Opium War. Sphinx left Spithead in company with Odin and four gunboats for the China seas on Thursday the 10th of November - she and two of the gunboats in the morning and Odin and the other two gunboats in the afternoon. [Naval and Military Intelligence, The Times, Friday, 11 November, 1859. page 10]. It was a long commission (as they usually were to the furthest oceans, never mind the war) and she didn't return to England until July 1863 when King was paid off along with the rest of the ship's company.

King didn't go to sea again and within two years he was dead. It is not clear exactly what happened to him, but what evidence there is points to a difficult and unhappy time. Six months after he returned from the war in China he signed for his medal on the 15th of January, 1864, according to the medal roll [Asplin, K.J., China Medal Roll, Royal Navy, Savannah, 2004. ISBN 1 902366 2 32 8] and his service record. His service record also states that less than three weeks after that he was admitted into the Yarmouth Lunatic Asylum, on the 2nd of February, 1864. It had only been taken over by the Royal Navy for that purpose in September the previous year. King was discharged on the 3rd of August, 1864, after seven months in the care of Deputy Inspector of Hospitals & Fleets James Rae MD, who had been lent from Haslar to set up this new independent asylum.

Gilbert King Snr.'s obit in the Gentleman's magazine


Six weeks after King's admission to Yarmouth his father died at his sister and brother-in-law's house at 38, Gibson Square, Islington. He was 73.

Probate Index, Gilbert King Snr.

What was King's problem? Simply a breakdown from exhaustion? A life-threatening disease? We don't know. Sometime in the ten months after his discharge from Yarmouth it seems he returned to Plymouth, because he died there on the 9th of June, 1865, aged 32. At least one of his death notices suggest that he died after a short illness at Wyndham Street, Plymouth, the address given in the probate index.

Gilbert Lennox King's death notice in The Lancet

Armstrong makes no further mention of King after the Crimean campaign, so it is possible he never knew the fate of his "Little Friend".

Further research:
Clearly a sight of 'cause of death' on King's death certificate would be informative. But as for the reasons for his admission to Yarmouth, it looks as if it will be impossible to find out: there appear to be no extant patient records from that time.

Reconstruction of Gilbert Lennox King's medals:
L to R, Crimea & Azoff Clasp, 5th Class Medjidie, Turkish and China War.

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