Monday, September 27, 2021

Reginald the (un)Lucky

Levinge's grave on Ascension
Along with my colleagues Peter Carney, Gina Koellner, and Mary Williamson, I've found that the work on our forthcoming volume of letters of the Franklin expedition has produced all sorts of new insights into their undertaking. The earlier letters contain a good deal of discussion as to the selection of officers; while Sir John had the ultimate say-so, both Crozier and Fitzjames lobbied for several candidates, not all of whom ended up joining them.

One of the more interesting of these was Reginald Thomas John Levinge. We first hear of him in some of Crozier's letters to his friend James Clark Ross; he asks Ross to mention his name, and notes that his family is "among the oldest in County Meath." Levinge, in fact, was heir to a baronetcy, making him one of that class of Anglo-Irish gentry for whom Crozier's father, a solicitor, often worked. The Levinge Baronetcy had been created in 1704 for Richard Levinge, then Speaker of the Irish House of Commons; the family seat was Knockdrin Castle, an impressive Gothic pile commissioned by Richard Levinge, the 6th baronet, Reginald's father.

His older brother Richard began his career in the Army, while Reginald chose the Royal Navy; his date of entry was the 7th of January 1827, making him all of fourteen years old. The first step -- as was so often the case in an era of Naval downsizing -- was the longest; he didn't obtain his first commission until 1839. 1844 found him the senior lieutenant aboard HMS Volage, which post he still held at the time of Crozier's letter. Indeed, that service was probably the reason that Crozier was unable to reach him to make any offer; in the end, he accepted Franklin's recommendation of Edward Little. Although the prospect would certainly have been attractive to him, Levinge would seem to have dodged a bullet, at least for the moment.

In 1845, Levinge was appointed to his first command, that of HMS Dolphin, a small brigantine with only three guns. In November of that year, at the Battle of Parana off the coast of Argentina, he distinguished himself by remaining in the midst of the fray; as the Naval Biographical Dictionary describes it:
The little Dolphin on that day occupied a berth better suited to a frigate, and was so much exposed that the Commodore, the present Sir Charles Hotham, declared in his public despatch that he sometimes trembled when he beheld the shower of shot, shell, grape, and rockets flying over her. The gallantry of Mr. Levinge was in consequence rewarded with a Commander’s commission dated 18 Nov. 1845.
It was a glorious moment, to be sure. For, although the NBD next describes him as on half-pay as though retired, he evidently remained in service, where he encountered one more opponent more wily than the Argentinians: ship-board fever. The record is confusing, as no further command is listed in any source, but apparently he was aboard HMS Penelope when he succumbed on 24 April, 1848. Like many others in that situation, he was laid to rest on Ascension Island, in the Georgetown Cemetery.

As fate would have it, the very next day, those who would have been his colleagues and commanders stood at Victory Point on King William Island, where they removed a record left the year before, and made their poignant marginal addition:
H.M. ships 'Terror' and 'Erebus' were deserted on the 22nd April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, having been beset since 12th September, 1846. The officers and crews, consisting of 105 souls, under the command of Captain F.R.M. Crozier, landed here in lat. 69˚ 37' 42" N., long. 98˚ 41' W. Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June, 1847 ; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.
Levinge might well have been among these casualties, had he left to serve with Franklin -- and yet here he was, thousands of miles away, and death found him all the same. In a final irony, his grave at Ascension is just across the bay from "Comfort Cove" -- now known as Comfortless Cove -- a cemetery whose name appears in the notorious Peglar Papers, and may possibly have leant its name to a gathering of graves in the Arctic.

1 comment:

  1. A lot of ironies in this fabulous story.

    A hello to you Dr. Potter , from me - Solomon Grundy