One Friday morning, in October 1855, the residents of Hong Kong may have been startled to hear the sound of gunfire in the harbour. On that part of the Chinese coast there were regular skirmishes with pirates, but such an important base for the British Royal Navy was regarded as being relatively safe although there was always the possibility, remote though it might be, of a sudden attack by Russian raiders. The Crimean War had been running for two years and although there had been military and naval action at Petropavlovsk on the Kamchatka Peninsula, that was far to the north. As it turned out the weapons were not being fired in anger, they were simply rendering a salute to an important victory. After a siege lasting more than a year, the south side of the fortress of Savastapol had fallen. It was an important feat of arms for Britain and her allies and one that would herald the end of the conflict, although the news had taken over five weeks to arrive.

Perhaps another salute should have been fired too, to HMS Saracen, which was being prepared for her forthcoming departure from Hong Kong, bound for the Gulf of Siam. The vessel had spent well over a year surveying the coastal waters of China, Japan and Korea and the captain, John Richards, had sent information back to London that would be rapidly incorporated into Admiralty charts. Perhaps Richards took more than usual interest in the arrival of dispatches from home for he had been appointed on the advice of Sir Francis Beaufort, the Royal Navy Hydrographer. However, when the Saracen left Plymouth Sound in February 1854 Richards knew it most unlikely that that venerable officer would be in post for the whole of the deployment and a change at the top might mean changes further down the hierarchy too. But Richards had no need to be concerned, his work was well regarded and he would still be in command when the little ship finally returned to Britain.

It is surprising that, before the C19th, Royal Navy captains had to seek charts from private publishers before they set out on active duty. This was most unsatisfactory, as shown in the opening paragraph of the Order in Council that led to the creation of the Hydrographic Department in 1795. It read,


The great inconvenience which has constantly been felt by the Officers of Your Majesty’s Fleet, especially when ordered abroad, from the want of sufficient information respecting the navigation of those parts of the world to which their services may be directed, and with which they are sometimes totally unacquainted, has led us to consider of the means most advisable to be adopted for furnishing such information…

The means were accurate charts and, by employing skilled engravers and installing a printing press, it was hoped the new department could prepare these in-house. They would be based, where possible, on the work of the Royal Navy’s own surveys. Although the new charts sometimes contained errors, a culture of constant improvement was fostered and the practice of appointing the chief executive, the Hydrographer, from senior naval officers with surveying experience was adopted as best practice. The Navy Board looked to the Hydrographer for advice on commissioning surveying ships and officer appointments as well as on the surveys themselves. Gradually, a body of specialists with scientific and mathematical training were drawn together to be formed, in 1817, into a corps of surveying officers, which had a standing similar to that given to engineering officers in the British Army. The development of trade after the end of the Napoleonic Wars meant these officers had plenty to do in every ocean and six brigs of the same type as the Saracen, called the Cherokee class, were specifically ordered for survey work in the same year.


The charts produced by the Hydrographic Department were markedly different to those offered by private publishers, in part because of the different needs of those at whom they were aimed. The duties of a Royal Navy ship might take it well away from international trade routes to isolated and inhospitable coasts fringed with dangerous reefs and rocks. Large scale detailed charts were needed here, which is what the Admiralty sought to provide. However, it was recognised how useful the sale of charts might be to the merchant marine and they began to be sold to the general public from 1823. Two years later the first catalogue of charts, plans and views was published. This was subsequently updated annually.

Throughout the eighteen thirties and forties, a period of general European peace, small ships surveyed the British coast and also embarked on journeys that could take them away from home for years. One long-distance voyager was HMS Beagle, also a Cherokee class brig. Between 1826 and 1830 the ship was deployed on a survey of the coast of South America before beginning, in 1831, a five year surveying project that would culminate in a circumnavigation of the globe. Impressive as this might be the Beagle may well have been forgotten had it not carried Charles Darwin, whose observations as a naturalist led him to write ‘The Origin of the Species’. This turned this ship into one of the most famous in world history.


A constant stream of information collected by survey ships was sent back to London to form the basis of further Admiralty publications and by the middle of the 1830s the Royal Navy had no need of privately published charts. Twenty years later, sixty years after the establishment of the Hydrographic Department, there were nearly two thousand charts in the sale catalogue and it was estimated that the Fleet was provided with over two hundred chart boxes, containing, on average, more than three hundred charts each. Matters had been directly improved for the merchant marine too. Privately printed charts, often called bluebacks because of the colour of their mounting paper, remained popular with merchant captains because, although they were increasingly based on accurate Admiralty charts (which were not subject to copyright), they were drawn to a smaller scale. At one point, for example, it was estimated that to sail between the Thames and South America required only seven bluebacks compared with thirty Admiralty charts.

Impressive though the work of the Hydrographic Department (which became the Hydrographic Office in 1839) had been the charts available were by no means comprehensive and plenty of coasts remained to be surveyed including those in the Far East, which were becoming of increasing interest to successive British governments and those organisations involved, as David Livingstone put it, in developing ‘commerce and Christianity’. It was for this work that the Saracen was prepared in late 1853.

Chapter 2  - Why sail, not steam?

Back to Introduction

Chapter 1 - The Hydrographer and the Hydrographic Office

Hong Kong 1846

HMS Beagle in Sydney harbour

Soochong, Shoguns and the Saracen’s surveys

When London Became An Island