@ilegal blogs

Finding Temeraire

Looking for a ship in the middle of London

Never more shall sunset lay golden robe on her, nor starlight tremble on the waves that part at her gliding. Perhaps, where the low gate opens to some cottage-garden, the tired traveller may ask, idly, why the moss grows so green on its rugged wood; and even the sailor’s child may not answer, nor know, that the night-dew lies deep in the war-rents of the wood of the old Temeraire. [John Ruskin]  

I’ve been kicking this around as a draft since I started it a few years ago. I’ve always found it difficult to finish. Partly, because there is some pretty serious anthropomorphism going on, and also because it comes from a pretty tough period in my life down here in The Smoke. London is an amazing city, but if the deck is stacked against you it can be a very hard place to be

On 17 September 2013 I went on a personal journey and to do something important to me: I went to find my ship. I went to find HMS Temeraire


HMS Temeraire departing Plymouth, by Ivan Berryman

HMS Temeraire […] fought only one fleet action, the Battle of Trafalgar, but became so well known for her actions and her subsequent depictions in art and literature that she has been remembered as “The Fighting Temeraire”. HMS Temeraire (1798)

I don’t remember when my interest in this particular ship began. I know I can recall even as a child wondering why she’d been broken up given the critical role she played at the Battle of Trafalgar, including rescuing HMS Victory at a critical point in the battle from being boarded by French sailors and soldiers from the Redoubtablethe ship from which Lord Nelson had been fatally shot by a marksman

Despite such rich history it is now her final hours we remember most. You most likely know JMW Turner’s dramatic painting The Fighting Temeraire tugged to her last berth to be broken uppainted shortly after it is said he saw her being towed up the Thames to the breaker’s yard, with its setting sun flaming the skies to honour her journey; the contrasts of age – of old, new, dark, light – the smoke-belching steam-tug towing her to her end, bereft of sails but golden, beautiful

The tugs took the hulk of the Temeraire in tow at 7:30 am on 5 September, taking advantage of the beginning of the slack water. They had reached Greenhithe by 1:30 pm at the ebb of the tide, where they anchored overnight. They resumed the journey at 8:30 am the following day, passing Woolwich and then Greenwich at noon. They reached Limehouse Reach shortly afterwards and brought her safely to Beatson’s Wharf at 2 pm. The Temeraire was hauled up onto the mud, where she lay as she was slowly broken up. [Temeraire, Last Voyage]


So, where to begin. It was early in September 2013 and I was staying in a flat in Bermondsey London, just a little down the river from Rotherhithe, where I had read Temeraire had been broken up. The guy who owned the place gave me a big chunk of wood he’d found some years before on the banks of the Thames. Me being me, I immediately decided it was a piece of Temeraire. It certainly looked old, very river-worn and was incredibly dense/heavy for its size. A joiner I knew took a look and said it was (very probably) old (English) oak, which also happened to be the main timber used in building Temeraire. It became a bit of regular banter amongst the guys I knew in the local pub at the time and I amused myself, and them – us all stood around having a drink and arguing over a piece of wood on the bar ‘that this here particular piece of wood was just as likely to be from Temeraire as it was unlikely’ (which isn’t strictly true, I suppose), that they couldn’t prove it wasn’t and that, sometimes, you’ve just got to believe in something

Lots of things circle in your life sometimes. So it was on the 17th September 2013. I was feeling pretty down about various things and Bart, a good friend of mine who lives in Rotherhithe (and who was no doubt trying to cheer me up) said he knew the area on the Thames where the old Rotherhithe breakers yards used to be. By the way, ‘Rotherhithe’ comes from the Saxon, meaning ‘a mariners’ landing place’

Bart told me that you could see all the old wood and other bits and pieces when the tide went out. We decided to go and see if we could find exactly where Temeraire was broken up. Maybe even find some trace of her. It felt like a bit of a mission

I had also once read that a church in the area had some pieces of furniture made out of timber from Temeraire so it seemed pretty reasonable to believe, especially as this was close to the area Bart had spoken about, that she was broken up close by

So, Bart and I formed an ingenious plan: go see the priest – have a look on the river

2016-04-24 15.30.00

The Church of St Mary the Virgin

After strolling around Rotherhithe in the general direction of the river (and dropping off at the beautiful Mayflower pub) we arrived at St Mary’s Church. It was closed. Not to be thwarted, I deployed The Bart: he knew where the priest lived so we set off to pay him a visit. It was a day of coincidences and as we arrived at where he lived he happened to be walking out of his front door so we politely brought him up to speed on what we were up to and asked if he could help

That’s the good thing about priests, they listen to you and have a habit of helping out (even if they think you might be slightly mad). The Reverend Mark Nicholls was a really nice bloke and I’m very grateful he got into the swing of things and offered to open up the church and show us around. It’s really fascinating; as well as the physical link to Temeraire there are all sorts of other interesting bits of maritime history in and around St Mary’s, including:

  • on Thanksgiving Day 25th November 2004, a new ‘Blue Plaque’ was unveilled on the outside of the church tower to commemorate the sailing of the Mayflower from Rotherhithe in 1620;
  • the Master, and part-owner of the Mayflower, Christopher Jones (who was from Rotherhithe), is buried somewhere in the graveyard (but no-one knows exactly where!)
  • Prince Lee Boo is buried in the graveyard (1784) – one of the first people from the Pacific Islands to visit Great Britain. He came to London with Captain Henry Wilson, who he met in 1783, when Captain Wilson’s ship, the Antelope, was wrecked on the island of Oroolong in Western Palau

So here we are with the Reverend, Bart and myself, and no-one else in the church. We got an impromptu tour of the place and enjoyed a good conversation. I got to touch the wood from Temeraire – two episcopal chairs and an altar in the sacrament chapel are made of wood taken from her. That’s right. The actual timber from that ship that was broken up (as I later discovered whilst writing this) exactly 175 years before. That ship you have seen in the painting, but here, in real life. I sat in the chairs made from Temeraire, put my hands on the hard wooden arms and closed my eyes. It’s not all books and websites, you can just reach out and touch history sometimes. Being able to see and to feel her was actually really moving and I admit I felt a little emotional: here was Temeraire. It was like history leaping off the page and two-finger-poking me in the eyes

Father Nicholls couldn’t shed any light on where exactly she might have been broken up, however, but we knew we were on the right track so we thanked him for his kindness and headed off towards the river. Here are a few photographs I took inside St Mary’s that day:


Plaque on the communion table


The communion table (cloth raised to show plaque at front)


The two bishop’s chairs


Plaque on one of the chairs


Plaque on the other chair

As we wondered around there were some reasonable clues that we were on the right track (!):


Never knew this street existed until we accidentally came across it

We walked along the river, spending as much time as possible down on the banks as the tide was out. It’s littered with flotsam and jetsam, junk, lots of old wood, oiled stones, memories of life from another age like the occasional old white clay pipe, broken pottery, chunks of coke, chain and toolings from ships and barges. We didn’t know exactly where we were headed but just kept on walking, following the river around the Rotherhithe peninsula towards the East. Eventually we walked out into a big space, a kind of corner jutting out into the river, wide open and modern-built, close by Pacific Wharf

It was quite a strange moment. The best way I can describe it is that something sort of stopped. It was like the sounds around us took on a different tone and the wind and sky quietened down. I remember Bart walking off to help a young woman who had asked him to take a picture of her and her little girl sat in a pushchair. It was bright and sunny and I strolled on a few more steps on my own, day-dreaming, looking out over the river. There was a gentle end-of-Summer breeze blowing, and I realised I was here. Very calmly I just knew it. It was as simple as that. This was where Temeraire was. This was the spot they brought her to so many years ago. I don’t know why I thought this but I felt like I could feel her

I don’t know if you are familiar with the Thames and the area, but this should give you an idea what it was like that day – a short clip I took more recently, just a little further around the peninsula. Temeraire was tugged past this point, from right to left, back in 1838

18 September 2013

The next day I needed to know whether I was right so decided to do some digging online to try and work out where John Beatson’s yard was, where she was broken up. I’ve reproduced below some of the pictures I found at the time that helped me

I was right. The only question that remained for me being whether she was lashed up against the wharf itself, side-on to the river (my personal view, which I believe is strongly supported by the accounts) or, floated at high tide into the larger area of mud flats existing more over at right-angles to the wharf and further back from the river. I tried to work this out definitively back in 2013 by writing to Country Life, trying to track down an article I had read about, written in 1998 by someone called Mr Martin Postle, which I suspected had more information on the Pacific Wharf/Temeraire angle. Unfortunately, I never got a reply

Greenwood s Map Sheet E9U 1827

Area in 1827, some 10 years before Temeraire’s arrival

Bulls Head Dock

The Beatson’s were based at Bull Head Dock. This name is no longer in use

Beatson Yard 1843

I found this picture of Beatson’s yard in 1843, showing its layout as it was some five years after Temeraire was broken up


I now knew where the yard was but wanted to work out exactly where Temeraire was dragged up. This picture seemed to me to give a likely spot


Temeraire at John Beatson’s yard drawn by his brother, William, September 1838. This to me shows she was laid up against the side of the wharf, side-on to the river, not pulled onto the more central mud area


Here is the area in a mixed map (1836 – 1852) with my markings XXXX of where I believe she was dragged against the wharf so they could more easily get at her


Here is a modern diagram of the same area – Temeraire’s position again marked with XXXX – the area circled, which was Beatson’s Yard, is now named Pacific Wharf

Temeraire in 2016

Last week it was announced that a young JMW Turner self-portrait (with his Fighting Temeraire in the background) is to feature on the new £20 note, to be released into circulatation in 2020, which made me smile

All in all that day in September 2013 is very special for me. I didn’t realise it was a little bit of an anniversary at the time – 175 years exactly since Temeraire was being broken up. There is no plaque to commemorate Temeraire, there was no ceremony that day, and I was the only person standing there, anniverserising-without-realising. I don’t really know what made me get out and go looking for her. I think I was feeling a bit isolated and, in that weird-place-in-your-head-you-don’t-ever-rationalise, I felt like Temeraire was calling me (don’t laugh). Whatever it was now when I look back I’m glad I stepped out. I was there on 17 September 2013 and exactly 175 years earlier she would have been lain against the wharf towering above me as they broke her apart. I would have been able to reach out and literally touch her. I was there and I remembered

Sometimes, that is the most important thing

A few resources

If you are interested in Temeraire and want to find out a little more about her yourself, then you might find some of the following links useful. And if you really want to immerse yourself in the era and understand this ship, her sailors, get a sense of the incredible story behind her, then you can do no better than reading her history as set out in the historian Sam Willis’ book, The Fighting TemeraireI didn’t discover this book myself until after the events above but it is a really great read and I would throughly recommend it to anyone

Now the sunset breezes shiver
Temeraire! Temeraire!
And she’s fading down the river.
Temeraire! Temeraire!
Now the sunset Breezes shiver
And she’s fading down the river,
But in England’s song for ever
She’s the Fighting Temeraire.

Henry Newbolt, ‘The Fighting Temeraire’, 1898

3 comments on “Finding Temeraire

  1. West England
    May 1, 2016

    Thank you for this post. All of us on our Front Lines, whatever and wherever they are, need to be able to do *other things*. I hope that you continue with your researches – and share them with the world.

    Now, who were the Temeraire’s creators, crews and breakers?…you know she will be with you for the rest of your life, don’t you? :))


  2. Jean Beatson
    December 20, 2016

    The picture of the Temeraire tied up at John Beatson’s wharf was painted by his brother William who was an architect. ( Not his son)


    • ilegal
      December 20, 2016

      Thanks, I’ve changed it. Are you related to the Beatson family who ran the wharf?


Leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on May 1, 2016 by in Stories and tagged , , , , , , .


%d bloggers like this: