24 Feb

Albert Markham’s life was so packed with incident that it is impossible to cover all his activities in a blog.  For example, he visited Novaya Zemlya (the Russian Arctic), reported on the ice conditions in the Hudson Bay, and served for years on the Royal Geographical Council, so in this final piece I shall concentrate on an event that was, very nearly, his nemesis.

In August 1891, Markham was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral,  and in March 1892 he was appointed Second-in-Command of the Mediterranean Fleet. The fleet consisted of two sections that covered the Mediterranean – the First Division  was  led by Vice-Admiral  Sir George Tryon, KGB.  Markham led the Second Division. For part of the year the First Division, under Sir George, toured the eastern Mediterranean, whilst the Second (Markham), patrolled the west. For the remainder of the year the two divisions combined operations.

The Mediterranean was vital to British interests It was  the main sea route between Britain and India. The Fleet protected these sea lanes.

In June 1893, the whole fleet was operating together for the annual training exercises.  The fleet was off the coast of North Africa. Sir George’s plan was that two lines of battleships should proceed in  columns towards Tripoli- one led by himself in his flagship, HMS Victoria, the second led by Markham, in HMS Camperdown.  There were six ships in total in Sir George’s column; five in Rear Admiral Markham’s.


Sir George Tryon was renowned as a daring and proficient tactician. It was said also that he could be obstinate, overbearing, taciturn and unapproachable. He believed that the best way to keep his crews up to the mark was by continual, new challenges.  

It has to be remembered  that 1893 was before the invention of wireless. Orders and messages  were transmitted by signal flags, semaphore and signal lamp.  By 1893 Tryon has developed  a new system of signaling  called  the T.A. system in which  complex manoeuvres could be handled with only a few simple signals. It was a system that required his ships’ captains to use their initiative and in this exercise, Sir George planned to test the system

On this disastrous occasion it was not the T.A. system that failed. It was his orders.

On the 21st June, 1893, the night before the manoeuvre, Tryon, unusually, discussed his plans with some of his officers on the Victoria. The  two columns would be 1,200 yards (1097.3 meters), apart and his plan was that the battleships should turn inwards in succession by 180°, reversing their directions at a distance of 400 yards. After this manoeuvre, the fleet would travel a few miles, slow down, and simultaneously turn 90° to port (left), and drop their anchors for the night.

It was absolutely contrary to naval tradition (and required courage)  to question the quick tempered Tryon, but Victoria’s Staff Commander did this, suggesting  that 1,200 yards was much too close, and that the columns should start at least 1,600 yards apart (though even this distance could leave an insufficient margin of safety – the normal turning circles of the ships involved apparently required a gap of 2,000 yards between the two columns –this would leave a space of only 400 yards on completion of the manoeuvre). Tryon had actually agreed with the objection. But his later signal reverted to his original plan. He confirmed his instructions when confirmation was sought.

As there was no pre-determined code in the signal book for this manoeuvre, Tryon sent separate orders to the two divisions. They were:

“Second division alter course in succession 16 points (a point is 11,25 degrees),to starboard  (right), preserving the order of the fleet.” “First division (led by Victoria), alter course in succession 16 points to port preserving the order of the fleet.”

But what of Markham?  He did not attended the briefing on HMS Victoria.  This was because he was recovering from a bout of Mediterranean fever. He had a high temperature. He thought it wisest to rest, so as to be best prepared for the manoeuvre. But it was clearly most unfortunate that he, as Second in Command did not contribute to the discussion – he would have raised concerns.

When the instructions were actually signaled, Markham immediately grasped the dangers. He delayed sending his acceptance to the order and actually prepared a semaphore signal – Am I  to understand that it is your wish for the columns to turn as indicated by signal now flying?

This signal was not sent. This was to haunt Markham for the remainder of his life. He had received another signal from the Tryon. What are you waiting for? He had an enormous admiration for the Vice–Admiral who was a personal friend. None of the other nine Captains had raised objections. At the subsequent court martial, in which he appeared as a witness, he stated that he thought that Tryon (who often devised plans which were difficult to understand at first, but which subsequently became clear), had a plan that would result in Victoria wheel around Camperdown, rather than turning inwards.

He would not refuse to comply with a direct order, He followed instructions.

It was too late when it became obvious to Sir George that a collision was inevitable. Victoria made a tight turn, while Markham executed a slower standard starboard turn with the unavoidable result. But so ingrained was naval discipline that the Captain  of Victoria, who asked Tryon three times for permission to order the engines astern (backwards), only acted when he had received that permission. It was only at the last moment that Tryon shouted across to Markham, “Go astern! Go astern!”

Camperdown rammed Victoria.  A ram is a fearsome underwater prolongation from the bow of a ship, designed to damage any opposition and Camperdown left a gaping hole below the waterline in Victoria’s hull.  When Camperdown did reverse, more water poured in as Victoria’s watertight doors had not been closed. The whole scenario only lasted  minutes.

Initially Tryon had no conception that the damage was ‘mortal’ – the damage was forward in the ship and the engine room was still functioning. He  ordered his ship to head for the shore and actually ordered rescue boats, sent by the surrounding ships, to turn back.


But five minutes after the collision, Victoria’s  bow had sunk 15 feet, and she was listing  Water came through the gun ports. The forecastle (forward part of a ship below the deck) became submerged. The hydraulic power failed meaning the ship could not be turned, there was no power to launch the lifeboats. Eight minutes after the collision,  the stern (rear), of the ship had risen out of the water.

In the forward section of the ship, men were still struggling to secure bulkheads (partitions) as water washed in around them. Some of the men were washed away, some were  trapped.

Orders were given to abandon ship, but  too late. Victoria  healed over  and capsized just 13 minutes after the collision. She slipped into the water, bow first, stern upended, her propellers still rotating.  A terrible event and terrible for the onlookers –  some men were sucked down with the sinking ship, some cut to pieces by the propellers. Three hundred and fifty eight of Victoria’s complement died.

Those who survived and those who watched  this terrible and awful scene would never recover from the experience.

Sir George Tryon, in time-honoured  fashion went down with his ship. He stood on the top of the chart-house as the ship sank. He is said by  two surviving officers to have admitted, before Victoria sank, that the disaster was his fault.

The stricken Camperdown, despite being damaged, somehow managed to keep going. None of her crew died. 

Markham’s telegraph from Malta wrote of  the irreparable loss of  Sir George, twenty two officers and three hundred and thirty six men. His shock, sorrow and grief were overwhelming.

A court martial was opened  in Malta in July1893. Reporters were allowed to witness some of the proceedings. Surviving senior officers confirmed that Tryon had given the fatal orders.  Markham appeared as a witness, as previously mentioned. He was in a difficult position – he did not want to imply criticism of his chief. He confirmed that he had had an idea  that the Admiral planned to have Victoria wheel around Camperdown.

The court exonerated Victoria’s survivors and found Tryon responsible for the disaster, but Markham was criticized. Although he had obeyed orders,  a conclusion was that he should have followed his first instinct and aborted the manoeuvre. He should have sent the telegram  that questioned Tryon’s orders. Clearly this was a retrospective conclusion – had he not obeyed orders, had there been no collision, he would undoubtedly have been court-martialed for insubordination.  Tryon gave his orders in person; ignoring them was virtually impossible in the naval hierarchy of the time.

But Markham was to suffer. The Admiralty  subsequently supported the Court’s findings and questioned Markham’s judgment. He was put on half pay for over seven years and for this time he was without a commission  – a deep humiliation for a man who thought ‘idleness the enemy of the soul’.

But there were some compensations. Aged fifty two, in 1893, he unexpectedly married. His bride was Theodora Gervaise, aged nineteen! the sister of one of his midshipmen. The marriage seems to have been happy.  He had a daughter who gave him great joy. He was promoted to Vice Admiral in 1897. But he became depressed.

                                              Theodora and Albert

Theodora offered strong support. Witnessing her husband’s unhappiness and sadness, she wrote (with some trepidation and without her husband’s knowledge), to The Prince of Wales, the future George V. The Prince was Markham’s friend and Godfather to his daughter. Theadora pleaded for help. The appeal succeeded. In 1901 Markham  was appointed Commander in Chief, the Nore. The Nore is a sandbank at the mouth of the Thames Estuary at the seaward limit of the Port of London Authority  – it is a major hazard for shipping coming in and out of London. This was his first appointment for over seven years and he relished in it.

He was made Admiral in 1903 and later in the same year he was knighted. He retired in 1906. He had an active retirement: working for the Minesweepers’ Fund,he wrote, he entertained officers of the Canadian Expeditionary force.

He died of a chest infection in October 1918 .Letters of sympathy poured in. Many of his comrades wrote of the effect he had had on their lives. At he funeral colleagues eulogised him as a capable, hard working , conscientious officer, a courageous explorer and a loyal friend.

The Victoria was not mentioned.



  1. John Scott (@llidiartcefn) February 24, 2021 at 3:33 pm #

    What a gripping story, beautifully told. There would be many more examples of authoritarian captains making dangerous orders and not being questioned. I am reminded of the Staines air crash, although the order to lift the flaps was only one contribution to the chain of events.

  2. isobelpwilliams February 24, 2021 at 6:21 pm #

    Is it possible for you to expand?

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