Tag Archives: David Markham Canon of Windsor

Admiral Albert Markham 1841-1914 Part 1

7 Nov

Of the numerous families that can be included in the description ‘the backbone of Victorian England’, the Markham family have an indisputable claim. 

The family’s roots can be  traced as far back as the Norman Conquest, the family tree documented from the time of Edward the Confessor and in the 1800s the Markhams made notable contributions. The navy and the church are heavily represented in the Reverend David Frederick Markham’s 1854 proud record of his relations and ancestors. Descriptions of Lieutenants, Captains, Vice Admirals, Admirals, along with Reverends, Canons, Deans, Archdeacons, Archbishops are listed. In addition there are Sheriffs, Knights, County Lieutenants, military men and Members of Parliament. Archbishop William Markham (1719-1807), was chaplain to George II and an instructor to his sons, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York.  Sir Clements Markham (Albert Markham’s cousin), born in 1830, was Secretary and subsequently President of the Royal Geographical Society for many years.  Throughout, a keen intellect, a curiosity and an enthusiasm for learning seems to have been a persistent family trait.

In 1841 Albert Hastings Markham  was born into this impressive family. His birthplace was  Bagnères-de-Bigorre,  a commune situated at the base of the Pyrenees.  Albert was the fifth surviving son of John Markham a naval officer who had retired from the navy on health grounds at the age of twenty seven. Money was tight and aged thirteen, Albert was sent to London to live with his father’s sister in law, Catherine Markham. the widow of his paternal uncle, David Markham, Canon of Windsor. This uncle was the father of Clements Markham. Catherine was a woman of faith and she encouraged Albert in his religious beliefs. She and her family gave Albert every possible support. Her home became his home.

Clements Markham was eleven years older than Albert and he had a profound influence over the young man. A lifelong friendship was established as Clements became Albert’s confidant and mentor – by this time Clements had spent four years on the Pacific Station, had travelled in Peru and had been to the Arctic on one of the attempts to discover the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition. He would have been a glamorous role model to the young Albert.

Although Albert was destined to have a notable career, its beginning was inauspicious.  His impoverished father’s attempts to find  sponsorship for his son’s entry to the Navy were initially unsuccessful. Also the entry age was fourteen. Albert was fifteen by the time the arrangements were finalized. Fortunately the Navy changed its policy and decided to take ‘older’ cadets – a sponsor, an uncle (a member of Parliament), nominated Albert and after intense tuition organized by his aunt Catherine, Albert met the qualifications required by the Lords Commissioners. He was accepted as a cadet in Her Majesty’s Navy. He  was delighted.  He got fitted for his uniform immediately and, brandishing his  sword (and, as he said, his newly acquired dignity), he paraded with glee in front of his school friends.

He recognized the opportunities offered by the Navy would allow him to follow his particular interests – learning about new cultures, reading and seeing the world. In this way he greatly resembled his cousin Clements, but unlike Clements he was never a social animal. He was perceived as being awkward and uninterested when he had to attend the relentless social engagements that were an unavoidable part of peace time naval life.  

But once in the Navy he made steady progress through the ranks, retiring  aged sixty-five in 1906.  Progress was as follows;

1856: Cadet /   1857: Midshipman /   1862: Lieutenant/   1872: Commander/   1876: Captain/   1889-1889: Portsmouth Dockyard Reserve /  1889: Commodore  Training Station/   1891: Rear Admiral /   1897: Vice Admiral    /1903: Admiral

His first years were on the China Station. This experience would transform a fifteen-year old cadet into a veteran officer.  Between 1856 and1864 he was posted to: Camilla, Niger, Retribution, Coromandel and Centaur.  Throughout, he demonstrated his family characteristics of courage and determination in full.

At that time China was ruled by the Qing dynasty (1644-1912). Intrigue was rife.



HMS Camilla arrived at Hong King in 1857 after a tortuous journey of 156 days. Hong Kong had  been a British colony for some 15 years and by this time trade, namely the export of opium, cotton and wool and imports of tea and silk, had become an important part of the Empire’s economy. Foreigners were regularly attacked. The Royal Navy was inextricably embroiled with pirate raids on the harbour.

Within months of arrival at Hong Kong, Albert showed he possessed the family ‘spunk’. The fifteen year old cadet was instructed to lead six sailors, and two marines against a Chinese pirate junk that had about thirty men on board. In spite of the odds against them, Albert, flourishing his pistol and sword, charged with his men onto the junk. The pirates fled. The junk was destroyed on the orders of Camilla’s Captain. The pirate’s stronghold (about 500 pirates), was destroyed later.

Following the attack on the stronghold, nearly fifty of the pirates were handed over to the local authorities. The British were however appalled, when the order was given that these unfortunates were to be beheaded in a particularly gruesome way – forced to kneel in two lines and decapitated sequentially (one young boy was spared). This was an awful spectacle that affected the English spectators deeply and an unforgettable introduction to the horrors of war for a fifteen year old boy.

When he was seventeen Markham was transferred to Niger.  Here, as throughout the deployment in China, further expeditions to hunt down pirates were made. Pirates were chased, captured, killed. Bases were destroyed.

Following his service on Niger  Markham was reassigned to Retribution in the Indian Ocean. Retribution was initially employed in laying underwater telegraph cables in the Indian Ocean but her duties changed when news arrived of the repulse of an Anglo-French fleet that had attacked the Taku Forts in northern China. These forts were originally built to protect Tianjin, the largest port in North China and the main sea gateway to Peking (Beijing). The fleet had been sent to attack the Taku Forts because the Qing rulers refused to recognize agreements made in a Treaty of 1858 (the treaty included allowing the British to continue the opium trade in China).

Markham was transferred to Coromandel  for a second, return attack in 1860. This was an Anglo French assault of about 18,000 men, against the heavily defended forts. The attack was made primarily against the walls of the forts.  Many Qing were wounded, one hundred were killed. The British, on this occasion, had relatively few casualties and following the successful attack, seven Victoria Crosses were awarded. The Chinese authority’s eventual capitulation allowed for the allied occupation of Peking in October 1860.


This illustrates what must have been the awfulness of the situation.

Markham was aged eighteen.

In Peking the allied forces, learning that a detachment of Chinese cavalry had withdrawn to the Summer Palace advanced and looted the Palace. Many precious objects were sent back to Europe, many fabulous riches destroyed.  The event was recorded by Charles George Gordon (later Gordon of Khartoum), as a ‘scene of utter destruction that defied description’.

                                 LOOTING OF THE SUMMER PALACE 1860

Politics continued to ensnare the Navy. The ruling Qing dynasty had to face a rebellion in the form of the ‘Taiping Heavenly Kingdom’ lead by the self – proclaimed ‘second son of God and younger brother of Jesus’, Hong Xiuquan. The problem for the British was that the rebels advanced on ports including Shanghai. The second son of God’s aim was to cut off the Qing’s supply route, but inevitably, any blockade affected British interests. Markham was thus involved in the defense of Shanghai– a thirty mile buffer zone. He had just passed his exams to become a sub-lieutenant and  was transferred to Centaur  where he was involved in a remarkably brave encounter with the insurgents. He was sent on a ‘pirate ambush’ on a junk (so designed to confuse the insurgents), that was manned by Chinese, but with British sailors on board. He himself, wearing a Chinese fur coat, sat on deck close to a howitzer (gun), that was hidden by a sail. When a  rebel boat came to attack the seemingly defenceless junk, Markham threw off his disguise, stood up in his British uniform, summoned the British support from below deck and fired the howitzer. The battle continued for hours. The pirates were captured. Markham was victorious. He was promoted to the rank of Acting Lieutenant.

Centaur was posted to Japan where further problems manifested themselves. A party of English was brutally attacked for refusing to give way an Imperial caravan –a serious insult. One of the British party, personally known to Markham, had his abdomen slit open, his arm ‘virtually ‘ severed, plus over twenty wounds. Others in the party had serious injuries. Markham led a successful detachment to reclaim the body. But vengeance for the attack was denied, to his chagrin. It was considered that in the event of retribution, or the Prince  being taken prisoner, the Samurai would counter attack and the British would be unable to protect their many settlements.

But to be on the safe side, the British are said to have prepared for any contingency this by ostensibly playing a game of cricket! – a rouse for having men and guns on shore.  There was no attack.  Markham’s team won. It was Japan’s first cricket match.!

Centaur returned to England with the twenty two year old naval veteran.  Markham had not only occupied these years in military engagements. He  had developed  what was to be a lifelong interest in birds, he appreciated the charm of  mainland China, its temples and historic sites. He read, he studied amongst other things Greek and Latin. A truly impressive record.


With thanks to Frederick Markham a senior member of the Markham family who has encouraged this piece on Albert Markham