William John Chapman

William Chapman, in his sixties, in about 1912.

Dear Jane,
Thank you for your kind offer to find details of William Chapman’s naval career. I have now done some basic research, but I wonder whether you would be able to cast some light on the documents that I have discovered.

William John Chapman, my great-grandfather, was born in 1846, in Plymouth, which may suggest a naval, or at least a maritime background.

Here is his Navy record from 1878 to 1893. (Click on the picture to make it larger and more legible.)

Click on the picture to make it larger and more legible.

This begins with HMS Adelaide, which by the 1870s had become a depot ship. I think that this means she was a ship that stayed in one position and acted as an auxiliary for others. I note that at the top of the form William Chapman is described as ‘Seaman’. Does this mean he was at sea before 1873? There is an enigmatic remark: ‘FC 1861’ Any ideas what this might mean?

He often returns to the Royal Adelaide before setting off to sea a again. Do any of those ships’ names ring a bell? I shall try to find out more about some of them.

He ends up at the Indus,and then Vivid I, where he stays for several years. and the note at the side says:

To be borne as permanent supernumerary in Dockyard Reserve for care of Indus.

The Indus was an eighty-gun warship launched in 1839 . At one time she had served as Rear-Admiral Houston Stewart’s flagship, based at Devonport. In 1860 she was converted to serve as a guardship (a warship assigned as a stationary guard in a port or harbour). Since HMS Vivid was not a ship but the designation of the shore establishment and barracks at Devonport, I assume that the Indus’s station was outside that harbour. Vivid I was the Seamanship, Signalling and Telegraphy School in Devonport.

HMS Indus (Image: WIkipedia)

This photo of the Indus opens up a tantalising possibility. In my family home as a child was this tapestried picture of a ship. It came from a relative on my father’s side, but I’m not sure who.

My father could not identify the ship and asked others for their ideas. One acquaintance was definite that it was the Jumna, a troop ship that took soldiers to and from India. This suggestion had an appeal to me, because the Jumna appears in a couple of Kipling poems, including one of my favourites: Back to the Army Again, where an old sweat pretends ignorance of the Army, so that he will be accepted as a new recruit:

Back to the Army again, sergeant,
Back to the Army again;
‘Oo said I knew when the Jumner was due?
I’m back to the Army again.

The Jumna, sadly, looks very different from the embroidered picture, so I think we have to rule out that identification.

HMS Jumna

The Indus, on the other hand, has a very similar configuration to the picture, apart from the very important fact that it has only one deck of gunports. perhaps this was less important to the nautical needleman than the ropework and rigging, which he presents in careful detail. Given William Chapman’s long association with the Indus, might he not have acquired this picture from a talented shipmate? After his death it could then have gone to someone else in the family (perhaps his son Frank, whom I never met) before coming to my father. It is now hanging in my hallway, and I really would like a positive identification. Any thoughts?

I’d be grateful for any other elucidation of of the naval record, or of this follow-up that shows William Chapman staying at Devonport until 1896:

This has him attached to Vivid 1 at Devonport through to 1906, but the picture is slightly confused by the 1891 census, which lists him as living with his family in Gillingham, near Chatham, and puts his occupation as ‘Chatham Steam Reserve HMS Pembroke’ with the note ‘Sea RN’ – presumably ‘Sea Royal Navy’.

HMS Pembroke was the Chatham equivalent of Vivid I, a shore establishment and barracks. Perhaps he was seconded here by some process so routine it did not need to be recorded on his naval record?

HMS Pembroke (Source: Wikipedia)

In the 1901 census William Chapman is listed as a ‘Naval pensioner, working as a labourer’. He is still living in Gillingham, near Chatham. Chatham was not only a naval port, but also the headquarters of the Royal Engineers, which explains how my grandfather, Sergeant-Major George Simmers, came to meet Florence, William Chapman’s daughter, and marry her in 1907. My father, Graham Allen Simmers, was born in December, 1908.

One thing that I wonder about in William Chapman’s naval record is that he seems to yoyo between being ‘Able Seaman’, ‘leading seaman’ and ‘Petty Officer’. Was this normal, with ranks assigned according to the needs of a particular ship?

I’ve discovered quite a bit from these records, but a trained eye would perhaps discover more. Any ideas?



Note: Kipling and the Jumna: Most texts (including the Kipling Society’s website and Thomas Pinney’s superb three-volume Collected Poems) give the reading ”Oo said I knew when the troopship was due?’ which is Kipling’s revision when the poem was published in Barrack-Room Ballads and other verses (1892) But I first got to know the poem from Charles Carrington’s 1973 edition of the Ballads, which goes back to the version originally printed in the Pall Mall Magazine. This had ‘Jumner’. I prefer ‘Jumner’ as more specific, but presumably Kipling thought it might be obscure for the general reader, so made the meaning clearer with a more generic term. The Jumna also appears in ‘Troopin”: ‘The Malabar‘s in ‘arbour with the Jumner at ‘er tail,/ An’ the time-expired’s waitin’ of ‘is orders for to sail.’


  1. janevsw
    Posted January 20, 2021 at 12:00 pm | Permalink

    Happy to lend a hand. Excuse answers coming in piecemeal.
    ‘FC 1861′ – actually F.E. 1861. I suspect that stands for First Entered, and together with the trade “Seaman” does make it look as if he’d been at sea before. He would have been 17 then which was about the usual age for entry (though sea service was not counted until he reached 18). I notice that your record is from the ADM 188 file – did you spot this one for him in ADM 139? I’m fairly sure it covers 1861-1872:- https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/D7906918
    More later.

  2. Roger
    Posted January 20, 2021 at 5:55 pm | Permalink

    One possible reason for the tapestry picture having only one gundeck if she is the Indus rather than the two in the photograph is that her upper gundeck may have been removed – razéed was the term. This was an earlier way to turn battleships into frigates: perhaps the same thing was done to Indus when she became a guardship. It would make her more stable and to carry fewer but heavier guns.

    Off topic: you may find this site interesting: https://www.greatwartheatre.org.uk/

  3. janevsw
    Posted January 20, 2021 at 6:41 pm | Permalink

    2nd reply: ” … seems to yoyo between being ‘Able Seaman’, ‘leading seaman’ and ‘Petty Officer’.” – it’s not a yoyo but a steady promotion, as was usual over time, much assisted by the fact that his character is consistently VG (Very Good). His earlier record (see my other reply) I expect will show him as Boy classes II and I, followed by OS, Ordinary Seaman. On this record he moves steadily up the rates from Able-Bodied seaman to Leading Seaman, Petty Officer classes II and I [classes not used in the modern RN], Acting Chief Petty Officer and finally Chief Petty Officer.

    In 1874 he was discharged to “Shore time expired” indicating that he had signed up for the usual period of 12 years (actually 13 by the time he went). After (just under, possibly to absorb the extra year) another 12 years he was discharged to shore again and this time pensioned, but nonetheless seems to have served again until 1893 when (according to the Remark squashed into the lower right of the column) he was “To be borne as permanent Supernumerary in Dockyard Reserve for care of Indus.’

  4. janevsw
    Posted January 20, 2021 at 8:10 pm | Permalink

    3rd reply.
    I notice you’d already picked up the note about Indus – apologies.
    “… [HMS Royal Adelaide] a depot ship. I think that this means she was a ship that stayed in one position and acted as an auxiliary for others.”
    Not so much an auxiliary as an administrative base, mostly because men at shore establishments still had to be borne on the books of actual ships (e.g. HMS Fisgard depot ship for the Woolwich dockyard). HMS Royal Adelaide, launched 1828, was depot ship 1860-1905 for Devonport, and therefore for west-country men (not to be confused with HMS Adelaide, a different ship).

    As depot ship she was also the ship on which WJC would be borne (his pay etc be administered from) when he was not on the books of another ship, regardless of whether or not he was physically in Devonport. He could have been in transit to his next posting, or at a foreign port awaiting the arrival of his next ship. Hence his frequent apparent postings to Royal Adelaide.

    The small service document 61845 relates to the comment “30 June 1889-to serve till 50” and ends with a final discharge to shore with pension.

    Indus: a career listing at pdavis.nl/ShowShip.php?I’d=1611 . Note 1860-1863 and 1870-1873 when she is noted as belonging to the Steam Reserve with WJC’s 1891 census entry (census date April 5th 1891). In December 1891 the Steam Reserve was divided into the Fleet Reserve and the Dockyard Reserve.

    Vivid took over from Indus as base ship for Devonport in late 1891, probably relating to the formation of the Dockyard Reserve; his records would have been transferred from ship to ship without any move on his part.

    The only reason I can think of for WJC to have been physically employed on HMS Pembroke and living in Gillingham, while borne on the books of HMS Indus / Vivid at Devonport, is that the entire Steam / Dockyard Reserve was administered from Devonport. I’ve got no proof, but it would make sense.

    • janevsw
      Posted January 20, 2021 at 8:16 pm | Permalink

      pdavis.nl/ShowShip.php?id=1611 – apologies, autocorrect got the better of me.

  5. Posted January 20, 2021 at 10:22 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much, Jane. these elucidations make the documents much clearer.
    William Chapman comes across as a decent man, working hard and doing his job well. He’s a good man to have as an ancestor.

    • janevsw
      Posted January 21, 2021 at 12:51 am | Permalink

      George, it was a puzzle, but further investigation has led me to considerable bafflement. I’ll e-mail. Jane

  6. Posted January 21, 2021 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

    Jane has looked further into this, and has discovered that I’ve fallen into the commonest trap in genealogical research – confusing two people of the same name.
    There are two William Chapmans, both sailors and both married to a woman called Mary. When I’ve completely untangled their histories, I’ll be rewriting this page.

    • janevsw
      Posted January 22, 2021 at 2:57 am | Permalink

      If it’s any help, the Portsmouth WJC is listed aboard HMS Implacable in the 1881 census:

      Implacable was the former French Duguay-Trouin, captured as a prize by the RN soon after Trafalgar and a training ship for boys between 1855-1912. The intention had been to preserve her, but she was eventually scuttled off the Owers in 1949.

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