Martin White RN
This article by William Davies was first published in the 1973 Annual Bulletin of La Société Jersiaise. It is illustrated with drawings made by Martin White of navigation marks on Jersey's coast. Capt. White constructed, in 1824, charts of Jersey, Guernsey, Sark, Herm, Alderney, and the Caskets (with plans of Gorey Pier, St Brelade’s Bay, among other Channel Island locations) and in 1830 another showing the result of his investigations from Cape Carteret to Cape Frehel, including the islands of Jersey, Sark, and Chausey. His surveys among the Channel Islands and on the coast of France were associated with those of the eminent French hydrographer Beautems Beaupre, and his name is recorded in the French Maritime Atlas
Important but unknown
I first came across mention of Martin White in Victorian Voices by Joan Stevens. Later, when I decided to research the facts surrounding St Catherine's breakwater, I came across him again. Indeed, it is quite apparent that any investigation into maritime matters over the last 150 years or more cannot possibly ignore him. His contribution to our knowledge of local waters is beyond measure, while it is almost certainly true to say that every mariner sailing about the Channel Islands has had cause, at some time or other, to be grateful for the vast amount of nautical data he acquired and then handed on. Yet few people seem to have even heard of him, let alone know anything about him.
This seemed to me to be a gross injustice. Bearing in mind my professional commitments, any writing that I may embark upon has to be done when a spare moment occurs, which is not as frequently as I would wish. The saga of St Catherine's breakwater will not appear in print (from my pen at any rate) for some considerable time. It is not only a long breakwater, it is a long story - much longer than I anticipated at the outset. However, I soon found that Martin White was an intriguing character who indisputably justifies an honoured place in Island history, and I felt a brief appraisal of his life's work to be well worth the telling without further delay.
Martin White was a sailor of extraordinary ability, even though it is recorded that during his early years in the Royal Navy, he "was never in the excellent". Neither was Winston Churchill as a schoolboy but he progressed as time went along. So did White.
The precise date of his birth in Hayling Island, Hampshire, cannot be stated with certainty because of a discrepancy between his baptism and death certificates. But it was either in 1779 or 1781 (almost certainly the former), and he was the issue of Martin and Elizabeth White. His own marriage on 24 August 1811, to Eleanor Egan, produced one daughter, Ellen Elizabeth, born in 1817. Ellen remained a spinster and after her mother's death in 1862 devotedly cared for her father until his demise on 30 June 1865.
Life in Jersey
They resided at 15 Clarendon Road, where Eleanor died, and then moved to 5 Springfield Cresent, Trinity Road, where Martin died. Martin White's only interest in life was his work - which possibly made him rather difficult to live with - and he continued his endless hydrographical research right up to his retirement in 1846. He was promoted to Rear-Admiral (Retd) in 1851, to Vice-Admiral (Retd) in 1857, and finally to Admiral (Retd) on 22 November 1862.
Money mattered little to him and in the end he left a personal estate of less than £200, even in those days a mere pittance. This seems inexplicable since there is nothing to indicate that he was an extravagant man, and even during the 19 years of his retirement he would have received half pay. It is likely that the various promotions through flag ranks after his life's work was over were simple devices used to supplement his pension. Certainly, as an Admiral, half pay would have produced a reasonable income. What he did with his money is a mystery, but when he died Miss Ellen found herself in dire financial straits, and greatly to his credit, Sir John Le Couteur made considerable efforts to obtain a pension for her in order to alleviate her great poverty.
Justification for this was not without foundation: for years she acted as her father's secretary, correlating, annotating, and listing the vast amount of data his endless researches produced. Much of his work was published by the Admiralty and accepted as definitive guides to mariners. Ellen White painstakingly and unstintingly set out this enormous volume of intricate information on her father's behalf without expectation of mundane reward.
It was acknowledged by many in high authority that Martin White's fruitful endeavours had been executed at a modest cost to the realm, since he was a serving officer of the Royal Navy. But obviously his daughter was not, and therefore received no recognition: when he died his pension died, too. Sir John Le Couteur, in his capacity as ADC to Her Majesty, pleaded personally to the Queen on Miss White's behalf but to no avail, it probably being reasoned that the Admiralty had been generous to him in his latter years, as indeed it had. Ellen Elizabeth had to make do with an annuity paid by the Royal Naval Annuitant Society until her death in 1888 at an unknown address in Stopford Road.
A Contemporary of White's was Rear-Admiral Sir William Symonds, who married into the de Carteret family, resided at Trinity Manor for a while, and eventually become Surveyor of the Navy. Their respective paths crossed on a number of occasions while in the Service, but White did not rise to the same social plateau as Symonds. Sir William Symonds' particular bent was ship design, and this possibly accounted for his appointment as Surveyor of the Navy in 1832.
As a matter of passing interest, he played a large part in the building of Jersey's first lifeboat. He was relieved of his appointment in 1846 in somewhat dubious circumstances after a Committee had been appointed " ... to sit in judgement on the Surveyor's work ... " In fact, as Surveyor he was responsible for the ship building programme for the Navy which, inter alia, included the Royal Yacht Victoria and Albert.
He was an enterprising fellow and set into motion many revolutionary ideas in ship design. Some of these were too revolutionary for the conservative minds that comprised the Board of Admiralty, hence the investigation by the Committee alluded to. Later, he was appointed Naval ADC to Her Majesty.
A note appended to the official Memorandum of Martin White's early service in the Navy reads:
- "As most of Captain White's memoranda together with a valuable library were lost when the Manly was so treacherously seized by the Dutch in the waters of Prussia, the undermentioned dates are given only as far as memory will permit".
In fact, very few dates appear in the memorandum and for the most part those of entry and discharge from various ships are labelled "uncertain" and have caused a great deal of confusion in research. A man had to serve six years at sea before he qualified to sit an examination for promotion to Lieutenant, and although his general service record may well have been lost in the Manly, White's certificate of sea service prior to this examination is still in existence.
He first went to sea as a Volunteer on 13 July 1794, at the tender age of either 13 or 15. If the former, it was unusually young (though not so in the case of Admiral Rodney) but 15 was about average, and the ship was the Medusa. He remained in this ship only two months, and then transferred to the Alexander, again as a Volunteer, but after two weeks, on 28 September became a Midshipman, and a year later moved to the Topaze, first as a Midshipman and then as Mate.
Altogether, he served six years and four months in these three ships on various stations including Portsmouth, the Channel, America and the Bahamas. He saw quite a lot of active service and during his first year at sea, when in the Alexander, was taken prisoner. This was in November, 1794, after an engagement with a French squadron comprising five 74s and three frigates. Although it was a one-sided affair, his ship gave a good account of herself and it was only "... after so severe a contest with their three leading ships, Le Jean Bart, Le Tigre and Les droits de l'Homme that the Alexander scarcely floated into Brest".
Later, when Mate of the Topaze he participated in the capture of the French frigate l'Elizabet of 36 guns off the coast of Virginia. When the Topaze returned to England from Halifax, Nova Scotia, she bore a distinguished passenger - His Royal Highness the Duke of Kent.
On 3 November 1800, Martin White made a formal "Application to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty that he may be examined touching his Qualifications to perform the duty of a Lieutenant in His Majesty's Navy". He was examined on 12 December and passed. It was this particular application that caused him to obtain a copy of his Baptism Certificate, which has created the confusion over his actual date of birth.
Lieutenant Martin White RN then served for nearly five years in the Pylades, Pigmy, Alcmene, and Queen on the North Sea, Portsmouth, and Channel Stations respectively. Mostly, this time was spent on patrol off the Dutch coast, but in 1804 he also participated in an expedition to the Baltic, first under the command of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, and then Lord Nelson.
It was about now that his natural and exceptional abilities as a surveyor - or more accurately, hydrographer - were beginning to appear. As Commander of the Pigmy, while ostensibly engaged in blockading the ports of Le Havre, St Malo, and Granville, White quietly surveyed the approaches to them. Then, when serving in the Sandwich in the North Sea, he also recorded the Flemish Banks and the approaches to Flushing.
But all does not seem to have been well in this ship. Because of the "improper conduct of the Master and crew in the Sandwich, when off Flushing, she was turned out of the Service, and Lieut White was transferred to the command of the Manly ..." This was in 1805 and it was his first important command.
Captured by Dutch
For much of the time the Manly kept a watchful eye on Boulogne but was then dispatched to East Friesland. It was an unlucky move: while on this voyage "she was run on shore by the misconduct of the Pilot, and tho' stranded on ground strictly neutral, the Manly was seized by the Dutch Government and her Commander sent to prison...". It was this event that destroyed not only White's personal possessions, but also the results of his laborious works in surveying and charting the approaches to the several ports mentioned.
One must assume that his detention by the Dutch authorities was short lived because he was soon back in friendly hands and spent a brief period in the schooner Jackdaw, which was used as a dispatch boat. He was promoted to Commander on 25 September 1806, and shortly after took command of the Weymouth. This must have been a frustrating period to White: he longed to indulge in his real love - hydrography. Instead, he journeyed to and fro between Weymouth and Falmouth conveying materials and stores for the construction of a dock in the latter port. Then, on 15 September 1808, Commander White moved to the Vulture and to the Channel Islands Station. He was to spend the rest of his life in Jersey.
"During the sojournment of the Vulture for nearly 3 years among these Islands, every opportunity was taken, and every exertion used to obtain correct soundings around them, and also along the French Coast in the ship's boats". This must have been a hazardous undertaking since Napoleon had yet to be defeated, but even after the truce, one could not be absolutely certain of a friendly reception from the late foe along the adjacent continental coastline. When White started his work, the end of the war was not even in sight, but it did not deter him. In February 1817 he was appointed to "ye command of the Shamroc (sic), Brig Sloop, for the purpose of Surveying the English and Irish Channels, and their adjacent coasts and Harbours, Bay of Biscay etc, to the edge of soundings..." This was quite a parish, extending over something like 60,000 square miles, but he accomplished the task in about 20 years. Prior to this, in a short spell between the Vulture and the Shamrock, he used a small vessel of 16 tons named the Fox for his local surveys, but much of his work was carried out in an open boat.
On 7 December 1818 he received further promotion, which he learned of in a personal letter dated four days later from Admiral Sir George Cockburn, who wrote: "I have much pleasure in acquainting you that you are promoted to the Rank of Post Captain, but we wish you still to continue in Command of the Shamrock, to pursue the surveying duties on which you already have effected so much". There was a good reason for this letter: the commander of any vessel was known out of courtesy as 'Captain' but Post Captain meant an official posting to that rank. Normally a Post Captain commanded a ship of twenty guns or more and it was not a courtesy title. As the Shamrock, being a surveying vessel, was unlikely to mount anything like that sort of armament, the Admiral did not wish Captain White to be offended.
He had little to fear: White continued personally to gather and collate an enormous amount of information about the waters surrounding these islands. Many years later, when striving to obtain a pension for Ellen Elizabeth, Sir John Le Couteur was tempted to write voluntarily, and with no other motive than that middle-aged lady's welfare in mind (she was 48 at the time), that "I have in many seasons in summer and in the storms of winter witnessed his untiring devotion to his arduous and dangerous duty in an open boat, along the rocky coast of Jersey, around which spring tides run with alarming velocity". Sir John was not alone in expressing his sincere appreciation of this exceptional man.
The task of sounding, plotting and charting is a humdrum business, demanding infinite patience and accuracy. Martin White possessed these qualities in abundance, and he took nothing for granted. It is true that the data available to him when he commenced his formidable task was insignificant, unreliable, and for the most part, downright inaccurate. White preferred to rely upon his own discoveries, but it would be tedious to describe them in detail. Suffice it to say that the end results brought him praise in abundance from the highest quarters, but as we have seen, they did not bring him wealth.
Surveys in the English Channel and the Bay of Biscay obviously included the French coastline and after the war, officers of the French Navy were placed under Captain White's command, "a service as laborious and responsible, and indeed as delicate as any officer could be entrusted with". That he conducted this international collaboration with all the necessary tact and diplomacy is proved by a glowing letter dated 3 June 1829, from Monsieur Beautemps Beaupre, who was then the senior Hydrographer of the French Navy. He also received the "Thanks of the Legislature of Jersey in session assembled" and from many other distinguished sources, as well as the Board of Admiralty - a body as difficult to please as any could be.
The Chamber of Commerce in Bristol also paid tribute to his enterprise, as indeed did the Parish of St Brelade in a warmly worded document. Captain Thomas Hurd RN, Hydrographer of the Royal Navy, could not have been more flattering when, in 1817, he wrote to the Board of Admiralty: "Captain Martin White commanding His Majesty's Ship Shamroc, having compleated his Chart of the numerous dangers surrounding the Islands of Guernsey, Jersey, Alderney and Sercq, together with those of the neighbouring Isles of Chausey and along the French Coast from Cape La Hague to Cape Frehel, I do myself the honour of submitting them to their Lordships inspection.
The survey of the above Islands from a variety of causes, but particularly from the great extent of the dangers in their vicinity, rendered it one of the most difficult and laborious works an Officer could have been called upon to perform, and in the execution of which Capt White has evinced uncommon Genius and Talent". It was noted that their Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty were pleased with the zeal that Martin White had manifested in the execution of his duty. As a matter of passing interest, the Hurd Deep in the Channel may well have been discovered by Martin White and named by him out of respect for his Commanding Officer, since their's was a warm friendship.
In June 1827 Lord Melville, First Lord of the Admiralty, wrote a personal note to Captain White. "From the experience I have had of the value of your labours in other quarters, I shall be anxious to see the result of your present operations, which I have no doubt will be found not less important to the interests of navigation, and to the public service, than the works which you have already produced".
Sir Francis Beaufort
There is also much correspondence from Captain Francis Beaufort during the 1830s when he was Hydrographer of the Navy. Captain (later Sir) Francis Beaufort himself was a skilled hydrographer and perhaps his greatest claim to fame was the Beaufort Weather Notation and Wind Scale which he devised and subsequently was adopted by an Admiralty order dated 28 December 1838.
"I am rejoiced that you have been able to effect all you wanted" he told Captain White, and "it is evident that nothing but your unremitting energy could have accomplished the task you had set yourself".
These are but a few examples from many which illustrate the esteem in which Martin White was held, but he also had his critics, and on one occasion Sir John Le Couteur was quick to defend him. Apparently, two Naval Lieutenants, supported by some Pilots and Shipmasters, impugned the accuracy of his survey of the approaches to St Helier Harbour. Inter alia, the depth of water in the approaches was in question and Martin White observed that he "differed from the Engineers employed no less than six feet in the rise and fall" but this "can no longer be maintained with any show of decency against me" because it was eventually, though reluctantly admitted that White's survey was absolutely correct.
Sir John pointed out to Lord John Russell that Captain White had advertised a reward of twenty guineas to anyone who could prove the inaccuracy of his surveys. Bearing in mind the parlous state of his finances this was a brave thing to do, but Martin White was sure of his ground and the reward was never claimed. Suffice it to say that to this day all local charts, tidal flows, and sailing directions, though obviously brought up to date from time to time, originate from his untiring and absolutely reliable exertions.
St Catherine's Breakwater
It may surprise some readers to learn that for many years before St Catherine's Breakwater became a reality, much speculation, debate, and even acrimony prevailed as to where in the Island was the correct spot for a harbour of refuge. It was an argument of long standing and implicated the Home Secretary, the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir William Symonds, a fair selection of Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, many others, and even Sir Robert Peel himself.
Martin White's opinion was often sought but he might as well have saved his breath. It is now known beyond all possible doubt that St Catherine's Bay was not the right choice. Nothing was more obvious to Captain White: even before the fiasco was contemplated, he stated the dangers time and again, but nobody heeded him.
The local desire for a harbour of refuge stemmed originally from the advent of steam, but first started in earnest around about 1830, and by 1840 it was in full cry. The reason for this was obviously the gigantic harbour and military works then being carried out at Cherbourg, Granville, St Malo, and elsewhere along the adjacent continental coastline. Although the peace since Napoleon's defeat had by then lasted a quarter of a century, and despite the recent implementation of the first Entente Cordiale, the French still were not entirely trusted. On the face of it, friendship between the two countries was accepted by the Establishment - Victoria's visit to Paris was indicative of this - but the bonhommie at regal level did not extend beyond diplomatic circles. The massive, not to say aggressive, undertakings then in progress at nearby French ports were viewed with alarm and suspicion.
If the motives were accepted with scepticism in Whitehall, they were considered to be downright hostile in Jersey. It seems unnecessary to mention that Jersey is very much closer to France than is Whitehall, but more importantly, the Islander was conscious of the fact that he had far more to lose than a mere tactical conquest. His home and his heritage were in jeopardy. Sir John Le Couteur surely summarised local opinion when he noted in 1845, that "I feel uneasy and alarmed to think that my property as well as my reputation may suddenly be at stake".
Steam brings changes
Despite the emotional and material aspects, both of which can be readily understood, there was another factor of even greater significance: steam power had undoubtedly opened up an entirely new concept. Prior to this, Jersey could rely considerably upon the outlying reefs and shoals as formidable natural defensive barriers.
Martin White, with undoubted foresight, recognised as early as 1831 that "The intervention of steam power has, however, so materially laid open the sea defences of the Channel Islands, especially Jersey", that suddenly there was a real need for suitable deep water moorings to accommodate ships of war. Lack of such facilities was inconvenient to commerce, it is true, though it was not intolerable and trade had learned to live with it, but the enormous tidal range that Jersey enjoys (or suffers) presented tremendous difficulties for the maintenance of a constant defensive sea patrol.
It was vital and indispensible that warships should be kept afloat at all times. If not, the enemy could take the initiative and select his moment of attack to suit his convenience. Commanders of far less calibre than a Drake or a Hawkins could have done this with equanimity. Furthermore, such a large tidal range brought with it strong flowing currents, so that not only was deep water essential, it had to be available in the most strategic position.
Nobody, either locally or in London, was more competent or qualified to drive home the significance of this salient fact than White. He showed that under given conditions of wind and tide, it was possible for a sailing ship to leave St Malo or Granville, and arrive at Noirmont substantially sooner than a similar vessel departing from Bouley Bay at the same time. In other words, if the defensive squadron was anchored at Bouley Bay - an anchorage that had often been used by the Navy - the opportunity to intercept a potential invader from these ports simply did not exist: he proved arithmetically that under similar conditions, which were not rare, even a steam powered vessel of those days (more than eight knots made life in the engine-room exceedingly risky) could not leave Bouley Bay and beat a sailing boat on passage from St. Malo to Noirmont.
If the enemy chose to rendezvous at Chausey before making the assault, the situation was even more disturbing. But France also was developing a potent Navy powered by steam, and if a sailing boat could come off best under suitable natural conditions, then powered ships could do so at any time. White realised this very clearly, and so did other practical minds, but official Government thinking seems to have assumed that any potential assault would emanate from Cherbourg.
In that event, it must be admitted that Bouley Bay was ideally suited for a squadron to intercept the enemy, but why launch an assault on Jersey from Cherbourg? Taking the French point of view, there was absolutely no sense in it. To do so would make it necessary to embark invading troops in ships which would have to sail twice the distance in order to land on Jersey's precipitous northern coastline, while if they opted for the south they would have to half circumnavigate the Island.
Surely it was much more sensible to utilise the ports of Granville and St Malo, gain all the benefits of a southerly wind (even with steam), spend half as much time at sea, and then land on the inviting and sweeping beaches of the Island's south coast. To Martin White this logic stuck out like a lighthouse, and it did to Sir John Le Couteur, too, but all others appear to have indulged in the traditional ostrich act. They did not see what they did not want to see: thus, we have a useless breakwater at St Catherine.
On 26 August 1840 the States of Jersey sent a Royal Petition to Her Majesty in Council pleading for a harbour of refuge "somewhere on the North coast of this Island". Although unnamed, there is no doubt that 'somewhere' was Bouley Bay in the eyes of the States. They also had the wholehearted backing of Sir William Symonds - and even appointed a special committee to consider the subject. A few years later, when Symonds served upon a Harbours Commission to investigate suitable sites for harbours of refuge in the English Channel, he did little, if anything, to further Jersey's interests. By then, however, he had been in London for several years and probably had lost local touch, even though he was still retained by the States to present their case to those in authority.
The States Royal Petition suffered the ignominy of getting lost somewhere in the corridors of Whitehall. Understandably, this did not please Sir John de Veulle, Bailiff of Jersey, who protested as forcibly as diplomatic language would allow. In the end this blatant example of inefficiency was of no consequence since the Petition was ignored in its entirety. White's opinions, as expressed to the Lieut-Governor, may have unwittingly played some part in this decision, but he did not reject Bouley Bay out of hand: as always, he put forward valid reasons for so doing.
In Martin White's opinion the most obvious and by far the most advantageous locality was Noirmont Point, and he had the support of Sir John Le Couteur. As we have seen, they were firm friends of long standing but Le Couteur had not always favoured Noirmont: on one occasion he told King William IV that Bouley Bay "would be the best port in the Channel". Years earlier Sir William Symonds also had advised the Lieut-Governor on the same subject and expostulated that "In truth, Sir, nature has formed Bouley Bay for an excellent Port".
White made no such rash assertions. He shot down all arguments in favour of Bouley Bay systematically and logically. He had the undoubted advantage of knowing his subject (the lack of this quality did not deter others), and by this time he was in his sixties with a wealth of knowledge and experience behind him. It is fortunate that wisdom prevailed in the case of Bouley Bay: it is unfortunate that his recommendations in favour of Noirmont were not heeded: but it was absolutely disastrous that his arguments against St Catherine's Bay fell entirely upon deaf ears.
Martin White conceded that Bouley Bay possessed certain merits but he felt that the disadvantages outweighed the advantages, and all things considered, Noirmont was to be preferred. In 1842 Major-General Sir Edward Gibbs, the Lieut-Governor, asked of him: "Do you know any other situation on the coasts of this Island, that would be more applicable for a harbour of refuge, than the places already mentioned?" White replied: "No, I do not".
The 'places already mentioned' were Noirmont and Bouley Bay. Captain White's forthright answer was typical: whenever asked his views, which was frequently, he always expressed them lucidly and unmistakably. It is important to note that they were never simple matters of opinion but were based upon a rational reasoning of the facts as they truly existed. In most cases it was he who had unearthed these facts, so his observations were well worth noting.
St Catherine rejected
White strongly rejected St Catherine because of the effects of deposition - that is to say, the risk of the bay silting up, which is precisely what happened when the breakwater was built. In his researches and chartings he had made an important discovery that others chose to ignore, with disastrous consequences.
He explained that at Verclut Point, the very spot from where the breakwater now extends, "the velocity, duration and mischievous set of the tide in that part of St Catherine's Bay [caused principally by the reverberation of the water from the Coast of France] not only invites deposition, generally, but is now actually filling up the Channel between Verclut Point and the rock called Pierre Mouillee, which will doubtless eventually communicate with the land there".
He penned this statement of fact no less than five years before work commenced on the breakwater. The rock does indeed 'communicate with the land' since the breakwater now passes over it, and the decision to make it do so simply expedited a trend that had existed naturally for centuries.
It is not easy to pinpoint precisely who was responsible for this unforgivable decision - in any event it is not relevant to this account - but there is no question of being able to hide behind a cloak of ignorance. Martin White's records were available for all to study (much of his work had by this time been published), while he personally had stated his arguments and reasons not once, but scores of times over many years. But to no avail. During retirement he lived to see the folly constructed to be followed by its ultimate abandonment. It was a costly fiasco and inevitably it was the English taxpayer who footed the bill.
If Martin White's warnings had been acted upon, this vast wastage of money would not have occurred. If a minute fraction of the amount that would thus have been saved had been passed to him as a recognition of his exceptional services, both he and Ellen Elizabeth would have received no more than a just and tangible reward for a lifetime of devoted and meticulous research.
He was not a vindictive man but he must surely have chuckled quietly to himself when he saw his prophesies develop into the most unpalatable truth. He certainly had every reason to say 'I told you so'.
In 1830, long before St Catherine's Bay came under consideration, the Senior Naval Lord was Admiral Sir George Cockburn. On the actual day he was "winding up to quit office", he found time to write a personal note to Martin White: "I am confident there is no person more fit than yourself to give a good explanation of the nature of the tides and currents and other data connected with the charts of the Channel and Atlantic, and you have my full permission to dedicate anything of that description to me if you wish it".
What more is there to be said?