7 March 2022
By Chris Dodd
In the third of an occasional series on George Pocock’s memoirs, Chris Dodd unearths some family exploits.
George’s memoir records controversy as well as ingenuity among the Pocock family. One of his father Aaron’s failed business enterprises was to finance an inventor of a propulsion gadget whereby somebody sat in the stern of a boat and pumped a mechanism which was attached to a propeller, thus replacing oars as the means of getting along. After losing his money, Aaron went to Cambridge to touch his uncle. His uncle refused to help him, and ‘Dad, being a good boxer, gave him one on the chin, and so ended the family relationship there.’
For years rival claims of who invented the outrigger or the sliding seat was a matter of dispute in pubs wherever watermen gathered. When it came to arguing over who pioneered ‘shell’ construction by building a smooth-bottomed boat, the name of Pocock was in the ring. The version according to Pocock as recounted by George is as follows:
Great uncle Bill, who was a professional sculler and coach at Westminster School, ventured to Newcastle to race Clasper, the hero of the Tyne, for money. While leading and shooting a bridge, Pocock took on board a lump of coal dropped from a bridge. It landed in the stern of his boat and opened a leak, and he consequently lost the race. Disgruntled, Pocock invited Clasper for a return match in London. Before the appointed day Pocock began work on a lapstrake-less boat with a smooth bottom. After beating Clasper, Pocock invited the Geordie to view his prototype. Next thing he knew, Clasper had built a similar shell in Newcastle and claimed to be the inventor of the keelless boat. ‘We’ve never tried to ferret out the truth,’ George writes.
Incidentally, Matthew Taylor of Newcastle built shells for Royal Chester RC and Oxford University in the 1850s, an example of which is in the River & Rowing Museum collection. Was he the first?
Grandpa Vickers, George’s grandfather on his mother’s side, was a rugged, good-natured, strong customer who continued to win track races in his seventies. He put up prizes for foot races for his grandchildren, and he was also an expert boat builder.
In 1871, the journalist Henry Morton Stanley was commissioned by the New York Herald proprietor James Gordon Bennett Jr to look for the explorer-missionary David Livingstone, who had vanished in central Africa some years earlier. When fitting out his expedition in London, Stanley turned up at Messenger’s yard In Kingston, Surrey, seeking a boat that could be taken apart to be portaged between waterways in the jungle.
Grandpa Vickers was given the job, and he produced a craft big enough for twelve people that came apart into sections. It had 6 lapstrakes with 2-inch-thick bulkheads every 3 feet. Vickers sawed the bulkheads around to make a frame roughly 2-by-4 inches and fastened them to the planking with wood screws 1.5 inches from each edge. Then he drilled bolt holes through the frames every 3 inches. ‘Then he took a crosscut saw and sawed the boat into pieces through those frames. When in pieces, the bolts put it back together again, and presto, one of the first portable boats ever made.’
Stanley, who had never been in Africa, assembled a caravan of 111 porters and struck out. He wrote to his editor:
‘Wherever [Livingstone] is, be sure I shall not give up the chase. If alive you shall hear what he has to say. If dead I will find him and bring his bones to you.’
Stanley found Livingstone at Ujiji near Lake Tanganyika in what is now Tanzania on 10 November 1871. George wrote in his memoir that he had seen a reference in a book to a waterman called Pocock drowning on that expedition.
These hearsay musings are the limit of George’s knowledge of Stanley and the Pococks in Africa. But when HTBS’s Tim Koch was looking for illustrations for this piece, he discovered that the intrepid journalist led a second expedition in 1874, the Anglo-American Expedition for the Discovery of the Nile and Congo Sources. The expedition answered a number of outstanding questions about central Africa, proving that the source of the Nile is in Lake Victoria.
Frank and Ted Pocock, fishermen on the Medway, were hired as assistants. The brothers and their father Henry also helped maintain and crew the yacht moored at Upnor belonging to Sir Edwin Arnold, the editor of the Daily Telegraph. Arnold was the joint backer of the expedition with Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald, and Arnold recommended the Pocock brothers to Stanley as strong, reliable and resourceful assistants who knew boats and for whom working on the river was second nature. By agreeing to help Stanley penetrate the African jungle, discover the source of the Nile and travel across the continent from the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, the fishermen were leaping into the unknown.
The Pococks turned out to be tremendous assets to the explorer, rising to each challenge. As Stanley later wrote to Henry Pocock: ‘Few fathers can boast of such sons as yours. Both Frank and Ted proved themselves sterling men, noble and brave hearts, and faithful servants…’
The expedition left from Zanzibar in early November 1874. Stanley took a third Englishman, Frederick Barker, more than 300 African porters, eight tons of stores and a 40S-foot long wooden boat, the Lady Alice. Porters manhandled the sectional vessel through the jungle, and Frank and Edward ensured Lady Alice’s seaworthiness when she was bolted together. As Stanley’s procession pushed its way westwards, it stretched back a half-mile.
Frank and Ted suffered several bouts of malaria, but it was typhus that killed Ted in mid-January 1875. He was buried at night under a mango tree. His head lays to the east, his feet to the west, wrote Frank in his diary.
The expedition reached the south shore of Lake Victoria in March 1875, and Lady Alice was assembled under Frank’s supervision for circumnavigation of the lake, a thousand-mile voyage which took 57 days. Stanley left Frank in charge of the base camp. For a further two years, he assisted Stanley by organising porters, dispensing summary justice and fighting off attackers. Then in June 1877, when the expedition was nearing the Atlantic coast, Frank’s canoe was swept over the Zinga Falls while shooting rapids on the Congo River.
‘BLACK WOEFUL DAY,’ Stanley wrote in his diary, and followed it with an increasingly incoherent and rambling entry as his emotions got the better of him. He later wrote to Frank’s father: ‘I would to God that Frank had to write to you about my death rather than I should be compelled to write about Frank’s.’
More about Stanley’s expeditions can be found on pages 18 – 22 in The Clock Tower, The Newsletter of the Friends of Medway Archives and Local Studies Centre, Issue Number 07: August 2007
* “Gordon Bennett” has become a British idiomatic phrase used to express surprise, outrage, disgust, or frustration. The expression is thought to derive from Bennett’s controversial reputation.