Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt

Captain Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt

Captain Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt

The latest grave to be cleared last Saturday (14th November), by Jean and Kay, was that of Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt (1811-1888)  .………

What a name to conjure with!

Not only was he following in the family tradition of rising through the echelons of the Royal Navy but he also seems to have been a little bit of an Indiana Jones of the period, exploring worlds of ancient civilisations and the boundaries of knowledge. In between his adventurous exploits he, albeit inadvertently, took time to map the waters of the Teignmouth Bar.

Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt was born in 1811 in Woodway House, Woodway Road, East Teignmouth. He was one of thirteen children and also the eldest son of Commander James Spratt RN (who distinguished himself at Trafalgar) and Jane Brimage. (As a complete aside, one of his sisters, Leah born 1828, was known as “Loopy”. She died at sea in 1859 on passage from India to England)

He entered the navy in 1827 and was attached to the surveying branch in which he was engaged almost continuously until 1863 in surveying the Mediterranean. This was interrupted by the Crimean War in which, as commander of the “Spitfire”, he rendered distinguished service in the Black Sea. He was gazetted with especial praise for his services at the fall of Kimbourn for planning the attack to capture the Turkish city and placing buoys which led the fleet to its position. He received the Baltic, Crimean and Turkish medals and the Azof clasp and was awarded Companion of the Order of the Bath after the Crimea War in 1855.

Malaria and Teignmouth

Teignmouth Bar

Teignmouth Bar

The Crimean War was not the only disruption to his naval surveying activities though. Following a severe bout of malaria he was sent home on sick-leave and, as a result, spent the years 1848-49 studying the movements of the Bar sands at Teignmouth. He published a book on the subject, dedicated to Sir William Reid, Governor of Malta, entitled An Investigation of the Movements of the Teignmouth Bar. He also gave all his data to the Teignmouth Harbour Commission who, at that time, were struggling to relieve the local trade from an unjust tax, levied annually by the town of Exeter. It has been suggested that Sprat Sands are named after him (though note different spelling).

Isambard Kingdom Brunel congratulated Captain Thomas Spratt on his scheme to improve the promenade and the harbour entrance at the same time; “I never read a more sensible, concise and practical discussion of such a subject”. The main improvements were never carried out; however, some dredging works were implemented in 1857 near the Den Point following complaints from mariners. This was followed by further dredging works in 1865 and the later building of a groyne 330 yards long from abreast of Ferry Point to arrest sand.

Later Service

Vice-Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt

Vice-Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt

After serving on the allied council of war at Paris in January 1856 he surveyed the approaches to the Suez Canal, a project then opposed by the British government. 1863 saw the end of his service afloat, due to his recurring malaria. He was appointed a Commissioner of Fisheries from 1866 to 1873 and, although on the “retired” list, he was promoted to Rear-Admiral in 1872 and Vice-Admiral in 1878. From 1879 he was Acting Conservator of the Mersey Conservancy Board.

His Legacy

He died in Tunbridge Wells on the 10th March 1888 leaving a widow, Sophie Dean Spratt (Sophia Price, whom he married in 1844) and three sons Edward James, Frederick Thomas Nelson and Arthur Graves Spratt (they had two other sons who died in infancy and were buried in Malta). He left his journals to his second son Frederick who died in 1934, in turn leaving his property to his son Frederick Graham Spratt Bowring and his daughters. His journals have disappeared. What a loss! We do have some records though because he did publish during his lifetime, but those original journals must have been a fascinating collection of research.

Spratt the Polymath

So Spratt was an illustrious naval officer but he will probably be remembered in history for his contributions, either explicit or incidental, in the fields of exploration of nature, geology and archaeology. In those he was perhaps verging on the typical Victorian polymath of his time. He was recognised in that capacity through being made a Fellow of the Geological Society in 1843, of the Royal Society in 1856, of the Royal Geographical Society in 1859, of the Society of Antiquaries in 1873 and of the Zoological Society of London in 1883. He was also important as an oceanographer, conducting pioneering if ultimately unsuccessful work on currents which brought him into contact with the scientific community. He published books and articles on the Mediterranean, chiefly on the history and antiquities of Crete, an example of which is “Travels and Researches in Crete”, 1865.

I will give a few examples here of his contributions with links to further information if you are interested.

Pygmy Elephant

Pygmy Elephant - Paleoloxodon Falconeri

Pygmy Elephant – Paleoloxodon Falconeri

Spratt investigated the caves at Malta and obtained remains of the pygmy elephant (Elephas melitensis or P. falconeri). This was an example of insular dwarfism, reaching only 90 cm (3 ft) in height. It may have been the source of the legend of the Cyclops. It was described by Hugh Falconer, a contemporary natural scientist who was the first to suggest the modern evolutionary theory of punctuated equilibrium. (As an aside, Spratt himself had two fossil species named in his honour).


One of the maps made by Thomas Spratt known as “Spratt’s Map” was used by archaeologists Heinrich Schliemann, Wilhelm Dorpfeld, and Carl Blegen, which contributed to the discovery of Troy, because the name Troy with a question mark was added by a German professor of classical antiquities working with Spratt.

Crete: The Island that Tipped

Crete, the tipping island

Crete, the tipping island

It was Spratt who discovered the way in which relative levels of land and sea had changed over the island of Crete in historic times. He wrote of his findings to Sir Charles Lyell, an eminent contemporary geologist, in 1856:

“Dear Sir Charles, Fearing you may be impressed with the idea that the eastern end of Crete had gone down as much as the west, I am induced to write a line to rectify it, if so; and to state that movements in the eastern half of the island have neither been as great nor apparently as uniform as the western movement. Both are subsequent to the historic period and the evidences are in both instances indicated by the elevation or partial submergences of some ancient Greek building or city.”

Phaistos and its Disc


Phaistos was an ancient city on the south coast of Crete, dating perhaps as far back as 6000 BC. The city rose up from the fertile plains of the Messara region and became part of the growing Minoan empire. The first Minoan palace of Phaistos was built around 2000 BC, about the same time as the main palace of the empire was built in Knossos. Both of these Palaces were destroyed by a strong earthquake in 1700 BC and rebuilt on top of the old ones.

Captain Thomas Spratt was the first to establish the precise location of Phaistos during the Mediterranean Survey of 1853 which was cataloguing the topography and settlements of Crete.

Phaistos Disc

Phaistos Disc

And the Disc? This was one of the later discoveries at Phaistos in 1908 which challenged archaeologists until 2014 when the puzzle was solved. It is a clay disc, around 16 centimeters in diameter, both sides of which are covered with symbols, arranged in a spiral pattern, going clockwise around into the centre. The symbols are similar to hieroglyphs and represented a completely new, previously unknown, language.  It can now be seen at the Iraklion Archaeological Museum.

In 2014, after 6 years of analysis of this “first Minoan CD-ROM“, Dr. Gareth Owens in collaboration with John Coleman, professor of phonetics at Oxford, have figured out not only what the language sounded like but also some of the meaning it conveys, believed now to be a prayer to a Minoan goddess.

Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt, Admiral, explorer, polymath and humble surveyor of the Teignmouth estuary. A name to conjure with indeed!

The above information has been collated from:

British Museum ….
Wikipedia (pygmy elephant)
Wikipedia (Hugh Falconer)
Dawn of Discovery (Chapter 7)
Travels and Researches in Crete, Capt Thomas Spratt
Royal Museums Greenwich …..
Wikipedia (Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt)
Project Gutenberg …..
World Archaeology (Crete tipping)
Wikipedia (Woodway House)
Phaistos Disc …..
Brimage family history
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
World News (Phaistos Disc)

And for Gravestone details follow this link

Activity Update

Admiral Spratt RN

Admiral Spratt RN

Just a quick update today about “Tales from the Grave” activities. I will be adding more about these in future posts, but for the moment I just wanted to capture some of the signs of interest and enthusiasm which this project is creating..

Firstly the latest grave to be cleared last Saturday (14th November), by Jean and Kay, was that of Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt (1811-1888).

The clearance activities and web-site are also starting to create some interest.

Dave Tovey has been in contact about graves related to people connected to Teignmouth pubs and has sent through a number of photos.

Fiona Churchill, who is a keen family researcher, has tracked down three of her great-grandparents who are buried in the Cemetery.

Tim Whiteaway has been doing research into the weird history of Charles Bodnar who married Maria Croydon (the Teignmouth publishing family).

Graham Sly, who lives in Exeter, has a special hobby – photographing Devon graves and uploading them to In August 2013 he visited the Old Cemetery and took over 600 photographs.

Margaret Brooking has told us about how she and her husband have been clearing around their family graves and her contacts with the War Graves Commission. She has also pointed us to Ford Park Cemetery in Plymouth which seems to have gone through a similar process to that which we are now embarking on.

Finally, Ginny Ware from the Herald Express would like more information about what we are doing.

William Frederick Yeames

William Frederick Yeames

William Frederick Yeames, portarit by David Wilkie Wynfield

On Saturday 31st October the working group cleared the grave of William Frederick Yeames, a famous artist who came to Teignmouth later in his life for the benefit of his health.

Yeames was born on 18th December 1835 in Taganrog, Russia where his father was the British consul. He was the fourth child of William and Eliza May Yeames. After the death of his father in 1842 and a change in family fortunes, the family moved to Dresden where Yeames began studying painting. They subsequently moved to London in 1848 where Yeames learned anatomy and composition from Sir George Scharf, who was director of the National Portrait Gallery.  He also took art lessons from F A Westmacott.

In 1852 he travelled to Florence where he studied with Enrico Pollastrini and Raphael Buonajuti. During his time there he painted at the Life School at the Grand Ducal Academy, drawing from frescoes by Andrea del Sarto, Ghirlandaio and Gozzoli. Continuing on to Rome, he painted landscape studies and copied Old Masters, including the frescoes of Raphael in the Vatican.

St John's Wood Clique, 1864 or 1865

St John’s Wood Clique, 1864 or 1865

In 1859 he returned to London and set up a studio in Park Place. He joined the loose association of artists known as the St John’s Wood Clique who mostly lived in the St John’s Wood area of London. They modelled themselves on ‘The Clique’, an earlier group of English artists formed by Richard Dadd in the late 1830s. The group concentrated on subjects of an historical nature and narrative paintings in which the story was revealed by close study of the actions and expressions of the subjects. In Yeames’s work this technique evolved into the genre known as the ‘problem picture’, in which the narrative of the image creates an unresolved dilemma or paradox for the viewer.

While their work was popular with the public, the St John’s Wood Clique found it difficult to get their work displayed at prestigious galleries and the Royal Academy because it never received critical acclaim. Yeames managed to overcome this problem; he did exhibit there and was made an Associate (ARA) in 1866. He specialised in Tudor and Stuart subjects, but did not always portray the events they depicted with historical accuracy instead using them as inspiration, or thought provocation.

On 18 August 1865 Yeames married Anne Winfield, daughter of Major James Stainbank Winfield of the East India Company. As an aside, it is interesting that Teignmouth’s most famous artist, Thomas Luny, at one time worked in studios close to the East India Company in London and was commissioned to do a number of maritime works for them.

Although a prolific artist, Yeames was also librarian of the Royal Academy and curator of the Painted Hall at the Royal Naval College, Greenwich. Gradually, however, his eyesight deteriorated and he last exhibited in 1910. In 1912 he suffered a seizure from which he never fully recovered.

William_Frederick_Yeames - painting

And when did you last see your father? Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool

His most famous painting, now on display in the Walker Art Gallery in Liverpool, is entitled “And when did you last see your father?” Painted in 1878, it depicts a scene in an imaginary Royalist household during the English Civil War. The Parliamentarians have taken over the house and question the son about his Royalist father (the man lounging on a chair in the centre of the scene is identifiable as a Roundhead officer by his military attire and his orange sash). Yeames was inspired to paint the picture to show the crises that could arise from the natural frankness of young children. Here, if the boy tells the truth he will endanger his father, but if he lies he will go against the ideal of honesty undoubtedly instilled in him by his parents – an artistic interpretation of moral dilemma.

Grave of William Yeames and his wife Anne

Grave of William Yeames and his wife Anne

He and Anne moved to Brimley House in Higher Brimley Road, Teignmouth for the benefit of his health and celebrated their Golden Wedding Anniversary in 1915. William Yeames died three years later on 3rd May 1918. Both he and Anne are buried in the Old Cemetery.

His life was documented in a biography by his niece a few years later – “Art and Anecdote: Recollections of William Frederick Yeames, His Life and His Friends”. I found the final paragraph especially poignant:

“And on the cross which marks the spot where we laid him, in that beautiful hillside cemetery, within sight of the sea, changeful as life itself, on one hand, and the still purple moors on the other, my aunt had the same word inscribed which marks the tomb of Albert Durer in Nüremburg :


(Note: “Emigravit” is short for the Latin expression “Ex hac vita ad Dominum emigravit” – “He emigrated from this life to the Lord.”)

Blue Plaque, Hanwell, London

Blue Plaque, Hanwell, London

Finally, in 2000, a blue plaque commemorating Yeames was installed at his former home, 8 Campbell Road, Hanwell, London, where he lived from 1894 until 1912. Maybe Brimley House should carry such a plaque as well?

The above information has been compiled from the following sources:

Wikipedia – William Frederick Yeames …..
Wikipedia – St John’s Wood Clique …..
General Books …..
Art and Anecdote: Recollections of William Frederick Yeames, His Life and His Friends, M H Stephen Smith, published by Hutchinson & Co, London

For details of the grave go toWilliam Yeames Grave