Is it a pre-requisite of admirals of the 18th and 19th centuries to have grandiose names? Probably not, but one of the first graves we researched was that of Rear-Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt – a name to conjure with. A Royal Naval Mediterranean explorer, he could be called the “Indiana Jones” of his time!
Rear Admiral William Alfred Rombulow Pearse may not have been as renowned as Spratt but he is up there in the name competition stakes. And he was in the right place at the right time for his name to go down in history.
Little is known of his family and childhood years and public records seem confused. The 1881 census shows him as having been born in 1821 in Bungay, Suffolk, whilst the 1871 census shows his place of birth as Hilsea, Hampshire. His date of birth shown on his grave is 6th June 1818 whilst the 1881 census gives it as 1821. His marriage record gives his father as Thomas Henry Richard Rombulow which provides a first mystery – where did he acquire his surname of Pearse? (More of this in the separate “Loose Ends” section after the main blog.)
Following his “childhood years” his life seems to have two distinct phases, divided by one notable event – his marriage on 19 October 1865 to Blanche Eleanor Cookesley. This event was described in the 28 October edition of John Bull:
“The marriage between Capt. W. A. Rombulow Pearse, R.N., and Blanche Eleanor, eldest surviving daughter of the Rev. H. P. Cookesley, Priest Vicar of Wimborne, was celebrated on Thursday in last week, in the Minster Church, which was densely thronged by parishioners and neighbours, anxious to show respect to one who has endeared herself to all who knew her by her sweetness and amiability of disposition. The bride entered the western door, leaning on her father’s arm, accompanied by the following bridesmaids: Miss A Cookesley, sister to the bride, Miss Pearse, Miss Cookesley, Miss Bellman, Miss G. Bellman, Miss J. Smith, Miss H. Fletcher. The bride was attired in a white corded silk dress, a Limerick lace veil, with wreath of orange blossoms and myrtle, and a bouquet of choicest flowers in her hand. The bridesmaids wore white grenadine dresses trimmed with blue, with veils and wreaths of blue convolvulus. In the unavoidable absence of Capt. O’Reilly, R.N., the office of ‘best man’ was filled by Capt. Cookesley, 22nd Regt., brother of the bride. The service, commencing with a bridal hymn, was solemnised by the Rev. W. G. Cookesley, Incumbent of St. Peter’s, Hammersmith, uncle of the bride, assisted by the Rev. Reginald Smith, M.A., Rector of Stafford. After the ceremony a large company assembled at the residence of the bride’s father, where a sumptuous dejeuner was served in a tent upon the lawn. At four p.m. the happy couple left en route to Scotland, where they intend to spend the honeymoon.”
By the time of his marriage he was 44 years old and most of his significant naval experience was behind him. In fact he was placed on the retired list seven years later and it would seem that his priority obviously shifted after his marriage to Blanche, who was 21 at the time, to family life. Between 1865 and 1886, when he was 65 and five years off his death, they appear to have had a dozen children, not all surviving. They also moved around the country, living firstly in Little Parndon, Essex, then Great Berkhamsted, Herts, and finally at some point in the late 1880s ending up in Teignmouth.
Why Teignmouth? There is no evidence of local family connections so the likelihood is that they were following the custom of many military and naval officers in retiring here. They lived in a splendid mansion, Highcliffe, in a local 1850s development that was known at the time as Cross Park. This is at the corner of New Road and Dawlish Road and enjoyed superb views across the sea and coast. References suggest that Cross Park was a focal point as well for sea captains who may simply have been looking for temporary accommodation.
More of his family later as well but I want to focus now on his naval career which is where the historical significance lies. Fortunately, where public records seem a little confused, naval records are somewhat more organised.
His military record can be found in the National Archives – two pages that summarise his life at sea. (As an aside, the second page of the military record gives his date of birth as 6 July 1819. I wonder if he or his parents had to lie about his age to be accepted into the navy, so it appeared that he was thirteen years old rather than eleven. Also note that his name is spelt ‘Rumbulow’ rather than ‘Rombulow’).
The first page reveals an interesting fact – that his naval career started when he may have been only 11 as “Vol 1 cl” on HMS Rhadamanthus, a 5-gun paddle-steam sloop which saw no action but achieved distinction by being the first British warship to cross the Atlantic assisted by steam in 1833. I wonder what sort of impression that would have made on the young Rombulow-Pearse? Would he have recognised the significance of the deployment of this new technology?
Within two years he was a midshipman on board HMS Meteor, a 296 ton wooden auxiliary vessel, paddle driven, carrying only two guns and commanded by Lieutenant Commander John Duffill. By 1839 he had passed his examinations and was now serving as Lieutenant on board the HMS Modeste. This signalled the start of his fully-fledged naval career which, as can be seen from the second page of his military record continued in a range of commands through to his retirement in 1872.
The official military record is interesting but it doesn’t paint a picture of the man. So to add a little flesh to his story let’s start with his obituary. Here is what the Illustrated London News of 23rd August 1890 had to say:
“He was wounded at the attack on Canton while serving as mate in the Modeste; was present at the capture of the Amoy and Shanghai in 1841; and was senior Lieutenant of the Ajax during the Baltic Expedition. He attained the rank of Lieutenant in 1838, Commander in 1855, Captain in 1862 and was placed on the retired list in 1872, becoming Rear-Admiral in 1878, and Vice-Admiral in 1884.”
A Naval Biographical Dictionary authored by William Richard O’Byrne in 1849 expands on some of these exploits:
“William Alfred Rumbulow Pearse passed his examination 2 May, 1839; and was afterwards, until paid off at the commencement of 1843, employed as Mate and Acting-Lieutenant in the Modeste 18, Capts. Harry Eyres and Rundle Surges Watson. In the former capacity he assisted, during the war in China, in boarding, 27 Feb. 1841, the ship Cambridge, bearing the Chinese Admiral’s flag, at the enemy’s position below Whampoa Reach, where he also landed and contributed to the destruction, in the whole, of 98 guns. On 13 of the following month he served in the boats at the capture of several rafts and of the last fort protecting the approaches to Canton; and on 18 he was similarly employed at the capture of the city itself. During the series of operations against it we find him commanding the Modeste’s cutter, under the present Sir Edw. Belcher, in an affair up a creek on the western side, where 28 vessels were destroyed. In a day or two afterwards he had the misfortune to be wounded. In Aug. and Oct. he co-operated in the reduction of Amoy and Chinghae. As Acting-Lieutenant, Mr. Pearse, on 10 March, 1842, succeeded with two boats in towing four fire-rafts clear of the shipping off Ningpo. On 15 and 16 of the same month he was employed on shore under Capt. Thos. Bourchier in an attack on the enemy’s camp at Tsekee.”
Late into his retirement an interesting snippet appeared in the Herts Advertiser (13 October 1888), when the then Admiral Pearse was living in Great Berkhamsted:
“MECHANICS INSTITUTE. On Monday the winter session was inaugurated by a conversazione in the Town Hall. The ball had been transformed, under the direction of Mr R H Bookey, the hon. Sec., into an interesting museum, adorned by flowers and plants kindly supplied by Messrs. Lane, of the Nurseries, Mr. Cooper and Mr. Mawley, and flags and trophies were suspended round the room, some of them lent by Admiral Pearse, having been taken away from Malay pirates and at the siege of Canton …..”
So the shaping of his image is around his contribution to naval actions. Of more historical interest though is the four years he spent from 1857 to 1861 commanding HMS Alert.
This is where his historical significance emerges through the convergence of his time-line with that of another character (another future admiral) in the story. This was Admiral Sir George Henry Richards who, having served in South America, the Falkland Islands, New Zealand, Australia and in the First Opium War in China, was promoted to captain in 1854. There was then a significant five year period from 1857 to 1862 when he was in command of the two survey ships, HMS Plumper and HMS Hecate, acting as hydrographer of the coast of British Columbia.
But we need to back up a bit to recap briefly on the history and role of the Royal Navy as it developed through to this time.
By the mid eighteenth century Britain was expanding its Empire in all directions and needed to raise finance for this expansion. To do this it made use of the Navigation Acts, originally intended to promote the development of English shipping but which had subsequently been adapted as a form of trade protectionism leading to control of the price of goods.
Effectively this became a form of taxation which was one of the driving forces behind the American Revolution. The rest is history, as they say, and on the 3rd of September 1783 Great Britain and the United States signed the Treaty of Paris making peace between the two nations, and formally marking the end of the American War of Independence. This overthrow of British rule firmly established the United States as the first republic in modern history extending over a large territory.
Ironically the new United States then developed its own pretensions to empire as, over the next hundred years, it bought, fought and annexed its way west and south across the North American continent. Ultimately its eyes were set maybe on the annexation of Canada. This expansion was framed within a governing philosophy known as “Manifest Destiny”..
Meanwhile Britain continued its own colonial expansion, in competition with other European nations – Spain, France, Holland. To do this required control of the seas – hence the increasing importance of the role of the Royal Navy. This wasn’t solely a military force though. To function effectively the fleets needed knowledge of the areas that they were exploring and patrolling. This prompted specific expeditions for hydrography and cartography – charting the waters and coastlines across the world.
We have seen this already in the story of Rear-Admiral Thomas Abel Brimage Spratt who spent 30 years doing such mapping in the Mediterranean. There were similar activities along the coasts of the Americas, which brings us back to Admiral Sir George Henry Richards who was doing exactly that and to Rombulow-Pearse who played a different role.
So, Rombulow-Pearse took command of the newly commissioned HMS Alert in 1857, a 17-gun wooden screw sloop of the Cruizer class.
Her engines gave 383 horsepower and she was also rigged with a barque-rig sail plan. He was based on the Pacific Station at Esquimalt on the southern tip of Vancouver Island and had one role – the policing of the Canadian coastline and the protection of its borders from the United States. This was critical because British Columbia was the only access for Canada to the Pacific coastline. The Alert had been specifically designed for this type of policing work although later it was refitted for Arctic expeditionary work.
George Henry Richards was also sent to provide a British military presence on Vancouver Island and arrived at Esquimalt in November 1857. However, that was secondary to his principal role of assisting the Anglo-American boundary commission in determining the location of the international boundary with America. This involved detailed surveying of the waters between Vancouver Island and the American mainland, a task he swiftly completed by June 1958 though to no immediate avail – the deadlock in boundary negotiations wasn’t broken until 1871-72.
In the mean time Captain Richards continued his survey work of the British Columbia coast and, as part of this, he designated dozens of names for sites along this stretch of coast. For example, Alert Bay is named after Rombulow-Pearse’s ship; but, more importantly, he also named an island at the north entrance to Johnstone Strait as “Pearse Island”. On the north side of the island is a two kilometre wide channel of water named the “Pearse Canal” by Captain Daniel Pender in some later survey work in 1868.
So William Alfred Rombulow-Pearse was immortalised by having an island and a channel named after him. In itself that would be worthy historical recognition but there was more to follow.
The area to the north of British Columbia, the north-western tip of the continent, actually belonged to Russia and its boundaries had been established by the Anglo-Russian Treaty of 1825. In 1867 the United States purchased this territory (now known as Alaska) from Russia for a mere $7.2 million. In the hindsight of political history this was probably America’s greatest strategic acquisition and Russia’s greatest strategic loss.
Unfortunately the 1825 Anglo-Russian Treaty had been ambiguous about the territorial boundaries, these not being defined on maps of the period. America’s policy of “Manifest Destiny” was now squeezing Canada from both the south and the north, with Britain having to resolve the boundary issues on both fronts. This was of strategic importance because British Columbia was Canada’s only access to the Pacific coast. The resolution of the boundary dispute took almost another 40 years before being finalised by the Hay-Herbert Treaty of 24th January 1903 (otherwise known as the Alaska Boundary Settlement).
By this time Vice-Admiral William Alfred Rombulow Pearse was long dead but his name lived on, set in the stone of that Hay-Herbert Treaty. Why? Because the southern sea border dividing Alaska from British Columbia/Canada was the eponymous Pearse Canal.
Admiral W A Rombulow Pearse died on 12th August 1890 and was followed only seven years later on 8 January 1897 by the death of his wife, Blanche Eleanor Rombulow Pearse. They are both buried in a surprisingly simple and modest plot (S110) which is easily accessible and easy to find. The leaded lettering on the grave is still in good condition but is barely legible because of the lichen growth and stone discolouration.
Sources and References
Extracts from contemporary newspapers are referenced directly in the text. Other sources, with hyperlinks as appropriate, are as follows. For further information and queries which have turned up during this research check out the “Loose Ends” section after these references.
Ancestry.com for genealogy
British Newspaper Archives for all snippets from contemporary newspapers
Wikipedia for general background information
BC Geographical Names – website
A Naval Biographical Dictionary, William R O’Byrne Esq, 1849
The Mid-Victorian Royal Navy – website
Royal Maritime Museum, Greenwich – collections website
Open Library Internet Archive – website
Crosspark – website
Oxford Dictionary of National Biography – website
Dictionary of Canadian Biography – website
Internet Archive – website
Dreadnought Project – website
Records by Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher, Hodder and Stoughton, 1919
The National Archives – website
Admiral William Alfred Rombulow Pearse – Loose Ends
I have been unable so far to find a birth registration. There are three references to his date of birth; his gravestone carries the date 6th June 1818; his naval record shows it as 6 July 1819 and the 1881 census gives simply 1821.
However, I have found a reference to a baptism record for William Alfred Rumbelow dated 25 December 1817 at St John, Portsea, Hampshire. The caveat is that the parents are shown as Father: John or Thomas Rumbelow and Mother: Sarah or Margaret.
There are two references to his place of birth: the 1881 census gives Bungay, Suffolk; the 1871 census gives Hilsea, Hampshire. Given his entry into the Royal Navy the latter may be more likely.
It is unclear whether his surname is Pearse, which is how he is referred to in his military records, or “Rombulow-Pearse” which is how he is referred to in his obituary; how his wife Blanche refers to herself in the 1891 census; and how his children seem to be frequently referred to. The “Rombulow” component of the name also seems to have various spellings in references I have seen – Rombulow, Rumbulow and Rumbelow. My feeling is that “Pearse” is indeed probably his surname but, if that is the case, how did he acquire it?
The same question may have occurred to his own family who obviously made attempts to trace his ancestry. First, though, some relevant information:
- His marriage certification gives his father as a “Gentleman”, Thomas Henry Richard Rombulow.
- It appears that a Thomas Rumbelow married a Margaret Oxenham on 28 May 1810 at Alverstoke, Hampshire (see Pallot’s Marriage Index)
- Thomas Rumbelow died 17 February 1825 at Portsea, Hampshire age 32, birth year 1793). Geographically this fits with a birthplace of “Hilsea” for our admiral.
- Ancestry.com shows that they had four children – Margaret Amelia (born 27/7/13), Thomas Henry (born 10/7/1811 baptised 1 Aug 1811), Emily Jane (baptised 3/8/19), Margaret Elizabeth (baptised 18 Jan 1824)
- However, the baptism reference above suggests there could have been a fifth child William Alfred Rumbelow (baptised 25 December 1817)
- This still doesn’t resolve the “Pearse” surname. So here comes some speculation:
- There is a record on the Ancestry.com England, Select Marriages, 1538-1973 of a Margaret Rumbelow marrying a Thomas Pearse in Kent on 17 August 1825.
- The Exeter and Plymouth gazette of 9 May 1829 reported in its Deaths column:
”On Monday the 4th of May inst., at Gosport, after a severe and protracted illness of several years, Lieut. Thomas Pearse R.N., eldest son of Rear Admiral Thomas Pearse, of Bradninch in this County.”
- The 1851 Census shows a Margaret Pearse residing as a visitor at 10 Albion St, Paddington. She is described as a naval officer widow, born in Barnstaple and her age is given as 56 (if correct that would have made her about 15 when she married Thomas Rumbelow).
- The 1861 census shows a Margaret Pearse as a widow, aged 67, head of household, born in Shirwell (near Barnstaple) Devon. She is described as a “government assisted fund-holder (??)” – a little difficult to read from the census record but I suppose this could imply being in receipt of a navy pension. With her is a daughter, Margaret Rombulow aged 27, and a grand-daughter, Alice Knock aged 6. The strong indications are that this is the same Margaret Pearse.
- The National Archives also have a reference to “Entry papers for service as an Excise man”, dated 1864, for William Alfred Rombulow Knock
- So there appears to be a possible plausible chain to confirm that the surname “Pearse” came from his mother’s second marriage.
There are two examples of the family researching their ancestry. Both are enquiries in the Devon and Cornwall Notes and Queries,” a Quarterly Journal devoted to the LOCAL HISTORY BIOGRAPHY and ANTIQUITIES of the Counties of Devon and Cornwall edited by JOHN S AMERY E WINDEATT HUGH R WATKIN and R PEARSE CHOPE”
Note 189, Vol X1, From January 1920 to October 1921:
“ROMBULOW OR RUMBELOW FAMILY – (1) The arms of the Rombulow family are the same in design as those of Bamfylde, viz:- On a bend gules three mullets pierced of the field. What connection is there between the two families?
(2) Whom did the following members of the family marry?
Rev. John Rumnilowe 1560-1600 (?)
Rev. John Rumbilowe 1596-1636. Rector of Bigbury
Rev. Nathaniel Rumbulowe 1635-1671. Vicar of Quethiock
Mr John Rumbilow of Ottery St Mary 1625- ?
Rev. John Rumbilowe 1668-1729. Rector of Portlemouth.
Mr. John Rumbelloe, born about 1700, father of Mary Rumbelloe, who married John Vivian of Comprigney in Kenwyn, Cornwall.
Any information regarding Thomas Rombulow of Bishop’s Tawton, who died 1776, and of his descendants will oblige.
A. B. Rombulow-Pearse
Major 6th Gurkha Rifles”
Note 235 from Volume XII, from January 1922 to October 1923:
“Oxenham Family. – Is there a pedigree of the Oxenham family in existence? Can anyone tell me the connexion with it of Abraham Oxenham of Barnstaple, who married Anne May, about the end of the 18th century. I believe he had four daughters, who married:
Julia Oxenham = John Dyer, Paymaster R.N.
Amelia Oxenham = Lieut. Waghorn R.N., who discovered the overland route to India.
Margaret Oxenham = Thomas Henry Richard Rombulow, of Plymouth.
Maria Oxenham = Dr. Mountjoy
Aubrey Bewicke Rombulow Pearse was the youngest son (born 1882) and served as Major in the Indian Army from 1914-20. He retired as Lt. Colonel and died in 1950.
Other Family Information
His eldest daughter, Miss B E Rombulow-Pearse, married Commander E G Shortland RN in December 1898. This is how the Exeter and Plymouth Gazette of Friday 23 December 1898 reported the event:
Sad news reported by the Army and Navy Gazette on Saturday 16 October 1897:
“LIEUT. A. B. ROMBULOW-PEARSE. Lieut. Alfred Bertie Rombulow-Pearse R.M.A., third son of the late Admiral W. A. Rombulow-Pearse died of peritonitis at Malta, on Sept 30, on board the Ramillies, flagship of the Mediterranean Squadron. He joined the Royal Marine Artillery as 2nd Lieutenant on Sept. 1, 1890, and was senior subaltern at the time of his death. He was only 24 years of age.“
Plymouth Naval Memorial has the grave of Midshipman Claude Aubrey Mortimer Rombulow-Pearse who died on 22 May 1941
Arthur Egmont Rombulow-Pearse served as a Lieutenant-Colonel of the Royal Marine Light Infantry during World War 1, before becoming Paymaster at the Ports Division on 1 July 1918. His service medals came up for auction in 2017.
Claude Alwin Rombulow Pearse (CARP) was mentioned in dispatches on 11 April 1919, as Captain RN. He was made Commander of the Order of the British Empire (Military). He seems to have survived a chequered career though! In 1904 he was appointed in command of the destroyer Skate and soon collided with the Vixen. CARP was told that he was to blame for having used too much helm. He hadn’t learned from this experience it would seem, as in 1906 when commanding the destroyer Desperate he collided with the Banshee and was once again held to blame for “having not slackened speed at the judicious point”. Conversely though he had also been commended for his handling of the Sturgeon in rescuing the crew of the Decoy when she had collided with Arun on manoeuvres in 1904. Perhaps collision was just an occupational hazard, more common than we might have imagined! Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Fisher, mentioned this incident in his book:
“we smile when we remember youngsters like Lieutenant Rombulow-Pearse of the ‘Sturgeon’, who rescued the crew of the sinking ‘Decoy’ in a gale of wind, with only his small whaler to help him, and with the loss of only one man, who disappeared nobody knows how.”
NOTE: BE CAREFUL NOT TO CONFUSE REFERENCES WITH ANOTHER VICE-ADMIRAL PEARSE WHO LIVE AT AROUND THE SAME TIME AND DIED IN 1871, AGED 77, AT EAST STONEHOUSE, PLYMOUTH.