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James Donne – Engineer RN

From Tin Mines to the Victorian Navy

My great grandfather, James Donne, records his occupation as ‘Engineer RN’, on his marriage certificate of 1867.  I had assumed that there was little call for engineers in the Royal Navy of 140 years ago, so I set out to find details of his career in the Navy, and the duties which an engineer would have undertaken on board warships in the Victorian Navy.  I was also fascinated by the transition of the naval warship from sail to steam, and the hybrid vessels that were produced in the transition period.


James Donne was born in 1837 in St. Blazey in Cornwall.  The first written record I have of him is in the 1851 Census, where the family is recorded as living in Fore Street, St. Blazey where James’ occupation is recorded as that of ‘iron founder’.  His father, another, James, is recorded as a tin miner, although his death certificate 4 years later says that he was a copper miner.  I don’t believe that that the type of ore mined made much difference to his standard of living, with deprivation and harsh working conditions probably contributing to the condition which caused his death at the age of 60, bronchitis.


The younger James however clearly could see a way out of the 19C industrial landscape which was the Cornwall of the time and in 1856 joined the Royal Navy at Devonport.  At this time, the Royal Navy had established the Keyham Steam Yard, and no doubt were looking for suitably qualified mechanics to man and maintain the engines in the growing numbers of hybrid sail/steam warships.


The epitome of naval power at the time was HMS ‘Warrior’, preserved and restored in Portsmouth Dockyard.  Although far in advance of the ships my great-grandfather served in, this iron-hulled, armoured vessel is a striking illustration of the interim stages between the ‘dreadnought’ and the 18C wooden-walled sailing ship of the line.  Although equipped with steam propulsion as assistance to the sails, the gun deck and the muzzle-loading guns are very similar in appearance to Nelson’s flagship HMS ‘Victory’, which can also be viewed at Portsmouth.


The role and status of the naval engineer in the Royal Navy is well portrayed in Geoffrey Penn’s book, ‘Up Funnel, Down Screw: A History of Engineering in the Royal Navy’.  According to this account, the earliest steamers in Royal Navy service were introduced in 1822, with their ‘engineers’ probably workmen supplied with the engines from the manufacturers.  One can imagine that they were generally rough and ready people with practical skills.

Service Record

A summary of James Donne’s service, as a series of 12/6 monthly reviews, can be found in the Public Record Office Catalogue Item ADM 29/107, extending over the period from 1856 to 1870, when he finally left the Service, probably as a result of ‘phthisis’ (tuberculosis) for which he was hospitalised at Plymouth in 1864.  A record of the ships he served in, the dates, and the names of the superior officer responsible for the review, is as follows.





HMS ‘Hecla’

March 56



3 June 56


HMS ‘Cormorant’

Nov 56

J Palmer, 2nd Master

HMS ‘Acorn’

Mar 57


HMS ‘Exmouth’

Jan 58

Capt Robinson

HMS ‘Exmouth’

Jan 59

Capt Robinson

HMS ‘Exmouth’

June 59

Capt Stopford

HMS ‘Exmouth’

June 60

Capt Paynter

HMS ‘Exmouth’

June 61

Capt Paynter

HMS ‘Exmouth’

Sept 61

Capt Paynter

HMS ‘Exmouth’

Mar 62

Capt Paynter

HMS ‘Exmouth’

14 Oct 62

Capt Paynter

Scot check

Jan 63

Capt Key

HMS ‘Triton’

Mar 63

Lt. Kerby

HMS ‘Triton’

Dec 63

Lt. Kerby

HMS ‘Triton’

June 64

Lt. Napier

Devonport check

Dec 65

Capt Edmonston

Devonport check

Dec 66

Capt Willes

HMS ‘Gladiator’

Dec 66

Capt Aplin

HMS ‘Gladiator’

June 67

Capt Aplin

HMS ‘Gladiator’

Sept 67

Capt Aplin

HMS ‘Gladiator’

Dec 67

Capt Aplin

HMS ‘Gladiator’

June 68

Capt Aplin

HMS ‘Terrible’

Dec 69

Capt Price

HMS ‘Terrible’

Feb 70

Capt Price



HMS ‘Exmouth’ (1858 to 1862)

One of ships on which my great-grandfather served for several years was HMS’ Exmouth.  I selected this ship for closer investigation to find out more of the life ands times of my ancestor.


Training Ship "Exmouth" moored at Grays, Essex

HMS Revenge at Plymouth, a ship similar to HMS Exmouth (photograph courtesy of Steve Johnson's Plymouth Heritage website)

The HMS ‘Exmouth’ my great-grandfather knew was a 91-gun 2nd rate wooden warship originally designed for sail only, but which was converted to screw-driven steam while on the stocks during construction in 1840.  She was commissioned in 1855 and served in the Baltic Fleet.  My great grandfather joined her after her refit in Devonport in 1857, apparently necessary after the vessel ran aground.  Further details of HMS Exmouth are provided here.


In 1876, after service in the fleet, she finished her life as a boys training ship, lying at Grays, Essex. The ship was declared unfit for further service in 1903 and eventually broken up in 1905.  A second ‘Exmouth’ was launched at Barrow-in-Furness on 20th April 1905, built by Vickers & Sons & Maxin Ltd as training vessel which continued in service until 1939.   Her hull, in external appearance, was a replica of the three deckers of the old "Exmouth" type.


The upper picture shows the original Exmouth prior to the replacement in 1905. The impression of a ship of the line is clearly shown, with affinities more akin to an 18C warship than a ship of the ‘dreadnought’ era. The lower photograph shows HMS Revenge at Plymouth, a ship similar to Exmouth in many respects, but built at Pembroke Dock and launched in 1859. It gives an impression of the appearance of the fully-rigged Exmouth. However, the design was more satisfactory and the ship continued in naval service until 1890.



Complete documentation on HMS Exmouth can be found in the National Archives, formerly Public Record Office.  Documents and their references relating to the period of service of my great-grandfather are as follows:


Period Covered

PRO Reference


Ship’s books (construction)

ADM 135/164

2nd rate, 91 gun wooden hull with screw (converted to screw on the stocks), fitted with horizontal direct acting steam engine of 400 horses, manufactured by Maudsley Sons and Field, with iron boilers

Ship’s log

Feb 1858 – Feb 1859

ADM 53/6300

Describes period under Capt Robert Spencer Robinson, when the ship was commissioned following extensive repairs at Keyham Steam Yard necessitated by the grounding of the ship, which caused damage to hull and the port fore boiler.  Much of the time during this period was occupied with provisioning and rigging the ship.  A trial under steam was conducted on 2 April 1858, in which the ship cast off from the hulk against which it was moored in Keyham Basin, and proceeded out of the Sound towards the Eddystone, returning to moorings in the Hamoaze

The ship remained moored in the Hamoaze with little to report except for 21 gun salute fired on Sunday 10th June 1858 “being the anniversary of the accession of Her Majesty Queen Victoria”; Sunday 27 June 1858, “dressed ship, being the anniversary of Her Majesty’s Coronation”; 26 August 1858, “dressed ship, being the Birthday of H.R.H Prince Consort”.  Some rough punishments are recorded: “punished James W Charlton (Boy 2nd Class) with 24 lashes for leaving a boat when on duty for 18 days having first stolen a jacket belonging to Wm. Slade (Boy, 2nd class)

Ship’s log

Feb 1859 – April 1859

ADM 53/6301

This log book is only partially filled, and terminates at 24 April 1859.  The ship remained at anchor in the Hamoaze.  The ship appears to come under new command (see below)

Ship’s log

April 1859 – Oct 1859

ADM 53/7363

Commanding Officer Capt. James Stopford.  Plans of two decks and stowage places in the ship are drawn on the front end-papers.

More faults were found with the ship, particularly the engines, and on 30 April 1858 the ship was moved from the Hamoaze mooring to dry dock.  Work was quickly completed and on 2 May, the ship was back in the Keyham Basin, moving to a mooring in the Hamoaze on 4th May.

On 1 May 1859, the Captain records “joined Mr Donne and Mr Nicholson, Asst Engineers” and on the opposite page “joined Mr James Donne Asst Engineer 3rd Class”

16 May 1859 Ship trial in Plymouth Sound “Lighted fires at 1pm, Steam up 2pm, Proceeded ahead 2:50pm, Half speed on trial, Full speed 5:20pm, Engines stopped 7:28pm in Plymouth Sound – Drew fires and blew out boilers”  “At single anchor in Plymouth Sound”

22 May to 10 June 1858 – cruise to Portland and back to Plymouth Sound.  “Weighed anchor and steamed out of Plymouth Sound 1:30pm 22 May, “6:50pm up screw, made sail”

16 June 1859 start of Mediterranean Cruise “Steamed out of Plymouth Sound 10:45pm – 11:50pm up screw”

Proceeding mainly under sail until 24 June 1859 “Hoisted Funnels, lowered propeller 6:30pm Lighted fires 7:30 Steam up 7:45pm Proceeded under steam towards the Straits of Gibraltar”

Briefly under steam on 5 July 1859

11 July 1859 enter Valetta Harbour under steam.  “8:30am Lighted fires, 9:30am Steam up, 10:15am under steam, 6:30pm Steamed into Valetta Harbour and saluted Port Admiral with 11 guns, 7:30pm Took in moorings at the Grand Harbour in Valetta.”

Inset map “Track of HMS Exmouth from Plymouth to Malta June and July 1859.

17 July 1859 “5am, Steaming out of Valetta Harbour.”

27 July 1859 “At singles anchor in Naples Bay”

Inset map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Malta to Naples July 1859.

16 Sep 1859 “12:30pm Lighted all fires, 3:30pm Steamed at 43 revolutions.”

28 Sep 1859 Inset map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Naples to Malta Sept 1859.

At anchor in Grand Harbour at Malta until 16 Oct 1859

19 Oct 1859 Inset map “ Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Malta to Palermo Oct 1859”

Ship’s log

Oct 1859-April 1860

ADM 53/7364

Records the continuation of the Mediterranean cruise.

11 Dec 1859 Inset map “ Track Chart for HMS Exmouth from Palermo to Malta Dec 1859.

At moorings in Malta Harbour until 4 Mar 1960 when steam raised and left harbour for Corfu.

8 Mar 1860 Inset map “ Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Malta to Corfu March 1860.

27 Mar 1860  Inset map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Corfu to Zante March 1860”

12 April 1860  Inset map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Zante and Cephalonia to Corfu April 1860”

Ship’s log

April 1860-Oct 1860

ADM 53/7365

Records the continuation of the Mediterranean cruise.

31 May 1860  “Inset map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Corfu to Malta May 1860”

Ship’s log

25 Oct 1860- 19 April 1861

ADM 53/7366


Records the continuation of the Mediterranean cruise.

Engineer’s log records coaling ship on 25 October 1860, and subsequent cleaning engines, engine room and ship

At moorings in Corfu Roads until 19 November 1860, when sailed into Barrento Bay, returning to Corfu Roads on 23 November 1860

26 Jan 1861 Moved out of Corfu Roads under steam, and then proceeded under sail to Malta

29 Jan 1861  “At moorings in Malta Harbour” Insert map “Track Chart from Corfu to Malta January 1861”

2 Feb 1861 to 23 Feb 1861 Records considerable repairs done on boilers and engines, using boiler makers from the Malta Yard, and Ship’s Engineers for the engine repairs

27 Feb 1861 Proceeded under steam to Messina, and on 4 Mar 1861 was riding at “singles anchor in the Bay of Naples”

4 Mar 1861 Inset map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Malta to Messina and Naples Feb/ Mar 1861”

Ship’s log

20 April 1861- 13 Oct 1861

ADM 53/7367


Records the continuation of the Mediterranean cruise.

3 July 1861  Insert map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Naples to Palermo June/ July 1861”

20 July 1861 Insert map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Palermo to Naples July 1861”

3 Sep 1861 Insert map “Track of Cruising in Ship Exmouth 1861”

8 Oct 1861 “Steam tactics in Naples Bay…..Performing steam evolutions”, also similar on 9 and 10 Oct 1861

Ship’s log

14 Oct 1861- 8 April 1862

ADM 53/7368


Records the continuation of the Mediterranean cruise.

14 Oct 1861 “At singles anchor in Naples Bay”

More steam tactics on 15, 16 and 22 Oct 1861

28 Dec 1961  “Steamed into the Military Mole at Naples”

11 Mar 1862  Insert map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Naples to Messina and Malta March 1862”

Ship’s log

9 April 1862- 14 Oct 1862

ADM 53/7369


Records the continuation of the Mediterranean cruise.

9 Apr 1862  “Proceeded from mooring in Malta Harbour, under sail”

17 Apr 1862  Insert map “Track Chart of HMS Exmouth from Malta to Piraeus April 1862”

2 Jun 1862  “At singles anchor off Aegina Island”  Insert map

3 Jun 1862  “At singles anchor off Salamis Bay”

6 Aug 1862  “Under steam for target practice”

25 Aug 1862  “Raised funnel and lighted fires in all boilers”

29 Aug 1862  “Steaming for Malta Harbour”  Insert map “Track of HM Ship Exmouth from Athens to Malta August 1862

3 Sep 1862  “Steaming from Malta Harbour”

14 Sep 1862  “At singles anchor off Gibraltar”

27 Sep 1862  “Moored in Plymouth Sound”  Insert map “Track Chart of HM Ship Exmouth from Malta to Gibraltar and England”

29 Sep 1862  “Secured to Dockyard”

3 Oct 1862  “Paid Off”

Ship Record and Establishment Book

Oct 1858 – April 1859

ADM 115/366

Records that the ship was commissioned per Admiralty Order dated 29 January 1858.

Second Rate

Screw Steam Ship 90 Guns 400HP

Fitted out  - Devonport

Stations employed – Devonport

Put out of Commission 24 April 1859 at Devonport

The Steam Department had 1 Chief Engineer 2nd Class, and 4 Asst Engineers, reducing to 2 for the latter part of the period covered by this book.  Overall the full ship’s complement was 371 men

Table 14B records James Donne as No 54 in the Ship’s Books, Asst Engineer 3rd Class.  Recorded as being on H. P. (Harbour Pay) from 1 Sept to 31 Mar 59 and S.P. (Sea Pay) from 1 April to 24 April 59

His entry was recorded as 22 Sept 1858, and discharge on 24 April 59 to “Wellington”.  Apparently he receives S.P in Plymouth Hospital from Bill transmitted by acct 92? £17. 1. 10.  Entry F.B. SL..Engrs No. 127 O.E.

Ship Record and Establishment Book

1859-Oct 1862

ADM 115/367 Vol 1

Records the service of the ship in Mediterranean and Home Waters, between 25 April 1859 and 14 October 1862.  List 4, covering Officers of the Civil Branch, records James Donne as Man 11, appointed on 26 April 1859, from ‘Wellington’, being sent to ‘Indus’ on paying off in 1862.  The posts he held during this period are as follows:

Assistant Engineer, 3 class: 1 May 1859 to 12 July 1859

Assistant Engineer, 2 class: 13 May 1859 to 6 May 1861

Assistant Engineer, 1 class: 7 May 1861 to 25 July 1862

Engineer: 26 July 1862 to 14 October 1862

Ship Record and Establishment Book

1859-Oct 1862

ADM 115/368 Vol 2

Awaiting Investigation


©Roger Donne 2003-2008

Updated 5 May 2008