‘And great Achilles will be sent again to Troy’: the adventures of a ship’s surgeon in the 1870s

The Royal College of Physicians was recently pleased to welcome Maureen O’Malley as an archives intern. Maureen is studying history and adolescent education at Marist College in New York state. While searching our archives for a cataloguing project, Maureen discovered the original journals of a seafaring Victorian doctor.

Theodore Preston (1847–1913) served as assistant surgeon on at least three Royal Navy vessels between 1875 and 1877. The RCP holds the journals he wrote aboard two of these ships: HMS Crocodile, a troop carrier making regular expeditions between Portsmouth and Bombay (Mumbai), India; and HMS Achilles, an armoured warship patrolling the Mediterranean. The journals contain not only the medical afflictions of the ships’ crews, but also many colourful tales of life at sea and in exotic lands.

Ship's surgeon journals. Theodore Preston, 1875–1882

Preston’s observations begin before he even steps on board the Crocodile. While travelling to Portsmouth with fellow crew member Lieutenant Matthew Abbott, Preston noticed that Abbott ate nothing on the journey but sipped frequently from his pocket flask. That night, they stayed at the same hotel, and Preston observed that ‘the same tragedy was repeated – much alcohol, little pabulum [food]’. Abbott continued this practice for the first 5 days of the voyage until, on 16 October 1875, ‘the patient was walking on the waist-deck when he was observed to stagger, whirl himself around once or twice, and then fell heavily on his back'. Preston determined that Abbott’s drinking brought about an epileptic seizure. At the first opportunity, Abbott is put off the ship and ‘soon after retired from the service’.

Meanwhile, the Crocodile continued its voyage, stopping to pick up personnel at Queenstown (Cobh), Ireland, before proceeding to Malta and then through the Suez Canal. Preston drew sketches and maps of the lands he saw from the ship, and wrote a report about the history and geography of the Suez Canal, with photos cut from published sources.

Sketch map of the Suez Canal. Theodore Preston, 1875

On 18 December, the Crocodile arrived at Bombay where it docked for nearly 2 weeks. One evening a young crewman, Samuel Long, hurrying to get back on board ship, fell from the jetty into the waters of Bombay Harbour. A search was mounted but the sailor was not found. Two days later, Long’s body was pulled out of the sea a mile from the site of the accident and an inquest was opened into his death. Preston attended the proceedings along with several officers, as well as the crewmen who had been on leave with Long. Preston described their journey to a desolate stretch of reclaimed land, upon which stood a ‘dirty little hut’ (the coroner’s office): ‘on the beach close by lay the body of the drowned man wrapped in the custom-house union-jack and placed upon a plank.’

For several hours, Preston and his companions awaited the arrival of the coroner 'in the burning sun, without a seat on which to rest ourselves, our sole occupation being to drive the inquisitive poultry from grubbing around the body'. According to Preston, the tribunal, when it was finally assembled, consisted of four illiterate Englishmen and one Swede: ‘after an hour’s questioning and answering, the ‘enlightened five’ returned a verdict of “Found drowned”’. Preston measured Long’s body for a coffin, 'and into that bare shell his messmates lifted him, as he was, with his jumper and trousers on'.

Ship's surgeon journal. Theodore Preston, 1875–1882

On its return journey, the Crocodile transported 20 live cattle. Preston described the smell of their ‘faeces and urine … upon the boards … when the air gets warm’ as ‘evil’. Despite complaints from officers and crew, Preston’s proposal to tackle the smell by scattering the decks with ashes and lime was rejected by the captain. 

Preston clearly enjoyed the poetic significance of visiting the site of the ancient city of Troy aboard a ship named Achilles.

In 1877, Preston joined HMS Achilles and his second journal tells of that ship’s adventures as it travelled through the Mediterranean to Turkey. His medical log includes cases of aneurisms, diarrhoea, Bright’s disease, incontinence, pneumonia, rheumatism, heart disease, scrofula and scurvy, as well as gruesome injuries including spinal damage, swollen testicles and a severed arm. Despite incident-heavy days, Preston still found time to sketch and write about the places he encountered. He clearly enjoyed the poetic significance of visiting the site of the ancient city of Troy aboard a ship named Achilles, and prefaced his journal with a quote from Virgil: ‘erunt etiam altera bella, atque iterum ad Trojam magnus mittetur Achilles’, meaning ‘new wars too shall arise, and great Achilles will be sent again to Troy'.

This was probably Theodore Preston’s final voyage as ship’s surgeon. His later journals, which cover the years 1880 to 1882, describe his work at the Royal Naval Hospital in Plymouth. It was during this time that Preston married Margaret Shillinglaw, with whom he had at least one child, William.    

Maureen O’Malley, archives intern, and Felix Lancashire, assistant archivist

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