Dido Twite and HMS Thrush

1807 aquatint by Robert Dodd of a Brig-Sloop (British Museum)

An addendum — sorry! — to discussion of The Cuckoo Tree

Dido Twite has been sailing with HMS Thrush for a goodly period of time. At least, so we may gather from a close reading of Joan Aiken’s Wolves Chronicles, particularly Night Birds on Nantucket, The Stolen Lake, Limbo Lodge (also known as Dangerous Games) and The Cuckoo Tree.

It’s very likely that, after 18 months on board a whaler — during which time she has sailed from the North Sea, through the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans north to the Arctic Circle, and then back around the tip of South America into the North Atlantic — she has subsequently circumnavigated the globe for another fifteen months on board the Thrush.

What do we know about this naval vessel, from actual history and from fiction?

We may possibly envisage its original appearance from an 1807 aquatint made and published by Robert Dodd, now archived at the British Museum. Entitled A Brig Sloop of War, reconoitring the Bay of Boulogne, it depicts ‘a two-masted ship with one row of cannon’ (that is a foremast, a mainmast and eighteen carronades) of a type belonging to the Royal Navy’s Cruizer class.

HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, painting by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle, from 1831 to 1836 (image: Wikimedia Commons)

We may instead imagine the Thrush to be a 10-gun Cherokee class brig-sloop such as HMS Beagle in which Darwin was sailing, coincidentally around the time Dido was voyaging between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Before the Beagle sailed on its first voyage a forecastle had been added to the superstructure in 1825, along with with a mizzen mast to improve handling, as can be seen in the print of the sloop-of-war in the Straits of Magellan in early 1834.

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan (image: Wikimedia Commons)

We know however that the original HMS Thrush was indeed a brig-sloop of the Cruizer class, one of many built or acquired by the Royal Navy in the later years of the Napoleonic wars. They were two-masted square-rigged vessels, with just a foremast and a mainsail, their overall length around a hundred feet and with a keel of about 77 feet. Light and manoeuvrable, they carried eighteen 6-pounder guns — short-range carronades — and a crew of around a hundred in addition to officers and marines.

Many of the Cruizer class in fact bore bird names just as the Thrush did, names such as Swallow, Raven, Harrier, Redwing, Ringdove, Peacock, Philomel, Sparrowhawk, Crane, Curlew, Pelican, Heron, Halcyon and Penguin. Our example, however, first began life in 1794 as The Prince of Wales in HM Revenue Service, not becoming the Thrush until 1806 when it was bought by the Royal Navy and refitted over two or more years in Portsmouth.

In Mansfield Park Jane Austen has Fanny Price’s brother William joining the Thrush at Portsmouth around this time, for it’s probable the author saw it there herself in 1808. Its first commander was Charles Webb; by February 1809 it was seeing action in the Caribbean under Commander Henry Spark Jones when it was involved in the blockade of San Domingo.

Later that year it was ignominiously turned into a powder hulk, storing gunpowder out of harm’s way. In 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic conflict, we’re told it foundered off Jamaica before being salvaged and sold; after that its history is unclear.

Here’s what may have happened to it in the alternative history that is the Wolves Chronicles. That’s assuming, however, that either the Navy has re-acquired the vessel (possible, but of course undocumented in our own world) or that it has ordered a new vessel of the same name (equally possible in our fictional timeline but unrecorded in reality, the two known examples being from the second half of the century).

1820s: According to The Whispering Mountain Captain Owen Hughes from Wales is in command of the Thrush, patrolling the China Seas. (Strictly speaking, he should be Commander Owen Hughes, if this is a brig-sloop, but commanders apparently were often addressed as ‘Captain’.) His son, also called Owen, spends his childhood on board the Thrush until an uprising in the fictional Chinese province of Poohoo in the 1830s, which is when he and his mother are sent by tea clipper back to Wales. Sadly his mother dies on the voyage home.

At some stage Captain Hughes will have relinquished command of the Thrush (we aren’t told the circumstances) though he later returns to it, as recounted in The Stolen Lake.

1835. The Thrush, now under the command of Captain Osbaldeston, arrives at the port of Nantucket in pursuit of the schooner Dark Diamond and their rascally crew. Osbaldeston is described as the captain of an “English sloop” manned by “blue-jackets”. Night Birds on Nantucket ends with Dido on board the “lumbering” craft, apparently en route to England, “a-sailing to London River.”

In The Stolen Lake we learn that after leaving Nantucket the Thrush encounters “first, a pirate vessel, and then a Hanoverian merchantman”; the ship is then diverted to Bermuda for repairs, which is where Captain Hughes takes the place of Osbaldeston, who has been promoted. Extraordinarily, the Thrush is now described as a “big three-masted man-o’-war.” According to Dido, it is also “one o’ these new-fangled steam sloops” with a screw propeller prioviding an “excellent turn of speed” — and therefore no longer the lumbering craft overhauled by a whaler (as was the case in Night Birds in Nantucket).

The Leda-class frigate HMS Pomone from a colour lithograph by T G Dutton, after a painting by G F St John (image: Wikimedia Commons)

Are we being misled by focusing solely on the terms sloop and man-o’-war? Midway between a sloop and a man-o’-war was the frigate. Illustrated above is HMS Pomone, an example of a 38-gun Leda-class frigate, of a type common in the early 19th-century and continually modified during the time of the Wolves Chronicles.

The Return to Hong Kong. The Vulture Passing the Battery Upon Tygris Island (from Operations in the Canton River in April 1847. London: Henry Graves. 1848. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)

I’ve referenced this next painting — The Return to Hong Kong — before; it shows a steam paddle frigate in 1847 in the period between the First Opium War (1839-1842) and the Second (1856-1860). Launched in 1843, this naval craft (also named after a bird, obviously!) apparently also served in the Crimean War before being sold off in 1866. Being a frigate it is smaller than a man-o’-war, its mainmast missing to accommodate the funnel. It’s also equipped with paddles, unlike the screw-driven Thrush as described in The Stolen Lake.

Whatever type or class the Thrush of the Chronicles may have been, in Dido’s world the British navy must have been more innovative than in our own world where screw-driven steam warships didn’t come into general use until the late 1840s; the Thrush has clearly been adapted to steam power, but when? And how has a hundred-foot brig-sloop with just two masts morphed into a much larger man-o’-war with three masts and a funnel for the coal-fired steam engine that powers the screw propeller? Can the Bermuda repairs also have included massive remodelling, refurbishment and refitting? Or did the author mean to use the term sloop-of-war rather than man-of-war? If there’s a solution to all this I haven’t yet found it.

After Bermuda the Thrush has orders to sail south to a South American port to aid a British ally (The Stolen Lake). Then it is sent in pursuit of Lord Herodsfoot, who is traced first to Easter Island and then the Spice Islands (Limbo Lodge).

1836. We learn that the mid-thirties of the 19th century represent the final phase of the China Tea Wars, during which naval ships are sent to protect British merchants from possible attack by rival Chinese warlords (The Whispering Mountain). Captain Hughes is therefore back in a region he knows well. One must assume that it is around now, in the first few months of 1836, that the captain sustains the head injury that he is to nurse all the way back to England. No doubt that steam power speeds the Thrush on its way home, though as coal supplies cannot be guaranteed along the way it’s almost certain that sail power does a lot of the donkey work.

Whether the Thrush continues west through the Indian Ocean and north through the Atlantic or back east the way it came we’re not told — though, as discussed before, the westward voyage may be the best option. Its last known position is Chichester, Sussex, on the last day of October 1836, when Captain Hughes and Dido leave the vessel to take an urgent dispatch to London…


Painting of an unnamed brig-sloop: http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/collection_online/collection_object_details.aspx?objectId=3377360&partId=1&searchText=robert+dodd&page=1

Background to HMS Thrush:

Cruizer-class brig-sloops:

Jane Austen’s references to HMS Thrush:

Review of Mansfield Park: https://calmgrove.wordpress.com/2015/07/15/mansfield/

8 thoughts on “Dido Twite and HMS Thrush

  1. Pingback: Dido Twite and HMS Thrush — Calmgrove – Earth Balm Creative

    1. Thanks for reblogging, Dale, I found this such an enjoyable post to write, puzzling out the inconsistencies in Joan’s stories. Now, if only I spent as much effort sorting out mundane matters in my own life… 😁


  2. When authors sail into maritime waters they are in great danger of foundering.
    For example I have seen writers refer to mainsheets and jibsheets as if they are sails. Obvious, right? … Wrong, they are ropes!

    Liked by 1 person

Do leave a comment

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.