Lost Without Trace - HMS Wasp and Lt BJH Adamson

In this weeks feature Andy Ashwell explores the tale of HMS Wasp, a Tyne built ship sadly lost in the seas off of Singapore, as well as a member of the crew who resided at the coastal village of Cullercoats. A memorian fountain still looks out to sea bearing his name.


Some time ago, while walking between Whitley Bay and Tynemouth, I decided to stop and read the inscription on the impressive fountain that overlooks Cullercoats bay. It is something I have been aware of for years, but never taken the time to look at more closely. Further investigation revealed several North East links, both in terms of the person the memorial is dedicated to, and the vessel involved in his untimely end.


The fountain is a Grade II listed memorial to Lt Bryan John Huthwaite Adamson (Royal Navy), and contains the following inscription:


“Erected by a few friends in memory of Bryan John Huthwaite Adamson, Lieut RN, Commanding HMS Wasp which sailed from Singapore Sep 10th 1887 and was never heard of after. The site was given for this memorial by His Grace the Duke of Northumberland 1888”


Image: Simon Cotterill, Flickr

Lt Adamson was born in 1851 to William (a solicitor) and Hannah Adamson, one of five siblings. The family lived in Cullercoats, and according to the Records of the Admiralty Adamson joined the Royal Navy in 1865, and was promoted to Lieutenant in 1873. Further details of his naval career are unknown, or at least not freely available, but we know for certain that he was in command of HMS Wasp when she made her fateful voyage in 1887.


In addition to the personal connection to Tyneside, the vessel that was Lt Adamson’s final command firmly had its origins in the North East. She was laid down at the Armstrong Mitchell shipyard in 1885, launched in 1886 and finally commissioned in 1887.


The Armstrong Mitchell company was formed in 1882, when William Armstrong’s Elswick engineering works merged with the shipbuilding firm of Charles Mitchell. At one stage, the company’s infrastructure stretched for over a mile along the river Tyne. Furthermore, the vessel’s engine was built by North East Marine Engineering Ltd, based in Sunderland. In more recent times, sailors from Tyneside were always fiercely proud to serve on board HMS Newcastle (‘the Geordie Gunboat’ decommissioned in 2005), so it is reasonable to speculate that Lt Adamson would have felt similar pride in commanding HMS Wasp, with their mutual links to Tyneside.


An uneventful voyage to the Far East commenced in May 1887, with HMS Wasp set to relieve HMS Zephyr on the China Station.


The words that really stand out from the fountain’s brief dedication above are “and was never heard of after”. In the age of GPS, satellite communications and the ability of all vessels to send automated position reports and distress signals, it is a sobering thought that HMS Wasp was lost without trace in an era when real-time communications simply didn’t exist in the maritime domain.


A memorial plaque in Chatham Historic Dockyard (erected 1890) tells us that in addition to her ship’s company of 73 (7 officers, 55 men, 3 boys and 8 marines), 1 officer and 6 men were taking passage, meaning the death toll from her loss was 80. The plaque also states that “It was supposed that she perished, with all onboard, in a typhoon in the China seas during the month of October 1887”.


HMS Lizard, a vessel of the same class

Given the distance between Singapore and Hong Kong is around 1460 nautical miles (6-7 days at 10 knots), this would indicate quite a protracted voyage, likely due to weather. However, it should also be noted that other sources list the loss as occurring in September, which would be more likely. This also highlights the fact that there remains no conclusive proof as to the Wasp’s fate.

Readily available, contemporary sources are few and far between, and information is limited especially given the fact that nobody survived the loss of the vessel. There is a wealth of information for the preceding HMS Wasp (wrecked off Ireland in 1884), but alas the fate of Adamson’s vessel is largely the subject of guesswork and theory. All we know is that she departed Singapore on 10 September 1887, and sources list her destination as Hong Kong (and thereafter Shanghai).

In a rare reference to the incident found in Hansard, there was a suggestion that HMS Wasp was under-manned when she departed Singapore. This was made by Dr Kenny, MP for Cork South, in a House of Commons debate in 1888 (concerning the financial destitution of the mother of the ship’s surgeon Thomas Munan). However, this was rebutted by the First Lord of the Admiralty, who said that the vessel had its ‘full fighting compliment’ on board, and Lt Adamson merely stated that one of his officers was not as efficient as he would have liked. A press article from the time (exact source unknown), stated that in a report to the Admiralty made by Commodore Maxwell, it was thought that “there seems to be ground for fearing that while on a voyage from Singapore to Hong Kong Her Majesty’s gunboat Wasp has been overtaken by one of those terrible typhoons which at this season of the year sweep across the south west quarter of the North Pacific Ocean.”

The article also mentions that the vessel, being newly built and of modern design, should have been able to withstand such extreme conditions, but in 1887 there appeared to have been a particularly violent typhoon. Several other vessels were lost or wrecked, including a Chinese transport with 300 souls on board, and others had to make desperate runs to various ports to escape the typhoon, suffering damage in the process.

Ultimately, the exact circumstances of the loss will never be known, but next time you’re in Cullercoats take a moment to read the inscription and reflect on how in this age of real time communications, this vessel with such strong links to Tyneside could simply vanish without trace.