Royal Navy obituary in the Times newspaper
Royal Navy obituary in the Times newspaper

Royal NavyObituaries

The following obituary for Sherard Osborn appeared in the Times newspaper.

Obituary in the Times newspaper
10 May 1875


Suddenly, in the prime of life, there has been snatched from the Naval Service an officer who from all points of view was one of its most distinguished members. Gifted with the highest professional abilities, pre-eminent for cool selfpossession and ready resource in action, daring to the utmost stretch of naval audacity, but as prudent as he was daring, a strict disciplinarian, yet one of the most popular of captains, a very successful administrator, — Rear-Admiral Sherard Osborn had lived long enough to do the State distinguished service, and seemed to be a man to whom in an emergency we should turn for aid of even greater value in the days to come. He was made of too stern materials to be a universal favourite. His opinions were too uncompromising, and his will too determined, to be fully appreciated in a time of peace; but during an active and varied career he had won the respect of his profession, and few men had warmer or more devoted friends among those — and they were many — who knew him well, whether civilians, brother officers, or shipmates in the humbler walks of life.
Admiral Osborn entered the Navy as first-class Volunteer in September, 1837; commanded a gunboat against pirates at the capture of Quedah in 1838; served in the East Indies and China in 1843, in Her Majesty's ships Hyacinth, Volage, and Columbine; entered the Excellent in 1843, and passed out in 1844 with a first-class certificate as gunnery officer; was recommended as gunnery mate to Admiral Sir George Seymour, and appointed to the Collingwood, Captain Henry Eden, then fitting for the flag in the Pacific; became Gunnery Lieutenant for two years in the same ship; was appointed, in the Autumn of 184S, to command the Dwarf and sent to Ireland in consequence of the Irish Insurrection. In the winter of 1849, he was selected as a volunteer for the Arctic Expedition sent in search of Franklin, under Captain H.T. Austin, C.B., and appointed to command the Pioneer. In that Expedition as well as the following one under Captain Sir E. Belcher, he held the command of the Pioneer during a protracted service of three winters and five summers in the Arctic Seas, and made several long sledge journeys, the last one exceeding a thousand miles on foot.
After a few months' service as Commander of the Norfolk District Coast Guard, to re-establish his health, — which had been shaken by continuous Arctic service, Commander Osborn was appointed to the Vesuvius, in the Black Sea Fleet, under Admiral Sir Edmund Lyons, K.C.B. He first assisted the late Admiral Boxer in restoring order in Balaklava Harbour, and, as a reward for his services there, was sent by Admiral Lyons to succeed Captain John Moore as Senior Officer of the Blockading Squadron off Kertch and the Straits of Yenikale. He was present at the capture of Kertch, and was then sent into the Sea of Azov as second in seniority to Captain Lyons, commanding the gunboat squadron. Commander Osborn succeeded, on the death of that officer, to the command of the squadron, which averaged from 14 to 18 gunboats and despatch vessels. As Commander, and subsequently as Captain, he co-operated or commanded in the destruction of the Russian Squadron at Berdiansk and the military position of Taganrog; the burning of the Russian transport flotilla; the bombardment of Arabat, and the cutting off the supplies of the Russian Armies by the capture of the Military Store Depots at Genichi and Gheisk; services which were acknowledged by the Commander-In-Chief in a highly flattering memorandum. In the Spring of 1856, at the special request of Admiral Sir E. Lyons, Captain Osborn was appointed by the Admiralty to the Medusa gunvessel, and again sent into the Sea of Azov as senior officer commanding that squadron, and remained there until the signature of the Treaty of Peace, when he returned to England. For his services during the Russian War, without any solicitation on his part, Captain Osborn was honoured with the Companionship of the Bath, and made an officer of the Legion of Honour and of the Order of the Medjidié, besides being personally complimented at Windsor by his Sovereign and the Prince Consort.
In the Spring of 1857, on the news of a rupture with the Emperor of China, Captain Osborn was appointed to the Furious, and instructed to escort a force of 15 gunboats and despatch vessels to China. Captain Osborn's orders from the Admiralty gave him large discretionary powers as to the route and arrangements, and many essential preparations had to be made at Devonport under his superintendence. Seeing the difficulty other officers had experienced in escorting even two gunboats at a time to China, doubts were entertained of these vessels, some of them of the lightest draught that had ever passed the Cape, effecting the voyage at all during the winter of Southern latitudes. The Commander-in-Chief at Devonport, Admiral Sir William Parker, was so much struck with the arduous nature of the task before Captain Osborn that in giving him his parting orders he said, in the presence of his secretary, Mr. Charles Richards, "If ever you, Sir, deliver all that squadron safe to your Admiral in China you deserve to be made a Commodore." By going to Brazil, avoiding the Cape, and carrying the squadron on a great circle to the South, the passage was made without one disaster, and within six months all the vessels were safely at anchor in Hongkong Harbour. That squadron of gunboats, it is only fair to say, changed the character of the war in China and brought our negotiations to a successful issue. Captain Osborn next embarked the British Ambassador, and the Furious took a prominent share in every subsequent operation, from the escalade of Canton to the capture of the Taku Forts in 1858. The gunboat he embarked in was the first to reach the city of Tien-tsin and the entrance of the Great Canal. The Commander-in-Chief praised Captain Osborn most highly in his official despatches, but as he was already in possession of every possible honour for past services no official recognition could then be given him. From China, Captain Osborn carried Lord Elgin to Japan, and on his own responsibility led the escorting squadron beyond the surveyed portion of Yedo Bay until Her Majesty's ships were anchored in a position within gunshot of the capital. This measure led to a satisfactory Treaty between Japan and Great Britain being speedily signed by the Emperors, and Lord Elgin then and subsequently acknowledged the service rendered by Captain Osborn.
On the return of the Furious to Shanghai in September, 1858, a question arose in framing the Supplementary Treaty with China how far it was possible to declare the great river Yang-tze navigable to Europeans. Captain Osborn was applied to by Lord Elgin and, confident from his experience of the volume of the river at Nankin that it must be navigable for hundreds of miles beyond, he undertook to test the question, and persuaded Captain Barker (of Her Majesty's ship Retribution), senior officer at Shanghai, to make the experiment at once. That officer, shattered by a stroke of paralysis, could only accompany the force just above Nankin, the batteries of which were successfully engaged and silenced. Thence, up a falling and intricate river, Captain Osborn had, as senior officer, to conduct is ship, accompanied. by the Cruiser and two gunboats, to Hankow, 600 miles from the sea; the Furious having several times to be cleared to her keel to float her off unknown shoals and reefs. This service enabled the Ambassador to insist on the river being opened to foreign commerce. No war ship of the size or the draught of the Furious has subsequently been able to reach Hankow, although at this moment the river is covered with vessels carrying European commerce. Admiral Sir Michael Seymour, the Commander-in-Chief, on the return of the squadron, issued a general order expressing his satisfaction "at the gallantry, zeal, and perseverance displayed by the Captains, officers, and men comprising the expedition." His Excellency the Earl of Elgin, in his official despatch to the Secretary of State No. 1, the 5th of January, 1859, said.—
“The transport, of a vessel the size of the Furious to a point so remote from the sea under circumstances so peculiar is, I apprehend, a feat unparalleled in naval history. I consider the successful issue of this undertaking to have been mainly due to the energy, professional skill, courage and judgement of Captain Osborn and his able Master," &c.
Again, on the 18th of August, 1859, when Lord Elgin found that his despatch had not been officially communicated to the Admiralty, he wrote to the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, begging that this might be immediately done, as he was naturally held in some degree responsible for the fact, and that it exposed him to the double charge of injustice and ingratitude for the "remarkable services" rendered, and his Lordship added.—
"To what I have already said in reference to the services rendered by the Furious, I beg now to add that I ascribe the success of the policy which I considered it my duty to carry out at Tsen-tsin, Yedo, and Shanghai in a great measure to the zeal, energy, and devotion with which, I was supported by Captain Osborn and those under his command."
And again, in the House of Lords, on the 21st of February, 1860, Lord Elgin publicly acknowledged his obligation to Captain Osborn in the most eulogistic terms.
In the meantime such had been the arduous nature of the service rendered in ascending the Yang-tze that Captain Barker had invalided and subsequently died. Mr. Court, the Master of the Furious, invalided and died, and Captain Osborn had to give up his ship and return home on half-pay to undergo a long series of surgical operations. By the publication of his Naval Journals and by other literary labours, Captain Osborn was enabled to subsist until well enough again to seek service, when, in the Spring of 1861, he had the honour to be appointed to the command of Her Majesty's ship Donegal, 101 guns. In her he embarked a portion of the British force sent to co-operate in the allied attack on Mexico. The return of the expedition was followed by the paying off of the Donegal in 1862, and so creditable was the report upon its efficiency that the Admiralty promoted her First Lieutenant on Captain Osborn's recommendation.
The Emperor of China, in June, 1862, made an offer to Captain Osborn, through his agent, Mr. H.N. Lay, C.B., of the absolute command of a large squadron of vessels to be equipped by him in England for the suppression of piracy on the Coast of China. The command was to have been a very lucrative one. Captain Osborn was formally promised that, in order to guarantee such a force not being used against European Powers, or in a way hostile to our naval sense of humanity or justice, he should not be placed under any local authorities, but receive his orders direct from the Emperor. With this understanding, Captain Osborn received especial leave for the purpose from the Admiralty, at the written request of Her Majesty's Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, and officers were lent likewise from Her Majesty's Navy on the same understanding. A squadron of six vessels was constructed, equipped, and carried by Captain Osborn to the near neighbourhood of Pekin in 1863; but on reporting himself at the capital of China, he found that the Emperor repudiated the promises and engagements of his agent, and wished to place a Chinese Mandarin as a superior officer even on board his own ship. This, together with the fact that the Representatives of the European Powers were adverse to the institution of a force on such terms, decided Captain Osborn on withdrawing from a position so likely to prove compromising to his own honour as well as to the British interests in China. By direction of our Minister, Sir Frederick Bruce, the whole force was withdrawn from China, and Captain Osborn's conduct received his warmest commendations in an official letter.
Returning to England, Captain Osborn again placed his services at the disposal of the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, and was in 1864 appointed to the command of Her Majesty's ship Royal Sovereign, a vessel adapted to test the new system of turrets invented by Captain Cowper Coles, R.N. He reported on the perfect success with which 12-ton guns were for the first time used at sea in Her Majesty's Navy and otherwise showed the excellence of the turret system, but the Royal Sovereign was paid off. Captain Osborn was permitted to remain attached to her until the end of 1864, when, having served sufficient time by the regulations then in force to qualify for his flag he resigned his command.
The. short time for which the Royal Sovereign was kept in commission entailed heavy pecuniary loss to Captain Osborn, who had fitted her out at a great expense under the impression that he would be considered one of the active fleet for at least three years, and this circumstance, together with additional losses caused by the bankruptcy of a firm of Navy agents, obliged Captain Osborn to turn his attention while on half-pay and awaiting promotion to the Admirals' List to some employment as a means of subsistence. He first proceeded to Western India and successfully administered as agent between the Great Indian Peninsular Railway Company and the Government a network of railways extending throughout the Bombay Presidency. Finding the climate, however, injuring his health and being desirous of keeping himself employed on matters more immediately connected with the profession to which he belonged, Captain Osborn resigned this appointment in 1866, and received the thanks both of the Government of Bombay and the Supreme Government of India, who were pleased to express "very sincere regret at the prospect of the loss of Captain Sherard Osborn's services, which Government believes to have been most valuable to Government and the public." In 1867 Captain Osborn undertook the office of Managing Director of the Telegraph Construction and Maintenance Company (which had then just successfully laid the Atlantic Submarine Telegraph Cables) for the purpose of giving his professional knowledge to the work of establishing submarine telegraph communication between Great Britain and her Eastern and Australian Possessions and Colonies. In four years this work was completed by a series of submarine cables from Falmouth, the Mediterranean, and Red Sea to India, the Eastern Archipelago, Hongkong, and Australia; and Captain Osborn might well feel that, from a public as well as professional point of view, he had in this great work served the commercial as well as the military interests of his country. In 1871 Captain Osborn was appointed to the command of Her Majesty's ship Hercules, the finest of our cruising ironclads, but was compelled, by unexpected circumstances, to ask to be relieved before the term of his command expired. In 1873 he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral.
In the whole of these services, whether as midshipman, lieutenant, commander, captain, or man of business, the name of Sherard Osborn was highly distinguished. In the first Chinese war he was thrice mentioned in the despatches of Commodore Sir Thomas Herbert and Admiral Sir William Parker, and was publicly thanked as a midshipman by Commodore R.B. Watson for his services at the capture of Shanghai. In Ireland he earned the warm approval of the local authorities, and was repeatedly thanked by his Commander-in-Chief. In 1849 his seamanship and gallantry were reported to the Admiralty as "beyond all praise in remaining by his vessel, the Dwarf, in a sinking state in tempestuous weather." In the Arctic Seas his energy and joviality, and his readiness to undertake the hardest labour, if any of his men were distressed in sledging expeditions, won him the devoted attachment of his crew. In the Crimean War he gained the highest renown and the fullest approval of his distinguished Admiral, Sir E. Lyons, who not only selected him for presentation to the Queen at Windsor, but strained every nerve, and with success, to secure his re-appointment to the command of the Sea of Azov Squadron. To no man more than to Captain Sherard Osborn was the opening of our trade with Japan and China due. We believe that his social qualities and knowledge of men assisted Lord Elgin in his difficult negotiations almost as much as the professional nerve and seamanship which carried the Furious to Yeddo and Hankow. It has been often said that naval officers make the best diplomatists, and probably Sherard Osborn, as Admiral on a foreign station, would have been a marked illustration of the rule. Like Lord Dundonald, whom, in many respects, afloat and ashore, he resembled, he carried his lighting temperament into the arena of civil controversy. For ten years he struggled energetically to advance the views of his friend Captain Cowper Coles, and had the satisfaction eventually of witnessing the Chief Constructor of the Navy, whose great qualities he always fully recognised, pronounce in favour of the turret ship for fighting purposes, and the Admiral in command of the Channel Fleet report that the lamented "Captain could destroy all the broadside ships of the squadron in detail. "
His untimely death will cast a gloom over the Arctic Expedition, which he did so much to promote. To-day, which witnesses his funeral, had been fixed for a meeting of the Geographical Society, at which he and other Arctic celebrities were to have assisted. At such a time it seems well to recall that he himself attributed to his own Arctic experience, and the example of his first Arctic Commander, Captain Austin, two naval lessons of first rate importance; first, the practice of commanding men sympathetically, as human beings and not as machines; and secondly, the habit of prudent daring, which the struggle with an Arctic winter always, he declared, engenders. He believed he could get out of his men the utmost exertions of which they were capable, and he told his intimate friends that in the unknown waters of the Sea of Azov and the Yang-tze he was always congratulating himself on his Arctic training. He will be remembered by the Expedition now about to start, whatever its success, for no one did more to furnish his comrades with the opportunity of distinction.
12 May 1875The late Admiral Osborn.— The remains of the late Admiral Sherard Osborn were buried on Monday in Highgate Cemetery. The hearse was followed by six mourning carriages and 14 private carriages; the arrangements were carried out by Messrs. Burdett and Sons, 9, Spring-street, Hyde Park, W. Among those who followed were Sir Leopold M'Clintock, Admiral Richards, the Hon. Mr. Walpole, General Muller, Sir G. Elliott, Mr. Beer, Mr. Spencer Ashton, Sir J. Fairbairne, Sir J. Anderson, Sir H. Rawlinson, Captain Nares, Mr. Giffard, Colonel Jenkin-Jones, Mr. Fuller, and Mr. Cruckshank.
14 May 1875The late admiral Sherard Osborn. — Mr. H.N. Lay writes to us:— "My absence from town has prevented my noticing your article on Admiral Osborn before. Your encomium of him I most cordially endorse. As allusion is made to my name, permit me for the sake of accuracy to point out one or two errors in your reference to Chinese matters. The Emperor of China did not, as you say, offer the command of the fleet through me to Captain Osborn. I was intrusted with its organization, and Captain Osborn was selected by me to command it. I should wish to claim the credit of his appointment, and am unwilling to divide it with the Chinese Government. When Her Majesty's Government granted an order in Council giving to Captain Osborn and myself the power to organize a military and naval force for China for two years, it was upon the faith of the most solemn pledges that such authority should never be abused to the detriment of British interests, which, be it said in passing, are ever identical with the best interests of China. I returned, to that country some time before Captain Osborn's arrival with the fleet, and found that Major (now Colonel) Gordon had been allowed to enter the service of the provincial authorities. The Imperial Government perceiving the advantage to its old stupid policy that this oversight on our part would afford them, implored me to acquiesce therein and agree that Captain Osborn should occupy a like position. I refused; and, if at all mindful of the pledges I had given in England, how could I, with, my knowledge of Chlnese character, act otherwise? Captain Osborn arrived, and we both agreed that to accept the Gordon position would be wittingly to involve ourselves in doings which we could neither prevent nor defend. The treacherous massacres some time afterwards at Soochow within your memory confirmed the soundness of our judgment. Wo turned a deaf ear to the efforts — spread over six months — of the Imperial Government, to persuade us into acquiescence, and so long as they could get Major Gordon to do their work of repression, they were able to set the fleet at defiance. The result is known. But the Chinese Government, although in form repudiating, did not in fact repudiate their engagement. Conscious of their own wrong-doing, and actuated by fear that I should denounce their behaviour to Her Majesty's Government on my return home, they defrayed upon my command the cost of the fleet homewards, and, in fulfilment of a promise remitted to me in London £40,000 towards that object, but this sum, not being required, was returned to them. Unfortunately, we had no one here with eyes to discern the situation, and so the real facts were smothered. The history of the fleet has yet to be written, and the vicious policy of suffering our people to become the tools, instead of the guides, of the Chinese government will, I make bold to say, before long be made manifest to all. And this opinion was, I am able to say, strongly and frequently expressed by Admiral Osborn, and so recently as within a few weeks of his lamentable decease."

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