William Joseph IBBETT (1824-1887)

Life story shared by Tina Bilbe with additional information about his son by Yota Dimitriadi

William Joseph Ibbett was born on 18 February 1824 at Bull Fields, Greenwich, London. He was baptised at St Mary Magdalene, Woolwich on 21 March, son of Thomas and Mary Ann. His father’s trade is recorded as Smith.

He joined the Royal Navy and the 1841 census lists Wm Ibbett age 15, Engineer+ at Woolwich Dockyard. He was appointed Assistant Engineer on 22 May 1845 and promoted to Engineer 1st Class on 25 October 1847. His first posting was on HMS Fisgard, a wooden sailing ship.

William married Eliza Marshall some time between January and March 1848 in Lewisham. While William was at sea, his wife was living in Greenwich. The Kentish Independent newspaper of Saturday 30 June 1849 records her as a witness at Greenwich Police Court and gives her address as Trafalgar Road.

Posted to HMS Royal Sovereign , a wooden sailing yacht, on 23 May 1838, he returned briefly to “Fisgard” on 24 July. On 27 July he was posted to HMS Lucifer, a 387 ton paddle steamer, and was promoted to Chief Engineer on 14 October 1851. On 31 October he returned to “Fisgard” for 4 months.

On 24 February 1852 he was posted to HMS Resolute for Arctic Service. Resolute was one of 5 ships sent out to try and discover the fate of Franklin’s Arctic expedition, which disappeared in July 1845. “Resolute”, “Intrepid”, “Assistance”, “Pioneer” and “North Star” left Greenhythe on 21 April 1852. Although William Ibbett’s Navy records lists him as posted to “Resolute”, he was actually working on the steam tender “Intrepid”, which accompanied “Resolute” throughout this arctic expedition. This was the third attempt to discover the fate of Franklin’s expedition, which had hoped to discover a North West passage for shipping. The expedition failed to locate Franklin, but in the process of the search much valuable mapping of the area was undertaken.

Life on an arctic expedition

The Resolute’s Master, George F. McDougall kept a diary describing their explorations in great detail. He was persuaded to publish it, probably edited, in 1857 and an online copy is available under the title “The eventful voyage of H.M. discovery ship “Resolute” to the Arctic Regions: In Search Of Sir John Franklin And The Missing Crews Of H.M. Discovery Ships Erebus and Terror “.

In his diary McDougall describes the danger to various forms of ice, “washing pieces”, chunks of ice washed off glaciers, that were small enough to be mistaken for waves in rough seas but large enough to stow the bows of a ship, making them more of a hazard than the more visible icebergs; also floating pack ice, which blocked their passage and could trap them against the ice attached to the land.

Resolute & intrepid passing a large iceberg, Baffin’s Bay, July 1852

Whaling ships and earlier exploration-expeditions meant that they were well-versed in the dangers and, on reaching the Whale-fish islands, they bartered with “Esquimaux”/Inuit people for boots, mitten and other comforts. McDonald was impressed with the deer and sealskin clothing, particularly the jackets with attached hoods. He was less impressed with an igloo he visited, describing it as dark. They called in at the town of Lievely where a couple of dances were held and they acquired sledge dogs.

From the HMS Resolute Spring Sledging

Fog and blizzards made progress dangerous and the steam-driven tenders were used to tow the sailing vessels in these conditions, however, when the weather was fine, they would sometimes stop and men would go out onto an ice flow to play leap-frog, cricket and football. When the ice flows closed in round the ship, enormous saws were employed to cut through the ice to prevent it crushing the ship. These were also used to cut docks in the landward ice to protect the ships from being crushed by the pack ice.

Lithograph of Intrepid from HMS Resolute Spring Sledging

Icebergs were not all bad. At one point when they stopped progress, the men mined the ice to melt for fresh water and after the work was complete, they slid down one of the slopes on staves of casks. Luckily no one broke a limb!

Depots of supplies were dropped at regular intervals, so the explorers could make use of them on their travels and copies of documents relating to their discoveries were sealed in waterproof material and left under cairns on the coast for the use of future expeditions. Supplies of meat were supplemented by hunting birds, musk ox and deer. By September they were organising winter quarters, cutting a canal in the shore ice with a jib boom laid across the entrance to prevent ice entering the canal, and parties were sent out to deposit depots of food.

A balance needed to be kept between preserving heat and providing ventilation below decks. The other major task was removing snow and gravel from the deck and banking it up around the ship.

To pass the time of constant night the men occupied themselves with a mixture of instruction classes and preparing a theatrical entertainment for Christmas, painting scenery, making costumes and props, as well as allocating parts and learning lines. Both the men and the officers were involved in this. 5th November was enlivened with a bonfire in which an effigy of Guy Fawkes was burnt. Shoemakers and carpenters were also kept busy working on travelling boots and sledges.

By the end of the year, two men had died: Thomas Mobley, steward, of heart attack and Captain George Drover of Intrepid, following a steady decline. Digging graves on the frozen grounds caused problems and fires were lit to enable the shallow graves to be dug.

The sun began to reappear in early February and in March a party was sent out to check on Resolute, a ship from an earlier expedition. Other expeditions of exploration were sent out and the first expedition returned with the crew from the Resolute, who were in a poor condition, suffering from malnutrition and scurvy. As summer advanced, and the ice melted, carts replaced sledges as a means of transport, though these were difficult to manoeuvre when deep rapids of ice cold water had to be crossed. By the end of July, after sawing and blasting operations, the ships were freed from the ice, and as the ice floes began to move, they started to try and make their way further north but were blocked by ice and forced to drift south. They had some entertaining encounters with lemmings. No more progress was made that summer and preparation began for a second winter. An electric telegraph was set up between Resolute and Intrepid and instruction on its use was given to anyone interested to learn.

Two more men died that winter. Further exploration took place the following spring and summer. At the end of August orders came to abandon the icebound ships, provisions were offloaded and the ships were left with everything that had to be left behind neatly stowed, in case they were able to return.

Abandonment of the Resolute and Intrepid May 15, 1854
Names on May 15, 1854.

“Assistance” and “Pioneer” were abandoned towards the end of August and the men from the abandoned ships returned to England on “North Star” and steamships “Phoenix” and “Talbot”. They arrived in England in October. The abandonment of so many ships resulted in a lengthy court martial. However, all officers were acquitted. The Resolute was freed from the ice by an American ship and returned to England. Here it was scrapped and the wood made into pair of desks, one for Queen Victoria and the other for the US President, the latter is still in use in the Oval Office to this day.

On January 30, 1920, The Pioche Record reported that Icelandic explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson discovered a lost cache from the 1853 McClintock expedition on Melville Island. Clothing and food from the cache was in excellent condition despite the harsh arctic conditions. David Murphy’s book. (2004). The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock, discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Toronto: Dundurn Press focuses on McClintock, one of the best-known Arctic explorers of the Victorian era.

HMS Resolute & Intrepid Winter Quarter, Melville Island, 1852-53

On his return William was posted to HMS Fisgard on 18 October 1854. Posted to HMS Desperate, a screw driven, Conflict class sloop of 1038 tons, on 24 January 1855 and returned to Fisgard on 24 December. His next posting was to HMS Cruizer, a wooden, screw driven sloop, on 8 January 1856. He was posted to HMS St Vincent, a wooden sailing ship, on 22 May and moved again to HMS Blenheim, on 10 June 1856, at which date it was a guard ship at Portsmouth. He returned to Fisgard on 27 June and was posted to Blenheim again on 14 September.

His next posting was to HMS Hannibal, a Princess Royal class screw driven ship of 3136 tons, guard ship of Ordinary Portsmouth, on 1 February 1858. Posted to HMS Ariel, a 9 gun, screw driven sloop, on 25 April 1859. Chief Engineer for HMS Urgent, an iron hull, screw driven troop ship, posting dated 7 December 1859.

On 28 November 1862 he was appointed chief engineer to the Asia for the Urgent. I am unclear as to what this means. He was posted to HMS Pembroke, a Blockship converted to screw in February 1855 on 11 April 1863. On 11 March 1864 he is on Asia for Prince Regent. He was promoted to chief engineer to HMS Mercey, a screw driven frigate of 3733 tons, on 1 May 1869. Posted to Minotaur, a broadside ironclad frigate of 10690 tons, on 5 August 1872 and on Asia for Minotaur 16 May 1873.

HMS Minotaur

William retired on Wednesday 17 May 1876 on retired pay of £550 per annum.

His family and civil life

William and Eliza had three children: Eliza Ann, born January 1855, at which time the family were living at Charleton Terrace, Woolwich; William Joseph born on January 4th, 1858; and Fanny Elizabeth in 1859 both born in Portsea, Hants. The 1859 White’s Directory for Hampshire lists Ibbett William Joseph, R.N., Mile-end.

With her husband at sea much of the time, Eliza found it difficult to cope and had a nervous breakdown of some kind. On 12 July 1858 she was admitted to the District County Lunatic Asylum, Fareham and Knowle. She would have been 35 years old.

The 1861 census lists William on HMS Urgent, off Shanghai, his wife in the Fareham and Knowle asylum, his eldest daughter boarding with the Sly family in Deptford St. Paul, London and the younger two children boarding with the Turner family in Portsea, Portsmouth.

The Royal Navy had a number of schools which catered for the children of the men at sea and the 1871 census lists Eliza Ibbett, age 18, as a student at the Naval School Isleworth (1868-1875 ledge available at Hounslow & Feltham Local Studies Service) and William Ibbett Junior, now 13, at the Royal Naval School Deptford, London [from Philip Unwin’s book “Royal Naval School 1840-1975” published in 1976]. The younger sister, Fanny, now 12, is living with a housekeeper at 2 Thornton Villa, Queens’s Road Co, Portsea. Their mother is a patient in the Dorset County Asylum in Charminster [Their records are available at the Dorset History Centre in Dorchester].

On 21st October 1879 his wife Eliza was admitted to the County Asylum in Portsmouth, where she stayed until her death on 17th May 1894.

The 1879 Electoral Register lists William Joseph at 2 Upland Cottages, Selsdon Road, Croydon, Surrey and the 1881 Census lists William Joseph, retired engineer at this address with his two unmarried daughters, Eliza A, 28 b. Greenwich, Kent and Fanny E, 22b. Fareham, Hants. His last Electoral Register Entry at this address is for 1886.

What prompted his move to Reading shortly before his death in 1887 is unclear and there is no way of knowing at this stage if his daughters moved with him. He is listed in the local street directory but not registered to vote. William was suffering from a heart condition and he may have moved to Reading to be close to the hospital.

Probate records show that William Joseph, formerly of Upland Cottage, Selsdon road, Croydon in the country of Surrey but late of Holmwood, Denmark Road, Reading in the county of Berkshire, retired Chief Engineer from the Royal Navy died on 2 December 1887 at Holmwood. He was 64 years old.

His will was proved by his son, William Joseph Ibbett of Tandridge in the county of Surrey, Post Office Clerk, and Alfred Henry Sly of 2 Hercules Passage in the City of London, Stock and Share Dealer on 7 January 1888. Personal Estate £2,075 4s 8d.

His household furniture and effects were auctioned off on 1st February 1888 at Reading Corn Exchange.

He is buried alone in Reading Old with no other members of his family.

William Joseph Junior (1858-1934), the poet

William’s son, William Joseph Junior, became a poet and was an amateur self-taught printer, who also published verse under the pseudonym Antaeus. In his obituary he was described as “a poetic genius…for years Shaftesbury had domiciled a poet and remarkable figure of the literary world” (Western Gazette – Friday 18 May 1934).

A letter from William Joseph Ibbett Junior to  the publisher [Charles] Elkin Mathews from the University of Reading Special Collections at at the MERL.

He was educated at the Royal Naval School. New Cross. London, and in his biography, “A Nobody’s Annals” mentions that Admiral Sturdee and Ben Greet were his contemporaries.

He was described as:

“a man of fine scholarly attainment, profound knowledge of Latin and Greek; almost native familiarity with some European languages, especially Italian, and nodding acquaintance with Sanskrit and Japanese, made the foundation on which rested his own wide literary experience and probably inspired most of his work, which was not accepted without controversy. ..[He] occasionally visited Shaftesbury, and his short, powerful figure was unmistakable. Bulky in build, with round, ruddy face, adorned with snow-white hair, and a close clipped white beard, which had never been shaved, his brown eyes revealed his personality; peculiarity being that never wore stockings or socks.

Casey Smith in his talkWilliam Joseph Ibbett (1858-1934): Poet, Printer, Piquerist, Ripper Suspect?”  he noted:

“one of the most minor poets in an era noted for minor poetry,..but he went to great lengths to have his poetry published. He was a self-taught printer and used hobby printing presses to print exceeding poor copies of his poems. On some copies, the words were so poorly inked and broken that he felt compelled to use an ink pen to hand write over the printing to make it more legible. At times it appears that the paper he used was taken from his day job at London’s General Post Office. Some of his poetry was produced as handwritten manuscript books; not because of a desire to create a beautiful book, but because it was cheap.”

Ibbett’s poetry became a collectors’ item and it is hard to find. The same applies for his autobiography The Annals of a Nobody (or Nobody’s Annals), a copy of which can be found in the British Library. As Casey shares it reveals a complicated and troubled figure, a man who might have been responsible for the 1888 “Jack the Ripper” murders in Whitechapel, although Casey was clear that there is no definitive proof of this.

Section 34, Row A, Plot 24