It is probable that Samuel Mitchell was born in the village of Aspley Guise in Bedfordshire, England. He was christened in the nearby village of Husborne Crawley on 8 September 1841.
His father was William Mitchell (perhaps from Flitwick, Bedfordshire), a matmaker and Methodist lay minister, and his mother was Eleanor Field (originally from Newton Longville, Buckinghamshire). He had 5 sisters (Susan, Mercy, Lydia, Martha and Esther) and an older brother John.
(a) HMS Crocodile
Samuel entered Royal Navy service (No. 34218) in August 1857 just before his 16th birthday as a Boy - 2nd class on the naval receiving ship HMS Crocodile. He served in Crocodile from 19 August 1857 to 31 December 1857 (c. 4 months).
Crocodile had been a ship of the line and was built at the Chatham Dockyard near London in October 1825. She was 114 feet [34.7 metres] long by 32 feet [9.75 meters] wide and had been armed with 20 32-pdr. carronades, 6 18-pdr. cannon and 2 6-pdr. cannon.
In 1850 she was put into harbour service serving as a floating defence for London. At the time Samuel enlisted in the Navy in 1857 she was used as a receiving ship for new sailors and was moored near the Tower of London. She was sold in 1861.
(b) HMS Vigilant
Samuel was then transferred to HMS Vigilant in January 1858 and became Boy 1st class while on that ship.
Vigilant had been built by Mare at Blackwall on the River Thames and was launched 20 March 1856. She was a wooden screw (i.e.propeller driven) gun vessel 181 feet [55 meters] long by 28 1/2 feet [8.6 meters] wide. She was armed with one 110-pdr. cannon, 1 68-pdr. and 2 20-pdrs. and had a 200hp engine.
Samuel commenced service in the ship on 1 January 1858 and by September of that year she was in the Mediterranean Sea. Samuel was on the ship almost 2 years until 22 December 1859. It seems she had an uneventful time while stationed in the Mediterranean.
After Samuel left her Vigilant was based in Bombay on anti-slavery patrols in the Arabian Sea and the Persian Gulf until she was sold in February 1869.
(c) HMS Excellent
In December 1859 Samuel was sent to the naval gunnery training school based on HMS Excellent in Portsmouth, England where he spent a year from 22 December 1859 to 14 December 1860 and became an Ordinary Seaman.
Excellent was originally built as the Queen Charlotte at Deptford Dockyard in May 1810 and was a 1st rate ship of the line 190 feet [57.9 mts.] long by 53 1/2 feet [16.3 mts.] wide. In December 1859 the Queen Charlotte was renamed Excellent when she took over the function from the original Excellent of being the Royal Navy's gunnery training ship permanently moored in Portsmouth.
.Until the establishment of Excellent the Royal Navy did not have any formal system of teaching gunners on its ships the science of gunnery and much was left to individual captains to train their own gun crews.The men who came to Excellent were to be taught:
"....the names of the different parts of a gun and carriage, the dispart in terms of lineal magnitude and in degrees how taken, what constitutes point blank and what line of metal range, windage - the errors and the loss of force attending it, the importance of preserving shot from rust, the theory of the most material effects of different charges of powder applied to practice with a single shot, also with a plurality of balls, showing how these affect accuracy, penetration and splinters, to judge the condition of gunpowder by inspection, to ascertain its quality by the ordinary tests and trials, as well as by actual proof."
The men practised as teams, firing guns and loading shot on a range laid out from Excellent. Firing of the guns took place over mudflats uncovered at low tide and a local family would collect the shot from the mudflats to sell it back to the Navy.
Within the Navy training at Excellent was popular and Excellent was also used as a boys' training ship and a mizzen mast was kept rigged for sail training. Excellent held approximately 600 men under training together with some 200 Royal Artillery instructors. The trainees lived on the lower deck messing between the 32 pdr. cannon just as in a sea going ship and those who qualified as seamen gunners were paid an additional 3 pence a day.
(d) HMS Harrier
In December 1860 Samuel was appointed to HMS Harrier where he was to spend the next 4 years of his life and which was to take him to New Zealand for the first time. While on Harrier he was promoted to Able Bodied Seaman (January 1861), Leading Seaman (October 1861), 2nd Captain of the Foretop (February 1864)(and in which position he was to win the VC), and Bosun's Mate (September 1864). He also served as Captain's Coxswain while serving on the ship.
Harrier was built at Pembroke Dock, South Wales, and commissioned into the Royal Navy in August 1854. She was a wooden screw sloop 160 feet [48.7 mts.] long by 32 feet [9.75 mts.] wide and had a draught of 11 feet [3.35 mts.] and carried 17 32-pdr cannon. Samuel served in the ship from 14 December 1860 to March 1865 (c. 4 years 3 months) while Harrier was serving in the Australia Station.
Harrier was one of a class of 6 wooden screw sloops, the others being Alert, Cruiser, Falcon, Hornet and Fawn. Alert and Falcon also served on the Australia Station at various times. At this time the phrase "screw sloop" was used to distinguish this type of ship from a "sail sloop." Harrier was one of those ships in the transitional age when the Royal Navy was changing from sail to steam power. She had both a steam engine (hence the single screw or propeller) and sails. At this time steam engines were not completely reliable and when the engine broke down the sails could be used and the sails would also be used on long sea voyages.
Harrier's steam engine produced 360 horse power to give her a speed of 9 knots. She carried a crew of approximately 160 and had a coal capacity of 100 tons. Typically a sloop would displace 940 - 1570 tons.
The 32- pdr. cannon she carried was the standard Royal Navy cannon of this time and the cannon could fire solid shot (a cannon ball), hollow shells filled with gunpowder or shrapnel or case shot (a cylindrical canister filled with small pellets) or grape shot ( 2 small cannon balls linked by a chain). The classification of the gun as a 32 pounder cannon was taken from the weight of the solid shot fired from the gun. The gun barrel is mounted on a wheeled carriage, as shown in the drawing, balanced on two trunions, the short metal projections on either side of the barrel, the invention of some unknown Dutchman. The angle of elevation could be altered by moving a wooden wedge under the rear end of the gun.
To prepare a gun for firing a charge of gunpowder in a cloth bag is pushed down the barrel by a ram-rod and followed by the round shot. This is held in place by a wad. The gunner pushes a spike down the "touch-hole" on the top near the rear end of the barrel to break the powder bag and pours a little fine powder down the hole. The gun is then run out through the gunport by the ropes attached to the carriage. In earlier times the gunner would have fired by lighting the powder in the touch hole with a "slow match", a glowing piece of material, but later a flintlock as on a pistol or musket was used to produce a spark to fire the charge. When the gun fired it recoiled violently back into the ship, restrained by the `breeching ropes` attached to the carriage. The bore was swabbed out with water to remove any glowing pieces of residue, and the process repeated.
(32 pndr. cannon as used on HMS Harrier)
Before coming to the Australia Station , and before Samuel joined the ship, Harrier, under the command of Commander Henry Story, served in the Gulf of Bothnia (between present day Finland, Germany and Russia) in Captain Frederick Warden's division of small ships during the Crimean War assisting in the blockade of Russian ports in the Baltic Sea.
On 23rd and 24th June 1855 Capt. Warden's division destroyed 47 vessels, about 20,000 tons, of enemy shipping off the town of Nystad with his boats being continually employed for about 22 hours.
On 2 July Harrier and HMS Driver offered to spare the town of Raumo if all the vessels there were handed over, and this was agreed with the Burgomaster. But when the British boats went in to take possession of the enemy vessels they were fired on and 2 men killed. Harrier and Driver responded with firing shot, shell and rockets into the town for an hour and a half.
On 24 July Harrier and HMS Cuckoo destroyed part of Raumo and a quantity of shipping and on 17 August Harrier, Tartar, Cuckoo and the French boat d'Assas sent their boats up towards Biorneborg and burned 17 vessels and took the surrender of a small steamer in spite of the presence of 2,000 troops.
Commander Francis William Sullivan was the ship's captain when Samuel joined the ship in December 1860 and on 9 November 1863 Commander Edward Hay was appointed captain of the Harrier. It was this Commander Hay who led the Naval Brigade in the assault on Gate Pa and who was carried out of the pa by Samuel.
While on the Australia Station Harrier visited New Zealand waters in 1861 and for most of 1862 was placed at the disposal of Governor Sir George Grey to transport him around the New Zealand coast. On 7 February 1863 Harrier was involved in the rescue of survivors from HMS Orpheus which had gone aground on a sand spit at the entrance to Manukau Harbour, New Zealand. At that time Orpheus was the flagship of the Australia Station and in going to her rescue Harrier herself was grounded and had to be refloated later. Of a crew on Orpheus of 256 only 69 survived. The sinking of the Orpheus is still the greatest maritime disaster in New Zealand's history.
During the New Zealand Wars Harrier took part in the Waikato campaign by providing men to man the flotilla of vessels on the Waikato River, including:
Samuel joined Harrier as an Ordinary Seaman, and was then promoted to Able Bodied Seaman, Leading Seaman and then 2nd Captain of the Foretop. It was while in this last position that he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
The "tops" were the platforms placed over the head of the lower section of a mast to extend the topmast shrouds - the ropes that support the masts. The tops were named according to the mast - foretop on the foremast (or first from the bow of the ship), maintop on the mainmast.
(Photograph of the Foretop as shown on a replica of HMS Endeavour. The Foretop of Harrier would have been similar.)
In close actions the tops were used as "fighting tops" from which marine marksmen would fire down on enemy decks and at the men in the enemy tops. In ordinary times they were where seamen were stationed to supervise the men taking in and setting the sails.As a 2nd Captain of the Foretop Samuel would have earned 93 pounds, 9 shillings and 2 pence per year as the the junior of the 2 men in charge of the Foretop men.
During the time that he was 2nd Captain of the Foretop and at the battle of Gate Pa, Samuel was also Commander Hay's coxswain. A coxswain was the senior rating in charge of the ship's boat and a captain's coxswain was the senior member of the captain's domestic staff making sure everything ran smoothly. He acted as valet to make sure the captain was always in the correct uniform with the right decorations and would command the captain's gig (a small rowboat). He would also be at the captain's shoulder as they crossed onto an enemy ship at the head of a boarding party.
0n 21 September 1864 (3 days before he was awarded the Cross) Samuel was promoted from 2nd Captain of the Foretop to Bosun's Mate. The boatswain or bosun was responsible to the First Lieutenant for the ship's sails, rigging, anchors, cables and cordage and they summoned the watch or the crew by piping on the bosun's call throughout the ship.
They supervised the ship's company on work concerned with seamanship and on a sailing ship (as Harrier would be on a long voyage) they used their rope 'starters' or canes to make sure there were no slackers among the crew when it came to changing sail. They would also carry out the floggings using the cat o' nine tails which was not abolished until 1879.
It appears that Samuel was with the Harrier when it left Sydney on 20 October 1864 to return to Portsmouth, England, via Auckland, New Zealand and Cape Horn, as Bosun's Mate as his naval Certificate of Service lists him as being transferred to the Duke of Wellington after the Harrier. Harrier was paid off and broken up at Portsmouth in December 1866.
The last HMS Harrier in the Royal Navy was an aircraft direction school at Kete in Pembrokeshire, Wales and the functions and relics of that Harrier were assumed by HMS Dryad at Southwick near Portsmouth, England.
In Portsmouth, England, Samuel's Harrier is commemorated by a memorial in St. Mary's Church Portsea in Fratton Street. The memorial states (the underlining is mine):
"To the memory of the following officers and men of HMS Harrier:
Edward Hay Esq. Commander who died April 30th. 1864 from wounds received in action at Te Papa, New Zealand
William Arthur Turner assistant Surgeon Died at Wellington, New Zealand May 7th 1862
Fitzhugh D'Este Jerningham Acting Sub Lieutenant. Lost at Falkland Islands Jany. 19th 1865
Richard Hart AB Died at sea October 3rd 1861
Ambrose Gear RMLI Died at Auckland September 1861
Samuel Hooper AB Died at Sydney May 4th 1863
Fredk. Osborne 2Capt's Foretop David Downer RMLI Killed in Action at Rangiriri Nov. 20th 1863
James McTear Stoker Died Feb 22nd 1864 on board HMS Curacoa
James Bew Leading Seaman Died at Sydney New South Wales Sept. 25th 1864
Henry Clarke O.S. George Young A.B. Andrew Greenham Stoker Killed in action at Te Papa April 29th !864
John Dark Gunner RMA Drowned at sea Jany. 11th 1865
John Sheehan A.B. also drowned at sea Feby. 14th 1865
William Jarvis Boy 1st class died July 23rd 1864
Thomas Walden Boy 1st class died at sea Feby. 8th 1865
This tablet is erected as a mark of respect and regard by the Captains, officers and men of the ship during the commission 1860-1865."
(e) Duke of Wellington
Samuel left Harrier on 31 March 1865 and was transferred to HMS Duke of Wellington .
The Duke of Wellington was a 1st rate ship of the line that had been built in Pembroke Dock in 1852. She was 240 feet [73mts.] long and 73 feet [22.25mts.] wide. In May 1865 (when Samuel stayed on her) she was used only for harbour duties in Portsmouth and in that role she served as a ship where men went when they were being paid off from the Royal Navy. She had a normal compliment of 1,000 men but with drafts of men passing through on occasions she had 4,000 men on board. The ship was sold in 1904 to be broken up.
Samuel was given a free discharge from the Royal Navy on 1 May 1865.
In the first half of the 19th century Australia and New Zealand had been part of the Royal Navy's East Indies station based in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). From the 1820's the Commander-in-Chief of the Station was ordered to send a ship annually to New South Wales, Australia, with occasional cruises to New Zealand. In 1848 there was established the Australian Division of the East Indies Station.
In the early 1850's there were worsening relations between Russia and England and an increased Russian naval presence in the Pacific. As a consequence, and as a result of settler representations, it was decided to establish Australia as a separate naval command based in Sydney and on 25 March 1859 Captain William Loring was authorised to:
"....hoist a (commodore's) Blue Pennant and to assume command as Senior Officer of Her Majesty's Ships on the Australian Station independently of the Commander in Chief in India."
So the Australia Station of the Royal Navy began. This station was to provide Australia and New Zealand's sea defence for the next 50 years until they could provide navies of their own. The Station encompassed Australia, New Zealand and the Fiji Islands until Australia and New Zealand were excluded from the station in 1911. Harrier was stationed on the Australia Station between December 1860 and 1864.
During the period of the New Zealand Wars (1860 - 1864) most of the Royal Navy ships in the Australia Squadron were stationed in the waters of the North Island of New Zealand. These ships were Curacoa (the Australia station flagship after the sinking of the Orpheus in 1863), carrying Commodore Wiseman (Station Commodore April 1863 - May 1866), Eclipse, Esk, Falcon, Harrier and Miranda.
A Naval Brigade was a group of sailors (commonly called "bluejackets") from one or more ships who would be sent ashore as the need arose to quell an insurrection or restore order in some part of the British empire and operated around the world from the Crimea, India, Burma, Japan, Africa and New Zealand. The Admiralty was often reluctant to see its men and ships used in land battles but often had the only artillery readily available.
The following description is from a Maori who fought in the New Zealand Wars and he is passing on to younger warriors what it was like to fight the bluejackets (whom the Maoris called "Ngati Jacks"):
"These Ngati Jacks you must understand, boys, do not belong to the same tribes as the soldier, though they likewise fight for the Great White Queen. They are a strange people. I who have seen them know them well, and tell you youths to beware should you ever have the honour to fight them. Great is the courage of the soldiers, but also very great is their folly, for they will walk up to an entrenchment in a body and suffer themselves to be shot down by our fire from under the pekerangi (outer fence of a pah), but the Ngati Jacks rush at the fence tumultuously, leap on one another's backs and in a breath are among you. Then, oh my sons, your hearts must be very strong should you want to stay and fight to the end. All the warriors of the Great White Queen swear very much when they are fighting, but the Ngati Jacks swear the most. Yes, my sons, they are a strange people. They have no villages, nor do they plant nor keep cattle, but live in the bowels of the ships in which they store much rum,salt, pork and tobacco. "