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Henry & the Warrior

Published in Summer 1996, this article appeared in Volume 26 of the BFHS Journal.

One of the most important sources of family history research is word of mouth. What a pity we don't write down all those stories we were told when we were children ! Our older relatives are a fantastic source of information. They can tell us so much about their lives and their memories, but so often we fail to record it and the information is eventually lost forever. Such memories and stories can provide a starting point for our research. Were did our families live and what did they do ? Some stories were passed down through several generations before being finally lost forever.

First, the facts. My Great-great-great-grandfather, Henry Burgum, is a prime example. Henry was born in Bolton, Lancashire, in 1824. I know that he married Elizabeth Blakemore, a Somerset lass, in Bristol in 1841. They had four sons and five daughters, some of whom were born in Bristol. The later children were born in West Ham, East London. Now the stories ! Family legend stated that there was a Brazilian connection. Sure enough, several of Henry's children went to Brazil; (indeed, his son's family still live out there). I have also been told that he, or his son also Henry, worked as an engineer and something to do with the building of Tower Bridge. (Tower Bridge was built between 1886 and 1894 and I am still looking into this possibility).

One final family story also intrigues me. It is said that Henry (my great-great-great-grandfather) forged the plates needed for the first ironclad battleship built for the British Navy. The story continues that, to test the strength of the plate, a cannon ball was fired at short range and that this plate was still to be seen with a cannon ball embedded in it at the Naval Museum, Greenwich.

Could it be that Henry really had something to do with the construction of one of the greatest warships ever built - HMS Warrior ? Well, of course, your humble researcher cannot help, but drag his family all over the place in search of Burgum family history. "Boys, how do you fancy a day out in Portsmouth?"

HMS Warrior was designed and built in order to counter the threat from the French. They had built the first ironclad, the Gloire, which was considered to be a threat to the Royal
Hms warrior
Naval fleet. The Crown (Victoria and Albert), the politicians and the public were all alarmed by this threat from across the channel. Great Britain's rapid response was HMS Warrior. Tenders were put out on 29th April 1859 and the contract awarded to the Thames Ironworks on 11th May. The first keel-plate was laid near to where Bow Creek flows into the Thames, in East London.

Incredibly Warrior was launched in just eleven months ! This was despite the fact that the technology was new. Large iron plates, four and a half inches thick, were placed over a hull of teak, the hardest and toughest wood available, eighteen inches thick. Her compartments were sub-divided into separate watertight compartments and she was driven by both sail and steam. When under sail, the massive propeller could be raised into the hull to reduce the drag. She was to have a crew of over 700 men!

Warrior was an astonishing feat of engineering and still impresses today as she sits in Portsmouth dockyard close to HMS Victory (Lord Nelson's ship) and the Mary Rose (from King Henry VIII's fleet). For me, she was the most interesting of the ships and it was a joy to walk over her decks imagining that Henry Burgum, my ancestor, might have assisted with its construction. As a forgeman, he would have worked on the metal plates. Only the best scrap metal was used to hammer out and roll these giant iron plates, which weighed about four tons each. Each plate had to be reheated and curved into shape. Roughly fifteen feet by three feet in size, they were tongue and grooved together and bolted onto the teak hull and frame.

Samples of the iron plates were, indeed, sent to Woolwich for test firing, which fits in with the family story, involving Henry. Only thirty armoured plates were fitted before the launch, with the rest attached to Warrior later at Victoria Dock. Altogether nine hundred and fifty tons of plate were made for the Warrior. Henry would likely have been there to witness the launch of HMS Warrior on Saturday 29th 1860. A hard frost the previous night had frozen the grease along the slipway and when the chocks were removed, HMS Warrior remained stationary on the ramp. Special hydraulic rams would not budge her; nor did the men running backwards and forwards on her deck. Tugs pulled at her from the river, while hundreds of men hammered at the slipway. Finally, with the assistance of still more tugs, the Warrior slowly slipped into the water. The next day, the Warrior was towed to Victoria Dock, just a quarter of a mile from the Thames Ironworks. Here the rest of the iron plates were laid and the ship fitted out.

By August 1861, the Warrior was ready for commission, the fastest, largest, most powerful naval ship in the world. The Warrior never fired a shot in anger, her mere presence being enough to deter any enemy. The Thames Ironworks, where Henry worked, remained successful well into the next century but competition from the northern shipyards led to its closure in 1912. All that remains of Thames Ironworks is the works football team - now called West Ham Football Club ! Their nickname, from the Ironworks; the Hammers. Henry's part in all this ? I am still looking into it !

  • Another story about Henry Burgum - The Brazilian Connection