Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Dickinson, Thomas (b)


Obtained his first commission in Aug. 1806; and was severely wounded while serving as senior lieutenant of the Andromache frigate. Captain George Tobin, at the capture of la Trave, French 44, in Oct. 1813[1]. The estimation in which he was held by his gallant captain, was thus expressed in that officer’s official letter, but never reached publicity:

“The zeal and professional talents of Mr. Dickinson I have long known, and endeavoured to appreciate; and on all occasions have sought his clear and comprehensive counsel; nor is it possible that I can ever cease to cherish a remembrance of it with the warmest gratitude.”

And in a private letter to Viscount Melville, after stating the sufferings of Lieutenant Dickinson, Captain Tobin observes:

“Our affair with la Trave (the account of which I endeavoured to give as succinctly, and with as much humility as possible) will doubtless soon pass by. If I was at all prolix, it was in praising those to whom I shall ever be indebted, which, of all others, is the highest gratification a commander can feel; and in a warfare like the present, where the foe in general remain secure in port, too many opportunities do not offer for our bestowing it.

“Lieutenant Dickinson is an officer of great zeal, and very superior professional attainments. He was first lieutenant (alas! my Lord, he is now nothing) of the Andromache, when opposed to an enemy, fully equal to her in metal, and superior in men. True, my Lord, la Trave was under jury-masts, nor was the contest long (though a well-directed fire of nearly half an hour, from her stern guns, I barely noticed); yet, if short, it was by the prompt and steady conduct of the officers and crew I had the happiness to command, and particularly that of Lieutenant Dickinson, who, by an admirable precision in working the ship, anticipated my every wish.”

Although thus highly recommended, Mr. Dickinson was not promoted until June 15th, 1814. In the course of the same year, he obtained a pension for his wounds, the present amount of which is £150 per annum. In 1825, the Society of Arts presented him with the Gold Vulcan Medal, for his mode of applying percussion powder to the discharge of ships’ guns. And on the 25th June, 1829, he was appointed to the command of the Lightning sloop, fitting out at Plymouth for the South American station.

The Lightning was at Rio Janeiro refitting, after a trip to the Pacific, when the intelligence of the loss of the Thetis frigate, on Cape Frio, on the night of Dec. 5th, 1830, arrived[2]. Every thing on board that ill-fated ship, including 800,000 dollars, was supposed to be irrecoverable: but Commander Dickinson was not of that opinion and thought that, at least some of the treasure might be saved. He accordingly offered his services to Rear-Admiral Thomas Baker, the Commander-in-chief, and obtained permission to carry his plans for this purpose into effect. For the following sketch of his operations we are indebted to the Nautical Magazine:

“The first thing to be provided was a diving-bell, for which two iron tanks were supplied from H.M.S. Warspite. Iron tanks are used in H.M. navy instead of casks, for the purpose of containing water, and are about five feet cube, which allows of their holding about two tons. The plan proposed to be adopted by Commander Dickinson was communicated to Mr. Moore, an Englishman of acknowledged skill and experience as a civil engineer, residing at Rio, who so far approved of it, as to engage his own services towards carrying it into execution, in return for which he was to receive payment in proportion to the amount of property recovered. During the time that these preparations were going forward at Rio, the Algerine sloop, (acting Commander William Henry Martin,) and the Adelaide schooner, with the Warspite’s launch, were at Cape Frio, and saved a few stores, which had been washed on the rocks by the surf.

“Under the auspices of Mr. Moore, the diving-bell was shortly completed by the armourers of the ships at Rio, and an air-pump, which had been nothing more than a fire-engine, was got ready, and provided with a hose, constructed with much care, from those belonging to Commander Truscott’s forcing-pump. The property of these hoses is that of being airtight; but they were rendered more secure by the application of tar and canvass, and fortified against outer accident by spun-yarn, passed carefully round them. The diving-bell being ready, the first experiment was made with it in the harbour of Rio, when it was let down to a depth of 7 ½ fathoms from H.M.S. Warspite, and found to answer perfectly well.

“Commander Dickinson now proceeded in the Lightning, with the diving-bell and air-pump, besides a collection of hawsers and anchors, to Cape Frio, the scene of operation. A net was also prepared, to be spread across the entrance of the cove in which the Thetis lay, to prevent any part of her wreck from being washed out to sea. On arriving at Cape Frio, Commander Dickinson, accompanied by acting Commander Martin, proceeded to examine the shore of the cove, and determine the plan to be pursued for suspending the diving-bell. The coast, as might have been expected, proved of that rocky description, which rendered the task still more difficult.

“To obtain a point of suspension for the diving-bell was now the chief concern. The general height of the land is about two hundred feet; and. Commander Dickinson imagined, that he could stretch cable across the cove from one height to the other; but the immense span which this required rendered it apparently impossible, and he determined on employing a derrick. To construct this machine, every piece of wood that could be found on board the ships was put in requisition, the land affording none that was available; and the work proceeded under the direction of Mr. Batt, carpenter of the Warspite.

“On the 2d Feb. 1831, Colonel Gasque, a Spanish officer of the Brazilian service, arrived at Cape Frio, with seven natives of the country, who were reported to be expert divers. These people, however, did no good whatever, neither did the gallant colonel; and, after failing in all their attempts, they returned to Rio.

“While the derrick was in progress, Mr. Jones, carpenter of the Lightning, was employed with a party in preparing a capstan and bollards, besides various fastenings, which would be required for its management. Mr. Moore was equally busy in preparing a clean even space on the summit of the rocks in the interior of the cove, for the main purchases, and in fixing iron bolts in various parts of the cliff, for the ends of guys for the derrick.

“Hitherto the officers and men had lived entirely on the island forming the cape, in tents constructed of old sails and pieces of canvass. These were but a sorry protection against the sand, which was continually blown about in such quantities as to make its way into every thing they had; but the greatest annoyance was that of finding it among their provisions, from which it was utterly impossible to exclude it. After enduring this for a long time the season changed, the wind became variable, and was accompanied by rain. The change, therefore, was for the worse; for the frail habitations which had been created, were even less calculated to withstand the effects of the storm, and consequently they admitted the rain in nearly every part. Great inconvenience arose from wet beds and clothes, which produced ill effects on the health of the party; and although endeavours were made to improve the tents with the resources which the island afforded, still little was done in this particular.

“During the time that all these preparations were going forward. Captain Dickinson attempted to work the diving-bell from the launches which he had brought from Rio; but it was found too heavy for either of them. Determined, however, that no time should be lost, he directed a smaller one to be made, and the launch of the Warspite was selected and prepared for working it. At the same time, parties of men were engaged in creeping up whatever could be got from the wreck by means of ropes. On the 2d March, the small diving-bell was completed, and a trial made with it in the cove, that proved satisfactory; but in consequence of bad weather, and some further alterations that were necessary in the boat which was to work it, nothing was done with it until the 7th March. On this day, the boat was secured with it over the wreck, and the bell sent down with Richard Heans, carpenter’s-mate of the Lightning, and George Dewar, a seaman. The bell had not been down long, when the wind freshened, and occasioned so much violent motion to the launch and the hoses, that they became leaky, and it was found necessary to heave it up again, and secure the boat. Whenever the weather permitted, the small bell was constantly in operation, and on the 10th March, by the violence of the sea, was dashed against the rocks at the bottom of the cove. This accident had nearly proved fatal to the two men, Heans and Dewar, who extricated themselves from it as it was thrown on its side, and with difficulty reached the surface of the water. The latter was nearly exhausted when he came up, and was snatched into the boat instantly by Commander Dickinson, by which his life was saved.

“A delay of three days was occasioned by this accident, at the end of which time the bell was again ready for working, and was employed as before. The effect of the operations in the small bell now showed itself, as several pieces of the wreck, which had been detached from the rest, were seen floating about in the cove. Among these were a great many of the vessel’s timbers, a part of the stern-post; and, a large mass of her bottom being discovered, the position of it was marked for examination by buoys. The same method of marking the position of different parts of the wreck was also adopted, and the buoys were regularly numbered; a measure which contributed much towards the order and regularity of the proceedings.

“In the course of the operations with the small bell, on the 19th March, the chain-cable was discovered, and attempts were made to raise it, without effect, from its being so much buried among other parts of the wreck.

“At this stage of the proceedings, the length determined on for the derrick was found to be too little by thirty feet, which must have arisen either from a mistake in the measurement of the distance which the wreck was from the rocks, where the derrick was intended to be stepped, or from the position of the wreck having changed. The original length of the derrick was ordered to be 120 feet; but the distance of the wreck from the rocks being as much as 150 feet, it became necessary to lengthen the derrick to at least 155 feet, to give it a sufficient inclination. This produced a further delay; but the time was not lost; for while it was in progress, the Lightning’s three anchors and her capstan, besides three crabs, were fixed on the principal cliff, for the topping-lifts of the derrick. In addition to these, other crabs were placed on various parts of the cliffs, for receiving guys to steady it. The small diving-bell was also kept at work, in loosening and clearing away as much as possible the lesser pieces of the wreck. This service was attended with much danger, from the constant south-easterly gales, which produced so much swell, that the bell was frequently dashed against the rocks, to the great risk of its being broken, as well as endangering the hoses of the air-pump.

“About two months had now elapsed, and nothing in the shape of treasure had been recovered, although the utmost exertions had been made that the small diving.bell would permit; and it was generally thought that it had been washed out to sea, as the net, which had been placed across the mouth of the cove at the commencement of the operations, had been quickly carried away by the violence of the waves. With this prevailing opinion, it was determined to save those parts of the stores, the position of which had been marked by buoys; when, on the 1st April, the persons at work in the small bell discovered some dollars among the rocks at the bottom; and these having been collected, led to the discovery of more, besides a quantity of gold. This was sufficient encouragement to hope that more was there; but so completely was it buried among the rocks at the bottom, that it was difficult to distinguish it, and a torch was employed in the bell; which, however, after a short time, was found nut to answer. In the midst of this success, the launch was nearly lost, owing to a sudden shift of wind, which produced so much swell, that it became necessary to heave up the bell, and leave the cove as soon as possible. On the 5th April, the operations having been resumed, some more treasure was recovered in the small bell.

“The derrick was now nearly completed, the men having been employed in preparing the fittings for it when they were unable to work the small bell, and all hands were now occupied in reeving the purchase falls, and getting the chains and hawsers into their places on the cliffs of the cove. This was a work of more than ordinary danger, in consequence of pieces of rock being displaced from the sides of the cliffs, and falling among those employed below; and the danger was still further increased, from the rugged nature of the rocks allowing of no escape. Men were to be seen slung in ropes on all sides of the cove, busy in fixing the guys, &c. for the derrick, which happily was effected without any accident, from the judicious arrangements that had been made.

“The small diving-bell still continued at work, and on the 8th April, the men in it found themselves in the midst of a large quantity of provisions, the stench of which was so great, that the life of one man was endangered by it, and he was immediately removed from the bell. On the following day, the derrick being completed, it was launched into the harbour, and towed round to the cove. Being put into its place, and every thing prepared for heaving it up, this business was commenced; but the swell from the sea, which set into the cove, was so great, that it could not be done; and it therefore became necessary to tow it back again for safety to the harbour. The operation of towing so large and unwieldy a spar through a boisterous sea was most laborious, and the party employed underwent great bodily fatigue in performing it. On the 10th April, another attempt was made to get the derrick into its place, which was more fortunate than the preceding. After being again towed round, and placed in its step, the outer end of the derrick was hove up ten feet above the surface of the water, and secured. The next day, attempts were made to raise the outer end of the derrick higher by means of the purchases; but in consequence of its extreme length, and the number of pieces of wood with which it was constructed, it betrayed weakness, and more topping-lifts were found necessary for its support. These were speedily completed, and the end of the derrick was at length hove up 55 feet from the surface of the water, at a sufficient angle to secure its stability. A very short time after this, the wind freshened and produced a swell, which would have put a stop to the operations; but the derrick was now secure. The seamen had undergone greater labour and privation in these three days than at any other period of the operations; and such was the importance of making the most of the few days of fine weather, that they had worked throughout the two last from 4-30 a.m. until late at night, without taking any refreshment. To them and their able commander it was a joyful sight to see the derrick in its place; and, having made every thing secure, they returned to the harbour prepared to resume their arduous duty on the following morning.

“The next step was to suspend the large diving-bell in a manner that would allow of its being lowered into the sea and raised again, according as circumstances might require. Preparations for this were accordingly made, while, at the same time, the small diving-bell was kept at work as usual from the launch, which on more than one occasion was nearly lost, by being exposed to the roughness of the sea, produced by the sudden shifting of the wind. In the course of these proceedings with the small bell, considerable progress was made in clearing away such of the loose pieces of rock among which the fragments of the ship were buried, as its limited size would allow, and quantities of dollars were occasionally recovered.

“The arrangements for working the large diving-bell were completed by the 6th of May, previous to which time Commander Dickinson had obtained a reinforcement of his party from the Warspite, at Rio. The various fastenings of the derrick were completed, the stage for the air-pump was ready, and the large diving-bell was taken out of the harbour, and suspended from the derrick. Nothing, however, could be done with it on this day, in consequence of the rough state of the sea in the cove; and it was not before the 11th May that the first descent to the wreck was made with it. On this occasion it was found to answer every expectation, and it continued in operation with success. Large masses of rock, beneath which pieces of the wreck lay buried, were removed, and many dollars, besides some stores, were saved.

“On the 13th May, H.M.S. Eden, commanded by Capt. W. F. W. Owen, arrived at Cape Frio on her way to England; and by her, Commander Dickinson had the satisfaction of sending home 123,995 dollars.

“The launch belonging to the Warspite had hitherto been kept at work, whenever it was possible, with the small diving-bell; but that ship requiring her boat, she left the Cove for Rio Janeiro on the 16th May, with all her crew. The small bell, however, was not to remain unemployed at such a momentous period, and a Brazilian boat was ordered to be substituted immediately for that of the Warspite.

“On a retrospect of the whole proceedings, from their commencement to the time that the first shipment of treasure was made in the Eden, and on contemplating the numerous dangers to which the party employed in this hazardous service were continually exposed, it is a matter of surprise that some fatal accident had not yet occurred.

“On the 18th May, a gale of wind came on from the south-west, which the following day had increased so much that apprehensions were entertained of the whole proceedings being stopped for some time. An inspection of the plan[3] will shew the exposed situation of the cove and it may easily be imagined that the smallest breeze would produce a commotion in the surface of the water; but when this increased to a gale, the violence of the waves must there be truly awful. Such it was on the 19th May. The waves in the cove rose half way up the overhauling cliffs, to a height of nearly 100 feet, and caused much anxiety in the minds of Commander Dickinson and his party, for the safety of the derrick. This object of their solicitude, the completion of which had cost so many days of laborious exertion, betrayed its inability to withstand much longer the repeated shocks of the waves, and in the course of the morning the contents of the stage were washed away. At 10 a.m. a tremendous wave broke the derrick in two pieces, about twenty feet from the step: soon afterwards it separated into five different fragments; and thus perished this enormous machine, with the assistance of which not more than 50,000 dollars had been saved.

“Discouraging as this misfortune must have been, the first concern, as a matter of course, was to repair it; and the former plan, of stretching a cable across the cove, from the summits of the opposite cliffs, was determined on. While the preparations for this substitute for the derrick were going forward, the Brazilian boat, being ready to work the small bell, was taken to the cove, and search was made for the air-pump, which had been washed off the stage. In the course of this search, an accident happened to the hose of the small bell, which obliged George Dewar again to make his escape from beneath it, and to swim to the surface, by which he received considerable injury from the rocks, and was taken up in a very exhausted condition. The air-pump and the large diving-bell were recovered on the following day; but the latter had received so much injury that it could not be used, and another was directed to be prepared in its stead, while the small bell continued at work with some success.

“Another reverse of fortune happened on the 30th May, by a sudden change in the weather, which, during the morning, had been fine, and had allowed of the bell being worked. This no sooner took place, than the operations were stopped, and the boats were compelled to make their way put of the cove without loss of time. The boat containing the small bell was taken in tow by the others; but such was the violence of the wind and waves, that having gained the outside of the cove with great toil and difficulty, to proceed further was found to be impossible. In this dilemma, prompt measures were required. Commander Dickinson, therefore, directed the boat to be taken back to the cove, and anchored without loss of time: this being done, the bell was to be lowered into the water, and the boat’s crew to be landed in the safest part of the cove. Apprehensive of losing the air-pump. Commander Dickinson took it into his own boat, and immediately made for the harbour. It was not without the greatest difficulty he succeeded in reaching it, – the small dimensions of the boat, and the additional weight of the air-pump, rendering her unequal to encounter the boisterous sea. Every person in her, with the exception of two who continued rowing, were constantly employed in baling out the water, and when they at length gained the harbour, the whole were nearly exhausted.

“The small diving-bell, on this occasion, had been left at the bottom of the cove to the mercy of the waves; but the alternative of endeavouring to bring it away would, in all probability, have cost the lives of the whole party. In this gale, all the buoys, that had served as marks for the different situations of the wreck, were washed away; and with the condition of the launch, and the small bell, the general aspect of affairs was any thing but encouraging; nor was it improved when the small bell was recovered, for this was found to be in so shattered a condition from the blows which it had received by the rocks, that it was of no use. The operations in the cove were now totally suspended: the derrick had been destroyed, the two diving-bells were unserviceable, and all the buoys had disappeared. Commander Dickinson, however, had his resources at hand; the same persons who had constructed the diving-hells could make others; and no sooner was the small bell discovered to be broken, than orders were given to replace it with another. In the space of six days this was accomplished, under the able superintendence of Mr. Jones; indeed, the spirited exertions of every one employed in this arduous service, proved that they were actuated by the same teal, and shared in the same anxiety for the attainment of their object, which, from the commencement, had influenced their gallant commander. On a duty of this nature, a saving of time was frequently of the greatest importance; and on these occasions, regularity in meals and rest were lost sight of; – all danger was disregarded, each difficulty was overcome, and every privation was willingly endured.

“An accident occurred on the 10th June, which threw a temporary gloom over the whole party. Mr. Moore, the engineer, with Mr. Linzee, mate of the Adelaide tender, and a seaman, were unhappily drowned by the sinking of a boat.

“While the large bell was constructing, the small one, having been completed, was again worked with considerable success; and another quantity of dollars, amounting to 120,500, forwarded to England by H.M. packet Calypso. This vessel sailed from Cape Frio on the 21st June; and on the 30th another large quantity of treasure was found beneath a rock, which, with much difficulty, had been removed. One of the Lightning’s hempen bower cables was secured across the cove, as a suspension cable for the large bell, which was first used on the 9th October; after which, the operations seem to have proceeded very successfully. Considerable difficulty, however, was found in keeping the iron bolts properly secured in the rocks, for the various fastenings. This arose from the nature of the rock, which, after the bolts had been sunk firmly in it with much trouble, on being exposed a few days to the action of the atmosphere, split into small fragments. Thus the bolts were repeatedly loosened, and delay was occasioned by replacing them.”

The total amount of specie recovered by Commander Dickinson and his party was about 600,000 dollars; rather more than two-thirds of the whole treasure so unfortunately engulphed. They also succeeded in recovering the anchors, chain-cable, and some of the guns of the ill-fated Thetis.

“Sufficient has now been stated to inform the reader of the manner in which so much valuable property has been saved, – of the great personal danger to which the officers and men employed were continually exposed, – and of the skill and determined perseverance displayed by Commander Dickinson throughout this hazardous and difficult service. Such a service, among the occupations of peace, ranks equally high with the brightest achievement of war: if the latter has shed lustre on the naval profession, the former reflects equal honor on those by whom it was accomplished, and adds no less to the character for enterprise which distinguishes the British seaman.”[4]

The Lightning returned home in Aug. 1832; and was paid off, at Portsmouth, on the 13th of the following month. Previous to her being put out of commission, the ship’s company requested permission to present a sword and pair of epaulettes to their commander, “in token of gratitude for his unceasing care, during their dangerous and laborious exertions at Cape Frio, by which their lives were preserved;” but he, disapproving of the principle of inferiors expressing a public opinion of their superiors, declined the acceptance of them. Subsequently, some malicious persons having aspersed the character of the crew, by writing an anonymous letter to Admiral Sir Thomas Foley, wherein it was set forth that they were discontented in their ship, they renewed their application, on the ground of shewing “that not a man amongst them felt otherwise than satisfied and happy, and that they had the highest respect for their commander and officers.” Commander Dickinson was then induced to consult an officer of high rank, as well as some of his brother officers, and under these peculiar circumstances accepted them. They also presented to the first lieutenant (Thomas G. Forbes), master (Charles Pope), and mate (M. D. Blennerhasset), a very handsome ring each. When paid off, such was the orderly conduct and good state of the crew, that the Admiral Superintendent, Sir Frederick L. Maitland, was pleased to compliment Commander Dickinson on the occasion.


(Vol. IV. Part I. pp. 251–261.)

Was advanced to the rank of captain Nov. 29th, 1832.

  1. See Vol. II. Part II. p. 634.
  2. See Vol. III. Part II. p. 163.
  3. By Lieutenant Augustus Henry Kellett, of the Eden. It exhibits the localities of Cape Frio, and the various points where the Thetis struck before she finally drifted into the cove, to which, with her remains, she has left her name. See Naut. Mag. for April, 1832.
  4. Naut. Mag. vol. i. p. 73.