Mr Hally has gott a ship: the origins of Halley’s voyage

“Mr Hally has gott a ship from the government, in which he has sett sail to goe round the globe on new discoverys, and the rectifying of geography…”, so wrote James Gregory to the Reverend Colin Campbell in May 1699, when Halley was by then on his way back to England. [1] But how had Halley, a natural philosopher and Clerk to the Royal Society, “gott” his ship and why had he been made her Master and Commander?

Halley’s voyage began on 20 October 1698, but it was first discussed nearly six years earlier and then suffered a number of false starts before Halley finally weighed anchor. The earliest references date from 1693, and the proposed voyage was rather different from that which eventually took place.

At a meeting of the Royal Society on 12 April 1693 it was minuted that:

The President was pleased to propose to the Society a Paper lately offered him by Mr. Bengamin Middleton, requesting the Assistence of this Society to procure for him a small Vessell of about 60. Tuns to be fitted out by the Government, but to be victualled, and manned at his own proper charges. And this in order to compass the Globe to make observations in the Magneticall Needle &c. The President in the name of the Society promised to use his endeavours towards the obtaining such a Vessell. [2]

Benjamin Middleton was a Fellow of the Royal Society, elected in 1687, and appears periodically in the minutes, usually reporting on matters relating to Barbados, where he owned property. He was probably the son of Colonel Thomas Middleton, a Navy Commissioner and colleague of Pepys, and may have been the Benjamin Middleton who attended Emmanuel College, Cambridge and had been admitted to Gray’s Inn.

Although Halley isn’t mentioned in the minute, he seems to have been involved in the project from the outset as Robert Hooke noted “Hally [talking] of Going in Middletō[n’s] ship to Disc[over]” in his diary some three months before the Royal Society minute; while Middleton’s proposal to the Society, dated March 1693, stated:

… It is therefore most humbly prayed that this Honble: Company would please to Lend their Assistence … to Obtaine of their Matys: a vessell … for a voyage to be undertaken by Benjamin Middleton Esqr. and Edmond Halley … the designe being to compass the Globe from East to West through the great South Sea. And the said Benj: Middleton … does oblige himselfe to goe the Voyage and to Victuall and Man the said Vessell at his owne proper Costs and Charges … And the Care of Making the Necessary Observations is undertaken by the sd. Edmund Halley, whose Capacity for Such Purposes is Supposed to be Sufficiently knowne to this Honble: Company. [3]

So the plan was that Middleton would finance the voyage if the government would provide the ship, and Halley would perform the observations – and their original intention was nothing less than to sail round the world!

In July 1693, the Admiralty informed the Navy Board that Middleton’s petition had been presented to the Queen, who was “graciously pleased to incourage the said undertakeing”, and directed the Board to give instructions for a vessel to be built. [4]

The vessel – Paramore – was ready for launching in April 1694 but the records then fall silent and nothing seems to happen till 11 February 1696 when the Admiralty communicated their intention to have Paramore fitted out as an Advice Boat – the Halley-Middleton voyage was off.

But just one week later the Admiralty wrote again, countermanding the order to refit her as she will now “proceed on ye. Service for which shee was built.” [5]

There are several suggestions why nothing happened after her launch and why the project was almost abandoned in February 1696: it may have been because of Queen Mary’s death in December 1694, or because of events in the Nine Years’ War, or because of the personal circumstances of either Halley or Middleton: given what happened next, I’d guess that something had changed in the affairs of Benjamin Middleton.

At this point, Halley, a man who got things done, took over the project and all correspondence was either addressed to Halley or refers to him, unlike the first phase when all documentation referred almost exclusively to Middleton.

Middleton makes just one more appearance, in a letter of June 1696 in which Halley advised the Admiralty of the number and quality of men he intended taking as crew. Middleton is mentioned as still going on the voyage, but it is now Sir John Hoskins who is named as providing security for the crew’s wages, though I suppose this could have been a precaution against Middleton dying on the voyage.

Sir John gave the required bond of £600, and on 4 June 1696 Halley received his commission as ‘Master and Commander without Instructions’. What experience Halley had to justify receiving this command of a Royal Navy ship will be looked at during his second voyage.

Twelve months’ stores were ordered and warrants for three officers issued, but then in August 1696 the Admiralty ordered that Paramore be laid up in the wet dock at Deptford until further notice – the voyage was off again.

This time we know the reason for the postponement, it was because Halley had accepted Newton’s offer to become Deputy Comptroller at the regional Mint at Chester during the Great Recoinage, and Halley was there from about autumn 1696 until spring 1698.

Once back in London he revived his plans for the voyage, and during this phase its status seems to have changed from a private to a government-funded project. There doesn’t seem to be a request for security to cover the crew’s wages, Halley has £100 imprest to him by the Admiralty for expenses – and unlike his first commission, his second, dated 19 August 1698, included a set of instructions.

Yet there was another delay during this third phase of preparations, for although Paramore was purposely built for Halley’s voyage and finally set sail on 20 October 1698 under his command, Halley was not the first man to command her – but that interesting person is a subject for a future post …


[1] The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Vol IV, Letter 611

[2] Royal Society, Journal Book Original, JBO/9, p 118

[3] British Library, Sloane MS 4024; Royal Society, Collectanea Newtoniana, Vol IV

[4] National Maritime Museum, ADM/A/1797

[5] National Archives, ADM 2/176, p 459


One thought on “Mr Hally has gott a ship: the origins of Halley’s voyage

  1. Pingback: The Giants’ Shoulders #58: Without theme | Asylum Science

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