Halley and Peter the Great

In a previous post I mentioned that while Paramore had been purposely built for Halley’s voyage, Halley was not her first commander – that person was none other than Peter the Great!

In 1696 Peter became sole ruler of Russia after the death of Ivan, his half-brother and joint-Tsar, and immediately began a grand project to modernise his backward country.


Peter by Godfrey Kneller (© Royal Collection)

By the end of the year, preparations were under way for a Great Embassy that would travel through Europe recruiting allies against the Turks and studying western technologies. But what would be remarkable about this Embassy was that Peter himself would be part of it – not as its head, but as a private individual.

Peter was intent on travelling incognito to avoid the formality that would otherwise attend him and so he could work and move around like an ordinary citizen – though at 6 feet 7 inches tall, the Russian monarch was fated to stand out no matter how ‘ordinary’ he endeavoured to appear.

The Embassy left Moscow in March 1697 and travelled through northern Europe, arriving in Holland by mid-August. Here, Peter worked in the dockyards at Zaandam (where local boys threw stones at him) and at Amsterdam, but while Peter was impressed with Dutch ships, he was dissatisfied with their method of building them, finding they relied more on intuition and accumulated expertise than on mathematical precepts that Peter could learn and take back to Russia.

He was advised to visit England, where “this kind of practice is raised to the same perfection as other arts and sciences, and might be learned in a short time” [1] and so when William III (who was eager to cultivate Peter in order to secure certain trading rights for English merchants) invited Peter to visit England, Peter promptly accepted.

The main part of the Embassy stayed in Holland, while Peter and 15 companions set sail for England aboard HMS Yorke, flagship of Vice-Admiral Sir David Mitchell. It is said that Peter spent the voyage dressed as a Dutch sailor, and that he climbed to the top of the rigging, although he was unable to persuade the Admiral to climb aloft with him. [2]

The party arrived in London on January 11, and Peter initially resided in Norfolk Street, which ran between the Thames and the Strand (roughly where Temple tube is today), and it was here that Peter’s pet monkey is said to have startled William when it jumped on him during the King’s informal visit shortly after Peter’s arrival. [3]

But Norfolk Street wasn’t private enough for Peter and so in early February he moved his entourage south of the river to Sayes Court in Deptford, away from the intrusive curiosity of the London crowds and next door to the dockyards where Peter could continue his studies in shipbuilding.

Sayes Court was owned by the diarist and Fellow of the Royal Society, John Evelyn; it was a beautiful house admired by all people of taste, not least for its celebrated and influential garden. Evelyn had let the house to John Benbow in 1696, shortly after Benbow’s promotion to the rank of Admiral, but Evelyn was soon complaining of the “mortification of seeing every day much of my former labours and expense there impairing for want of a more polite tenant.”


Pity poor Mr Russell!

Oh dear. If Evelyn was dissatisfied with Benbow as a tenant, he was in for the shock of his life when his property was sub-let to the Czar of Muscovia. The destruction wrought by the visiting Russians on Sayes Court during their two-and-a-half months’ stay has passed into legend. Benbow sued the government for compensation, and the assessment by Sir Christopher Wren of the damage done to goods, buildings, and Evelyn’s cherished garden amounted to £350 9s 6d – more than seven times Halley’s annual Royal Society salary. [4]

Peter didn’t restrict himself to destroying one of England’s finest manor houses, her sailing vessels caught his attention too. On 7 March 1698, a letter from the King’s dockyard informed the Admiralty that:

A Little Yacht Called ye Dove wch: is hired from William Charlton of Greenwich to Waite on ye Czar of Muscovia and he goeing down to Woolwich … his Ma[jes]ty Steering himselfe run aboard one of ye Bomb Vessells wch Broake away ye knee Cheekes Figure Railes and all yt belonged to ye head… [5]

And a month later, on April 13th:

The Dove Yacht wch is hired from Mr Charlton of Greenwich to waite on ye Czar of Muscovia has Sustained such another Damage as I gave yo[u]r Hono[u]r An Acco[un]t of ye 7th March past, by his own Steering Run on board ye Henrietta Yacht in turning up ye River wch broak away all her head and shook the Vessell very much, and has caused her to be very Leakey. [6]

Bravo! Peter’s appetite for life was insatiable and he was rarely at rest between these impressive navigational displays. He visited the Mint at the Tower and the Observatory at Greenwich; he watched a mock battle off Portsmouth and a night-time gunnery display at Woolwich; he had an affair with an actress and walked under the outstretched arm of a giantess without bending; he drank copious amounts of hot pepper and brandy, and famously ate out a tavern when he tarried in Godalming.

And amid all this, Peter might possibly have met Edmond Halley.

Halley’s entry in the Biographia Britannica tells us that:

[Peter] sent for Mr Halley, and found him equal to the great character he had heard of him. He asked him many questions concerning the fleet which he intended to build, the sciences and arts which he wished to introduce into his dominions, and a thousand other subjects which his unbounded curiosity suggested; he was so well satisfied with Mr Halley’s answers, and so pleased with his conversation, that he admitted him familiarly to his table, and ranked him among the number of his friends… [7]

There is no known contemporary source that confirms their meeting and historians of Peter seem to regard this tale as part of the mythology that (unsurprisingly!) attaches to Peter’s visit to London. Yet none of the sources I looked at* mentioned the documented event that seems to offer the most likely indication that Peter and Halley met: Peter’s use of Halley’s ship Paramore.

In a letter dated 16 March 1698, the Admiralty writes to the Navy Board that:

The Czar of Muscovy having desired that his Matis Pink the Paramour at Deptford may be Rigg’d and brought afloat, in Ordr. to make Some Experimt. about her Sayling, We do therefore hereby desire & direct You … to give the necessary Orders for Rigg:g and bringing afloat the Said Vessell, & Employing her in such mañer as the Czar Shall desire…[8]


Order to rig the Paramore for the Tsar (© National Archives (£), ADM 2/178)

Now what’s interesting about this letter is that it says that Peter himself asked for Paramore to be brought afloat for his use, whereas the other vessels he employed all seem to have been proposed by the Admiralty: could it be that Peter made this specific request after meeting Halley, who perhaps talked to him about his ship? Halley’s diplomatic personality and nautical expertise would certainly seem to fit well with Peter’s character and maritime interests.

The semi-official Journal of the Great Embassy does not mention Halley but has entries for only 52 of the 105 days that Peter spent in England, and not everything that Peter is known to have done is recorded there. Peter might not have met Halley, but it seems to me just possible that he did.

And the story that Halley was one of those said to have pushed Peter through John Evelyn’s prized holly hedge in a wheelbarrow? Oh, now that’s undoubtedly mythical!

* ie sources which focus on Peter rather than on Halley – and there may be some that do mention Paramore beyond those I had time to look at.


[1] Arthur MacGregor, The Tsar in England, The Seventeenth Century, 19 (2004) p 117

[2] Anthony Cross, Peter the Great through British Eyes (Cambridge, 2000) p 16; MacGregor p 118

[3] Cross, p 18

[4] Sam Willis reproduces the itemised lists of the damage done to Sayes Court in his book, The Admiral Benbow, pp 241-244

[5] National Archives, ADM 106/3292, f.54v

[6] ibid, f.57r

[7] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757), p 2517

[8] National Archives, ADM 2/178, p 462

Halley’s ship, the Paramore Pink

Since my last post, Halley made the decision to sail to the West Indies in the hope of finding a flag officer who could permit him to change those officers who had been giving him trouble, including mate and lieutenant, Edward Harrison, and boatswain, John Dodson. But when he reached the West Indies he found he was unable to do this without returning to England and so decided to abandon his voyage and return to London to petition “their Lopps” (lordships) to allow him to sail on a new voyage with different officers. He set sail north towards “Bermudas”, and is now crossing the Atlantic on a north-east course towards England, which he should reach in about a month’s time.

But before Halley arrives back in English waters I thought we should take a closer look at his ship, Paramore, which has been his home since leaving London last October.

I’ve written before about why I’m using the spelling Paramore, but what type of ship was she? how large? and what did she look like?


Fisher Harding, Master Shipwright (© National Maritime Museum)

Paramore was a type of ship known as a pink, a square-rigged vessel with a narrow stern. She was built at Deptford dockyard by Fisher Harding, who had been Master Shipwright at Deptford since 1686. I don’t know why this type of ship was chosen, as pinks were apparently most suited to coastal and shallow waters and Halley’s original plan had been to sail round the world, but the most likely explanation is that pinks were capacious, providing proportionally large storage space, which would have been useful for a small ship that was expected to spend lengthy periods on the high seas.

The Admiralty ordered her construction on 12 July 1693 and she was completed by April 1694. Two entries in the Deptford Letter Book give specific information about her size and appearance. One tells us that she measured:

Length by the Keell                             52 ft: 00 ins

Breadth from out to out Side            18 ft: 00 ins

Burthen                                              89 Tuns

while the other entry details the dimensions of her yards and 3 masts (see below). [1]


Extract from Deptford Letter Book (© National Archives (£), ADM 106/3291)

Paramore was an unrated vessel but she was listed with the 6th Rates in the monthly Disposition of Ships (a record of the whereabouts of the King’s ships at the 1st of each month).

Benjamin Middleton, the intended financier when the voyage was first proposed, was to be “consulted with about the conveniencies to be made in her for Men and Provisions” and there are several references to discussions with Middleton about the ship before he disappears from the project, though I haven’t come across anything specific in terms of, say, the number and layout of cabins.

When Paramore was being fitted out for Halley’s eventual departure in October 1698, she was mounted with “Six three Pounders of about four hundred Weight Each” and “Two Pattereroes” (small guns in swivels) and allowed a complement of 20 men.

In his log and letters from the early part of his voyage, Halley wrote that Paramore “proves an excellent Sea boat in bad Weather” but that she is “very Leewardly” and “goes to windward but indifferently”. The bad weather “opened some leaks which are considerable for a new shipp”, and Halley had to have these repaired and the sand ballast, which choked the pumps, changed for shingle before he could depart from the English coast.

Yet despite these problems, I’ve become rather fond of Paramore, and my favourite mental image is of the little ship sailing in company with Admiral Benbow’s squadron from Portsmouth to Madeira and being towed along by the Falmouth (“took a small Pink in Tow”).

I mentioned before that although Paramore was built specifically for Halley’s voyage, he was not her first captain – and that remarkable person will be the subject of my next post.


Drawing reconstructing HMS Paramore from sources (© Hakluyt Society (£), from Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley)


[1] National Archives, Deptford Letter Book, ADM 106/3291 11 Apr 1694 and 13 Oct 1693. By comparison, Benbow’s flag ship, Gloucester, measured 120 ft 4 ins (keel), 37 ft 5 ins (beam), 896 tons burthen, was mounted with 60 guns and had a complement of 278 men. (Sam Willis, The Admiral Benbow (2010) and NA ADM 8/6).

Mrs Mary Halley

On the 6 April 1699 a baptism is taking place at the church of All Hallows on the Wall on the northern perimeter of the City of London. The child – a boy – is named Edmond after his father, but his father – Captain Edmond Halley – is unaware of his son’s existence…

© Halley's Log

Boundary mark for St James’s Dukes Place, where Edmond and Mary were married in 1682 (© Halley’s Log)

Edmond Halley married Mary Tooke on 20 April 1682 at St James’s Dukes Place, a short walk from his father’s house in Winchester Street. The marriage took place less than 3 months after Halley returned from his Grand Tour and it isn’t known whether he and Mary were acquainted before he left, or if the marriage was arranged while he was abroad, or after his return, or whether Edmond or Mary had any involvement in the decision.

What is known, is that the marriage was a great success. They were married for almost 54 years until Mary’s death in 1736, which Edmond described as “the saddest day of my life” and that he had lived “in great contentment” with Mary. [1]

At the time of Edmond’s departure, they had two daughters, Margaret, born 1685, and Catharine, born 1688. The Biographia Britannica says they had several children who did not survive, but I have only found a record for one, Katherine, born while they were living in Islington, where they’d set up home after their marriage. [2]

There are very few glimpses of Halley’s personal life but those few give the impression of a close and happy family. Flamsteed describes a visit in 1712 by the entire Halley family at a time when relations between Halley and Flamsteed were at their nadir, and one senses the cheery Halleys working together to make the visit less of an ordeal for Edmond (and Flamsteed).

Halley’s gravestone, now set into a wall at the Greenwich Observatory, was erected by his daughters (his son had already died) and dedicated to Edmond and Mary as the “best of parents” (optimis parentibus) and all four are buried together, along with Catharine’s second husband, Henry Price.

Yet despite their long and happy marriage, Mary hardly makes an appearance in the written records. The Biographia Britannica describes her as “a young lady equally amiable for the gracefulness of her person and the beauties of her mind” but we know nothing else about her character or personality. [3]

In spite of this, it’s Mary I most often think of when reading Halley’s logbook. I tend to think of her as being the type of person who was very supportive of Edmond’s various projects – that’s speculation but even if it’s correct, she must have been gravely apprehensive about his voyage.

© Halley's Log

St Benet Paul’s Wharf, where Halley’s daughter Margaret was baptised in 1685 (© Halley’s Log)

Besides her concern for Edmond’s safety, she must have worried about what would happen to her and her two daughters if he didn’t return – and then shortly before Halley finally set sail, she found she was pregnant again – a hazardous event in itself.

We don’t know of any letters Edmond wrote to Mary from his ship, but he must surely have written at every opportunity to let her know he was safe and well. He was unable to write to the Admiralty between December and early April, and so presumably Mary had no word either and at the time of giving birth to their son, would not have known whether her husband was still alive. It must have been some sort of comfort to be able to name the child after Edmond.

And what of Halley’s own concerns for his family? We know he wrote a will shortly after the voyage was proposed and so was not blind to the fact he might not survive it, but I wonder how much consideration he gave to what would happen to his wife and young daughters if he didn’t return? I don’t doubt Halley would have been concerned for his family but I do wonder if his optimistic personality may have led him to underestimate the dangers of a long sea voyage.

Perhaps it’s more pleasing to reflect on the scene when Halley does return to his family: the relief of his wife, the joy of his daughters, his own delight at finding he has a son. For Mary, however, the relief will be short-lived as Halley will set off on his next voyage just two months after his return – and Mary Halley will have to spend another year wondering if she will ever see her husband again.


[1] The remarks by Halley about his wife are quoted in several books but I can’t locate the original source

[2] The spelling of Catharine’s name varies, ‘Catharine’ is used on the gravestone so I have opted for that. Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2517 note RR for the remark about his having several children. Catharine and Katherine were two different daughters as the latter was born before Margaret but Catharine is described as Halley’s younger daughter on the gravestone

[3] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2500

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