Thomas Fletcher Waghorn 1800 – 1850


overland route to India and steamship navigation

Thomas Waghorn and Ann Goodhugh, parents of Thomas Fletcher Waghorn, were married at All Saints church, Snodland, on 28 July 1794. They lived at Chatham, where Thomas senior was a butcher. Their children were all baptised at St Mary’s church, Chatham, including Thomas Fletcher on 16 July 1800. Thomas Fletcher entered the Royal Navy at Chatham, joining HMS Bahama as a midshipman on 10 Nov 1812. Bahama was anchored at Chatham holding prisoners of war. On 3 Nov 1813 he transferred to the Tigris and remained with her until discharged on 25 Oct 1817. The war with the French was at an end and the Navy was shrinking.

In 1818 he took the position of Third Mate on board the Thalia, a merchant ship, sailing to Calcutta. This perhaps gave him the idea of a career in the Bengal Pilot Service, for which he volunteered, and which he began on 2 June 1820. On 11 June 1822 he married Elizabeth Bartlett at St John’s Cathedral, Calcutta. The outbreak of the First Burmese War found him on active service there between 1824 and 1826; by all accounts he distinguished himself with his zeal and courage, although suffering at times from severe illness.

Having returned to his Pilot duties after the war, Waghorn took an interest in the early attempts at establishing a steamship route from England to India and the East. In particular the voyage of the Enterprise which took 115 days from Falmouth to Calcutta in 1825, though a failure in the eyes of officialdom, led him to hold discussions with the captain and to begin promoting the possibilities of steam navigation in pamphlets and speeches. In 1828 he took leave from his Pilot duties with recommendations from India that he be allowed to open steam navigation with India (via the Cape of Good Hope). In fact response was lukewarm, but the following year he was ordered to proceed to India through Egypt to report on the feasibility of this route. His experiences convinced him that this was the way forward and, faced with indifference from the East India Company, in 1831 he resigned their service as a Pilot in order to devote himself to Steam Navigation.

Later that year he resumed service in the Royal Navy, first on the African and then on the Firebrand, two steam vessels. The reasons were two-fold: first to allow him to complete his required six years service entitling him to become a Lieutenant and second to acquaint him with the workings of steamships and their mail service to the Mediterranean. He was paid off on 10 November 1832 and almost immediately volunteered to make a journey to India via Egypt as an experiment to send mails this way. This he did, but the journey took four and a half months and again response was lukewarm. However, on his return journey he made the acquaintance of the Pasha of Egypt, who was soon to befriend him in setting up a route through the desert. Waghorn gave his opinions on steam navigation via Egypt to a Select Committee in 1834 and again in 1837.

His wife died in Calcutta on 8 March 1834; on 8 December following he married Harriet Martin, daughter of the miller at Snodland and a next-door neighbour of his mother on one side and of his grandfather on the other. The latter had died just six days before; from him Waghorn inherited half of the substantial estate. After their marriage Thomas and Harriet lived in Rochester until ‘The Lodge’ was built in the upper High Street at Snodland around 1841. This was their principal home until Waghorn’s death.

Waghorn’s business premises were in Cornhill, London, where he set up an agency for conveying people and mails to India via Egypt. It appears that between 1835 and 1837 he lived much among the Arabs in the desert and laid the foundations for the so-called Overland Route across the desert from Cairo to Suez. This involved building a series of rest-houses and supplying guides, river-boats, horses and carriages for travellers. The journey time between England and India was reduced to around 35-40 days instead of three months.

In 1837 he became Deputy Consul in Egypt, but fell out with his superior, who found him impetuous, overbearing and acting above his authority. From 1840 onwards the P&O company set up in competition with him, backed by the British government. A further blow came when his stock of 300 horses was mostly destroyed by a plague. The Pasha made an offer for what remained, which Waghorn accepted, and thereafter the Pasha controlled the route.

Waghorn then turned his attention to speeding the mails through Europe, in particular trying a journey via Trieste and Austria to avoid the normal French route (which sometimes had created obstacles). The burgeoning railway system was providing new opportunities for speed. Waghorn’s experiments were largely successful in that they were faster by up to two days, but they brought about his downfall. The Government had promised to reimburse his costs in making these trials, but failed to do so, leaving him in debt (by his own account) of £5000. A late pension of £100 by the East India Company and the proceeds of a public testimonial did little to alleviate these debts. In his last years Waghorn was also promoting the extension of steam routes to the Far East and Australia. It is interesting that his brother Edward and sisters Ann and Sarah all emigrated there.

Waghorn’s spirit was broken by all his set-backs and after a brief holiday in Malta he returned to his house in Islington, where he died on 7 January 1850. He was buried at All Saints, Snodland, on the 14th; his grave is outside the Vestry door, near many of his relatives. A memorial to him is on the south wall of the nave.

A full account is Andrew Ashbee, Zeal Unabated. The Life of Thomas Fletcher Waghorn (1800-1850), published May 2016, available from the author at 214, Malling Road, Snodland, Kent ME6 5EQ, £15, post free in UK.