James Fitzjames

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For other people named James FitzJames, see James FitzJames (disambiguation).
James Fitzjames
Born 1813
Died 1848?
Allegiance  United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland
Service/branch Royal Navy
Rank Captain
Commands held HMS Clio, HMS Erebus
Battles/wars Syrian War, First Opium War

James Fitzjames (27 July 1813–after 1848?) was a British naval officer who participated in two exploratory expeditions, the Euphrates Expedition and the Franklin Expedition to the Arctic. He was illegitimate,[1] and during his life and after his friends and relatives took great pains to conceal his origins. It has recently been revealed that his true father was Sir James Gambier, although the identity of his mother remains unknown.[1]

Early life[edit]

James Fitzjames was born on 27 July 1813. He was baptised on 24 February 1815 at St Marylebone Parish Church in London. The names given by the people who posed as his parents, 'James Fitzjames, gentleman' and 'Ann Fitzjames', must be presumed to be false.[1] It is not clear who they actually were. Shortly after he was given into the care of the Rev. Robert Coningham and his wife Louisa. The Coninghams were wealthy members of an extended family of Scots/Irish ancestry who, with others from a similar background, settled in the Watford area of Hertfordshire. Other prominent members of this family were the Campbells, the Boyds, the Sterlings and the Gledstanes.[1]

The Coningham family seem to have lived at several locations in Hertfordshire, settling in the late 1820s at a substantial 30 acre country estate called Rose Hill in Abbots Langley. Robert and Louisa had one son, William Coningham (1815–1884), who was James Fitzjames' closest friend, the two boys being brought up as brothers.[1]

The Coninghams were a well-educated couple who had extensive connections in British intellectual circles of the time. Robert Coningham was a Cambridge educated clergyman although he never took a living. He was a cousin of the well-known author of the time John Sterling, and a friend of such intellectuals as Julius Hare and Thomas Carlyle. Before she married, Louisa Coningham had taught at the Rothsay House girls' school in Kennington and was the author of two books, 'A Poetical History of England' and 'An Abridgement of Locke's Essay concerning Human Understanding: With Some Conjectures Respecting the Interference of Nature with Education'.

This intellectual background enabled them to provide James Fitzjames and William Coningham with an exceptionally high level of education. William Coningham was briefly sent to Eton College while James Fitzjames was away at sea serving on HMS Pyramus. On James Fitzjames' return to the Coningham household, William Coningham was withdrawn from Eton and the boys' education was provided at home by private tutors, including a son of Dr. Cory, who later tutored the Prince of Wales for Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.[1]


James Fitzjames was brought up by the Coningham family as a son, and although he was unrelated to them he always referred to them as 'uncle' and 'aunt'. Until recently the identification of his true family has been a mystery. In different sources it has been suggested that he was a Foundling,[2] that he was of Irish extraction, an illegitimate son of Sir James Stephen, or a relative of the Coninghams. It is now established that he was actually an illegitimate son of Sir James Gambier (1772–1844), although the identification of his mother is uncertain.[1]

James Fitzjames's father, Sir James Gambier, was a minor British diplomat. He came from a family prominent, although not always successful, in Royal Naval service. Sir James Gambier's cousin was the controversial Admiral Lord Gambier. His father, and therefore James Fitzjames' grandfather, was Admiral James Gambier. At the time of James Fitzjames's birth his father was in grave personal and financial difficulties. Sir James had been appointed British Consul-General in Rio de Janeiro in 1809 and held this office until 1814, although a diplomatic faux pas on his part meant that he had to leave Rio for England in disgrace in 1811. Cut off from the revenues he expected to receive in Rio, he ran up enormous debts and was only saved from bankruptcy when a syndicate of his relatives and creditors, led by Admiral Lord Gambier, William Morton Pitt and Samuel Gambier, took over his financial affairs and placed them in Trust.

Sir James Gambier married Jemima Snell and the couple had 15 children altogether. One of their children was born within one month of the date of James Fitzjames' birth and at that time it seems the Gambiers may have been estranged.

In 1815, with his financial affairs in the hands of his trustees, Sir James Gambier resumed his diplomatic career by being appointed British Consul-General to the Netherlands at The Hague, a position he held until 1825. He appears to have had limited contact with his illegitimate son.

Naval service[edit]

James Fitzjames entered the Royal Navy at the age of 12 in July 1825 as a Volunteer of the Second Class on HMS Pyramus, a frigate under the command of Captain Robert Gambier. He served on the Pyramus until 15 September 1828, being promoted to Volunteer of the First Class on 1 July 1828. Captain Robert Gambier was actually James Fitzjames' true second cousin, and it was through this covert family connection that James Fitzjames was able to obtain this position notwithstanding his illegitimacy and the Coningham family's lack of Royal Naval connections. Unfortunately Captain Gambier resigned his position only a year later due to the unexpected death of his wife, leaving James Fitzjames vulnerable as he had no connection with the new Captain, George Sartorius. However, clearly James Fitzjames was able to win the confidence of Captain Sartorius as it was he who promoted Fitzjames to Volunteer of the First Class in 1828. During this commission the Pyramus first sailed to Central America and the United States on diplomatic missions and was then involved in scientific research as part of the 'Experimental Squadron' under Admiral Sir Thomas Hardy. Later she served as British guardship at Lisbon. In Lisbon, at the age of 15, James Fitzjames seems to have spent a lot of time ashore and given the close political links between Portugal and Brazil, it has been suggested that he may have had personal links to Portuguese society; possibly his mother was Portuguese.[1]

Although after this the Coninghams and the Gambiers wanted to send him to Cambridge, James Fitzjames was determined to resume his Royal Naval career. But with Robert Gambier effectively retired on half-pay and George Sartorius now serving irregularly in the Portuguese Navy, James Fitzjames had great difficulty obtaining a position as a Midshipman. Eventually, and through highly irregular means, James Fitzjames was able to obtain such a position on HMS St. Vincent from 1830 to 1833. The St. Vincent was the flagship of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet but spend much time in port at Malta. Fitzjames served detached duty on a cutter, the Hind, sailing twice to Constantinople, and on HMS Madagascar, during which time the Madagascar conveyed Otto of Greece from Trieste to Nauplia where Otto was crowned King of Greece. During this time Fitzjames passed his exams to be promoted to Lieutenant, but only with great difficulty due to the highly irregular way he had obtained his position as Midshipman and his illegitimate birth.[1]

Returning to Britain on HMS St. Vincent in 1833, he almost immediately obtained a position on HMS Winchester, the flagship of Vice Admiral Hyde Parker. In this position he would expect to obtain his promotion to Lieutenant.[1]

The Euphrates Expedition[edit]

Robert Coningham had become extremely close to a relative of his, Major Colin Campbell, who after James Fitzjames' death become famous as Field Marshal Lord Clyde. Campbell introduced James Fitzjames to Francis Rawdon Chesney, then a Captain of the Engineers, who was putting together an expedition to establish a steamship line in Mesopotamia. This venture became known as the Euphrates Expedition and, rather impulsively, James Fitzjames immediately resigned his position on the Winchester to join Chesney's Expedition.[1]

James Fitzjames served on the Euphrates Expedition from 1834 to 1837.[3] Before the Expedition even sailed, he distinguished himself by diving into the River Mersey fully clothed to rescue a drowning man. He was awarded a silver cup and the Freedom of the City of Liverpool for this.

Although the Expedition was prosecuted with great energy, it was not a success. The two steamers, the Tigris and the Euphrates, had to be transported in pieces 130 miles across the mountains and desert terrain of northern Syria from the Mediterranean coast to the river Euphrates, a tremendous effort which took over a year. The smaller steamer, the Tigris, sank with heavy loss of life in a sudden storm and the surviving vessel, the Euphrates, had too deep a draft to sail on the river for much of the year. In addition there were tremendous difficulties caused both by political complications and disease.[3]

While Chesney was determined to continue with it and would not release his officers, including James Fitzjames, the Expedition was eventually halted by the British government and the East India Company, its two major sponsors. In 1836, with the steamer Euphrates unable to sail up the shallows of the river, and having broken its engine, James Fitzjames volunteered to take the India Office mails she was carrying 1,200 miles across modern Iraq and Syria to the Mediterranean coast and from there convey them to London. After many extremely dangerous adventures, which included being kidnapped and trapped in a besieged town, James Fitzjames succeeded in this and made it back to London.[3]

Here he was reunited with the surviving members of the Expedition as they straggled back home. Sadly while he had been away, Robert Coningham had died suddenly and the remaining members of the Coningham family, all apparently in poor health, had sold their substantial house at Abbot's Langley and were living at Watford.

One positive aspect of the Expedition was that he formed lifelong friendships with two of the other Royal Navy officers on the Expedition, Lt. Richard Cleaveland and Edward Charlewood. But to their horror Charlewood, Cleaveland and Fitzjames found that contrary to the understanding of Col. Chesney, the Admiralty refused to credit their service on the Euphrates Expedition as 'sea-time', and it therefore would not count towards their promotion. To his credit Chesney did everything in his power to support his subordinates and after nearly a year the Admiralty relented and granted the three officers their promotion.

Royal Naval service resumed[edit]

James Fitzjames resumed Royal Naval service and followed a much more conventional career path.

Together with his firm friend Edward Charlewood, he next served on HMS Excellent, the recently established gunnery school, where he passed out with very high marks. At this time he also formed a close, albeit also professionally extremely useful, friendship with John Barrow junior, the son of Sir John Barrow, highly influential Second Secretary to the Admiralty. From this point on the two men corresponded regularly.[1]

As a highly qualified Gunnery Lieutenant James Fitzjames was in demand and this, together with his experience of the Middle East, won him the position of Gunnery Lieutenant on HMS Ganges in the Syrian War of 1839 to 1840. He was regarded as an effective officer and was especially commended by Admiral Sir Charles Napier for landing at night to distribute a proclamation to the Egyptian soldiers at their camp. This must have been a very risky enterprise, but he was able to escape back to HMS Ganges. When informed of this daring exploit Ibrahim Pasha, the Egyptian General, put a price on Fitzjames' head.[1]

Before this service was completed, James Fitzjames was selected by Admiral Sir William Parker as Gunnery Lieutenant on HMS Cornwallis, his flagship for the force being assembled in Britain to fight the First Opium War.[1]

His service in this war was again marked by notably reckless bravery and he was almost killed during the capture of Zhenjiang, being evacuated to the Cornwallis when a musket ball passed through his arm into his back, lodging against his spine. This gained him further notice from his senior officers. Always an extrovert, he also wrote and published a 10,000 word humorous poem, 'The Cruise of HMS Cornwallis', describing the First Opium War. Ostensibly anonymous, he referred to himself in this poem and published it in the Nautical Magazine under the byline 'Tom Bowline'.[1]

En route to the war, HMS Cornwallis had spent five days at Singapore. While there, Fitzjames had some sort of encounter with George Barrow, the eldest surviving son of Sir John Barrow. It is not clear what happened, but George Barrow was clearly in highly compromised situation and Fitzjames appears to have paid someone off and thereby covered up whatever scandal would otherwise have broken over the Barrow family. From now on, Sir John Barrow blatantly favoured James Fitzjames, and the first fruit of this was his accelerated promotion to Commander and appointment as Captain of HMS Clio.[1] Joining the Clio in Bombay, James Fitzjames cruised the Persian Gulf and carried out various duties before returning to Portsmouth in October 1844.[1]

Appointment to the Franklin Expedition[edit]

Returning to England, Fitzjames lived with William Coningham, his wife Elizabeth (née Meyrick) and their two young children at their home in Brighton. Fatefully this was just the time that the Franklin Expedition was being planned and Sir John Barrow, a prime mover of the Expedition, campaigned to have Fitzjames appointed to lead it. Fitzjames asked for his friend Edward Charlewood to be appointed as second in command. Barrow was unable to provide the Board of the Admiralty with a persuasive argument to support these appointments, so after some prevarication Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier were appointed instead. James Fitzjames was appointed as Franklin's Commander, or in modern parlance Executive Officer. Sir John Barrow clearly thought of this not as a death sentence but as a prestigious appointment for James Fitzjames. Given Fitzjames' knowledge of the George Barrow scandal, he may also have wanted to find an appointment for Fitzjames which would keep him well away from Britain for as long as possible.[1]

The Franklin Expedition[edit]

Once appointed to the Franklin Expedition, Fitzjames was given specific responsibility for recruitment and also for the scientific research into magnetism which was an important objective of the Franklin Expedition. The ships sailed from Greenhithe in May, 1845 and after replenishing at Disko Bay in Greenland and was last seen at the end of July, 1845 by two whalers in northern Baffin Bay. That was the last definite sighting of James Fitzjames.

After the death of Sir John Franklin on 11 June 1847, we know that James Fitzjames became Captain of HMS Erebus and co-leader of the Franklin Expedition with Captain Francis Crozier of HMS Terror. This information has been gleaned from the famous 'Victory Point note', which both men signed on 22 April 1848. This is the last definite trace of James Fitzjames, although he may be one of the shadowy 'kabloona's' – desperate survivors of the Franklin Expedition – whom Inuit people of the region remembered meeting.


James Fitzjames struggled to find his position in early nineteenth century British society. While illegitimacy was not unusual, it caused great difficulties for the children concerned, who were not expected openly to refer to their blood families and could not depend on any support from them. In Fitzjames' case the controversial reputations of his Royal Naval ancestors, and the disreputable behaviour of his father, compounded this. In addition, the underhand way he obtained his promotion to Midshipman made his position in the Royal Navy extremely vulnerable and his career up until 1838 open to challenge.

While his family position was always vulnerable, he did have several advantages. He was physically fit and strong, being tall and well-built. He was handsome and although unmarried clearly enjoyed the company of the opposite sex. He was extremely personable and very skilled in winning the confidence of his superiors. Added to this he was highly intelligent and had been very well educated. He had an excellent sense of humour and was always the life and soul of any party or other situation. To judge by his surviving letters and drawings, he was a sensitive writer and an excellent artist.

But he was always very conscious of the insecurity of his social position and this may explain the extreme personal and professional recklessness which he displayed throughout his life. Whether jumping into the River Mersey to rescue the drowning man, entering the Egyptian soldiers' camp or leading the assault on the walls of Zhenjiang, the impression left is that he was potentially willing to risk or even honorably sacrifice his life if the opportunity arose in order to demonstrate that he was as good as, or better, than his legitimate contemporaries.


After the disappearance of the Franklin Expedition, his loss was recorded on the various monuments to the Franklin Expedition, such as the statue at Waterloo Place in London. According to at least one source, he was idolised somewhat by Sir Clements Markham and Sir Albert Hastings Markham as an Arctic explorer, and may inadvertently have acted as a model for the unfortunate Captain Robert Falcon Scott.

The only overt tribute to him ever was in a family record 'The Story of the Gambiers', written in 1924 for private circulation by Mrs. Cuthbert Heath, a descendant of Sir James Gambier and published in 1924, in which Mrs. Heath wrote:

At this point mention must be made of a Gambier who bore the 'bar sinister', but is worthy to rank with the most distinguished of the legitimate kinsman. Sir James Gambier, Ambassador to the Brazils, had a natural son, James FitzJames, RN, well known to the Gambier family, who styled him the 'Knight of Snowden'. As Captain of HMS Erebus, he accompanied Sir John Franklin on his disastrous attempt to discover the North Pole in 1845, and shared his leader's fate. His signature appears on one of the last entries of the great explorer's log-book, and his name stands in the place of honour next to that of Sir John Franklin on the well-known monument in Carlton House Terrace.

Fiction, literature and popular culture[edit]

Because no authority had been aware of Fitzjames' true origins and the source of his influence over Sir John Barrow until it was revealed publicly for the first time in 2010,[1] historians have tended to ascribe his position to mysterious upper class 'family position'. As the principal recruiter for the Franklin Expedition he has often been accused unfairly of packing it with effete sons of the aristocracy (as he was assumed to be) rather than with experienced Arctic hands. Recent research has shown this to be untrue, as with the recent canard that Fitzjames spoke with a lisp.

Although Sir John Franklin and Francis Crozier are probably the most widely featured characters in the extensive fiction surrounding the Franklin Expedition, Fitzjames often appears also, although usually in the stereotypical and inaccurate guise of a privileged aristocrat of high birth. Ironically this is a complete reversal of the truth.[1] Books where he features in this fantasy role include 'The Terror' by Dan Simmons, 'Arctic Drift' by Clive Cussler and 'On the Proper Use of Stars' by Dominique Fortier.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t Battersby, William (2010). James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition. History Press. ISBN 978-0-7524-5512-9. 
  2. ^ Woodman, David C. (1992), Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony, McGill-Queen's University Press. ISBN 0-7735-0936-4
  3. ^ a b c Guest, John (1992). The Euphrates Expedition. Routledge. ISBN 978-0-7103-0429-2. 

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