‘As it Was’ - 01/01/2008

By the Old Hydrographer

Steve Ritchie

The long history of the charting of the waters off the west coast of Ireland, including Galway Bay, began in the 16th century. It may be said to be culminating with the current National Seabed Survey being made by the Geological Survey of Ireland, about which delegates will be hearing at a seminar to be held on Friday 5th November 2004 at the Galway Bay Hotel.

In 1596 a Latin and Dutch edition of Waghenaer’s famous ‘Spieghel der Zeevaerdt’ (Mariner’s Mirror) contained a chart which included an insert showing the approaches to both Galway and Limerick, implying that these two ports were of commercial importance in European trade. Just less than a hundred years later, the French Ministry of Marine in 1690 sent one of Colbert’s newly-trained ‘Ingénieurs de la Marine’, a man named Monteguy, onboard a frigate to make a survey of Galway Bay. In March that year French troops had landed at Kinsale on the south-west coast of Ireland in an attempt by Louis XIV to support King James II of England against William of Orange. Perhaps there were plans for another landing at Galway but after William’s success at the Battle of the Boyne no further French landings in Ireland took place. However, Monteguy’s chart of Galway Bay was one of three of Irish waters to appear in the prestigious ‘Le Neptune Franςois’ published in Paris in 1693.

Murdoch Mackenzie (senior) was employed by the Admiralty to make a maritime survey of the west coasts of Great Britain and Ireland during the years 1776-1800. This was a vast task to complete in four years, and it has to be said that the resulting charts were not up to the standard of accuracy achieved in his charts of the Orkneys. The new series included a chart of Galway Bay. The next potential hydrographer to arrive on the west coast of Ireland was a Scot, Alexander Nimmo, who had come under the influence of the great engineer Thomas Telford when he was teaching at Edinburgh University. In 1820 Nimmo was appointed engineer to the Commissioners for Irish Fisheries, for whom he built a number of piers for fishing harbours and published about a dozen charts, including one of Galway Bay which was engraved and published by the Neele family of The Strand, London.

In 1844 Admiral Beaufort, the British Hydrographer, sent Commander George Bedford to survey the west cost of Ireland, where he was to remain at work for fifteen years. In the Archives at the UK Hydrographic Office are to be found a series of periodical letters which Bedford sent to the Hydrographer during the first five years of his sojourn in Irish waters. They record the many difficulties he encountered, including the provision of local craft within the very tight budget allowed by the Hydrographer.

Arriving in Galway with three surveying assistants in June 1844, Bedford set up his base. The inhabitants were largely involved with fishing, for which they used small vessels known as ‘hookers’, one of which he was able to hire for a guinea a week and ten shillings for each member of a crew of three. Three surveyors could be accommodated onboard, but as the crew maintained a smouldering peat fire in their quarters the smoke from which pervaded the entire vessel, she was not a great success. Bedford was able to borrow an aged rowing boat from the District Inspector of Coastguards and to make arrangements to have another built. These sounding boats could not be hoisted onboard the hooker, or the Iris and Lily, small vessels he was later able to hire, so the boats had to be towed from one place to another, often in boisterous weather, along the rugged coast.

The Ordnance Survey had completed their work in Connemara, so the surveyors were able to use geographical coordinates for visible triangulation stations along the coast. A tide-gauge was established on Nimmo’s pier at the entrance to the harbour, where a 29-day series of readings was begun. From late April until October hydrography was pursued, often in the foulest weather, and each winter the surveyors billeted themselves in quarters in the town to draw up their fair sheets. In November Bedford had to submit his financial estimates for the hiring of vessels and men for the following year, together with ‘contingencies’. The sum amounted to about £500, always subject to reduction of 10 or 20% when it reached the Hydrographer’s desk!

On 26th March 1847 Bedford wrote to the Hydrographer, "We are now, and have been during the winter, unremittingly engaged in plotting our work of last season and preparing for the future: and at the termination of this month we shall cease office work, enter the crews and fit the boats and vessels with all despatch so as to be able to start from Galway about the end of April."

On 15 November of the same year he wrote, "I beg to acquaint you that I have this day transmitted under the care of Mr Horner, Mate, two plans of the coast of Connemara including several Bays and out-lying dangers …………. And I hope the work contained therein may give you satisfaction. It has been executed with the strictest regard to the accuracy and not without considerable labour and perseverance against the frequent and numerous obstructions arising from the exposed position of the coast, - the prevalence of strong westerly winds, and the very dangerous character of the features."

Bedford’s continual plea in his letters was to be provided with a ten-gun brig or similar naval vessel from which he could embark sounding boats and take deeper offshore sounding with a winch. The Hydrographer was eventually moved to take action that would eliminate the tiresome hiring of unsuitable vessels year after year. On 15th May 1849 Bedford was able to report that he and his surveying assistant, Mr Lewis, were in Portsmouth Dockyard to take charge of the cutter Sylvia. This was being adapted for surveying, including the fitting of a lug-mizzen sail which Bedford believed to be efficacious for taking the way off a vessel rapidly when seen to be running into danger. For the next ten years Bedford was happy with Sylvia; by the time she was sold in Londonderry in 1859 Bedford’s Irish surveys had enabled 28 Admiralty charts to be published.

John Edward Davis, who joined the Navy as a second-class volunteer in 1828, drew the view of Galway shown here. As an Assistant Master in Blonde he was lent to Beagle under Captain Fitzroy for surveys in Chile and Peru. As Second Master onboard Terror, sailing in company with Erebus on the Antarctic Expedition in 1839-43, he was placed in charge of all surveying operations throughout the expedition. He received the Hydrographer’s thanks for both these achievements. Bedford was fortunate to have such an experienced Master throughout the whole of his Irish surveys. Davis rose to be a Staff-Commander when he took up the appointment as Naval Assistant to the Hydrographer in 1863. He retired as a Captain in 1870.

Further Reading
Clarke R.S.J. ‘Early printed charts of Irish waters’, Belfast Natural History and Philosophical Society, Proceedings and Reports. Second Series Vol. 10 (1977-82).

Last updated: 17/08/2019