Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Waghorn, Thomas

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720502Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 58 — Waghorn, Thomas1899John Knox Laughton

WAGHORN, THOMAS (1800–1850), lieutenant in the navy and promoter of the overland route to India, son of a Rochester tradesman (Notes and Queries, 6th ser. vii. 218), was born at Rochester on 20 Jan. 1800. He entered the navy in 1812, passed his examination in 1817, and being, by the reduction of the navy after the peace, unable to get employment, engaged himself as third mate or a merchant-ship trading to Calcutta. In 1819 he was appointed to the Bengal marine—pilot service—and continued in it for five years. On the outbreak of the first Burmese war in 1824 he volunteered for active service, and was appointed to the company's flotilla (cf. James, Naval History, vi. 303), in which for two years and a half he commanded the cutter Matchless, and received the thanks of Sir John Hayes, commanding the company's naval forces. It was probably the enormous advantage which the expedition derived from the services of the Diana steam vessel that turned Waghorn's ideas in the direction of steam communication between England and India; but the price of coal at Suez—about 20l. a ton—seemed prohibitive of any attempt made by the Red Sea. Inquiries convinced him that coal could be carried by camels from Cairo, and the price reduced to about 4l.; and in 1827 he was chosen by a committee of merchants at Calcutta and Madras to go to England and endeavour to push forward the scheme. After contending against much opposition and prejudice, he was permitted in 1829 to make a test voyage, carrying despatches to Bombay and pledging himself to bring back the reply within three months—the time taken by the fastest ships for the outward voyage alone. It is difficult now to see in what the experiment consisted, for communication with India by way of the Red Sea had been common nearly thirty years before. With a steamer to help him, Waghorn's task would have been easy; but though it had been arranged that a company's steamer should meet him at Suez, the appointment was not kept, and Waghorn made the voyage from Suez to Jeddah in an open boat, with a mutinous crew, whom he kept in order and compelled to do the work only by the threat of a pistol in readiness for use. At Jeddah he got on board a vessel of the Bombay marine and so to Bombay, returning to London within the appointed time.

This convinced those who needed convincing that the project was feasible; but the real difficulty consisted in reducing it to a system, and providing for the regular transit across the desert and a service of steamers down the Red Sea. This latter part of the work was done by the steamers of the Bombay marine till 1840, when it was taken up by the P. & O. company; but the merit of overcoming the difficulty of the desert was Waghorn's alone. He associated with the Arabs, he lived in their tents, and gradually taught them that pay was better than plunder. He established a regular service of caravans, built eight halting-places between Cairo and Suez, and made what had been a dangerous path beset with robbers a secure highway. Before he left Egypt in 1841 he had a service of English carriages, vans, and horses, to convey travellers. It was probably in acknowledgment of the national importance of his work that, on 23 March 1842, he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in the navy, but he never served. In actual fact his connection with the navy had ended in 1817.

In 1837, in concert with George Wheatley, he organised a shipping business in London, which was carried on under the style of Waghorn & Co., and afterwards became, as it now is, G. W. Wheatley & Co., carrying on the business of ‘general shipping and forwarding agents,’ under the name of the ‘Globe Express.’ From his leaving Egypt in 1841 Waghorn seems to have been principally engaged in developing their business, though making repeated visits to Egypt. He died in London on 7 Jan. 1850. He was married, but left no issue. In August 1888 a statue to his memory erected at Chatham was unveiled by Lord Northbrook. A portrait, painted by Sir George Hayter, is in the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Waghorn was the author of several pamphlets, all in connection with the work of his life. They include, among others, ‘Particulars of an Overland Journey from London to Bombay by Way of the Continent, Egypt, and the Red Sea’ (London, 1831 8vo, privately printed); ‘Egypt as it is in 1837’ (London, 8vo; revised 1838); ‘Overland Mails to India and China’ (London 1843, 8vo); and ‘Letter to the Right Hon. W. E. Gladstone on the Extension of Steam Navigation from Singapore to Port Jackson’ (London, 1846, 8vo).

[Low's History of the Indian Navy, i. 521–530; Gent. Mag. 1850, i. 217; Lieutenant Waghorn, R.N., Pioneer of the Overland Route to India (with portrait), 1894; a brief ‘sketch’ by P. E. Clunn; information from Messrs. Wheatley.]

J. K. L.

Dictionary of National Biography, Errata (1904), p.271
N.B.— f.e. stands for from end and l.l. for last line

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431 ii 6 f.e. Waghorn, Thomas: for Jan. read June