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Captain William Veale 1791-1867 'The Deptford Robinson Crusoe'

Most readers will no doubt be very familiar with the 1719 story by Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe, based as it was on the experiences of a Scottish sailor, Alexander Selkirk who survived for five years on a desert island. But buried in Brockley cemetery is a seafarer with an equal claim to such maritime posterity called William Veale. Born in 1791 in Dartmouth ( Devon) William took his first sea voyage aged fourteen in 1804 acquiring and honing his naval skills to become a Master Mariner over the following years.

An Illustrated London News print of the Crozet Islands c.1876.

In 1820 as Captain of the Princess of Wales, having sailed down the Thames from Limehouse with a crew of fourteen to collect a cargo of seal skins from the Prince Edward Islands off the coast of Southern Africa, his ship foundered in a violent storm. All the mariners managed to make land, finding themselves on an uninhabited island, now known to be one of the Crozet Islands in March 1821. Several mariners had already left the ship, to go sealing on a different island prior to the shipwreck. expecting to have their supplies replenished, so the crew now found themselves separated and having to fend for themselves, fortunately subsisting on the abundant wildlife to be found on the Islands, hoping for rescue from a passing seal cutter.

The 1839 narrative of a Voyage to the South Seas, and the Shipwreck of the Princess of Wales Cutter, with an Account of Two Years' Residence on an Uninhabited Island by Charles Medyett Goodridge.

One of the crew members who spent two years on the Islands was a Charles Medyett Goodridge who later penned a memorable account of his experiences - the following is drawn from his 1839 narrative :

On Sundays, 'our dinner consisted of giblet soup, prepared from the heads, feet, &c., of the albatross, which were first scalded in boiling water, and then cooked in our best style'  and 'Tea' was simple, consisting of raw eggs beaten up in water. This mess they called 'Mocoa'. On grand occasions they added to their Mocoa the brain of the sea-elephant, which was very sweet and palatable. A chapter of the Bible having been read by Captain Veale, they retired to rest at ten.

Before final rescue arrives 

'They had already spread themselves along the shore when Millechant gives utterance to a wild shout, and runs whooping like a madman along the sand. A boat full of men cheering in English is coming straight to them over the sparkling sea. Down go eggs and blubber, and the rescued mariners, stumbling forward, caper and weep in extravagance of joy.

Spesinick and Soper had chased the phantom all night. The old man sank at last overpowered with fatigue at the summit of a cliff, from which they could both see a schooner sailing smartly from the island. Soper tries to kindle a fire, but fails; runs down into a valley, and loses sight of the vessel; finally fires the fern in despair, and sends up a smoke like Ætna. The schooner lays to, and sends a boat; but sees no one. The sailors go ashore to explore, and on returning find a wild figure clad in skins clinging to the sides of the boat. It is old Spesinick.

The schooner is an American, the “Philo,” Isaac Perceval, master, bound for the South Seas on a whaling and trading voyage. Perceval receives them all aboard, and the next day they quit the Crozets, leaving their ship still on the stocks.'

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The Dartmouth History Research Group published a booklet in 1999 by Linda King on William Veale's eventful life and times.

After surviving this shipwreck and being marooned for two years. William later captained the convict ship 'The Surrey' in 1832 bound for New South Wales via Cork. His first wife Charlotte and mother of his four children passing away in 1834, he remarried in 1836. William circled the globe many times, his last command being that as the Captain of the emigrant ship ' Kinnear'  (destination Van Dieman's Land, now Tasmania) in 1845, before his retirement.

In 1854 he was admitted to the Trinity Almshouses (dwellings since demolished that had been set aside for retired Master Mariners) in Church Street, Deptford and died in August 1867. Sadly the stone erected over his grave has it appears long disappeared and the mortal remains of this remarkable seaman and his second wife Caroline ( d.1882) now lie in quite obscurity in Brockley cemetery.  But he is proudly remembered here as the Deptford Robinson Crusoe and maybe in time a headstone will mark his last resting place amidst the many other heroic mariners who lie buried in the cemetery.