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British Industrial History

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Joseph Whidbey

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Joseph Whidbey's tomb at St. James' Church, Taunton, Somerset
JD Whidbey02.jpg

Joseph Whidbey (c1755-1833)

c.1755 Born[1] [2]

1778 Warranted as a sailing master

After years of service during the war of American Independence, he received a peacetime appointment to HMS Europa where, with then-Lieutenant Vancouver, he conducted a detailed survey of Port Royal.

After Europa paid off, Whidbey gained a berth, along with Vancouver, in the newly built HMS Discovery. During the Nootka Crisis, both men were transferred to HMS Courageux, but returned to Discovery and departed for the Northwest Coast of America.

In 1792, Whidbey accompanied Lieutenant Peter Puget in small boats to explore what was later named Puget Sound. On June 2, the team discovered Deception Pass, establishing the insularity of the Sound's largest island, which Vancouver named Whidbey Island.

1799 Whidbey was appointed Master Attendant at Sheerness.

Earl St. Vincent commissioned Whidbey to make a feasibility survey of Tor Bay as a fleet anchorage; Whidbey recommended this be done by building a great breakwater. Around this time he apparently struck up a lifelong friendly and professional relationship with John Rennie.

1803 His innovative salvage of the Dutch frigate Ambuscade was the subject of a paper read to the Royal Society in 1803.

1804 Appointed Master Attendant at Woolwich Dockyard.

1805 Whidbey became a Fellow of the Royal Society, sponsored by a long list of distinguished men of science: Alexander Dalrymple, James Rennell, William Marsden, James Stanier Clarke, Sir Gilbert Blane, Mark Beaufoy, Joseph Huddart, and John Rennie.

1806 Whidbey joined Rennie in planning the Plymouth Breakwater, at St. Vincent's request

1811 Construction began; Whidbey was appointed Acting Superintending Engineer.[3]. This task required great engineering, organizational and political skills, as the many technical challenges were complicated by the organisational and financial aspects. Nearly 4 million tons of stone were quarried and transported, using about a dozen ships innovatively designed by the two men.

1817 Paper to the Royal Society on fossils found in the Plymouth quarries

Whidbey continued to work on the Breakwater and other engineering projects, including the breakwater's lighthouse (designed by Trinity House), until his retirement around 1830.

1833 Died, buried in Taunton[4]


'At the late Masonic Dinner in this town, the scientific and highly-respected Joseph Whidbey, Esq. was present. This venerable gentleman has for the last two years resided in this town ; and it is to his genius and Herculean labours that the noble structure at Plymouth—the Breakwater — owes its origin and accomplishment. This grand work, from the efficient security it affords to the Navy in adverse weather, may be alleged with propriety to have saved the lives of thousands of individuals, and to have protected property to an immense value, which would have been otherwise exposed to the disastrous visitations of the storm. The name of its architect must therefore always be associated in the minds of the present generation and of posterity, with a sentiment of respect and grateful recollection. Besides having signalized himself by this memorable and national undertaking, Mr. Whidbey is further destined to hold a distinguished position in the annals of our country, by his having twice accomplished a voyage round the world, one of which was with the celebrated circumnavigator Vancouver, with whom he sailed in the Discovery, as master, in the year 1791, and returned after a long voyage of four years eight months and twenty nine days, during the whole of which the Discovery lost by disease, out of one hundred men, only one, and five by accident. Mr. Whidbey's life has been distinguished by various highly interesting incidents, and his presence at the late festival, after having carried with him his Masonic Certificate twice round the world, conferred much gratification on the Brethren. The W. M. Brother J. Eales White, appropriate terms adverted to the prominent characteristics of Mr. Whidbey's life, on proposing his health, which was drank with sincere respect by all present. Mr. Whidbey is now in the 73d (?) year of his age.'[5]

See Also

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Sources of Information

  1. According to the age at death given on his tomb
  2. A Joseph Whitbey was christened in Ince, Cheshire in 1754
  3. Obituary of William Stuart
  4. BMD
  5. Taunton Courier, and Western Advertiser, 9 January 1833
  • [1] Biography posted on Find-a-Grave