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By: Philip Pearson

A Challenger's Song

Pages: 254 Ratings: 5.0
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A sensitive and lovingly told story mixing fact, action, letters, journals, song and oral history.
Pearson writes with a rich clarity and intelligence about his great grandfather, Charlie Collins, the boy who ran away to sea to become head stoker on the celebrated scientific expedition of the HMS Challenger (1872-76). Finding his feet as a blacksmith back in Brighton with wife Mary and family, we learn about the joys, hardships and everyday heroism of their lives within the grand sweep of 19th Century history.

Andrea Watts, writer and creative writing tutor

In 1872, HMS Challenger, powered by sail and steam, left Portsmouth for an epic voyage of ocean exploration. A Challenger’s Song combines a lifetime reimagined with a fresh account of the voyage seen through the eyes of the crew and scientists, drawing on their own letters and accounts.

‘I had read about the voyage of HMS Challenger before, but this combination of imaginative reconstruction and factual information for me shed a new light on life for those on board ... my appreciation of the men and boys whose hard work kept the Challenger going, and made possible the collection of samples which led to a transformation of our understanding of the deep oceans, was increased enormously ... The sea shanty section at the end is a nice bonus!
Angela Colling, Editor, Ocean Challenge.

Philip Pearson grew up in Brighton, within sight of the sea. He studied geography at college and developed a lifelong interest in environmental issues. This drew him to the fascinating story of the voyage of the Challenger and its astonishing achievements.
He worked in the trade union movement for much of his life. He has published two books reflecting much of this work: Twilight robber: trade unions and low paid workers
(1986) and Keeping Well at Work (2004).
The idea for a narrative of the life of his great grandfather, Charlie Collins, one of the Challenger’s crew, was inspired by the creative writing classes at the Mary Ward Centre, London.
He sings with the London Sea Shanty Collective choir, and the narrative is doubtless influenced by the stories and rhythms of these working songs of the sea. Philip and his wife Nony, who passed away in 2021, have two children, Anya and Aidan.

Customer Reviews
1 reviews
1 reviews
  • Sarah Birch

    This is a reprint of a review published in the Hackney Citizen,

    HMS Challenger set out from Portsmouth in 1872 to survey the world’s oceans. The findings of the 68,890-nautical-mile expedition, reported in 50 volumes, proved the existence of more than 2,500 new species, provided an untold wealth of evidence on life in the watery deeps, and established the academic field of oceanography.

    Accounts of the voyage tend to focus on its contribution to science, but there was also a very human side to this arduous journey, with 89 of the original 234 crew leaving the expedition before its end and 11 dying. A Challenger’s Song by Philip Pearson recounts the hardship, tragedy, and also wonder of this epic voyage from the point of view of the ship’s head stoker, Charles Collins. The Hackney author is Collins’s great-grandson, and the fascinating volume combines family accounts, historiography, and cultural artifacts in a lyrical blend of imaginative reconstruction and historical chronicle.

    MS Challenger was a 200-foot corvette powered party by sail and partly by steam. Charlie Collins’s job was to keep the steam part of the operation going by feeding the ship’s four boilers copious amounts of coal. At times this involved some quick action, as when the vessel narrowly escaped being crushed by an iceberg in the Antarctic. At other times the job was fairly straightforward, but months without sight of land on a diet of salt pork and pea soup took its toll.

    Collins came back from the trip full of tales of heroic rescues, natural wonders, and the escapades of his comrades aboard. ‘Swallowing the anchor’ and settling back into family life in Brighton was at times challenging, but working as a blacksmith he raised nine children and lived to the age of 85.

    As 2022 marks the 150th anniversary of the Challenger’s expedition, this lively tale breathes life, pathos, and wit into one of the great scientific achievements of the 19th century.

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