‘Dr. William Edward Dillon, Navy Surgeon in Livingstone’s Africa’ by Julia Turner - the worst book I have ever read

Many people are familiar with the exploits of the Victorian explorer David Livingstone in Africa, his missionary work, anti-slavery agitation and his meeting with the journalist, Henry Morton Stanley on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, in November 1871 which gave rise to the now famous, and much parodied phrase, “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?”

Few people are aware that when contact with Livingstone was again lost after he parted company with Stanley, concern about his safety and health was so great in Britain that the Royal Geographical Society financed a relief expedition to find and resupply the explorer and that two of the four white men who participated in that expedition were Irishmen. In her book, ‘Dr. William Edward Dillon, Navy Surgeon in Livingstone’s Africa’, Dublin born author, Julia Turner, who now resides in Port Alberni, British Columbia, tells the story of this little known, though epic expedition, by focusing on the life of one of these Irishmen, her great-grand uncle, Dr W.E.Dillon.

Selected to lead the expedition, the best financed and best equipped expedition ever mounted by the Royal Geographical Society up to that date, was a young naval Lieutenant, Verney Lovett Cameron, who had knowledge of Africa thanks to his participation in anti-slavery patrols along the east coast of the continent. Cameron persuaded the RGS to allow his best friend, and former shipmate, William Dillon, to accompany him and together they travelled by way of Aden to their base camp at Bagamoyo, on the coast of modern day Tanzania, where they attempted to gather together the hundreds of native porters (pagazi) and soldiers (askari) their caravan required.

At Bagamoyo, Cameron and Dillon were joined by Robert Moffat, a nephew of Livingstone, who had sold his plantation in Natal so that he could join the search for his relative. They were also joined by another Irishman, Lieutenant Cecil Murphy, who was acting Commissary of Ordnance at Aden, and who offered his services and military experience to the expedition providing the British government in Bombay would grant him leave from his regiment.

Almost as soon as the expedition began it was beset by tragedy, calamity and mishap. Before long Moffat was struck down by fever and died. Progress was hindered by mass desertions of pagazi caused, in part, by fear of being caught in the middle of a war between the native chief, Mirambo, and Arab slave traders. Worse was to follow when the party eventually reached the region of Unyanyembe, some 500 miles, and several months, from the coast. All three white men were afflicted by a series of severe and debilitating attacks of fever that caused Cameron to suffer weeks of blindness and left Dillon delirious and suffering from inflammation and perforation of his bowels. Their misery was compounded when some of Livingstone’s native follwers arrived at Unyanyembe bringing the sad news that the great explorer had died and that they intended to transport his preserved body to Bagamoyo so that it could be delivered home to England for burial.

Upon hearing this news Cameron decided to press on with his explorations and won fame as the first man to cross central Africa from coast to coast. Murphy, believing that the death of Livingstone had brought the expedition to an end, resigned and decided to escort the body to Bagamoyo. He was joined by Dillon whose only hope of recovery from his illnesses was to return to civilisation, but within a few days the doctor was dead, having blown his brains out while suffering an attack of delirium.

It is the effect that this tragic suicide had on successive generations of the Dillon family, including the author, Julia Turner, which spoils what could otherwise have been a fascinating account of the battles these four explorers fought against the African terrain, the weather, warring tribes, illness and disease, as well as missing the opportunity of providing an insight into what central Africa was like on the eve of the “Scramble for Africa” by the colonial European powers. The Dillon family has clearly been unable to cope with the fact that his death was a suicide and have therefore attempted to find a scapegoat to blame. The unfortunate scapegoat is Dillon’s fellow Irishman, Cecil Murphy, against whom Julia Turner makes a series of bizarre and outrageous attacks in an attempt to besmirch and denigrate his character, honour and family to give weight to her thesis that Murphy was to blame not only for Dillon’s death but also for the death of Moffat. Turner does this by omitting facts, misrepresenting and misinterpreting evidence, presenting family speculation as historical fact and by blatantly lying. The reason why I can state this with authority is because Cecil Murphy is my great-great-grand uncle and I have researched enough of his family history to be able to see how little Turner’s version of events bears to reality.

Turner’s book is so riddled with mistakes and falsehoods concerning Murphy that it would be impossible for me to list them all here. I will, however provide one example (and my explanation of what is wrong with it) to give a flavour of the lies Turner is prepared to tell in her efforts to assassinate Murphy, lies that are so transparent they are almost laughable. This particular example concerns Turner’s description of a visit Dillon’s parents made in 1873, to see Murphy’s widowed mother (my GGG-Grandmother) in order to pass on news about the expedition that they had received in a letter from their son. Although this account is based solely on “Dillon family lore” it is presented as historical fact and as evidence of Murphy’s bad character. Having described how, “Cecil William Esmonde Murphy was from a poor family in Co. Cork. His father, Robert Xavier Murphy, had risen through the ranks to become Chief Translator of the Bombay Presidency, and he had been away from home constantly.”, Turner proceeds to describe the visit in the following terms,

“W.S. Dillon and his wife Catherine set off. The road to Cork is less than 200 miles today. In 1873 by coach-and-four, the route would have wound all over the countryside. There may have been fewer potholes than other less-travelled by-ways, but the journey would have been slow and arduous. They would have had to change their horses many times, and they would have stayed at inns along the way. Several weeks would be a good estimate for the round journey – that is, if the weather was fair and there was little mud to clog the wheels!”

“Apparently, they did find Mrs. Murphy, drunk, dishevelled and alone in a “thatched, stone-built cottage that stood alone at the side of the road.”

This is utter nonsense! The Dillon’s were travelling in Ireland, not across the Sahara, or the dense jungles of New Guinea. In 1873 Ireland had relatively good roads – far better in many instances than England – and had had those roads for many years. In 1780, an English traveller named Arthur Young, wrote a book called, “A Tour in Ireland” in which he stated,
“…for a country so very far behind us as Ireland to have got suddenly so much the start of us in the article of roads is a spectacle that cannot fail to strike the English traveller exceedingly.”

By the late 1700s and into the 1800s, Ireland was criss-crossed by a good network of post roads, trunk roads and link roads. Some of these were constructed to enable the speedy passage of military personnel in the event of native Irish uprisings, but many were constructed and expanded to facilitate the speedy delivery of mail, upon which much of the administration of the country relied. In 1805, for instance, an Act of Parliament decreed that the Postmaster General was required to survey roads used by mail coaches and suggest improvements, including widening the roads to a minimum of 42 feet. These were good quality roads that followed the most direct route as possible, and the road between Dublin and Cork was one of straightest and best constructed  i.e. it did not wind “all over the countryside”.

Evidence for this can be found in the fact that until the construction of sections of motorway during the last decade, the journey from Dublin to Cork has followed the same route throughout the 20th century as it did in 1873, and for a hundred years before that. The distance from Dublin to Cork along this road, via Kilkenny and Kilworth, is only 158 miles, not 200 miles. If you travel today along the R418 from Kilcullen to Athy you can still see what a fine, straight road it is and was.

There is absolutely no possibility that Dr. Dillon’s parents would have made such a journey in 1873 in their own “carriage and four”, changing “their horses many times”. To suggest that they did further reveals that Turner has no understanding of transport in Ireland during the 19th Century. The livery stables at inns and coach-stops did not provide changes of horses for the general public. These stables were the property of private companies, such as the famous Bianconi coaches service, or the Royal Mail. If the Dillon’s attempted such a journey in 1873 they would have had to use the same horses throughout the trip – unless they themselves had established a network of stables across the country for their own use.

As mentioned above, there was a network of Bianconi coaches in Ireland which had been operating a carriage service to the public since 1815, and which covered almost the length and breadth of the country. In addition to the Bianconi coaches there was also a very efficient stage coach service available for the public, which was only slightly slower than the post coach/mail coach service, which, as the name suggests, delivered the post between the major towns and cities. In 1820, some 53 years before Mr and Mrs Dillon’s journey, the mail coach left the Mail Coach Hotel on Dawson Street, Dublin, at 7.45 p.m. and travelled via Naas, Kilcullen (on the road mentioned above), Athy, Stradbally, Abbeyleix, Durrow, Johnstown, Littleton, Cashel, Cahir, Mitchellstown, and Fermoy and arrived in Cork at 9 p.m. the following day. The journey took just over 25 hours, which is far less than the “several weeks” Turner estimates it would have taken to travel from Dublin to Cork.

It is obvious, therefore, that Dillon’s parents would not have used their own carriage, and worn out their own horses, when there was a perfectly good, reliable, public coach service making regular runs between Dublin and Cork. It is also obvious that such a journey would only have taken some 3 days, there and back, and not several weeks. What is even more confusing about Turner’s story is why the Dillon’s would have bothered taking a coach journey at all to Cork when they could have taken the train? Turner appears to have no knowledge of the fact that construction of a Dublin to Cork railway had started in 1845 by the Great Southern & Western Railway, and that by October 1849 the line had reached the outskirts of Cork. The last mile of the route into the city centre was the most difficult to complete as it included a 1,355 yard tunnel, but by 1855 the Dublin to Cork rail service was operating and allowed passengers to travel between the two cities in only 6 hours 50 minutes. All of this suggests, of course, that the accuracy of the “Dillon family lore” cannot be trusted if it truly states that Dr. Dillon’s parents put themselves through an arduous, winding journey of several weeks when they could have simply caught a train and completed the entire journey in a day, or two.

All of this, however, is a total irrelevance because of the simple fact that Cecil Murphy’s mother DID NOT LIVE IN CORK and his family WAS NOT FROM CORK.

Cecil Murphy was born in Bombay in 1842 and lived most of the early years of his life there. His mother, Charlotte Bellew, was born in India, and was the daughter of, I believe, a German mother and an officer in the army of the Bombay Presidency of the East India Company. There was no connection either with Co. Cork on Murphy’s paternal side of the family. Murphy’s father was, as Turner correctly stated, Robert Xavier Murphy. Robert was born in Dublin and was the son of a very respectable brewer (one of the wealthiest Catholics in Dublin) who was originally from Wexford. Robert’s mother (Cecil Murphy’s grandmother) was a member of the even wealthier Farrell family who made their fortune from land and property and also from brewing – they were the first commercial brewers of porter/stout in Ireland (even before Guinness!).

Cecil’s father, Robert Xavier Murphy, was one of the most capable and learned men to have served with the East India Company. Robert, and his brothers, attended the elite Clongowes Wood school, in Ireland, where he received a classical education and displayed a talent for languages and poetry. His father planned for Robert to become a Priest but Robert ran away from home, enlisted as a common soldier in an artillery battery of the East India Company and was sent to Bombay. His battery commander, however, soon realised that Robert was obviously the well-educated, talented son of a gentleman and arranged to have him transferred to the Bombay Presidency’s civil service. During more than 25 years’ service in Bombay, Robert filled many roles including: first headmaster of the Bombay school founded by the Native Education Society, Translator and Interpreter to the Bombay Supreme Court, wrote the exam papers for those wishing to enter the civil service, served as Secretary of the Bombay Chamber of Commerce, served as a Justice of the Peace, was editor of the Bombay Gazette, was instrumental in founding The Bombay Times (now The Times of India) and served as one of its early editors. He was a co-founder of the first public library in Bombay, was a prominent member of the Bombay Branch of the British Asiatic Society and the Bombay Literary Society, and contributed valuable articles to the Dublin University Magazine and the Journal of the Bombay Geographical Society. In 1843 he was responsible for producing “Murphy’s Map” which first put forward the theory that Bombay was originally composed of 7 islands, a theory that has since proven to be correct. It was he who gave the world the term “Towers of Silence” which he used to describe the famed structures in Bombay on which the Parsee community expose their dead to be eaten by vultures. Robert Xavier Murphy, and his family, had no connection with Co. Cork, and it was back to his home county of Dublin where he chose to settle down when poor health forced him to leave Bombay. Upon his retirement he was awarded a large pension by the East India Company in gratitude for his many years of service. His home was a comfortable Georgian-style house on the corner of York Road/Northcote Avenue, Kingstown (Dun Laoghaire). It was to this house that Dillon’s parents travelled to meet Mrs Murphy in 1873 and not to a humble “thatched, stone-built cottage” in Co. Cork.

Mrs Charlotte Murphy was the wife of a respected gentleman, and for decades had mixed socially with the elite of the British Raj (Colonels, Generals, Knights, Lords, Supreme Court Judges, Governor Generals etc etc It is one thing for Julia Turner to attack Cecil Murphy in the mistaken belief that he was responsible for the death of her relative, but it is unforgiveable to lie and attempt to besmirch the reputation of his mother, who had done the Dillon’s no harm and whose only “crime” appears to be that she was Murphy’s mother. To describe Mrs Murphy as being some ignorant, “drunk, dishevelled” shawlie woman is disgraceful and if it was possible to sue for libel on behalf of a dead relative I would do so.

I apologise for the length of this post but feel that I had to vent my anger about Julia Turner’s outrageous attacks upon my family and would urge people to never purchase her dreadful book.

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Tags: Africa, Exploration, Genealogy, Reviews


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