BEHIND a pillar in Winchester Cathedral’s North Transept is a rectangular memorial tablet dedicated to a little-known Victorian naval hero Captain Henry Pearson, R.N. “of this city” who was “Navigating Officer when H.M.S. CALLIOPE {Captain H.C. Kane} was brought out of Apia Harbour in Samoa in the hurricane of 16th March 1889.”

The Great Samoan Hurricane is no longer remembered. Neither are the exploits of HMS Calliope. In the late 19th century, however, the ship’s escape from Apia Harbour was big news as a stirring example of British skill, bravery and engineering succeeding under the greatest pressure when Americans and Germans had failed. It was celebrated at the time, with the captain and crew praised as heroes.

Samoa, an island group in the central South Pacific, was one of the few unclaimed territories available for colonisation by the major powers which wanted coaling stations, cable stops and raw materials. In the late 1880s, control of the islands was contested by Germany and the USA which each sent three warships to defend their interests.

On the orders of the Foreign Office in London, HMS Calliope was dispatched from Sydney to Apia in February 1889 to represent British interest. Calliope was an iron- and steel-sheathed cruiser with steam engines and masts. Launched at Portsmouth in 1884, she sailed to the Australia Station at the end of 1887. Calliope was commanded by Captain (later Admiral) Henry Coey Kane when she steamed for Apia, 2400 nautical miles away. Lieutenant Henry Pearson, aged 37, was the Navigating Officer.

When it arrived in Apia Harbour, Calliope joined the three German warships, three American warships and numerous merchant ships. As it was the hurricane season, the warships should not have been there. When a hurricane warning came, the ships were crammed into a small, wide-open harbour which had reefs surrounding a narrow entrance. The onshore wind meant all were in danger of being trapped on a lee shore and potentially sunk. Because of the political situation, none steamed out to safer open water. All stayed at anchor to protect national interests, despite receiving a warning two days in advance.

Calliope took its masts and rigging on to the deck and got the steam engines running. Winds blew in at more than 100 miles per hour. After the hurricane arrived, it was too late for the ships tried to leave as their anchors were no longing holding them against a tremendous sea. USS Trenton tried to steam out but was blown ashore. Next the smaller German warship Adler was wrecked when blown ashore with many dead. Pearson described its fate: “The next moment we saw her lifted bodily and thrown on her beam end, on top of the reef.”

In virtually zero visibility, with Calliope’s anchors dragging, Captain Kane ordered full steam. The ship’s engineer blocked boiler safety valves to maximise power. Pearson, at the helm, reported that Calliope struggled for forward motion: “For some minutes we did not make any headway, but I managed to keep her head to the sea and wind by working the helm from side to side.” The British cruiser squeezed past USS Trenton with a reef just 40 yards away. “We expected every moment something would go, but everything held on and so we plugged on.” Gradually the ship left the narrow harbour entrance at one knot and into the open sea. The Calliope had taken eight hours to travel two miles but was safe.

As they passed the stricken Trenton, its crew cheered the Calliope. The Trenton’s act was celebrated on the cover of the Illustrated London News on April 27, 1889. During the drama, Henry Pearson had been wearing pyjamas beneath his oilskin and seaboots. By the night of the escape, Pearson was so worn by the ordeal that he “dropped insensible from fatigue … (and) slept like an Egyptian mummy.” After two days, when the wind reduced, Calliope returned to Apia to a scene of total devastation. All the other ships were wrecked or run ashore with the loss of 150 lives.

When Calliope returned to Sydney, she was greeted by welcoming boats and ferries. The captain and his officers were interviewed for newspapers and journalists filed glowing reports by telegram on Kane’s feat of leading Calliope to safety while all others failed. The captain’s report on the incident was published as a Parliamentary Paper on May 30, 1889. Pearson, who had helmed the warship to safety, received a minor “special mention” as he had “assisted (Captain Kane) much by his advice.”

Henry Pearson was born at Darjeeling in Bengal on 1st August 1852. He entered the Royal Navy in 1866 as a cadet at HMS Britannia and was promoted to Midshipman in early 1868. He had risen to Lieutenant by 1877. His naval career ended when failing eyesight led to his retirement as a Captain in August 1897.

In the late 1890s, Pearson and his family moved to 1 St James’s Crescent (Now 4 St James’s Lane) in Winchester. He was a town councillor, a local leader of the (now Royal) British Legion and a regular attender at the Cathedral. Pearson died on the 17th August 1936, aged 84, after a fall. His ashes were interred in a family plot alongside his wife and daughter in West Hill Cemetery across the road from his home.

The Pearson tablet, designed by the Cathedral architect, Tom Atkinson, was installed in the Cathedral’s North Transept on 13th July 1940, a year after the 50th anniversary of HMS Calliope’s feat. Although Pearson was not a Wintonian, it was Winchester and the Cathedral which gave him recognition that continues to this day.

  • A longer version of this article written by Ian Glenday and Tom Watson has been published in Record Extra, the online journal of the Friends of Winchester Cathedral. It can be found at