1824: First Gold Medal for Gallantry
In 1824, Charles Fremantle became the Institution’s first Gold Medal recipient, awarded for his bravery when he swam out to a Swedish brig that was stranded off the coast of Christchurch.
Born in 1800 to a family with a long tradition of Naval service, Charles Fremantle was the son of Admiral Sir Thomas Francis Fremantle.
His father was well known to Admiral Nelson, and Charles' middle name – Howe – was a nod towards the ‘Glorious First of June’, when Admiral Lord Richard Howe defeated French troops in battle.
A selfless act of bravery
The rescue took place on 8 March 1824 while Charles was serving on the Lymington Coastguard service.
The Swedish brig Carl Jean, bound from Alicante in Spain to Gefle in Sweden (with a precious cargo of wine and salt), became stranded on the shore at Whitepit near Christchurch, Dorset. Her mast was toppled and she looked to be in danger of breaking up as she was buffeted about by choppy seas
Attaching a shore line to his body, Charles swam through the breaking surf to the ship, where he had all her boats cut clear. However, these were quickly engulfed by heavy seas – rendering them useless for evacuation – and the crew onboard refused to leave their vessel. Charles swam back to shore, where he was said to be ‘utterly exhausted and insensible'. The Carl Jean’s crew eventually escaped using the ship’s broken mast to get to the safety of land.
Charles’ naval career
Fremantle got his first command of a ship (the HMS Jasper) in the same year as this rescue, aged just 24, and 4 years later in 1828, took command of the HMS Challenger bound for Australia.
He was somewhat sceptical about the trip, which he thought would bring him little by way of personal gain or promotion. However in 1829, he went on to claim the entire West Coast of Australia in the name of His Britannic Majesty, despite the land already being occupied by the indigenous Whadjuk people.
He later recommended the Chinese town of Kowloon as a good place for a colony, leading to the occupation of Hong Kong by the British in 1841.
After returning to England in 1836, Charles married the affluent widow Isobella Wedderburn, and fathered three children.
He later took part in the Crimean war, and was awarded both the Knight Commander of the Bath in 1857 and the Knight Grand Cross of the Bath in 1867. He died on 19 December 1869.