Friday 25 July 2014

The Loss of the Kent, 1825, and its immortalisation in verse

The Kent by William J. Huggins 1825   
Ship losses at sea, though still at an unacceptably high level today, were even more frequent in the days before radio, radar, echo-sounders and others aids to navigation. Loss of life in such incidents was very high, since before the advent of air travel all overseas passenger travel was by ship. In the age of sail the most passenger ships were small – well under 200 ft long and 1500 tons – not because large sail-driven ships could not be built, but because of the requirement for very large crews. Despite such vessel sizes, and when sailing technology was mature, as in the 19th Century, huge numbers of passengers were carried. It is hard to imagine today the degree of overcrowding, discomfort, poor sanitation and lack of privacy which was involved, especially on long voyages. The hazards of the sea included not only adverse weather – with its attendant sea-sickness – but, most dreaded of all, fire.
These separate factors came together very dramatically in 1825 in the case of the Kent, and the incident aroused such interest that even decades later it was to be immortalised in poetry – of which more anon.
The Kent was a typical representative of the fleet of ships – “East Indiamen” – operated by Britain’s East India Company for trade between Europe, India and China. The Suez Canal had not been constructed in this era (it was to open in 1869) and the voyages involved were as a consequences considerably longer than they would be today. Launched in 1820, the Kent was 133 ft. long overall and was of 1330 tons burden. Her crew was some 140 – an indication of just how many men were required to operate a sailing vessel of this size. One can see how attractive steam propulsion was to be in due course because of the reduction in crew requirements. It should be noted that this figure of 140 applied before a single passenger came on board.
The years 1821 to 1824 were occupied by the Kent in two successful trading voyages to China. These were of long duration – on the first the Kent left England in March 14th 1821 and reached the Whampoa anchorage (between Canton and Macau) on September 24th, having had intermediate stops at Bombay and Singapore.
Whampoa circa 1810
It was on the Kent’s third voyage that disaster struck. Sailing as before under Captain Henry Cobb, she was now contracted to carry troops, and their families, to India. These belonged to the 31st (Huntingtonshire) Regiment of Foot, originally formed in 1702. In addition to her own 148-man crew the Kent set out from England with 20 officers and 344 soldiers of the regiment,  43 women and  66 children accompanying the, and 20 private passengers. With a voyage of some three months ahead of her the Kent was carrying a total of 641 persons within her 133 ft. length. Cows or goats were also likely to have been carried to provide fresh milk. The conditions must have been insufferable by modern standards, even though they were considered normal at the time.
The Kent sailed from Gravesend in mid-February and on March 1st was encountering heavy weather in the Bay of Biscay. Choosing what appears to have been an inopportune moment for such an activity, one of the ship’s officers engaged in checking the spirits in the hold. A sudden lurch by the ship knocked his lantern from his hand at the same time as a loose cask burst open. The spirits took light and the fire spread so rapidly that abandoning ship must now be considered. Now another hazard of the era presented itself – no vessel of the period carried sufficient lifeboats, a situation that was only finally to be resolved almost  a century later after the loss of the Titanic.
There appears to have been no panic – as was also to happen in 1845 when troops stood quietly in ranks on the sinking Birkenhead so as to allow women and children get away in the boats. Military discipline prevailed. The official report was later to state that In the midst of dangers against which it seemed hopeless to struggle-at a time when no aid appeared, and passively to die was all that remained, each man displayed the manly resignation, the ready obedience, and the unfailing discipline characteristics of a good soldier."
The situation was at its most hopeless when fate intervened.
The Kent on fire - by William Daniell
A small 200-ton brigantine, the Cambria, commanded by a Captain Cook, happened to be in the vicinity and sighted the Kent's distress signal. She carried a crew of 11 men and some 20 Cornish miners, all of whom threw themselves wholeheartedly into rescue efforts, disregarding the fact that the Kent’s powder magazine might explode at any moment. The soldiers behaved equally admirably, some tying children to their backs and swimming with them to safety. The Kent’s crew appears to have behaved less well. Some, having got away by boat, refused to return for their shipmates. Only the threat by the Cambria’s captain not to take them on board induced them to change their minds.
By the evening, the Cambria had taken some 550 survivors aboard – it must have been a case of “standing room only”. Another vessel, the Caroline, now also arrived and managed to take off 14 survivors. In the early hours of the following morning the Kent exploded her, the shock apparently encouraging a soldier’s wife, now safe on the Cambria, to give birth.
Rescue attempts. Note the Cambria in the background - by Thomas M.M. Hemy

Both the Cambria and the Caroline now turned for England, where the survivors were landed safely. Despite the heroic rescue efforts the loss of life was still high –  81 in total, of whom 54 were soldiers and 20 children. It is pleasing to note that the miners and others associated with the rescue received silver medals in recognition of their courage.
The Kent disaster was probably made more newsworthy at the time by the providential rescue. Several artists painted their own versions of the event. Those by William Daniell and Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy are quite horrific as they depict transfer of personnel between the burning Kent and already-laden boats.

The loss of the Kent was to be immortalised several decades later by the famous and prolific Scots poet, William McGonnagal (1825-1902). It was indeed through perusal of the McGonnagal anthology “Poetic Gems” that I first learned of the incident. The poem, a delight for all lovers of the English language, is too long to reproduce in full but the following verses hint at its flavour and its quality.
 McGonnagal sets the scene:

She carried a crew, including officers, of 148 men,
And twenty lady passengers along with them;
Besides 344 men of the 31st Regiment,
And twenty officers with them, all seemingly content.

Also the soldiers' wives, which numbered forty-three,
And sixty-six children, a most beautiful sight to see;
And in the year of 1825, and on the 19th of February,
The ship 'Kent' sailed from the Downs right speedily,
While the passengers' hearts felt light with glee.

The cause of the accident is graphically described:

And they discovered a spirit cask and the contents oozing rapidly,
And the man with the light stooped to examine it immediately;
And in doing so he dropped the lamp while in a state of amaze,
And, oh horror! in a minute the forehold was in a blaze.

It was two o'clock in the morning when the accident took place,
And, alas! horror and fear was depicted in each face;
And the sailors tried hard to extinguish the flame,
But, oh Heaven! all their exertions proved in vain.

The situation deteriorated still further:

And women and children rushed to the deck in wild despair,
And, paralysed with terror, many women tore their hair;
And some prayed to God for help, and wildly did screech,
But, alas! poor souls, help was not within their reach.

Help was on the way however:

Then the vessel came to their rescue, commanded by Captain Cook,
And he gazed upon the burning ship with a pitiful look;
She proved to be the brig 'Cambria,' bound for Vera Cruz,
Then the captain cried, 'Men, save all ye can, there's no time to lose.'

Then the sailors of the 'Cambria' wrought with might and main,
While the sea spray fell on them like heavy rain;
First the women and children were transferred from the 'Kent'
By boats, ropes, and tackle without a single accident.

Should the reader want more – or indeed be interested in learning about numerous other 19th Century disasters, battles or public events described by McGonnagal in heroic verse, I can heartily recommend his “Poetic Gems”.

Friday 18 July 2014

A Sultan, a Queen and a Salvage

It’s hard to imagine a sequence of events that links an Ottoman Sultan, Queen Victoria, the Royal Navy of 1889, an innovative epic of marine salvage and an 1870s warship which served in various capacities until the end of the Second World War. The link is however the ironclad HMS Sultan, built between 1870 and 1876.
HMS Sultan in her early career

I was spurred to research and write this article by my recent reading the memoirs of the great Royal Navy gunnery expert of the pre-World War period, Admiral Sir Percy Scott (1853-1924) - seen here in mid-career - who played a peripheral role in the story. I will quote directly from him later in this article.

HMS Sultan was of 9290 tons and 325 feet long. A single-shaft 7720 HP engine drove her at a maximum 14 knots under steam but could only make 6 knots under sail. She was designed to carry her guns in a centrally-placed armoured-box battery, as will be seen in the contemporary diagram below which shows the battery’s two levels. The armament consisted of eight 10-inch and four 9-inch rifled muzzle-loaders. The weapons on the main deck guns provided broadside fire, with limited ahead fire from the foremost gun on each side, while those on the upper deck provided additional broadside fire and also could fire astern, by traversing the after gun on a turntable. Side armour – as seen in blue on the diagram – was up to 9 inches thick. The ship, and her armour, were all of iron as steel was not yet the preferred construction material.
HMS Sultan's layout (from Brassey's "The British Navy", 1882)
The Sultan was named in honour of the Ottoman Sultan, Abdülaziz, who admired Western progress and who hoped to reform and develop his empire as a modern state. A cultured man, he was the first Ottoman sultan to visit Western Europe; his trip included a visit to England, where he was honoured by Queen Victoria by a Royal Navy Fleet Review, during which he was invested with the Order of the Garter. A further gesture of respect was the subsequent naming of HMS Sultan in his honour. It should be remembered that in this period the Ottoman Empire was regarded by Britain as a bulwark against a Russian threat to communication with India and its friendship was accordingly highly valued. (Readers of my novel Britannia’s Wolf will appreciate this!)
Queen Victoria investing the Sultan with the Order of the Garter, 1867
The location is the deck of the Royal yacht
HMS Sultan was indeed to be of service of the Ottoman Empire, but after the death of Abdülaziz. This service occurred in early 1878 when the Sultan was part of  British Squadron which moored off Istanbul at the moment, at the end of the 1877-78 Russo-Turkish War, when the victorious Russian armies had reached the city’s suburbs and were about to enter. This was unacceptable for Britain and the presence of the Royal Navy squadron showed determination to go to war with Russia to prevent it. Thus confronted, the Russians backed down and peace was made with the Ottomans.
British squadron, including HMS Sultan, steaming up
the Dardanelles to Istanbul, early 1878
Much of the Sultan’s active service was to be in the Mediterranean and in 1882 she was to participate in the bombardment of Alexandria, sustaining casualties of two killed and eight wounded from a single hit on her battery.

The most dramatic events in her life were to commence in March 1889. At this point I hand over to Sir Percy Scott, who was then serving on HMS Edinburgh at the time and who tells the story much better than I can:

It was on the 6th March, 1889, that H.M.S. Sultan, while practising firing torpedoes, struck on a rock in the Comino Channel. Every endeavour to tow her off failed, and seven days afterwards, during a northerly gale, she was washed off the rock and sank in 42 feet of water. An examination of the hull of the vessel by divers revealed that the damages sustained were so excessive that all hope of getting her up was abandoned. The Admiralty offered £50,000 to anyone who would raise her and bring her into a harbour, but the representatives of two or three firms who had a look at her agreed in regarding the task as impossible.
HMS Sultan initially aground, attempts to pump her out in progress,
prior to being washed off the rock
Two months later, a French engineer, named Chambon, who was employed in the Corinth Canal, paid her a visit and, to the surprise of everyone, expressed an opinion that she could be raised quite quickly. A contract was at once made with the Admiralty by which they were to pay £50,000 if the Sultan was in Malta Harbour before the end of the year
Speculation was rife as to how many men-of-war M. Chambon would require to assist him, and how much plant he would bring. He required no help, and arrived in a tiny steamer called the Utile, with a total crew of twelve, six of whom were divers. The only plant he brought was brains.
He started work on the 24th June by cautiously blasting away such rocks as were too close to- the ship's side to enable the work to be undertaken on the holes that had been discovered. The task of closing up the larger fractures in the ship’s bottom was then begun and one by one the holes were sealed up in the- following ingenious manner.
From templates taken by the divers of the curvature of the ship’s bottom in the vicinity of the hole, a wooden frame was prepared.  This was sent down, and the divers secured it round the hole. Across this frame planks were nailed, and as each plank was put in its, place, the space between it and the plating was -filled in with a mixture of bricks, mortar, and cement, and thus a solid sheathing was formed over the hole.
The excellence of this work can be seen from the pictures on the opposite page (reproduced here); it was a master-piece of diving skill. Meanwhile the work of making watertight the upper deck, including hatchways, ports, and ventilators, was proceeded with, and the various pumps put on board by the dockyard were got ready for pumping her out. At the end of a month, on the 27th July, all the holes were sealed up, the pumps were started, and the ship was lifted. Unfortunately a gale of wind sprang up. The Sultan sank again and in striking the bottom, did more damage to the hull.
This disheartening occurrence only strengthened M. Chambon's indomitable energy. Directly the weather moderated, the divers went down, repaired the hull and on the17th August the pumps were started and the Sultan floated.
Then followed catastrophe number two. While she was being moved, the ship was caught by the current and knocked up against a rock, displacing a patch. She filled, and sank for the third time.
The reports of the divers as to the extent of the damage done by this third sinking were very discouraging; but nothing would deter M. Chambon from completing his work. Renewed energy was put into it, and, nine days afterwards, on the 26th August, the Sultan was up again and towed into Malta harbour. I was in charge of a large party of men from the Edinburgh to assist in docking and clearing her.
The ship must have been splendidly built. After sinking three times and being on the bottom for six months, she showed no signs of structural weakness. As the water was pumped out, we turned the engines and trained the guns, which showed she was not out of line. In a month or two she steamed home.
This superb achievement was only made possible by the availability of Standard Diving Dress, which was cutting edge technology of the time. The techniques employed were innovative at the time and were to become standard in the salvage industry thereafter.

After arriving back in Portsmouth the Sultan underwent modernisation and repair, at a rather leisurely rate, until 1896, losing her masts and yards in the process. Of little fighting capability she stayed in reserve to 1906.
HMS Sultan post-modernisation
Scott’s remark that the Sultan “must have been splendidly built” appeared in his memoirs in 1919. By then her large and robust hull had been used, under different names, as an artificers' training ship and as a mechanical repair ship.  When Scott wrote she still had over a quarter-century’s service ahead of her as she was to be employed as a depot ship for minesweepers at Portsmouth during World War 2, being finally scrapped until in 1947.

And what of Sultan Abdülaziz? His passion for modernisation led to mounting public debt and he was deposed by his ministers on May 30th 1876. He was dead five days later, allegedly by suicide. The method reported – getting hold of scissors in his tower prison cell and managing to cut his two wrists at once – sounded unlikely in the extreme and it is widely believed to have been murdered.

The ship named in his honour was to outlive this tragic figure by seventy-one years.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which centres on the efforts of a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam.

Wednesday 16 July 2014

Carronades at Fort Nelson help visitors touch Jack Aubrey’s reality

 “… Captain Aubrey stood by the starboard thirty-two-pounder carronade contemplating the Emperor of Morocco's purple galley as it lay off Jumper's Bastion with the vast grey and tawny Rock of Gibraltar soaring behind it, while Mr Blake, once a puny member of his midshipman's berth but now a tall, stout lieutenant almost as massive as his former captain, explained the new carriage he had invented, a carriage that should enable carronades to fire twice as fast, with no fear of oversetting, twice as far, and with perfect accuracy, thus virtually putting an end to war.”
The above extract from the opening of O’Brian’s “The Far Side of the World” concentrates on a weapon, the carronade, which figures significantly – and frequently decisively – in much nautical fiction, as it did in real life.
British 68-pounder carronade of 1780 on a fortress mounting
The “carronade”, an early, perhaps earliest, example of a trade-name becoming the accepted term for an entire class of products was a short smoothbore cast iron cannon. It took its name from the original manufacturer, the Carron Company, which had an ironworks in Falkirk, in Scotland, UK. The short barrel indicated that it was a short-range weapon, powerful against ships but even more so against personnel in close actions. A carronade weighed a quarter as much and used a quarter to a third of the gunpowder-charge for a long gun firing the same roundshot over much longer range. The lower recoil forces meant that slider mountings, rather trucks, could be employed. The light weight of the carronade made it especially attractive for mounting at higher levels – and important factor when a enemy’s deck should be cleared by grapeshot before boarding. They could also provide a very powerful punch for a small vessel such as a gunboat or sloop.
A carronade on a shipboard mounding - note the slide
Though the basic concept remained unchanged, carronades were manufactured for a huge range, from 6 to 42-pounders, and 68-pounder weapons not unknown. They were not counted in a ship of the line's rated number of guns so that, in practice, the actual number of weapons carried might be significantly higher than the rating.
Antoine Vanner with 1808 24-pounder
Three cannonades are on display at the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson, near Portsmouth. All are on fortress-mountings, for protection of walls and bastions of land fortifications against storming but the weapons are otherwise similar to what would have been deployed at sea. The largest is a 68-pounder, dated to 1790, while the two smaller weapons are 28-pounders and dated as 1808.

Touching them forges a bond between the visitor and the world of fighting sail - and makes one very grateful not to have been on the receiving end of one delivering a shower of grape!.
24-pounder carronade of 1808, fortress mounting

Friday 4 July 2014

Mallet's Monster Mortar - and the Birth of Seismology

Today the Crimean War (1854-56) is remembered for organisational and tactical incompetence that led to spectacular disasters such as the Charge of the Light Brigade at Balaclava, and the less spectacular, but more deadly, large-scale losses resulting from poor logistics and inadequate medical care.  Though limited operations were conducted in the Baltic, the focus of the allied British, French and Turkish forces arraigned against Russia was concentrated in capture of the huge naval base of Sebastopol in the Crimea. The conflict developed into an extended siege, in which allied forces were faced with the reduction of well-engineered Russian fortifications. Enduring the savage winter of 1854-55 in exposed trenches, the besiegers suffered appalling losses from cold and disease and their artillery was to prove inadequate in blasting breaches through which successful assaults could be launched. Though major fortifications known as the “Great Redan” and “The Malakoff Redoubt” were finally stormed by the British and French respectively in September 1855, the cost in lives was appalling.
Sebastopol defences - seem from Russian side
A panoramic paiting by the Russian artist Franz Rouobaud 
One of the major lessons of the war – indeed one that was learned early on during the Sebastopol siege – was that more effective artillery was required. This was especially the case as regards mortars, capable of supplying plunging fire which would rain down destruction not only on walls, but the defenders behind them.

Robert Mallet (1810-1881)
It is at this point – in the early stage of the war – at which one of the unjustly-forgotten technological giants of the Victorian period enters the story. Robert Mallet (1810 – 1881), was born in Dublin, on 3 June 1810, the son of the owner of an iron foundry. In 1830 Mallet graduated in science and mathematics at Trinity College, Dublin, and thereafter worked with his father to build their business into one of Ireland’s most important engineering companies. Notable achievements were supply of ironwork for the expanding railway network, for the first Fastnet Rock lighthouse and for a swing bridge over the River Shannon.

In parallel with these business interests Mallet developed an interest in earthquakes and in 1846 presented a paper to the Royal Irish Academy "On the Dynamics of Earthquakes". This is now considered to be one of the foundations of modern seismology – indeed Mallet is credited with coining the word "seismology" as well as “epicentre”. Mallet was particularly interested in assessing the energy unleashed by earthquakes and with his son John undertook a series of experiments on how sound or energy moves through sand and rock. The most important of these laid the foundation of modern seismic techniques used in exploration of oil and gas reserves.  In this, a keg of gunpowder was buried on Killiney Beach, south of Dublin, and then detonated. Using a primitive form of seismometer half a mile away Mallet measured the resulting energy wave, thus demonstrating its ability to travel though sand and rock.

RAF personnel with Grand Slam 1945
It is probably Mallet’s insight into the effects of a deep explosion that led to his proposal in late 1854, when the Siege of Sebastopol was still in its early stages, for the creation of a giant mortar. His reasoning may have been similar to that of the great British engineer, Barnes Wallis, which led to the development of the 22000 lb “Grand Slam” bomb of WW2. Dropped from an aircraft, such bombs were designed to detonate only after they had penetrated deep in the ground, thus setting off a local earthquake. They proved especially effective in demolishing hard-to-hit targets such as railway viaducts since a direct hit was not necessary, the earthquake effect being sufficient to bring them down. In Mallet’s day aircraft were not available and the only way of achieving a similar effect was to lob a bomb sufficiently high in the air – and for this a mortar was required.

Mallet recognised that the bomb thrown by such a mortar needed to be massive – he was thinking in terms of a ton, more than had been ever attempted previously – and the mortar itself must be also be enormous and likely to be too heavy for deployment in the field. It was now that Mallet brought his iron-founder’s insights into play and he designed a mortar which would be made up of multiple parts - each large in its own right, but transportable with the means then available – and assembled close to the target. The illustration below shows the construction of the barrel. The bore was 36 inches and the total weight came to 42 tons.

There was little official interest in the proposal initially but in March 1855, with the siege dragging on with little immediate hope of success, Mallet approached the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston. He was impressed and he instructed the Army’s Board of Ordnance to arrange construction of two weapons. Completion of the mortars was to prove longer than the siege itself – not least because of bankruptcy of the company initially contracted to provide them, and the letting of the work to three others. The weapons were finally delivered for testing in May 1857, over a year after the war had ended.
Mallet Mortar on testing range 1857
Nineteen bombs were fired during three separate testing rounds, each being brought to an end by damage to the mortar. A rate of four firings per hour was achieved. The bombs varied in weight between 2,352 and 2,940 pounds – well over a ton. An 80 pound firing charge propelled the lighter shell 2,759 yards (Over a mile and a half, two and a half kilometres) and the flight time was 23 seconds. The conclusion from the testing was that the weapons were not usable. This may well have been due to the metallurgical limitations of the time, for the concept was valid. Large mortars, but none as large as the Mallet, were to be used with devastating effect in the American Civil War, the Russo-Turkish War of 1877/78 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904/05.

The two Mallet Mortars still exist. The weapon used for testing can be seen at Woolwich, SE London (junction of Repository and Hillreach Roads , easily visible on Google Earth street view), close to what was the arsenal there. The unfired mortar  is on display at the Royal Armouries Museum at Fort Nelson, just north of  near Portsmouth. The photographs below were taken there recently.
Mallet Mortar at Fort Nelson
Antoine Vanner provides a hint as to scale - and bombs in foreground are 36" diameter
Method of elevation can be seen - timber baulks used to change elevation
Sebastopol was however to see deployment of giant mortars in a later siege. In 1942 German forces used self-propelled "Karl-Gerät" siege mortars to reduce the fortress. These monsters fired 24 inch shells of 4780 pounds maximum, and achieved a six-mile range with lighter 2,760 lb shells. Each weapon was by a crane, a heavy transport trailer, and several modified tanks to carry shells.

Karl-Gerat in action
Despite the failure of his mortar, Robert Mallet’s career continued to prosper. His detailed investigation of the 1857 Great Neapolitan Earthquake, which caused 11,000 deaths, produced a two-volume report,  subtitled “The First Principles of Observational Seismology" and in it he demonstrated that the earthquake had some eight to nine miles below the surface. Mallet was also to do pioneering work on volcanology. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society in 1854, and moved to London in 1861. Highly honoured, it is sad to record that he was blind for the last seven years of his life. He is buried at West Norwood Cemetery – an Eminent Victorian who deserves to be remembered.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s Reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which details a murderous war launched by a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam.