Friday 26 September 2014

Opening the Suez Canal – and Death in the Ice

HMS Newport and HMS Pandora 1860s- 1914

Anybody interested in the Royal Navy of the Victorian era cannot but be fascinated by the sheer variety of tasks undertaken by the large number of gunboats in service. These small but usually heavily-armed vessels were not intended for service with the fleet, but rather for any necessary “odd-job” in a remote location. Though steam-propelled, they usually carried an auxiliary sailing rig to allow them to operate far from bases and sources of coal supply. The sheer variety of tasks they undertook, and the fact that in pre-radio days a captain was essentially incommunicado with his superiors from the moment he sailed over the horizon, demanded a high degree of initiative from the men who commanded them. As such they often offered splendid opportunities to ambitious young officers.
HMS Thrush - a gunboat of 1889
Though of steel construction she was very similar in layout
to earlier wooden gunboats such as those of the Philomel Class 
Typical of the gunboats of the Mid-Victorian period were those of the Philomel-class, of which 20 were completed between 1859 and 1867. Of wooden construction they were of 570 tons on a length of 145 feet overall. The 325 hp engine, driving a single screw, gave them a maximum speed of some nine knots. With a crew of 60, these vessels were designed to carry very heavy gunpower for their size – one 68-pdr muzzle-loader, two 24-pdr howitzers and two 20-pdr breech-loaders.

Two of these vessels, Newport and Pandora, launched in 1868 and 1861 respectively, were to have especially dramatic – and eventually tragic – service lives. The former was however to play the star role in an act of insolence that was to arouse widespread admiration in Britain, if nowhere else!

Eugenie (front right) at opening ceremony
With her the Sultan of Turkey and Emperor Franz Josef 
The Suez Canal, financed and constructed over a period of ten years by a French consortium, was due to be opened on November 17th 1869. This was to be one of the most grandiose events of the century. Hosted by the Egyptian Khedive, Ismail, invitees to the ceremony included the Sultan of Turkey and European royalty, of whom the most prominent was the French Empress Eugenie, consort of the French Emperor Napoleon III. Others included the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and the Crown Prince of the Netherlands. Queen Victoria, still in ostentatious mourning seven years after the death of her husband, did not attend but sent her son, the Prince of Wales. Among a host of distinguished visitors was, somewhat incongruously, the Norwegian dramatist Hendrik Ibsen.
Opening ceremony at Port Said November 1869
Luxurious temporary structures were erected, similar to those of the popular universal expositions of the period. For Eugenie a replica was provided of her private apartments in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The cost of the three weeks of festivities was to be covered by the brutally over-taxed Egyptian rural population, whose forced labour had already been used to dig the canal.

The high point of the ceremonies was to be the first transit of the canal. This honour was to be accorded to the Empress Eugenie in the French Imperial yacht L’Aigle. 
L'Aigle, the French Imperial yacht 
On the night before the transit a large quantity of shipping was waiting at the canal entrance, ready to follow the L’Aigle on its course through it.

At this point, enter the gunboat HMS Newport, assigned to survey work in the Mediterranean and commanded by an up-and-coming Royal Navy officer, Commander George Nares (1831-1915). 

HMS Newport's sister Pandora, virtually identical
Whether or not on his own initiative or by official sanction, Nares manoeuvred the Newport in total darkness, and without lights, through the mass of waiting ships until it was in front of L'Aigle. When dawn broke the French were horrified to find that the Royal Navy was now first in line and that it would be impossible to pass them. The result was that Nares and the Newport were to push on through the canal and thereby deprive the French of achieving the first transit between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This action – though vastly popular with
Nares in later life
the British public – was, for diplomatic reasons, to earn Nares an official reprimand. Unofficially he received a vote of thanks from the Admiralty for his actions in promoting British interests and for demonstrating such superb seamanship. Putting the French in second place was always a popular activity in Britain! Nares was promoted to captain that same year and went on to have a very distinguished further career – which will be the subject of a future blog.

It is ironic to note that despite all the outward show of international friendship at the opening ceremony, Eugenie’s husband, the Napoleon III ,would be surrendering his army to the Prussians at Sedan some ten months later. The Prussian Crown Prince would be present at that humiliation and Eugenie herself would be fleeing to Britain as a refugee.
First transit of the canal - HMS Newport leads, l'Aigle and the rest follow!
Let’s now turn to Newport’s sister gunboat, HMS Pandora. The latter was sold by the Royal Navy in 1875 to Sir Allen Young, who used her for his arctic voyages over the next two years. In 1878 the Pandora was bought by James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald and he renamed her Jeannette after his sister. Interested in Arctic exploration – and seeing spectacular “copy” in it –Bennett gained the cooperation of the American government in fitting out an expedition to attempt reaching the North Pole through the Bering Strait. Although privately owned, the ship was to sail under orders of the Navy – as the USS Jeannette – and the 33 officers and men, including three civilians, were to be subject to naval law and discipline.
Contemporary view of USS Jeannette leaving San Francisco for the Bering Strrait
The Jeannette expedition was to be a disaster. Caught fast in the ice pack near Wrangel Island, off the North Eastern Siberian coast, the ship was  drift northwestwards with the ice, ever-closer to Pole itself. Discipline was maintained and scientific observations taken systematically. Finally, on 12 June 1881 the pressure of the ice finally began to crush Jeannette.  Equipment provisions were hastily unloaded on the ice before the remains of the ship sank from sight. There was nothing for it but to trek southwards towards the Siberian coast with their boats and provisions loaded on sledges.  The privations and fatalities suffered by the party, even after they had reached the frozen tundra of Siberia, deserve an article by themselves. Almost superhuman powers of endurance and leadership were involved in saving a remnant of the crew.
Contemporary illustration: USS Jeannette survivors dragging their boat across the ice

USS Jeannette survivors wading ashore in Siberia's Lena Delta
HMS Newport was sold by the Roya Navy in 1881 and bought by Sir Allen Young in May 1881, who had previously bought the Pandora.  He renamed the Newport as  Pandora II  and kept her until 1890 when she was bought by another Arctic enthusiast, F. W. Leyborne-Popham. Again renamed, this time as Blencathra, she was used in an 1893 voyage along the Russian Arctic coast to the Kara Sea and up the Yenisei River as far as Krasnoyarsk, thus taking her to the furthest reaches of Siberia.  Thereafter the Blencathra was sold to a rich sportsman, Major Andrew Coats, who used her for a long hunting voyage to the Arctic waters around Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen.

The ex-Newport’s fate was to bear an uncanny resemblance to that of her sister, the ex-Pandora. By now a veteran of Arctic exploration, the Blencathra was bought in 1912 by the Russian explorer Georgy Brusilov for use in an attempt to explore the North East passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. For this she was again renamed, now becoming the Svyataya Anna (Saint Anne).

Svyataya Anna before departure 1912
In October 1912 the Svyataya Anna became locked in the iced-up Kara Sea off the Yamal Peninsula. There was no immediate concern – there were adequate supplies and there was every expectation of being released in the following year's thaw. This did not happen however – she remained trapped through 1913. By early 1914 she had drifted so far with the ice that there was no prospect of release in that year either. Supplies were running low, scurvy had broken out and the situation was desperate.  An officer and a crewman were given permission to trek to safety on foot. These were the only survivors and they managed this only after horrendous privations. 

The Svyataya Anna and her crew disappeared and among the lost was Yerminia Zhdanko, a 22-year-old nurse, only the second Russian woman to have ventured into the Arctic. Only in 2010 were the bones of a crew-member, a logbook and various other artefacts found  on Franz Josef Land. The mind recoils from imaging the last days  of those involved, as terrible as that which overtook the more famous Franklin expedition.

George Nares, when he undertook his insolent exploit at the opening of the Suez Canal, could never have guessed what would have been the final resting place of his ship.

Friday 19 September 2014

So much in one life! Sir George Nares – Sailor, Explorer and Oceanographer

Nares in Arctic clothing
With acknowledgement to the National Portrait Gallery
My blog last week introduced us to Sir George Nares, a Royal Navy officer who first came to public attention for the trick he played to gain the honour for Britain of sailing the first ship through the Suez Canal. Were we to have judged Nares by this one exploit alone we would have expected him to have been an insolent, devil-may-care rover, much in the Cochrane and Jack Aubrey transition. The opposite was indeed the case for Nares was to prove himself one of the most systematic, meticulous and scientifically-oriented officers of his generation. Though of a later period, one suspects that Doctor Stephen Maturin would have found him a very congenial shipmate!

Of Welsh origin, Nares was born into a naval family in 1831, and he himself entered the navy at the age of fourteen.  He gained his first taste of Arctic exploration in 1852 when he sailed on HMS Resolute on one of the unsuccessful attempts to search for the remnants of the Franklin expedition among the islands north of Canada. Resolute had originally been a civilian ship, purchased for her stout construction and fitted with an internal heating system. Frozen into the ice during the winter of 1852/53, the spring thaw failed to release her and the decision was taken to abandon her. Resolute was left in an unmanned state that would allow further wintering – only the lowest sections of the masts left standing, the rudder shipped and all hatches caulked shut. The crew then had to make a hard trek across the ice to reach other expedition ships, which had broken free.  The Resolute was indeed to survive. An American whaler found her, in excellent condition, drifting 1500 miles from her point of abandonment. The American government purchased her from her salvers and presented her back to Britain as an inspired act of "national courtesy".
Queen Victoria visiting the Resolute on its return to Britain by the United States Government
The outbreak of the Crimean War in 1854 put an end to Arctic expeditions and Nares found himself serving initially on the line-of-battle ship HMS Conqueror, and later on HMS Glatton.  This was an innovative craft, an armoured floating battery, one of five built by the British and French navies for bombardment of Russian coastal fortifications, but completed too late to see active service.  The years that followed saw Nares establishing himself as a gunnery and survey expert and he published a textbook for training of cadets.
 It is in this period that he invented the “Nares Life Kite” which would allow a wreck to land a line on a lee shore.  This large kite had a limited degree of manoeuvrability and its weight-carrying capacity could be adjusted by varying the angle included between the two side panels. The Victorian-era book in which the above illustration was found explains: “Suppose your wreck to be on a beach. You get the kite steady in the air with about 100 yards of the line out. You then take another line – about twenty yards will probably suffice – tie one end to the kite line and the other to a life-buoy. Let a man get into the life-buoy. Then veer away and the kite will pull the man shore through the surf… suppose, on the other hand, that you are near a cliff, with people standing on it, but unable to send help: you have to bend a long lead-line to the kite line; and when the people get old of this lead-line they can use it to pull a stronger rope ashore”. No information was however provided as to whether this kite was ever actually used – one suspects that dragging a man through the surf was easier in theory than in practice.  It is not known whether Nares ever tested the manoeuvre!
HMS Salamander
After in command of his own ship, the paddle-sloop HMS Salamander, Nares did extensive survey work off Australia, including the Great Barrier Reef. This led in turn to command of another survey ship, HMS Newport, for work in the Mediterranean. It was in her that he was to perform is exploit at the Suez Canal opening ceremonies, as told in last week’s blog.

Though officially reprimanded for his embarrassment of the French Empress – and nation – in Egypt, Nares was congratulated in private thereafter and promoted to captain. He now landed one of the most prestigious assignments in the Navy – command of HMS Challenger on the scientific expedition of the same name. Setting out in late 1872, this undertaking was more ambitious by far than the voyage of the Beagle some four decades earlier. This inspired project  was funded by the British government to the level of £200,000 (worth at least fifty times as much today) and in view of what was achieved – essentially the creation  of the science of Oceanography – represented extraordinarily good value. There had been extensive surveys made globally of coasts and inshore waters but very little was known about the ocean floors.  It was a joint operation by the Royal Navy and the Royal Society, then the world’s premier scientific organisation, the Navy providing the ship and crew, the Royal Society the scientific team.

Laboratory on HMS Challenger
The Challenger was a Pearl-class corvette, launched in 1858 and of 2137 tons and 225 foot length, equipped both with sail and a 400 hp auxiliary engine.  All but two of her guns were removed and laboratories, extra cabins and a special dredging platform installed. She was loaded with specimen jars, alcohol for preservation of samples, microscopes and chemical apparatus, trawls and dredges, thermometers and water sampling bottles, sounding leads and devices to collect sediment from the sea bed and great lengths of rope (181 miles!) for suspending equipment.
HMS Challenger Voyage - with acknowledgement to
 the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration of thd United States Department of Commerce
Over the four years of the expedition she was to cover 69,000 miles, as per the map above, most of them under Nares. He took with him his nine-year old son, William, (what a dream come true for any  intelligent child!) who was accompanied by a tutor who died early in the voyage.  The scientific team made observations, soundings and dredgings of marine fauna from hundreds of locations. Given the huge area covered, this information allowed determination of patterns of oceanic temperatures and currents as well as charting the contours of the great ocean basins.  The “Nares Deep”, in the Western Atlantic was found to be 27,972 feet, and was the deepest known part of the world’s oceans at the time of its discovery.  The expedition  was subsequently to identify the well-named “Challenger Deep” in the Marianas Trench, the greatest depth of water – 35,814 feet – on earth.
Drawings, made on board, of marine organisms collected by the Challenger expedition
Apart from this bathymetric work, similarly important discoveries were made in the marine- biology area, over 4,000 previously unknown species being identified. For the first time on such an expedition extensive use was made of photography for recording. The management of ship, crew and logistics, so as to provide an efficient platform, distant from shore support, from which the scientists could operate, was an achievement of the highest order and one that attested to Nares’ mastery of his profession.
Challenger's officers and scientific team - Nares (bearded) in centre
Nares did not stay with the Challenger expedition to the end, being recalled in in 1874 to take command of the forthcoming two-year British Arctic Expedition. The focus was on geographical exploration, scientific work being a secondary objective, with the North Pole, if at all possible, as the ultimate destination. Nares’ superb management and survey skills, and the fact that he had previous Arctic experience, made him the ideal choice.  Two ships were made available, HMS Alert, a wooden sloop of the Cruizer class and HMS Discovery, a converted whaler.
HMS Discovery and HMS Alert in the ice
The expedition penetrated the channel between the West Coast of Greenland and Ellesmere Island – subsequently named the Nares Strait, and entered the Lincoln Sea to the north. Here Nares discovered extensive ice, disproving the theory common up to that time that the North Pole was surrounded by open sea. In the process HMS Alert reached the highest Northern latitude yet reached by any ship and one of the land parties broke man's record for the same achievement. 
Man-hauled sleds on the Discovery/Alert expedition - clothing inadequate by modern standards
An unexpected problem now hit the expedition. For a century the Royal Navy had saved its sailors from scurvy by daily tots of lime juice (hence the expression “Limeys”) and during Nares’ Arctic expedition this regime was held to strictly. Inexplicably however, scurvy began to break out and became very severe, particularly among the sledging parties who were operating inland. With the situation not improving, Nares had the moral courage to abandon the expedition and to return to Britain late in 1876. Though the decision obviously saved a large number of lives, Nares was subjected to criticism for allowing the scurvy to develop in the first place, despite meticulous enforcement of lime-juice issue.

The explanation, when eventually found, absolved Nares from blame.  Large glass bottles of lime juice were known to shatter in Arctic temperatures, though smaller ones apparently did not. The response, before the expedition, had been to distil the juice into concentrate. Copper vessels had been used in the distillation process but it was not known that copper leaches Vitamin C (undiscovered at that time) and heat destroys it.  The concentrate was therefore missing the properties required and had no medicinal value whatsoever.
Cutting ice to free the ships
Nares was knighted on return from the Arctic and received various scientific honours. He was to take the Alert on one last surveying voyage, to the Magellan Straits, in 1878. Thereafter he returned to Britain and took up an appointment as Marine Adviser to the Board of Trade. His subsequent career was mainly concerned with harbour and navigation issues, both before and after his retirement from the Navy in 1886. He was promoted to Vice-Admiral while on the retired list and he continued to maintain an interest in Polar exploration, including being a committee member for organisation of Scott’s Antarctic expedition.

Nares was to live on to 1915, having witnessed, and being part of, a technical and scientific revolution. He deserves to be remembered.

Friday 12 September 2014

The loss of HMS Queen Charlotte, 1800

During the twentieth century, damage-control was to become a naval discipline in itself, and was to result in many epics of courage. In earlier centuries such response was on a much more ad-hoc basis but the bravery and self-reliance of the crews involved were no less than those of later generations. One shining example of such heroism was provided by the young Lieutenant George Dundas in 1800.

HMS Queen Charlotte at sea
In my blog last week ( I dealt with the disaster that overcame the line-of battle ship HMS Royal George, named after King George III, in 1782. Naming ships after the royal family of the time was to prove unfortunate since 18 years later, on March 16th 1800, a newer ship, named HMS Queen Charlotte after the king’s wife, was to meet a no less spectacular end, despite Dundas’s efforts.

Laid down in the same year as the Royal George was lost, the Queen Charlotte’s completion was to prove a lengthy affair as the fleet was run down in the aftermath of the American War of Independence.  She was finally launched in 1790 when developments in France were making the prospects of a new war more real by the month.  At  2286 tons, 190 ft length, and carrying a 100-gun armament, she was, next to the Ville de Paris, a captured French vessel taken into Royal Navy service, the largest British ship afloat. After war broke out again with France she was to serve as Admiral Lord Howe’s flagship at the Battle of the Glorious First of June in 1794 and the following year she was present at the controversial, Battle of Groix, a British partial victory.
The Charlotte in the thick of it during the Battle of the Glorious First of June
The Queen Charlotte was to play a less glorious role two years later when she was to become the focus discontent during the Spithead Mutiny. After the mutiny’s suppression she seems to have retained a reputation for indiscipline and when she was sent to the Mediterranean in 1799 the Commander in Chief, Earl St.Vincent, informed the Admiralty that she “will be better here for she has been the root of all the evil you have been disturbed with.” Commanded by Captain James Todd, she was to serve as the flagship of Vice-Admiral Lord Keith.

Hostilities against the French were now in full swing (indeed the first Aubrey/Maturin novel opens at this time). On March 16th 1800 Lord Keith landed at Leghorn or Livorno, in Northern Italy and instructed Captain Todd to reconnoiter  to the French-occupied island of Carpalia, half-way between Sardinia and the Italian coast.

At 0600 hrs the following morning, while the Queen Charlotte was still close to shore,  fire was detected in hay stowed close to the admiral’s cabin, close to a slow-match kept burning in a tub for use with the signal guns. Flames spread rapidly and ran up the mainmast, setting the mainsail on fire. The conflagration quickly took hold of the stowed boats, threatening this  means of escape.

Fighting the fire with buckets - a Victorian illustration
In the midst of this Captain Todd and his first lieutenant, Bainbridge remained on the quarterdeck and directed fire-fighting operations. The pumps were manned but without significant effect. Many of the officers were  asleep in their berths, one being the 22-year old Lieutenant George Dundas who, after being woken by a marine, found it impossible to get up the after hatchway because of smoke. He then tried the main hatchway  but choking and half-suffocated, he fell back before getting out. He now went forward again, now to the fore hatch and managed to reach the forecastle, where a crowd of petty officers and men had assembled.

The ship's carpenter suggested sending men down to flood the lower decks and to batten down the hatches in between to prevent the fire reaching down. Dundas went down with seventy volunteers – it must have been hell below decks by that stage. They opened the lower deck ports, plugged the scuppers, cleared the hammocks and turned on the water-cocks. Burning wood and rigging was falling down the hatchways, filling the space with steam as well as smoke. Dundas and his men managed to get the hatches closed and covered with wet hammocks to keep the fire away from the lower deck and magazine.

By 0900 the middle-deck was burned so badly that several of its guns came crashing through. The situation now being hopeless Dundas and his men finally retreated to the forecastle by climbing  from the lower deck ports. He found there some 150 men drawing up water in buckets and throwing it on the fire, but their efforts were futile.

By now all boats were burned other than the launch, which managed to get away without mast, sails, oars or rudder. Many men tried to swim for her, but she was drifting too fast to leeward for them to catch. Now the mizzen mast also came down, throwing more men into the water.  The ship’s guns, which were loaded, now began to go off in the heat, adding to the horror.

The Queen Charlotte was still close enough to shore for Admiral Keith to see the fire and he induced several Italian boatmen to send a half-dozen craft to her. As they neared the Charlotte’s guns began going off and they turned away. A boat from an American ship did approach and drew alongside, but too many jumped in and they swamped her.
The remnants of HMS Queen Charlotte as found by HMS Speedy
By now the entire ship was ablaze and dozens of men – perhaps even hundreds, had crawled out along the bow spirit and jib-boom, so many indeed that these failed under the weight and threw more men into the water. The Italian boatmen, under direction of a British officer, made one more attempt and succeeded in taking off the survivors in at the bows. As they pulled away the flames finally reached the main magazine and the Queen Charlotte exploded. Only five hours had passed since the fire was detected but in that time 673 officers and men had died.

It is pleasing to learn that George Dundas, the indomitable hero of the day, was to be rewarded by command of the sixth-rate brig HMS Calpe which he was to take into action in the Battle of the Gut of Gibraltar the following year. Recognised as a coming man, he was to have a distinguished naval and political career thereafter and at the time of his death in 1834 was First Naval Lord – the professional head of the Royal Navy.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a na├»ve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...

 Britannia’s Shark brings historic naval fiction into the dawn of the Submarine Age.

Friday 5 September 2014

The loss of HMS Royal George 1782

The disaster that overcame the line-of battle ship HMS Royal George in 1782, while anchored in calm water in sight of shore, was to have as strong an impact on the contemporary public mind as the loss of the RMS Titanic was to have one hundred and thirty years later. The tragedy was all the more terrible for the fact that it had been avoidable if the simplest of precautions had been taken – and without them over 900 men and women were to die.

When launched in 1756 the Royal George was the largest warship in the world at some 2000 tons, a length of 180 feet and armed with over a hundred guns. The 28 42-pounders and equal number of 24-pounders she carried gave her massive ship-smashing power.  She was to see significant action in the Seven Years War, then commencing, and was to serve during it as flagship for two of the Royal Navy’s greatest names, Admirals Anson and Hawke. It was from her that Hawke was to command the fleet that inflicted such a crushing defeat on the French at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759, in the course of which she sank the French ship Superbe. She was to render equally valuable service during the American War of Independence, operating against the French and Spanish fleets in the Eastern Atlantic and participating in the “First Relief” of the Siege of Gibraltar in 1780 when troop reinforcements and supplies were landed on The Rock. Thus was not the end of the siege however and it was destined to drag on for another three years.

Admiral Kempenfelt
The Royal George returned to Britain for a major refit in 1780 and saw service with the Channel Fleet thereafter. By August 1782, with the siege still in progress, she was to join a new expedition to relieve Gibraltar as flagship of Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. She was moored off Spithead – the Royal Navy’s Portsmouth anchorage – and was taking on supplies on August 28th when, during deck washing, the ship’s carpenter discovered that the pipe used to draw clean seawater on board was defective. The inlet of this pipe, on the starboard side, was some three feet below the waterline and to access it would demand heeling the ship over to expose it. This was done by running out the guns on the ship’s port side as far as they could go and drawing in the starboard guns, securing them amidships. This action not only exposed the mouth of the pipe to starboard but brought the sills of the open gun-ports on the port side within inches of the water’s surface.

Female company!
Though the exact number could never be confirmed it was estimated that up to 1200 people were on board, including some 300 women and 60 children. Many were undoubtedly family members taking leave of their menfolk but contemporary accounts also refer – delicately – to ladies “who, though seeking neither husbands or fathers, yet visit our newly arrived ships of war”. A number of traders and pedlars also appear to have been present.

In mid-morning a slight breeze began to ruffle the water and it lapped occasionally over the port-sills on the port side. This appeared to drive up mice from the lower part of the ship and they began to be hunted as a game. The wind was freshening further and yet more water began to spill in, but nobody had yet perceived the situation as dangerous. A 50-ton sloop, the Lark, had come alongside with supplies of rum and she was secured to the port side to allow transfer of kegs.

Royal George starts her fatal roll
It was the carpenter who first awoke to the hazard and he went to the nineteen-year old lieutenant of the watch, Philip Charles Durham, to request an order to right the ship. He was ignored at first attempt but at the second Durham told him “If you can manage the ship better than I can, you had better take the command.”  Only when the ship heeled lurched further did the lieutenant order the drummer to beat to “right ship”. It was too late – a gust of wind heeled her still further and many of the starboard guns appear to have broken loose and rolled to port. Water was now pouring in through every port. The huge ship rolled on her side until her masts lay flat on the water, the mainmast bearing down on the sloop Lark alongside. The Royal George now sank like a stone, taking the sloop with her.

Contemporary view - the Royal George sinks close to the rest of the fleet
Admiral Kempenfelt was being shaved in his quarters as the ship rolled but the movement jammed the doors and he could not be got out. Hundreds of others were equally unlucky and the majority of 255 saved were already on deck. These were to save themselves by running up the rigging, while only about 70 were able to scramble out from below through the ports. The presence of so many other ships in the anchorage meant that rescue boats were quickly on the scene but this was little help for the wretches trapped below deck.

The scramble through the open gunports
One survivor, named Ingram, managed to get out through a port and looking back saw the opening “as full of heads as it could cram, all trying to get out.” He went on “I caught hold of the best bower anchor, which was just above me, to prevent falling back into the porthole and, seizing hold of a woman who was trying to get out of the same porthole I dragged her out.” He was sucked down with the vessel but rose clear to the surface and swam to a block floating near. Using this to support him he saw the Admiral’s baker in the shrouds of the mizzen-topmast, which was just above water, and behind him, still floating, the woman he had pulled free. With the baker’s help he managed to catch her and secure her to the rigging. A rescue boat took her to HMS Victory – Nelson’s future flagship – and she appears to have survived.  Another survivor was a child who was playing on deck with a sheep as the vessel rolled and as he spilled into the water he managed to keep hold of the animal’s fleece. It swam about, supporting him, until a boat reached them. The Royal George’s captain was another survivor, but the carpenter drowned.

The final roll - note the figures in the rigging
(incorrect depiction - the Royal George rolled to port!)
The final death-toll was estimated to be over 900, including all but a few of the women and children. A few days after the ship sank bodies started to come up. It is a sad commentary on human nature that many of the watermen who made their living by ferrying families and traders to and from the ships stripped the bodies of buckles, money and watches. One witness wrote of these bodies “towed into Portsmouth harbour in their mutilated condition, in the same manner as rafts of floating timber, and promiscuously (for particularity was scarcely possible) put them into carts, which conveyed them to their final sleeping place in an excavation prepared for them in Kingston churchyard”.

The Royal George's mast-tops
The Royal George had sunk in relatively shallow water and she righted herself of her own accord, so that the tops of her masts were still visible seventeen years later. All attempts to salvage her failed until the 1840s, when the wreck was blown apart with gunpowder charges and advances in diving equipment allowed recovery of guns and equipment. Her surviving timbers were raised, much of the wood being sold as relics.

Durham in 1820
The inevitable court martial in the aftermath of the sinking acquitted the officers and crew of responsibility and blamed the accident on the “general state of decay of her timbers”,  suggesting that part of the frame of the ship gave way under the stress of the heel. One of the few survivors was the man perhaps most responsible for the loss, Lieutenant Philip Charles Durham, was a survivor. He was to have a very active further career throughout the Napoleonic wars, once being reprimanded for being "over zealous". For some time he commanded HMS Anson, the largest frigate in the Royal Navy and he was to command HMS Defiance at Trafalgar. He acted as a pall-bearer at Nelson's funeral. He was a very colourful – indeed controversial – figure both ashore and afloat and he ended as a full admiral, dying in 1845 at the age of 81.

Britannia’s Spartan - and the Taku Forts, 1859 

The Anglo-French assault at the Taku Forts in Northern China – and the highly irregular but welcome intervention of the neutral United States Navy – was one of the most dramatic incidents of the mid-nineteenth century. It also led to the only defeat of the Royal Navy between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War 1.

A remark of the American commander at the height of the battle - "Blood is thicker than water" - has entered the English language.

The Taku Forts attack event is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.

Click here to read about this bloody action.