Tuesday 17 February 2015

The Loss of HMS Romney 1804

One thinks today of the services of marine pilots being confined to bringing vessels in and out of specific ports. From the moment a pilot steps on board the responsibility for navigation rests on his shoulders. In earlier centuries however the role of pilots often covered much larger areas, especially those in which , as in the case of the Southern North Sea and the coasts of the Netherlands, sandbanks and shallows made navigation challenging and expert knowledge essential. An indication of the extent of a pilot’s authority and liability during the Napoleonic period is provided by the loss of HMS Romney in 1804.

Capture of the Sibylle (L) by the Romney (R) 17 June 1794

The Romney, a 50-gun frigate launched in 1762, already had over four decades of honourable service behind her. Much of her earlier career was spent as flagship on the Newfoundland station and she was to remain in North American waters during the War of Independence. The outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars found her in the Mediterranean and in 1793, in the Aegean, she was to engage, and capture, the French frigate Sibylle. (It is notable that the Sibylle herself was to have a splendid 40-year career in the Royal Navy thereafter. In three separate single-ship actions she captured a French vessel and on anti-slavery duties off West Africa in the 1820s she caught numerous slavers and freed some 4000 slaves). 

1794 print showing the new French and Batavian Republics as allies

Following her service of Toulon the Romney served in the Red Sea and, once more, on the North American Station. By 1804 she was back in European waters and on blockade-duty off the Dutch coast, the “Batavian Republic” of the Netherlands being allied to the French. On 18 November 1804 the Romney, under Captain John Colville – who had joined the ship only a month before - sailed from Yarmouth to join the force under Rear-Admiral Russell blockading Den Helder, which was – and is – the Dutch naval base. The Romney carried two experienced North Sea pilots and the next day was nearing the Dutch coast. Visibility was limited but the pilots, judging that they were still far offshore, proposed coming in closer under double-reefed topsails and fore top-mast stay-sail. Captain Colville considered this unwise and preferred to wait until the weather cleared, but the pilots were in charge and he gave way to them against his better judgement.

Now, through the haze, they sighted a large ship. She transpired to be an American vessel and she was aground. The pilots, now alarmed, tried to put the Romney about and to run off on the port tack. It was too late. Minutes later she too struck heavily on the shoal known as the Haaks Sands.
A heavy sea was breaking on the sands and the wind was rising from the south-west. The Romney was taking water in fast but the sands beneath her were holding her up. The two pilots, still ignorant of the position, assured Captain Colville that the ship would be high and dry at low water. He accordingly ordered striking of the top-gallant and top-masts and expected to be able to shore-up the damaged hull when the tide left her. A minute-gun was fired to attract the attention of other British ships – though without success – and he also took the reasonable precaution of having the crew build rafts to get ashore if the Romney broke up.

"The Loss of the Romney Man of War" by Richard Corbould

By then however it was blowing a gale and night was falling. The masts were cut away to ease the drag on the Romney but as the tide rose waves were breaking across her so that soon only the quarter-deck was above water. Here the entire crew gathered. Yet worse was to come, for in the night the old frigate parted amidships. At daybreak some of the crew managed to get away on rafts to the coast.

Help now arrived from an unexpected source. At noon seven Dutch boats reached the wreck and the officer in command called to Colville that he and his men would be landed safely if they were to surrender themselves as prisoners of war. Colville had no choice. He and his men were landed and indeed the final death toll was to be lower than might have been hoped – some ten men out of a crew of over 300. The Dutch sense of honourable humanity went further. Colville and his men were well treated on the orders of the Dutch Admiral Kirkhurt, who in due course returned Colville and eight of his officers out to Russell’s squadron.

The Marshalsea Prison, mainly occupied by debtors
Charles Dickens' family were to be there in 1824
When Colville returned to Britain he was court-martialled at Sheerness for the loss of his ship. The court found however that the Romney had been cast ashore through the ignorance of the pilots and that Colville and his officers were to be absolved of all blame. The two pilots were barred from any further service and were awarded sentences of twelve months for one, six for the other, to be served in London’s Marshalsea prison (of Little Dorrit fame).

Captain John Colville (1768 – 1849), who had been on the Navy list from the age of seven onwards, and who had first seen action during the American War of Independence, went on to have a satisfactory career thereafter. He was to command HMS Hercule at the second battle of Copenhagen in 1807 and in 1819 he was promoted to rear Admiral. In 1841 he was awarded the rank of Admiral of the White, only one level lower than Admiral of the Fleet.

And what of the two unlucky – and incompetent – pilots? History is silent.


  1. What an interesting story ... and one the illustrates the problems of sailing in the southern half of the North Sea. The fog can be very thick and when the visibility is reduced so that you cannot see more than a few years beyond the bow, modern mariners must be very pleased to have radar!

    1. It's hard to imagine what a nightmare it must have been in fog! Sirens and whistles cannot have been much help as there was always a measure of luck involved in determining direction. Good we have radar!