Friday 28 October 2016

HMS Nymphe versus Cléopâtre 1793

Guest Blog by Geri Walton
Geri Walton
It is my pleasure to host historian Geri Walton on my blog today. Geri is a specialist on the late 18th century. I find her splendidly researched website a huge source of delight and you can find out more about her and her work at the end of this article. She has chosen as her subject today one of the most notable actions fought by that paladin of the Age of Fighting Sail, Edward Pellew. We’ve met him on previous blogs (Rescue against all odds: Pellew and the Dutton 1796, posted 29th January 2016 and HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme 1797, posted 16th May 2014, both of which can be found via the sidebar) but now we encounter him at the very outset of the Revolutionary War in 1793. This was the start of two decades almost continuous conflict between Britain and France in which Pellew was to advance, deservedly, to the first rank of commanders. Over then to Geri! 
Beating the French: HMS Nymphe versus Cléopâtre
 In 1793, during the French Revolutionary Wars, one of the most celebrated naval encounters that occurred was between a British frigate (HMS Nymphe) and the French frigate (Cléopâtre). It all began a month earlier, when the Cléopâtre and another frigate called the Sémillante, were successfully raiding British shipping merchants in the English Channel and Eastern Atlantic. To stop the raids, the British ordered the HMS Nymphe, and the 36-gun HMS Venus into action.
Edward Pellew (1757-1833)
Consummate naval commander
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)
On June 17, the 32-gun Nymphe was cruising off the Devon Coast at daybreak. It was captained
by Edward Pellew and was carrying 240 men, with at least half of the crew inexperienced. It seems that because the press gangs had swept Portsmouth clean of seaman, Pellew's crew consisted of 32 marines, 80 Cornish tin-miners, and the remainder of the men were acquired from merchant vessels Pellew was escorting. It was while commanding this less than stellar crew that Pellew noticed a strange sail in the distance and decided to investigate.
Pellew quickly discovered the strange sail was the French frigate Cléopâtre. It was a 32-gun frigate, designed by Jacques-Noël Sané with a coppered hull, and it was carrying 320 men. As it was one of the French frigates that had been conducting raids against the British, Pellew gave chase. Initially, the Cléopâtre, which was captained by Lieutenant de Vaisseau Jean Mullon, fled, but realizing the Nymphe possessed the advantage and was bound to overtake them, Mullon turned the Cléopâtre and headed towards the Nymphe.
At a little before six the two frigates passed each other within hail, and as they did both crews cheered loudly. It was heady experience for the British and French crews as each side was filled with the hope of victory. The French Captain Mullon waved his hat and exclaimed, "Vive la Nation!" He then turned and addressed his crew, holding the red cap of liberty, which he waved before them. At the end of his speech, the crew "renewed their cheers and the cap was given to a sailor, who ran it up the main rigging and screwed it on the mast head."
Pellew observed this and as he was holding his own hat in his hand, he raised it to his head, which was a "preconcerted signal for the Nymphe's artillery to open." Thus, at 6:15 "a furious action commenced." The Nymphe opened fire with a broadside shot against the starboard quarter of the Cléopâtre, and then the ships were "yard-arm and yard-arm; the sails and rigging being completely intermixed." This resulted in the men in the tops assailing one another because of their closeness.
Despite the two vessels being closely matched, it quickly became evident that the French frigate was taking the worst of it. Soon after the "Cléopâtre's mizen-mast was shot away; and in a quarter of an hour afterwards her wheel." This made her ungovernable and "in consequences of this double disaster she fell on board her opponent." Part of the Nymphe's crew then rushed onto the "Cléopâtre's forecastle, and another party...board[ed] through the main deck ports…fighting their way along the gangways to the quarter-deck." It took ten minutes before the Cléopâtre's colors were struck.

Drawing of the action by Nicholas Pocock (1740 - 1821)
Though a preliminary sketch for a later work, this conveys the excitement of the action superbly
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)
The duration of the battle was a short fifty-five minutes, and even though the British Nymphe may have won, it was damaged. The Nymph's "fore and main-mast were much damaged and her main and mizen stays shot away; as was the greater part of her sails, shrouds, and running rigging." As for the Cléopâtre, besides losing her mizzen-mast and wheel, she also suffered damage to her sails, rigging, and hull. Each side also lost men: The killed and wounded on board the Cléopâtre was sixty-three compared to fifty on the Nymphe.
Israel Pellew  (1758-1832)
in later life
(Courtesy of Wikipedia)
The Nymphe limped home and arrived at Portsmouth with her prize on the 21st of June. On the 29th, Captain Pellew and his brother, Commander Israel Pellew (who happened to be on board the Nymphe at the time), were introduced by the Earl of Chatham to King George III. The King conferred knighthood upon Edward Pellew and Israel Pellew was granted the rank of post-captain. In addition, "the Cléopâtre was purchased by [the] government; and, under the name of Oiseau (there being a Cléopâtre already in the service) became a cruising 36-gun frigate in the British Navy."
As for Mullon, he was mortally wounded during the engagement and cut nearly "in two by a round shot. During his short death agony he recollected that he had in his pocket the list of coast signals in use in the French navy, and not wishing it to fall into the hands of the enemy, he took out what he considered to be the paper; but by mistake he had laid his hands on his commission and died in the act of biting it to pieces." Thus, as the Pellew brothers were being lauded, Mullon was laid to rest on English soil in the Portsmouth churchyard. The following inscription was written on his coffin:
Slain in battle with La Nymphe,
18th June, 1793,
Aged 42 years.

As to the Cléopâtre she went on to serve in the Royal Navy, commissioned as the HMS Oiseau in September 1793. In June 1794, she seized fourteen French ships from a twenty-five vessel convoy. She also served in the Indian Ocean and captured three French frigates in January 1800 off the Atlantic coast in north-western Spain. She began to serve as a prison hulk at Portsmouth in June 1806, and, in 1812, she was lent to the Transport Board and fell under the command of John Bayby Harrison in 1814. After being put in ordinary in 1815, she was sold to a Mr. Rundle in 1816 for £1500, and he broke her up after buying her on September 18.

"Capture of a French Frigate," in Kent Gazette, 25 June 1793
"Naval History of Great Britain," in Lancaster Gazette, 2 February 1822
"Romance of the Sea," in Dundee Courier, 5 October 1877
Winfield, Rif, British Warships in the Age of Sail 1793–1817, 2008

About Geri Walton:

Geri Walton has long been interested in history and fascinated by the stories of people from the 1700 and 1800s. This led her to get a degree in History and resulted in her website,, which offers unique history stories from the 1700 and 1800s.

Her first book, Marie Antoinette’s Confidante: The Rise and Fall of the Princesse de Lamballe, was published last month. It looks at the relationship between Marie Antoinette and the Princesse de Lamballe, her closest confidante. Click here for more information.

You can find Geri on Facebook (, Twitter (@18thCand19thC), Google Plus (, Instagram (@18thcand19thc), and Pinterest (

Tuesday 25 October 2016

Prize Money - Frigates, Treasure and Jane Austen

HMS Pomone - frigate,
archetypal prize taker 
In naval fiction set in the Age of Fighting Sail, prize money, accruing from the capture of enemy shipping which would subsequently be sold to third parties or bought by the Admiralty, is rightly shown as an important driver for Royal Navy officers and crew alike. For most on the lower deck it represented the only opportunity of their lives to earn a sum substantial enough to set themselves up in some comfort – typically by purchase of a tavern or other small business. For the officers it could mean the difference between an old age spent in respectable near-penury and acquisition of a fortune that would secure significant property for themselves and their families. The navy differed from the army in that an officer did not need to purchase his commission (a practice that continued up to the 1870s). Younger sons from wealthy families, who due to the law of primogeniture were likely to inherit little or nothing, or sons from poor but respectable backgrounds – such as Nelson – could however enter the navy at a young age and hope to rise through competence and luck.

Contemporary view of how
the prize money was often spent!
The allocation of prize money followed a fixed formula, and some who benefitted from it might not be directly involved in the capture of the enemy vessel. The total value of the prize was divided into eight parts which were assigned as follows:

One part to the admiral or commander-in-chief who signed the ship's written orders (but if the orders came directly from the Admiralty in London, then this went to the captain);

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) went to the captain or commander;

One part was divided among the lieutenants, sailing master, and captain of marines;

One part was divided among the wardroom warrant officers (surgeon, purser, and chaplain), standing warrant officers (carpenter, boatswain, and gunner), the lieutenant of marines, and the master's mates;

One part was divided among the junior warrant and petty officers, their mates, sergeants of marines, captain's clerk, surgeon's mates, and midshipmen;

Two parts (i.e. one quarter) were divided among the crew, with able and specialist seamen receiving larger shares than ordinary seamen, landsmen, and boys.

Frigate and sloop commands were much sought after for the opportunities they gave for capturing prizes but many crews were to find themselves dogged by bad luck for years. When fortune was favourable however, the rewards could be immense. In one such case, in 1799, the officers and crews of four British frigates were lucky enough to encounter two Spanish warships some 200 miles west of the northern Spanish coast. They were initially sighted on 15th October by HMS Naiad.  Her commander, Captain Pierrepoint, gave chase.  They subsequently proved to be the frigates Santa Brigida and Thetis, which were headed to Spain from Vera Cruz in Mexico.  

The fact that the two frigates, which outgunned Naiad by two to one, should decide to run from her rather than to fight was indicative that whatever they carried was of great value. Pierrepoint followed them doggedly through the night and early in the following morning, another ship was seen in the south-west. It proved to be the British frigate HMS Ethalion and soon afterwards two more frigates, HMS Alcmène and HMS Triton, also appeared. In the hope of escape the Spanish vessels parted company and steered away on different courses, each were pursued by two British frigates. The odds had turned decisively against the Spanish. Overhauled, they chose to strike their colours rather than fight it out.

The sailor's return after Anson's voyage. Note the
 wagons in the background carrying the prizes
The value of prizes was enormous since much of their cargoes proved to be specie – gold and silver coinage. The treasure was landed and Plymouth and loaded on sixty-three artillery waggons. Escorted by soldiers, armed seamen and marines, with bands playing and watched by a huge crowd, it began its journey to the vaults of the Bank of England in London. In the final distribution each British captain was awarded £40,000 (probably worth at least a million today, though such comparisons can only be very approximate). Each lieutenant received £5,000 pounds, each warrant officer more than £2000 pounds. The midshipmen – in many cases young boys the start of their careers, were each given £800. Those who received most of all, by the standards of their own expectations, were the seamen and marines, each being awarded £182 pounds. To put this into context it is worth noting that a domestic servant could be had for £10 per year while a private soldier in the army was paid a shilling a day, some £18 pounds a year, though deductions were to reduce this significantly in practice.

Paid-off seaman celebrating - cartoon by Cruikshank
It is likely that much of the prize money was dissipated in wine, women and brief high-living ashore. Cartoonists of the time depicted seamen squandering money with wild abandon. Many of the officers were more likely however to set themselves up as land-owning country gentry. Although these men were in the front line of the nation’s defence or more than two decades in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, those whom they protected were often not just grossly ungrateful but resentful of such success. The novelist Jane Austen had two brothers in naval service in this period – both rose in their later careers to be admirals – and she makes a Royal Navy captain her hero in her last published novel, Persuasion, as well as portraying other officers sympathetically. With brilliant irony she describes the mean-minded prejudice endured by such officers – as her brothers may have experienced – from stay-at-homes resentful of their hard-earned prize money. 

Here is a snobbish landowner speaking in Persuasion – this passage deserves to be repeated in full:


(Referring to the Navy) Sir Walter's remark was, soon afterwards-- "The profession has its utility, but I should be sorry to see any friend of mine belonging to it."

"Indeed!" was the reply, and with a look of surprise.

Admiral Baldwin's appearance shocks
Sir Walter and Sir Basil
"Yes; it is in two points offensive to me; I have two strong grounds of objection to it. First, as being the means of bringing persons of obscure birth into undue distinction, and raising men to honours which their fathers and grandfathers never dreamt of; and secondly, as it cuts up a man's youth and vigour most horribly; a sailor grows old sooner than any other man. I have observed it all my life. A man is in greater danger in the navy of being insulted by the rise of one whose father, his father might have disdained to speak to, and of becoming prematurely an object of disgust himself, than in any other line. One day last spring, in town, I was in company with two men, striking instances of what I am talking of; Lord St. Ives, whose father we all know to have been a country curate, without bread to eat; I was to give place to Lord St. Ives, and a certain Admiral Baldwin, the most deplorable-looking personage you can imagine; his face the colour of mahogany, rough and rugged to the last degree; all lines and wrinkles, nine grey hairs of a side, and nothing but a dab of powder at top. 'In the name of heaven, who is that old fellow?' said I to a friend of mine who was standing near, (Sir Basil Morley). 'Old fellow!' cried Sir Basil, 'it is Admiral Baldwin. What do you take his age to be?' 'Sixty,' said I, 'or perhaps sixty-two.' 'Forty,' replied Sir Basil, 'forty, and no more.' Picture to yourselves my amazement; I shall not easily forget Admiral Baldwin. I never saw quite so wretched an example of what a sea-faring life can do; but to a degree, I know it is the same with them all: they are all knocked about, and exposed to every climate, and every weather, till they are not fit to be seen. It is a pity they are not knocked on the head at once, before they reach Admiral Baldwin's age."


So much for gratitude for deliverance from Bonaparte!

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 is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.

Friday 21 October 2016

The salvaging and afterlife of minelayer UC-5

A blog on Tuesday 3 November 2015 described the horrific sinking of the hospital ship Anglia close to English south-coast in 1915. She was a victim of a submarine-laid mine, a weapon that was to prove a deadly menace during World War 1. Such mines not only inflicted direct losses it but were also effective in restricting or closing harbour approaches and shipping lanes for long periods once their presence was detected. The German submarine responsible for the Anglia was the small UC-5, a craft specially designed for minelaying. Her operational career was a short one – from late July 1915 until April 1916, a mere none months – but in this time she was responsible for sinking a total of 29 ships, with a total gross tonnage of 36,288 tons. Few warships have ever been so cost-effective in terms of investment needed to sink a ton of shipping.

Artist's impression of Anglia's final plunge, November 17th 1915
The fifteen submarines of the UC I class displaced 168 tons on the surface and were a mere 111-feet long. Single-shafted, with a 90-hp diesel, and a 175-hp electric motor, they were slow – 6.5 knots on the surface and 5.5 knots submerged – and this was hardly a disadvantage since it enhanced the stealth with which their operations must be conducted. With a crew of 15, they carried no torpedoes and their purpose was to drop the twelve 39-inch diameter mines that they carried in six tubes inclined slightly off vertical. Their short range was not a disadvantage when they operated along the British coast from bases in Belgium.  

Contemporary cutaway drawing of UC-5. Note mines in inclined tubes ahead of the conning tower.
UC-5 was to be the first of these German vessels to pass safely through the British defences – including minefields – that protected the Dover Straits and to reach the wider waters of the English Channel beyond. It was here that UC-5’s mines were to claim the Anglia as well as many other victims. It was however further north, on the approaches to the British base at Harwich, from which light forces operated in the Southern North Sea, that the UC-5’s luck ran out. The attraction of the area was obvious – twelve mines laid in the approaches to Harwich would have had a high likelihood of claiming a warship victim. The complication was however shallow water offshore – the Shipwash Shoal lay some twelve miles to the north-east of Harwich and it was across this that the UC-5’s commander, Oberleutant Ulrich Mohrbutte intended to make his approach. It was in the course of doing so on April 27th 1916 that the UC-5 grounded as the tide dropped.

Unable to break free, and with a clear possibility of capture, Mohrbutter ordered charts and papers to be destroyed and for scuttling charges to be put in place. He sent a radio signal to the German base at Zeebrugge to give news of his plight and this was picked up by the British. The Royal Navy destroyer Firedrake was accordingly sent to investigate, arriving in early afternoon. As she approached the stranded submarine – her own draught was shallower – the German crew were seen to be standing on the deck and holding up their hands. When Firedrake drew still nearer, the Germans jumped into the water and were soon picked up by boats dropped by the destroyer.

It was thought that the entire German crew had been rescued when one last man was seen emerging from below, shouting and waving his hands frantically, and then jumping overboard. He was picked up and shortly afterwards several explosions racked the stranded submarine, and brown smoke poured from her conning-tower. The scuttling charges had been fired. The craft settled on the shoal beneath but the mines on board – all twelve – did not explode.

UC-5 in British hands, afloat after salvage and repair
Once satisfied that no further explosions were likely, Firedrake’s Torpedo-Lieutenant Quentin Paterson and two other officers went across. Even though damaged the UC-5 was a valuable prize, the first German U-boat to be captured virtually intact and one that was likely to reveal significant technical information. She was however sufficiently holed to make flotation at high tide and towing to Harwich impossible. Measures were accordingly put in hand to mobilise divers and salvage equipment to recover her. Before these arrived Paterson made a full examination that revealed that though ten of the mines were still secure in their tubes, two had been dropped – as part of the scuttling procedure – and now lay loose at the bottom of the tubes and resting on the sand beneath. The danger was that movement of the submarine’s hull could be enough to detonate them. All salvage efforts had therefore to be delayed until the mines were made safe.

Lieutenant Paterson himself, together with two others, one a diver, undertook this very hazardous work. The ten mines still in the tubes were disarmed by the removal of the acid detonation tubes from the contact horns but it was impossible to do this with the lower mines, which therefore remained active. It was found that the two projecting mines could not be drawn back into the tubes, nor could they be disarmed, so they were secured where they were with cables in such a way as to ensure that they could not drop further. The danger remained however of them being detonated by the hull bumping on the sand when it was time to move it.

UC-5 being transported in sections through Central Park, New York
Responsibility for the salvage was assigned to Commodore Sir Frederic William Young (1859-1927), a naval-reserve officer who in civilian life was the nation’s, and perhaps the world’s, best respected salvage expert. Working now in the open sea, in the middle of a war zone, and with the two unexploded mines a constant danger, the recovery of the UC-5 was to prove one of his greatest challenges. The UC-5 was by now sinking ever deeper into the sand as the tides washed around her. A lighter was brought alongside and the hull was lashed to it at four places with heavy cables – passing these under the hull by water-jetting must have been a terrifying ordeal for the divers who did so. The first attempt at lifting as the tide rose (and as the lighter was deballasted) ended in failure. The cables parted and the hull dropped back on the seabed, luckily without setting off the mines. The process had to start over, this time with yet heavier cables and a larger lighter to which the UC-5’s hull was secured at low water. The lighter's side tanks nearer the submarine were pumped dry and her outer tanks were filled with water so as to act as a counterweight. This time the UC-5 was raised safely. She was towed into Harwich and placed in a floating dock in which the two projecting mines were safely removed. The entire operation had taken 27 days.

UC-5 in Central Park in 1918 - a focus for sale of War Bonds
 The UC-5 was to have a strange afterlife. Examined meticulously to understand her working, she was subsequently patched up and taken to London where she was put on display – an amazing sight since submarines represented cutting-edge technology and the vast majority of the population had never seen one. When the United States entered the war a year later the submarine was cut into sections and sent to New York. She was reassembled in Central Park and there also she became an object of wonder, all the more so since it was outrage at German unrestricted submarine warfare that had drawn the United States into the conflict. 

And the heroes of this epic? Paterson was awarded the DSC (Distinguished Service Cross) and his diver the CSM (Conspicuous Gallantry Medal). They were hard earned.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

The dawn of the Submarine Age ...

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 naïve 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...

Friday 14 October 2016

Guest Blog by Richard Abbott: South-West England’s Gigs

I’m honoured today to welcome back the novelist Richard Abbott as a guest blogger. You can out more about him at the end of this article. When he last appeared here (on 1st March 2016) he brought us back to the period of the earliest civilisations but on this occasion he tells us about some beautiful traditional boats – many specimens of which are almost two centuries old – which are still in active use, and participating in in well-contested competitions, in the South West of England.
Over to Richard!
The Gig – an elegant and durable link to a past age
Antoine has kindly given me space today to talk about gigs and their use in south-west England, specifically the Scilly Isles and Cornwall. So far as I am aware these have never been used in war, but their history is no less exciting or varied for that.
Gig Lyonnesse on St Agnes
First, what is a gig in this context? Picture something that looks roughly like a clinker-built rowing eight. Keel to gunwale depth is around two feet, and once crewed, the waterline is almost exactly at the mid-point. At 32' long, just under 5' beam, but with elm planks only 1/4" thick, the boat is light enough that the crew can pick her up and carry her into the water. Many years of experience mean that a gig has been built robustly enough to take on the Atlantic swell, despite the apparent flimsiness.
Like an eight, each oarsman has a single oar, and they sit to row alternately port and starboard facing the cox'n. But curiously, they have only six rowers, reflecting part of their history. A mast and lugsail could be fitted if desired, though in commercial practice this was rarely done. They are fast, tough little boats, and at one stage played a crucial role in the economic livelihood of the islands. Today they have retired from commercial use, but have found a new lease of life in competitive sport. The annual world gig racing championship is held on Scilly every April/May. In 2016 it attracted more than 150 boats from many different countries.
Some of the 3000+ rowers in the 2016 races (ITV West Country)
We can trace the history of the gig back to 1666 at least, when vessels from St Mary's were involved in rescuing the crew of the Royal Oak, wrecked out at what is now the Bishop Rock lighthouse. We have no reason to suppose there were not earlier vessels of essentially the same pattern. All modern gigs are based on the lines of an early 19th century design by William Peters. They had two principal uses, the main one being to get local pilots out to incoming ships as quickly as possible. Whoever got there first got the contract, hence the need for speed. Scilly was one of the major landmarks for vessels inbound from the western trade routes, but the seas are treacherous here, with countless rocks and reefs. Even with modern navigation aids they are hazardous: how much more so in former days? So families or village groups would aim to spot new arrivals as early as possible, and get out to them as quickly as possible.
The St Agnes gig, Shah
The other use, more humanitarian than commercial, was as a kind of early lifeboat system. Gig crews over the years have saved a great many lives by going out - frequently in horrendous weather - to rescue crews and passengers suffering shipwreck. Cargo could also be brought back, and an 1887 rescue of 450 cattle from the Castleford involved lashing the animals' heads and horns to the sides of the gigs Gipsy and O&M, and towing them to a handy nearby island! Such rescues were fearfully dangerous acts, and the churches on Bryher, St Agnes and elsewhere remember many who never returned.
Now, gigs came to the attention of the revenue authorities, who suspected that they had a third use – for smuggling. Certainly they would have been capable of it, with their proven seagoing capability. Even the Cornish coast was within a day from the Scilly Isles for a good crew - the 40-odd mile trip to Penzance typically takes under 10 hours, and Newquay was within comfortable reach. Gigs could easily make the 250-mile round trip to France’s Breton coast by staying out at sea for a day or so, and were robust enough to cope. Bonnet (of which more later) rode out a thirty-hour storm on one such trip by keeping head to wind until conditions improved. A good crew can sustain speeds of around 7 knots, but speeds of nearly 10 knots have been recorded over a measured mile with racing crews rowing at 40 strokes per minute. But therein lay a problem – an eight-oared gig was faster than the customs cutters of the time. This was clearly unacceptable, so a law was passed in 1829 limiting the crew to no more than six oars per boat.
Time passed, and both piloting and rescue ceased to be the responsibility of the islanders. The last recorded pilotage was in December 1938, when the Bryher boat Gipsy went out from St Agnes. As for rescue, the last known one was of the Panamanian steamship Mando in 1955. For a time, it seemed possible that gigs in the traditional sense would die out. Some of the older craft were laid up in storage, others suffered the usual fate of wooden boats which are not constantly cared for.
Bonnet pulling ahead of Golden Eagle

Then competitive racing emerged, giving a new lease of life to the design. Informal races had been part of gig culture for a long time: now it has become organised. Inter-island men's, women's and mixed races take place weekly during the tourist season, quite apart from the challengers coming from further afield. And here, the robust nature of the vessels is once again proved. Bonnet still races today - she was built in 1830 and had a long and busy working life. She is heavier than her modern siblings, but if there's a bit of a sea this might not be a disadvantage. Back in August, I saw her beat a dozen other boats to win her race. The Cornish gig Newquay was built back in 1812, and is claimed to be the oldest ship afloat which is still being used for broadly the same purpose as when she was made. Appropriately, she is owned by the Newquay Rowing Club, who also look after Dove (1820) and Treffry (1838) - all still racing.
So, this brings us to Antoine's own protagonist, the naval officer Nicholas Dawlish, and the timeline set out for his life. Bonnet had been working for 15 years when Dawlish was born in December 1845, and for over fifty years at the time of Britannia's Spartan. There's a fair chance that Newquay was built before Dawlish’s father was born. On the assumption that Dawlish passed the Scillies at some stage during early career - and it would be wildly improbable if he had not had cause to see them at close quarters - he would have seen gigs in active commercial use. I wonder, with his eye for design, if he took the time to appreciate their blend of speed, strength and elegance?
Finally, for those who want to look at videos, this video has the 2016 men's final and lots of links to other clips:

About Richard Abbott

Richard lives in London, England. He writes historical fiction set in the ancient Middle East - Egypt, Canaan and Israel - and also science fiction about our solar system in the fairly near future. Research in progress for the next historical novel, which will explore the Late Bronze Age tin trade between the British Isles and the eastern Mediterranean. It is provisionally called A Storm of Wind, and is at an early stage.
His novel The Flame Before Us covers, in part, another bronze age group for whom the Mediterranean was important – The Sea Peoples, who settled in the coastline along from Gaza after a tumultuous approach disrupting cities from the Hittite realm down to the borders of Egypt.
When not writing words or computer code, he enjoys spending time with family, walking, and wildlife, ideally combining all three pursuits in the English Lake District. He is the author of In a Milk and Honeyed Land, Scenes From a Life, The Flame Before Us - and most recently Far from the Spaceports. He can be found at his website, his Amazon Page or blog
Click here for more information on Richard's latest novel - just published: Timing

Tuesday 11 October 2016

Training Tragedies - the losses of HMS Eurydice and HMS Atalanta

At first glance the picture of a frigate such as HMS Eurydice, illustrated above on a cigarette card, immediately evokes visions of single-ship actions of the Napoleonic period. It is therefore all the more surprising that this ship was still in service in 1878 and that her destruction was witnessed by the young Winston Churchill who would live on to oversee development of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. The Eurydice’s story, and that of her successor, HMS Atalanta, are some of the most tragic ever to occur in peacetime service in the Royal Navy.

This begs the question of “Why were such vessels still in service when steam was already established as the most reliable and efficient method of propulsion?”
Armoured-cruiser HMS Warspite of 1884 - her sailing rig was removed
early in her career and she served thereafter under steam power only
Not only the Royal Navy retained sailing rigs
Here is the American protected-cruiser USS Atlanta of 1884
The answer is that warships in all navies carried sail as well as steam power right up to the end of the 19th Century. Boilers were still inefficient, though improving, and their furnaces were ravenous for coal. For long distance cruising, away from easy coal supply, retention of sail made sense, even though the presence of masts and yards was likely to be a major point of vulnerability in combat. As innovations in boiler and engine design improved efficiency, and reduced coal demand, the need for sail decreased. In the 1880s sailing rigs were phased out for major vessels but even thereafter retention continued to make sense through the 1890s for smaller craft on remote stations. Typical examples were small, slow gunboats such as those of the Redbreast class, powerfully armed with six 4-inch breech-loaders and ideal for colonial service.
HMS Sparrow - a Redbreast class gunboat of 1889
Training of officers and men in managing sail as well as steam was therefore of the utmost importance. For many years  after steam had replaced sail for all operational purposes there was a  strong body of opinion remained that mastery of sail, and of “work aloft”, was essential for character-building, even when this meant training on masts set up on land.

This is the background to the retention of HMS Eurydice as a Royal Navy training ship. She had been built in 1843 as a very fast 26-gun frigate designed with a very shallow draught to operate in shallow waters. Wholly sail-dependent, her design and armament were little different to those of the frigates commanded by captains such as Pellew and Cochrane some four decades earlier. Over the next eighteen years she saw service worldwide, including an uneventful assignment to the White Sea during the Crimean War. She was converted to a stationary training ship in 1861 and remained in this role until re-commissioned as a sea-going vessel in 1877.
Contemporary illustration of HMS Eurydice capsizing
Eurydice departed on a three-month training cruise to the West Indies in the November of that year, carrying 319 crew and trainees. The cruise appears to have been uneventful. A fast, 18-day, voyage from Bermuda brought her back to the Isle of Wight by March 24th 1878 prior to entering Portsmouth. At this point she was engulfed in a heavy snow storm and capsized and sank. There were only two survivors as those not brought down in the ship itself died of exposure in the freezing water. Her captain, Captain Marcus Hare, went down with his ship after ordering every man to save himself and then clasping his hands in prayer.  The wreck was in shallow enough water for the masts to protrude and it was refloated later in the year.  It is not surprising however that this old wooden vessel was past repair and she was accordingly broken up. The subsequent enquiry held her officers and crew blameless and found that the disaster had been caused stress of weather.  There was however some concern expressed on the suitability of Eurydice as a training ship because of known concerns as to her stability.
The remains of the Eurydice, as Churchill remembered her over five decades later
Winston Churchill, who was four at the time, was at Ventnor on the Isle of Wight and he witnessed the tragedy. It obviously made a lasting impression on him, as he recounted fifty-two years later in his memoir “My Early Life”:

“One day when we were out on the cliffs near Ventnor, we saw a great splendid ship with all her sails set, passing the shore only a mile or two away… Then all of a sudden there were black clouds and wind and the first drops of a storm, and we just scrambled home without getting wet through. The next time I went out on those cliffs there was no splendid ship in full sail, but three black masts were pointed out to me, sticking up out of the water in a stark way... The divers went down to bring up the corpses. I was told and it made a scar on my mind that some of the divers had fainted with terror at seeing the fish eating the bodies... I seem to have seen some of these corpses towed very slowly by boats one sunny day. There were many people on the cliffs to watch, and we all took off our hats in sorrow.”
Contemporary illustration of salvage efforts.
Note diver (tiny dot) being lowered towards the quarterdeck
Salvage operations in progress
The poet Gerald Manley Hopkins was sufficiently moved by the tragedy to write very powerfully on “The Loss of the Eurydice”. Space precludes copying his poem in full here but the following verses are especially memorable:

They say who saw one sea-corpse cold     
He was all of lovely manly mould,
    Every inch a tar,                       
Of the best we boast our sailors are.          

Look, foot to forelock, how all things suit! he         
Is strung by duty, is strained to beauty,    
    And brown-as-dawning-skinned              
With brine and shine and whirling wind.           

O his nimble finger, his gnarled grip!          
Leagues, leagues of seamanship  
    Slumber in these forsaken          
Bones, this sinew, and will not waken.

It is normal – even today – to state solemnly after every disaster that “Lessons have been learned” though in practice this seldom seems to happen. This was especially the case in the aftermath of the Eurydice catastrophe. The Admiralty proceeded to replace her with HMS Juno, another 26-gun frigate of identical tonnage but slightly less radical hull-lines, built in 1844. She was renamed HMS Atalanta and she made two successful training cruises to the West Indies before disappearing at sea in 1880 with the loss of all 281 crew and trainees while en route from Bermuda to Britain. It was presumed that she sank in a powerful storm which crossed her route a couple of weeks after she sailed. A gunboat HMS Avon did however report that near the Azores “she noticed immense quantities of wreckage floating about... in fact the sea was strewn with spars etc."

HMS Atalanta
Investigation of the disaster was hampered by lack of evidence but a former crew member stated that “she rolled 32 degrees, and Captain Stirling is reported as having been heard to remark that had she rolled one degree more she must have gone over and foundered. The young sailors were either too timid to go aloft or were incapacitated by sea-sickness.” The witness added that many “hid themselves away,” in such circumstances and “could not be found when wanted by the boatswain's mate."

The most devastating verdict on the disaster was delivered by The Times. It denounced “the criminal folly of sending some 300 lads who have never been to sea before in a training ship without a sufficient number of trained an experienced seamen to take charge of her in exceptional circumstances. The ship's company of the Atalanta numbered only about 11 able seamen, and when we consider that young lads are often afraid to go aloft in a gale to take down sail... a special danger attaching to the Atalanta becomes apparent."

Both tragedies – claiming 600 lives in two years – shook public confidence in the Royal Navy. A new breed of professional was however emerging, men who understood the demands and opportunities of new technology. Chief among these officers was to be Sir John Fisher, later Lord Fisher, who would create the Dreadnought navy that Britain took into World War 1. It is therefore all the more ironic that one of the officers to lose his life on HMS Atalanta was his younger brother, Lieutenant Phillip Fisher.
HMS Eurydice under full sail

Britannia’s Spartan

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click here to read the opening of the novel.