Tuesday 29 November 2016

The humbling of “General Hyena” 1850

It’s always gratifying to see a bully and tyrant cut down to size and a particularly satisfying example of this occurred in London in 1850, even if the retribution meted out was disproportionately small compared with the crimes in question.

1848 was “The Year of Revolutions” across Europe, and in Austria revolts led to the abdication of the feeble-minded Emperor Ferdinand, and his replacement by his 18-year old nephew, Franz Josef. The latter was, amazingly, still on the throne at the start of World War 1 and he was only to die in 1916. During 1848 and 1849 the Austrian-ruled possessions of Hungary and Northern Italy were also among the areas affected, with nationalist groups rising up to demand greater autonomy, or even independence. These insurrections were suppressed with savage efficiency by the Austrians – in the case of Hungary with significant support from Russian forces. The Italian campaign was notable for its prosecution by the 82-year old Marshal Radetzky (of “March” fame) and one of his ablest commanders was to be the 62-year old General Julius Haynau.

Austrian troops storming rebel positions at Brescia, April 1849
Haynau’s military career had begun in the Napoleonic wars and though a competent soldier he also demonstrated qualities of cruelty, arrogance and blind devotion to his superiors which a century later might have brought him to dizzy heights in the Nazi party. In Italy he was to earn the reputation of “Butcher of Brescia”, when he followed up his suppression of a revolt in that town in April 1849 by shootings, hangings and floggings. This was however mild compared with Haynau’s record in Hungary, where among those he hanged were thirteen surrendered Hungarian generals. His most notable achievement was however to gain a reputation for having women sympathetic to the rebels flogged. Austrian admirers were to label him “The Hapsburg Tiger.” In Britain however his savagery was to earn comparison with a less noble beast and he became commonly known as “General Hyena”.

A Hungarian woman being flogged by Austrian troops, 1849
Upon restoration of peace Haynau retired from the army and in 1850 undertook a tour of Western Europe. Given his nickname it was less than wise to include Britain on his itinerary.  While in London he decided to tour the Barclay and Perkins Brewery in Park Street, just off Southwark Bridge Road. This was considered a state-of-the-art industrial plant, a marvel of efficiency and innovation,  and it was to play host over the years to many eminent visitors, including British and foreign royalty.

Popular illustration of Haynau under attack at the brewery
Note inset pictures, left and right of hanging, and flogging
Haynau arrived at the brewery on September 4th with his nephew and an interpreter. His prominent (and wholly ridiculous) moustache seems to have revealed his identity to the workers as prints showing him flogging women had been in circulation prior to this. Word of his presence began to spread and as he was brought to see the stables of the delivery horses a group of draymen – delivery men – began to pelt him with hay and horse-droppings. Haynau and his companions now took to their heels, the workers pummelling him and tearing off part of his trademark moustache. Now in ignominious flight, and pursued by a mob which may have grown to 500, Haynau and those with him managed to dart in to the George Inn in Bankside. He seems to have tried to hide first in the coal cellar, and afterwards in a bedroom, but when discovered with pelted with more manure.

Some popular verses of the time record Haynau’s come-uppance. Though hardly great poetry, the following extract typifies the popular view of the incident:

One day he went to have a stare,
At where we English brew our beer,
And met a warm reception there,
From Barclay and Perkins’ draymen.
“Out, Out, the tyrant!” all did cry!
How you would laugh to see him fly,
To cut his lucky he did try,
But soon found out it was all my eye,
One collared him by his moustache, and one with mud his face did splash,
Another rolled him in the slush…

…One let down upon his head,
Straw enough to make his bed,
One pulled his nose till it was red,
Did Barclay and Perkins’ draymen.
Then out of the gate he did run,
And now there was some precious fun,
A rotten egg he got from one,
For all did try – yes every one,
To show how we loved a brute
Who women flogg’d and men did shoot,
For trying tyranny to uproot etc.etc.

Haynau trying to hide
The police arrived too late to spare the general these indignities but they did at least manage to get him away through a window at the back of the inn, and to bring him across the river to safety by boat. Thoroughly and deservedly humiliated, Haynau cut short his British holiday. The draymen responsible were instant heroes.  Congratulatory letters arrived from overseas as well as from Britain, a well-attended celebration rally was held at Farringdon Hall and the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi subsequently visited the brewery to thank the workers.

As so often, Queen Victoria was not amused however and she demanded that the government apologise to Austria for an outrage against what she called “one of the Emperor’s distinguished generals.” Lord Palmerston, the Foreign Secretary, was directed to write the necessary apology. He himself had told his colleagues that he was as delighted as any man in England about what had happened and his official despatch to the Austrians reflected this. He regretted the attack but added, pointedly, that it was ill-advised for Haynau to have come to Britain in the first place in view of the general indignation about his behaviour in Italy and Hungary. Palmerston added that it would be unwise for Austria to ask for prosecution of the brewery workers because, were they put on trial, their defence council would obviously use, and thereby publicise still further, evidence of Haynau’s own atrocities.

Haynau being rescued from further indignities by the police
Queen Victoria was indignant when she saw the despatch, but it had already been sent. She demanded that another, with an unqualified apology, be drafted. Palmerston told the Prime Minister that any such new despatch would have to be signed by a new Foreign Secretary. Unwilling to lose the most capable member of the government, Russell, the Prime Miniser did not force the issue. Palmerston had won, and himself became Prime Minister five years later. Victoria loathed him.

A commemorative plaque on the site of the (now demolished) brewery
Haynau died in 1853. It is ironic – and pleasing – that a cruel and arrogant tyrant should not be remembered for his undoubted military capabilities and achievements, but as the flogger of women who was himself to get the beating he richly deserved from London workmen.

The Dawlish Chronicles

This series now comprises five books so far, plus a long short-story as a bonus in the latest - Britannia's Amazon.

Click here to access Antoine Vanner's Author Page to get details of the series. All are available in e-book and paperback format. The latter are especially suitable as Christmas gifts for anybody who enjoys a rattling good tale of danger, courage and adventure.

Tuesday 22 November 2016

"The Royal Family” at War 1747

In 1747, at the height of the War of Austrian Succession, when Britain was (once more) at war with France and Spain, the departure of a Spanish warship from the Americas was to trigger a series of brutal naval engagements reminiscent of the pursuit of the Bismarck, two centuries later. The 70-gun ship-of-the-line Glorioso was carrying four-million silver dollars and as such was a prize well worth the taking. She was to be engaged both by the Royal Navy and by British privateers and it is the performance of the flotilla of the latter, nicknamed “The Royal Family”, which was the most remarkable.

The Glorioso's last battle

Pedro de la Cerda
The Glorioso's captain
The Glorioso’s first encounter with the enemy was off the Azores on July 25th when she encountered a British convoy of seven merchantmen, escorted by three Royal Navy vessels. The largest was the Warwick – a 60-gun ship comparable to the Glorioso, the Lark, a 40-gun frigate, and a 20-gun brig. The escort commander ordered the brig to stay with the merchant ships and the Lark to initiate the attack, with the slower Warwick following. By the time Warwick arrived the Glorioso had badly damaged the Lark but was herself so badly raked that she was partially dismasted. The Spaniard sailed on, with structural damage and some casualties, but the British ships broke off the action – one indeed which they might have been victorious in had they persisted.

Outcome Round One: Victory to Glorioso.

Nearing the Spanish coast, off Cape Finisterre, the Glorioso now encountered three further British ships, the same combination as before of a ship-of-the-line (Oxford, 50-guns), a frigate (Shoreham, 24 guns) and a brig (Falcon 20 guns.) In an engagement lasting three hours all the British ships were damaged and the Glorioso, though she had lost her bowsprit, escaped to the harbour of Corcubión, in North-West Spain. There she off-loaded her silver cargo.

Outcome Round Two: Victory to Glorioso .

Her repairs compete as much as Corcubión’s facilities would allow, the Glorioso headed for the well-equipped base of Ferrol, further north. Adverse winds, which damaged the rigging, made the Glorioso’s  Captain de la Cerda to head south instead towards Cadiz. Fully aware of the presence of British units, he decided to stay far off the Portuguese coast. In the event however this availed him nothing and on October 17th the Glorioso ran into a squadron of British privateers – not Royal Navy ships - close to Saint Vincent.

George Walker 1700-1777
At this point it’s appropriate to pause to look at the nature and composition of this privateering squadron. It was commanded by Captain George Walker but funded by private financial interests in London and Bristol.  Walker’s reputation as a privateer sailing under letters of marque was already high and on a previous voyage each ordinary seaman under him had received £850 as his share of prize money – a quite enormous sum at the time. Walker had therefore no trouble in recruiting hands for his next venture and in April 1746 he sailed from Britain with four ships named King George, Prince Fredrick, Duke and Princess Amelia, carrying between them 960 men and 120 guns. By the time this force entered Lisbon eight months later prizes worth some £220,000 had been taken without the loss of a single man. After adding two more vessels to his squadron – the Prince George and the Prince Edward – Walker sailed out from Lisbon in July 1747 to resume commerce raiding. His six-ship task force had by now become commonly known as “The Royal Family”.

The Prince Edward was lost soon afterwards in an unusual accident. She had crowded on so much canvas that pressure above pulled the heel of the mainmast out of its step, so that it plunged down to punch a hole in the ship’s bottom. Only three men survived the rapid sinking that followed. Despite this setback the Royal Family was to have a profitable cruise and in early October put in to Lagos Bay to take on water. From here, in the early morning of October 17th, a large ship was seen approaching – this was the Glorioso. Only two of Walker’s ships were ready to give chase, the King George, with thirty-two guns and 300 men, and the Prince Fredrick with twenty-six guns and 260 men.

Glorioso (left) in action with King George and Prince Fredrick

The chase continued until midday, when the King George came up to the Glorioso. At this point the wind fell to dead calm, leaving the Prince Fredrick too far back to render support to her consort. King George and Glorioso lay at a distance from each other, all but motionless, for some five hours, the latter with her lowest tier of guns run out. Only thereafter did a light breeze spring up and the Glorioso headed for Cadiz, with King George in close pursuit and the Prince Fredrick following at a distance. By 2000 hrs King George was close enough to pull alongside Glorioso and hail her – it appears that there might still have been some idea that the Spaniard was an armed merchantman which might decline to fight. Glorioso replied with a full broadside, knocking out two of King George’s guns and bringing down her maintopsail yard. The fire was returned and what was to be a three-hour battle commenced.

What saved the King George from outright destruction appears to be that the Glorioso’s gun-ports were so small and her sides so thick that her guns could only be trained or depressed at a very limited angle. The consequence was that hitting a small vessel such as the King George was difficult in the extreme. Despite this however, three hours pounding at close range (how did flesh and blood endure it?) meant that the King George had suffered serious damage to her masts and that most of her standing rigging had been shredded. Only after the Prince Fredrick, driven by a very light wind, arrived about 2230 hrs did the Glorioso break off the action and head for Cadiz.

Outcome Round Three: Victory to Glorioso, but only just.

Walker did not order immediate pursuit. In the morning however, realising that the King George’s injuries were not fatal and that his crew had sustained low casualties, and because the Duke and Prince George, and later the Princess Amelia, had now also joined him, he sent his other ships off after the Glorioso, following as best he could in King George.

A large ship was now seen approaching from the east and on recognising it as a British warship Walker sent a note by one of his boats to explain the situation. She was the 80-gun HMS Russell, homeward bound from the Mediterranean and her captain now joined the Royal Family in the chase.

Glorioso (left) in action against the Dartmouth

Glorioso was still ahead of her pursuers when yet another British warship, the 50-gun Dartmouth, which had been cruising to the west and had been attracted by the sound of gunfire, now met her on an interception course. A running fight developed, in the course of which a fire reached the Dartmouth’s magazines and she blew up. Out of a crew of 325, only fifteen were saved. One of these was a young lieutenant, John O’Brien, who was picked up off a floating gun-carriage. When taken on board the Duke it appeared that he had been blown through a gun port. Though his clothes were burnt and in tatters he excused himself to the Duke’s captain with the words “Sir, you must excuse the unfitness of my dress to come aboard a strange ship, but, really, I left my own with so much precipitation that I had not time to put on better.”

Outcome Round Four: Victory to Glorioso, and decisively so.

Glorioso engaging Russell in her last fight
In the background: remains of Dartmouth (left) and crippled King George (right)

The remaining pursuers, awed by the disaster to the Dartmouth held off attacking. At midnight however the Russell ran up beside Glorioso and began a five-hour long close engagement. After they had been through so much already one wonders how Glorioso’s crew were in a position to put up anything of a fight, yet they did so with great tenacity, despite 33 dead and 130 wounded. It was only at dawn that she finally struck her colours, dismasted and on the point of sinking.

Outcome Round Five: British victory through knockout.

Victory proved empty consolation however. It appears to have been only after surrender that it was learned that the Glorioso’s silver had already been landed. Had this been known it could have been unlikely that Walker would have risked the Royal Family – the privateering enterprise was aimed at profit, not Britain’s national interest. One of Walker’s backers afterwards gave him “a very uncouth welcome for venturing the ship against a man-of-war”. Walker responded elegantly:

“Had the treasure been aboard the Glorioso, as I expected, my dear sir, your compliment would have been far different. Or had we let her escape from us with the treasure aboard, what would you have said then?”

State of King George near the end of the last battle

 After surrender, the Glorioso’s Captain de la Cerda and his crew were brought to Britain as prisoners. De la Cerda was to be honoured as much by the British for his achievement as he was by Spain itself, which later rewarded him with promotion to commodore.

Glorioso as captured, too badly damaged to be taken into British service
And Walker? He continued cruising until the end of the war, the Royal Family’s total prize money being reckoned as more than £400,000. His subsequent career was less glorious. He appears to have lost or squandered the money he had won with the Royal Family, got involved in a dispute with ship-owners about accounts, and was imprisoned for debt in the late 1750s and died in 1777. No matter what happened later however, nothing could take away the fact that he had been one of the few captains in naval history who ever ran a small and outgunned vessel against a 70-gun ship and engaged her yard-arm to yard-arm. 

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Friday 18 November 2016

Frigate Duel 1782: HMS Santa Margarita and L’Amazone

In reading about warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail one is invariably impressed by the aggression and sheer bloody-minded will to win that characterised the Royal Navy. These were the factors that regularly brought victory even when the odds seemed stacked against British ships and the enemy, usually French or Spanish, never seems to have had the same single-minded focus on prevailing. Only in the War of 1812, when Britain again confronted the United States, did the Royal Navy consistently encounter enemies with the same ruthless commitment to victory.

HMS Pomone - a typical frigate of the time
Color lithograph by T. G. Dutton after painting by G.F. St. John
These thoughts came to me this week when leafing again through the Victorian classic, “Deeds of Naval Daring” by Admiral Edward Giffard (1812-1867), and came on an action I had not previously known of. This was a duel between equally-matched British and French frigates, HMS Santa Margarita, an ex-Spanish prize, and the French L’Amazone. As an aside I might mention that Giffard gives the date as 29th July 1781, whereas a note on the National Maritime Museum’s website clearly identifies it as occurring exactly one year later, in 1782. It’s notable that Giffard also referred to the “Santa Margaretta” rather than “Santa Margarita”.  The difference in naming is not significant but that of the date is. Built for the Spanish navy in 1774, the Santa Margarita had been captured off Lisbon in November 1779. Take into British service, she was refitted in 1780/81 and sent in June 1781, under the command of Captain Elliot Salter, to join a squadron off the American coast

In September 1781, French success in the Battle of the Virginia Capes was to be the deciding factor in ending the American War of Independence as it cut odd supplies to British forces at Yorktown and necessitated their surrender. The final peace-treaty would not be signed for another year and a half but the war was effectively decided from that point. The outright British victory over a French fleet at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782 was a hollow one that had no impact on the outcome.

Notwithstanding this, a French naval squadron was still operating off the American coast in July 1782 under Admiral de Vaudreuil (1724-1802), who had taken command of the remainder of the French fleet after the Saintes battle. It was this force that Salter in the Santa Margarita, on detached service, was to run into off Cape Henry, at the entrance to Chesapeake Bay, on 29th July.  Salter had initially spotted a frigate only – apparently a 36-gun unit like his own vessel – and gave chase. As Santa Margarita neared her quarry eight French ships-of-the-line were seen bearing down on her. Salter turned to fly, caught as he was between the French squadron and a lee shore, and the frigate he had initially chased now turned and came on after him. With their superior speed both frigates outran the heavier units but Santa Margarita appears to have been the faster of the two. By mid-afternoon the French unit – which proved to be L’ Amazone – decided to give up the chase and return to the squadron. Given the very powerful French force in the area Salter might have been well-advised to continue on and to complete his escape. Instead he came about and followed L’Amazone. Once again Santa Margarita’s superior speed proved its value and within two hours both ships were within gunshot.

The opening broadside came from L’Amazone – one suspects that in accordance with French practice it may have been aimed at Santa Margarita’s masts and rigging. Salter held his fire however and manoeuvred so as to rake his opponent – a devastating action that sent fire down the enemy’s central axis – and followed up by taking his ship “within pistol shot.” What is shocking to the modern reader is that the close-range slugging match that followed lasted an hour and a quarter. One can only imagine the hell of noise and smoke, injury and death that followed. Fighting a sailing warship demanded more than a single team, but rather a team of teams, each one – especially the individual gun crews and the marines in the tops – each fighting its own battle and yet still an integral part of the larger team. Continuous exercising would have been one factor to guarantee this level of efficiency in action but one suspects that morale was even more important, and in this the British crews usually seem to have had the edge.

HMS Santa Margarita (l) in action with Pomone. She appears after passing under her stern to rake her
Painting by Robert Dodd (1748–1815) and / or Ralph Dodd (circa 1756-1822) with thanks to Wikimedia Commons

Badly shattered, with seventy killed, and slightly more wounded from a crew of three hundred, with both main and mizzen masts toppled overboard, with several guns dismounted and with four feet of water in the hold, L’Amazone struck her colours. Santa Margarita took her prize in tow. Salter’s crew worked through the night to repair L’Amazone’s damage sufficiently to sail her away. A start was made on transferring her surviving crew to Santa Margarita as prisoners – a process hindered by the boats of both ships having been destroyed or damaged in the fighting.  At dawn however the French squadron was seen approaching. There was no option but to abandon L’Amazone. Salter’s preference would have been to burn her but, with large numbers of French prisoners still on the crippled ship, common humanity prevented it. By now faced with overwhelming force Santa Margarita once again made use of her speed and escaped. Her casualties were five dead and seventeen wounded. As in so many of such actions one is stuck by the disparity in casualties – perhaps because Santa Margarita managed to rake her opponent.

A pleasing aspect of the account given by Giffard is that it includes extracts from Salter’s official report. He gave considerable credit to the French captain, who was killed early in the action, and even more to the second-in-command who took over, the Chevalier de Lepine. This gentleman “did everything that an experienced officer could possibly do, and did not surrender until he himself and all his officers but one, and about half the ship’s company were either killed or wounded.” After listing L’Amazone’s damage Salter characterised it as “a situation sufficiently bad to justify to his king and country the necessity of surrender.” One suspects that had the outcome been reversed, the French captain’s report would have been equally generous of spirit. 

I have been unable to find out any more about Elliot Salter, other than that he died in 1790, how, or at what age or rank, I do not know. Would any of this article’s readers be able to shed some light on the career of this intrepid officer?

Britannia's Amazon

This latest novel runs in parallel in time with the action of the earlier Britannia’s Spartan, and concentrates on the adventures of Nicholas Dawlish’s wife Florence while she is at home in Britain while he and his cruiser are in Korean waters. Dedicated to the welfare of seaman’s families, and especially to those of her husband’s crew, Florence intends to spend the months of separation caring for them. But a chance encounter is to plunge her into the maelstrom of vice, cruelty and espionage that is the corrupt underside of complacent Late-Victorian society. And if Florence is to survive - and to save innocent victims- she must face evil head-on, deal with conflicts of loyalty and employ guile as her most powerful weapon.

This volume also includes the long short-story Britannia’s Eye, which casts a new light on Nicholas Dawlish’s relationship with his uncle, an invalided naval officer who made him his heir. But Nicholas was never to know - or even guess - the truth about what his uncle had really been…

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Tuesday 15 November 2016

The Princess Alice Disaster 1878

This article, one of the earliest on my blog, was first published almost exactly three years ago. I find it fascinating in that the incident in question not only occurred in the period I write about in my faction but because it is remarkable that such a large-scale disaster on London's river should be all but forgotten today. 
 I hope you like the article now even if you did not see it originally

It is strange that some disasters, such as the loss of the Titanic in 1912, live on in the popular memory while others of comparable magnitude in terms of loss of life, such as the sinking of the liner Empress of Ireland after a collision in the St. Lawrence in May 1914, have been largely forgotten. The Empress of Ireland sinking did however claim 1012 lives as compared with 1514 in the Titanic disaster, almost exactly the same percentage, 68%, of those on board in both cases.

This line of thinking occurred to me when I recently visited the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich and was struck by a contemporary model, as shown here, of the collision of the paddle steamer Princess Alice with the collier Bywell Castle in the Galleons Reach section of Thames Estuary on September 3rd 1878. Though the accident occurred close to shore the death toll was in excess of 650. I find it strange that such a huge disaster, which occurred practically in London, and which claimed the lives of so many of its citizens, would be totally absent from popular memory and that it has not figured, as far as I know, in any novel, movie or television production (especially taking into account the British fixation on costume dramas).
Contemporary model of the Princess Alice disaster in the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
The Princess Alice was a 219-foot, 171-ton, paddle steamer built as the Bute in Greenock in 1865 for ferry service on the Scottish west coast. She came south two years later, where she was renamed for service as an excursion steamer on the Thames estuary, under a succession of owners. At this time excursions downriver from London were popular outings for a growing urban population that was enjoying increased if modest prosperity.
Profile view of the Princess Alice
On September 3, 1878, a Tuesday, the Princess Alice made a routine trip from the Swan Pier, near London Bridge, to Gravesend and Sheerness. For most passengers heading for Gravesend the attraction was the Rosherville Pleasure Gardens there – officially the “Kent Zoological and Botanical Gardens Institution” and in essence an early version of a theme park – which were a favourite destination for thousands of Londoners. The gardens had their own pier to allow docking of visiting steamers. 
The moment of collision
By 1940 hrs the Princess Alice was on her return journey, laden with over 700 passengers – an amazing number for such a small craft, on which there could have been little more than standing room. She was within sight of the North Woolwich Pier - where many passengers were to disembark - when she sighted the collier Bywell Castle coming downriver. At 904 tons this was a substantially larger ship than the paddle steamer and was unladen. Ignoring by the Princess Alice’s captain of the “Port to Port” rule for passing ships in the Thames Estuary brought the paddler directly in the path of the collier and though the later did reverse engines, this was not done rapidly enough, making collision inevitable.

The Princess Alice was struck amidships by the Bywell Castle and she split in two, sinking in under four minutes and before either of its two boats could be launched – inadequate though these would have been for the number of persons on board. Many passengers were trapped below, as would be attested later when the wreckage was recovered. An added horror was the fact that the collision occurred at the point where large volumes of sewage was discharged – according to a contemporary account: “At high water, twice in 24 hours, the flood gates of the outfalls are opened when there is projected into the river two continuous columns of decomposed fermenting sewage, hissing like soda water with baneful gases, so black that the water is stained for miles and discharging a corrupt charnel house odour”. It was thought that many who found themselves engulfed in this ghastly sludge died by asphyxiation.

Recovery of bodies after the disaster
The exact death toll that resulted is not known with exactitude since there were no detailed passenger list and many bodies may have been washed downriver or buried in the Thames mud. The Thames River Police estimated the death toll as 640 and only 69 persons were saved, mainly through the efforts of the Bywell Castle’s crew, this vessel being scarcely damaged. As the collier was not laden she was however high out of the water, making it difficult to take survivors from the water. The two sections of the Princess Alice were lifted and beached in the following week and unidentified bodies were buried in a mass grave in Woolwich Old Cemetery, where a granite cross still commemorates them. A distasteful aspect of the aftermath was that crowds of ghoulish sighthtseers came on trains from London to clamber over the wreckage. It appeared that “anything that could be chipped or wrenched off was carried off as curiosities by visitors”. The Princess Alice’s engines were salvaged. The Bywell Castle had its own appointment in Samarra and she was lost with all hands in the Bay of Biscay five years later.

Stern section of Princess Alice beached
The inevitable enquiry followed the disaster and the findings not unsurprisingly commented on the overloading, poor seamanship and lack of live-saving equipment on the Princess Alice. No doubt there were many statements at the time that “lessons must be learned”, as is always said in our own time after some dreadful incident, but just as today little practical action seems to have accompanied the hand-wringing. The Titanic disaster was a still 36 years in the future and application of general insights from the Princess Alice disaster could have lessened the death toll significantly.

I find that the loss of the Princess Alice has an almost unbearable poignancy about it. The victims were of all sexes and ages, and were probably in the main of modest wealth and income – I imagine Mr.Pooter and his wife Carrie of the Grossmiths’ “Diary of a Nobody” as being typical. They were returning from a day of innocent pleasure and had they survived they might well have remembered it as one of the happiest of their lives, spent with those they loved. From this humble pleasure they were plunged – literally – into a squalid maelstrom of filth in which their lives and happiness were torn from them and from the family members they left behind. 

And so the final question remains – why has the Princess Alice disaster, on London’s doorstep and with its massive loss of life, faded from popular memory?

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Mystery, Vice and Scandal in Victorian London

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Friday 11 November 2016

Nelson's Ship Smasher - the 32 Pounder

This article was first published exactly two years ago but it is, I believe, one of my best. I hope you like it if you did not see it then!

The fact that often strikes one regarding even the largest ships of “The Age of Fighting Sail” is the sheer number of men – and of guns – that they carried. As an example, Nelson’s HMS Victory, which is still extant at Portsmouth in all her glory, carried a crew of 850 plus 104 guns of varying sizes. It is all the more remarkable that all these were carried in a ship 227 feet long overall. (the photographs in this article were taken by myself, Antoine Vanner, prior to the recent refit of Victory).
HMS Victory at Portsmouth - 32-pounders mounted on lowest tier. Gun ports closed.

The number of guns determined the total number of men carried, since the crew for crew needed for sailing only was considerably fewer. The size of the crew required to serve a single gun was remarkable by modern standards and this was brought home to me by an account in a book entitled “Naval Gunnery”, by Captain H. Garbett R.N., published in 1895. The greater part of the volume deals with the breech-loaders of the 1890s but the first chapter discusses the smooth-bore cannon era in considerable detail. A full account is provided of how a 32-pounder – the largest type of gun carried by Victory and her contemporaries – was served. Due to their size and weight these weapons were carried on the “gundeck”, the lowest tier, 30 of them in total on Victory. The next level up, the middle-gundeck, carried 24-pounders, and above that again the upper-gundeck with 12-pounders.Guns of the latter size were also carried in the open on the quarterdeck and forecastle, where the close-range, large calibre Carronades were also mounted.
32-pounders on HMS Victory's gundeck - as cleared for action

Gun deck when not cleared for action - note that crews messed on tables between the guns
and slung their hammocks over them. Note the fleece sponge at end of heavy rope.

The ship carried only enough men to crew the guns on one side of the ship only and should it be necessary to fight on both sides simultaneously – as when breaking the French line at Trafalgar – the guns could only be served with half-crews. The weapons were heavy – a 32-pounder’s barrel alone weighed almost three tons – and considerable strength was demanded to run them out and to train them on target. 

Elevation was controlled by a “quoin”, a graduated wedge placed under the rear of the barrel (see illustration) and if all guns on a broadside were to be fired together at the same target the amount of elevation, as per marks on the quoin, was ordered for all guns by the officer in charge. In training the gun to left or right to lay on the target “handspikes” – wooden crowbars – were used to lever the entire carriage across, aided by hauling on rope “side-tackles” which linked the carriage to the ship’s side. The illustration below shows this, and also the crew positions, as will later be discussed further.
Note "Breeching" on second and third guns from camera and
side tackles on the first, rammers and sponges stored on deckhead 

There was no way of controlling the recoil other than by a heavy rope – called the “breeching” – which passed through an eye on the breech of the gun and the ends of which were secured to ringbolts on the ship’s side. Then the gun fired it recoiled back the full length of the breeching. This brought the weapon into the loading position, with the muzzle just inside the gun-port and was restrained against running back out with the ship’s roll, by another tackle at the rear.

 The normal crew for a 32-pounder was 14 man and their positions are identified in the illustration above. Their roles were as follow:

                No.1  -   Gun Captain, at the rear and facing the port
                No.2  -   “Second Captain”, assisting and being ready to take over if needed
                No.3  -   Loader, on left side
                No.4 -    Sponger, on the right side
                No.5  -   Assistant Loader, left side
                No.6  -   Assistant Sponger, right side

These six men were called the “Gun Numbers” and the numbers above them were called the auxiliaries, Nos. 7, 9, 11 and 13 on the right and Nos. 8, 10, 12 and 14 on the right. Numbers 9 and 10 were the handspike men and Nos. 11,12,13 and 14 hauled on the side tackles to assist them.

It can be seen from the diagram, and from the photographs of Victory’s middle gun-deck, that this large crew had to operate within a very confined space. The physical labour required was immense. If a high rate of fire was to be maintained then all fourteen men needed to function as a single well-rehearsed team and to do so, amid the choking and eye-stinging smoke and despite crashing noise that made verbal commands inaudible. Add to this the fact that the ship might be under fire itself and that great rents might be torn in the walls to either side by enemy shot, and that guns to right and left might have been dismounted and their crews killed or wounded. The size of the gun-crew meant that even with members knocked out of action sufficient men remained to maintain fire, albeit at a lower rate.

The Gun Captain was responsible for his gun’s maintenance and for command of his gun-crew in action, during which he supervised laying, training and firing. After each round was fired No.4 sponged the gun with a wet fleece to ensure that any residual and glowing particles of gunpowder had been left by the previous discharge.  The cartridge and shot were then inserted by No.3 – manhandling one 32-pound shot after another demanded considerable strength and stamina.  No.4 now inserted a wad to prevent the ball rolling out and he rammed them home. During these operations Nos. 5 and 6 provided support by passing ammunition and tools.

The Second Captain was responsible for supervising elevation, via the quoin, for inserting the firing tube – which carried the ignition charge from the firing lock – and for cocking the lock itself, which was essentially a pistol, to be fired by the Gun Captain by jerking on a lanyard attached to the trigger. When laying the gun the Gun Captain retreated to the full extent of the trigger lanyard, bent over to get his eye lined up along the fore and back-sights, but positioning himself (“contorting” might be a better word) to spring safely on one side when the weapon was fired. When training, the Gun Captain ordered “Muzzle Right” or “Muzzle Left” as appropriate to guide the handspike and side-tackle men until the aim was achieved. When laying for elevation he gave the handspike men the order “Elevate” and they levered beneath the breech , he giving hand-signals to raise or lower until he was satisfied.  The Second Captain inserted the quoin and final adjustments up or down might then be needed until the exact elevation was set.

The procedure outlined above related to the gun firing more or less at right angles to the ship’s side but if it was necessary to train to extreme angles, as shown in the illustrations above, the crew positions would be changed accordingly. Managing this required an extreme degree of familiarity with the movements required if men were not to trip over and impede each other. Once again one is impressed with the degree of training and practice that must have been demanded.

 Two methods of firing were practised: “independent firing”, when each Gun Captain laid and fired his weapon independently and “broadside firing” in which all the guns were laid on the same target and fired simultaneously by order. In the Napoleonic period broadsides were fired by a “directing gun”, whose Gun Captain was regarded as the best marksman on board, and who gave the elevation and moment of discharge to all the others but the bearing was ordered from the upper deck.

The description above related to a single gun. As a ship like Victory sailed into action fifteen such weapons lay close together along a single side, with comparable numbers on the two decks above. It is difficult to image just what a hell these gundecks must have been on close action – which sometimes lasted for hours on end – and that firing continued in a smothering haze when the decks around might be slippery with blood and strewn with body parts.

 It may have been the era of wooden ships, but it was also one of  iron men.

HMS Victory - launched 1765 and still in commission

Click here to see a video-interview with Antoine Vanner about his latest book, Britannia's Amazon

Click here to read the opening chapters

This volume also includes the long short-story Britannia’s Eye, which casts a new light on Nicholas Dawlish’s relationship with his uncle, an invalided naval officer who made him his heir. But Nicholas was never to know - or even guess - the truth about what his uncle had really been…

Britannia's Amazon - available in paperback and Kindle formats

US and rest of world: Click here to purchase on Amazon.com

UK: Click here to buy on Amazon.co.uk

Tuesday 8 November 2016

Captain Trollope and the Carronades – Part 2: HMS Glatton

Henry Trollope
A week ago, in the blog of 1st November, we met the “carronade crazy” Royal Navy officer Henry Trollope (1756-1839). His career was a distinguished one – he rose to full Admiral – but his long-term reputation rests on two spectacular actions in which carronades played a decisive role. The previous article describes these large-bore but short range weapons, which represented cutting-edge technology from the 1780s onwards, and Trollope’s brilliant use of them when he commanded HMS Rainbow in the last years of the American War of Independence.  

The gap between the American War – in which France, as usual, sided against Britain – and the next conflict Britain would fight with France, the Revolutionary War, was a short one, just a decade long. In this decade however the British government did what governments have done through history – once victory was gained it was assumed that no further conflict was likely in the near future and that economic advantage could be achieved by standing down armed forces, disposing of warships and running down stores. This was to offer what is now called a “peace dividend”. It was to prove an illusion once revolution erupted in France and launched more than two decades of warfare on a global scale. Britain’s new was began in early 1793 and by then large numbers of warships that had proved so essential in the earlier conflict had by now been disposed of. More ships were needed –and as soon as possible. New construction was immediately committed to but, until these vessels were completed and commissioned, stopgaps were essential.

East Indiaman Woodford by Samuel Atkis (1787-1808) - Glatton would have looked generally similar
(with acknowledgement to the WikiGallery.ord)
One such stopgap measure was to purchase ten “East Indiamen” – stoutly built trading vessels in the service of the East India Company and well suited to long ocean voyages. Typical of these was the Glatton, a 1253-ton ship, pierced with gun ports like all of her kind and carrying defensive armament to protect her against Algerine corsairs off North Africa and other pirates in Eastern Seas. By the time she was requisitioned by the Royal Navy in 1795 she had already participated in the capture of a French brig, Le Franc while part of a trading convoy. On being taken into the Navy, command of her was assigned to Captain Henry Trollope, who had the responsibility for arming and commissioning her, and getting her into service as soon as possible. Trollope, building on his previous experience, made maximum use of the latitude allowed him and armed Glatton entirely with carronades rather than with the usual mix of long guns. A total of twenty-eight 68-pounder carronades were mounted on the lower deck and twenty-eight 32-pounder carronades on the upper. All were on slides rather than trucks but the vessel’s gun ports were too small to allow training other than on the beam. Added to this was the fact that the deck layout did not allow mounting of bow-chasers or stern-chasers. Careful manoeuvering of the entire ship would therefore be needed to bring her firepower to bear.

East Indiaman - contemporary engraving
Classed as a fourth-rate, Glatton was assigned to the North Sea Fleet, under Admiral Adam Duncan. On the 14th July 1794 she was directed to sail to join a squadron of two ships of the line and several frigates cruising off the Dutch coast, the Netherlands being by this stage a French satellite.  In the early afternoon of the 16th, close to the Dutch naval base Helevoetsluis, Trollope and the Glatton sighted a powerful enemy squadron. This consisted of consisted of six large frigates, a brig, and a cutter. One of these, as far as could be made out, mounted 50 guns, two 36, and the other three 28. Given these odds, Trollope might be forgiven for judging discretion to be the better part of valour but he banked instead on the same advantage that had proved so decisive in his earlier action with HMS Rainbow – the surprise element and the massive firepower of the carronades if the range could be closed. He therefore ordered Glatton to be cleared for action and steered towards the enemy. On sighting Glatton the other vessels shortened sail to keep their station in line. It was late evening, though still light, when Trollope drew level with the third ship in the enemy’s line. That he was allowed to come so close is a mystery, as is the fact that the enemy was so rigidly attached to line tactics in the circumstances. Trollope hailed this third ship, and finding that she was French, ordered her commander to strike his colours. Instead of doing so, the Frenchman not surprisingly responded with a broadside. Glatton, at a separation of only thirty yards, unleashed her own broadside, one comparable to that of a ship of the line. The other enemy ships now – at last – manoeuvred to surround Glatton, the two headmost vessels tacking about so that one placed herself alongside to windward, and the other on the Glatton’s bow, while the remaining ships engaged her on her lee-quarter and stern.

French frigate Incorruptible - one of Glatton's opponents
Glatton’s awesome firepower was mitigated by the fact that her crew was insufficient to man her guns on both sides simultaneously. The solution was to divide each gun-crew into two gangs. One loaded and ran out the gun, leaving the most experienced hands to aim and fire it while they ran across and loaded and ran out the gun on the opposite side. Fire was now continuous, the range on each side so close that Glatton’s yard-arms were nearly touching those of the enemy. Her massive firepower was by now inflicting serious damage and the French commodore tried to decide the issue by having his lead ship attempt to drive the Glatton on to a nearby shoal. By skilful manoeuvring Trollope tacked to avoid this and while the French vessel was herself doing the same he managed to rake her. His own masts yards and sails were by now badly damaged and though further damage was inflicted on the enemy it proved impossible to manoeuvre effectively to bring his cannonades into play. The enemy vessels stood off as darkness fell and through the night Trollope’s crew was occupied in strengthening masts and yards, and in bending fresh sails. By daylight Glatton was in a fit state to renew the action – and the light also revealed that eh enemy squadron was now running for the protection of the port of Flushing. Trollope followed for two hours but as he had no hope of reinforcement, and as the wind was blowing on shore, he was compelled to haul off and steer for Yarmouth Roads, where he arrived on the 21st.

 Trollope with the mortally wounded Marine Captain Henry Ludlow Strangeways on the HMS Glatton
It was subsequently found that all the enemy ships had been badly damaged, one sinking in Flushing harbour after arrival. The largest, with which the Glatton was chiefly engaged, was the Brutus, a “74” 300 tons larger and cut down to some 50 guns, of which 46 were 24-pounders. Also present were the frigates Incorruptible,  Magicienne and Républicaine. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the action was that although the French losses must have been heavy (though undetermined), Glatton’s casualties were two wounded only, one of whom, the captain of Marines, died subsequently.

Trollope’s achievement was immediately recognised as unprecedented. He had deliberately engaged six other powerful ships simultaneously, and had put them to flight. He was rewarded with a well-deserved knighthood.  He was to retain command of Glatton for three more years, still in the North Sea fleet and one of his notable achievements was persuading her crew not to join the Nore mutiny in 1797. He went further – by threatening to unleash Glatton’s firepower on two other ships that were in open mutiny, he induced their crews to return to duty. Promoted to command of the “74” Russell, he was to participate in Duncan’s victory at Camperdown later the same year.

And Glatton? She was converted in due course the more conventional armament – her “carronades-only” surprise value could only be of limited duration – and she was to see extensive action in the North Sea, Baltic and the Mediterranean until being hulked for harbour service in 1814.

Britannia’s Amazon by Antoine Vanner

This latest novel runs in parallel in time with the action of the earlier Britannia’s Spartan, and concentrates on the adventures of Nicholas Dawlish’s wife Florence while she is at home in Britain while he and his cruiser are in Korean waters. Dedicated to the welfare of seaman’s families, and especially to those of her husband’s crew, Florence intends to spend the months of separation caring for them. But a chance encounter is to plunge her into the maelstrom of vice, cruelty and espionage that is the corrupt underside of complacent Late-Victorian society. And if Florence is to survive - and to save innocent victims- she must face evil head-on, deal with conflicts of loyalty and employ guile as her most powerful weapon.

This volume also includes the long short-story Britannia’s Eye, which casts a new light on Nicholas Dawlish’s relationship with his uncle, an invalided naval officer who made him his heir. But Nicholas was never to know - or even guess - the truth about what his uncle had really been…

Britannia's Amazon - available in paperback and Kindle formats

US and rest of world: Click here to purchase on Amazon.com

UK: Click here to buy on Amazon.co.uk