Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: The Frigate 'Assurance' and 'HMS Invincible' Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Isle of Wight Shipwrecks: The Frigate 'Assurance' and 'HMS Invincible'

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Isle of Wight Shipwrecks
Ancient and Roman | Medieval | The Hundred Years War | Mary Rose | The Spanish Armada | Treasure, and Hazardous | Sir Robert Holmes | The Frigate Assurance and HMS Invincible | Royal George | HMS Pomone and Carn Brae Castle | Clarendon | HMS Eurydice | Sirenia and Irex | SS Eider and Alcester | HMS Gladiator and the Submarine A1 | The First World War | Between the Wars | The Second World War | SS Virginia and HMS Alliance | Pacific Glory

Assurance was lost off the Needles on 24 April, 1753. She was a 5th Rate Frigate, rating being based on the number of heavy guns (excluding anti-personnel weapons or carronades). A 5th Rate of this period had between 40 and 50 guns: Assurance, built in 1747 at the Richard Heather yard at Bursledon, had 44.

Her last voyage was to take Edward Trelawney home. He had been the Governor of Jamaica (and was the fourth son of the late Bishop of Winchester) and was retiring, along with his family and personal fortune of £60,000. Although the official Admiralty record simply lists Assurance as having hit an uncharted rock outside the Needles Passage, the truth is more interesting.

In order to navigate the difficult Needles Passage, the ship's Master, David Patterson, took over from Captain Scrope. In order to avoid the Shingles, the ship sailed closer and closer to the outermost Needle, causing Trelawney to enquire how close to the rock they would get. Patterson replied 'So close that the fly of the ensign might touch the rock'. Unsurprisingly, the 100ft frigate crashed into the rock, and was a complete loss. The crew, and all but £4,000, was saved.

Patterson was sentenced to three months in Marshalsea Prison, a London debtor's prison - the shortness of the sentence being due to 'the obscurity of the rock'. Trelawney, as it happens, was less fortunate - he died before the end of the year.

John Wheeler

The Log of John Wheeler, a longshoreman from Blackgang, is one of the few records we have of shipwrecks of the time. It was started in 1757 and continued until 1808, recording over 100 shipwrecks. Wheeler's Log records that on 10 January, 1754 five ships were wrecked on the Island, and 10 people drowned. In 1755 the whole crew of a Weymouth sloop died when their ship was wrecked on Rocken End.

HMS Invincible

On 19 February, 1758, during the Seven Years War (fought from 1756 to 1763 against France), HMS Invincible sank on the Horse Tail sandbank outside Portsmouth.

Originally L'Invincible, she had been built as one of a new line of superior 74-gun ships for the French Navy, at Rochefort in 1744. She was larger than the British 100-gun ships of the line, yet capable of speeds of more than 13 knots, so was still faster than a British frigate. Her lowest gun ports were six feet above the water-line, whereas most British 1st Rate1 ships had gun ports only three feet above the water-line, and were operable only in calm seas. She was captured at the battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747, and was used as the model for a new generation of British ships of the line. She was also commissioned as a flagship for six different admirals.

In 1757 she was part of the unsuccessful campaign to drive the French out of Canada. Then during a gale she lost her rigging, was partly flooded, and was saved from a lee shore by being towed by Windsor. After being repaired in Portsmouth, she was to be with Admiral Boscawen's fleet carrying General Amhurst's troops to Louisburg.

At 2.30am on Sunday 19 February, 1758, the fleet was ordered to weigh anchor. HMS Invincible normally took around two hours to weigh anchor, but on this occasion there was a problem: the anchor refused to break free from the sea-bed. Nearly 400 men were on the four capstans, breaking capstan bars in their attempt to raise the anchor, to no avail. Eventually the Master, Henry Adkins, and a further 100 men, were able to free the anchor from the sea-bed. Yet things did not go according to plan. The anchor shot up, only to stick in the bottom of the ship.

Invincible was unable to free the anchor, and was blown north-east, with the rudder jammed by the anchor. The rudder was freed, but too late. The ship grounded on the Horse Bank. Her hold was flooded with up to 12ft of water. Despite using four chain pumps, each capable of pumping away a ton of water every 45 seconds, she remained flooded. Although she still floated at high tide, it proved impossible to free her from the sandbank.

On Wednesday 22 February, she fell over on her beam ends. Her captain, John Bentley, oversaw the removal of her cargo, stores and cannon. He and his crew were later acquitted of blame at the court martial held on board Royal George.

Invincible was lost until May 1979, when she was found by fisherman Arthur Mack. He, along with local diver John Broomhead, formed Invincible Conservations Ltd., which under a Government licence excavated the wreck until 1990.

Artefacts from Invincible can be found at the Royal Naval Museum, Portsmouth, and the 'Wooden Walls' display at Chatham Historic Dockyard.

Other Naval Vessels

Three years after the loss of Invincible the 70-gun HMS Dorsetshire was wrecked at Horse Sands in July 1761, near to where Mary Rose sank. Her loss caused the Port Admiral of Portsmouth, Vice Admiral Francis Holborne, to issue an order to all Naval shipping masters,

...to sound out the channels, which they should do several times by way of refreshing their memories, this being the second great ship they have run ashore lately.

His orders, though, did not have the effect he wished. Only four months later, in October, the Fourth Rate 50-gun HMS Portland2 came to grief off Ryde.

Wheeler's Log

John Wheeler records that in November 1766 a French sloop was smashed off the chalk cliffs of Freshwater Bay, killing all on board. In January 1778 the five crew on board an Alderney cutter died in the seas off Brighstone. The same place witnessed the deaths of the whole crew of a sloop in 1781.

1A 1st Rate had 100 guns or more and a crew of 800.2The third ship of a total of eight to bear that name.

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