Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks: Royal George

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The Royal George

The remains of the mighty Royal George, without doubt one of the finest ships that ever sailed, lie at the bottom of the Solent.

Work began on constructing the Royal George in 1746; the largest vessel yet to be built in Britain, and the Royal Navy's largest warship. When completed and launched in 1756, she weighed 3,745 tons, her hull was over 200 feet long and 50 feet wide, and had been built out of over 3,840 trees from 110 acres of forest, over 100,000 cubic feet of English oak and elm. A mighty 100-gun ship, she cost £339,65,274. She had three gundecks, and her quarterdeck was 32 feet above the waves, and had three masts over 100 feet high and was able to sail at 11 knots in a gale.

On the outbreak of the Seven Years War in 1756, the Royal George took her place as the flagship of the Channel Fleet.

The Seven Years War

In 1756, the Seven Years War began. One of the world's more complicated wars, it began with Britain and Prussia allied against fighting France and Austria. France had taken Spain's place as the leading expansionist power, and had developed a bitter rivalry of Britain. France also, fearing a strong Germany, aided Austria in the war against Prussia.

Prussia invaded Saxony in 1756, a country which had changed alliances against Prussia during the War of Austrian Succession, only for Austria, France, Russia and Sweden to declare war on Prussia, with Spain later supporting France. Only Britain and Hanover allied with Prussia, Britain concentrating on protecting her colonies in North America, which were under attack from French troops and Indians, in Canada and on gaining victories against France in India and against Spain in Cuba and the Philippines.

France gradually became more and more involved with the land war in Europe, enabling Britain to achieve victories overseas.

In 1759, known in Britain as the Year Of Victories, despite French plans to invade Britain, Britain went on the offensive. Guadeloupe was captured, General Wolfe was able to celebrate success at Quebec and Clive continued to triumph in India. Yet there was still the threat of invasion. France planned to land 20,000 men at Glasgow and a further 20,000 in Essex, to capture London.

Although in July 1759, Sir George Rodney had destroyed many of the flat-bottomed invasion craft that had assembled in Le Havre, the threat remained until the battle of Quiberon Bay.

The Battle Of Quiberon Bay

Throughout the summer of 1759, under the command of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke onboard his flagship, the Royal George1, the Channel Fleet blockaded the French port of Brest in Brittany to prevent the French fleet under the command of Conflans from leaving without a fight. The French army in Quiberon Bay awaited Conflans' arrival to transport it to Britain.

By November, the British fleet in a channel was hit by a succession of gales, and on the 9th November the wind blew in such strength that the British fleet was forced to take shelter in Torbay. Although they remained there for less than a week, whilst away Conflans had been reinforced with a squadron of ships under the command of Bompart, and put to sea on the same day that Hawke left Torbay.

Conflans sailed straight for Quiberon to pick up the invasion army, and by the 20th November was near his destination. Conflans used local pilots to guide his way inshore, where he felt safe from Hawke between the Foar Shoal and the rocky Cardinals. On the dark afternoon, with an increasing north-westerly gale, despite the weather conditions and not knowing where treacherous reefs and
sandbanks lay, Hawke chose to follow Conflans and flew the signal "Form as you chase". Hawke intended the destruction of the French fleet.

Hawke's line of ships was led by the Magnanime, captured from the French in 1748, followed by the Torbay, Dorsetshire, Resolution, Warspite and Royal George, the Royal George heading straight for the French flagship, the Soleil Royal.

The first loss was the French 74-gun Thesee which was in action against the Torbay. The gale suddenly rocked the Thesee, and as her gunports were open, she instantly filled and sank. Only 22 of the over 600 crew survived, despite attempts of the Torbay to save as many as possible by hoisting her boats. The next casualty was the Heros, which, surrendered to Lord Howe of the Magnanime after sustaining casualties of over 400 of her men from her battle with the Magnanime and Royal George. She was blown ashore.

Around 4 o'clock, the Royal George closed in on the 80-gun Soleil Royal. Bravely, the French 70-gun Superbe sailed to protect the Soleil Royal. Despite the gale preventing her from using her lower gun ports, the Royal George fired a single broadside, and the Superbe sank immediately.

The French ship Formidable was soon captured, when night came and both fleets anchored. In the morning, the Soleil Royal found itself within range of the Royal George. In its attempt to escape it ran upon the Rouelle Shoal, Conflans then ordered his flagship to be burnt, and escaped ashore with the crew. A boarding party arrived in time to carry off her figurehead.

During the night, two British ships, the Essex and Resolution, were drove ashore and, after the crew was saved, burnt to prevent capture. The 70-gun Juste was also captured.

The result of the Battle of Quiberon Bay was that the British fleet of 23 ships had defeated the French fleet of 21 ships in French waters, causing the loss of 7 French ships and over 2,500 men, with the loss of 2 ships, both of whose crew were saved. The result was to defeat the French plans for invasion, and ensured British Naval supremacy for the duration of the war. The Battle of Quiberon Bay
inspired the famous chorus:

Hearts of Oak are our ships,

Hearts of Oak are our men,

We always are ready,

Steady, boys, steady,

We'll fight and we'll conquer again and again.

After the Seven Years War ended in 1763, the Royal George was laid up in Plymouth for almost 15 years until 1777. Although the French Invasion plans of the Seven Years War had been defeated, a new threat emerged in 1779.

The French-Spanish Armada of 1779

In 1779, the French planned to take advantage of Britain's Royal Navy being dispersed between America and the West Indies, and its crippled state due to the political situation, by mounting a full-scale invasion of Britain with the aid of Spain. Forty thousand French troops and their transports were assembled at Le Havre and St. Malo. The plan was that, in May, the French fleet under the Comte d'Orvilliers would rendezvous with the Spanish fleet under Don Luis de Cordoba, sail into the channel, destroy the British Home Fleet, escort the transports across the channel, capture Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight and then march on London.

Although the plan had been set for May, d'Orvillers was unable to sail until June, as his ships were undermanned and underprovisioned. The French did not have enough men to man such a fleet, and so to increase the number of officers, many men, regardless of suitability, were promoted and many of the seamen had been found in prisons. It was later said that there were ships in which none of the crew nor officers knew how to take a bearing.

The British Situation

The British fleet was also in a state of decay. Lord Sandwich and politics controlled the Admiralty, and able commanders such as Lord Howe were refused commands. The situation had degenerated into a farce, with the situation compared to the two houses in Romeo and Juliet, as Lord Sandwich's surname was Montagu, and Admiral Keppel was nicknamed "Capulet".

Admiral Keppel resigned the command of the Channel Fleet in March 1779, with the Government unable to find a successor. Keppel's friends Lord Howe and Lord Mann refused to accept out of regard for Keppel, and because they despised Lord Sandwich. The government eventually gave the command to the elderly, sick Sir Charles Hardy, Governor of Greenwich Hospital.

The British fleet, though small, contained the mightiest ships of the day. As well as the mighty HMS Royal George the fleet consisted of the 100-gun HMS Britannia, the 100-gun HMS Victory2 and the 90-gun Prince George. With 30 ships-of-the-line and 8 frigates, Sir Charles Hardy left harbour at the Isle of Wight on the 16th June.

The Voyage Of The Armada

D'Orvilliers sailed to Corunna to rendezvous with the Spanish fleet, the Spanish officers, however, had not been informed of the plan, and took 6 weeks to organise and rendezvous. The Spanish also refused to follow French orders, and tried to dissuade the French from invading England, insisting the fleet should attack Gibraltar instead. However, the fleet set sail, completely outnumbering the British Home Fleet.

In August, the Armada finally entered the Channel. The three month delay had meant that the French Fleet, which had set sail in June, had eaten most of their food and water, with smallpox and scurvy rife throughout the fleet. Even d'Orviller's son died. So many French sailors were sick that there were often too few men to sail the ships, yet alone man the guns in the event of a battle.

The Armada reached Plymouth, only to be blown into the Atlantic. The French then abandoned their plan of capturing the Isle of Wight, settling on taking Plymouth and occupying Cornwall. The French Armada again reached Plymouth, only to be blown back into the Atlantic again.

Lord Barham advised Hardy to play for time; to allow disease and lack of food to take their toll on the enemy. Hardy agreed, and avoided engaging the enemy, though monitoring its position. Hardy decided to draw the enemy fleet away from its base at Brest by returning to the Spithead. This tactic proved unpopular with the men on board the Royal George, who considered it cowardice and tied their jackets over the figurehead so that it wouldn't see the ship turning its stern to the enemy. This tactic, though unadventuous and a waste of a fleet consisting of many fine ships, did work, and on the 3rd September d'Orvillers abandoned the attempt, returning to Brest with over 8,000 of his men sick. The cost of the expedition helped turn France to bankruptcy, its attempts to recover the cost through taxes led to the French Revolution.

The Royal George's Last Victory

The Royal George was able to redeem herself in January 1781 when escorting a convoy to Gibralter, she captured two Spanish ships of the line off Portugal. She then began a 2 year overhaul in Plymouth, and in August 1782 sailed from Plymouth to join the fleet gathered at Spithead to relieve Gibraltar from the Spanish forces blockading it.

The Sinking Of The Royal George

In the early hours of August 29th 1782, the greatest fleet assembled on British shores lay off the Spithead. There were over 50 men of war, including the 100-gun HMS Victory and Royal George, and over 300 merchant ships. The Royal George was the flagship of Rear Admiral Kempenfeldt, and under the command of Captain Waghorn.

On the 29th August, the Royal George was signalling the traditional "Wedding Garland", and the day had been set aside for the crew to say their farewells.

As desertion was a problem, shore-leave was cancelled, and the sailors wives were allowed onboard. As well as the families of the sailors, merchants, money-lenders and even prostitutes came onboard, approximately 400 people, or an extra 70 tons of humanity.

Heeling The Ship

While this was going on, Captain Waghorn ordered a minor repair to be made below the waterline. A water-cock that provided seawater for cleaning the gundecks needed to be replaced. Although William Nichelson, Master Attendent of Portsmouth Dockyard had warned against making the repair with the ship loaded with the 548 tons of stores and 83 tons of ammunition needed for the Gibraltar expedition, Captain Waghorn ordered the repairs to be made.

The proposed method of repair was to heel the ship by moving the cannon from one side of the ship to the other. At 7am, the 820 strong crew hauled and pushed the cannon into position to achieve the eight degree list to starboard.

While this was going on, despite the fleetwide ban on shore leave, the Master, the Boatswain and the Gunner were in Portsmouth. These were the three officers who would normally oversee such an operation, and whose expertise would have been vital to prevent the sinking. No-one was left in charge of the operation below decks.

Captain Waghorn had also controversially ordered that the lower gundecks, normally closed when a ship was being heeled, to remain open. This was so that extra stores could be carried through them, to prevent them have to be hauled up to the deck. Captain Waghorn was perhaps fooled by the lack of wind, forgetting that the Solent's unique double-tide makes the waters of Spithead choppy even without wind. The gun ports were only a foot above sea-level, and
water was already beginning to splash inside in increasing amounts.

At 9am, the 50 ton cutter Lark came alongside, and began loading rum through the gunports. Ominously, rats and mice were reported to be leaving the ship, jumping onboard the Lark. The weight of the rum began to tip the gunsills below the waterline.

The Carpenter hurried to the deck to tell the officer of the watch, Lieutenant Monins Hollingbery, to give the order to "Right Ship". Hollingbery refused to listen and dismissed him, ordering below. On return to the lower decks, the carpenter saw that the situation had got worse, and returned to Hollinbery and repeated his request, who replied "Damme, Sir! If you can manage the ship better than I can you had better take command."

The Carpenter then went to warn Captain Waghorn, who sent the First Lieutenant to investigate. At 9:18am, Waghorn finally gave the order to right ship, almost 20 minutes after the ship had began sinking. Before the drummer could comply, the ship began to capsize. Hundreds of men ran down hatchways to get to the guns to right the ship, but the slope was now so steep that not even 18 men could move a single gun. The water ran in all the gunports on the starboard side of the lower gundecks, and only 3 survived through escaping through the gunports out of the hundreds below decks.

Captain Waghorn ran to the Admiral's Cabin to warn Rear Admiral Kempenfeldt, yet the door was jammed. At that point, the masts began to fall, and Captain Waghorn jumped overboard. His son was among the thousand that drowned. Only 255 of the 1,200 onboard survived. The end happened so quickly that it was reported that a local lady, writing a letter, looked up and saw the ship, with its pennant barely touched by the wind, and, after completing her sentence, looked
up again to see that the ship had gone.

The Carpenter drowned, yet Lieutenant Hollingbery survived, and was later promoted to captain. For several days, bodies were washed ashore at Ryde3 and Portsmouth.

The Court Martial

The Court Martial was held onboard HMS Warspite, with 5 Admirals sitting in judgement. They decided to clear Kempenfelt and Waghorn4, and blamed the disaster on the dockyard authority, the Navy Board, claiming that the disaster was caused by the bottom of the ship falling out through rot. Only two witnesses supported the verdict, a shipwright who said that some of the timbers were rotten, which was to be expected in a 26
year old ship, and a Gunners Yeoman who had said that he heard a crack below the waterline.

The Navy Board was framed as the culprit as the funds given by the Government and Admiralty to the Board for ship repair were often embezzled by the Board, meaning that ships often went to sea in desperate need for repairs which had been paid for, but not started. 83 Naval ships had been sunk through decay during the American War of Independence. The Navy Board believed the verdict, and as a result sabotaged every attempt to salvage the warship.

The Salvage Attempts

The Royal George sat in the middle of the Navy's main anchorage, and could have been saved. William Tracey in 1783 suggested that the hull could be harnessed and raised with the tide. The Navy Board tried everything within its power to prevent this, and even supplied Tracey with ships that sank. Tracey was forced to abandon his attempt after moving the Royal George 30 yards through being bankrupted by the Navy Board's refusal to pay for his services.

In 1832 the Navy Board was abolished, and work was begun on the Royal George. Between 1836 and 1839, John and Charles Deane, inventors of the deep sea diving suit, raised 29 cannon but reported that the hull was beyond salvage. In 1839 Colonel Palsey, a pioneer of marine demolition, raised the remaining cannon by using gunpowder.

The cannon were melted down and were used to make the bronze and iron capital at the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square, celebrating the triumph of the Royal George's sistership HMS Victory.

Isle Of Wight Shipwrecks

1Who was knighted after defeating a French squadron protecting a convoy from La Rochelle in 17472Later to find fame with Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar, 1805, and is preserved in Portsmouth.3Where Earl Mountbatten opened a new memorial in 19654Who was nevertheless put on half pay and remained a Captain until he died in 1787

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