CATASTROPHE AT SPITHEAD: THE SINKING OF THE ROYAL GEORGE

Reviewed by: David Childs

Sheltered the waters of the Solent might be but they have witnessed their share of naval tragedies in which the weather has been assumed to have played a role, including two of our most famous losses, that of Mary Rose and Royal George.There is much similarity between the two events for both involved: the ingress of water through open gunports; a great loss of life; and the death of an admiral, in the latter case Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt without whose death the foundering of Royal George might not have achieved as much prominence as it did. That and, of course, Cowper’s later stirring poem claiming that, “A land-breeze shook the shrouds, And she was overset”.

Indeed, in this book Kempenfelt’s life, character and achievements, he was a master-tactician, the creator of a much-improved communication’s signal code and the proposer of the divisional officer system of man-management, occupies almost equal billing as the ship in which he lost his life.  This is an unmissed opportunity, for Kempenfelt, a multi-talented officer, was advanced late in life, and never achieved the premier division of naval greats that his attributes deserved and therefore has had few biographies.  The author has thus justly done his life some service.

Again, like Mary Rose, it is the capsizing of Royal George, on 29 August 1782, rather than her long career, she was built in 1756, that concerns the writer.  This is sad because she had an active life, not least as Hawke’s flagship at the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759. This “triumph seen as the Trafalgar of the Seven Years’ war”, is covered in just one sentence.

The most telling common factor between the floundering of the two vessels was the open gun-ports. In both cases the wind, at most a stiff breeze, was almost an incidental. Royal George had a minor defect, a pump’s pipe that allowed sea-water to be used for hosing down the decks was blocked.  Rather than wait for a docking to rectify this fault it was decided to heel the ship over so that the carpenters could address the problem from outboard.  This delicate evolution was made potentially dangerous when, of the number of ways of achieving the desired list, the one selected was to run out the guns on the opposite side of the pipe while those on the same side brought tight home.  When water was seen entering the open ports the ship’s company, rather than being given the more difficult but safer option of rectifying the list firstly on the higher side, were ordered to haul the guns on the lower side inboard.  This movement of an extra thirty tons of manpower was sufficient to overset the ship.

The moment of disaster brings us to the half-way point in the book, the second part of which is concerned with the investigation, theories on the reason why, the court martial, clearing the wreck and fate of the survivors – about 300 out of maybe 1,200 onboard, including women, children and traders.  The court-martial’s verdict was astonishing, it found it easier to blame the ship, which could not speak for itself, for having rotten timbers (unproven), than her officers for a rotten decision stating that “the ship was not over-heeled” (when it patently was) and that “the captain, officers and ship’s company be acquitted of all blame” (when, at least the first two patently were). A public appeal reached its peak in October and by mid-December over 530 applicants had been aided, a speed which must be the envy of Empire Windrush and Grenfell Tower claimants.

A good read that reminds us that the past is not another country.