The Royal George - a Ship of the Line.

The seven years war began in June 1756 later described by Sir Winston Churchill as the First World War. It spread world wide with enormous consequences.

The Royal GeorgeIn response a new war ship was launched in the Thames. It had taken ten years for this first rater to be built. At 178 feet long, 52 feet wide and a mainmast of 114 feet, it had taken approximately 60 acres of timber to construct the pride of the admiralty named after King George II. She stood splendidly adorned in new paint with a figure head of  white horses.

The colours and arms of England, Scotland, Ireland and Handover accompanied the Monogram GR.

One year later the Royal George was fitted with guns appropriate to a man of war.

General Wolf had led the successful assault on the Heights of Abraham to capture Quebec in 1759. Some 170 ships were now on that side of the world giving the French an opportunity they did not wish to miss. Their plan was in two fold.  A French fleet was to pick up 25,00 troops and land them on the west side of Scotland. A second fleet and 25,00 men were to begin an invasion of Britain in the south of England.

Admiral Boscawen (Old Dreadnought) perused the French fleet under the command of M. de la which had departed from Brest. In the Battle of Lagos Boscawen captured three French ships and burned two. He returned a hero the Spithead  with 2,000 prisoners. 

Admiral Hawke on his flag ship the Royal George with a fleet of 23 ships patrolled the English Channel ports. The French ships of the line were under Admiral Conflans, They were outnumbered by the reinforced British Fleet after the Lagos sea battle.

In November fierce gales allowed Hawke to rush south to meet the French in Quiberon Bay. Conflans observed Royal Naval frigates and gave them chase, until he noticed the top sails of the Royal Fleet. The frigates used this time to attack the French. Heading back to safety, Conflans entered the dangerous shallows and rocks of Quiberon Bay.

As the light faded Hawks Gave the signal (General Chase) and sailed into the bay. His navigator warned him of the dangers he was facing and Hawks replied “ You have done your duty in warning me.” “Lay me along side the enemy flag ship.” Hawks faster ships were soon on the heels of the French, by dark two of the enemy ships sunk and two surrendered.

The tides were so strong they threatened to flood the French lower decks.  When night came both fleets anchored awaiting the forecoming dawn. By accident during the night the French vessel Soleil Royal had inadvertently anchored in the middle of the Royal Navy ships. While trying to escape she ran aground. Some French ships were intentionally set afire to avoid capture and others began dropping their guns overboard. The intention was to lighten the load but did not prevent them from becoming stranded. Two Royal Navy ships suffered the some fate.

The destruction of the French Fleet and the loss of 2,500 skilled sailors ended the escapade.

During the battle the Royal George was heavily involved in many engagements. As she chased the French she encountered a Lugger which had on board the famous smuggler Harry Paulet. He was welcomed aboard telling the admiral the whereabouts of the running French. Hawks told Paulet if true he would make a fortune, if wrong he would be hanged from the yard arm. Paulet volunteered to stay on board as they sailed into Quiberon Bay fighting along side the crew. He made the promised fortune and settled down on Cornhill London.  William Parsons a comic actor said he would rather listen to Paulet’s narration than the greatest orator of the day. Paulet was often given three cheers as he took breath while reciting his adventures.

Many famous up and coming Admirals served on board the Royal George including Anson, Rodney and Boscawen.

The conflict moved to Gibraltar where the French and Spanish tried to retake the rock. Between 1779 and 1783 General Eliott  and 7,000 men held against 40,000 and 2,000 guns and 47 ships. As an example to his men he lived on 4 ounces of rice a day when the siege was at its height. Supplies were maintained by the Royal Navy where possible. In 1780 the Royal George under Rodney destroyed the Spanish blockade fleet at the First Battle of Cape St Vincent.

Don Langara the Spanish Admiral had chased Rodney to engage in the Moonlight Battle.  Two enemy ships were wrecked on the shoals and one exploded. Admiral Langara and his flagship were captured.

Time began to tell on the Royal George and she began to suffer from underwater shipworm. It was decide to copper bottom the rotting hull but it proved to be too late.

Admiral Richard KempenfeltHer heavy guns were then replaced with lighter models which did not relieve the stress to the aging ship. She was anchored at Spithead in August 1782 under Admiral Richard Kempenfelt (the Evangelist) a distinguished fighting man of the sea. He had helped the Navy to adopt a simpler signal system by numbering the signal flags. This reduced confusions in the heat of battle. Kempenfelt had also served on HMS Victory.

It was a day full of holiday spirit when guests and visitor crowded the Royal George decks mixing with the crew. Midshipman John Crispo was acting signal officer. Lieutenant Philip Charles Durham a Scot born in Largo Fife in 1763 and destined to be one of the luckiest men in the Georgian Navy. Ingram was a young seaman gunner who had not long arrived from a tour on HMS Victory. The Royal George was in the process of receiving six months supply including barrels of rum and preparing to sail to Gibraltar.

Kempenfelt was occupied in his cabin as the deck of the Royal George began to tilt.

The Royal George sinksThe cistern for the lower deck wash was empty and for some time the pump and pipe had been blocked. On the starboard side the watercock had to be tilted to port to make it clear of the water. For this the guns of the starboard side were place amidships, as water began to pour in the lower deck gun ports. It is believed that during these operations the lower deck gunports were not properly secured, causing the inrush of water. Mice raced around the decks to escape the incoming sea. The crew joined in a mouse chase game. Those on board being entertained imagined the ships tilt a novelty and continued the celebrations.

When the water began to rush in and the carpenter requested the officer of the watch to right the ship. As carpenter he fully understood the stress the ships structure was subject to. Lieutenant Hollingberry, the officer of the watch reprimanded him for his trouble. The carpenter once again approached  Hollingberry only to receive a curse and told he was not qualified to mange the ship.

Rightly distressed the carpenter warned Captain Martin Waghorn who responded by sending a first Lieutenant to investigate. At 09:15 the captain gave the order to right the ship. The crew had heard the quarrel with the carpenter and Hollingberry and he was forced to change his mind. He ordered beat to quarters, but before the drummer could pick up his drum the Royal George began to capsize. The call to stations added to the tilt of the ship as hundreds of men ran down the hatchways to the guns positions. The tilt was so great 18 men could not move a single gun. Pointless orders were directed as the Royal George rolled over. Members of the crew and visitors slid into the water. The ships main yard pushed a lighter that was lashed to the ships side to the bottom of the sea drowning two brothers. Midshipman Crispo was a competent swimmer and swam to a nearby ship. Lieutenant Durham managed to survive while Captain Waghorn ran to warn Admiral Kempenfelt. Unfortunately the Admiral’s door was jammed by the angle of tilt and could not be opened. Waghorn jumped overboard and swam to the safety of the mizzen top mast. His son was not so lucky and drowned along with some 800 people, many of whom were women and children.

The carpenter who warned of the prevailing disaster was drowned. Waghope had taken off his coat before jumping overboard and it was found in the hand of a drowned marine later. Ingram, the seamen was blasted by a surge of water through a porthole loosing his hat. He was pulled under as the ship sunk during which someone grabbed on to his shoe. He managed to kick off his shoe and surface among the broken barrels of tar. While swimming to shore he helped a struggling woman. The Royal George settled in the clay as the tide came in and covered her.

Her main mast flag was seen for only a short while from shore before it vanished.

Admiral Howe rushed a note to the Admiralty in London informing them the Royal George had suddenly overset, filled and sunk.

The Court Marshall was held onboard HMS Warspite with 5 Admirals presiding. Kempenfelt and Waghorn were cleared. Blame was appointed  to the ( Navy Board) Dockyard Authority who had ignored the ships general state of decay of her timbers.

A shipwright testified the timbers were so rotten they could have belonged to a 26 year old vessel. Rampant embezzlement was prevalent and repairs often overlooked. The cash often found its way into the wrong pockets. It was said that 83 ships during the American war sunk due to ill repair. A series of shenanigans prevented the salvage attempts.

The Royal George was destroyed by explosives in the 1840s its wooden superstructure scattered near the site of the Mary Rose.

Admiral Philip DurhamN.B. Philip Durham retired to Scotland after an adventurous time in the Royal Navy.

He had become an Admiral of the Red, Knight of the Bath and Knight of the Grand Cross of the Order of Military Merit of France.

He died without an legal descendent in April the 2nd 1845 leaving an illegitimate daughter.

A must read is The Loss of the Royal George - by GRANT UDEN - Published by MACDONALD.CO LTD, London. 1970 - SBN. 356 031101.

This article would have been an impossibility without this book

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