As July dawned those within the walls could not be certain what the future held for them. True, they had beaten off Rosen’s attempt to storm the city and foiled his plan to hasten their starvation by forcing them to take so many of their fellow Protestants inside the walls. The latter Jacobite plan had even had some beneficial effects for the defenders who had been able to enlist some able bodied men from the ranks of those who had been driven to the walls; these volunteers remained in Derry until the end of the siege. The latters’ presence helped steel the resolve of the garrison not to surrender, since many of the newcomers had had protections from either King James or Hamilton which provided evidence to others of the perfidy of the Jacobites.
Of course, the defenders had tried to get some of their weakest citizens out of the city when the gallows was taken down and the hostages were allowed to return home. However, many of these individuals were obvious to the Jacobites who recognized ‘them by their colour’, a polite way of saying that they were dirtier than the average seventeenth-century citizen. Those so identified were sent back, but there were many, womenfolk among them, who were able to get away from the city. The Jacobite prisoners in the city were returned to their lodgings.
Mackenzie notes that Walker’s sermon was a discouraging one’ rather than one that boosted the morale of soldiers and citizens. He notes that Captain Charleton chose this time, 28 July, to abandon the city and go over to the Jacobites. There is an implication here that Charleton had listened to Walker preach and had not been impressed. Mackenzie’s analysis of the morale within the city is probably much closer to the truth than Walker’s. The Presbyterian minister commented that ‘the desperate necessities that were growing upon us had almost sunk us all into a despair of relief.
Mackenzie’s comment that the city was despairing of being relieved made all the more wondrous the sighting that evening, at about 7 o’clock, of three ships in Lough Foyle approaching Culmore. Walker wrote that this sighting was made ‘in the midst of our extremity’ while Ash described the day as one ‘to be remembered with thanksgiving by the besieged as long as they live’. Ash and Mackenzie date this day of thanksgiving as 28 July, whereas Walker places it two days later on the 30th. And while Walker and Mackenzie number the ships at three, Ash observed four vessels that ‘came swiftly to Culmore without harm’. One other source, the account by Joshua Gillespie, names the fourth ship as being the cutter Jerusalem; this vessel was about the same size as the Phoenix.
Irrespective of the date, or of the exact number of ships, relief now appeared close at hand. HMS Dartmouth, Captain Leake’s frigate, was escorting three merchant vessels, the Mountjoy of Derry, under Captain Michael Browning, a Derryman, the Phoenix of Coleraine, whose master was Captain Andrew Douglas, also of Coleraine but a Scot by birth, and the cutter Jerusalem, commanded by Captain Pepwell. We have seen how Richards observed three ships in Lough Swilly being loaded with provisions and setting sail for Lough Foyle on 20 July: these are the same vessels on the final leg of their journey. According to Richards, Kirke accompanied the little convoy in HMS Swallow, which does not feature in the accounts from Ash, Mackenzie or Walker, suggesting that Swallow left the others at some point and that only HMS Dartmouth, the cutter and the two merchant ships made the run up Lough Foyle as far as Culmore. It seems that Swallow drew too much draught to allow the ship to sail up to the city; although the water was quite deep at Culmore where the river enters the lough it became shallower on the approach to the city. With Major-General Percy Kirke on board, Swallow anchored in the lough where she dropped her longboat which was to play a significant part in the breaking of the boom; from the ship’s maintop, Kirke was able to watch what was happening, although he was too far away to see in detail the events at the boom.
The choice of the Mountjoy and Phoenix seems to have been deliberate on Kirke’s part since it permitted two local vessels to play the central role in the concluding act of the drama at Derry. According to Mackenzie, Browning had volunteered to make the run for the city before, while both Ash and Mackenzie agree that Kirke chose him to lead the relief because he was a Derryman. Ash wrote that Browning ‘had that honour conferred upon him by Major-General Kirke, to be the man who should bring relief to Derry.’ Honour it may have been, but it also placed Browning at great risk and he was to pay, with his life, the full price for accepting that risk. Of course, there might have been a more pragmatic reason for Kirke’s choice of Browning and Douglas: their familiarity with the waters of the Foyle. As a native of the city, Browning would have known the Foyle better than any of the other captains, and Douglas of Coleraine must also have been very familiar with its waters. One eminent naval historian has commented that ‘to Captain Browning the soundings and tidal sets in the River all the way to Londonderry would be thoroughly familiar and Mountjoy as it were, knew her own way home!’ Whatever the circumstances, Kirke had now heeded the appeal from the city for immediate help; to its inhabitants the appearance of the relief vessels seemed to be a miracle.
As the ships approached Culmore Fort, HMS Dartmouth hove to, ‘drew in her sails and cast anchor’.6 An artillery combat between the ships and the gunners in Culmore Fort then began as Dartmouth’s role was to attempt to draw the fire of the fort from the two merchant ships while trying to suppress that fire with her own guns; Leake’s frigate, a fifth-rater, carried twenty-eight guns, about half of which could be brought to bear on Culmore. Rather than firing broadsides the frigate would have ripple-fired her guns at the fort, increasing the pressure on the latter’s gunners by maintaining a constant fire which would not have been possible with broadsides. Leake had also placed his ship between the fort and the channel that the merchant ships would use. The latter were not helpless since they also carried cannon (Douglas of the Phoenix had earlier in the year been issued with letters of marque as a privateer by the Scottish government) and each had forty soldiers on board. Now, as Leake’s ship hammered at the fort, Browning, Douglas and Pepwell prepared to take their ships through the narrow channel at Culmore and upriver towards the boom. Leake’s orders were that Mountjoy would sail with Dartmouth, Phoenix would not weigh anchor until Dartmouth was engaged with the fort and Jerusalem would await a signal from Leake that one of the other ships had passed the boom before weighing anchor. It was a well-conceived plan but one still fraught with danger for all the ships.
In a subsequent despatch to London, Kirke noted that
Captain Leake, commander of the Dartmouth, behaved himself very bravely and prudently in this action, neither firing great or small shot (though he was plied very hard with both) till he came on the wind of the Castle, and there began to batter that the victuallers might pass under the shelter of his guns; then lay between the Castle and them within musket-shot and came to an anchor.
Covered at Culmore by the guns of Leake’s warship, Mountjoy led the way and Browning sailed his ship into the boom in the hope that the force of the vessel striking it would break the structure, thereby clearing the way for the other vessels. But he was unsuccessful. His ship struck the boom, rebounded and ran aground on the east bank. Mackenzie’s interpretation of events is slightly different, with the wind dying as the Mountjoy reached the boom, the ship failing to strike it in the ‘dead calm succeeding’ and then running aground. From this version it would seem that it was the tide that pushed Browning’s ship aground; other sources indicate that Mackenzie was correct. Whatever the circumstances of the grounding, the result was the same: Mountjoy was at the mercy of the Jacobites. And it was then that the ship’s redoubtable captain perished. Within sight of his home town, and with his mission almost accomplished, Browning was struck in the head by a musket ball and fell dead on Mountjoy’s deck. William R Young, who, in 1932, produced a gazetteer of the principal characters of the siege, wrote this highly imaginative paean on the breaking of the boom:
Nothing perhaps in the story of the siege is more thrilling than the rush of the Mountjoy on the terrible Boom. We can picture the captain, sword in hand, standing on by the wheel and commanding operations until killed by the fatal shot.
It may be noted that Ash wrote that Browning ‘stood upon the deck with his sword drawn, encouraging his men with great cheerfulness’ and this is, presumably, Young’s source.
With loud cheers large numbers of Jacobite soldiers raced towards the water’s edge where some prepared to take to boats from which they might board the stricken Mountjoy. Farther along the river, closer to the city, other Jacobites took up the exuberant cheering of their comrades and called to the garrison that their ships had been taken.
We perceived them both firing their guns at them, and preparing boats to board them, [and] this struck such a sudden terror into our hearts, as appeared in the very blackness of our countenances. Our spirits sunk, and our hopes were expiring.
But once again circumstances conspired against the Jacobites. The Mountjoy discharged a broadside, obviously from the port side, and this, with the rising tide, freed the ship from the grip of the mud to set her afloat again. According to Ash, it was the inrushing tide that floated the Mountjoy. All the while, both HMS Dartmouth and the Phoenix had been firing at the Jacobites. Restored to her natural element, Browning’s ship began to engage the Jacobite batteries and steered once more for the boom. This was to be the crucial test of de Pointis’ creation. It will be remembered that the French engineer’s first effort had been an abject failure, sinking below the water due to the weight of the oak used in its construction. The boom that now stretched across the Foyle was constructed of fir beams held together with metal clamps, chains and rope and with both ends anchored firmly on dry land.
Walker believed that the Mountjoy had broken the boom when first it struck and this version is also included in Gillespie’s narrative, but the boom was actually broken by sailors in HMS Swallow’s longboat.16 These men do not feature in any of the indigenous siege narratives, and it appears that, if the writers of those narratives were told the detail of the breaking of the boom, they decided not to tell the full story. The longboat had been lowered from Swallow to accompany the ships that would make the run upriver and it was the ten-man crew of that boat who finally broke the boom. Since their part in this episode is so important, it is pleasant to record that the names of these seamen have been preserved in Admiralty records. Boatswain’s Mate John Shelley commanded the longboat and his crew were Robert Kells, Jeremy Vincent, James Jamieson, Jonathan Young, Alexander Hunter, Henry Breman,4 William Welcome, Jonathan Field and Miles Tonge. And it was Shelley who used the axe, leaping on to the boom to do so and receiving a splinter wound in the thigh in the process. This involvement of the longboat crew is supported by a Jacobite report that indicates that both the Mountjoy and Phoenix were towed by longboats.
The principal Jacobite account of events suggested that it was actually HMS Dartmouth that made the run upriver:
The ship then aforesaid [Dartmouth] took the opportunity on this day of the tide and a fair gale of wind, and so came up to the fort of Culmore, and at all hazards ventured to sail by. The fort made some shots at her, but to no purpose. She, being got clear of that fort, arrived before the next battery, which fired also at her, but the ball flew too high. She came to the last battery; this did her no damage. She struck at the boom, which she forced presently, and so went cleverly up to the quay of Londonderry. What shouts of joy the town gave hereat you may easily imagine.
It should be remembered that A Jacobite Narrative of the War in Ireland was written some years after the siege and the author’s information came from other individuals. Thus it is not so surprising that he believed Dartmouth to have been the vessel that ran the gauntlet of the Jacobite batteries along the Foyle, broke the boom and took relief to the beleaguered city.
Richards also includes an account of how the boom was broken which was delivered to the camp at Inch on 30 July by ‘several people . . . from the Irish camp’ who had seen the ships pass up the Foyle ‘with provisions to Derry quay on Sunday night last past’. These witnesses had seen the man of war lie within Culmore and batter ‘all the upper part of the wall down, so that there is now no shelter for men’. But they differed in telling how the ships got up to the city. Two versions of the breaking of the boom were offered, one of which told of Shelley and his fellow seamen in the longboat. This was, however, an exaggerated version which included a ‘boat with a house on it’ that came to the boom where it stopped ‘and of a sudden a man (a witch they say) struck three strokes with a hatchet upon the Boom, and cut [it] asunder, and so passed on’ with the ships following. The ‘house’ might have been a form of protection against musket fire, as Kirke indicated by describing the longboat as being ‘well barricado’d’. The second version held that the two ships made the run together and struck the boom simultaneously, breaking it so that both were then able to pass on to the city. Kirke’s despatch to London noted that it was the weight of the Mountjoy that broke the boom after Shelley had wielded his axe. That report also contains the information that there were about four Jacobite guns at the boom ‘and 2,000 small shot upon the river’; it also notes that five or six Williamite soldiers were killed, that Lieutenant Leys of Sir John Hanmer’s Regiment was wounded and that Shelley was also injured.
The passage of over three centuries has obliterated the stories of most of the individuals involved in the siege and associated operations and this has been the case especially with those who did not hold commissioned rank. Even the small boy who did such sterling service carrying despatches is not named by any of the chroniclers, and we know only the surname of that unfortunate swimmer McGimpsey who volunteered to carry despatches from the city to Kirke. However, there are a few exceptions and these include the men who broke the boom, John Shelley and his shipmates who manned Swallow’s longboat. Not only did Captain Wolfranc Cornwall reward them with a guinea apiece, although Shelley received five guineas, but he also wrote to the Admiralty on 8 October recommending each of the men to whom further payments were made, bringing their awards to £10 each.
Pointis’ efforts had been in vain and suggest either that the boom had not been strong enough or that the metal used to hold the beams together had rusted to such an extent that at least one joint had broken when the Mountjoy hit. In spite of the first failed effort with the oaken boom, it seems most unlikely that de Pointis would have been guilty of creating a sub-standard defence since he was both an engineer and a naval officer who should have known exactly the pressure that was likely to be put on the boom. Against this, Louis’ representative, Comte d’Avaux, considered that the breaking of the boom proved how poor a job de Pointis had done: ‘the boom was so badly built that it could not resist the little boats that towed the two small vessels carrying the supplies’. He went on to say that the boom had ‘more than once’ already been damaged by the wind and the force of the tide. This further comment suggests that maintenance work on the boom had been inadequate, which was probably due to the fact that de Pointis was ill much of the time and unable to exercise the control he might otherwise have done. There is also the fact that Richard Hamilton did not regard the boom as being important which would have reduced the importance given to maintenance when de Pointis was not exercising regular supervision.
However, the boom had never been intended to be the sole counter against Williamite ships coming up the Foyle. It formed part of a defence system in which the artillery batteries along the river were also crucial. We have seen that the Williamite commentators wrote that the Jacobite artillery poured a heavy fire into the relief squadron but the principal Jacobite account, from A Light to the Blind, takes a very different viewpoint.
But it is not so easy to understand how came this ship to pass scot-free by so many batteries, and yet in four or five weeks before, three vessels attempting the same fact were repulsed. The king’s soldiers answer that the gunners of the batteries, or some of them, were this morning, the thirty-first of July, drunk with brandy, which caused them to shoot at random. But still there remains a question, whether these officers became inebriated without any evil design, or whether they were made to drink of purpose to render them incapable to perform their duty that day; and whether the English money aboard the fleet in the pool was not working upon them for this effect during the time they lay there on the coast.
The writer of that narrative goes on to state that ‘these gunners lost Ireland through their neglect of duty’. His suggestion that the gunners – by which he really means the officers commanding the guns – had been bribed by the Williamites is implausible and more likely to be the result of paranoia than to be based on any real evidence. A similar accusation was made following the Jacobite defeat at Aughrim in 1691: that the Jacobite general Henry Luttrell had, literally, sold the pass to the Williamites. And there is, of course, a parallel with the accusations made about Lundy, Walker and other leading Williamite figures. Both sides in this war were eager to attribute success to the intervention of the Almighty but any failures or setbacks were seen as being the result of human perfidy. The writer was also unaware of the fact that the three vessels that he thought had been trying to sail upriver some weeks before had not been doing so but had been carrying out a reconnaissance.
With the remains of the boom floating useless in the water, the two merchant ships passed through. HMS Dartmouth remained on station at Culmore and the Jerusalem ‘came near the man of war, but no farther that night’. The cutter had been due to weigh anchor and enter the river on a signal from Leake’s ship but ‘the wind slackened, grew calm and changed about to the SW’. In fact, Dartmouth remained on station at Culmore until 8 o’clock next morning ‘by reason of the tide’ during which time she returned the Jacobite fire five or six shots for one. The ship also endured considerable musket fire from the Jacobites on either side of the river but her casualties were remarkably light with but a single soldier killed and another wounded, while the ship’s purser, Mr Lee, suffered a contusion. No serious damage was incurred.
As the other ships ‘made their way majestically to the City, to the inexpressible joy of the inhabitants, and to the utter disappointment of the enemy’, Phoenix took the lead and was first to dock at the city where Captain Douglas was received by Governor Mitchelburne who told him that ‘this will be a night of danger’. Both vessels berthed at about 10 o’clock ‘not saluted by the turbulent acclamations of the garrison, but with heartfelt and devout gratitude to him who is the unerring disposer of all events’. Young conjectures that
We can see the arrival of the Mountjoy and the Phoenix at Derry’s quay. We can almost hear the acclamations of the starving population, and we can sympathise with the captain’s weeping widow, who was meeting a dead husband.
In Ireland Preserved, Mitchelburne attributes the following words to ‘Evangelist’, or Walker:
Heaven has heard our prayers, the sighs and groans and shrieks of the distressed have reached the heavens, and has delivered us from the implacable, wicked and designing malice of our merciless enemies.
Of the contemporary accounts, only that from Richards mentions that the merchant ships were towed in by longboats. He claims that these were manned by local people, who came out when the ships were close to Pennyburn, but where the boats came from he does not explain; apart from the locally-built boat and the Jacobite boat captured at Dunalong, there were supposedly no boats in the city. Significantly, none of the local accounts include any mentions of these boats, suggesting that Richards, still on Inch, might have been misinformed. As the ships tied up at the quay the guns in the cathedral tower were fired to let the fleet know that the relief vessels had reached the city safely.