The Royal George Disaster

The “Royal George” at Deptford Showing the Launch of “The Cambridge”.

After three years of relentless siege, everyone on Gibraltar was starving, war-weary and desperate for the relief convoy to arrive, not realising that it was yet to set sail on the 1500-mile journey. The convoy was still at Spithead, between the Isle of Wight and Portsmouth, though with the newspapers in England full of stories about an imminent assault on the Rock, fears were growing that it was already too late to save Gibraltar. Even so, urgent preparations were being carried out on board a multitude of vessels, including the Royal Navy’s greatest wooden warship, HMS Royal George – a formidable three-decker with more than 100 cannons and a crew of around 850 seamen, officers and marines.

On board this particular warship, the final consignment of stores needed to be loaded, as well as some last-minute repairs done, but being a fine morning, the vessel would soon be ready to sail. In nearby Southsea, a woman glanced out towards the Royal George, taking in the idyllic scene, before starting on a letter to a distant relative. ‘The day is calm and pleasant,’ she wrote, ‘and as I sit at the open window, the great vessel in the offing, betwixt me and the Fair Island [Isle of Wight] seems to sway not a hand-breadth, nor to flutter a single pennant.’ Her shock as she looked out to sea once more was betrayed by the shaky handwriting:

A dreadful thing has happened. When I had written that beginning of my letter, Dorothy, I looked again southward; the sea was waveless as before, and the Fair Island sparkled in the sun, but betwixt us and it I saw no trace of the great three-decker. I thought my brain had gone wrong, and rang the bell for Agnes; but when she too could see nothing of her, a terrible apprehension took hold of me; and when the alarm-guns from the fort [Southsea Castle] began to thunder, I knew the vessel had gone down. I hear near a thousand men were aboard of her.

In the time taken to write a few sentences with a quill pen, the Royal George had sunk so rapidly that hundreds of people were trapped and drowned. Men in nearby ships were equally stunned. One eyewitness related that they all rushed on deck: ‘What an altered scene in a few short moments! … She was not in the spot she so lately occupied – no vestige of her was to be seen; but as soon as the commotion of the water was stilled (for some minutes it was very great), all the boats … put off for the spot, which seemed as though a hive of bees had been cast on the waves, so thick with boats and human beings struggling for life … Long, long, will the 29th of August, 1782, be remembered!’

One of the few lucky survivors was the seaman James Ingram, who had been on the upper deck heaving massive wooden barrels of rum on to the deck as they were hauled up in a sling. ‘The last lighter [the Lark sloop], with rum on board had come alongside,’ he later wrote,

this vessel was a sloop of about fifty tons, and belonged to three brothers, who used her to carry things on board the men-of-war. She was lashed to the larboard [port] side of the Royal George, and we were piped to clear the lighter and get the rum out of her, and stow it in the hold of the Royal George. I was in the waist of our ship [middle part of the upper deck], on the larboard side, bearing the rum-casks [barrels] over, as some men of the Royal George were aboard the sloop to sling them.

Although the warship had been tilted to one side to carry out a repair just below the waterline, the angle was so slight that those on board took little notice, and from nearby ships everything looked normal. With barely a breath of wind and a flat calm on the sea, conditions for repairs and loading supplies were ideal, but suddenly Ingram heard an urgent order to bring the ship upright: ‘I ran down to my station, and, by the time I had got there, the men were tumbling down the hatchways one over another to get to their stations as quick as possible to right [the] ship. My station was at the third gun from the head of the ship on the starboard side of the lower gun-deck.’ Before anything could be done, the warship began to tip over sideways, and Ingram managed to escape by following his friend Ned Carrell through a gunport: ‘I immediately got out at the same port-hole, which was the third from the head of the ship on the starboard side of the lower gun-deck, and when I had done so, I saw the port-hole as full of heads as it could cram, all trying to get out.’ Even as he scrambled to safety, the ship was falling sideways, so that the gunports were now facing upwards, towards the sky:

I caught hold of the best bower-anchor, which was just above me, to prevent falling back into the port-hole, and seized hold of a woman who was trying to get out at that same port-hole – I dragged her out. The ship was full of Jews, women, and people selling all sorts of things. I threw the woman from me – and saw all the heads drop back again in at the port-hole, for the ship had got so much on her larboard side, that the starboard port-holes were as upright as if the men had tried to get out of the top of a chimney with nothing for their legs and feet to act upon.

He was just in time, because the huge vessel went straight to the bottom:

I threw the woman from me, and just after that moment the air that was between decks drafted out at the port-holes very swiftly. It was quite a huff of wind, and it blew my hat off, for I had all my clothes on, including my hat. The ship then sunk in a moment. I tried to swim, but I could not swim a morsel, although I plunged as hard as I could both hands and feet. The sinking of the ship drew me down so – indeed I think I must have gone down within a yard as low as the ship did. When the ship touched the bottom, the water boiled up a great deal, and then I felt that I could swim, and began to rise.

The vortex caused by the sinking of the ship sucked Ingram down almost to the seabed, but he managed to struggle to the surface and found that the masts of the Royal George had risen up above the water. ‘In going down,’ he explained, ‘the main yard of the Royal George caught the boom of the rum-lighter and sunk her, and there is no doubt that this made the Royal George more upright in the water when sunk than she otherwise would have been, as she did not lie much more on her beam ends than small vessels often do when left dry on a bank of mud.’ These masts proved a blessing for the survivors, and Ingram swam to the main mast where he tried to save the woman he had previously rescued. He called to another seaman, a baker, who managed to grab her unconscious body as she floated past: ‘He caught hold of the woman and hung her head over one of the ratlins of the mizen shrouds, and there she hung by her chin, which was hitched over the ratlin, but a surf came and knocked her backwards, and away she went rolling over and over.’

On shore a mile-and-a-half away, thirty-year-old Richard Dennison Cumberland, vicar of Driffield in Gloucestershire, was strolling to Southsea Castle with his cousin John Balchen. The pair had come to Portsmouth to see the Grand Fleet before it sailed, and the previous afternoon they had taken advantage of the custom of respectable sightseers being permitted to visit warships, as Cumberland described in a letter to his brother George in London: ‘[we] took a wherry and went aboard the Royal George at Spithead – as being one of the finest ships in the fleet. We met with the most civil behaviour from the officers, who shewed us every part worth seeing … We took notice of the number of women on board and they assured us there were above 400 and near double the number of men.’

Once they reached Southsea, the two men found everyone peering out to sea: ‘They told us, a large ship had just foundered, and shewed us the mizen and main masts lying sloping out of the water and a crowd of boats busy about them. With the help of a glass I distinguished a blue flag at the mizen mast, yet we flattered ourselves it was only a transport.’ While walking back to Portsmouth, they heard the dreadful news that this was in fact the Royal George, and the blue pennant indicated that it was the flagship of the sixty-four-year-old Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt. An extremely experienced seaman and brilliant tactician, Kempenfelt had radically changed the system of naval signalling and was one of the most highly regarded officers of the Royal Navy. ‘You cannot think how much we were affected,’ Cumberland wrote. ‘It was the identical ship in which we had begun to take an interest. The genteel treatment we had met with the preceding evening, the more than possibility of our having delayed our visit till this morning or perhaps renewed it and the recollection of every face we had seen on board, struck us at once.’

Attempts were already being made to rescue survivors, though Ingram, still clinging to the main mast, was more concerned about the woman who was being washed away:

A captain of a frigate which was lying at Spithead came up in a boat as fast as he could. I dashed out my left hand in a direction towards the woman as a sign to him. He saw it, and saw the woman. His men left off rowing, and they pulled the woman aboard their boat and laid her on one of the thwarts. The captain of the frigate called out to me, ‘My man, I must take care of those that are in more danger than you.’ I said ‘I am safely moored now, sir.’

Before too long, it was Ingram’s turn to be taken off: ‘The captain of the frigate then got all the men that were in the different parts of the rigging, including myself and the baker, into his boat and took us on board the Victory, where the doctors recovered the woman, but she was very ill for three or four days.’ In order to resuscitate victims, it was the practice to rub their bodies and warm them up, though not always with success: ‘I saw the body of the carpenter, lying on the hearth before the galley fire; some women were trying to recover him, but he was quite dead.’ The woman who survived was twenty-six-year-old Elizabeth (‘Betty’) Horn, and she owed her life to Ingram. Betty was one of a handful of wives who had been due to sail in the Royal George, some of them with their children. She was married to the seaman John Horn, who also survived.

Bodies were now being brought ashore at Portsmouth Point, and Cumberland and his cousin did what they could to help:

We walked to the Point and came up just as they had brought one of the poor fellows on shore and were rolling him over a barrel [to get water from his lungs] in his wet cloaths and in the rain. We thrust ourselves among the mob and made them carry him to the next tavern, assisted in pulling off his cloaths, procured warm blankets and pursued the methods recommended by the Society [for the Recovery of Persons Apparently Drowned] but they were applied too late. Finding him in good hands and hearing other bodies were brought ashore, we went out and found a woman in the same condition on the shore and no one attempting to do any thing to save her.

They now separated, with Cumberland later admitting that ‘after the greatest exertion I ever made for two hours I had the mortification of only leaving the bodies in a more decent situation than I found them. After making the people amends for their trouble I returned to our inn, and found Balchen there as much fatigued as myself.’

The number of survivors and dead brought on shore in the first few hours was relatively small, because the Royal George had sunk so rapidly that the majority of those on board were trapped. The warship had been badly overcrowded with crew members, prostitutes, wives of seamen, children, craftsmen from the dockyard, tourists and many traders – well in excess of a thousand people. In the wars of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the Royal Navy was constantly short of seamen and resorted to conscription by press-gangs. Once in a ship, the unwilling men might be at sea for months on end, with no shore leave in case they deserted. Warships anchored well away from land, as at Spithead, to prevent the men from swimming to freedom, and all supplies and visitors were instead taken out by boat to the ship. Traders in small boats, many of them Jewish, were also permitted to bring all manner of goods to sell, including so-called wives – prostitutes.

Warships effectively became floating brothels when moored at Spithead. Hundreds of prostitutes, at times outnumbering the men, remained for several days, selling sex and liquor, drinking, swearing and joining in the general raucous revelry. Francis Vernon, a young Irish midshipman who had taken part in an earlier relief convoy of Gibraltar, described what happened when his ship, HMS Terrible, was at Portsmouth:

Our ship’s company could now revel in the delights of Portsmouth, and filled the ship with hundreds of those obliging females, who desert the capital during the war, and reside in the genteel recesses of Portsmouth, and other naval towns. The back of the point at Portsmouth has been famous [for] some centuries, and the appearance of its inhabitants serves as a barometer, whereby our success against the enemy can in some degree be ascertained, for captures produce money, and this circulating, passes from the seaman to his lass, who being lavish in expence, gives room by the flash of her appearance and dress, to point out the strength of Jack’s purse.

Exactly how many people were on board the Royal George that day will never be known, as Ingram explained: ‘The number of persons who lost their lives I cannot state with any degree of accuracy, because of there being many Jews, women, and other persons on board who did not belong to the ship. The complement of the ship was nominally 1000 men, but it was not full. Some were ashore, and sixty marines had gone ashore that morning.’ Although Cumberland had been told the previous day that more than four hundred women were present, the real number may have been greater, most of whom would have been prostitutes from Portsmouth and Gosport. While relatively good records of the officers and sailors were kept, there was no record of the prostitutes and other civilians, and it was left to the newspapers to speculate:

There was also a body of carpenters from the Dock, to assist in careening the ship; and, as usual on board all ships of war in harbour, a very large number of women, probably near 400. Of these the bulk were the lowest order of prostitutes, but not a few were the wives of the warrant and petty officers. A most poignant scene of anguish and distress was exhibited by a respectable looking old woman, whose daughter and five children had gone on board the same morning to see their father.

At Portsmouth, attempts at resuscitation changed rapidly to dealing with the corpses that were being washed ashore or picked up in boats. Cumberland was struck by the reaction of the Portsmouth Point prostitutes:

I cannot help mentioning a circumstance that has since made us smile. It was the false delicacy of the Point Ladies at the publick houses we were in who could not be persuaded to strip and rub the bodies till a clean shift had been procured and then their lamentations over them were curious indeed. One of the poor creatures left two children at Gosport, the other lost one from her arms. Very few of the women were saved, being below decks – many of them sailors wives who kept a little market on board.

After all hope of survivors had faded, preparing the fleet to relieve Gibraltar was once more the priority, though corpses continued to emerge from the wreck, as Ingram described: ‘In a few days after the Royal George sunk, bodies would come up, thirty or forty nearly at a time. A body would rise, and come up so suddenly as to frighten any one.’ Another seaman, Samuel Kelly, arrived at Spithead some days later on board the packet boat Grenville and moored nearby:

the dead bodies belonging to the Royal George floated and passed our ship both with ebb and flood tide … the rigging of the Royal George was decorated, not with colours, but with dead bodies, who were hung up by arms, legs etc., which presented a horrid spectacle. These men had floated at high water, and to prevent the tide carrying them away, had been tied fast to the shrouds and mainstay, and at low water … they were suspended several feet above the water. Some people searched the pockets of the dead while [they] floated on the tide. ’Tis more than probable that as this crew had just been paid their wages, that they had been the day before rioting in drunkenness and debauchery.

Once the corpses were stripped of their possessions, they had little chance of being identified. Because no authority had responsibility for burying bodies washed ashore, they were dealt with in a haphazard way, in spite of protests voiced in the newspapers. At least nine hundred people had drowned in a matter of minutes. Only a few women, a couple of children and around two hundred seamen and officers were saved. A fund was set up at Lloyd’s Coffee House in London to help the widows and orphans of the seamen who lost their lives. This was the start of the Lloyd’s Patriotic Fund that has, over the centuries, provided assistance to the families of sailors and continues to help former service personnel and their dependants. With predictable parsimony, some of the money was subverted to deal with the corpses that continued to break free from the wreck: ‘The bodies that have been found were heretofore carried in carts to be buried, but the Committee have now directed that those which may be found shall be conveyed in hearses, and decently interred, the expense to be paid out of the subscription money.’ No support was given to the families of the prostitutes and other civilians.

The sudden, shocking loss of such a formidable battleship in a flat calm and at a safe anchorage, within sight of land, was an incomprehensible tragedy that affected everyone – not just in Portsmouth, but throughout the country and across Europe. The Royal George was a prestigious warship, one of only three that were constructed specifically to carry a hundred guns and destined to be flagships. The others were the Victory and the Britannia, both of which were also at Spithead ready to escort the convoy. The Royal George was named after George II, the grandfather of the present King George III, but many people regarded the warship as a symbol of the monarchy. Until eclipsed by the Titanic, the sinking of the Royal George remained the most famous shipping tragedy. For the Grand Fleet, which the king and his government hoped would break the blockade of Gibraltar, it felt like a disaster. The additional delay caused by the aftermath of the loss of the ship made it even more likely that the convoy would not be in time to save Gibraltar from falling to the French and Spaniards.