Was Proust the first or merely the best to describe the extraordinary moment when a completely forgotten incident in your life rises fully formed in your memory? In my most recent incident, it was a phone call at work about a piece of Victorian furniture what did it. The chair, it was claimed, had been made from timbers from the Royal George – and I was transported back to my primary school, close to the walls of Portsmouth dockyard.
We majored in Nelson, inevitably – and in fact I lived at the time in a newly constructed terrace off the High Street, built on the foundations of the Blitz-destroyed George Hotel, where Nelson had eaten his breakfast before embarking for the final time aboard H.M.S. Victory. (It was many years before I realised that not all garden soil is scattered with broken clay pipes, willow pattern pottery and the marble-like stoppers of ginger-beer bottles.)
Trafalgar Day was a serious event, and on one occasion we actually commemorated it on board the Victory – the local paper had a picture of four of us from my class solemnly looking at the wreath placed on the plaque on the deck which marks the spot where Nelson fell, as the then commander of the ship told us the story.
And visiting the lower decks of the Victory, dark and claustrophobic even with the gun ports open, provided a useful context for one of the other big Portsmouth stories of naval death and disaster – though in this case a totally inglorious and completely avoidable tragedy, famously memorialised by William Cowper soon after the event in 1782:
Toll for the brave — / The brave! that are no more: / All sunk beneath the wave, / Fast by their native shore. / Eight hundred of the brave, / Whose courage well was tried, / Had made the vessel heel / And laid her on her side; / A land-breeze shook the shrouds, / And she was overset; / Down went the Royal George, / With all her crew complete.
You can read the whole poem here.
His account is not completely accurate, but the feeling of dismay and grief Cowper expressed was echoed around the country. The Royal George was an elderly ship, commissioned (as the Royal Anne) in 1746, built in Woolwich dockyard and launched on 18 February 1756, at which time she was the largest warship in the world, with 100 guns and weighing more than 2,000 tons.
She had a distinguished career during the Seven Years’ War, most notably at the decisive battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759, where she was the flagship of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke.
This was the battle that gave rise to David Garrick’s song, ‘Heart of Oak’, with music by William Boyce, referring to the Annus mirabilis or ‘wonderful year’ of 1759, with its series of victories by land and sea. (The song was first performed in Garrick’s pantomime, Harlequin’s Invasion, on New Year’s Eve 1759, by Handel’s baritone Samuel Champnes, but became hugely popular and acquired several updated versions of the original words.)
After the end of the war, from 1765 to 1768, the Royal George was in Plymouth dockyard, undergoing repairs. At the outbreak of the American War of Independence, she was fitted out at Portsmouth, and saw service in the Channel, and in 1780 took part in the (first and less famous) battle of Cape St Vincent, fought by moonlight, and resulting in a British victory over Spain which enabled besieged Gibraltar to be re-provisioned.
In 1780, the Royal George was copper-bottomed (the ultimate performance-improver of the day, as it stopped timbers rotting, and prevented the attachment of barnacles, limpets, etc.). On 29 August 1782, she was being victualled and watered at anchor at Spithead before sailing with Admiral Howe’s fleet, again to assist Gibraltar. Most of the crew were on board (in an attempt to prevent desertions); there were also workmen from the port carrying out last-minute repairs, merchants and tradesmen, and up to three hundred women and sixty children, either visiting their husbands and fathers, sight-seeing, or plying their trade as ‘ladies of the town’.
Work on the hull required the ship to be heeled over, by moving the starboard guns towards the centre of the deck. At the same time, extra weight had been added to the port side by a delivery of barrels of rum. The ship’s carpenter, Thomas Williams, noticed that the list to port was going too far, and asked an officer, one Lieutenant Morris Hollingbury (there is confusion in the accounts as to whether he was the officer of the watch), to order the signal (by drum) to move the ship’s company to starboard, to correct the list. He refused – twice – and when the captain, Martin Waghorn, became aware of the danger and gave the order for the guns to be moved back, it was too late.
The point of no return had been reached: water rushed in through the port gunports, air burst out of the starboard ones, and the ship keeled right over, held only for a short time when the masts came to rest on the sloop, the Lark, offloading the rum barrels, which was soon overwhelmed and most of whose crew also died. Of the 1,400 or so people on board, 255 were saved, including eleven women and one child, who apparently was thrown into the water but survived by grabbing hold of a sheep from the live supplies on board and which could swim. (His parents had died in the disaster, and he was adopted by the master of the wherry which plucked him from the water.)
Waghorn and Hollingbury both survived; the carpenter was rescued but died without regaining consciousness. The most senior officer lost was Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, whose flagship the Royal George was: he was writing in his cabin, and the water pressure sealed the door …
The prevailing tide washed many of the bodies over to the Isle of Wight, where they came ashore on the beach at Ryde, and were buried in a mass grave now covered by the esplanade. Other corpses were retrieved from the sea – not without unpleasant rumours about their being stripped of watches, jewellery and shoe buckles – and taken to Portsmouth, where they were buried at St Mary’s church, Kingston (now on Fratton Road).
Extraordinarily, the subsequent court martial of Waghorn, in September, exonerated all the crew: the loss was blamed on the ‘general state of decay of her timbers’ and the court concluded that the heeling led to part of the ship’s frame giving way. This apparent whitewashing was controversial at the time, and reading the later accounts of survivors, it seems remarkable that the negligence of Hollingbury was overlooked.
This 1842 account not only describes the tragic events of the day but also narrates the various subsequent attempts to raise or salvage the vessel, which was lying on the bottom with its masts intact and became a serious danger to shipping.
The first intrepid effort was made in 1782 by Charles Spalding (1738–83), an Edinburgh sugar-refiner and confectioner with an interest in mechanical enginering. He improved on the original concept of the diving bell designed by Edmond Halley (of Comet fame), and with his brother Thomas raised from the wreck nine brass and six iron 12-pounder guns. (Charles Spalding died the following year while diving to a wreck in Dublin Bay.) However, in the mean time, the Admiralty had given a contract to William Tracey, a local man, who had a daring plan to raise the ship by surrounding her with boats, slinging cables round her and tautening them from the other boats.
There is a very detailed account in the book of Tracey’s efforts and frustrations – the Navy would provide only old and partially rotten ships, and the weather in the summer of 1783 was terrible – and in 1785 he published a defence of his efforts: A candid and accurate narrative of the operations used in endeavouring to raise His Majesty’s ship Royal George: in the year 1783; With an Account of the Causes and Reasons which prevented the Success; and also, Copies of the Affidavits, Vouchers, Letters, Documents, and other Correspondence, relative to that unfortunate Transaction. He lost over £4,000 in the attempt, and by 1842 his only child, the widowed Mrs Scoffield, was ‘suffering in partial penury’ in Portsea as a result.
The wreck was surveyed by means of a diving bell in 1817 by Mr Ancell of the Dockyard, but the next salvage effort was not until 1834, when the Deane brothers, Charles Anthony (1796–1848) and John (1800–84) using Charles’ newly invented diving helmet and suit, recovered twenty-eight cannon.
Incidentally, in 1836, John Deane, asked by local fishermen to investigate another wreck nearby on which their nets kept snagging, discovered the Mary Rose, and retrieved a cannon-ball, a longbow and other items.
All efforts at raising the wreck having failed (‘this immense frame had laid ingulphed … the scorn and the ridicule of the scientific, both British and foreign’), Colonel Charles Pasley (1780–1861), soldier and engineer, came on the scene with the proposal to destroy the wreck with controlled explosions – the mass having been broken up, the remaining ordnance could be salvaged, and this would cover the cost of the process. (He had previously used this technique successfully at the mouth of the Thames.) He began in 1839, and the wreck was declared clear in 1843 (by which time the colonel had become a major-general).
The controlled explosions (first ignited by chemical and later by electrical (‘voltaic’) means) were not completely controlled – the 1840 one, for example, shattered windows in Portsmouth and Gosport – but they did the job. They also provided enormous columns of water to entertain spectators watching from the shore.
Pasley’s divers (he was the first to insist that they went down in pairs, the origin of the ‘buddy’ system) succeeded in recovering thirty more guns, and large numbers of personal items, such as surgical instruments, ‘two large copper fish kettles, … some shoe buckles, part of a German flute …’.
‘A relic of no ordinary interest’, according to the book, was this:
The types formed a stamp used by Lieutenant Philip Durham of the Royal George (a survivor of the disaster) to mark his personal possessions – linen, books, etc. – and was sent to him (by now Admiral Sir Philip Durham, G.C.B., recently Commander-in-Chief at Portsmouth) ‘at his seat, at Polton, Lasswade, Scotland’. Durham confirmed that the stamp was indeed his and was delighted to have it back.
Very many souvenirs were made from the exploded timbers of the wreck – including the boards in which the 2,000 copies of the 1842 book were bound,
a billiard table at Burghley House, a coffin for the menagerie proprietor George Wombwell, a box and a walking stick owned by William Wordsworth, and (which is where we came in), a chair allegedly owned by Queen Victoria.
The relic of the wreck most invisible in plain sight is the top of the Corinthian column which supports the statue of Nelson in Trafalgar Square; the acanthus leaves were cast at Woolwich from Royal George cannon. (Which of course is also where we came in …)