It was during the reign of George III that one of the most tragic maritime disasters happened at Spithead in the solent on the 29th August 1782, with the loss of about 900 lives, many from Portsmouth. The ‘Royal’ George was a ship of 108 guns being launched on 1st February 1756.

  • Length of keel for tonnage – 193ft. 5.5ins.
  • Length of gun deck – 178ft.
  • Extreme breadth – 51ft. 9.5ins.
  • Depth in the hold – 21ft. 6ins.
  • Burden in tones – 2046.
  • Cost in building – £54,664.

When launched she was deemed “The paragon of beauty and perfection in the science of marine architecture, her force nominally exceeded any other ship of the world’s navies”. Her masts were over 100 feet in height and there were three of them.  She had more flags on board of her than any other shop than in service. Lord Anson, Admiral Boscowen, Lord Hawke, Lord Rodney, Lord Howe, Sir John Lockart Ross were among the officers who had commanded her. Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt was her commander on that fatal day the 29th August 1782.  Her captain was Captain Waghorn and the Master was Richard Searle.

On the outbreak of the Seven years War with France in 1756 the “Royal George” took her place as the flagship of the Channel Fleet.  In 1759 at the Battle of Quiberon Bay off the south coast of Brittany she knocked out two enemy battleships with only two broadsides.  When the war came to an end the “Royal George” was laid up in Plymouth. In 1778 she sailed against the French, in support of Britain’s rebelling American colonists.  In 1780 she captured two Spanish battleships off Portugal. Then began an overhaul for two years, which brought her up to scratch among the front line of Britain’s navy.  She was declared fit for service in March 1782 and in August of that year she sailed from Plymouth to join a Grand Fleet which had been assembled in the solent, under Lord Howe for the relief of Gibraltar which was under siege by the French and Spanish.

What a sight it must have been, there were over 50 ‘men of War’ and between two and three hundred merchant ships loading their final stories.  There were 36 battleships including 6 three-deck monsters of which the largest were the “Victory” and the “Royal George”. Before sailing Captain Waghorn ordered that a minor repair be done to a pipe just below the waterline.  The pipe was on the starboard side, which let salt water into a cistern before being pumped up again for washing the decks, the seacock needed either repairing or replacing. To do this Captain Waghorn decided to heel or lean the ship over until the pip was clear of the sea by running out the larboard or port guns and running in the starboard guns.  A method which the Master Attendant of Portsmouth Dockyard William Nichelson did not approve of while it was being loaded with 548 tonnes of stores and 83 tons of ammunition.

Never-the-less at 7am on the 29th August 1782, the 820 strong crew began to push the cannons which weighed over 2 tons into position, until the 8 degree list was obtained.  All might have been well except for two decisions:

  1. This was the day that about 360 were to be ferried by ‘bumboats’ to the “Royal George” to say their farewells to their loved ones or for others to ply their trade – tinkers, hawkers and prostitutes. Shore leave for the crew was out of the question.  To obtain enough men to man the ships of the Royal Navy, Pressgangs seized able bodied men from the streets and taverns of the town, they probably formed half of the ship’s crew, so had shore leave been allowed it would have been unlikely many of those would have reported back. Any way there was a fleetwide ban on shore leave.
  2. The 50 cutter “Lark” was still allowed to unload barrels of rum on the portside through the gunports, although they were less than one foot (30.5cm) from the sea with a floodtide making it quite choppy. No one seemed to be in charge of operations below decks. The Master had gone to visit his wife, who lived in Marlborough Row, Portsea, the Boatswain and the Gunner were also in Portsmouth despite the ban on shore leave.  The upper gundeck was crowded with wives and children, tinkers, hawkers and prostitutes.

The officers were chatting on the quarter deck the ship being “out of discipline” on such occasions.  The barrels of rum were being unloaded and rolled up the sloping deck until they decided to just stack them as the barrels came aboard, which added more weight on that side causing the sea to come in.  The Carpenter realising the danger hurried to the quarter deck to tell the officers and to “rightship”. Unfortunately he did not know that Lt. Durham was the Duty Officer and went instead to the short tempered Lt. Hollingsbury who gave him a short answer and sent him below, but he came up a second time and we rebuked again.  

The Master, who was returning to the ship, saw the danger and urged his boatmen to make all speed.  Captain Waghorn ordered the drummer to beat quarters, but the men had already hastened to their quarters to replace the guns, tumbling down hatchways in their efforts to reach the guns, which 18 men could not move because of the steep sloping deck.  The sea began to pour in the gun ports and people tried to escape through them, jamming one and another, but as the ship laid down they all dropped back into the ship. Then came a violent rush of air through the ports, the ship sank, righting itself as she went down.

Captain Waghorn had tried to warn Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt who was working in his cabin, but the cabin door had jammed.  

When the “Royal George” heeled over before she sank, Lt Durham was plunged into the sea from the quarter deck, having already thrown off his coat, he was soon washed away and left floating about amongst men and things from the ship.  Those not able to swim caught hold of those who could, resulting in them all being dragged down and drowned. LT Durham was twice dragged by a marine who clung to his waistcoat.

Despite pleading to the poor marine to let go, without success, he managed to unbutton his waistcoat and free himself from the unfortunate marine, who immediately disappeared.  Two weeks later his body was washed up with the waistcoat still wrapped around his arm. LT Durham clung to some rigging until a boat came to pick him up, but seeing Captain Waghorn was in danger, he directed the boat to rescue him instead.  He was later picked up by a boat which took him to the “Victory”, which was Lord Howe’s flagship, where he stayed and proceeded to sea three days later. Captain Waghorn survived but his son was drowned. Such was the speed at which the “Royal George” sank that most were trapped below decks.  About 70 were picked up by the boats from other ships among whom were four lieutenants and eleven women; of the 1200 people on board, including about 300 women and children, 900 were drowned. One of the sheep kept on board was seen swimming about with a small by clinging to its wool, he was rescued by a wherryman.  The child’s parents had both drowned, he only knew his name was Jack Lamb. the Master and the Carpenter both drowned along with Rear Admiral Kempenfelt but Lieut. Hollingsbury survived, as did most of those composing the watch upon deck.

A Court Martial was convened on board H.M.S. Warspite, 5 Admirals sat in judgement. They said that the bottom of the ship had fallen out through rot, blaming the disaster onto the dockyards authority, the Navy Board.  Funds for the repair of ships were often found lacking, which menant ships went to sea in a dangerous condition and it was not unusual for this to happen. But the “Royal George” had just had a two year overhaul and was the pride of the fleet.  Now her masts towered out of the sea, a reminder off disaster.

Bodies were washed up all around the solent , some were buried in Ryde near the shore.  35 bodies were interred in one grave at the south east corner of St. Mary’s churchyard, land that had been purchases from Samuel Leake on 5th November 1781 to enlarge the churchyard by 2 acres, these being the first to be interred in the new ground.  Almost everyone in Portsmouth had lost a relative, friend or acquaintance in the tragedy.

The first church of St.Mary, Portsea painted by H. Robins c.1800.
On display in the Sacristy of the church.

A headstone was erected at the grave of the 35 victims buried in the churchyard which read:

A testimony of
sympathy
for the unfortunates
who perished by the sinking
a spithead of the
H.M.S Royal George
August 29th 1782.

erected by one who
was a stranger both to officers
and the ships company

This headstone can now be seen under the tower of St.Mary’s church.  It was sent to a stonemasons in the 1970’s to have the wording re-cut, because of its condition, due to weathering.  Over the years it was forgotten about until it was found in a store belonging to the city museum. It was returned to St. Mary’s in 1991.  

At a vestry meeting of the Parish of Portsea held on 28th November 1782, it was agreed to erect a memorial to those who had lost their lives on the sinking of the “Royal George”.  It was made by James Hay in black and white marble, he was a local mason, whose hobby was local history and with whom Portsmouth’s first museum is associated.

The wording on the memorial by J.Hay:

Reader, with solemn thought.
survey this grave and reflect on the untimely death
Of thy fellow-mortals; and whilst.
As a man, a Briton, and a patriot, thou read’st
The melancholy narrative, drop a tear
For thy country’s loss.

On the twenty-ninth day of August 1782,
His Majesty’s Ship the “Royal George” being on
the heel at Spithead over set and sunk;
by which fatal accident
about 900 persons were instantly launched into
eternity amongst who was that brave and
experience officer Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt.

Nine days after many bodies of the unfortunate
floated; Thirty-four of whom were interred
in one grave, near this monument, which
is erected by the Parish of Portsea,
as a grateful tribute to the memory of
that great Commander and his fellow-sufferers.

“Tis not this stone, regretted chief, thyname,
Thy worth, thy merit, shall extend thy fame;
Brilliant achievements have thy name imprest
In lasting characters on Albion’s breast”.

“(Albion” being poetic name for Britain or England of Celtic origin).

At a vestry meeting on 22 April 1783 it was agreed that an iron railing be erected for the protection of the “Royal George” monument.

When the churchyard was made into a rest garden in 1935 the James Hay memorial was by then in a dilapidated state, too bad to renovate, so it was decided that a new memorial be made in the style of a Celtic cross on a base.  The old memorial to be buried under it. The Bishop of Portsmouth suggested that the following wording be inscribed on it:-

Front

“This stone is placed here in memory of
those who lost their lives in the “Royal
George” which sunk at Spithead on the
twenty ninth day of August 1782 with
a loss of about nine hundred lives.
The original Royal George Memorial
stone, owing to its dilapidated
condition, was removed from the
south-east corner when the churchyard
Was made into a rest garden in 1935.”

Back

“In memory of those who have lost
Their lives in nearby waters” Rev. chap.20. Verse 13  

Through vandalism all that remains today is the base, attempts have even been made to remove this!

In 1783 William Tracey attempted to raise the “Royal George” by slinging her.

He managed to shift her about 30 yards to the west before the weather stopped any further work continuing.  The Navy Board said the following spring that “no further assistance will be given to raise the “Royal George”.

In 1832 the Navy Board was abolished.  In 1832 John and Charles Deane, the inventors of the deep sea diving suit descended to the wreck and found her to be one huge indescribable mass of old decayed timber and material confusedly mixed and intermingled with mud, clay and soil.

Many of the guns were recovered and quantities of her stores.  In 1839 Colonel Pasley .R.E. commenced operations for the removal of the wreck by the use of divers and blasting operations.  On 11th May 1840 it was blown up, using 2400lbs of explosive. Immediately after the explosion the operation was suspended because of the mad scramble by small boats to reach the mass of dead fish which had been blown to the surface, as well as candles from the Purser’s store.  Relics from the “Royal George” are to be found in many places.

A 32 pounder gun was at the entrance to Pembroke Gardens, Portsmouth.  On 15th November 1836, James Deane raised a 32 pounder and the Board of Ordnance presented it ti General Durham of Largo, Lieutenant Durham’s elder brother, on January 1837.

Etal castle, Northumberland, has two guns near the entrance to the tower.

A binnacle of the ship is on the quarter deck of H.M.Y Britannia.

Timber from the ship was used in various ways – fences, book covers, boxes for snuff, ect.  The bell of the “Royal George” was hung in the cupola of the chapel in Portsmouth Dockyard. Some of the cable from the ship was given to St. Mary’s.  A gun from the “Royal George” can be seen at Southsea Castle.

There is a memorial to Admiral Richard Kempenfelt in St. Michael’s Chapel at Westminster Abbey.

The impact of the sinking of the “Royal George” upon the parishioners of the parish of Portsea was considerable, even a hundred years later when the present church was to be built, the Great West window was to be dedicated to the victims of the tragedy.  When W.H. Smith died suddenly just after the present church was completed, it was decided that this window be dedicated to his memory, he having given over £28.000 of the £44.000 it cost to build this church.

Of the survivors, Lt. Hollingsbury became a Captain and Lt. Philip Durham later became Rear Admiral Sir Philip Durham, Commander in Chief of Portsmouth 1836-1839.  He married Ann Henderso who inherited Eastney Farm and part of milton. In 1858-60 the Henderson – Durham’s sold 50 acres of their estate to the War Dept. and Eastney Barracks was built.  They also gave the land on which the 1st. Church of St. James was built.

On the anniversary of the tragedy a floral arrangement is placed by the tombstone under the tower and the victims are remembered in our prayers.

Rear Admiral Richard Kempenfelt.

One of the finest seamen of his day, he was drowned in the sinking of the “Royal George” and his body was never recovered.

He was born in London in 1715 of Swedish extraction, the Kempenfelt’s were a distinguished noble family in Sweden.  His father Magus was an officer in the Coldstream Guards and later the Queens Regiment, he died in 1727 when Lieutenant Governor of Jersey.  Richard Kempenfelt served some of his service as a Flag Captain. It was during the East Indies operations that he became aware of the Frenchman, La Bourdonnais, who wrote a treatise on flag signals, using this as a base he was able to craft a set of flag signals, after discussion with Lord Howe during the American War of Independence.  By July 1782 they were firmly in place and used by LordHowe in the relief of Gibraltar. Later Lord Nelson was able to use these signal reforms for the splendid victory at Trafalgar. Richard Kempenfelt served with Admiral Edward Vernon at the capture of Portobello in 1739. Admiral Vernons nickname was “Old Grog”, (referring to his Grogram Cloak).  When he introduced the issue of diluted rum to the Navy it was called “Grog”.

Richard Kempenfelt had an interest in the health of those on board ship.  There is a story of him sending a young Lt. Philip Durham with a basket of fruit to the then Captain John Jervis (later Lord St. Vincent) who was ill with influenza and his compliments for an early recovery.  It was pointed out to Lieut. Durham that Cap Jervis was no ordinary captain of a man.o.war. In 1797 Admiral Jervis defeated the Spanish fleet off Cape St. Vincent, Portugal. Admiral Kempenfelt’s famous exploit was the cutting up of a French convoy near Ushant on 12 December 1781 against overwhelming odds, it was regarded by the French as a most daring and brilliant feat with only 12 ships of the line, including his flagship H.M.S Victory, against 19 warships and 23 armed en flute, an overwhelming number and guns.  Ushant 1781 is one of “Victory’s” prized battle honours.

Acknowledgement to:-

Ron Brewer.
Hampshire County Records Office.
Portsmouth City Museum.
Lyall Gregory, Australia. (relative of Adam. Kempenfelt).
Peter Austin.

Proceeds of this research towards St. Mary’s Church “Angels 2000” Appeal.