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Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George

Reviewed by C. Herbert Gilliland.

How could a splendid 100-gun ship of the line, quietly anchored while preparing to deploy as flagship of one of Britain’s most admired admirals, suddenly capsize and go down? Yet that happened on August 29, 1782 at Spithead, the great roadstead of the British navy near Portsmouth.

 In 1782 Great Britain was at war not only with its American colonies, but also France and Spain, who besieged the vital stronghold of Gibraltar with a powerful array of land and sea forces. In late August the British gathered a large fleet at Spithead under Admiral Lord Howe, preparatory to sending it to relieve the siege. Among the ships was HMS Royal George, launched in 1756, a particularly impressive ship that had earlier served various admirals as flagship, and now bore the flag of Rear Admiral of the Blue, Richard Kempenfelt. With fifty-five years of naval service, Kempenfelt was highly regarded as a successful commander and for his work on signals and fleet tactics. The ship’s captain and first lieutenant were experienced and capable officers. No one anticipated trouble in heeling the ship to access a salt-water intake needing repair that was three feet below the waterline on the larboard side. Guns were run out on the larboard side and moved inward on the starboard side, and other weights arranged accordingly. Conveniently too, casks of supplies were being loaded on the larboard side from a small victualing vessel. The initial heel being insufficient, the ship was twice heeled further, after which disaster quickly struck. Rolling suddenly over and then back, the ship sank upright to the bottom, her upper masts protruding above the water. Perhaps 800 people drowned, including the admiral, many crew, and women, children and other civilians visiting aboard for various reasons. The nation was stunned.

As bodies surfaced day after day, a court-martial soon convened to determine what had gone wrong. William Cowper, one of the most important poets of the day, composed a poem in Latin that very day and later another in English, the latter becoming a staple of nineteenth-century anthologies and texts. Many poems by lesser talents were generated over the course of decades, and various tangible memorials also appeared. They commemorated not just the loss of the ship and hundreds of lives, but particularly the loss of the much-admired Kempenfelt, depicted as dying in his cabin doing paperwork instead of confronting the foe from his deck.

  Scholars of English literature will be interested in Rubinstein’s examination of the accuracy of Cowper’s poems, as well as the context in which they were composed. Readers interested in naval history will focus on the obvious question of why the ship went down. Before examining those factors, though, Rubinstein devotes the first third of the book to Kempenfelt’s biography. Through an apparent desire to make this the definitive book on the admiral as well as on his flagship’s loss, the author includes more details than any but Kempenfelt’s most ardent fans might wish for. Still, we do get a sense of the man as an original thinker, a devout Christian who wrote poems and hymns, and a bit of an oddity with pockets full of loose snuff and a tendency to talk to himself.

Concluding chapters give copious specifics on what became of the wreck and its debris over the years and decades following sinking, as well as the fate of survivors. Most intriguing for this reviewer, though, were the middle chapters dealing with the question of what caused the catastrophe. The factors involved prove to be varied and complex.

The court decided that the officers and crew were “acquitted of all blame,” and the loss of the ship was due to the “decay of her timbers.” However, readers may enjoy evaluating the evidence for themselves. Rubenstein takes us smoothly through the proceedings of the court-martial as well as other evidence and analysis. More is involved than simply the condition of the timbers or the events of that day. For example, Britain’s strategic need for massive naval power encouraged the retention of older ships—with older timbers–on active service.  And did the recent hasty coppering have an effect on the sinking? Did the wind play a part? Open gunports on the lower deck? Poor communication between officers? Though Rubenstein refrains from saying so, principles involved remain relevant today.

Perhaps oddly, considering how thoroughly everything else is covered, we are not told the fate of the expedition to Gibraltar, which was successful despite the loss of the Royal George. With meticulous scholarship aided by diagrams and pictures (including a fine section of color illustrations) this is and will long remain the authoritative text on both Admiral Kemperfelt and the Royal George.  

Hilary L. Rubinstein. Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George. Barnsley: Seaforth Books, 2020. 288 p. color illus.

Reviewed by C. Herbert Gilliland

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