The Loss of the Royal George by W. H. G. Kingston

(From the Child of the Wreck.)

I am not likely to forget that next morning, the 28th of August, (17—). It was a fine summer’s morning, and there was just a little sea on, with a strongish breeze blowing from the eastward, but not enough to prevent boats coming off from Portsmouth. I counted forty sail-of-the-line, a dozen frigates and smaller ships of war, and well-nigh three hundred merchant vessels, riding, as of course we were, to the flood with our heads towards Cowes.

You will understand that under the lower-deck was fitted a cistern, into which the sea-water was received and then pumped up by a hand-pump, fixed in the middle of the gun-deck, for the purpose of washing the two lower gun-decks. The water was let into this cistern by a pipe which passed through the ship’s side, and which was secured by a stopcock on the inside. It had been found the morning before that this watercock, which was about three feet below the water line, was out of order, and must be repaired.

The foreman came off from the dockyard, and said that it was necessary to careen the ship over to port, sufficiently to raise the mouth of the pipe, which went through the ship’s timbers below, clean out of the water, that he and his men might work at it. Between seven and eight o’clock the order was given to run the larboard guns out as far as they could go, the larboard ports being opened. The starboard guns were also run in amidships and secured by tackles, the moving over of this great weight of metal bringing the larboard lower-deck port-sills just level with the water. The men were then able to get at the mouth of the pipe. For an hour the ship remained in this position, while the carpenters were at work. We had been taking in rum and shot on the previous day, and now a sloop called the Lark, which belonged to the three brothers, came alongside with the last cargo of rum; she having been secured to the larboard side, the hands were piped to clear the lighter.

I had been on duty on the main-deck. Several ladies had come off early in the morning, friends and relations of the officers. Some of them were either in the ward-room or gun-room, and others were walking the quarter-deck with the help of their gentlemen friends, as it was no easy matter, the ship heeling over as much as she was then doing. They thought it very good fun, however, and were laughing and talking, as they tried to keep their feet from slipping. I had been sent with a message to Mr. Hollingbury, our third lieutenant, who was officer of the watch. He seemed out of temper, and gave me a rough answer; as he generally did. He was not a favorite, indeed, with us, and we used to call him “Jib-and-Foresail Jack,” for when he had the watch at night, he was always singing out, “Up jib,” and “Down jib;” “Up foresail,” “Down foresail;” and from a habit he had of moving his fingers about when walking the quarter-deck, we used to say that he had been an organ player in London. Just as I got back to the main-deck, I caught a glimpse of a young lady in black, leading a little boy. She turned her face towards me, and I saw that she was the very same who had come to my wife’s cottage the previous evening; indeed I should have known her by the little boy by her side. I had to return to the quarter-deck again, and when I once more came back to the main-deck, I could nowhere see her; but whether she went into the ward-room or had gone below, I could not learn. I asked several people, for I thought she might have brought me off a message from Susan; and I might, I fancied, have been of use to her in finding the person she wished to see. While I was looking about, Mr. Webb, the purser’s clerk, who had received orders to go on shore in charge of a boat, came up and ordered me to call the crew away; a couple of midshipmen were going with him. This took up some time, and prevented me from finding the young lady. Just then, as I went up to report the boat gone to Mr. Hollingbury, Mr. Williams, the carpenter, came up from the lower-deck, and requested that he would be pleased to order the ship to be righted, as she was heeling over more than she could bear. The lieutenant gave one of his usual short answers to the carpenter, who went below, looking as though he did not at all like it. He was back again, however, before I had left the deck, when he said in a short quick way, as if there was not a moment to lose,—

“If you please, sir, the ship is getting past her bearings; it’s my duty to tell you, she will no longer bear it!”

“If you think, sir, you can manage the ship better than I can, you had better take the command,” answered Mr. Hollingbury, in an angry tone, twitching his fingers and turning away.

About this time there were a good many men in the waist who heard what the carpenter had said, and what answer the lieutenant gave. They all knew, as I did, that the ship must be in great danger, or the carpenter would not have spoken so sharply as he had.

A large number of the crew, however, were below; some on board the lighter, others at the yard-tackles and stay-falls, hoisting in casks; some in the spirit-room stowing away, others bearing the casks down the hatchway, all busy clearing the lighter. The greater number, it will be understood, were on the larboard side, and that brought the ship down more to larboard. There was a little more sea on than before, which had begun to wash into the lower-deck ports, and having no escape there was soon a good weight of water on the lower-deck. Several of the men, not dreaming of danger, were amusing themselves, laughing and shouting, catching mice, for there were a good many of them in the ship, which the water had driven out of their quarters. It’s my belief, however, that the casks of rum hoisted in, and lying on the larboard side, before they could be lowered into the hold, helped very much to bring the ship down.

There stood the lieutenant, fuming at the way the carpenter had spoken to him. Suddenly, however, it seemed to occur to him that the carpenter was right, and he ordered the drummer to beat to quarters, that the guns might be run into their places and the ship righted.

“Dick Tattoo” was shouted quick enough along the deck, for every one now saw that not a moment was to be lost, as the ship had just then heeled over still more. The moment the drummer was called, all hands began tumbling down the hatchways to their quarters, that they might run in their guns.

Just then I saw a young midshipman, whom I had observed going off with Mr. Webb, standing at the entrance-port singing out for the boat. He had forgotten his dirk, he said, and had come back to fetch it. The boat, however, had gone some distance off, and he was left behind. Poor fellow, it was a fatal piece of forgetfulness for him.

“Never mind, Jemmy Fish,” said little Crispo, one of the smallest midshipmen I ever saw, for he was only nine years old. “There is another boat going ashore directly, and you can go in her.”

He gave an angry answer, and went back into the gun-room, swearing at his ill-luck.

The men had just got hold of the gun-tackles, and were about to bowse out their guns which had been run in amidship, some five hundred of them or more having for the purpose gone over to the larboard side, which caused the ship to heel over still more, when the water made a rush into the larboard lower-deck ports, and, do all they could, the guns ran in again upon them. Feeling sure that the ship could not be righted, I, seizing little Crispo, made a rush to starboard, and dashing through an open port found myself outside the ship, which at that moment went completely over, her masts and spars sinking under the water. Somehow or other the young midshipman broke from me and slipped over into the sea. I thought the poor little fellow would have been lost, but he struck out bravely, which was, as it turned out, the best thing he could have done, as he could swim well.

I had just before seen all the port-holes crowded with seamen, trying to escape, and jamming one another so that they could scarcely move one way or the other. The ship now lying down completely on her larboard broadside, suddenly the heads of most of the men disappeared, they having dropped back into the ship, many of those who were holding on being hauled down by others below them. It was, you see, as if they had been trying to get out of a number of chimneys, with nothing for their feet to rest upon. Directly afterwards there came such a rush of wind through the ports, that my hat was blown off. It was the air from the hold, which, having no other vent, escaped as the water pouring in took up its space. The whole side of the ship was, I said, covered with seamen and marines, and here and there a Jew maybe, and a good many women and a few children shrieking and crying out for mercy. Never have I heard such a fearful wailing. One poor woman near me shrieked out for her husband, but he was nowhere to be seen, and she thought that he was below with those who by this time were drowned; for there were hundreds who had been on the lower decks, and in the hold, who had never even reached the ports, and some who had fallen back into the sea as it rushed in at the larboard side. She implored me to help her, and I said I would if I could. We could see boats putting off from the ships all round to our help, and here and there people swimming for their lives who had leaped from the stern-ports, or had been on the upper deck. I could not help thinking of our fine old admiral, and wished that he might be among them; but he was not, for he was writing in his cabin at the time, and when the captain tried to let him know that the ship was sinking, he found the door so jammed by her heeling over that he could not open it, and was obliged to rush aft and make his escape through a stern-port to save his life. This I afterwards heard.

As the ship had floated for some minutes, I began to hope that she would continue in the same position, and that I and others around me on her side might be saved. I hoped this for my own sake, and still more for that of my dear wife. I had been thinking of her all the time, for I knew that it would go well-nigh to break her heart if I was taken from her, as it were, just before her eyes. Suddenly, I found to my horror, that the ship was settling down; the shrieks of despair which rent the air on every side, not only from women, but from many a man I had looked upon as a stout fellow, rang in my ears. Knowing that if I went down with the ship I should have a hard job to rise again, I seized a poor woman by her dress, and leaped off with her into the sea; but to my horror, her dress tore, and before I could get hold of her again she was swept from me. I had struck out for some distance, when I felt myself as it were drawn back, and, on looking round, I saw the ship’s upper works disappear beneath the waters, which was covered with a mass of human beings, shrieking and lifting up their hands in despair. Presently they all disappeared. Just then I felt myself drawn down by some one getting hold of my foot under the water, but, managing to kick off my shoe, I quickly rose again and struck out away from the spot, impelled by instinct rather than anything else, for I had no time for thought; then directly afterwards up came the masts almost with a bound, as it were, and stood out of the water, with a slight list only to starboard, with the fore, main, and mizzen-tops all above water, as well as part of the bowsprit and ensign-staff, with the flag still hoisted to it; many people were floating about, making for the tops and riggings, several of them terror-stricken, who could not swim, catching hold of those that could. I thought, on seeing this, that it would be wiser to keep clear of them, till I could reach a boat coming towards the wreck at no great distance off. I was pretty nigh exhausted when I reached the boat, in which were a waterman and two young gentlemen, who happened to be crossing from Ryde to Portsmouth at the time. They soon hauled me in, and I begged them to pull on and save some of the drowning people. As neither of them could row—quickly recovering—I took one of the oars, and was about to sit down to help the waterman, when I saw not far off, several sheep, pigs, and fowls swimming in all directions, while hencoops and all sorts of articles were floating about....

Out of nearly a thousand souls who had been alive and well on board the ship in the morning, between seven and eight hundred were now lifeless. Besides our gallant admiral, who had been drowned while sitting writing in his cabin, three of the lieutenants, including the one whose obstinacy had produced the disaster, the larger number of the midshipmen, the surgeon, master, and the major, and several other officers of marines, were drowned, as were some ladies who had just before come on board. Sixty of the marines had gone on shore in the morning, a considerable number of the rest who were on the upper-deck were saved, but the greater number of the crew, many of whom were in the hold stowing away the rum casks, had perished; indeed, out of the ship’s whole complement, seventy seamen only escaped with their lives.

I was sorry to hear that Mr. Williams, the carpenter, whose advice, had it been followed, would have saved the ship, was drowned; his body was picked up directly afterwards, and carried on board the Victory, where it was laid on the hearth before the galley-fire, in the hopes that he might recover, but life was extinct.

Captain Waghorn, though he could not swim, was saved. After trying to warn the admiral, he rushed across the deck and leaped into the sea, calling on others to follow his example. A young gentleman, Mr. Pierce, was near him.

“Can you swim?” he asked.

“No,” was the answer.

“Then you must try, my lad,” he said, and hurled him into the water.

Two men, fortunately good swimmers, followed, one of them getting hold of the captain, supported him, and swam away from the ship: the other fell upon Mr. Pierce, of whom he got hold, and supported above water till the ship settled, when he placed him on the main-top, and both were saved. The captain, in the meantime, was struggling in the water, and was with great difficulty kept afloat. A boat with our seventh lieutenant, Mr. Philip Durham, had on the very instant the ship went over come alongside, when she was drawn down, and all in her were thrown into the water. Mr. Durham had just time to throw off his coat before the ship sank and left him floating among men and hammocks. A drowning marine caught hold of his waistcoat, and drew him several times under water. Finding that he could not free himself, and that both would be drowned, he threw his legs round a hammock, and unbuttoning his waistcoat with one hand, he allowed it to be drawn off, and then swam for the main shrouds. When there he caught sight of the captain struggling in the water, and a boat coming to take him off, he refused assistance, till Captain Waghorn and the seaman supporting him were received on board. The captain’s son, poor lad, who had been below, lost his life.

I heard that the body of the marine was washed on shore ten days afterwards with the lieutenant’s waistcoat round his arm, and a pencil-case, having his initials on it, found safe in the pocket. There was only one woman saved out of the three hundred on board, and I believe she was the one I had helped out of the port; her name was Horn, and I was glad to find that her husband was saved also. It was curious that the youngest midshipman, Mr. Crispo, and probably one of the smallest children, our little chap, should have been saved, while so many strong men were drowned....

Our first lieutenant, Mr. Saunders, who had been busy in the wings, was drowned; his body, with his gold watch and some money in his pocket, was picked up, floating under the stern of an Indiaman off the Motherbank.

Of the three brothers who owned the sloop, two perished and one was saved. It was owing to her being lashed alongside that the ship righted, or she would have probably remained on her side. I was a good swimmer myself, and had I not been, I should have lost my life long ago; I have often thought, what a pity it is that all seamen do not learn to swim. Many more might have been saved; but those who could not swim got hold of the men who could, and both were drowned together. If all had struck out from the ship when they found her going over, a greater number would have been picked up; instead of that, afraid to trust themselves in the water, they stuck by her, and they and a large number who got into the launch were drawn down with the ship, and all perished. The foreman of the plumbers, whose boat was lashed head and stern, was, with all his men, drawn into the vortex as the ship went down, and not one of them escaped. It was a sad sight, ten days or a fortnight afterwards, to see the bodies which were picked up; some were buried in Kingston churchyard, near Portsmouth, and a large number in an open spot to the east of Ryde. Some time afterwards a monument was put up in Kingston churchyard, to the memory of the brave Admiral Kempenfelt and his ship’s company. A court of inquiry was held, when Captain Waghorn was honorably acquitted, and it came out, that in so rotten a state was the side of the ship, that some large portions of her frame must have given way, and it is only a wonder that she did not go down before. When I come to think that she had upwards of one thousand tons of dead weight and spirits on board, it is surprising that she should have held together.

An attempt was made soon afterwards to raise the Royal George, and very nearly succeeded, as she was lifted up, and moored some way from the spot where she went down; but a heavy gale coming on, some of the lighters sank, and the gear gave way, and she was again lost. It was whispered that on account of her rotten state the admiralty had no wish to have her afloat, but that might have been scandal.