HMS Guardian (1784)

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Distressing situation of the Guardian sloop, Capt. Riou, after striking on a floating Island of ice
Career (Great Britain) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Guardian
Ordered: 11 August 1780
Builder: Robert Batson, Limehouse
Laid down: December 1780
Launched: 23 March 1784
Completed: By 20 May 1784
Fate: Struck an iceberg on 24 December 1789
Destroyed by hurricane on 12 April 1790
Remains sold on 8 February 1791
General characteristics
Class and type: 44-gun Roebuck Class two-decker Fifth Rate
Tons burthen: 896 33/94 bm
Length: 140 ft (42.7 m) (overall)
115 ft 6 in (35.2 m) (keel)
Beam: 38 ft 2.5 in (11.6 m)
Depth of hold: 16 ft 4 in (4.98 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Complement: 300
  • Upper deck: 22 x 9pdrs
  • Lower deck: 20 x 18pdrs
  • Forecastle: 2 x 6pdrs

HMS Guardian was a 44-gun Roebuckclass fifth-rate two-decker of the Royal Navy, later converted to carry stores. She was completed too late to take part in the American War of Independence, and instead spent several years laid up in Ordinary, before finally entering service as a store and convict transport to Australia, under Lieutenant Edward Riou. Riou sailed the Guardian, loaded with provisions, animals, convicts and their overseers, to the Cape of Good Hope where he took on more supplies. Nearly two weeks after his departure on the second leg of the journey, an iceberg was sighted and Riou sent boats to collect ice to replenish his water supplies. Before he could complete the re-provisioning, a sudden change in the weather obscured the iceberg, and the Guardian collided with it while trying to pull away. She was badly damaged and in immediate danger of sinking. The crew made frantic repair attempts but to no apparent avail. Riou eventually allowed most of the crew to take to the Guardian's boats, but refused to leave his ship. Eventually through continuous work he and the remaining crew were able to navigate the ship, by now reduced to little more than a raft, back to the Cape, a nine week voyage described as 'almost unparalleled'. Riou ran the Guardian aground to prevent her sinking, but shortly afterwards a hurricane struck the coast, wrecking her. The remains were sold the next year, in 1790.

Construction and commissioning

She was ordered from Robert Batson, Limehouse on 11 August 1780 and was laid down in December that year.[1] Guardian was launched on 23 March 1784, too late to see service in the American War of Independence and was instead fitted out at Deptford Dockyard for Ordinary.[1][2] £12,322.12.11d was paid to the builder for her construction, with another £4,420 spent on fitting her out.[1] After five years spent laid up she was fitted out at Woolwich in 1789 to serve as a store and convict transport, commissioning under Lieutenant Edward Riou in April.[1]

Voyage to Australia

Riou was tasked with delivering the stores consisting of seeds, plants, farm machinery and livestock, with a total value of some £70,000, and convicts to the British settlement at Botany Bay.[3] Also aboard the Guardian was a young midshipman named Thomas Pitt, the son of politician Thomas Pitt, and nephew of Prime Minister William Pitt.[3][4]

With over 300 people aboard his ship, Riou left Spithead on 8 September, and had an uneventful voyage to the Cape of Good Hope, where he arrived on 24 November and loaded more livestock and plants.[3][4] After competing his re-provisioning Riou sailed from the Cape in mid-December, and picking up the Westerlies began the second leg of his voyage to New South Wales.[3] On Christmas Eve, twelve days and 1,300 statute miles (2100 km) after his departure from the Cape, a large iceberg was spotted at 44°S 41°E / 44°S 41°E / -44; 41Coordinates: 44°S 41°E / 44°S 41°E / -44; 41, and Riou decided to use the ice to replenish his stocks of fresh water, that were quickly being depleted by the need to supply the plants and animals he was transporting.[3]

Riou and the iceberg

Riou positioned himself near the iceberg, and despatched boats to collect the ice. By the time the last boats had been recovered night had fallen, when a sudden fogbank descended, hiding the iceberg from view.[3] Riou found himself in a dangerous situation. Somewhere to leeward lay a large mass of ice, concealed in the darkness and fog.[5] He posted lookouts in the bows and rigging, and began to edge slowly forward. After sometime the danger seemed to be past, and the iceberg left behind, when at 9 o'clock a strange pale glow was reported by the lookout in the bows.[5] Riou ordered the helm to turn hard a starboard, turning into the wind as a wall of ice higher than the ship's masts slid by along the side.[5] It briefly appeared that the danger had been avoided, but as she passed by the Guardian struck an underwater projection with a sudden crash.[5] Caught in a sudden gust of wind the ship reared up and swung about, driving the stern into the ice, smashing away the rudder, shattering her stern frame and tearing a large gash in the hull.[5] Despite the seriousness of the situation Riou remained calm, using the sails to pull clear of the ice, and then taking stock of the damage.[5]

File:Captain Edward Riou engraving.jpg
Engraving made in 1801 after Riou's death during the Battle of Copenhagen; Captn Edwd Riou Commander of the Guardian Frigate in the year 1789 but late of His Majesty's ship Amazon who fell gloriously in the Attack of the Danish Fleet and Batteries off Copenhagen April 2nd 1801

Now clear of the immediate danger of the ice, Riou found himself in a desperate situation. There was two feet of water in the hold and more was rushing in, while the sea was rising and a gale had sprung up.[5] The pumps were manned, but could not keep up with the ingress of water, and by midnight there was 6 feet of water in the hold. At dawn on Christmas Day an attempt was made to fother the hull by lowering an oakum-packed studding sail over the side to cover the gash in the hull and slow the flooding. This was temporarily successful and by 11 o'clock the pumps had been able to reduce the water to a level of 19 inches.[5] The respite was short-lived, when the sail split under the pressure of the water and the water level began to rise again. At this a number of seaman requested permission to take to the ship's boats.[5] Riou convinced them to stay, but another attempt to fother the hull with another sail failed when the sail immediately ripped.

By nightfall on 25 December the water in the hold had risen to 7 feet, and the ship was rolling violently, allowing water to pour over the ship's side.[5] Riou ordered the stores, guns and livestock to be thrown overboard in an attempt to lighten the ship, but was injured when his hand was crushed by a falling cask while trying to clear the bread-room.[5] By morning the next day the ship was settling by the stern, while the sails had been torn away in the gale. Again the seamen, this time joined by the convicts, requested to be allowed to take to the boats.[5] Riou at last agreed to this, well aware that there were not enough boats for everyone, and announced 'As for me, I have determined to remain in the ship, and shall endeavour to make my presence useful as long as there is any occasion for it.'[6]

'I have determined to remain in the ship'

While the boats were prepared, Riou wrote a letter to the Secretary to the Admiralty;

If any part of the officers or crew of the Guardian should ever survive to get home, I have only to say their conduct after the fatal stroke against an island of ice was admirable and wonderful in everything that related to their duties considered either as private men or on his Majesty's Service.
As there seems no possibility of my remaining many hours in this world, I beg leave to recommend to the consideration of the Admiralty a sister who if my conduct or service should be found deserving any memory their favour might be shown to her together with a widowed mother.
I am Sir remaining with great respect
Your ever Obedt & humble servt,
E. Riou[6]

Riou gave the note to Mr Clements, the master of the Guardian, who was given command of the launch. A total of 259 people chose to join the five boats, leaving Riou with sixty-two people; himself, three midshipmen, including Thomas Pitt, the surgeon's mate, the boatswain, carpenter, three superintendents of convicts, a daughter of one of the superintendents, thirty seamen and boys and twenty-one convicts.[7] The Guardian was nearly awash by now with 16 feet of water in the hold, but a bumping noise on the deck attracted attention, and on investigation was found to be a number of casks that had broken free and were floating in the hold, trapped under the lower gundeck.[7] Realising that this was providing extra buoyancy Riou had the gun deck hatches sealed and caulked, while another sail was sent under the hull to control the flooding. Having now created a substitute hull out of his deck Riou raised what little sail he could and began the long journey back to land, with the pumps being continuously manned.[7]

For nine weeks Riou and his small crew navigated the Guardian, by now little more than a raft, across the 400 leagues to the Cape of Good Hope.[1][7] The Cape of Good Hope was sighted on 21 February 1790, and whalers were despatched from Table Bay to help the battered ship to safety. Riou ran her aground to prevent her sinking, but a gale struck the coast on 12 April, completing the wreck of the Guardian.[1][7]

The voyage was described by J. K. Laughton in the Dictionary of National Biography as 'almost without parallel'.[8] Those who remained with the Guardian were among the few survivors of the accident. Of the boats sent out on 25 December only the launch, with 15 people survived, having been rescued by a French merchant.[8] The launch had witnessed the sinking of the jolly-boat, before losing contact with the two cutters and the long-boat.[7] Riou arranged for the surviving convicts who had helped to save the ship to be pardoned for their good service.[4] The remains of the Guardian were sold on 8 February 1791.[1]

The loss of the Guardian was used by Patrick O'Brian as the basis for his novel Desolation Island.


  1. 1.0 1.1 1.2 1.3 1.4 1.5 1.6 Winfield. British Warships of the Age of Sail. p. 175. 
  2. Colledge. Ships of the Royal Navy. p. 150. 
  3. 3.0 3.1 3.2 3.3 3.4 3.5 Coleman. The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration. p. 109. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 Tracy. Who's who in Nelson's Navy. p. 306. 
  5. 5.00 5.01 5.02 5.03 5.04 5.05 5.06 5.07 5.08 5.09 5.10 5.11 Coleman. The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration. p. 110. 
  6. 6.0 6.1 Coleman. The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration. p. 111. 
  7. 7.0 7.1 7.2 7.3 7.4 7.5 Coleman. The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration. p. 112. 
  8. 8.0 8.1 "Riou, Edward". Dictionary of National Biography. 1896. p. 316. 


  • Coleman, Ernest (2006). The Royal Navy in Polar Exploration: From Frobisher to Ross. Tempus. ISBN 0-7524-3660-0. 
  • Laughton, J. K. (1896). "Riou, Edward". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. 48. Oxford University Press. 
  • Tracy, Nicholas (2006). Who's who in Nelson's Navy: 200 Naval Heroes. London: Chatham Publishing. ISBN 1-86176-244-5. 
  • Winfield, Rif (2007). British Warships of the Age of Sail 1714–1792: Design, Construction, Careers and Fates. Seaforth. ISBN 1-86176-295-X. 

Further reading

  • Bateson, Charles, The Convict Ships, 1787-1868, Sydney, 1974.

External links

de:HMS Guardian (1784)