HMS Royal George (1756)

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HMS Royal George, left, shown fictitiously
at the launch of HMS Cambridge in 1755.
Career (Great Britain) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Royal George
Ordered: 29 August 1746
Builder: Woolwich Dockyard
Laid down: 8 January 1747
Launched: 18 February 1756
Commissioned: October 1755 (before launch!)
Honours and

Participated in:

Fate: Foundered, 29 August 1782, at Spithead
General characteristics [1]
Class and type: 1745 Establishment 100-gun first rate ship of the line
Tons burthen: 2,047 long tons (2,079.8 t)
Length: 178 ft (54.3 m) (gundeck)
143 ft 5.5 in (43.7 m) (keel)
Beam: 51 ft 9.5 in (15.8 m)
Depth of hold: 21 ft 6 in (6.6 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship

100 guns:

  • Gundeck: 28 × 42 pdrs
  • Middle gundeck: 28 × 24 pdrs
  • Upper gundeck: 28 × 12 pdrs
  • Quarterdeck: 12 × 6 pdrs
  • Forecastle: 4 × 6 pdrs

HMS Royal George was a 100-gun First rate ship of the line of the Royal Navy, built at Woolwich Dockyard to the draught specified by the 1745 Establishment, and launched on 18 February 1756.[1] She sank at Portsmouth on 29 August 1782 with the loss of more than 800 lives.

Ordered on 29 August 1746, she was laid down at Woolwich Dockyard in 1746 as Royal Anne, and renamed Royal George whilst building. At the time of her launch in 1756, she was the largest warship in the world. She served in the Seven Years' War, joining the Western Squadron or Channel Fleet under Admiral Sir Edward Hawke, spending most of 1759 in the blockade of the French fleet at Brest. In early November of that year, when Hawke's flagship Ramillies went into dock for repairs, Hawke shifted his flag to Royal George, which became his flagship just in time for the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November 1759 where she sank the French ship Superbe.

She was laid up from 1763 to 1778, when she was recommissioned to serve in the American War of Independence. In January 1780, while serving in the Channel Fleet, she took part in the Battle of Cape St Vincent.

Sinking of Royal George

On 28 August 1782, whilst under the command of Richard Kempenfelt, Royal George was preparing to sail with a fleet commanded by Admiral Richard Howe to Gibraltar. The ships were anchored at Spithead to take on supplies.

Royal George was being heeled over at an angle to allow for minor repairs to be made to the water intake for the deck wash pump which was three feet below water level, and the larboard guns had been run out and the starboard guns moved in to the centre of the deck to heel over the ship until her lowest gun ports were close to the surface of the water. A supply vessel, the Lark approached the Royal George on her low side to transfer a cargo of rum and the additional weight together with that of the crewmen unloading the cargo caused the ship to heel to such a degree that the sea washed in at her gun ports and she soon began to ship water in her hold. A sudden breeze on the raised side of the ship forced her further over and the water rushed in. It is believed that during these operations the lower deck gunports were not properly secured, causing an inrush of water. The ship rolled on to her side and sank before any distress signal could be given, taking with her around 900 people, including up to 300 women and 60 children who were visiting the ship in harbour. About 230 people were saved, some by running up the rigging while others were picked up by boats from other vessels. Kempenfelt was writing in his cabin when the ship sank; the cabin doors had jammed due to the ship heeling and he perished with the rest.

Many of the victims were washed ashore at Ryde, where they were buried in a mass burial ground at Ryde on a site now occupied by a boating lake on the Esplanade.[2] In April 2009, Isle of Wight Council placed a new memorial plaque in the newly-restored Ashley Gardens on Ryde Esplanade in memory of HMS Royal George. It is a copy of the original plaque unveiled in 1965 by Earl Mountbatten of Burma which was moved in 2006 to the Royal George Memorial Garden, also on the Esplanade.

A court-martial failed to attribute blame for the tragedy and acquitted the officers and crew (many of whom had perished), blaming the accident on the 'general state of decay of her timbers.'

The accident was commemorated in verse by the poet William Cowper:

Toll for the brave
The Brave that are no more,
All sunk beneath the wave,
Fast by their native shore.

William Cowper, The Loss of the Royal George, 1782

Salvage attempts

A contemporary illustration of the Royal George resting at the bottom of the Solent with its masts sticking up from the surface.
File:1783, Royal George medallion.png
1783 medallion commemorating the sinking of the Royal George

Several attempts were made to raise the vessel, both for salvage and because it was a major hazard to navigation, lying as she did in a busy harbour at a depth of only 65 ft (20 m).

In 1782 six iron 12-pounder guns and nine brass 12-pounders were recovered using diving bells. After that no further work was carried out on the wreck until 1834, when Charles Anthony Deane, using the first air-pumped diving helmet, began work. From 1834—1836 he recovered 7 iron 42-pounders, 18 brass 24-pounders and 3 brass 12-pounders for which he received salvage from the Board of Ordnance. The remaining guns were buried under mud of the timbers of the wreck and he was unable to reach them.

Pasley (1839)

In 1839 Major-General Charles Pasley, at the time a Colonel of the Royal Engineers, commenced operations. Pasley had previously destroyed some old wrecks in the Thames to clear a channel using gunpowder charges; his plan was to break up the wreck of Royal George in a similar way and then salvage as much as possible using divers. The charges used were made from oak barrels filled with gunpowder and covered with lead. They were initially detonated using chemical fuses, but this was later changed to an electrical system using a resistance-heated platinum wire to detonate the gunpowder.

Pasley's operation set many diving milestones, including the first recorded use of the buddy system in diving, when he ordered that his divers operate in pairs. In addition, a Corporal Jones made the first emergency swimming ascent after his air line became tangled and he had to cut it free. A less fortunate milestone was the first medical account of a diver squeeze suffered by a Private Williams: the early diving helmets used had no non-return valves; this meant that if a hose became severed, the high-pressure air around the diver's head rapidly evacuated the helmet causing tremendous negative pressure that caused extreme and sometimes life-threatening effects. At the British Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in 1842, Sir John Richardson described the diving apparatus and treatment of diver Roderick Cameron following an injury that occurred on 14 October 1841 during the salvage operations.[3]

Pasley recovered 12 more guns in 1839, 11 more in 1840, and 6 in 1841. In 1842 he recovered only 1 iron 12-pounder because he ordered the divers to concentrate on removing the hull timbers rather than search for guns. By 1843 the whole of the keel and the bottom timbers had been raised and the site was declared clear.[4]

In the 1850's, timber from the ship was used to make the billiard table, still in use today for the North Wing of Burghley House.[5]

See also


  1. 1.0 1.1 Lavery, Ships of the Line vol.1, p173.
  2. Portraits of the Isle of Wight, P. Sanders, Kingsmead Press, Bath, 1979
  3. Richardson J (January 1991). "Abstract of the case of a diver employed on the wreck of the Royal George, who was injured by the bursting of the air-pipe of the diving apparatus. 1842". Undersea Biomed Res 18 (1): 63–4. PMID 2021022. Retrieved 2008-06-19. 
  4. Percy, Sholto (1843). Iron: An Illustrated Weekly Journal for Iron and Steel Manufacturers. 39. Knight and Lacey. 
  5. Welcome to Burghley visitor leaflet. 


  • Lavery, Brian (2003) The Ship of the Line - Volume 1: The development of the battlefleet 1650-1850. Conway Maritime Press. ISBN 0-85177-252-8.

Additional Reading

  • David Hepper, British Warship Losses in the Age of Sail, 1650-1859 (1994)

External links

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