HMS Terpsichore (1785)

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Print by Thomas Whitcombe depicting HMS Terpsichore capturing the Mahonesa on 13 October 1796
Career (UK) Royal Navy Ensign
Name: HMS Terpsichore
Ordered: 29 July 1782
Builder: James Betts, Mistleythorn
Laid down: November 1782
Launched: 17 December 1785
Completed: By November 1786
Fate: Broken up in November 1830
General characteristics
Class and type: 32-gun Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate
Tons burthen: 682 4/94 bm
Length: 126 ft (38.4 m) (overall)
103 ft 8 in (31.6 m) (keel)
Beam: 35 ft 1.5 in (10.7 m)
Depth of hold: 12 ft 2 in (3.71 m)
Propulsion: Sails
Sail plan: Full rigged ship
Complement: 220
  • Upper deck: 26 x 12pdrs
  • Quarter deck: 4 x 6pdrs + 4 x 18pdr carronades
  • Forecastle: 2 x 6pdrs + 2 x 18pdr carronades

HMS Terpsichore was a 32-gun Amazon-class fifth-rate frigate of the Royal Navy. She was built during the last years of the American War of Independence, but did not see action until the French Revolutionary Wars. She served during the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, in a career that spanned forty-five years.

Terpsichore was launched in 1785, but was not prepared for active service until the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in 1793. She was initially sent to serve in the West Indies where in 1794 Captain Richard Bowen took command. Bowen commanded Terpsichore until his death in 1797, and several of her most memorable exploits occurred during his captaincy. Terpsichore served mostly in the Mediterranean, capturing three frigates, and in 1797 went as far as to attack the damaged Spanish First Rate Santísima Trinidad, as she limped away from the Battle of Cape St Vincent. The Santísima Trinidad mounted 136 guns to Terpsichore's 32, and was the largest warship in the world at time. Terpsichore inflicted several casualties, before abandoning the attack. Terpsichore passed through several commanders after Bowen's death at Tenerife, and went out to the East Indies, where her last commander was Captain William Augustus Montagu. Montagu fought an action with a large French frigate in 1808, and though he was able to outfight her, he was not able to capture her. Terpsichore returned to Britain the following year, and spent the last years of the war laid up in Ordinary. She survived in this state until 1830, when she was broken up.

Construction and commissioning

Terpsichore was ordered from James Betts, of Mistleythorn on 29 July 1782 and laid down there in November that year.[1] She was launched on 29 July 1785 and completed between 31 January and November 1786, at a cost of £8,295.18.3d, with a further £104.15.2d spent on her boats, plus £4,025 for fitting out and coppering.[1][2] The war with America was over by the time she was ready for service, and with no immediate use for her with the draw-down of the navy, Terpsichore was placed in Ordinary at Chatham.[1]

Early years and French Revolutionary Wars

With the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars in February 1793, many ships that had been laid up were reactivated. Terpsichore was repaired by Pitcher, of Northfleet for the sum of £2,979 between March and August 1793, and was then fitted for service at Woolwich for a further £5,833 between August and 8 October 1793.[1] After nearly a decade spent laid up she commissioned under her first captain, Sampson Edwards, in August 1793 and sailed for the Leeward Islands in December that year.[1] She captured the privateer Montague on 16 August 1794, and in September that year Sampson left the ship, being replaced by Captain Richard Bowen.[1] Bowen was sent to North America, where he learnt that HMS Daedalus, under Captain Sir Charles Knowles, was being blockaded in the Chesapeake by two French frigates. Bowen set out to relieve him, an act he accomplished on 17 May, when the two British ships escaped to sea. The French attempted to pursue, but broke off when the British offered battle.[3] Terpsichore and Daedalus sailed in company to Halifax, after which Bowen returned to the Caribbean.[4] Bowen and Terpsichore then operated in support of the British forces on Guadeloupe, which were under pressure from French forces, and helped to resupply them until it was deemed necessary to evacuate them. Terpsichore covered the withdrawal, with Bowen receiving a wound to the face from French shot while assisting in the evacuation of the last of the troops.[4] The wound became dangerous in the Caribbean climate, and Bowen was sent home aboard Terpsichore with the despatches.[5]

North Sea and Mediterranean


File:Captain Richard Bowen.jpg
Captain Richard Bowen, Terpsichore's commander for many of her greatest exploits until his death at the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife in 1797

Bowen and the Terpsichore spent some time in the North Sea, until December 1795, when his old patron, Jervis, replaced Admiral William Hotham as commander of the Mediterranean Fleet.[5] Jervis requested Bowen to come out and take command of a squadron of small vessels operating around Gibraltar in defence of British trade and the garrison there.[5] In early October 1796 the British squadron under Sir John Man was chased into Gibraltar by a Spanish fleet. Bowen set out in Terpsichore to report this to Jervis, and having rendezvoused with HMS Pallas of Jervis's fleet on 10 October, began the return voyage to Gibraltar.[5] While off Cartagena on 13 October, a frigate was spotted under full sail. Bowen's crew had been reduced by sickness, but he decided to chase down the mysterious sail. After closing on her, and determining that she was attempting to manoeuvre into a position to better fight the Terpsichore, Bowen ordered a gun be fired to test her intent.[6] This was instantly met with a broadside, and a general action began. After an hour and forty minutes the frigate surrendered, and was discovered to be the Spanish Mahonesa.[7] Terpsichore had four men wounded during the battle and none killed.[1] Mahonesa was taken into service with the British as HMS Mahonesa.[8] Bowen received a piece of plate valued at 100 guineas.[9]


Bowen refitted Terpsichore and departed on another cruise, capturing several small vessels on 12 and 13 November, sending them to Gibraltar, and on 22 November he learned from an American brig that he had encountered off Cape St. Mary's, that a Spanish ship bound for Cadiz from Montevideo was in the area.[10] Bad weather prevented Bowen from locating the Spanish vessel at first, and he also had to escape from a Spanish ship of the line that appeared and chased the Terpsichore for a while. The Spanish ship was found to be anchored in Cadiz, and at 10 am the next day Bowen entered the harbour, captured the ship and brought her out.[10] Bowen continued to cruise off Cadiz, and while sailing through a gale on the morning of 12 December, the lookouts spotted a frigate. Bowen gave chase, with both ships hampered by the rough weather, so that it was only after 40 hours that Bowen was able to bring Terpsichore alongside and at 10 o'clock on the night of 13 December the two ships engaged each other.[10] After two hours the frigate surrendered, and was discovered to be the 36-gun French Vestale, with 270 men aboard.[11] She had lost her captain and 40 men killed, while her second captain and another 50 men were wounded. The Terpsichore had casualties of a quartermaster and three seamen killed, and nineteen wounded.[11]

Shortly after the French surrender all of Vestale's masts and her bowsprit went by the board. She began to drift towards the breakers off Cadiz, while her crew were drunk. The British prize-crew managed to regain control, and both ships managed to ride out the storm that night.[11] It was not until the following evening that the wind changed sufficiently for Bowen to attempt to tow his prize away.[12] The line became snagged on a rock, and had to be cut for the safety of both vessels. When dawn broke the next day Bowen discovered that the French had risen up against the prize crew and retaken the ship, sailing her into Cadiz. Now bereft of his prize, Bowen returned to port empty handed, writing to Jervis that 'As we feel conscious of having done out duty, to the utmost of our power, we endeavour to console ourselves with the expectation of our conduct being approved.'[12] Jervis confirmed this, writing

Dear Bowen, The intelligence we received from the patrons of two pilot-boats, when off Cadiz, on the 17th December, that the French frigate then lying between the Diamond and Procros, had been dismasted and captured by an English frigate, impressed us all with an opinion, that the Terpsichore had achieved this gallant action. I lament exceedingly that you and your brave crew were deprived of the substantial reward of your exertions; but you cannot fail to receive the tribute due to you from the government and country at large.[12]

Santísima Trinidad

Bowen was at Gibraltar when news of Jervis's victory at the Battle of Cape St Vincent arrived. He immediately set out to join the fleet, and having fallen in with several other British frigates, including HMS Emerald, came across the Spanish first rate Santísima Trinidad. The Spanish ship was flying the Union Jack above her own colours, indicating that she was in the hands of a British prize-crew, but the bad weather meant no meaningful exchange could take place between the frigates and the Spanish vessel, and it was suspected that the British colours were being used as a ruse de guerre.[13] After the frigates lost sight of the ship in bad weather, Bowen hurried to report the sighting to Jervis. While returning to his station he again fell in with the Santísima Trinidad, and determined to see if she would surrender to him. He opened fire on the massive Spanish vessel, at the time the world's largest warship, carrying 136-guns on four decks, over a hundred more guns than the Terpsichore.[13] The Spanish ship resisted Bowen's fire, and he broke off the attack. It was later discovered that Bowen's attack had killed nine men, and left a number of others badly wounded.[14]

Santa Cruz

Jervis sent Bowen to reconnoitre off Tenerife in mid-1797, and at midnight on 18 June he captured a rich ship from the Manillas bound for Cadiz.[14] Terpsichore supported the first bombardment of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 5 July, and Bowen with Rear-Admiral Horatio Nelson to prepare plans for an assault on the town.[15] In the Battle of Santa Cruz de Tenerife on 24 July Bowen was assigned to lead the landing parties onto the Mole. He led forty or fifty of his men and managed to land on the mole and take the battery covering the harbour by storm, spiking its guns, and was advancing into the town in pursuit of the fleeing Spanish.[15] As he did so the Spanish fired a large round of grapeshot onto his party, killing Bowen, his first lieutenant and many of his men, while Nelson and his men, who were just landing, were caught in the fire, Nelson being hit in his right arm.[15] Bowen's body was recovered the next morning and returned to the British ships after the withdrawal.[15] He was buried at sea on 27 July.[15]

Later French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars

Bowen was succeeded by Captain William Hall Gage, who took over command two days after Bowen's death, on 26 July 1797.[1] Terpsichore worked to enforce the blockade of Malta throughout 1798 and on 23 June 1799 she captured the 14-gun San Antonio.[1] Terpsichore then had a succession of different commanders over the next five years. Captain John Mackellar took command in 1801, sailing her to the East Indies in June that year.[1] In 1803 she came under Captain James Vashon, who was succeeded the following year by Captain Walter Bathurst.[1] Bathurst captured the privateer Zephyr in the East Indies on 27 August 1804, before being succeeded in April 1805 by Captain Henry Lambert.[1] Commander Joseph Bogue may have been in charge of Terpsichore until his death in July 1806, or possibly serving alongside Captain William Lye.[1] Thereafter Terpsichore was commanded by several lieutenants in an acting capacity, starting with Lieutenant Augustus Collins in 1807, who captured the 12-gun Jaseur on 10 July 1807.[1] Lieutenant William Wells took over later in 1807, and in 1808 command passed to Captain William Augustus Montagu.[1]


On 15 March 1808 Terpsichore was sailing some 60 miles off Ceylon when a mysterious sail was spotted coming up fast.[16] The ship came up at 5.50 that evening, hoisted English colours and fired a shot, before changing tack. She fired a second shot at 6.45, at which Montagu hauled up and hove-to. As the strange ship approached, Montagu was able to determine her to be hostile, and Terpsichore opened fire, which was returned and a general action began.[16] The enemy ship, which was the 40-gun French frigate Sémillante under Captain Léonard-Bernard Motard, closed at 7.10 and threw some combustible materials onto the deck, which caused an large explosion amongst boxes of powder.[17] The explosion unmanned four guns and started fires, which the officers and men of Terpsichore struggled with but successfully extinguished.[17] The two ships exchanged fire for sometime, each trying to manoeuvre into a advantageous position, until the Sémillante ceased fire at 8 and bore round to escape.[17] Terpsichore had been badly damaged in her sails and rigging, but gave chase, and for the next four days pursued the fleeing French. By 20 March most of the damage to Terpsichore had been repaired, and she was fast closing on the French ship, under fire from her stern-chasers.[18] The French eventually resorted to throwing overboard her boats, lumber, water and provisions and so was finally able to pull away and escape her pursuers.[18] Terpsichore's losses were almost entirely caused by the explosion of the powder boxes, and amounted to one lieutenant and twenty men killed and twenty-two wounded, two of them mortally.[18] The French casualties were unknown, though Captain Motard was reported to have been badly wounded.[18]

Later years

Terpsichore was refitted, and remained in the Indian Ocean before returning to Britain with a convoy in 1809.[1] She was fitted as a receiving ship at Chatham in December 1810, and spent between 1812 and 1813 laid up in Ordinary at Chatham. She was at Portsmouth between 1814 and 1815, and spent her last years at Chatham between 1816 and 1829.[1] She was broken up at Chatham in November 1830.[1][2]


  1. 1.00 1.01 1.02 1.03 1.04 1.05 1.06 1.07 1.08 1.09 1.10 1.11 1.12 1.13 1.14 1.15 1.16 1.17 Winfield. British Warships of the Age of Sail: 1714-1792. p. 206. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Colledge. Ships of the Royal Navy. p. 347. 
  3. Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 77. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 78. 
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 5.3 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 79. 
  6. Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 80. 
  7. Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 81. 
  8. Colledge. Ships of the Royal Navy. p. 212. 
  9. Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 82. 
  10. 10.0 10.1 10.2 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 83. 
  11. 11.0 11.1 11.2 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 84. 
  12. 12.0 12.1 12.2 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 82. 
  13. 13.0 13.1 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 86. 
  14. 14.0 14.1 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 87. 
  15. 15.0 15.1 15.2 15.3 15.4 Campbell. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 89. 
  16. 16.0 16.1 James. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 282. 
  17. 17.0 17.1 17.2 James. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 283. 
  18. 18.0 18.1 18.2 18.3 James. Naval history of Great Britain. p. 284.