Commemorating the tragic loss of HMS Royal George in 1782

The SWC collection includes a range of artefacts from Royal Navy vessels, here MAT volunteer Roger Burns considers one of the earlier vessels HMS Royal George.

Intended to be named the Royal Anne, the wooden-hulled 3-masted Royal George was launched on 18 February 1756 at the Woolwich Dockyard. With a burthen tonnage of 2,047, 54.3m long gundeck, 43.7m keel and 15.8m beam, HMS Royal George was lauded by the media, typically as related from the British Newspaper Archive in the Oxford Journal of Saturday 14 February 1756, transcribed in the language of the day:

“On the 18th Inft. for certain, will be Launched, at his Majefty’s Yard at Woolwich, the new Firft Rate Man of War of 100 guns, formerly called the Royal Anne, but now the Royal George. – She is in reality the largeft Ship that was ever built in Europe, and allowed by all judges to be the beft finifhed, as well as the moft juftly proportioned, in his Majefty’s Navy; and as an Admiral of the firft Rank is to hoift his Flag on board her, fhe is fitted and decorated in a very extraordinary and beautiful Manner, by the moft able Carver and Painter in England; particularly her Cabbins and State Rooms in Baffo-relievo, reprefenting the Royal Navy of Great Britain”.

In the event, HMS Royal George was mounted with 108 guns. During its last homeward voyage to Portsmouth, more than the usual amount of seawater had leaked into the hold, and as part of the preparations for sailing to Gibraltar with supplies to relieve the Rock during its siege it was ordered to enter drydock to repair hull damage. However, Historic England relates:

the carpenter and other persons, on a strict survey, found it was not more than two feet below the water mark and was supposed to be occasioned by the rubbing off the copper sheathing. It was then resolved, in order to save time, to heave her down at Spithead. This is then generally accomplished by bringing the ship’s guns to one side, and heeling her till the place where the damage is supposed to be appears above water. On Thursday morning at 6 o’clock, the weather being moderate, this business was commenced, and the ship by 10 was got to a proper situation for discovering the leak, but in order to take off some further sheets of copper, she was ordered to be lowered another streak. During this business, a great part of the crew, which were within 60 of her real complement (970 men) were at breakfast, the messes having been just served out; on a sudden, by a gust of wind, as is reported, the ship fell on one side, and the lower deck ports being open, she filled in about 8 minutes, and then went to the bottom”.

Families of the sailors being the custom of the period, and work men from the Docks, were on board and although the actual number of fatalities was never established, around 900 souls are thought to have perished. The remains, as a danger to navigation, were later salvaged and largely disbursed, although a mound at the site remains today.

Amongst other items, some of the Royal George’s timbers were salvaged and auctioned. Selected timber was fashioned into souvenir books, several examples being made, one of which can be seen at the Shipwreck Centre.

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