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Explosion Of His B Majesty's Ship Amphion






The Amphion frigate, Captain Israel Pellow, after having cruised some
time in the North Seas, had at length received an order to join the
squadron of frigates commanded by Sir Edward Pellow. She was on her
passage, when a hard gale of wind occasioning some injury to the
fore-mast, obliged her to put back into Plymouth, off which place she
then was.--She accordingly came into the sound, anchored there on the
19th, and went up into harbor the next morning.

On the 22d, at about half past four P. M. a violent shock, as of an
earthquake, was felt at Stone-house, and extended as far off as the
Royal Hospital and the town of Plymouth.--The sky towards the Dock
appeared red, like the effect of a fire; for near a quarter of an hour
the cause of this appearance could not be ascertained, though the
streets were crowded with people running different ways in the utmost
consternation.

When the alarm and confusion had somewhat subsided, it first began to
be known that the shock had been occasioned by the explosion of the
Amphion. Several bodies and mangled remains were picked up by the
boats in Hamoaze; and their alacrity on this occasion was particularly
remarked and highly commended. The few who remained alive of the crew
were conveyed, in a mangled state, to the Royal Hospital. As the
frigate was originally manned from Plymouth the friends and relations
of her unfortunate ship's company mostly lived in the neighborhood.
It is dreadful to relate what a scene took place--arms, legs and
lifeless trunks, mangled and disfigured by gunpowder, were collected
and deposited at the hospital, having been brought in sacks to be
owned. Bodies still living, some with the loss of limbs, others having
expired as they were being conveyed thither; men, women and children,
whose sons, husbands and fathers were among the unhappy number,
flocking round the gates, intreating admittance. During the first
evening nothing was ascertained concerning the cause of this event,
though numerous reports were instantly circulated. The few survivors,
who, by the following day, had, in some degree regained the use of
their senses, could not give the least account. One man who was
brought alive to the Royal Hospital, died before night, another before
the following morning; the boatswain and one of the sailors appeared
likely, with great care, to do well.--Three or four men who were at
work in the tops, were blown up with them and falling into the water,
were picked up with very little hurt. These, with the two before
mentioned, and one of the sailors' wives, were supposed to be the only
survivors, besides the captain and two of the lieutenants.

The following particulars were, however, collected from the
examination of several persons before Sir Richard King, the
port-admiral, and the information procured from those, who saw the
explosion from the Dock.

The first person known to have observed any thing was a young
midshipman in the Cambridge guard-ship, lying not far distant from the
place where the Amphion blew up; who having a great desire to observe
every thing relative to a profession into which he had just entered,
was looking through a glass at the frigate, as she lay along side of
the sheer-hulk, and was taking in her bowsprit. She was lashed to the
hulk; and the Yarmouth, an old receiving ship, was lying on the
opposite side, quite close to her, and both within a few yards of the
Dock-yard jetty. The midshipman said, that the Amphion suddenly
appeared to rise altogether upright from the surface of the water,
until he nearly saw her keel; the explosion then succeeded; the masts
seemed to be forced up into the air, and the hull instantly to sink.
All this passed in the space of two minutes.

The man who stood at the Dock-yard stairs, said, that the first he
heard of it was a kind of hissing noise, and then followed the
explosion, when he beheld the masts blown up into the air. It was very
strongly reported that several windows were broken in the Dock by the
explosion, and that in the Dock-yard much mischief was done by the
Amphion's guns going off when she blew up; but though the shock was
felt as far off as Plymouth, and at Stone-house, enough to shake the
windows, yet it is a wonderful and miraculous fact, that surrounded as
she was in the harbor, with ships close along side of the jetty, and
lashed to another vessel, no damage was done to any thing but herself.
It is dreadful to reflect, that owing to their intention of putting to
sea the next day, there were nearly one hundred men, women and
children, more than her complement on board, taking leave of their
friends, besides the company who were at two dinners given in the
ship, one of which was by the captain.

Captain Israel Pellow, and Captain William Swaffield, of his Majesty's
ship Overyssel, who was at dinner with him and the first lieutenant,
were drinking their wine; when the first explosion threw them off
their seats, and struck them against the carlings of the upper deck,
so as to stun them. Captain Pellow, however, had sufficient presence
of mind to fly to the cabin windows, and seeing the two hawsers, one
slack in the bit and the other taut, threw himself with an amazing
leap, which he afterwards said, nothing but his sense of danger could
have enabled him to take, upon the latter, and by that means saved
himself from the general destruction, though his face had been badly
cut against the carlings, when he was thrown from his seat. The first
lieutenant saved himself in the same manner, by jumping out of the
window, and by being also a remarkable good swimmer; but Captain
Swaffield, being, as it was supposed, more stunned, did not
escape.--His body was found on the twenty-second of October, with his
skull fractured, appearing to have been crushed between the sides of
two vessels.

The centinel at the cabin door happened to be looking at his watch;
how he escaped no one can tell, not even himself. He was, however,
brought on shore, and but little hurt; the first thing he felt was,
that his watch was dashed out of his hands, after which he was no
longer sensible of what happened to him. The boatswain was standing on
the cat-head, the bowsprit had been stepped for three hours; the
gammoning and every thing on; and he was directing the men in rigging
out the jib-boom, when suddenly he felt himself driven upwards and
fell into the sea. He then perceived that he was entangled in the
rigging, and had some trouble to get clear, when being taken up by a
boat belonging to one of the men of war, they found that his arm was
broken. One of the surviving seamen declared to an officer of rank,
that he was preserved in the following truly astonishing manner:--He
was below at the time the Amphion blew up, and went to the bottom of
the ship, he recollected that he had a knife in his pocket, and taking
it out, cut his way through the companion of the gun-room, which was
already shattered with the explosion; then letting himself up to the
surface of the water, he swam unhurt to the shore. He shewed his knife
to the officer, and declared he had been under water full five
minutes.

It was likewise said, that one of the sailors' wives had a young child
in her arms; the fright of the shock made her take such fast hold of
it, that though the upper part of her body alone remained, the child
was found alive locked fast in her arms, and likely to do well.

Mr. Spry, an auctioneer, who had long lived in great respectability at
Dock, with his son and god-son, had gone on board to visit a friend,
and were all lost.

About half an hour before the frigate blew up, one of her lieutenants,
and Lieutenant Campbell of the marines and some of the men got into
the boat at the dock-yard stairs, and went off to the ship. Lieutenant
Campbell had some business to transact at the Marine barracks in the
morning, and continuing there some time, was engaged by the officers
to stay to dinner and spend the evening with them. Some persons,
however, who had, in the interval, come from the Amphion, informed
Lieutenant Campbell that there were some letters on board for him. As
they were some which he was extremely anxious to receive, he left the
barracks about half an hour before dinner to fetch them, intending to
return immediately; but while he was on board the ship blew up.--He
was a young man universally respected end lamented by the corps, as
well as by all who knew him. One of the lieutenants who lost his life
was the only support of an aged mother and sister, who, at his death,
had neither friend nor relation left to comfort and protect them. The
number of people who were afterwards daily seen at Dock, in deep
mourning for their lost relatives, was truly melancholy.

Captain Pellow was taken up by the boats and carried to Commissioner
Fanshaw's house in the dock-yard, very weak with the exertions he had
made, and so shocked with the distressing cause of them, that he at
first appeared scarcely to know where he was, or to be sensible of his
situation. In the course of a day or two, when he was a little
recovered, he was removed to the house of a friend, Dr. Hawker of
Plymouth.

Sir Richard King had given a public dinner in honor of the coronation.
Captain Charles Rowley, of the Unite frigate, calling in the morning,
was engaged to stay, and excused himself from dining, as he had
previously intended, on board the Amphion.

Captain Darby of the Bellerophon, was also to have dined with Captain
Pellow, and had come round in his boat from Cawsand Bay; but having to
transact some business concerning the ship with Sir Richard King, it
detained him half an hour longer at Stone-house than he expected. He
had just gone down to the beach and was stepping into the boat to
proceed up to Hamoaze, when he heard the fatal explosion. Captain
Swaffield was to have sailed the next day, so that the difference of
twenty-four hours would have saved that much lamented and truly
valuable officer. His brother Mr. J. Swaffield, of the Pay-Office,
being asked to the same dinner, had set off with him from Stone-house,
but before he had reached Dock a person came after him upon business,
which obliged him to return, and thus saved him from sharing his
brother's untimely fate.

Many conjectures were formed concerning the cause of this catastrophe.
Some conceived it to be owing to neglect, as the men were employed in
drawing the guns, and contrary to rule, had not extinguished all the
fires, though the dinners were over. This, however, the first
lieutenant declared to be impossible, as they could not be drawing the
guns, the key of the magazine hanging, to his certain knowledge, in
his cabin at the time. Some of the men likewise declared that the guns
were drawn in the Sound before they came up Hamoaze. It was also
insinuated, that it was done intentionally, as several of the bodies
were afterwards found without clothes, as if they had prepared to jump
overboard before the ship could have time to blow up. As no mutiny had
ever appeared in the ship, it seems unlikely that such a desperate
plot should have been formed, without any one who survived having the
least knowledge of it. It is, besides, a well known fact, that in
almost every case of shipwreck where there is a chance of plunder,
there are wretches so destitute of the common feelings of humanity as
to hover round the scene of horror, in hopes, by stripping the bodies
of the dead, and seizing whatever they can lay their hands on, to
benefit themselves.

It was the fore magazine which took fire; had it been the after one,
much more damage must have ensued. The moment the explosion was heard,
Sir Richard King arose from dinner, and went in his boat on board the
hulk, where the sight he beheld was dreadful; the deck covered with
blood, mangled limbs and entrails blackened with gunpowder, the shreds
of the Amphion's pendant and rigging hanging about her, and pieces of
her shattered timbers strewed all around. Some people at dinner in the
Yarmouth, though at a very small distance, declared that the report
they heard did not appear to be louder than the firing of a cannon
from the Cambridge, which they imagined it to be, and had never risen
from dinner, till the confusion upon deck led them to think that some
accident had happened.

At low water, the next day, about a foot and a half of one of the
masts appeared above water; and for several days the dock-yard men
were employed in collecting the shattered masts and yards, and
dragging out what they could procure from the wreck. On the
twenty-ninth, part of the fore-chains was hauled, shattered and
splintered, also the head and cut-water.

On the 3d of October an attempt was made to raise the Amphion,
between the two frigates, the Castor and Iphigenia, which were
accordingly moored on each side of her; but nothing could be got up,
excepting a few pieces of the ship, one or two of her guns, some of
the men's chests, chairs, and part of the furniture of the cabin.
Some bodies floated out from between decks, and among the rest a
midshipman's.--These, and all that could be found, were towed round
by boats through Stone-house bridge up to the Royal Hospital stairs,
to be interred in the burying ground. The sight for many weeks was
truly dreadful, the change of tide, washing out the putrid bodies,
which were towed round by the boats when they would scarcely hold
together.

Bodies continued to be found so late as the 30th of November, when the
Amphion having been dragged round to another part of the dock-yard
jetty to be broken up, the body of a woman was washed out from between
decks. A sack was also dragged up, containing gunpowder, covered over
at the top with biscuit, and this in some measure, confirmed an idea
which had before gained ground, that the gunner had been stealing
powder to sell, and had concealed what he could get out by degrees in
the above manner; and that, thinking himself safe on a day when every
one was entertaining his friends he had carelessly been among the
gunpowder without taking the necessary precautions. As he was said to
have been seen at Dock very much in liquor in the morning, it seems
probable that this might have been the cause of a calamity as sudden
as it was dreadful.





Next: Loss Of H B M Ship La Tribune Off Halifax Nova Scotia

Previous: Adventures Of Philip Ashton Who After Escaping From Pirates Lived Sixteen Months In Solitude On A Desolate Island



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