On the 29th of August, 1782, it was found necessary that the Royal
George, a line-of-battle ship of 108 guns, which had lately arrived at
Spithead from a cruise, should, previously to her going again to sea,
undergo the operation which seamen technically call a Parliament heel.
In such cases the ship is inclined in a certain degree on one side,
while the defects below the water-mark on the other side are examined
and repaired. This mode of proceeding is, we believe at the present
day, very commonly adopted where the defects to be repaired are not
extensive, or where (as was the case with the Royal George) it is
desirable to avoid the delay of going into dock. The operation is
usually performed in still weather and smooth water, and is attended
with so little difficulty and danger, that the officers and crew
usually remain on board, and neither the guns nor stores are removed.
The business was commenced on the Royal George early in the morning, a
gang of men from the Portsmouth Dock-yard coming on board to assist
the ship's carpenters. It is said that, finding it necessary to strip
off more of the sheathing than had been intended, the men in their
eagerness to reach the defect in the ship's bottom, were induced to
heel her too much, when a sudden squall of wind threw her wholly on
her side; and the gun-ports being open, and the cannon rolling over to
the depressed side, the ship was unable to right herself,
instantaneously filled with water, and went to the bottom.
The fatal accident happened about ten o'clock in the morning. Admiral
Kempenfeldt was writing in his cabin, and the greater part of the
people were between decks. The ship, as is usually the case upon
coming into port, was crowded with people from the shore, particularly
women, of whom it is supposed there were not less than three hundred
on board. Amongst the sufferers were many of the wives and children of
the petty officers and seamen, who, knowing the ship was shortly to
sail on a distant and perilous service, eagerly embraced the
opportunity of visiting their husbands and fathers.
The Admiral, with many brave officers and most of those who were
between decks, perished; the greater number of the guard, and those
who happened to be on the upper deck, were saved by the boats of the
fleet. About seventy others were likewise saved. The exact number of
persons on board at the time could not be ascertained; but it was
calculated that from 800 to 1000 were lost. Captain Waghorn whose
gallantry in the North Sea Battle, under Admiral Parker, had procured
him the command of this ship, was saved, though he was severely
bruised and battered; but his son, a lieutenant in the Royal George,
perished. Such was the force of the whirlpool, occasioned by the
sudden plunge of so vast a body in the water, that a victualler which
lay alongside the Royal George was swamped; and several small craft,
at a considerable distance, were in imminent danger.
Admiral Kempenfeldt, who was nearly 70 years of age, was peculiarly
and universally lamented. In point of general science and judgment, he
was one of the first naval officers of his time; and, particularly in
the art of manoeuvring a fleet, he was considered by the commanders of
that day as unrivalled. His excellent qualities, as a man, are said to
have equalled his professional merits.
This melancholy occurrence has been recorded by the poet Cowper, in
the following beautiful lines:--
Toll for the brave!
The brave, that are no more:
All sunk beneath the wave,
Fast by their native shore.
Eight hundred of the brave,
Whose courage well was tried,
Had made the vessel heel,
And laid her on her side.
A land-breeze shook the shrouds,
And she was overset;
Down went the Royal George,
With all her crew complete.
Toll for the brave!
Brave Kempenfeldt is gone;
His last sea-fight is fought;
His work of glory done.
It was not in the battle;
No tempest gave the shock,
She sprang no fatal leak;
She ran upon no rock.
His sword was in its sheath;
His fingers held the pen,
When Kempenfeldt went down,
With twice four hundred men.
Weigh the vessel up,
Once dreaded by our foes!
And mingle with our cup
The tear that England owes.
Her timbers yet are sound,
And she may float again,
Full charg'd with England's thunder
And plough the distant main.
But Kempenfeldt is gone,
His victories are o'er;
And he, and his eight hundred,
Shall plough the wave no more.