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


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


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


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


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.

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