Sea Stories

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.

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