Perhaps the worst disaster ever to befall the Isles of Scilly was that of the British Fleet led by Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell in 1707. It was certainly one of the greatest losses of life in maritime history
In the summer of 1707 Admiral of the Fleet Sir Cloudesley Shovell, darling of the establishment, was dispatched to the siege of Toulon with a fleet of British Warships.
The allied forces of The Netherlands and Austria under the command of Prince Eugene and Victor Amadeus Duke of Savoy were sieging the city, but needed the help of the British Fleet. Ultimately the land forces had to retreat due to the threat of an army being dispatched to support the French. However, Sir Cloudesley Shovell and his fleet attacked the French fleet sinking several ships, and causing the French to scuttle their own ships to prevent the English taking them.
Their intention was to refloat them once the threat had passed, but ultimately they were unable to save a large number of vessels.
Despite the siege being a clear failure, Shovell’s actions turned a loss into a clear win for the English. And not for the first time. Rear Admiral Sir Cloudesley Shovell had made a career of beating the odds. He’d started off as a cabin boy and risen through the ranks to command the entire fleet.
In every way he was the golden boy of the British Empire.
The Voyage Home
Aboard his flagship the HMS Association he led a flotilla of 21 ships home from Gibraltar. They set off on the 29th September to sail north. None of them had the slightest idea of the disaster that was to come.
The fleet consisted of fifteen ships of the line, four fireships, one sloop, and one yacht.
- Association, flagship of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, Admiral and Commander-in-Chief, Captain Edmund Loades.
- Royal Ann, flagship of Sir George Byng, Vice-Admiral of the Blue. Captain James Monypenny.
- Torbay, flagship of Sir John Norris, Rear-Admiral of the Blue. Captain William Faulkner.
- George, Captain James Lord Dursley, (afterwards 3rd Earl of Berkeley.)
- Somerset, Captain John Price.
- Monmouth, Captain John Baker.
- Eagle, Captain Robert Hancock.
- Lenox, Captain Sir William Jumper.
- Swiftsure, Captain Richard Griffith.
- Orford, Captain Charles Cornewall.
- Rumney, Captain William Coney.
- Panther, Captain Henry Hobart.
- Rye, Captain Edward Vernon.
- La Valeur, Captain Robert Johnson.
- Cruiser, Captain John Shales.
- Phoenix, (fireship) Captain Michael Sansom.
- Firebrand, (fireship) Captain Francis Percy.
- Vulcan, (fireship) Captain William Ockman.
- Griffin, (fireship) Captain William Houlding.
- Weazel, (sloop) Captain James Gunman.
- Isabella, (yacht) Captain Finch Redall.
Passengers on the Association
Aboard the Association with Sir Cloudesley were Sir John Narborough, Baronet, and his brother James. They were the sons of Sir Cloudesley’s wife by her first husband Admiral Sir John Narborough. With them was Henry Trelawney, son of the Bishop of Winchester and a number of other young members of the Gentry. Even the Captain of the Association, Edmund Loades was related to Sir Cloudesley distantly. His mother was Lady Cloudesley’s first husband’s sister.
Early in their journey towards home the weather worsened. As they reached the Atlantic a series of heavy squalls and gales began to drive them off course. As they sailed the storms grew worse until on the morning of the 22nd October Sir Cloudesley Shovell called a council of his senior officers.
Sir Cloudesley Shovell Calls a Council
Among them were two other admirals, Sir George Byng, Vice Admiral of the Blue was on the HMS Royal Anne, and Sir John Norris, Rear Admiral of the Blue was on the HMS Torbay. Together the three admirals and the Masters of all the vessels met on the Association.
Because of the terrible weather the system used at the time to determine longitude (east – west position) was dead reckoning. Essentially looking at the speed the ship is travelling and the direction and hazarding an educated guess.
The problem with this was that determining latitude with any accuracy was reliant on being able to take readings off the horizon and fixed points in the night sky. The terrible weather had rendered this inaccurate too.
The council ordered depth soundings to be taken, and also samples of the sea bed. Together these showed fairly conclusively that they were not far from land. Everyone agreed it was likely to be the island of Ushant at the entrance to the English Channel.
Everyone apart from one man.
The Lone Voice
Captain Sir William Jumper, Master of the Lenox, and experienced Naval officer with a long history of success disagreed. His calculations put them near Scilly. He even stated that they in less than three hours of sailing they would see the Scilly Light. The lighthouse on St Agnes, which was at the time the only one on the islands.
He was of course outvoted, and the decision was made to change course to head North East into the open waters of the channel.
The council determined that a small group of ships should go on ahead to Falmouth to escort the merchant vessels there. Jumper’s Lenox, as well as the La Valeur, and the Phoenix were chosen for this. They sailed ahead to the North East as had been determined, but shortly afterwards found themselves in amongst the rocks off Scilly. It was growing dark, and the Phoenix was holed. Her crew managed by luck more than judgement to run her aground on a sandbank between Tresco and St Martins. The other two ships made it through to Broad Sound where they anchored up until morning.
Several hours later the rest of the fleet followed on behind. As it was growing dark Jumper was proved correct. The light from St Agnes was seen from the Association.
However, Sir Cloudesley took this to confirm that he was indeed near the coast of France, and directed the fleet to sail to the west of the light.
Sadly, he was far from right, and by his actions he led the entire fleet into the Western Rocks.
The Wreck of the Fleet
The Association led the way through the gales and the driving wind. The Eagle, St George, Rumney, Royal Ann, Torbay, Monmouth following close behind.
The Association was the first boat to strike the rocks. It hit the Outer Gilstone rock and sank immediately taking all of her 800-strong crew and 100 passengers down with her. Sir Cloudesley survived, we will come to that shortly. The St George struck the same rocks, but the next wave that swamped the Association lifted the St George clear and into deep water with minimal damage.
Captain Griffiths of the Swiftsure recorded hearing a gun from the Association being fired as a warning and then the ship vanishing from sight.
The Eagle hit Crim Rock and sank with all hands. It is thought that her crew was a similar size to that of the Association.
The Rumney, a smaller warship with a crew of 290 hit Bishop Rock and sank. One man managed to escape and was later rescued. George Lawrence, a former butcher before taking post as Quartermaster of the Rumney was the only person out of almost 1900 men on three ships to survive.
The fireship Firebrand struck the Gilstone ledge, but was lifted clear by a wave, and the Captain Michael Sansom managed to get her into Smith Sound in-between St Agnes and Annet. Twenty-Eight of his crew of Forty men drowned.
It is hard to comprehend the panic that must have ensued as each ship realized the danger they were in independently. They scattered, some to the north, some to the south, some anchored where they were.
A First Hand Account
The journal entry of Captain Redall of the Isabella comes some way to doing it justice.
“we perceived ye rocks on both sides of us, we being very near to them we immediately wore our yacht and layed our head to e westward, crowding all ye sail we could to weather ye rocks under our lee, we filled full and full, & by God’s mercy we got clear of them all, for wch deliverance God’s holy name be blest and praised, wch caused a great separation of the fleet, for happy was he that could shift for himself, some steering with their heads to ye Soward, and others to ye Northward, and those that lay with their heads to ye Soward, were most of them lost.”
The Fate of Sir Cloudesley Shovell
The Commander in Chief, Sir Cloudesley Shovell, his two step-sons, Captain Loades, and the Admiral’s dog – a small greyhound made it to a launch in an attempt to survive. However, it was a futile attempt. Their bodies were found the next morning among wreckage in Porth Hellick Cove on St Mary’s. They were buried where they were found.
You can only imagine how many bodies must have washed up on the islands over the next day or so. However, when it comes to Sir Cloudesley Shovell there is another legend we need to tell. This one at least has some evidence to back it up.
The Legend of Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s Death
He was indeed washed up on the sand in Porth Hellick bay, but he was not dead. How he managed to stay alive in the cold waters of the Atlantic around Scilly no-one knows, but somehow he did.
He was found barely alive early the next morning by a local woman. She saw upon his hand an ornate gold ring set with a large emerald. Instead of helping him, the woman killed him and took the ring from his hand. However due to the ring’s unique nature she never sold it, instead keeping it until the end of her life.
On her deathbed the woman confessed to her crime to a local clergyman, and gave him the ring. He sent it back to the Shovell family via a contact of his, the Earl of Berkeley.
Unlike the almost certainly apocryphal tale of the Scillonian man in Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s crew, this one at least has some evidence to back it up.
The ring was indeed missing when his body was exhumed for transport back to the mainland. It was noted at the time that the ring had left a clear mark on his finger where it had sat. His wife Lady Shovell offered a large reward for the return of the ring. However, no records exist of it ever being returned. So perhaps it is not true after all.
The Victims of the great Scilly Naval disaster of 1707 were all buried on the islands, with the exception of Sir Cloudesley Shovell himself who was taken back to the mainland. He now rests in Westminster abbey beneath a large marble memorial.
The Impact of Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s Death
It is often said that it was the death of Sir Cloudesley Shovell, and the sinking of the fleet off Scilly that directly led to the Longitude act of 1714. It likely played a part, however there is little evidence that the disaster was caused by errors in calculating Longitude.
The errors in Latitude were much more significant, and even worse, when the remains of the fleet returned to Portsmouth only four compasses out of 112 were found to be accurate.
The last thing that contributed to the disaster was that charts of the time did not show the Isles of Scilly in a consistent location. There was significant variance in both latitude and longitude.
Based on the combination of all of these contributory factors it is remarkable that the fleet was only 100 miles off course. It was sheer bad luck that their mistake placed them in some of the most dangerous waters in the world.
The remaining crew of the Firebrand were court martialed on their return to Portsmouth. However, they were fully acquitted, and no blame was placed on them.
Finding The Wrecks
The wreck of the Association lay undisturbed for 250 years despite many attempts to find it. In 1967 Royal Navy divers from the HMS Puttenham located the wreck. Over time some 2000 coins and many other artefacts were brought to the surface. Many of these can be seen today in the dedicated display in the wonderful museum in St Mary’s. The attention finding Sir Cloudesley Shovell’s flagship caused led directly to the passing of the Protection of Wrecks Act 1973 in an attempt to preserve wreck sites of National significance.
Fifteen years later the wreck of the Firebrand was found, the location of the Eagle is also known. But the location of the Rumney has still not been confirmed. It has been suggested that she lies underneath the wreckage of another tragic disaster in these waters, the SS Schiller.