The following is an edited version of an article that appeared in "The History of Portsmouth" by William Gates, published in 1900
There is no sadder event in the history of Portsmouth than the sinking of the Royal George at Spithead on the 29th August, 1782. Launched at Woolwich in 1756, she was for many years considered to be one of the finest ships in the Navy [....]. The Royal George, which mounted 104 guns and carried a crew of 864 men, was always a flagship, Lord Anson, Admiral Boscawen, and Lord Rodney having flown their flags in her. Lord Hawke commanded her in the action with Conflans, when the Superbe, of 70 guns, was sunk by her shot, and the Soleil Royal, of 84 guns, driven ashore. The story of the great disaster is best told in the language of James Ingram, one of the survivors:-
"In August, 1782, the George was lying at Spithead, in company with Lord Howe's fleet ; there was the Victory, Barfleur, Ocean, and Union, all three-deckers, close to her ; the ship was to sail in two days to join the fleet in the Mediterranean. [....] On the 28th of the month, early in the morning, the seamen had been washing the decks, and the carpenter had been ordered to let the water on, when it was found that the water-cock, which was about three feet below the waterline, was out of order, and it was necessary that it should be repaired.
"The foreman came off from the Dockyard and stated it was very necessary that the ship should be canted over sufficiently to raise the mouth of the pipe, which went through the ship's side, clean out of the water in order that they might work at it. The following day, the 29th, the weather was fine with a strong breeze from the west ; shipping, about forty sail of the line, as many frigates, and two or three hundred merchant-men, were riding to the flood tide, with their heads towards Cowes. On examination it was found that the water cock must be taken out and a new one put in, to do which it was necessary to give the ship a permanent heel to larboard, so as to raise the outside of the pipe above the water ; between seven and eight o'clock the whole of the larboard guns were run out as far as they could be, and the larboard lower deck ports were open. The starboard guns were also run in amidships, and secured by the tackles; the shifting over of this great weight of metal brought the larboard lower deck port cills just level with the water ; the men were then able to get at the mouth of the pipe, and for about an hour they were working hard at it, the ship remaining all on one side ; about nine o'clock, just after breakfast, the hands had been turned up, when the last lighter, with rum on board, was alongside ; she was a sloop of fifty tons, called the Lark, and belonged to three brothers ; she was secured to the larboard side of the ship, and the hands were piped 'Clear lighter.' Some men were in the lighter slinging the casks, others at the yard tackle and stay falls, hoisting in ; some in the spirit room, stowing away ; some in the waist bearing the casks over, down the hatchway ; all very busy clearing the lighter ; almost all the men were on the larboard side, and that brought down the ship still more.
"Then the water was not quite so smooth as at first; and it began to wash into the lower deck ports, and of course had no escape, so that there was very soon a good weight of water on the lower deck. There were mice in the ship, they were disturbed by the water entering their quarters, and the men were catching them, and laughing as they swam about.
"The carpenter was the first that perceived the danger ; the casks of rum hoisted in and lying on the larboard side, before they could be lowered into the hold, made also a difference; and so the carpenter, went on deck to the Lieutenant who was officer on the watch, requesting that he would be pleased to order the ship to be righted somewhat, as she could not bear it ; but the Lieutenant, gave a very short answer to the carpenter, who then went below. He found that the water came in so fast that he saw the ship was getting beyond her bearings, and he therefore came up a second time on the quarter deck to the Lieutenant, and said to him, If you please, sir, to right the ship ; it is my duty to tell you she will not bear it any longer.'
"He spoke in a very positive way, as was his duty ; but the Lieutenant immediately answered, 'If you think, sir, that you can manage the ship better than I can, you bad better take the command.' In the waist at the time were a good many men, and they heard what the carpenter said, and what answer the Lieutenant gave. They were all aware of the danger, and felt very uncomfortable; there were plenty of good seamen on board who knew what they were about as well as the officers, and certainly much better than the one who had the watch.
"A few minutes afterwards the Lieutenant ordered the drummer to be called to beat to quarters, that the guns might be run into their places, that the ship might be righted—he had remained that time doing nothing merely because he would not be dictated to by the carpenter. The drummer's name was passed along quick enough, for all were alarmed at their situation, for the ship had just then heeled over still more. All the men jumped down off the gangways as soon as the drummer was called, and hastened down to their quarters. The drum was not beat, for the man had not time to get his drum. All hands were tumbling down the hatchways as fast as they could, that they might run their guns into their places, and so right the ship. I was stationed at the third gun from forward, on the starboard side of the lower deck ; I said to Carrol, who was the second captain of the gun, say, let us try to get on the gun without waiting for the drum, for the sooner we right the better.' We bousted out on the gun, which had been in amidships, but the ship heeled over so much that in spite of all we could do it ran in again upon us, and at the same time the water made a heavy rush into the larboard lower deck ports. 'The ship is sinking, Carrol,' I cried, 'lay hold of the ring bolt and jump out, or we shall be drowned.' He made for the ring bolt, caught it, climbed out of the port, and jumped into the sea ; I never saw him afterwards. I followed him as last as I could out of the same port, which was the one belonging to our gun, and when I was outside I perceived all the other port holes as full as they could be with the heads of men, all trying to escape, and jamming one another so that they could scarcely more one way or the other. I caught hold of the sheet anchor. which was just above me, to prevent my falling back inboard. Perceiving a woman struggling at the port, I caught hold of her, dragged her out, and threw her from me.
"The ship was now lying down so completely on her larboard broadside that the heads of the men in the ports disappeared all at once ; they all dropped back into the ship, for the port holes were now upright, and it was just as if men were trying to get out of the tops of so many chimneys, with nothing for their feet to purchase upon. Just after the men had fallen in board, there came a rush of air through the ports so violent as to blow my hat off. It was the air from the hold and decks, which, having no other vent, escaped as the water which poured in took its place. Her masts then went under water and continued for some minutes ; the starboard side of her bottom was then above water, on which many hundred men and some women had scrambled and were making sad lamentations ; this continued as long as the air in the hold supported the ship in that position, but as the water forced it out she sank from under them, the surge sweeping the people into the whirlpool.
"On touching bottom she rebounded, and finally settled, when the masts came up again ; as she lay on her larboard side, they inclined to the southward, towards the Isle of Wight, at an angle of 45 degrees, and her main topmast was then eight or ten feet above water."
The article continued with Ingram's description of his own escape and this was followed by an additional testimony by the Flag Officer aboard the Royal George, later Admiral Sir Philip C. Henderson Durham.
"I was walking the quarter-deck with the Captain, and had frequent communications with the men who were boring the hole in the ship ; the carpenter came up and said 'that the ship was taking in a great deal of water at her lee-ports, and that he thought it was time to right her.' The First Lieutenant and the carpenter immediately quitted the deck. Two or three minutes afterwards I heard the men who were over the side boring the hole for the stop-cock, call out, Avast, Avast heeling ! she is quite high enough ; the ship is rising out of the water.' Up to that moment they had been calling out for the ship to be heeled more. The Captain then ordered the ship to be righted, and I called the drummer and ordered him to beat to quarters, to run the starboard guns out, and for this purpose the guns were begun to be run out on the weather side, when the ship took a sally or tremulous motion. Looking up aloft, I saw that the masts continued to fall over, and just then I observed the Captain trying to open the door of the Admiral's cabin, but in consequence of the vessel being so much heeled, he could not do so.
Durham went on to describe his own rescue, mentioned the sunsequent court martial and that he then 'sailed with Lord Howe in the Victory and ended with the comment, "Ingram's account in most respects is quite correct; it is the most graphic I have ever read, and does him great credit,"
[Another commentator said...] "at the moment of the catastrophe upwards of one thousand two hundred persons [were] on board, including three hundred women. The watch on deck, to the number of two hundred and upwards, were saved by going out on the topsail yards, which remained above water after the ship reached the bottom. About seventy more were picked up by the boats from the other ships at Spithead. Among these were four Lieutenants and eleven women. The actual number of the lost is not accurately known, but it is believed to have been about 900.....
Many of the dead were washed ashore at Ryde and buried where Dover-street and the Strand now stand. Thirty-five bodies were interred in one grave in Kingston [St. Mary's] Churchyard. In November, 1835, in consequence of some heavy gales a number of skeletons of those who went down in the ship were exposed to view at Bembridge.
Attempts to raise the vessel were made by William Tracey in 1784, but they failed, largely on account of the lack of assistance of the Naval authorities. She was then left for half a century to be a dangerous obstruction to navigation. In 1836, Mr. John Dean, by means of the newly-invented diving apparatus, recovered, at his own expense, a number of brass guns and other relics; but it was not until 1839 that any systematic attempt was made to destroy the wreck. Tho operations were conducted by Colonel Pasley and extended over several months, huge quantities of gunpowder being used. Large portions of the ship, a number of guns, and many curious relics were thus recovered, and except for a shoal of mud covering the last vestiges, nothing now remains to mark the spot where the ill-fated ship was lying.
The Portsmouth connections of Admiral Sir Philip C. Henderson Durham
The memorials to those lost aboard the Royal George