King George conducts a review of the Grand Fleet – May 1778
With war against France now inevitable, a grand fleet began commissioning at Spithead under the command of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel. Ever anxious to involve himself in the administration of the realm, and being an attentive follower of all matters naval, King George III resolved to make ‘an informal visit’ to Portsmouth where he felt his presence would add some impulse to the fleet’s preparations.
Admiral Keppel might have thought the visit an unwelcome imposition at a time when his officers and men were busily preparing their ships for sea, the more so that the French Toulon fleet was known to have departed the Mediterranean and there was an urgent requirement to detach some reinforcement for their likely destination, the North American station. Some mollification came prior to the visit when Lord Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty, wrote requesting that Keppel arrange an entertaining and informative reception for the King, but advised that he should not hesitate to put to sea if circumstances dictated – after all such a spectacle would be the ‘highest entertainment’ the Royals could witness.
It was not the King’s first journey to a naval establishment that year, for he had recently visited both Chatham and Sheerness where he had seen at first hand the newly commissioned Victory 100. He arrived at Portsmouth on Saturday 2 May with Queen Charlotte and Lord Sandwich amongst his entourage and was escorted to the Governor’s House as the local populace cheered and sang ‘God Save the King’. The next day, Sunday, saw the great and good attend the Royal Garrison Chapel where a service was given by the Reverend George Cuthbert, chaplain to the King and vicar of Portsmouth.
At 10 o’clock on the morning of Monday 4 May the review of the fleet began with the royal yacht Princess Augusta sailing out to the anchorage attended by the senior officers in their barges, and accompanied by twenty-one gun salutes blasting out from each and every vessel they passed by. At 11 o’clock the King raised his royal standard aboard Keppel’s flagship, the Prince George 90, to the accompaniment of a further twenty-one gun salute from the assembled vessels. Later in the day the royal party dined under an awning aboard the Prince George. On 5 May the festivities were repeated, with Queen Charlotte receiving the courtesy of a fleet review during the afternoon and revelling in the devoted loyalty the officers and men displayed for her husband.
As the week progressed King George was plagued with letters from the nervous prime minster, Lord North, who had strong reservations over his ability to conduct a war with France and wanted to resign his office. If the monarch was concerned with his troubles back in London he did not show it, for he could not have been happier as he chatted away to all and sundry, showing a keen interest in the mechanics of the seaman’s trade, and taking time out to visit the store houses, the fortifications, a smith’s works, and the rope works. One of his most enjoyable mornings was spent studying the sheathing of the Centaur 74, which he described as ‘quite compleat’, marvelling at the fact that it was finished in half a day. He also spent some time with Sandwich and Keppel discussing the dispositions of the fleet, and oblivious to the irony that his visit had diverted them from the task of preparing for sea, he urged the prompt dispatch of a squadron to shadow the French Toulon fleet. After extending his review from five days to a week in order to see Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker’s squadron drop down to St. Helen’s he finally left for London on 9 May.
Several days later each vessel received additional supplies from the King to thank them for their part in the review. For the officers involved there were honours galore; the commissioner Captain Sam Hood, and the officer who steered the royal barge, Captain Sir Richard Bickerton, were both created baronets, and Captain Digby Dent of the port commander-in-chief’s flagship was knighted. Commanders Anthony Parrey, Thomas Gaborian, and Farmery Epworth were posted captain, and additionally a whole array of lieutenants and midshipmen were promoted, the former including such future luminaries as William George Fairfax, Robert Simonton and Philip Patton, the latter including Lord Robert Manners and Lord Charles Fitzgerald. Having been senior lieutenant aboard the yacht Princess Augusta, Lieutenant Thomas Hicks was promoted to the rank of commander, as was the senior lieutenant of Vice-Admiral Montagu’s flagship, Abraham Crespin.
Not everybody was pleased with the proceedings, and in the House of Commons the opposition complained of the fleet lying inactive at Spithead for the ‘mere parade of a naval review’ whilst the Toulon fleet was already at sea. But clearly the visit had been a success, and for a time at least any differences over the commitment to war against the American colonies was set aside as the officers and men, the artisans and citizens, displayed their devotion for a King who cheerfully reciprocated it and did much to raise the morale of the navy prior to resuming hostilities with the old enemy, France.
Principal ships involved in the fleet review:
|Princess Amelia 80||Admiral Sir Thomas Pye|
|Captain Digby Dent|
|Prince George 90||Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel|
|Captain Jonathon Faulknor|
|Europa 64||Vice-Admiral John Montagu|
|Captain Francis Parry|
|Queen 90||Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland|
|Captain Isaac Prescott|
|Ocean 90||Vice-Admiral Sir Hugh Palliser|
|Captain John Bazely|
|Prince of Wales 74||Rear-Admiral Hon. Samuel Barrington|
|Captain Benjamin Hill|
|Royal Oak 74||Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker|
|Captain Henry Francis Evans|
|Invincible 74||Commodore John Evans|
|Captain Anthony Parrey|