Sir Edward Pellew and the Wreck of the Dutton – 26 January 1796

by | Nov 8, 2022 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


There was not one other officer in the Navy who was the equal in practical seamanship of Captain Sir Edward Pellew of the Indefatigable 44, and there were few that could match his personal courage, self-belief, or sheer presence. As a youngster he had undertaken gymnastic displays at the masthead for his captain’s guests, and as a frigate captain he had captured France’s finest vessel of that class, the Cléopâtre 40, and one of her biggest, the Pomone 44. He was the pride of the frigate commanders at sea, and of his beloved Devon and Cornwall at home, and it was thus most providential that Sir Edward and his wife were on their way to dine with a local vicar at Plymouth on the afternoon of 26 January when a ship with some five hundred people aboard drove ashore below the Citadel during a furious storm.

The vessel was a troop-carrying East Indiaman, the Dutton, Captain Peter Sampson, which had been in service for approximately three years and was copper-bottomed. In addition to her crew, she was carrying several hundred troops from the 2nd, 3rd, 10th, and 37th Regiments, together with some of their families. Many of those aboard were ill with a fever, and the Dutton had reportedly lost thirty-five men to this sickness after sailing from St. Helens on 9 December with Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian’s ill-feted West Indian expedition. Having separated from that storm-battered fleet to the west of the Bay of Biscay on 21 January, she had been forced into Plymouth Sound on the afternoon of the 25th, where she had managed to ride out a south south-westerly storm during the night whilst awaiting a tide to enter the Cattewater. Significantly, her captain appears to have gone ashore on her arrival that afternoon.

The Wreck of the Dutton

Come nine o’clock on the tempestuous morning of Tuesday 26 January, the Dutton began to drift towards the rocks at the western end of Mount Batten Island. Such was the violence of the storm that, unknown to the local pilots, the buoy on Cobbler’s Reef had been washed away, and in ignorance of her peril she grounded on a shoal at 11.15. Realising that if she drove ashore on the island all would be lost, her remaining officers slipped her cables and set a foretopsail in the hope of running for the Cattewater. In doing so they turned the ship’s head towards the Citadel, thereby enabling her to clear Mount Batten Point, but having lost the use of her rudder she became unmanageable, and she was instead blown helplessly across the harbour to strike onto sunken rocks just below the Citadel flagstaff at about 12.30. Here she bilged and began to fill with water.

In the hope of both forming an escape bridge and reducing the roll of the ship, the crew began to hack away at the masts so that they would fall towards the shore. Unfortunately, before this task could be completed, the Dutton was thrust so violently against the rocks that the masts came crashing down of their own accord, fracturing uselessly as they did so. Some of the crew and soldiers attempted to use the wreckage to scramble ashore, but with the sea breaking over them this was a treacherous enterprise, and although most managed to scramble back aboard the ship, a handful who were hanging by ropes under the main chains were struck by the remains of the mainmast falling down upon them and they drowned. Another man also perished when the bowsprit crashed down upon him.

A witness arriving at the scene at this point later described how the ship was heeled to one side, and that its deck was thronged with closely packed troops who were being swamped by the sea breaking over them. Above the cacophony of the angry storm, the Citadel guns could be heard firing out distress signals. It was a sound that only added to the grimness of the desperate situation.

Even though he was suffering from a partially healed wound, Pellew jumped out of his carriage as soon as he became aware of the impending tragedy, and he made his way through a gathering crowd on the Hoe to the scene of the wreck. Observing the Dutton on her beam ends in the surf, he found that some people had managed to get ashore, having escaped by a single rope from the ship that was being hauled in by local people who had come down to help, despite the danger of being swept off the rocks. However, it was apparent that this was not only a particularly slow but also a dangerous process, for with the ship rolling and pitching in the surf, a man could find himself propelled some twenty feet into the air or be plunged below the heaving sea as the line was alternately extended and retracted. Hundreds of soldiers, sailors, women, and children still remained aboard the Dutton, but none would dare to take to the rope.

As the raging storm increased with the accompaniment of a thunderstorm which saw the nearby Pomone 44, Captain Thomas Eyles, struck by lightning, Pellew’s attempts to communicate with the Dutton via a speaking trumpet were stifled by the weather’s violence. He tried pleading for a volunteer from the Plymouth boatmen and pilots amongst the crowd to be swung aboard so that they could pass on his advice to the Dutton’s remaining officers, but none dare leave the safety of the shore, despite his offer of money to do so. Refusing to give in to the elements and ignoring the risk that the flood tide might completely wreck the ship, Pellew decided that there was nothing else to do but to be hauled across himself and take control of the rescue of the stranded people.

Sir Edward Pellew

Being dragged through the mountainous sea amidst the disintegrating and potentially lethal wreckage of the Dutton with the rope lashed around his waist was immensely difficult for Pellew, not least because of his incapacitating injury. Much of his passage was spent under water, as the line could not be hauled taut to the shore in case it snapped under the strain of the stricken vessel. Eventually, he struggled aboard the Dutton, whereupon he made his way up to the quarterdeck and announced himself. His very name and demeanour apparently brought a calming influence on most of the panic-stricken throng assembled there, and a witness claimed that his arrival was greeted by three cheers both on the wreck and ashore. Yet not all aboard the Dutton were to be compliant, for a number of soldiers had broken into the spirit room and would only be returned to order once Pellew drew his sword and let it be known that he would cut down anyone who failed to adhere to his instructions. Even then, at least one soldier who still proved recalcitrant suffered the flat of the naval captain’s sword across his body before he fell into line.

Pellew now assembled a party which began to fix travellers and hauling lines to another hawser in order to speed the process of transferring men ashore. Shortly afterwards, a small boat with two brave men belonging to an Irish merchant brig came alongside to offer help, one of whom was the twenty-year-old mate, Jeremiah Coghlan. The youngster tied a rope around his body and jumped straight into the freezing waters, from where he dragged two men to the shore, repeating this feat to rescue several more. With fatigue overpowering him he nevertheless had the wit to realise that by 2 p.m. the gale was abating, so he raced around to the Barbican and commandeered another boat in which he was able to get the near the wreck and take off yet more survivors. Come the end of the day, it would be estimated that Coghlan’s exertions alone had ensured the lives of fifty people.

Back on the wreck, Pellew stood by the hawser and with his sword still drawn supervised the transfer ashore of the able bodied. It said much for the confusion of the situation that Captain Sampson, who appears to have been hauled back aboard the Dutton by a rope at 2 p.m., together with several of his officers and Major Thomas Eyre of the Queen’s Royal Regiment, would subsequently claim that an admirable order had prevailed aboard the stricken Dutton throughout the day, and that prior to Pellew’s arrival, two hundred men had been conveyed ashore by the ropes after patiently waiting their turn. Whilst conveying their thanks for Pellew’s assistance, they would claim that the Dutton’s chief officer had always remained in command. Other naval officers would also be heralded for their part in the rescue, including a Mr Edsell, who was the signal midshipman to the port admiral, and Lieutenant Robert Evans of the Concorde 36, Captain Anthony Hunt, which frigate also happened to be at the port.

By about 3 p.m. the storm had begun to abate and row-boats from the Indefatigable and the shore were able to come alongside the Dutton and take off the last three hundred and eighty or so women, children, sick, soldiers and crew, conveying them to a larger vessel which had come out from Plymouth Pool and was standing off nearby. Pellew stood sentry with his drawn sword to ensure that the boats were not swamped by people eager to make good their escape, and he personally carried a new-born baby down into one boat to hand it over to its grateful mother. He was also one of the last men to leave the ship, along with two of the Dutton’s officers, typically taking the hawser to the shore rather than waiting to be evacuated by a boat.

By 5 p.m. the Dutton was full of water, and she toppled over after the last of the crew, but reportedly not a dozen or so desperately ill men in their hammocks, had been rescued. On the next day she broke up on the rocks and her lighter stores and casks washed out of her. The wreckage remained in situation until 19 August 1802 when what was left was buoyed up and taken into the Sutton Pool to be sold off. The number of people lost was never ascertained, but although it may have been up to twenty it was thankfully hundreds less than might have been but for the efforts of Captain Pellew, the Dutton’s officers, and Jeremiah Coghlan.

Pellew’s bravery had taken its toll, and it resulted in him being confined to bed for a week. Nevertheless, his conduct saw him voted the freedom of the borough of Plymouth when the Corporation met at the Guildhall on the following Saturday, and weeks later he was deservedly created a baronet by the King. Somewhat appropriately, he chose an image of the stricken Dutton to decorate his coat of arms. Another beneficiary of the day was Jeremiah Coghlan, who had so impressed Pellew in his own efforts to rescue life that the great man offered him a position aboard the Indefatigable. It was an opportunity that Coghlan seized to such effect that despite his humble origins, he would rise up through the ranks and die as a post-captain.