Rear-Admiral Christian’s Convoy – 18 November 1795
In accordance with their aspiration of bankrupting the French economy and enriching its own, the British government attached great importance to the capture of the enemy’s West Indian dependencies, and thus the curtailment of Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis and General Sir Charles Grey’s 1794 expedition was quickly followed by the commissioning of another in 1795. Under the direction of Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian and General Sir Ralph Abercromby, its objectives were to re-take St. Lucia and Guadeloupe from France, and to regain control of Dominica, St. Vincent, and Grenada from the enslaved peoples who had revolted at the instigation of the French to gain control of those islands.
When Christian was appointed to lead the naval element of the expedition in August 1795, it was assumed that on his arrival in the Leeward Islands he would become subordinate to the existing commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir John Laforey. The plan was for the squadron, labelled a ‘reinforcement’ to be ready for sailing by the middle of September, which was the earliest it could sensibly depart given the hurricane season in the Caribbean. It was also expected that Christian would hoist his flag aboard the Russell 74, Captain Thomas Larcom, but in early September the Prince George 98 arrived at Portsmouth, whereupon Captain James Bowen superseded Captain William Edge and began preparing her for Christian’s flag instead. Not long afterwards, the press gangs began sweeping the Thames from Gravesend to London Bridge seeking men for the expeditionary force; however, it soon became apparent that the ‘reinforcement’, which it was reported would be escorted by at least fourteen sail of the line, would not be able to meet its anticipated sailing date.
On 30 September Christian struck his flag to go up to London, but on the following day he was on his way back to Portsmouth with orders to sail at the first available opportunity. Nevertheless, he was only able to garner nine sail of the line for his force, including his second-in-command Rear-Admiral Charles Morice Pole’s flagship Colossus 74, together with several frigates. These men-of-war remained at Spithead throughout October, with the delay being blamed on difficulties preparing the transports; however, there also appear to have been political machinations afoot back in London, for when it became apparent that Christian, not Laforey, was to lead the naval campaign in the Caribbean, the influential Admiral Sir Charles Middleton resigned his post at the Admiralty Board in protest at such a junior officer being allocated this significant responsibility.
It was not until 6 November that Christian’s flagship dropped down to St. Helens with some forty transports to await the remainder of the convoy and a favourable north-easterly wind. One batch of transports did manage to get away for Cork under the escort of the Canada 74, Dictator 64, Hindostan 54, and Abergavenny 54, the majority of which fleet was to reach the Irish port on 8 November, but Christian’s convoy only managed to sail from St. Helens on the evening of Sunday 15th November, their initial destination being the rendezvous at Cork. This delay in putting to sea was much to Christian’s concern and it was to prove disastrous. .
On the morning of Tuesday 17th November, the fleet was passing Weymouth with all sail set in light winds, but that afternoon the wind got up off Exmouth, and by the evening it had developed into a raging gale which soon transformed itself into hurricane force winds. Such was the strength of the south-westerly tempest that it became impossible for the fleet to reach the sheltered Torbay anchorage, so instead Christian ordered the ships to put about and make for the Portland Roads. The men of war with their pick of the seamen were able to come to a safe anchorage, together with several of the convoy, but many of the heavily laden and poorly manned transports and merchantmen could not weather Portland Bill, and in the desperate hours that followed a number were driven towards the perilous Chesil Beach.
Come high tide the next day, 18 November, eight vessels were flung onto Chesil Beach or began sinking so near the waterline that the anguished cries of the stranded men and women aboard could be heard on shore. A transport, the Commerce, which was carrying a large number of troops, was totally destroyed with the loss of everyone aboard. The Catherine, largely carrying dragoons and their horses, yielded just two survivors from the fifty or so people aboard, one the wife of a soldier and the other a ship’s boy. Sixteen soldiers survived from a transport, the Piedmont, which had been conveying over one hundred and fifty people. The Thomas, a ship carrying masts for Oporto, lost twelve people swept overboard, although six men were saved, including one who remained on the vessel until she was cast onto the beach, whereupon he clambered to safety. The transport Venus with ninety-six people on board gave up just nineteen survivors, some of whom also stayed with the ship until it was driven fully ashore. The entire crew of the ordnance transport Hannah were saved, although several horses drowned, whilst nine men from the transport Aeolus survived by remaining with the ship until she drove onto the top of the beach, although ten drowned by attempting to swim for the shore. The Golden Grove lost five men but eighteen survived. Overall, at least two hundred and seventy-five bodies, including many women, were to be washed up between Portland and Bridport in these horrific hours.
The actions of the local people in the tragedy appears to have ranged from benevolent hospitality towards opportunistic rapacity. Whilst survivors were welcomed into local homes and shown every kindness, witnesses reported that many of the local inhabitants resorted to plundering the spoils and the bodies that were washed ashore. Troops were summoned to protect the property, but even then, the soldiers had to fire at the looters, so keen were the latter to gain advantage from the misery. Funerals would later be held for the eighteen officers and nine women who lost their lives in the disaster, with the majority being buried in the churchyard at Wake, whilst the remaining men were interred in a mass grave beyond the beach on which they had lost their lives.
In the meantime, Christian’s flagship, the Prince George 98, was forced back to Spithead on 19th November in such a damaged state that he would be forced to shift his flag into the Glory 98, taking Captain Bowen with him. Amongst those other vessels which also returned safely to Spithead was the huge ex-French 120-gun Commerce de Marseilles, which had been converted into a store-ship. She never left port again, being retained off Gosport as a prison ship until she was broken up at Plymouth in 1802. One transport alone, the West Indiaman Stanley, made it to Barbados on 25 December with two hundred and seventy-six soldiers aboard.
Unsurprisingly, the news of the disaster caused great alarm in London, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, together with a naval lord, Rear-Admiral Lord Hugh Seymour, and the Secretary of State for War, Henry Dundas left town for Portsmouth on the night of the 20th to ascertain the damage and commence the task of preparing the fleet for a renewed departure. Meanwhile, recriminations arose between the respected Captain John Schanck, who held the role of Surveyor of Transports, and Rear-Admiral Christian, with the newspapers reporting that Christian had promised to ‘meet’ Schanck on his return from the Caribbean, this being the accepted term for a duel.
On 9 December, having waited almost a week for a fair wind, Christian put to sea again with eight ships of the line, four-50-gun vessels and a convoy totalling two hundred and eighteen ships, sixteen of which were troop transports. Once more bad weather dogged his voyage, for within three days a storm off the Scilly Islands sent the fleet scattering in all directions. The Alfred 74 suffered particularly, being obliged to run for Plymouth having lost her main, mizzen, and fore topmasts, not to mention seven topmen, and when she arrived at the Devonshire port on 17 December it was in the company of the similarly damaged Undaunted 44. The rear-admiral’s own flagship, the Glory, was swamped by a huge sea that apparently left her waterlogged for several hours. On 14 December Christian reported that only thirty-five ships were missing, but on Boxing Day he wrote that about one hundred vessels from the convoy had parted company. For over a week the fleet remained pinned to a position south-west of Cork by south-westerly winds, by 11 January it was lying-to in the Bay of Biscay, and throughout the rest of that month it was battered by the winter gales. Eventually giving up after almost two months struggling against this adverse weather, Christian returned to Spithead on 29 January with only some fifty transports in company. Fortunately, it seems that only one vessel was lost from this particular convoy, whilst a number did manage to get through to the West Indies to be protected off Barbados by the Pique 36, Captain David Milne. Regrettably, some also fell into hands of the barbaric French governor at Guadeloupe, Victor Hugues.
Once back in England, Rear-Admiral Christian was praised for having done all he could to get his armada to sea and on 17 February 1796 he was created a Knight of the Bath. Equally happily, in early March it was announced that he had resolved his differences with Captain Schanck. Come fairer spring weather he was able to put to sea again on 20 March with his flag aboard the Thunderer 74, Captain Bowen, and in company with the Invincible 74, Captain George William Cayley, Prompte 22, under a temporary captain, and the bomb Terror, Captain Hon. Dunbar Douglas, together with a convoy of troop transports. A month later, on 21 April, the rear-admiral finally arrived at Carlisle Bay with this force intact and here he was able to rendezvous with many of the transports from his second convoy.
Rear-Admiral Christian’s Fleet:
|Prince George 98*
|Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian
|Captain James Bowen
|Rear-Admiral Charles Morice Pole
|Captain Henry Jenkins
|Captain John Thomas
|Captain Thomas Drury
|Captain George Bowen
|Captain Thomas Totty
|Captain George Martin
|Captain Edmund Crawley
|Captain Edward Oliver Osborn
|Captain Edward Tyrrell Smith
|Captain John Williamson
|Captain Thomas Hoar Bertie
|Captain Thomas Parr
|Commander Thomas Wilson
|Captain William Brown
|Captain William Granville Lobb
|Lieutenant George Lempriere
*Replaced by the Glory 98 when convoy sailed in December.