The Amphion Explodes at Plymouth – 22 September 1796

by | Jul 4, 2024 | 1796, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


Heroic, brilliant, and even fortunate though Captain Sir Edward Pellew was, such attributes could not be said to have attended his younger brother, Israel Pellew. Having been posted captain after serving as a volunteer at the Nymphe’s capture of the French frigate Cléopâtre on 19 June 1793, the engagement in which his brother had earned his knighthood, Israel’s lot had been to hang on to the coat tails of Sir Edward’s fame and secure what position he could. By April 1795 this strategy had secured him the command of the crack fifteen-year-old frigate Amphion 32, and following tedious employment off Newfoundland and in the North Sea, he had received the much-coveted orders in September 1796 to join his brother’s squadron in the Channel.

On Monday 19 September the Amphion arrived in Plymouth Sound from the North Sea for repairs to her foremast and bowsprit, and to re-victual prior to joining Sir Edward’s squadron. Next morning at 7 a.m. she went up into the Hamoaze, where on the Wednesday she was lashed to a sheer hulk, the Princesa, and a receiving ship, the Yarmouth.

Sir Israel Pellew

By the afternoon of Thursday 22nd the defective bowsprit had been removed, a replacement had been fixed in place, and the Amphion was under orders to sail on the next day for her new role with Sir Edward’s squadron. For all those bar a gang aloft working on the rigging it was time for recreation, and whilst some eighteen men were allowed liberty ashore, others invited their ‘wives’ and families aboard, with the women and children perhaps totalling one hundred in all. Captain Pellew was throwing a dinner for an old colleague, Captain William Swaffield of the Overyssel 64, and for his first lieutenant, a gentleman who was due to be superseded by Alexander Wilmot Schomberg, who had not yet arrived to take up the appointment. Meanwhile another officer, Captain Charles Rowley of the Unité 38, was also due to dine aboard the Amphion that afternoon, but he had been detained by the port admiral, Sir Richard King. The delays were fortunate for both Rowley and Schomberg, as the meal and another that was being held in the gunroom were interrupted in the most dramatic of circumstances at 4.15.

It all began with a hissing noise that was followed by a rumble. Sensing danger, Pellew and the lieutenant scrambled to their feet and ran towards the quarter galley. Almost immediately, a huge explosion rent through the fore part of the ship, blasting it to fragments. The remainder of the Amphion shot upwards, almost revealing her keel, her masts were projected higher into the air than the sheer hulk alongside, the shockwave shook the dockyard and residences nearby, and the boom was loud enough to be heard at Stonehouse two miles away. Ashore, the people of Plymouth scattered in great confusion as the sky turned red.

When the explosion occurred, Pellew was thrown vertically against the upper deck carlings and left temporarily stunned. Regaining his senses, he launched himself out of the stern windows onto the hulk lying alongside. The lieutenant miraculously escaped unhurt after jumping out of another stern window and swimming for his life. The cabin sentry survived too, although he was never unable to recall how. Up forward, the boatswain, Henry Montandon, who had recently joined the Amphion from the Russell 74, and who had been working at the cathead, was propelled into the water and had to disentangle himself from the rigging before being picked up by a boat, his arm broken. Equally fortunate were three of the men who were at work in the tops and were blown clear of the stricken ship.

Along with Captain Swaffield, an estimated three hundred and fifty men, women, and children perished on the packed frigate, and once the Amphion had all but disappeared to leave just the stump of her mizzen mast visible, many of the fragmented bodies and limbs surfaced to be left tossing amongst the waves amongst the splintered planking. A number of cannons and mangled bodies had been blown onto the Princesa’s deck, although astonishingly, the sheer hulk and all the men who had been working aboard her were undamaged. Even more curiously, some diners aboard the Yarmouth believed the explosion to have been nothing more than a cannon going off, and they barely disturbed their meal until they heard the confusion on deck above them.

As soon as he could, Admiral King repaired aboard the hulk where he beheld a shocking tableau of bloodied and burned timbers, distorted lifeless limbs, and wreckage from the Amphion lying under her pendant and the web of her rigging. Gathering as much personal detail as he could, he wrote to the Admiralty listing the names of the survivors, of whom the only officers were Pellew and Lieutenant James Muir. Others to escape with their lives were the armourer, boatswain, a master’s mate, twenty-three seamen and a dozen marines, although King added a caveat that more might have survived who were ashore. Among the dead were a junior lieutenant by the name of John Hearle, the sailing master, John Mitchell, the lieutenant of marines, Colin Campbell, and the surgeon, gunner, and carpenter. Most unfortunately, an upholsterer, a Mr Spry, who had gone aboard to see his son, had also died, as had his brother.

For many of the locals it proved a desperately sad day, for the Amphion had largely been manned in the town. Those injured men who survived were conveyed to the Royal Hospital, whilst anxious relatives gathered outside the gates for news of their family members. Also delivered to the hospital were sacks containing the burned limbs and other body parts of the dead, and some forty-two bodies were brought in, including those of six young women, which were all placed in the bone house before being interred in the grounds. As time went by the task of identifying other bodies that were retrieved proved virtually impossible, but those which could be distinguished were buried by family and friends. Meanwhile, bits of the forward part of the frigate were recovered and brought on shore to the wet slip, including the apparently undamaged figurehead

Following the explosion, Captain Pellew had been carried in shock to the house of the commissioner, Captain Robert Fanshawe, where he had remained in convalescence for a couple of days nursing burns to his face and chest. On 25 September, he and other surviving members of the crew attended Charles Church in the town to give thanks for their preservation. A month after the explosion, on 22 October, Captain Swaffield’s body floated up from the wreck. His skull was found to be crushed although his body was not mutilated in any way, whilst his uniform was intact, and a watch and four guineas were found in his pocket. His remains were taken in a hearse to Stonehouse to be buried that evening in the chapel.

An enquiry into the tragedy was held, and it was established that the Amphion’s gunner had fraudulently been purloining gunpowder to sell on the black market, and that he had left a trail of powder to the fore magazine which had ignited. On 3 October the frigates Castor 32 and Iphigenia 32 were lashed alongside the remains of the Amphion, which mainly consisted of the rear part of the ship, and which they attempted to raise, but bad weather delayed the attempt, and when more bodies began pouring out of her, she was dragged to the jetty and broken up.