The Boyne is destroyed by fire at Spithead – 1 May 1795

by | Aug 7, 2021 | 1795, The French Revolutionary War 1793-1802 | 0 comments


At 11 a.m. on the gloriously sunny spring morning of 1 May 1795, a group of soldiers from the 86th Regiment, acting as the marines aboard the Boyne 98 at her Spithead anchorage, were engaged in musketry practice on the windward side of her quarterdeck when smoke began wafting up from below. Upon opening the middle cabin door to investigate, one of the soldiers was thrown back by the flames that burst out upon him, and he ran for his life. Unleashed, the fire tore its way up through the poop deck, and within minutes it became apparent that the dry timbers of the three-decker, which had spent the previous year in the sun-drenched Caribbean, were going to be consumed by an uncontrollable inferno.

The Boyne had been launched in June 1790 at Woolwich and was a second-rate ship of the line. She had been in commission during the Spanish Armament that year under the command of Captain George Bowyer, and following the commencement of the French Revolutionary War in 1793 she had been attached to Rear-Admiral John Gell’s squadron under the command of Captain William Albany Otway, although as a harbinger of the misfortune that would attend her, she had been on detachment when that flag officer’s squadron had captured the immensely richly-laden French privateer General Dumourier and her Spanish prize, the St. Iago on 14 April. Vice-Admiral Sir John Jervis had then taken the Boyne as his flagship in October 1793, whereupon she had spent the following year in the Caribbean prior to arriving back at Spithead on 21 January 1795. On 24 April Vice-Admiral Joseph Peyton had raised his flag aboard the Boyne as second-in-command at Portsmouth, although when the fire broke out on 1 May both he and the Boyne’s captain, George Grey, were attending the court-martial of Captain Anthony James Pye Molloy aboard the Glory 98 in consideration of that officer’s conduct at the Battle of the Glorious First of June.

Energized by a cruel and unfavourable south-westerly breeze, the fire began to spread along the Boyne, although the rapidity of its progress was not so severe as to hamper most of the crew and an unknown number of women and children in abandoning ship. Fortunately, most of her powder had been taken ashore three days previously, and there was time enough to turn the cock on the grand magazine to prevent an imminent explosion. By the time that the tide had turned from ebb to flow at midday, the vast majority of the Boyne’s company and visitors had been picked up by the boats of the assembled shipping, including the frigate Pallas 32, Captain Hon. Henry Curzon. For Captain Grey, the realisation that he was about to lose his ship came at midday when Captain Molloy’s trial was halted upon confirmation that it was not a mere transport on fire, as had at first been believed, but rather the Boyne herself.

The fire aboard the Boyne.

The immediate rescue of the survivors may have been completed, but the burning Boyne still represented a huge danger to the other ships anchored at Spithead, and so the local commander-in-chief, Admiral Sir Peter Parker, hastened aboard his flagship, the Royal William 90, to signal all those ships to leeward of the stricken vessel to run down out of harm’s way to St. Helens. The immediate threat of a collision with what had become a mighty fireship was avoided by these orders, but nothing could be done about the shot which flew out of the Boyne’s loaded cannons as they were ignited by the flames, causing the death of two men and the wounding of another aboard the Queen Charlotte 100, Captain Sir Andrew Snape Douglas. Fortunately, other shot which was ignited flew harmlessly into Stokes Bay to the south of Gosport, where there was no threat to life.

At 1.30 the fire tore the Boyne from her moorings, and she began drifting in the feeble breeze towards the east with flames leaping out of every gun port before eventually grounding on a spit of land opposite Southsea Castle. Here she burned unabatedly for the next few hours until the flames reached her magazine at 5 p.m. The explosion that ensued sent a shockwave reverberating across Portsmouth and was heard as far as eleven miles away. Debris flew into the sky, and scores of spectators marvelled at the sight of her flaming masts spiralling to a great height before plunging into the sea. In the aftermath there remained a column of smoke which was described by one watcher as ‘sublime and picturesque’.

Upon mustering his ship’s company, Captain Grey found nine men were missing along with two others who had been dreadfully burned and taken to Hasler Hospital. Given that the number of crew members dead was later reported as eleven men, these two invalids presumably died. Unbeknown to the authorities was the number of women and children who lost their lives from an estimated two hundred who had been aboard at the time of the tragedy. Speculation suggested that there were further casualties too, for it had been reported that at least a couple of boats had been under the stern of the Boyne attempting to plunder her ironworks at the time of the explosion, and if that were the case then the occupants would almost certainly have been killed.

When reports of the fire first reached London there was speculation that a great number of lives must have been lost, whilst a subscription was opened at Lloyds of London to compensate the seamen for the loss of their bedding and clothes. Meanwhile back at Portsmouth, Captain Grey was honourably acquitted of blame for the loss of the Boyne at a court of inquiry on 19 May, whilst Mr William Burridge, a merchant of Portsmouth, agreed a contract with the Navy Board to salvage her stores and clear away the wreck within twelve months.

The cause of the fire was never satisfactorily established. Some believed it likely that a lighted cartridge paper had wafted into the admiral’s cabin through the open quarter-galley as the marines were exercising above, and that it had ignited the papers on his desk or perhaps his stores. Others speculated that the wardroom stove funnel had overheated and caught fire, although in giving evidence at the court martial, Lieutenant Robert Winthrop advised that this could not have been the case as the funnel did not lead up to the poop. Conspiracy reared its ugly head when a Staffordshire villager declared on his deathbed, ten years later, that he had in fact been paid to set fire to the Boyne.

In August 1796 Mr Burridge attempted to raise the wreck, but he was thwarted when a breeze sprung up with the rising tide. Although most of the guns were recovered over the succeeding years, what was left of the Boyne remained visible as she lay in about three and a half fathoms at low water, and for many years she constituted a danger to ships navigating the harbour entrance to Portsmouth. On 30 August 1838, under the eagle eye of the commander-in-chief at Portsmouth, Admiral Sir Philip Durham, and near to the wreck of the Royal George 100, the sinking of which that venerable officer had survived fifty-six years earlier, a Mr Abbinett sunk a cask of gunpowder onto the wreck of the Boyne and blew it up via a cotton conductor through a lead pipe. Scores of dead fish were thrown to the surface, but the remaining wreckage still represented a hazard, and it was not until 24 June 1840 that an explosive charge completed the job, allowing a diver to walk into the hull. A buoy known as the Boyne Buoy now marks the ship’s resting place.