The King’s Naval Review at Plymouth – August 1789

by | Aug 22, 2018 | 1789, The Peace of 1784-1792 | 0 comments


During the latter part of 1788 the health of King George III had been deteriorating as he continued to suffer from a disturbing condition that could not be diagnosed at the time, but which symptoms included a tendency to irrational behaviour and speech, repetitive verbosity, breathing difficulties, acute stomach pains, insomnia, and a foaming of the mouth. Rumours were soon afoot that he had completely lost his senses, and whilst his physicians stumbled from one hopeless remedy to another the government trembled at the thought that they might be required to ask his dissolute and radical son, Prince George, to assume the Regency.

Then as the new year of 1789 dawned the King began to show signs of improvement, and within a couple of months he was deemed to have made a full recovery. To celebrate the poplar monarch s return to good health it was decided that he and his beloved wife, Queen Charlotte, should take a holiday at Weymouth with their daughters, and that a frigate, the Southampton 32, Captain Andrew Snape Douglas, together with a sail of the line, the Magnificent 74, Captain Richard Onslow, should be put at his disposal. Whilst in the West Country a visit by Their Majesties to Plymouth was arranged where a review of the naval facilities would be undertaken, and where a mock naval battle would also be staged for their delectation. Accordingly the royal family and their attendants left Weymouth to travel overland to Saltram House near Plymouth where they arrived on the afternoon of 15 August.

King George III

The review of the dockyard facilities began at 11 a.m. on 17 August when the royal party consisting of the King, Queen Charlotte, and three of their daughters arrived at Plymouth to be saluted by the garrison, the rampart cannons, and the fort. They were then received by a host of notables including the dockyard commissioner Captain John Laforey, the King s great friend the Earl of Chesterfield, the first lord of the Admiralty Earl Chatham, the previous first lord of the Admiralty Earl Howe, and other members of the Board of Admiralty including Vice-Admiral Lord Hood. After taking refreshment the royal party went on board the the brand new Impregnable 98, Captain Thomas Byard, which was flying the flag of the commander-in-chief at Plymouth, Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Bickerton, an officer who on a previous fleet review in 1778 had been knighted for the honour of steering the King s barge. As the King stepped aboard the Impregnable the other ships in the port and in Plymouth Sound opened up with their own salute, and this was answered by the cannon on the Citadel and by a number of smaller installations, as well as a visiting Dutch man-of-war, the Lynx.

After remaining aboard the Impregnable for upwards of an hour Their Majesties took their leave and returned to the shore in the royal barge, their progress being somewhat incongruously attended by a cutter crewed by seven young women resplendent in white gowns and black bonnets. Further time was spent in the dockyard before the royals left for Saltram House accompanied by a flotilla of boats, and being saluted all the way to their destination. Sadly the day was marred when a sloop carrying a number of spectators overturned and four women and a child were reportedly drowned, although when the King was made aware of the incident he quickly declared that any children orphaned by the disaster would be provided for.

At 9 am the next day, 18 August, in fine clear weather and to a cacophony of salutes from the military installations ashore and ships in the harbour, the King, Queen and princesses were rowed out in Commissioner Laforey s barge to the Southampton, which was moored in Plymouth Sound having recently arrived from Weymouth with Lord Chatham and his party. The royal barge was preceded by Rear-Admiral Bickerton in one barge and Lord Chatham and Vice-Admiral Lord Hood in another, and its progress was acclaimed by a host of spectators gathered on the shore. An hour and a half after receiving the royal party the Southampton put to sea on a south south-easterly wind to be followed by the Magnificent and the frigate Lowestoffe 32, Captain Edmund Dod, the three men-of-war being accompanied by a hundred other vessels including the Duke of Richmond s yacht with a band in full swing.

Shortly afterwards a sail of the line appeared from behind the Staddon Heights on the eastern side of the Sound, standing in on the larboard tack with the benefit of a gentle easterly breeze, and as the Southampton weathered the Mewstone a further six sail of the line, two frigates and two cutters came into view. This force was Commodore Samuel Granston Goodall s Squadron of Observation which, to some French concern, had recently been parading in the mouth of the Channel. When the Southampton came within half a mile of Goodall s ships a royal salute of twenty-one guns was fired by every vessel, whereupon the larger men-of-war, which were in line ahead and about two cable lengths apart, tacked out to sea and split into two divisions so as to begin the evolutions that would enable them to bring about a realistically mock action.

Leading the line of four ships that constituted the supposed enemy force, and would be ironically cast as the French by the eager spectators, was the Cumberland 74, Captain John MacBride, and she was followed by the Bellona 74, the frigate Hebe 38 and Bedford 74. These vessels, which were otherwise identified by their white colours, assumed a line to leeward on the larboard tack and backed their topsails to allow Commodore Goodall s pennant ship Carnatic 74 at the head of His Majesty s force to bear down and attack them. She in turn was followed by the Orion 74, Director 64, and Goliath 74. The Carnatic took up a position abreast and at musket shot of the rear ship in the French line, this being the Bedford, the signal for battle was made, and as a furious gunfire began the other ships of Goodall s division came down with the wind to take their positions abreast of each enemy vessel. With the Magnificent and Lowestoft also joining the fun a staged battle began whilst the Southampton lay close by to windward in the east, flying the Royal Standard at the main mast, the Admiralty flag at the foremast, and the Union flag at the mizzen.

As the action progressed MacBride s French squadron appeared to have the worst of it, and after some thirty minutes the remainder of his ships wore and tacked to larboard as if to effect repairs whilst his own command, the Cumberland, covered them by engaging three of the enemy. The action then resumed on the starboard tack and continued for a good hour and a half, with several of the vessels feigning damage aloft by letting go their topsail sheets as if to signify that their rigging had been shot away. This more belligerent phase of the action continued until about 3 p.m. when MacBride was obliged to strike his colours.

John Pitt. the 2nd Earl Chatham and the First Lord of the Admiralty in 1789

At the conclusion of the engagement the Southampton made sail and took up a position to leeward of the lines of battle, and in succession Goodall s ships passed under her stern with their yards fully manned, firing another 21-gun salute and letting fly their topsails as they did so. The King, who had been in conversation with Lord Chatham and Lord Hood throughout the mock action, expressed concern for the safety of the men of the Orion at her mastheads, and appeared somewhat relieved when they descended without injury. He was also intrigued when the Cumberland passed by, for her starboard ports were manned by a number of Negroes dressed in white and sporting turbans. The captains then took to their barges to kiss hands with the King, following which the Southampton stood back into the Sound under the escort of the fleet in line ahead until at 4 p.m. Goodall made the signal for his ships to put about and head back out to sea. By 7 o clock in the evening the royal party was back at Saltram House, having spent eight hours on the water.

Next day the inquisitive King rose early to return to the dockyard, his first stop being the Victualling Office where he demanded to taste a ships biscuit, and where he ordered a cask of beef to be opened so that a piece could be sent to Saltram for his dinner. Visits to the Lower Fort, the Citadel, ramparts, storehouses and underground works followed with the military officers in attendance, and he then went to the gun wharf to inspect the ordnance. Thereafter several days of non-official business were enjoyed before on the morning of the 22nd Their Majesties left Saltram House to return overland to Weymouth, whilst Lord Chatham and a number of other notables rejoined the Southampton and set sail for the same port.

To reward Plymouth for its hospitality the King donated a thousand guineas to the dockyard workers, two hundred and fifty guineas to the poor of Plymouth, Stonehouse and Plymouth Dock, and two hundred guineas to the barge crews who had attended him on his visit. Captain Byard of the Impregnable, who had steered his barge on every day of the visit, was granted the honour of a knighthood, and in due course Captain Douglas would be honoured with a knighthood for his hosting of the royal party aboard the Southampton. Additionally two officers, Commander John Salisbury of the Termagant 26 and Commander James Kinneer of the Wasp 14, were posted captain, whilst the first lieutenants of the Barfleur, Impregnable, Bombay Castle, Carnatic, Magnificent and Southampton, together with three lieutenants who had commanded the long-boats and cutters attendant on the King, were all promoted master and commander.

Commodore Goodall s Squadron:

Carnatic 74 Commodore Samuel Granston Goodall
Captain John Ford
Cumberland 74 Captain John MacBride
Bellona 74 Captain Francis Hartwell,
Bedford 74 Captain Robert Man
Orion 74 Captain Charles Chamberlayne
Goliath 74 Captain Archibald Dickson
Director 64 Captain Thomas West
Hebe 38 Captain Edward Thornbrough.